The Best Movies of 2021

The Top Ten

10. Spencer (ON DEMAND)

There are moments shocking and scintillating, charming and revolting, sweet and savory. Mostly, the film is foreboding, a not-so-calm before the inevitable storm of Princess Diana’s tragic life. As the titular damsel in royal distress, Kristen Stewart is guaranteed a Best Actress nomination, if not a win as most pundits are currently predicting. Spencer is a picture that neither lets Diana herself off the hook nor the family that pushed her to such terrible psychological ends. Most intriguingly, it’s a film that neither fully endorses the conspiracy theory surrounding her death nor ignores such a possibility. It’s up to the audience to decide what Timothy Spall’s former military butler means when he says, quite ominously, “leave her be.” It’s up to us to glean what a gifted book meant, whether her servants and scullions were sympathetic to her plight or pitiless behind her back. The heart of the picture is three-fold. Beyond Stewart herself, there is Sean Harris’ hard-working, sweet-natured chef, a friend who only wants Diana “to survive,” and in a final stanza that is heart-wrenching, director Pablo Larrain follows Diana and her two sons on a joy ride to the city to the tune of “All I Need is a Miracle” by Mike and the Mechanics. Spencer is a mood piece brimming with melancholy, paranoia, and indelible performances.

9. The Last Duel (ON DEMAND)

A tremendous reminder of the sort of period epic rarely made anymore in modern Hollywood. Ridley Scott returns to the sword-and-sandal picture with skill, leading Matt Damon, Adam Driver, and probable future Oscar winner Jodie Comer through a triptych of unspoken words, palace intrigue, and the power of men circa 1386 (and 2021). Ben Affleck nearly steals the show as a pompous French count essentially running France while his squirrelly teenaged cousin sits on the throne, but it’s Comer who commands the screen as a woman married off to a mulleted loser (Damon) and eventually raped by his womanizing friend-turned-rival (Driver). Scott plumbs the intricacies of behavior that divide three opposing points of view on the pivotal event and everything leading up to it, exposing the ways in which women can be misunderstood and men can misjudge even the slightest of glances. It’s about historical misogyny and ahistorical myths that have permeated the public consciousness for centuries, whether it’s the nobility of wealth or the heroism of war, never mind the bravery of knighthood. Damon’s boorish soldier and Driver’s conniving squire epitomize these forever lies we tell ourselves, Scott and screenwriter Nicole Holofcener taking what we think we know of history, of those who lived to write our history, and showing us how truth can be misinterpreted, misappropriated, and worst of all, varied and slippery, depending on the truth-teller.

8. No Time to Die (ON DEMAND)

No Time to Die is a picture for our pandemic era, with Bond yanked back from retirement to face Lyutsifer Safin (Rami Malek), a man-child taking his mass shooter persona to the world stage via threats of nanobot viruses. Director Cary Fukunaga continues the Daniel Craig era tradition of adding new wrinkles to the man beneath the tie and blazer, finally giving him some measure of catharsis regarding old flame Vesper and allowing him the chance at a life beyond gun barrels and martinis. No Time to Die is primarily about family, from Bond’s futile quest to replace what he lost as a child to Safin’s similar pursuit. These two men are in conflict by virtue of mining their own legacies. DP Linus Sandgren picks up where Roger Deakins and Hoyte Van Hoytema left off, again lending the series a bevy of arresting images. From lush IMAX lensing in the first half to shadowy contrast when Bond arrives at Safin’s island bunker, Sandgren’s work is on par with his predecessors. For Craig, he seizes on the opportunities afforded him here, where Bond is challenged in manners emotional, ethical, and psychological. This is a toast to the Bond of yore, of the future, of the now. It’s a toast to living instead of fretting. Many of us live to exist, to prevent death or illness at every turn. We can all relate following the last two years, the unfailing desire to avoid risk around every corner. Though it is no excuse to live irresponsibly, risk is how we grow, gain, and eventually, live enjoyably. I lived quite enjoyably watching this, the last Bond film of the Craig era.

7. The Green Knight (ON DEMAND)

David Lowery’s mythic fantasy cost $15 million and looks better than many $200 million tentpoles, utilizing practical wizardry, makeup, and subtle VFX to immaculate effect. This is a strange, thought-provoking trip into the dark heart of Arthurian myth and the meaning of chivalry, rife with metaphor, illusion, and allusion. The Green Knight is not for the faint of heart, ruminating on the inevitability of death and the innumerability of choice, of paths taken or not taken. Stark images of ghostly giants and glistening ejaculate are seared into my brain, with Lowery culling from legend and lore to paint a beautiful portrait of one ne’er do well’s quest to prove his worth to a family uncertain of his future. Dev Patel is appropriately daft as the young lad in question, striving he is for greatness and coming up short in every scenario. Alicia Vikander oughta earn a Supporting Actress nomination for one scene alone where she waxes spiritual on nature’s tie to our biological demise. Sean Harris and Ralph Ineson round out the cast as King Arthur and the Green Knight himself, the former a genteel voice of reason and the latter a creative marvel of makeup, performance, and costume design. Patel’s exasperation sells every hallucinatory moment foisted upon his character, Sir Gawain finally coming to his epiphany at the very same moment we do as an audience.

6. Zack Snyder’s Justice League (HBO MAX)

A miracle of a movie, both as an example of what a difference authorship can make in the editing room, and as an effort to raise money and awareness for suicide prevention. It’s difficult to watch this and not reflect on its narrative about redemption, and its occasionally funereal tone possibly ebbing out of Zack Snyder’s own mourning for his late daughter. From score to shot selection, soundtrack to color correction, sound design to cinematography, this is an evocative and very different film from the 2017 hatchet job. Added scenes and additional moments bring context and a moving tapestry of longing for a bygone world. Much like the MCU’s commiserating about the ‘blip,’ there’s a sense in Snyder’s DCEU that the loss of Superman evokes the loss of stable democracy in the U.S. and around the world. New scenes revolving around the Flash and Aquaman are unexpected tear-jerkers, and Superman’s innate goodness is restored following the wayward character sketch in Dawn of Justice. Cyborg and Steppenwolf are now intimidating characters, with motivation and pathos to spare, and flashbacks to the so-called Age of Heroes recall the epic grandeur of The Lord of the Rings. It’s frankly shocking that Warner Bros. rejected such a vision, one that might have placed Justice League among the genre’s greats. It’s as if they learned nothing from allowing auteurs like Peter Jackson and Christopher Nolan to take the reins and never let go. Snyder may not often be on their level, but this four-hour cut proves he can be when given the opportunity. This is his magnum opus.

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