Here we go again. Another strange year in cinema, where the existential question of what it even means to BE a movie is open for discussion. Case in point — the most powerful and absorbing filmic experience of 2021 was Peter Jackson’s Beatles documentary “Get Back.” Was that eight-hour, three-part, mind-blowing experience a “movie” or “TV show”? Dunno. But because it was really neither, it’s not on this list nor on my post of top TV shows either (which can be read here).
We can obviously blame some of the year’s weirdness on the pandemic. You couldn’t even GO to the movies for the first third of 2021 and even when they allowed you in the theatre, you practically needed to wear a Hazmat suit. But a bigger problem is that consumers have just gotten out the habit of treating the movies as a social experience to be shared with other human beings. It’s just so much easier and cheaper to stream a movie at home, so why go out?
I respect that Old Hollywood is doing what it can to hang on, and that it held back some of its most highly anticipated would-be blockbusters for the big screen. But most of them — “West Side Story” and that James Bond movie, for example — ended up being well-made and beautifully shot disappointments.
What’s also distorted about this list is that I didn’t even see most of last year’s best movies until calendar year 2022, which is why I waited to publish this until a week before the Oscars. Unless you lived in Manhattan or Hollywood it was hard to see them in 2021, since many producers delayed their releases in the mostly vain hope that they’d generate some late-year Oscar buzz.
Having said that, I’m reasonably happy with the what I did manage to see this year. I really like my Top Five movies, which makes me hopeful that there’s still a little life left in the old art form. Fingers crossed that the pandemic is really over now and that grown-up movie lovers will return to theaters.
1. Licorice Pizza
The protagonist is named Gary. Need I say more? Set in Hollywood during the early 1970s oil embargo, Gary is an aging child star, a cany entrepreneur, and a 15-year-old romantic who has his eyes set on a woman ten years his senior. Everyone understands this is weird and maybe even illegal but it’s still endearing. And to be honest, I too am in love with Alana Haim, the object of his desire, so I get it. The other great thing about Licorice Pizza is that it’s the funniest film of the year, despite technically not being a comedy.
I almost made this my number one pick but decided that Licorice Pizza was more interesting, even though CODA was the movie that produced the tears. CODA stands for Child Of Deaf Adults and the protagonist is a high school senior forced to chose between staying home to support her family’s fishing business or going to college to pursue a vocal career. It’s more than a bit manipulative but who cares? Sometimes it just feels so good to be manipulated.
3. Tick Tick Boom
Before Jonathan Larson created “Rent,” he wrote another (unproduced) musical — Tick Tick Boom — about being a starving artist in New York City during the worst of the AIDS crisis. Now directed by Lin-Manuel Miranda, the movie is surprisingly innovative, so although the songs are not familiar the musical is still engaging. And to be honest, even if you weren’t a struggling artist at age 30, you probably were a struggling something, which makes this deeply affecting.
Kenneth Branagh’s coming of age story about a boy in Protestant Ulster during the North Ireland “troubles.” His dad is targeted by the Provos for being insufficiently anti-Catholic and the story revolves around the question of whether the family will move from the home they love. But even as the bombs go off around him, the young, seemingly untraumatized, Branagh stand-in is having a charmed childhood, like something out of James Joyce. So when the movie is not tense it’s very sweet.
5. Summer of Soul
Terrific documentary about the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival, which featured Stevie Wonder, Mahalia Jackson, Nina Simone, The Fifth Dimension, the Staple Singers, Gladys Night and the Pips, Sly and the Family Stone and the Chambers Brothers. Obviously the music is fantastic and the flashback to 1969 is always welcome.
6. In the Heights
Before Lin-Manuel Miranda created “Hamilton,” there was “In the Heights,” a remarkably conventional Broadway show about life in New York’s Washington Heights. The film, directed by “Crazy Rich Asians” director John M. Chu, is a highly romanticized view of urban life. Why would anyone ever want to leave? The exuberant musical numbers are the highlight, followed by the very likeable stars.
This is “Star Wars” for adults. No jokes and don’t get attached to any character because almost everyone dies. It’s more visually beautiful than “Star Wars,” and the world-building in more believable. On the other hand, while not impossible, it’s pretty hard to follow the plot without having read the book first. Subtitles would have helped a lot.
8. West Side Story
I was more conflicted over this than any other movie this year. Every single musical number was thrillingly beautiful, which made me regret that Steven Spielberg didn’t make more musicals, but while I was watching it, I couldn’t help but wonder why this movie needed to be remade. The original was pretty terrific. What’s next? “The Sound of Music” with Taylor Swift?
9. Free Guy
What happens when a character in a video game starts to develop self-awareness and intelligence? This extremely clever premise powers “Free Guy,” with Ryan Reynolds as “Guy,” an initially clueless bank teller who thinks every day is great until there’s a glitch in the program. Consequence-free action and amusement ensues. This is very professionally produced entertainment.
10. Cry Macho
Clint Eastwood, a retired ranch hand, is hired by his old boss to find his young son in Mexico and return him to Texas. From decades of watching Eastwood movies, we know that Clint is a softy and will develop feelings for the boy. There will also be car chases, some horse-whispering, family drama and even an age-appropriate romance for Clint. It is astonishing that this guy is still directing and starring in movies at 90 years old!
11. The Mitchells vs. the Machines
One of those animated movies that’s kind of for adults and kind of for kids, “M vs M” envisions a world in which a Jeff Bezos-like megalomaniac unleashes all the robots in creation to take over the world. Standing in the way is one slightly dysfunctional family that pulls together to save humanity. This has the same antic energy and emotional power of “Toy Story,” except that in this case the lump in the throat comes from the prospect of the older daughter heading off to college.
12. Power of the Dog
Who let the dog out of the closet? By far the weirdest movie of the year, with Benedict Cumberbatch as a psychologically twisted co-owner of a massive cattle ranch who makes life miserable for everyone when his brother takes a widow as his bride. There’s some serious sexual dysfunction happening here and yet it’s compelling and absorbing. I do not get why this captured so many Academy Award nominations and is the favorite to win.
13. King Richard
A very ordinary sports movie about the rise of Venus and Serena Williams with all the usual cliches. Richard Williams, played by Will Smith, is their hard-charging dad, who is a pain in the ass to the stuffy tennis establishment. Like all sports movies, this is inspirational. There are hardships to overcome, especially the fact that the family comes from Black Compton and not the white, country club-strewn suburbs. Of course the problem with valorizing a monomaniacal sports dad like Richard Williams is that it inspires the millions of other sports dads who think THEIR kids are also sports prodigies.
14. Being the Ricardos
Aaron Sorkin knows how to weave together a handful of actual facts to form a narrative that contains a semblance of truth without all the messy nuances that might complicate the story. So what we have here is a week in the life of Lucy and Desi in which: 1) Lucy is accused of being a communist, and 2) Lucy finds proof of Desi’s infidelities. Both these things happened in real life, but in one week and in such a tidy fable? Probably not. Nicole Kidman is OK with her Lucy impersonation. Javier Bardem lacks Desi’s charm and charisma.
15. Drive My Car
This plot — famous actor/director mourns the death of his wife, produces Uncle Vanya, broods a lot, stares out the window at the frozen landscape as he’s being driven to someone else’s sad memory — would have been perfect for Ingmar Bergman. It’s lovely and meditative but not for the impatient.
16. No Time to Die
Jerry Seinfeld has a funny joke — “If you have a license to kill, and every girl in the world wants to go to bed with you, how about a smile once in a while?” I find myself increasingly bored with Bond; not only can I barely follow the plot but where’s the fun? Obviously this is well produced with excellent car chases, but we can lose everything in between. Also, the ending? That would be a hard no.
17. The Truffle Hunters
I have a special affection for this gentle documentary about the elderly residents of a small Italian town who search for truffles in the forest because it was the first movie I saw at my beloved Avon Theatre when it reopened after phase one of the pandemic. It’s a trifle of a movie, a bagatelle really, but still a pleasure.
I’m astonished to watch the trailer after having seen the film and discover they were pitching it as a comedy. In reality, I felt sad from the first frame. Omar is a Syrian refugee caught in bureaucratic limbo in Scotland. He desperately needs to gain official legal standing so he can work and begin a new life. He’s a mope and who can blame him, spending his days in lame ESL class and wandering the countryside. Yet he’s one of the lucky ones. There are tens of millions of refugees that never even make it to the West.
19. The Worst Person in the World
Julie, a lovely thirtysomething Dane with unfocused artistic aspirations, can’t decide what to do with her career or love life. To me, as an older adult, the stakes seem small, since you know she’ll figure it out. Yet Julie’s situation also feels real since some people really do feel lost in their twenties (see Tick Tick Boom above).
20. The Velvet Underground
The Velvet Underground were just a little before my time so until now I never really understood why they were so important to the development of Rock ‘n Roll. So thanks, documentarians, for educating me. I also really enjoyed flashing back to the downtown scene in the early 1960s, when underground culture seemed to be so vibrant and was on the verge of going mainstream.
21. Listening to Kenny G
Quite a thought-provoking documentary on what makes Kenny G one of the most popular musicians in the world. The guy does have an amazing story, but at the risk of being one of the snobs called to task in the documentary, a little bit of Kenny G goes a long way.
22. Good on Paper
One of the few purported romcoms of the year, this is actually an anti-romcom. There’s no emotional pay-off, just frustration. Folks, here’s a hint about romance, investment opportunities, and house-hunting: if something looks too good to be true, it usually is.
23. Don’t Look Up
Wow, what a lot of talent to waste on a garbage movie. Leo, J. Law, Meryl, Timothee, Cate, Ariana, that guy who played Cromwell in Wolf Hall. Ostensibly a hard-hitting satire on government and the media, as well as an allegory on climate change, this would-be comedy forgot to be funny or even plausible.
24. The French Dispatch
I wanted to walk out of this movie after five minutes but since I’d paid for tickets I stayed until the end. This extremely arch and self-satisfied depiction of a New Yorker-like magazine based in France is Wes Anderson at his whimsical worst. I wanted to pluck my eyes out. And yet somehow it made it onto many critics’ Top Ten lists. As Wallace Shawn said in The Princess Bride, “inconceivable!!!!”