2021-Covid Changes Everything
Except the Movie
2021 is in the books, and despite the chaos, we’re still standing. So too is the
movie industry, which has been on quite a rollercoaster ride courtesy of
COVID-19 and our up-and-down efforts to contain it. Between the theatrical
business’ state of flux, and the bumpy track record of movies that opted to
debut day-and-date at the multiplex and at home–not to mention the sheer
confusion caused by all these shifting paradigms–it’s a minor miracle that, as
we get set to turn the calendar to 2022, the country’s cinematic state of
affairs is as stable as it presently is.
Credit for that resilience goes in large part to the insatiable appetite of
American cinephiles, as well as the abundance of terrific features that, over
the past twelve months, have graced screens both big and small. No matter where
they premiered (or were seen), offerings from illustrious auteur's and promising
newcomers were everywhere.
At the end of last year, I wondered whether the pandemic was irrevocably
changing cinema or merely interrupting it; whether the medium would soon return
to being a public, collective experience or overwhelmingly remain an at-home
event. With another year gone, I still don’t know for sure. In 2021, we’ve seen
the resumption of blockbusters showing at multiplexes, but as with so many
aspects of life, a return to “normal” still feels distant, and many people (including myself ) aren’t attending theaters regularly.
As such, this has been an odd year for films. But cinema still has the power to
excite and amaze, no matter the size of the screen. Even as we continue to
rethink the idea of what a movie is, this year has affirmed for me the
conviction that movies aren’t going away.
Before we get to the list, here are some of the outliers: the films that,
although were terrific had to place below the top 10. Drum roll for 20-11...
The Souvenir: Part II
Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy
The Card Counter
As for the worst movie of 2021, it's a tie between Amazon's
The Tomorrow War
starring Chris Pratt and Netflix's Red Notice starring Gal Gadot, Dwayne Johnson
and Ryan Reynolds. Both movies with some of the biggest stars in the business
and with huge budgets. But unfortunately not a shred of intelligence or
entertainment value between them.
And now, the 2021 TOP 10 Countdown...
Director: Spike Lee
Imagine being awoken in the middle of the night by a loud, unidentifiable noise,
subsequently hearing it again at random intervals, and gradually realizing that
the increasingly aggressive sound is confined to your own baffled skull. That’s
the bizarre starting point (inspired by an actual phenomenon, “exploding head
syndrome”) for the latest stunner from Apichatpong “Joe” Weerasethakul (Uncle
Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives), who strays from his comfort zone by
shooting in Colombia rather than his native Thailand and working with a
celebrity instead of his usual non-pros. Tilda Swinton plays the afflicted
woman, though her character’s really a conduit for something gravely mysterious,
hovering just at the edge of perception. Joe’s long been cinema’s most
adventurous explorer of liminal spaces, and Memoria is an immersive, mesmerizing
trek into the casually uncanny.
Director: Denis Villeneuve
As one of the most influential sci-fi
texts ever written, Frank Herbert’s 1965 novel Dune has inspired some of the
most iconic science fiction movies ever made, including the big guy: Star Wars.
But attempts to turn Dune itself into a movie have not always gone according to
plan. (See: Jodorowsky’s Dune, a documentary about director Alejandro
Jodorowsky’s futile attempt to adapt Herbert’s text.) While David Lynch’s 1984
version has developed a cult following, it was largely considered a disaster
upon its release. But Denis Villeneuve is a different kind of filmmaker, as has
been seen in Enemy, Arrival, and Blade Runner 2049. His novelistic approach to
moviemaking has enabled him to succeed where others have failed, and turn overly
complex stories into easily digestible, and accomplished, sci-fi gems. All of
that can be said for his rendition of Dune, an epic film that manages to be as
smart as it is stunning—with more to come.
Director: Michael Sarnoski
The blunt title, the John Wick-esque premise (middle-aged hermit hunts down the
people who stole his beloved truffle pig), and the words “starring Nicolas Cage”
primed expectations for a tongue-in-cheek, over-the-top revenge thriller.
Instead, first-time director Michael Sarnoski serves up a disarmingly sincere
and heartfelt portrait of curdled grief, while simultaneously exploring the
Proustian ways in which food can do more than merely sustain us. That’s not to
say that the film doesn’t have its enjoyably offbeat touches, like the
protagonist’s visit to Portland’s secret haute cuisine fight club, which sees
restaurant workers bid to pummel tyrannical chefs. And Cage does suddenly yell
into a little kid’s face at one point. But it’s his beautifully internalized
embodiment of sorrow mixed with grim determination that sets the tone, and Pig’s
ultimate catharsis arrives in forms—one culinary, the other musical—that are
unexpected and genuinely moving.
Director: David Lowery
English national identity is an extremely slippery subject, mired in centuries
of ambition, pomposity, and small island tribalism. Given how the past decade
has crescendoed with debates about what the country really stands for, it was
apt of David Lowery to choose this moment to re-examine one of its founding
legends. Based on a 14th-century Arthurian poem, The Green Knight is a
spellbinding epic of myth and masculinity, with a never-better Dev Patel as the
foolhardy but sympathetic Gawain, an aspiring adventurer laid asunder by his
ego, challenging the titular monstrous knight to a “game” he is doomed to lose.
Gawain’s perilous, episodic quest takes him across the land, raising questions
along the way about what he, and it, are fated to become. Gifted with an
uncommon eye for breathtaking British landscape, this American director has
captured some of the very best of the nation across the sea, while unearthing
much of the rot clogging its foundations.
THE WORST PERSON IN THE WORLD
Director: Joachim Trier
The Worst Person In The World has multiple hallmarks of an
overstuffed literary adaptation: narration that comes and
goes, narrative divided into episodic chapters, a cumbersome
and unclear timespan. But director and co-writer Joachim
Trier isn’t actually wrestling a novel into submission; he’s
using an original film to chronicle the various careers,
hobbies, and relationships of twenty-to-thirtysomething
Julie (Renate Reinsve), with a novel-in-stories progression
through moments deceptively small and surprisingly seismic.
Julie, played beautifully by Reinsve, remains at the center
even as Trier cleverly positions her looking through windows
into other lives: the husband and wife loudly fighting in
the next room; the cancer patient air-drumming with his
headphones on; an anonymous couple on the street, frozen in
a kiss during one reality-blurring stunner of a scene.
Chapters come and go; the book, Trier understands, is never
5.) SUMMER OF SOUL
Director: Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson
If Summer Of Soul were just one of the best concert films of the year, that
would likely be enough to earn it a spot on this list. But director Ahmir
“Questlove” Thompson takes things one step further by using his stunningly
remastered footage of the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival as a springboard to look
at American history through the lens of Black culture. The structure here seems
obvious in retrospect: Use electrifying performances from the likes of Stevie
Wonder, Nina Simone, Gladys Knight & The Pips, and Mahalia Jackson as
jumping-off points to examine various socio-political topics. But it takes a
deft hand to make that kind of complex historical streamlining seem effortless.
Summer Of Soul filters education and reclamation through the lens of
celebration. That makes it a joyous crowd-pleaser with a pointed perspective and
a rhythmic spirit.
WEST SIDE STORY
Director: Steven Spielberg
What if the dream factory conjured a real dream again, and no one showed up? The
box-office failure of West Side Story is bad news for those invested in
Hollywood spectacles with more twinkling in their eyes than the promise of a
franchise. Part of the magic of Steven Spielberg’s majestic adaptation is how it
feels both classical and modern. The playwright Tony Kushner gracefully upgrades
certain elements, teetering the eternal Romeo And Juliet clash of warring gangs
towards a genuine balance of perspective and sympathies. Meanwhile, Spielberg
brings the timeless story alive again through brilliant casting and the
virtuosic verve of his staging, finally applied to a genre of pure song and
dance. Still, in the end, what they’ve all emerged with is a stirringly,
reverently faithful West Side Story: a new production that understands the
mythic appeal of the material and the undimmed power of maybe the greatest
songbook in the history of stage and screen musicals. Sometimes, they do make
’em like they used to. But for how much longer?
Director: Paul Thomas Anderson
“You can’t even keep your own story straight,” Alana (Alana Haim) tells Gary
(Cooper Hoffman) early in Licorice Pizza, Paul Thomas Anderson’s third and
flat-out loveliest crack at chronicling Los Angeles in the 1970s. This
description actually applies to both of them: two ill-fitting hustlers, one
frustrated in her 20s and the other precocious in his teens, trying to piece
together their next steps through various small businesses and hijinks. Though
their unsteady love story is PTA’s most immediately accessible movie in years,
he still elides or obscures certain narrative details, as in his more obscure
work. Here he uses that elusiveness for a different effect, blurring variously
strange, magical, and harrowing adventures into a heady rush of time’s uncertain
but inexorable passage. Maybe that’s why the much-discussed age gap between the
two heroes registers as more unusual romantic obstacle than flashing red
morality alarm: They’re mutually unstuck from both childhood and adulthood,
forever (or just for now) running back toward each other.
THE POWER OF THE DOG
Director: Jane Campion
Toxic masculinity is as much a part of the mythology of the American West as
cowboy hats and the open range. With The Power Of The Dog, writer-director Jane
Campion tugs on this thread with her signature focus on twisted relationship
dynamics in majestic natural surroundings. Although it’s set in Montana, the
film was shot in New Zealand, which gives it an unsettled, slightly “off”
quality. The same applies to star Benedict Cumberbatch, playing against type as
a mean-spirited rancher; he’s an odd fit for the role, but that’s a brilliant
strategy for a character who’s painfully uncomfortable in his own skin.
Subversions and acts of subterfuge abound—both in the text and in Campion’s
filmmaking, which imbues even the sunniest, most carefree moments with a
DRIVE MY CAR
Director: Steve McQueen
Ryusuke Hamaguchi makes films that are so deceptively even-keeled it can
sometimes take a while to process just how deep their still waters run. That
makes him a fascinating match for playwright Anton Chekhov, whose world-famous
work deploys its own unique tonal reveries for unexpected aims. Centered around
an experimental, multilingual production of Uncle Vanya, Drive My Car is a
meditation on grief, art, communication, and the silences that say more than
words ever could. At three hours long, it’s not a breezy watch, per se. But
Hamaguchi uses that extended runtime to craft a contemplative, almost hypnotic
tone in which patience is a virtue that pays dividends. Anchored by stellar
performances from Hidetoshi Nishijima as a taciturn theater director and Tōko
Miura as his mysterious driver, this Japanese drama is an enthralling ride.
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