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2021: The Masterpieces

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.

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