Wednesday, January 12, 2022

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Top Films of 2021

With 120 films screened, I am finally ready to present my favorite films of 2021.

Each year I present my Top Ten alphabetically, for two reasons. One is to maintain some level of suspense for the Hollmann Awards, whose Best Picture category only allows for five nominees. The other reason: I usually don't know what my ranking is until I have to choose those five. Alphabetical buys me time. 

This was a particularly difficult year to narrow down. And so, I Top Eleven Films of the Year:

Barb & Star Go to Vista Del Mar
seen: February 13th
available: on Hulu and VOD
dir: Josh Greenbaum
pr: Jessica Elbaum / Will Ferrell / Margot Hand / Adam McKay / Annie Mumolo / Kristen Wiig
scr: Annie Mumolo & Kristen Wiig
cin: Toby Oliver

The feel-good movie of the year, and not just because it is about the strength of friendship and the triumph of the human shimmer: it also happens to be hilarious, a joke-a-second experience that yields more and funnier fruit with each subsequent viewing. The plot? Why, as simple as two best friends, their devotion as rock-solid as their hairdos, who take a vacation together and find a renewed sense of self! While also getting caught up in a plot by a crazed villainess plotting vengeance on the titular town! Kooky? Yes! Unbelievable? Should be, but the commitment at every level, from the pure kitsch (yet strangely accurate) Florida hotel room to Barb's pronunciation of Don Cheadle, is enough to earn one's credulity. Anchored by the natural chemistry and genuine camaraderie between leading ladies/co-writers Annie Mumolo and Kristen Wiig...and Jamie Dornan, in the first of two 2021 performances that plead a convincing case for a future in musicals. I dare not give away all its joys, me. Surrender to it.

seen: November 14th
available: in cinemas, on VOD
dir/scr: Kenneth Branagh
pr: Laura Berwick / Kenneth Branagh / Becca Kovacik / Tamar Thomas
cin: Haris Zambarloukos

An honest depiction, not necessarily of either the Troubles or of childhood, but of the act of remembering. A working-class neighborhood is pictured in immaculate condition, a threatening neighbor is portrayed as cartoonishly sinister, dear Dad is shot from a low angle and posed like Superman shielding the innocent. This is how it feels to hear someone sit down and try to relate their memories to you; too, this is how it is to recall. Things remind them of something else, tangents take over, conversations are both vivid and vague, and moments that take on great significance - an ethereal production of A Christmas Carol, an impromptu song-and-dance by parents, the last great conversation with one's grandfather - are recounted in such specific detail, one suspects there may be more myth than fact in the telling...but that doesn't make it any less true.

Drive My Car
seen: December 3rd
available: in cinemas
dir: Ryûsuke Hamaguchi
pr: Tsuyoshi Gorô / Misaki Kawamura / Osamu Kubota / Sachio Matsushita / Yoshito Nakabe / Keiji Okumura / Jin Suzuki / Akihisa Yamamoto
scr: Ryûsuke Hamaguchi & Takamasa Oe
cin: Hidetoshi Shinomiya

I was talking about this film to friends, about how the main character directs a multi-lingual adaptation of Uncle Vanya, and that while it sounds like an affectation, eventually one sees that such a method eventually gets his performers - none of whom really understand each other - into a place where they are less focused on their own words and more on relating to each other, replacing literal translation with an emotional understanding, a connection beyond language yet respectful of individual expression. And I thought about one scene in particular, where two actresses, one speaking in Mandarin, the other through Korean Sign Language, have a moment so transcendent one can physically feel the energy shift, not just among the characters, but within oneself, watching the movie. And then that idea of how to communicate goes further: how do we communicate to ourselves, how do we reach out and open up to others offstage? I started to say all this, but instead, I started crying. Communication is difficult, getting to that place of trust and intimacy is rare, and when you couple that with the movie's other main concern of processing grief - something I've become too well-acquainted with since the initial lockdown - all within this milieu of theatre and artistic expression...I don't know, saying it out loud made me realize how personal this movie is to me.

seen: October 24th
available: in cinemas, on VOD
dir: Denis Villeneuve
pr: Cale Boyter / Joe Caracciolo, Jr. / Mary Parent / Denis Villeneuve
scr: Jon Spaihts and Denis Villeneuve and Eric Roth
cin: Greig Fraser

There are, I know, conversations to be had about the deeper meanings in Dune: about exploitative governments plundering natural resources, about the abuse of power and the dangers of feudal society, about the links between religion and politics, about the thin line between benevolence and being patronizing. Yes, a lot to chew on within this epic space fantasy, much to discuss. And we will, right after we gape in awe at the visual effects, these sandworms rolling across the desert and opening chasms in the earth while hallucinogenic spice grains bend time and place but wait now there's an insane battle with impossibly-lifelike ships erupting into fireballs above this all-star cast's heads as they charge into the maelstrom with these forcefield things that look and sound awesome all against blaring bagpipes and all following that gnarly scene where blood sacrifices were ceremonially executed while a human didgeridoo throat-sang and everyone's outfit was mad and the architecture was sick and WOW when was the last time you saw or heard or experienced a movie like this????

The Green Knight
seen: July 30th
available: on VOD
dir/scr: David Lowery
pr: Toby Halbrooks / Tim Headington / James M. Johnston / David Lowery / Theresa Steele Page
cin: Andrew Droz Palermo

Advocates and critics have both described it as a "vibes" movie, visually pleasing, meditative in pacing, perhaps not altogether satisfying as a narrative, but, hey, if it's your thing, you'll probably like it. It is my thing, though I think it's far more than just a pretty film. On its mind is the idea of legacy and honor, and the weight men feel to prove themselves in the latter to leave behind the former. As Gawain, Dev Patel embodies a frivolous soul wrestling with the ideas of worthiness and integrity - must he risk his head to be considered an honorable man? Must his legacy be to not leave one behind, to earn his title posthumously? Is that what it means to live a life of greatness? What is greatness? These are the concerns of a man who is ready to be a man, uncertain how to proceed, worried that he can't hack it. And in that journey of soul and self-worth, there are giants, talking foxes, sainted ghosts, and a magic tree-man. Such weight! Such melancholy! Such...truth!

In the Heights
seen: June 17th
available: on HBO Max and VOD
dir: Jon M. Chu
pr: Anthony Bregman / Quiara Alegría Hudes / Mara Jacobs / Lin-Manuel Miranda / Scott Sanders
scr: Quiara Alegría Hudes
cin: Alice Brooks

The best musical of the year. Massive group numbers, the camera and editing respecting every dance move, every ensemble member, embracing the cinema and the proscenium in equal measure. Inventive execution in the numbers: a salon so lively and gossipy even the store mannikins are kiki-ing, a community pool for everyone to get their Busby Berkeley on while fantasizing about lottery money, a ghost world populated by immigrants living in a ghostly subway station and tunnel, a couple so in love with their neighborhood they dance up the sides of the buildings. I get goosebumps just thinking of "Carnaval de Barrio," an expression of the melting pot within the melting pot, everyone waving the flags of their ancestors with swelling pride, celebrating the sacrifices and celebrations of those who came before. I choke up hearing Stephanie Beatriz sing, "The hydrants are open, cool breezes blow," a detail so specific in its evocation of place and nostalgia that one can't help but think of one's own signifiers in that regard. And, haha, was there another movie this year that captured the excitement and sweat of nightclub flirtations like the "The Club" number? This is how the musical was meant to operate, as an expression of feeling so enormous it can only be conveyed fantastically, impossibly, melodically.

seen: December 10th
available: on Disney+ and VOD
dir: Enrico Casarosa
pr: Andrea Warren
scr: Jesse Andrews & Mike Jones, story by Enrico Casarosa & Jesse Andrews & Simon Stephenson
cin: David Juan Bianchi / Kim White

Since Inside Out, Pixar has become a studio of sequels and death, with Coco, Onward, and Soul all pondering the random swing of the reaper, the importance of legacy, the opportunity for second chances, the intensity of grief. Luca is not about any of that. Instead, it wants to talk about youth, the age where you're most at the mercy of others yet also most open to new experiences. It wants to talk about how we cannot protect our children from the unfairness of the world, we must let them experience it all, good and bad. It wants to talk about powerful bonds that form, how friendships can change your destiny. And, of course, it wants to talk about acceptance and identity and fitting in, since it is about adolescent sea monsters passing as human in a coastal town known for hunting sea monsters. And it does all this without saying it wants to do all this. The world-building is economical, the story is straightforward, the characters are complex. I'm not told Luca is quick-witted and braver than he thinks, I hear it in the words he delivers under his breath. Even in a heated argument with Alberto, they don't lay out each other's troubles and traumas to be solved - they project, they dodge, they accuse - they argue like people. This is how one writes characters, this is how one tells a simple story that still resonates deeply. It also boasts the most effective final shot of the year.

Nightmare Alley
seen: December 22nd
available: in cinemas
dir: Guillermo del Toro
pr: Bradley Cooper / J. Miles Dale / Guillermo del Toro
scr: Guillermo del Toro & Kim Morgan
cin: Dan Laustsen

A full 40 minutes longer than the 1947 version, one wonders what on earth Del Toro, despite being a great fit for the material, could add to a perfect carny noir about a charlatan who gets in over his head. Honey, I could have lived in that world for another 20 minutes, I even half-hoped I'd get to dream about it, despite its grotesqueries. This a story of the Depression, the dire straits that people must claw their way out of, their desperate grabs for a semblance of control and stability, for at least the illusion that they are the masters of their fate. It is a story about the dangers, not of messing with the supernatural, but of exploiting people's faith in the supernatural, of offering false hope in the guise of entertainment, of believing a lie. Gorgeous sets, dusty photography, a melancholy score, all in service of building a world that can be cruel - yet, it must be noted, not without opportunities for redemption...if you can humble yourself enough to see them. Pan's Labyrinth has been my favorite Del Toro for years; this is a close #2.

seen: November 11th
available: on Netflix
dir/scr: Rebecca Hall
pr: Nina Yang Bongiovi / Rebecca Hall / Margot Hand / Forest Whitaker
cin: Edu Grau

I've been waiting for this movie since I read the book in 2010. I knew we were in good hands when I saw Tessa Thompson's Irene peering through the brim of her sheer hat like it was a periscope, scoping out the situation before feeling bold enough to interact with the white woman at the toy shop. In that moment, I knew the performer, the costumer, the cinematographer, the editor, and finally (well, firstly) the writer-director, were all on the exact same page, knew exactly what this story was and who Irene is. And that confidence in maintained throughout the film. I have no doubt Thompson and Ruth Negga know exactly who their characters are, even though the former's is uncertain of who she is and the latter's is completely unknowable from moment to moment. You believe that struggle, that mystery, and so the groundwork is laid for the taut 90 minutes to follow. The way Hall's camera plays with space (objects in mirror sometimes are further than they appear...sometimes), or how Edu Grau's lighting plays with shades of grey (there are scenes where skin tone appears darker or lighter from shot to shot depending on setting or mood), or how both actresses convey active stillness leave the viewer as flustered as Irene. This is a first feature?

The Power of the Dog
seen: December 1st
available: on Netflix
dir/scr: Jane Campion
pr: Jane Campion / Iain Canning / Roger Frappier / Tanya Seghatchian / Emile Sherman
cin: Ari Wegner

My first viewing had me wanting to bail in the first forty minutes, only sticking it out because, well, the buzz. Thank goodness - by the time the credits rolled, I was gasping, cheering, completely taken by it. A perfectly constructed film, moving to its inexorable end within the opening lines. Repeat viewings make pleasurable what at first seemed mildly curious: certainly the degrees of performance-within-the-performance regarding Benedict Cumberbatch's and Kodi Smit-McPhee's characters reveal themselves more. It's rough stuff, the sex and violence running just underneath, but there is a sort of macabre wit in its telling, a fucked-up tale told in delicious tones, asking us not to be horrified but rather to savor every detail. Sharp in its portrayal of under-the-radar menace, myth-busting in its depiction of the manly men of the West.

This is Not a Burial, It's a Resurrection
seen: December 15th
available: on Criterion Channel and VOD
dir/scr: Lemohang Jeremiah Mosese
pr: Cait Pansegrouw / Elias Ribeiro
cin: Pierre de Villiers

In its first thirty minutes, we sit with Mary Twala Mhlongo as Mantoa as she learns that her son has been killed, leaving her the sole survivor of her family (her husband is long dead; her daughter-in-law and grandchild, too). Were this movie nothing else, I probably would have loved it, so honestly does it capture the hollowing-out of grief: we do not even hear her as she reacts to the news, her protestations drowned out by a chaotic score whose outbursts will soon become familiar. As she processes everything silently, the narrator clues us in: "Besides God, reality too felt further and further away...The benevolence of God. That which was once the cornerstone has now become a stumbling block for the old widow." Finally, she tries to will herself to die in her sleep, and upon waking, takes a vow of silence. Instead, she becomes louder than ever, as she learns that soon the entire village is to be flooded, its citizenry moved, to make way for a dam. Now she has an outlet for her grief, a target for her rage, a cause for which she can rally others to fight and mourn alongside her. A furious film, condemning the apathy and cruelty of all Powers That Be, be they God or Man.

Friday, my nominees for the 2021 Hollmann Awards.

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