Alex's Top 15 Films of 2021

This might be the latest I've started writing this intro since we began posting these lists. Usually, I start crafting in the fall, reviewing and revising as the publish date gets closer, with a clear focus on the thoughts I want to present by that time. I didn't do any of that this year. Maybe it's because the world is shifting again, reloading us back into our normal routines, and after two years amid an ever-evolving pandemic, time has become a strange commodity. We're only just now unwrapping what life and time mean to us in a post-pandemic world, and it will be interesting to continue exploring it as the years go on. None of that has anything to do with movies, per say, but it's an interesting observation as to why my timelines might have shifted. It's either that - life-altering, philosophical realignments that have fundamentally changed how we perceive the world and process time within it - or, just less enthusiasm for movie reviews as I get older. But it's definitely one of those two things!

And speaking of two things, as I reviewed my synopses below, that dichotomy was such a central component in my film evaluations this year. With more frequency than feels the norm, there were often two elements or parts that stood out to me in many of the films I saw this year. Is that the way these films were made and intended to be analyzed (for some, it felt purposeful), or something about how I viewed or perceived them? It's just a strange observation that I've never noticed before; something you'll surely notice as you read some of the reviews below.

Before I jump in, there are a few housekeeping notes worth mentioning: (1) It was nice to get back to a full slate of movies again this year. As I mentioned in last year's post, I'm grateful we got the entertainment we did, but I also look back and can't believe the complete dearth of content that was. Last year the calculus to make the cut was pretty much anything that didn't completely suck. This year there were plenty of tough cuts that had to be made. (2) I often note some of the prominent movies I didn't get around to seeing, as to further guide these rankings (did he hate West Side Story, or just not see it?). Thankfully, that list was small this year, but prominent titles like Belfast, CODA, and the aforementioned West Side Story haven't yet made their way in front of me. (3) Scanning some of the films I did see but that didn't make my list, one worth mentioning is Queenpins. It's not particularly notable for most reasons, but if I were doing a "Best Performances" list, Paul Walter Houser would be somewhere near the top. I wanted to rank the film just so I could talk about his performance. He was amazing and far more complex than was necessary for a movie like that. I wish he would have received some awards chatter for it.

All of that out of the way, onto the list!

15. House of Gucci
This was an odd film for me. I *think* it was well-written and well-acted, but maybe not? Is the whole thing a legacy character drama with rich aesthetics and genuine stakes, or one giant camp fest with flamboyant costumes and fake Italian accents? It probably falls somewhere in the middle, but even when it was "good", I'm not sure I connected with it strongly. The whole story is basically a familial mess, with different characters lobbying for power/control, all amid some general incompetence and/or greed by most everyone. While I may not care about this family/brand, since it is based on true events, I suppose it was interesting to see how matters escalated to the point where one person had another assassinated. I'm often a fan of stories like this - messy people trying to figure out the messiness of life - but here, I just wasn't sure whether the camp was intentional, or if we were meant to take these characters seriously. Either way, I just can't help but think the tone here was missed. There's a theory that Ridley Scott, the film's writer and director, discussed different versions of the film with different actors, resulting in a spectrum of performances from Lady Gaga's too-serious portrayal mashed up with Jared Leto's over-the-top SNL performance (and everyone/everything in between). It's wild and almost unimaginable, but it also almost makes too much sense. If Scott was looking to insert a level of chaos into a film about chaos, then he accomplished capturing that here; if it wasn't intentional, then I do fear that this might have just not been a great movie.

14. The Tender Bar
Since part of me always wanted to be a writer (in some capacity), this story resonated with me. Based on true events and taking place in 1970s New York, the story revolves around the life of a boy, JR (mostly played by Tye Sheridan), who has aspirations of being a writer. Through various stages, we see pieces of his life, how they shaped him, how it helped him overcome his various obstacles (mostly, being poor and not having a present father), and how those situations led to others that made him want to be a writer. The overarching component here is probably family (whether blood-related or between those we choose), how and where we find it, and the impact it can have on our lives. The most influential person for this kid is that of his uncle Charlie (Ben Affleck). Charlie is smarter and better read than he should be (for where he is in life), but we see just how much life obstacles and circumstances can hold you back, even if you do have natural gifts. Affleck does a great job portraying this character and being a better role model to JR than anyone ever was for him. It's a nice story about breaking cycles, overcoming family and generational trauma, and how small things (and the littlest bit of support) can have big life impacts. It's definitely sentimental, and purposely pulls at the heart strings, but I love a good coming-of-age story, especially when you get to see young people overcome their hardships to find success.

13. The French Dispatch
As all Wes Anderson film are, this was more an art exhibit than anything. There were two things that seemed important for Anderson to capture here: (1) his love/interest/opinion on journalism. For me, this was a big hit. As I've expressed in these posts before, I love movies about journalism and/or newspeople, so it was a treat to live in that world for a while. Here, we're introduced to a cavalcade of personalities working for an eccentric editor and newspaper, observing how everything comingles to create a finished product. (2) Vignettes of different scenes from which it seemed Anderson almost worked backwards. Each story allowed Anderson to create its own little world, and you get the sense that he almost had more fun crafting and filling those spaces than creating the stories around them. Every set was rich with details to the edges, though I'm not sure how much it assisted with the overall narrative. The characters were unique and eclectic, as one would expect from Anderson, but the art direction here was far more prominent. There were animated sections, musical portions, and countless digressions along the way - the film's composition almost functioned more like a newspaper than a movie, which was surely purposeful. The content is elevated by the continuous stream of A-list stars that Anderson recruits for his films, and I'll never not tout his artistic visions for the sake of providing something different than what's otherwise often created in Hollywood. As has been the case (for me) with some of Anderson's more recent films, his interest in creating art seems to take precedence over making movies, and within that structure, a little bit of the excitement is lost for me.

12. Barb and Star Go to Vista Del Mar
I mean this genuinely: I can't figure out if this is one of the worst films I've ever seen, or one of the most brilliant. It didn't hurt that I was in an altered state when I watched it - surely as it's intended - but I still can't decide if it was great or terrible. The biggest compliment I can give the film is that it's the most absurd thing I've ever seen. I love thinking about the writing for this film (the first time Kristin Wiig and Annie Mumolo have collaborated since 2011's Bridesmaids), and how the choices they landed on must have come together. The comedy was way (too) over-the-top, the plot was out of control, and both Wiig and Mumolo's characters were ridiculous. There were musical numbers with singing and dancing dolphins, preposterous love triangles, Morgan Freeman as a crab on the beach (named Morgan Freemond), evil plots with deadly mosquitos, and truly so much more. I thought this was going to be a dumb movie - and maybe it still is - but I can tell you that it's at least one worth watching. And good or bad, if that's the case, it had to be included in this list, right? 

11. Dune
I want to make a clear distinction between "science fiction" and "fantasy". As the name implies, science fiction has a basis in science (laws have rules) and often centers around exploration/future technologies. Fantasy films, like Star Wars, don't have any real world basis, instead making up their own physical laws. Both have their place in cinema, but it's much harder for me to get invested in films that are completely make-believe over films that resemble some plausible(ish) vision of the future. Dune straddles this line about as closely as any movie I've recently seen. There are powers and prophecies, but it's also like 10,000 years in the future, and humans are a race like countless others throughout the galaxy. When our species does eventually discover life on other worlds, and if these species start to merge - and as evolution occurs in general - how are we to know what traits will emerge and provide dominance over the galaxy? This is all very in the weeds, but all of this is to say, I'm actually most interested in this story when I watch it and think about it as a futuristic reality (not a fantasy film). Stuff is plausible, not just made up for fun. It's interesting to think about not only world politics with different species and different resources in the future, but about the politics of the entire galaxy. The film was really well made, and though it's mostly a quiet and cerebral watch, there's a lot of interesting content throughout. I enjoyed this more than I expected, and am glad there's another chapter on the way - we basically set up the big conflict and sides in this film; now it's time for resolution and to see if Paul (Timothy Chalamet) can realize his ultimate potential.

10. The Suicide Squad
There's just something about the DCEU that feels so forced compared to what Marvel has been able to achieve. Thankfully, this movie was more fun than any other recent DC film I've seen (maybe the best DCEU film to date?), and with the reigns off, writer/director James Gunn was able to let loose with the action and violence. Typical of a Gunn flick, this movie threaded the needle of being action packed while also having a little heart and personality. Ratcatcher II (played by newcomer Daniela Melchior) is a prime example of that synergy. She was easily the best in the film, though the emotion from such a silly character like Polka-Dot Man was also crafted perfectly. Viola Davis finally got a version of her character worthy of her talents, and Idris Elba was perfectly cast as the reluctant leader (and the rivalry/chemistry between Elba's Bloodsport and John Cena's Peacemaker was entertaining). The opening act was fun and unexpected, and overall the absurdness was enjoyable. This was the first DC film that felt like it really let its director run with his vision (something Marvel initially struggled with before enlisting the likes of Gunn, Taika Waititi, and Ryan Coogler), so maybe this was a turning point for the DCEU. Ultimately, while a fun and entertaining ride, this was still an action film, and those just don't resonate as much with me as other genres/themes - but if you like that genre more than I do, this might be a great one. Give us more Weasel!

9. Licorice Pizza
I'm conflicted on where to rank this one, but since Paul Thomas Anderson is one of my favorite directors I'm going to give him the benefit of the doubt for now. The film doesn't necessarily have a lot to say, leaning more on character and world-building of the era, but I often enjoy those aspects more than a plot anyway. Taking place in 1970s California, the film revolves around two young people - played by Cooper Hoffman and Alana Haim - just living their lives. There's young romance, business ventures, and crazy run-ins with Hollywood-types. I enjoyed the vibe of the film and thought the acting was raw and genuine, though I think it missed with its soundtrack. With this era and location - and a film named after a record store - everything was there for more iconic tracks. I recall one David Bowie song that hit perfectly, but the rest was mostly forgettable (maybe intentional?). My favorite parts were all the little side interactions these characters had with others, from meetings with crazy movie producers to drunken filmmakers performing wild stunts at restaurants - there are versions of these things that we all experienced or can feel from our own lives. Questions I still have: (1) was the relationship between these characters charming or a little weird? Most of the flirting was innocent enough, and at the end of the day these are just two young people figuring stuff out, but the age difference was kind of weird for me. (2) Was it a thing in California at this time for teenagers to just start up businesses? Over the course of the film they not only start up a waterbed sales company, but also an arcade. It seems like a lot for teenagers, but maybe that was a thing at that time. Overall, the vibe of the film was great, and if you grew up anywhere near California in the '70s I'm sure this one will resonate strongly.

8. A Quiet Place Part II
While I'll never shun an original horror concept, I was definitely among those who thought the first film accomplished everything it needed, and that making another was probably more about money than telling more of the story. I was wrong. Just as was the case with the first film, this installment offered a great story and knew exactly how to keep ramping up the tension and anxiety. And the furthered character development and growth was even better this time around. I enjoyed that the story revolved more around the kids and how they were coming to grips living in this post-apocalyptic world. Digging deeper into this world and learning more about the monsters and how they could be defeated was all really interesting - plus it was all done in a way that didn't minimize the scares or drama. We got to see new locations that presented new challenges and obstacles; like any great survivor show or horror movie, the fun here was as much about figuring out how you'd survive in those scenarios as watching how these characters made it through. Like I said, I wasn't sure a sequel was necessary to begin with, but now that I've seen it, I'm glad a third one is already in the works. I'm looking forward to seeing what more there is to come from this family, and how they'll further combat this enemy.

7. Finch
I'm not crying, you're crying! Boy, this one was a real tearjerker for me. The film's premise is that of a man closing in on death, inventing and training a robot to take care of his dog before he dies. Even just writing that out is sad! Taking place in a futuristic post-apocalyptic world, Tom Hanks plays a former scientist who is alone with his dog. Due to radiation poisoning, he knows he has little time left. He builds a robot that is like a child (but still uber-advanced by our current standards), and starts teaching him about the world, how to survive it, and mostly, how to take care of his dog and only friend. There of plenty of heartwarming moments - either between Hanks' character (Finch) and his robot/son, or between the robot and the dog - and with it all taking place in a world where you're not sure what happened is fascinating. The movie is an exploration of what we do to take care of the ones we love, and how those emotions can give us the strength to push beyond our limits. Hanks is the best of all time. And now that I have little pups in my life, clearly I'm a sucker for stories about their safety.

6. Don’t Look Up
I know this film has been polarizing to a lot of people, but for me, anytime I can get my hands on a nice piece of political commentary, it's going to rank highly. Created by maestro political satirist Adam McKay (Vice, The Big Short), this film was not only prescient, but humorous in its exposition on a variety of subjects. The clear parallel to the film's premise is climate change (or even COVID), but it also has some searing commentary on celebrity and the role of media - though I think it's primary focus is ultimately on American anti-intellectualism. Whether it's an asteroid coming to destroy the planet, climate change that's doing the same thing more slowly, or a pandemic that just asks you wear a mask and get a vaccine, the collective of Americans that are more interested in entertainment and "owning the libs" than actually doing the thoughtful thing may be the most harmful part of our society. For sure, there is also rightful skewering of the left (we tend to over-emotionalize problems, and believe that it just takes the right uplifting, come-together song to save us), but the clear antagonists here are the Americans who don't value science or knowledge, and actually go against it for the sake of doing so - even if it means more harm to them. There is a monologue by DiCaprio's character that feels like McKay's entire reason for making this film, and the anger he has towards ineptitude and the pride in anti-intellectualism is astonishing. This one definitely ranks highly for its message, though if you're looking at it from a technical standpoint, I can see a few shortcomings. It's definitely not as well made as Vice or The Big Short, but its commentary is just as sharp.

5. Malignant
This movie was as much fun as I'd hoped it'd be. Another iconic horror entry from James Wan (The Conjuring, Insidious), the film depicts a woman (Annabelle Wallis) dealing with various traumas and a supernatural link to a killer. Without giving anything more away, I feel like that's the best I can do with the description. Oh, and Gabriel is no joke! What I can tell you, is this movie finds all the right notes with its horror and B-movie camp, never getting too serious, but never necessarily being the butt of the joke, either. While the first half of the film lacks action, it still draws you in with its rich cinematography, creative shots, and inspired musical score. These are all elements for which I've also praised The Conjuring, so it's clear Wan is an expert with his craft and knows exactly which buttons to push to make movies like this work. The second half of the film features some big reveals, some awesome practical effects work, and some of the more creative action scenes I've ever seen in a horror film. There aren't as many scares as with the Wan films mentioned above, but the inspiration and creativity definitely take a big step forward. Trust me when I say you won't believe what the final act has in store. It's bonkers! If you aren't a fan of the genre - and don't appreciate the homages Wan pays to classic stylings of the genre - then I could understand not caring about this one as much as I do. But if you are, then there's no way you won't come away pleased.

4. The Power of the Dog
What a testament to the brooding western, with Jane Campion's commentary on masculinity, power, and purpose. Taking place in 1925 Montana, the story revolves around a pair of wealthy ranching brothers, Phil (Benedict Cumberbatch) and George (Jesse Plemmons), and a widowed mother and her son, Rose (Kirsten Dunst) and Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee). Their stories connect when George marries Rose, and her and Peter go to live with the brothers. The first part of the film showcases two elements: (1) the contentious relationship between Rose and Phil, and how Rose slowly loses control of her life and embraces her sadness and unhappiness. And (2) Phil's desire to project masculinity, or, what he believes to be the strongest expressions of it (violence, anger, coldness, etc.). We eventually learn that Phil is quite educated and thoughtful, and its only in the repression of his true feelings that he acts out in such hostile ways. The second part of this film is Phil's relationship with Peter. Peter feels his purpose is to protect his mother. He cares deeply for her, and doesn't appreciate how difficult Phil makes life for her. But as Phil and Peter's relationship evolves, Phil not only gets to explore his true, inner self, but it may even make him a kinder soul in the end. In the final act of the film, we see Peter's true intentions, and how much his mother's happiness means to him. He's  more calculated than he leads on, and is smart enough to manipulate Phil not by brute force but with emotion. Phil exposes his real self to Peter, maybe for the first time ever, to anyone, and Peter uses it against him. It was interesting to see two similar men manipulate different ends of the masculinity spectrum to get what they wanted/needed. The exploration of these concepts and archetypes - especially when handled with such skill from the actors involved - is as interesting as it is sad.

3. Last Night in Soho
This one took some turns that I definitely didn't expect. The film is something of a coming-of-age story about an aspiring fashion designer (Thomasin McKenzie) in present-day London, who struggles to fit in or find her footing in the big city. It's a classic premise, but one that's subverted when she becomes supernaturally linked to a woman from the 1960s (Anya Taylor-Joy). Through her dreams, she's transported to this other time, where she's allowed to blossom and live out some fantasies as another woman. This is the primary objective of the first half of the film - growth, through a really interesting lens. And with this, we get something of a love letter to London in the 1960s, and it's fabulous. There's great music, great fashion/costume design; the energy was so much fun, and you're comforted watching this intimidated young woman become more comfortable in her own skin. But, as was surely a point of the film, the allure of these components only masks the abuse and trauma these women accept and experience in order to achieve their dreams. As time goes on and she learns more about the woman with whom she's connected, we see that maybe there's a reason they're linked. The second half of the film becomes a much darker murder mystery, juxtaposing sharply with the first half, and my primary criticism is that I think similar outcomes and themes could have been accomplished without such drastic tonal shifts. But overall, the film was well-crafted and featured energetic pacing and fun music that kept me entertained throughout.

2. The Last Duel
What a great way to tell a story. This is a movie that will warrant multiple views, which I expect will only offer richer details each time. Based on a true story from 1300s France, the story ultimately accounts one of the first "me too" moments in history (at least, in the sense it was documented). In it, a wife (Jodi Comer) accuses a man (Adam Driver) of rape. As she is technically property and doesn't have legal ground to accuse anyone of anything, her husband (Matt Damon) takes up the cause for her through the courts (well, it's really more for him, but he gets to feel like it's for her). The story recounts the judicial process, resulting in a duel between the two men to decide what actually happened. From there, we see accounts of the incident told through each of their perspectives, and that's where it gets so fascinating. We see just how much male ego overshadows the actual recollections of the event, and how everyone thinks they're the hero of their story and that their actions are the most noble. The epitome, to me, is a scene from the trial (in a church) where sentencing is decided. We see it from all three perspectives, first with the male characters each recalling some impassioned speeches that prove their righteousness. However, neither recollection shows anything with the wife, and it's only through her perspective where we see how the event actually unfolded. We see the church chastising her about her sex life and forcing her to answer personal questions in front of a public audience. It's exasperating to see how much these men belittle and torment this woman, and how little they actually care about her. There are countless examples like that throughout the film, which show how things from 700+ years ago still resonate in today's world. Beyond the story, the cinematography and set/costume design is pristine, and there's even plenty of gory battle scenes thrown in.

1. Nightmare Alley
My primary draw to this film was its aesthetic. The world-building that Guillermo del Toro crafted for this noir was immersive and felt authentic; and his interests in the macabre aligned perfectly for a story like this. Revolving around carnival life in the 1930s there's a lot of dark and twisted imagery, but every element is so rich and interesting - from the retro carnival banners to the art deco designs of New York City - you can't help but be intrigued by it. The focus of the film sits with Bradley Cooper's Stan Carlisle, a grifter who not only knows how to work the angles, but also has the motivation (greed?) to seek more. Cooper is perfectly cast in the role, comfortably portraying both the suave confidence of the character as well as the dark underside he harbors. We see something of a rise and fall arc with his story, crossing all types of interesting characters throughout the journey - Toni Collette and Cate Blanchett are particularly great - who continue to provide the next big score for Stan, until he goes too far and gets in over his head. As we see more and more of Stan's dark past, the film's culmination - while being a real gut punch to the journey we just witnessed - ends up being earned and justified (as it is in true noir fashion). Even though he did terrible things, you can't help but feel bad for Stan in the end, though you assume much of his final career decision is weighted by a great deal of regret and self-punishment. There isn't much that's "nice" or "happy" about this film, but if you're interested in stories about how people react and respond to different types of control and power, or are looking for some slight commentary on how different kinds of people are marginalized, then you won't be disappointed here. You can feel the passion del Toro had in crafting this world, as every frame provides something interesting to explore. As alluring as it is uncomfortable, this is storytelling at its best.

So there we have it. Another year, another list in the books! It was great getting back to a full slate of films again this year and having difficult decisions about what should make this list. Thanks for reading - we'll catch up again next year!