Best of 2021: The Complete List

Okay, guys, I usually spend two weeks going through my list, but this year I’ve been super-busy with my new job, so instead I’m just going to dump this list on you today. I will try to glean some tips along the way (and I may break those out into pieces later.)

(One thing I usually do is list the movies I haven’t seen, but this year it’s most of them. I used to get through this time of year using screeners that I borrowed from a friend, but the studios have stopped sending out screeners, which makes it a lot harder for me to get caught up on what I missed.)

Runner-Up: Belfast. Betsy skewered this movie effectively when she said, “This scene reminds me of a scene from A Christmas Story, but in that movie the parents looked like real people and here they look like fashion models.” I agree that the attractiveness of the parents was a distraction. Also, as someone of an Irish Catholic background, it was annoying that the movie was basically saying “It really sucked to be protestant in Belfast in 1968, because everybody wanted you to join the anti-Catholic militias even when you didn’t want to.” Yeah, you know what would suck worse? Actually being the target of those militias. So my sympathy for their situation was limited. But this was a fun movie to watch. It was beautifully shot and I felt for the boy.

5: The Mitchells vs. the Machines: I liked Encanto a lot, Luca and Raya and the Last Dragon were fun, but this was the best kids’ movie of the year. The story was a lot of fun but it was the 2D scribbles on top of the 3D animation that made it such a delight. I absolutely fell in love with the abundant amount of life that erupted from this heroine.

4: Licorice Pizza: What a strange movie! Anderson has just gotten weirder and weirder and doesn’t really seem to care if we’re on board, which is risky, but in this case it really pays off. It was fun being in his very strange head. All notions of structure are blown out of the water, but the scenes are indelible and that’s ultimately more important. There’s a lot of Bertolucci in this movie and that’s all for the good!

3: Summer of Soul: Certainly the best time I had at the theater this year! Questlove could have just cut this amazing footage together into a world-class concert movie, but he does a lot of great structure work (You don’t realize until you do your research later that nothing is in order) and it’s so wonderful that some many people were still alive (and looking great) 50 years later and got a chance to react to themselves. It becomes a celebration of survival. It’s just a shame he couldn’t convince Sly to appear!

2: The French Dispatch: I was horrified that this movie didn’t get a best picture nomination! It’s my favorite Wes Anderson movie since Rushmore, and that’s saying a lot, because I’ve loved a lot of his movies. Recreating the feeling of reading an entire (especially good) issue of “The New Yorker” was so unlike anything I’ve seen onscreen before, but worked beautifully. All of the performances were amazing. Anderson has a reputation for allowing his tone to overwhelm the artistic choices of his performers, but, of all his movies, this one seemed the most driven by the power of the acting.

1: Don’t Look Up: You really can’t be surprised at this, can you? The Big Short topped the list a few years ago. Vice made the list. So I’m obviously an Adam McKay fan. I do feel like some of the negative reaction to this movie has been because of what it was doing right. It was supposed to piss you off and disgust you with your own behavior, and I think that people have chosen to be pissed off at the movie instead of themselves. I thought it was funny that this was supposed to be a movie about our reaction to climate change but ended up being more about Covid. That’s a sign of great art: The story is meaningful enough to grow beyond the creator’s intent.

Best of 2021: Not on the list: Power of the Dog (and Dune)

(Hi guys, I’m back! Sorry to only have MRC posts for so long! The fact of the matter is, I got a job that’s taken up a lot of time. I am working, believe it or not, for Meta on a game. They were big fans of my book, and trying to incorporate its lessons, until they finally said, “Hey, let’s just hire Matt.” It’s been a dream job, but it’s also been a lot of time and something had to give. Another issue is that James and I had a bit of a falling out, but we’ve made up now and we’re recording a new episode of The Secrets of Story Podcast on Friday! I will also be doing some posts based on some of the things I’m learning and one reason I haven’t been posting is that those keep getting moved back. In the meantime, it’s a little late to do my Best of 2021 list, which I usually do in the weeks before the Academy Awards. Since the Awards are on Sunday, I’ll do my “Not on the List” post today and my whole list tomorrow.)

Jane Campion and Kirsten Dunst are two of my favorite artists, and I was very glad to see them both working again, and getting some Academy love, but unfortunately I didn’t like Power of the Dog very much.

One big problem I had with this movie is that I just couldn’t follow what was going on, certainly not at the ending, but not even at the beginning. I paused the movie half an hour in and appealed to Betsy for help. She explained that, though his character calls hers by her first name, Dunst was playing Kodi Smit-McPhee’s mom.

I was baffled. Aren’t they the same age?

Well, it turns out that she’s just 14 year older than him. 
 This was the same problem with Dune, where Rebecca Ferguson played Timothee Chalamet’s mother despite the fact that she’s only 12 years older than him. Hollywood simply doesn’t know what to do with 40 year old women. They look at actresses like Dunst and Ferguson, and say, “Gee, I dunno, I guess you can play the 20-something leading man’s mom.” No, they should be playing the hero’s love interest! They aren’t old enough to be moms to grown men! Campion was lucky to get the cast she got, but she should have then said, “Well, obviously it makes no sense for you to be playing his mom, so we’ll rewrite the role so you’re his older sister that’s raising him.” Problem solved.

But my biggest problem with Power of the Dog was just that it felt dated. The whole “repressed gay villain” trope feels played out. And between this and Imitation Game, one gets the feeling that Benedict Cumberbatch has never considered the possibility that people may actually enjoy being gay sometimes.

Storyteller’s Rulebook: Always have your characters call their mom and dad “Mom and Dad”

Or mother or father, or ma and pa, etc. This was a problem I ran into all the time when I was giving notes on kids books. The writer wanted to show that the kid’s relationship to their parents was unusual, so they had them call their parents by their first names. But here’s the thing you have to understand: It’s always going to be much harder than you think for your readers/viewers to get straight on everybody’s relationship. You’re dumping all these characters on their head, and you understand the relationships intimately, but your audience is always struggling to catch up. And we’re hardwired to say, “If they’re calling this character by their first name, that’s not their mother or father.” Overriding that wiring is hard, especially when there are other reasons to get confused, such as in Power of the Dog. Don’t do it. Help your audience get everything straight by having them call them mom and dad. (It’s much lamer to have them call their siblings “bro” and “sis”, but sometimes you have to resort to that, too!)

Best of 2019, #1: Marriage Story

This is, to put it mildly, the best American movie of the year. It is, in fact, the best American movie in several years, since… well, since Lady Bird. And that’s only appropriate, since it’s obvious that one of the factors fueling this movie is Baumbach’s jealousy over that movie’s success. (One of the husband’s final humiliations is when he finds out that his wife has gotten a directing Emmy nomination, despite the fact that he thinks of himself as being the great director of the family.)

Both Baumbach and Gerwig have just turned out movies that aren’t exactly high on the subject of marriage, so who knows how things are going at home, but they’re certainly turning out great work, so I hope that whatever tension they’re feeling remains high!

Before this movie, the great American divorce movie was Kramer vs. Kramer, but this movie easily surpasses that one. That movie clearly picked a side, but this movie has the courage to split our identification (though not necessarily our sympathies) evenly. The result is one of the most heart-rending movies I’ve ever seen. It really wrecked me.

Storyteller’s Rulebook: Create Real Horror Movies. This is the only movie I’ve ever seen that exposes one of my deepest fears, the fear that my kids wouldn’t miss me that much if I got separated from them. The movie makes it clear that Driver is a very good father (with the big exception that he wasn’t a great husband to his son’s mother), but when Johansson’s work takes her to L.A., Driver keeps waiting for his son to miss him and that just never happens. Unlike the kids in The Squid and the Whale, this kid adjusts quickly and easily to his parents’ divorce, and, while that’s great for the kid and mom, it’s unbearably painful for for the father. I think every loving parent has a horrible suspicion that their children are just black holes of love, never intending to give back all that they’ve taken in, and this movie really tore me up inside by showing that fear made manifest.

Storyteller’s Rulebook: Pass the TBS Test. I’ve always felt that every great movie should pass the TBS Test: If you were flipping around the TV (I realize that people don’t really do that anymore), and you ran across this movie on TBS, would you be compelled by whatever scene you happened upon? In this movie, the answer is overwhelmingly yes. (A distinction that was also true of Kramer vs. Kramer, come to think of it.) There are several scenes/sequences that would make compelling short films, and none is more amazing than the home visit from the court evaluator. Driver is, as usual, riveting and squeezes just a right bit out humor out of his agonizing tension, culminating in wonderful bit of subtext-becomes-text when he slices himself open and fails to hide it.

Best of 2019, #2: Jojo Rabbit

Yes, this movie is greatly indebted to Wes Anderson, but I think it’s ultimately better than any Anderson movie since Rushmore. When I originally wrote up this list, I hadn’t seen this one yet, so I wrote that Joker was the only movie to take Trump seriously. Turns out, that’s not the case. This comedic film, about a good mom who watches her sweet 10 year old son naively (endearingly, in fact) embrace Nazism, could have been been dreadful if it hadn’t judged its tone juuuuust right, but I thought it used its humor as a powerful dramatic tool.

Why do people embrace Nazism? Because it puts you in a world of super-heroes and super-villains that is, on some level, fun. Those people at the Trump rallies are having fun, and mentally regressing to ten-year olds.

If a certain character had not blocked a certain other character’s knife, this would have been a very different movie, and perhaps a braver one, but I think it works the way it is, because it is willing to push us to that point before it takes mercy on us and our hero and drags him back to humanity.

As I’ve said before, I know I’m watching a great movie when I’m not thinking about movies but thinking about my own loved ones. Like many fathers of young sons, I worry so much about the toxic environment awaiting my son, and Roman Griffin Davis’s performance is so remarkable human that I couldn’t help but see my son in him, not a film character. As with tomorrow’s film, this film left me with a profound desire to hug my family afterwards, holding on to them for dear life.

Best of 2019, #3: Knives Out

Brick wasn’t as smart as it thought it was. The Last Jedi was pretty dumb. Looper was downright idiotic. How did Rian Johnson get so smart all of a sudden? Maybe, like Craig Mazin, his whole career pre-2019 was one long fake-out, setting us up for the knock-out punch? Even this movie’s trailer wasn’t very appealing. It showcased the movie’s weakest aspect (Craig’s accent, which is harmless but certainly never convincing) and the few jokes that didn’t land (“Is this ‘CSI: KFC’?”). So I was totally unprepared for how great this movie is.

The cinematography! The production design! The dialogue! The performances! (One silly accent aside) One problem is that, since they were being so coy about the plot, they had to hide the fact that Ana de Armas is the main character, which means she didn’t get the star treatment she so richly deserves. She quietly steals scenes from each of the big name actors, keeping us in her head, not theirs.

Tips: Beware of concepts you can’t promote well

 The most obvious way to promote this movie is “A private nurse becomes the number one suspect in the murder of a wealthy man when it turns out he left her all his money.” But that set-up isn’t established until halfway through the movie, so it would have been frustrating to viewers who had seen the trailer that it took so long to get to that set-up. So instead, it was just promoted as “An old fashioned big-house star-studded murder mystery,” and it did fine, but ultimately its marketing was a liability, not an asset. And because Armas is not one of the previously established stars, she got sidelined by that promotion strategy. Still the plotting and pacing in this movie were pretty much perfect, so I can’t complain.

Best of 2019, #4: Joker

By the time I finally got around to reluctantly watching my screener of this movie, I had been fully conditioned to hate it. Imagine my surprise to find out that it’s actually pretty great.

First, I had been warned by months of media coverage that it was a lazy Scorsese knock-off. It’s not. If you want to see a lazy Scorsese knock-off, go watch The Irishman. I thought this one definitely wanted to be in conversation with Scorsese, but its greatest assets (the cinematography, score, production design, and Phoenix’s performance) were not at all indebted to Scorsese. I thought it was an original vision.

Secondly, I had been warned by the media that this movie was recklessly reactionary. The ghouls at were openly rooting for there to be shootings during the opening weekend showings. They ran article after article about violence that was sure to come. It didn’t. Personally, I always found the two movies this one is most in conversation with, Taxi Driver and The Dark Knight, to be vaguely reactionary, and it’s never surprised me that one inspired a presidential assassination attempt and the other a mass shooting. Of course, it’s not too late for this one to inspire violence (the Hinkley shooting wasn’t until four years after Taxi Driver), but, having seen the movie, I’m not surprised that it hasn’t.

(Just to be clear, Taxi Driver is superior pieces of filmmaking, but I worried more about people taking the wrong message from that one than I do from this one.)

Speak to Real Life National Pain: This is one of the only American movies to take the Trump election seriously. It’s no secret that a lot of people on the left think we shouldn’t do that. “There was no populist element to Trump’s victory. Blame the Russians and move on. Triangulate better next time.” They get pissed whenever a reporter interviews a Trump voter. The problem, they say, is that such voters weren’t silenced effectively enough, and we’ll do better at that next time. This movie actually stares down America’s screaming throat and listens to the madness.

I’m old enough to remember when the left embraced empathy and the right was against it, but that seems like a long time ago now. The belief now, as far as I can tell, is that there’s never been a strong enough wall between empathy and sympathy, so one is always in danger of leading to the other, so we should all just stop feeling each other’s pain and raise the barricades instead.

What I love about this film is that Phoenix demands our empathy without ever once asking for any sympathy. Sorry AVClub, but nobody left the theater wanting to be Arthur Fleck or any of his pitiful followers. You can feel for people and still loathe their actions. We must learn to do that again.

The Best of 2019, #5: The Lego Movie 2: The Second Part

This movie has received zero year-end love, so I just rewatched to see if it’s as good and I thought on first viewing. It’s even better! This is certainly the most underrated movie of the year. This year saw two eagerly-awaited follow-ups to animated hits of a few years ago. Frozen II went on to surpass its predecessor at the box office and become the biggest animated hit of all time, while this one flopped hard. How did the public get it so wrong?

I’m not sure any movie has stayed with me as much as this one. Most obviously that’s because I haven’t stopped playing and singing its songs (Yes, one fun song is genetically engineered to get stuck inside your head, but “Not Evil” does that job even better) But more importantly, I thought this movie had the courage to hit the emotions just as hard as the original, and go darker (as heard in “Everything’s Not Awesome”)

This had a lot to say about how we gender the concept of “hero”, why we crave post-apocalyptic narratives, and how men and women try to change for each other, for good or ill. The performances of Pratt, Banks, Arnett, et al, continue to be wonderful, and Tiffany Haddish is a great new addition.

Tip: The Smarter You Are, The More Heartfelt You Have to Be

This is one of the most post-modern movies ever made (Right down to an end credits song by Beck about the greatness of end credits). The whole thing is an examination of how and why we tell stories with several very clever self-aware jokes. So it’s a very head-y movie, but its heart is even bigger. In fact, that’s the whole point. The boy playing with these legos wants to be cool by closing his heart, and the movie knows that we’re conditioned to root for bad-ass-ery, so it gets us wrapped up in his quest. It’s truly shocking when we’re reminded, along with him, that it’s more heroic to open your heart than it is to harden it.

Best of 2019, Bonus Runner-Up: Us

A Saturday post?? It’s been almost ten years since I did that! Folks, there’s been a shocking turn of events: I unexpectedly got a chance to see one of the movies I hadn’t seen and it’s upended this list! This was going to be movie #5, but now it’s been knocked down to runner-up status, and if I’m going to finish all these before the Oscars, I’d best cover this one today!

Parasite isn’t on this list because it seems silly to see just one foreign-language film and say that was the best one, so I decided to limit myself to the best English-Language films of the year. But I did see it, it is amazing, and it makes an amazing companion to this film. Talk about great minds thinking alike! Both have two four member families, one living below ground and the other above, both involve a plan by the underground family to displace the aboveground one. They’re both great movies, and I just think it’s a shame they came out the same year because I fear that the similarity cost this one an Oscar nomination.

My one concern: This has one of the all-time great “Everything you know is wrong” twists, but I was never sure about its placement. It’s revealed at almost the very end of the movie, after it’s too late to affect any of the heroine’s actions. (The Sixth Sense reveal also happens at almost the very end, but in that case the hero acts.) Basically, this movie is saying “Sorry, but you have to buy another ticket and watch it again now that you have this essential piece of information that will change the way you see everything.” I haven’t had a chance to revisit it yet, but if Get Out is any indication, I’m sure it will only grow in my estimation on subsequent viewings.

Tip: Exhaust the Plot, Then Escalate

In the first half of this movie, the four members of the family go face to face with their doppelgangers, and the viewer assumes that that will be the whole movie, and it feels plenty satisfying. But then they successfully escape to the nearby lake house of their friends …only to discover that their friends have been killed by their own doppelgangers! It’s an escalation of the action, an escalation of the danger and it’s an escalation of the the theme, going from a personal horror story to a broader societal critique, and it’s absolutely thrilling to the audience.  Most horror movies have diminishing returns in the second half, but this movie is just getting started.

Best of 2019, Runners-Up: The Two Popes

One of the best surprises of the year, highlighted by two amazing performances: How wonderful to see Hopkins gleefully rediscover skin-crawling creepiness and Pryce get to play a genuine hero for the first time in years (though both popes turn out to be more complicated than they first appear.) (It’s fascinating to compare Pryce’s performance here to “Game of Thrones” where he got to play the evil version of the same character, and did an equally good job.)

Tip: Give them a Fit Bit

The play, as far as I can tell, just consists of two men, a pope and a pope-to-be, sitting in a room and talking for two hours. The movie has to “open the story up”, and it does so in various expected ways (It adds little moments away from the confrontation, it dramatizes the stories Francis tells about his past, etc.) but it also uses a trick I found amusing: Benedict is wearing a Fit Bit, and, as anyone married to a Fit Bit user knows, it’s constantly telling him he has to get up and walk around, so the two keep having to get up and walk from room to room (and of course these are some of the most spectacular rooms in the world). It’s a good humanizing detail, and it livens up the visuals at the same time.

Best of 2019, Runners-Up: 1917

Like Dunkirk, this is a showy technical achievement that still manages to be an impactful tragedy. I thought this film rose above that one through its performances. This one follows the same strategy of getting name actors to play the higher-ups while the youngsters are played by new faces, but I thought Dean-Charles Chapman and George MacKay were far more compelling than the young stars of Dunkirk.

Tip: Give Them Ironic Motivation

This movie does something interesting. It gives Chapman a personal motivation for his mission (which felt a little contrived): if he succeeds he may save his brother’s life. Despite knowing that, MacKay, worried for his own life, says maybe they should refuse orders. Then the movie kills off Chapman halfway through the mission. MacKay didn’t feel he owed it to Chapman to help save his brother when he was alive, but he does feel that obligation once Chapman is dead. That’s nicely ironic.