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Top 14 Movies of 2021

Solace in a strange year


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As this week's issue is a Top 10 of 2021 thing, I have been asked to contribute a Top However Many. As such, the following assemblage represents, in part, some of the movies I saw in this endless eyeblink plague year that offered some sense of respite. Not everyone finds solace in the sort of desolate, misanthropic stories that comfort me; some selections are not for all tastes.

I should perhaps also offer the disclaimer that I ventured into theaters enough times to count on one hand in 2021. Due to the dizzyingly rapid proliferation of streaming releases, I didn't miss as much as I might have. Still, there will be notable omissions I can perhaps address at some later date. Additionally, the aforementioned streaming flood has ushered in a new era of "independent" American cinema: There are simply too many outlets with too many productions for a person — one shackled by a day-job, at least — to contend with. So again, omissions. Finally, there is likely to be a certain degree of recency bias evident here but in an era when time has lost its familiar defining dimensionality, recency may be as precise as we can hope to be. So on with it.

The year ended with the long-awaited release of Adam McKay's Don't Look Up, starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Jennifer Lawrence, along with a peerless supporting ensemble. It's a departure from McKay's latest fact-based satires and, as such, represents something of a risk. A comedy leaning heavily on tragedy, Don't Look Up takes DiCaprio and Lawrence's frustrated astronomers down the rabbit-hole of public ignorance, misinformation and corporate greed when they attempt to warn the world of an impending cataclysm. The movie's self-assuredness in only seeking to find peace in the face of ultimate loss, rather than resolution or salvation, is perhaps McKay's most chilling political statement yet. And likely his most accurate.

The Beta Test, Jim Cummings and P.J. McCabe's erotic-conspiracy thriller, makes a good, if disheartening double-feature with Don't Look Up, suggesting as it does that the end of the world could just as easily be wrought by data mining as environmental collapse.

Paul Schrader, one of the last living all-timers, continued his recent streak of examinations of faithlessness and personal desolation with The Card Counter, one of the most imaginatively styled and chillingly droll post-war stories of the modern era. Surprisingly, it offers a sense of reunion and salvation in its coda: hope set against apparent hopelessness.

Inside, Bo Burnham's comedy-musical art film, remains one of the clearest, heartbreaking examinations of isolation and mental health to come out of the pandemic. It is also breathlessly funny, timely, topical, astute and unlike anything else.

With The Hand of God, Paolo Sorrentino has given us a lush, visionary coming-of-age story grappling with ambition, sexuality, grief and sense of place with a master's touch. Every frame is a gorgeous little painting and, though suffused with concurrent loss and grace, glows with humor and humanity.

Nicolas Cage probably had a dozen movies released in 2021 (I exaggerate, but not by much). I didn't see all or even most of them, but Pig, written by Vanessa Block and Michael Sarnoski, who directed, reminds me that, despite his antics and odd choices, Cage is still an actor of tremendous power and depth of emotion. In an uncommonly quiet turn, he plumbs the depths of alienation and loss in the search for his purloined truffle-hunting companion.

Edgar Wright had a good year: The Sparks Brothers presented Ron and Russell Mael very much on their own terms, illuminating the legacy of one of pop music's most influential and under-recognized groups. (The Maels also had a moment but, as much as I can appreciate Annette, the musical fable they made with Leos Carax, I don't think I'll return to it.) Wright also released Last Night in Soho, a trippy, deceptively innovative riff on swinging '60s London and Italianate horror, with a revelatory lead performance by Thomasin McKenzie.

Despite the plague seeming to obscure the attempts at progress following last year's explosive social movements, we at least have a few documents to support the struggle, including Ahmir Questlove Thompson's directorial debut Summer of Soul. A documentary assembled from footage buried in a vault for half a century, the movie is a vibrant testament to Black music and culture that should probably be required viewing for everybody.

A couple of my favorite auteurs, Steven Soderbergh and Denis Villeneuve added to their respective canons. Soderbergh's No Sudden Move, an intimately scaled, devilishly contemporary '50s noir is every bit as satisfying as it is disheartening in its examination of corporate greed.

Villeneuve's Dune should go down as the single most impressive cinematic undertaking of the year, maybe the decade. Its scale and impossibly granular detail are simply unparalleled, its world-building puts other tent-poles to shabby shame.

Being the Ricardos is a movie I wouldn't have thought needed to exist but Aaron Sorkin's brisk dialogue, brought alive by Javier Bardem and Nicole Kidman's transformative performances, does more than enough to justify its existence.

Julia Ducournau's second narrative feature Titane lingers like an ongoing fever dream. Imperfect but wildly ambitious and imaginative, it is as much about notions of identity as it is about a murderous dancer impregnated by a car. Yeah.

Bad Trip, Kitao Sakurai and Eric André's scripted prank/road movie is, it would seem, the only pure comedy feature on this list. I think that speaks more to the dearth of funny than my own proclivities, but it should be said that the movie is probably a little more subversive and raw than some audiences would like. Doesn't change the fact that it is hilarious.

John J. Bennett (he/him) is a movie nerd who loves a good car chase.


AMERICAN UNDERDOG. Biopic about quarterback Kurt Warner starring Zachary Levi. PG. 112M. BROADWAY, MILL CREEK.

ENCANTO. Animated adventure about the only non-magical girl in a gifted Colombian family. Voiced by Stephanie Beatriz, María Cecilia Botero and John Leguizamo. PG. 99M. BROADWAY, DISNEY+.

THE FRENCH DISPATCH. Expat journalists get the Wes Anderson treatment, with Tilda Swinton, Benicio Del Toro and Adrien Brody. R. 103M. MINOR.

A JOURNAL FOR JORDAN. Denzel Washington directs a tear-jerker about fatherhood starring Michael B. Jordan and Chanté Adams. PG13. 131M. BROADWAY.

THE KING'S MAN. Ralph Fiennes and Gemma Arterton star in a retro action spy prequel. R. 131M. BROADWAY, FORTUNA, MILL CREEK.

MATRIX RESURRECTIONS. Keanu Reeves and Carrie-Anne Moss return hopefully to give me whatever pill will take me the hell out of here. R. 148M. BROADWAY, FORTUNA, HBO MAX, MILL CREEK, MINOR.

RED ROCKET. A hot mess of a former porn actor returns to his unwelcoming hometown in Texas for more messiness. R. 128M. MINOR.

SING 2. The animated animal musical returns with the voices of Matthew McConaughey and Reese Witherspoon. PG. 112M. BROADWAY, FORTUNA, MILL CREEK.

SPIDER-MAN: NO WAY HOME. See what happens when you take your mask off? Starring Tom Holland and Zendaya. PG13. 148M. BROADWAY, FORTUNA, MILL CREEK, MINOR.

WEST SIDE STORY. Here's hoping Steven Spielberg's remake brings back dance fighting. Starring Ansel Elgort and Rachel Zegler. PG13. 156M. BROADWAY, MILL CREEK.

For showtimes call: Broadway Cinema 443-3456; Fortuna Theatre 725-2121; Mill Creek Cinema 839-3456; Minor Theatre 822-3456.


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