THE YEAR’S BEST MOVIES
By John H. Foote
Movies returned with a thundering triumph this year, exploding back on big screens.
As we all slowly, hopefully, leave our basements and adjust our eyes to daylight, movie making and theatres are beginning to make a comeback, inching their way back to where once they ruled. Nothing will ever be the same, because when cinemas shut down, streaming ruled and the studios jumped into the streaming game. But though the landscape has changed, movies are returning. Audiences are going back into theatres and the warm hug of the big screen.
They are seeing films such as Kenneth Branagh’s sentimental delight Belfast, Ridley Scott’s House of Gucci, and sadly his failure, The Last Duel (a magnificent film that failed at the box office but is getting noticed in the streaming world), and best of all, the biggest movie of the year and the finest, Steven Spielberg’s long-awaited remake of West Side Story. Everything a film should be, West Side Story has enchanted even the crankiest of film critics with its shimmering vibrance, superb acting and direction and that iconic music, an absolute delight in every way.
The film is so great that one week after being screened, it became the frontrunner for the Academy Awards as Best Picture and Best Director. The naysayers who wondered why we would remake a classic have been hushed. Spielberg has made it better. The original West Side Story was not without its problems, chiefly the performances, which did not all work. They do in the remake, every single one of them. Somehow Spielberg found a way to make the film darker, deeper, more urgent than it ever was. And why not a new version — it has been exactly 60 years since the first! Onstage, we get new versions of West Side Story every year. In 2010, I took my wife and kids to see the acclaimed new version of the musical on Broadway, only to be tragically disappointed. There is nothing disappointing in the remake, it is a masterpiece and soars to greater heights than the first, to become one of the greatest screen musicals of all time.
Netflix continues to create outstanding films that will once again challenge for the Academy Award. The Power of the Dog, tick, tick … BOOM! and Don’t Look Up are superb films, remarkable in their bold, raw power and each seems headed for the Oscar race in various categories.
2021 was a GREAT year at the movies and choosing the 10 best was tough, which is why I will include some runners up. And I must mention that the box office failure of West Side Story seems a fact. Who cares! Great movies have been failing since the beginning of the art form. Films such as The Wizard of Oz (1939), Citizen Kane (1941), The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948), Raging Bull (1980), Reds (1981) and The Right Stuff (1983) are just a few genuine masterpieces that failed upon release. The new West Side Story is in very good company, and I suspect its failure has more to do with countless community theatre versions, high school musicals and so many remounts for Broadway that have simply taxed audience appetite for the show. Future generations will find it and celebrate it as they should, making it as timeless as the original.
And yes, in three days, the new Spider-Man film made nearly one billion dollars worldwide.
Ouch. What is that saying about the future of film?
As for the year’s best, here we go.
1. WEST SIDE STORY
Not only the finest film of the year, one of the greatest screen musicals ever made. A bold, energetic masterpiece that captures the spirit of the original Broadway play and improves on the film version in every way. It moves, it sings, and the actors are simply astounding, especially Rachel Zegler as a radiant Maria. In a superb supporting performance seething with rage is Mike Faist as Riff, an electrifying performance and he steals every moment he is onscreen. Ansel Elgort finally delivers on his promise with a fine performance as Tony, and the superb Ariana DeBose is astounding as Anita. David Alvarez brings depth to Bernardo that I had not seen before. It is such a complete, perfect ensemble of young actors. Spielberg clearly had a vision that his young artists believed in. Working from a reworked screenplay by Tony Kushner, the film is the finest work of the director and writer together. Not only the best film of the year, one of the greatest musicals ever made and far surpasses the original. Oscar awaits.
2. LICORICE PIZZA
Paul Thomas Anderson takes audiences on a dizzying ride through the 70s, creating a love story (sort of) that has rankled some viewers. One of the greatest directors of the last 20 years of American cinema, Anderson has given us such masterpieces as Boogie Nights (1997), the bold extraordinary Magnolia (1999), There Will Be Blood (2007), The Master (2012) and Phantom Thread (2017), establishing himself as one of the great directors of our time. This offbeat love story might cross a line or two, I personally do not care, it replicates life and life happens. Gary (Cooper Hoffman) is a young actor who has done well in 70s film and TV, and is smitten by the older Alana (Alana Haim) who moves in and out of his life, knowing they are connected as soul mates, but concerned about the age difference. She is 25, he is 15. Bradley Cooper is astounding as producer Jon Peters, hyped up on fame and his own massive ego. Hoffman, the son of Oscar winner Phillip Seymour Hoffman, is a wonderful actor and very good but the film belongs to Alana Haim, who is luminous as Alana. A superb piece of filmmaking from one of the very best in modern movies.
Kenneth Branagh’s valentine to his youth, to the days growing up in Belfast at the height of battles between the Catholics and Protestants, when those fights came to your streets. What was once idyllic suddenly becomes torn apart with car bombs and gunfire, threatening the lives of the people living there. Buddy (Jude Hill) is the boy through whose eyes we see the events of 1969 transpiring as tensions between the two religious groups overheat. His parents, his father in particular, wants to get his family out of Ireland, but knows his wife’s roots run deep, and the grandparents have a huge part in their lives. Ciarán Hinds and Judi Dench are Oscar bait as the two loving grandparents, while Jamie Dornan and Caitriona Balfe are splendid as the parents of Buddy. And young Hill is miraculous as the little boy watching his world come apart but knowing he has to live through it. Photographed in beautiful black and white, it shimmers with warmth and a deep love of family.
4. NIGHTMARE ALLEY
Set in the world of carnival folk, this haunting noir is the first film for Guillermo del Toro since his Oscar winning The Shape of Water (2017) and I daresay he will be back in the Oscar race. Superbly designed and shot, the film pulls you into its world slowly, the characters taking over as the film envelops you with its darkness. Del Toro creates a universe within his films, and we fall into it effortlessly, without hesitation. His stunning The Shape of Water remains one of the greatest, most daring films of the last 20 years. Nightmare Alley is rather remarkable and frightening for the insidious characters inhabiting the story, and the director does a marvelous job of building the sense of dread and tension. Bradley Cooper does perhaps the finest work of his career, and Cate Blanchett is astounding. This lady just continues to surprise. Rooney Mara was superb, and the underappreciated Toni Collette is a wonder in her part. Richard Jenkins is terrific as a character unlike anything he has before portrayed and should land himself in the Oscar race. Finally, Willem Dafoe as the carny barker? Perfection. Not since Freaks (1932) has there been such a great behind-the-madness film about carny folk. A dark, unsettling masterpiece from one of the most imaginative directors at work today.
5. THE POWER OF THE DOG
A western set in the 1920’s in Montana that twists and turns its way through the psyche on its way to a shocking ending. George (Jesse Plemons) is a decent and wealthy rancher who marries a single mother portrayed beautifully by Kirsten Dunst in the performance of her career. With her effeminate son Peter, she moves into the massive ranch house, much to the chagrin of Phil (Benedict Cumberbatch), seething with rage that his brother would marry. But as the film progresses, we watch Phil take the boy under his wing. Initially, he enjoys humiliating Peter at every turn, which the boy accepts without complaint. He listens attentively, missing nothing from the lessons Phil offers. Eventually, the younger man brilliantly turns it all against Phil in a manner no one would ever suspect. The film is a startling study of masculinity, power and decency gone horribly wrong, superbly directed by the great Jane Campion, making her finest film since The Piano (1993). Brilliant, unsettling performances from Cumberbatch, Dunst, and Smit-McPhee, all bound for Oscar nominations.
6. DON’T LOOK UP
Two scientists realize that a meteor is headed towards us, targeted to land and destroy planet Earth in six months. This brilliant black film from Adam McKay is a very funny, very dark comedy about the end of the world. No Bruce Willis (Armageddon) to save the day, no Robert Duvall (Deep Impact) to make sure life on earth continues, this is as black and as bleak as it can be. The two scientists try to warn everyone, but even the snotty, distracted US President, brilliantly portrayed by Meryl Streep, doesn’t seem to care. Streep is superb as a female version of Trump, reacting to the scientists with a smug look of superiority. Jonah Hill is excellent as her son and Chief of Staff. DiCaprio excels as the quiet genius who simmers and finally loses his cool over the lack of interest in his dire predictions. At one point he gives a speech to rival Peter Finch in Network (1976), reminding us of the great actor he truly is. The film is loaded with great actors, but Mark Rylance and Streep are the stand outs. The direction and screenplay are superb, and this is easily among the best black comedies ever put on film.
7. THE LAST DUEL
This film was a box office flop but deserved so much more. Superbly acted, directed, written and cut, it is a magnificent film on every level. Once again Ridley Scott plunges us into the world his characters inhabit, this time 1351, where Le Gris (Adam Driver) has been accused of raping a woman, played by the extraordinary Jodie Corner, the wife of his one-time friend, de Carrouges (Matt Damon). We are told three versions of the narrative, one from each of the leads, each a little different, the final one stated as being “the true story”. De Carrouges demands satisfaction in a duel to the death, but should he lose, his wife will be tortured and burned at the stake for her part in damaging the reputation of Le Gris. Damon is superb as the pompous, sanctimonious de Carrouges, a proud warrior for the smug King. Adam Driver is excellent as Le Gris, a horribly dark character, and Ben Affleck is an arrogant monster who befriends Le Gris. Best of all is Jodie Comer, who after being raped realizes all too well that this is a man’s world, and she is little more than property in this man’s world. A shocking urgent film, brilliant.
I have seen five stage productions of Cyrano de Bergerac and all but one of the films based on the 1897 play. The stage production, featuring a magnificent Heath Lamberts as the lethal swordsman with the large nose, was astonishing. The actor, a master of farce, was superb as Cyrano, bringing the longing and deep devotion he felt to Roxanne, his great heart near breaking. Gerard Depardieu earned an Oscar nomination in 1990 for his performance as the man. Steve Martin deserved one for his modern tale Roxanne (1987), and Jose Ferrer did win the Oscar for his performance in the 1950 film. But I say here and now, the finest Cyrano I have ever seen is Peter Dinklage in this new musical version Cyrano, directed by the gifted Joe Wright. Rather than the large nose, this Cyrano is a dwarf, thus his size if ridiculed until he draws his sword from its sheath, deadly in his hands. Dinklage, a multiple Emmy winner for his superb work on HBO’s Game of Thrones finds aspects of Cyrano I have not seen before, bringing to the character the startling depths of the man’s soul. Watch the gentle smile when he is told by the ravishing Roxanne (Haley Bennett) she has memorized every letter she believes written by her love but is in fact from the hand of Cyrano. The songs work, never intruding on the narrative, the direction is sublime, but the beating heart and soul is Dinklage. Count on him being a nominee for Best Actor, or they could just give it to him now.
The heartbreaking, deeply emotional story of a man and his pig. Nicolas Cage, perhaps the most fearless working actor today is astounding as a former famous chef who retreated from society into the forest where he and his pig forage for truffles which they sell to make a living. He wants nothing to do with society, but when his run-down shack is broken into and his precious pig stolen, he goes on the hunt to bring his pet, his partner home. Not since he won the Academy Award for Leaving Las Vegas (1995) has the brilliance of Cage as an actor shone so brightly from the screen, he is utterly fantastic in the film. The narrative is deceptively simple, exploring the past of the character and showing to the audience why he dropped out of society. The film was released in the spring and might not have the legs to remain in the minds of Oscar voters, but it deserves to be a nominee for Best Actor. Cage is miraculous.
10. HOUSE OF GUCCI
Based on a true story, Ridley Scott’s second great film this year is a glimpse behind the scenes of the obscenely wealthy and sort of famous, the Gucci family in Italy. The film is like reading a “National Enquirer” article, full of gloss and sheen but then takes a deep nosedive into the characters. Lady Gaga owns the film as the wife of Maurizio (Adam Driver), who later engineers his murder, hiring hitmen to do the deed. Driver is outstanding as the young Gucci, but the film belongs to Gaga, who is nothing short of brilliant. Has there ever been a rock singer more born to be a movie star? Jared Leto is superb, Al Pacino solid, just a terrific, entertaining film.
Runners-Up: Get Back — The Green Knight, King Richard, Attica, Cruella
John H. Foote is a well-recognized Canadian film critic/historian who has been an active critic for 30 years. His deep love for the movies began at a very young age. He began his career as co-host of the popular TV show Reel to Real where he remained for nine years. While on TV he began dabbling in education, eventually ascending to Director of the Toronto Film School, where he also taught film history. After leaving the college to care for his wife, he returned to teaching at Humber College where he taught both Film History and Method Acting Theory. John has written two books: “Clint Eastwood – Evolution of a Filmmaker” and the upcoming “Spielberg – American Film Visionary”. He is currently working on two books, one about the films of the seventies and another on the films of Martin Scorsese. Through his career he has worked in TV, radio, print and the web. John has interviewed everyone in the industry (more than 300 interviews) except Jack Nicholson, he says sadly. Highlights include Martin Scorsese, Tom Cruise, Meryl Streep Robert Duvall, Jane Fonda, Francis Ford Coppola and Kathryn Bigelow.