Tag Archives: 2021

Notes on the 2022 Oscars

Best Picture

We did it! After years of dancing around with 8 or 9 or 7 Best Picture nominees, the Academy finally brought it back to 10 nominees. Not an amazing crop this year but save one of the nominated films, I at least liked all of the selections in this field and I loved a few of them. My beloved Pig got stuffed but I can’t count that as a surprise; it did well among critics groups but recency bias always factors in with the Academy and a July release gutted its chances. The inclusion of Drive My Car is a welcome surprise; I hope the rest of the country will be able to see it one way or another sooner rather than later. The Power of the Dog leads the tally with 12 nominations and it will be difficult to overcome; the overwhelming awards love for it still confounds me but hey, at least Netflix will finally have the Best Picture trophy they’ve wanted for the past few years. Still, I’ll be stumping for CODA, a movie I met last February and have tried to champion ever since.

My Prediction: The Power of the Dog
My Vote: CODA
Overlooked: Pig

Best Director

Two jaw-dropping headlines here: Steven Spielberg is the first director to have been nominated in six different decades and Jane Campion is the only female director to have been nominated more than once in the category. She didn’t take home the statue for The Piano in 1994 — incidentally, Spielberg did for Schindler’s List — but she should have a much better chance this time for her sinewy storytelling in the Awards frontrunner. I’m never going to be upset with a Paul Thomas Anderson nod and again, Hamaguchi is a welcome surprise with his focused and thoughtful direction in what should be a lock for Best International Feature. The absence of Denis Villeneuve is puzzling, given that his film is second in nomination tally only to Dog and his vision of Dune is mesmerizing and unforgettable. Academy members know that he was also in charge of bringing together all the technical aspects that were nominated, right…?

My Prediction: Jane Campion
My Vote: Paul Thomas Anderson
Overlooked: Denis Villeneuve – Dune

Best Actor

This may come down to Cumberbatch and Smith but I’d give the edge to the latter. Smith’s been playing at an Oscar for 20 years since his nomination in Ali and his work in awards season weepies like The Pursuit of Happyness, Seven Pounds and Collateral Beauty (difficult to type that last one without laughing) suggests that he’s finally worn the Academy down. Bardem slept-walked through Ricardos but at least Garfield didn’t get nominated for The Eyes of Tammy Faye. Washington should win this but the Academy doesn’t award Shakespeare like it used to and Macbeth‘s absence in the other major categories all but guarantees that he’ll be overlooked. Speaking of overlooked, if Pig was going to get nominated for anything, I figured it would’ve been here for one of Cage’s absolute best performances. Obviously the Academy prefers their animals to be Cage-free.

My Prediction: Will Smith
My Vote: Denzel Washington
Overlooked: Nicolas Cage – Pig

Best Actress

All things considered, this is a pretty strong field. The most surprising inclusion to me is Cruz, who was indeed excellent in Parallel Mothers but that movie hasn’t had much of an impact on the whole of the awards conversation. The Kidman nod is totally expected and the cynical side of me thinks she’ll go home with gold again after winning for The Hours almost 20 years ago. She and Chastain bet that the Academy would still have a soft spot for biopic leads and the wager seemed to pay off. Colman’s upset win for The Favourite was one of the sole joys for me in watching the 2019 ceremony but I’m still mixed on The Lost Daughter; I actually preferred her sinister voice work in The Mitchells vs. the Machines. The headline leading the “snub cycle” yesterday was Lady Gaga’s absence here but I would say a performance in another Ridley Scott film from last year, Jodie Comer’s in The Last Duel, was even more deserving of attention.

My Prediction: Nicole Kidman
My Vote: Kristen Stewart
Overlooked: Jodie Comer – The Last Duel

Best Supporting Actor

My Prediction: Kodi Smit-McPhee
My Vote: Troy Kotsur
Overlooked: Richard Jenkins – The Humans

Best Supporting Actress

My Prediction: Ariana DeBose
My Vote: Ariana DeBose
Overlooked: Martha Plimpton – Mass

The most disappointing aspect of both of these Supporting categories is the lack of performers from Mass, particularly Martha Plimpton. Maybe the film was always going to be a tough sell to the Academy for other major categories but it’s difficult to deny the power behind the ensemble work of the IFJA Best Film winner. The Humans, another bruising but terrific film marked by a stellar ensemble cast, could have been recognized here too. I know Richard Jenkins has been nominated two times before but he really is one of the best around; I hope he finds the “right” Oscar-friendly role at some point. Smit-McPhee is the one to beat in the Supporting Actor field but I’ll be rooting hard for Kotsur, the first deaf actor ever to be nominated for an Oscar and an huge part of CODA‘s emotional resonance. Dunst was thought to be the frontrunner for Supporting Actress for a bit but recent awards have pushed favor towards DeBose, one of the best aspects of a film filled with highlights.

Best Original Screenplay

My Prediction: Licorice Pizza
My Vote: Licorice Pizza
Overlooked: C’mon C’mon

Best Adapted Screenplay

My Prediction: The Power of the Dog
My Vote: CODA
Overlooked: The Green Knight

Best Animated Feature Film

My Prediction: Encanto
My Vote: The Mitchells vs. the Machines
Overlooked: Cryptozoo

Best International Feature Film

My Prediction: Drive My Car
My Vote: Drive My Car
Overlooked: Riders of Justice

Best Documentary – Feature

My Prediction: Summer of Soul
My Vote: Flee
Overlooked: The Velvet Underground

Best Documentary – Short Subject

  • Audible
  • Lead Me Home
  • The Queen of Basketball
  • Three Songs for Benazir
  • When We Were Bullies

My Prediction: The Queen of Basketball
My Vote: —
Overlooked: —

Best Live Action Short Film

  • Ala Kachuu – Take and Run
  • The Dress
  • The Long Goodbye
  • On My Mind
  • Please Hold

My Prediction: The Long Goodbye
My Vote: —
Overlooked: —

Best Animated Short Film

  • Affairs of the Art
  • Bestia
  • BoxBallet
  • Robin Robin
  • The Windshield Wiper

My Prediction: Robin Robin
My Vote: —
Overlooked: —

Best Production Design

  • Dune – Production Design: Patrice Vermette; Set Decoration: Zsuzsanna Sipos
  • Nightmare Alley – Production Design: Tamara Deverell; Set Decoration: Shane Vieau
  • The Power of the Dog – Production Design: Grant Major; Set Decoration: Amber Richards
  • The Tragedy of Macbeth – Production Design: Stefan Dechant; Set Decoration: Nancy Haigh
  • West Side Story – Production Design: Adam Stockhausen; Set Decoration: Rena DeAngelo

My Prediction: Dune
My Vote: Dune
Overlooked: The French Dispatch

Best Cinematography

My Prediction: Dune
My Vote: West Side Story
Overlooked: Passing

Best Costume Design

My Prediction: Cruella
My Vote: Cruella
Overlooked: House of Gucci

Best Makeup and Hairstyling

  • Coming 2 America – Mike Marino, Stacey Morris and Carla Farmer
  • Cruella – Nadia Stacey, Naomi Donne and Julia Vernon
  • Dune – Donald Mowat, Love Larson and Eva von Bahr
  • The Eyes of Tammy Faye – Linda Dowds, Stephanie Ingram and Justin Raleigh
  • House of Gucci – Göran Lundström, Anna Carin Lock and Frederic Aspiras

My Prediction: The Eyes of Tammy Faye
My Vote: Dune
Overlooked: Nightmare Alley

Best Original Score

My Prediction: Dune
My Vote: Dune
Overlooked: The Harder They Fall

Best Original Song

My Prediction: “No Time to Die”
My Vote: “No Time to Die”
Overlooked: “So May We Start” from Annette

Best Sound

  • Belfast – Denise Yarde, Simon Chase, James Mather, Niv Adiri
  • Dune – Mac Ruth, Mark Mangini, Theo Green, Doug Hemphill, Ron Bartlett
  • No Time to Die – Simon Hayes, Oliver Tarney, James Harrison, Paul Massey, Mark Taylor
  • The Power of the Dog – Richard Flynn, Robert Mackenzie, Tara Webb
  • West Side Story – Tod A. Maitland, Gary Rydstrom, Brian Chumney, Andy Nelson, Shawn Murphy

My Prediction: Dune
My Vote: Dune
Overlooked: Last Night in Soho

Best Film Editing

My Prediction: Dune
My Vote: Dune
Overlooked: Licorice Pizza

Best Visual Effects

My Prediction: Dune
My Vote: Dune
Overlooked: The Suicide Squad

Enjoy the show!

Parallel Mothers

The 22nd film from prolific Spanish writer-director Pedro Almodóvar, Parallel Mothers doesn’t quite hit the highs of 2019’s terrific Pain and Glory but is another solid soap opera from a reliable storyteller. Penélope Cruz stars as Janis, a photographer whose shoot with archaeologist Arturo (Israel Elejalde) one day leads to an affair and subsequent pregnancy. While waiting to give birth, Janis shares a hospital room with young mother-to-be Ana (Milena Smit), with whom she strikes up a friendship and exchanges her phone number after the pair of babies are born. When Arturo meets Janis’ newborn, he becomes immediately convinced at first glance that the baby is not his daughter, leading Janis to conduct a maternity test with surprising results.

Almodóvar is known for casting the same actors in numerous films throughout his career and Parallel Mothers is no exception. This is frequent collaborator Penélope Cruz’s seventh time working with the acclaimed filmmaker and along with her transcendent work in 2006’s Volver, this performance stands among the very best that she’s given in one of his movies. Her transition from a freewheeling fortysomething in the midst of a tryst to an anxious mother with mounting uncertainty about her situation is heart-wrenching and utterly convincing. Even when completing un-cinematic tasks like staring at a baby monitor or scouring a PDF on a computer screen for answers, she sells the character flawlessly even with the darting of her eyes.

But Cruz’s face isn’t the only one that Almodóvar’s camera loves in Parallel Mothers, especially in close-up. In her second feature ever, co-star Milena Smit more than holds her own in a role that gets more knotty and complicated as the story progresses. The circumstances that led to Ana’s pregnancy are even more unfortunate than Janis’ and Smit’s fragile but resilient delivery gives her character instant pathos. Both Cruz and Smit are crucial in portraying the unusual but deep connection that fate seemed to concoct when the duo met in the hospital. While overcooked writing serves up curveballs in the third act that cause these characters to act in ways that don’t seem especially consistent, the acting remains first-rate to the film’s final scene.

The main element that holds Parallel Mothers back from greatness is the screenplay, which introduces a conceit that’s already a bit of a stretch to begin with and then expands on it with subplots that don’t always pay off. There’s also a layer of sociopolitical commentary that’s clumsily lumped into this sensitive story about maternity that felt relatively unnecessary. The movie begins and ends with heavy-handed allusions to the Spanish Civil War and ends with a political quote from Eduardo Galeano, a didactic turn that left me more confused than inspired. The dialogue isn’t quite as melodramatic as the tone of the film overall but it does often spell out the main themes of the piece rather than allow the audience to glean insight into the characters’ feelings on their own.

The musical score by Alberto Iglesias also lacks any real subtlety, although this could be intentional and in keeping with the soap opera feel that Almodóvar seems to be evoking. The opening credits are grabby but Iglesias’ urgent strings and slinking piano recall Bernard Herrmann’s work on any number of Hitchcock’s films. Based on the tone established, you may think you’re being set up to watch a psychological thriller like Psycho but the tension in Parallel Mothers is, of course, much more subdued by comparison. José Luis Alcaine, another frequent collaborator of Almodóvar, lends a keen eye to the cinematography, juxtaposing lush greens with bright reds to suggest a start/stop motion in keeping with the chief theme of disrupted motherhood. There’s enough in Parallel Mothers to recommend it but too much holding it back to count it among Almodóvar’s best.

Score – 3/5

New movies coming this weekend:
Playing only in theaters is Moonfall, a science-fiction disaster movie starring Halle Berry and Patrick Wilson about a pair of astronauts tasked with resetting the Moon after it’s knocked from its orbit by an unknown force and put onto a collision course with Earth.
Also playing only in theaters is Jackass Forever, a comedy sequel starring Johnny Knoxville and Steve-O which finds the crew of the infamous MTV reality series reuniting one last time after an 11 year hiatus for more pranks and stunts.
Screening at Cinema Center on February 4th and 5th is The Burial of Kojo, a Ghanaian drama starring Joseph Otsiman and Cynthia Dankwa about a man who is trapped in a mine shaft by his vengeful brother while his daughter embarks on a magical journey to rescue him.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup


Though the 19th century play Cyrano de Bergerac has been adapted countless times for the screen and stage since its premiere, the new prestige drama Cyrano is based most specifically on a 2018 stage musical of the same name. Conceived by theater director Erica Schmidt, presumably with her real-life husband Peter Dinklage in mind, the musical differs from the source material most notably by trading Cyrano’s trademark facial disfigurement with dwarfism as the protagonist’s primary obstacle. Despite this, the new adaptation remains true to the setting, story and spirit to the original work but mangles so many aspects of the execution that it hardly seems to matter. It’s not as much of an unmitigated disaster as Dear Evan Hansen but it’s not as far off as one may imagine.

Dinklage stars in the title role as a member of the French army in the mid-17th century who’s equal halves sharp-tongued wordsmith and sharp-tipped swordsmith. We meet Cyrano as he verbally spars with a gussied-up actor mid-performance and then physically spars with an upset audience member on-stage. Looking on from the balcony is Roxanne (Haley Bennett), a longtime friend of Cyrano for whom he has secretly carried a torch as long as they’ve been acquainted. She confides in him a love at first sight with Christian (Kelvin Harrison Jr.), a newcomer to the military in Cyrano’s regiment and when Cyrano brings Roxanne up to Christian, he confesses a requisite affection. Sadly, Christian’s good looks don’t translate to sharp wits, leading Cyrano to offer his verbosity as he pens love letters to Roxanne under Christian’s name.

The biggest tragedy of Cyrano is that the music and lyrics come courtesy of members from the excellent rock band The National, who have made some of my favorite albums of the past 15 years. Guitarist brothers Aaron and Bryce Dessner composed the music while lead singer Matt Berninger penned the lyrics along with his wife Carin Besser. The Dessners are known for their technically intricate and sonically sophisticated guitar work with The National but their range in these songs is frustratingly limited. Too many of these numbers sound nearly identical to one another, while the words don’t reveal the characters’ motivations as much as they simply underline plot points that are already obvious. Dinklage mournfully belts out Roxanne’s name so often, I half-expected Sting to come in beckoning her not to “put on the red light.”

It could be that musical range is intentionally myopic to cover for the undeveloped vocal talents of Dinklage and Bennett, who reprise their roles from the stage musical. Neither are necessarily poor singers but they do rely on the kind of digital processing that has become alarmingly common in movie musicals over the past 10 years. In this recontextualized role, Dinklage does a fine job channeling Cyrano’s social shortcomings into poignant pathos but Bennett falls totally flat in trying to make Roxanne an empathetic character. After her first meeting face-to-face with Christian, she would understandably be confused in trying to reconcile his simple disposition with his poetic prose. Instead of singing a song about that, she simply bellows “I want more” repeatedly in regards to a potential suitor, making her seem more of an entitled brat than an unaware member of a bizarre love triangle.

Making Cyrano’s short stature a stumbling block for a potential partnership with Roxanne is a wise refresh of the original tale, given Dinklage’s affinity for the role, but there is one change that wasn’t quite as well thought-through. While I appreciate the colorblind casting of Kelvin Harrison Jr. as Christian, it’s not an especially great look for him to be cast as a slow-witted black man who seeks the aid of a white savior for guidance in his love letters. The staging of one major scene, in particular, robs Christian of his agency in ways that would seem hoary and tacky even when race isn’t factored in but even more cringe-inducing when it is. Cyrano may have worked better in the more intimate setting of musical theater but as a film, it comes up short of the mark.

Score – 1.5/5

More new movies to watch this weekend:
Streaming on Disney+ is The Ice Age Adventures of Buck Wild, an animated spin-off starring Simon Pegg and Vincent Tong about a pair of possum brothers who team up with a weasel to save the Lost World from dinosaur domination.
Premiering on HBO Max is The Fallout, a teen drama starring Jenna Ortega and Maddie Ziegler about a high schooler who navigates the emotional fallout she experiences with friends and family in the wake of a school tragedy.
Screening at Cinema Center January 28th and 29th is Into The Storm, a documentary filmed over 5 years that follows the unlikely dream of a young indigenous surfer from one of the toughest barrios in Latin America as he struggles to escape the struggles of his background and become a professional surfer.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup

A Hero

Iran’s selection for Best International Feature Film at the Oscars later this year, A Hero is the latest drama from acclaimed storyteller Asghar Farhadi, whose films A Separation and The Salesman have taken home the trophy in years past. Farhadi’s work is defined by an investigation of messy morality, specifically as it applies to men attempting to make the right choices under trying circumstances. His protagonists and antagonists aren’t strictly defined heroes and villains, as much as flawed people who fall under categories that society might deem as either “right” or “wrong”. The stories he weaves together tend to start with an ethical conundrum that may seem relatively easy to solve at the outset but as more layers of complexity are added on when choices are made, more parties tend to become involved and the dramatic stakes ratchet up too.

The narrative largely takes place during a two-day leave that Rahim (Amir Jadidi) has from his prison sentence for failing to repay a debt owed to his creditor Bahram (Mohsen Tanabandeh). During the furlough, Rahim scrambles to figure out how to best remedy the financial misstep when his girlfriend Farkhondeh (Sahar Goldust), as luck would have it, happens upon a bag filled with gold coins. He doesn’t immediately jump to the morally upstanding conclusion of returning the bag to its rightful owner but when he finds that its contents don’t quite cover what he owes, he takes to the local news and advertises the purse as missing. His very public lost-and-found plea sparks goodwill in the community, as the media touts him as a local hero, but those who look closer at the situation begin to doubt Rahim’s heroism.

The terms of A Hero‘s conceit may be a culture shock for American viewers — specifically, that being in debt is a criminal offense and that someone can serve a lengthy prison sentence for not being able to repay what is essentially a business loan. More specifically, it seems the lender has quite a bit of power when it comes to how the debt is repaid and even how much jail time is doled out. While I can’t say that I’m familiar with the particulars of financial law in modern-day Iran, I felt comfortable with the details that Farhadi lent out and chose to omit for the purposes of this gripping story. As it turns out, the way that the media rushes to deify a local figure — and is even more eager to tear the newly-crowned hero from the edifice that they built — will be all too familiar for American audiences.

Farhadi’s films hinge on nuance and while the screenplay is loaded with it, much of the detail comes forth from the acting as well. As the meek and hard-luck Rahim, Jadidi commands the screen with a soft-spoken humility that conceals the rage of an honest man who feels he never got a fair shake in life. At times, this rage boils over and threatens to undo everything, but Jadidi also asserts Rahim’s quiet desperation in ways that are equally compelling. Consider a scene where Rahim receives a merit certificate for his good deed. As he’s being handed the plaque, his son stands under him and starts to grab it from the corners. When the cameras start flashing, Rahim quickly jerks it up to reposition it better for the cameras and flashes his best smile. This could be seen as a duplicitous move, trying to play to the media’s newfound affection for him, but Rahim treats the certificate like a shield meant to protect both himself and his family. “The only thing that matters is my honor,” Rahim tells a council intelligence officer, and we want to believe it too.

Similarly, Tanabandeh portrays Bahram not as some sneering scold whose intent is to kick a poor man when he’s down but rather, someone who was trying to do the good deed of lending out money and was punished for it. We come to learn more about Rahim’s past and Bahram does have good reason to believe Rahim is more unscrupulous than he’s been portrayed on the local news. In the digital age, much of print and online journalism has been robbed of the context and clarifying details that the reader needs to make informed decisions. With A Hero, Farhadi attempts to bridge that gap with an allegorical tale about how the truth means looking past the hasty categorizations that we’re fed everyday.

Score – 3.5/5

More new movies to watch this weekend:
Streaming on Netflix is Munich – The Edge of War, a period thriller starring George MacKay and Jeremy Irons about a British diplomat who travels to Munich in the run-up to World War II, where he meets a former classmate who is secretly working for the German government.
Playing only in theaters is Redeeming Love, a romantic Western starring Abigail Cowen and Tom Lewis about a young couple’s budding relationship as it develops during the harsh realities of the California Gold Rush.
Screening at Cinema Center January 21st and 22nd is Last and First Men, the directorial debut of the late Icelandic composer Jóhann Jóhannsson that depicts a vision two billion years in the future set to voiceover by Tilda Swinton and music written by Jóhannsson.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup

The Tragedy of Macbeth

Few names in modern cinema are more revered than the Coen Brothers. Over the course of 18 films, including Best Picture winner No Country for Old Men and, most recently, Netflix’s The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, the brotherly duo have conjured up one transcendent masterstroke after another for almost 35 years now. The Tragedy of Macbeth, a linguistically faithful but stylistically ambitious retelling of Shakespeare’s perennial play, finds Joel Coen writing and directing independently from brother Ethan Coen for the first time in their careers. Fortunately, Joel demonstrates that he has plenty to offer on his own in this dire and nightmarish interpretation on The Scottish Play, stripping the story down to its barest elements while adding layers of visual grandeur at the same time.

In early 1600s Scotland, brothers in arms Macbeth (Denzel Washington) and Banquo (Bertie Carvel) return from battle when they are met by a trio of witches (all three portrayed by Kathryn Hunter) with a prophecy. They proclaim the former will soon be king while the latter will raise a son who will come to be king sometime in the future, an ominous prediction that sets the men on divergent paths. When Lady Macbeth (Frances McDormand) hears tell of the witches’ omen, she talks her husband into killing the fair King Duncan (Brendan Gleeson) in his sleep. Assuming the throne after the king’s murder, Macbeth seems to have the world at his fingertips but his obsession with the prediction about Banquo’s offspring begins to consume himself and his wife.

A coven of whispering witches open The Tragedy of Macbeth in eerie voiceover, setting an otherworldly and ominous pall over this adaptation that recalls the hushed unease of 2016’s The Witch. The rugged 17th century setting, period-accurate dialogue, and presence of that film’s star Ralph Ineson in the next scene further cements the connection between the two movies, though the stories obviously diverge from there. Coen adapts directly from Shakespeare’s original prose; those intimately familiar with the play’s text should have fun mouthing the words of their favorite passages along with the actors. Though the occasional line reading can come across as awkward, the cast is uniformly prepared and deeply entrenched in their respective performances.

Stylistically, Coen and his production designer Stefan Dechant draw most notably from the German Expressionism movement and more specifically, the works of Fritz Lang like Metropolis and M. The stark black-and-white cinematography from Bruno Delbonnel makes the contrast between light and shadow greater than that of a color counterpart. In some scenes, this makes separation more evident and in others, the visual lines are blurrier. Fog and sand spill over into one another during the early prophecy scene but by the time Macbeth is crowned king, the angular castle with its high archways and narrow passages make for more sharply defined settings. It’s a clever visual metaphor to articulate how Macbeth’s world becomes more governed by absolutes, no matter how unfounded they are, as the narrative progresses.

Washington has always excelled at playing characters with a chip on their shoulder and he pitches Macbeth’s haughtiness perfectly while also generating sympathy at just the right moments. McDormand is a fine counterpoint, wielding quiet ambition for a greater purpose but tragically succumbing to madness along the way. These two leads, along with fine supporting players like Corey Hawkins and Harry Melling, have turned in plenty of outstanding work on-screen through the years but the real find here is Kathryn Hunter. Playing the part of all three of The Witches, she contorts and confounds in a role that is captivating in its physicality and unforgettable in its solemnity. The Tragedy of Macbeth takes the Bard’s play into more haunting territory than it’s been before, in ways that only great filmmakers can manifest.

Score – 4/5

More new movies to watch this weekend:
Streaming on Amazon Prime is Hotel Transylvania: Transformania, an animated family comedy starring Andy Samberg and Selena Gomez about a Van Helsing invention that turns monsters into humans and turns humans into monsters.
Coming to theaters is Scream, a slasher sequel starring Melissa Barrera and Mason Gooding which picks up 25 years after the landmark horror entry and follows a new masked killer that terrorizes the quiet town of Woodsboro once again.
Also playing only in theaters is Belle, a sci-fi anime starring Kaho Nakamura and Ryō Narita about a shy high school student who loses herself in the persona of a globally-beloved singer that she adapts within a massive virtual world.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup

Ep. #63 – Top 10 of 2021

I’m joined by my wife Aubree as we discuss the year that was 2021 and run down each of our 10 favorite films from last year. Find us on FacebookTwitter and Letterboxd.

  • Aubree’s Top 10:
  1. CODA (Apple TV+)
  2. Nobody (rent/buy)
  3. Bo Burnham: Inside (Netflix)
  4. Spider-Man: No Way Home (theaters)
  5. No Time To Die (rent/buy)
  6. Pig (Hulu/rent/buy)
  7. Dune (rent/buy)
  8. The Night House (rent/buy)
  9. Belfast (rent)
  10. Malignant (rent/buy)
  • Brent’s Top 10:
  1. Pig (Hulu/rent/buy)
  2. CODA (Apple TV+)
  3. Dune (rent/buy)
  4. Licorice Pizza (in theaters)
  5. The Humans (Showtime)
  6. C’mon C’mon (rent)
  7. Judas and the Black Messiah (HBO/buy)
  8. The Mitchells vs. the Machines (Netflix/rent/buy)
  9. The Velvet Underground (Apple TV+)
  10. Riders of Justice (Hulu/rent/buy)

My Top 10 Films of 2021

It was another difficult year for the film industry but theaters around the country slowly opened up as the year went on, which allowed Spider-Man: No Way Home to bring home over $500 million domestically last month alone. The future of theatrical releases remains unclear going into 2022 but there were plenty of worthwhile titles to see and stream through various avenues. I watched over 200 new releases in 2021. These are my 10 favorites:

  1. Riders of Justice (streaming on Hulu and available to rent/buy)
    Mads Mikkelsen stars in this Danish oddity that subverts the traditional vigilante revenge tale while exploring the nature of coincidence and trauma with a bitingly humorous touch. Like Another Round, the Mikkelsen-starring dramedy that won Best International Feature Film last April, it explores middle-age men coping with their issues in unconventional ways but packs even more of an emotional payoff.
  2. The Velvet Underground (streaming exclusively on Apple TV+)
    In the first documentary of his 30-year career, Todd Haynes brings an auteur’s touch to his look at the seminal rock and roll band which gives the film its title. Through archival footage and voiceover from members of the group, the doc also peels back the avant-garde art scene in 1960s New York City for added context. A must-see for VU fans but newcomers should also find it intoxicating and vital.
  3. The Mitchells vs. the Machines (streaming on Netflix and available to rent/buy)
    This animated family comedy about a family staving off a robot apocalypse while on a college-bound road trip provided the most laugh-out-loud moments of any movie I saw last year. The voice cast, led by Abbi Jacobson and Danny McBride, lends plenty of heart and humor to the rapid-paced adventure but Olivia Colman steals the show as a vindictive, HAL 9000-like virtual assistant.
  4. Judas and the Black Messiah (streaming on HBO Max and available to buy)
    Unfairly written off by many critics late last year due to its inclusion in the 2021 Oscars, this nervy and urgent look at Fred Hampton’s rise and fall in Chicago’s Black Panther Party has the scope and spirit of early Scorsese. Get Out co-stars Daniel Kaluuya and Lakeith Stanfield square off with a pair of electrifying and unforgettable performances. Writer/director Shaka King is a talent to watch.
  5. C’mon C’mon (available to rent)
    Writer/director Mike Mills, one of the most empathetic filmmakers around right now, packs wit and wisdom to spare into this tale of a radio journalist looking after his nephew while also traveling across the country. Following up his incendiary Joker performance, Joaquin Phoenix taps into his contemplative and compassionate side with magnetic results. Shot in gorgeous black-and-white by Robbie Ryan, this is a salve for a wounded world.
  6. The Humans (streaming exclusively on Showtime)
    Adapting his Tony Award-winning play, Stephen Karam depicts a fraught Thanksgiving meal between a dysfunctional family with some of the year’s most bruising yet illuminating dialogue. The top-tier ensemble cast, including Richard Jenkins and Beanie Feldstein, puts on a masterclass that probes the human condition with unflinching honesty. A singular and haunting work from a talent that I hope continues to bring his stories to the screen for years to come.
  7. Licorice Pizza (now playing only in theaters)
    Paul Thomas Anderson returns to the 1970s California setting of his early masterpiece Boogie Nights for this charming and carefree coming-of-age comedy with two breakout performers in front of the camera. Cooper Hoffman (son of the late Philip Seymour Hoffman) and Alana Haim (of the rock trio Haim) have a palpable chemistry upon which the film’s myriad vignettes bloom. A killer soundtrack with a score from Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood fills out the sublime experience.
  8. Dune (available to rent/buy)
    This may only be half of Frank Herbert’s landmark novel but Denis Villeneuve’s vision of this story so far is nothing short of magnificent and truly awe-inspiring. The fusion of state-of-the-art special effects and intricate production design make this world feel rich and vast, one I’m sad I’ll need to wait two years to revisit when Part Two arrives. This is intelligent sci-fi that proves not every blockbuster is braindead.
  9. CODA (streaming exclusively on Apple TV+)
    Winner of the Grand Jury Prize out of Sundance early last year, this touching story of a teenage girl who is the only hearing member of her otherwise deaf family is a heartwarming triumph. Newcomer Emilia Jones is extraordinary in the lead role and the trio of deaf actors that portray the rest of the family are just as strong with exceedingly well-rendered and soulful characters. Bring tissues. Seriously.
  10. Pig (streaming on Hulu and available to rent/buy)
    A midsummer surprise, this Nicolas Cage movie about a bearded loner on the search for his kidnapped truffle-finding pig has the logline of one of the thespian’s numerous straight-to-DVD misfires. Against all odds, Michael Sarnoski’s directorial debut expands beautifully from this jumping-off point and features Cage’s best performance this century. An existential drama about seeking passion and purpose in an increasingly hostile and indifferent world, this is a treasure waiting to be found.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup

Licorice Pizza

Let’s get this out of the way right at the top: Licorice Pizza is not about a pernicious pizzeria that tops their pies with the twisty black or red confection. Instead, the title of Paul Thomas Anderson’s latest masterwork refers to a defunct chain of record shops that circulated around southern California in the early 1970s. Though the film’s original title, Soggy Bottom, is referenced more explicitly in the film, Licorice Pizza is the kind of west coast callback that falls in line with the “if you know, you know” vibe that Anderson evokes through this expertly-made hangout movie. Sprinkled with facsimiles of Hollywood titans from William Holden to Lucille Ball, this is a trip through San Fernando Valley that feels too real to be entirely fictitious but magical enough to convince us that something ineffable really existed in that time and place.

Based loosely on the teenage exploits of film producer Gary Goetzman, Licorice Pizza stars Cooper Hoffman as Gary Valentine, a 15-year-old actor who always has his eyes on the next project before the current one is completed. He meets Alana (Alana Haim) while waiting in line to have his school picture taken and feels an immediate connection. It isn’t exactly love at first sight for Alana, who’s older and seemingly wiser than the cherubic but indefatigable Gary, but the two remain friends as they see what life has in store for them. Set across rolling hills of endless opportunity, Gary and Alana navigate entrepreneurship and emotional insecurity while well-known figures like the imprudent producer Jon Peters (Bradley Cooper) and up-and-coming politician Joel Wachs (Benny Safdie) pop in along the way.

Recalling both the off-kilter romanticism of Punch-Drunk Love and madcap episodic nature of the inscrutable but atmospheric Inherent Vice, Anderson once again casts a spell of winsome unpredictability more successfully than any other director working today. Refining the cinematography chops he established brilliantly in his previous Phantom Thread, he works this time with Michael Bauman to establish a lovely but lived-in look that mirrors the dust one might brush off their favorite LP before taking it for a spin. The camera often chases breathlessly after these young hopefuls as they search for their place in the Valley and in the world, like pinballs bouncing gleefully off the colorful bumpers that manifest before them.

Though the cast is filled out by veterans and familiar faces, the lead duo enters Licorice Pizza with no prior feature acting credits to their names. Hoffman, son of the late Anderson regular Philip Seymour Hoffman, gives Valentine a devious charm that works on nearly everyone but seems to stop short when Alana is at her most prickly. Haim, supported in the film by her real-life sisters and parents, presents the cynicism of a twentysomething unsatisfied with how her dreams fell short but still determined to seek out her watershed moment. Together, the two are absolutely electric, sporting a playful energy and seesaw repartee that makes the most of Anderson’s already lively screenplay. We don’t know how or when they’ll end up together but we know we’ll want to be there the moment it happens.

As it turns out, there are quite a number of vignettes that play out before that moment and I was completely taken with nearly all of them. Most of the asides and non-sequiturs follow Anderson’s idiosyncratic and indelible sense of humor. For instance, Gary and Alana meet with a casting director who interrupts Alana’s wayward interview by picking up a ringing phone and proceeds with a minute-long conversation in which she merely utters “no” three times with varying inflections before hanging up the receiver. There’s a hushed sequence with an out-of-gas moving truck floating down the Hollywood Hills that was more exhilarating than any car chase I’ve seen this year. Exuberant and eccentric, Licorice Pizza is a slice of life tale of two young souls who spin their wheels in every direction until they finally move in sync.

Score – 4.5/5

More movies to watch this weekend:
Streaming on Netflix is The Lost Daughter, a psychological drama starring Olivia Colman and Dakota Johnson about A woman who finds herself becoming obsessed with another woman and her daughter while on a summer holiday.
Continuing its run in theaters is A Journal for Jordan, a Denzel Washington-directed drama starring Michael B. Jordan and Chanté Adams about a fallen US Army Sergeant and the journal he left behind for his wife and son as a way of moving on without him.
Also still playing in theaters is American Underdog, a sports biopic starring Zachary Levi and Anna Paquin about the life and career of Super Bowl MVP and Hall of Fame quarterback Kurt Warner.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup

Ep. #62 – Spider-Man: No Way Home/2021 IFJA Awards

I’m joined by my friends and IFJA colleagues Nick and Andy via Zoom as we spin some thoughts on Spider-Man: No Way Home, the latest MCU spectacle now playing only in theaters. Also check out Andy’s written review of the movie. Then we discuss the recently announced 2021 Indiana Film Journalists Association awards; the full list of winner and runners-up can be found here. Find us on FacebookTwitter and Letterboxd.