JR'S TOP TEN FILMS-2021 EDITION
2020, 2019, 2019-2010, 2019 MID YEAR, 2018, 2018 MID YEAR, 2017, 2016, 2015, 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2009-2000, 2006
Jim Rutkowski weighs in with his picks for the TOP 10 films of 20
21

2021-Covid Changes Everything Except the Movie

(010722) 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...

Zola
Bergman Island
The Souvenir: Part II
Annette
Titane
Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy
The Card Counter
Red Rocket
Petite Maman

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...

10.) MEMORIA
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.
 

9.) DUNE
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.
 

8.) the PIG
Director: Michael Sarnoski
T
he 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.
 

7.) THE GREEN KNIGHT
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.
 

6.) 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 finished.
 

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.
 

4.) 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?
 

3.) LICORICE PIZZA
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.

 

2.) 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 poisonous aftertaste.
 

1.) 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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