Seth’s Favorite Films of 2021

Nightmare Alley (dir. Guillermo del Toro)

From my review: We get a darkly complex story about the unnoticed rise of fascism and how humanity is composed of abused & downtrodden people who take advantage of each other. This story will not deliver a fairy tale ending and features characters you will have a deeply hard time liking. Such a shift by del Toro, a director who has spent his career delving into worlds of magic, is pretty jarring. The only figure who deserves an ounce of empathy in the picture is the poor geek, forced to bite the heads off chickens while living in an opium/alcohol-induced squalor. Even Molly is guilty of running a con; she just doesn’t want to go as far as Stanton is willing to reach.

The Suicide Squad (dir. James Gunn)

I did not expect to enjoy this second Suicide Squad movie as much as I did or ever think it would end up as one of my favorite films of 2021. But, here we are. James Gunn came on the scene and course-corrected the previous misstep of a picture by making it a gory, hilarious, romp. He accomplishes this by playing a magnificent balancing act between highlighting the absurdity of the superhero genre and showing how much he loves these misfits. Stands out in the cast are of course Margot Robbie, who is simply born to play Harley Quinn and finally gets to bite into the role in a way that isn’t oversexed and objectified. Then there’s David Dastmalchian as The Polka Dot Man, a character that dwells deep in obscure DC lore but is presented here as one of the most multi-dimensional figures in the recent Warner films. Here’s hoping the studio makes note of the critical acclaim and audience love for this sort of movie and emulates it in their upcoming pictures.

Don’t Look Up (dir. Adam McKay)

From my review: This is an incredibly blunt satirical comedy. Its metaphors are self-explanatory ones, and that may seem like sloppy writing, but I argue that for the current state of American thinking, you cannot be subtle when it comes to matters of planetary survival. I’m an American, and I fully admit the country is overflowing with people either willfully putting their fingers in their ears, closing their eyes, yelling, “Lalalala, I can’t hear you.” Others doping themselves into mental oblivion with as many consumer distractions as they can afford or at least go into massive debt. The movie’s message is not a comfortable one to tackle, and it makes sense that viewers would have a visceral reaction after seeing it. If your response is to say McKay is a lousy director because there were characters you found unlikable in the movie or that it was too on the nose (both recurring arguments I have seen online from both professional critics and ‘regular people’), then you are stubbornly refusing to engage with the film.

The Killing of Two Lovers (dir. Robert Machoian)

From my review: The sound design is immaculate, mixing unsettling ambient tones with the sounds of David’s door closing or the hammer of a gun cocking. It’s essential to consider when the movie applies this unnerving score because we are hearing in the final seemingly “happy” ending. That indicator told me that the audience should begin questioning just how good it was that things turned out this way. It’s the music we hear when David is most lost in his emotions and anger, but we’re seeing it juxtaposed with a moment of seeming domestic calm. My read is that the tension is boiling again, cycles are being repeated, more frustration and sadness are on the way.

Come True (dir. Anthony Scott Burns)

From my review: It’s also clear that Burns is a big fan of David Cronenberg. Both filmmakers are Canadians, and Burns’ story concerns experimental technology and questions about human consciousness, both significant elements in Cronenberg’s filmography. There is certainly not the level of gory body horror present in the older director’s movies; Burns opts for unsettling mood-building. Even the dreamscapes we glimpse throughout the film are more eerie than overtly horrific. The most intense scene we get happens around midway through the movie when a character sees a strange multi-legged being in a dream. There’s also heaps of ambiguity here, which will turn some viewers off, but I loved it. I don’t always think leaving things open to interpretation is the right call; it depends on the type of film or story you’re telling. For a narrative deeply entrenched in dream logic, it works perfectly.

Pig (dir. Michael Sarnoski)

From my review: If this had been a film solely focused on Cage’s character, then I don’t think it would have worked quite as well, so Amir’s presence is much needed to provide a balance. Rob’s history reveals him as someone of extraordinary talent who pushed all that aside when he suffered significant loss long ago. There’s a sense that a genius was squandered over his decision, yet his skills are his, and only he can determine when & how they are used. Amir, on the other hand, is not an exceptional person. He is constantly listening to audio lessons about classical music, where a narrator talks over the pieces and explains why they are extraordinary. Amir exists in a world where he doesn’t experience things and feels their greatness; he understands them as having value because of the status they imbue on him. By the end of the film, these conceits are shaken off, and he finds himself connected with Rob in a more profound way than he has with anyone since his mother.

Nomadland (dir. Chloe Zhao)

From my review: Chloe Zhao is a filmmaker with profound empathy and the ability to accentuate the natural beauty of landscapes others might see as bleak and barren. In both this picture and The Rider, she makes the setting feel almost magical. Additionally, her use of real people who live this life helps bring the audience into the lifestyle. Everyone, except Fern and David, are real people engaged in a nomad lifestyle, and Zhao gives space for them to talk and share their stories. Zhao isn’t interested in being bombastic or melodramatic; she plans out her shots for the most significant impact but doesn’t bog her films down with unnecessary exposition.

Rose Plays Julie (dir. Joe Lawlor and Christine Molloy)

From my review: Rose Plays Julie is the best film I’ve seen to come out of the shift in culture due to victims of sexual assault coming forward. There’s an urge to lean into shallow girl power in America rather than tackle the issue’s complexity. Show women being empowered but don’t hide vulnerability in the shadows. The notion that victims should be shown getting bloody revenge is essentially an offshoot of toxic masculinity. There is a certain carnal satisfaction to revenge movies, but I think we must also face the sobering reality everyone has to come back to. The performances in the film are of such a high caliber, with Orla Brady being the personal standout for me. Approach this picture with caution if you feel like the subject matter is too much for you, but I highly recommend Rose Plays Julie as a brilliant examination of the wounds that don’t always heal.

Shiva Baby (dir. Emma Seligman)

From my review:  A heap of praise should be given to Rachel Sennott for her performance as Danielle. She can convey so much wordlessly, reacting to moments, revealing simmering stress underneath the surface. It makes her moments of outburst, whether they are in solitude or in front of another person, all the more cathartic. There is a rhythm to the plot and interactions that reminds me of really tightly constructed horror films or something like P.T. Anderson’s Magnolia. The film has movements that build and then break to allow the audience and Danielle a moment to breathe. There is even a long game played with Danielle’s cell phone that goes missing early on and returns right as the second act concludes. It is, in my opinion, the most intense of all the moments.

C’mon C’mon (dir. Mike Mills)

From my review: The choice to film in black and white is also more than just an aesthetic decision. Jesse becomes worried that this vital time he spent with his uncle will be forgotten as he gets older. That’s the brutal truth of life; the further we get from any time in our life, the more it blurs with our past. When it comes to trauma, that can be a gift, softening our memories. However, when you are in a moment that you can feel is shaping you, that makes you a new person when you pass through it; you want to preserve it in amber. Black and white have become associated with the past and memory in our culture, so we can view C’mon C’mon as a memory being made in front of us. As the world becomes more troubled, distances grow due to a myriad of circumstances, Mills reminds us how important it is to preserve those sacred memories so that we can return to them when our souls need them.

The Card Counter (dir. Paul Schrader)

From my review: At the core of The Card Counter is an extremely moral tale. Bill does not see himself as better than the man who caused him to end up in prison. He’s fully aware he chose to participate in the violence in Iraq; Gordo just spurred him on and refined the methods. The line for Bill is in what happens to Cirk, who plays the Jodie Foster-adjacent role, an innocent who doesn’t really want to listen to our protagonist. Cirk’s story goes down some very different routes, though, and is the catalyst for the movie’s off-screen bout of violence. Unlike Bickle, Bill does find peace at the end of the film. He knows himself better than the Taxi Driver protagonist was ever able to do, so Bill can come to terms with who he is and how he can live in the world. It may not be the way you or I would choose, but Bill knows this is best for him.

The Power of the Dog (dir. Jane Campion)

From my review: Campion has delivered a story that blends tension & sensuality so masterfully. From the opening, you feel your hands gripping the arms of your chair, the anger roiling inside Phil ever-present. He seems to get momentary glee from tormenting the people he believes are trespassing on sacred ground. But in private, he’s an extremely different person, deeply vulnerable, terrified of someone seeing him in this state. You would not be blamed for feeling adrift in the first act; this movie is taking its time. By the end, you’ll reflect on that opening piece as essential to the overall story. We must have these tiny moments with characters before the film’s central conflict overtakes the screen. Thus when the ultimate tragedy occurs, and the full depth of how far people will go to protect another is revealed, you’ll be left stunned. This is a movie about people protecting other people and how far they will go to do it.

Parallel Mothers (dir. Pedro Almodovar)

From my full review: There is no other film in 2021 that is as visually rich as this one. Almodovar has completely mastered the art of lighting in cinema to the point that his nighttime shots take on the elements of moving oil paintings. I was floored by how elegant and gorgeous every shot looked. He’s somehow imbued live-action with a sheen of the uncanny and has put pretty much every slickly-produced Hollywood blockbuster to absolute shame. His sex scenes are impeccable, and he adores his leading ladies, making sure they give some of the best shots you could imagine, even in the most mundane of settings.

The French Dispatch (dir. Wes Anderson)

From my review: I was delighted at how much of the film was shot in black and white, a first for Anderson, who typically goes for pastels. I could also see how he incorporated techniques from his stop motion work into his live-action films. Both Moonrise Kingdom and The Grand Budapest Hotel had these elements present, but Anderson seems to have mastered them here in The French Dispatch. This final story feels like a beautiful European comic brought to life, shades of Tin Tin. As someone who has felt like my patience with Anderson had waned, I am re-energized about his work. I’d like to see him keep pushing like this in his upcoming work and maybe explore some styles & techniques he hasn’t incorporated before. With the wild array of genres present here, I’d love to see him tackle a type of movie he hasn’t embraced before.

Quo Vadis, Aida? (dir. Jasmila Žbanić)

From my review: The film’s genius moment is really in the third act when we get a short glimpse of Aida in the present day. She’s a schoolteacher again, someone else lives in her family’s apartment now (claimed by the Serbs when they marched into town), and she even oversees a pageant where the children of war criminals perform. There are regular viewings of remains found in unmarked burial sights, and we get the sense these are weekly stops for her. She walks past the partial skeletons and scraps of clothes laid out with a complete disconnect in her face. And then she sees Nihad, then one of her sons, then the other, and she’s broken, taken back to that day when she saw them being forced onto buses and driven away forever.

The Green Knight (dir. David Lowry)

Writer/director David Lowry is a hard filmmaker to pin down. A look over his six films shows quite the variety, from a contemplative love story to a Disney remake to a surreal ghost story. The Green Knight is his most ambitious work to date and shows he’s growing in some unexpected directions. Lowrey takes the classic Arthurian legend and repurposes it into an examination of growing older, accepting responsibility, and facing consequences. All of these themes are couched in a very different take on the medieval world, a place that feels haunted by magic and where the boundaries of reality are stretched. The story is deconstructed while still feeling very loyal to the original plot, showing how the world is far larger and more complex than you may imagine. Lowry’s next is set to be Peter and Wendy, a retelling of Peter Pan and if he brings this very distinct style to the project I think we’re in for something special.

Zola (dir. Janicza Bravo)

Capturing the internet in movies has been a challenge since the world wide web first became a household utility. No film has really captured it yet and then Zola comes along and shows exactly how it should be done. Janicza Bravo has been on my radar for awhile since her short film Gregory Go Boom and feature debut Lemon. She’s a Black artist who does such a perfect job of capturing the ongoing decay and anxiety that makes up almost every second of life in the United States, yet does it with the driest sense of humor that it’s no wonder many audiences get turned off. Zola is a story about what the real American Dream is now, short term hustling forever. The characters here are richly developed and feel way too real, playing exaggerated roles because isn’t that what life has become at this point? Bravo captures just how seductive the internet can be and easily people get taken advantage of by it, only to come back and ask for more.

Licorice Pizza (dir. Paul Thomas Anderson)

From my review: The two leading performers need a massive standing ovation here. Cooper Hoffman, son of the late Phillip Seymour Hoffman, was an element I was concerned with. I worried that his casting might be more out of sadness about his father’s passing, a good friend & collaborator of P.T. ‘s, but those fears were unfounded. He is a fantastic actor with excellent comedic timing. Cooper convinced me of Gary’s full-throated confidence from scene one, and I’m really looking forward to seeing him in other roles to showcase his range. However, the biggest standout for me was Alana Haim. Holy shit, she is good! If you had to say who the main character of the film was, I’d say it was her, we get more time hearing about her insights than Gary’s, and ultimately that makes it her story. Haim captures that quarter-life crisis mentality so well, that bridge between callow youth and the responsibility of adulthood. You know exactly why she loves running around the Valley with Gary and his pals. But you also understand why she needs to do something meaningful, which becomes politics for her in the film’s final act. I want more Alana Haim in more movies right now. She is absolutely charming and needs to keep acting.

Drive My Car (dir. Ryusuke Hamaguchi)

From my review: Drive My Car is mainly about the interior life of humans, how the circumstances of our lives, especially the painful ones, are so hard to communicate with another. There’s an examination of how people cope, in this instance, closing themselves off and passive-aggressively lashing out. Yūsuke intentionally casts Koji in a role he did not audition for, making the young man the titular Uncle Vanya. This changes the dynamics of the actors and the production. It’s clear Yūsuke is doing this out of spite, but even he is unsure where he wants to go with it. He just wanted to spoil Koji’s expectations. The film isn’t so simple as to frame Oto or Koji as villains. By the end of the picture, it is hard to be mad at anyone. Life is so confusing and challenging that it’s hard to begrudge anyone. We’re all suffering in our own ways.

Titane (dir. Julia Ducournau)

From my review: Titane is a film overflowing with love while also being transgressive and violent. Alexia has a contentious relationship with her family from the first scene of the movie. It’s clear that love is absent in her home from an early age, and we are left wondering what caused this. Vincent is a person who is dying because he cannot love the person he lost. Yet, out of all this pain and suffering comes the message of how vital tenderness is between people. The film’s lighting is harsh; there is repeated imagery of chrome & steel, all very cold things that add to the atmosphere. Ducournau fills us with this sense of neutral distance only to shatter it all in the third act and reveal a moment that is equal parts horror and something beautiful & heartbreaking.

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