Jim’s Top Ten of 2021
If you were to ask me what my experience with film was in the last year, I would say “the best laid plans of mice and men often go astray.” At this point in 2021, I was furloughed from my job of 9 years and still unvaccinated, my only moviegoing experience limited to a private theater rental to see my favorite film of all time, Groundhog Day, for my birthday in February. It would be another few weeks before my return to a movie theater with other strangers to see Godzilla vs. Kong – at 50% capacity, of course – an experience marked with equal amounts of excitement to be returning to the only indoor activity I had truly missed and paranoia of the risk other customers were to us, each emotion battling each other to a stalemate throughout the film’s entire 113-minute runtime.
As the year progressed, so did developments in COVID vaccine research and government-instituted safety protocols, though any sense of normality or routine were regularly undercut by virus variants, change of employment, delayed studio releases, and the continuing tug of war between wanting to return to the theater while also keeping myself and loved ones safe. Suffice it to say, the end of lockdown didn’t exactly lead to certainty and even the creation of this list, for which I requested an extension in order to take in many critical favorites that were being re-released for Oscar season, exists as a public admission of internal compromises that I had to make with myself when family and professional obligations thwarted my long-laid plans to finally see Nightmare Alley, The Worst Person in the World, Drive My Car, or a number of other critical darlings that I had told myself were imperative to the creation of a faithful Top 10.
This now marks the umpteenth time in a row that my Top 10 comes with a prologue of caveats. Whether that dilutes your opinion of my opinions is largely out of my control as have many things been over the last 2 years. At the end of the day, I may consider this list incomplete, but by no means inadequate. I may not have seen everything, but I saw enough to wholeheartedly conclude that, despite all of its problems, 2021 was a strong year for film. And now, my meager offerings.
10. The Matrix Resurrections (dir. Lana Wachowski)
The debate about intent vs. interpretation has long been, and will continue to be, waged with no consensus likely ever to be reached. It seems only fair then that a film like The Matrix Resurrections, which dives headfirst into the deep end of that debate, was so spectacularly divisive. Co-writer/director Lana Wachowski returns to the property that she co-created with her sister more than 20 years ago, not just commenting on, but also emphatically and unequivocally rejecting the reappropriations that a poisonous corner of the world have turned her and her sister’s original trans narrative into. Aesthetically and thematically, The Matrix Resurrections is the antithesis of the groundbreaking 1999 sci-fi film: many fan favorite characters are absent or replaced, action sequences play second fiddle to a more intimate love story, and narrative canon has been either subverted or often upheaved entirely. All of this is, of course, intentional, executed in a frequently meta manner by a director who refuses to allow her art to cater to the whims of audience demands. The film is so often ugly, frustrating, and unorthodox, but all of that is entirely by design, implemented by writers and a director whose souls have cankered by seeing the freeing metaphor of the red pill hijacked by idiots and deplorables.
9. Belfast (dir. Kenneth Branagh)
Kenneth Branagh had quite a tidy 2021. Though Death on the Nile isn’t approaching the box office success of its predecessor, $120M+ worldwide gross is nothing to shake a stick at, but even if there were any trepidation on the part of a studio to greenlight the multihyphenate’s next project, those anxieties are likely assuaged by Belfast’s 7 Oscar nominations, including 1 for the top prize. I’ve heard Belfast referred to as “Roma lite,” and seeing as it’s a sentimental, semi-biographical coming of age story set in a historically tumultuous era of the writer/director’s home country shot in black & white, the comparison is apt to a degree. Belfast eschews conversations of class division to focus more on the intimacy of a family’s attempts to respond to the changing tide of social upheaval in northern Ireland. The dichotomous black and white aesthetic, too often used as simplistic shorthand for memory, works here in conjunction with the story largely being told through the perspective of Buddy’s moral and social naivete. Sentimental without being saccharine, Belfast succeeds because of its performances, beginning with the breakout Jude Hill and supplemented by fantastic turns from Caitriona Balfe, Jamie Dornan, and Ciarán Hinds (rightfully Oscar nominated), all of whom are staged in layered frames and sequences that hearken to Branagh’s experience directing for the stage. Belfast may not be a story that breaks new ground, but with so many of us recognizing that we are currently living through a historically significant epoch, its story of existential realizations and life-altering decisions set against the backdrop of paradigm-shifting upheaval is both relevant and prescient.
8. Dune (dir. Denis Villeneuve)
Dune shouldn’t work as a film. For starters, the sci-fi epic directed by Denis Villenueve was based on source material that had previously spawned disastrous adaptations, leading to claims that the tome was unfilmable. Though comparable dense and sprawling genre texts such as George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Fire and Ice or Robert Jordan’s The Wheel of Time have found success, those successes have been reserved for TV, where groups of collaborating writers were able to dedicate hours across multiple seasons for the plot to unfold and nuances to be explored. Dune has 3 credited, disparate and disconnected writers who, even with the benefit of 2 films, will have roughly 5 hours to translate over 400 pages. On top of all that, Dune is a weird film, clearly laying out the relationships and emotional stakes of its characters, but spending only the bare minimum of time holding the hands of the audience through what is unquestionably the complex interplay between the world’s politics, technologies, mythologies, costumes, and cultures. And yet, Dune works. It works very well. Dune is engaging, exciting, evocatively shot and scored, and stacked with an impressive ensemble cast that populates a universe that feels lived in, but also huge and just as familiar and it does foreign. Though vastly different in its scope, Dune is reminiscent of George Miller’s Mad Max Fury Road in how it exists in a larger world of which dozens of in-depth stories could be told, but limits its focus to a few distinct corners, teasing the imaginations of viewers with what may exists outside of the confines of the camera’s frame or the script’s pages.
7. The French Dispatch (dir. Wes Anderson)
I never much liked Wes Anderon films until The Grand Budapest Hotel. I couldn’t really tell you what it was about that film that helped me turn the corner on the distinctive director, but when it came to fan favorites like The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou or Moonrise Kingdom, I just found something annoying and dissonant between the writer/director spending enough time telling an engaging narrative and spending enough time crafting visually distinctive – and, in my opinion, obnoxiously cutesie – characters and environments. It’s perhaps the lack of an overarching narrative in The French Dispatch and its anthology-like focus on defining, individual moments that are all both visually distinctive and quintessentially Wes Anderson that make it so delightful for me. This is not the first time Anderson has worked with cinematographer Robert D. Yeoman, it’s not the first time he’s worn his French influences on his sleeve, and it’s not the first time he’s cast Owen Wilson, Bill Murray, or Tilda Swinton; yet, by moving from one distinct story to another, all framed as pieces written in an outpost of an American newspaper that’s shutting down after the sudden death of its editor, the standard Anderson routine feels refreshingly new and impactfully sweet while never losing the trademark concoction of whimsy and dry wit.
6. Licorice Pizza (dir. Paul Thomas Anderson)
Of all the films on my Top 10, Licorice Pizza was the only one I’d seen more than once because I hated it the first time. Age gaps in relationships are one of my personal hang ups in films and while I logically acknowledged that depiction does not imply endorsement, I just wasn’t able to get past my own biases and frustrations, the latter of which were exacerbated by the internet discourse in which supporters of the film were almost universally dismissive and insulting to people not on their level of discernment. But I kept talking with people and reading articles from people who loved it so much that I gave the film another shot and, well, here we are.
As I so clumsily evidenced after my first viewing, it’s easy to get distracted enough by the nostalgia of Licorice Pizza – the soundtrack, the proximity to stardom, the unknown anticipation for the future – to assume that PTA’s latest lookback is a rose-colored yearning for a time and a place with less cultural expectations and restrictions. To be clear, there is an utmost fondness for the leads and their existential position in the Valley – it’s Paul Thomas Anderson, after all – but what makes Anderson’s direction so masterful is that he threads such a precariously fine line in both depicting this emotionally and sexually laissez-faire world and laying bare the complex and largely unhealthy emotional situations that can often unknowingly ensnare immature people who may not even be aware of the systems manipulating them. It’s revealing and somewhat worthy of pity that Gary (Cooper Hoffman), a 15-year old hustler ignorant of and unconcerned about larger social forces that affect his own fleeting business ventures, comes across as the “best” romantic option for Alana (Alana Haim), a directionless woman 10 years his senior who’s been conditioned by just about every man in her life to choose the wrong man for the wrong reasons. One of the scenes most typifying this conflict between the freedom to choose and the misogynistic forces hampering those choices comes when Alana is interviewing with casting agent Mary Grady (Harriet Sansom Harris), who in one moment chastises Alana for not wanting to perform nude scenes, while in the next, fighting back tears of pride when she hears the young girl is adept at Krav Maga (“You’re a fighter…I can tell”).
These young fools falling for each other without any concept of outcome or long term consequences is set against the backdrop of an entertainment industry that commodifies and objectifies people – women in particular – to such an extent that we’re meant to question whether Gary running to Alana after falling off the back of Jack Holden’s (Sean Penn) motorcycle is actually romantic or just more appealing than being discarded by a drunk old man who may not have even known her real name in the first place.
5. C’mon C’mon (dir. Mike Mills)
As is often the case with many awards categories, it’s easy to conflate an award or nomination for a “best” directed film with a film that has the “most” direction (most bombastic performances, most logistically complex scenes, etc.). But directors that execute their material with a more naturalistic approach also deserve praise for how they’re able to coax performances from actors that feel genuinely human without allowing scenes to meander or navel gaze. This is the approach Mike Mills takes with C’mon C’mon, a film that feels more observed than directed, but which never wanders from its path trod primarily by Johnny (Joaquin Phoenix) and his enigmatic nephew Jesse (Woody Norman) and which takes the time to be honest about the highs, lows, and in-betweens of both literal and figurative parenthood. Too often media spends too much time depicting the dichotomies of raising a child – the exhilaration of the highs and the desperation of the lows – and while C’mon C’mon does not shy away from them, its primary focus is on the balance, its characters both old and young learning what it means to react, to anticipate, and to adapt to people, emotions, and situations that they could neither anticipate nor avoid, but which will change them irrevocably. As Jesse himself says: “Whatever you plan on happening, never happens. Stuff you would never think of happens. So you just have to come on. Come on, come on, come on, come on.”
4. Zola (dir. Janicza Bravo)
“Y’all wanna hear a story about why me and this bitch here fell out? It’s kinda long, but it’s full of suspense.” Those are the opening lines to Zola, spoken by the titular lead (Taylour Paige) about her one-time friend, Stefani (Riley Keough), and hoo boy is she right. But she’s only telling part of the truth. Were she entirely honest with us, she would’ve said “but it’s full of suspense and comedy and terror and awkwardness and empathy.” Based on a real story relayed in a series of 148 tweets by A’Ziah King that went viral, Zola is a rare gem of a film, thoroughly in touch with the culture that both spawned and responded to such an insane story of a calamitous Florida road trip, but told in such a manner that it’s aware of both the absurdity and danger inherent in just about every interaction. Zola is, after all, a film that has Nicholas Braun basically playing Succession’s cousin Greg, but swapping out the suits for backwards ball caps and baggy pants and high rise offices with seedy Florida strip clubs. Zola is not a thriller, but unfolds its story in ways that keep the audience on the edge of their seats, never certain if the next hotel or club or bodega will bring laughs or violence (or both) and edited in a kinetic manner that embodies the fast-paced evolution of its viral source material while avoiding the schizophrenic, incoherent nature of “MTV editing.” It’s hilarious and tense, a cautionary tale and an entertaining romp, depicting and humanizing people caught in a socio-economic system that perpetuates abuse and victims who would otherwise be written off as degenerates if their story were not given the proper respect and depth.
3. West Side Story (dir. Steven Spielberg)
I’m old enough to remember when the latest Spielberg release would be considered an event. While I know some people that would argue that Lincoln deserves inclusion in the upper echelon of Spielberg’s output, it’s been a long time since one of the greatest directors in history has released something that demanded and deserved attention. West Side Story demands and deserves attention. There was a minute or two when it was understandable to question why Spielberg was remaking a classic American musical, but those skepticisms should have quickly evaporated with the opening crane shot of a gentrified development billboard uncovering the secret of the rubble of a historical New York City neighborhood. Aside from just eliminating the original’s atrocious trouble with brownface, this West Side Story looks at the past to examine systemic inequalities still painfully relevant to contemporary audiences. There is the beautiful era appropriate cinematography of Januscz Kaminski and iconic songs by the late Steven Sondheim to allure and entice, but underneath the veneer of star-crossed lovers finding inspiration and hope in each other is the tragedy of oppressive forces – police, gentrification, systemic racism – profiting off the creation and perpetuation of victimhood by distracting everyone to believe that everyone else is the enemy. There may be heartbreak in the deaths of Riff (Mike Faist), Bernardo (David Alvarez), and Tony (ugh…Ansel Elgort), but even worse is the despair in recognizing that for all of them, the deck had been stacked against them long before Tony and Maria (Rachel Zegler) ever locked eyes across the dance floor. There is hope to be found at the end of West Side Story, but it’s married with the tragic recognition that it wasn’t until so many had been unnecessarily lost that empathy could be found.
2. The Green Knight (dir. David Lowery)
There are few characters in the history of English literature who are more noble than Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table. Included amongst those legendary figures is Sir Gawain, whose acceptance of a challenge from the mysterious Green Knight affirms the chivalry and loyalty of the mythic knight. In the hands of Dave Lowery, released at a time where your neighbor cares more about their own wants than your safety and where toxic fandom wields entitlement like a battle ax, The Green Knight reinterprets the tale of Arthurian lore as the story of a feckless young man who takes on the challenge out of a sense of entitlement rather than bravery and who executes it clumsily rather than determinedly. The Green Knight is a beautiful film to take in, thanks to cinematography from Andrew Droz Palermo and a score by Daniel Hart, but at its core the film is a cynical story about power’s corrupting influence when it’s divorced from responsibility and empathy. At no moment is Dev Patel’s Gawain confident in his fate or certain of anything he’s done until the film’s final moments when his kingly head, heavy with the literal and metaphorical crown, wilts upon the recognition of what his wasted and selfish life hath wrought. The Gawain of 2021 has been run through the filters of a contemporary era in which our traditions have been revealed as hollow, nobility has been revealed as a farce, and truths that had been held dear for generations are being deconstructed, reexamined, and in many cases, rejected.
1. The Power of the Dog (dir. Jane Campion)
Can you believe that Jane Campion almost retired from filmmaking after In the Cut? Thank God for all of us that she one day casually picked up Thomas Savage’s The Power of the Dog and felt divine inspiration to step back behind the camera. The Power of the Dog embodies the best of Campion’s literary approach to film with new character details and plot developments unfolding with each chapter with a final, startling culmination that casts new light on everything previously seen, heard, or experienced. As she has done throughout her entire career, Campion examines how the internal rot of toxic masculinity spreads to and spoils the hopes and self-worth of others and sets the story in a time and genre where the conventions of what it meant to be “manly” are brought into painfully sharp contrast with the damage of those expectations. What results is almost a slow burn thriller populated with morally and emotionally complex characters that we can neither fully embrace nor fully discarded as they all interact with and react to a tangled web of poisonous presumptions playing out in their traumatized lives. Like all great films, The Power of the Dog rewards rewatching, allowing viewers to more clearly pick up on subtle character moments and hints of where the story was always heading. Armed with the knowledge of the film’s final moments, you can more sharply tune yourself into Jonny Greenwood’s dissonant score, Ari Wegner’s evocative cinematography, and the coded behaviors of what initially seem to be easily decipherable people.