TOP 10 FILMS OF 2021

Posted by Matthew Thornton on Saturday, February 26, 2022

AUDIO

YouTube
Spotify

CONTENTS


INTRODUCTION

      So let’s get the negative out of the way. All in all, 2021 was by the far the worst year of filmmaking since I’ve started reviewing films and possibly since I started following yearly releases entirely. This year featured high-concept horror snoozefests, trite existentialist musings often with runtimes north of two hours, “character studies” that often amount to pathetic sympathy pleas for people shirking responsbility or behaving immorally, and much more painfully irritating cinema. Disney-Marvel releases feel more and more like perfunctory circuses for the masses as they present the latest magical individuals I am supposed to integrate into the ever-evolving labyrinthine mythology. Culturally subversive trends and symbols are relentlessly thrown at the viewer as Hollywood is more and more aggressively used as a population programming tool…but I digress.

      Rising out of the sea of mediocrity were several pieces of thoroughly entertaining cinema that were emotionally engaging, artistically dazzling, or thrillingly intense. Moreover, the majority of these films are held down by little to no modern claptrap. Something I did last year out of necessity due to sparseness of exceptional films in 2020 will be done again this year in the spirit of generosity. I will be highlighting every film that received a rating of three stars or higher on my five-star scale in the “Honourable Mentions” section (the original threshold was three-and-a-half stars). I am planning to squeeze every bit of positivity out of 2022 as I possibly can.



THE TOP 10 FILMS OF 2021

      This list is the ten best feature-length, non-documentary films I have seen that had US release dates in 2021. For those curious, I use the year under which a film is listed on Metacritic when in doubt regardless if that film receives an award for a different year. These are movies I could not have seen until 2021. So if anyone feels the urge to say, “Technically, such-and-such is not a 2021 film…”, please resist.


10. Old Henry

Director: Potsy Ponciroli
Writers: Potsy Ponciroli
Starring: Tim Blake Nelson, Scott Haze, Gavin Lewis
Runtime: 99 mins
MPAA Rating: Not Rated (probably would be R)

      Old Henry is a traditional Western and delivers as such. Following the simple life of Henry (Tim Blake Nelson) and his son Wyatt (Gavin Lewis) living on a farm in the absence of Wyatt’s deceased mother, the story kicks into gear when an unconscious rider (Scott Haze) is found near their property possessing a considerable amount of cash. Pursuing that loot is the unscrupulous Ketchum (Stephen Dorff) and his posse whose violent threats are not just empty words. The film is at its best when Tim Blake Nelson and Stephen Dorff are allowed to overact during their characters’ tense standoffs. Though the character motivations and conflict are straightforward, the unfolding story introduces a few disruptive wrinkles to subvert expectations. The strong paternal dimension of this film is particularly engaging as you empathize with Henry who must struggle with the fact that enabling his teenage son to protect himself also enables him to engage in dangerous foolishness as Henry himself once did; the tense father-son dynamic is the connective human element in what would otherwise be a cartoon. Residing comfortably witihin genre conventions, Old Henry does not try to be anything it is not, and I am not going to fault it too hard for not being overly ambitious. Containing both grit and heart, Old Henry should be an entertaining watch for more than just fans of Westerns.

RATING: ★★★½


9. The Tragedy of Macbeth

Director: Joel Coen
Writers: Joel Coen (written for the screen by), William Shakespeare (based on the play by)
Starring: Denzel Washington, Frances McDormand, Alex Hassell
Runtime: 105 mins
MPAA Rating: R

      The Coen brother Joel (sans Ethan) abandons his own signature screenwriting idiosyncracies in order to create this bold but peculiar retelling of the classic Shakespearean tragedy. While definitely functioning as a vehicle for accomplished actors to chew scenery, indulging in the impassioned and often bemusing speech, the The Tragedy of Macbeth is disaffecting yet strangely compelling in how it stages itself. The entire presentation has a surreal atmosphere as if the actors were dropped on an alien planet and told to deliver the lines from the play. The film is shot in black-and-white with a nearly square 4:3 aspect ratio that tightens up the frame around the facial performances of the actors. Minimalistic sets are often obscured in shadow or within white smoky haze that provides excessive contrast to the darkly dressed characters. All of these stylistic choices imbue the whole experience with a foreignness that makes the movie hypnotic.

      A Shakesperean adaptation is generally made or broken on the backs of its cast, and thankfully The Tragedy of Macbeth has a talented cadre of performers. Everyone is going all out in every role. Denzel Washington passionately communicates Macbeth’s tortured anguish both before and after blood is on his hands. Lady Macbeth’s crazed ambition and manipulative capabilities are animated to maximal effect by Frances McDormand. I am not sure there has ever been a creepier portrayal of the witches in Macbeth than the wholly transfixing Kathryn Hunter who plays all three at once. While the words themselves appear to be largely unaltered, the motivation behind Macbeth’s kingly ambition is fundamentally different from the source material as he and his wife are advanced in age in this version with no hope of an heir. Additionally, the character of Ross (Alex Hassell) is given a significantly more prominent role becoming possibly the third most important figure in the story.

      Despite feeling a bit hollow, the film stays honed in on its intent: to be an unusual and intensely dramatic Shakespearean reworking. Taken as such, The Tragedy of Macbeth is engrossing cinema with a slew of memorable moments. If you absolutely cannot stand Shakespeare, this is not the film for you as you will be listening to characters assault your senses in iambic pentameter for a little under two hours. If you are at the other end of the spectrum and are an obsessive Shakespeare purist, this is not the film for you as there are enough deviations to the original play for you to consider the work sufficiently mutilated. Everyone else in between should be able to dive into The Tragedy of Macbeth and have an enjoyable experience.

RATING: ★★★½


8. Dune

Director: Denis Villeneuve
Writers: Jon Spaihts (screenplay by), Denis Villeneuve (screenplay by), Eric Roth (screenplay by)
Starring: Timothée Chalamet, Rebecca Ferguson, Zendaya
Runtime: 155 mins
MPAA Rating: PG-13

      Having demonstrated tremendous care in staying faithful to source material, capability at handling a massive budget, and masterful control over an aesthetic vision in his creation of a sequel to one of the most beloved sci-fi films of all time with Blade Runner 2049 (2017), Denis Villeneuve boldly sets his sights once again within the realm of science fiction to capture the dense universe of Dune which has never been done justice in adaptation. Even still, attempting to adequately adapt Frank Herbert’s cerebral character writing, particularized future technological vision, and intricate neo-feudalistic political arrangements is a massive undertaking. Wisely, Villeneuve spares no expense when it comes to aesthetics and atmosphere and it makes Dune a wonder to behold. While the performances, dialogue, and plot deliberations are sufficient, Villeneuve is equally or more concerned with how the universe looks and feels.

      The majority of the first half of the film is a spectacle of exposition and establishment of the universe, all the while it subtly builds an air of apprehension. Duke Leto (Oscar Isaac) and House Atreides’ interplanetary transition from the lush water world of Caladan to the harsh desert planet of Arrakis introduces a whole host of extraordinary logistical burdens, but the feeling that they are operating within a context with too many unknowns, some political and some more mystical, is ever-present. At the center of the esoteric intrigue, Paul Atreides (Timothée Chalamet), the young ducal heir and primary protagonist, is gifted with unexplained special abilities and bothered by abstruse visions as a result of his connection to a recondite sisterhood called the Bene Gesserit through his mother Lady Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson).

      The technical craftsmanship of the presentation instills the story with its allure. Expansive wide shots capture the extent and character of the physical environments and technology. I was fortunate enough to view Dune in true IMAX and the sheer scale of every structure and environment is fully appreciated when viewed in this format. Stretching from nearly floor to ceiling of the theater on the vertically extended screen, the maw of Shai Hulud rising from below the sand to engulf a spice harvester is nothing short of awe-inducing. Delirious editing choices allow the visionary scenes to be memorable yet cryptic. Villeneuve frequently demonstrates patience and restraint letting the experience sink in with no regard for your outstanding questions in the moment. However, Villeneuve’s sharpest tool for constructing his desired ambiance is his composer. Hans Zimmer’s Eastern-influenced themes are more than fitting for Arrakis, and the use of bagpipes for the House Atreides theme is an instant hook into your memory. In fact the foreboding atmosphere of the entire film is largely a product of the ominous musical landscape comprised of wall-of-sound orchestrations, overwhelming barrages of reverb, frantic percussion, haunting choirs, rhythmic chanting, and unintelligible throat-singing among other things; it is definitely one of the most eclectic scores I have ever heard often sounding simultaneously futuristic and primordial.

      What limits Dune from progressing to greater narrative heights is its awkward endpoint (midway through the novel) which results in an unsatisfying overall plot structure. Additionally, the majority of the performances lack sincere charisma, and the connection to the human psyche is weak especially in comparison to the novel. While Dune does a decent job taking you inside Paul’s head, the novel flaunts its omniscient perspective detailing the thoughts of nearly every character involved in any given scene which would be impossible to imitate cinematically. Overall, just enough happens in the story and just enough is explained to keep you hungry for more. This first chapter of Dune reminded me of Fellowship of the Ring in many parallel respects, and I am very excited for the sequel. Dune is big-budget spectacle done memorably and that should be the primary draw for most everyone.

RATING: ★★★½


7. The French Dispatch

Director: Wes Anderson
Writers: Wes Anderson (screenplay by), Roman Coppola (story by), Hugo Guinness (story by)
Starring: Benicio Del Toro, Adrien Brody, Tilda Swinton
Runtime: 107 mins
MPAA Rating: R

      Wes Anderson made three movies too quickly so he combined them into one called The French Dispatch. Structuring this curious film around several odd stories aggregated for the final publication of The French Dispatch, a fictional American magazine based in a fictional French city, Anderson pays tribute to a random collection of writers and journalists for the The New Yorker. The first story details the romance between a female prison guard and an unhinged artist serving a murder sentence. The second story follows a journalist documenting a student protest whose leader ends up sleeping with her and seeking advice from her on crafting a manifesto. The final story recounts the kidnapping and ransom of a police commissioner’s son and how a police lieutenant’s culinary talents are used to save the day. With an incommensurable series of events and a massive ensemble cast filled with Anderson’s regulars, it is hard to describe the appeal of this film speaking in generalities, but I will do my best.

      The aimlessness of the meta-narrative anthology structure is intentional and largely irrelevant to enjoying the parts within the whole; it is akin to observing separate portraits within an art gallery. And Wes Anderson is quite the visually delightful artist. As expected, he frequently employs flattened depth of perspective and symmetrical framing to instill the presentation with his signature style. The presentation often feel as though the characters are animated figurines within an artificial miniature world. His intricately coordinated mise en scène creates memorable settings and shots connected together with an impeccable visual rhythm. Moreoever, he employs all the techniques underlying his reputation while adding in experimental flourishes such as his inexplicable use of 2D animation during a chase sequence. As for other stylistic oddities, the film shifts between color and black-and-white as an inconsistent past-present delineation and utilizes more than one aspect ratio. Overall, The French Dispatch’s appeal lies in how it is presented more so than what is presented.

      As for the stories themselves, many of the absurd situations and bizarre character interactions within each are quite humorous. Despite acting within serious situations, Wes Anderson’s characters, no matter their age, are all imbued with a childlike innocence in their perceptions; his characters are comically well-spoken despite often being confidently but amusingly obtuse. This trait is common within his movies and will be enjoyed by his fans but will possibly be offputting to those unfamiliar with his work. There is a meaningful simplicity to these characters who in many ways function as elements of a painting versus representations of real-life human beings.

      While all the agreeable elements of Anderson’s style are here, the connected whole did not resonate strongly with me. Unfortunately, The French Dispatch’s inability to stay attentive to a single context broke my immersion. The anthology approach inherently devalues the narrative of any one story, and the result is a lack of cohesive satisfaction despite memorable moments scattered throughout the visually spectacular presentation. Even though The French Dispatch is one of his weaker efforts, Wes Anderson’s baseline skill at crafting vibrant, eccentric, and whimsical stories is high above that of most filmmmakers, and there is inherent appeal to his presented universe. Most everyone and especially fans of Wes Anderson’s body of work should find moments of enjoyment within The French Dispatch.

RATING: ★★★½


6. The Green Knight

Director: David Lowery
Writers: David Lowery (written for the screen by)
Starring: Dev Patel, Alicia Vikander, Joel Edgerton
Runtime: 130 mins
MPAA Rating: R

      When the brothel-frequenting young nephew of King Arthur, Gawain (Dev Patel), attends the Christmas feast at the court of Camelot, he gallantly takes up the challenge of a mysterious intruder. This imposing gentleman, so dubbed the “Green Knight” for his starkly deciduous features, is seeking a second player in a violent game with baffling rules. The Green Knight offers his axe to Gawain who is allowed to land a blow upon the condition that Gawain must journey out to the so-called Green Chapel one year hence so that the same blow can be returned upon him. Explicitly acknowledging the terms of this challenge and seemingly unconcerned with inquiring about what or where the Green Chapel is, Gawain deals a blow to the Green Knight’s head that I certainly would not want returned upon me.

      As chapter titles scrawled into the landscape denote the passing of the seasons, the story details Gawain’s preparation and eventual journey filled with obstacles, setbacks, and detours that test his mettle. Writer-director David Lowery is a careful craftsman when it comes to both style and substance. Though not clearly spelled out, Gawain’s strange interactions with people he encounters, the confounding predicaments he must overcome, and the odd side-quests he must complete are in fact a coherent set of tests relating to the Seven Knightly Virtues as in the source material. The writing cleverly maps out and portrays the events in Gawain’s travels that each serve to develop Gawain in a specific moral dimension, intensely culminating with his eventual reuniting with the Green Knight. Be aware that this script is subtle and the presentation is cryptic, often highly symbolic. The film’s nature may leave more literal viewers confused and unsatisfied by the story’s conclusion.

      That being said, many viewers should be able to engage with The Green Knight on a solely aesthetic basis. The whole presentation has an earthen and sullen character. Taking place for the most part in dingy indoor settings or swampy, barren, and overcast outdoors settings, the characters are rarely pristine in appearance. The environment is meant to feel burdensome and ominous for Gawain as is the nature of his quest. Lowery is considerably skilled at directing cinematography often inserting artistically framed shots and atypical camera movements. The film is replete with memorably imagery especially when the fantastical story elements free him from any creative fetters. Immediately springing to mind is the titular character’s initial apperance barging into King Arthur’s already dimly lit court on horseback, snuffing out the few torchlights with his mere passing presence. Another unforgettable moment transpires when Gawain encounters giants marching through a misty valley who pause momentarily to emit an ethereal harmony. From start to finish, the atmosphere is immersive, and the visual presentation is spellbinding.

      I do have a personal caveat. In this adaptation, Lowery fundamentally inverts the moral arc of Gawain from the original story which I found personally bothersome but his construction of the story is still coherent though the imparted messaging leads in a less uplifting direction. For those concerned, I try to maintain a semblance of objectivity as a critic and I consider a criticism such as this clearly subjective, and thus it does not affect my rating. However, I might write a commentary comparing the two works if there is sufficient interest. If you like artistic medieval fantasy fare and do not need your hand held, Lowery’s expertly crafted The Green Knight should be agreeable to your palate.

RATING: ★★★½


5. Mass

Director: Fran Kranz
Writers: Fran Kranz
Starring: Jason Isaacs, Martha Plimpton, Ann Dowd
Runtime: 111 mins
MPAA Rating: PG-13

      Technically, all you need to make a film is a camera…maybe a room and some actors as well. That is about all Fran Kranz uses to create one of the most emotionally heavy-hitting dramas of recent memory. The setup is simple enough: an arbiter arranges a meeting at a local church for two sets of emotionally distraught parents to discuss the painful circumstance that connects their lives. Revealing anymore of the plot would blunt the emotional force of this superbly written and acted story. The writing is anchored in genuine human sorrow of the most concentrated heartaching variety which is fleshed out to the fullest extent by passionate performances from Jason Isaacs and Martha Plimpton as Jay and Gail, the first couple we meet, and Ann Dowd and Reed Birney as Linda and Richard, the couple opposite them in the discussion. The wide range of emotional expression each actor possesses is displayed with such believable dexterity that it is easy to forget you are watching a film. Furthermore, Mass maintains a level of maturity that is refreshing to see in cinema, never descending into tiresome melodrama. At a few points, the movie easily could have stopped short with its presentation of characters and turned into a political polemic or PSA. Lazier writing and direction would have just demanded the audience be upset solely for subject matter reasons rather than demonstrate the complex effects of life events and familial relationships as the characters articulate their perspectives and feelings. You feel for these characters as genuine human beings.

      There is not a whole lot else I can say without spoiling the experience further. The movie is hyper-focused on its subject matter, and Kranz clearly put extraordinary effort into engendering the best possible performances from his actors which is commendable. I would be dishonest if I said I was eager to rewatch this film, but I appreciate the experience I had. Though he possesses considerable descriptive skill, Kranz clearly has too limited of a worldview to integrate a meaningful prescriptive message into his work which is disappointing. The subject matter is fairly heavy so go into Mass with an appropriate frame of mind. Adults, especially parents, should gain a memorable viewing experience.

RATING: ★★★½


4. The Father

Director: Florian Zeller
Writers: Christopher Hampton (screenplay by), Florian Zeller (screenplay by)
Starring: Anthony Hopkins, Olivia Colman, Mark Gatiss
Runtime: 97 mins
MPAA Rating: PG-13

      Anthony Hopkins shines as he delivers possibly the iconic performance of elderly mental decline. He is extraordinarily convincing as a man, appropriately named Anthony, grappling with dementia, and the writing drives home the pain caused by detachment from shared memories with your family and growing dependence on others. Anthony being violently at odds with his daughter Anne (Olivia Colman) and in-home caretakers and irked at his own inadequacy and inability to remember clearly forms the basis of the story’s conflict. From Anthony’s perspective, you begin to grasp how confusing, frustrating, and overwhelming it is to be unable to trust your own perception of reality despite considerable confidence in your physical and cognitive abilities established over a lifetime. To add further aggravation, glimpses of coherency and sharp wit can temporarily deceive those around him into thinking he is completely lucid but these moments are ephemeral and cruel flashes of false hope for reversal of decline. From Anne’s perspective, you begin to understand how painful it is to watch someone you love become disconnected from you and suffer. Writer-director Florian Zeller is never explicit about the true reality that Anthony is supposed to perceive as exemplified by two different men playing Anne’s male significant other at different points, effectively transmitting the state of psychological confusion to the audience. For the entirety of the fairly short runtime, Hopkins’ command of the screen is transfixing, and this role is one of the best performances of his career. Though definitely a worthwhile experience, The Father is incredibly depressing so consider yourself forewarned.

RATING: ★★★★


3. Nightmare Alley

Director: Guillermo del Toro
Writers: Guillermo del Toro (screenplay by), Kim Morgan (screenplay by), William Lindsay Gresham (based on the novel by)
Starring: Bradley Cooper, Cate Blanchett, Toni Collette
Runtime: 150 mins
MPAA Rating: R

      Guillermo Del Toro’s macabre cautionary tale about being drawn into a prison of your own hubris and self-delusion is sharply arresting despite a complete lack of sympathetic characters. The story introduces main character Stanton Carlisle (Bradley Cooper) as he buries a body underneath the floorboards of a dilapidated house which he then proceeds to set on fire. Before long, Carlisle finds himself employed with a shady Depression-era carnival. Quite possibly the freakiest character within the carnival himself (certainly in the running with Ron Perlman), the carnival’s owner Clem (Willem Dafoe) informs Carlisle that he lures in men with troubled pasts, turns them into down-and-out alcoholic fiends, and uses their crazed dependence to transform them into a beastly fan-favorite attraction known as the “geek”. The shrewd and ambitious Carlisle attempts to carve out a performing niche for himself by employing mentalist techniques he learns from the couple Zeena (Toni Collette) and Pete (David Strathaim) who put on a psychic act at the carnival. Embracing his inner con-artist, Carlisle becomes skilled at cold reading his marks and gleaning additional personal information via a coded language with his assistant and lover Molly (Rooney Mara), eventually able to fool people into believing they are communicating with dead relatives. However, when he takes his talent of clairvoyance to the high society of Buffalo, New York, he ends up entangled with elites who have the power to compensate generously for his services or bring his whole charade crashing down should he be found out.

      The three-act journey of Stanton Carlisle is cursed from the outset and the foreshadowing is not so subtle. Soon after beginning his employment, Carlisle has to help Clem find the current geek who has escaped his cage and is hiding within a Hell-themed labyrinthine horror walk; Carlisle must literally enter into the mouth of Satan to help apprehend the poor soul. Later, as Clem and Carlisle drop the violently ill geek off outside a hospital a neon cross with the half-burnt out words “Jesus Saves” staring down on them. This poignant religious imagery prepares you for the dark turns Carlisle’s character eventually takes. Bradley Cooper’s captivating portrayal of the extraordinarily self-confident Carlisle is largely accomplished through his eyes; the eyes-wide-open, piercing looks he gives are perfect for a conman crafting the illusion of being able to see into people’s heads. His accented charm makes for a character with believable self-confidence who can ingratitate most everyone. He is never likeable from the audience’s perspective but it is understandable and intriguing how he achieves success in life. Even as his downfall appears increasingly inevitable, it is impossible to avert one’s eyes. The supporting cast is excellent as well highlighted by Cate Blanchett’s Lilith Ritter, a seductive psychologist who is Carlisle’s conniving equal.

      Despite Nightmare Alley containing no monsters or creatures of any kind, Del Toro is technically masterful as ever, crafting a memorable neo-noir vision of both the high and low social classes in the United States during a period right at end of the Great Depression preceding involvment with World War II. The richly color-coordinated period sets and costumes comprise a stylish and immersive world where shadows are placed with expert precision and bright colors are almost entirely absent. Nearly every element of the presentation feels sinister, and the sense of dread is impossible to shake. Be aware that Del Toro’s attention-to-detail in every scene is purposeful. Be on the lookout for recurring symbols and geometry.

      The more lurid aspects of the presentation may be offputting to some but the messaging is a positive negative. Outside the overt warnings against dishonest gain, arrogance and short-sightedness preventing the heeding of admonition, and pride leading to downfall, the story functions as a harsh critique of weaponized psychoanalysis. If you have the ability to expose a person’s pscyhology, you have a moral responsibility to not manipulate and cause harm to the mind as with any medical professional and the body or any clergyman and the soul. Moreoever, this story serves as a cautioning against divination and, more generally, Occult practices by clearly showing that such things require a deal with the Devil and set you on a downward spiral to Hell. If a modern high-budget Hollywood thriller can deliver such wisdom whatever the method, I will always be appreciative, and I am sure many of you will be as well.

RATING: ★★★★


2. Pig

Director: Michael Sarnoski
Writers: Vanessa Block (story by), Michael Sarnoski (story by)
Starring: Nicolas Cage, Alex Wolff, Adam Arkin
Runtime: 92 mins
MPAA Rating: R

      Nicolas Cage plays a recluse living in the forest outside Portland, Oregon with his talented truffle hunting pig. If that is all you needed to know to be sold on this movie, stop reading and go watch it now.

      Cage’s character Robin sells the truffles he gathers to young fine dining restaurant supplier Amir (Alex Wolff) from Portland. Inevitably, the pig is stolen from Robin, and the story follows his furious efforts to locate his porcine friend and exact revenge on those who initiated the theft. This personal quest leads him through the nefarious underbelly of the Portand fine dining scene and forces him to confront aspects of his mysterious past. I am intentionally avoiding spoilers, but I will say that the way the writing cleverly intertwines Robin with the ultimately revealed villain through a shared understanding of a common sorrow is particularly elegant and emotionally satisfying. Nicolas Cage is perfectly cast as his aggressive style of acting is extremely fitting for his character and does not come across as goofy since Robin’s righteous fury is his driving force throughout the story.

      Despite the John Wick-eqsue setup, Pig is a cogent and emotionally mature film. On the surface, the story demonstrates how profound sensory experiences connected to past trauma can leave indelible marks upon the memory. Going a step deeper, it effectively communicates how understanding and empathy can temper blind rage. Delving into social commentary, Pig is not afraid to take jabs at the artifice and pretentiousness of much of modern urban society. My favorite scene of 2021 has Nicolas Cage’s Robin staring directly into the eyes of a chef at a chic Portland restaurant as Robin bluntly exposes the man’s insecurities and unfulfilled dreams, eventually showing his entire person and business to be a facade he thinks he must maintain to be accepted within the contemporary trends of the local culture.

      Well-paced with a slim runtime and not overly ambitious or preachy, Pig should be an enjoyable experience for all adults looking for an engaging drama. If you needed more convincing to go and see a Nicolas Cage film, I hope I gave you necessary impetus.

RATING: ★★★★


1. Licorice Pizza

Director: Paul Thomas Anderson
Writers: Paul Thomas Anderson
Starring: Alana Haim, Cooper Hoffman, Sean Penn
Runtime: 133 mins
MPAA Rating: R

      Set in San Fernando Valley in the mid-1970s, Licorice Pizza is an awkward coming-of-age story detailing the relationship between precocious teenage actor Gary Valentine (Cooper Hoffman) and bored photography assistant Alana Kane (Alana Haim) whose life has hit a brick wall at a dead end job in her mid twenties. How is such a banal setup the most entertaining film of the year? Well, for one, the movie is quite humorous. Renowned writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson pens one of his funniest scripts, not holding back when poking fun at all sorts of people, groups, the time period, and Hollywood itself. Licorice Pizza is a playful combination of satire and tribute to 1970s Hollywood. Most centrally, Gary Valentine himself is based off the adventurous childhood of film producer Gary Goetzman. Spinning off from the initial story thread are a variety of humorous developments and subplots often featuring ridiculous caricatures of famous Hollywood figures. Among the funniest of these characters is Sean Penn’s Jack Holden, based on the real-life William Holden, a care-free and obnoxiously confident Hollywood action star who is ready to drunkenly recreate stunts at a moment’s notice on his motorcycle. Also, of equally hysterical note is Bradley Cooper’s Jon Peters, an amusing mockery of film producer John H. Peters, whose cocaine-fueled bursts of aggression are tempered only by compulsive womanizing.

      Despite maintaining a firm identity as a comedy, Licorice Pizza’s off-and-on romance between its two leads is surprisingly genuine. Initiating the relationship, Gary’s affection for Alana is as sincere in the moment as anything can be for a 15-year old boy who can be just as easily distracted by the next business caper that comes into his head. Initially and rightfully turned off by the age gap, Alana succumbs to Gary’s charm as she is suffocated by her traditional Jewish family and is desperate for any new direction her life can take. It is obvious she craves Gary’s validation, and whenever their relationship is not flourishing, she is petty to hilarious lengths as she seeks to grab his attention and stoke his jealousy. Despite being occasionally upstaged by the lively cast of side characters, the lead performances anchor the entire presentation and are the heart of the story. Believe it or not, Licorice Pizza is the film debut for both Cooper Hoffman, son of the late Philip Seymour Hoffman, and Alana Haim, who are shockingly adept for their first time in leading roles. That being said, the specifity of expressions and the minutiae of the physical performances also points to the precision of Anderson’s direction.

      Licorice Pizza is a story where you can easily get caught up in any given situation due to how naturally everything flows together, but when you take a step back, you can only chuckle at how ridiculous the larger context is. I am not entirely sure that Paul Thomas Anderson had a specific ending in mind from the story’s outset, but that is largely irrelevant. As Gary and his gang get caught up into trouble time after time, the film suprisingly does not get repetitive as you stay engaged due to how charming, humorous, or thrilling each scene is. In fact, the film probably could have kept going with more subplots past the end of its runtime, and I would not have noticed. That is a compliment to Anderson’s workmanship.

      While Licorice Pizza is not the pinnacle of Paul Thomas Anderson’s filmography, it is still my favorite film of 2021. His screenwriting, actor direction, shot composition, and music selection are top-notch as always, but Licorice Pizza lacks the focus to be cohesive perfection in the realm of say There Will Be Blood (2007). Abounding with entertainment value, the story is energetic, humorous, and brimming with personality. You will be hard-pressed not to laugh or smile at some point. As should be obvious, I recommend Licorice Pizza to just about everyone.

RATING: ★★★★



HONORABLE MENTIONS

      Here are several more films that did not quite make the cut but I still think are worth your time. The honorable mentions are listed in alphabetical order.


About Endlessness

Director: Roy Andersson
Writers: Roy Andersson
Starring: Jessica Louthander (voice), Tatiana Delaunay, Anders Hellström
Runtime: 78 mins
MPAA Rating: Not Rated (probably would be PG-13)

      About Endlessness is a series of expertly framed vignettes presented by accomplished Swedish director Roy Andersson. Peculiar people and situations are captured with a still camera and a palpable distinterest. Intentionally bizarre and provocative moments stand out of the mundane presentation. As a detached narrator guides the viewer between scenes, the film is thematically glued together by a nearly ever-present cynicism regarding the flaws in human nature and a matter-of-fact treatment of the pains and uncertainties of the human condition. Though not many novel thoughts were provoked within me by this film, I enjoyed the surreal experience in and of itself. Not sure I can recommend this to many people or even to myself for a second watch but there was entertainment in that experience.

RATING: ★★★


Belfast

Director: Kenneth Branagh
Writers: Kenneth Branagh
Starring: Jude Hill, Lewis McAskie, Caitriona Balfe
Runtime: 98 mins
MPAA Rating: PG-13

      Belfast is blatant Oscar-bait…but sometimes I take the bait cause its appetizing. Kenneth Branagh gives us a personalized look at the Protestant-Catholic factional warfare that divided streets at the beginning of The Troubles in the capital of Northern Ireland in 1969 through the innocent eyes of nine-year-old Buddy (Jude Hill). As the viewer gets to know Buddy’s family and friends and how the tumultuous political backdrop has destabilizing effects for everyone in the community, the plot is not concerned with taking up an overbearing approach to the far-reaching consequences of the subject matter…and the movie is better for it. Experiencing nearly everything through the limited perspective of a child who only understands how the larger situation specifically affects his family and immediate surroundings allows the viewer to easily connect and sympathize with Buddy’s childhood predicaments. With the sociopolitical dimension given only facile treatment, the plot scurries past or whimsically depicts the more serious conflict inherent to the story’s context in order to not poison the air of innocence. The entire cast is top-notch; in particular, Ciarán Hinds is a scene-stealer every time he makes an appearance. Unsurprisingly, Branagh cannot restrain himself from naked set-ups for overly-emotional Oscar-bait-y exchanges between characters which frequently become excessively saccharine. Additionally, the workmanship of the film is not all that impressive. Apparently, personal films memorializing an important part of a director’s childhood now have to be shot in black-and-white as I can find no discernible reason for this artistic choice other than Branagh wanting to mimic Alfonso Cuaron’s far superior recent film Roma. Overall, the cinematography is quite dull. Despite no particularly thought-provoking content and no demonstration of visual mastery, the film skirts by on likeability, innocence, and emphasizing the rooted attachements and benefits of strong family and communities…and that is enough to satiate most audiences.

RATING: ★★★


CODA

Director: Sian Heder
Writers: Sian Heder (screenplay), Victoria Bedos (motion picture “La Famille Belier”), Stanislas Carré de Malberg (motion picture “La Famille Belier”)
Starring: Emilia Jones, Marlee Matlin, Troy Kotsur
Runtime: 111 mins
MPAA Rating: PG-13

      Between the recent entertaining A Quiet Place films, the excellent character study The Sound of Metal which made my Top 10 list in 2020, and now CODA, “deaf movies” are essentially their own subgenre at this point in modern cinema. CODA tells the story of teenager Ruby Rossi (Emilia Jones) who is the CODA or Child of Deaf Adults. While her father, mother, and brother are deaf and dexterously portrayed by deaf thespians Troy Kotsur, Marlee Matlin, and Daniel Durant, respectively, Ruby discovers she has the gift of singing in her final year of high school, and her desire to take her talents to the next level at Berklee College of Music brings her into conflict with her family’s desire to haver her continue helping with the family fishing business after graduation. Understanding how to articulate oneself and seeking resolution with family are the core content of this story. The deaf family dynamics are the most appealing and entertaining element as brought to life by the convincing performances which hold your attention at the most humorous as well as the most serious points of the movie. Consequently, the characters are able to rise above a predictable plot; there is enough likeable characterization and believable familial conflict to stir the audience’s empathetic interest despite lack of suspense and regurgitation of many tired tropes. One more additional note…these characters are some of the most sex-obsessed individuals I can recall from recent memory, and much of the film’s humor draws from this aspect for better or worse. Still, I recommend this film to those who might enjoy a family-based, coming-of-age drama with uplifting messaging. This story is apparently adapted from a 2014 French film The Bélier Family which might be even better…or worse…I don’t know I haven’t seen it

RATING: ★★★


Demon Slayer: Mugen Train

Director: Haruo Sotozaki
Writers: Koyoharu Gotouge (manga: “Kimetsu no yaiba”)
Starring: Natsuki Hanae (voice), Akari Kitô (voice), Yoshitsugu Matsuoka (voice)
Runtime: 117 mins
MPAA Rating: PG-13

      Here is my nod to all you anime fans out there…and it is not just obligatory. I sincerely enjoyed the first season of Demon Slayer. Heartfelt storytelling, an immensely likeable hero, slapstick humor, sinister but understandable villains, severe stakes, creative design, and much more wrapped into wildly entertaining, digestible episodes. Though the emotion and humor can often be cartoonishly over-the-top in a distinctly Eastern manner, the strength and sincerity of the underlying writing shines through its sillier moments as it places heavy emphasis on traditional familial bonds, inherent natural order, fulfillment of duty, the value of friendship and mentorship, and the necessity of discipline and training in overcoming evil. On a technical level, the colorful and dynamic animation is genuinely progressive in its depictive creativity. There is a lot more I could say about the show, but I’m here to review the standalone film Mugen Train.

      The plot of Mugen Train is a direct continuation of the anime’s first season so you will be completely lost if you are coming into this universe blind. That being said, Mugen Train brings a previously undeveloped character Rengoku to the forefront as a competent masculine mentor for our series protagonist Tanjiro; the story gives Rengoku a compelling personal examination and arc involving completion of duty that is self-contained. Structurally, the film is more or less just a series of creative fight sequences against evil monsters on a train. All the aforementioned elements of Demon Slayer are on display here and every positive element shines brightly. However, Mugen Train does not quite function coherently without context and probably works better integrated into the show’s episodic format. As a critic of standalone films, I am limited in giving a rating that fully represents how much I do like Demon Slayer. That being said, I definitely recommend the series and this movie for those looking for an out-of-the-box story and universe to enjoy.

RATING: ★★★


Drive My Car

Director: Ryûsuke Hamaguchi
Writers: Haruki Murakami (short story), Ryûsuke Hamaguchi, Takamasa Oe
Starring: Hidetoshi Nishijima, Tôko Miura, Reika Kirishima
Runtime: 179 mins
MPAA Rating: PG-13

      Drive My Car is a slow-paced, contemplative character study of a man burdened by grief but unhealthily resigned to its effects. A couple years after the death of his wife, talented theater director Yūsuke (Hidetoshi Nishijima) is chosen to helm an adaptation of Anton Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya in Hiroshima under the condition he accepts a chauffeur to transport him between his residence and the studio. Of humble origins and less-than-genteel, Misaki (Tôko Miura), the reliable young company-assigned driver, seemingly has little in common with her high-minded artistic passenger who simply needs her to accomodate his compulsive cassette tape-based line memorization regimen while in transit. However, over time, Yūsuke and Misaki connect with one other as they are ultimately united by painful familial losses and both yearn for catharsis despite their outward stoicism. At the heart of this story lies the struggle of grappling with grief and escaping self-imposed mental prisons so that progression in life is possible. Pay attention to what direction the camera is facing during in-vehicle scenes at different points throughout the film.

      What I appreciate about the story is how it does not intellectualize excuses for immoral, psychologically hurtful, and relationship-damaging actions by others that would probably be abstracted away or outright justified in modern Western art films. As a result, Drive My Car is able to ultimately give a prescriptive resolution to the troubles of its main character. By bluntly admitting his own self-delusion, Yūsuke is able to come to grips with his painful past. All that is quite well and good…however, the film being nearly three hours long is unforgivable. Most of the first hour could be substantially cut down including the completely unnecessary gratuitous sexual content. There is much more to Drive My Car that I haven’t even touched upon, but exposing the core of the film hopefully entices some mature and patient viewers to take the time to appreciate its strengths as well.

RATING: ★★★½


Judas and the Black Messiah

Director: Shaka King
Writers: Will Berson (story by), Shaka King (story by), Kenneth Lucas (story by)
Starring: Daniel Kaluuya, LaKeith Stanfield, Jesse Plemons
Runtime: 126 mins
MPAA Rating: R

      Judas and the Black Messiah is an absorbing biopic about Black Panther leader Fred Hampton (Daniel Kaluuya) and the infiltation of his organization and undermining of his multiracial coalition-forming efforts by the FBI. Period sets, vehicles, costumes, and vernacular appropriately immerse you in late 1960s Chicago. While Kaluuya more than exudes the charisma necessary to capture the oratory prowess of Hampton, the standout performance comes from Lakeith Stanfield as the conflicted informant Bill O’Neal who reluctantly cooperates with his FBI handler Roy Mitchell (Jesse Plemons) in an attempt to evade criminal charges. Stanfield adeptly portrays the struggle of being forced to act against one’s conscience and how constant suppression of that conscience will eat you alive from the inside. Ultimately, his character effectively demonstrates the danger of not being moored by principles of any sort. This film is not particularly subtle in its messaging (not that it needs to be) and serves as an astringent indictment of the FBI’s COINTELPRO methods. As I have stated in the past, I am not a huge fan of biopics as reading actual history is far more interesting to me than a dramatization that essentially drives through the highlights of a Wikipedia article about a person or event. Unfortunately, that is still the case with Judas and the Black Messiah though the filmmaking is a bit higher quality than the average biopic. If the topic interests you, definitely check this one out but also be sure to read up on the history.

RATING: ★★★


No Sudden Move

Director: Steven Soderbergh
Writers: Ed Solomon
Starring: Don Cheadle, Benicio Del Toro, David Harbour
Runtime: 115 mins
MPAA Rating: R

      No Sudden Move is a neat neo-noir effort from eclectic director Steven Soderbergh. Gangster hatchet men Curtis Goynes (Don Cheadle) and Ronald Russo (Benicio Del Toro) are hired to perform a high value corporate heist involving the familiar crime movie elements: holding people at gunpoint with masks on, demanding people open safes, counting money, double-crosses, etc. 1950s Detroit at the peak of its industrial richness is not a frequently used setting for period pieces and gives the film a unique look and atmosphere. Furthermore, this urban setting allows for the mid-century organized crime of both the Black and Italian varieties to be interleaved with the questionable ethics and motivations of auto industry executives. Lead performances are superb and an entertaining black humor underlies the noir pessimism and cynicism embedded in the films’s DNA; the viewer can easily latch onto the personalities of the main characters despite their unscrupulous behavior. Unfortunately, Soderbergh, who is known for experimenting with unconventional filming methods, decides to shoot the whole movie with an extreme wide-angle “fisheye” lens which purposefully distorts everything not center frame. It is extremely distracting and visually unappealing. Presentation annoyances and lack of originality aside, I enjoyed No Sudden Move and would be interested in a follow-up movie or episodic series specifically following the character of Curtis Goynes.

RATING: ★★★


No Time to Die

Director: Cary Joji Fukunaga
Writers: Neal Purvis (screenplay by), Robert Wade (screenplay by), Cary Joji Fukunaga (screenplay by)
Starring: Daniel Craig, Ana de Armas, Rami Malek
Runtime: 163 mins
MPAA Rating: PG-13

      No Time to Die is a fitting send off to one of the most memorable action heroes of the new millennium. My high opinion of Craig’s smooth and cool incarnation of Agent 007 was formed over the course of the first three films…I am going to be forthright and admit that I never actually watched Spectre (2015). I thoroughly enjoyed the sleek Casino Royale (2006) as the tense game of poker plays out on and off the table, and the rage-filled revenge affair in Quantum of Solace (2008) was entertaining even if it was not the most memorable Bond film. I never understood the heaps of critical praise showered upon Skyfall (2012) as I thought it was all style over meaningful coherency. While Bond villains are grandiose and impractical, the writing makes the villain omniscient when it needs him to be and has no meaningful stakes to set up which results in the story strangely devolving into a ridiculous action thriller version of Home Alone in the final act. Consequently, I became disinterested in watching another entry in the franchise until I heard that Craig was performing in one last hurrah.

      Though I was not fully connected to the plot in No Time to Die as Spectre feeds into it directly, I enjoyed the humanized take on Bond who genuinely wants to get out of the dangerous world of intrigue and espionage and attach himself to something of permanence. Tying him to a persistent love interest accomplishes this end and makes the stakes of the movie more grave. Most of the recurring characters from the franchise are integrated appropriately into the story. Though the story was not terribly engaging and Rami Malek’s villain is a hard for me to take seriously with how ridiculous his performance is, I was impressed by the choreography of both the hand-to-hand combat and vehicle-based action sequences. Some cool fights, stunts, and tech gadgets are more than enough to keep you awake across the film’s hefty runtime. Unfortunately, a lot of nonsense is stuffed into the interstices of this movie. Bloat and some ominous social messaging aside, the writing suffices to tie a nice little bow on the franchise if not much else. I see no reason why fans of the previous Craig-era Bond films would not enjoy No Time to Die.

RATING: ★★★


Nobody

Director: Ilya Naishuller
Writers: Derek Kolstad
Starring: Bob Odenkirk, Aleksey Serebryakov, Connie Nielsen
Runtime: 92 mins
MPAA Rating: R

      Short but abounding with VIOLENCE, Nobody leans into action-packed ridiculousness for maximal visual sensation. While attempting to maintain a mundane middle-class existence with his wife and two kids, retired intelligence agency “auditor” (i.e. assassin) Hutch Mansell (Bob Odenkirk) becomes entangled with a VIOLENT Russian crime boss Yulian (Aleksei Serebryakov) through a contrived series of VIOLENT events leading to him unleashing his abeyant ability to skillfully commit acts of VIOLENCE. John Wick writer Derek Kolstad appears to be satirizing his own work and the cloth from which it is cut. Every trope from John Wick-style modern action movies (e.g. Taken, The Equalizer) is presented and pushed to preposterous lengths for humorous effect. Ultimately, Nobody feels like a Quentin Tarantino-style take on John Wick, and though it has enough humor and action-packed craziness to captivate in the moment, I highly doubt Nobody has enough originality and cultural relevance to insert itself into the greater action movie canon. However, I do not doubt that strong-stomached lovers of stylistic VIOLENT action movies will be entertained by NOBODY.

RATING: ★★★


Oxygen

Director: Alexander Aja
Writers: Christie LeBlanc
Starring: Mélanie Laurent, Mathieu Amalric (voice), Malik Zidi
Runtime: 100 mins
MPAA Rating: TV-14

      In this claustrophobic thriller, a woman (Mélanie Laurent) wakes up in a cryogenic sleep chamber with comprehensive amnesia and a dwindling oxygen supply. The only source of information and conversation for our discombobulated protagonist is M.I.L.O., the pod’s A.I., who is eager to sedate her but uneager to liberate her. The simplicity of the predicament, a competent lead performance, and precise placement of plot-progressing revelations in between moments of physical and emotional distress allow the film to maintain hyper-focused intensity; with less competent direction, the familiar situation could very quickly grow tiresome. The sci-fi aesthetics of this near future medical prison provide a slick veneer to the setting and make the situation even more mysterious and disconcerting. Though an extremely entertaining experience in the moment, Oxygen falls a bit flat when it broadens its scope…and I will be in SPOILER territory if I continue discussing. Still, I highly recommend it to those looking for something tense and exciting to stream on Netflix.

RATING: ★★★


Parallel Mothers

Directors: Pedro Almodóvar
Writers: Pedro Almodóvar
Starring: Penélope Cruz, Milena Smit, Israel Elejalde
Runtime: 123 mins
MPAA Rating: R

      I found this film wildly entertaining but probably not for the reasons director Pedro Almodóvar intended. The acting from leads Penélope Cruz and Milena Smit is undeniably superb in its authenticity. Almodóvar’s precise shot framing atop his elegant interior set design is visually impeccable. The story is briskly-paced, and, despite getting sidetracked every once and a while, finds ways to remain attention-grabbing right up until the credits roll. I will not deny the quality of the technical filmmaking. However, this movie was unable to generate its intended response from me. Despite light-hearted moments, the film is meant to be taken seriously overall. Though I was unable to do so, I still greatly enjoyed my experience from a slightly shifted perspective. Replete with mix-ups, communication breakdowns, coincidental encounters, randomly inserted romances, and comically un-subtle political statements, Parallel Mothers is structured like a situational comedy and a quite humorous one at that.

      Characters flippantly abdicating social responsibilities and deviating from societal norms is amusingly appalling while ultimately no character suffers any meaningful consequences for their selfish actions as in a comedy. Reading between the lines, I doubt Almodóvar has a firm grasp on the nature and purpose of parenthood so I am glad that he has such skill with artistic flair and crafting entertaining exchanges between characters. In the end, the comedy of errors works out for everyone, and, in fact, is the perfect setup for a socio-political message! Hinted at throughout the plot, the film has a silly buried narrative about the tragedies of the Spanish Civil War intended to be the closing emotional gut punch to the audience. It is humorous that this director thinks he holds such unassailable moral high ground to justify being so overtly didactic. Having watched Pan’s Labyrinth (2006), I consider myself an expert on the Spanish Civil War so I was disappointed by the lack of context provided before going straight to all-out emotional manipulation. Anyways, Parallel Mothers is mostly enjoyable even if it is not all that recommendable. If it sounds entertaining, check it out.

RATING: ★★★½


Quo Vadis, Aida?

Director: Jasmila Žbanić
Writers: Jasmila Žbanić (screenplay by), Hasan Nuhanovic (inspired by the book “Under the UN Flag” by)
Starring: Jasna Đuričić, Izudin Bajrović, Boris Ler
Runtime: 101 mins
MPAA Rating: Approved (probably would be PG-13)

      Jasna Đuričić portrays the anguish of a mother doing everything humanly possible to save those she loves. This mother named Aida is a UN translator at the safety zone housing Bosniak refugees from the town of Srebrenica as Serbian troops besiege them. The Dutch UN forces of questionable competency tending to the safe zone lose control of the situation and cannot prevent Serbian troops from gaining control of the refugee encampment and eventually rounding up all fighting aged males for execution. Though Aida has guaranteed safe passage from the UN for herself, she pleas for that same passage to be extended to her husband and two sons as time for evacuation runs out. The intensity and desperation of the situation makes for a gripping experience. However, holding this film back is its ultimate function as historical propaganda; it does little to contextualize the complex Yugoslav conflicts in the 1990s and uses raw emotional manipulation as a hammer. Without context, a Western viewer is going to indubitably equate the Serbs to Nazis in order to have a reference point for the severity of the situation. However, the Srebrenica Massacre and the Holocaust are not comparable in context nor degree. Nonetheless, Quo Vadis, Aida? is a heart-wrenching drama with one of the best performances of the year and should be compelling for many.

RATING: ★★★


West Side Story

Director: Steven Spielberg
Writers: Tony Kushner (screenplay by),Arthur Laurents (based on the stage play, book by)
Starring: Ansel Elgort, Rachel Zegler, Ariana DeBose
Runtime: 112 mins
MPAA Rating: PG-13

      Updating the 1957 musical West Side Story and its subsequent cinematic treatment in 1961 for a new generation could be seen as a labor of love or a cash withdrawal depending on how cynical you are. Fortunately, Steven Spielberg takes few risks remaking a classic. The score is essentially untouched with all the highlight tunes given lively renditions. The plot has few deviations from its Romeo and Juliet blueprint. As for noticeable differences, it has been a while since I’ve viewed the original film but the sharp racial divide between the factions never felt terribly convincing most likely due to the Puerto Ricans being mostly white actors in shoddy makeup and the fact that the ethnic conflict was originally envisioned to be between Jews and Catholics on the East Side. In this iteration, the Sharks are unapologetically ethnic to the point that Spanglish is frequently spoken without subtitles. The talented Rachel Zegler as Maria is a congruent replacement for Rita Moreno (who plays a different but important role in the film) though Ansel Elgort’s Tony is not terribly charismatic but gets by on looks and charm. The Shark and Jet gangs have enough distinct personalities to make their incessant conflict engaging, and added contextualization to a few characters makes the stakes a bit more grave. Sweeping crane shots bookend a film that exhibits a high degree of professionalism in all major respects: acting, choreography, shot composition, sets, lighting, etc. Is this film necessary? Probably not. Is it a vehicle for modern themes to be subversively pushed upon the viewer? Yes, but not aggressively so. Is this film innovative? No, and that is probably for the best. If you enjoy the source material or modern cinematic musicals in general, I definitely expect you to enjoy this version of West Side Story as well.

RATING: ★★★



THE SO-BAD-IT’S-GOOD AWARD


Old

Director: M. Night Shyamalan
Writers: M. Night Shyamalan (written for the screen by), Pierre-Oscar Lévy (based on the graphic novel “Sandcastle” by), Frederik Peeters (based on the graphic novel “Sandcastle” by)
Starring: Gael García Bernal, Vicky Krieps, Rufus Sewell
Runtime: 108 mins
MPAA Rating: PG-13

      Since the mid-aughts, accomplished twist-ending writer-director M. Night Shyamalan appears to have been gunning for this award every year he has released a movie. He put forward the exceedingly bad Lady in the Water (2006), The Last Airbender (2010), After Earth (2013), and Glass (2019) which all lacked enough entertainment value to be serious candidates. In 2016, he mistakenly made a good movie, Split. In 2008 and 2015, Shyamalan easily could have won my annual honor had it existed with The Happening and The Visit, respectively. The meta-twist in both of those features is that they are actually comedies masquerading as horror films. Now, in 2021, he has once again crafted a horror-thriller whose execution is too funny not to be taken as a comedy.

      Old sets up a biology-bending horror scenario on a secluded beach where several groups of vacationers begin to age rapidly and find themselves cut off from the inland since anyone who attempts to leave the beach passes out. As the characters soon deduce, thirty minutes on the beach equals one year of normal bodily aging. Will they escape before they die of old age? If the premise sounds silly but intriguing, I can assure you it is both silly and intriguing in the sense that you are constantly wondering what stupidity will unfold next. Whether it is a knife-wielding man rapidly going senile or a teenage boy with the mind of a toddler getting a teenage girl pregnant followed by said teenager giving birth twenty minutes later, there is never a dull moment. The film gives every tonal indication that these scenarios are supposed to be extremely tense and taken seriously yet the execution is so incompetent and the acting is so incomprehensibly poor that I struggle to believe the film is not self-aware. The performances oftentimes do not even feel perfunctory; it feels as though the actors are being intentionally directed to act poorly. The haphazard camerawork is often close-up and obscures what it wants, which is helpful for whenever Shyamalan needs to switch in the next set of older child actors.

      The funniest scene in the movie is a toss-up between two formidably hilarious contenders. In the first scene, a desperate girl attempts to climb up a sheer cliff face to escape the beach before passing out and falling like a mannequin to her death in a shot that looks like a gag out of a Monty Python sketch. In the second scene, nearly the entire cast collectively works to remove a rapidly metastasizing tumor from inside one of the female characters. The surgery is made extra tricky by the fact that incisions close themselves up almost instantaneously on the beach’s timescale; this complication necessitates several characters forcibly holding the woman’s lower abdomen open as the doctor in the group removes the ballooning tumor which has reached a comically sized critical mass. The completely unconvincing performances during this ridiculous sequence are entirely incommensurate with the severity of the situation as indicated by the film’s adamantly serious tone. Nonetheless, I was doing everything I could to stifle my laughter for those in the theater attempting to genuinely experience the story.

      As for the twist itself, it is far too ex post facto to have any bearing on any meaningfully developed character (there are not many) and turns the whole story into a goofy Twilight Zone episode. Shyamalan probably thinks he has set up a thought-provoking ethical dilemma but questions like the one the film poses have been considered many times over and internationally agreed upon precedents exist (see Nuremberg Code). It is a grandiose and ludicrous framework that takes what has been an intimate and tightly focused movie and makes it grossly impersonal. More simply, it is a stupid justification for all the shenanigans that you get to witness for the previous ninety minutes. The ending aside, Old is possibly the funniest movie of 2021 even if it is unintentionally so. I recommend it and much of the rest of Shyamalan’s catalog to those of you who can enjoy films ironically.

RATING: ★½


comments powered by Disqus