The best and worst films of 2021


Best Film of 2021: ”The Power of the Dog”

Writer-director Jane Champion tackles the American West in this engrossing dissection of everything from masculinity to class, sexism, sexuality and expansionism. Exquisitely shot by cinematographer Ari Wegner and hauntingly scored by Jonny Greenwood, the film opens with an air of “There Will Be Blood” before morphing into full-blown “A Streetcar Named Desire,” then flirts with “Call Me By Your Name” before landing somewhere between “The Beguiled” and “Basic Instinct.”

2. “West Side Story” — The Jets and the Sharks never looked better or more relevant than in the capable hands of Steven Spielberg. This timely update of a timeless classic is part romance, part social commentary The leads are fine, but the superb supporting cast is led by Raleigh native Ariana DeBose, playing Anita in an awards-worthy performance.

3. “Nightmare Alley” — Director Guillermo del Toro strays from the supernatural in this glossy, gothic remake of the 1947 noir classic, both based on William Lindsay Gresham’s 1946 novel of the same name. A terrific ensemble cast is led by Bradley Cooper, a nefarious grifter who leaves a traveling carnival before meeting his match in duplicitous shrink Cate Blanchett. The motives and rationales are often as purposefully murky as the milieu. It is all very nihilistic, a feature-length waking nightmare and a tremendous motion picture.

4. “Drive My Car” — This award-winning entry by Japanese director Ryusuke Hamaguchi follows a theater actor who goes searching for meaning in life after his beloved wife suddenly dies. Secrets about their troubled marriage serve as the backdrop when the actor takes a directing job in a remote village and meets a young car driver (Tōko Miura), who is also the product of a tragic past. This slow-moving film takes its narrative time but has a thoughtful, fully developed payoff.

5. “Don’t Look Up” — The allegory for our COVID-19 zeitgeist is patently obvious in this latest sendup by writer-director Adam McKay, using the world’s reaction to an impending global destruction by an approaching comet as metaphor. The satire remains too grounded to be farcical, and the lessons it imparts feel sadly familiar instead of dramatically jarring. But that does not make them any less true or relevant, and McKay’s serrated wit is suitable searing.

6. “Licorice Pizza” — Paul Thomas Anderson’s exudes 1970s LA youthful exuberance in this coming-of-age romance-drama, featuring breakout performances from Cooper Hoffman (son of the late Philip Seymour) and Alana Haim (of the band Haim). The flashiest scenes go to short turns by Bradley Cooper and Sean Penn. But the film’s hope-filled heart involves Hoffman’s teenage child actor and his platonic/romantic affection for Haim’s starry-eyed twenty-something.

7. “The Tragedy of Macbeth” — This latest update of the Bard’s play by director Joel Coen is anything but cursed, a sublime portrait of tragedy on a sumptuous black-and-white canvas, with outstanding performances by Denzel Washington as the titular Scottish king, Frances McDormand as his ambitious wife, and Kathryn Hunter as the ominous, prophetic three witches.

8. “No Sudden Move” — Director Steven Soderbergh returns to his crime thriller wheelhouse in his neo noir about a heist gone bad. Don Cheadle and Benicio del Toro are outstanding as partners in crime propelled by their particular motives, aided by a sturdy supporting cast that includes David Harbour, Kieran Culkin, Julia Foxx, Ray Liotta and more.

9. “Pig” — Nicholas Cage stars as a truffle forager who returns to civilization, and the life he left behind, when his prized pet pig is stolen. While you let that description settle in, know that this feature film debut from writer-director Michael Sarnoski has the vibe of a revenge quest before transitioning into something far more plaintive and poignant. The joy for the viewer is in the discovery and Cage’s understated effort.

10. “Candyman” — Who can take a horror sequel, sprinkle it with blood, cover it with social commentary and a minor misstep or two? The “Candyman” can.

Worst Film of 2021: “Space Jam”

A parody of itself, a remake and would-be commentary on corporate cynicism that becomes an exemplar of it. It’s dizzying, exhausting, and leaves little room for star LeBron James’s natural charisma, which is stifled by wooden dialogue and delivery.

The Worst of the Rest — “Dear Evan Hansen,” “The Hitman’s Wife Bodyguard,” “Black Widow,” “Jungle Cruise.”


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