The March madness continues! Art is not a contest, no matter how heavily the Oscars are hyped. But movies do give us a chance to share what moves us, what challenges us, what enchants us. In doing so, we have an opportunity to learn more about ourselves and — more importantly — more about our neighbors and the measures of truth and beauty they have discovered. I am by no means claiming what the “best” movies of the year might be. Nobody is qualified to make such claims. But I am delighted to share what was most meaningful for me. And so, here is Part Two of my series on my favorite films of 2021.

If you missed Part One, it’s here.


Honorable Mentions

(listed alphabetically; not ranked)


Four outstanding documentaries about artists:

The Lost Leonardo

 

Danish filmmaker Andreas Koefoed’s The Lost Leonardo is a riveting account of how a painting that was delivered to a New York address in a cardboard box quickly became the most expensive art sale in history. A great gallery of interviews, some impressive editing, and relentlessly surprising twists—including the second-most famous Leonardo (DiCaprio)—make this a compelling reality-big-screen mystery. Somewhere, Da Vinci is busting his way out of his grave and zombie-stalking the soulless monsters who are poisoning the art world in the ways that this film exposes.

I have some mixed feelings about the film, nevertheless. Unlike My Kid Could Paint That and The Painter and the Thief — this documentary doesn’t seem particularly interested in art beyond its ability to inspire people to spend money. And that’s too bad because it seems to want us to lament how art is misunderstood, abused, and exploited. Even as it raises the voices of art critics who resent the spectacle of Christie’s art auctions, it delivers the spectacle of those auctions with all the flourishes of a suspense thriller.

In giving very little attention to why Da Vinci’s art is revered above all other artists’ work, it seems to end up amplifying the power of the very billionaires it intends to critique. We end up shaken with both alarm and awe at the ability of the rich and powerful to destroy some of the world’s greatest treasures, but meditating very little on what makes the art beautiful in the first place.

In spite of that, stick around for the film’s infuriating conclusion. Bonus surprise: You’ll discover where the Ark of the Covenant is probably kept. (Spielberg was trying to tell us this … way back in 1981!)


The Sparks Brothers

I’ll propose a catchphrase: “(Old f)arts for art’s sake.”

Repetitive (like Sparks’ music), wildly enthusiastic (like Sparks’ music), visually inventive (like Sparks’ music videos), and really, really long… this Edgar Wright documentary is basically a bunch of talking heads talking about a band that probably influenced Talking Heads.

Like so many viewers of my generation, I watched this in a state of near disbelief. I had a voracious appetite for music throughout the ’80s and ’90s. I wrote music reviews, devoured music magazines like Rolling Stone and Mojo, and stood in midnight lines outside Tower Records to be among the first to buy a new release. I don’t remember ever hearing about Sparks. But, as it turns out, a lot of the music I loved was inspired by Sparks, and a lot of the artists I admired found success doing things that Sparks had innovated years earlier. The story narrated here does more than provide a long-overdue tribute to American rock music’s best-kept secret; it stands as a celebration of boundless creativity, artistic integrity, and a dedication to vision over commerce.

Here’s what I kept thinking throughout: Somewhere there’s a fan of They Might Be Giants who has been planning a documentary that spans the three-decade history of that prolific, idiosyncratic, funny, doing-their-own-thing-no-matter-what band, and they’re watching The Sparks Brothers for the first time and shouting, “Well, dammit, what am I supposed to do now?!”


Val

Kilmer has been one of my favorite screen actors since it all began with Top Secret!, which is still on my list of five favorite film comedies almost 40 years later.

I’ve always found him more interesting than so many of his peers — his willingness to commit so completely to Top Secret!‘s hilarity undercut the sense of vanity that emanated from Cruise and so many of his peers in other projects. Where Cruise focused on convincing us that he was feeling things, I could always tell that Kilmer was thinking things. For me, he was the most memorable guy in Top Gun and Willow, and he made so much of very few scenes in Heat. After marveling at his transformation in The Doors, I was excited at the prospect of Kilmer as Batman… and quickly discerned that it wasn’t his fault that he may as well have been a mannequin in that film; the director clearly had no interest in him as an actor, or in Bruce Wayne as a character, whatsoever. (In that sense, Keaton and Bale, and now Pattinson have been very, very fortunate.)

It’s intriguing to see what this career looked like quite literally through the eyes of the actor in question, and it’s surprising how much this becomes a story about a deeply wounded American family. There are quite a few moments that feel like score-settling, and there are appeals to friends and colleagues (like Robert Downey Jr., on the archival video record) to absolve the storyteller of his alleged sins. And Kilmer challenges my trust in his judgment at times: when he celebrates the profundity of his own Mark Twain passion project, and particularly when he airs his personal grievances with people who aren’t there to represent themselves (most of all when it comes to what appears to have been a very messy divorce). Such moments might excite audiences with a sense of voyeuristic “intimacy,” but we’ve got to keep in mind that fame is an Advantage Megaphone in such circumstances. (God spare us from any project like this made by Woody Allen.)

Still, there are plenty of demonstrations of humility and sobering self-awareness to keep things from veering completely off course.

So, brace yourself for some turbulence — it’s worth it for a remarkable and sometimes moving tour of Kilmer’s archive of home movies, behind-the-scenes mischief, collaborations with other giants, brushes with greatness, brushes with fools, and eventual epiphanies. Like most memoirs by Hollywood stars, it’s a story of thrills, rewards, disappointments, and damage — a life of fame, fortune, failure, and loss.

It’s going to be a rare occasion that we get a life story from these pre-Internet decades so heavily documented with actual footage. Few stars have demonstrated such a spirit of curiosity about the people and the world around them. But the ubiquity of such projects going forward may soon become insufferable, as those with the resources and the name recognition can take control of narrating their perception of the meaning of their own lives to us by pillaging their own life-long social media accounts. I hope some of those storytellers will take a note from Kilmer’s willingness to laugh at himself and his determination to dismantle any myth-making in the service of truth.


The Velvet Underground

In 2020, I listened to an episode of the excellent music podcast Sound Opinions and heard critics Greg Kot and Jim DeRogatis make a compelling argument that The Velvet Underground and Nico is the greatest rock album of all time. As I had never given the album any attention, I went out and bought a copy on vinyl.

I’ve been playing it ever since, realizing that this music is already a part of my DNA — I’ve heard and been enchanted by these songs as isolated events over several decades but I’ve just never realized they were all from the same album. This has jump-started my curiosity about a band I’ve always heard about but somehow never really given my full attention.

And lo — just in time, Todd Haynes delivers a deep-dive documentary full of revealing interviews, intriguing split-screen juxtapositions, and mind-boggling performances. While I wish the movie gave the music more room to breathe, I feel like this documentary gives me much more than the history lesson I’ve been looking for. It’s also strangely inspiring in how it tracks Lou Reed’s journey — a story that would typically end in tragedy but that somehow defied the odds and concluded in many years of wisdom and grace.


Five Slick and Stylish Films
About Characters Trapped in Nightmares:

Last Night in Soho

R.I.P., Diana Rigg.

Edgar Wright’s second notable feature film on this list would make a helluva double feature with Zola: A young woman gets escorted (ahem) down a road of debauchery into a mob of johns eager to unbuckle their belts, and we can’t help but take her side as she’s driven to horror, disgust, and even violence.

But this version of the story is profoundly conflicted in that it wants to be high-spirited and fun while also horrifying us and ultimately Saying Something About Exploited Women and Horrible Men. I wasn’t able to perform the imaginative gymnastics to resolve the dissonance of it all. And I’m not sure the film has anything particularly profound to say beyond this: If you pick at any era’s glamour, you’ll find exploitation and abuse underneath.

It’s not the cast’s fault that it doesn’t entirely work: Thomasin McKenzie is strangely mesmerizing (although I don’t know how many more movies I can suspend disbelief about her quirky, pinched, baby-bird voice) and she holds her own surprisingly well alongside the Disney-Eyed Force That Is Called Anya Taylor-Joy. (I mean, in everything she’s done so far, Taylor-Joy scares me with her ferocious confidence.) Matt Smith is smartly cast as a smarmy ass. And Terrence Stamp… well, it’s good to see him again, even if I think his character doesn’t amount to much.

Beyond that, there are some casting choices that, once all of the secrets are revealed, seem… a bit of a stretch? But that would be spoiling things. I’ll let that go for now.

There’s a lot of visual cleverness, a lot of Wright’s typically slick needle-dropping, and it’s all quite engaging, even in its drawn-out and somewhat desperate final act. It’s worth seeing if only for the joy of watching Edgar Wright make something he’s clearly excited about. But this one’s going to rank far beneath his classic Cornetto trilogy for me, just as Baby Driver and Scott Pilgrim do. I guess Wright’s best magic is in his collaborative chemistry with Simon Pegg and Nick Frost, both of whom are missing here.


Little Fish

I originally included Little Fish on my Favorites of 2020 list. That’s because I misunderstood its release schedule. It didn’t become widely accessible until this year, so I’m bumping it up to this list.

2020 must have been a stranger year for Chad Hartigan than it was for many of us, considering how long he’d been working on this pandemic-focused project when the actual pandemic hit. Weird to compose science fiction that starts actually happening around you before you’re finished.

And Olivia Cooke must be emotionally exhausted from investing so much in two 2020 productions in which she is traumatized by the prospect of beginning to lose someone she loves.

I admire this ambitious step forward for Chad Hartigan as a filmmaker, the chemistry of O’Donnell and Cooke, the seemingly prescient envisioning of how a pandemic would play out in America, and the focus on goodness and grace in the midst of unthinkable horrors. Where Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind feels like an epic treatment of similar themes — and a more subversive one — this works well as an intimate short story told by a storyteller who finds it easier to believe that people can, at times, surprise us with tenderness.

Here’s the conversation I had with Hartigan about the film early in 2021:

By the way, if you haven’t already, while you wait to see this you should revisit Hartigan’s This is Martin Bonner and Morris From America, both of which are wonderful.


The Card Counter

I’m sure I’m in the minority here, but I prefer Paul Schrader in this leaner direct-storytelling mode, where he’s focused on characters caught in moral quandaries and not distracted by the temptation to “quote” greater art films. 2017’s First Reformed will last as one of his most acclaimed films, but it felt to me like sitting through a film course; every scene seemed cluttered with asterisks and hyperlinks that reminded us of what cinematic milestones he was quoting.

I find The Card Counter more immersive, the chemistry between Oscar Isaac and Tiffany Haddish, as gamblers who join forces, riskier and more interesting than Hawke’s and Seyfried’s. And the haunting score by Black Rebel Motorcycle Club’s Robert Levon Been (son of The Call’s Michael Been, who played the Apostle John in the Schrader-penned Last Temptation of Christ) weirdly spellbinding.

I do come away distracted, though, by two things:

1) There’s a scene in which a mother and son (?) are sitting by a hotel swimming pool and chatting awkwardly as if they’ve just met. Their seemingly incidental presence* and strange prominence draws all of my attention while they’re onscreen. I have to assume that’s this is purposefully composed, but their screen presence is distracting for the wrong reasons.

And…

2) Should Tye “Yes, I’m Brother #3 in The Tree of Life” Sheridan play Eddie Vedder in a Pearl Jam movie? He looks just right!

*(I actually do think their presence is important as a hint about what might prompt Bill to think about Kirc and his mother. They look like young Kirc and his mother.)


The Tragedy of Macbeth

I published a full review of this just a couple of months ago. You can read that here.


Werewolves Within

Werewolves Within is what you get if you blend the quirky darkness of Taika Waititi’s What We Do In the Shadows (and hey, Guillermo is here!), the slick lickety-splitness and grisly genre violence of Edgar Wright’s Cornetto trilogy, and the “locked room” mystery formula of whodunits like Knives Out.

It’s funny, it’s fast, it’s well cast, and it keeps you guessing. (Well, it might keep you guessing. Within the first several minutes I had decided that the culprit had to be one of two particular characters — no spoiler here — and the storytellers take the route I would have taken if I’d written it.)

But the comedy plays at an extremely high pitch — imagine a room full of the most exaggerated Coen brothers characters all yelling at once — with quite a few shouting match scenes overrunning their welcome. So you may not have as much patience for it as I did.

The opening epigraph gets a big laugh, and that sets a high bar for what will come. And for about an hour, the movie delivers, energized mostly by the two leads who are winning company for the full hour-and-40-minutes. Sam Richardson is a likable ranger who becomes the default sheriff and detective, and he has great chemistry with Milana Vayntrub who plays the flirtatious MPMP (manic-pixie-mail-person) in the very small, extremely interconnected community.

In the second half of the film, the storytellers lose their balance and start staggering around, ratcheting up the tension with frequent bursts of violence and hysteria as if they’re not quite sure how to get this plane through the turbulence. We lose our grip on anything that might have become a storyline to care about. The Trumpy-ness of a particularly brash pipeline developer and his clash with a grim-faced environmentalist leads to some “timely and relevant” preaching about community and listening to our neighbors. But the film seems to realize how frivolous that preaching sounds, and eventually shrugs and surrenders any attempt to land profound punches. (In that sense, we might appreciate even more, by comparison, how Knives Out actually lands some sick burns on America’s system racism and white vanity.)

So again, your mileage may vary. This doesn’t become the werewolf movie that the What We Do In the Shadows team has been promising us, but if you enjoy this kind of balancing act between horror and laughs — the best equivalent I can think of might be the Nick Frost series Truth Seekers — you’ll have a good time seeing this on the big screen. I miss the days of big, subversive comedies loaded with strong comedy ensembles — like The ‘Burbs or Beetlejuice, for example. Last year, Extra Ordinary scratched that itch. This movie’s just scratchy enough.


Come back soon! The big countdown of almost 30 favorites is coming up next…

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