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OPINION | CRITICAL MASS: Movie masterpieces — the best films of ’21

by Philip Martin | December 26, 2021 at 2:14 a.m.
Benedict Cumberbatch plays Phil Burbank in “The Power of the Dog.”


I haven't seen Steven Spielberg's remake of "West Side Story," but it is the subject of my favorite movie hot take of the year. "A rich and famous artist spends $100 million to revive a corpse with the blood of young people," Richard Brody wrote in his online review for The New Yorker. "The creature is still alive, but barely, and the infusion leaves it deader than when it started."

Brody has scant affection for the 1961 film, and likes Spielberg's version even less. While I suspect I might enjoy Spielberg's movie, I probably enjoyed Brody's review more, and it didn't take two hours and 36 minutes to consume. You should Google it, especially if you catch yourself humming, "I like to be in America/OK by me in America ... "

I like Stephen Sondheim's lyrics, but the man himself didn't care for them.

"Most of the lyrics were sort of ... they were very self-conscious," Sondheim said in a 2010 interview with ABC News. "[Composer] Leonard Bernstein wanted the songs to be ... heavy, what he called 'poetic,' and my idea of poetry and his idea of poetry are polar opposites. I don't mean that they are terrible, I just mean they're so self-conscious."

So Sondheim was embarrassed every time he heard "I Feel Pretty."

As inelegant and incongruous as Sondheim felt his lyrics were, audiences love the number. Spielberg and Tony Kushner have, I'm told, reframed it as a bittersweet goof on American consumerism, as the poor girl Maria and her friends — part of the late-night cleaning crew at Gimbel's department store — fantasize about the unreachable finery by which they find themselves surrounded.

Everything free in America. For a small fee in America.

Brody is one of a dozen or so film writers I regularly read. The Washington Post's Ann Hornaday made a solid case for "West Side Story." Most critics liked it — Metacritic is listing no negative reviews for the film, against six mixed (they include Brody's in this category) and 56 positive. By its algorithm, "West Side Story" is the fifth-best reviewed movie of 2021.

I didn't count how many movies I saw this year, but it was close to 200 — which is way down from some past years. Keith Garlington, who began contributing reviews to our newspaper this year, said a couple of weeks ago he thought he'd reviewed 215. Our other contributors, Piers Marchant and Dan Lybarger, racked up similar numbers. I'm reminded of a SXSW panel discussion I witnessed a couple of decades ago when Ain't It Cool News founder Harry Knowles claimed to watch at least 500 movies a year.

"That's not a lifestyle, that's a science experiment," his fellow panelist, horror impresario Eli Roth, cracked.

I keep that in mind when stressing about the movies I haven't seen. In addition to "West Side Story," this year they include "The Tragedy of Macbeth," Joanna Hogg's "The Souvenir: Part II" and Pedro Almodovar's "Parallel Mothers." The rest of the Metacritic Top 30 I have covered.

My Top 10 list is a convenient way to talk about the movies. And though it can be productive to talk about why we like what we like, arguing about taste is pretty pointless. I'd be fairly susceptible to Spielberg's "West Side Story" given my regard for traditional forms and craft, but I'm a pretty bad predictor of what I end up liking.

I like Ridley Scott's "The Last Duel" better than David Lowery's "The Green Knight." I feel warmly toward Paul Thomas Anderson's "Licorice Pizza," and appreciated Alana Haim's starmaking performance in it, but it's not a Top 20 movie for me.

What is? Here's how I voted in the Southeastern Film Critics Association's annual poll:

TOP 10 MOVIES OF 2021

1. "The Power of the Dog" — It surprises me that this slow-burning revisionist Western, set in 1920s Montana (shot in the fantastical shire of New Zealand) and that could pass as a feminist critique of toxic masculinity, is receiving almost universal critical acclaim.

And at least some of the civilian pushback against it may be more due to the way the movie is being consumed than the content; I've heard people complain that "nothing happens" in the movie's first half and that they turned it off. That's something we can do in this streaming and bingeing age.

When we're watching something on Netflix at home (which is the way the overwhelming majority of people will see it — I don't believe it played in any Arkansas theaters except for the single critics screening I attended) we have little invested in a given movie, and something more instantly gratifying is available at the press of a button.

But we're held captive in a theater setting — there's the price of the ticket and the time to travel to the theater; we're less willing to give up on a film as quickly. Because plenty happens in the movie, it just takes time to unfold and the pace of the first 50 minutes is a necessary build-up to the release of the last half-hour.

Jane Campion is such a masterful director that she seems to be able to control not only what is happening in every frame, but in the mind of the watcher. You think what she wants you to think when she wants you to think it.

Benedict Cumberbatch, who has had quite a year with roles in "The Mauritanian" and "The Electrical Life of Louis Wain" as well as his ongoing portrayal of Dr. Strange in the Marvel Comic Universe, has never been better as deeply conflicted and churlish rancher Phil Burbank.

  photo  Writer-director-star Talia Lugacy stars in “This Is Not a War Story.”
 
 
2. "This Is Not a War Story"
— A movie that few Arkansans had a chance to see, but one to watch for as it surfaces, as all movies invariably will, on various streaming and video on demand platforms, Talia Lugacy's narrative feature (she wrote, directed and stars in the movie) about a group of post traumatic stress disorder-suffering veterans who have banded together to try to heal through art, feels like a documentary, or at least like one of Robert Greene's (who gave us the excellent "Procession" this year) hybrid experiments. Many of the people on the screen are playing themselves, or slightly altered versions of themselves, and the pain the movie touches on is similarly authentic.

While an argument might be made that the film might have been even more compelling had Lugacy elided the fictional elements, her goal is more to tell a specific kind of love story rather than make a point about the toll war takes on heroes; she was right to make that choice. Made for less than $500,000 "This Is Not a War Story" is a startling and honest work that can be forgiven its occasional awkwardness.

  photo  Paul McCartney, Ringo Starr, John Lennon and George Harrison appear in “The Beatles: Get Back.”
 
 
3. "The Beatles: Get Back"
— Continuing the theme of slow cinema, this "Shoah"-length documentary assembled by Peter Jackson is a remarkable drift for those of us susceptible to the myth and legend of these four blokes from Liverpool who changed the world in the '60s.

It's basically a hang with the band as they laugh and bicker and gingerly step around each others' toes as they work toward a kind of vague goal, a return to playing live music for people rather than continuing to use the studio as their primary instrument. There are some flashes of genius but more moments when they seem heartbreakingly ordinary and oh so young.

If you've ever been in a band you'll recognize the dynamic and relate to the various pressures and the goofy ways they find to release the tension. It's not the whole truth and nothing but the truth, and it doesn't really negate Michael Lindsay-Hogg's 1970 documentary, but it's a direct cinema drop-in on a signal moment of pop history. And while relatively few will be interested enough to stick around for the whole show, some of us could watch it on a loop.

  photo  Hidetoshi Nishijima and Toko Miura star in “Drive My Car.”
 
 
4. "Drive My Car"
— Ryusuke Hamaguchi finds a way to make a three-hour epic intimate in this drama (based on a Haruki Murakami novella) about a middle-aged theater director/actor (Hidetoshi Nishijima) who, after his wife dies from a brain hemorrhage, casts an erratic, mercurial young actor with whom she was having an affair as the lead in an experimental multi-lingual adaptation of Chekhov's play "Uncle Vanya," rather than playing the role himself as everyone expected.

During the rehearsals for the production, the director becomes close with his chauffeur, a young woman with a tragic past, and during their long daily drives to and from the theater, another sort of layered effortless drama unfolds.

  photo  Brandy and Nicolas Cage appear in “Pig.”
 
 
5. "Pig"
— This Nicolas Cage comeback project — the feature debut of Michael Sarnoski, who wrote the script with first-time screenwriter Vanessa Block — could have easily devolved into a revenge thriller or an offbeat comedy. But it is more than that, a beautifully shot and tempered movie filigreed with specific details about a man who has rejected the shallowness of modern life to try to learn how to live with himself.

I'm making it sound pretentious, which is a word people often use when confronted with something that makes them think about things they'd rather not think about, but it's anything but that. "Pig" is an indelible character study, one of Cage's finest performances, and the most surprising film I've seen this year.

  photo  Noomi Rapace appears in “Lamb.”
 
 
6. "Lamb"
— Valdimar Johannsson's off-kilter folktale "Lamb" — strange and magical, a second cousin to Robert Eggers' 2015 debut "The Witch" — is set on an Icelandic sheep farm amid photogenic mountains, in a place that feels both timeless and firmly rooted in the banalities of workaday life. Hard-working Ingvar (Hilmir Snaer Gudnason) and his wife Maria (Noomi Rapace) are well aware of the limitations, realities and minor-key pleasures of the rustic life. But when something fantastic — maybe miraculous — happens, they take that in stride too.

  photo  Josephine and Gabrielle Sanz in “Petite Maman.”
 
 
7. "Petite Maman"
— In terms of double features, "Pig" and "Lamb" could be profitably paired, and this film, which shares with "Lamb" a certain fairy-tale quality, would go well with Maggie Gyllenhaal's directorial debut "The Last Daughter."

Here, Celine Sciamma ("Portrait of a Lady on Fire") explores the mysteries of memory as she magically transports 8-year-old Nelly (Josephine Sanz) back in time to become the playmate of the 8-year-old iteration of her own mother Marion (played by Josephine's apparent twin Gabrielle Sanz).

It's a simple and effective idea that feels remarkably uncontrived, landing sweetly and delicately as the two girls work out what's happened and how everything is going to be OK.

  photo  New York Police Officer Ahmed Ellis is featured in “The First Wave.”
 
 
8. "The First Wave"
— A heart-pounding and graphic verite snapshot of the early days of the covid-19 crisis, focused through the lens of the Long Island Jewish Medical Center in Queens, N.Y., between March and June 2020.

Somehow director Matthew Heineman acquired miraculous access to the doctors, nurses, patients and spaces of LIJMC, so much that I worried the film crews might impede the health-care workers they were filming.

While one might question a few of Heineman's choices — we watch at least two patients die on camera despite the frantic work of the hospital staff, and there's one instance where we might be led to believe that a doctor is discussing a different patient than she in fact is — the overall sense is of a rapidly filled notebook, history drafted from immediate experience.

This is an absolutely devastating film. It hurts. It will make you grieve. It will exhaust you. It will flat tear you up.

9. "The Velvet Underground" — Todd Haynes is one of my favorite directors and the author of two of my favorite films about rock 'n' roll, "Velvet Goldmine" (1998) and "I'm Not There" (2007). His documentary about the seminal New York underground art scene outfit is a wonderful sound and vision collage that evokes the spirit of the times and the band.

  photo  Bill Murray in “The French Dispatch.”
 
 
10. "The French Dispatch"
— A portmanteau film modeled on an issue of a magazine very much like The New Yorker in sensibility and typography which is based in a fictional French city called Ennui-sur-Blase, the latest from Wes Anderson is a restorative tonic, an inspiring movie that gave me reason to rejoice. Watching it was the best time I've had in a theater in a couple of years, and reminds me that there are reasons to see these things we still call movies in these special places where we don't have charge of the remote control and might not know our fellow congregants. It's fun.

While "The French Dispatch" might succeed as a movie if the viewer has no inkling of the connection between these characters and their analogs, Anderson is working off the assumption that we likely will make these connections, and that our experience will be the richer for it.

Imagine that, a movie director who thinks the audience is smart.

10 MORE FILMS THAT COULD BE ON THIS LIST

1. "The Lost Daughter" 2. "Belfast" 3. "The Killing of Two Lovers" 4. "Mass" 5. "The Card Counter" 6. "Titane" 7. "Bergman Island" 8. "The Hand of God" 9. "C'Mon C'Mon" 10. "Memoria"

20 MORE HONORABLE MENTIONS

1. "Licorice Pizza" 2. "The Worst Person in the World" 3. "The Mitchells vs. the Machines" 4. "The Suicide Squad" 5. "Days" 6. "The Last Duel" 7. "CODA" 8. "Annette" 9. "Red Rocket" 10. "The Humans" 11. "I Care a Lot" 12. "The Columnist" 13. "Moffie" 14. "No Sudden Move" 15. "Old Henry" 16. "Two of Us" 17. "Quo Vadis, Aida?" 18. "King Richard" 19. "Gaia" 20. "Summer of 85"

10 MORE GREAT DOCUMENTARIES

1. "Flee" 2. "Summer of Soul (Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised)" 3. "Procession" 4. "All Light, Everywhere" 5. "The Sparks Brothers" 6. "Dorktown: The History of the Atlanta Falcons" 7. "The Rescue" 8. "Roadrunner: A Film About Anthony Bourdain" 9. "Framing Britney Spears" 10. "The Truffle Hunters"

BEST ANIMATED FILMS

1. "The Mitchells vs. the Machines" 2. "Cryptozoo" 3. "Flora & Ulysses" 4. "Encanto" 5. "South Park: Post COVID"

ACTING CLASS

Benedict Cumberbatch and Kirsten Dunst, "The Power of the Dog"; Olivia Colman and Jessie Buckley, "The Lost Daughter"; Woody Norman, "C'Mon C'Mon"; Hidetoshi Nishijima, "Drive My Car"; Alana Haim, "Licorice Pizza"; Nicolas Cage, "Pig"; Clayne Crawford, "The Killing of Two Lovers"; Renate Reinsve, "The Worst Person in the World"

ONES I DIDN'T GET

1. "Passing" 2. "Spencer" 3. "The Green Knight" 4. "tick, tick...BOOM!" 5. "Spider-Man: No Way Home" 6. "Godzilla vs. Kong" 7. "Dune" 8. "The Harder They Fall" 9. "In the Heights"

SOME I DIDN'T SEE

1. "West Side Story" 2. "The Tragedy of Macbeth" 3. "Parallel Mothers" 4. "Azor" 5. "The Souvenir: Part II" 6. "The Disciple" 7. "Bad Luck Banging or Loony Porn"

Email: pmartin@adgnewsroom.com


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