Mike’s Top Ten of 2021

2021 is like the flood after a storm. With the crazy year 2020 was, so much stuff was pushed in the hopes of finding an audience not fully burdened with the possible fall of democracy and a global pandemic and, as the year went on, they figured out how to keep working safely and things got back to being filmed. So we had not only all the stuff that was shot throughout the pandemic but also the stuff that was supposed to be released last year, which ended up giving us a real smorgasbord of films to pick from. And, for a change, I definitely didn’t feel worried I wasn’t gonna have enough stuff to put in my top ten.

One thing that will be interesting to look back on in regard to this year (much like last year) is what films people end up gravitating toward and/or discovering over time. Because with the shifting release schedule (most films this year either went day-and-date or went to streaming 30 or 45 days from their theatrical release date, as opposed to the 90 it used to be) and the already-present overabundance of content for people to watch, I haven’t gotten the sense that most people are aware of the a lot of these films. In the latter part of this year, I found myself as the only person in a theater to watch some of these choices. Which means that people either don’t know, don’t care or are waiting for the films to go streaming to see them (which is dicey for some of them because unless it’s a major title, it’s so easy to lose something in the shuffle). Which opens up a whole can of worms of questions in and of itself. But for my purposes here, I am curious to see what films end up later becoming hits when people actually get around to seeing them. And hopefully will do my part to get some people to watch a few of these.

One trend, though, that I think will be fairly uniform across the board for 2021: most people seem to be agreeing on the same crop of films as the best ones. Pandemic or no pandemic, the best filmmakers are still making the best films.

Mike’s Top Ten of 2021

Belfast

CODA

Don’t Look Up

Encanto

The French Dispatch

King Richard

Licorice Pizza

The Matrix Resurrections

No Time to Die

West Side Story

11-20: The Beatles: Get Back, Being the Ricardos, Dune, The Harder They Fall, Judas and the Black Messiah, Last Night in Soho, The Last Duel, Nightmare Alley, Spencer, Wrath of Man

Tier Two: America: The Motion Picture, Boiling Point, C’mon C’mon, The Dig, Drive My Car, The Father, Ghostbusters: Afterlife, House of Gucci, In and Of Itself, No Sudden Move, Pig, The Power of the Dog, Raya and the Last Dragon, Red Rocket, Riders of Justice, Spider-Man: No Way Home, Supernova, Tick… Tick… Boom!, Together Together, The Tragedy of Macbeth

Tier Three: Army of Thieves, Black Widow, The Card Counter, Drunk Bus, Eternals, The Guilty, I Care a Lot, Luca, Nobody, The Novice, Our Friend, Passing, Plan B, Psycho Goreman, Shadow in the Cloud, Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, Shiva Baby, The Suicide Squad, Summer of Soul (…Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised), Those Who Wish Me Dead

Tier Four: Annette, Beckett, Copshop, The Electrical Life of Louis Wain, F9, Free Guy, The Green Knight, The Many Saints of Newark, Mixtape, Nine Days, Pieces of a Woman, The Sparks Brothers, The Summit of the Gods, The Tender Bar, Venom: Let There Be Carnage, The White Tiger, Willy’s Wonderland, Women Is Losers, The Worst Person in the World, Zola

1. Licorice Pizza

Death, taxes, Paul Thomas Anderson making a film I consider the best of a given year. At this point it’s basically automatic. I love everything this man makes. This one in particular feels like his loosest film in a long time, and there’s something wonderful about that. There’s something to be said about a ‘hangout’ film, which is what this feels like. There’s no direct plot (even though it is basically a rom com), and largely it just moves from sequence to sequence while you just hanging out with these characters and in this world. And I loved every minute of it.

This is Anderson’s first out-and-out comedy in a while. All his films are very funny, but none have been specifically comedies since Punch-Drunk Love. And even trying to compare that film to this feels wrong. This is very much its own kind of movie, and it’s one where maybe it works for you, maybe it doesn’t. This definitely worked for me.

I loved the dynamic between the two leads (Cooper Hoffman is perfectly cast and Alanna Haim is a revelation). I love the random shit that happens (the arrest scene is so damn funny). I love how there’s an entire set piece that involves a truck being driven backwards down a hill. I love everything Bradley Cooper is doing as John Peters. I love the weird Sean Penn/Tom Waits interlude. I love that Alanna Haim’s entire family plays her family (her father almost steals the entire movie with one line). It’s just an absolute delight of a film and, as I said, because it’s one of those ‘hangout’ films for me, it’s one I’m gonna continue loving because I can just put it on and hang out with these characters whenever I want. Those are always the best types of movies. And it has to be said again — Paul Thomas Anderson just makes ’em different.

2. The French Dispatch

We go from Paul Thomas to Wes Anderson. Wes is no stranger to the tops of these lists, so it’s wholly unsurprising to see this here.

This movie feels a lot like what would happen if you asked a sentient algorithm to write a Wes Anderson movie. Of course Wes Anderson made a movie based on the New Yorker. Of course it’s set in France and is largely in black and white. Of course the cast is packed to the gills even if some people barely have a single line. And somehow he’s even reached the point of openly referencing himself, becoming some sort of twee ouroboros. Which, honestly, few people could pull it off as successfully as he does.

It’s also amazing to see his style continue to grow even when you feel like there’s almost no way he could refine it any more than he already has. But man, what he accomplishes here with a lot of those static wide shots and moving all the different pieces all around the frame at different times. It’s almost childlike, is how I’d describe it. Seeing stuff like that reminds me, for some reason, of things I watched growing up (but I cannot think of anything specifically outside of it definitely feels like something I only remember from things I watched as a child that were designed for young children).

You watch some of the shots in this movie and you just stare in awe of the amount of precision it took to create them. There’s one shot they actually had to write an article about just to get people to believe they legitimately pulled it off. I also love how, in the third story, he wrote in an action sequence that would’ve cost so much to shoot that he was just like, “Screw it, we’ll animated it instead,” and it completely fit because he’s just about the only filmmaker who could pull that off.

This, like most Wes Anderson movies, is one that I find myself loving more and more as I rewatch it and catch things I didn’t catch the previous times. Also, the fact that the New Yorker named this the number one movie of 2021 is one of the purest ‘Pointing Spider-Man’ memes in existence.

3. No Time to Die

It’s Bond. I love Bond. I’m always gonna rank these highly. So admittedly this had a very low bar to clear for me. However, I do think objectively this is a very good film.

Daniel Craig’s Bond arc has been truly one of a kind. Because it’s the only one that’s an actual arc. Every other Bond reset film-to-film. The closest you had before him was Connery, where you slowly introduced what would become the Blofeld character, but even that barely counts as continuity the way we’ve seen with Craig. His arc starts with Casino and ends here and it’s honestly one of the most satisfying things I can think of.

Put it this way, without obviously spoiling it for those who’ve seen it — they ended it the way they ended it and most people were like, “Yeah, that’s fine. That makes sense.” Because he’d earned it. And because we all get the deal by now and what’s gonna happen going forward anyway (though I am very curious how they’re gonna attempt to move forward, just because the next actor is essentially in a no-win situation. But that’s a whole separate discussion). The Craig Bond character arc actually superceded pure continuity because it was so well-told. And it was so well-told that this film actually redeems the films that were looked at as the ‘lesser’ ones in the series, Quantum and Spectre, because without them you don’t get a conclusion as impactful as this. Everything we’ve seen is all paid off here.

But anyway, to talk about the actual film — I thought the writing was tremendous. I think that any slight issues I had with certain choices they made are just personal preferences, because every choice they made fit exactly what Craig’s Bond’s character arc has been and could only have happened that way (though I will say… very obvious bad guy turning out to be a bad guy, that’s probably the one major thing that still holds up as an issue even afterward). Ana de Armas was amazing and her character and section were perfectly written and executed. Part of me wishes Lashana Lynch had a little more to do, since I would have liked to see her shown a tad bit more as a capable 00. Rami Malek was very well handled as a villain, with believable motivations that never felt cartoony at all. And honestly, you know how well this movie was shot when they were able to sustain and build the tension in that Blofeld scene so well and for as long as they did. That’s real suspense. Hitchcock would have been proud of that scene. I also really loved that long open, the whole bit in the car where he’s just letting them fire at it… wonderful. Honestly the whole movie was wonderful.

At this point the case could be made that Daniel Craig has had the most successful Bond tenure ever on a purely creative level. Of course he’ll always have to share the mantle with Connery because Connery defined the role and is basically the archetype for the role and will always be the most famous Bond. But in terms of pure storytelling, I’m not sure the franchise has ever been as good as it is right now. And for a franchise that is now 60 years old, that’s impressive as hell.

4. West Side Story

I trust Steven Spielberg intrinsically. So when he said he was doing this, I said, “Okay. I don’t know why you need to, but I trust that you’ll make it good.” Of course, simply good wasn’t enough with a project like this. The musical is, in my estimation (and possibly by objective measure) one of the three greatest musicals ever written. Top five at worst. The 1961 movie is a masterpiece, to the point where you didn’t ever need to go here. Or at least I didn’t think you did. And now, having seen this version, not only do I understand why they could go there, I actually think this movie succeeds in some ways the original did not.

To start, Steven Spielberg is probably the greatest stager of action in the history of cinema. Some might argue Kubrick, and I’d probably allow William Wyler or John Ford, but Spielberg… no one today can hold a candle to how he can stage a scene and a sequence. So while the 1961 movie has a lot of static camera shots and people dancing within the frame, here Spielberg moves the camera, and creates images and has people dancing through rooms and streets and rooftops and adds so much energy to the songs that the original just doesn’t. Plus, he actually tells a story that feels more balanced than the other film. Which is to say — you’re kinda meant to side with the Jets in the other film. Here, it feels like more time is spent with the Sharks, who are actually played by all Latinx actors and speak unsubtitled Spanish, which I thought was a very nice touch. And while part of me would have liked to understand the nuances of the conversations, I understand why the choice was made. The other thing the film does is go into more detail about why the Jets are the way they are. It’s not pure racism. It’s that they have shitty home lives and have been beaten and cast out all their lives, and this gang and this rotting neighborhood is all they have, so the idea of these other people coming in to take their turf (people who, while socioeconomically on the level they are, do have a sense of hope and a future they don’t have) sets them off. There’s a lot in this movie you don’t get in the 1961 version, which mostly just felt like a beautiful staging of the musical itself. This feels like it manages so much more.

I think the cast was all wonderful (though I do think they probably could have cast a little better than Ansel Elgort, but that’s probably just a personal thing). Ariana DeBose steals the show as Anita, plus it’s wonderful to see Rita Moreno come back in a role that was so much more than the stunt cameo I expected it to be. Her character actually adds so much more depth to everything in the film and was one of the smartest choices Tony Kushner and Spielberg made in conceiving this film (I also didn’t think you could add even more emotion and meaning to “Somewhere,” but they did). I also loved David Alvarez as Bernardo and Mike Faist as Riff. But also, I could single out pretty much the entire cast here. Rachel Zegler — my god. That girl is a star. Also shout out to Iris Menas as Anybodys — that character is so much more than it was in 1961 (with good reason). And that, along with a bunch of stuff, admittedly wasn’t really something that could (or really would) have been done then, so this version did have a leg up in that regard for being able to actually go into stuff like the gang rape and a trans character. Still, there’s so much more this movie has that makes it great. This version even redeems the one song Sondheim hates from the original show, “I Feel Pretty,” because he always felt it was out of place and slows down the story’s momentum. But Spielberg actually gives it a purpose by adding the dramatic irony of Maria having a nice moment of happiness, not knowing that Bernardo has been killed.

All this is to say the obvious — this is a very, very, very good film, and while I knew Steven Spielberg would make a good (and probably even great) version of this story, the one thing he really needed to do to really make me feel like it wasn’t a disappointment was make a movie that felt like it was worthwhile to have done in the first place. And not only has he done that, he made a version that honestly I will now put up there alongside the 1961 version as the definitive version. Leave it to Spielberg to somehow, at 75, answer a challenge that only he could successfully take on.

5. Encanto

Disney had an embarrassment of riches this year. Three animated films (one admittedly being Pixar and not Walt Disney Animation proper, but still), all of which are quite good. But with Disney, I only go out of my way to put the truly special ones in my top ten. And this one is truly special. I think the last non-Pixar Disney movie to end up here was Moana. But the thing with Disney is, when they’re good, it’s immediately timeless.

The movie itself is very rooted in Colombian culture and the magical realism of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, but also tells a story that feels deeply personal and universal at the same time. The conceit is simple: an immigrant family who was once forced to flee their homeland lives in a magical house that bestows upon the family members of each new generation a magical power. And the granddaughter of the family, who has not been given a power, must help keep the family together when the house starts to lose its magic. That’s the conceit. What the film is really about is what it’s like to be the child of an immigrant family and the pressure put on them to succeed, even maybe at the cost of their own personality and desire and dreams. It’s also about the magic of family and community and how much stronger people are when they work together. And it’s the themes that resonate with me the most and why I rate this film as highly as I do.

The film itself is quite good — the characters are well-developed, the songs are great, it’s colorful and vibrant and full of personality, and it has John Leguizamo in it. But it’s those themes that really hit home for me and really work well. Even to the point where there’s no distinct ‘villain’ in the story, and how everything that happens can be viewed from a thematic and metaphorical standpoint rather than there being a specific antagonist in the film. Plus, even the moments where you think, “Oh, okay, this is gonna be that scene,” like when Mirabel goes to apologize to Isabela, and then it turns into this whole other beautiful scene (and song) that further deepens everything the film is trying to say and only makes me love it further.

The best Disney films, especially nowadays, are ones that embed certain truths and ideas in such a way that they seep into the audience (who are primarily meant to be children) and help them gain a more rounded and accepting worldview. And sometimes it’s things that they figure out immediately (‘we shouldn’t hate people who are different from us’, which is in countless of their films) and some they figure out later (like, say, Elsa’s story arc helping one accept their gender and/or sexual identity and not being ashamed of it). And I absolutely love what this movie does with its themes, both large and small (it’s hard not to see Bruno’s character arc as being about accepting a family member who is on the spectrum for who they are).

I don’t know where this is going to end up sitting with people over time, and while it’s not a ‘traditional’ Disney film (which have become the exception instead of the rule nowadays), I do think this is one of the best films they’ve made, and for sure one of the top five they’ve made since 2000.

6. Don’t Look Up

So chances are you already have a strong opinion about this film and/or have been exposed to a lot of the online discourse about it, which is always incredibly toxic and often leads to people feeling their opinion needs to fall in with the majority’s, meaning they either automatically decide to have that opinion without giving the film a proper chance or they end up going opposite and thinking, “Am I wrong for having this opinion?” I’ve spoken to multiple people who have said the latter to me about this film (and the film immediately below this). So, as a PSA, let me begin by saying: please just like or not like whatever you want. Your opinion is the only one that matters. And even if you’re in a huge minority, own it. It’s your opinion. It’s one of the few things you get that no one can take away from you. Speaking as the guy who has openly said for years that Mr. Magorium’s Wonder Emporium is one of his favorite films of all time, don’t ever deprive yourself of something you love because of idiots.

Anyway, I have been gloriously and blissfully ignorant of the discourse on like 95% of movies this year, and I have to say, I highly recommend it. It’s a healthier way to live. That said, I did at least slightly go into this knowing the reviews on this were not so positive and worried it might not be good. But, within about 20 minutes, I realized why. Because 1) this is a satire. And historically satires tend to get mixed reactions when they come out and it’s only years later when a true opinion emerges (one small example: here’s a contemporary New York Times review of Dr. Strangelove), and 2) everything that happens in this movie is for sure exactly what would happen if this ever really did occur, and I think for a lot of people they either were too depressed to find the humor in that or they thought it was too over-the-top because they’re in denial about how accurate it really is. I also think some of it is because of how highly-charged everything is now politically and because for some reason nobody wants to take climate change seriously, plus a lot of people just like to be in the contrarian space no matter what. It’s all a nightmare.

But what I do know is that I found myself laughing my ass off consistently throughout this movie at the sheer accuracy at how it depicted what our culture is and has become. And even when the movie dragged (because yes, it’s too long, and starts to slow down around the time Timothée Chalamet shows up), it still found ways to work. Plus, I like that it doubled down on its ending and didn’t cop out with a lesser one, because that’s the way you have to end a movie like this, to try to get your point across to as many people as possible, as strongly as possible.

Are you wrong to dislike this movie? No. Just like you’re not wrong to like it. Just make sure it’s your own damn opinion and not grafted onto whatever the narrative has decided it is. This isn’t a perfect movie. And you might not be able to handle something that’s so bleak and depressing in the way it makes us confront all the awful shit that permeates our existence. Some people only go to movies to escape that, and I understand it. You also may just think it’s not funny. You may think it’s too long, unfocused, uneven, too on-the-nose, whatever. As long as you feel that way from the film and not from outside sources telling you what you should think about the film, it’s all fine.

That said, I loved it, I laughed my ass off, I think this is something the world needs, and I sarcastically look forward to years from now when all this starts to play out for real and people start bringing this movie up the way Idiocracy is brought up (another movie people don’t remember got decidedly mixed reviews until time passed and people realized, “Oh wait, it was right”).

7. The Matrix Resurrections

Most years, the films that become the barometers for the year (the ones that I use to gauge people’s tastes and whether or not I can trust them) tend to be indies or foreign language or the ‘Film Twitter darlings’. You know, the pretentious cineaste bait. Yet, for 2021, those barometers for me are Don’t Look Up, this and Eternals. And it’s so funny to me that this year, having a ‘basic bitch’ opinion is somehow going against the grain.

If you told me (*what-if-i-told-you-meme.jpg*) a year ago that I was gonna have a new Matrix movie in my top ten, I’d assume it was a Force Awakens situation, where the overwhelming response of people for it, the excitement that it was back mixed with my comfort and familiarity to the franchise led to me putting it in the top ten, even though over time it would probably slip out once I realized the movie was just pretty good and not as amazing everyone said it was. And yet, here we are. It feels like having this in the top ten is not only an opinion many people don’t share, but it’s one that you almost have to defend. Which, I will not do. Because I shouldn’t have to.

I reasonably went into this nervous about what it was gonna be. After Star Wars and countless other things that have been brought back solely for money, you figured it was gonna be another one of those. And even if I could hang my hat on Lana being back in the hopes it would be creatively worthwhile, it wasn’t Lana and Lilly. And then the trailers started pouring in and I thought, “Well this seems awesome.” But even then I was like, “How much of this is just because of the way they use ‘White Rabbit’ in the trailer?” I truly didn’t know what I was getting here. And then, it turns out, what I got was so much better than anything they could have done.

The backstory to this all is that Warner Bros. said to Lana, “We’re bringing the Matrix back and we’re going to make another one, with or without you” (so yes, that ‘our beloved parent company, Warner Bros.’ line was very intentional). So Lana agreed and then went and made this film, which is a meta look at sequels and remakes, while also being a sequel and a pseudo-remake of the first movie. Which, to me, is brilliant. Sure, you can say it didn’t work for you or that it was too clever by half, but I thought this was better than anything else it could have been. And it’s a smart way to dissect the impact the franchise has had on the culture (who can forget this incredible exchange for an example of how the exact wrong people have coopted the message by completely misunderstanding it) while updating it for what the culture has become in the ensuing years since its initial release.

I love the notion of taking the original trilogy and turning into a consumable item within the Matrix itself. That’s all it was. A piece of culture that everyone consumed and loved that became another tool to keep people ‘plugged’ in. And how the Architect character has now learned from what happened and, rather than try to keep Neo from finding out about his true self and destiny, has embraced it by openly presenting it to him and just making him think it’s all fake (and so you get all those great little touches, like ‘Simulatte’ and ‘Tiffany’ and ‘Deja Vu’ the cat and that shot of Neo eating the steak, and even that great line from one of his programmers where he’s like, “Don’t listen to me, I was raised by computers”). Now, compare that idea to “somehow Palpatine returned.” You see my point.

I do also like how they brought back the other characters but in different forms. I like that Morpheus is initially an agent in this version and is ultimately a program choosing to help (and also that the battle lines are more blurred than they were the first time), and I like how Agent Smith is also someone else as well (that all fits with the Wachowskis’ continued theme of identity, from Cloud Atlas to Sense8, and even the initial trilogy, which Lana has said was a metaphor for her own journey to accepting herself as trans).

I like how this isn’t just a redo of the first movie but rather a reframing of the first movie, down to the end where the Architect says, “Oh, cool, you think you’ve won. Go ahead. This isn’t like before. The people wanna be plugged in. They aren’t going anywhere.” This is a movie literally deconstructing and attacking the notion of sequels and remakes while also honestly saying, “This is fine and all, but it won’t matter. The people love this shit and will eat it up regardless” (see: the reaction to everything Marvel puts out). I loved every minute of it. Do I have quibbles? Absolutely. Does the Merovingian need to be there? No. Is the action just okay rather than groundbreaking like in the original trilogy? Sure. Could they have gone a little more balls out in the third act (particularly on that rooftop)? Absolutely. But hey, for every one of those things, I’ve got at least two things that I loved. Plus they let the main characters age and remain the main characters, rather than trying to de-age them digitally or just recasting them. Not a lot of movies would allow that to happen.

I still say this is the best possible version of a Matrix sequel we could have ever gotten. I don’t see how you could be a fan of the storytelling of the original and not be impressed with what they did here. There’s not been a franchise reframing as good as this, and it’s so good that even the people who got mad that it wasn’t the version of the story they were looking for (because they just wanted more of the original in an unironic way) only work to prove the movie’s point.

8. Belfast

Semi-autobiographical movies tend to be a dicey ground for directors. For every one that’s great, there are two that are not so great. And you never know until you get there. Kenneth Branagh is one of those filmmakers who I love, but I wasn’t sure what kind of a movie I’d be getting from him (after all, this is a person who has ping-ponged for years between Shakespeare adaptations and big budget studio stuff like Thor and Cinderella and Artemis Fowl. The movies are always well made, but there’s a range of what you’re gonna get in terms of a reaction). But I’ve now watched this movie three times, once in theaters, once at home by myself and once with friends. And this firmly earned its spot more and more each time I saw it.

I love the way this film is handled. It firmly roots it in history while also being very specifically shot from the perspective of a nine-year-old. You learn so much about everyone in it without the film adding more time and unnecessary scenes. It’s a very lean movie, yet accomplishes everything it needs to accomplish without flourish. To the point where, when the one ‘movie’ moment happens (the ‘High Noon’ standoff at the end), it’s almost kind of jarring because the movie had avoided those types of moments the entire time. Which, for me, is why it’s so great. You get all those beautiful little scenes, like Buddy trying to get better at math so he can sit next to the girl he has a crush on, or him and his cousin stealing candy from the shop and the policeman coming to give him a stern talking-to, or that amazing church scene with the fire and brimstone minister. It’s very John Ford in that way.

This is a movie borne out of love and out of very specific childhood memories. It feels like it’s not trying to be a ‘movie’ so much as its trying to approximate the feeling of growing up during this time and recreate all the memories that have been remembered so vividly over the many years since they happened. Watching this movie, as someone who grew up an ocean away and almost 30 years after the movie takes place, made me start to remember all the memories I have of running around in the street and going over to my grandparents house to play on their street and having family gatherings. I’ve said this about a lot of these kinds of movies — there’s something about very specific experiences that becomes universal. And that’s how this felt to me. Plus all the Van Morrison music didn’t hurt.

9. CODA

I have a mixed history with films that have won Sundance. Some years they’re great and others I’m rolling my eyes after I see them and am like, “This is what we’ve been hyping?” I had hopes for this to be good after I’d heard about it, but, with most movies out of Sundance, you never truly can know until you see them. And I am very happy to say that I watched this movie twice before putting it on this list, and I have ugly cried both times.

The movie, adapted from a French film (which somehow didn’t cast deaf actors in it), is about the only hearing person in a deaf family (the title stands for ‘child of deaf adults’). The family are (and have been for generations) fishermen and work hard to barely get by. The girl, in high school, has to get up at 3am to go out fishing with her father and brother (laws require one hearing person to be aboard the boat) and then go to school after that. And the film is about her trying to be there for her family while also dealing with the stresses put on her by being the only hearing person in the family as well as her desire to study music.

A lot of it is a standard high school indie movie, but it’s told so well, and the perspective of the deaf family is so unique that it makes everything feel totally fresh. Emilia Jones is absolutely incredible in the lead role, and everyone in the family (Troy Kotsur, Marlee Matlin and Daniel Durant) is absolutely terrific as well. I know this shouldn’t be a big deal, but I love the way the movie handles the deafness as a way of life and not as some big thing it’s presenting to the audience. Trust me. This is not a time-honored thing in Hollywood. And even the way the film handles the high school stuff is great. Eugenio Derbez is fantastic as Jones’ choir teacher who stokes her interest in music and helps her try to get into the college of her dreams. There’s something about the way the film handles his character that makes him not feel like a standard ‘movie’ teacher (or even the new variant on this, the ‘cool’ movie teacher).

It’s a really beautiful film that really earns every ounce of emotion it gets out of the audience by the time it ends. I was very happy to start to see this mentioned once all the ‘awards’ lists started coming out. Because it really is one of the best movies of the year and deserves to be discussed as such.

10. King Richard

I’ll be honest, I was a little surprised when this ended up here. Because I knew this was gonna be a good movie. What I didn’t think was that I was gonna feel this strongly about it. Because you hear “Will Smith as the father of Venus and Serena” you think, “Of course/slam dunk,” etc. Which is fair. There’s a very easy formula they could have used to have this be everything it needed to be on paper. But this is not that movie. It doesn’t build to a triumphant victory at the end. There’s no major ‘adversity’ scene in the middle, where an ankle is twisted or whatever. Because this movie is interested in other things besides just sports. And that’s why this movie is as good as it is.

Sure it’s very much about how Venus and Serena became the best tennis players on the planet. And sure it’s a showcase for Will Smith (who is actually quite amazing in this, and it might be his career best performance). But really what this movie is, is a showcase of a Black story, and the story of how two Black girls from Compton went and achieved their dreams, and how their father, who saw greatness in them, helped them get there and fought to get them every opportunity to succeed. It’s a message for every child, specifically those from underprivileged backgrounds, that their dreams are possible. That just because you can’t picture yourself doing something doesn’t mean you can’t do it. That’s why the victory at the end of this movie isn’t the tennis match. It’s the impact they had by simply being on that stage and being good enough to win the tennis match.

There’s a lot of good in this movie. The supporting performances are all great (special shout out to Jon Bernthal, who is never gonna get near enough credit for what he does in this movie, and for the solid work he does all the time). Aunjanue Ellis is very much a standout, and I am so glad the character isn’t just another ‘supportive wife’ role. Also Saniyya Sidney as Venus is so, so good. Also shout out to Demi Singleton as Serena, who unfortunately because the story is what it is, doesn’t get enough time for people to fully appreciate her performance the way they should.

The other quality this movie has, which is something I point out as a hugely underrated quality in movies — it’s very watchable. Every time I put this on, I’m struck by how easy it is to settle in and just watch the whole thing. I can already tell this one’s gonna be a family favorite that I see on TV every time I’m home. Because it’s that kind of movie. You can pick it up anywhere and just go all the way with it. And while I could not have expected that going in, I’m so happy it’s the case.

– – – – –

11-20:

The Beatles: Get Back — I’ll be honest, the only thing keeping this out of the top ten was the fact that they released it as three episodes and not as a singular doc. I couldn’t justify having it in the top ten without being a feature. But otherwise, this was one of the best things I watched this year. I love the Beatles and the notion of spending 7 hours watching them working through Let It Be (and some of Abbey Road) was exactly the kind of thing I want. Especially because everyone knows the story of what they think happened. Meanwhile you watch this and you’re like, “Oh, they all seem to be having a pretty good time.” They’re not at each other’s throats or anything. And then you just get to see them sitting there, jamming and working their way through what would eventually become some of the most famous songs ever written. It’s just incredible to watch. And I love the way Peter Jackson cut all the footage, making it more colorful and feel more dynamic while never ‘directing’ the audience to feel a certain way about any of it. You basically just end up being a fly on the wall and feel like you’re sitting in the room as all of this goes down, which really is an incredible feat.

Being the Ricardos — Aaron Sorkin doing Desi and Lucy. I’ll never argue for this being a particularly good movie, but I love Sorkin, I love the way he writes and I just found myself getting more and more invested in this movie as it went along. It’s definitely the weakest thing Sorkin’s done, and it’s definitely a flawed movie. But I like what I like, and I had a good time watching this. The fact that he packs a bunch of stuff in the timeframe of a week, from table read to filming, definitely keeps it a little more focused than it might have been otherwise. And, like I said, I’m a sucker for Sorkin. I’m willing to overlook a lot of stuff just because I like how he writes. I’ll still take Molly’s Game over this almost every time, though.

Dune — At this point, I just trust Denis Villeneuve instinctively. While I had my reservations about him doing this, I also had them about him doing Blade Runner and I ended up preferring his version to the original. So I figured no matter what, I’d still get a good movie out of this. And I did. I’ve never read the book and even having seen the David Lynch version I couldn’t tell you much of anything about it past sand worms and spices. So I went into this totally cold. And it was definitely a very solid movie, though I admittedly did not feel the immediate connection to this that I had to his previous four movies. Were this year a little stronger, this might not have even made this section of the list. Plus, it’s half the story, so I feel like I might need the other half to truly know my feelings on it. So, for now, I’m gonna go with: Denis makes good movies, this looked amazing, was very well-made and kept me engaged throughout. Just a solid piece of work that I liked a lot but didn’t love.

The Harder They Fall — You just kinda knew from when they announced the cast that this was gonna be amazing. And of course, you know me… love a good western. So really all it had to do was be pretty good and it would have made my top 40. But this is just so much damned fun. Stylized in all the best ways (and a very sure-handed debut from Jeymes Samuel), loaded with great characters and great character work by at least a half-dozen actors (probably closer to a full dozen). I also love how so many world-building and interesting details exist within the film yet aren’t developed upon, which in a lot of cases would annoy me, but here I loved it. Because westerns, at heart, should be simple stories. And everything else around that story is the color that makes each one unique. I also like that it’s expanding on representation within the genre. I want us to be at a point where 1) we can make more westerns, and 2) can make a western with and about anyone (because who cares about 100% historical accuracy, even though, as the opening of this film says ‘these people existed’). So this film helping do that only makes me like it even more.

Judas and the Black Messiah — Incredible Fred Hampton biopic that’s also just a great two-hander of a film. Daniel Kaluuya rightly got all the praise for his portrayal of Hampton, but LaKeith Stanfield matches him every step of the way. Plus it’s just an incredibly tightly-directed film from Shaka King with a tremendous script and gorgeous production design all across the board. Pound for pound, this is one of the best movies of this year.

Last Night in Soho — Edgar Wright, man. That dude always makes really good and interesting movies. This one was not something I was particularly intrigued by when he announced it, mostly because I felt it was gonna veer into horror territory in some way, which is really not my thing at all. But I forget that a director like him never actually does do straight genre movies. It’s always how they want to incorporate genre into their world. So of course all of the parts of this that I wasn’t necessarily into were greatly outnumbered by all the stuff I thought was great. It’s not a perfect movie (at a certain point it does feel like the movie suddenly goes, “Well… guess we need to get to that third act now,” and starts rushing to a conclusion. Whereas I could have watched at least another 20 minutes of the 60s stuff, especially before it turns ‘bad’). But all the technical stuff about it s spectacular. The way he shoots all the dream sequences is incredible, the sets, the costumes… hell, the sound in this movie is amazing. Music aside, the way he uses sound is one of those things where clearly he took a lot from what he did with Baby Driver, and I love when directors use sound well. So, while this isn’t, say, on the top of my Edgar Wright list with Shaun of the Dead and Scott Pilgrim, it’s definitely a really solid entry in the filmography, and one that I feel I might be able to appreciate more as time goes by.

The Last Duel — I toyed for a long time with putting this one in the top ten and it almost did end up at #10. I really, really liked this movie a lot and I think it’s criminal how underseen this is. Ridley’s been on a hell of a run these past six years. The Martian, All the Money in the World, this and House of Gucci (and yes, also Alien: Covenant). Your mileage may vary on those, but they’re all really solid and interesting movies, most of which feel underseen and underappreciated. This one I loved from top to bottom. I loved how it was split between all three peoples’ version of events (though I will say the slow fade in the third act title card was wholly unnecessary, but I’ll allow it), and I loved how you got the same events each time, but slowly learned more and more about each character’s personality throughout each version of events and got to see the truth slowly fall into place. Plus the duel itself was really well executed. It’s staged and shot so well. You are always very aware of what’s going on at all times. You realize as you watch it, “Oh right, this guy made Gladiator. He’s really good at this.” The performances are also top notch. Jodie Comer especially. Damon and Driver are both great, Affleck is delightful, and also shoutout to Alex Lawther as the king, whose detached bemusement felt absolutely spot on to how a king would have behaved at that time. This is definitely one I’m gonna be able to go back to a bunch and enjoy, which definitely makes it a candidate to eventually crack the top ten.

Nightmare Alley — I love Guillermo. I love how every film he makes is unmistakably his but also, within that authorial style, always does tackle some form of a different genre. This, though, is the first time he’s doing a straight noir. Which I like, because it’s perfectly suited to his whole ‘humans and monsters’ theme he loves. Plus this is a period noir set at a circus, which for some reason is incredibly appealing to me as a concept. Honestly, if there’s one thing I wanted more of in this movie, it’s more of it. I wanted a little more time spent in seeing Cooper’s turn into a scumbag during that middle section of the movie and more time hanging around the circus watching everyone work to maximize their acts and profits. But honestly, the whole thing just works for me, especially that final scene. I can’t even count the amount of movies where I go, “End it there. Don’t show any more. Don’t zoom out, don’t add an extra scene, just cut to black right here,” and they let me down. And this one actually did it. And I was so happy for that. Because so many movies don’t pick the most interesting place to end. But this one does. And that’s what happens when you get a Guillermo movie. It does all the right things.

Spencer — I was a little surprised when I realized how highly I had this one ranked. Because as I watched it, all I thought was, “They’re just doing Jackie again.” Because they are. This is pre-death rather than in the aftermath of a death, but it’s basically just Jackie. But apparently I really love Jackie. I still think Jackie is a better movie, but I did find myself very engaged with this one, particularly with Kristen Stewart, who I often have trouble watching in movies because I just see her all the time and not the performance (not her fault at all, it’s just what happens). But here I found myself really impressed with the performance and was (mostly) able to not see what I usually see when I watch her on screen. I thought she made a wonderful Diana despite my reservations about the casting. And the film looks incredible. The production and costume design are stellar, and it really does create the atmosphere of the place and that circle and how it feels for her to be there. Honestly, as much as I kept trying to find a reason to downgrade this one, I kept finding more reasons to say good things about it. So here we are.

Wrath of Man — This is a Guy Ritchie movie, but it’s absolutely not what you expect a guy Ritchie movie to be. It’s very serious. Which is not a bad thing. But it’s just not the kind of tone you’re used to from him. And yet, it works really well. It’s adapted from a French movie, and I will caution people to not make any assumptions from the start of the movie. Because the first like, 15 minutes are almost comical in how generically set up they are. Wooden dialogue, almost bad storytelling, the whole deal. But trust me, it’s on purpose. The premise is basically — Jason Statham is a guy with a murky backstory who starts working security at a cash truck company (one that has been getting hit with a string of robberies in recent months). And that’s really all you need to know, because the film unfolds beautifully from there. It’s one of those where, by the time it ends, it for sure will not have gone at all where you expected it to go. And every time I go back to this, I keep liking it more and more. I wasn’t sure this really was something I should have in 11-20, but honestly it wins me over more and more whenever I go back to it. It’s such a nice little departure for Ritchie that I kinda want to see him try more stuff like this.

– – – – –

Tier Two:

  • America: The Motion Picture
  • Boiling Point
  • C’mon C’mon
  • The Dig
  • Drive My Car
  • The Father
  • Ghostbusters: Afterlife
  • House of Gucci
  • In and Of Itself
  • No Sudden Move
  • Pig
  • The Power of the Dog
  • Raya and the Last Dragon
  • Red Rocket
  • Riders of Justice
  • Spider-Man: No Way Home
  • Supernova
  • Tick… Tick… Boom!
  • Together Together
  • The Tragedy of Macbeth

Boiling Point is one of those hidden gems I was most excited to find this year, because it’s one of the purest examples of a film that I’m certain that almost everyone I bring it up to won’t know anything about that I get to introduce them to. Which is honestly one of the most exciting parts of watching movies for me. The film’s conceit is that it’s shot in a single take. Not like 1917, which is edited to look like a continuous take. This is one actual continuous take. It’s set in a high profile London restaurant on Christmas Eve, the busiest night of the year for them. Stephen Graham (one of the great, underrated actors) plays the head chef, and the film is essentially him living the worst night of his life. He’s got his own personal shit going on, the restaurant is having some problems, and it’s just thing after thing. And so watching it all happen in a continuous take really does build the tension in a nice way. When he gets there, we see the restaurant being inspected, which is the last thing they need on such a busy night, and we move from station to station, getting to see all the different members of the staff in and outside the kitchen, while also occasionally checking in on different tables of diners, who all weave in and out of the story throughout. It’s really engaging and really very good and is the kind of movie where, considering you probably know nothing about it, coming out of it almost feels like finding a surprise $20 bill. “Oh wow, I didn’t know this was here.” Which is the best kind of movie. Raya and the Last Dragon is Disney. And while I’ve given up hope for them to go back to hand-drawn animation at all, I am liking this run of non-sequels they’ve been on the past five years. It’s also nice to see them focusing on increasing representation. If you notice, most of this decade for them has included a lot of female representation. And this film in particular is all about Asian representation. Which I think is why they’ve been on such a nice run. Each of these films is firmly rooted in a specific culture and they’re allowing those voices to tell the stories, which adds such life to the films. This story in particular is very much a hero’s journey type that they tell all the time (bad monsters coming, warring kingdoms that can only defeat them if they unite, lone hero in search of the one thing that can save everyone, etc etc), but it’s told so well and looks stunning. And it’s really emotionally engaging as well. When Disney is really firing on all cylinders (which is the same with Pixar too), no matter what happens by the third at of their movie, if it’s working, you’re getting emotional by the end. And this for sure did that. So, while it’s not fully what I want from them (bring back hand-drawn animation, you cowards), it’s part of a really impressive run from them that I hope continues.

Riders of Justice is basically Danish Taken with Mads Mikkelsen. It’s not, but I’m here to try to get you to want to see this. He plays a military guy who is always away, much to the chagrin of his wife and daughter. And after telling them he’s gonna be away for longer than he was supposed to, the wife decides to take the daughter (who is very upset) into the city to skip school for the day and just enjoy herself to take her mind off of it. Then, on the way home, as they ride the train, it suddenly collides with another train and the mother (along with a lot of other people) is killed. Meanwhile, one of the men who was on the train, a numbers analyst who had given up his seat to the wife shortly before the accident, comes to Mikkelsen later on to say, “Hey listen, I’m not sure this was an accident.” He, through his own analysis, has figured out that on the train along the victims were both the lawyer and star witness for a trial against the head of a local gang (the titular Riders), an astronomical coincidence. So Mikkelsen, angry and grieving, is like, “Tell me who I ned to go after and I’ll kill them.” So they start working together. Meanwhile, Mikkelsen’s daughter wants them both to see PTSD counselors, but he’s very much a tough guy and won’t allow it. So the film becomes three movies in one: Mikkelsen and the IT guys (who are comic relief in the best way) working to figure out which members of the gang they’re gonna go after, the Taken/revenge story of him actually doing all of that, and Mikkelsen and his daughter (and also the other guys, because they have to pretend to be therapists so the daughter doesn’t realize what’s going on) dealing with the aftermath of this tragedy. So it’s somehow both a revenge thriller, father/daughter movie about grief and reconciliation and also straight comedy. It’s a very funny movie. The nerdy computer guys interacting with stoic badass Mads Mikkelsen is an amazing combination. And believe me, it completely works. I strongly considered having this in the top 10 I liked it so much. Please do yourself a favor and seek this one out, because I think most people are gonna enjoy the hell out of this.

Together Together is an absolutely lovely movie with Ed Helms and Patti Harrison. It starts off with a simple enough premise: guy in his 40s decides he wants a child so he hires a surrogate. And the film is about their relationship developing over the course of the nine months. It’s an incredibly charming movie and the relationship (never sexual) feels incredibly realistic and actually ends up being really sweet. This is definitely one of those movies I’m most happy about finding from this year and really wish more people saw. C’mon C’mon is Mike Mills. Which, if you’ve been following his career, Beginners is about his relationship with his father, 20th Century Women is about his relationship with his mother, and this appears to be about his relationship to his child. Which makes for some very personal, yet satisfying storytelling (his calling card). Joaquin Phoenix plays a guy who goes around interviewing children, asking them questions about how they see the world. It feels like a very NPR kinda thing. And his sister calls him and says that her ex-husband (who is bipolar) has agreed to get treatment and she’s going to go up to get him settled for a few days and she needs someone to watch her son. So the film is Joaquin and his nephew and their relationship as they spend time together. And it’s pretty wonderful. Woody Norman, who plays the nephew, is incredible, and Joaquin shows a side of himself he doesn’t really show all that often (not even really in Her, either). It’s quite a lovely film, as all Mike Mills films tend to be. Pig is one of those few properly good Nicolas Cage dramas we get every handful of years (the last one was Joe, which is now almost a decade ago). The premise sounds like something you’d expect from him: a man’s beloved truffle pig gets kidnapped and he goes out in search of the kidnappers to get his pig back. But it’s not an action movie. It’s a drama. Actually, it’s a noir. I kept watching this, somehow picturing this being made in the early 50s with Robert Mitchum in the lead. It’s a noir about a chef. And it’s such a great slow burn. Because it starts with him happily living in the woods with his pig, gathering truffles and selling them to people who come to get them each week. And once the pig is gone, he makes his way into the city (where has hasn’t been for years). And as he goes from place to place, we start to see people’s reactions to him and find out a little more about who he is and what his backstory is. Which is wonderful. I love when they can make a noir without guns and violence being the primary focus. The climax of this movie is a meal, and it’s absolutely wonderful. Believe me when I say this is a legitimately good movie. I know some people might look askance because of Cage’s recent string of work, but trust me, it’s very good and he is very good in it.

The Dig is a really interesting period historical drama that I assumed would be solid based on who was in it, but never thought was something I’d really enjoy to this extent. It’s about a self-taught archaeologist who is hired by a local widow to excavate two large burial mounds on her estate. And so we see him as he digs up these mounds while also getting close to the widow and her son. But mainly the film is about the discovery, which, at the time, was a hugely important archaeological find. And there are a lot of interesting side plots, namely the archaeologist (a terrific, as usual, Ralph Fiennes) not being as respected as say, the Oxford-taught ones, fighting for things being done his way and struggling against all the red tape. Sure, it’s got some typical movie flourishes and subplots, but overall, it was a really good and rewarding film. Not something I expect everyone to like, but something that definitely took me surprise with how much I enjoyed it. Tick… Tick… Boom! is Lin-Manuel Miranda’s biopic of Jonathan Larson, which is told in a really interesting way, both visually and narratively. It’s structured around Larson’s autobiographical musical (Tick Tick Boom), so the musical numbers from that are performed throughout the story, but it’s also the actual story of Larson himself as he’s working on the musical/dealing with the state of his life and desperately trying to say something and get somewhere. Andrew Garfield is absolutely tremendous as Larson and there are some really cool numbers Miranda stages. I initially thought this movie was gonna be the story of how he wrote Rent, but instead it’s how he got to a point where he could write Rent, which ultimately feels more satisfying to me.

Drive My Car is ‘the’ foreign film of the year, by most accounts. Which is interesting to me, because it’s not something I would expect to be an automatic hit for most people. To start, it’s three hours long. And it’s a very quiet drama where, ultimately, not much happens. Which, foreign, three hours and slowly paced — not a recipe that would appeal to most movie watchers. And I had my doubts going into it. But what I found was a consistently engaging film, despite its run time, that only made me more engaged as it went on. It’s a difficult film to try to explain without spelling out all the details of the plot. Especially since the inciting incident happens 45 minutes into the film (which is when the opening credits happen as well). But, to try to pitch it to those on the fence about it — it’s about a theater actor whose wife dies suddenly, not long after he discovered her having an affair with a younger man. After her death, he travels to another city to put on a version of Uncle Vanya with a local theater company. Because he’d previously been diagnosed with glaucoma, the theater provides him a driver, a 20-something woman. Meanwhile, the man his wife had been having the affair with (an actor) comes to audition for the play. So the film is this guy putting on the play, casting his wife’s lover in it to try to figure out what she saw in him/why she cheated, while also, over the course of all this, getting to know the woman assigned to drive him around. And what makes it interesting are all the little character discoveries along the way. It’s not a tidy American film where he finds a new lease on life and falls in love with a new person. It’s none of that. Don’t expect things to wrap-up in a neat little bow. It’s definitely more about watching the characters interact and seeing the bonds they create along the way and about all the things we discover about them as they interact. I don’t know how else to explain it except to say that it felt like a really fulfilling movie, even if it doesn’t sound like something that might be your cup of tea.

The Father is a terrific chamber drama that is clearly adapted from a play but told so beautifully on the screen to the point where you almost can’t imagine it not being a film. It stars Anthony Hopkins (doing his best work in a while) as an aging man who refuses any kind of help from his daughter, who wants to hire someone to help take care of him as he starts to show more signs of dementia. The film is told from Hopkins’ perspective, as his apartment and those around him subtly start to shift and change, leading to him being unsure of whether or not he can trust them or even himself. The films does some really interesting things. It has multiple actors show up as the same character. So in one scene Olivia Colman enters the apartment as his daughter, and then suddenly Olivia Williams comes in as his daughter. And he’s left trying to figure out what’s real and what’s not and who’s lying to him. It’s a really, really great film, and the production design and direction is top notch. You know pretty immediately what’s happening, but the way they visualize it is so strong and is one of the only times I’ve seen dementia shown on screen in such a way that you really start to get the sense of what it must feel like to actually be living with it. Truly one of the best films of this year. Supernova is an incredible drama that I’m still shocked more people don’t know about. It’s one of the easiest movies to sell to people, too: Colin Firth and Stanley Tucci as a married couple. Right there, you’re like, “I absolutely want to see that.” They’re a longtime couple and one of them has dementia. And what’s even more intriguing is, you’d naturally assume Firth would be playing the one with dementia, but it’s actually Tucci. And what’s more, the movie never tries to be that ‘caring for a loved one’ drama you’d expect out of something like this. It’s a road trip movie, with the two of them going to see family and friends before Tucci’s condition gets worse. And it’s such a simple story, told so beautifully, with incredible performances from both leads. This is one of the best hidden gems of this entire year.

The Power of the Dog is a western from Jane Campion that is, no matter what you’re expecting from it, not that movie. It’s Benedict Cumberbatch and Jesse Plemons and Kirsten Dunst and Kodi Smit-McPhee. Cumberbatch and Plemons are brothers who run a cattle ranch, Dunst is a single mother Plemons marries and Smith-McPhee is her son. And the whole film is the relationship between Cumberbatch and Dunst and between him and Smit-McPhee. Cumberbatch is a larger than life presence within the film and you spend the whole time wondering just how the hell all of this is gonna turn out, given how volatile he is. And then you get to the end and the movie has somehow completely turned everything on its head in a really interesting way. It’s rare to see a movie that drops you into it and waits a while before giving you an idea of what it’s really about, then lets you go along with it and, by the time its over, gets you to go, “Oh, I did not think that’s what it as, to the point where you have to sit and reframe everything you’e just watched through another lens if not straight up watch it again knowing what you now now. It’s a pretty wonderful piece of storytelling and acting. Spider-Man: No Way Home is quite possibly Marvel’s biggest flex to date. They dipped a toe in the water after the last one where they brought back J.K. Simmons like it was nothing, but now they went and brought everyone back. Which I’m sure doesn’t happen without Into the Spider-Verse happening, but still. The movie itself — I feel like it’s kind of a plotting nightmare, but the character work and everything that happens in that last hour pretty much make up for all of it. They give you the nostalgia of the Tobey Maguire films, redeem the Garfield films and give you a satisfying conclusion to this Holland trilogy. And most of what makes this work is the fact that a lot of us have spent 20 years with all of these films and characters. And sure, it’s a bit of a gimmick, but it feels nice and feels satisfying and that’s all that really matters.

Ghostbusters: Afterlife is a sequel I wasn’t sure I wanted, yet am glad I got. I instinctively knew Jason Reitman was only gonna take on his father’s legacy like that if he knew he had a story worth telling, but with something like this in 2021, you always have your concerns. Fortunately, this was a very beautiful film that somehow maintained the legacy of the original Ghostbusters while also updating the film for current day audiences. The premise is that Egon (Ramis) went off to a farm in the middle of nowhere after becoming estranged from the rest of the team, and then after he dies, the farmhouse is left to his daughter who he essentially has ignored for the majority of her life (which is a bold piece of storytelling, mirroring Ramis’ falling out with Bill Murray and the fact that he also had a complicated relationship with one of his actual daughters). So now she and her two kids move into this farm in a small town in middle America to try to build a life. And while she’s dealing with all of these complicated, unresolved feelings about her father, her son is just trying to be a kid and get with an older girl he has a crush on, and her daughter, who takes very much after her grandfather (a perfectly cast Mckenna Grace, who gives one of the more endearing and touching performances of the year), starts to slowly discover who her grandfather was and follow in his footsteps as a scientist. In a way, it’s what Star Wars was trying to do with Force Awakens. Because they manage to give you what you liked about the original while also basically doing that story again (there’s still Gozer and the Gatekeeper and Keymaster and even nods to Slimer and the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man), but imbuing it with such heart and emotion along the way that uses the original story but doesn’t lean on it like a crutch. The film works in the original cast in fun and believable ways, and it’s hard not to get choked up by the time they get to the finale. It feels like they very much stay true to who those original characters are while also being its own thing with its own story to tell and its own themes it wants to get across (it’s a really nice exploration of grief). I was surprised at how much I loved this, and it’s really the best possible Ghostbusters sequel we could have ever gotten.

No Sudden Move is Steven Soderbergh, which automatically makes it a very good movie. Soderbergh never makes anything less than extremely worthwhile. And he is one of those filmmakers who is most benefitted by the advent of streaming services, because now he gets to make films at the budget he requires without having to worry about all the advertising costs that go against his movie being successful. It’s great. Anyway, this is a nice, contained crime thriller, set in the 50s, with Benicio Del Toro, Don Cheadle and Kieran Culkin as three men hired by Brendan Fraser to go to a man’s house and ‘babysit’ his family for the day. Basically, the man (David Harbour) has to go into work, get a very specific file, and bring it to Fraser, and the three men are there just to make sure he does it (you know… or else his family will be killed). So we watch this whole thing unfold, as naturally stuff goes wrong and they have to figure out what’s going on and how to get out of it alive (and paid). It’s a very smartly written movie and, because it’s Soderbergh, no frills and without any unnecessary meat on the bone. It’s a great piece of storytelling. In and Of Itself is a fantastic one man show from Derek DelGaudio, a magician. It’s not like the usual magic shows you’re used to, though. This is very much a one-man show that happens to include magic. The whole thing is centered around DelGuadio’s desire to figure out who he is, what his identity is. And he tells this very engaging story over the course of 90 minutes that’s deeply personal, and along the way he does some tricks, but mainly you’re hearing this guy bare his soul. And by the end, when he does his final trick, which includes the audience (it’s a filmed performance of the show itself, because it has to be by design), you’re pretty much left in awe of what this guy was able to accomplish. It’s one of the best one-man shows I’ve seen, and the use of the magic only enhances it, because it never feels like a crutch or a gimmick.

America: The Motion Picture is just nuts, in the best possible way. I put it on with zero expectations and enjoyed the hell out of myself. It’s basically an Adult Swim animated movie that’s graphic and offensive and everything the 20-year-old version me enjoys the hell out of. It’s basically if you took the Archer writers and had them write the history of America as told by all the conservative idiots who don’t actually know any of the history. So George Washington and Abraham Lincoln are friends, and after Lincoln is killed by Benedict Arnold (who is a werewolf) at the theater, Washington promises to avenge him by starting America and fighting the British. Washington (wielding chainsaws, naturally), teams up with Sam Adams, Paul Revere, Geronimo, John Henry and Thomas Edison (who is Asian and female) to fight the American Revolution. And it turns into the bad Hollywood version of a movie, with history being absolutely skewered (the Boston Tea Party happens on the Titanic, shit like that). I mean, the opening scene is the founding fathers playing beer pong to decide what the opening line of the Declaration of Independence is going to be. It’s insane, it’s anarchy, and it’s fun as hell. A lot of people will hate this, I know. But this was entirely up my alley, especially with all the little historical sight gags they litter throughout the movie. I’m always gonna be a fan of intelligence being used for dumb purposes (because that’s who I am as a human being), so I enjoyed the shit out of this movie. And keeping with high art, The Tragedy of Macbeth is Joel Coen (without Ethan)’s adaptation of Shakespeare with Denzel as Macbeth and Frances McDormand as Lady Macbeth. He keeps it very minimalist, focusing on performances and cinematography (in stunning black and white from Bruno Delbonnel, who also shot Llewyn Davis). He also shot the whole thing on sound stages and built all the sets, giving the whole thing this sort of ethereal/mythical quality that suits the material quite well. Shakespeare is one of those things — you know the story, so it’s more about how its told. And I like the approach Joel took with this one. It’s almost like a film student’s version of Shakespeare (and also extremely A24).

House of Gucci is a big, giant Italian soap opera that knows exactly what it is in all the right ways. Say what you will about Ridley Scott, but the man makes solid and interesting movies and never beats around the bush. He knows this story is so insane and larger than life, so he doesn’t hide the inherent craziness and humor in it. It’s about Patrizia Reggiani, who marries into the Gucci fortune, ends up causing all this crazy turmoil among the family and ultimately hires hitmen to murder her husband. It’s all excess, high fashion, high emotion, and Ridley doesn’t pull any punches. He lets it all go perfectly over the top with an awesomely 80s soundtrack, big hair, big accents, the works. Lady Gaga is great as Reggiani, Adam Driver is very good as her husband. Then you have Jared Leto getting to go all the way to 11 (as a starting point). You get Jeremy Irons bringing quiet class and dignity among the personalities, and then Al Pacino, basically being Al Pacino and then getting his one big shout-y scene toward the end. It’s not the straightforward Oscar drama you think something like this might be but rather a film molded to the craziness of its story, setting and era. I feel like this (along with Last Duel) is gonna end up becoming a nicely underrated movie as people go back to it and realize it was way better than they thought it was initially. Red Rocket is Sean Baker. Which, after Tangerine and The Florida Project, is probably all most people need to hear to be in. This is his usual fare — lots of non-actors, very improvisational feel, dealing with the corners of society most people wouldn’t look at. And, like his other films, it’s very good. It stars Simon Rex as a washed up porn star who goes back to his Texas hometown (broke) to try to get back into his wife’s good graces after being away for so long so he can stay there for free and put the pieces of his life back together. And a lot of the film is him going around, trying to hustle his way into a job and some money while also trying to sleep with the 17-year-old girl who works at the local donut shop. He’s always cooking up some scheme or other and finding a way to use other people for as much as they can give him without him having to give up anything. It’s a great character piece. Because the dude is a loser and a scumbag and you’re just watching him make these horrible decisions and cut corners rather than just doing the decent thing. Which makes for a really interesting film, especially the way Baker shoots it. Rex is terrific, as is Suzanna Son, who is an absolute revelation and, based on this performance alone, should be a star.

– – – – –

Tier Three:

  • Army of Thieves
  • Black Widow
  • The Card Counter
  • Drunk Bus
  • Eternals
  • The Guilty
  • I Care a Lot
  • Luca
  • Nobody
  • The Novice
  • Our Friend
  • Passing
  • Plan B
  • Psycho Goreman
  • Shadow in the Cloud
  • Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings
  • Shiva Baby
  • The Suicide Squad
  • Summer of Soul (…Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised)
  • Those Who Wish Me Dead

I’m gonna start this tier with Eternals. Because it’s gonna be a minute. I am firmly going on record to say that I believe this is the Last Jedi of the Marvel universe. I think this movie (while not without its faults), is perhaps the only Marvel movie to actually try to do something of substance. And I think all of the… whatever you want to call it… ‘reaction’ to this movie, like with Last Jedi, mainly has to do with stuff outside the actual content of the film itself and actually says more about the people critiquing it than it does the film. I think the themes it tries to tackle are way more impressive than anything else Marvel has ever done, and for once they actually did what I’ve been complaining about for almost 15 years now and gave more character development instead of another stupid and unnecessary action sequence with bad CGI. And yes, it’s still Marvel, so they don’t go that deep in character development and are still doing world-building and keeping it broad enough to fit their assembly line. I get that. (Marvel’s films are really no different from the Fast and Furious films except they make you feel a little smarter for having kept up with it all.) And sure, it doesn’t have anything that powerful to say, but I at least appreciate that it was trying to say something. I also like the diverse cast and attempt at true representation. I think that was warranted in this particular film. And while some of it was stunt casting, I think it largely worked. I do think you could quibble about the film’s length, but I also think they should have added 40 minutes to it and made it two separate movies. But regardless, I feel like this film gave me more to think about than probably every other movie Marvel’s ever put out. Just like Last Jedi tried to. So I am definitely a fan of this and think people need to maybe watch this one again with an open mind and no expectations for it being exactly like all the other Marvel movies. From now on, this is going to be my Marvel litmus test for people. Hearing people’s reactions to this (and specifically why that’s their reaction) will tell me so much about them as a film watcher and how much I can (or want to) respect and listen to their opinions. Because part of me just knows people will come around on this over time (sort of like what happened with On Her Majesty’s Secret Service in the Bond pantheon) and you’ll start to see all those people who hated on this suddenly change their tune and pretend like this was always great and they always thought that way. So I’m just gonna plant the flag now and say that this is quite a good piece of work (for Marvel, as must always be caveated).

And while we’re here, let’s just get the other two Marvel movies out of the way as well. Black Widow is an interesting movie in that it takes place after the character has canonically died, but serves as a side story/introduction for the ‘new’ Black Widow character. And I think because all they really needed to accomplish from this was introducing Florence Pugh (who is delightful in this and is gonna be great for Marvel going forward, as she is for everything), that freed them up to tell an interesting story that feels different from most of their usual stuff. Though I guess her being the only major character with a movie who doesn’t have superpowers or super-tech would lead to a movie that was more character-based and combat-based. Still, it’s a lot of fun, telling the family story and really humanizing Natasha in a way the other films only did superficially. It gets a little ‘CGI nonsense’ in the third act, but it’s Marvel, you come to expect that. The other action sequences all felt organic and fun (even if the helicopter CGI was a bit much) and the writing felt solid all throughout. I enjoyed it quite a bit. Shang-Chi, meanwhile, had a lot more weight on its shoulders for what it needed to accomplish. Because not only did they need to bring in a new superhero, but they also had to introduce an Asian superhero (and the Marvel crowd is not so forgiving to women, non-whites or really diversity in general, as they’ve sho countless times) while also not disrespecting Asian culture, which is difficult for a Hollywood studio film (especially one under the Disney umbrella). So I was surprised when this movie began was a lot of fun, remained a lot of fun, and actually had me, by the end, going, “Wow… this is actually one of their better movies.” Because it was different, it was fun and it never felt like it was either trying too hard or diminishing what it should have been. The bus sequence was great, the little universe connections were fun (I also like how they’re so powerful at this point that they just rehabilitate all the stuff people consider failures rather than tossing it out. Justice for Trevor Slattery) and all the character stuff worked for me. In the end, it is just another decently solid Marvel movie, but the feeling I took away from it was greater than I take away from most other ones. So good on them for that.

The Novice is one of those proper hidden gems you get excited to discover. It stars Isabelle Fuhrman (who gives one of the best performances of the year) and is basically Black Swan but with rowing. Fuhrman is a college student who becomes a walk-on on the rowing team and becomes obsessed with becoming good enough to make varsity, to the point where it begins to alienate her from everyone else and have severe effects on her, both physically and mentally. It’s indie, and not as arty as Black Swan, so don’t expect major revelations or anything. But what you will get is a really solid film with an almost entirely all-female cast that was written and directed by a woman, all of which adds up to one of the most unique and interesting films of the year. Those Who Wish Me Dead is a Taylor Sheridan film. Not expressly a western (though all his stuff falls into the western category in some form), but close enough. It’s about the son of a mob accountant on the run with some information that can take down some powerful people. The kid is pursued into the Montana wilderness by two hitmen and has to be protected by local firefighter/survival expert Angelina Jolie and local cop Jon Bernthal. It’s a fun movie. Very much in the B movie tradition though told very well. It feels like if you mixed Taylor Sheridan with those fun 90s thrillers. It’s just a good, solid 100 minutes at the movies.

Our Friend is one of those dramas that could very easily have become way too sappy and overwrought, yet somehow doesn’t. It’s based on an article about the writer’s actual experience. Essentially, his wife is diagnosed with a terminal illness so he’s now gotta care for her and his two daughters as she slowly deteriorates. Meanwhile, their friend (who is more the wife’s friend, as the husband never particularly close with, namely because he know the guy was in love with the wife for a long time), realizing they need help, agrees to stay with them for a few weeks to help out. And then a few days turns into a few months, and pretty soon he’s just part of the family, helping them in ways you’d never expect anyone (even family) to. Honestly, this movie could have been so sentimental and overdramatic, but it’s really not. And a lot of that has to do with the fact that the friend character is played by Jason Segal, who brings about that air of genuine goodness and sincerity that makes you totally buy it (plus he’s such an underrated dramatic actor that he really gets to sneak in and show out in a lot of understated, beautiful moments). Casey Affleck is his usual understated, solid self as the husband, who is trying to keep everything together even as he’s totally underwater with no place to vent. And Dakota Johnson does a great job with what would normally be a pretty thankless ‘dying wife’ character, especially since the film doesn’t give in to the temptation to do what so many others would have done, and really gets into the ugly side of terminal illness and medications that alter your body chemistry and cause you to become a totally different person. I really quite liked this film, and I wouldn’t be surprised if, over time, as I revisit it, it slowly finds a way to creep up higher on this list.

Psycho Goreman is just a batshit insane movie and I love it. It’s basically, what if you gave a Z-grade horror director with James Gunn’s sense of humor access to the Power Rangers. The premise is that there’s a deep and ancient evil creature buried deep under the earth that, if unleashed, will destroy ever facet of life on this planet. Naturally, it’s dug up in a family’s backyard. Only, there’s a little power stone thing that just so happens to control it, and that ends up in the hands of a ten-year-old girl and her brother. So imagine a giant monster (in one of those 90s Power Ranger monster costumes) wanting to murder everything but being unable to because he has to take orders from a 10-year-old girl. It’s so weird and fucked up and hilarious. The best way I can recommend this is to just tell you to watch the trailer. If that seems like it’s your type of movie, then absolutely go watch it. It’s so goddamn fun and such a throwback the way they use practical effects. This was one of the most enjoyable finds of the year for me. Luca is Pixar, and it’s essentially their version of Call Me By Your Name (or, as one review called it, ‘Calamari by Your Name’). Obviously there’s no same-sex relationship, but it’s not difficult to make the comparisons, down to the film’s title being the other film’s director’s first name. They literally called it by his name. But, it’s a sort of Little Mermaid, where a sea creature boy who has been told to stay away from land people (but of course harbors a curiosity with human thingamabobs and whozits and whatzits galore) discovers that once he goes ashore he turns into a human. So he (along with another boy of his kind) ventures into the nearby town and starts to discover the joys of friendship and being human. It’s, like almost all original Pixar, very well-made and well-told and a solid movie. But I will say, I didn’t react to this the way I have most of Pixar’s other original content this decade. And since Pixar is so good at making films the only comparisons for their stuff are other Pixar films, I would say that this is not as good as Inside Out, Coco or Soul, but better than The Good Dinosaur. So it’s on a par with Brave and Onward (and even a bit better than those are). Good, but a little inconsistent or just not all the way there from a story perspective. Still better than 95% of any other (non-Disney) American studio animation, though.

Shadow in the Cloud is such a fascinating movie to me. Largely because of its backstory. The original script was written by Max Landis, who was eventually and unceremoniously kicked off the film and rewritten. The film is set during World War II (which was a great choice) and stars Chloe Moretz as a flight officer who arrives on board a ship making a pacific night flight with a package and top secret orders. The (all male) flight crew is pretty dismissive toward her and pretty much belittles her from the start, sticking her down in the gun turret to get her out of the way. And from there, tensions slowly start to mount as we start to discover not all is as it seems. Then, to make matters worse, things then start to turn into that Twilight Zone episode with William Shatner and the gremlin on the airplane. Because an actual gremlin shows up and begins attacking the aircraft. And a significant portion of the film is Moretz (who can see the gremlin) trying to alert the rest of the crew, who don’t believe her and start gaslighting her into thinking nothing’s wrong, until finally it’s too late and now they all have to deal with this fucking gremlin thing that’s threatening to take them down in the middle of the ocean. It’s actually a really well-done film. I love how throughout everything you slowly start to find out more and more about Moretz and what she’s doing there. Plus you get the whole ‘believe women’ stuff, where none of them can believe she’s a capable officer, plus they won’t believe her story and they don’t believe her when she says about the gremlin, meanwhile it’s like ‘why would I make something like that up?’ Plus there’s the whole horror/monster story of ‘there’s a monster, people need to be convinced the monster exists so they can fight it before it’s too late’ story, which is a staple of the horror genre. And while I could say the gremlin is totally unnecessary (which it kind of is), I do think it’s fun to think of Max Landis as the gremlin hanging over the plot of this movie. And that’s fun. But honestly, it’s a feminist statement under the guise of a campy genre movie with an awesome 80s synth score and fun, contained storytelling. I’m a big fan of this movie even with the fucking gremlin.

Army of Thieves is the pseudo-prequel to Army of the Dead. And after seeing Army of the Dead, I thought, “Why do I want to see this? That sucked.” Well, turns out, if you remove Zack Snyder from the equation after he gives you the idea, you get a much better movie. This has no zombies in it whatsoever. It focuses on Matthias Schweighöfer’s safecracker character and shows how he became the person we see in the bad zombie movie. He goes from meek bank clerk to joining a gang of thieves trying to crack three ‘unbreakable’ safes that are part of safecracking ‘lure’. It’s a pure heist movie whose only connection to Army of the Dead is a brief little flash forward that feels like it only exists just to specifically tell you the two are related. It’s so much fun. The entire supporting cast is great and the whole movie knows what it is in all the right ways. It’s almost like someone looked at Snyder’s movie and said, “Can I go mess around with this? Because I’ve got something way more interesting than zombies.” I recommended this to multiple people who had not cared for Army of the Dead but came back from this and said it was delightful. Because it really is. If Army of the Dead wasn’t your cup of tea (for Snyder or other reasons), trust me when I say this is not that. It’s way more fun and definitely worth your time.

Plan B is a teen comedy whose story is a lot like most teen comedies you’ve seen before, yet it finds a way to stand on its own and still feel really refreshing. It’s about a straight-arrow high school girl who has always done everything right and is afraid of disappointing her mother. When her mother goes away on a business trip, she agrees to host a party at her house in the hopes of hooking up with the dude she’s interested in. Long story short, she ends up having sex, but discovers the next morning that the condom was still inside her, making her worried she could end up pregnant. So now she and her best friend have to go to the pharmacy to get a Plan B pill. Only the local pharmacist won’t sell it to them without a parent or guardian, leading to them having to drive several hours across the state to go to the closest Planned Parenthood to get it. So, essentially it’s a road trip comedy about having to drive to get a birth control pill. Which is just a brilliant concept. And it’s so much goddamn fun. Because it gets to make its statements about how fucked up regulation is in this country on women’s bodies, you get the usual teen comedy stuff, you get a lot of nice best friend stuff between the two of them, and you get a lot of crazy road trip comedy stuff as well. It’s a really well-done, well-written film. And the two leads are quite good, specifically Kuhoo Verma, who is absolutely hilarious and amazing in what’s only her second feature (her other is The Big Sick. She plays one of the women Kumail’s family tries to set him up with). I’m usually picky when it comes to teen comedies, because it’s so easy to tread over the same ground and feel stale. But this one was very smart and fresh and definitely worth your time. Nobody is basically Bob Odenkirk as John Wick. And directed by the Hardcore Henry guy. And also (obviously,)written by the guy who wrote John Wick. But yeah, that’s the film, and I don’t really need to pitch it any further. If the words ‘Bob Odenkirk Jon Wick’ don’t do it for you, then I don’t know what will. He plays a mild-mannered guy who, as we find out after the wrong people get crossed, has a past and has a very particular set of skills. Which leads to some very fun action sequences and one of those movies that’s just a good time. You know what you’re getting here.

Shiva Baby is a great indie that falls under the genre of ‘awkward Jewish comedy’. Think A Serious Man. It takes place in near-real time as an aimless college senior with no real life plan has to attend the shiva of a family friend. And so it’s initially just a terrible mess of having to be asked about what she’s doing and what jobs she has lined up and if she’s seeing anyone (all the stuff nobody wants to be asked when they don’t have their shit together). She also has to deal with an ex who’s also there and does have her shit together, making things doubly awkward. Plus, to make matters worse, her sugar daddy shows up unexpectedly (with his wife and child, who she had no idea he even had). So the movie is just this constant slow ratcheting of tension through awkwardness as she makes her way through this shiva and has things slowly going more and more wrong for herself. For anyone who’s had a super awkward family gathering, you’re gonna spend a lot of this movie wincing at a lot of what happens. There’s also a great running gag about how she’s never able to stop for a second and even eat something, which makes the whole thing just so much more difficult to have to watch. It’s amazing. It really is. Highly recommend this one. The Card Counter is a Paul Schrader film. And, just as importantly, it’s an Oscar Isaac film. Isaac gives in this what I think might be his best performance since Inside Llewyn Davis. It’s an incredible piece of work. He plays a low level gambler who counts cards, but just on a level to make some money but not enough to get him in trouble. And we follow him throughout the film and begin to learn more and more about him, specifically through his relationships with Tiffany Haddish (who runs a stable that backs gamblers and wants him to join a poker circuit) and Tye Sheridan (a former soldier whose trajectory causes Isaac to take a fatherly interest in him). The film starts like a poker movie and then, over time, becomes decidedly not that. And what’s interesting about it (which speaks to Schrader’s talents as a writer and filmmaker) is that you don’t really mind it. It’s a solid journey told through some wonderful characters played by great actors.

Drunk Bus is a fun coming-of-age indie that deals with stuff you’ve seen before, but does it in a way I haven’t seen. It’s about a guy who is aimless and drifting after college (and the breakup of a long term relationship) who drives the midnight-to-eight shift of the campus transport (which, as the title suggests, is largely just transporting drunk people back to their residences). And the film is this guy starting to come out of his shell with the help of some friendly regulars and a big Samoan security guard named Pineapple (which is the actor’s real name, and who is one of the best film characters of 2021) who was hired to protect him after he gets punched in the face on night. You’ve seen this movie before (set in a convenience store, a restaurant). You know where it’s going and what it’s doing. But it’s just so charming as it does it that it’s hard not to like. The Guilty is a remake of the Danish film from 2018. Same film, just in English, but starring Jake Gyllenhaal and directed by Antoine Fuqua. Gyllenhaal plays a cop working in a 911 call center while he awaits a hearing for an incident from some months prior. Most of it is bullshit, prank calls and dumb stuff. But eventually he gets a call from a frightened woman who was kidnapped by her ex-husband, and now he has to try to locate her and get her to safety before anything can happen. The film, to heighten the tension further (since it takes place entirely in one location), takes place in real time as Gyllenhaal works with other officers (all over the phone) to try to resolve the situation. It’s a great little character piece that honestly could also be done on stage. It’s that tight and well-plotted. They fleshed out some character stuff in this version as compared to the original, but by and large the story and how the kidnapping plays out is pretty much identical. It’s a good piece of work, either version.

Passing is a great little chamber drama that doesn’t try to do too much within its story but speaks volumes within the margins. It’s largely a two-hander with Tessa Thompson and Ruth Negga (though Andre Holland also features prominently). Set in 1920s New York, Thompson and Negga are old college friends who reunite unexpectedly one day at a restaurant. Both light-skinned, Negga passes for white and is married to a white man who doesn’t know she’s black. Thompson, meanwhile, is married to Holland, a doctor, and only happened to be passing for the day. And the film is about their friendship reigniting and their mutual interest with the other, specifically Negga’s, who has had to cut herself off from Black culture for so long and is happy to get to be able to be herself again when she’s with Thompson and Holland. It’s a really great character study and very well-directed by Rebecca Hall (in her debut effort). I Care a Lot falls into that weird but very specific category of ‘drama about bad people but done in a fun, stylized way’. It’s a very specific tone that you’ll recognize almost immediately when you put it on. The film stars Rosamund Pike as a corrupt legal guardian who exploits loopholes in the system (which is a very real problem that you can learn about here easily and entertainingly) that allows her to be granted full authority over elders who are deemed to not be able to take care of themselves. Think the Britney Spears situation but for elderly people. Because of this, she’s basically able to do whatever she wants, which includes selling off the people’s possessions and sticking them in nursing homes from which they never get out. It’s an insanely lucrative (if morally reprehensible) business. But, after acquiring her next target (Dianne Wiest), she soon realizes that this lady might come with some strings attached (which is when things get fun). It’s a fun movie told in a great way so as to entertain you while also highlighting what actually is a pretty fucked up issue. I like when a movie manages to do both, especially in such a way that it leaves people smarter, so when they hear about stuff like this happening in the future they can go, “Oh I know about that from that movie.” It’s not the same as an actual education on the topic, but from a movie, that’s pretty good.

The Suicide Squad is James Gunn coming into DC and getting to do whatever the fuck he wants. The DC Universe has been such an up and down shit show with some utter disasters (Batman v. Superman, Justice League), some watchable but deeply flawed misfires (Suicide Squad, Wonder Woman 1984), some simply ‘meh’ films (Aquaman) and some decent ones that are okay but don’t do much to hold the universe together (Wonder Woman, Shazam, Birds of Prey). So in comes James Gunn, who, if you remember, took the job after being unceremoniously fired by Marvel (only to be almost immediately rehired by Marvel but still be allowed to dabble in both universes. Great work if you can get it) to everyone basically saying, “Oh, this’ll be good.” And guess what? It was. Because the one thing you know about James Gunn if you know him at all outside of Marvel — that dude comes from Troma. He has a fucked up sense of humor. That dude made Super. So him being in D.C. in a movie designed to be Hard-R… that’s basically him with the restraints off. No Marvel restrictions. And he makes great use of that… to about the same mixed-but-also-very-positive results he gets at Marvel. People get fucking murdered here, in gruesome ways. People swear all over the place. The villain is a giant fucking starfish. This is all the shit he couldn’t get approved at Disney. And it’s fun as hell. Don’t look for a coherent movie at all, but if you want darkly funny humor that makes you laugh at how fucked up all the violence is, this is the place to go. Summer of Soul is Questlove’s documentary about the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival (aka ‘Black Woodstock’), which took place the same year and at the same time as Woodstock did (even before, since it was over the course of the entire summer rather than a single weekend), and got absolutely no press whatsoever to the point where until this documentary came out, most people didn’t even know this event happened. And, as can be expected, the list of performers at this thing was insane: Nina Simone, Stevie Wonder, B.B. King, Sly and the Family Stone, Mahalia Jackson, Gladys Knight & the Pips, the 5th Dimension, Chuck Jackson, the Chambers Brothers. The doc covers the event while also looking into why this managed to be such an obscure event for so long and wasn’t regarded the way Woodstock was (which, let’s be honest, we kinda know the answer instinctively there, don’t we?). It’s a great piece of work, incredibly edited and immediately taking its place among the pantheon of great music/concert documentaries.

– – – – –

Tier Four:

  • Annette
  • Beckett
  • Copshop
  • The Electrical Life of Louis Wain
  • F9
  • Free Guy
  • The Green Knight
  • The Many Saints of Newark
  • Mixtape
  • Nine Days
  • Pieces of a Woman
  • The Sparks Brothers
  • The Summit of the Gods
  • The Tender Bar
  • Venom: Let There Be Carnage
  • The White Tiger
  • Willy’s Wonderland
  • Women Is Losers
  • The Worst Person in the World
  • Zola

Women Is Losers is one of the hidden gems of this year. I only found out about it because I obsessively check the lists of new releases and saw that HBO Max was putting it out. And if that’s what it took for me then I’m certain next to no one even knows this movie exists. Which is a shame. It’s written and directed by a woman (Lissette Feliciano, a hell of a feature debut by her), which is something we could use more of, and is only 84 minutes long (for those of you who stupidly like to complain about run times, yet still watch twelve different TV shows at one time). It’s about a high school girl in the 60s from a highly conservative immigrant family who, after getting pregnant, seeks to create a future for herself that the world isn’t overly willing to let her have. And we follow her as she works to make a career for herself and own her own home. I loved it. It’s a really progressive film with a lot of heart, a lot of emotion and the right amount of visual style and flair to make you sit up and take notice. This is one of those movies where I wish that just once people would actually listen to me and sit down and watch. And if it takes having to tell them that the guy who plays Shang-Chi is in it to get them to watch, so be it. This really is one of those hidden gems that deserves to be discovered.

Beckett is kind of like if you mixed the movie Z with Alfred Hitchcock. It’s an ‘innocent man on the run’ movie set in Greece during turbulent political times. John David Washington and Alicia Vikander are on their honeymoon and have decided to go off the beaten path after a political protest has disrupted their plans in Athens. Then, after a horrible accident, Washington ends up on the run after he tells police he saw what looked like a kidnapped boy in the aftermath of the accident and they start trying to kill him. And so he’s on the run in a foreign country, doesn’t speak the language, doesn’t know who he can trust, and, as he tries to get to the American embassy, slowly starts to learn what’s actually going on. It’s a fun thriller. Not gonna change your life, but it’s got some nice touches (namely the cinematography and the fact that none of the Greek dialogue is subtitled, to really emphasize what it’s like for him). It’s definitely one of those movies you could see Hitchcock having a field day with. The Many Saints of Newark is the Sopranos prequel movie. And it goes without saying, if you liked the show, you’ll probably enjoy this. It’s not the show, it’s not trying to be the show, but rather it’s trying to be its own thing that also shows glimpses of the characters you know as younger people. The main character is Dickie Moltisanti, father of Christopher, played really well by Alessandro Nivola, one of those eternally underrated actors. You get to see younger versions of Uncle Junior (Corey Stoll having the time of his life), Silvio, Paulie (the casting for all of these is so good) and, of course, Tony, who is played by James Gandolfini’s actual son (and boy, let me tell you… it’s scary spot-on). There’s a lot to like here, and I like that it never tries to recreate the show and still kinda works as its own entity.

The Sparks Brothers is Edgar Wright’s documentary about one of the most underrated-yet-influential bands of the past 40 years. As you’ll see in the doc, the band is known for their… unorthodox style and decidedly non-commercial approach to music, and I think the doc does a great job evoking the kind of attitude the band puts out there. It’s almost the perfect match of director to material, in a way, and one of the more entertaining music docs I’ve seen. And while we’re on the subject of Sparks, Annette is a finalist for ‘most insane movie premise of 2021’. I think it’s between it and Titane. But Annette is an original movie musical from Sparks, which begins with them, the cast and the director (Leos Carax) singing a prologue on the streets of Los Angeles. And the film is about an opera singer (Marion Cotillard) and a standup comedian (Adam Driver) who meet, fall in love and have a child… until one day she mysteriously drowns on a ship out at sea. Afterward, Driver suddenly discovers that their child, Annette (who is played by a puppet), can sing opera. It’s one of those movies where… you just need to see it. Talking about it won’t do it justice. It absolutely won’t be for most people, and that’s probably what’s so wonderful about it. Some people are gonna despise it. Some are gonna love it. The rest will just be amused by how fucking weird it is. Which, honestly, makes it the absolute perfect movie for Sparks to have written.

Venom: Let There Be Carnage is what I’d hoped they’d do with this franchise after that first movie. You could see some hesitance there with that first one, where they were torn between letting Tom Hardy go nuts with the character and trying to make a ‘by the book’ superhero film that would make money. And then, once the first one went over the way it did, that freed them up to try more things. And boy, did they. This movie is basically the Odd Couple, but with Brock and Venom. The scenes between the two of them are so goddamn hilarious. To the point where the movie almost doesn’t even bother with the bad guy stuff. The movie’s like 95 minutes long. They get right to it, and the result is a highly entertaining movie. Pieces of a Woman is a pure New York indie drama that feels like it wants to be John Cassavetes. Which is ambitious, but also not a bad thing. The film begins with a 30-minute, single-take sequence of a woman going into labor for a home birth. Which is the single most intense part of the film and is absolutely riveting. The rest of the film deals with, as you can imagine, the aftermath of that event and the repercussions it has on all those involved. It’s a very solid film in many respects and features a dynamite lead performance from Vanessa Kirby. F9 is just like all the other films in the franchise — big, dumb, loud and fun. It is one of the most consistent franchises in that regard. You always know what you’re gonna get with these movies and as long as you enjoy them, they will always deliver.

Copshop is a Joe Carnahan film, which for most people should tell you that it’s a fun action movie. That’s what Joe Carnahan specializes in. This one’s got a great premise to boot. In a police station in the middle of Nevada, Frank Grillo, a con artist, has gotten himself arrested to hide from an assassin (Gerard Butler) trying to kill him. Lo and behold, Butler manages to make his way into the station himself. So now the assassin and his target are in holding cells opposite one another, and a rookie cop has to navigate all of this and stay alive, even with the precinct about to be under siege from another hitman. It’s… there’s something about the way Carnahan writes and directs action that makes it feel fresh and fun and a throwback to the kinds of movies I grew up watching. In different hands, this would be a forgettable VOD movie. But it’s instead something you’ll come away from going, “That was a lot of fun.” Grillo and Butler especially are people who elevate genre movies like this if the material is worth elevating. Plus this has a very fun supporting performance from Toby Huss as an absolutely psychotic hitman. He steals the movie out from under everyone including the concept. It’s a nice little gem worth seeking out.

Nine Days is a really smart and thoughtful drama (with fantasy elements) that also, if they wanted, could be a play. Winston Duke (with an incredible performance) plays a man who lives in an indeterminate plane of existence and watches a bunch of TV screens that exist in real time through the eyes of actual people (think Being John Malkovich when they’re actually inside Malkovich’s head). And after one of the people on the screens dies, he is tasked with interviewing a group of people (souls) for the chance to be born, and to take over one of the screens. It’s a really fascinating film. It’s interesting how quickly the film makes you suspend your disbelief and fully buy into everything that’s happening. It’s also a great concept. I really liked this one and more than anything I like that it gave me so much to think about (both thematically and just in terms of the concept). The Green Knight is David Lowery’s retelling of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. I love how David Lowery has gone from cool indie director to someone people actually like and whose films they look forward to seeing. I don’t know when it happened exactly, but I love that people were all over this movie from the start, because it definitely doesn’t strike me as something I’d expect to be excited for (but also… A24). But yeah, it’s Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Knight shows up on Christmas and proposes a game: someone strike him once, so long as in a year, they go to his place for an equal one in return. Sir Gawain (played by Dev Patel) takes up the challenge, and the film follows him over the course of the year after this event. It’s definitely a picaresque kind of a story. A lot of vignettes of Gawain’s adventures. It looks stunning, though is quite slow and probably not fo everyone (which is the same as all of Lowery’s work). Still, for the people it is for, it’ll very much be for you. 

Willy’s Wonderland is one of the good Nicolas Cage B movies. He’s made a lot of straight-to-VOD stuff the past decade and, having seen all of it, a lot of it isn’t worthwhile unless you’re my level of fan (and were planning to one day do a career retrospective set of articles called “What’s My Cage Again?”, which theoretically may still happen one day). Though once every year or two he’s got one or two that are worth seeing (Army of One, Mandy). This year, he’s actually got three that I can recommend. Pig I already talked about, and Prisoners of the Ghostland, the other one, hasn’t made this list but is worth recommending just because of how off-the-wall batshit insane it is stylistically. This one, though, feels like proper Cage content everyone can get behind. The premise is basically, “What if the animatronic animals at Chuck E. Cheese came to life and started murdering people and it was up to Nicolas Cage to stop them?” No joke, that’s the premise. Also, Cage doesn’t utter a single word throughout the entire film. It’s pure B movie fun, and him doing one like this for every two or three other not-so-great ones makes the whole thing worthwhile. The Summit of the Gods is an adaptation of the manga series, which I’d seen for years and always thought, “That seems like something I’d want to read,” but never did. It’s about a photojournalist who finds a camera that belonged to George Mallory, who disappeared trying to scale Everest in the 20s and begins his own journey toward scaling it. It’s a stunning piece of animation and very unlike a lot of the Japanese animation most Americans are used to. It’s a very straightforward piece of filmmaking, and quite, quite good.

Mixtape is a movie that is very easy to dismiss. Seems like a generic coming-of-age Netflix movie. For me it also had the strike against it of being a Black List script (and most of the time, those don’t always become the best of films). So I went into it with some trepidation. But it’s actually quite a lovely film. It’s about a girl whose teen parents died in a car crash and lives with her grandmother (who is young enough to be her mother). She discovers a box of her parents’ things, including a mixtape her dad made for her mom, so she sets out to listen to all the songs in the hope of getting to know who they were. It’s the recipe for a very standard indie movie, I know. But there’s a lot of charm here. It’s one of those movies that will win you over even is it does what you expect it to. There’s a lot to be said about a movie that still works even when you know what’s coming. Free Guy is a fun movie built on a great premise, which is — what if one of the NPCs from Grand Theft Auto realized they were an NPC? And the result is a good time. Ryan Reynolds is his usual self and the film manages to not totally screw up the concept, even though with Shawn Levy as director the movie is a bit broader and designed to appeal to as many people as possible and doesn’t dig as deep as maybe it could. It manages to be a really good time, even if I wish they’d done more with it. It also makes a great double feature with that bizarre Matthew McConaughey movie from a few years ago where he discovers he’s living inside a video game.

The Electrical Life of Louis Wain is one of those movies that made me go, “How did this even get made?” I almost thought Scott and Larry wrote it, because those two write all the weird biopics (Ed Wood, Man on the Moon, Dolemite). But no. It’s about the strange life of Louis Wain (Benedict Cumberbatch, adding to his list of socially awkward genius characters), an artist who came to prominence by drawing pictures of cats. He’s one of those people who is constantly on some project or another, none of which ever really comes to fruition, is always struggling for money, even when he has to take care of his five sisters (all of whom are unwed) and falls in love with their governess (a very game Claire Foy). It’s a very engaging film about some odd and niche subject matter. I love that it exists and that it’s good enough for me to recommend it, I am just constantly in awe that it managed to get made. The White Tiger is a Ramin Bahrani film baed on a best-selling novel about an ambitious Indian man who, by birth, is destined to be no more than a menial servant for the higher classes, yet uses his wit and cunning to claw his way up through society. It’s not as nefarious as you might think and is actually a really great look at the class system in India. It’s a really solid and well-made film (which, it’s by Ramin Bahrani, so that goes without saying).

Zola is one of the single most A24 movies of all the A24 movies, which is saying something. It’s based on a famous Twitter thread that begins, as the movie does, with the immortal line: “You wanna hear a story about how me and this bitch fell out?” Eat your heart out, Dostoyevsky. The film, adapted from the epic thread (which you can find and read, but I wouldn’t recommend it until you’ve seen the film so as not to spoil any of the surprises), tells the story of a stripper who befriends another woman and ends up going on this insane and epic road trip to Florida with her. It’s insane. The whole story. And again, if you like A24’s films, trust me, you’ll enjoy this. The Tender Bar is a nice, nostalgic little film from George Clooney based on a memoir about a kid who grew up with a single mother, living in his grandfather’s house on Long Island and dreaming of going to Yale and becoming a writer, mainly focusing on his relationship with his bartender uncle (played by a fantastic Ben Affleck). It’s not gonna change your life, but it’s comfortable and sweet and the right kind of generic. The Worst Person in the World is an absolutely delightful Norwegian film from Joachim Trier with a complete star-making performance from Renate Reinsve. The film, as told in 12 chapters with a prologue and epilogue, follows a woman figuring out who she is and what she wants. We see her change her career path, get into a few relationships — it’s kind of a slice of life movie, told in vignettes. It’s really terrific and one of the best foreign films of this year.

– – – – – – – – – –

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