In writer-director Michael Franco's "Sundown," Tim Roth plays a man named Neil who, in the sundown of his life, wants to bask in the warmth of that sun for as long as he can before it goes down for good. Knowing that with this comfort comes great risk, regardless of how bright the rays get, for most of the film's running time, Neil remains just as frustratingly resigned as he is fascinatingly opaque.
An existential cross between Melville's “Bartleby, the Scrivener,” Updike's “Rabbit, Run,” and Camus' “The Stranger,” yet missing what makes all three great by foolishly giving us a justification for our main character's behavior, in “Sundown,” Neil abandons his family on a Mexican vacation and never returns.
Having traveled to the sandy beaches of Acapulco from London along with three loved ones (brought to life by Charlotte Gainsbourg, Albertine Kotting McMillan, and Samuel Bottomley), when Gainsbourg receives word that a family member back home has died, Roth goes through the supportive motions of packing everyone up and heading to the airport.
Once there, he tells them he's left his passport behind and as soon as he finds it, he'll be on the very next flight. So convinced of his love and caught up in her own grief that she misses the hollowness of his words and the way that it sounds like a very different kind of farewell, Gainsbourg departs and takes the two teens with her. Venturing back to the hotel, not to look for the passport but head for the beach instead, Neil blows off all follow-up calls with false promises for as long as he can while he parks himself on the nearest lawn chair.
Seeing it all unfold, between Roth's standoffishness, as well as the film's long takes, and frames that only go in for close-ups when it counts, Franco toys with questions of accountability and voyeurism. With no one to follow but the aloof, largely nonvocal Neil throughout “Sundown,” we begin to feel not only unnervingly complicit but perhaps, far more invested in the aftermath of Neil's actions than he is.
Finding a girlfriend almost immediately to share in the fun of Acapulco sex and sun, Neil's ability to let everything roll off of his back – including gunfire and death – makes us immediately reject the idea that all he's having is a late midlife crisis. Wading into territory far beyond the lyrics of “Got a wife and kids in Baltimore, Jack. I went out for a ride and I never went back. Like a river that don't know where it's flowing, I took a wrong turn and I just kept going,” which Bruce Springsteen sang in “Hungry Heart,” “Sundown” gives us a man whom we feel is "losing" more than he is "lost."
So when a second, shocking death occurs that, although not directly Neil's fault, is nonetheless the direct result of his having decided to stay in Mexico, we begin to wonder what "Sundown" is telling us about karma, fate, free will, or predestination after all. Is Neil simply a man who like Bartleby has had enough of the rat race or “would prefer not to?" Or is he doing what he's doing to try – as in either a mid-twentieth-century French existential novel or a '90s Michael Haneke movie – to feel something, even if it's cruel? And though honestly, I wish we didn't know the answer, nor had "Sundown" even begin to flirt with the idea that there is one overall, unfortunately, Michel Franco decides to give us a reason for Neil's raison d'être that's as prosaic as it is clumsily handled.
Vague by necessity, regrettably, that's about as much as I can tell you about the film without going even deeper into spoiler territory. Proof that the best part of any movie is the conversation you have about it afterward, although, for at least half of its 83-minute length, I was completely caught up in Roth's performance as well as its boldly inscrutable spell, my biggest takeaway from “Sundown” is how close it came to greatness before it all fell apart. (And perhaps it isn't a spoiler to say that the film continued on for one twist more than it needed.)
Handled better, of course, it's perfectly fine to give viewers clues as to why a complex character behaves the way that they do. In another sun-drenched tale of bad behavior on holiday in the form of writer-director Maggie Gyllenhaal's remarkable 2021 Netflix release “The Lost Daughter,"
this approach of psychologically character-driven storytelling strengthened her narrative overall. Yet what's missing from Franco's “Sundown,” is the intimacy that we experienced in "The Lost Daughter," based upon the novel by Elena Ferrante. Whereas Gyllenhaal's film felt more like reading someone's diary aloud to them as they watched, "Sundown" feels in contrast to sitting and waiting for a Polaroid picture to start to develop and being a bit dismayed by the result.
Not wanting to spend any real time on Neil's interior life, Franco's “Sundown” keeps us at an arm's length for most of the film, just preferring to let things happen naturally, as observed on Roth's pensive poker or Buster Keaton-like stone face to the point that even a random spray of gunfire on a crowded beach fails to rouse him from his stasis. Yet as unflappable as Neil appears to be in front of the camera, behind it, in contrast, Franco eventually gives in to the pressures of storytelling convention. And though he hopes to be somewhat subtle, this too-late attempt to let us behind Neil's curtain comes off as manipulative, unearned, and disingenuous. Needing either more complexity or more opacity to make us feel like we're staring at the sun alongside our maddening lead, when Franco finally gives us sunglasses to sharpen our view, the film goes from blue sky success to chaotic storm.
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A Year in Review:
Jen's Favorite Films of 2021
by Jen Johans
For me, it really starts in November. That's when I begin to draft my first tentative, incomplete list of the best films I've seen all year and it's also when more screeners land in my inbox and door. No longer covering festivals and instead, spending most of my year revisiting older titles to prepare for my podcast Watch With Jen
, November is also when I survey my friends and colleagues to figure out which films I should prioritize, and how much I still need to watch to not only vote in three different critics organizations but create this list overall.
Boring bookkeeping aside, however, it's also when I do what I most love as a film buff, which is to go beyond frequently listed favorites to search for buried treasure to share with others. Every year, it seems there are films that a majority of critics loved that, for whatever reason, just don't register with me nearly as much as others I feel a personal connection to that are either overlooked or under-praised by the traditional press. Of course, in this pursuit, I'm also limited by which films were available to be safely screened for me by my deadline. (For example, you won't read about “West Side Story” or “Parallel Mothers” in this article because I haven't seen them yet.)
Still, featuring everything from big studio franchise fare to the smallest indies, docs, or foreign titles, this compilation of 2021 favorites is much more diverse than the list I created a year ago
. Another difference I've noticed is the sheer number of recurring themes that seem to exist within these films, regardless of who made them, where, and how.
From “American Graffiti” to “Three Colors: Red,” fittingly for the movies, which is a medium that Roger Ebert famously described as “a machine that generates empathy,” one of my main screen obsessions has always been tales of unexpected human connection or stories where characters you would never expect to cross paths and connect suddenly do. Whether it's in “Drive My Car” or “Language Lessons,” such films show up multiple times in this list and doubtlessly, have taken on more poignancy during the global pandemic, as did my interest in films and characters who are all grappling with the past.
From unearthed footage captured in the tumultuous 1960s that's been edited together in music documentaries like “The Beatles: Get Back” to tales of flawed individuals utterly haunted by their pasts, as we move forward yet stand still in life in the time of Covid, we increasingly find ourselves needing to look back.
Rather than rank my favorites in arbitrary numerical order, I thought that it would make much more sense to write about them naturally by theme and focus on the ways that (for me, at least) so many of these films relate to and/or interact with one another. More than just rattling off these titles as options for a quick watch, while I know you probably won't love them all, I hope you'll find some new favorites from among this list to eagerly look back on as a snapshot of how art tried to make sense of life in 2021.
The films you'll read about here (in order of how they're dissected) include: “The Power of the Dog,” “Old Henry,” “The Harder They Fall,” “The Dry,” “Wrath of Man,” “The Many Saints of Newark,” “No Time To Die,” “The Lost Daughter,” “Mass,” “Test Pattern,” “Flee,” “The Velvet Underground,” “The Beatles: Get Back,” “Summer of Soul (...or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised),” “Drive My Car,” “Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy,” “The Worst Person in the World,” “Licorice Pizza,” “Cyrano,” “Language Lessons,” “Luca,” and “The Mitchells vs. the Machines.”
Compiling this list, I found myself haunted by Paul Thomas Anderson's ambitiously sprawling 1999 Altmanesque masterwork “Magnolia." While undoubtedly on my mind because his latest film “Licorice Pizza” appears in this year in review (and is also, fittingly, set in the past), the questions raised in “Magnolia” about trauma, forgiveness, revenge, history, justice, and how these things can fester and get passed down from father to son or mother to daughter were everywhere in the films of 2021. As Philip Baker Hall's character Jimmy Gator tells us in Anderson's film, "the book says, we may be through with the past, but the past ain't through with us.”
But more than that oft-cited proclamation that evokes the bible's Book of Exodus in the same way that the title of "The Power of the Dog" does the Book of Psalms, it was this “Magnolia” monologue
, spoken by John C. Reilly's character late in the film that I found impossible to forget when I started thinking about a majority of these movies as a whole:
“A lot of people think this is just a job that you go to... take a lunch hour, the job's over, something like that. But it's a twenty-four-hour deal... no two ways about it... and what most people don't see is just how hard it is to do the right thing. People think if I make a judgment call that it's a judgment on them. But that's not what I do, and that's not what should be done. I have to take everything and play it as it lays. Sometimes people need a little help. Sometimes people need to be forgiven. And sometimes they need to go to jail. And that's a very tricky thing on my part... making that call. The law is the law, and heck if I'm gonna break it. But if you can forgive someone... well, that's the tough part. What can we forgive? Tough part of the job. Tough part of walking down the street.”
While in Reilly's case, the job is law enforcement, he might just as well be talking about the job of life or of walking down the street in the middle of a pandemic amid so much uncertainty and chaos. It's a “job” we're constantly needing to redefine and that's precisely what happens in the year's films.
In the opening voice-over of my favorite movie of 2021 – Jane Campion's “The Power of the Dog” – a young man (played by Kodi Smit-McPhee) explains that following his father's death, he's done everything in his power that he could to make his mother happy. Going further, he asks what kind of man he would be if he did not rescue or save her. Although it flies right by the first time you watch Campion's spare western masterpiece, on a second viewing as my dear friend Walter Chaw pointed out on my pod
, it's impossible to miss the way that everything that follows in “Dog” harks back to those opening words and in its questions of what kind of man one should become.
It's a query that Benedict Cumberbatch's character is also consumed by as a man still worshipful of an old male mentor in his past, and one whose discomfort with his own sexuality and skin is something he takes out on everyone else, from his brother (Jesse Plemmons) he ridicules to his new sister-in-law (Kristen Dunst) he torments, as well as her son (Smit-McPhee). Whether he's swaggering into the frame or subtly dominating it with merely the sound of his voice or the strum of his banjo, we're conditioned by the western genre to react to the show of raw alpha masculine power exhibited by Cumberbatch in his career-best performance. Crucially however, yet so, so subtly you might miss it in the first go-round (even if you are familiar with Campion's previous studies of sex and gender), it's still quite the surprise that it's the effeminate, bookish, paper flower maker played by Smit-McPhee who rises to take Cumberbatch's swinging dick on.
A film where its quiet power comes through more in your recollection or memory of it after you watch as "Dog" consumes your thoughts almost as much as Cumberbatch's screen mentor Bronco Henry does him, part of the brilliance of “The Power of the Dog” is in the way that it haunts. Making you reconsider just what is strength and what is weakness against the backdrop of an oversized western environment where – despite its wide-open spaces – absolutely none of its characters seem to fit, while it's Campion's first traditional western, it feels like a natural progression to films like not only “The Piano,” but especially, her underrated “Holy Smoke” and “In the Cut.”
However, she was far from alone in picking up these reins. More than any other genre (except for, perhaps, musicals), 2021 was the year of the western. A popular genre that seems to come back whenever we're faced with great uncertainty like the end of a war – and one where its fundamental building blocks of cops and robbers or heroes/antiheroes and villains evolved into what we know as the crime movie – this year was full of westerns, whether its characters wore Stetsons and shit-kickers or not. And in addition to “The Power of the Dog,” two more traditional westerns rounded out my best list.
A genre veteran who recently learned a plethora of quick-draw gun tricks while making the Coen Brothers western “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs,” “Old Henry” stars character actor Tim Blake Nelson as a rancher with a past that he realizes he must fall back on when he crosses paths with a mysterious man beaten and left for dead, armed with a gun and a satchel of cash. Knowing he can't just leave him in a field, Nelson brings him back to nurse his wounds, warning his son not to get too close, but even though they try to keep their distance, close closes in on them. Soon, the law (or something like it) comes calling in the form of others looking for the man, which puts both Nelson and his son at risk.
A finely crafted indie that sneaks up on you and culminates in a crowd-pleasing, applause-worthy twist, writer-director Potsy Ponciroli's “Old Henry” feels like a long lost B-western made in John Ford's darker era of the late '50s or early '60s, only one deemed too gritty for release that's been instead left dusty, dingy, ready, and waiting in an old film canister on a studio shelf.
But while the crackerjack “Old Henry” adheres to the traditional staples of the genre, the excitingly revisionist Black western “The Harder They Fall,” from director Jeymes Samuel (which Samuel co-wrote with Boaz Yakin) tries, at least initially, to reinvent the wheel. For a little while leaving me in the dust by focusing more on style than substance, it takes a good ten or fifteen minutes or so to move past an early scene that felt like it had come right out of the tired era of Tarantino dialogue retreads of the 1990s. But just when I was ready to write “Harder” off, the film found its footing, introduced Regina King, and took us right along with her on an exciting jailbreak aboard a train that felt like something out of “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.” With King, as with the rest of this enviable cast including Idris Elba, I was suddenly not only eager to be on the train but all in for the film.
But whereas “Old Henry” and “The Power of the Dog” used an intentionally slower pace to ease their works towards a suspenseful crescendo, speed, speed, and more speed, is the modus operandi of “The Harder They Fall.” Utilizing anachronistic music and sound effects, dynamic action choreography and jaw-dropping stuntwork, and celebrating not only the color of its cast but color in general with bright eye-popping production and costume design as well as endless movement and buoyancy, “The Harder They Fall” plays like a stylistically western answer to Australian filmmaker Baz Luhrmann's musical “Moulin Rouge!”
In fact, although Luhrmann has gravitated more to the musical in the past, his home country of Australia has, over the past two decades in films like “Goldstone,” “The Proposition,” and “Red Hill,” become one of the best-kept secrets in modern-day western noir storytelling. And this year, they were at it once again with director Robert Connolly's gorgeous, brooding and haunting import “The Dry,”
based on the bestselling novel by Jane Harper.
Shot four-and-a-half hours outside of Melbourne in the flat, dry landscape of the Wimmera region of Victoria with its wide-open spaces that convey both mystery and danger and the secrets of a small, deceptively close-knit community beginning to come undone, “The Dry” feels like a western neo-noir descendant of Carl Franklin's “One False Move” and Steve Kloves' “Flesh and Bone.”
Featuring Eric Bana in one of his best performances since “Munich” and “Chopper,” this moody, dusty tale of character-driven suspense finds his big-city cop returning to the rural community he escaped decades earlier to get to the bottom of two cases. An intelligent, evocative look at the way that the past and the present can coexist simultaneously, "The Dry" has stayed with me since I first saw it last spring.
And it was just one of several films released throughout the year which was centered on the western, crime, or noir standard of a male protagonist still traumatized by the past who's trying to negotiate his life in the present. In fact, two weeks before I reviewed “The Dry” in May of 2021, I covered what I assumed was just going to be a fun popcorn picture from director Guy Ritchie, but turned out to be my favorite action crime movie of the year.
A stripped-down, stealthily efficient '70s style heist revenge movie starring Jason Statham in his first collaboration with Ritchie since 2005's “Revolver,” “Wrath of Man,”
is an English language remake of the French thriller “Cash Truck” that Ritchie adapted alongside his frequent screenwriting collaborators Marn Davies and Ivan Atkinson. And it's a sharp left-hand turn for the British helmer away from the hyper-kinetic brand of filmmaking most synonymous with his name.
Boasting a quieter turn by Jason Statham and strong supporting work by Jeffrey Donovan in particular, similar to Jane Campion's “The Power of the Dog,” “Wrath of Man” is a film that you can appreciate even more in your second watch when you realize just how well that Ritchie and Campion are using their sound design, respective scores, and editing team to punctuate every moment with a tense, muscular staccato. For example, unlike the way that the song “Guns Go Bang” by Jay-Z and Kid Cudi is used to create a thrilling, roaring mood in “The Harder They Fall,” Ritchie is more concerned here with the dark side of weaponry in “Wrath of Man.”
Owing not only to the inciting incident which drives Statham's character forward but also to the way that on the soundtrack, Ritchie's film achieves this by repeatedly stopping a dubstep version of Johnny Cash's “Folsom Prison Blues” after the line “don't ever play with guns” instead of conflating his message with Cash's lyrics about shooting a man in Reno just to watch him die. And I couldn't help but think as I watched that, as a single, gung-ho filmmaker eagerly playing with guns in movies like "Lock Stock and Two Smoking Barrels," Guy Ritchie twenty-three years ago wouldn't have hesitated to include Cash's Reno line as a macho, bullet strewn, coolly nihlistic fuck you. But made today, as a father who's seen his share of violence in the world, suddenly, he knows it's time to pause, and "Wrath" is all the better for it.
The opposite of subtle, “Wrath of Man” isn't as artful as “Dog.” But there's a similar undercurrent here about what makes a man in terms of what they've done in the past, and what they can and should do for a parent or child (even if just in their memory, thereby linking it to “The Harder They Fall” as well), which makes these westerns and films noir riveting to compare and contrast.
These interrogations of the past, and particularly of what one owes a parent and child come back again and again in a handful of other movies I loved this year in all genres. However, staying in this terrain for starters, such questions come to a head while playing with our perception of memory, unreliable narrators, and storytelling in two very different sequels released in '21.
In the first, which technically qualifies as a prequel, “The Many Saints of Newark,” takes us back to the world of HBO's “The Sopranos,” while focusing on the people and places that shaped the character of Tony Soprano, portrayed by the late James Gandolfini in the legendary series but embodied by his son Michael Gandolfini as a younger man here.
A minor player in the drama, which, as the Italian translation of the title “Many Saints” denotes, primarily zeroes in on the Moltisanti family (and is narrated by Michael Imperioli's deceased Christopher Moltisanti in the film), while some people went into “Many Saints” hoping for a continuation of the Sopranos lore, this story of this "thing of ours" is very much its very own, very good thing. Featuring standout performances by veteran character actors, chiefly Alessandro Nivola as Tony Soprano's handsome, charismatic mentor Dickie Moltisanti and Ray Liotta playing dual roles “Hollywood Dick” and Salvatore “Sally” Moltisanti, director Alan Taylor's movie deals with the stories we tell ourselves and others in order to adapt to our environment.
Playing with deception and perception, unsurprisingly for a world that was built around psychoanalysis in "The Sopranos," the leads of "Newark" insulate themselves from any real moments of vulnerability with layer upon layer of toxic swagger and macho bullshit. Wholly wrapped up in justifications and faux narratives, perhaps more for themselves if no one else, in one of the film's most fascinating moments, Liotta's surprisingly self-aware criminal is able to see right through the smiling facade of Nivola's Dickie as he relays his version of tragic events.
Playing out between the two gangsters in the visiting room of jail rather than among cowboys swapping stories across a campfire on the trail, it's thrilling to observe the almost imperceptible raised eyebrow and neutral exhale from Liotta as he realizes that, as though Dickie were his opponent in the poker game of life, he's just spotted a tell. It takes one to know one, after all.
And centered on a different kind of storytelling achieved by revisiting another larger than life alpha male figure that's been part of our worldwide cultural landscape for half a century longer than “The Sopranos,” director Cary Joji Fukunaga served up one searing and surprisingly soulful farewell to Daniel Craig as British spy James Bond in “No Time to Die.”
A film that, like the others in the Daniel Craig era, arrives as a direct sequel to its predecessors, on the surface, “Time” follows the pattern of these films in Craig's run of each masterpiece being directly followed by a 007 entry we'd rather forget. This started with the brilliant “Casino Royale” and abysmal “Quantum of Solace” and repeated once again with another franchise highlight in the form of “Skyfall,” and its disappointing aftermath “Spectre.” Yet while you do need to have seen “Spectre” fairly recently in order to appreciate and understand “No Time to Die,” this film greatly improves upon that misfire and makes us reevaluate them all.
Tonally, it's a film that has far more in common with “On Her Majesty's Secret Service” and the more melancholic outings for Bond than it does with the splashy upbeat entries made by Roger Moore and Pierce Brosnan. Played with world-weary resonance by Craig as a man who's been through the wars because the actor has done so as well while making them, here we very much encounter a man who knows that he is on his way out, as much for what he's done and the choices he's made as he is simply out of step in this changing world, along with others (like Vesper Lynd, M, and Felix Leiter) that he's lost along the way.
Ending with a lovely coda for the whole series that stayed with me long after I watched the film (and still now makes me tear up in retrospect), as one character begins to relay the story of James Bond to their child, the universality of this gesture and Bond's legacy shines through for us all. Whether you've had a lifelong affection for the character or only knew of 007 in passing, we've all been that child hearing these stories as well, starting as far back as in Ian Fleming's tattered paperbacks or onscreen with Sean Connery in “Dr. No,” and it's the perfect way for Fukunaga to end it.
Turning fact into fiction or fiction into fact, of course, sometimes parents, like all adults, are the ones who need to tell themselves stories as well in order to survive, and/or to try to accept or change a narrative they're still plagued by. In 2021, while Jake Gyllenhaal starred in an underwhelming English language remake of a vastly superior Danish film called “The Guilty”
that did just that in its suspenseful saga of a mother who tells herself tales to cope with reality, his sister Maggie Gyllenhaal found herself dealing with thematically similar foreign terrain as well.
However, this time, in adapting Italian author Elena Ferrante's acclaimed novel “The Lost Daughter” for her feature filmmaking debut, writer-director Gyllenhaal opted to chart her saga of maternal storytelling not from the voice of a male outsider as in "The Guilty," but instead from a woman's point-of-view. The cinematic equivalent of birth control in the way that "The Lost Daughter" is completely uninterested in covering up just how much motherhood can derail your life, Gyllenhaal's boldly uncompromising film chronicles a middle-aged college professor's (Olivia Colman) Greek holiday as she becomes entangled in the plight of a young, overwhelmed mother (Dakota Johnson), which makes her confront her own past choices as a mother as well.
Sparsely written in terms of dialogue, while Ferrante is hard to adapt both for the screen as well as in the English language since you're ultimately translating a translation of a pseudonymous writer (whose gender we, therefore, do not know), everything in this script is cryptic, cutting, and above all critical to the work as a whole. And as the film's main trio of women size each other up with long looks across the beach, or in moments of microaggressions involving lawn chairs and birthday cake, Gyllenhaal knows we're absorbing more about who these people are and what makes them tick than we would in any lengthy monologue. Playing the same character at two different points in her life, Jessie Buckley and Olivia Colman give two of the strongest female turns of the year.
Falling back on her years as one of our best character actresses, Gyllenhaal lets "The Lost Daughter" unfold slowly like an intricate piece of origami, collaborating with her cast and crew with ease to create something as startling and unforgettable as it is rare. Stunningly crafted yet fearless, and vitally made in and with the female gaze about females who gaze outward and in, it's the kind of film that's going to hit not only men and women but especially parents and non-parents differently, and one that's above all bound to get us all talking and telling stories of our own.
And, composed of conversations that play out between two couples throughout one emotionally grueling afternoon, that's precisely what happens in actor turned writer-director Fran Kranz's hard-hitting feature filmmaking debut "Mass." Dealing not with the children but rather the adults left in their wake to sort through and pick up all the pieces following a shocking school shooting, as "Mass" begins, a grieving husband and wife (Jason Isaacs and Martha Plimpton) have agreed to sit down with the parents of the boy (Ann Dowd and Reed Birney) who took their son's life to try to get answers or figure out just who, what, where, when, why, and how everything went so wrong.
A devastating tour de force by the quartet of actors involved, even if by design it feels perhaps more like a filmed play than an artful work of groundbreaking cinema, “Mass” is an auspicious debut from Kranz that's urgent, topical, and impossible to look away from.
Yet whereas the adults in "Mass" are limited by how much they know about what was going on in their children's lives as well as how they choose to interpret their behavior and trauma (as well as someone else's) to preserve their sanity, Brittany S. Hall's character in "Test Pattern" doesn't have the same luxury.
Uncertain as to what exactly had happened after she met her friend the night before in a bar, when the intelligent, hard-working Black, twenty-something Texas woman awakens in a strange man's hotel room, the only thing she can focus on is returning home safely to her boyfriend. Doing just that, after her frightened lover begins to fill in some of the blanks of the night she can't remember and she realizes she'd been violated and drugged, the two of them make the decision to go to the ER to complete a rape kit. But as harrowing yet straightforward as their goal is, nothing about this situation is simple.
Sent from one hospital to another where either untrained or disinterested staff half-listen to her request or are unable to help as hours go by and the evidence of the crime threatens to vanish from Hall's body, first-time writer-director Shatara Michelle Ford's "Test Pattern" is the film about rape and trauma that 2020's disingenuous, manipulative "Promising Young Woman" wished it could've been.
Anchored by an incredible performance by Hall and dedicated to exploring double standards for not only women in the United States but Black women in particular, "Test Pattern" is very astute about sexual assault and the way that it impacts everyone involved in the survivor's life differently to drive home the idea that these traumas are never isolated but fluid and ongoing.
It's particularly deft in its understanding of the way that assault makes women feel like they need to apologize for something happening without their consent, and also treat the men in their lives with kid gloves or prioritize their emotions as well as their own discomfort/confusion and embarrassment above all else. Understated and sharp in the filmmaker's approach to, as Gyllenhaal did in "The Lost Daughter," let behavior and even the smallest moments dictate character which we see especially play out as a study of contrasts in the white boyfriend of our Black female character who's unaccustomed to not getting what he wants, this knowing, understated film is as hard to shake as it is rich in food for thought.
Similarly underscoring the limitations and perils of rape reporting for women in the united states where we're often disbelieved (and doubly so for women of color), "Test Pattern" is a stunner of a film that reminds us of the impact that the traumas of the past will continue to have on the present and future, especially when we're uncertain as to what's behind us in our rearview mirror and fear that if the reflection ever sharpens what it might do to our futures as well.
Having weighed on him for twenty years as part of his own very true, very clear secret history that he'd kept hidden to keep himself and his family safe, in one of the very best documentaries of 2021, a man named Amin Nawabi realizes that he can't remotely begin to move on unless he confronts his past.
Winner of the Sundance Film Festival Grand Jury Prize for World Cinema Documentary, as Danish filmmaker Jonas Poher Rasmussen's animated mixed media work “Flee” opens, Amin Nawabi shares memories of his life and family where he was born in Afghanistan.
Reminding viewers of the documentaries “Waltz With Bashir” and “Persepolis” in Rasmussen's decision to use a compelling tapestry of richly evocative animation to chart its saga with an international biographical focus, as soon as "Flee" begins, we fall under Amin Nawabi's spell as he recalls his past fleeing Afghanistan with his family amid their attempts to find refuge in Europe.
A gay man who, just before his wedding, discerns that he can't run from his past if he expects to have any chance at a happy future, “Flee,” which was executive produced by actors Riz Ahmed and Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, is a masterclass in artfully inventive, intensely personal documentary storytelling. Moreover, it's enhanced tenfold by its unwillingness to deliver a standard by-the-numbers talking head approach to the past.
And thankfully, it's far from the only documentary released over the course of the year that refused to play by genre rules. With its swirling, moving, and competing split-screen images and overlapping of guitar strings, drums, and voices, director Todd Haynes' first feature-length music documentary “The Velvet Underground”
serves up the definitive story of the band in such a way that we feel we're experiencing it right from inside Andy Warhol's Factory.
Vibrating on a darkly intoxicating, dissonant frequency that we might've expected to come from John Cale's viola or Sterling Morrison's guitar, Haynes' doc offers new insights about Lou Reed's life from the people who knew him best and importantly, serves as a corrective when it comes to German model, actress, Warhol muse, and singer Nico's involvement with what Cale dubs the band's “banana album.” With Nico painted more like a woman who enjoyed writing poetry and collaborating with others than the “Femme Fatale” diva reputation that the “Femme Fatale” singer has had in pop culture in the years since, “The Velvet Underground” isn't the sole documentary released in 2021 to makes us realize that we've been wrong all along in our assessment of female personnel.
Going a long way to right past wrongs when it comes to the racist and misogynistic lens that Yoko Ono's involvement with John Lennon and The Beatles has been seen through over the past fifty years, in filmmaker Peter Jackson's fly-on-the-wall documentary “Get Back,” he lets Yoko Ono and The Beatles tell us the truth not in retrospect but contemporaneously in their own words and behavior.
Consisting of nearly eight hours of unseen footage that was shot for director Michael Lindsay-Hogg's contentious 1970 documentary “Let it Be” over the course of twenty-one days in January of 1969 before the band broke up, over the course of three installments, we watch as The Beatles work, chat, play, improvise, and fight together while preparing for their legendary rooftop concert and final album.
With Yoko Ono essentially attached at John Lennon's hip, which, according to insiders was one hundred percent the way that Lennon wanted it and contrary to rumors that she was the disruptive force tearing the band apart, throughout “Get Back,” she mostly stays quietly supportive, simply nodding, writing, drawing, or knitting along to the music and all involved.
Chronicling their frustrations and differing styles as musicians who were as close as brothers but have with time and age, begun to drift, while admittedly the middle section of the film, which consists of nearly a full hour of them constantly starting and stopping after the first line of the song “Get Back,” is woefully overlong, it's still an utterly fascinating portrait of these legendary artists at work. Capturing the lightning in a bottle moments where Paul McCartney comes up with the hook and riff of “Get Back,” when George Harrison arrives on set having created his beautifully romantic waltz “I Me Mine,” and more, it's as mesmerizing as it is challenging, which, now we can truly imagine with more authority, was a lot like being in The Beatles.
But while Michael Lindsay-Hogg's documentary crew was busily documenting The Beatles in London in 1969, across the pond here in America another filmmaking crew was hard at work doing the same thing over the span of a six-week summer music festival that took place in Harlem at the same time that man first walked on the moon. Editing all of this footage together, which, as in “Get Back,” had been locked away for fifty years, musician turned director Ahmir "Questlove" Thompson's “Summer of Soul (...or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised)” takes us inside the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival.
Not the only music festival that was held in the summer of 1969, which most people know beyond Neil Armstrong's spacewalk as the summer of Woodstock, in this vibrant crowd-pleasing documentary, Questlove makes sure that the predominantly Black artists and audience members of this festival will be overlooked no more. Weaving together performance clips with interviews from both band members and attendees, including one moving sequence where a man realizes that he can, in fact, trust his memory when it comes to the impact that seeing The 5th Dimension perform had on him as a young boy, it's a terrific time capsule of buried history that most of the world, especially white America, did not even know took place.
And while selfishly as a music junkie, I wish that Questlove had included far more musical numbers in their entirety, at the same time, I can appreciate his unwillingness to let the 118 minute “Summer of Soul” go on for the near eight-hour length of “Get Back," and in the way that he wants the people who were there in '69 to help shape its legacy.
Winner of the US Documentary Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival, "Summer of Soul" was one of the earliest best-reviewed documentaries of the year. Now available to stream on Hulu, it's wonderful to see artists like Stevie Wonder, Nina Simone, Sly and the Family Stone, The Staple Singers, Gladys Knight & the Pips, Mahalia Jackson, and The Chambers Brothers in their prime dazzle you with heart and soul while broadening your scope of time we thought we knew so well gone by.
Interrogating the past through the use of art and culture, while music isn't the driving force of my favorite foreign film of the year, Japanese filmmaker Ryusuke Hamaguchi's “Drive My Car” employs the intertextuality of literature and the sound of one's voice in much the same way.
Based on the 2014 Haruki Murakami short story of the same name, which first appeared in the collection “Men Without Women,” “Drive My Car” uses Anton Chekov's 1898 play “Uncle Vanya” as its greatest source of creative inspiration. And though it eventually reminded me of Swedish director Ingmar Bergman's “Wild Strawberries” as well, as the film begins, we get acquainted with a married creative couple whose sex life is both a function of and/or fueled by their art.
Opening with a hypnotic, roughly forty-five-minute prologue of sorts that initially makes you think you've wandered into a psychosexual thriller on par with “Eyes Wide Shut” – and doubly so when it's revealed that the writer wife of our actor protagonist (played by Hidetoshi Nishijima) is having an affair with a new young muse – as another tragedy occurs and he suddenly becomes a widower, the film switches gears once again. Evolving into a leisurely humanistic drama, the actor, who always learned his lines by listening to his wife's voice on cassette, finds himself doing so once again in anticipation to stage a new production of “Uncle Vanya” featuring the same dashing yet tempestuous young actor who'd been sleeping with his late wife.
A leisurely paced yet utterly intoxicating three-hour masterwork that requires patience in the way that it lives and breathes along with its leads, as the actor enjoys the ritual of listening to his wife's voice once again in the car, he's forced to let another person in as he's assigned a young female driver who's survived a trauma of her own. Although a triumph in its own right as its tale of two gentle unlikely souls you'd never expect to cross paths suddenly able to recognize the same pain in one another, “Drive My Car” is one of two remarkable, intimately focused empathetic pictures to be crafted by writer-director Hamaguchi in the same calendar year. Even more impressively, both works play like novels on film and are tributes to the courageous act of faith that goes along with deciding who we let into our weird little internal worlds.
But while “Drive My Car” is easily my favorite among the pair of films, which also includes the similarly literary character study “Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy,” “Fortune” deserves far more attention than it's received so far. Composed of three unrelated female-centric storylines, “Fortune,” which was also known as “Coincidence and Imagination,” is less reminiscent of a "Car" style cross between Murakami, Chekov, and Bergman and more like a lost installment from Éric Rohmer's Moral or Seasonal series of tales.
Feeling as though we've just jumped a lane in the middle of traffic from the people having heart-to-heart conversations in Hidetoshi Nishijima's red vehicle at the center of “Drive My Car” to the pair of female friends we first meet in “Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy” doing the same thing as well, "Wheel" amusingly begins in a car.
In three separate storylines, Hamaguchi focuses on connections missed and made and the way that people drift in and out of our lives at different times. Working quite well as an unrelated film in its own right, it nonetheless expands upon the same existential questions that pervaded “Drive My Car,” which makes this a particularly soulful pair of films to watch together in quick succession. Deepening our understanding when screened thusly, they balance each other out in another unexpected fashion as well as Hamaguchi, having largely switched his focus from the actor at the start of “Car” with the man's female chauffeur by its end, here in the women populated “Wheel” eventually moves the majority of his scope from one gender to the next.
Similarly moving away from the male-dominated films of their past to study the interior life of women on a level that we haven't really seen to such an extent in the filmography of writer-directors Joachim Trier and Paul Thomas Anderson before, we find these men doing just that as we continue on. But, as with “Car” and “Wheel,” you can likewise watch their 2021 releases “The Worst Person in the World” and “Licorice Pizza” separately, these works – both focused on existential coming-of-age, the struggles of self-identity, and young love – play far better if you watch them as a double feature.
An accidental discovery that I made while trying to quickly see as many 2021 screeners as I could to build this list, I went into both of these films – which revolve around two young women struggling to find their way romantically, personally, and otherwise – largely unaware of their plots. And when considering both, it must be said that I related far more to “Licorice Pizza” than I did Trier's otherwise cinematically superior “Worst Person in the World.” Still, sensing I was on the same wavelength of both, I found myself completely unprepared for how much these two masterful movies made by men (just like Hamaguchi's “Car” and “Wheel”) would not only feel familiar to me as a woman but also bring back so many memories of all of the right and wrong men I met at the wrong and right time in my life as well.
“The Worst Person in the World,” is the third and, in my eyes, best film in Norwegian filmmaker Joachim Trier's Oslo Trilogy, following “Reprise” and “Oslo, August 31.” In it, we meet an ambitious college student (brilliantly played by Renate Reinsve) with an insatiable yet tentative passion for art, life, and love. Impetuous and hungry for both new experiences and inspiration, Reinsve's lead is forever finding herself searching for that next invigorating thing she hopes will fill her up or give her life new meaning, whether that's in terms of her ever-changing major, professional career, or love.
Not so much “trading up” romantically as she catches herself being pulled in unprecedented directions by new men she tries on like new trendy seasonal apparel she hopes might become the backbone of her signature wardrobe, early in "Worst," we watch as Reinsve falls (as we do as well) for a comic book artist (Anders Danielsen Lie). Fifteen years her senior, Lie wisely tells her right off the bat and in no uncertain terms that because they're at different places in their life, any relationship that could happen between the two of them is bound to end badly. Telling us everything we need to know about our leading lady by the way she reacts, predictably, of course, that's when she realizes she's in love with him... or at least, something like it on her own.
Chronicling their tempestuous relationship and the way that sadly sometimes you can either meet the love of your life at the wrong time or realize too late that the level of the affection between you and someone else is heartbreakingly unbalanced, as part of the universal experience of finding one's way in life and love, it's a film that everyone can relate to even if you're nothing like its characters.
I will say that occasionally in “Worst,” it does feel like, as a man, Trier is naturally if perhaps unintentionally empathizing more with the film's male characters he paints in a complex yet slightly better light and this is especially true of the flawed yet unceasingly devoted man played by Lie in particular. However, refreshingly, all the same, his affection for this striving, messy, wistful, aimless yet determined young woman makes the film as surprisingly effervescent as it is compulsively watchable and in it - as his own Audrey Tatou or Anna Karina - Reinsve burns so brightly she could just as well be used as an alternative energy source.
The second major American film of 2021 to feature the son of a late legendary actor (after Michael Gandolfini stepped into his father's role of Tony Soprano in “The Many Saints of Newark"), “Licorice Pizza” stars the son of one of Paul Thomas Anderson's longest, most iconic, and vital collaborators Philip Seymour Hoffman. But in stark contrast to the way that Michael's supporting character and performance in “Many Saints” was easily overshadowed by the titans and sharks among its jaw-dropping cast, the earnest, affable newcomer Cooper Hoffman fills nearly every frame of “Pizza,” which was as inspired by Anderson's own memories of growing up in the valley of Los Angeles in the 1970s as it was by the life of Gary Goetzman.
Yet even though there's a male protagonist at the heart of “Licorice Pizza,” intriguingly (and in a way that's similar to Cameron Crowe's '70s set “Almost Famous” and the movies of Crowe's idol Billy Wilder, including “The Apartment” as well), the heart of Paul Thomas Anderson's "Pizza" undoubtedly belongs to its female lead.
As the twenty-five-year-old object of precocious fifteen-year-old Gary's (Hoffman) misguided affection, musician Alana Haim is utterly magnetic as a woman who not only continues to live at home but also exists in a state of half-adolescent, half-adult arrested development. Aimlessly going from one temporary job to the next as she tries to figure out just what it is she wants to do with herself, Haim's Alana appears to be still operating under that universal misapprehension of youth that there's some external “thing” she needs to find in order for her life to truly begin.
Having crossed paths with a teen ten years her junior who's as confident and settled as she is sunny yet purposeless, when Gary decides to make Alana his new reason for being, it's easy to understand the appeal that having so much unfiltered awe and attention thrust upon you would have on a woman this lost. Still, knowing he's much too young to be romantically serious about, even though it's hard to deny that the two have chemistry to spare, Alana instead vows to remain one of his closest friends, business partners, and confidants.
Oh, and to weigh in on the dreaded age-gap discourse, I must confess that I am very much the wrong person to ask. Having started college at the ripe old age of sixteen after learning to walk again twice from major spine surgery (and therefore having very little in common with boys my own age), I promptly fell for my handsomest classmate... who I realized much too late was not eighteen but actually twenty-five. And even though, like Gary worshiping Alana throughout, we never acted on our mutual attraction and were merely on-campus Spanish study buddies instead, I related to their weirdly charged yet ultimately fruitless placeholder connection hard.
Filled with larger than life characters, including composites of Lucille Ball (Christine Ebersole) and William Holden (Sean Penn), as well as fictionalized versions of Jon Peters (a hilarious Bradley Cooper) and Joel Wachs (Benny Safdie), one of the most curious things about “Licorice Pizza” is in just how much Paul Thomas Anderson has committed to making the film's largely male grownup characters feel both like manipulative dinosaurs who treat every interaction as if it were a transaction and are also disingenuous.
When faced with a Hollywood has-been content to call Alana “Breezy” (after the Holden film siren and also, as if she's there to keep him cool) or a closeted politician who is only interested in using her gender to benefit him for the sake of appearances, it's no wonder why Haim's found Gary so refreshing by comparison, even if she knows that he's probably not the one for her either.
Although it's set in the same era as Quentin Tarantino's impressively crafted yet incredibly reactionary “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood,” which, incidentally felt like it was made after Anderson threw down the early '70s L.A. Gauntlet in “Inherent Vice,” its approaches to these sorts of men couldn't be more different. As opposed to Tarantino's film being centered on and far more interested in the feelings of its literal and figurative lady killers, rather than lionizing such figures, "Licorice Pizza" makes us realize that these kinds of wearying men Alana is incredibly right to be suspicious of.
But in stark contrast to the laughter expected as women are pummeled, snore loudly, nag, set ablaze, offer oral sex, barely speak, or take a phone to the face in "Hollywood," in "Pizza," Penn and Cooper's fragile male egos are the opposite of heroic. Amusingly transparent instead, here it's the guileless, meandering, hustling kids who reign supreme. As referenced earlier, much like "Pizza," "Hollywood" also features the children of movie stars... several in fact. Yet, rather than use them as iconography or celebrate that legacy as Anderson does with Hoffman, as an obvious commentary on nepotism in show business, Tarantino instead opts to turn all these famous daughters into the Manson family (which is admittedly brilliant but absolutely pointed as well).
And while there are unfortunately two misguided yet brief moments of mock-Japanese in "Pizza" involving John Michael Higgins as Mikado hotel and restaurateur Jerry Frick that - in painting his character as a prejudiced buffoon - instead come off as mind-blowingly racially insensitive as well (which is another trait shared with the insensitive “Hollywood” portrayal of Bruce Lee), I still prefer this film's honesty about these old white blowhards overall.
Reminiscent of Ally Sheedy's line from “The Breakfast Club” that “when you grow up, your heart dies,” while we know that Gary and Alana - who spend several sequences running, running, always running for shelter - will find their way eventually (and it's important to ask yourself if the last moments of the film are literal or the stuff of either's wish-fulfilling fantasy), it's nice to see Anderson as a storyteller use a feminine lens to try to work out all of these conflicting ideas for himself. Fueled by the sights and sounds of cars and rock 'n roll in the L.A. valley, “Licorice Pizza” is at once both as laid-back and full of promise as a late summer night, and just as much fun.
Looking back on the year, along with Benedict Cumberbatch in “The Power of the Dog,” as well as Renate Reinsve, Olivia Colman, and Alana Haim in “The Worst Person in the World,” “The Lost Daughter," and "Licorice Pizza" respectively, Peter Dinklage delivered another one of my favorite performances of 2021. In perhaps his best role since "Game of Thrones," Dinklage brings to life the sharp-tongued, lovelorn eponymous Cyrano de Bergerac. Directed by masterful “Pride and Prejudice” and “Atonement” helmer Joe Wright, “Cyrano” is an adaptation of Erica Schmidt's 2018 stage musical based upon Edmond Rostand's 1897 play.
Unable to screen Steven Spielberg's new version of “West Side Story” before press time, although I enjoyed the year's adaptation of Lin Manuel Miranda's “In the Heights” quite a bit (and much, much more than “Tick, Tick... Boom,” despite Andrew Garfield's tremendous performance), “Cyrano” is easily my favorite film musical of 2021.
A tour de force turn as the brilliantly witty, sharp-tongued, and sharp sword-wielding French soldier desperately in love with the gorgeous young Roxanne (played by “Swallow” actress Haley Bennett), rather than give Dinklage Cyrano's trademark large nose, the film opts instead to let his stature as a dwarf stand-in for the required “less than desirable trait” he feels would make him untenable for her love. Taken into her confidence after she sees a handsome yet dim soldier Christian (“Luce” and “Waves” star Kelvin Harrison Jr.) who will be fighting in uniform alongside Cyrano, as Roxanne begins to exchange letters with the object of her affection, Cyrano takes it upon himself to be the one to reply for the hopeless Christian.
A play I've always been extremely affected by because as a woman with a spinal disability who's similarly held people at an arm's length for related reasons over the years, as a young girl, it was easy to mentally swap in my condition for Cyrano's nose, especially when played by Steve Martin in “Roxanne.” Therefore, the decision to do something like this with Dinklage instead of just giving a different actor a nasal prosthetic made the film work for me incredibly well on a personal level (and I can only imagine that it was both difficult and cathartic for Dinklage to do something similar as well).
Largely overlooked by critics guilds nationwide, but featuring terrific songs written by Aaron and Bryce Dessner of the band The National as well as stunning production design and slightly blown out, painterly rose, yellow, and ivory-hued impressionistic cinematography, “Cyrano” is a film you won't want to miss.
Destined to fall in between the cracks of the publicity machine that drives so many critics guild award seasons forward (where swag sadly results in nods), I have faith that the star power of Dinklage in front of the camera and Wright behind it will ensure that fans will take note and eventually catch on. Still, "Cyrano" wasn't the only unheralded foreign, indie, or documentary title this year that I'm lucky to have stumbled upon.
In 2021, no indie sleeper won me over nearly as much as actress turned director Natalie Morales' lovely, understated, wonderfully humanistic drama "Language Lessons." Co-written by Morales with Mark Duplass (whose own work as a cinematic storyteller in collaboration with his brother Jay as well as director Lynn Shelton I've responded to repeatedly over the years), I found "Language Lessons" by flipping through an online library of titles and proceeded to fall in love with it so much that I watched it twice in two weeks on my own.
Easily the best film about the importance of human connection during the pandemic that doesn't explicitly deal with the pandemic (and indeed Morales' sweet-natured "Language Lessons" is all the better for it), events unspool in a Zoom-like set-up. As it opens, Duplass' character learns that his wealthy husband has surprised him with two years of conversational Spanish lessons, care of the hard-working, Costa Rica-based online instructor played by Morales. Soon becoming a lifeline for Duplass when tragedy strikes, although Morales' guarded teacher tries to keep things solely on a professional footing, a natural friendship develops between the two through a series of immersive Spanish conversations.
Taking us in some truly unexpected yet all too relatable directions, the drama of the film is heightened all the more thanks to the again external realities of the real-world pandemic. In addition to being drawn to stories about unlikely friends thrown together by common ground or circumstances beyond their control, this film worked as well as it did for me because, whether it's in my weekly pandemic movie club, bimonthly virtual game nights, or podcast interviews with colleagues who've since become friends, "Language Lessons" plays like an autobiographical reflection of these unprecedented years as well.
As someone who never wanted to keep a diary through my teen years when I went through a number of frightening medical woes, I've always used films as markers for my memories and likewise filtered the hardest times of my life through art. I had a similar reaction to this film, which feels like an emotionally safer way to look back at life during the first two years of the pandemic because it approaches this experience in a manner that's more figurative than it is literal. A lovely watch at a time when everything else is beyond our control, in "Language Lessons," Morales and Duplass remind us that no matter what happens, life is infinitely better if we're honest about where we are, what we're going through, and if we check in with the people we love.
Refreshing in the way that “Language Lessons” does this without falling back on a storyline rooted in romantic love, one of my other favorites from last year also focused on the way that one's friends can become a second (or chosen) family.
Vividly animated in bright, warm, bold hues, including an emphasis on blues, magentas, and gold, Italian-American director Enrico Casarosa's sunnily sweet-natured Pixar film “Luca” is one of 2021's most under-discussed treasures. On the surface, it's a male-centric flip-side to something like Disney's contemporary classic “The Little Mermaid,” which found mermaid princess Ariel willing to give up her voice in exchange for legs to use onshore to pursue the man she loves.
In “Luca,” after a young sea-monster in the Italian Riviera meets an outgoing new friend, he discovers that when he touches the dry land of Portorosso, his legs appear naturally. Preferring the adventures in town to his sheltered life under the sea, as Luca begins to explore life away from his protective, loving parents with the two fellow underdogs he feels a kinship with, a whole new world of possibilities and knowledge comes into focus for the first time.
Rooted in the fairytale tradition of a Joseph Campbell style hero's journey (that's become second nature to generations raised on Disney and Pixar), because “Luca” isn't nearly as high-concept as some of a recent venture like “Soul,” it's faced some criticism as a so-called “minor” Pixar venture. Yet, in my eyes, particularly as someone old enough to have seen both Disney's “The Little Mermaid'' and the original “Toy Story” when they were brand new in the theater, there's something both nourishingly wholesome in its familiar, classic, storyline and daringly modern in its unwillingness to clutter it up with any unnecessarily fantastical twists.
It's a very welcome change of pace for a studio that, in the last few years, has seemed to get further and further away from universally relatable characters and plots in favor of something new age or sci-fi. And while that's not to say that their recent works have all been misfires because Pixar will always be the most existential and humanistic of all American animation houses to me, “Luca” was just the right blend of old and new, and a film that felt as steeped in twentieth-century Disney tradition as it is in twenty-first century Pixar.
Far more modern in its concept and scope, however, yet just as focused on human connection as the Pixar film was as well (to the point that its original title was actually “Connected”) is another favorite animated film of '21, “The Mitchells vs. the Machines.” Sharing the same actress who voiced the matriarch in both “Luca” and “Mitchells” in the form of the wonderful Maya Rudolph, this Sony Pictures Animation film benefited from the same CG yet hand-watercolor-painted look of Sony's brilliant “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse.” The end result is a very welcome return to animated fare that, despite the tens of millions of dollars and cutting-edge technology behind it, not only looks invitingly homemade but is bursting with color, light, and life.
Directed by Mike Rianda (and co-written by Rianda and Jeff Rowe), the film, which is centered on a cross-country family road trip to drop the oldest child off at film school in California, draws on memories that Rianda had about growing up in his family as a young aspiring filmmaker and robot enthusiast. Giving the old-fashioned idea at the heart of “The Mitchells” a decidedly modern, plugged in twist however is a B-storyline about an AI uprising of all robots, appliances, phones, computers, toys, and more operated by the same computer chip (voiced by Olivia Colman) that comes self-aware and decides to try to get revenge on the humans they serve, which soon takes over the narrative.
A fast-paced, frequently funny, wholly original yet relatable LGBTQ friendly family comedy with so many throwaway jokes that fly right by that it truly needs to be watched more than once to even begin to absorb it all, “The Mitchells vs. the Machines” is an animated film that's bound to land differently yet no less successfully across the generations. Made before the pandemic and originally intended to be released in theaters in 2020 before Sony cut their losses and sold the film to Netflix, understandably, it's impossible to watch all of these films on this list in a vacuum and without the existence of Covid-19 suddenly making these tales of the past and human connection feel far more urgent and charged.
Seeing them now, we're unable to be nearly as cynical as we once were about relationships we might've taken for granted, or at least that's the hope anyway, as in times of crisis, we're forced to weigh what's ultimately important to us in the long run. This, after all, is the reason I love film (or Ebert's machines that generate empathy) in the first place. And it's been a great comfort to watch these tales of friends and family members asking themselves the same questions about the tough twenty-four job of life, or as it's said in “Magnolia,” of “walking down the street" throughout 2021 and to see the ways that they look within and battle all comers in order to follow through in spite of it all.
My 2021 Favorites (listed in order of appearance in this article):
“The Power of the Dog,” “Old Henry,” “The Harder They Fall,” “The Dry,” “Wrath of Man,” “The Many Saints of Newark,” “No Time To Die,” “The Lost Daughter,” “Mass,” “Test Pattern,” “Flee,” “The Velvet Underground,” “The Beatles: Get Back,” “Summer of Soul (...or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised),” “Drive My Car,” “Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy,” “The Worst Person in the World,” “Licorice Pizza,” “Cyrano,” “Language Lessons,” “Luca,” and “The Mitchells vs. the Machines.”
I also recommend: “I'm Your Man,” “Final Set,”
“Memoria,” “Holler,” “Red Rocket,” “Barb & Star Go to Vista Del Mar,” “A Hero,” “Sweet Thing,” “Riders of Justice,”
and “In the Heights.”
Text ©2022, Film Intuition, LLC; All Rights Reserved. https://www.filmintuition.com
Notes on Forgetting Our Birthday
by Jen Johans
Today, I'm feeling a little like Molly Ringwald's entire family in “Sixteen Candles,” except in my case, let's make that “Fifteen Candles.” To explain: last week, Film Intuition turned fifteen years old and I completely forgot! The official legal birthdate, I believe, is December 9. That's when, so many years ago, I registered my blog as an LLC and properly gave it its own URL courtesy of Yahoo, which then became Illuminate, then Aabaco, and is now Verizon, but who knows which merger and name change tomorrow will bring. (Speaking of mergers, I had to ax my old site layout and lost our extensive review index but will try to create a new one with review links in '22.)
First, however, I'll kick things off with a little history: I started the site originally through Blogger in the fall of 2006 as a project for my self-designed Film Studies baccalaureate program. I devoted my focus to movies made by women since there wasn't a whole lot of information available about the subject either online or in print at the time. In fact, that's actually why the website has a female-centric, female intuition-based name. Nonetheless, soon after I launched the blog, I fell in love with my classic and contemporary noir coursework and decided to broaden my website's scope to all of cinema as the year ended and I graduated from film school.
Having essentially gone to college off and on since I was 16 years old (where I quickly realized that it was my goal to never stop learning), at 25, my nerdy constant quest for film knowledge was a hard habit to break. So I did what I'd done for years, and especially what I'd done when I couldn't go to school due to multiple spine surgeries or chronic pain. I kept up my research by buying old film textbooks online as well as from used bookstores. I also continued writing blog entries... so many blog entries.
December 9, 2007 marks the date when I changed the Blogspot address to an official legal one (and when I started to repost old reviews in the new set-up), but by the time this happened, I had loyal readers, and had written hundreds of short pieces in a single year. While some of those early posts, I'm sure, are quite cringe-worthy, over the next 15 years, I amassed a database of more than 2,500 reviews. Since I don't know the date I started the first version of the blog in 2006, I've decided to keep December 9 for that too!
As all Type As will tell you, like anything worth doing, throughout its history, this site has brought me joy and stress in equal measure. Most importantly, though, it served as my launchpad or industry calling card and led me to such places as working as a grant and festival guide summary writer for the Scottsdale International Film Festival. Continuing on in the field, one of my favorite things I've ever done was curate and host a film discussion series at the Scottsdale Public Library, where I also lectured and ran discussions on behalf of the Holocaust Museum and Film Movement. It was around this time that I began freelancing for some wonderful sites, including Indiewire, DVD Netflix, The Phoenix Film Festival blog, BlogCritics, Rupert Pupkin Speaks, Hardboiled Wonderland, and more.
Absolutely my creative outlet when I developed a rapidly worsening systemic disease in my 30s and officially became disabled, I can't tell you how much having film to focus on meant to me over the years when I was going through multiple departments at the Mayo Clinic, etc. and stumping every doctor in sight with my strange and scary test results. (In fact, it's taken until just before age 40 to get a proper diagnosis of a very rare genetic immune disorder which I discovered I've actually had since birth! If you're in the same situation where you're still searching for answers, please keep looking, surround yourself with people you trust, undergo good university level genetic testing, and stay strong.)
In celebrating this birthday, first and foremost, I want to thank all of the readers for being there even after my review output became sporadic. Of equal importance are the many encouraging filmmakers, writers, and actors, plus the PR and studio representatives who had both faith in me and placed value on my writing years before I became an official Rotten Tomatoes or Cherry Picks certified reviewer. Additionally, I want to extend my gratitude to the colleagues who've treated me with respect in a cold and increasingly dire industry early on, along with those who've asked me to write for and work with them over the years and invited me to join their critics' associations as well.
I'm always humbled when someone seeks out a movie based on something I've reviewed or sees that I've written a new essay on a film and then watches it first just so they can read it. To this end, I've heard from so many of you, along with a cross-section of performers and filmmakers whose work I so admire, and it's both greatly touched me and also kept me going. A note to all readers: I sincerely apologize for removing comments on my site so many years ago but I wanted to spend my time creating as opposed to refereeing fights between strangers. Still, I'm quite easy to reach online and love hearing from you on social media, whether that's via FilmIntuition on Twitter, Patreon, Letterboxd, and/or Instagram.
As my regular readers are undoubtedly well aware, after becoming burned out from steadily churning out movie reviews for so long, in March of 2020, I launched the podcast Watch With Jen™
over at my FilmIntuition Patreon
. It's since become available on Spotify, Apple, Audible, and every podcast platform in between, except YouTube (where we are unaffiliated with the new YouTube channel that launched in September that is currently titled Watch With Jen but in the process of changing).
A beacon of light in the midst of a horrible pandemic, while things started out small as I merely recommended movies you might not have heard of otherwise and also started interviewing people I admired, the Watch With Jen™ podcast has since evolved into a fun, research-intensive, in-depth exploration of the films, actors, directors, and mediums that inspire us most. I love collaborating with each guest on a topic of their choosing and we treat each episode like a Film Studies survey course we're taking together with the audience. We hit the 100th episode landmark in August and have kept going strong, with awesome plans for upcoming shows in '22, some of which I'll be unveiling soon on social media and Patreon.
Yesterday, I uploaded the final episode of season 2 and I am completely honored to have had on so many amazing guests this year, including: author Megan Abbott (“The Turnout”), author S.A. Cosby (“Razorblade Tears”), author William Boyle (“Shoot the Moonlight Out”), actor James Urbaniak (“Difficult People”), critic/podcaster Blake Howard (“One Heat Minute”), historian/podcaster/author Karina Longworth (“You Must Remember This”), author/screenwriter Jordan Harper (“Hightown”), author Nikki Dolson (“Best American Mystery & Suspense Stories 2021”), screenwriter/author Chris Cantwell (co-creator, producer, and showrunner of “Halt and Catch Fire”), critic/historian/author/podcaster Jason Bailey (“Fun City Cinema”), critic Bilge Ebiri (Vulture), author/blogger Jed Ayres (Hardboiled Wonderland), critic/author/historian Walter Chaw (FilmFreakCental), critic Sean Burns (WBUR), critic/historian Sheila O'Malley (The Sheila Variations and RogerEbert.com), author/critic Adam Nayman (“David Fincher: Mind Games”), critic Tomris Laffly (RogerEbert.com), critic Nell Minow (RogerEbert.com), filmmaker BenDavid Grabinski (“Happily”), as well as our gifted logo/merchandise designer Kate Gabrielle (KateGabrielle.com), and many more.
In writing news, this year my review of “The Velvet Underground”
documentary was cited in "The L.A. Times" and I contributed an essay about the film “The Chicago Syndicate” to the UK Blu-ray box set release of Columbia Film Noir #4
. In addition to finding my words printed on a few DVD boxes (thank you to Film Movement, in particular), I was quoted in the advertising of NY's Quad Cinema for the film “Final Set,”
and also wrote one of my all-time favorite pieces for DVD Netflix on actor David Morse
I'm greatly looking forward to what 2022 will bring and hope that I continue to deliver both the pieces you'd love to read here on FilmIntuition (and elsewhere) and the podcasts you'd like to listen to as well. For the curious, once I get caught up on all of my film screeners and voting in our various critics' organizations, I will be working on my Best Films of 2021 list, which I hope to have available to you right around the second week of January.
In the meantime, please don't hesitate to reach out to me via social media if you ever have any questions and I want to thank you so much for devoting some time to my work. While I'm pretty sure I'd always be writing or talking about movies to random strangers regardless, I wouldn't do any of this at all if it wasn't for your loyalty, interest, patronage, and support. On behalf of myself, Film Intuition, and Watch With Jen™,
I'm wishing you and yours a safe and happy holiday season and happy movie watching.
Like putting new lenses in a beloved old pair of glasses, this week's sharply written, sweet-natured gay Netflix holiday romcom gives us a fresh look at a familiar genre.
Wisely and earnestly leaning into the tropes of a Christmas romance, in the quick-witted charmer “Single All the Way,”
screenwriter Chad Hodge (who created one of my favorite little-seen TV shows of the late 2010s in “Good Behavior”) wins us over with his sincere affection for the films he's using as a jumping-off point.
To this end, when we first meet our adorable yet perpetually unlucky in love protagonist Peter (Michael Urie), he's disappointed once again after another short-lived romance goes down in flames. As tired of working on social media ad campaigns in Los Angeles as he is being single, when Peter begins making plans to visit his family in New Hampshire for the holidays, he ropes his oldest friend and roommate Nick (Philemon Chambers) into coming home with him and posing as his new boyfriend.
Not wanting to lie to a family that's come to mean almost as much to him as Peter, Nick begrudgingly goes along with Peter's plan. However, just when you think you've seen this movie before, almost as soon as they arrive at his parent's house, a wrench is thrown into the proceedings by Peter's jubilant mother Carole (Kathy Najimy).
Appearing on the scene with her newest homemade sign “Sleigh Queen,” before Peter and Nick can deliver their white lie, Carole decides to play another one of the romcom genre's greatest hits by happily announcing that she's set her son up on a blind date with her hunky spin instructor James (Luke Macfarlane).
But while his mom is content to try to craft a new romance for her son (like it's just one of the many signs she gives as gifts and hangs throughout the home), the rest of his family decides it's time to bring Peter and Nick together once and for all. Sensing not only their obvious chemistry but perhaps the lingering looks sent Peter's way by Nick, Peter's father (Barry Bostwick) and nieces make it their holiday mission to make this vital love connection. Gradually, they bring an amused, if torn, Nick into the fold.
Whether you're a devotee of the endless holiday romcoms produced by the Hallmark Channel or Lifetime every year, or your favorites are the classics like “The Shop Around the Corner,” and Christmas in Connecticut,” etc., or you stick with the treacly yet wicked wit of British comedies like “Bridget Jones's Diary” or “Love Actually,” romance fans know precisely where this film is headed almost as soon as it starts.
Yet rather than run from the genre conventions we routinely see in these traditionally straight romances, “Single All the Way” uses them as vibrant, positive building blocks to show that love is love, family is family, and it's both all relative and universal. Proving this, it layers in a variety of beloved romcom mainstays from its small-town setting (as Peter wonders if he should move back home) and a friends to lovers plotline to a dance number (to Britney, bitch!) and romantic hijinks care of quirky relatives, including an obligatory scene where the two leads must share a bed.
Along the way, "Single" incorporates an amusing, if undercooked subplot involving a community Christmas pageant called “Jesus H. Christ” that's the brainchild of Peter's colorful Aunt Sandy, who's played by Jennifer Coolidge. Much like Najimy gives the film a needed shot of candy-cane-coated adrenaline as soon as we see her, with her warmth, humor, and vivacity, veteran Christopher Guest scene-stealer Coolidge buoys her part of the film, which, unfortunately, plays like a rushed afterthought.
Guided by a steady hand, “Single All the Way” was helmed by the versatile Michael Mayer, who directed the moving, gorgeously acted but woefully underseen adaptation of “A Home at the End of the World,” as well as the excellent “Flicka” and “The Seagull.” Mayer knows how to work with actors and it shows.
With so much - at times, too much - going on throughout, although it's easy to predict that of course, Peter will end up with Nick, “Single All the Way” is a loving, spirited ensemble film that never runs out of plot. Tonally, as sunny and bright as the visuals are snowy and cozy, and filled with terrific turns by a talented cast that's ready for anything (including “Schitt's Creek” star Jennifer Robertson), as someone who watches a lot of these films, “Single All the Way,” greatly exceeded my expectations.
Succeeding where last year's well-intentioned, star-studded, but ultimately disappointing Hulu film “Happiest Season”
failed, while I'm speaking merely as a straight film critic, it feels truly rewarding and vital for audiences to see an LGBTQ holiday romantic comedy that doesn't make coming out or lying to one's family the main character's entire narrative arc. Similarly fighting against other gay movie tropes where its protagonist desperately wants to escape their small town and go to the big city or make their parents understand their lifestyle, it's refreshing instead to see Bostwick and Najimy scheme and plan to get their son happily coupled up.
By making the sexuality of its characters secondary to everything else going on, "Single All the Way" cleverly sidesteps the need for any moral speechifying that would pull us out of the storyline and ring false. Respecting our maturity and intellect right from the start, Mayer's film counts on its audience to have already come to the realization that we all deserve love, not to mention contemporary, clear-eyed, re-framed romantic movies for one and all that are this heartfelt, genuine, and fun.
Text ©2021, Film Intuition, LLC; All Rights Reserved. https://www.filmintuition.com
The Netflix equivalent of putting up your Christmas tree and/or starting your holiday shopping the day after Thanksgiving, this year, the streaming service's version of Black Friday comes in two new high profile, high caliber Christmas movies which are scheduled to premiere on Friday, November 26.
Inspired by the question “was Father Christmas ever a boy?” which was posed by author Matt Haig's son, the first film, from “Monster House” director Gil Kenan, is a gorgeously crafted, old-fashioned fairytale adaptation of Haig's bestselling 2015 British children's book “A Boy Called Christmas.”
Tonally a cross between C.S. Lewis, Hans Christian Andersen, Charles Dickens, J.K. Rowling, and Roald Dahl in its balance of darkness, magic, heart, and light, Kenan's film begins with a framing device straight out of “The Princess Bride.”Arriving at their home late at night, a great aunt played by the irreplaceable Maggie Smith tells the tale of the brave boy we'll all eventually know as Father Christmas to her young relatives at bedtime. Next, switching to a different time and place, we move away from contemporary London as Smith's fable starts to play out before our eyes.
Still reeling from the loss of his mother, which is something shared by the characters in the modern setting as well, “Christmas” chronicles the plight of Nikolas (portrayed by top-notch relative newcomer Henry Lawfull). Fearing for the safety of the sole parent he has left (Michiel Huisman), Nikolas sets out on a perilous journey to the north to find his dad when he fails to return from his search for the village of Elfhelm in order to bring hope to us all.
Populated by a who's who of great character actors, including Sally Hawkins, Kristen Wiig, Jim Broadbent, Toby Jones, and Stephen Merchant (priceless here as the voice of Miika the Mouse), the film looks and sounds like a dream, thanks to the effects team and production designer behind the “Paddington” movies, and a lovely score courtesy of the great Dario Marianelli. Additionally, it's fun to see the actors let loose, particularly Hawkins and Wiig who relish their Wicked Witch-like moments to eat up the screen.
The type of film you could leave on in the background when you make cookies or put up your tree, while it's easy to lose yourself in the snowy spectacle of it all, disappointingly from a narrative standpoint, “A Boy Called Christmas” runs out of steam quickly. With episodic plot points, as the indefatigable, ever-determined, delightful Lawfull encounters one new character or problem after another in a by-the-numbers fashion, it grows increasingly repetitive as it continues on.
Although I am unfamiliar with the source material, I can't help but ask if perhaps its error might be an early “Harry Potter” franchise-style case of staying far too faithful to the book. Needless to say, of course, young fans of Haig's novel are sure to love seeing every moment come to life. For the rest of us, however, despite some beautiful revelations that come to light near the end of the movie, its muddled second act makes it feel twice as long as the first, and I think most viewers who don't know Haig's novel will grow restless as soon as the storyline begins to wander.
Still, from the jaw-dropping 4k presentation where even the opening sequence of Smith walking down a light-filled city street feels painterly (and indeed I wondered but really didn't care if it was CG), “A Boy Called Christmas” is a stellar technical achievement from these talented craftsmen, even if it doesn't fully work for me as a film overall. Not nearly as successful as “Monster House” or Kenan's wonderful adaptation of “City of Ember,” (of which I might be the only fan and still wish for a sequel), he's such a great director that regardless of the film's shortcomings, I look forward to seeing what he'll do next.
Incidentally, it turns out that looking forward is exactly what romance author Sophie Brown (Brooke Shields) realizes she needs to do at the start of director Mary Lambert's picturesque holiday romcom travelogue “A Castle for Christmas.”
Whereas “A Boy Called Christmas” was made for the kids, “A Castle for Christmas” is Netflix's present for teens and adults. It comes in the form of a fun, fluffy, snowflake light hybrid of the kinds of seasonal romances that Lifetime and the Hallmark Channel produce with alarming frequency and the sassier UK romcoms that Hugh Grant made popular back in the '90s.
Centered on Shields' Brown, the plot of "Castle" is incredibly straightforward. Having killed off the romantic hero of her dozen bestselling novels after a messy divorce, Sophie Brown incurs the wrath of her heartbroken legion of fans who want their dream man back. In desperate need of a change of scenery, she journeys to Scotland to not only hide out and write the next book in her popular Emma Gale romance series but also visit the castle that her late father loved while growing up as the son of the groundskeeper there.
Having barely arrived in her new surroundings, Sophie finds new friends quickly when she joins the knitting club in the pub of the inn where she's staying. The same dynamic we encountered in Netflix's outstanding (and much more substantive) adaptation of the acclaimed novel “The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society," in “Castle,” the scenes that producer-star Shields shares with her motley knitting crew are absolutely delightful.
Still, as the romance author she's portraying here knows, you can't have a love story without a male lead, and thankfully, for that we have Cary Elwes getting his scowl on as the sour, curmudgeon-like Duke of said castle, who eventually melts under Sophie's charms.
Phenomenally predictable to anyone who's ever seen a romantic comedy before, while the pair are excellent in their roles, Sheilds and Elwes' chemistry does leave a little something to be desired, although that's likely more the fault of their underdeveloped characters than the actors in question, who aren't given a whole lot with which to work.
One of those movies where the credits reveal that it was written by a committee of four different writers, it feels like certain screenwriters were hoping to emphasize the knitting club as well as develop a potential B or C romantic subplot, and others were more clearly focused on the castle angle. All in all, it's a bumpy yet nonetheless, above-average cheery holiday romance.
Featuring a welcome cameo by Drew Barrymore that bookends the film as she first appears in a slightly cringeworthy over-the-top introduction to Sophie Brown who loses it live on Barrymore's talk show (which Shields plays too broadly), Barrymore returns at the end during the final credits in a very funny two-hander between the two women.
Targeted to Gen X, it's ideally suited to those from the era who grew up watching Shields and Barrymore, were dazzled by Lambert's iconic Madonna music video “Like a Prayer,” and frightened by her adaptation of “Pet Semetary,” and fell in love with “Castle” leading man Cary Elwes in “The Princess Bride.” And indeed, Netflix is smart to aim for this demographic.
Usually overlooked in seasonal fare that's often developed with late teens and early twenty-somethings in mind, “A Castle for Christmas” is just the pleasantly diverting, if ultimately forgettable thing to settle in with after you spend Thanksgiving in the kitchen and Black Friday setting up that tree and/or starting to shop. With so much holiday stress on the horizon, 'tis the season for snowy movies after all.
Text ©2021, Film Intuition, LLC; All Rights Reserved. https://www.filmintuition.com
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