THE TRAGEDY OF MACBETH – To be honest, the trailer alone became my favorite movie of the year as soon as I saw it, and the actual feature certainly doesn’t disappoint. In fact, my appreciation for it only grew on the second viewing. Joel Coen’s first “solo” movie (without his brother Ethan) is a stunning visual feast, its stark black-and-white cinematography and soundstage artificiality creating a dreamlike state that portends doom in every frame. This movie is just so damn gorgeous, and of course the material and performances are top-notch, with Denzel Washington and Frances McDormand making absolute meals of the leads, and consistently excellent work from the supporting cast as well, none more enjoyable than the delightful, scene-stealing Stephen Root as the hungover porter. Speaking of scene-stealing, I would be remiss not to mention Kathryn Hunter as the unholy trinity of witches known as the Weyard Sisters in the original text; it is a performance of unparalleled grotesquerie and eeriness that is perfectly matched by the cinematography and sound design. The word “awesome” gets thrown around very casually, but this movie truly deserves to be described as such.
THE POWER OF THE DOG – A hell of a slow burn, with an incredibly menacing but nuanced lead performance by Benedict Cumberbatch, this movie is also a masterpiece of visual storytelling. Many of the most important, telling moments arrive without a bit of dialogue, particularly its doozy of an ending and the setup for it, but also the way Phil (Cumberbatch) musically torments his hated sister-in-law, Rose (Kirsten Dunst), as she practices the piano, and of course the striking scene in which we see Phil’s hidden, softer side. Jesse Plemons is quietly excellent as Phil’s bullied brother, “Fatso,” and Kodi Smit-McPhee is pitch-perfect as the strange, sensitive Peter, Rose’s son. Just as Phil has a hidden side beneath his hard, cruel exterior, Peter contains multitudes as well, and the evolution of their relationship is absolutely fascinating. Jane Campion has made her best movie yet, a gorgeously shot, expertly crafted work of art.
SAINT MAUD – Another incredible slow burn, this debut feature from British writer-director Rose Glass gets my vote for best horror movie of the year, though it could also be fairly deemed a straight drama with a horrific, very subjective viewpoint. Morfydd Clark is grimly compelling as Maud, a recovered addict who has replaced her former vices with an equally damaging obsession with religious piety and righteousness. It gradually becomes clear just how unhealthy her newfound faith is when she begins working as a nurse for Amanda (Jennifer Ehle), a terminally ill dancer whose soul Maud becomes determined to save. This is a harrowing, intense, very impressive first feature that reminded me favorably of The VVitch, which I consider one of the absolute best horror movies of the century so far.
SUMMER OF SOUL (…OR, WHEN THE REVOLUTION COULD NOT BE TELEVISED) – The concert footage alone (featuring electrifying performances from Stevie Wonder, Nina Simone, Sly and the Family Stone, Mahalia Jackson, and many more) would make this a must-see, but the legendary Questlove did so much more with his first film. Summer of Soul is not just a great concert movie, but a vital document of cultural history, with great insight into our present historical moment as well. The standout non-musical sequence shows the contrasting views on the big “Whitey on the Moon” news story of the year, with the mainstream (white) media showing nothing but excitement and support for the space mission, while the concertgoers at the Harlem Cultural Festival wonder why all that money can’t be put to better use here on Earth. Some things really haven’t changed since that much celebrated summer over 50 years ago.
THE WHITE TIGER – Though this movie and the next two on the list received some well-deserved Oscar love at the 2021 Academy Awards (just a single nomination for this one, sadly), they were all officially released in the United States in the calendar year of 2021, so call me crazy, but I’m counting them as 2021 releases. Ramin Bahrani’s excellent rags-to-riches story follows Balram (Adarsh Gourav) from the impoverished slums of India to the heights of ruthless, ill-gotten wealth. Like the best film of two years past, Parasite, this is a sharp critique of the social imbalance and misery created by capitalism, wrapped in an intensely gripping, darkly comic thriller.
THE FATHER – Another drama that plays almost like a horror movie due to its intensely subjective point-of-view. Writer-director Florian Zeller puts the viewer right inside the advancing age and declining mental faculties of the titular patriarch, played by Anthony Hopkins in a heartbreakingly vulnerable performance of a sort we’ve rarely, if ever, seen from the legendary actor. This is the most impressive immersion in a disabled state I’ve seen since The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, and the best movie about the horrors and sorrows of aging since Amour. It is not an easy watch, but it is probably the most painfully true movie of the year.
MINARI – Like a lot of the films on this list, this one really feels like an instant classic. It is a quietly beautiful, deeply resonant story of family, in all its messy, funny, heartbreaking specificity. Lee Isaac Chung’s semi-autobiographical heartwarmer was written and made with so much love and truth that it’s infectious. How can you not root for the Yi family in their struggles against the hardships of life? The evolving relationship between the youngest and oldest members of the family, David (Alan Kim) and Soon-ja (Oscar winner Youn Yuh-Jung), respectively, provides a delightful balance to the more tenuous and shifting commitment shared by the parents, Jacob and Monica (Steven Yeun and Han Ye-ri, both excellent). With all the authentic emotion and memorable quirks of a real family, Minari is like fine, understated poetry.
ZOLA – This is a wild one! The first movie to be based on a Twitter thread (which I admit was a surreal and slightly annoying phrase to type, but I typed it with my thumbs in the back of a Lyft, so this is where we’re at now) is one of the liveliest, most entertaining, and definitely funniest movies of the year. Those of us who hungrily read the saga on Twitter back in 2015 had been anticipating this movie ever since, and upon its arrival it joined the ranks of crazy Florida crime movies such as Spring Breakers and Pain & Gain in this reviewer’s heart. Taylour Paige is deadpan hilarious in the title role, especially delivering voice-over dialogue like “They start fucking; it was gross,” and Riley Keough is cringey perfection as the deceitful, self-serving Stefani, who gets Zola into the terrible mess that forms the movie’s story.
THE KILLING OF TWO LOVERS – Similar to the also excellent Pig, this is a movie that defies expectations in thrilling, original ways. Opening on an almost unbearably tense moment in which David (Clayne Crawford) contemplates the double-murder of his wife, Niki (Sepideh Moafi), and her new lover, Derek (Chris Coy), Robert Machoian’s masterful drama unfolds with surprising nuance and tenderness, while maintaining that undercurrent of tension and dread throughout. Crawford is captivating in the lead role, convincingly portraying the desperation of a man on the verge of losing everything he has and struggling to hold it all together.
NOBODY – This is one of those movies that practically feels designed for me: it’s like John Wick, but starring Bob Odenkirk in the lead kill-the-fuck-out-of-everybody role, and also how about if his sidekick is RZA from the Wu-Tang Clan? Odenkirk sells the sad, defeated ordinary guy side of his dual persona better than any action star in the history of this type of movie because, obviously, he has never been an action star. Until now! What is truly amazing is how well he (and of course the filmmakers) sell the action hero side. This is the purest fun I had watching a movie in the past year, and it has my new favorite Chekhov’s Gun moment planted right in the middle of its climactic shootout sequence. I laughed out loud and applauded at that moment (you’ll know it when you see it), and I was watching at home with my cat. The best action movie of the year, no question.