It’s March 12, 2022. The Oscars will be handed out next weekend…

…and I still haven’t posted my Favorite Films of 2021 list!

Oh, well — better late than never.

Why? Why bother?

I wouldn’t dream of skipping a year: List-making is a personal liturgy — a way of making sense of the past year, a way of celebrating and expressing gratitude for the works of imagination that fueled my thinking and fed my heart. I’ve been “posting lists” since I was 13 years old, imitating the film critics that so fascinated me, and “publishing” them in homemade magazines that only I would ever see, journals that were my version of an adolescent’s diary. (I even reviewed my own first novels there when I was a kid. Ridiculous, sure — but I didn’t know that. I was already head-over-heels in love with the world of art-making and art criticism. I was as excited about the reviews as I was about the art.)

Yes, but why bother posting this in March, when the year ended so many weeks ago? Most people posted theirs in December, or even back in November!

I don’t believe in posting anything about “the year in review” when the year is not yet finished. Thus, I end up standing alone, speaking to an almost empty auditorium, after moviegoers are weary of reading so many lists. So be it. I like to take my time, see as much as possible, and then allow for those works of art to settle in my mind so that I can reflect, revisit some of them a second time, and ruminate.

“Hello. I am Desmond the Ruminant, and I approve this message. Discernment takes time — especially when it comes to the arts. Chew your movies. Chew them again. Ruminate.”

There have been years I’ve invested a hundred hours in list-making, and I don’t have that luxury anymore. So, in the interest of saving time, I’m changing up the format. This weekend, I will publish three posts covering three categories of 2021 feature films:

  • “It’s Complicated”: films that I found memorably engaging in some ways, but frustrating in others;
  • “Honorable Mentions”: films I found admirable in art and craft, meaningful, and appealing for a second and third viewing;
    and
  • “Favorites”: films I want in my permanent blu-ray collection; films I want to write about extensively and share with others in film clubs, classrooms, and conferences.

Time will not allow me to write an essay on each film. I’ll link to any writing I’ve already done. In many cases, I’ll share the first-impressions that I posted at Letterboxd, or that I published for the Looking Closer Specialists in our private Facebook group.

The “It’s Complicated” Films of 2021

(listed arbitrarily; not ranked)


Titane and Cruella

Two films that delivered cinematic sensory overload,
made with excellence in many technical categories —
but both troubled my conscience .

Titane was the big Cannes Palme d’Or winner in July, and it opened to widespread acclaim. I went into French director Julia Ducournau with high hopes and came out feeling like I needed to scrub my imagination with Lysol. The narrative is the farthest thing from plausible — which would be fine if I felt like the absurdities and fantasies added up to more than the sum of the parts. But I have yet to read a review that persuades me that most of what I’ve seen is more than mere audacity.

So, why am I mentioning it?

The cinematography, the merging of images and music, the performances, the ambition — these things have stayed with me, and I won’t soon forget them. Also, there’s a central thread of the movie that suggests that sometimes, for the sake of love, we need to step outside of the calcified definitions and judgments that give our worlds order. Sometimes, the only way to show grace is to offer an embrace even when that means bearing the weight of a broken person’s wounds and wrongs. As frustrated as I was with Titane the first time, I might be willing to give it another go someday.

I reviewed Titane here.

[Image from the Walt Disney Studios trailer.]

Here’s what I posted for the Looking Closer Specialists right after I saw Cruella for the first time:

I’m fond of asking, after a movie finishing paying lip service to various virtues, what the movie really and truly loves. Does it moralize about the evils and violence of war, but then invest most of its time and energy in dazzling us with sensationalized war violence in ways that thrill and dazzle us? Or does it have a meaningful integrity, aligning what it tells and what it is?

Regarding Cruella, I’ll say three things:

First of all… the performances and style here seem inspired as much by Batman Returns as by The Devil Wears Prada, and I enjoy those aspects of this film very much. It hits a difficult bull’s eye: a Classic Tim Burton balance of dark, twisted, campy, and earnest.

So I don’t regret sitting through it as I thought I would. How many times have makeup and costumes ended up framing unremarkable performances in films like this? How many times have I seen films try to do that Michelle-Pfeiffer-as-Catwoman thing and fail miserably, exalting her iconic performance further by comparison? Here we get some deliciously and memorably idiosyncratic turns from just about everyone involved. Stone and Thompson are not just phoning it in; they’re reveling in this opportunity, making something savory or sweet out of every single scene and they’re backed up by a surprising and impressive supporting cast. (Shout-outs to Joel Fry, Paul Walter Hauser, and John McRea who elevate their roles with wonderful performances as Jasper, Horace, and the Bowie-inspired glam-tailor Artie.)

[Image from the Walt Disney Studios trailer.]

Secondly… I understand the grievances others are voicing about how this character really cannot be the Cruella of One Hundred and One Dalmatians — this story does not provide a reasonable origin story for that character at all. And even if it did, we don’t need to cultivate sympathy for every devil, or we run the risk of minimizing the consequences of a villain’s cruelty.

But this film feels so far removed from the world of the animated classic that it just doesn’t feel like a Disney film at all. And anyway, if you stay for the end credits, you’ll get a bonus scene that, in my opinion, might provide an out… a possible excusal of this film from that responsibility. I could be wrong, but I think it suggests that maybe this movie’s Cruella really isn’t that Cruella… but that this person might have inspired a storyteller to base a character on some of her aspects and exploits.

[Image from the Walt Disney Studios trailer.]
Thirdly… I still can’t give this more than 3 1/2 stars because it commits the most flagrant case I’ve seen in a while of one of the most common and grievous of storytelling sins in mainstream American cinema: It feigns dismay at the destructive behavior of its protagonist, and makes a show of disapproval of her criminal ploys, but then goes to great lengths to explain where those behaviors come from so we shift the blame to someone else. And as it does this, it vigorously sets up an even more reprehensible character for this monster to oppose… one who is revealed to be just evil enough to make us root for the Lesser of Two Evils and cheer Cruella on in her Wicked-But-Not-Quite-So-Wicked ways.The end result, I fear, is the cultivation of a certain disregard for the fact that a young woman has turned to the Dark Side because, well… wasn’t she fun to watch? And wasn’t her enemy just despicable?So — this movie serves up a lot more fun that I anticipated, but then, alas, it spoils my fun by investing all of that good work in service of a story that arguably does more harm than good — by affirming, in method rather than in message, harmful behaviors. This movie loves Cruella DeVille more than it loves Estella — the nervy thief who evolves (or devolves?) into her. And even though one of the movie’s characters — Jasper, to be specific — has enough of a conscience to sense the problem with Estella’s heightening psychosis, the movie ends up cheering for her, and the end credits confirm that the film stands as a celebration of her triumph, tactics and all.


Wrath of Man and The Last Duel

Both were very well acted and very well made.
Both were gripping from beginning to end —
one in a conventional Die Hard kind of way,
and one with its lavish historical-epic imagery
and its Rashomon-style clash of narratives.
And I am uncomfortable with what felt like excesses of violence,
particularly when I think leaving some of those things to the imagination
would have been more effective and more ethical.

I reviewed Wrath of Man here.

[Image from the 20th Century Studios trailer.]

I did not review The Last Duel here, so here are the first impressions I posted at Letterboxd:

Here’s my review in four Halloween costumes:

Me, in the full armor of a knight, helmet under my arm, sword in hand, sporting my worst Matt Damon mullet, and shouting indignantly:

This movie is a powerful and affecting depiction of how even the most privileged of women in medieval times was stuck between the Rock of violent and abusive misogynists and the Hard Place of gender roles that undercut her at every turn! It may have rough patches, but I swear to you, I will defend its honor! This is the kind of movie we need in a time when the Powers That Be refuse to believe women. I demand that you all feel Marguerite’s pain! Fight me!

Me, in a dark cloak that billows across the screen like oil into the ocean, my hair dark and long like Adam Driver’s, speaking emphatically but with restraint:

Jodie Comer is the reason to see this movie. She deserves better than to be matched with … this version of Matt Damon, whose scarring makeup is doing most of the acting for him. She is devastatingly good. I am consumed by my love for her performance.

Me, in the brightly colored and spotless threads of a Count, smirking beneath a bad Ben Affleck blonde crop cut:

Come on. Matt Damon as Jean de Carrouge?! Are we really going to accept that accent? Or should I say… those accents? And we’re supposed to believe he’s French? More like… Jean de Carridiculous, amirite?

Also… what am I doing in this movie? Isn’t it distracting that I took a little time between Big Tabloid Romances to star as a wealthy playboy? Hilarious!

I apologize in advance for this one:

Me, with my hair spectacularly coiled and braided, wearing a dress so low-cut that some will call me a harlot, my voice trembling as if I’m on the verge of sobs:

Honor requires that I speak before the court! I am telling you the truth! This movie makes mistakes, it is true! And yes, it is heavy-handed and seems to announce its own relevance! Still, while it pains me to say it, I must declare that it is Truthful and Meaningful! It is not great Ridley Scott, but it is good Ridley Scott! And I will stand by it even if other critics subject me to a flogging!

[On a far more serious note: I was not prepared for the excruciating rape scenes — yes, scenes, plural — in this film. I feel deeply conflicted about whether those scenes, staged so fiercely, were necessary. I have a hard time remembering when I last felt so violently ill in a movie theater. Let that be a caution.]


Shiva Baby and The Humans

Both draw us into cringe-inducing family dramas full of grudges,
lies, betrayals, rants, breakdowns, and angst.
Both feature outstanding ensembles of character actors.
Both feature screenplays that are relentlessly clever and hilarious.
And both seem so preoccupied with the ugliness of humankind
that I staggered out starving for a reminder that people are beautiful too.
Don’t get me wrong — the focus on flaws and failures
is purposeful in both films. But I doubt I’ll revisit either one anytime soon.

[Image from the Utopia trailer.]

Here are the first impressions I posted at Letterboxd when I saw Shiva Baby:

Is it… instructive? I suppose, if you need a movie to show you that it’s unwise to sell your body for some extra cash, have multiple sexual partners without them knowing, or lie to your family and friends about your education or your job.

It is cathartic? If you’ve ever lived in a community of religious hypocrites in which everyone expects everyone else to maintain some level of respect and ritual fervor while nobody really holds themselves to any kind of meaningful standard, perhaps you’ll find some release in laughing at the exaggeration of it all.

But I couldn’t stop thinking about how much more I would enjoy revisiting my favorite Social Anxiety at a Big Family Gathering movie: Jonathan Demme’s wonderful Rachel Getting Married. Danielle’s desperation and claustrophobia as her foolishness begins dismantling her from the inside out during a very crowded formal event is certainly discomforting, and, for me, only occasionally funny — but it leaves us wondering whether it’s ever going to offer anything but discomfort. And its last-minute glimmer of something like hope is pretty feeble. So often, comedies like this have only enough imagination and ambition to grant their characters some kind of fleeting happiness in the end, and I’m always left asking, “Would it be too much to hope for a little wisdom? A little goodness?”

[Image from the Utopia trailer.]

Daniel Deferrari, Dianne Agron, and Polly Draper are my MVPs here. As Danielle’s sex-for-cash crush Max, the quick-thinking Deferrari is so perfectly arrogant, unprincipled, and stupid that he’ll have everyone eager to punch him in the face within the opening minutes. Agron turns Max’s quick-thinking wife Kim — a.k.a. “Entrepreneur Barbie” — into something far more complicated than just an intolerably pretty face. And Draper is unnervingly good at playing a certain kind of Mother Who Is Always Right But Who is Also Capable of Switching Gears — from judge-y to supportive, from exasperated to empathetic — at a moment’s notice.

For me, a little Fred Malamed goes a long way. He’s so good at what he does — but he does so much of it here as Danielle’s gregarious father Joel. I’m glad I watched this on my laptop so I could take breaks whenever Joel turns up what he probably calls “The Charm.”

[Image from the A24 trailer.]

And here’s what I posted at Letterboxd when I saw The Humans:

“Don’t you think it should cost less to be alive?”

“So… this is what lies beneath.”

Great to see the feather that twitched in an extreme close-up at the beginning of Three Colors: Blue make another appearance 29 years later… and in a horror movie!

“Because everything anyone’s got, no matter who you are, everything you have goes.”

….

This movie is what you’d get if Barton Fink‘s peeling hotel-room wallpaper wrote a screenplay.


Together Together and CODA

Both of these films are about intimate family relationships that are fractured
by unusual obstacles and challenges. Both of them are about dreamers who
suffer substantial setbacks. Both are funny, both are likely to make you cry
(for good reasons). I enjoyed both very much, even though neither one
felt particularly cinematic. And both were just a bit too skewed
toward entertaining me and not brave enough to challenge me…
in territory that I think should be more challenging for its audience.

[Image from the Bleecker Street trailer.]

I reviewed Together Together here back in May.

[Image from the Apple TV+ trailer.]

Here’s what I wrote at Letterboxd after I saw CODA:

You’ve got to appreciate its big heart and its detailed portrait of a deaf family devoted to their multi-generational work of Massachusetts fishing. It’ll be tough for audiences to resist the character of Ruby (Emilia Jones), a kind but frustrated “coda” (child of a deaf adult) whose singing voice is her ticket to a life beyond the uniquely challenging sphere of deaf culture.

I won’t minimize the importance of what writer and director Sian Heder aims to do here, inviting and challenging mainstream audiences to consider, respect, and find greater empathy for our deaf neighbors. This film finds some affecting ways to honor those among us who need a particular courage, a particular patience, and particular disciplines in order to “get by” (a phrase that gets a lot of screen time in the film) in a society designed without much consideration for them at all.

And — as I explain in my book Through a Screen Darkly — I have a very specific connection with films about those who are called to the work of translation. So, despite my intent to bring critical tools to the work of highlighting the film’s strengths and weaknesses, I can’t deny that I’m a sucker for a movie like this: the broad-stroke drama of a young person struggling to connect a people of one language to a people of another without losing herself in the process just grabs me by the heart and won’t let go. It may have all of the storytelling sophistication of what we used to call “an after-school special” or a by-the-numbers YA novel, but this choked me up several times. I lost my voice over characters who do not raise theirs.

Marlee Matlin will be the most familiar face here for most moviegoers, but the most human and affecting performances here come from those who bring a little nuance and subtlety to scenes where such three-dimensionality is absent from the script — particularly Emilia Jones as Ruby and Troy Katsur as her father Frank. For the most part, though, the emotions are big and bold, the narrative beats far too familiar to feel true, and the drawn-out climax takes us up out of any connection to authenticity into the stuff of conventional crowdpleasers.

[Image from the Apple TV+ trailer.]

I couldn’t help but think back to Wild Rose, another recent film about a young and talented singer whose life has steered her away from any kind of “big break.” That was a film that follows a similar arc — tremendous talent, a world of obstacles and personal weaknesses, a few unlikely helpers who provide the necessary encouragement and resources, a few troubling moments in the spotlight, a climax carefully calibrated to make us cry and cheer. But it felt so much more true-to-life, and while Jones has a lovely voice, Jessie Buckley rocked the house every time she stepped to a microphone, so much so that the theatrical experience was well worth it.

What’s more, while Wild Rose wasn’t exactly a work of visual poetry, at least it seemed to have been imagined for a big screen, with great care given to the look and sound of it. Outside of its depiction of an authentic fishing community in Gloucester, there’s not any visual imagination at work here.

[Image from the Apple TV+ trailer.]

So, if you’re in the mood for easy and unchallenging entertainment, you’ll find some lovely moments here. It’s easy to see why this was a Sundance hit (even if it’s hard to imagine why it sold for a record-setting $25 million). Perhaps it will become a meaningful provocation to care for those who found Sound of Metal too abrasive and challenging.


The list will continue very soon!

Come back for the Honorable Mentions and my Favorite Films of 2021!

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