HughesReviews: West Side Story and the Other Great Films of 2021

| February 11th, 2022

[Note: There were two films I intended to see this season and did not – Drive My Car and Memoria. The former just didn’t happen yet but will prior to the Academy Awards. The latter, I missed my chance.]

For me, this was a year defined by a single piece of cinema: Stephen Spielberg’s West Side Story. The gulf between this musical masterpiece and my second favorite film of the year was cavernous, as it was not only the best picture of the year, but the finest movie musical produced since Norman Jewison’s Fiddler on the Roof (1971). And it firmly resides with Jaws and Schindler’s List at the very top of Spielberg’s brilliant canon.

But West Side Story was not the only great entry in this truly great year of cinema. (As Maciej acutely pointed out yesterday, this was likely the product of many production houses choosing to skip the Covid-addled 2020 and pile their quality into 2021.) Quite often compiling a top ten list is a difficult endeavor for me. I’m hard on movies, and seemingly more so as I get older. I also don’t get giddy at the mere sight of subtitles – a defining feature of many top film critics in this country. (No, I’m not grouping myself among them, though I’m far more qualified to write about movies than football.) But this year I had difficult decisions to make at the bottom of my list.

But first, the bad…

  • The Many Saints of Newark has no reason to exist. And it felt like everyone involved was aware of that fact.
  • Bad Luck Banging or Loony Porn is the sort of silly, sophomoric garbage the New York Times salivates over because it has those aforementioned subtitles. If this film were in English, it would have swept the Razzies.
  • Both Annette and The Sparks Brothers documentary proved that my life pre-2021, when I didn’t know who Sparks were, was just fine.
  • Someone should find the grade school student who penned the script for The Card Counter because I’m pretty sure they also wrote The Tender Bar, and we need to stop the spread. (I’m confident the source material Paul Schrader used for Counter was just a glossary of gambling terms he found at a yard sale.)
  • House of Gucci could be excused as kitschy fun except that it’s neither kitschy, nor fun, and it’s eleven hours long.
  • Don’t Look Up begs one question: how did the man responsible for Anchorman and Step Brothers, two of the funniest films ever made, make one of the most humorless comedies ever filmed? And Adam McKay’s behavior on Twitter in defense of the film has made me resent the experience even more.
  • Oh, and you may have forgotten Dear Evan Hansen happened, but I surely have not. It is a terrible musical, and it made for an unsurprisingly terrible movie musical.

But there was plenty to recommend in the films not included in my top ten.

  • Tilda Swinton was magnificent in the Pedro Almodovar short The Human Voice. (Almodovar’s Parallel Mothers was less rewarding.)
  • It was a year of sparkling debut features from female filmmakers, including Rebecca Hall’s Passing and Emma Seligman’s Shiva Baby. (The most significant entry into this category will be discussed later.)
  • Roger Ebert always liked to praise films that were unlike anything he’d seen before, and French Exit was one of those films for me. (Michelle Pfeiffer’s performance was the forgotten gem of the year.)
  • I truly wish the filmmakers had made a film worthy of Clifton Collins Jr.’s performance in Jockey.
  • The post-Holocaust documentary Final Account serves as a haunting reminder that while those who perpetrated those atrocities may be leaving this earth, their ideologies are not.
  • Was there a more attractive couple in movie history than Catriona Balfe and Jamie Dornan in Kenneth Branagh’s otherwise overrated Belfast?
  • I saw a critic describe Titane as “hallucinatory chaos” and I can’t do better than that.
  • I will never understand Paul Thomas Anderson’s insistence on making every film three hours, but Licorice Pizza had some of the most memorable set pieces of the year. (That truck sequence!) Alana Haim was the year’s most surprising acting debut.
  • The touching final 10 minutes of Flee made the experience well worth it but some better animation could have landed this documentary among the best films of the year.
  • Worst Person in the World isn’t the masterpiece critics led me to believe but it’s as impeccably acted as any film this year. (I urge to you to see Being the Ricardos and this film and then argue that Nicole Kidman’s performance is better than that of Renate Reinsve. Then again, don’t, because that would involve sitting through Being the Ricardos.)

And the ten best films of 2021 were…

(10) Pig

A famed chef, now in self-exile, has his truffle pig stolen, and sets off on a quest to retrieve it.

That’s it. That’s the story.

And to reveal anything else about this quiet, determined and ultimately warm film, or Nicolas Cage’s masterful performance at its center, would spoil your experience.


(09) The Tragedy of Macbeth

Masterfully art directed and beautifully performed, Joel Coen’s film firmly takes its place among the best cinematic adaptations of Shakespeare’s work. So often, Shakespeare on screen is about the accessibility of the language. I’ve not seen an actor make more accessible than the great Denzel Washington.

And Kathryn Hunter’s performance as “the witches” was the greatest of Oscar snubs.


(08) The French Dispatch

From a piece I wrote in October:

It is often hard to explain what one doesn’t like about a particular filmmaker but in the case of Wes Anderson, I have never found that to be the case. His films – at least the films since Rushmore – have always felt like artifice for artifice’s sake; polished, pretty, planned within an inch of their lives, while being devoid of all human life. They are admirable works, sure, in the same way a high-end French restaurant can deliver a plate of beautiful cuisine. But at some point you have to pick up your fork and eat the fucking thing.

The French Dispatch is a distinct, and powerful, departure. Because of the picture’s narrative framing – stories told by the brilliant writers of an expat periodical in the fictional village of Ennui, France – the visual devices that might have previously felt indulgent instead feel essential to the storytelling. Dispatch is, in my ways, the first perfect marriage of story and style for Anderson. And in that regard, it is arguably his best picture: a beautiful story, beautifully told.

And while Tilda Swinton’s toothy lecturer had me cackling in my seat as she announced the crowd she’d be taking her drink, the entire cast, even in truncated form, are delightful. Anderson lets his performers breathe in this film. He frames them beautifully, of course, but he lets them live in that frame. And we should all be thankful for that.


(07) The Last Duel

The most underrated major studio picture of the year, Ridley Scott’s epic is a high-art concept executed with Hollywood panache. It is the story of a rape, told from the perspectives of each party involved: the woman (a magnificent Jodie Comer), her husband (a gruff Matt Damon) and the accused rapist (the must-be-cast-in-everything Adam Driver). The storytelling is masterful, and there’s a sneaky fun performance from Ben Affleck.

From Manohla Dargis’ review in the New York Times:

“The Last Duel” works best as an autopsy of corrosive male power, which creates a certain amount of unresolved tension given how much Scott enjoys putting that power on display, including during the duel. The movie is weirdly entertaining, but the world it presents, despite its flourishes of comedy, is cold, hard and unforgiving. Few come out looking good, not the antagonists or giggly king (Alex Lawther), the conniving clergyman or Jean’s unsympathetic mother (Harriet Walter), a proxy for every woman who’s ever told other women to shut up and take it. Marguerite didn’t, but however blurrily history remembers her, she made her mark with a vengeance.

(Side note: I love the idea of being able to share not only good films in this column, but good film criticism.)


(06) Summer of Soul (…Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised)

A testament to the preservation of film, Questlove’s documentary of 1969’s Harlem Cultural Festival asks big questions, attempts to find answers, and in the meantime delivers some of the finest musical performances after captured by camera.


(05) The Power of the Dog

Kirsten Dunst’s Rose Gordon sits at a piano, struggling to execute the simple tune on the sheet music in front of her.

Benedict Cumberbatch’s Phil Burbank hovers on the floor above, taunting those struggles by effortlessly playing the same tune on the banjo.

The more she struggles, the more aggressively he plays.

It is the dynamic that defines Jane Campion’s brilliant The Power of the Dog, and it is the scene that will likely come to define cinema in 2021.

(04) The Velvet Underground

From another piece I wrote in October:

I’ve always thought the great documentaries fall into two categories. The content docs captivate you with information. Alex Gibney is the master of this form (EnronClient 9Going Clear, etc.), but the binge-worthy, true crime doc drug – of which I must admit an addiction – has elevated the medium from high art, coffee shop conversation to pop culture phenomena. (Tiger King felt like the most talked about documentary in the history of the country.)

The form docs are a trickier enterprise. Whether it’s Errol Morris’ interrotron locking into the eyes of Robert McNamara or DA Pennebaker’s fly-on-the-wall witnessing Elaine Stritch’s cast recording breakdown or Barbara Kopple’s penetrating look at the coal miners of Harlan County, the form docs seem to change the way we look at the world by changing the way that world is framed for us, the viewer. (Great recent examples are 2019’s American Factory and Minding the Gap.)

The great music docs almost exclusively fall into this latter group. Sure, The Sparks Brothers was an intriguing look at an intriguing band, and History of The Eagles was endlessly entertaining, but ultimately those films are limited by how much the viewer actually cares about the work the band produced. (In both the aforementioned cases, my level is somewhere near zero.) The great music docs – The Last WaltzThe Devil and Daniel JohnstonStop Making Sense – captivate you with the originality of their storytelling.

What is so stunning about Todd Haynes’ The Velvet Underground is how intimate the experience feels. (It definitely helps that I saw it in a theater and not on my couch, with the ability to pause and take piss breaks.) The filmmaker’s decision to rest the faces of his subjects on screen for extended periods of time had a near-hypnotic effect. You find yourself studying Lou Reed and John Cale as younger men. You find yourself searching their faces for clues to a puzzle that’s never been solved. And all the while they are mapping out their journeys to the band. It’s thrilling.

I’ll write more about this film in the year-end piece. But I want to use this space to encourage you to see the film. (It is on Apple+ if you can’t find it in a theater near you.) Whether you like the band or not – and I do not – it’s one of the more remarkable documentaries every produced.


(03) The Lost Daughter

Haunting and beautiful and sophisticated and adult, Maggie Gyllenhaal’s debut is the most assured actor-director transition since Todd Field’s In the Bedroom. This is also, inherently, a woman’s story and I made it a point to read as many female reviews as a I could. These passages, from Sheila O’Malley at RogerEbert.com, seemed worth sharing:

One of the most extraordinary things about “The Lost Daughter” is Gyllenhaal’s dogged resistance to explaining the mystery of Leda. Why does Leda do what she does? Well, you learn a lot of the backstory, but any one answer given would be incomplete. On the second page of Ferrante’s book, Leda states: “The hardest things to talk about are the ones we ourselves can’t understand.” Notice that it’s not “don’t” understand. It’s “can’t,” which is very different. Leda does not know why she does half the things she does. She is obsessive. She is compulsive. She is at war with her own impulses. “The Lost Daughter” traverses extremely rocky terrain, and Gyllenhaal’s close focus on her lead actress, hewing to the close first-person of the novel, makes for an unnerving and at times even frightening experience. You get the uneasy sense that Leda may not be the most reliable of narrators.

Films are sometimes rejected by audiences because the characters aren’t “relatable.” Yes, some characters reflect back to you your own experience, and that’s very validating. But some of the greatest characters in literature show us things we don’t want to look at, show us the ugly parts of humanity, the dark petty parts, the parts where we don’t do our best. These things are as true, if not more true, than what is deemed “relatable.” “The Lost Daughter” accepts ugliness, giving it space to express itself, allowing it to exist without careening back into safe territory.


(02) Nobody

The most thrilling action film in a generation, Nobody is a serious genre picture that never takes itself too seriously. Sometimes these lists become weighted down with arthouse fare; brilliant artistic achievements that don’t pass the “do you click the remote button every time you see it running on cable” test. Nobody has already passed that test for me about five times. This film knows what it is. Brilliant.

Oh, and there’s this scene below; an historic action tour de force.


(#1) West Side Story

Sometimes films come into our lives at the exact moment we need them. For a cinephile in post-Covid New York, a New York that has lost so many cultural and social landmarks over the last few years (including multiple movie houses), this film did not just reaffirm my love of this city, but my love of the cinema itself. West Side Story is the New York City musical. Steven Spielberg’s revival – not a remake, a revival – is quite possibly the finest movie musical ever filmed.

I lost my breath as the floodlights bathed the screen behind an underrated Ansel Elgort during “Maria”.

I wanted to leap to my feet at the Regal Cinema in Astoria, Queens at the conclusion of “America” (both times) – a musical number I’d seen performed a hundred times but never truly felt before.

Rachel Zegler’s Maria attempting to make her bedroom seem slept in the morning after she meets Tony…

The staging of “Gee, Office Krupke”…

Ariana DeBose’s eyes…

Tony Kushner finding not only the historic context for this piece in New York City, but the economic moral of the piece that had long been buried in the snapping gang members…

Spielberg’s genius. And it is that. Genius. Films like this don’t just wish their way into existence. They require, at the helm, an individual whose talent exceeds that of his peers, whose passion for the project is evident in every color, every frame. The director, from Screen Rant:

“I have been challenged by what would be the right musical to take on. And I could never forget my childhood. I was 10 years old when I first listened to the West Side Story album, and it never went away. I’ve been able to fulfill that dream and keep that promise that I made to myself: You must make West Side Story. Divisions between un-likeminded people is as old as time itself. And the divisions between the Sharks and the Jets in 1957, which inspired the musical, were profound. But not as divided as we find ourselves today. It turned out in the middle of the development of the script, things widened, which I think in a sense, sadly, made the story of those racial divides — not just territorial divides — more relevant to today’s audience than perhaps it even was in 1957.”

At some point down the road, when I have a few more Cinema Studies degrees under my belt, I’ll write a book about this film. For now, I have a Chicago Bears blog to share my thoughts. I encourage you to see it in the theater but if you can’t, it’ll be on Disney+ and HBO Max on March 2nd.

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