Favorite Films of 2021

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I watched 145 films last year. Not an impressive number when you consider that over 800 films are released every year—whether theatrically or via streaming—in this country alone, and that most of the critics I know watch an average of 400 to 500 films a year. More than half of the films I saw were released and/or submitted for awards consideration this year—I am a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association. Some were reviewed for this outlet, for Gozamos, and for efilmcritic.com. The rest I saw for work-related projects and for fun. I saw them on the big and small screens, on DVD/Blu-Ray and streaming, and even some on glorious 70mm at Chicago’s venerable Music Box Theatre.

How we watch movies changed dramatically with the onset of the pandemic in 2020 and will continue to do so in 2022 as the number of COVID cases keeps rising nationwide thanks to the highly contagious Omicron variant, as well as any other variants that may pop up. As theaters closed their doors in March 2020, independent distributors like Kino Lorber and Film Movement implemented a “theater-centric” platform that streamed countless foreign-language and independent films that were originally scheduled to be released that year—a significant number of them from Latin America or made by U.S. Latino filmmakers—with art house theaters and distributors splitting the revenue 50-50. The re-emergence of the drive-in allowed film festivals to adopt a hybrid format of physical and virtual offerings; the slow reopening of movie theaters last year gave these festivals a third outlet for their hybrid format. 

The studios fast-tracked their own streaming strategies in 2020, trying to catch up to Netflix and Amazon Prime. With the launch of Disney+, we are now poised to live in a Disney-dominated world with their IP-driven content. HBO Max, a subsidiary of AT&T’s Warner Media, could be following close behind with their more diverse programming, although their strategy of releasing most of Warner’s films in theaters and their platform simultaneously may have been an act of corporate harakiri, considering how poorly such films as In the Heights and The Matrix: Resurrections did at the box-office. Disney, however, has been much smarter: while the studio released films like Cruella theatrically, Disney+ subscribers still had to pay an extra $29.99 to watch it at home, while In the Heights and even Godzilla vs Kong were included as part of the regular subscription to HBO Max. 

Netflix and Amazon Prime are still the 500-pound gorillas in the room. Once theaters opened in the country, they continued their strategy of releasing key titles theatrically a couple of weeks before they began streaming on their respective platforms—which allows their films to qualify for an Oscar. It was inevitable that the studios would embrace an “Only in Theaters” strategy for specific films once theaters reopened at some capacity. And while the box-office dominance of Spider-Man: No Way Home—which is, as I write this, the 10th highest-grossing domestic film in history—has made movie theater owners and studios far more optimistic about the future, Omicron be damned, it will take a lot of hard work to bring back that older audience still concerned about going out to the movies in the middle of a pandemic, as Variety’s Brett Land and Rebecca Rubin reported in their excellent year-end industry overview.

It’s hard to predict how our moviegoing and movie-watching experiences will continue to evolve. But to those doomsayers who still proclaim that movies and movie theaters are dead, a reminder: you said the same thing about vinyl, CDs, radio, and books, and they are still around, some of them even enjoying a new lease on life.

What I can say is that no matter how you watch them or where, there are a lot of movies look forward to in 2022, from new films by David Cronenberg (his first one in more than a decade), Jordan Peele, Lucrecia Martel, Robert Eggers, Claire Denis, Yorgos Lanthinos, and Andrew Dominik, to name only a few, plus whatever exciting new work may emerge from the festival circuit. 

It has been a while since I have compiled a “Best Films of the Year” piece. But since I have yet to see some key titles released last year, I decided that this would, instead, be a list of my favorite films released in 2021. It ends with two double features: films linked by a filmmaker or that thematically engaged with each other. Where appropriate I have linked each film to either the original review and to where it can be streamed:

 

IDENTIFYING FEATURES/SIN SEÑAS PARTICULARES: Mexican director Fernanda Valadez’s feature debut has haunted me since I first saw it in January of last year, especially the final 15 minutes when lead character Magdalena (Mercedes Hernández) finds out what happened to her son who had left Guanajuato for Arizona and had disappeared after the bus he was riding on with a friend was assaulted by a gang—believe me, it’s not the ending you think. To say that this film is about a mother’s search for her son in a country wracked by drug violence would merely trivialize it. Valadez and co-writer Astrid Rondero have crafted a delicate, subtle, yet powerfully devastating tale about motherhood, immigration, and the psychological and physical effects of violence on individuals, towns, and an entire country, and the wall of silence surrounding it all.

Identifying Features is the work of a confident filmmaker who has a complete grasp of the cinematic language. I cannot wait to see what Valadez does next.

 

THE POWER OF THE DOG: Jane Campion’s triumphant return to the big screen after her work on the TV series Top of the Lake takes place in 1925 Montana where brothers George (Jesse Plemons) and Phil Burbank (Benedict Cumberbatch, in his best performance yet) run a cattle ranch. Their life is as idyllic as those Marlboro Man commercials of the ’70s, with their cattle wrangling and beautiful mountains as a backdrop—or so Phil in his gruff, macho way likes to think. But when George marries Rose (Kirsten Dunst), a widow, and brings her and her son Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee) to the ranch, Phil starts a campaign of psychological warfare against her while taking Peter under his wing.

Don’t be fooled by the film’s Western trappings: this is, after all, a film about toxic masculinity and repressed sexuality where a lot is left unsaid or repressed. Every element—photography, Jonny Grenwood’s score, the ensemble acting—comes together harmoniously under Campion’s baton. There is more than meets the eye in The Power of the Dog, an extraordinary work from one of the world’s top filmmakers.

 

ANNETTE: Musicals made a comeback in 2021, and of all of them no musical left me more excited, more shaken, more surprised, and with a huge goofy grin on my face than this anarchic, irreverent, rules-breaking original work from French director Leos Carax and musicians Ron and Russell Mael, a.k.a. Sparks (of whom more later in this piece). Henry McHenry (Adam Driver), a stand-up comedian whose acts ooze toxic masculinity galore—this seems to have been a theme this year—falls in love with and marries delicate and empathetic opera singer Ann (Marion Cotillard). Their relationship becomes fodder for tabloid papers and entertainment newscasts. But when Ann gives birth to a very unlikely child, their relationship goes downhill. How, you will have to find out.

Suffice it to say that Annette is the most original film of 2021, one that challenges you to abandon everything you know about movies and musicals and invites you to embrace its unique, otherworldly, and at times perturbing vision.

 

THE GREEN KNIGHT: A veritable cinematic feast where every element feels delicately crafted, artisanal even, David Lowery’s take on the classic 14th-century Welsh poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is as original and out there as Carax’s Annette. Dev Patel plays Gawain, King Arthur’s nephew, who, after chopping the head off the treelike Green Knight and seeing him reattach it to his body, embarks on a journey a year later to have his own head chopped off. On the way, he is robbed, encounters giants, is joined by a talking fox, and his integrity is put to the test by a lord and his lady.

The Green Knight has a wonderful, earthy quality. It is grim and magical, haunting and spellbinding. 

 

SUMMER OF SOUL (…OR WHEN THE REVOLUTION COULD NOT BE TELEVISED): “Context IS everything in Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson’s amazing, jubilant and poignant first film, Summer of Soul (…Or When the Revolution Could Not be Televised),” I wrote back in July when I first reviewed this amazing, toe-tapping, stand-on-your-feet-and-dance musical documentary—2021 was really a great year for this genre. The story of how 1969’s Harlem Cultural Festival came together weeks before Woodstock, the socio-political moment it grew out of and spoke to, and how it was overshadowed by that other festival makes for a jubilant and moving work that is meant to be played at high volume.

 

A HERO (in theaters January 7; on Amazon Prime Video January 21): “Nothing’s fair in this world,” a taxi driver tells Rashid halfway through Iranian director Asghar Farhadi’s latest moving and non-judgmental moral fable, A Hero. On a two-day leave from prison where he is serving a three-year prison sentence for an unpaid debt, Rashid decides to return a bag his girlfriend found containing 17 gold coins. The only problem is that neither knows the owner’s identity, and so Rashid leaves countless flyers all over the city of Shiraz. The act turns him into a media (and social media) sensation, and everyone wants to reward him for his actions. But no good deed goes unpunished in this age when a tweet or an Instagram post can determine your fate, and Rashim soon finds himself caught in a maelstrom of his own making.

Farhadi is a calm, measured, fair, and empathetic filmmaker, a sharp observer of human nature who pays far more attention to those meddlesome gray areas we oftentimes ignore at our own risk.

 

LIMBO: Ben Sharrock’s quirky and ultimately heartbreaking tale about a Syrian refugee in the middle of nowhere in Scotland deserves to be seen by a larger audience. It was shown in theaters just as they were reopening and was gone in the blink of an eye. Taking its cue at first from the films of Jim Jarmusch and Aki Kaurismaki, Sharrock invites us to stop seeing characters like its protagonist Omar (a beautifully introspective performance from British-Egyptian actor Amnir El-Masry) as victims and acknowledge their humanity.

 

AZOR: Back in September, I wrote: “Set in Argentina in 1980, four years after General Jorge Rafael Videla and his troops overthrew the government of Isabel Martínez de Perón, Azor, much like Benjamín Naishtat’s extraordinary thriller Rojo (2018), explores the complicity of Argentina’s upper and middle classes in the crimes perpetrated by Videla’s regime. While Naishtat fully embraced and even defied genre conventions in his film, [director Andreas] Fontana strips them down to their barest essentials, almost dispensing with them entirely. The plot may involve the mysterious disappearance of a Swiss private banker but that is just a pretext; Fontana is far more interested in capturing and dissecting a milieu, in what is said and left unsaid in conversations and what can be read between the lines.”

Azor is another film that sneaked past many critics and that, like Limbo and Identifying Features, I’m betting will eventually be recognized as auspicious film debuts.

 

And now, my double features:

THE SPARKS BROTHERS/LAST NIGHT IN SOHO: British director Edgar Wright (Shaun of the Dead, Baby Driver) was a busy boy last year: not only did he finally see the release of his pandemic-delayed giallo tribute, Last Night in Sohothe third film about toxic masculinity to make my list this year—but also of his exhaustive documentary on the pop/rock duo Sparks, The Sparks Brothers.

I didn’t pay much attention to Sparks back in the day, but Wright’s documentary turned me into a convert of the Sparks cult. Their music brought much joy to a dark year and helped me cope with my sister’s death—I have Wright to thank for that. It also helps that the documentary is pretty damn cool in the way that it mocks the conventions of the music documentary while sticking to them.

Full of “eye protein,” Last Night in Soho is a tight, tense, horror story about a young woman with certain abilities who wants to make it big in London’s fashion world and ends up being transported nightly to 1960s Soho while inhabiting the body of another young woman who might have been a murder victim. It’s a movie about the dangers of nostalgia and about how London, as a city, can never exorcize its ghosts. Like in all of Wright’s films, music plays a key role, in this case a haunting rendition of “Downtown” by British-Argentinean actress Anya Taylor-Joy that is to die for and a dance number inside a night club that rivals anything I have seen in last year’s movie musicals for sheer cinematic chutzpah.

 

IN THE HEIGHTS/WEST SIDE STORY: One was written so that Latino actors could be cast in anything but West Side Story, while the original film version of the other has long been a bane to many Puerto Ricans across the globe, even though it gave Rita Moreno an Oscar—and she could win a second one for her role as Valentina in the newer version. Both films deal with the impact of gentrification and urban displacement on ethnic communities of color. And both sparked a passionate, intelligent, and sometimes rancorous conversation on social media and digital and mainstream outlets about afrolatinidad and representation—so passionate that, though it got lost in the debate, it proved that movies still matter and remain culturally and socially important.

I have seen In the Heights three times and each time I’ve cried—I still don’t know why Olga Merediz, who as Abuela Claudia is In the Heights’ beating heart, is not part of the awards conversation. I would love to see West Side Story again, but this time in Puerto Rico to see how folks react to the many nationalist symbols displayed in the first 15 minutes of the film.

More favorites from 2021: The French Dispatch, Flee, Spencer, Pig, Licorice Pizza, Raya and the Last Dragon, Dune, and Luca.

 

Featured image from ‘Identifying Features’ (Corpulenta)

Born in Santurce, Puerto Rico, Alejandro has been active in Latino media since 1988 when he and a group of 12 independent producers launched Orgullo Latino, a weekly newsmagazine series in the Chicago Access Network. Alejandro joined ¡Exito!, the Chicago Tribune’s Spanish-language weekly, as a freelance reporter in 1993, where he wrote about entertainment and culture with the occasional foray into politics. He was also a frequent contributor to the Chicago Tribune’s Tempo, Arts & Entertainment and Friday sections. Part of the transition team that replaced ¡Exito! with Hoy, and in 2004 he became Senior Editor for all three editions of Hoy (New York, Chicago and LA). He currently is a freelance writer, editor and media relations specialist in Chicago.

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