If 2020 brought a shuttering of cinemas and a much-needed delay in Hollywood blockbusters that left open a ripe opportunity to view independent films in the comfort of our own streaming services, 2021 was a year that suffered from that the effects of shut down leaving us to pick up scraps. The continued studio mandate to deliver messages over stories and the latest attempts by Marvel to keep their cinematic universe afloat after so satisfyingly capping it off with Avengers: Endgame. Reboots that “corrected wrongs” of the previous films and pushed nostalgia over any passion to return to the story reigned on streaming and the new business model that relies more on movies as products to sell to stockholders than box office returns removed any incentive to make a big Hollywood crowd-pleaser all together. Still, filmmakers still exist and this year had it’s stand-out works just like any other, topped by two amazing pieces of work:
Spencer (Dir. Pablo Larrain)
Breaking the tie for the best movie of the year, Pablo Larrain’s methodical mood piece was the movie that turned over in my head for days afterward, exploring new layers of cleverness in the superficially quiet and loosely plotted package. Living inside the head of Princess Diana (Kristen Stewart disappearing in the role), during a Christmas weekend at the royal country castle, Spencer is not a movie at all without every single decision it makes, every line, every shot, every suggestion and metaphor not as deliberate as it is. Larrain’s brilliance here is refusing to make a movie that victimizes Diana while she herself feels like a victim, creating instead a looking glass hall of mirrors where we can see both the royals as prisoners of tradition and her as a disrespectful outsider just as much as the reverse. The film is lonely taking place in the aftermath of family gatherings, in long Kubrickian hallways tracking shots, open English fields and an increasing paranoia that is driving the princess mad. An amazing piece that immerses us in it’s atmosphere and demands multiple viewings.
Saint Maud (Dir. Rose Glass)
An astonishing debut film, both the confidence of it’s increasingly daring story and the invention of it’s visuals, Saint Maud tells another Descent into Madness tale and finds new ways to make it shocking. It’s titular Maud (a terrific debut for Morfydd Clark, look for her in some Marvel movie soon) becomes intent on saving the soul of an athiest ballerina with terminal cancer in her care, but her newfound religion is simply the latest thing she’s hung her mental illness on and soon her obsession with pleasing God creates spectacular delusions for Maud. Beautiful, shocking, expertly crafted, this movie is hell of a ride right up until the year’s best ending.
Malignant (Dir. James Wan)
After making his career respectable with atmospheric haunted house films, Wan delivers a left-hook of a film right to the jaw of anyone who has ever complained there are no new ideas under the sun. In truth, Malignant‘s completely bonkers, carnival ride of a third act is rooted in an homage to schlock horror maestros of the 80s, part Dario Argento, part Brian DePalma and Frank Henenlotter, Malignant is such a gleefully fun celebration of this type of movie making that it is infectious. A creature feature, a serial killer movie and a laugh-out-loud police procedural wrapped up like a ghost story, Malignant is also gorgeous, beautifully crafted and full of more twist and turns than several Saw films. Audiences will love it or hate it. A must see, even if for some it will be only just to say you saw it.
Together Together (Dir. Nikole Beckwith)
That rarest of rare movies, one that maybe exists all through cinema history a handful of times, Together Together marks the debut of a new opposite sex platonic love story. Scratching that Lost in Translation itch, the film lives on the increasingly deep chemistry between Ed Helms (in a career high) and Patti Harrison (in a star-maker) as they navigate a unique situation that forces them together in a very intimate way. Beckwith explores the slippery complexity of human relationships for people trying to categorize themselves. Absorbing and beautiful.
The Mitchells vs. the Machines (Dir. Michael Rianda & Jeff Rowe)
Leave it to the producing arm of Phil Lord and Chris Miller and the creators of the wickedly clever Gravity Falls to not only make the best animated movie of the year but one of the most pointed satires of our technology obsession out there. An iphone takes over the world with the promise that your phone best friend would be such much better with arms and legs, while a family on a road trip to send their daughter to college ends up being the only people who can stop them. With studio films playing comedy as broad as possible, it’s animated movies like this that dare to slip commentary into a family package that end up being the most sucessful.
Riders of Justice (Dir. Anders Thomas Jensen)
You may have heard the hype on this one and seen the poster of Mads Mikkelsen clad in army fatigues, armed to the teeth ready to exact revenge on the biker gang that got his wife killed. It looks like Taken, but it is so much better. A smart, rich, character driven and truly funny film that explores how we attempt to make sense of and see patterns and reason in death and tragedy. And when the time comes, it does deliver on the expected ass-kicking vengence too. A gem from Norway the kind they don’t make like they used to that manages to do a lot of things very well.
Zack Snyder’s Justice League (Dir. Zach Snyder)
The movie we didn’t think we would see, Zack Snyder’s Justice League is a miracle of modern streaming. A release born out of a director’s cut sitting on the floor, a passionate fan base and a streaming service in HBO Max looking for content in a pandemic. The result is one of the most wholly satisfying superhero films of the decade, one that accomplishes several things at once – serves as an introduction for characters that didn’t get their own film (Cyborg and The Flash get rich satisfying arcs restored), finishes off the Snyder-verse set up in Man of Steel and serves as a solid team-up film where everyone gets their moment without it feeling cluttered. The film is over 4 hours and is almost perfectly paced, never once feeling too slow or labored. But most of all it serves as a lesson in studio mandated filmmaking. Watching this alongside the Joss Wheedon studio cut (view shot-by-shot comparison videos online) shows not only how little the Hollywood machine thinks of us, how talented Zack Snyder really is and as a lesson in filmmaking how a single shot insert here and added there can change the entire tone of a scene.
The Hand of God (Dir. Paolo Sorrentino)
Confession here. This was my first experience with a Paolo Sorrentino movie and now it certainly won’t be the last. The older I get, the more I travel, the more I am engaged by movies that immerse us in the daily life of a different country and a different culture. Hand of God is an immersive look at Naples in the 80s through the eyes of a teenager and a soccer fan. The movie opens with a bit of a tease, a scene so surreal and good the rest of the film can’t keep up – and in truth the final act starts to drag – but man is this film a great story of family, tragedy and life in this seaside town.
The Suicide Squad (Dir. James Gunn)
Another successful DC apology film after the universally disliked Suicide Squad, this time handing the reigns to James Gunn to make a twisted, funny, gory, delightfully R-rated film of a gang of anti-heroes with bizarre powers saving the world. This movie has a gritty indie edge to it, indulging in all sorts of bizarre ideas (killer giant starfish), visuals (Harley Quinn’s tower escape scene is a highlight) and jokes that would end up on the cutting room floor in another movie (shots of King Shark just sitting around lonely). This is a movie that gives Poka Dot man his due and finally harnesses Margot Robbie’s terrific take on Harley Quinn. This is also a movie where a character saves the world with an army of disgusting rats and Gunn turns it into a touching scene about her relationship with her father.
Cruella (Dir. Craig Gillespie)
As much as I was not thrilled by the first act of Cruella the film won me over in a big way both with Emma Stone’s terrific performance and the movie’s choices to go as niche and complicated as possible, pushing the fashionable Disney Live Action Villain Origin movie to it’s breaking point. Set in London’s fashion industry in the 70s and pitched to us with the main character having a genuine mental illness, Cruella is a stylish, indie, bohemian film with a personality of it’s own that towers over other Disney movies. It’s actually shocking that this movie got through their claws.
Major Grom: Plague Doctor, Being the Ricardos, The French Dispatch, The Green Knight, Those Who Wish Me Dead, Raya an the Last Dragon, Judas and the Black Messiah, The Trip, Nobody, Nightmare Alley.
Best 2020 Pick-Up:
While I still adore my pick for best of 2020, The Wolf of Snow Hollow, it’s hard not to look at this Romanian documentary as the best of it’s kind in a decade. A harrowing, riveting look at how a freak night club fire began the systemic collapse of the Romanian healthcare system through the eyes of the reporters racing to uncover the truth. Reporters doing actual reporting! A tragedy in slow motion warning us of the corruption and politics that invades technocrats that couldn’t be more timely. Works both as a cautionary tale of universal healthcare as well as just a riveting All The President’s Men style journalism thriller.
Thunder Force, Cinderella, The Woman in the Window, Jungle Cruise, The Matrix Resurrections, Red Notice, Old, Black Widow, Don’t Look Up.