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Film Review

Favorite Films of 2021


In 2021 I only saw three movies in theaters, which is two more than I saw in 2020. A personal historic low, it probably goes without saying. But ultimately I’m just grateful to be able to watch great movies, whether at the theater, on a streaming service, or with a library Blu-ray.

To that end, here are the 2021 movies that stuck with me.

10. Shiva Baby

This indie comedy had me cringing but also grinning at its fairly astounding tonal tightrope act, which follows a sardonic young Jewish woman navigating family, friends, and lovers during a shiva. Such a singular, confident debut from 26-year-old (!) filmmaker Emma Seligman.

9. C’mon C’mon

I was split on Mike Mills’s last two features: 2017’s 20th Century Women was as middling as 2010’s Beginners was marvelous. This feels like a return to form, with Joaquin Phoenix as a radio journalist caring for his estranged sister’s nine-year-old son during her absence. It’s a closely observed, touching, and tumultuous portrait of surrogate parenting, and echoes this line from the Richard Powers novel Bewilderment: “Nine is the age of great turning. Maybe humanity was a nine-year-old, not yet grown up, not a little kid anymore. Seemingly in control, but always on the verge of rage.”

8. Pig

Yet another self-assured directorial debut, this one from Michael Sarnoski about a reclusive former chef (Nicholas Cage) who embarks on an illuminating quest to recover his abducted truffle-hunting pig. It’s become pat to laud Cage for the roles in which he really Gets Serious (in contrast to the Go Crazy ones), but it’s nevertheless refreshing when he does tap into his innate performative greatness. And he does here to a quietly magnificent level.

7. In the Heights

With all due respect to Spielberg’s West Side Story, this was the superior NYC-set movie musical of 2021. Better songs, far better talent and chemistry among the leads, and a better overall story that nods to tradition while dancing to its own beats. The mark of a good musical: whenever I listened to the soundtrack (which was often), the songs would earworm me for days. Also recommend In the Heights: Finding Home, the book by Lin-Manuel Miranda and his collaborators about bringing the stage and film versions to life.

6. Passing

This directorial debut from actress Rebecca Hall kinda knocked me out. Ruth Negga and Tessa Thompson star as two African American women and reacquainted friends in 1920s New York City, one of whom is “passing” as white. Facade cracks of many kinds abound, and the film uses the fullest of its rather short runtime and black-and-white cinematography to pack a dizzying amount of portent through them.

5. The Green Knight

I went into this wholly ignorant of the source material but was eventually won over by the haunting filmmaking (by David Lowery, whose A Ghost Story was one of my favorites of 2017) and mesmerizing performances—specifically Dev Patel, whom I hadn’t seen since Slumdog Millionaire (meh). Ultimately it was the film’s perfect ending (maybe the best of the year?) that transformed a pretty good experience into something I knew I’d have to revisit.

4. Dune

Similar to The Green Knight, I went into this as a complete Dune newbie and emerged a fan, both of the world the film created and how Denis Villenueve went about it. Compared to Villenueve’s previous film Blade Runner 2049, which was pretty but alienating, Dune is gorgeous (in a deadly way) and mesmerizing—so much so I had to watch it twice in pretty quick succession. Not sure I’ll actually dive into the novels though.

3. Procession

This Netflix documentary features a group of men who were molested by Catholic priests as boys using drama therapy as a way to overcome their long-festering trauma, by making (non-graphic) short films dramatizing their experiences. Despite (or maybe because of) the heavy subject matter, it’s a really beautiful portrait of a brotherhood formed by shared anguish as these men help each other get through their emotional journeys together.

2. The Rescue

An extraordinary documentary from National Geographic (available on Disney+) about the 2018 Thailand cave rescue, which I remember happening at the time but hitherto knew very little about. Combining arresting firsthand footage with talking heads by the amateur British/Australian cave divers recruited for the job, the filmmakers expertly show how the massive operation’s inspiring cross-cultural cooperation and logistical creativity led to a near-impossible outcome. (I mean, just read the details of the actual rescue for a taste of how preposterous it was.) It felt a little like Arrival meets My Octopus Teacher—two other top-10 films for 2016 and 2020 respectively. Other dramatized versions of the story are coming, but be sure to watch this.

1. The Beatles: Get Back

This nearly 8-hour documentary from Peter Jackson telling the story of the Beatles’ January 1969 recording sessions spoke to me on many levels. As a former drummer in a rock band, I recognized the tedium, tension, and creative thrills that hours upon hours in the studio can engender. As someone interested in the creative process, I relished watching even certified geniuses inch their way from nothing to serenading London from a rooftop in less than a month. And as a huge Beatles fan, I treasured being able to spend so much quality time with the lads from Liverpool as they worked through a difficult period together. This film feels like a miracle, and I’m glad to have witnessed it. (Watched on Disney+, which is the wrong fit for this project. Even if it introduces a younger audience to The Beatles, the long runtime will put off just as many potential fans.)

Honorable mentions:

  • Licorice Pizza
  • Listening to Kenny G
  • A Quiet Place Part II
  • Bo Burnham: Inside
  • The Harder They Fall
  • Spider-Man: No Way Home
  • The Lost Daughter
  • CODA

Haven’t seen yet:

  • Red Rocket
  • A Hero
  • The Tragedy of Macbeth
  • Summer of Soul
  • The Disciple

Non-2021 movies I watched and liked:

  • Klaus
  • Witness for the Prosecution
  • Crimson Tide
  • Showbiz Kids
  • Thief
  • Run
  • Palm Springs
  • Jimmy Carter: Rock & Roll President
Categories
Film

Favorite Films of 2002

Looking at the full list of 2002 releases brought up lots of random memories:

  • going to Changing Lanes and Signs in the theater with my dad
  • seeing the original teaser trailer for Spider-Man on TV in fall 2001 that featured the World Trade Center towers
  • watching The Hours in a high school English class twice as an exercise in close-reading a film
  • rewatching The Hot Chick enough times with my sisters to have the “boys are cheats and liars” chant memorized

Ah, to be young again. This year also saw me transition from middle school to high school. My friend Tim and I were deep into making stop-motion and live-action short films using the LEGO Studios Steven Spielberg MovieMaker Set camera and software. Titles included Doctor Dreadful, The Penington Estate, and Dino Dan—all esteemed Oscar-worthy pictures.

One day I’ll excavate the DVDs full of these heavily pixelated treasures. Until then, on to the list…

1. Minority Report

This was one film, in addition to the LOTR trilogy, that really hooked me into the power and possibilities of film.

2. Catch Me If You Can

Only five years after Titanic made Leonardo DiCaprio a global sensation, this and Gangs of New York (released the same week) confirmed him as a sensational actor as well.

3. Signs

Man, the jump-scares of the aliens on the roof and in the Brazilian street got me real good in the theater. Though The Sixth Sense is great and Unbreakable is his best, this is peak Shyamalan.

4. In America

I’m glad I saw this later on, in college, when I was able to appreciate just how marvelous it is.

5. Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers

Even the least of the LOTR trilogy has excellent moments, namely “Forth Eorlingas!” and “by rights we shouldn’t even be here”.

6. My Big Fat Greek Wedding

Thanks to the late Michael Constantine, aka Gus, for several iconic catchphrases from this movie that I still deploy occasionally, including “put some Windex on it” and “so there you go”.

7. The Ring

This movie is sort of Patient Zero for my dualistic relationship with horror films: I don’t like willingly subjecting myself to horrific content that will disturb my mind and sleep, but I also greatly appreciate supremely crafted suspense films.

8. The Count of Monte Cristo

I’ll admit to not having rewatched this in a while, but my enduring impression is that it is, as Roger Ebert wrote, “the kind of adventure picture the studios churned out in the Golden Age—so traditional it almost feels new.” I also had a crush on Dagmara Domińczyk as Mercédès.

9. Jackass: The Movie

This and subsequent Jackass movies are in my Mount Rushmore of making me cry-laugh.

10. The Bourne Identity

Sure, it inspired too many mediocre shaky-cam knockoffs, but there ain’t nothin’ like Matt Damon and Clive Owen facing off in the countryside.

Honorable mentions:

  • Gangs of New York
  • Punch-Drunk Love
  • Road to Perdition
  • Panic Room
  • We Were Soldiers
  • Spider-Man
Categories
Books Film Television

Media of the moment

An ongoing series

Everything my son consumes. Obvs.

Love on the Spectrum. Just finished the second season of this heart-warming and instructive Australian reality dating show on Netflix featuring people on the autism spectrum. The delightful dynamic between Michael and his mom should be its own show.

Abbey Road. I previously wrote about encountering the super deluxe remastered edition of Sgt. Pepper’s and, by Jove, it happened again with my favorite Beatles record on a recent drive home. Luscious.

The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller. Finally read Miller’s debut novel after loving Circe, and she is now two for two in my book.

The Great British Baking Show. The current season is only the second we’ve seen, the first being last year’s COVID-bubble season. Mr. Almost-3 has started saying “Mmmmm, yummmm” every time the food drawings appear, which is (almost) always correct.

The Green Knight. Thought this was just OK for a large chunk of it, until the ending, which made me want to rewatch it immediately.

Witness for the Prosecution. Similar to The Green Knight, this was fine for a while until the end, when it became great. The acting was a bit over-the-top, even for the 1950s, but Charles Laughton was the tops throughout.

Shiva Baby. Nothing quite like seeing a writer-director absolutely nail the cringey-funny tone required to make this work.

Dune. Started watching as a Dune newbie and finished as a believer. Don’t think I’ll read the books though.

Categories
Books Film Music

My son’s media of the moment

A spinoff of an ongoing series

Library books galore. Between my work library and the two public libraries close to home, we’ve established a pretty regular rotation of titles old and new. Recent hits include The Book With No Pictures by B.J. Novak and Bone by Bone: Comparing Animal Skeletons by Sara Levine.

Bluey. The first-ever clip I saw of Bluey was the claw game and it made me literally LOL. The best kids TV show, period.

“Dem Bones”. He really got into spooky season this year. He’s especially obsessed with all things bones and skeletons, so this old traditional was and remains a hit.

Pixar movies. Approaching 3 years old, he’s enjoyed and (mostly) stuck with the Disney/Pixar movies we’ve tried with him so far. My guess at his ranking (starting with the most loved): WALL-E, Moana, Luca, Monsters Inc., Ratatouille, Coco. Still not sure how far back in the Disney canon I want to bring him even as he gets older. There’s a lot of good stuff—though I would say that as a Millennial, wouldn’t I?—but in general Pixar is higher quality and a lot less dicey.

The Okee Dokee Brothers. Specifically “Haul Away Joe” and “Jamboree” and a few other songs on seemingly infinite rotation. Good thing I love them too.

Categories
Film

Favorite Films of 2003

I’m creating my annual movie lists retroactively. See all of them.

We’re now deep into an era that was, at least for me, dominated by DVDs. I seemed to get a new one or two every birthday and Christmas, and rented aplenty from Family Video or Blockbuster. My movie collection has changed a lot since then, but I’ve never stopped collecting physical media.

On top of more frequent moviegoing as a freshman going on sophomore, I also started paying more attention to the Oscars. Part of this was printing out a ballot to track the guesses of my friends and classmates. My claim to infamy: being the only person to predict an upset Best Picture win for Lost in Translation—this in the year of the 11-win sweep by Return of the King. I was glad to be wrong.

On to the list.

1. Lord of the Rings: Return of the King

My friend and fellow LOTR nerd Tim and I were in the same high school chemistry class, and we spent the entire fall semester counting down the days until this movie premiered. All the haters who complain about the multiple endings are fools of a Took. See also: my Top 5 Lord of the Rings moments and other appreciations.

2. Finding Nemo

Not unlike the LOTR trilogy, this film—#6 in my Pixar rankings—is a journey. I haven’t watched it since becoming a father, so I wonder if and how my feelings about it will change with a rewatch.

3. School of Rock

Wrote about this a while back.

4. Matchstick Men

I don’t think I’d seen many con movies at the time, so this one made a strong impression. Nic Cage is the perfect balance of quirk and cool, and Sam Rockwell shines as usual in a wiry supporting role.

5. Kill Bill Vol. 1

Hard to decide whether I like Vol. 1 or Vol. 2 more, though the fact that Vol. 2 didn’t crack my 2004 list perhaps makes the case for me.

6. Ghosts of the Abyss

Sought out this documentary during my recent Titanic kick. It follows James Cameron and the crew of his deep-sea diving expedition in 2001 to explore the remains of the Titanic shipwreck. Haunting, beautiful stuff, in a way that’s different from Cameron’s other Titanic movie.

7. Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl

A rollicking and only occasionally ridiculous adventure, and the rare adaptation success that Hollywood has been chasing and failing to reproduce ever since.

8. Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World

This seems to have acquired a reputation as an under-appreciated masterpiece. It’s quite good, and I’d definitely watch a sequel, but I’ll leave it at that.

9. A Mighty Wind

Third-rate Christopher Guest joint (literally—after Waiting for Guffman and Best in Show) with a five-star soundtrack.

10. Runaway Jury

The idea of a gun manufacturer being held criminally liable for a mass shooting seems quaint these days. Not quaint: Gene Hackman and Dustin Hoffman going mano a mano. I miss Gene Hackman in movies.

Honorable Mentions:

  • Big Fish
  • Bruce Almighty
  • Capturing the Friedmans
  • The Italian Job
  • The Fog of War
  • The Matrix Reloaded
  • Phone Booth
  • The Recruit
  • X2: X-Men United
Categories
Film

Top 5 autumn movies

I have a pretty good handle on my Christmas/winter movie canon. But fall? Not so much. That’s what inspired me to consider the movies I return to during autumn, or seek out when I want that Mr. Autumn Man feeling on screen regardless of the season.

To qualify, they have to take place primarily within, embody the spirit of, and have the look and feel of autumn. So my beloved Little Women (both the 1994 and 2019 renditions) don’t quite make the cut given their year-round plots. Nor do other movies that are widely considered fall movies but I either haven’t seen (Hocus Pocus, Practical Magic) or care enough about (When Harry Met Sally).

Here, listed alphabetically, is what I landed on, along with some of their appealingly autumnal attributes.

Coco

Dia de Los Muertos. The spookiness. The cemetery.

Knives Out

The foliage. The sweaters and coats. The gothic architecture.

October Sky

The title of the movie. The overcast. The mournful spirit. The gorgeous music. The light jackets and flannel. (This is really #1.)

Remember the Titans

The nighttime football. The new-school-year vibes.

The Village

The cloaks. The chilly nights. The aphyllus trees. The forest walks.

Categories
Film

Marvel-less

As the capstone of an 11-year cinematic journey through the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Avengers: Endgame was so thoroughly conclusive and satisfying that it has made me consider giving up on the MCU.

Seriously, how can you top this:

I’m sure someone can “well, actually” me about other even more epic crossover events in the comics or whatever. But I’m not a comics person. I have no connection to the Marvel universe beyond the films themselves.

And I’ve been a big fan of them! I wrote a positive review of Iron Man for my college newspaper at the time and have engaged with the MCU ever since. That’s probably why life as a casual fan post-Endgame has been a bit bewildering.

My only foray has been WandaVision. We signed up for a year of Disney+ back in March 2020, pretty much right after COVID-19 lockdown started, so we had it for just enough time to watch that show—but none of the subsequent ones—before our subscription expired.

I didn’t resubscribe mostly because Disney’s megathread on Twitter back in December announcing the next few years’ worth of movies and shows coming to theaters and Disney+ broke my brain a little bit. The prospect of the MCU metastasizing even further beyond its already expansive ambit forced me to consider how much time and energy the next phase is worth. (Or is it phases? I don’t know phases.)

The bottom line is: I’m OK with skipping whatever is on Disney+ (that’s what Wikipedia summaries are for) and I’m still open to seeing (some of) the forthcoming movies, though the threshold for seeing them in theaters versus waiting until they’re on DVD/Blu-ray will be high. I’ll let critical acclaim and my personal interest sort that out on an individual basis.

In the meantime, I look back on the journey to Endgame fondly. It remains a monumental achievement, and one I’ll treasure revisiting one day with Mr. 2 Years Old.

Categories
Books Film Music

Media of the moment

An ongoing series of what I’ve read, seen, and heard lately

Schmigadoon. Though its story is a little loose at the edges throughout the show’s short six-episode run, the central conceit of a couple getting stuck inside the world of an old-timey musical was a fun journey. Watch out for “Corn Puddin’” because it’s an earworm. More TV musicals please!

Ted Lasso, season 2. Will be curious to see how this season fills out as a whole, but nothing can damper my love of the best show on TV. We really enjoyed the stretch of a couple weeks in July and August when we could watch the latest episodes of this and Schmigadoon as an uplifting and wholesome Friday night double feature.

Crimson Tide. So, this ruled. And made me really miss seeing Gene Hackman in movies.

In the Heights (movie and soundtrack). Seeing this was my first time back in the theater since February 2020, and I’ve had the soundtrack pretty much on repeat since. Favorite little moments: “damn, we only jokin’, stay broke then” and the It’s A Wonderful Life reference.

Ghost Map: The Story of London’s Most Terrifying Epidemic by Steven Johnson. My favorite author strikes again.

A Quiet Place / A Quiet Place Part II. Being horror-averse I put off the first one for a while, basically until I saw the excellent reviews for Part II and realized they’re not actually horror but more of the “momentarily scary well-made thriller” variety, which I’m down with.

Paper Trails: The US Post and the Making of the American West by Cameron Blevins. Shoutout to the post office.

Showbiz Kids. Affecting documentary on HBO Max featuring former child actors talking about their past and present struggles.

The Anthropocene Reviewed by John Green. I’ve never listened to the podcast this book is based on, but still enjoyed Green’s unique, earnest, and wry literary voice shining through this collection of essays.

Categories
Film

Favorite Films of 2004

I’m creating my annual movie lists retroactively. See all of them.

As a freshman/sophomore in high school, this year provided me several memorable theater experiences, including the last great M. Night Shyamalan movie, some surprisingly excellent sequels, and a romance that inspired one of my very first blog posts.

But chief among these theatrical outings were Anchorman and Dodgeball. Both were instrumental to the development of my comedic sensibility (for better or worse), having hit me and my peers at the exact right age for maximum effect and quotability. A shocking amount of lines remain lodged in my subconscious to this day, just waiting to be deployed—much to my wife’s puzzlement or annoyance.

I can’t defend everything about them. A recent rewatch of Dodgeball confirmed just how much of its comedy wouldn’t survive into today. But dammit, if “We’re better than you, and we know it!” and “I immediately regret this decision!” and countless other references are wrong, then I don’t want to be right.

On to the list…

1. Before Sunset

The Before series is one of four trilogies I own on DVD, the others being Back to the Future, Die Hard (4 and 5 don’t count), and Lord of the Rings. Unlike with those series, this second movie is the best of the trilogy.

2. The Incredibles

This is at #3 in my Pixar rankings, behind WALL-E and Toy Story. Such a beautiful, exhilarating vision from Brad Bird.

3. Shaun of the Dead

I think about this film essay on Edgar Wright’s visual comedy a lot. While my opinions vary on his films, there’s no denying his filmmaking prowess, which is nearly Wes Anderson-esque in its distinctness.

4. The Village

The last great M. Night Shyamalan movie. I know the twist is divisive, but it worked for me, as did the gorgeous James Newton Howard score, the crackling chemistry between Joaquin Phoenix and Bryce Dallas Howard, and the murderers row of character actors.

5. Anchorman

Within Pewit’s Nest gorge in Baraboo, Wisconsin, you can wade down Skillet Creek and jump off small cliffs into pools within the creek. I was there several years ago with a few people when I clambered up one of these cliffs and, right before jumping, delivered Ron Burgundy’s poolside monologue to those nearby, punctuated with a cannonball into the water just like in the movie. To my chagrin, no one understood the reference and therefore probably considered me a disturbed weirdo. I should have capped it with “Don’t act like you’re not impressed…”

6. Collateral

Tom Cruise needs to play more villains.

7. Miracle

Not all live-action Disney sports movies work, but this one just straight-up does. And like most good sports movies, you don’t need to know much about the sport.

8. Ocean’s Twelve

Saw this with a group of friends, and we decided to get dressed up for a fancy night at the movies just to emulate the suaveness of the cast. This is usually ranked last in the trilogy, but it’s not far behind Thirteen.

9. Friday Night Lights

The show was good, but this was great. My introduction to the music of Explosions in the Sky.

10. I, Robot

This holds up, not only as sci-fi dystopian action but as a Will Smith vehicle during his late prime.

Honorable mentions:

  • National Treasure
  • Team America: World Police
  • Spider-Man 2
  • Vera Drake
  • 50 First Dates
  • Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story
  • Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
  • Kill Bill Vol. 2
  • Kung Fu Hustle
  • The Notebook
  • Shrek 2
  • Spanglish
  • Win a Date with Tad Hamilton!
Categories
Film Media Religion

Siskel & Ebert, Mark Driscoll, and the Power of Popularity

Among the podcasts in my regular rotation, there are two others I’m listening to that are both limited series, airing concurrently, and happen to share a surprising thematic overlap.

One is Gene and Roger, an eight-part Spotify-exclusive series from The Ringer that serves as an oral history of Gene Siskel, Roger Ebert, and their movie criticism legacy. The other is The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill from Christianity Today, which charts the story of Mars Hill Church and its controversial pastor Mark Driscoll.

What’s the connection between these two disparate stories? The epiphany came after listening to recent episodes of both shows, released on the same day.

For the brand

“Top Guns” finds Siskel and Ebert reaching new heights of exposure, popularity, and power through their TV show and “two thumbs up” brand. Meanwhile, “The Brand” follows Driscoll as he and Mars Hill’s burgeoning marketing team harness technology and internet to build his personal brand and rocket the church’s growth.

Both subjects became celebrities within their domains despite their unlikely origins, unorthodox approaches, and often prickly demeanor. Whatever criticism that came their way—like for the reductive sloganeering of Siskel and Ebert’s “two thumbs up” and for Driscoll’s macho masculinity and objectification of women—was overshadowed by their surprising success and cultural ubiquity.

Movies and machismo

Though I was too young to watch Siskel and Ebert together on TV at the time, I was a regular viewer of the post-Siskel iteration with Richard Roeper and even the post-Ebert version with Michael Phillips and A.O. Scott. Before podcasts and social media, this was the only time I could see intelligent people arguing about movies. You also couldn’t be a film lover and understand what it means to write and think about movies without Ebert’s influence specifically. (His Great Movies anthologies are an essential resource, and the documentary Life Itself is a great primer on his life and work.)

Driscoll had a similar influence within American Christianity. I listened to his sermon podcasts through iTunes in the early 2010s, back when they were usually topping the Religion charts (and back when I was still listening to sermons). Driscoll’s tough-guy personality and the reported toxic culture of Mars Hill eventually turned me off, but his cultural cache lived on—probably peaking with his infamous trolling of Obama for his second Inauguration—until Mars Hill’s demise less than two years later on account of Driscoll’s bullying and “patterns of persistent sinful behavior”.

The beauty of synchronicity

The comparisons do fade at some point. The end of Siskel and Ebert—as a show and as individuals—was caused by untimely illness, while it was Driscoll’s behavior that led to his disgrace.

Still, it was a synchronistic delight to catch both of these excellent podcasts at the right moment to hear how seemingly unrelated stories can inform each other. One of the benefits of subscribing to (probably) too many podcasts…