Combustible Celluloid

2021: The Year in Review

What Happened to Me in the Dark

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Writing a wrap-up of a year like this makes me want to roll my eyes, to be honest, but hey... it was better than 2020. We had a new president, and vaccines, I ate at restaurants, and, aside from things like some broken ribs, and a few other small tragedies, things went pretty smoothly. And I went back to the movies, and saw something in the realm of 250 of them, and a good 44 in movie theaters. And, as ever, most of them were mediocre, some flat-out stank, some were very, very good, and a few were great. Here's my year-end list. I hope you enjoy it, and I hope that 2022 brings a little more hope and kindness to the world.

- The Top Ten -

1. The Tragedy of Macbeth

Few other critics seem to agree with me on this one, but Joel Coen's black-and-white Shakespeare adaptation — his first film made without his brother Ethan — elevated the art of cinema, and overtook previous versions of Macbeth directed by Orson Welles, Akira Kurosawa, and Roman Polanski. Its stark, severe cinematography is as precise as a dagger, and yet every single thing in it, from swirling fog and circling crows to the hard surfaces, evokes the play's rich, dark emotions. This is exhilarating, moving filmmaking.

2. Drive My Car

Describing this drama out loud to a friend recently made it sound somewhat banal, but watching Ryusuke Hamaguchi's Drive My Car — which is based on a story by Haruki Murakami — is a miracle of silences and empty spaces, secrets withheld and revealed. Even as it is about acting and theater (and features Waiting for Godot and Uncle Vanya), it features some of the quietest acting of the year, and we spend three luxurious hours reading extraordinary faces as they attempt to conceal their pains and histories.

3. Passing

Maggie Gyllenhaal and Rebecca Hall both made their feature directing debuts in 2021, at around the same age, and while most critics seem to be enjoying Gyllenhaal's The Lost Daughter, Hall's Passing surprised and moved me far more strongly. Based on a novel written in 1929, the movie — about two Black women (Tessa Thompson and Ruth Negga) who "pass" for white in varying degrees — was shot in black-and-white and in a narrow, 1:1.33 aspect ratio, and the choice feels exactly right. It has an admirable honesty and finesse, and Hall feels like a natural behind the camera.

4. About Endlessness

Swedish filmmaker Roy Andersson is often compared to Jacques Tati; he makes comedies, sort of, but they're so dry and metaphysical that they feel dislocated from the rest of cinema. Having made only four films in 21 years (he's as slow as Kubrick was), Andersson must spend all that time composing each of his lengthy, meticulous shot — and the bits of business that occur therein — and crafting his strange dialogue. The movie is about little moments of joy, moments of terror, people inexplicably flying, the transfer of energy, and on into infinity.

5. The Amusement Park

This is not a new film, but rather a newly discovered, restored treasure by a master filmmaker, the late George A. Romero, originally shot back in 1973. It was meant to be something like a PSA about elder abuse and ageism, but Romero used his personal touches to make both a deeply unsettling horror film and a profoundly empathetic study at the same time. Like Orson Welles's The Other Side of the Wind (2018), this enriches and deepens its director's filmography.

6. Memoria

Thai filmmaker Apichatpong Weerasethakul's latest is one of his more baffling entries, but it's so methodical and rhythmic that it allows plenty of time for deep, meditative pondering. It centers around a sound, a "bang" heard by the main character (Tilda Swinton), and her efforts to find out what it means. I found myself thinking about how time and memory are linked, and how, because of that, time might be more fluid than we think. The film is apparently being released in a unique pattern, in only one theater at a time, for only one week at a time, constantly moving, and will never be available on home video or streaming.

7. In the Heights

I'm not kidding when I say that 2021 could be the greatest year for musicals in history, but I am a little biased, given that I don't have much of a soft spot for those giant-sized movies based on Broadway shows produced in the 1950s and 1960s. This year yielded three great ones — In the Heights, West Side Story, and tick, tick... BOOM! — all of which found ways to feel cinematic and not bombastic. I wish I could have found room on my list for all three, but this was my favorite, for its masterful wordplay, the playful visuals, and the exuberant performances.

8. The Power of the Dog

I do wish I had seen this on the big screen. Seeing it on Netflix, it took a little while to really sink in. It was a few days later when I realized I was still thinking about it, and its depths were becoming clearer and clearer. A Western that dives into issues of masculinity and perception, with four extraordinary performances, it's a powerhouse of a movie, ranking with director Jane Campion's best. (Its wallop of an ending seems to have some people flummoxed.) Bonus points for Jonny Greenwood's score; between this and his equally effective work on Spencer, it's his year.

9. Spencer

I have little interest in the activities of the Royal Family, and I went to Spencer mainly for the fact that it was directed by Chilean filmmaker Pablo Larraín, who had given us two of the better biopics of recent years, Neruda and Jackie. It surpassed even those, with its elegant, precision framing, both beautiful and constricting, even choking. Kristen Stewart gives the movie its soul, with her quiet suffering, alleviated in touching moments with her children, her dresser (Sally Hawkins) and her father's old coat.

10. Pig

What a surprise this was. Nicolas Cage has been slowly dragging himself out of direct-to-video hell, giving brilliant, ferocious performances in-between stinkers in unexpectedly good movies like Mandy, Color Out of Space, and this, a strong feature directing debut by Michael Sarnoski. It might have been a simple revenge film, with Cage's "I want my pig back" becoming a tagline, but it's much more perceptive and thought-provoking. And it's a great food movie.

Ten Runners-Up

Twenty Honorable Mentions

Guilty Pleasures & Little Treasures

Great Performances

  • Denzel Washington, Frances McDormand, & Kathryn Hunter, The Tragedy of Macbeth
  • Tessa Thompson & Ruth Negga, Passing
  • Nicolas Cage, Pig
  • Kristen Stewart, Spencer
  • Andrew Garfield, tick, tick... BOOM!
  • Judi Dench & Ciarán Hinds, Belfast
  • Benedict Cumberbatch, Kirsten Dunst, Jesse Plemons, & Kodi Smit-McPhee, The Power of the Dog
  • Hidetoshi Nishijima, Drive My Car
  • Tilda Swinton & Jeffrey Wright, The French Dispatch
  • Thomasin McKenzie, & Anya Taylor-Joy, Last Night in Soho
  • Bradley Cooper, Licorice Pizza
  • Rachel Zegler, West Side Story
  • Tim Blake Nelson, Old Henry

12 Great DVD and Blu-ray Releases

The Year's Worst Films

  1. Every Last One of Them
  2. Survive the Game
  3. Cosmic Sin
  4. Out of Death
  5. Infinite
  6. Masquerade
  7. Vanquish
  8. Last Call
  9. Dreamcatcher
  10. Barb and Star Go to Vista Del Mar

Thanks for reading. I appreciate you all. May the future bring peace and joy to each and every one of you. -- JMA

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