"The Power of the Dog" and "Licorice Pizza" lead the Top 10 films of 2021
The year 2021 is ending on a dispiriting note, with a global pandemic that continues to rage and any number of other concerns for our stressed-out planet.
Yet the movies of the past 12 months offered solace and escape from daily woes, as movies so often do. And looking over my top 10 list of the year’s best films, I’m struck by how satisfying their endings were.
By this I don’t mean a conventional happy ending, that facile Hollywood construct so often based on contrivance. I mean a finale of impact and intrigue that I didn’t see coming, delivering a sense of fulfilment and the urge to immediately watch the film again.
The three music documentaries on my list — “Summer of Soul,” “The Velvet Underground” and “The Beatles: Get Back” — represent gratifying conclusions in their entirety. Fashioned out of footage that had been shelved for 50 years or more, they told brand new stories of artists and music that many of us had overlooked, forgotten or misconstrued.
Not every movie in 2021 was great, of course. I include my top three list of the year’s worst movies, which in my case means most disappointing. They are films that should have been a lot better than they were.
Here we go:
TOP 10 BEST FILMS OF 2021
The Power of the Dog
⭐⭐⭐⭐ (out of 4)
Jane Campion deftly adapts Thomas Savage’s western novel of toxic machismo, a tale exceedingly well told and a movie that stays in the mind like a whispered secret. Benedict Cumberbatch simmers and boils brilliantly as Phil, the Marlboro Man from Hell, a cattle rancher in 1920s Montana who can castrate bulls and tame the wildest of horses using skills taught to him by his adored friend and mentor, the late Bronco Henry. Repressing his sexuality and hating who he is, Phil is determined to wreck the uncommon happiness that has entered his home: his meek brother (Jesse Plemons) has married widowed innkeeper Rose (Kirsten Dunst), whose gentle college-aged son, Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee), is also part of an increasingly volatile situation. Superb direction, a carefully calibrated screenplay and an excellent cast make this “Dog” awards catnip and the best picture of 2021. (Streaming on Netflix.)
In a year when it seemed the romantic comedy had fled theatres for a permanent berth on streaming services, it’s a pleasure to see this delightfully dazed and confused rom-com from Paul Thomas Anderson, set in Southern California in 1973. Big-screen newcomers Alana Haim and Cooper Hoffman play unlikely pair Alana Kane and Gary Valentine, who face a major impediment to love: she’s 25 and he’s 15. They’re the MVPs of a superb cast, in a freewheeling amorous pursuit that also pulls in hilarious cameos from Bradley Cooper, Sean Penn, Tom Waits and Benny Safdie. Propelled by a killer ‘70s soundtrack, it’s the most fun I had at the movies all year. (Opens Dec. 24 at TIFF Bell Lightbox, expands Dec. 25 to theatres elsewhere.)
Summer of Soul (…Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised)
Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson’s embrace of music history is as strong as his playing chops as drummer/co-frontman of the Roots hip-hop band. He spectacularly showcases his know-how, and makes his feature directing debut, with this “Black Woodstock” reclaimed documentary treasure: the Harlem Cultural Festival of 1969, which drew 300,000 people to a New York park in that Woodstock summer to see electrifying shows by such soul, blues and gospel greats as Sly and the Family Stone, Stevie Wonder, Nina Simone and B.B. King. They’re all caught in their musical prime and at the peak of their cultural significance on film that amazingly sat ignored for 50 years. Vintage newsreels and fresh interviews provide valuable context. A big Sundance ’21 prize winner, “Summer of Soul” is a hip-shaking expression of Black joy, a needed history lesson and a challenge to current and future times. (Streaming on Disney Plus.)
Drive My Car
A vintage red Saab becomes a conveyance for confessions, introspection and epiphanies in Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s hypnotic road drama, based on a Haruki Murakami short story. A multiple prize winner at Cannes 2021, and Japan’s submission for the next Academy Awards, the film stars Hidetoshi Nishijima as stage actor and director Yusuke Kafuku, wounded by family tragedy and marital infidelity, who takes a theatre residency in Hiroshima for a production of Chekhov’s “Uncle Vanya.” Circumstances force him to reluctantly accept a personal driver (Toko Miura), who is as skilled behind the wheel as she is taciturn. From such a minor premise does a mighty film grow, one so absorbing and enigmatic its three-hour running time flashes by. (Currently screening at TIFF Bell Lightbox; streaming TBA.)
A golden performance by Kristen Stewart as a haunted Princess Diana, who nears a meltdown as she contemplates divorce from Prince Charles during a 1987 Christmas break. Director Pablo Larraín (“Jackie”) admits up front the story is more fable than fact. He occasionally overreaches, but his empathy and compassion for a woman suffering a mental breakdown are beautifully expressed. Gauzy cinematography makes the film seem like a high-class ghost story. There’s at least one real phantom prowling the premises: the tragic figure of Anne Boleyn, one of King Henry VIII’s castaway wives. There’s a huge counterpoint to the royals of “The Crown”: the humans of the TV series become the undead of “Spencer.” (Rent on Apple TV, cineplex.com, Amazon Prime Video, YouTube and more.)
The Beatles: Get Back
A funny thing happens on the way to a breakup in Peter Jackson’s epic three-party documentary — something close to transcendence. The acrimonious split of a rock ’n’ roll legend becomes instead a joyous farewell: a rooftop concert atop the band’s Apple Corps headquarters in London that proved to be the Beatles’ final public performance and their most glorious moment as a group. Getting to this magnificent moment took weeks of rehearsal and debate — most of it friendly and brotherly, as Jackson’s skilful cull of 60 hours of long-abandoned “Let It Be” film outtakes reveals. It’s well worth the 52-year wait and the endurance test of a nearly eight-hour total running time, if only to see that rooftop concert in its entirety for the first time. (Streaming on Disney Plus.)
The Velvet Underground
Todd Haynes’ terrific music doc goes behind the shades of the coolest band ever, New York’s the Velvet Underground, which inspired everybody from Andy Warhol and Jimi Hendrix to latter-day punks and grunge rockers. Yet most people don’t know much about the Velvets — Lou Reed, John Cale, Sterling Morrison, Moe Tucker and early chanteuse Nico — because there’s scant film footage of the band at work in their 1960s prime. Eschewing the usual rock doc approach, Haynes serves up colliding impressions of the band via sound and images he’s ferreted out, along with interviews with surviving members Cale and Tucker and fellow VU travellers. This bracing collage is pure rock bliss and a poke in the eye to old-style storytelling. (Streaming on Apple TV.)
Desert power! Frank Herbert’s “unfilmable” 1965 sci-fi novel classic of imperialist spice miners on a remote planet becomes transporting cinema in Denis Villeneuve’s capable hands. Rich in subtext and ripe for modern engagement, it connects on visual and subconscious levels, demanding the biggest screen possible but also rewarding close study. Desert planet Arrakis is revealed in all its sunburned glory, with its feuding colonial clans House Atreides (Timothée Chalamet plays visionary scion Paul) and House Harkonnen (Stellan Skarsgard is bloated Baron Vladimir), freedom-seeking Indigenous Fremen and menacing sandworms. The movie is geared to “Dune” fans, who are faithfully served. Newcomers may want a second look, but consider it a pleasure — along with anticipating “Dune: Part Two,” due in 2023. (Currently playing at theatres everywhere.)
Danish filmmaker Jonas Poher Rasmussen’s hybrid animation tells the incredible true story of his friend Amin, whose arrival in Copenhagen from Afghanistan as an unaccompanied minor and refugee decades earlier has been shrouded in secrecy. Amin’s reticence was understandable and necessary: he’s a gay man from a country that criminalizes homosexuality and his claim of being an orphan had serious family implications. Amin’s fight for survival and freedom, brilliantly told through animation and archival news footage, illustrates the power of film to inform and elevate. The film won the Grand Jury Prize in the World Cinema Documentary section at Sundance 2021. (Currently screening at TIFF Bell Lightbox; streaming TBA.)
The best Canadian film of 2021. This arresting first feature by co-writer/director Tracey Deer, based on her personal memories and experiences, revisits a tragic incident of national significance: the 1990 Oka Crisis, a.k.a. the Mohawk Resistance at Kanesatake, outside Montreal, a standoff prompted by Mohawk defiance of corporate plans to expand a golf course into sacred grounds. This prize-winning drama interrogates Canadian history while illuminating a young girl’s life: title character Beans, played by rising Mohawk actress Kiawentiio, of TV’s “Anne With an E” and “Rutherford Falls.” Bolstered by archival footage, “Beans” forces fair-minded viewers to choose a side. If you’re on the side of the authorities, think again. (Rent on YouTube, Google Play and Apple TV.)
Runners-up (in alphabetical order): “A Hero,” “CODA,” “Cyrano,” “King Richard,” “Passing,” “Petite Maman,” “Quo Vadis, Aida?” “West Side Story,” “Wild Indian,” “The Worst Person in the World.”
TOP THREE WORST FILMS OF 2021
Writer/director Chloé Zhao’s dreadfully dull Marvel movie is a serious slide from her Oscar-winning heights of “Nomadland,” my top film pick of 2020. The 10 alleged superheroes who populate this “Avengers” knock-off, costumed as if headed to an ABBA reunion concert, spend much of the film’s 157-minute running time standing around, bickering about what they’re supposed to be doing. It’s a classic case of being careful what you wish for. Critics, present company included, have long called for a different kind of Marvel movie. Having endured the mind-numbing folly that is “Eternals,” can we just go back to the usual brightly coloured inanity?
House of Gucci
Lady Gaga stumbles on the fashion world runway and so do her other top-billed actors, Adam Driver, Jared Leto and Al Pacino. The atrocious Italian accents are just the start of what’s wrong with Ridley Scott’s lead-footed screen telling of a lethal fashion family feud of the 1970s to ’90s. Gaga surprisingly underplays Patrizia Reggiani, a trucking firm secretary who manoeuvred her way into Italy’s Gucci aristocracy by marrying gormless heir Maurizio Gucci (Driver). Where’s the pet parrot that the real Patrizia used to sport on her shoulder? There’s no reason to go gaga for this saga, which plays more like a ponderous soap opera than the outrageous entertainment it might have been.
The French Dispatch
Wes Anderson has finally wound his baroque analogue timepiece so tightly he’s unsprung the mainspring, slashing his own wrist. I say this with much sadness, since I adore Anderson’s obsessively curated and colourfully rendered retro images, his meticulous camera movements, and his devotion to cinema as both a visual and aural medium. It’s a fine idea for a film, inspired by Anderson’s love of the New Yorker: Bill Murray is the indulgent editor of a quirky weekly magazine in the fictional French city of Ennui-sur-Blasé, with writers played by the likes of Owen Wilson, Frances McDormand and Jeffrey Wright. But the ode-to-journalism conceit is soon abandoned in favour of increasingly inane vignettes. 🌓
(This column originally ran in the Toronto Star.)