Best of 2021 (Movies)
by Andrew Osborne
1. SUMMER OF SOUL
Like its streaming service companion, Get Back, this “found” footage masterpiece isn’t just fabulously entertaining: it’s historic, not to mention timely and fairly damning given that footage on par with Woodstock lay dormant for over half a century because nobody thought American audiences would care about six weeks of astonishing performances by iconic artists like Nina Simone, Stevie Wonder, and Mahalia Jackson if there weren’t enough white faces onscreen. But thanks to Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson, the many highlights of the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival finally saw the light of day in 2021, accentuated by fresh interviews with some of the original participants and attendees plus riveting contextual montages like white and black America’s reactions to the moon landing ironically counterpointed by Gil Scott-Heron’s “Whitey on the Moon.”
Though it premiered at the 2020 Venice Film Festival and already scored Oscars for Best Picture, Best Director (Chloe Zhao), and Best Actress (Frances McDormand) earlier this year, Nomadland‘s somehow still a 2021 release — and one of the finest, given its unblinking depiction of the gross economic inequities and the shredded social safety net most Americans (and roughly half the U.S. government) pointedly refuse to see or acknowledge. And yet, while distressing, the film (based on a 2017 book of the same name by Jessica Bruder) isn’t necessarily depressing, given the stunning visuals and the inspiring determination of its protagonist and the people she encounters to fight for dignity in a system hellbent on breaking and discarding them.
3. RECOVERY (a.k.a. STOP AND GO)
In this timely, utterly charming 2021 SXSW premiere, first-time filmmakers Mallory Everton and Whitney Call transformed their life-long offscreen friendship into hilarious onscreen chemistry as sisters rushing to rescue their nana from a COVID-infested nursing home. Co-directed by Everton and fellow Utah sketch troupe cohort Stephen Meek, the road trip comedy also has the advantage of being one of the first movies to fully chronicle the early days of the pandemic, from fears of touching gas pumps to exasperating interactions with mask-eschewing family members. We’ve spent so much time mourning that finally being able to laugh at our recent suffering definitely feels like a welcome step on the road to recovery.
4. THE SUICIDE SQUAD
HOW? How could a magnificently dumb DC comic book movie, itself a reboot of a dreadful 2016 fiasco with basically the same premise (i.e., The Dirty Dozen with disposable supervillains) be so high on this or any other Best Of list? One of the characters is a giant talking shark voiced by Sylvester Stallone, for God’s sake, and another throws DOTS at people. But it’s exactly that type of kitchen-sink, anything goes lunacy combined with Margot Robbie’s second chance go-round as the consistently scene stealing Harley Quinn, and writer/director James Gunn’s visual inventiveness, smarter-than-it-had-to-be script, and surprisingly sweet-natured sensibility that made The Suicide Squad the most entertaining big budget popcorn flick of the year.
5. POWER OF THE DOG
More respectable and far less silly, meanwhile, Jane Campion’s first feature in 12 years isn’t exactly a fun night out at the movies given its au courant exploration of (say it with me now!) toxic masculinity. Yet the intriguing, unpredictable, no-spoilers plot is far from a slog thanks in large part to the fantastic performances by Kirsten Dunst and the mesmerizing Kodi Smit-McPhee as a 1920s mother and son drawn into the orbit of Jesse Plemons’s taciturn Montana rancher and Benedict Cumberbatch as his bullying storm cloud of a brother. Some kind of trouble is clearly brewing from the opening frames and the form it ultimately takes will likely stick with you long after the end credits roll.
6. ROADRUNNER: A FILM ABOUT ANTHONY BOURDAIN
Documentaries have never played by the rules of journalism, and thus an argument could be made that director Morgan Neville’s use of digital trickery to convey certain passages of Anthony Bourdain’s written musings via reconstructions of the author’s voice should have been far less controversial than, say, nightly “news” stories that are mostly or entirely fictional — especially since Roadrunner‘s true subject is a fascinating exploration of how shaping “reality” for public consumption can be such a dangerous (and sometimes deadly) proposition when we lose our ability to discern messy truth from tidy pre-packaged fantasies.
7. LICORICE PIZZA
Though less focused and compelling than P.T. Anderson’s other big, sprawling ’70s movie, Licorice Pizza is a helluva good time (and a pretty accurate tone poem to the weird experience of life in L.A. when you’re hopeful things may still turn out well). Very much the kind of movie Hollywood tries its damndest not to make anymore, it’s full of characters who either approximate the look and feel of actual human beings (like the central friend zone soul mates played by Cooper Hoffman and Alana Haim) or (in the case of memorable cameos by Christine Ebersole, Sean Penn, Tom Waits, and especially Bradley Cooper’s psychoneurotic Jon Peters) sail madly over the top.
Similar in style if not substance to The Green Knight, Valdimar Jóhannsson’s Lamb is a prime example of a new mini-genre that could be described as pastoral bizarro. Released almost exclusively by the invaluable entertainment company A24, this specific new flavor of independent filmmaking is less jagged than old school New Wave but more hypnotically dark than typical Sundance warmedies and the less you know about any such project going in the better — so, again, no spoilers, just baaaaaa.
9. ALIEN ON STAGE
The title says nearly everything you need to know about the premise of this irresistible goofbag of a documentary by co-directors Danielle Kummer and Lucy Harvey. A group of British bus drivers adapt Ridley Scott’s classic science fiction horror film Alien as a holiday charity theatrical production and the results are just as appealing as you’d expect. Part of the fun is waiting to see how the amateur dramatists will attempt to replicate various iconic moments from the big budget source material. But then the stakes and suspense increase as the inexperienced cast and crew are invited to recreate the production in a professional West End theater, generating visceral opening night jitters for any viewer who’s ever had the anxiety dream of appearing onstage in front of a packed audience without being fully prepared for your role.
10. RED ROCKET
Director Sean Baker is a master of capturing the everyday suspense of American existence lived close to the bone, with characters forever a paycheck away from wrestling the wolves at the door to the death for the scraps that remain at the bottom of the barrel. Set during the run-up to the 2016 presidential election, the ominous soundbites seeping in around the edges of the film’s fully realized Gulf Coast world are hints that Simon Rex’s charismatic porn star hustler may not exactly be a hero worth rooting for — yet it’s likewise hard to look away from such a uniquely funny, sexy, horrifying raw nerve vision of 21st century dystopia.
Honorable Mention: Judas and the Black Messiah, Hysterical, Kid Candidate, WeWork: or the Making and Breaking of a $47 Billion Unicorn, Swan Song, United States vs Reality Winner, Barb and Star Go To Vista Del Mar, Last Night in Rozzie, Rita Moreno: Just a Girl Who Decided To Go For It, The Green Knight, Don’t Look Up
Memorable Moments of 2021: Nomadland‘s Swankie (and Frances McDormand’s bucket), Kelly Bachman calling Harvey Weinstein a rapist to his face during her stand-up set in Hysterical, Udo Kier and Jennifer Coolidge in Swan Song, the zombie tiger in Army of the Dead, Rita Moreno revealing her “all-purpose ethnic accent” as The Girl Who Decided to Go For It, every second of screen time in The French Dispatch until the end of “The Concrete Masterpiece,” the Keanu Reeves/Carrie Anne-Moss reunion in The Matrix Resurrection, and Don’t Look Up becoming national shorthand for American idiocracy.
Wildcards (potentially list-worthy movies as yet unseen by moi): Antlers, Pig, Last Night in Soho, Coda, The Sparks Brothers, West Side Story, The Tragedy of Macbeth, and MAYBE Being the Ricardos, though I’ll remain skeptical about all the love it’s getting from critics until I see it with my own two eyes).