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2021: The Masterpieces

Posted January 1, 2022 By Curiosity Inc.

I’ve long established that there is a difference between “the greatest” and “my favorite”. What’s the difference? It’s like this: Schindler’s List is a great film by any metric, but NOBODY is putting it on to wind down after a hard day.

This first year-end list for 2021 is dedicated to the year’s Masterpieces. These are the Oscar contenders, the critical darlings, the movies that film students of the future will write papers on. These are my picks for the greatest films of the year.

Best Musical

This was a year thoroughly dominated by musicals with a Hispanic/Latinx influence, most especially from Puerto Rico. And though West Side Story (2021) is absolutely a wonderful movie, I have a difficult time giving it the crown when it’s the only musical heavily influenced by Puerto Rico that didn’t actually have any Puerto Rican or even non-white filmmakers at the director/producer level. Which brings us to Lin-Manuel Miranda.

Encanto is a wonderful movie with the misfortune of an underwhelming soundrack, while Vivo had the opposite problem. That leaves In the Heights and tick, tick… BOOM!, the two other films that came to us from Lin-Manuel Miranda this past year. Because In the Heights was a sprawling movie, epic in scope, it inevitably had some uneven points even though it was an excellent film on balance. Compare that with tick, tick… BOOM!, which had a much tighter focus and tried to do fewer things, but excelled at each and every one and made some powerful thematic statements in the process.

It’s a tough call, and I’d say that In the Heights is probably the film most representative of movie musicals in 2021. But strictly in terms of quality, I’m siding with the leaner and meaner film. This one goes to tick, tick… BOOM!

Best Mindfuck

I feel like The Matrix Resurrections didn’t really blow minds, so much as cave them in with a sledgehammer. Elsewhere, Old did a masterful job of messing with the audience’s heads and forcing everyone out of their comfort zones, right up until it hopelessly botched the landing. Elsewhere, Synchronic offered a great many themes about nostalgia and living in the moment, but the film wasn’t nearly as off-the-wall batshit as the premise and creative team could’ve delivered. Then we’ve got Lamb, so laser-focused on disturbing the audience that it failed to make any kind of coherent point.

This one’s no contest. There’s simply no beating Titane for demented novelty and balls-to-the-wall insanity that will leave your shit absolutely fucked. Like only the best cinematic mindfucks can do, this is a movie that truly made me think even as I desperately wanted to throw up.

Best Animated Film

I’m truly disappointed that Earwig and the Witch was so underwhelming. Hell, it wasn’t even the best Studio Ghibli film released this year — they got thoroughly beaten at their own game by Pixar with Luca! Disney Animation also had a marvelous year with Raya and the Last Dragon and Encanto, both wonderful movies despite their glaring flaws.

We got quite a few great animated films this year, but my choice for the greatest is indisputably The Mitchells vs. the Machines, if only because the basic concept of a post-apocalyptic family comedy action film shouldn’t work anywhere near so well as this one does. It’s funny, it’s heartfelt, it’s ingenious, and it offers whip-smart social commentary on Big Tech like I didn’t think Hollywood was even capable of. Outstanding work.

Best Historical Fiction

I’m giving Cliff Walkers a mention here, even though it wasn’t actually based on real people or events, because it still deserves recognition as a solid espionage caper about an under-explored corner of WWII history. Elsewhere, we’ve got Spencer and The Dig, both serviceable if ultimately forgettable films based on true events. I’m sure some other critics would give this one to Judas and the Black Messiah — and with many good reasons, it’s an outstanding picture — but I still feel like the casting in that movie isn’t quite as strong as it should’ve been. Moreover, we’ve seen a great many films about 1960s America, but not so many about 14th century France.

So instead, this one goes to The Last Duel. The entire cast is aces, the triptych presentation is far more effective and compelling than it has any right to be, and the filmmakers are to be applauded for their use of a medieval French event to make such timely and hard-hitting statements about sexual assault and gender disparity in the modern day.

Best Crime Thriller

We’ve got no shortage of phenomenal candidates for this one. It speaks volumes that The White Tiger came out to staggering critical acclaim and a Best Adapted Screenplay nomination at the Oscars for 2020 (Don’t ask me how the hell it qualified, that film wasn’t shown anywhere until January 2021.), and it still got blown out of the water by all the amazing crime thrillers we got in the subsequent months.

I absolutely loved I Care a Lot for how angry it made me. The Card Counter had an extraordinary supporting cast, centered around what may be the greatest performance of Oscar Isaac’s career to date. Those Who Wish Me Dead was a tragically underrated thriller loaded with suspense and grit as the day is long. I would happily give this one to the innovative and hard-hitting The Harder They Fall, and the only reason I’m not is because such a progressive film should’ve known better than to fall back on the “damsel in distress” trope.

So instead, I’m giving this one to No Sudden Move, one of many 2021 films tragically buried under WB’s marketing incompetence. This one’s got an all-star cast, phenomenal direction under Steven Soderbergh, bottomless layers of socially relevant themes, and a labyrinthine plot laid out in such a way that the audience is made to feel smarter for following along. It’s a merciless potboiler par excellence, absolutely not to be missed.

Best Light Drama

Nomadland is an aimless and meandering film by nature, while The French Dispatch is broken into several pieces that never really mesh together into a coherent whole. In both cases, that’s part of the charm. And frankly, I’d much rather take either film than Belfast, which was impeccably made yet sadly unremarkable.

I was much more fond of C’mon C’mon, a film that brought an incisive kind of charm. We also got Lorelei, another delightful movie about critically flawed adults trying to anchor a fractured family and take care of deeply troubled children. In both cases, the movies work because they’re not afraid to show the characters as dysfunctional fuckups who are nonetheless making a sincere good-faith effort at bettering themselves.

But in all honesty, this award was always going to Moxie. Not only is this one of the greatest coming-of-age movies I’ve seen in recent memory, but it’s easily the most powerful work of feminist cinema that I’ve seen in a very long time. Every line of dialogue is a powerful statement about living and growing up in politically charged times, and every corner of the set has some joke or barb tucked in there. This film is absolutely merciless, totally uncompromising, diabolically smart, and wickedly funny. I could rave about this one all day.

Best Heavy Drama

I’m not entirely sure whether to classify @Zola and Pig as crime thrillers, but I’m putting them here instead because the films are far more notable for their exceptional character work than any ill-fated scheme. Contrast that with Concrete Cowboy, which might have made some powerful statements on race and economic disparity if the “coming-of-age” angle wasn’t so terribly broken. But then we’ve got Passing and Malcolm & Marie, both dynamite romantic dramas that made powerful statements on race, and with top-shelf performances to boot.

But this was always coming down to two movies: The Tragedy of Macbeth (2021) and The Green Knight. Both fantastic and creepy movies with non-white male leads in iconic tragic roles, adapting classic tales from antiquity in what is now the UK. Both masterfully crafted films worthy to be listed among the year’s best.

That said, “Macbeth” has already been done exceptionally well by countless others. Not many have ever tried adapting the tale of Sir Gawain, and it’s certain that nobody’s done it anywhere nearly as well. So if I can only pick one (and by my own made-up rules, I do), I’ll give the edge to The Green Knight.

Best Masterpiece

My choice for the year’s greatest film is a tough one. Sure, I’d be tempted to give this one to Dune (2021), The Tragedy of Macbeth (2021), or even Nightmare Alley. Any other critic might’ve given the top spot to any of those films, and with good reason. They’re all amazing. (Even if the “Dune” adaptation is still only half a movie.) But that’s not enough for this spot.

When I choose a film for “Best Masterpiece”, I’m not just looking for a film that’s merely good, or even great. I’m looking for a movie that advances the entire medium of cinema. Something so bold, so exceptional, so far beyond the boundaries that it might push filmmakers to go farther and encourage audiences to demand more. This is not a choice or a claim that I make lightly. And in this case, my choice is clear.

Nine Days is a staggering work of cinematic allegory from debut writer/director Edson Oda. As deeply moving as it is ingenious, this movie examines a wide variety of existential themes with boundless heart and intelligence, with innovative writing and incredible visual storytelling like precious few other filmmakers would ever dare to attempt. Oda shows an uncanny skill for breaking rules like an artist, because even if the world-building is flimsy and the internal logic makes no sense, this movie uses fully-realized characters, compelling performances, and a heartwrenching plot to make thematic statements guaranteed to stay with the audience for years to come.

This is a tragically underappreciated movie like no other, guaranteed to charm you into accepting the film on its own terms so it can blow your mind and change your life. Stay tuned for the Disappointments list, coming up tomorrow.

2021 in review (preface)

Posted January 1, 2022 By Curiosity Inc.

I need to ask a favor.

Over the next few days, you’re going to see a great many year-end articles listing the best/worst/whatever of the year. Untold millions of these lists are generated by umpteen critics, looking back at the movies, TV shows, books, songs, video games, and other media of the year previous. And at the end of these lists, it’s customary to leave a comment with anything that the author neglected to include or perhaps overlooked entirely.

Don’t do that. Please don’t. Not this year.

I beg of you all to remember that 2020 was the worst year in recorded history, the year in which everyone had to stay at home and deal with the double-whammy of a global pandemic and a presidential election. Entire industries were shut down, many businesses didn’t survive, and all we got were a couple thousand dollars from the government that did about as much good as a Post-It note on a bullet wound.

Cut to 2021. Though the pandemic still rages on (indeed, there were more COVID-related deaths in 2021 than in 2020, and by a wide margin), 2021 was the year in which vaccines and mask mandates meant that getting out of the house and into a theater was at least a semi-plausible notion. Thus the studios rushed out to release all the movies that had been sitting on their shelves for the past few years, all eager to make back the money they lost in 2020. And of course the streaming services (Netflix, Hulu, Amazon, etc.) were not about to give up any of the growth they made while everyone was stuck at home, so they likewise scrambled to push out all the content they could.

And remember, I’m just talking about the cinema side of things. Whether it was TV, video games, music, books, or whatever, you saw this exact same pattern everywhere. The dam had burst, and fucking EVERYONE was in a rush to try and cram two years’ worth of content into 12 months. And looking ahead into 2022, I’m seeing such long-delayed films as Jackass Forever and Top Gun: Maverick, signalling that we’ll be sorting through this backlog for months or maybe even years to come.

Seriously, folks, say a prayer for your favorite critics and reviewers. You can’t even begin to imagine how stressful it’s been to try and keep up with everything that came out this year while also leading some semblance of a happy and productive life, WHILE ALSO dealing with all the political and pandemic-related shit everyone else had to deal with all through 2021.

But at least we’re here. And for all the ways 2021 sucked, it was still a marked improvement over 2020. And in that spirit, let’s look ahead to my year-end lists.

For those just tuning in, my typical style is to write up three year-end lists in a kind of “awards” format, with movies grouped into “categories” and a “winner” selected from each one. (It’ll be more clear in context, I promise.) The categories are divided into three lists: The Masterpieces, the Disappointments, and the Wild Rides. Each list and category has its own parameters, but they all follow the same basic rules.

1. Only movies that I’ve seen and reviewed will be considered. I believe I’ve already said enough about this particular subject.

2a. Only movies released in 2021 will be considered. I know it feels like linear time stopped existing somewhere around March 2020 (one of many reasons why I didn’t write any year-end lists for 2020), but I have to draw the line somewhere.

2b. Festival premiere dates don’t count. Because movies have been known to change in post between festival screenings and public release, I don’t consider a movie to be truly completed while it’s on the festival circuit. I know Nomadland won Best Picture for 2020, but the film was only screened in festivals during 2020 and didn’t even see a limited release for common moviegoers until January 2021. So fuck you, AMPAS, it’s a 2021 film.

3. Only one award per film, and one award per category. I don’t want a situation in which one movie wins everything, and I don’t want to call any ties. That would be too easy, and frankly boring.

I’ll be kicking things off with the Masterpieces list tomorrow at the latest, so stay tuned!

The Tragedy of Macbeth (2021)

Posted January 1, 2022 By Curiosity Inc.

Among the many reasons why Shakespeare is probably the greatest playwright who’s ever written in the English language, the best of his works renew themselves with every telling. Every time I see “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”, it’s as funny as the first time. Every time I see “Romeo and Juliet”, it’s like watching a new generation of teenagers fall victim to the same old shit because we’re all too stubborn to learn any better.

And then there’s my personal favorite of Shakespeare’s tragedies, “Macbeth”. Such a primal and universal tale of hubris and unhinged ambition that it can (and has) been adapted into every setting and time period imaginable. With each new iteration, I’m dying to know whether the Scotsman and Lady Mac will be scrappy young up-and-comers flying too close to the sun, or older seasoned veterans taking what they feel they’ve long since earned. Will the witches be beautiful sirens luring Macbeth to his doom with seductive whispers of greater fortune, or will they be avatars of an older and greater power? How will Banquo’s ghost be presented? How will Birnam Wood come to Dunsinane this time?

Granted, I’m still nursing a grudge after getting burned by that incompetent, borderline-unwatchable 2015 take with Michael Fassbender. But this time, we’ve got a Coen Brother in the writing/directing seat, complete with wife Frances McDormand as Lady Mac and Denzel Washington himself as the Scotsman. These in addition to Brendan Gleeson as Duncan, Corey Hawkins as Macduff, and so many other wonderful actors in this remarkable cast.

(NOTE: To be clear, when I say that Joel Coen was the writer, I mean that he adapted Shakespeare’s text for the screen. The characters all speak with the original dialogue.)

In point of fact, Joel Coen and his brother have both made a solid name for themselves off their knack for supporting characters, and there are so many underrated and underappreciated characters in this text. To wit, the Porter is a comic relief character frequently cut for time, wholly absent from all the previous film adaptations that I’m aware of. But here, the Porter is played by Stephen freaking Root. Slam-dunk casting right there.

Couple all of this with a trailer that promised a Shakespearean tragedy in the style of Ingmar Bergman — again, under a cinematic grandmaster like Joel Coen — and I couldn’t help getting hyped. And whoo boy, does this film deliver.

Seriously, you’ve got one of the greatest living actors in Hollywood playing one of the greatest tragic characters in all of fiction. And he’s acting opposite goddamn Frances McDormand as Lady Macbeth. You could buy your ticket based on those two actors alone, and you would come away satisfied. I guarantee you that this casting is every bit as exquisite as it sounds.

Likewise, Brendan Gleeson came ready-made to play Duncan, ditto for Harry Melling as Malcolm. Corey Hawkins more than brings the fire as Macduff. Alex Hassell’s unique brand of unhinged crazy might’ve singlehandedly ruined the recent live-action “Cowboy Bebop” adaptation, but that same energy makes for the most memorable portrayal of Ross that I’ve ever seen.

In point of fact, Joel Coen’s trademark attention to the background characters pays massive dividends here. Who else would hire an actor of Ralph Ineson’s extraordinary screen presence to play the unnamed captain in the opening scene? This in addition to the aforementioned Porter, Lady Macduff and son (Moses Ingram and Ethan Hutchison, respectively), the two murderers (Scott Subiono and Brian Thompson), and so many other bit part characters from the text whose scenes and exchanges could have been (and typically are) cut. Yet the filmmakers have such an extraordinary knack for knowing exactly which lines to cut and how to emphasize which lines, such that everyone gets their moment to shine while keeping the runtime to a brisk 105 minutes.

To repeat: This movie adapts Macbeth — freaking Macbeth! — into a movie under two hours long, and the end result more than does justice to the original text. That in itself is an accomplishment.

Then we have the matter of the Witch, played by Kathryn Hunter. Yes, that’s Witch, singular. Instead of three witches, we get one witch with three voices, like a split-personality thing. Yet there are unsettling visuals just subtle enough to hint at something more supernatural going on. Couple that with Hunter’s raspy voice and inhuman mannerisms, and you’ve got a Witch who’s creepy as all fuck.

The only unfortunate weak link in the cast is Bertie Carvel in the role of Banquo. To be fair, Banquo has always been an awkward character in the play. On paper, he’s a character far more notable in death than in life, and it’s difficult finding someone who could make his own impression in the role without showing any discomfort playing second banana to Macbeth. (see also: Horatio of “Hamlet”) Alas, Carvel doesn’t manage that balance particularly well, though the inexplicably godawful eyebrows don’t exactly help.

Then we have the choices made in adaptation. Reframing the “dagger” as the handle to Duncan’s bedroom door was genius. Utilizing crows as a symbol of death, thus using a flying animal to bring some movement and action and scope to the banquet scene was utterly brilliant. I’m not even going to spoil how these filmmakers handled the “toil and trouble” scene, but their approach to the cauldron was truly inspired.

Macbeth demonstrates his own “charmed life” by standing unarmed against a soldier with a blade, and killing him. Total fucking badass. Granted, they botched the “thou wast born of woman” line, but still.

But of course the most prominent and crucial creative liberty taken here is in the black-and-white presentation. It works on so many levels. For one thing, the crisp contrast between black and white onscreen nicely demonstrates the black-and-white morality and binary logic of extremes that make this play such a tragedy. More importantly, the monochrome photography — bleaching all color out of the picture — pairs nicely with the no-frills costume design and the aggressively minimalist set design. If anything, it’s like the characters are dwarfed by the pillars and ramparts and flawlessly straight lines of Dunsinane.

It all adds up to a film that’s aggressively bleak in its presentation. The filmmakers have crafted a harsh and unforgiving world to place this story into, and the whole movie conveys a hostile kind of attitude toward its own characters. And that fits superbly well with the kind of foreboding dread and savage violence that marks the best productions of “Macbeth”.

Last but not least, the camerawork and editing are marvelous across the board. Every single frame of this picture is flawlessly composed and instantly striking. I must also give kudos for some ingenious scene transitions.

The best compliment I can give to The Tragedy of Macbeth (2021) is that I wish I’d had this picture when I was in high school. Every new cinematic adaptation of The Bard is destined to be some teenager’s first impression of Shakespeare’s work, and this is a damn fine movie to start with. With a cast of world-class actors under the direction of a cinematic grandmaster, every line of dialogue is expertly delivered and every last character — down to the lowliest chorus role — is brought to vivid life.

More importantly, the filmmakers were not afraid to make the movie genuinely creepy. From the supernatural aspects to the casual homicide, the filmmakers are abundantly clear in stating that nobody is safe and not even the King of Scotland is above the whims of fate. I might add that there were some truly ingenious decisions made in adapting the play and paring it down to under two hours (not to mention giving more detail to Macbeth’s arc of corruption and Lady Mac’s arc toward insanity), and stage productions everywhere would do well to crib from Joel Coen’s notes.

If you’re already a fan of Shakespeare, you’re going to love this. If you’re not a fan of Shakespeare, this might be the film to convert you. Don’t miss out.