Ten 2021 Movies That I say are Good.

Wow, I really dragged my feet on this one. In fact, I’ve dragged my feet with the uneasy friction of an escaped mental patient being dragged back into the old-fashioned, exaggerated-for-effect asylum.  Which is not to suggest that any of my fellow critics who’ve posted their 2021 lists in a far more timely manner are in fact crazy, it’s just to say that, skipping this process in 2020 makes getting back into it somehow all the more daunting.  

Anyhow, I did manage to see ton of 2021 titles… even if I haven’t gotten around to reviewing that many of them. If the 2020 film awards season was a road runner zipping off un-caught into the arid desert, then 2021 is the pursuing coyote’s endless awesome array of ACME traps and snares.  Operator error might trigger the wrong response for some attempted usage, but there’s no denying the coolness of the variety.  For what’s it’s worth, we, the film buffs, are the ill-fated coyote. Maybe this analogy is not that good.  

But in any case, for said film buffs, 2021 was a great year, what with its backlog of great movies to see and talk about. Here’s the ten that I like the most…  

10. Mitchells vs. the Machines

There’s enough wit and spark and energy here for three animated family-friendly comedies.  Also, it’s the most I laughed at any movie all year.

9. Mass

Actor-turned-writer/director Fran Kranz delivers a dramatic in-one-room four-hander that won’t be forgotten.  Anne Dowd won the St. Louis Film Critics Best Supporting Actress award for this, a well-earned accolade.  Just as deservingly, such awards could’ve gone to her cast mates Jason Isaac, Reed Birney, and Martha Plimpton.  Kranz never allows the fact that most of Mass is four people having a very intense discussion in an unassuming room in a not-modern church render it “stagey”.  (For the record, Mass is in fact not based on a play, though it’s understandable to assume that it would be).  The characters’ history is as raw as it gets: one couple’s son killed the other couple’s son in a school shooting.  Air-clearing anger on all sides gives way to difficult grappling, perhaps approaching some form of stiff reconciliation.  Mass is, as it sounds, not an easy watch, but those who’ve seen it do not regret the experience.

8. The Sparks Brothers

Welcome to the greatest band I never heard of.  I admit it, prior to 2021, I knew nothing of Sparks- an act that goes back to the 1960s…!!.  Leos Carax’s Annette was my introduction.  I saw this, Edgar Wright’s playfully adoring documentary about them, later.  This only goes to show that the world is and has been full of brilliant, strange and amazing things that you didn’t know you were just waiting to be introduced to. As far as band docs go, this one is often unfairly lumped in with less-inspired “glorified Wikipedia page” endeavors. For this very new fan, The Sparks Brothers was a statisfying-to-overflowing experience that I very much look forward to revisiting. (For a very different but also tremendously edifying and creative band doc, don’t overlook Todd Haynes’ The Velvet Underground, which barely didn’t make my 2021 top ten).

7. No Time to Die

Goodbye, Mr. Bond.  Or should we say, Mr. Craig, Daniel Craig?  The venerable actor takes an elongated victory lap with this very divisive but very beautifully-realized 007 outing.  

6. Spider-Man: No Way Home

I defy any lover of zippy popcorn cinema to find a movie that gives audiences their money’s worth (and then some) like this one does.  1970s  Electric Company Spidey may’ve been left out of the enchanted fun, but his song applies more than ever: “Spider-Man, nobody knows who you are!

5. Cyrano

A musical adaptation of a classic tragedy-laden love story?  I’m here for it.  And I don’t mean Spielberg’s West Side Story, though that’s awfully good, too.  But director Joe Wright’s uncommonly unusual and lively Cyrano gets my vote for movie musical of the year.

4. Red Rocket

Restless indie auteur of the downtrodden, Sean Baker (The Florida Project) concocted Red Rocket specifically for actor Simon Rex, a relative unknown with the chops and charisma to carry such a low-budgeted character-driven piece.  Rex plays Mikey, a self-proclaimed porn star whose level of notoriety in that field comes across as suspect at best.  His rise came circa 2000, and lasted about that long.  (A detail shared in real life by Rex).  As unlikely as the casting of Simon Rex in a mainstream movie such as this might seem, one ought to keep in mind that Red Rocket is truly not all that mainstream, and Rex indeed proves to be the only viable candidate for the part.  The actor slots in perfectly on Baker’s track, radiating icky self-importance and the kind of self-aggrandizing bluster that some see as full of crap while others see it as presidential.  For over two hours, we watch as the barely-smart-enough Mikey attempts to stay half a step ahead of the storm he’s kicking up.  Rough and tumble and quite R-rated, Red Rocket is an exceedingly smart film about hustling outsiders on the fringes of America.

3. Memoria

Those who commonly misuse the word “pretentious” to condemn any high-minded film that they have no patience for will no doubt find Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Memoria the height of pretentious.  Memoria is slow cinema writ very large.  So large, in fact, that the manufactured scarcity of its distribution supposedly guarantees that the Big Screen is one’s only chance to ever see it.  Weerasethakul has stated that this film will receive no home viewing option, and will play in only one theater at time, presumably until it’s run its course.  (How did I see it?  Via an awards season screener.  Obviously the at-home presentation didn’t mar my own appreciation).  

Tilda Swinton plays a woman afflicted with “exploding head syndrome”- a real ailment that typically occurs during sleep wherein a sudden, loud boom is heard in one’s mind.  Swinton’s character hears the booms even when awake, driving her to get to bottom of her condition.  But it’s the gloomy, vacant vibe of Memoria that really makes its mark.  The whole world seems to be in an unspoken state of waking stasis, and indeterminate collective isolation.  Its eerie effectiveness and under-your-skin power makes Memoria perhaps the greatest and most resonant of all pandemic films- a topic that, like it or not, the arts will be dealing with for some time to come.

2. The Power of the Dog

Has any director in recent memory filmed an actor with the kind of palpable fascination with which Jane Campion films Benedict Cumberbatch?  Yes, his Power of the Dog antagonist is a true scoundrel and a terrible bully in the truly toxic sense.  Just ask Kodi Smit-McPhee’s character, the gentle-born teenage son of Kirsten Dunst’s hardworking woman at the twilight of the American frontier.  But Cumberbatch imbues the character with a certain je ne sais quoi… something that transcends the character beyond the level of mere villain.  All of the performances (all excellent) meld on screen to promote an uneasy entrancement, collectively in service of a filmmaker at the top of her game.  Though the Academy has been slow to embrace Netflix productions, this fresh take on the Western may just prove to be the breakthrough.

1. Licorice Pizza

To echo a classic quote from The Simpsons: “I can think of two things wrong with that title”.  Yet, there’s nothing wrong with Licorice Pizza.  For his latest (and all too rarified) cinematic foray, arch-auteur Paul Thomas Anderson serves up another savory dish worthy of his reputation to expertly confound.  Still, this is Anderson’s most approachable movie; also his most rewatchable.  There are big laughs in this custom dish as the filmmaker leans his furthest yet into sustained mainstream comedy.  It altogether leans in to audience friendly territory, though, while also leaning out (no PTA film will ever not lean out, at least a little).  Welcome to the unsexy San Fernando valley of the early 1970s- a boring go-nowhere suburb.  Like the filmmaker, we know this place, even though we’ve never been there in this time.  Certainly not like this, at any rate.  

Licorice Pizza is nothing short of an unabashedly rocky nostalgia trip; a first-rate immersion into a second-rate time, itself fueled by third-rate nostalgia and what turned out to be first-rate pop music.  (Which brings us to the true “licorice pizza” of the title: black vinyl records, man).  Newcomers to the screen Alana Haim and Cooper Hoffman, both spot-on, find their characters stuck together in this greasy-faced and hormonal Faulkner-esque depiction of the human heart in conflict with itself.  Trouble is, he’s fifteen and she’s twenty-five.  So… is the movie icky?  Somehow, no.  Though for many, that may only color it all the ickier.  I respectfully don’t see it that way.  These two go ‘round and ‘round, importantly never going all the way.  For all its carefully concocted awkwardness, Licorice Pizza is Anderson’s most spiritually chaste movie.

Very Honorable Mentions: Wife of a SpyKurt Vonnegut: Unstuck in TimeEncantoTitaneBenedettaCry MachoLast Night in SohoThe French DispatchThe Velvet UndergroundThe Worst Person in the WorldBeing the RicardosThe Green Knight, The Hand of GodWest Side StoryPig, FleeThe Tragedy of MacbethThe Card Counter