best film: The Card Counter from Paul Schrader tops the list for 2021.
- Schrader has always been an intellectual. He wrote “Transcendental Style in Film” on Dreyer, Ozu and his main source of inspiration- Bresson. But Schrader has also always leaned into sensationalism as well and he seems to have found the right balance at this point in his career. The Card Player is largely minimalistic—but there are this ripe little opportunities for sweeps of style and visual flourishes. Isaac’s character is rich with depth and complexity. He is a savant at card playing- but he is also an ex-con and ex-soldier. Like Schrader’s Taxi Driver (Schrader wrote the script for it – and Travis Bickle is a cab driver and ex-soldier), Light Sleeper (drug dealer) and First Reformed (preacher) — The Card Counter slowly unveils the scarred mind of his protagonist through voice over narration and sort of journal writing catharsis/confession (certainly this is Diary of a Country Priest). This is a story of sacrifice (Tye Sheridan is our Jodie Foster here), paying for your sins (even a sort of flagellation), and redemption.
- In the flashbacks of the prisons sequences in Abu Ghraib, Schrader and his cinematographer Alexander Dynanuse this superwide distinctly vulgar virtual reality lens to highlight the extremeness of this world- the heightening of the senses. This is a perfect marriage of style and content.
- Schrader deftly pulls the camera back through the interiors of Gordo’s (Willem Dafoe- a smaller role together but this is fourth archiveable film with Schrader) home as the audio of the climax carries on. This is such a better choice than showing the gruesome detail of the events.
- The final frame is a hold on two fingers of glass- hope for Isaac’s character- still a shot at redemption.
most underrated: With no TSPDT consensus list yet for 2021 the underrated and overrated categories will use the composite critics top ten lists from Metacritic as their barometer. https://www.metacritic.com/feature/film-critics-pick-10-best-movies-of-2021 . A Hero from Asghar Farhadi and Nightmare Alley from Guillermo del Toro are two of the best films of the year and both are left off the top 30 from the metacritic consensus completely. Woman in the Window is not on the level of Farhadi’s film by any stretch- but it is much better than the ridiculously low 41 on Metacritic as well if one wants to look outside of the top ten of the year for this category. Farhadi’s A Hero is a sublime companion to 2011’s A Separation– both with absolutely dazzling final sequences. Farhadi’s 2021 entry deepens and enrichens his 2011 film.
most overrated: The Power of the Dog, Drive My Car, Licorice Pizza are number one, two and three on the Metacritic consensus list. All three films are worthy films but are much quieter stylistically than the best films of 2021. All three fail to land as one of the best ten films of the year (at least upon first viewing). It is Drive My Car that is the the least cinematic of the three.
trends and notables:
- The pandemic still feels like a pervading story in 2021 even if the world of cinema returned to at least some semblance of normalcy (or the new normal). Long-awaited titles like No Time to Die and Dune finally arrived (and both are just awesome) after what seems like years of wait and anticipation.
- The theatrical experience is still in jeopardy and seems to have continued to shift towards the streaming trend. HBO/Warner Brothers had a simultaneous release for 2021 and other companies flirted with similar models and manipulated the (ever-shrinking) theatrical release window.
- 2021 overall is a superior year to 2020- without a doubt- but 2019, the last full year before the pandemic, it is not.
- The Paul Schrader renaissance (or should I say “resurrection”) is real. With 2017’s First Reformed and now 2021’s The Card Counter, Schrader is riding a career peak in his 70s. Few auteurs have shifted the titanic plates of their legacy such as Schrader. George Miller with Fury Road comes to mind– Eastwood maybe.
- Denis Villeneuve’s dream project came true and Dune was a rousing artistic success. This marks Villeneuve’s fourth top ten film of the year.
- By 2022 we are now nearly a decade into the trend of shifting aspect ratios and this is not slowing down. Ida was 2013, The Grand Budapest Hotel and Mommy were 2014. But now in 2022 it feels like every film has a blank slate at which to choose from. Historically, this is just now how cinema was delivered. For the longest time there was the standard aspect ratio (also known as 1.33:1 or fullscreen) and then it went wider- but really here starting in the 2010s and beyond is the first time the vast vast majority of these choices were not dictated by the time in which the film was made, or how much budget the film had.
- Spider-Man: No Way Home was an unbridled box office success- it more than doubled the next closest film at the theater. But again, 2022 is an era where the streaming numbers tell a big part of the story now as well.
- The French Dispatch makes for the seventh (7th) top ten film of the year for Wes Anderson with no sign of slowing down or stopping.
- The influence of Alfonso Cuaron’s Roma continues to be felt years later. In 2019 Tarantino described Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood as his Roma. Here in 2021 Paolo Sorrentino claims Cuaron’s film influenced him and undoubtedly Belfast falls into the same category.
- 2021 marks the breakout year for auteur David Lowry. The best films of the year were made by familiar faces at this point: Paul Schrader, Denis Villeneuve, Wes Anderson and Barry Jenkins. Each director has multiple top ten of the year films prior to 201- the one outlier is David Lowry.
- The Underground Railroad makes three straight films for Barry Jenkins going back to Moonlight in 2016 to make the top ten of their respective year.
- Chilean auteur Pablo Larraín doubles down on his passion- making films about the wives of royalty (2016’s Jackie– about Jacqueline Kennedy Onassi) with 2021’s Spencer.
gems I want to spotlight: There are a pair of 2021 director debuts that did not quite land in the top ten that are worth making a special point to seek out. Azor is the debut film from Andreas Fontana. A private banker from Switzerland travels to Argentina to replace his partner (who is never shown during the film) during a period of political unrest. This plays out like a sort of wonderful, apocalyptic detective film. Passing marks the directorial debut for Rebecca Hall. Hall is a proven actor (Vicky Christina Barcelona, The Prestige, The Town) as well as apparently being a talented director. The film features fabulous period costume work (especially beautiful hats- BlacKkKlansman and No Sudden Move costume designer Marci Rodgers) and production detail. Bill Camp plays a sort of friend of Thompson’s character. Both Negga and Thompson lead the way as far as acting (both superb here)- but I also admire the work ethic of Bill Camp. He is good in every film he is in, and this is his tenth (10th) archiveable film in the last ten years dating back to Lincoln in 2012. Like many actors turned directors there is a generous focus on the performances here- but do not mistake Hall’s work for something as ordinary as say George Clooney’s work as a director. There is more to Hall’s ability here.
best performance male: There are three worthy mentions here in 2021 but only two actors really vying for the top slot. The top slot here is either Oscar Isaac or Timothée Chalamet. Dev Patel is the third slot- and he is tremendous in The Green Knight– but Patel does not have a second film like Isaac and Chalamet. The two single best performances of the year here in this category is Chalamet in Dune and Isaac in The Card Counter and both of them are very strong in support in two of the best films of the year as well (Chalamet in The French Dispatch and Isaac in Dune). If forced to pick just one, Isaac is the choice. Isaac plays William Tell. Isaac is magnificent in The Card Counter and after this, when you take into account Ethan Hawke’s achievement in First Reformed, I would have to imagine actors are lining up to play the protagonist in Schrader’s next work—whatever that may be. Isaac is in nearly every scene and never makes a false move. He is exacting–intense. Chalamet plays Paul Atreides’ in Dune. Chalamet proves himself a young actor more than up for the challenge of leading the way in a work as ambitious as Dune. The scene where Chalamet is getting tortured by Charlotte Ramplings’ character is just phenomenal acting.
best performance female: Spencer is also another feather in the cap for Kristen Stewart. Stewart, just over the age of thirty now, has put together a very decent resume that includes 2014’s Clouds of Sils Maria and Certain Women in 2016. Stewart has the best year for this category- but Rebecca Ferguson may give the best performance in this category on a per-minute basis in Dune and Thuso Mbedu needs some special recognition for the marathon of a performance in Jenkins’ The Underground Railroad.
- The Card Counter
- The French Dispatch
- The Green Knight
- The Underground Railroad
- A Hero
- Nightmare Alley
- The Hand of God
Archives, Directors, and Grades
|A Hero – Farhadi||HR|
|Azor – Fontana||R|
|Barb and Star Go to Vista Del Mar – Greenbaum||R|
|Belfast – Branagh||HR|
|Cruella – Gillespie||R|
|Don’t Look Up – McKay||R|
|Drive My Car – Hamaguchi||R|
|Judas and the Black Messiah – S. King||R|
|Licorice Pizza – P.T. Anderson||R/HR|
|Nightmare Alley – del Toro||HR|
|No Sudden Move – Soderbergh||R|
|No Time to Die- Fukunaga||R|
|Passing – Hall||R/HR|
|Pig – Sarnoski||R|
|Spencer – Larraín||HR/MS|
|The Card Counter – Schrader||MS|
|The Dig – S. Stone||R|
|The Fallout – M. Park||R|
|The French Dispatch – W. Anderson||MS|
|The Green Knight – Lowery||MS|
|The Hand of God – Sorrentino||HR|
|The Harder They Fall – Samuel||R|
|The Last Duel – R. Scott||R|
|The Lost Daughter – Gyllenhaal||R|
|The Power of the Dog – Campion||R/HR|
|The Suicide Squad – Gunn||R|
|The Tragedy of Macbeth – Coen||HR|
|The Underground Railroad – Jenkins||MS|
|The White Tiger – Bahrani||R|
|The Woman in the Window – J. Wright||R|
|tick, tick… BOOM! – Miranda||R|
|Titane – Ducournau||R|
|What Do We See When We Look at the Sky? – Koberidze||R|
|Wild Indian – Corbine Jr.||R|
*MP is Masterpiece- top 1-3 quality of the year film
MS is Must-See- top 5-6 quality of the year film
HR is Highly Recommend- top 10 quality of the year film
R is Recommend- outside the top 10 of the year quality film but still in the archives