Ok, this is admittedly a bit out of my comfort zone. In the many years that I’ve had this blog, I’ve focused almost exclusively on the worst of cinema: the most critically-reviled of each calendar year, the IMDb Bottom 100, box office flops, and so on. However, despite my dedication to the dregs, I do try to watch good movies from time to time. Since 2017, I’ve been in graduate school, which has cut into my movie-watching time significantly, and this blog has been on the back-burner. That said, I caught a bunch of films in 2021 that I wanted to highlight in a thoroughly subjective, not-at-all ranked list. For some of these, I’m not sure I would even describe them as great films, but they did get my thoughts going. I also haven’t seen a bunch of the major critical darlings of the year, like Red Rocket, The Power of the Dog, The Worst Person in the World, The Tragedy of MacBeth, or Licorice Pizza, so if something is missing here, I probably just haven’t seen it yet.
The French Dispatch
I generally like Wes Anderson’s work, so I wasn’t surprised that I liked his latest. However, I didn’t anticipate liking it as much as I did. This may or may not be my favorite anthology movie, but it certainly has my favorite framing device for one. The eponymous paper feels like a character itself by the end of the film – an amalgamation of the writers and stories that make it up. I also absolutely loved Jeffrey Wright’s performance in particular, and appreciate a somewhat less whimsical application of Wes Anderson’s style. I thought this was maybe his most balanced film, which generally avoided the twee sentiments that turn some away from him without being overly dour, despite the often-grim stories within it.
Last Night in Soho
I might be the most predictable white film dude on the internet in this way, but I am a complete sucker for Edgar Wright’s style. What impressed me about Last Night in Soho, though, is how much he tempered and adapted it to serve a tone and genre outside of his usual wheelhouse. Wright produced a YouTube video recently that discussed his use of the “Texas switch” in the dance sequence of the film, which is certainly a highlight of the work, and showcases where he used the same technique in his earlier films. It is a good watch, and I strongly recommend it. As always, his attention to detail is impressive throughout Soho, and creates an immersive, stylized time warp to the 1960s that is one of the most impressive in recent memory (The Nice Guys comes to mind in a similar way). I loved the performances across the board in this one as well, and found it to be an intriguingly mysterious ride. I have only seen the movie once, and am curious how elements land on a re-watch.
I don’t think there was a greater cinematic surprise of the year than Pig. Cage’s performance is astounding, and this grief-filled, emotional journey into the underbelly of fine dining is unique, grounded, and at-times viscerally painful in its effectiveness. I saw this at a preview screening, and went in blind expecting a John Wick clone. It is certainly not that – it is far, far better. For all of the Cage detractors out there, this should be a reminder that he is one of the finest thespians of our age.
The Green Knight
This was almost certainly the most polarizing film of the year. It is abstract, imaginative, deeply-stylistic, and perhaps one of the best examples of indulgent, unfettered auteur-ship in many years. For what it is worth, I dug it. I thought is was visually entrancing, thought-provoking, and a bold literary adaptation that didn’t avoid unique flourishes on an established canon. I do think it may have been served better by disentangling the editing process from Lowery’s hands, but I still thought the movie came out impressive. It inarguably benefits from an audience that is familiar with the source literature, though, and could have done a better job of acclimating folks who don’t have vivid memories of an English literature class.
Judas and the Black Messiah
Wait, this came out in 2021? This was my first foray back into a movie theater since March of 2020, and it was a great way to get back to it. The lead performances are fantastic, but I will say that it has faded a bit from my mind after another long, long year. I think it will be due for a re-watch, but I remember coming out of the theater knowing it would make any year-end list of highlights that I would make.
Much like Last Night in Soho, this is the work of an established, beloved director taking on a genre outside of his usual sphere. Cooper puts in a fantastic performance, leading an incredible ensemble from top to bottom. Notably, I loved how Cooper basically mimes through the first 20-odd minutes of the movie, conveying a range of emotions and establishing his character’s essence without a single line of dialogue. This is the feel-bad, grimy, pessimistic movie that 2021 deserved. What an intriguing year to have giallo and noir send-ups among the upper echelon of cinematic offerings. What I will say, however, is that I’m definitely feeling fatigue with “bad white guy” protagonists. The future of noir needs to see some innovation in the content while retaining the stylistic flourishes of the form. I think this film would have been received far better a decade ago, but it is still undeniably fantastic.
The most anticipated film of the year mostly lived up to the hype. Coming out of the theater, I was blown away. It was an imaginative spectacle with a compelling cast, sharp visuals, and an astounding score. That said, it hasn’t stuck with me like I expected it to. I’m looking forward to the continuation of the story, but I will need to revisit this one, and ruminate a bit on what might have been missing to keep it from getting stuck in my head. I am someone who is definitely prone to being sucked into sprawling, politics-heavy sci-fi and fantasy settings, like Game of Thrones, The Expanse, Star Trek, and The Witcher, so it is all the weirder that Dune didn’t flip a switch for me in a similar way.
The Suicide Squad
Grimy, darkly comedic takes on superheroes are a bit old hat at this point. Deadpool, The Boys, and even James Gunn’s own Super have thoroughly saturated that area over the past decade and change, attempting detournements of the hyper-dominance of comic book adaptations in the zeitgeist. So why did The Suicide Squad work so well for me? I think the zany ensemble certainly helped, and Gunn definitely has a flair for bringing colorful outcasts to the screen. The movie is genuinely funny utilizing methods that many comedies don’t execute nearly as well, like editing gags and physical performances. The simultaneous vulnerability and somewhat-perverse likability of the characters creates an investment and fear for their safety that most superhero movies can’t frequently pull off well either. The Suicide Squad is also an adept satire of American imperialistic attitudes and anti-democratic actions abroad, which is pretty deep, subversive work for a popcorn superhero flick. I also think it lands better in contrast to the preceding Suicide Squad, which was a far less enjoyable, well-crafted work by a wide margin. Simultaneously, Gunn was wise not to completely distance this film from its antecedent, particularly taking a gamble by allowing Joel Kinnaman to redeem himself by taking a significant emotional load for the film.
Speaking of deep subversion in a popcorn superhero flick, how about an anticapitalistic screed wrapped in endless intellectual property Easter eggs and overt fandom pandering? Free Guy is my pick for the most perplexing film of the year. It ends with characters celebrating the abolition of banks, but it is also deeply mired in corporate cross-marketing of just about every pop culture property they could cram into it. At the same time, it clearly has a deep disdain for the toxic video game and tech-bro culture that it sprouts from, in just the same way that there is a spirit of anti-capitalism beneath the layers of pop culture references. It is arguably appropriate for a movie about a hidden oasis within a world of inane nonsense. All of that might sound like I didn’t like the movie, which isn’t exactly true. In many ways, it is a mess (I particularly don’t love the romantic conclusion). That said, I thought more about this movie after seeing it than most of the films I sat through this year, which should count for something. I also generally dug the visuals and performances: in that sense, it is a fine popcorn flick. I do sense Ryan Reynolds fatigue setting in among film critics, which won’t do this film any favors, but I thought he was far less Deadpool-like than many give him credit for in this film. I think he spends much of the movie effectively channeling the naivete and charm of a puppy, unaware of the chaotic dumpster-fire of a world he exists in. While I think he has let his Deadpool character blend into his wider persona (particularly on social media), I think a bigger issue is that audiences are struggling to see his performances without looking through Deadpool-filtered goggles.
Spider-Man: No Way Home
Spider-Man: No Way Home is, outside of perhaps The Avengers movies and Captain America: Civil War, the Marvel movie with the heaviest reliance on the audience’s prior knowledge of the franchise, and not even just its immediate preceding films in the series. No Way Home requires decades of familiarity with numerous adaptations, and hasn’t seemed to suffer for it at all. It seems that audiences, by and large, have kept up, and did their homework. We’re in a new era of blockbuster cinema that throws back to the infinitely serialized works of yesteryear, rather than the standalone stories of the past few decades. The Avengers and Justice League made this new path clear, but No Way Home asked far more of its audience – and from its story – than any of those films. Weaving together different adaptations of the franchise – so many disparate threads without natural connective tissue – required artful work from the creators, and an audience prepared for the challenge. It was bold to even attempt, given the reaction to Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man 3 so many years ago: too many villains, too much story, too muddled. No Way Home somehow pulls it all off – it is a deeply emotional, well-performed, and engaging film that succeeds in so many challenges. There are tons of characters to balance, an immense amount of information to convey, and a complicated tone that blends humor and grief-filled tragedy. Somehow, everyone has room to breathe, and a stage saturated with performers puts just enough of the spotlight on each of them. I don’t think No Way Home is the best film of the year, but I do think it is the most iconic and representative of the state of film today. It is a blockbuster with a foundation in nostalgia, relying on legitimate performers and an intriguing vision that situates itself within the greater sprawling web of a meta-franchise. For better or worst, it is the movie of 2021.
Bo Burnham: Inside