The movies are back!
After an insane year where I only saw movies from my living room, it was wonderful to return to the local arthouse, the single-screen movie palace, and the massive cineplex. I could happily eat my hotdog, chomp down on some Buncha Crunch, and only kind of worry about my impending death from being in a crowd.
Once again, I created a Top 10 video to go along with this post. You can find the full Video Top 10 list here:
10. Licorice Pizza
First off, this should definitely be the start of a movie star career for Alana Haim. She’s really, really terrific.
It’s hard to describe a Paul Thomas Anderson movie. They’re not really plot-oriented and in fact are more about putting interesting characters in interesting situations and just seeing what happens.
That seems to be the case for this one especially, a movie made during the COVID lockdown almost entirely with Anderson’s close friends and family. For instance, you don’t just get one Haim, you get a whole family of Haims!
Watching Cooper Hoffman can be a little eerie at times because you can certainly saw shadows of his father, but he’s a great scene partner for Alana Haim. Together, they work through a series of episodic misadventures and I found myself being sucked into their weird relationship.
It’s a crazy ride but both characters end up coming of age in completely different ways.
9. The Card Counter
I love a movie about a guy drinking whiskey and writing in his diary. It’s classic Paul Schrader (of Taxi Driver and First Reformed) and, although not exciting visually on the surface, he uses the lonely man as an essential cinematic device.
Oscar Isaac is really terrific as the lead and his relationships with Tiffany Haddish, Tye Sheridan and Willem Dafoe (Good job, Willem, surely this will be your only appearance on this list) are complex and compelling.
8. The French Dispatch
French Dispatch Superlatives:
Most Likely to Make You Doze Off – Frances McDormand’s piece about the student riots. Everyone’s good in it but it’s a little hard to follow and the Morricone music gets repetitive.
Most Likely to Make You Very, Very Hungry – Jeffrey Wright as (kinda) James Baldwin. Loved all the cooking-related humor and Jeffrey is tremendous. Blink-and-you’ll-miss it Willem Dafoe (Hey, a second and final appearance on this list. Attaboy Willem!)
Most Likely to Make You Want to Travel – Owen Wilson as the Cycling Reporter. You gotta love him…
Most Likely to Make You Pick Up a Paint Brush – Tilda Swinton’s tale of prison art. Wes Anderson in full Grand Budapest mode. There’s nothing better.
7. Nightmare Alley
I really love the fantasy period-piece mode Guillermo del Toro is in right now. And while some might say Nightmare Alley is more of a noir and less of a fantasy, I would point you to the sumptuous cinematography.
Del Toro is moving the camera around in a way that inspires wonder, not the typical suspenseful camera movements of a noir. He’s more interested in the production design of his gorgeously handcrafted sets or the playful eccentricities of his troupe of weirdos.
All of the supporting parts are exceptionally well-cast. Toni Collete, David Strathairn, Rooney Mara, Willem Dafoe (Three?!? A Willem hat trick!), and Cate Blanchett are terrific at playing different variations on the con artist archetype.
Guillermo, don’t go back to franchise filmmaking if you can help it. Keep playing in your fantasy world.
6. The Worst Person in the World
Turning 30 is stressful and weird? Nothing relatable about that!
Having been recently inducted into the “your age begins with a 3” club, a lot of this movie hit very close to home. The idea of someone who’s still desperately clinging to youth as younger generations are quickly rising around them is no longer an unfamiliar observation.
It’s easy to become engrossed in Joachim Trier’s naturalistic style and Renate Reinsve’s effortlessly charming persona. The story’s really funny and emotional, and Trier gives us at least a dozen incredible images to ponder.
5. Spider-Man: No Way Home
It’s a feat of corporate synergy, to be sure, and I had the pleasure of watching it in a rowdy screening with multiple applause breaks, but who am I kidding…this movie was made in a lab to target my cinematic sensibilities.
Bringing back all the villains, not just Alfred, Jamie, and Willem (4 Best Of Movies! Are you kidding me?!?!? Unbelievable!), but Rhys and Thomas, too, and the Spideys (lookin’ good Tobey and Andrew) was a master stroke and I’m still in shock about how exactly they pulled it off.
There’s certainly COVID protocol green screen weirdness going on throughout the movie, but it doesn’t really dampen my experience watching it. It just enhances how surreal the whole endeavor is.
4. Bergman Island
A movie for the senses. Just wait for a Sunday afternoon, plop down on the couch and let this ode to artists and their tricky work/life balances wash over you. The story-within a story narrative works incredibly well and if you thought Anders Danielson-Lie was a little aloof in Worst Person in the World, he’s in full dreamboat mode here.
3. The King’s Man
In a pop culture dominated by superheroes and fast cars, give me Ralph Fiennes fighting Rasputin with a cane sword.
I’ve always considered the Kingsman movies perfect blockbuster junk food. They’re big and loud, but not as dumb as the other corporate product in the box office Top 10 at the end of the year. Matthew Vaughan is peerless at giving us sleekly designed, meticulously choreographed spy capers that go down as smooth as Statesman whiskey.
But what sets The King’s Man apart is its bold narrative choices. There were two moments in the film that caught me completely off-guard and firmly signaled that Vaughan doesn’t intend to rehash his previous films. Instead, he gives us first-rate historical fiction, which plays like League of Extraordinary Gentlemen propelled into the air by a stick of dynamite. Seriously, the movie’s far more accurate in the storytelling than you might expect.
The (mostly) true plot surrounding WWI will lead you down several fascinating Wikipedia rabbit holes. It was down one of these search spirals that I saw a photograph of King George V and Tsar Nicholas II, who looked like they could be twins. Vaughan seizes on this real piece of history and turns it into comedy by casting the same actor to play both roles.
As always, Vaughan still finds himself indebted to Bond. The villain’s isolated mountaintop lair accessible only by pulley system is straight out of For Your Eyes Only, the protagonist’s blade-shoe apparatus was used by Rosa Klebb in From Russia with Love, and a goat bonks Ralph Fiennes in the face when he’s dangling off a cliff. On second thought, that last one might only exist in this film.
More obvious Bond allusions can be found in the cast. Ralph Fiennes plays the M of the Craig era, Gemma Arterton was a Bond girl 14 years ago, and Charles Dance was a henchman menacing Roger Moore in the aforementioned For Your Eyes Only.
I’m definitely biased when it comes to Fiennes. He’s my favorite actor and it’s an absolute joy to see him as the lead of such an adrenalized espionage romp. When he plays M, he gets zero opportunities to have elaborately staged action set pieces, so it’s frankly wonderful to see a grenade launch him through a wall.
Overall, I had an incredible time with Kingsman again. Never stop making ’em, Vaughn!
2. West Side Story
Spielberg’s best movie of the past decade.
Something about adapting West Side Story has brought some vim and vigor back into his step. The muddy CGI of Ready Player One and The BFG is gone, as is the weight of telling a capital ‘I’ Important story like The Post or Bridge of Spies. Here, Spielberg gets to let loose and have fun.
He ends up rockin’ the house.
When this project was announced, I was definitely one of Spielberg’s detractors who thought it was going to be a disaster. Not only is the 1961 version of West Side Story my favorite movie musical…it’s one of my favorite movies. A sacred text!
But, working with screenwriter Tony Kushner, Spielberg makes so many clever creative tweaks to the original that it’s impossible to deny that, on a story level, the remake works much better. Casting Rita Moreno as the pharmacist, moving “Cool” before the deadly rumble so there’s palpable tension, and deciding not to use brownface (baby steps, Hollywood), are just a few of the decisions made to let the audience know they’re in good hands.
The filmmakers also rearranged the order of the songs so much, I was positive they had cut “I Feel Pretty” from the movie. But when it unexpectedly arrives as one of the last songs, I was glad to see it. Rachel Zegler as María is my favorite singer in the film and her rendition of “Tonight” made me misty.
It’s clear that Spielberg is having a conversation with the previous film instead of trying to one-up all the musical numbers. He knows that trying to outdo Rita Moreno and George Chakiris’ rooftop rendition of “America” would be a fruitless endeavor, so he adjusts and places “America” in a different context. It’s now the morning after the dance and it’s sung by an entire block of Puerto Ricans, not just the young, foolhardy gang of Sharks and their girls. It turns “America” into a political argument instead of a petty boyfriend/girlfriend squabble.
“Gee, Officer Krupke” is my favorite song of the 2021 version precisely because of the staging. This time it’s in an empty police precinct and feels much more alive. And on a fundamental level it’s so much more satisfying to actually have Officer Krupke show up at the end.
No longer bound by the censors of 1960s Hollywood, this version accurately reflects the level of violence. Baby John gets a gruesome ear piercing with a nail and all the death scenes feel much more visceral. The violence gets treated with the gravity it warrants instead of irresponsibly shrugging it off.
So after all that praise, is Spielberg’s version my new favorite? Not even a little. Despite its inherent flaws in casting, the first one has a sense of magic in the musical numbers that doesn’t get outdone. The wild, rooftop rendition of “America” still stands as one of the greatest scenes in film history and Rita Moreno will always be a better Anita than a Valentina.
Also, if John Mulaney’s life gets crazy enough to warrent a biopic, Mike Faist was born for the role.
A pretty darn perfect adaptation of a pretty darn good book. Denis Villeneuve’s filmmaking is visual poetry and the ensemble is undeniable. Timothée Chalamet is terrific as Paul Atreides/Lisan al Gaib/Muad’dib/Perspiring Cutie Pie and Hans Zimmer’s score gets your blood pumping faster than a sand worm’s digestive system.
And lastly, here’s the only Oscar ballot that matters. Look on, ye mighty, and despair.
Will Win: West Side Story
Should Win: Dune
Although Power of the Dog or CODA are the frontrunners, I’ve got a sneaking suspicion West Side Story is going to take it.
Will Win: Jane Campion, Power of the Dog
Should Win: Steven Spielberg, West Side Story
Should Have Really Been Here: Denis Villenueve, Dune
Will Win: Will Smith, King Richard
Should Win: Will Smith, King Richard
Probably the weakest category, but I’ll give Smith his overdue Oscar.
Will Win: Kristen Stewart, Spencer
Should Win: Kristen Stewart, Spencer
Anything could happen here so I’m just going to go with my favorite.
Best Supporting Actor:
Will Win: Troy Kotsur, CODA
Should Win: Troy Kotsur, CODA
He helped invent the Tusken Raider language!
Best Supporting Actress:
Will Win: Ariana DeBose, West Side Story
Should Win: Ariana DeBose, West Side Story
She can dance!
Best Original Screenplay:
Will Win: Paul Thomas Anderson, Licorice Pizza
Should Win: Paul Thomas Anderson, Licorice Pizza
Best Adapted Screenplay:
Will Win: Jon Spaihts and Denis Villenueve and Eric Roth, Dune
Should Win: Jon Spaihts and Denis Villenueve and Eric Roth, Dune
Best Animated Feature:
Will Win: The Mitchells vs. The Machines
Should Win: Raya and the Last Dragon
Best Animated Short:
Will Win: Boxballet
Should Win: Boxballet
Will Win: Greig Fraser, Dune
Should Win: Greig Fraser, Dune
Best Film Editing:
Will Win: Joe Walker, Dune
Should Win: Joe Walker, Dune
Best International Feature Film
Will Win: Drive My Car
Should Win: The Worst Person in the World
Best Documentary Feature:
Will Win: Summer of Soul (…Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised)
Should Win: Attica
Best Documentary Short Subject:
Will Win: Audible
Should Win: Audible
Best Production Design:
Will Win: Patrice Vermette; Zsuzsanna Sipos, Dune
Should Win: Patrice Vermette; Zsuzsanna Sipos, Dune
Best Costume Design:
Will Win: Jenny Beavan, Cruella
Should Win: Jenny Beavan, Cruella
Best Original Score:
Will Win: Hans Zimmer, Dune
Should Win: Hans Zimmer, Dune
Best Original Song:
Will Win: “No Time to Die” from No Time to Die
Should Win: “No Time to Die” from No Time to Die
Best Live Action Short:
Will Win: The Long Goodbye
Should Win: The Long Goodbye
Best Makeup and Hairstyling:
Will Win: Linda Dowds, Stephanie Ingram and Justin Raleigh, The Eyes of Tammy Faye
Should Win: Linda Dowds, Stephanie Ingram and Justin Raleigh, The Eyes of Tammy Faye
Will Win: Mac Ruth, Mark Mangini, Theo Green, Doug Hembhill and Ron Bartlett, Dune
Should Win: Mac Ruth, Mark Mangini, Theo Green, Doug Hembhill and Ron Bartlett, Dune
Best Visual Effects:
Will Win: Paul Lambert, Tristan Myles, Brian Connor and Gerd Nefzer, Dune
Should Win: Paul Lambert, Tristan Myles, Brian Connor and Gerd Nefzer, Dune