Now that winter break is over--if you’re anything like me, anyway--you’re cursing yourself for wanting to cut free of your parents and get back to the grind of essays and classmates thinking they know an ounce about poetry. But enough bellyaching: 2021 was a great year for me, and I’m sorry to see it go. I put my psoriasis in time-out, had a great time at WIDR, and watched some of the greatest movies I’ve had the pleasure of seeing since 2015.
What a great year for movies this was! Guillermo del Toro is back on the upswing! Major studios are taking chances on original ideas! Oh, how I've missed the days of quality blockbuster entertainment.
I’ve made best-movie-of-the-year lists for years now, swapping with friends to find and recommend films to those with similar tastes, so now that our blog’s hopping, what a great opportunity to share them with you! Here are my ten favorite movies of 2021.
10) Nightmare Alley
Guillermo del Toro’s foray into noir after decades of ghost stories and creature-features shows us a homie who understood the assignment. This one boasts his most impressive cast-list to date. Bradley Cooper, Rooney Mara, Cate Blanchett, Willem Dafoe and a handful of other two-bit crooks shine against a beautiful Del Torian 1940s New York. Nightmare Alley follows Cooper’s Stanton Carlisle who learns the con of mind-reading after a stay at a carnival, and falls prey to a mysterious psychotherapist after making a go of it. Even moreso than its sets and del Toro’s character-writing, Nightmare Alley’s strong-suit is a story that’s so unique and unpredictable I was riveted for the whole film. I never read William Lindsay Gresham's 1946 novel, so I never knew what would happen next; I had no clue how it would end! And rest assured, I was more than satisfied. My God, what an ending it is.
The V/H/S series dates back to 2012, and back in those days served as a springboard for rising talent in the horror-film sphere. It was a series that brought Ty West (House of the Devil), Gareth Evans (The Raid II) and Adam Wingard (You’re Next) and others to prominence, but has always been a divisive series for its portrayal of female characters. Honestly… I can see why. But is the first film in the series since 2014’s Viral--a movie seemingly written with the intent of killing a franchise--and not only is it a massive course-correction in that regard, it's easily the best in the series. Like its predecessors, this one is an anthology with each story (or “tape”) being directed by a different small-time director. This one expands its non-inherently rigid conceit brilliantly, offering a hefty dose of humor with the “Storm Drain” segment, grisly action with Frankenstein’s Army-eque “The Subject” and socio-political satire with “Terror,” all of which being handled with such deftness and passion its hard to not appreciate them. It’s also the first film in the series to have “tapes” directed by female directors, and even those that aren’t are markedly less cruel, proving nastiness is not a trademark of horror as much as an unfortunate byproduct. V/H/S/94 is a frightening film, but moreso than that it’s something we haven’t seen since “Safe Haven”. This movie is tons of fun!
8) Free Guy
Free Guy, the outlier on this list, struck me on sight as a thoroughly ill-advised piece of popcorn entertainment. The trailer was funny enough, like something out of Tropic Thunder or Grindhouse, but in no way could I see the concept functioning as a feature. As a mop could guess by its placement, this was my pleasant surprise of the year, and was the best theater experience I’ve had in a long time. Ryan Reynold’s plays Guy, AKA “Blue-Shirt-Guy,” a non-player character in an open-world video-game called “Free City”. Every day is the same in this place until he falls in love with a female player and gains self-consciousness. It’s a simple story, and it’s very funny, but what surprised me most about it was the touching romance at its core. Lil Rel Howery and Taika Waititi also kill it in this one as scene-stealing side characters, but the main plot centering on Jodie Comer and Joe Keery is--for me--what propelled this one from “great” to “fantastic”. Free Guy is a blast. With any luck it will bring more original material to a theater near you!
7) In the Heights
With society still riding the high of Hamilton-fever, Lin Manuel Miranda’s In the Heights got its long-overdue adaptation, and as someone unfamiliar with Miranda sans the sub-par Moana and its accompanying “turn-off-your-phones” PSA that plagued Alamo Drafthouses at the time, he appeared to be a man who had sold out. It wasn't that I didn’t like him, but I didn't really respect him either. In the Heights single-handedly changed my mind. This is a masterful movie-musical that will knock you flat. Anthony Ramos’ Usnavi is a charismatic young man fraught with inner-city pressure and a desire to return home to the Dominican Republic where he was born, but while this makes for the crux of the story, every character has their own and these weave together to the point that none ring hollow. Not a single moment is wasted, which many musicals can't say. The music tells the story just as much as the dialogue, and the pumping music and impeccable choreography bolster its theme of community. I have the soundtrack on CD now, and it’s one of the many films here I wish was longer. I never would have seen it if not for my girlfriend, so she gets props.
6) Don’t Look Up
I don’t know if Don’t Look Up is my favorite Adam McKay film, but it treads the line between his Anchorman days his Big Short present in a way that--after the eyerolling Vice--I wasn’t even sure he was capable of. Unlike Vice, this film is tactful socio-political satire, following scientists’ sparrs with a boneheaded government and a media that doesn’t dabble in truth. What’s the concern? A meteor is going to smash into Earth in the near future, and will--with ninety-nine percent surety--end all life. The genius of Don’t Look Up is that this movie--in one two-and-a-half-hour swoop--levels all pretenses found in disaster films that humanity could ever come together in the face of destruction. It proves for one hilarious, infuriating watch. Meryl Streep and Jonah Hill kill it as the president and her son, and Mark Rylance’s Elon Musk-inspired Peter Isherwell is face-punchingly loathsome. Don’t Look Up is pure, cinematic catharsis.
5) Red Rocket
Red Rocket was the last film I watched for this list, so I’m glad that I waited to write it. Director Sean Baker’s films with college-kid-favorite-production-company A24 have dealt with the fringes of American society in a way that trivializes nothing and glamorizes even less, but I went into Red Rocket not expecting to love it. I was blown away. This is a very special movie, bringing something special to the table that so goes all-too-often unshown in American film. Simon Rex--who will either be known by his adult-film roles or his performance in Scary Movie 3--plays Mikey Saber, a washed-up loser of a porn star who goes back to his hometown to get back on his feet but cannot stop screwing things up there. The movie is hilarious and stunningly real, and the relationships portrayed, just as those portrayed in Baker’s Tangerine and The Florida Project, are lifted straight-out of small-town reality. Down to the dialogue, the casting, the costuming, the homes Baker chooses to shoot in, one feels as though they’re really in Texas City watching Red Rocket. It’s a must-see for anyone who grew up in a small-town.
I especially recommend this one to fans of Uncut Gems because, even more than Howie Ratner, this is a protagonist who can’t quit getting in his own way.
4) Last Night in Soho
My favorite horror film of the year was Edgar Wright’s Last Night in Soho. While it’s not necessarily a scary movie, Wright does manage to pump his film full of tension while still retaining that meticulous style of his. I, much like everyone, was wary of the foray Wright was making into more serious filmmaking, but what Soho proved to be was a masterclass in blockbuster horror, depicting the seedier side of showbiz in the sixties. Thomasin Mackenzie (Jojo Rabbit) is fantastic as always as Ellie Turner, a fashion student who moves to London for school and gets caught up in a decades-old mystery nobody seems to be looking into. Without spoiling too much, she dreams of it, and when those dreams start to blend with reality she feels almost responsible and ultimately fears for her sanity. The soundtrack--as per usual in Wright’s work--is a highlight, consisting of forgotten 1960s rock music which builds its atmosphere better than many less-skilled directors would. Last Night in Soho’s blend of 70’s Italian horror, quick British comedy and neo-noir crafts a compelling world and a more compelling argument that being born in the wrong generation may not be the worst thing after all.
I feel that the mark of a good historical film is not so much its factual accuracy as the accuracy of its feeling. I enjoyed Yann Demange’s ‘71 for example, but I left knowing next to nothing about the Troubles. Kenneth Branagh’s Belfast on the other hand is shown through the eyes of a child. It isn’t a war film, but a coming-of-age dramedy set in the same sphere, and when all was said and done I was shattered by humanity's capability for cruelty. Our main character is Buddy (newcomer Jude Hill in an ace performance), a child whose block is descending into mayhem as his Protestant neighbors drive away the Catholics he’s known his whole life. We don’t see the lead-up to the confusion, we don’t hear their reasoning apart from small-talks with those closest to him, so for the most part we’re just as in the dark as he is. It’s ass-clenchingly tense because of that. As nice as one moment is, something nasty is always around the corner. Be it the leader of the gang threatening his Protestant father or his cousin pulling him into that very gang’s fold. Even from a extranarrative perspective, the movie’s a stunner. It’s shot in beautiful black and white, with films and theatre performances providing the only color, and is soundtracked by Irish singer-songwriter Van Morrison’s warm, sweet tones. Judi Dench and Ciaran Hinds kill it as usual, and Jamie Dornan finally earns his place in the great actors’ canon. Belfast is a brilliant film, a heartbreaking one, and surely one of Branagh’s best.
Benedetta for most is going to be a hard-sell, because on both sides of the political coin, there’s something that’s going to raise eyebrows. On the surface, all Benedetta is is a film about nuns having lesbian sex, and I’m not particularly tastefully. Delving deeper though, this one is a film about the rigidity of Catholicism and its inherent distaste for feminine bodily autonomy. Paul Verhoeven is a director known for his sci-fi satire of the 80’s and 90’s (Robocop is objectively one of the ten best movies ever made, @ me) but he’s also known for Showgirls, a cringeworthy erotic drama that frequently makes a nest on worst-movies-of-all-time lists all over the internet. It’s because of this misfire that Verhoeven’s erotic thrillers of the last ten years have been kicked to the curb and thought of as nothing more than him putting his fantasy to screen. Elle pushes some serious buttons, but Benedetta feels like a movie too pure to be provocative. The titular Benedetta (played majestically by Virginie Efira) is a fascinating character. She’s a devout woman who either becomes subject of Divine Intervention or goes insane (the movie spares you the answer) while her love-interest, Bartolomea, becomes a nun to escape her abusive father/husband. It was a different time. Seeing Benedetta grapple with her sexual-impulses is believable not because of the eroticism behind these scenes but because of the rage found in those that bookend them. Their love is made of fear. Their buttoned-up Mother Superior stresses the importance of celibacy and a papal ambassador brings hate (and maybe something else) into Tuscany. Benedetta’s beauty, sexuality, barbarism and frankness are sorely missing in most period films, and it’s refreshing to see one that actually drives home the horror of convent-life in the 17th century. This is a riveting story and an uncommonly tasteful film. Trust me.
1) Licorice Pizza
Licorice Pizza is the best movie of the year. I saw it with my girlfriend and a high-school friend of mine, and it shocked me to find after it ended that I was the only one who thought so. The latter texted through the whole movie then proceeded to lecture us on the ethics of a love-story between a 15-year-old and a 25-year-old, and I was left wondering if we’d even seen the same movie. Because it isn’t a love story. Not really. It’s a film about two people growing up in the ‘70s and careening in and out of each others’ lives over the passing years. It’s a film about the parallels between the fast and easy “old days” and those of today. About the parallels between teenagerhood and adulthood. It’s a film about listlessness. It’s a film about the double-standards of the sexes. About how men have fun while women toil. It’s about learning that growing up isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. It’s a film about all of these things, and none of them at all. I was genuinely sad when it was over.
Like other Paul Thomas Anderson films, this one is a snapshot of a moment--deftly tuned and perfect--and doesn’t tell a story so much as pull you into a world and hold you in its hug. It's soundtracked phenomenally by Chuck Berry, Nina Simone, David Bowie and many others, is shot on 35mm film so as to provide its distinctive look, and is not only emotional but hilarious (one scene with Bradley Cooper is worth the price of admission alone). As the years go by and nothing seems to change, you really get to care about Gary and Alana (Alana Haim in particular kills it) but neither is perfect. No one in the film is, and its trueness to life almost hurts. Its utter refusal to provide any sense of long-term closure or black-and-white perfection is purposeful unlike what Disney fans might tell you. Its story and characters are as messy as life is and that’s why I loved it. It’s a movie that not only makes you want to see it again but to go out and live and to never grow up.
Here are my favorite film soundtracks from this list, and I hope you check some of these movies out! Good luck this semester everyone, courtesy of WIDR FM, and stay tuned for radio evolution!