For me, 2021 was all about raising a wonderful baby daughter and being a goofball dad and supportive husband. Movies were far and few between, but they continued to be dependable coping devices during the ongoing pandemic (and rare evening off). More theatres were opened and maintained safely, the promised releases of 2020 played catchup, and the cinematic quality accompanied the quantity.
Below is my humble Top Ten of 2021. As with any list, it is subjective, nonsensical, and extremely personal. These movies fulfilled the “3 E’s” Reely Bernie looks for in any movie – Empathy, Entertainment, and Escape. Please let me know how your Top Ten list compares!
10. Boiling Point, Directed by Philip Barantini
As if the Safdie Bros. decided to remake Dinner Rush (2000) with one, 90-minute take, Boiling Point is a frenetic peak behind the kitchen door at a fine dining restaurant in London.
There is a controversy about how valid Russian Ark’s (2002) 99-minute, continuous shot was implemented (in the middle of the movie, the camera pans down a dark hallway, covering what appears to be an edited cut), but this overlooked, handheld indie seems legit in its execution.
The restaurant culture gamut is covered: Chefs with addictions, a patron about to propose to his girlfriend, rude customers, exquisite culinary creations, under (properly) cooked lamb, health inspectors, food critics, and a hellfire of an ending. If this much happens on one night at a restaurant, why would we even go to the movies?
9. Pig, Directed by Michael Sarnoski
Nic Cage and Writer/Director Michael Sarnoski resurrect the 90-minute movie, and 90 minutes are all you need to savor an existential and fulfilling search for a pig. Through the dark Oregon woods and seedy Portland underground, we observe an oddball community of tweekettes, epicureans, street fighters, and, yes, pignappers. Not many words are spoken, hearts are broken, and grief is as anticlimactic as we don’t want it to be. Think of it as Winter’s Bone (2010), starring Okja (2017).
This is the indie gem of the year, and I enjoyed every minute of it.
8. The Power of the Dog, Directed by Jane Campion
Behavioral oddities, “hints, allegations, and things left unsaid”* – this polar opposite of a Clint Eastwood western is a cerebral study of characters enduring pain to simply live. Revelations are slowly unveiled (even though I saw the ending coming a mile away), the cinematography is spellbinding, and the primary reason to see this Jane Campion (The Piano) novelty is Benedict Cumberbatch’s simultaneously conniving and heartrending performance.
*The name of a 90s alternative rock album from what band?
7. The Green Knight, Directed by David Lowery
This is the kind of film that speaks through shadowy cinematography and a haunting score that syncs with boot plods in the mud and raindrops to a puddle. The pace is tempered to a journey by foot while the virtues of knighthood – generosity, chastity, and piety – are tested by one fascinating character after another. Honor in chivalry is both glorified and debunked in this fantastical, punky interpretation of a medieval poem with undertones of The Last Temptation of Christ. A truly bizarre concoction and acquired taste not many will enjoy, but I admire its originality.
6. The Tragedy of Macbeth, Directed by Joel Coen
Even without his brother whispering advice in his ear, Joel Coen interprets this Shakespearean masterpiece in a way that is both suitable to literary traditionalists and devotees of anything “Coen Brothers-esque.” Carter Burwell’s timpani-pounded trademarks accompany this black-and-white, minimalist approach that breathes dread in a masterpiece that overcooked in past film attempts. If anyone can match subtlety with powerhouse, it’s salt-and-peppery Denzel Washington. If anyone can match his madness, it’s Frances McDormand. Together, the Macbeths glide into darkness under the spell of a unique rendition of The “Three” Witches.
5. West Side Story, Directed by Steven Spielberg
Although there’s no escaping the blatant remake pandemic, Steven Spielberg’s “reimagining” of an urgent racial justice message and demonstration of a classical musical production re-introduces our younger generation to what is brilliant music, vibrant dancing, and a Shakespearean narrative arc that will run its course until we actually accomplish world peace. There’s nothing wrong with hoping, and there’s nothing wrong with thoroughly enjoying this movie and its musical and choreographed brilliance. Unlike the “songs” in In the Heights, aural recollection of any Bernstein/Sondheim gem is effortless the moment you walk out the theatre.
4. The Card Counter, Directed by Paul Schrader
I was thoroughly captivated by The Card Counter’s gradual unveiling of its two male leads – one running away from the past, the other face planting right into it. The runner is William Tell, played by Oscar Isaac in a mechanical, chiseled, and unblinking performance that would never be acknowledged nor rewarded by the Oscars, and I mean that as a compliment. Less about poker and more about seeking redemption from an unforgivable past involving insurmountable torture, The Card Counter tests its audience’s ability to make amends with its characters. As every 5 minutes unfold, you have no idea where the next 5 will take you. My kind of slow burn entertainment.
3. The Rescue, Directed by Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin
Above and beyond the best documentary of the year, The Rescue details the impossible rescue of 12 boys and their soccer coach in a flooded cave in Chiang Rai Province, Thailand. We may recall this story from only three years ago, but Directors Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin provide vivid footage of the brave cave divers that is too real to be believed and a meaningful, visual chronicle of altruism that is too significant to overlook. There is more to this story than oxygen levels, claustrophobia, international unity, and human willpower. There is hope. Watch this on Disney+ now!
2. Spencer, Directed by Pablo Larraín
Documented facts and biases aside, Director Pablo Larraín successfully captures the spiritual liberation of Princess Diana with less a biopic lens and more an impressionistic brush stroke. Like Natalie Portman was in Jackie (2016), Kristen Stewart is Larraín’s muse for painting expressions of sympathetic understanding. Like Jonny Greenwood’s jazzy, dissonant score, nothing is linear here. There is no closure between Diana and what the world thought of Diana. It is an appropriate stance and my favorite drama of the year.
1. Dune, Directed by Denis Villeneuve
Put simply, Dune made me young again. I haven’t experienced that sense of awe since I was a kid watching “the original” Star Wars trilogy. Veneration, dread, and wonder overwhelmed me. The other titles listed above are movies. Dune is more an experience. And, it is an experience best suited for the movie theatre – big screen, Dolby sound, and all. I anticipated a confusing narrative with too many characters to keep track of. What I got was a harmonious netting of exposition elements, consequences both sensical and otherworldly, and intense, sporadic action made epic by Hans Zimmer’s thunderous score. Stellan Skarsgård’s portrayal of Baron Vladimir Harkonnen was like Apocalypse Now-Marlon Brando déjà vu. This is solid entertainment on repeat until the sequel comes out!
Thank you for reading and be sure to share YOUR favorites of 2021!
Happy New Year,
Be sure to visit my Letterboxd account: https://letterboxd.com/berno1206/