ST. LOUIS — It's that time of year again where movie lovers decide the good, bad, and ugly of the year's cinema crops. Without wasting any time, let's get into my choices for the best of 2021 at the cinema.
The best thing about Michael Sarnoski's film is that it completely subverted your expectations. The clues a moviegoer takes in the theater were scrambled here. Everything from the poster to the trailer told you it would be something more than a meditative odyssey through grief, but that's all it was. Nicolas Cage, Alex Wolff, and Adam Arkin were all memorable and brilliant. The 92 minutes were lean and punched really deep for a shorter film. This will be an easy film to revisit and savor decades from now.
In another fabulous writer/director effort, Mike Mills examined the perspective and outlook of young students, coupling it with the angst and worry of older souls on Earth. How a kid (Woody Norman) can help a grown man (Joaquin Phoenix) through a midlife crisis. The two leads, along with a never-better Gaby Hoffman, gave the film its heart. Mills, along with The National's Bryce and Aaron Dessner's heartfelt score, gave it a soul.
The Tender Bar
Easily one of George Clooney's best directorial efforts, this coming-of-age tale, adapted from J.R. Moehringer's memoir, hit all the right feel-good notes. A confident and charismatic Ben Affleck led the charge, with Tye Sheridan and Christopher Lloyd giving nuanced performances as well. Lily Rabe's fearless mother and Max Martini's troublesome father had good moments too. Very rewatchable with a great soundtrack and message about finding the best in a tough situation.
What if you had a certain number of days to determine if a soul was fit for life? That's the job of our protagonist (a wonderful Winston Duke) here: interviewing a set of people who haven't tasted life's nature and nurture just yet, to see if they should be born. The heady screenplay and fantasy element of the plot requires a good leap, but breaking down the small things and memories that define us — and break us apart — is so fascinating. Don't sleep on Zazie Beetz or Tony Hale's work here either.
Released by Netflix right at the top of 2021, this pre-World War II drama centered around a group of people discovering an Anglo-Saxon ship in England. Everything is natural in Simon Stone's film, which he paints as a love letter to the relationships that carry us through wars, tough times, and legendary artifacts.
The "John Wick" comparisons were inevitable and partially legit, but this action-and-personality-drunk thrill ride ran long and hard on Bob Odenkirk swagger and dedication. A crisp 91 minutes keeps the film from overstaying its welcome. But "Nobody" never takes itself too seriously, preferring to revel in the outlandish various fights and stunts that make this film a welcome addition to the pantheon of great action flicks.
Paul Thomas Anderson’s films don’t always float my boat. Easier to admire than truly exist inside of for an extended period of time, his movies are museums of bizarre cool that can sometimes fade upon exit. But this one felt like more than just “his latest movie.” It was like a part of his past unfolding on-screen with some extra flair and intoxicating tunes. Remember the name Alana Haim, and prepare yourselves for Bradley Cooper's amazing cameo.
My favorite Tom Holland movie in 2021, Anthony and Joe Russo's visceral war film (inspired by a true story) pulled zero punches, and that's why I loved it. War, love, and life are messy, so the movies surrounding them should be as well. If Charles Bukowski had written “True Romance,” this would be it.
The Mitchells vs. The Machines
While everybody screams about the real world timeliness of Adam McKay's putrid "Don't Look Up," I'll point at Michael Rianda and Jeff Rowe's animated blast as a more damning look at our society. Watch Olivia Colman's best performance of 2021 (not "The Lost Daughter") as PAL, the good-turned-evil computer software that helps cell phones turn on humans. The delight is limitless and the laughs are endless. A little Sigur Ros at the end didn't hurt.
Any living soul with blood in their body — even the biggest cynic in town — will have a breakdown at some point watching this movie. Sometimes, the best-written films can feel like a turtleneck. At its best, you’re so comfy and taken care of. At its worst, you can’t breathe and everything’s getting red.
Honorable Mentions: "The Hand of God," "The Protege," "Flee," "CODA," "A Quiet Place Part Two."
Biggest Disappointments: "Don't Look Up," "The Tragedy of Macbeth," "The Green Knight," "The Matrix Resurrections."