|Adrien Brody, center, joins a stellar cast in Wes Anderson's film The French Dispatch|
Last year at this time, I expressed concern that the pandemic would impact film production in such a way as to give us a weak crop of movies in 2021. Turns out, my fears were unfounded. Indeed, 2021 was a really solid year for the movies, as evidenced by the current Oscar races.
Not that the Academy has gotten it right (do they ever?), but its picks for Best Picture consideration are (mostly) quite worthy of the attention they're getting, and the nominees in the major acting categories include performances from a large range of films not in the Best Picture race, broadening the Academy Awards' coveted exposure for those performers and their latest films.
I've seen seven of the ten Best Picture nominees, with hopes to watch two of the remaining three: CODA, which I am hampered from seeing by my lack of Apple access, and Don't Look Up, which I intend to catch via one or another friend's Netflix account (I'm skipping West Side Story, because I'm not much of a Spielberg fan, and I wonder why anyone thought a remake of that classic was even a good idea).
|Benedict Cumberbatch is a strong Oscar contender|
for his performance in The Power of the Dog
Of the others, a couple clearly fall short, a couple truly belong at the top, and the rest are worthy also-rans. But my pick for the best movie of the year, The French Dispatch
, got no nominations at all, which is completely insane (and I'm not alone in this thought - see Richard Brody
's commentary, in which he argues it should have won
eight Oscars). But, hey, film is a popular art medium, and we're all entitled to our opinions. What's important is that we see the movies and enjoy them, and that we dare to have opinions of our own. To wit, here's my lineup of the films from 2021 that I've seen and enjoyed the most, starting with my top pick:
- The French Dispatch - Usually, when a movie includes more than one or two Oscar-winning actors, you can bet it will be a bomb. This one, directed by the incredibly creative Wes Anderson, has half a dozen, along with several others who've been nominated multiple times without winning - yet it somehow balances all that talent into a hilariously raucous, uniquely bizarre homage to/satire of The New Yorker magazine. I can't wait to see it again.
Drive My Car - Well received, and deservedly so, this Japanese masterpiece simmers for a full three hours, but never flags. Despite its foreign pedigree (and the inclusion of - count 'em - eight different languages), this film is a true contender for Best Picture and (I assume) a lock for Best International Feature. Proof that you can still succeed in this business without CGI, pyrotechnics, bankable stars, etc., Drive My Car sets a new standard for art-house filmmaking.
|Penelope Cruz in Parallel Mothers:|
Still mesmerizing after all these years
- Parallel Mothers - The latest collaboration between director Pedro Almodóvar and his top muse, Penelope Cruz, it tells the story of the titular mothers brought together by cruel chance, but also beautifully threads together parallel stories of historical significance in post-Franco Spain. Featuring Almodóvar's usual droll humor and high style, Parallel Mothers produced a Best Actress nomination for Cruz but, inexplicably, no International Feature nod for the film itself.
- Wife of a Spy - Technically a 2020 release, this film never made it to local theaters, but I was delighted to watch it twice via a reasonably priced Kino Lorber streaming rental. A beautifully filmed and sensitively acted story that offers a unique perspective on the early years of WWII in the Japanese city of Kobe. Won best director prize at Venice in 2020.
- The Hand of God - The Italian director Paolo Sorrentino won the 2013 Best Foreign Film Oscar for The Great Beauty, his brilliant homage to Rome and lost love, and his latest film, also nominated in that (recently renamed) category is a worthy bookend, this time taking a look at Naples. For me, it falls short of The Great Beauty as a work of art, but it holds together better as a story, which weaves soccer fans' fervent worship of Diego Maradona into Sorrentino's own coming-of-age. If you loved Cinema Paradiso, or anything by Fellini, this film is for you.
- The Power of the Dog - Considered a front-runner for Best Picture (along with CODA), Jane Campion's elegiac Western is so beautifully photographed that it can be easy to forget how grim it actually is. Outstanding ensemble performances hold up a relatively thin storyline, which is understandable given that it's based on a text from the 1960s. Compare it to Brokeback Mountain or There Will be Blood to understand why I didn't rate it higher.
|Newcomers Alanna Haim and Cooper|
Hoffman are both terrific in Licorice Pizza
- Licorice Pizza - Yet another off-the-wall romp by a director named Anderson (this time, it's Paul Thomas, rather than Wes), this totally enjoyable movie makes about as much sense as its title (which refers to a well-known record store, but is never explained in the film). Just plain fun, with solid lead actors and a bunch of whacked-out cameos, particularly Bradley Cooper as a psychotic Jon Peters.
- Belfast - Gorgeous black-and-white cinematography and equally gorgeous stars make this film almost irresistible, while at the same time running counter to its disturbing Irish troubles storyline. The disconnect can be explained by the fact that Belfast is director Kenneth Branagh's personal memoir, but it's still perplexing. That said, I'm a photography junkie, and I really enjoyed the film.
- King Richard - This movie got somewhat mixed reviews, understandably so, because it makes Richard Williams look like a better man than he really was, thanks to a remarkable and Oscar-worthy performance by Will Smith. Flipping the script on my basis for a decent drama (a good story, well-told), this great story, fairly well-told, remains astonishing even though we witnessed it in real life. I still shake my head in wonder at the mere fact of the Williams sisters and their visionary father.
- The Card Counter - A taut thriller that features a career performance by Oscar Isaac as a professional gambler with severe PTSD from having served in the prison at Abu Ghraib. Also features a strong performance by one of my all-time favorites, Willem Dafoe. Overlooked by the Academy, but well worth viewing.
- Hive and Dreamland - Two honorable mentions: The first is a rare feature out of Albania, which realistically portrays the true story of a group of war widows who overcome extreme patriarchy to develop a successful international condiments trade; and the second is a Bonnie and Clyde-style period piece directed by Miles Joris-Peyrafitte, a son of Albany who appears to have a very promising future in the business. Both are available on DVD.
- Just one more: For pure fun (and nostalgia if you're a late Boomer or early Gen-Xer), smoke a little weed and watch Ghostbusters: Afterlife. Jason Reitman updates dad Ivan Reitman's 1984 classic with a terrific young cast and lots of vintage special effects that I promise you will find hugely entertaining. Available on DVD.
|Hidetoshi Nishijima and Toko Miura star in Ryusuke Hamaguchi's Drive My Car|
Well, I agree with you about Parallel Mothers, Drive My Car, French Dispatch and Belfast. For some reason Licorice Pizza left me coldReplyDelete