Google+ Cinema Viewfinder: Best of 2021: The 10 Best Films of the Year

Monday, March 7, 2022

Best of 2021: The 10 Best Films of the Year

by Tony Dayoub

(With Ukraine under fire and Europe on the verge of war, it seems like an odd time to discuss such a trivial matter as cinema. However, assembling this list helped distract me from current events in which I am largely helpless to affect change. I say largely because there are still avenues for assistance, one being Voices of Children, a Ukraine-based aid organization that provides psychological support to children who have witnessed war. It uses art therapy and storytelling to support children’s wellbeing, and provides financial support to families who have suffered as a result of war.  I encourage you to contribute.)

The 94th Academy Awards air on Sunday, March 27, so it's past time to share my picks for last year's best movies. As the way we watch movies is undergoing a slow transformation, and in the interest of assisting you in finding each film listed, the platform where each title can be streamed has been included whenever possible.

Here, for your consideration, are my top films of 2021 followed by the winners of the respective critics' polls I participated in.

1. Summer of Soul (...Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised), directed by Ahmir "Questlove" Thompson - Streaming on Disney+ and Hulu -
 On the strength of its musical footage alone, Summer of Soul ranks among the best of the concert film genre. What elevates it to best documentary of the year, and indeed the best movie of 2021 is its importance as a historical document. While I'd like to feel that I'm pretty well versed when it comes to landmark musical events like Woodstock, Altamont, and the like, I had never heard of the series of concerts depicted here, the six-week Harlem Cultural Festival of 1969. Overshadowed by the legendary Woodstock, and unfairly so as it turns out, the festival featured musical acts such as the 5th Dimension, Ray Barreto, Mahalia Jackson, Gladys Knight & the Pips, David Ruffin, Mongo Santamaria, Nina Simone, Sly and the Family Stone, and Stevie Wonder. Director Ahmir Thompson, aka drummer Questlove of the Roots, combed through the archival footage in an effort to preserve and reaffirm the powerful shift in music and its relation to the turbulent political times faced by the black community in the late sixties. Thompson also compiled reactions from individuals who were present, like Marilyn McCoo and her husband Billy Davis, Jr., both of the 5th Dimension. They are as astonished as viewers to see how prescient some of the turmoil and its repercussions have turned out to be in this age of Black Lives Matter. In crafting such a politically conscious yet jubilant record of the event, Thompson implies that a reassessment of the US's cultural history is not only significant, but essential to the continued aspirations we hold for our country and its troubled record on civil rights.

2. The Green Knight, dir. David Lowery - Streaming on Showtime - It feels like it happens every year. Some movies are completely ignored by the Academy while lauded by just about everyone else who has seen it. This year I nominate The Green Knight for that dubious distinction. Lyrical both in vision and expression, it is a sumptuous update of the 14th century Arthurian poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Cinematically it is a story of redemption not just a little influenced by Martin Scorsese's The Last Temptation of Christ. Like in the latter's depiction of the titular enticement, there is a sublime and disturbing alternate forecast of the life that awaits Gawain (Dev Patel) if he were to sacrifice his pursuit of chivalric honor in favor of chasing a too comfortable life typical of people of his station. Like Christ, Gawain faces certain death as the reward for fulfilling his quest. Patel gives a finely shaded performance showing the gradual evolution of Gawain from gluttonous lout to devout true believer. It is a standout turn among many such performances in a cast which includes Sarita Choudhury, Kate Dickie, Joel Edgerton, Alicia Vikander (in a dual role), and the striking Sean Harris as the King, one of the most compelling, albeit briefest, onscreen interpretations of Arthur in all of cinema.

3. Licorice Pizza, dir. Paul Thomas Anderson -
This film feels like a kind of "coming home" for Paul Thomas Anderson, a re-centering before he moves on to the next chapter of his filmmaking career. It takes place in his native San Fernando Valley in the 1970s, just as his first hit, Boogie Nights, did. He cast Cooper Hoffman, son of Anderson repertory player the late Philip Seymour Hoffman, in the lead role of Gary Valentine, a child actor with ambitious goals. And on a smaller scale the tale in Licorice Pizza feels like the kind of "Hail Mary" pass with which Anderson's very flawed protagonists often make their mark in the director's most notable movies. Just like Daniel Plainview builds an empire where no one else thought to look for it in There Will Be Blood, or Dirk Diggler grows up to be the Big Dick in the porn industry in Boogie Nights, or Lancaster Dodd turns his intellectual musings into a cult-like phenomenon called "The Cause" in The Master, 15-year-old Gary sets his sights on winning the heart of 25-year-old Alana Kane (Alana Haim), not that small a longshot most of us would find as equally hard to believe as any of the others I just listed. In the process Gary starts a successful waterbed company; antagonizes Barbra Streisand's Svengali-like husband, hair stylist to the stars and future movie producer, Jon Peters (Bradley Cooper); and eventually, yes, finds his way into the heart of Alana, a young woman ten years older than him. Hoffman shows every bit of the promising talent he inherited. Bradley Cooper puts in a performance that steals the film in only a handful of scenes. But most deserving of your attention is Alana Haim, a member of the eponymous band Haim, making her feature film debut and proving to be a luminous screen presence.

4. The Velvet Underground, dir. Todd Haynes - Streaming on Apple TV+ - When a documentary's approach is not only in the oblique style similar to that of its subject but in many ways of its director, you know you have something special. That's what we have here in this fascinating examination of the forces that briefly brought together Lou Reed, John Cale, Sterling Morrison, and eventually Moe Tucker and Nico to form the seminal New York rock group in the era of Andy Warhol's Factory. Managed by Warhol and essentially serving as his Factory's house band, the Velvet Underground were one of the least commercially successful yet most influential musical acts in rock history. One could argue almost the same thing about Todd Haynes as a filmmaker, and it is perhaps this congruence which ultimately raises the film above your average rock doc.

Drive My Car (Doraibu mai kâ), dir. Ryûsuke Hamaguchi - Streaming on HBO Max - It may appear to be a challenge to watch a 3-hour film in Japanese devoid of the usual movie contrivances such as murder and mayhem. But Hamaguchi has crafted an engrossing film about a director (Hidetoshi Nishijima) whose lingering, mixed feelings about his unfaithful late wife takes him to a small town for a theater fellowship. An unexpected perk is the use of a personal driver (Tôko Miura) who he becomes friendly with while assisting her with her own traumatic past. Like Parasite, the gentle, hypnotically paced Drive My Car has surprised industry insiders by rising to the top ranks of many critics' lists. It has even earned a quick release on HBO Max, a platform that will no doubt place it in front of more home viewers' eyes and hopefully create a groundswell of support among Academy voters.

6. The Tragedy of Macbeth, dir. Joel Coen - Streaming on Apple+ -
The latest in a long line of adaptations of Shakespeare's violent story is surprisingly potent for basically being an extended Cliffs Notes version of the Scottish Play. Joel Coen's first major release sans brother Ethan pares down the tale to its bare essentials, focusing our attention primarily on the performances, particularly those of Denzel Washington as the usurper king Macbeth, Corey Hawkins as the defiant Macduff, and the often contorted and creepy Kathryn Hunter as various sinister incarnations of the Witches. Stefan Dechant's sparse production design, Bruno Delbonnel's stark black and white cinematography, and Carter Burwell's spare musical score all work in unison with Coen and his acting ensemble to bolster the idea that, as Shakespeare voiced through another of his famous royals, "the play's the thing wherein [you'll] catch the conscience of the king."

7. House of Gucci, dir. Ridley Scott - 
At first glance, House of Gucci might look like a lurid freakshow and make you wonder whether it even has any business showing up on an end-of-year list like this one. What the heck is a cerebral filmmaker like Ridley Scott doing helming this dumpster fire of a movie, one might ask. What soon becomes evident is that Scott is the perfect man to direct Gucci. This because it begins to dawn on the viewer that the family at the center of the story really was a collection of divas, clowns, and oddballs whose collective story is even wilder in its entirety than the distillation we end up with onscreen. The often clinical Scott is perfect for this because he distances the viewer just far enough from these kooks to allow their qualities to be fully appreciated for the comical and lethal eccentricities they really are. The melodramatics of Lady Gaga, Al Pacino, and Jared Leto make for a dynamic contrast with Adam Driver's chilly performance as Maurizio, the most stoic Gucci in the bunch and the architect of the fashion house's near downfall in the nineties. Credit goes to Scott for wrangling this eclectic cast and their disparate performance styles to the benefit of this truth-is-stranger-than-fiction crime drama.

8. The Lost Daughter, dir. Maggie Gyllenhaal - Streaming on Netflix - The elliptical examination of a traveler being treated as an interloper in Europe has been effective in noirish mysteries such as Don't Look Now or character studies like Purple Noon. Here it is Leda, a loner portrayed by Olivia Colman, that is the puzzling focus of the story. An academic taking a holiday in Greece, Leda's joyful solitude is broken by the unwelcome distraction of a large rude family, among them Nina, a young mother (Dakota Johnson) for which she has a strange affinity. A sinister atmosphere hangs over most of the movie. Although the viewer's initial inclination is to view Leda as the one under siege, Gyllenhaal adds some ambiguity to the story by intimating that perhaps the passive aggressive teacher is actually the source of the disquiet. When flashbacks depicting Jessie Buckley as a younger Leda try to properly explain some of her prosaic motivations, the film's poetry is diminished. The Lost Daughter profits the most when Gyllenhaal elides over what exactly is driving Leda to act out in tiny vindictive ways towards some of the people she encounters, most of all Lyle (a weary Ed Harris), caretaker of her vacation property. The movie's conclusion is as opaque as its protagonist, leaving a large measure of doubt as to whether Leda has evolved past some of her peculiar flaws.  

9. tick, tick... BOOM!, dir. Lin-Manuel Miranda - Streaming on Netflix -
 2021 was Lin-Manuel Miranda's great cinematic year. The joyous film adaptation of his musical, In the Heights, was released earlier last year. He wrote the songs for Disney's hit animated film, Encanto, with two of its songs firing to the top of both the US and UK musical charts and a third nominated for an Oscar. And Miranda made his movie directorial debut with tick, tick... BOOM! Based on the autobiographical musical by the late composer Jonathan Larson (Rent), the film features a career-best performance by Andrew Garfield as Larson. With this and the celebrated return of his unfairly maligned version of Spidey in Spider-Man: No Way Home Garfield is having his own fantastic year. Perhaps it is this confluence of Miranda's and Garfield's rising good fortunes that lifts all boats including this ode to the theatrical life in New York City. The sheer exuberance of the story and Larson comes through in Garfield's starry-eyed performance. And Miranda brings it home in what is easily the musical's showstopping number set in the movie's emblematic Moondance Diner, "Sunday," featuring Broadway luminaries like André De Shields, Renée Elise Goldsberry, Joel Grey, Brian Stokes Mitchell, Bebe Neuwirth, Bernadette Peters, Phylicia Rashad, Chita Rivera, and Daphne Rubin-Vega.

10. The Power of the Dog, dir. Jane Campion - Streaming on Netflix - This is Jane Campion's most cohesive movie since The Piano. Exploring the complicated dynamics between the Burbank Brothers (Benedict Cumberbatch and Jesse Plemons) in light of the disruption caused by the introduction into their lives of a lonely restaurant owner (Kirsten Dunst) and her sensitive son (Kodi Smit-McPhee), Dog conjures up a foreboding mood. However as a character study of Phil Burbank, a closeted homosexual cowboy, it is slightly... lacking. Just ask Sam Elliott. Kidding, kidding, but only in part. Cumberbatch is miscast in the part. There is something inexpressive about the actor. Cumberbatch is always just fine... handsome but unemotional, a stoicism which works to his great benefit on Sherlock or Doctor Strange. But in roles calling for humanity Cumberbatch's limited range is more immediately apparent. Perhaps Campion felt this would sell Phil Burbank's repression. Maybe the thinking was that Cumberbatch's emotional deficit would help ameliorate the inherent melodramatics of the story. Whatever the case, it is hard to fault the movie itself; outside of the lead performance and most especially in how Burbank's stubborn denial of his sexuality has a ripple effect on Dunst and Smit-McPhee's characters, Dog is pretty involving as far as family dramas go.

Honorable Mention: Belfast, Benedetta (Hulu), Bergman Island (Hulu), Candyman, Dune: Part One (returning to HBO Max), The Eternals (Disney+), The French Dispatch (HBO Max), In the Heights (HBO Max), Kurt Vonnegut: Unstuck in Time (Hulu), The Last Duel (HBO Max), Last Night in Soho, Mass, Nightmare Alley (HBO Max and Hulu), No Time to Die, Passing (Netflix), A Quiet Place: Part II (Paramount+), Raya and the Last Dragon (Disney+), Riders of Justice (Hulu), Roadrunner: A Film about Anthony Bourdain, The Sparks Brothers (Netflix), Spider-Man: No Way Home, The Suicide Squad (HBO Max), Swan Song (Apple TV+), The Tender Bar (Prime Video), Titane (Hulu), Val (Prime Video), West Side Story (Disney+ and HBO Max)

Most Overrated: C'mon C'mon

Most Underrated: House of Gucci

Breakthrough Artist of the Year: Alana Haim (Licorice Pizza)


Winners are in red where my own vote coincides.

Best Picture: Licorice Pizza
Best Director: Jane Campion (The Power of the Dog)
Best Actor: Nicolas Cage (Pig)
Best Actress: Alana Haim (Licorice Pizza)
Best Supporting Actor: Bradley Cooper (Licorice Pizza)
Best Supporting Actress: Ariana Debose (West Side Story)
Best Original Screenplay: Licorice Pizza - Paul Thomas Anderson
Best Adapted Screenplay: The Power of the Dog - Jane Campion
Best Cinematography: Dune - Greig Fraser
Best Production Design: Dune - Patrice Vermette, Richard Roberts, Zsuzsanna Sipos
Best Original Score: Dune - Hans Zimmer
Best Original Song: "No Time to Die" - Billie Eilish, Finneas O’Connell (No Time to Die)
Best Ensemble: Licorice Pizza
Best Foreign Language Film: Drive My Car
Best Animated Film: The Mitchells vs. The Machines
Best Documentary Film: Summer of Soul (...Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised)
Breakthrough Award: Alana Haim (Licorice Pizza)
Oglethorpe Award for Excellence in Georgia Cinema: Spider-Man: No Way Home (Jon Watts, Chris McKenna, Erik Sommers)

Top 10
1. The Power of the Dog
2. Licorice Pizza
3. Belfast
4. The Green Knight
5. West Side Story
6. The French Dispatch
7. tick, tick... BOOM!
8. Drive My Car
9. Dune
10. Summer of Soul (...Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised)

Best Actor: Benedict Cumberbatch (The Power of the Dog)
Best Actress: Kristen Stewart (Spencer)
Best Supporting Actor: Kodi Smit-McPhee (The Power of the Dog)
Best Supporting Actress: Kirsten Dunst (The Power of the Dog)
Best Ensemble: The French Dispatch
Best Director: Jane Campion (The Power of the Dog)
Best Original Screenplay: Licorice Pizza - Paul Thomas Anderson
Best Adapted Screenplay: The Power of the Dog - Jane Campion
Best Documentary: Summer of Soul (...Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised)
Best Foreign-Language Film: Drive My Car
Best Animated Film: The Mitchells vs. The Machines
Best Cinematography: Dune - Greig Fraser
Best Score: Dune - Hans Zimmer

No comments: