CINEMA RETROSPECTIVE-2021 EDITION
2020, 2019, 2019 MID YEAR, 2018, 2018 MID YEAR, 2017, 2016, 2015
The "Big Tuna" Vito Carli weighs in with Summation of the Year in Film

A Comprehensive Look at 2021 in Film

(123121) Despite the lingering effects of Covid on film attendance, 2021 was a robust year for films with too many good and great films for any one viewer to see. It’s a good thing that Alternate Reality readers have two best film lists to choose films from.

It was a good year for director, Ridley Scott (House of Gucci and The Last Duel), actor, Bradley Cooper (Nightmare Alley and Licorice Pizza), and director, Edgar Wright (The Sparks Brothers and Last Night on Soho).

With Dennis Villeneuve’s Dune, as well as his features from previous years, The Arrival, and his unexpectedly fine Blade Runner 2049, he has proven that along with Christopher Nolan and Ridley Scott, he is a modern Master of Science fiction cinema.

The two Andersons (Paul Thomas and Wes) who emerged about the same time in the late 80s, have proven to be two of the most adventurous, and consistently exciting American film makers of the last few decades. They both put out extremely entertaining and artful films (French Dispatch and Licorice Pizza) which made my top 10.

It was also a great year for Benedict Cumberbatch, who stepped away from the sorcerer supreme robe long enough to play a cruel cowboy who sublimates and projects his repressed sexual energy into sadism in The Power of the Dog. Cumberbatch might be the finest current actor, in American cinema or at least he is a runner up, and I thought he was even better than the film (which is as tragically hypnotic as a car crash, but I mean that in a good way). I see a potential Oscar in his future.

Several promising newer, lesser-known directors hit their stride or continued to produce distinguished work such as David Lowery (The Green Knight), Janicza Bravo (Zola), Shaka King (Judas and the Black Messiah), Questlove (Summer of Soul), and Sean Baker (Red Rocket).

On the negative side, it is unfortunate that so many franchise films are increasingly monopolizing the film industry. It may be possible that the new Ghost Busters, James Bond, Matrix, and King’s Men films are the best entries in the series or masterpieces, but to me this seems unlikely. And it is too bad that these films are taking up so many screens that might be used to exhibit truly original films.

It is also frustrating that several of the most promising films of the year by some of the most prestigious film makers came out Christmas week or later (right around the time my top 10 list is due.) This includes Joel Coen’s Macbeth and Pedro Almodóvar’s Parallel Mothers. You might see some of these films on my list next year, but this presents a conundrum, because I usually limit the films on my list to films that opened in Chicago in January or later. Nonetheless I could not help seeing and including Paul Thomas Anderson’s Licorice Pizza, which is the most fun, life affirming film I have seen in ages. I was swept away by its vitality and seeing it almost seemed to foreshadow a better tomorrow.

It is no secret that I love international cinema, but you may have noticed that my list this year has less foreign films than usual (only the South African film, This Is Not a Death It Is A Resurrection made the top 10 and none made the top 5. White Tiger, who was an early front runner, dropped off from the top 10 as I saw more films.

This does not necessarily mean that all the best films of this year were all made in America. I usually cover at least a few film festivals (such as the European Union) but since I did not do that this year, I saw less non-American films. Also, with Covid and many theatre closings it was harder and more perilous to get into the city where most of these kinds of films are playing. As far as I know the only film I saw at the Chicago International Film Festival, Memoria which won the highest award there and featured a terrific Tilda Swinton performance (you still might see a review from me eventually.) never got a wide release.

On the other hand, it is now easy to stream some really obscure and worthwhile art films. That is how I saw This Is Not a Death It Is A Resurrection, About Endlessness, and Another Round. I hope at some point I will be able to see the highly acclaimed Bruno Dumont’s France, Petite Maman, Drive My Car, Son, Censor, Wheel of Fortune, and Fantasy, El Boco, and Worst Woman of the World. I just watched the newest film by acclaimed, award winning Italian film maker, Paolo Sorrentino on Netflix, but I thought that The Hand of God while good was far below the quality of his recent near masterpieces, Il Divo, Great Beauty, and Loro so it is not on my list.

My number one film of the year, Annette is mostly in English, but it is in reality a French/German/Belgium/US /Mexican/Swiss co-production that was created by a French director, Leo Carax. Carax also did two other films I adored (Lovers on a Bridge and Holy Motors) and at this time I might pay to see a toilet paper commercial made by him (and this also goes for his rival, Bruno Dumont.)

But I am still eagerly awaiting, A Hero, the latest film by one of the world’s most talented and respected film makers, Asghar Farhadi who is from Iran (it opens 1/7 at the Gene Siskel Center). He made the news when he boycotted the Oscar ceremony of 2020 to protest Trump’s travel ban.

Speaking of international cinema. Our city lost a vital world cinema resource this year in Odd Obsession video (the worst film loss for me since Film Comment was cancelled during Covid). The place had screenings of new Indy films, a giant selection of art films, and shelves arranged according to directors (Which other place has sections devoted to Bresson and Antonioni films?). Its disappearance is not completely surprising since the place relied on volunteers, and I think the store was just barely hanging on even before Covid. Let us have a few words of silence for this remarkable place. Facets Multimedia is now the last man standing.

Perhaps the most unexpected current trend that I am seeing in cinema is that more and more "Me-Too" era films like Promising Young Woman and the artfully provocative, Titane as well as last year’s surprisingly thoughtful Freaky are using 70s slasher and giallo tropes and plot formula elements to further a feminist agenda by turning the tables and making the female monsters stalk men or subject them to the “female gaze.”

This is also the first year I can recall in which three of the finest female performances (Alana Haim of the group Haim in Licorice Pizza, Jennifer Hudson in Respect, and Lady Gaga in House of Gucci) were given by women that were previously known more for their singing than acting.

In addition, Judi Dech in Belfast, Lili Taylor in Paper Spiders, Mary Twala Mhonlongo in This Is Not a Death It Is A Resurrection. Kate Blanchett in Nightmare Alley, and Carey Mulligan in  Promising Young Woman) were all excellent. Agathe Rouusselle was also impressive in Titane in an edgy performance playing a female serial killer pretending to be a man.

Some of the strongest male leads included Adam Driver (in Annette), Nicholas (believe it or not) Cage for Pig, Daniel Kaluuya for Judas and the Black Messiah, Matt Damon for Stillwater, and Benedict Cumberbatch for The Power of the Dog. I also liked Clint Eastwood’s likeable turn in Cry Macho.

Now on to the list. This was such a stellar year that any of the films in my top 20 could have made my top 10 in a lesser year and this year’s choices were much more painful than usual. This may seem like a cheap ploy, but I have two films tied for first place in my top 25 and two in last place which I think makes my list unique and gives it some symmetry.

As usual, on this list I drew from films that opened in Chicago in 2021 including a few exceptional flicks like Judas and the Black Messiah and Promising Young Woman which opened in New York or LA earlier and made some top critic’s 10 lists last year. And now the best films of the year...

1a) Annette
Director- Leos Carax
This anti-musical/rock opera about an abusive and self-destructive theatre performer (Adam Driver) who is hostile and contemptuous of his audience is gutsy, astonishing and one of the best films of its type since Holy Motors (which not coincidentally was made by the same director). I am sure people will endlessly argue about the symbolic reading of the wooden baby daughter who can levitate as she sings opera. Personally, I think that she is a wooden puppet because that is how her dad sees her. Adam Driver carries the film (he sings constantly and is in almost every scene) and is ferociously engaging in the lead. Marion Cotillard is sympathetic as his saintly, long-suffering wife who takes her husband’s abuse all the time her career is going up while his Iis moving toward rock bottom. The film possesses something many great films have, what Paul Schrader called, “strangeness” or the type of originality we can never altogether assimilate.” The transgressive French New Wave influenced director, Leo Carax is not exactly prolific (he only did six features in 37 years), but he did some of the most challenging films of the last few decades such as Lovers on a Bridge (1991), Pola X (1999), and Holy Motors (2012). In English and French with English subtitles. Streaming on Amazon.com

1b) The Sparks Brothers
Director-Edgar Wright
I am cheating here (I don’t feel too bad about it because the Chicago Tribune critic did something similar), but I made a B section because I strongly feel that if you don’t watch this documentary about glam cult favorites Sparks (the word quirky could have been invented for them). who wrote Annette, you won’t appreciate that film as much. Director Edgar Wright (Drive and Sean of the Dead) has been a busy bee and he also directed the ambitious but less successful Last Night on Soho this year. The film is so good that it is recommended to even people who hate the band. Much more idiosyncratic and far better than. Bohemian Rhapsody, the Oscar winning biopic about Queen who are also from the same glam rock era. This played briefly in Orland Marcus, and it is streaming on Netflix.
 

2) Dune
Director Dennis Villeneuve
Remarkably, Dennis Villeneuve (who normally is a pretty damn good director) accomplished what David Lynch and Alejandro Jodorowsky could not do. He made a great, big, sprawling big budget epic version of Dune that is much better than anyone had a right to expect, and far outshined all of the dramatic Oscar bait films. This film is a feast for the eyes, and like Lawrence of Arabia this film practically begs its audience to see it on the big screen. For me this is the best sci-fi flick in years, and I thought it was much more satisfying and brainier than the original Star Wars trilogy (which it shares some similarities with). The long-awaited release was one of the cinematic events of the year. Also who knew there were gerbil like creatures in outer space? Streaming on YouTube, Vudu, Google Play and Amazon Prime.
 

3) Pig
Director-Michael Sarnoski
Remarkably original Indy film about a hermit who lives in the woods (played by Nicholas Cage) who goes on a quest through the worse parts of the city to search for his kidnapped pig (it is like a hellish journey into Dante’s Inferno). Not only does he rely on the pig for his livelihood, but the pig is also his best friend (he is pretty pathetic but once had potential.) I had all but given up on critical punching bag Cage, but not only is this one of these best, gutsiest, and edgiest performances. Cage is like a kid who has been barely bothered to swing a bat for years who gets a home run. This might also be the best film he ever starred in (no, I did not forget about Leaving Las Vegas and Wild at Heart.) Streaming on Hulu, You Tube, Google Play, Amazon Prime and Vudu.
 

4) Licorice Pizza
Director-Paul Thomas Anderson
Utterly charming period piece that masterfully recreates the 70s is about the sometimes-wacky adventures of a 15-year male hustler who is always looking for an angle and a more mature but tempestuous 25-year-old female that he has a crush on. While she is tempted by his contagious hyper energy (which she shares) deep down she realizes that they can never work as a couple. Their relationship seems to fall in that grey area between a romance and friendship mostly because she wants it that way. Bradley Cooper is hysterical and almost unrecognizable in a small, comedic role wearing a porn star like getup. There is kind of a weird and unsettling Taxi Driver homage (they practically recreate the whole campaign headquarters scene involving Cybill Shepard from the film complete with similar dialog) that hard core film buffs should enjoy. Some of the fictional characters I encountered in this film seemed more real than the family members I encountered at this year’s Christmas parties. This heartfelt film brilliantly takes you back to a time when the future was unwritten, and anything was possible. A delight from start to finish. Playing in local theatres.
 

5) Judas and the Black Messiah
Director-Shaka King
This film is a biopic with a twist. It is not from the point of view of the late great civil rights activist Fred Hampton, but from the perspective of a double agent who was used by the FBI to infiltrate the panthers and helped set up Hampton’s murder (filling the Judas role). Great performances all around. Although I still believe this film is “flawed” (like in its use of non-Chicago cities to represent the windy city and the age disparity between the actors and the real-life people they played), this still had a much greater impact on me than many more “perfect” films. Daniel Kaluuya as Hampton (he won a best supporting actor Oscar for the part) gives a charismatic performance for the ages. The film is not one note, and it also sympathetically depicts a Caucasian FBI agent who never imagined his superiors would go so far. Streaming on Hulu, HBO Max, You Tube, Amazon Prime and Google Play.
 

6) The Green Knight
Director-David Lowrey
The restless nephew of King Arthur, Sir Gawain goes on a quest to prove his worth. He challenges the otherworldly green knight (who could be a long lost relative of the Guardians of the Galaxies Groot) to a duel on Christmas day and the green knight allows him to cut his head off. The knight reassembles himself and promises to return the favor in a year’s time where Gawan must present his own neck for severing. What happens later completely undermines the knight’s ideas about chivalry and heroism and teaches him something about sacrifice. This morbidly fascinating and perplexing telling of the Sir Gawain legend is much more cerebral and less action oriented than most recent knight tales. Based on the 14rth century poem, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, this film makes the knight slightly less virtuous and lofty and successfully makes him more relatable (which is what Scorsese did with Jesus in The Last Temptation of Christ) while preserving the sublime mystery of the original. The extras on the DVD made me appreciate this film even more. Alice Vikander looks stunning and shines in a dual role as both Essel and the lady. Streaming on Google Play, You Tube, Vudo, and Amazon Prime.
 

7) Promising Young Woman
Director-Emerald Fernell
Unconventional black comedy for the Me-too era about a young woman who had mysteriously given up a promising career and dropped out of medical school. She ends up working in a coffee shop and living with her parents. She spends her free time hunting and teaching lessons to men that abuse women, but she does not use violence. Kind of like a morbidly fascinating comedic feminist version of ‘70s revenge/vigilante horror films like I Spit in Your Grave and Last House on the Left. Contains a spell binding lead performance by Carey Mulligan who is both pathetic and admirable up a certain point. Streaming on HBO Max.
 

8) This is Not a Burial, it’s a Resurrection
Director-Lemohang Jeremiah Mosese
Mary Twala Mhonlongo gives one of the year’s finest performances as an 80-year woman who tragically experiences the deaths of her whole family. She experiences even more indignation when the town politicians decide to build a dam in the very area where her whole family is buried. This gives her life meaning and she spends all her remaining days protesting the government policy, and she struggles against a sellout priest who welcomes the change. This film does an excellent job at totally transporting the audience to an alien-seeming place. Tragically the main actress in the film died shortly after the it was completed. This haunting melodrama which is reminiscent of Things Fall Apart masterfully captures the struggle between tradition and modernization. Although it takes place in South Africa, with widespread human over development it is relevant to all countries. In Sotho with English subtitles. Available on Amazon Prime, You Tube, and Google Play.
 

9) Zola
Director-Janicza Bravo
A young woman named Zola (impressive newcomer Taylour Page) lets her friend, Stefani (Elvis’s real-life granddaughter, Riley Keough) talk her into going to Florida to be an exotic dancer, but this is just an underhanded setup/pretense for recruiting her into prostitution. The two women get into terrible situations and meet the worse men in society. This raw film uses weird off kilter shots and split screen to give us a dark, unflinching, and realistic view of rape culture in which anyone could be beaten or sexually assaulted any minute. We know that social media has an enormous impact on film viewers, but now here is evidence that it is having an impact on cinema itself. The is the first (but it won’t be the last) film that was based on a chain of tweets by the real-life inspiration for the title character, Zola. The content and the style (less so) of this film by the new director, Janieza Bravo. are somewhat reminiscent of Sean Baker’s films (like Tangerine and Florida Project,) Streaming on Hulu, You Tube TV, Sling, Amazon Prime, Vudu, and available on Redbox.
 

10) The French Dispatch
Director-Wes Anderson
A crusty, dying publisher of a New Yorker style magazine (played wonderfully by Bill Murray) decides to put out one great last issue of his magazine and suspend publication, and each of the vignettes in the film represent a different story from the magazine. My favorite of the three stories is about an artist on death row who falls in love with a prison guard who serves as his muse. The whole film is a very moving lament for a certain kind of reader and publication that may not exist anymore. The end may make viewers feel a comparable way as they did at the end of Citizen Kane, like they had seen the passing of something great. This contains Wes’s customary eccentric characters, absurd situations, stunningly attractive set designs, symmetrical shot compositions, and amusing social observations, and he tells his stories using almost every imaginable form or technique including split screens, live action, animation, flashbacks, and even fast forwards. Like many anthology films this is somewhat uneven, but I adored much of it. Available on YouTube, Vudu, Google Play, and Amazon Prime.
 

11) News of the World
Director-Paul Greengrass
Paul Greenhouse’s touching film stars Tom Hanks as Civil War era captain who is given the task of escorting a 10-year-old girl who was kidnapped by a Native American tribe back to her family. She starts out as being distant, bitter, and angry, but eventually a positive relationship between the two very different individuals develops. Although it is more traditional, this beautifully developed, old-fashioned Western adventure which brilliantly updates John Ford’s The Searchers pleased me more than the more hyped Cry Macho and The Power of the Dog. It probably helped that I saw it on the big screen. Streaming on HBO Max, Hulu, You Tube TV, Google Play, Vudu, and Amazon Prime.
 

12) Titane
Director-Julie Ducournae
A woman with a car fetish does erotic dances in front of a car for money, but when the guys who observe her come onto her, she brutally murders them. The first half of this film is a like a feminist slasher film, but in the second half, the female killer impersonates a missing boy and finds happiness for the first time in her life as a male fire fighter, but it is not clear how long she can avoid her past. Not all this works, but Julie
Ducournae’s body horror film is bold, absorbing, and astonishingly experimental. Surprisingly, this bizarre slasher/art film hybrid which is fairly inaccessible won the Palm D’Or for 2021 and even played in the suburbs. Not at all recommended for Hallmark channel fans. In French with English subtitles.
 

13) The Power of the Dog
Director-Jane Campion
Benedict Cumberbatch (one of my current favorite actors) stars as Phil, a brutal cowboy who likes to torture and mistreat those that he thinks are weaker or effeminate. When his brother marries a widow, and adopts her son by another man, Phil does everything he can to make their lives miserable. Then weirdly he becomes a mentor to the kid, but this situation too is problematic-Disturbing anti-western that successfully equates sexual repression with violence has a shot at the best picture Oscar. I don’t think this is the year’s best film, but Cumberbatch definitely gives one of the year’s most bold, gutsy, and devastatingly powerful performances.
 

14) Summer of Soul
Director-Questlove
This chronicles the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival, an exemplary concert that happened at the same time as Woodstock and the quality of the musical performances actually rival it for sheer quality. Among the highlights include fine numbers by Stevie Wonder, the 5th Dimension, the Staple Singers, Nina Simone, and Sly and the Family Stone, Directed by Questlove of the hip hop combo. The Roots. Screening on Hulu.
 

15) About Endlessness
Director-Roy Andersson
This film opens with the perhaps the most memorable shot of the year which evokes Marc Chagall’s painting, The Weepies A couple floats in the clouds deliriously happy in Cologne over the Nazis who are creating havoc during World War II. It may be implying that when faced with historical tyranny and brutality we need to still cling to life’s little pleasures (aren’t many people caught in the throes of romantic love lost in the clouds?) This mind-blowing final film by the great Swedish surrealist, Roy Andersson explores all his usual themes, and it feels like a summation of his career, and it is worth the effort of seeing. It does not have anything resembling a conventional plot, but it is composed of vignettes which are sometimes tenuously connected, and it has some truly wondrous painterly imagery. In Swedish with English subtitles. Streaming on Hulu, You Tube TV, Google Play, Vudu, and Amazon Prime
 

16) Paper Spiders
Director-Inon Shampanier
Lili Tayler gives a powerful, explosive performance as a mentally unbalanced conspiracy theorist. She insists that her neighbor is spying on her, and as she spirals mentally out of control, she begins putting her job at risk and she increasingly disrupts her daughter’s life. Stephanie LaVie Owen who plays the daughter shows great promise. Streaming on You Tube TV, Google Play, Vudu, and Amazon Prime
 

17) White Tiger
Director-Ramin Bahrani
A young man (he is the narrator of the story) who is good at academics is told he is a “white tiger” or gifted, but because of his family’s low economic status he is confined to work a menial job in a tea stall. When he gets a chance to move up economically, he gets a close look at how the poor are mistreated by the disgustingly wealthy elite. His boss runs over a child while he is drunk, and he pins the crime on his driver and convinces him to write a confession. This is a devastating portrayal of the tragic theme of economic inequality that shows the lengths some people will go to get ahead. This would have seemed to be a natural for the Oscars but the only nomination it received was a best adapted screenplay. In English and Hindi. Streaming on Netflix
 

18) Stillwater
Director-Tom McCarthy
Matt Damon in a revelatory, bold performance portrays a bigoted but sympathetic working-class father who moves to France in order to help her daughter get out of the murder rap that she is in jail for. There he rents a room from a much more cultured woman and sparks occur between them, and he becomes a kind of surrogate father for her child. The basic plot structure of the story resembles Eastwood’s Cry Macho, but this is quite a bit more impressive, and Damon is completely convincing in a role unlike most of the ones he had played. There are also a few big surprises in the script. Streaming on You Tube, Google Play and Amazon Prime.
 

19) Rocket Red
Director-Sean Baker
A washed-up porn star moves back to his hometown in Texas (thank God I don’t live there) and moves back in with his estranged wife. His eyes light up when he meets an innocent seeming young donut server and he sees her as his ticket back into the industry. Sean Baker makes us care about the loser characters and creates a completely convincing sense of time and place in this twisted trailer trash version of the American dream. I hope to God I never have to visit or live in a place like this. Currently playing in Theatres
 

20) Nightmare Alley
Director-Guillermo del Toro
Sumptuous looking film about a carnival conman and petty fake spiritualist (Bradley Cooper) who is happily married to a perfect girl (Rooney Mara), but he can’t resist the temptation of teaming up a transparently evil femme fatale (Kate Blanchett conjuring up images of Veronica Lake) in scheme to defraud a millionaire. Director Guillermo del Toro (
Pan's Labyrinth and Shape of Water) clearly has a knack for neo noir (he is also great at fantasy and horror). It cannot be an accident that a new film selection section on Hulu recently materialized in which Del Toro’s favorite noir films are listed. Oh, and the supporting cast (also including Toni Collette and Willem Dafoe) is to die for. Currently playing in theatres.
 

21) Another Round
Director-Thomas Vinterberg
Thomas Vinterberg’s (he was one of the main forces in Dogme 95) tragicomedy revolves around a real theory that humans are born with too little alcohol in their blood, so having just a glass of wine is supposed to improve their sociability and creativity. A group of school employees decide to test out the theory by continually drinking to see if their life improves with sometimes disastrous results.On Hulu, Vudu, and YouTube. In Danish with English subtitles. Streaming on Hulu. Google Play, Vudu, and Amazon Prime.
 

22) House of Gucci
Director-Ridley Scott
There is three thirds of a great film here with a weak and anti-climactic final act. But Lady Gaga is marvelous and gives an Oscar caliber performance and she is ably supported by Al Pacino, Salma Hayek and Adam Driver giving more restrained performances. This is a bit like The Godfather or King Lear with the people attacking each other for power in the fashion industry rather than the royal court or the mafia. That they vanquish their own family members so casually for gain makes it even more disturbing. Currently playing at theatres.
 

23) Zach Snyder’s Justice League-
Director-Zach Snyder
I was genuinely surprised how much I enjoyed this longer cut of the film (the 242 minutes/four hour plus version goes by much faster than the short 120-minute theatrical version.) Although I still cringed at the Peter Parker-ish portrayal of the Flash, the introduction of the Martian Manhunter was magnificent, and the villain and back story is much more fleshed out. Oh, and Gail Gadot’s Wonder Woman is still the queen of all cinematic super heroines, and she dominates every scene she is in. Streaming on HBO Max, You Tube, Google play, Amazon Prime, and Vudu. Read JR’s full-length review.
 

24) Respect
Director-Lisel Tommy
Jennifer Hudson delivers a surprisingly convincing performance in this biopic as the queen of soul, Aretha Franklin, who must contend with both a dictator-like father and a commanding, abusive husband. Streaming on Google Play, You Tube, and Vudu.
 

25a) Belfast
Director- Kenneth Branagh
Kenneth Branagh delivers a touching but over sentimental black and white memory film that recreates his childhood in some of the worst days of the IRA conflict. This would have been a bit higher if it were a bit edgier.


25b) West Side Story
Director-Steven Speilberg
Spielberg's slick, polished, and entertaining musical about a love affair between people on rival gang sides corrects some of the culturally insensitive aspects of the original without ever quite rising to the level of the original classic. Some magnificent work was done here though, especially by co-producer Rita Moreano and supporting cast member, Ariana De Bose. But the two leads were somewhat underwhelming, and I feel like a great director, Speilberg , has given up trying to change cinema and is now just coasting and recycling. Currently in theatres.
 

Vittorio Carli, who teaches at area community colleges and has reviewed films for The Star and The Examiner. He is an avid film buff and an author.

For more writings by Vittorio Carli go to www.artinterviews.org and www.chicagopoetry.org. His latest book "Tape Worm Salad with Olive Oil for Extra Flavor" is also available.

 

Images © Copyright 2021 by their respective owners No rights given or implied by Alternate Reality, Incorporated
Review © 2021 Alternate Reality, Inc.