This year in cinema saw theatrical “exclusives” squared off against streaming releases. Whether Regal and Regency, or AppleTV+ and HBO Max, last year’s pandemic disaster for the movie industry continued unabated. Even though “movies” were “released” in “theaters,” the phenomenon of the blockbuster has faded and streaming “identity” releases gained their foothold.
The following films released this year range across a spectrum difficult to define or even discern. Some are blockbusters, others barely seen; several are strong contenders for the Oscars, while others hearken back to last year’s Oscars given scheduling changes created by a global pandemic. Nevertheless, here are my top 11 movies of the year:
‘The Green Knight’
As an epic medieval fantasy, director David Lowery all-in-all successfully adapts a 14th-century poem, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, into a provocative fictional tale of choices, consequences, second chances, and what it means to obligate yourself to a community.
Though a bit heavy-handed with a modern environmental flare and focus, the symbolism actually saves Sir Gawain’s journey because audiences are able to translate the story’s meaning and significance through numerous lenses. Beyond the literal text or the politicized climate change perspective, Lowery’s cinematography and especially Dev Patel’s candid, capable performance make “The Green Knight” not only lasting but at times pleasantly unforgettable.
Denis Villeneuve directed the long-awaited, large-scale science-fiction masterpiece that was “blundered” a generation ago into a cinematic joke about how “impossible” an adaptation of a classic can be.
Given a cast of A-listers like Timothée Chalamet, Zendaya, Oscar Isaac, Rebecca Ferguson, Javier Bardem, Josh Brolin, and many others, we don’t need any recommendations or suggestions to sit down, wear that mask, and see a movie in an IMAX theatre (ideally) and experience the magic.
“Dune” seamlessly adapts one of the seminal novels of a genre, transporting audiences to the surface of Arrakis and plunging us into the royal drama of House Atreides as they fulfill destinies, colonize worlds, and fight to stave off antagonists. The only reason “Dune” isn’t the beginning, middle, and end of this list is because it’s “Dune: Part One,” so while a compelling, comprehensive story, it’s also just a mid-way cliffhanger that Villeneuve will triumphantly finish up in a couple of years.
It’s quite pleasing to see a film festival charmer live up to its almost unrealistic hype. Ironically, films that generate excessive buy-outs at Sundance or SXSW die hazardous, humiliating deaths in theaters among audiences with non-elite opinions. “CODA” is different; it’s genuinely unique and undeniably earns its praise.
The premise is simple and straightforward, but its emotional effects are stoic and sentimental. Welsh actress Emilia Jones lights up the screen as Ruby, the only member of a deaf family who’s able to hear. Yet when she’s given the opportunity to study at a special music school, she’s faced with the choice of following her talent or preserving her family by taking care of her parents.
A mixture of splendid joy and disappointed melancholy, “CODA” reconfigures teen-movie tropes and proves festivals can still find gems and family movies can be repackaged, even redefined, and still serve their profound purposes.
Any chance to see a legendary, world-class actor servicing a gripping script is going to give a film credibility. Anthony Hopkins in “The Father” succeeds at exactly that, giving a standard film the gravitas to place it in a top ten list.
The solemn drama about an elderly man succumbing to his dementia was a film that justifiably earned well-deserved Oscars in two categories last year, Best Actor and Best Screenplay. (It still counts for this list because it was released in 2021 and nominated for Academy Awards delayed by the pandemic.)
Quite simply, Hopkins is masterclass brilliant – on par with his performances ten, twenty, even forty years ago – as he depicts the suffering from confusion brought on by advanced dementia. But the performance “wink” is revealed as he keeps us guessing about how much of his manner, sentiment, or even diagnosis is real. His performance is stellar, so Hopkins justifiably earned an Academy Award, and “The Father” exemplifies the rigor and permanence of the here and now.
A terse and tight 97 minutes of the definition of “not a frame too many,” Kenneth Branagh’s black-and-white treasure box “Belfast” is heartfelt and personal. The film is clearly an ode to his childhood on the politically charged streets of the close-knit Belfast neighborhood, where movies, comic books, and the colorful stories spun by his family members informed his future and projected what could’ve been versus what had to be.
As always, Ciaran Hinds and Judi Dench provide splendid performances as lovingly helpful family members making sure that young Buddy, played by a scene-stealing youngster, Jude Hill, escapes the doldrums of life. Above all, “Belfast” honors the bonds of family, the mild pains associated with first loves, and the stories lived every day by people we know. It’s stories like these that must be produced by artists like Branagh so they’re remembered and celebrated by all of us.
‘Spider-Man: No Way Home’
For countless American men who went through a wholesome childhood, you’ll know that Spider-Man is universally considered one of the most popular fictional characters ever in any medium. And given the last twenty years of the 21st century, now boys and girls enjoy weekly comic book memes, streamlined animated programs, The Electric Company trademarks, and countless Spider-Man commercial consumer products.
Ever since Sam Raimi’s cinematic frontiersmanship in 2001, Spider-Man has overshadowed Superman and essentially become America’s “next best hope” for a “neighborhood hero” who’s a normal person speaking to domestic suburban America. And even knowing all that about the wall-crawler, it’s still rather shocking and inspiring that “Spider-Man: No Way Home” even exists.
Without discussing all the boxes Marvel needed to check just to make a movie like “No Way Home” possible, the effortless way director Jon Watts balances a worthy Tom Holland sequel with the elements that not only honor the franchise’s legacy, but actually reject the woke cultural “identity” redefining of anything and everything American or heroic or even positive –– produced the most surprising and satisfying Spider-Man film ever.
It’s not only the best Spider-Man made in the last twenty years, but it just might prove that the rising tide of leftist revisionism reached its peak, and the rightful backlash against woke messaging in superhero movies has begun. We shall see.
‘The Power of the Dog’
Jane Campion’s first feature in twelve years exemplifies the power, influence, and ingenuity of Netflix as a means of reaching audiences and ever so often sharing a worthy, intimate, impressively shot, and ultimately rigorously twisted Western drama.
There’s been Academy Award buzz around “The Power of the Dog,” particularly the writing and the performances like Benedict Cumberbatch’s character, Phil Burbank.
Burbank expresses the broken masculinity and profound developmental trauma in a Montana rancher’s relationship with his sibling’s new wife played by Kirsten Dunst. Painfully and awkwardly uncomfortable in his own skin, his mean-spirited subversions illuminate the real tragedies and difficulties of Manifest Destiny and the heart of American frontiersmanship.
In other words, yes, there’ve been countless Westerns conveying the story of America in the late 19th century, but Campion’s unique filmmaking tone provides that essential double-edged dramatic aftertaste. Even stories claiming heroics must be steeped in pain, suffering, forgiveness, and redemption.
That blunt one-syllable title, the one-liner pitch premise – a middle-aged hermit hunts down whoever stole his beloved truffle pig – and the reality of a leading cultish role by Nicholas Cage primed expectations for a tongue-in-cheek, over-the-top revenge thriller.
Instead, first-time director Michael Sarnoski’s sublime surprise was delivering an unexpectedly sincere and heartfelt portrait of curdled grief, while engagingly exploring the Proustian ways in which food can do more than merely sustain us.
Now of course a film with a “Pig” premise provides its enjoyably offbeat touches, like a visit to Portland’s secret haute cuisine fight club, but the film’s touching expression of sorrow, grim determination, and tonal consistency, even tranquility, engages its ultimate catharsis. Whether we expected one thing and got something entirely-yet-engagingly different, or just a genuinely moving performance from someone who’d become a “straight to YouTube” actor the last decade or so, “Pig” is relevant, impressive, and compelling.
While “Nomadland” won the Academy Award for Best Picture this past April, it’s especially fitting to note that director Chloé Zhao’s approach to narrative, editing, and cinema is an intuitive talent she almost immediately lost with her next film, “Eternals.”
“Nomadland” demonstrably lacks a formal structure, opting for slice-of-life moments and vignettes that contribute to a cohesive whole both fitting for today’s realities and America in 2020. Yet it has a captivating, expressive way of depicting like-minded Americans who may not be bound to traditional means of living or working, but embody what makes America unique, distinct, even free.
Frances McDormand’s performance won her an Oscar as well, yet with less than a year since this feature, its esteem is even more acute and lasting because it’s a cinematic version of a “flaring light.”
Paul Thomas Anderson’s always been known for his signature and timing. His films are immediately and undeniably recognized as “PTA,” and he releases his near masterpieces in December and January for Academy Award attention.
While “Licorice Pizza” may not be another “There Will Be Blood,” it’s an excellent coming-of-age chronicle of the 1970s San Fernando Valley. Not only is the film “actual fiction” in that it depicts a distinct time and place flawlessly, but it’s also helmed by two first-timers, Alana Haim and Cooper Hoffman. (Cooper Hoffman being the late Philip Seymour-Hoffman’s son.)
A story about two ill-fitting hustlers – she’s a frustrated 20-something, he’s a precocious teen – trying to piece together a few small businesses, hijinks, and maybe a lifelong love story. That unique PTA tone and style may elide or obscure certain narrative details, but it’s for an altogether different effect, blurring variously strange, magical, and harrowing adventures into a heady rush of time’s uncertain yet inexorable passage. While the cinematography is flawless, it’s those two primary performances that offer a naturalism rarely seen in time-tested actors, let alone two young virtuosos.
‘The Tragedy of Macbeth’
For his first “solo” film that won’t be credited to the Coen Brothers, Joel Coen doubles down on that Shakespearean gravitas with “The Tragedy of Macbeth.” It’s a cinematic “deep end” because it’s already extremely difficult to make Shakespeare attainable these days, but in a two-hour film form it may as well be finding a “needle in an erstwhile hay-stacke.”
Nonetheless, with Lord and Lady Macbeth sharply portrayed by Denzel Washington and Frances McDormand, the immemorial story of an older couple taking one last grab for power remains timeless. In the age of excessive remakes or redefined identities, Coen chooses to employ the method of what happened between him and his brother: he subtracts.
Leaving only black-and-white to capture stunning, borderline abstract sets, Washington and McDormand perform in a stage-cinema minimalist edifice. Ghostly, fatalistic, mournful, yet candid, not only is this a capable, compelling version of Macbeth, it’s Joel Coen proving that even 50 percent of the Coen Brothers is better than 99.99 percent of directors making films today.