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best movies of 2021

I have watched 63 movies from 2021. I watched 31 of them in 2022, which is why I make lists like this a year late ... after an extra year, I will have seen a lot more movies from that year.

As of this writing, my favorite 2021 movies are:

  1. Summer of Soul (…or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised)
  2. Drive My Car
  3. Flee
  4. Petite Maman
  5. Judas and the Black Messiah
  6. Attica

[Letterboxd list of my favorite 2021 movies]

music friday

Another edition of What Was I Listening To? I'm going back 16 years, to December 30, 2006. Here are four songs I listened to that morning:

First, Taj Mahal with a Goffin/King song made popular by The Monkees:

Next, Madeleine Peyroux covering Bob Dylan:

Bruce Springsteen covering himself:

Finally, some mellow folkie shit:

a few 2022 movie lists

I'll probably watch a few more movies this year, but unless one is an all-time classic, these will likely remain the best movies I watched in 2022 for the first time. I gave all of them a rating of 9 on a scale of 10. Sorted by release year:

Best movies I re-watched this year (all 10/10):

  • The Wizard of Oz (1939)
  • Citizen Kane (1941)
  • A Hard Day's Night (1964)
  • Jaws (1975)
  • The Last Waltz (1978)
  • Mad Max: Fury Road (2015)

The ongoing Geezer Cinema list. We watched 48 Geezer movies this year, beginning with Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse back on January 4:

[Letterboxd list of Geezer Cinema movies]

And this list of everything I watched this year:

[Letterboxd list of movies I watched in 2022]

geezer cinema: glass onion: a knives out story (rian johnson, 2022)

Sometimes I'll copy-and-paste an old review to show that a new movie is the Same Old Same Old (see Wes Anderson). I liked Glass Onion quite a lot, just as I liked Knives Out, but I was interested to see that my comments about the first movie hold true for the sequel as well:

You expect one of those all-star nostalgic Agatha Christie movies, that work their way through retread material that appeals to the extent is reminds you of all the other such movies you've seen. What makes Knives Out different is that it uses the format as a template, but the cast and the tricks aren't stale. Rian Johnson makes it all appear fresh, which wouldn't seem possible. There is enough to satisfy the fans of the old school, but Johnson goes beyond the old, and everyone is having so much fun, you can't help but be entertained.

Johnson gives his movie a modicum of class consciousness ... not enough to rattle the nostalgia fiends, but enough to give the film something extra. There's really nothing remarkable about Knives Out, but it's very well done and it's just quirky enough to raise it above the normal giant-cast mystery.

Other than Daniel Craig, this one has a whole new cast, and they do enjoy themselves. Janelle Monáe in particular is getting a lot of Oscar talk, and it's deserved ... she and Craig are the best things about the movie. What matters most of all is that the Benoit Blanc franchise is in full swing, and so far, it's an enjoyable ride.

Spoiler alert

Here are some of the cameos in Glass Onion. This isn't really a spoiler, but you might want to be surprised, so close your eyes before you read the list underneath the trailer.

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Hugh Grant, Ethan Hawke, Angela Lansbury, Natasha Lyonne, Yo-Yo Ma, Stephen Sondheim, Jake Tapper, Serena Williams

the territory (alex pritz, 2022)

The Territory is a documentary about the Indigenous Uru-eu-wau-wau in Brazil, who live in a rainforest constantly threatened by encroachment from people who believe in "progress", which for the average person means "everyone dreams of having a home" and for the rich and powerful means "use the land to make lots of money". The Uru-eu-wau-wau aren't just fighting to protect their homeland, they are fighting to save the planet ... they know the importance of the rainforest.

Alex Pritz takes an interesting approach. He takes his cameras into the rainforest, and builds trust with the Uru-eu-wau-wau, with whom he clearly champions. But he also films some settlers, the ones who want a home of their own. He manages to gain their trust, as well, and it's a tenuous construction. He doesn't defame the settlers, he lets them present their case, and they do seem to trust him. But the viewer never forgets which "side" Pritz is on.

COVID had an impact on the making of the film. Pritz describes this in an interview:

Having spent months prior to the pandemic working with the Uru-eu-wau-wau to develop an Indigenous media team, the pandemic forced us to put this training into action. Through contactless drops, we delivered a new set of higher quality cameras to the Uru-eu-wau-wau villages and set up a new series of online workshops in cinematography, sound, and documentary storytelling. We hired a team of Indigenous cinematographers to film themselves as they isolated themselves deep within the forest, and the results were spectacular: by removing myself from the equation, we gained a firsthand perspective into the Uru-eu-wau-wau experience that never would’ve been possible if it were filmed by outsiders. The footage coming from the Uru-eu-wau-wau was unlike anything we had shot before: intimate family moments, intense scenes of action, and an honesty in the footage that helped us connect with the characters in newfound ways.

"Intimate" perfectly describes how much of the footage of the Uru-eu-wau-wau affects us. And the willingness of Pritz and his team to turn over some of the film making to the natives demonstrates how committed he is to their point of view. It's this, perhaps, that tilts the overall impact of The Territory in favor of the Indigenous people, even as he refuses to make the settlers evil ... they are misguided, uninformed, but we understand their point of view, as well.

argentina, 1985 (santiago mitre, 2022)

Argentina, 1985 is a tremendous re-creation of a critical moment in the history of Argentina, the Trial of the Juntas against the recently deposed military dictatorship of the country. Director Santiago Mitre, writer Mariano Llinás, and all of the production crew took great pains to give their film a documentary feel, replicating the history by shooting in some of the same locations in which events occurred. They also subtly incorporate actual footage of the trial, unobtrusively adding to the impression that what we are seeing is what really happened.

This only goes so far, because the acting is so strong, not because the lead, the always excellent Ricardo Darín, is an exact copy of prosecutor Julio Strassera, or that the acting in general carries the same documentary feel we get from much of the film. In fact, the contrast between the actorly performances and the more straightforward representation of facts adds an interesting tension to what we are seeing. We admire the work of Darín at the same time we admire the work of the real-life Strassera.

The film itself is a standard courtroom drama. It's well-done, but not necessarily any different from a dozen other films set in courtrooms. But the real-life stakes of the trial make for something more vital than, say, To Kill a Mockingbird. And when Darín gives Strassera's closing argument (almost word-for-word with the actual statement), his abilities as an actor, combined with the dramatic impact of Strassera's words, leave most other movies behind, courtroom drama or not.

music friday: killers three

Why do I have the trailer for a crappy Bonnie and Clyde ripoff? It's not because of the involvement of Dick Clark, although he was quite involved indeed: co-writer, co-producer, co-star. No, it's because Merle Haggard played a sheriff in the movie (spoiler alert: can you believe it, Dick Clark kills Hag in the picture!) Haggard is all over the soundtrack, which features a song he had only recently recorded, a song that became one of his most famous tunes: "Mama Tried".

The song has been covered by a large number of artists, including the Grateful Dead, who played it over 300 times live, including at Woodstock:

a touch of zen (king hu, 1970)

This is the thirteenth film I have watched in "My Letterboxd Season Challenge 2022-23", "A 33 week long challenge where the goal each week is to watch a previously unseen feature length film from a specified category." This is the 8th annual challenge, and my fourth time participating (my first year can be found at "My Letterboxd Season Challenge 2019-20", the second year at "My Letterboxd Season Challenge 2020-21", and last year at "My Letterboxd Season Challenge 2021-22"). Week 13 is called "Long Time Running Week":

This week's challenge is to watch a previously unseen film with a runtime equal to or greater than 180 minutes.

I was introduced to King Hu three years ago, during my first Letterboxd challenge, with Come Drink with Me for Wuxia Week ... it was an early example of that genre. A Touch of Zen is probably Hu's most acclaimed work ... it's #346 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 films of all time. It's an epic that sneaks up on you.

I admit my mind was drifting during the first of the film's three hours. It presented a 14th century isolated mountain village ... we meet various characters, some potential subplots are introduced, but the entire movie at this point is leisurely, with none of the over-the-top "wire fu" I expect from the genre. But Hu knows what he's up to, including disrupting the norms of the genre. Once the action begins, our appreciation is increased because we know some of the characters in depth thanks to that leisurely beginning. Admittedly, I much preferred the latter 2/3 of the film, and my mind quit drifting. I've seen a dozen or so wuxia films over the years, but I am far from an expert, and am mostly impressed by action, since I lack the historical knowledge that would provide some context.

This was the first time I've seen Hsu Feng, who was very good as a beautiful ass-kicker. Her character, Yang, has many levels. We first see her as a potential marriage partner for Gu, a scholar and painter. We learn that she is a fugitive, and over time, we see that she has supreme martial arts skills. She also has a magical ability to instill skills into others ... after she sleeps with Gu, the formerly awkward bumbler becomes a master strategist and something of a martial arts champion himself. I loved her character, and I loved what Feng brought to that character.

Sammo Hung and Jackie Chan are also in the cast in minor roles. Jackie's role was so minor, I never actually spotted him, but Sammo takes part in a couple of battles late in the film. Mostly, their names in the credits are interesting, but this is not a Sammo film, it's a King Hu film starring Hsu Feng, and if you make it past that first hour, you will be rewarded. And it looks gorgeous, besides.

geezer cinema: the good nurse (tobias lindholm, 2022)

I have now seen Eddie Redmayne in four movies. He played a real person in all four.

Last year, 3 of 5 Best Actor Oscar nominees and 3 of 5 Best Actress nominees, including both winners, played real-life characters. It's no surprise that Redmayne and Jessica Chastain are in the Oscar conversation this year for The Good Nurse. It's as if playing someone real gives you a head start with the voters. (Chastain won last year playing Tammy Faye Bakker; it was a worthy award.)

Both lead actors are fine in The Good Nurse. The real people they play are presented in a complex fashion, and director Tobias Lindholm holds them largely in check. Chastain's Amy Loughren has a heart disease, so she gets a few scenes that will go on her Oscar reel ... there's nothing wrong with that, and she is believably on edge physically for most of the film. Redmayne's serial killer Charles Cullen hides his villainy until the end, which helps keeps the film on a low boil. It's as if Lindholm and writer Krysty Wilson-Cairns (1917) don't want to sensationalize the story. Which probably makes The Good Nurse easier to take, and the slow burn is eventually successful. But when it was over, I wasn't sure why it needed to be made in the first place. There is a problem in that Cullen lacks motivation in the film. As we are told near the end, "He never explained why he did it". Without that explanation, we're just left with the story of a guy who killed a lot of people, did so in a way that occurs off-screen and so is "uncinematic". The lack of sensationalism is admirable, but in this case, it doesn't leave much of a movie.

Chastain does what she can as the woman who finally gets Cullen to confess. Their scenes together at the end have a tense humanity that is moving. But The Good Nurse is much ado about little.