[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…
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.