Chris' Top 10 Films of 2021
It was a superlative year for documentaries and foreign language films -- narrative features, not so much.
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It was the best of times, it was the worst of times… well, maybe not.
The year in film was neither terrible or terrific, with many big-budget features held over from 2020 finally landing in theaters, though a bunch still waiting for 2022. With the sudden spread of the Omicron variant, there are still plenty of movie lovers afraid to go see them in a cinema, and I don’t blame them.
“Wide but not deep” would my description of the film year 2021. I saw a lot of very good movies and few truly outstanding ones. I thought it a banner year for documentary filmmaking and a good one for foreign filmmaking. As for narrative features… not so much.
The fall was full of disappointments, as one after another highly touted movies were released or screened for critics and I found them wanting. Many fill the “Disappointments” section below.
I’ll be interested how the awards season will shake out. The critic groups and early awards have been all over the map. With no singular strong movie out there, I’m hoping it’ll be the rare year where the honors are actually spread around to those who best deserve them, rather than the usual “wave” the industry seems to crave.
So here are my top 10 films of 2021, followed by the usual grouping of others I appreciated but not quite enough to make the top list.
I don’t do a “worst of” list, because most of the dreck is nowadays confined to VOD or streaming releases. But I do identify the movies that, if not truly awful, in some way let me down.
1. The Card Counter — My #1 almost by default, containing the performance of the year by Oscar Isaac as an ex-military ex-con wading through the world of underground professional gamblers. It gripped me every second of the way and, in a rarity these days, contains no storytelling fat whatsoever. Writer/director Paul Schrader continues his late-career renaissance.
2. The Lost Leonardo — The best documentary I saw this year, and I saw a lot of them. It goes beyond the mere progeny of a painting purportedly by the master to an in-depth exploration of the fetid rot that is the high-stakes art world. Like many things, it’s driven more by power and money than anything else. A pity it didn’t get much of a release or awards push, and has largely been overlooked.
3. Summer of Soul — An exciting directorial debut by Questlove of the Roots. A batch of never-seen footage of the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival, a series of concerts that stand today as a sort of Black counterpoint to Woodstock, was discovered and skillfully edited together. Great music and imagery of course, but what puts it over the top is the contemporary interviews and contextual perspectives.
4. Kurt Vonnegut: Unstuck in Time — Is this starting to feel like a theme? I’ll spare the surprise and tell you half of my top 10 list is documentaries. This one from Robert Weide is the best exploration of the life and artistry of the Hoosier author that I’ve seen. And it goes beyond chronicling to explore the friendship that grew up between filmmaker and subject over the decades they tried to get the film made.
5. Pig — A film I did not expect to like, let alone love. This had been hyped as another in the oeuvre of “Nic Cage does batshit crazy,” of which I’m not a fan. So I was surprised to discover a slow and soulful look at a hermit who left behind the culinary world he had conquered because it was not worthy of the price it extracts from people’s souls.
6. Tom Petty, Somewhere You Feel Free — The strange serendipity of life, music and movies. Over the last years since the singer/songwriter’s death, I’d been delving deeper into his songbook and finding my esteem growing even more that it had been while he was alive. Six months before this documentary, I’d been listening to “Wildflowers” on repeat, astonished at the sheer, simple perfection of it. And then along comes this film that looks at the making of that one album with a probing eye and a welcoming heart.
7. Spider-Man: No Way Home — A half-hour into this movie, I thought they were mucking it up the same way they did with the last film in the Sam Raimi Trilogy. Turns out, it’s the best of the group starring Tom Holland and of any superhero movies since the last “Avengers.” Somehow manages to be nostalgic without sappy, commenting cleverly on the cyclical nature of the genre at the same time.
8. Mayor Pete — Most political campaign documentaries these days are simply partisan screeds, as is a lot of docs in general, I say with sadness. This look at the unlikely presidential bid of Indiana mayor Pete Buttigieg managed to actually go behind the front and look at how a smart, wonky, introverted Hoosier captivated the nation. I felt informed and uplifted rather than lectured to or patronized.
9. The Worst Person in the World — A lot of the more high-profile foreign language contenders — “A Hero,” “Lamb” — left me cold, and this Norwegian drama with its mix of drama, humor and romance was a refreshing break. Ostensibly it looks at the relationship misadventures of a young woman, but it’s closer to Ingmar Bergman than “Sex in the City.” It takes a character we shouldn’t like and makes her empathetic, which is a lot harder than it sounds.
10. West Side Story — I’m not a fan of remakes and pointless sequels, and indeed in the purest terms there is no real reason this movie needs to exist. But Steven Spielberg, cast and crew did such a wonderful job of it I can’t help admire. Rachel Zegler is a revelation as Maria — still a teenager when they shot this — and I’m hoping this will give her a huge launch. Color and pageantry.
Listed alphabetically. A few of these came close to a spot on the list above, others garnered mere admiration.
Annette — The kookiest musical I’ve ever seen, and I’ve seen Hedwig.
CODA — A lovely story if rather conventional. As Roger Ebert would say, I wanted to hug this movie.
Drive My Car — I liked the much-lauded Japanese drama, though not nearly to the extent most other critics do. The first two-thirds could easily be reduced to 40 minutes. But I loved the last hour so much, I forgive it for the tedious first two.
Mass — A master class in acting by a foursome of terrific character actors and actresses.
The Mitchells vs. the Machines — The best animated film of the year, surprisingly similar to the also-good “Ron’s Gone Wrong.”
Our Friend — A forgotten gem from early in the year that proves Jason Segal may just be getting started.
The Power of the Dog — Divisive, challenging, beautiful and haunting — in other words, a Jane Campion film. Glad to have her back in feature films after 12 years in the wilderness.
Roadrunner: A Film About Anthony Bourdain — Before I saw this excellent doc, I did not give two f*cks about the celebrity chef-turned-travel-TV guy. But the movie unveils his tortured soul.
Storm Lake — Another great documentary that looks at small-town newspapering. Something near and dear to my heart, and I was hooked. (Second Buttigieg appearance in a doc this year!)
Summer of 85 — The movie that “Hand of God” wanted to be. An odd triumvirate along with “Luca” about idyllic youths spent in seaside Italy.
The Tender Bar — George Clooney’s flat-out sentimental movie with an Oscar-bait role for Ben Affleck as the irascible uncle. What can I say, I’m an old softie and was smitten.
Few of these are truly bad movies. Some I even like in pieces. Usually they were films I was very much looking forward to and then regretted doing so.
Don’t Look Up — I’m higher on this one than most. The satire about how people react to an ongoing tragedy is sharp. But too many actors doing lots of overly show-y actor things.
Dune — Visually resplendent, a better intro than David Lynch’s, but just sort of stops just when it’s building momentum. Maybe I’ll like it more after #2.
Encanto — Hard to love a musical with bad songs.
The Eyes of Tammy Faye — A compelling performance by Jessica Chastain, and not much else.
The Green Knight — David Lowery channels Terence Malick to the point even Malick is saying, “Eh, I think it needed a little more narrative structure.”
The French Dispatch — If it’d have stopped after the intro and first segment about the prisoner-painter, it might be in one of the lists above. Interesting that nobody is commenting on the 40-year age difference between Frances McDormand and Timothee Chalamet, but we’d be hearing all about it if genders were reversed.
House of Gucci — A hothouse soap opera that’s still plenty of fun if you take it a lot less seriously than it does itself.
The Humans — So much activity, so little humanity. It’s OK to dislike a character or two, but all of them?
Licorice Pizza — The girl’s a hit, the boy’s a drip. Make it her movie and he’s just one of the people she runs into.
The Matrix Resurrections — I’m not sure what’s more tiresome: the second half of this movie or all the observers dunking on the various interpretations of what the franchise is really about. Good Lord: the “meaning” of a movie is whatever it is to each individual viewer. I don’t care what a filmmaker intends; movies are like a restaurant meal — once it leaves the kitchen it doesn’t belong to the chef anymore.
The Tragedy of Macbeth — I just don’t get this choice by Joel Coen to make a Shakespeare adaptation at this stage of his career. Feels more like curating your legacy than doing something interesting and fresh.