If action-heavy blockbusters are all that’s keeping theaters on life support, it’s a good thing to also have art houses, video-on-demand, and streaming services providing access to well-made lower-profile dramas and comedies, whether studio fare, independent productions, or foreign films. And 2021 delivered. Here, in alphabetical order, is a list of my 10 favorite English-language narrative movies of the past year.
Evoking such memoir-infused child’s-eye-view movies as John Boorman’s Hope and Glory, screenwriter, director, and decorated actor Kenneth Branagh plumbs his youth in the strife-torn Northern Irish town of Belfast for this loving movie shot primarily in black and white. As the ages-old clash between Ireland’s Catholics and Protestants erupts in 9-year-old Buddy’s mixed neighborhood in the late 1960s, his parents, the rest of his family, and their friends in the community try to survive the conflict while shielding the children. Although we’ve seen its like before, Belfast is a well-crafted, history-minded peek at decent people confronting turmoil and bigotry.
Writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson frequently sets his movies on his home turf of Los Angeles. That holds true for Licorice Pizza, a jubilant period piece crossed with a coming-of-age flick that plays out in the Los Angeles-adjacent San Fernando Valley during the early 1970s. At its heart is the relationship that develops between Gary (Cooper Hoffman, son of the late Philip Seymour Hoffman), a precocious would-be entrepreneur in his mid-teens and Alana (Alana Haim, singer-guitarist of the pop-rock group Haim), a directionless young woman in her mid-20s who becomes the object of Gary’s ardor. Licorice Pizza is emotionally resonant, more than a little poignant, occasionally hilarious, and thoroughly fun to watch.
‘THE LOST DAUGHTER’
Olivia Colman — adept at anything from situation comedy to police procedurals to costume drama — delivers a rich, complex and heartbreaking turn as a middle-aged university professor who, while taking a solo holiday to Greece, becomes fixated on a mother and daughter staying at the same resort. This haunting psychological study about the emotional costs of motherhood, adapted from the novel by Elena Ferrante, is an assured and resonant first feature directed and written by actress Maggie Gyllenhaal. It features Jessie Buckley as the professor in her younger days as well as Dakota Johnson and Ed Harris in crucial supporting roles.
As gut-wrenching as drama can be, Mass is a four-person master class in acting and a timely discourse on the lingering costs of senseless violence in our society. Two sets of parents meet in a church conference room to get closure on a horrific incident that affected them all. Their conversation is brutal and tender, raw and heart-breaking, and totally riveting. The two couples are played by Jason Isaacs and Martha Plimpton and Reed Birney and Ann Dowd, and they all do peak work. Fran Kranz, pivoting from his career as a TV and movie actor, wrote and directed Mass, which has the capacity to break and rebuild anyone who watches it — and do so in a cleansing, regenerative way.
Almost defying classification, Nine Days is a quiet, lovely, and often dark fantasy that suggests a strange limbo where chosen adjudicators interview unborn souls in human form over the course of nine days to decide who is worthy of getting a life on Earth. Will, the celestial judge at the center of Nine Days, is conjured in brilliant fashion by Winston Duke, who gives the part the prickliness of a bureaucrat, the stern demeanor and dogged determination of a prosecuting attorney, and the sadness of someone who’s seen too much. With resonant emotional moments and metaphysical conjecture about how and why we lead our lives, Nine Days is an impressive debut effort from screenwriter-director Edson Oda.
For every handful of off-the-wall Nicolas Cage projects, there’s one that’s an exceptionally good movie, taking advantage of his trademark seething intensity. Pig presents Cage as a scraggly backwoods pariah whose only companion is the truffle pig he dotes on. The porker provides him with a living by digging up the choicest truffles in the forest, which then are sold to a rare foods distributor in nearby Portland. All is well until someone steals the pig and sends the hermit on a journey to find his porcine pal, revealing the truth about the man along the way. Part portrait of a recluse, part foodie movie, Pig is above all a showcase for Cage’s ability to fully embody an example of flawed humanity.
‘THE POWER OF THE DOG’
Benedict Cumberbatch is at the height of his powers as bitter, rugged cattle rancher Phil in a gloriously shot, boldly themed, beautifully paced drama from celebrated Aussie director Jane Campion. On the Montana frontier in 1925, Phil and his soft-hearted brother George (Jesse Plemons) have a successful ranch operation that becomes ground zero for serious angst when George marries genteel single mother Rose (Kirsten Dunst). Phil deems Rose an intrusion into his simple macho world. Even more problematic, Rose’s quiet, artsy teenage son (Kodi Smit-McPhee) becomes a target for abuse from Phil and his band of roughneck cowboys. The Power of the Dog weaves a complex web of emotional conflict that sticks with you long after the story ends.
Mikey is a conniving Texas boy-turned-California porn actor who screws up his life in Los Angeles and he has to return, penniless, to his Gulf Coast hometown where his frayed ex-wife/former partner in X-rated films still lives with her grizzled mom in little more than a shack. Red Rocket is a darkly amusing study of how Mikey, the epitome of fecklessness, continually gets in his own way while trying to use everyone around him. The casting of Mikey was critical to making this work, and Simon Rex is ablaze in the part — a blend of hustler, sad-sack, and creeper. Red Rocket was directed and co-written by Sean Baker whose films Tangerine and The Florida Project were equally gritty delights about life in the seedy underbelly of American society.
‘WEST SIDE STORY‘
Director Steven Spielberg has revived the Broadway classic that brought the star-crossed romance and warring clans of Romeo and Juliet to the slums of New York in the late 1950s. Following the lead of the 1961 movie based on the musical, Spielberg retains the setting, the tensions between white and Puerto Rican gangs, the cross-cultural love between Tony and Maria, and the glorious music of Leonard Bernstein and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim. The cast is vibrant; the cinematography sparkles. Like earlier iterations, it can move you to tears. The major difference in screenwriter Tony Kushner’s update of Arthur Laurents’s original script is its clearer sociological context, noting the urban renewal that would uproot everyone in the area, regardless of ethnicity.
Unruly and frequently funny, Zola tags along with a seemingly naïve waitress named Zola after a stripper named Stefani convinces her that there’s easy money in pole-dancing. Subsequently, Stefani encourages Zola to join her on a profane weekend odyssey from Detroit to Tampa, Fla., in a foursome with a hotheaded doped-up pimp and Stefani’s simpleton boyfriend — and craziness ensues. Zola is actually based on a series of hilarious tweets by the real Zola that went viral and were turned into this candy-hued romp by director-coscreenwriter Janicza Bravo. Speaking of bravos, she deserves them, as does Taylour Paige who’s a treat as the resilient Zola and Riley Keough as the perfectly trashy and optimistic Stefani.
MICHAEL’S TOP 10 FOREIGN-LANGUAGE MOVIES OF 2021
Drive My Car
The Hand of God
Only the Animals
Riders of Justice
The White Tiger
MICHAEL’S 15 MORE FAVORITE MOVIES OF 2021
The Card Counter
Last Night in Soho
No Time to Die
The Suicide Squad
Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings
Spider-Man: No Way Home
MICHAEL’S HOT ROCK ’N ROLL DOC TRIPLE THREAT
The Sparks Brothers
The Velvet Underground
Summer of Soul
Michael Snyder is a print and broadcast journalist who covers pop culture on Michael Snyder’s Culture Blast, via GABNet.net, Roku, Spotify, and YouTube, and The Mark Thompson Show on KGO radio. You can follow Michael on Twitter: @cultureblaster.