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Celebrating cinematic excellence: 2021’s best movies

December 6, 2021
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It has been one heck of a movie year.

I always struggle with assembling my best-of list when it comes to a year’s film offerings. There’s the fact that I often haven’t seen some of the most anticipated/acclaimed movies due to their year-end release dates – just off the top of my head, I can name PTA’s “Licorice Pizza,” Steven Spielberg’s upcoming “West Side Story” remake, Guillermo Del Toro’s “Nightmare Alley” and, of course, “Spider-Man: No Way Home” as movies that likely would have a real shot at this list. There’s also plenty of stuff that I simply haven’t seen – there’s a LOT out there.

Even so, I’ve watched and reviewed something like 130 films so far in 2021 – I probably won’t get to 150, but it could be close – so I like to think that this is a decent list. Granted, it’s also a list that could be different depending on the day – I’m leaving off some worthy movies. In addition, this list is simply one person’s opinion. If your favorites don’t appear here, that’s no condemnation of your taste.

Now, if your favorites appear on my worst-of list – don’t worry, it’s coming in the next week or two – then there might be a tiny bit of condemnation.

So here you are – my top 21 films of 2021, listed in more or less alphabetical order. Please note that the total includes my honorable mentions.

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The Card Counter

“The Card Counter,” the latest from auteur writer/director Paul Schrader, exists in a nebulous middle ground, a place where we can’t be sure if the story is redemptive. It’s a character study of a professional gambler who attempts to find some small degree of atonement for his past sins, only to wind up drawn back into darkness.

It’s also a throwback, evoking the spirit of ‘70s New Hollywood – unsurprising since that’s the era in which Schrader cut his screenwriting teeth. It is aesthetically distinctive and meticulously paced, telling the sort of small-scale yet sweeping story at which he excels. And by placing a talent as significant as Oscar Isaac at its center, Schrader ensures that the narrative is in supremely capable hands.

“The Card Counter” is about gambling, but it isn’t only about gambling. And when it ventures away from that aspect of the story, it does bog down a bit. But only a bit – it’s all engaging as hell. And with Isaac at the center of the frame, exuding megawatts of dirtbag charisma, the rest of it doesn’t matter nearly as much.

(Read the full review here.)

Dune

The combination of Frank Hebert’s novel’s interplay of eco-consciousness and political dynamics matched with the auteur’s eye of Denis Villeneuve transforms “Dune” into something far more. It is a literal feast for the eyes, one of the most strikingly compelling visual blockbusters we’ve seen in years, all in service to a dense plot involving everything from galaxy-spanning empires to mind-expanding traditions to colonialism to learning what it means to lead.

“Dune” is one of the most spectacularly visual films I’ve seen in some time. Whether capturing the staid, angular grandeur of the grand noble houses and the vast starships or the stark, haunting beauty of the ever-blowing desert sands, this movie is straight-up sumptuous. Seriously – we’re talking about moments that evoke nothing so much as “Lawrence of Arabia.” Not that it’s a huge surprise, given Villeneuve’s well-documented brilliance regarding visual composition (particularly when it comes to sci-fi), but still. Just gorgeous.

“Dune” overwhelmed me. And it’s not that it’s the best movie I’ve ever seen, though it’s very good. It’s the sheer scale of it all – a film that brings forth brilliant visual beauty while also maintaining that sense of philosophical denseness that drives the novel. The spice must flow.

(Read the full review here.)

The French Dispatch

Anyone who reads me with any frequency is utterly unsurprised to see this movie here. There’s nothing like a Wes Anderson movie.

The writer/director has carved out an auteur space all his own, a space unlike that occupied by anyone else in American cinema. His films are exquisitely and meticulously constructed, so finely tuned and detailed that they play almost as kinetic dioramas. Each screen picture is built and presented just so, resulting in films packed with moments and images that linger in the memory.

I ride hard for Anderson, so I was always going to be in the bag for this one, particularly when you consider that it’s basically a love letter to writers and journalists. But just because I expected “The French Dispatch” to be great doesn’t alter that greatness. It is quintessentially Anderson, a film that brings all of his considerable gifts to bear, a tonal and thematic delight brought forward by a staggeringly talented and accomplished cast and crew.

Consider me a satisfied subscriber.

(Read the full review here.)

The Harder They Fall

“The Harder They Fall” is a delightful mashup of a Western, a kinetic collision of the spaghetti westerns of the ‘60s and the blaxploitation cinema of the ‘70s, with all of it run through a modern (or arguably postmodern) blender. It liberally borrows and embraces aesthetic and thematic touches from a wide assortment of influences – including a number of main characters drawn from actual American history – all in the name of crafting what amounts to a skilled remix of a cowboy movie.

Now, it’s worth noting that this is a Netflix production, so some of the potentially grittier aspects of this particular combination have been sanded down a bit (though not as much as you might expect). It is stylish and violent, packed with outstanding performers and driven by an unabashed confidence.

“The Harder They Fall” is a compelling pastiche, an entertaining mélange of historical figures dropped into ahistorical situations. It is smart and cutting and low-key subversive, even if some of the most pointed aspects were perhaps blunted a bit. So saddle up, because this movie is one hell of a ride.

(Read the full review here.)

House of Gucci/The Last Duel

I’m cheating a little bit, combining these two Ridley Scott-helmed endeavors into one entry, but it just feels like the right way to go.

On the one hand, you’ve got the high camp lunacy of “House of Gucci,” a film that doesn’t always make sense, either by internal or external logic. It is weird and soapy and makes no apologies about the size of the swing it takes. If you’re looking for a serious dramatic take on this sordid story, well … this ain’t it. However, while that movie might have been “better,” there’s no way in hell it would have been even close to this much fun.

Meanwhile, “The Last Duel” is a deeply challenging film, a movie that demands a lot of its audience; it’s the sort of viewing experience that can prove emotionally and intellectually exhausting. And while it may not fully succeed in its efforts to explore present-day attitudes through the lens of the past, it certainly makes a valiant attempt. Yes, it is messy and overwrought at times, but it ultimately proves to be a powerful and provocative work of big-budget cinema.

Two very different – and very big – swings.

(Read the full reviews here and here.)

In & Of Itself

I had heard a bit about Derek Delgaudio’s one-man show “In & Of Itself” when it was first taking off, but not much. Basically, I understood that it was a show that utilized stage magic but wasn’t ABOUT stage magic. That was it, really – no knowledge of content or tone or anything like that.

I had no idea.

This filmed performance was one of the most mesmerizing and compelling shows I’ve ever watched. Ninety minutes of thoughtful storytelling interspersed with illusory feats the likes of which I’d never seen, all in the service of exploring the notion of identity. Specifically, the notion of self – who am I?

You know how you’ll sometimes hear the term “defies description” in reference to a piece of art? Personally, I find that 99 times out of 100, that phrase is there not because the thing can’t be described, but because the person saying it can’t/won’t invest the time to come up with an apt, accurate description. It’s a symptom of critical laziness … except for that one time. That one time out of a hundred where description truly is defied.

“In & Of Itself” is that one time.

(Read the full review here.)

King Richard

Instilling greatness is rarely an easy task. And some – like Richard Williams – take unconventional paths that lead to questions about their methods and motivations. “King Richard” lends depth to a story that was rendered far too simply, showing us how this man led his daughters – tennis legends Venus and Serena Williams – to that greatness.

Call it a sports movie about fathers and daughters or call it a family drama revolving around sports, it doesn’t matter. Anchored by one of the best performances of Smith’s career, “King Richard” is a compelling and challenging look at one man’s unconventional efforts to drive his children to greatness and his willingness to do whatever it took to get them there.

“King Richard” is a fantastic movie, a throwback of sorts to the kind of prestige sports film we used to see more of two or three decades ago. It is an absolute tour de force performance for Will Smith, who has a real shot at finally landing his Oscar, and a launching pad for a pair of bright young talents. Dramatically compelling and stylistically interesting, it definitely hits a winner.

In short, “King Richard” rules.

(Read the full review here.)

The Mitchells vs. the Machines

Basically, what we have here is a movie that is a dysfunctional family road trip comedy AND a dystopian battle against the machine uprising. It shouldn’t work, but somehow, it maintains its sense of goofball whimsy while also conveying genuine tension regarding the end of the world. It is heartfelt and hilarious animated fun that balances seemingly incongruous parts with aplomb.

Does this movie find ways to obliquely approach the social and societal consequences of overreliance on technology? Sure. Does it address the notion that being different isn’t a bad thing and that we can almost always find points of connection between us, particularly if we love each other? Yep – that too. Does it do so in a stylishly animated, action-packed and joke-filled film that will likely appeal to audiences spanning generations?

Reader, it does.

“The Mitchells vs. the Machines” was much more than I expected it to be, a smart, sweet and very funny genre mashup that somehow manages to exceed the sum of its parts. With a great cast, an engaging aesthetic and a dynamite narrative, it was a pleasant surprise … and a heck of a good time.

(Read the full review here.)

The Power of the Dog

I reviewed this one this very week - check it out here.

Street Gang: How We Got to Sesame Street

“Street Gang: How We Got to Sesame Street”attempts to break down the origins of what would become a phenomenon. It’s a look into how the project came to be and features interviews – both new and archival – with some of the primary figures responsible for making it all happen.

It could easily have coasted on the nostalgia wave inspired in many by the mere mention of the show. And one could argue that by ending the story when it does – with the passing of Jim Henson – it avoids the thornier aspects of the show’s later years. However, this is not a viewing of the show’s history through a rose-colored prism – the film treats those first two decades honestly, the deep-dive ethos of director Marilyn Agrelo focusing on embracing the positive and not-so-positive aspects alike.

As a kid, I loved “Sesame Street.” As an adult, I loved “Street Gang.” Telling the story of such an iconic and universally beloved institution is tricky, but by treating its subject with honesty and accepting its imperfections, the film makes the glorious nature of “Sesame Street” shine out all the brighter.

Come and play – everything’s A-OK.

(Read the full review here.)

Summer of Soul

“Summer of Soul (…Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised)” – directed by Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson – is a look back at an iconic moment in music and cultural history, telling the story of 1969’s Harlem Cultural Festival, a series of free concerts that brought world-class talent to the NYC neighborhood.

Over the course of six weeks, an astonishing cavalcade of talent moved through Harlem’s Mount Morris Park. Literally hundreds of thousands of people would turn up to this series of free concerts, featuring A-list names like Stevie Wonder, Nina Simone, Gladys Knight & the Pips, Sly and the Family Stone and so many more, all part of this incredible endeavor.

Capturing this sort of history so cleanly and thoroughly – particularly via the universal language of music – makes for one hell of a compelling watch. Any music fan who hasn’t seen this movie needs to get on that.

“Summer of Soul” is excellent; thoughtful and thought-provoking, and – of course – the music SLAPS. Do yourself a favor and experience it for yourself.

(Read the full review here.)

The Velvet Underground

A perfect marriage of documentarian and subject. Todd Haynes proves to be just the right person to capture the frenetic bohemian energy of not just The Velvet Underground, but of their surroundings. In many ways, this film is an experience – an evocative reflection of the band’s place in the cultural zeitgeist.

Oh, and be forewarned: this documentary’s atypicality extends in many directions. If you’re someone looking for a primer on The Velvet Underground, you’re going to be presented with a bit of a challenge. Yes, the story is told in a more or less linear fashion – introducing us to the main players and walking us through the inception and rise of the band – but the manner in which it is told skews more toward feeling, a pure distillation of showing rather than telling.

It’s like watching an album. Distinct tracks, recurring motifs – each “song” operating in a distinct and discrete manner. Stylistic shifts and jumps occur throughout, lending a sense of delineation that feels both new and familiar.

“The Velvet Underground” is a remarkable film, an ambitious work by a talented filmmaker who clearly sought to craft a portrait of honesty and clarity.

(Read the full review here.)

Zola

Can a Twitter thread become a movie? It can if it achieves enough viral notoriety that it becomes known as simply #TheStory.

That’s what we got with “Zola,” a film inspired by a legendary 148-tweet thread posted in 2015 by a Detroit waitress and exotic dancer named A’Ziah “Zola” King. Adapted to the screen by Jeremy O. Harris and Janicza Bravo, who also directed the film, it’s a surreal and darkly comic road trip to the heart of American darkness. You know – Florida.

It is a bleak and hilarious story, one whose based-in-reality bona fides strain credulity – in a good way. There’s an intensity to the tale, charged as it is with various flavors of cultural and societal mores being prodded, bent and broken. Inherently and utterly bizarre, yet wildly compelling, it’s a fascinating glimpse of a world many of us have never experienced for ourselves.

It’s rare to feel like you’re experiencing something totally new at the movie theater, but that’s the feeling you get watching this film. It is smart and funny and unrelentingly weird, a sharp and surreal journey. Much like its inspiration, “Zola” is unequivocally one of a kind.

(Read the full review here.)

(Honorable mentions: “Annette;” “The Green Knight;” “Last Night in Soho;” “Little Fish;” “No Sudden Move;” “Plan B;” “Venom: Let There Be Carnage”)

Last modified on Wednesday, 08 December 2021 13:31

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