Civilization is the process through which the miraculous becomes routine. That's probably too big and obvious a statement for a column about movies but it seems true and I'm technically on vacation anyway. So let's go with it.
Our chief occupation used to be finding something to eat; nowadays most of us in this country are overfed to the point of ripeness. Most of us have experienced the magical feeling of going to sleep in a bed a thousand miles from the one we woke up in.
A movie used to be something you heard about and waited to see; now we have perpetual access to deep libraries. Chances are if I think of a film I want to see, I can, with a few keystrokes, call it to my screen. Maybe there will be a convenience charge, maybe it will be part of my subscription.
It has never been easier to consume movies. We've never had so many options. So maybe it's actually helpful to peruse lists of other people's favorites. Maybe we'll get some ideas.
Anyway, at the end of the year, it's sort of our tradition to run a lot of year-end lists of favorite movies, by our contributors and friends of the program. Most years, the release schedules begin to slow down around the beginning of a new year, and we have a little time and space we can devote to looking back. Over the next few weeks, we'll run a lot of lists that people send us, as well as those of our regular contributors. We'll start this week with two from longtime friends of the program, Armchair Critic Sam Blair, and expatriate Arkansan Blake Rutherford, who founded the Movies in the Park series:
Best (which is to say my favorite) 2021 movies. My top three this year are in a class by themselves. After them, there's little difference in the order of numbers 4 through 10.
First, a generalization: Directors have become too self-indulgent. Their movies, even the good ones, are too long! Give us a break.
1. "The Power of the Dog" -- I was compelled to re-watch the last half hour of this "psychological thriller disguised as a Western" (Philip Martin) to make sure what I thought had happened actually did. Jane Campion directs her four gifted actors -- Benedict Cumberbatch, Kirsten Dunst, Jesse Plemons, and young Kodi Smit-McPhee -- to a shockingly powerful climax.
2. "Belfast" -- It's Kenneth Branagh's fine memory film of the 1969 Northern Ireland Troubles as seen through the confused eyes of a 7-year old boy, clearly a stand-in for Branagh. A wonderful ensemble cast makes the three-generation family heartwarming without sentimentalizing them. Ciaran Hinds and Judi Dench are standouts as the grandparents.
3. "West Side Story" -- Thrilling remake of the 1961 Romeo & Juliet-based movie musical set on the mean streets of Hell's Kitchen, N.Y. Spielberg has made a sweeping, high-energy film with new book by Tony Kushner. In an inspired gesture, 90-year old Rita Moreno, an Oscar winner as Anita in the original film, is given a small but key role here, and she's terrific. (She gets to sing "Somewhere.")
4. "C'mon C'mon" -- I knew this one would make my Ten Best as soon as I saw it. In a role 180 degrees from his Oscar-winning screen appearance as "Joker," Joaquin Phoenix is Johnny, a traveling NPR-type audio journalist who interviews children. When an emergency hits his sister's family, he agrees to take in his precocious but wary 9-year old nephew for a few weeks. Their chemistry together is a marvel to watch.
5. "Flee" -- A rare triple-threat in awards competitions: It's Denmark's entry in the Best International Film category, it's an Animated movie, and it's a Documentary feature that re-creates a young man called Amin (not his real name) and his long flight out of Afghanistan and Taliban rule, full of harrowing stops and detours, to freedom at last in Scandinavia. Ultimately uplifting.
6. "Passing" -- Based on Harlem Renaissance writer Nella Larsen's book, the title refers to light-skinned African Americans' passing as white. Two prosperous girlhood friends bump into each other at the Plaza in New York and at first don't recognize each other. One is passing as white, the other often perceived as white. One is eager to renew their friendship, the other isn't. Especially fine is Ruth Negga of Jeff Nichols' "Loving."
7. "Licorice Pizza" -- The tagline for George Lucas' 1973 "American Graffiti" was "Where were you in '62?'" P.T. Anderson's new "Licorice Pizza'' might well be "Where were we in '73?" And if the former was more of a delight for people of a certain age than the latter, chalk it up to our age. Philip Seymour Hoffman's son Cooper plays a 15-year old in lust with 25-year old Alana Haim, whom he pursues through many a romp until finally ... but that would be a spoiler.
8. "CODA" -- In "CODA" an acronym for "Children of Deaf Adults" (as well as a musical term), we meet a loving, argumentative deaf family whose only hearing offspring has a talent: she's a gifted singer that they will never hear. She's also indispensable as an interpreter for her family. A gut-wrenching college decision is fast approaching. Leave or stay? As the parents, deaf actors Marlee Matlin and Troy Kotsur are superb.
9. "Summer of Soul (... Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised)" -- In the summer of 1969 an American walked on the moon, a gigantic music festival happened in Woodstock, N.Y., and in Harlem, it was the Summer of Soul. On six straight Sundays, giant concerts of blues, jazz, gospel, and R&B, with artists from Gladys Knight & the Pips to Nina Simone, entertained thousands. Video footage of that under-reported festival is being shown for the first time.
10a. "King Richard" -- Will Smith gives a ferocious, career-best performance as Richard Williams, the often controversial father of tennis greats Venus & Serena. He has a clear vision and is relentless in his commitment to lead, if necessary push, his athletically gifted daughters out of violence-ridden Compton to tennis stardom. Quietly wonderful Aunjanue Ellis as the girls' mother is his counterbalance.
10b. "Nightmare Alley" -- Guillermo del Toro's stylish remake of a black and white 1940s film noir is just as sinister in color, its traveling carnival just as tawdry. A drifter with a past (Bradley Cooper) wanders in, learns the trickery, moves up to seductions in lush, deco surroundings, and gets in over his head with a New York gangster. Amid a starry cast, Mary Steenburgen makes the most of her two explosive scenes before the inevitable ending.
HONORABLE MENTION: "The Worst Person in the World," "Pig," "The Hand of God," "tick, tick...BOOM," "Cyrano," "Dune," "Being the Ricardos," "The Eyes of Tammy Faye," "Don't Look Up," "The Lost Daughter"
I HOPE TO SEE Joel Coen's "The Tragedy of Macbeth" (Denzel Washington and Frances McDormand), Pedro Almodovar's "Parallel Mothers," and the three-hour Japanese award-winner, "Drive My Car."
BEST OF MANY GOOD DOCUMENTARIES:
1. "Flee" 2. "Summer of Soul "3. "The First Wave"
Top 10 Films of 2021
"The Power of the Dog"
"The French Dispatch"
"The Lost Daughter"
"The Card Counter"
Honorable mentions: "CODA," "The Disciple," "The Humans," "The Inheritance," "King Richard," "Mass," "Mogul Mowgli," "The Novice," "Pig," "The Tragedy of Macbeth," and "West Side Story"
Yet to see: "Attica," "Cyrano," "Drive My Car," "Flee," "The Hand of God," "A Hero," "Nightmare Alley," "Red Rocket," "The Rescue," "Shiva Baby," "The Tender Bar," "Together Together" and "The Worst Person in the World"
Top 10 Documentaries: "The Crime of the Century," "The Forever Prisoner," "The First Wave," "Julia," "Procession," "Summer of Soul," "Roadrunner: A Film About Anthony Bourdain," "The Truffle Hunters," "Val" and "The Velvet Underground"
Should have been better: "Being the Ricardos," "Don't Look Up," "Dune," "Eternals," "The Eyes of Tammy Faye," "House of Gucci," "No Time to Die," "Stillwater," "tick, tick...BOOM," and "The Woman in the Window."