It’s time to wrap up my review of new releases from 2021. Below is my Top 20ish (this will make sense in about 4 movies!) movies of the year, and, if you want to read a bunch of nice things about the other movies I watched last year, you can check out my Be Kind Rewind For 2021, which I posted yesterday. I have a feeling that this is going to be a pretty lengthy post, so I won’t waste too much more time introducing the concept!
Also, so far, I have only seen two Best Picture nominees, both of which are listed below! If all goes to plan, I will watch the other 8 in time to write a ranking of those ten films before the big night!
20. The Last Duel
The first of two films filmed during a pandemic and released in 2021 by an 84-year-old Ridley Scott, this film finds Matt Damon and Ben Affleck writing their first screenplay since they won an Oscar for Good Will Hunting (Nicole Holofcener also co-wrote this film). The film is based on the true story of the last judicial duel fought in France, which sees Matt Damon’s character fighting Adam Driver’s character after the latter is accused of sexual assault by the former’s wife, played by Jodie Comer. The film’s structure is a fascinating one, showing the same events as understood by each of the three main characters, each preceded by the title card “The truth according to…,” all leading to the titular duel. There’s a lot to praise in this movie, but it gets its life from Comer’s performance. Comer broke into the general public’s awareness by playing the sociopathic Villenelle in Killing Eve, a role that has won her an Emmy, and her talents are on full display in this movie. This role asks a lot of Comer, including having to film the inciting sexual assault with two very different tones (the first from Driver’s point of view [which, of note, still feels like an assault!], and the second, and more difficult to watch, from her point of view). As her story goes on, and she fights to defend herself in the face of the general misogyny of the time (a time that viewed her sexual assault charge not as an offense against her, instead seen as an assault on her husband’s property, which, the past seems very chill), you can’t help but dream of a reality where she gets to torch every person she meets in this movie. A lot of this is just, like, general empathy for someone having to go through a terrible experience, but Comer’s performance, particularly as she sits in court, easily coaxes the maximum amount of empathy out of the audience. She’s an unreal performer and I’m so excited to see what she does for the rest of her career.
19. Judas and The Black Messiah
Another film based on a true story, this chronicles the government’s murder of the chairman of the Black Panthers, Fred Hampton, with the assistance of FBI informant, Bill O’Neil, who infiltrated the Panthers. Like The Last Duel, this is a story anchored by its performances, with Daniel Kaluuya’s Oscar-winning turn as Hampton and LaKeith Stanfield’s Oscar-nominated portrayal of O’Neill leading the way (both performances were in the Best Supporting Actor category, which seems insane as they are the titular characters and co-leads of the film, but, whatever, go off, Academy). Although their performances are strong throughout the entire film, both of their performance truly shine in the below scene, as Hampton gives a speech to his followers in a church. Kaluuya is electrifying in his leadership and you can understand how this man had so many people wanting to follow his cause. Stanfield is able to balance the performative role of a believer in the Panthers’ cause, all with a low-level terror as he sees his FBI contact (played by the haunting Jesse Plemons) staring at him from the crowd. This was one of the first films I watched last year, and it’s this scene that has stuck with me more than basically any other. Two immense talents giving vastly different, but still remarkable, performances.
18. The Suicide Squad
It might surprise you, but this comic book movie, that features a massive alien starfish that releases tinier, face-sized versions of itself that latch onto people’s faces in order to from a hive mind, breaks that short streak of films based on a true story. A massive step up from its similarly-titled predecessor, and sharing only a couple of characters (most notably Margot Robbie’s Harley Quinn, whose third appearance cements her as easily one of the best cast comic book characters ever), it does continue the streak of James Gunn’s singular take on the superhero genre. Colorful, crude, hilarious and surprisingly heartfelt, the only thing that differentiates this from his (excellent) Guardians of the Galaxy films is the R-rating he was allowed to have by the WB, allowing for his penchant for absurd gore to come through. I mean, a bipedal shark (voiced by Sylvester Stallone!) rips a man in half, length-wise. It’s excellent. The film also lives up to its title, of a group of villains whose lives are expendable enough they can be sent on highly dangerous missions with little concern from the government, by significantly increasing the previous film’s body count. This very intentional flip of the typical comic book movie might not be everyone’s cup of tea, but with Gunn’s sure hand at the head of it, it is exactly what I hope to see more of from the very repetitive genre.
17. The Fear Street Trilogy
Time for the loophole in my rankings! As the heading suggests, this is actually a set of three films (loosely based on a series of the same name by R.L. Stine), that after the initial, monthly release schedule in 2020 was cancelled due to, well *gestures broadly*, Netflix purchased the rights and released them in consecutive weeks last summer. Although a true ranking might have put at least one of these movies in yesterday’s Be Kind Rewind, separating them for something like this felt weird, and I think considering them together makes the whole thing so much more impressive. Each film is directed by Leigh Janiak, but has its own distinct tone, and temporal setting. The first film, subtitled 1994, takes place in, you guessed it, the 1990s, and clearly revels in the game-changing slasher from that decade, Wes Craven’s Scream. The second film, 1978, takes place at a summer camp, obviously taking its queues from the Friday the 13th franchise. The last film, 1666 (the spookiest year number in 1,000 years), feels closer to Robert Eggers’s The Witch (please note how I spell that with a W, instead of two Vs, because I am not a sociopath). Janiak being able to pull off the tone of all of these with any level of success is genuinely nuts to fathom, and the over-arching story she connects them all with as co-writer of all the scripts (with a bevy of other writers), allows the concluding chapter to go out on an emotional and romantic high. Also, bonus points to the first movie for including one of the gnarliest kills I have ever seen in a horror movie, as a young woman’s head gets shoved through a bread slicer! Below is some behind the scenes footage of it. Fair warning: it’s gross! (It owns).
16. Spider-Man: No Way Home
*Spoiler warning: to earnestly discuss what helps this film get onto my list, I will need to delve into significant spoilers. So If you haven’t seen it, and don’t want to be spoiled, just know it pulls off its heavily advertised multi-versal plotline with aplomb*
In 2018, Sony Animation released Spider-Man: Into The Spider-Verse, which is far and away the best Spider-Man movie that has ever been released. It’s an origin story that spends the entire film with the main character truly struggling with his new powers, and includes a wide variety of multi-versal Spider-folks that all mesh together in a funny and beautifully emotional way. So, of course, Sony and Disney needed to try to find a way to copy that. The advertising for this film was not shy in showcasing the return of villains from Sony’s previous attempts at live action Spider-Man films, including all timer villains like Willem Dafoe’s Green Goblin and Alfred Molina’s Doctor Octopus from the first two films of Sam Raimi’s superior trilogy from the early 2000s (Thomas Haden Church’s Sandman is also in this movie, but feels less important to the story so whatever), and also including Jamie Foxx’s Electro from Marc Webb’s attempt at the franchise from the 2010s, which, unfortunately, exists! (Rhys Ifans’s Lizard is also here, but, like Sandman, is just kind of there). (A quick aside: There’s something to be said about Tom Holland’s iteration of the character not getting to have villains of his own, but that’s neither here nor there at the moment). The big question of the movie was whether or not Tobey Maguire and Andrew Garfield would also return, and the answer to that question is, of course they do. There was no way in hell this movie wasn’t going to include them. The real feat was that they were able to include the characters in a way that felt emotionally earned. The three Parkers play off each other so well, and you can feel the excitement they all had to be in the same room emanating off the screen. Bonus points to this movie for giving Andrew Garfield, easily the best portrayal of the character in what are easily the worst movies, a more rewarding emotional arc than his actual movies did! The film ends on a bittersweet note, which I’ll avoid some of the detail on in case people did risk some spoilers in this post, but the most rewarding moment is getting to see Peter in a suit of his own creation (instead of a technology-laden suit from Tony Stark), swinging around the city, ready to truly be the friendly, neighborhood Spider-Man we know and love.
15. No Time To Die
As anyone who has followed this blog since the beginning knows, its most productive period was when I was writing my way through my first viewing of the entire (Eon-produced) James Bond films. Something I bring up there is that my first real exposure to the character was when Daniel Craig started his run with Casino Royale, and my first theatrical Bond experience was Skyfall. So, after nearly 20 years as the character, seeing Craig’s portrayal of Bond finally get a swan song was always going to be an emotional moment for me, but the film honors Craig’s legacy as the only version of Bond whose films build on each other (for better or worse) in such a way to really maximize the emotional impact. I won’t go into as much detail here, because I do think I can get to the heart of the topic without saying anything significant, but Craig’s swan song is a truly satisfying conclusion to his run, that gets bonus points by referencing my favorite non-Craig Bond film, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, going so far as to not only name drop the title of the song Louis Armstrong wrote for that film (which I will include below), but having it play over the start of the film’s end credits. After a rocky period where it felt like Craig’s lackluster fourth film, Spectre, could be his last, getting to go out on the emotional high of this film is such a tremendous relief.
14. The Green Knight
David Lowery’s adaptation of an Arthurian poem has the distinction of being one of the full movies that realizes an incredibly important thing about one of our most talented modern actors: Dev Patel is hot. That may seem like a silly thing to celebrate in this movie, which fully realizes its epic and fantastical nature by setting Patel’s Gawain on a quest to finalize a potentially-deadly deal he made with the titular, monstrous-looking Green Knight. On his trip, he encounters a speaking fox, a race of giants, a ghost whose head he must return to her home, a troublingly amorous young woman who bears a chilling resemblance to a prostitute whose services he frequents at home and, perhaps most chilling of all, Barry Keoghan. Each encounter feels significant and distinct from the rest, and it is rarely, if ever, dull. Every shot is gorgeously composed and helps sell the epic and fantastical nature of the film. But, more importantly than that, through it all, Dev Patel remains hot.
13. Werewolves Within
A rare video game adaptation that works, this comedic supernatural whodunnit rises above its genre’s typical flair by having a plot that requires some level of creativity in its story, instead of simply trying to recreate a video game while taking away the medium’s most noteworthy characteristic, allowing its audience to active participate. Carried by its strong ensemble cast, led by Sheriff Sam Richardson (who, as I mentioned yesterday, rules), you spend just enough time with each character to be simultaneously sympathetic to their stories while being deeply suspicious that they are the murderer (who, in this case, also happens to be a werewolf!) The werewolf design is appropriate for the tone of the film and allows for a tense and fun final confrontation between our lead and the titular lycanthrope. I have yet to do a rewatch after having seen it the first time, so I’m not sure of how it holds up with full knowledge of the final reveal, but the first viewing was such a fun ride I’m still comfortable placing it on this list.
12. The Matrix Resurrections
With three movies preceding this one on the list, and three more left to go, it’s pretty safe to say that Warner Brothers, despite my initial concern with their decision to do the day-and-date release in both theaters and HBO Max, had the best year of any production company. A lot of that is not only associating themselves with talented creators, but seemingly allowing those creators to have a pretty vast creative freedom. That is perhaps most apparent on this movie, that finds Lana Wachowski returning to the franchise that brought she and her sister to the public’s attention, but seeming to not be happy about it. The extremely meta movie finds Keanu Reeves’s Neo back in the titular Matrix, working for a video game company that made a video game of the Matrix, and whose parent company (a name checked Warner Brothers!) is forcing them to make another Matrix sequel. The vibe is that the company will make the Matrix with or without the original creators’ support. It’s an animosity towards the current state of filmmaking that feels unlikely to be supported by other companies, but Warners lets it go, which, is both cool, but also shitty that it kind of came to that point. Aside from all of that, which I do like, this movie falls solely into my favorite genre of media, which is a high concept fantasy/science fiction story whose climatic moment is heavily dependent on the power of romantic love. The film’s final shot, showing Neo and Trinity lovingly staring into each other’s eyes as they fly off into the sunset, is exactly what I want from genre-filmmaking, and the world should take note.
Yesterday, I discussed how everything Lin-Manuel Miranda gets involved in shows off the man’s seemingly unending well of talent. That is the case here, as Miranda makes his directorial debut, adapting Jonathan Larson’s musical (written before his mega success Rent) of the same name. Larson’s musical is a semi-autobiographical story of his first attempt of bringing a musical to the New York stage. Larson’s story is a heartbreaking one, as he struggled to find success for so many years, only to have his only true success premiere the night after his sudden death, but Miranda, with the help of a career-best performance from Andrew Garfield, is able to find optimism in the story despite us knowing the truth of the story. It feels like it is an impossible trick to pull off, but it works. Aside from pulling that trick off, Miranda also shows that he not only knows how to write the music and lyrics for popular films and musicals, but can shoot the hell out of a musical number behind the camera as well. Several full numbers are on YouTube, should you not have Netflix, but the one that I think best displays Miranda’s directorial talents, as well as Garfield’s musical talents, is “No More,” a song that feels like a test run for the titular number in Larson’s Rent.
10. The Mitchells vs. The Machines
Chris Miller and Phil Lord are two of the most exciting filmmakers around right now, as they consistently make movies that catch people off guard with not only how funny they are, but how much heart that they have. Although this movie, produced by Miller and Lord (written and directed by Gravity Falls alum Mike Rianda) the tale of a family road trip in the face of an artificial intelligence-uprising, lacks the “why in God’s name are they making this movie?/how in the hell did they pull this off” that gets associated with 21 Jump Street or The Lego Movie, it still fits the rest of the boxes for their filmography. From 2D-scribbled asides (from the aspiring filmmaker in the family, Katie Mitchell, voiced by Abbi Jacobson), to two malfunctioning robots that help the family, to a top notch comedic set piece taking place in an abandoned mall as the many machines in it come to life (the phrase “LET THE DARK HARVEST BEGIN” has stuck with me since I originally watched this movie), the jokes come early and often in this. But what makes Miller and Lord productions truly standout is the emotional punch that comes from this movie, with the emotions of this film coming most directly from the father (voiced by Danny McBride), who is struggling to connect with Katie as she goes off to school. As a father, who is constantly amazed by how quickly time has passed since the birth of his son two and a half years ago, watching McBride’s character do everything he can to maintain that connection struck close to home. I’m sure this movie will hit me harder and harder as the years go by and I watch my son get older, and try to live his own life, apart from my own. Balancing the connection I have with him, while allowing him to be his own person, will be a difficult one, but it is a challenge I am excited to face.
Anyway, here’s some evil Furbys.
9. Bo Burnham: Inside
Another loophole, I’m not sure how this highly-produced comedy special, made entirely by Bo Burnham while he was stuck in his home during the first year of the pandemic, qualifies as a movie, but it is so singularly impressive, I wanted to make an exception, and I can do what I want. It’s my blog. Anyways, now that I’m done arguing my case to the person I just made up who is mad at me, I can praise this unreal special. Burnham’s comedic stylings started in his bedroom in his parent’s house when he was still in high school, and he’s matured into a talented actor (he was a big part of why Promising Young Woman topped my ranking last year), an award-nominated filmmaker (he wrote and directed Eighth Grade, for which he won a Screenwriter’s Guild Award), and a much more nuanced comedian. After walking away from the stage after he completed his Make Happy tour, Burnham made his return to comedy with this singular piece of art. Each song simultaneously pulls off brilliant comedy and some combination of salient points about the world around him or his own declining mental health, accelerated by the loneliness brought on by the pandemic. Picking a best moment feels genuinely impossible. From critiquing white allies with the help of a sock puppet in How The World Works, to dealing with the constant reminders of mortality as we age with 30, to the overwhelming despair of a reality that feels difficult to fathom of That Funny Feeling (that has since become a regular part of rocker Phoebe Bridgers’s concerts), every segment of Inside feels like it has an argument for the best. However, my favorite is below, as Burnham anthropomorphizes the Internet and turns it into a haunting villain, taunting us with its hold over us.
Denis Villeneuve pulling off this movie feels like a genuine miracle. One of the most foundational science fiction books of all time, Frank Herbert’s Dune always seemed to have an air of being unadaptable, compounded by the fact that David Lynch’s attempt at adapting it in the mid-80s is pretty frequently considered to be that visionary director’s worst film. Then again, if anyone were going to pull it off, it was likely going to be the guy whose last film was Blade Runner 2049, a critically successful sequel to a decades’ old sci-fi classic. The fact that Warner Brothers saw the content of that film, instead of the admittedly lackluster box office take, and trusted Villeneuve to make a film of this scale again seems to suggest some pretty positive things about that production company. It’s that scale of this film that is so critical to its success. Instead of trying to capture the entirety of Herbert’s epic novel into one film, like Lynch’s adaptation did, Villeneuve takes his time in adapting the first half of the book into a film that is already longer than Lynch’s. Character’s motivations feel more fleshed out. The universe feels wide-spread. When House Atreides (led by a gloriously bearded Oscar Isaac, his wife, played exquisitely by Rebecca Ferguson, and, his son/our protagonist, the hilariously named Paul, played by Timothée Chalamet) lands on the titular Dune planet, Arrakis, the desert planet feels truly massive. We are introduced to massive dragonfly-like ornithopters at the Atreides’s home base, only to see them appear like regular dragonflies when seen flying across the sands. The famed sand worms feel horrifying in their scale. Bringing this book to life was going to require a patient filmmaker who was willing to take his time with the content, while also being able to show off the world’s unfathomable size, and luckily, with Villeneuve, that’s what we got, and, thanks to his sure hand, a highly-anticipated sequel is likely to come out next year.
7. Nia DaCosta’s Candyman
A popular trend in filmmaking right now is legacy sequels. Although it is easy to tie these films, which take place in the same world as a popular film, with returning characters stepping into supporting roles, or appearing only as a cameo, to the success of 2015’s Jurassic World and The Force Awakens, you could drop back five more years to find Tron: Legacy (the word is even in the title!), or, if you are feeling particularly crazy, you can tie it to 1999’s The Rage: Carrie 2, which has Amy Irving returning as Sue Snell, a role she originally played in Brian De Palma’s Carrie, over two decades earlier. Although the quality of these movies is wide-ranging, and there is something to be said about Hollywood’s over-insistence on playing to audience’s nostalgia instead of creating something truly unique, every now and then, a legacy sequel can balance the nostalgia play with genuine innovation. Enter Nia DaCosta’s Candyman, a direct sequel to the 1992 film of the same name. DaCosta’s film, co-written with Win Rosenfeld and Jordan Peele, doubles down on the social commentary lurking in Bernard Rose’s original film, returning to Cabrini-Green, only to see the effects of gentrification creeping in, if not fully realized (including a church that was literally whitewashed). There’s a lot of ways where this film succeeds in telling a story about black trauma, but I think one of the most noteworthy ones is the decision to never graphically depict that trauma. Instead, as we learn the long history of innocent black men (or children) who have assumed the titular title of Candyman, we see it played out via shadow puppets, as created by Chicago-based puppet company Manuel Cinema. The effect, as depicted in the below teaser released for the film, is still a chilling one, as the puppetry, when combined with composer Robert Aiki Aubrey Lowe’s score, leaves a lasting, creeping impression, without forcing a community who is already too used to seeing trauma play out in their real lives, to watch that trauma in their art as well.
6. Barb & Star Go To Vista Del Mar
I genuinely cannot remember the last time I laughed this hard at a movie, let alone a movie that was so blatantly proud of putting just the stupidest form of comedy on the screen. This deliriously goofy film, written by Kristen Wiig and Annie Mumolo (who were both nominated for an Academy Award for their work on Bridesmaids), finds two middle aged women (played by the screenwriters) leaving their hometown for the first time to enjoy a vacation in the titular Vista Del Mar. Little do they know, at the same time the nefarious Sharon Gordon Fisherman (also played by Wiig) is planning on taking revenge on the inhabitants of that town for the way that they mocked her as her child for her pale skin. Fisherman is not far from a James Bond villain, living in an underground lab, alongside her henchmen, a small child named Yoyo, and the smitten Edgar, played by Jamie Dornan, of 50 Shades Of Gray fame. This movie is genuinely top to bottom stupid humor, so picking out a favorite sequence seems like it could be a challenge. Is it the titular character’s riff on a fictional woman named Trish, ending in them in tears at the selflessness of this made up woman? Is it as Jamie Dornan gives a classic “bad guy describes his plan to the heroes” speech while Barb and Star slowly and very obviously get out of the ropes that bind them? Is it the back-to-back date scenes as both Barb and Star spend a romantic evening with Edgar, where the events of the night are basically identical, even down to the extras walking by them? Is it when it is revealed that Trish exists, and is actually a mystical mermaid played by Reba McEntire? Is it Damon Wayans Jr.’s character, the least component undercover agent of all time, who is way too eager to reveal damning information about himself? All of these moments are wonderfully absurd. But they do not compare to the magic of “Edgar’s Prayer.” Sit down, prepare to pray to the seagull on the tire, and enjoy.
Yesterday, I talked about how the first two Conjuring films work primarily because of the direction of James Wan, and how the third film losing him in the director’s chair is a primary reason it does not work as well for me. Well, a primary reason he was not in the director’s chair of that movie was he was instead working on this film, from a script written by Akela Cooper. Wan’s last picture before this was Aquaman, which is the DCEU’s highest grossing film, when looking at worldwide numbers. So, effectively, before he began work on the sequel, Warner Brothers gave him a blank check to make whatever he want. Hence, Malignant. You will likely spend the vast majority of this film’s 111 minute runtime wondering why Wan would use his blank check on this movie. The story of a woman, Madison (played by Annabelle Wallis), who is having visions of Gabriel, a seemingly supernatural serial killer, and his kills, is fine for most of the movie. Some decently fun setup for kills, and an extremely well shot haunted house sequence where Madison is seemingly pursued by some sort of invisible entity, are pleasant enough, I suppose, but, for most of the movie, nothing clicks as to why Wan would want to make this movie, specifically. And then, we are formally introduced to Gabriel. I’m not going into a lot of detail on this, to try to maintain some of the sheer shock of this film’s ending, but I will say, the movie pretty much reveals its hand at the outset. You have a general idea of what is going on through most of the movie. But I think there is nothing that can prepare you for the full truth of Gabriel. Nothing can prepare you for his graphic assault on a police station. Nothing can prepare you for how much fun the whole thing is. The last twenty minutes of this movie are less horror film and more action climax, where the primary person we are watching is the film’s antagonist. It is so beautifully absurd, that whenever I am nearing bedtime and want to watch one last thing before heading back to read, I’ll pop on the last 20 minutes of this movie. It is an immediate dopamine hit. I so badly hope we have not seen the last of Wan playing around in this universe, and I wish nothing but for the best for my close good friend, Gabriel.
Nicolas Cage is an interesting performer. This feels like a very general statement, and, on some levels, it obviously is, but that also feels to be like a fairly easy way to capture him. He’s been in 19 (!) movies since the start of 2018, ranging from movies I genuinely have never heard of (that’s actually most of them), to wild performances in some small budget horror films (one of which made its way onto my favorite movies of 2018), to Croods 2: Electric Bugacroods (Not the actual sequel title, but can you imagine?), to a stellar voice performance in my favorite movie of 2018. Later this year, he plays a fictionalized version of himself who is trying to appease a billionaire fan, a performance that seems to have a level of self-awareness of how hard to pin down his career is. Which brings me to this movie, which, was described as a “revenge thriller” about a reclusive truffle forager who comes out of the woods in order to track down the men who stole his trusty pig. It sounds like John Wick but with Nicolas Cage being mad about a pig. Let me tell you what this movie for sure is not: a revenge thriller. It’s a slow paced meditation on loving your craft, as well as on the importance of the connections that we form. Aside from a random scene that takes place in a fight club (Cage’s character is working on getting information of some kind? It’s very strange, but it’s worth kind of shoving to the side to remain in awe of the rest of the movie), every scene is basically just people walking around or talking to each other, and it is all anchored by a stellar, nuanced performance by Cage, which might be my favorite performance of the year (Garfield in tick…tick…Boom! comes close, as do two performances in the top movie on the list). There are so many standout scenes in this, including a scene where Cage and his partner in the search (played by Alex Wolff, totally free of Paimon) prepare a meal for the latter’s father, something that was so simple and yet had me crying extremely hard (?). However, the standout scene, and potentially my favorite scene of the year, is when Cage (and Wolff) visit a local, trendy restaurant in order to get information. Cage’s character, who was a famed chef prior to the passing of his wife, which pushed him to seclusion, speaks to the head chef of the restaurant (played by David Knell), a former employee of his. I’ve included the scene below, but Cage pushing Knell, initially for information on the location of his pig, but then on the disconnect between his fancy restaurant and his prior dreams, is so small and quiet and devastating, and Knell plays it as someone backed against the wall and scared and sad. It’s such a powerful scene and it shows that when Cage wants to he can give a powerhouse performance that doesn’t rely on him going full nutso, which, nothing wrong with Full Nutso Cage, it’s a lot of fun, but seeing stuff like this is a reminder of this man’s vast talents.
The last movie I watched for my 2021 wrap-up, Flee is perhaps the most unique film I have ever seen. Flee is a documentary that tells the heartbreakingly heavy true story of Amin Nawabi, a man who, as a child, fled Afghanistan, a country on the verge of civil war. The story, like most documentaries, is told through Nawabi’s narration as he recalls his brief time in Afghanistan, before leaving for an immediately post-Soviet Russia with his family, his sisters’ trip to Sweden (where his eldest brother lives) while stuck in a shipping container on a massive cargo boat, the rest of his family’s failed attempt at getting to Sweden that was halted when a cruise ship called in the local Estonian police, who eventually returned them to Russia, and then a final successful solo trip to Denmark, that found him finally safe from any chance of returning to either Russia or Afghanistan, but also entirely separated from his family. On top of that, Amin has to struggle with his dawning realization that he is a gay man, a fact that would be severely frowned upon by his culture, potentially further separating him from the rest of his family. What makes this documentary so unique is that, aside from the occasional piece of news footage, it is entirely animated. Although the story is strong enough, watching it come to life through animation, instead of trying to cast live actors to recreate the past, somehow gives the story a more realistic feel to it. Watching the child version of Amin react to what is going on to him feels more genuine than it would by watching a child actor try to recreate everything. It’s a risky decision, but it is one that I think allows the story to be an even better version of itself. The story itself is gripping and difficult to watch at every stage. The recreation of his sisters’ journey to Sweden includes detailed diagrams of how the shipping container they shared with dozens of other refugees was sandwiched between many other containers, effectively trapping them. We hear the desperate knocking of people trying to get out of the dark location, completely separating them from the outside world. Even though they have safely made it out of a country that presented a danger to them, they leave the boat in total shock. Even the present day side of things is difficult to watch, as Amin struggles to be fully open with his soon-to-be-husband, a man who is excitedly looking for homes to spend the rest of their lives together in, while Amin holds on to a secret offer letter to rejoin an American school as a post-doc. In the initial stages of the present day, we struggle to understand why he is making this choice, but as his story unfolds, we come to understand how being alone in Demark, and having to tell everyone he meets the lie that his entire family was killed in Afghanistan, in order to sell the story that he is a truly alone refugee, has severely impacted his ability to form relationships. Most of the movie is these sort of brutally emotional reveals, which makes the film’s final ten minutes so emotionally rewarding. It’s still by no means an easy viewing, but getting to see it end on predominantly positive notes is wonderful.
2. In The Heights
Based on Lin-Manuel Miranda’s musical of the same name (co-written with Quiara Alegría Hudes, who takes screenwriting duties here), this seems like another opportunity to sing the praises of the Pulitzer, Emmy, Grammy and Tony-award winning Miranda. Although his music here is still great, and deserves praise, and I even like his performance as the Piragua Guy, the real praise of this movie should go firmly to director Jon M. Chu, alongside his cinematographer Alice Brooks (who did the same job on Miranda’s tick…tick..Boom!) Chu and Brooks take a story that is pretty firmly based in reality (the most fantastical thing that happens here is someone wins a lottery worth $96,000, which, with an amount that feels that low [“a knapsack of jack after taxes”], is still pretty inarguably a thing that happens in reality) and sure-handedly swerve into the realm of fantastical musical. I am of the opinion that musicals, are, inherently, fantastical. People don’t go about their days and then suddenly burst into song, let alone with expertly choreographed dance moves that random people on the street also happen to know. Although some musicals, like Les Misérables (or the top movie on this list), are so realistic, fantastical numbers would likely be a deterrent, that is not the case for most musicals. Musicals, like this one, should be big and fun and joyous. Sewer grates can and should spin like the disc of a dj (the film’s titular song, below). Mannequin heads can and should bop to music and dramatically react to a juicy piece of gossip (“No Me Diga”). People’s animated hand movements can and should literally be accompanied by quick bursts of animation (“96,000”). A woman whose life is flashing before her eyes can and should walk among the ghosts of her past in a gorgeously lit subway station (“Paciencia y Fe”) Most beautifully, a couple’s confession of love and dedication can and should be accompanied by a gravity defying (*wink*) dance among fire escapes on the side of a building. This is what musicals can and should be. Yes, there are times where that is not the most appropriate use of the medium, but if your story isn’t so dramatic that a little bit of fanaticism would take away from it, embrace what makes this medium so wonderful. Then, when you have a dramatic moment to sell, the fact that it is so withdrawn allows it to hit all the more powerfully. The emotional climax of one of the primary couples of the story, the lead, Usnavi (Anthony Ramos, doing his Hamilton daddy proud) and Vanessa (Melissa Barrera), discuss their future plans in “Champagne” a song that was sung live on set and shot in a single sweeping shot, moving around the apartment as they deal with their feelings for each other. It’s one of the most grounded performances in the movie, and its because that it is surrounded by such wonderful, over-the-top numbers that the reality of the emotional hits that much harder. If the rest of the movie was shot like this, this song would likely fall to the wayside, but instead it is one of the most emotionally rewarding songs in a film that ends on a run of four emotionally rewarding songs. Chu getting to do the film adaptation of Wicked is probably the best thing in the world that could happen to a film adaptation of Wicked. It instantly went from something I would probably see out of an obligation of enjoying the medium, even if I don’t enjoy that show, to genuinely one of my most anticipated movies of the near future, and that is entirely on the back of how he brought this film to such vibrant life.
1. West Side Story
The 1961 version of West Side Story (directed by Robert Wise, with iconic choreography from Jerome Robbins) is a stone-cold classic that, aside from some truly unfortunate brownface, still holds up today, over six decades after its initial release. So, the big question surrounding this new version was; why? Why should Steven Spielberg, a man who has never directed a musical in his career, try to recreate one of the great movie musicals of all time? Although I think having a version that removes any reminders of a time where Hollywood would rather cast white people and throw them in a makeup chair instead of actually casting a person of color is more than enough reason, I think another significant reason is that if Steven Spielberg wants to remake a classic film, he should probably be allowed to remake a classic film without too much pushback from us. Spielberg is no stranger to creating stone-cold classic films, including a nuts run early in his career of Jaws, Close Encounters of the Third Kind,
1941, Raiders of the Lost Ark, and E.T. And that’s before you get into the fact he released Jurassic Park and Schindler’s List in the same calendar year, and then released Saving Private Ryan five years later. His films since then have been a bit all over the place, but still includes great stuff, like Minority Report, and two more Best Director nominations for Munich and Lincoln (not to mention Best Picture nominations for War Horse, Bridge of Spies and The Post). So, yeah, if anyone should be able to remake a classic, it’s this dude. And, guess what? This movie is incredible. From the opening shot, as we watch crane shots of New York City set the to the familiar sounds of whistling, you can tell that Spielberg is going to honor the work that Wise and Robbins did, while still creating his own vision for the film, that in many ways, in my opinion, improves on the film. Instead of setting “America”, one of the most popular songs in the show, on a rooftop at night, Spielberg (and screenwriter Tony Kushner) move the action to the streets of New York in broad daylight, allowing for bigger and more engaging choreography, performed by performers in vibrant, eye-popping costumes. “Gee, Officer Krupke,” instead of being set on the dark streets of New York instead finds the Jets within a holding area of the police station, which they make quick work of trashing while they make their sarcastic pleas for mercy. Here, the rumble feels like it has weight and long-lasting implications, even before we see the shadowy figures of the Jets and the Sharks converge on that warehouse. And that’s not even getting into the cast. Newcomer Rachel Zegler quickly makes her mark as a talent to watch in the lead role of Maria, and has quickly taken advantage of that “cast in Steven Spielberg’s dream project” bump, finding herself in the sequel to Shazam! as well as Disney’s new Snow White. Mike Faist, who was nominated for a Tony for his work in Dear Evan Hansen, (and who, unlike someone else, smartly made the decision to not reprise his role as a high schooler, despite being nearly 30 years old), plays Riff, the leader of the Jets, which a desperation to keep his neighborhood that, despite being rooted in racism, somehow tricks you into feeling worried for him as he participates in the rumble with a look of abject terror on his face. Ansel Elgort is also in this. And, finally, Ariana DeBose plays Anita, a role that won Rita Moreno an Academy Award for the 1961 film, and has DeBose on track to win this year. DeBose plays the role with such joy and passion and raw emotion that when she is onscreen, it is hard to focus on anything else. It’s the performance of the movie, which is saying something considering how good folks like Faist and Zegler, not to mention David Alvarez’s turn as Bernardo and Rita Moreno’s return to the property as Valentina (Spielberg and Kushner’s version of Doc from the original film), are in this version. For some, it might still pale in comparison to the original film, which is fine, but, for me, it’s an improvement on an already great film, which is more than enough to cement it as my favorite movie of the year.
Thank you all for reading this! Like I mentioned at the top, I’m hoping to catch the other 8 best picture nominees and then write something about those before Oscar night. If that doesn’t work, I’ll probably see you around this time next year! Love you all.