Oscar Goff is the film editor and senior movie critic for Boston Hassle. He is a member of the Boston Society of Film Critics and the Boston Online Film Critics’ Association, and still carries his Blockbuster Video membership card just in case.
Was it the best of times or the worst of times? In 2021, it was hard to tell. On the one hand, vaccines finally started to make their way into arms, and life began inching toward something vaguely resembling normalcy. On the other hand, “normal” in 21st-century America is still pretty damn weird, and enough Facebook-poisoned contrarians refused to follow the most basic safety measures that we are officially entering Year Three of a global pandemic. No one knows what the future will hold, but as of press time it is plain that we are still officially doing this.
But one area which has definitively moved in a positive direction is The Movies. One by one, slowly but surely, Boston’s most beloved theaters reopened their doors, and the moviegoing public has gradually rebuilt enough confidence to refill their seats. Following a press screening for Spiral: From the Book of Saw (which, truth be told, circumstances probably led me to go soft on in my review), my “official” post-vax return to the movies came with the Coolidge Corner Theatre’s grand reopening screening of Do the Right Thing. Watching Spike Lee’s incendiary classic in the Coolidge’s ornate MovieHouse I, I found myself having the strangest cry of my life– not in response to any particular on-screen stimulus, but rather a steady stream of tears which would start and stop, seemingly at random, like a faucet, often for several minutes before I even noticed. In the months since that screening I have made more than 50 return trips to the cinema, and I have not taken a single one for granted.
With the return of moviegoing, of course, came the return of the movies themselves. 2021 provided a veritable deluge of releases, some held over from the aborted 2020 release slate, others shot with newly instated COVID protocols in place. Quite reasonably, not everyone is yet ready to return to the cinema, but those who have were met with no shortage of options. This year I made a solid effort to knuckle down and watch as many year-end screeners as I could fit into my eyeballs, and only occasionally did it feel like a chore. If anyone tells you movies aren’t what they used to be, tell them to look harder.
As always, there are omissions which will undoubtedly keep me up at night. Absent, you’ll notice, are such awards season heavy-hitters as The Power of the Dog (which I respected more than I loved), Spencer (which I loved more than I expected), and Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s twin masterpieces Drive My Car and Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy (which, by any metric, undoubtedly amount to the cinematic achievement of the year). These are all great films, but they don’t need me stumping for them; I approach my own top ten list as something more personal than definitive, and don’t feel the need to include all of the “best.” Even on those terms, there are films I feel rotten about leaving out: Todd Stephens’ bittersweet Swan Song, which contains my favorite performance of the year courtesy of Teutonic cult legend Udo Kier; the animated fever dream Cryptozoo, which captures the feeling of stumbling across a spooky old paperback in a dusty new age bookstore; Julia Ducournau’s Titane, which all but dares stodgy award panels to recognize its transgressive artistry; Old, the latest in M. Night Shyamalan’s run of charmingly guileless head-scratchers. Suffice to say that I loved all of these films and more, and heartily recommend you catch up with them over the holidays.
- MALIGNANT (dir. James Wan)
I’ll admit, I feel a little guilty as a critic for smuggling this one in here, especially given this year’s embarrassment of riches. But here’s the thing: every time I scrolled through my running list of movies I consumed this year, I found myself involuntarily smiling every time I hit James Wan’s nasty little opus. There is a reveal at the end of the second act (which I wouldn’t dream of spoiling, but those in the know will certainly recognize) which made me bark out loud with delight, and I didn’t stop grinning like an idiot for the entire remainder of the film. Malignant finds Wan letting his hair down, forgoing his recent string of elegant ghost stories and returning to the bonkers strain of grindhouse thrills on which he made his name. It brought me back to my teenage years wasted on trashy horror movies in strip mall multiplexes– and I couldn’t possibly leave it out. (Currently available for digital rental or purchase on all major platforms)
- THE SPARKS BROTHERS (dir. Edgar Wright)
Shortly after seeing The Sparks Brothers, my partner came home from work and excitedly told me that she’d gotten all of her coworkers into Sparks’ music. She then paused, reflected, and asked, “How did I become an evangelist for this band I’ve only been listening to for two weeks?” This has always been the appeal of Sparks, a genre-hopping oddity of a band which has persisted on word-of-mouth for the past fifty years. In this documentary, Edgar Wright presents the cinematic equivalent of a manic record store clerk’s spiel, exhaustively detailing the many reasons to love the band’s quirky catalog (and turning its dual creative engines, endlessly droll brothers Ron and Russell Mael, into instant talking-head movie stars). As a longtime fan myself, it’s done my heart good to see so many new fans get Sparkspilled (and, as we will see, their introduction would not end here…). (Currently streaming on Netflix)
- THE TRAGEDY OF MACBETH (dir. Joel Coen)
For his first film sans newly-retired brother Ethan, Joel Coen found a new screenwriting partner: William Shakespeare. But the Coens have always had a knack for bending familiar material to their will, and Joel here transforms the Bard’s work into something strange and wonderful. Shot in black and white and filled with jutting, exaggerated shadows, the Scottish Play is rendered into a sort of German Expressionist horror story. Coen’s film is anchored on Denzel Washington’s pensive, weary take on the Thane of Cawdor, but the heart and soul of the film lies in Kathryn Hunter’s extraordinary, almost inhuman performance as the embodiment of the three Weird Sisters. Even if you snoozed through Shakespeare in high school, this one just might keep you up at night. (Opens Saturday, 12/25 @ Coolidge Corner Theatre. Streaming on AppleTV+ starting 1/14)
- WEST SIDE STORY (dir. Steven Spielberg)
Like Coen, Steven Spielberg tried his hand at one of the most famous plays in the English language, but where Coen turns in a wildly unconventional adaptation, Spielberg preserves the best-loved elements of West Side Story– Leonard Bernstein’s jazzy score, Stephen Sondheim’s tongue-twisting lyrics, Jerome Robbins’ dazzling choreography– and pulls them into high-definition focus. The question of “Why bother?” is answered instantly: simply put, the man knows where to put a camera, and Spielberg’s West Side Story crackles with a joy and intensity often lacking in the blockbusters of today. Screenwriter Tony Kushner makes some savvy updates– the Puerto Ricans feel less like ethnic stereotypes, the Jets feel more authentically dangerous, and a trans subplot is even organically inserted– but the urgency and artistry of the original remain intact, making this the rare remake which is neither slavishly beholden nor sheepishly apologetic for its predecessor. This is Spielberg’s first musical (fulfilling a career-long goal), and the result is so thrilling that one hopes it isn’t the last. (Now playing in theaters everywhere)
- PIG (dir. Michael Sarnoski)
Nicolas Cage has been in the Nicolas Cage business for so long now that one could be forgiven for assuming that Pig would be just another VOD screamathon– particularly after seeing its trailer, which all but sells it as “John Wick with a truffle pig.” But those who sought it out were met with a different animal (err, so to speak) altogether: an intimate, often devastating portrait of grief and artistic passion. As reclusive celebrity-chef-turned-truffle-hunter Robin Feld, Cage flexes muscles he hasn’t been asked to use in ages, portraying a very human character all but broken by a world too harsh for his creative tenderness. In one of the film’s most unforgettable moments, he warns a one-time protege, “We don’t get a lot of things to really care about.” A cynic might read this as Cage commenting on the roles he’s usually offered, but Pig reminds us that, when he does find a reason to care, there’s no one else like him. (Currently streaming on Hulu)
- THE GREEN KNIGHT (dir. David Lowery)
In his adaptation of the Arthurian legend of Sir Gawain, David Lowery creates an eerie, psychedelic vision of the middle ages which owes more to early Led Zeppelin than Game of Thrones. Dev Patel plays a less-than-chivalrous knight with considerable charm (picture a young Sir Robin placed in a much grimmer movie), but the real star here is the lysergic folk-horror dread that permeates the entire story: a beautiful ghost with a spooky cabin and a missing head; a tribe of bald, ululating giants congregating in the mist; and the title creation, a towering, leafy creature played by an unrecognizable Ralph Ineson. The Green Knight proves that spectacle isn’t reserved for the multiplex, and that the arthouse is just as vital for sights that need to be seen as big as possible. (Currently available for digital rental or purchase on all major platforms)
- LICORICE PIZZA (dir. Paul Thomas Anderson)
I’ll have more to say about Paul Thomas Anderson’s latest this weekend when it starts its 70mm run at the Coolidge, but for now I’ll just say: what an absolute goddamn delight. Licorice Pizza is not only set in the magic hours of early ‘70s Los Angeles, but often feels like an artifact of that era, capturing the shambolic pleasures (and deceptive shrewdness) of such filmmakers as Robert Altman and Hal Ashby. Like those Hollywood new-wavers, Anderson tops his Pizza with odd little scenes and characters which serve no apparent narrative function other than to amuse their creator (and the audience). But far from being some arch exercise in artifice, Licorice Pizza boasts a sloppy, beating heart, embodied by winning first-time performances by Cooper Hoffman (son of the late Philip Seymour) and indie-pop darling Alana Haim, as well as a gaggle of notable guest stars and various friends and family of the cast and crew. Licorice Pizza is both sprawling and intimate in its scope, and it’s easily the most likable film of the year. (Opens Friday, 12/24– on 70mm!– at Coolidge Corner Theatre)
- THE FRENCH DISPATCH (dir. Wes Anderson)
Wes Anderson is a director whose work I generally enjoy, but have a hard time loving; his dual instincts toward whimsy and melancholy often strike me as off-kilter in much of his post-Tenenbaums work. With The French Dispatch, I believe he’s finally nailed the balance. An anthology film of sorts, Dispatch weaves together three-and-a-half-ish stories, each packed with enough ideas– characters, jokes, set pieces, visual flourishes– to fill several movies. Anderson’s wistful poignancy is present (notably in the form of a genuine affection for Bill Murray’s departed editor character, as well as a touching exchange between fellow expats Jeffrey Wright and Stephen Park), but it is modulated far more satisfyingly to my taste with the madcap goings-on. In many ways, The French Dispatch is the film I’ve been wishing Anderson would make for years, and I sense it will be the one I revisit the most often in the years to come.(Now playing at the Coolidge Corner Theatre and Somerville Theatre, and available for digital rental or purchase on all major platforms)
- THE VELVET UNDERGROUND (dir. Todd Haynes)
As a longtime creature of record stores (on both sides of the counter), there was probably never going to be a world in which I didn’t love Todd Haynes’ rockumentary The Velvet Underground. Still, I wasn’t prepared for how much I would love it. True to the title, Haynes tells the brief history of the influential and transgressive rock band, but he expands the scope to include the various artists, musicians, filmmakers, and hangers-on in their orbit. The result is a film not just about one band, or even one scene, but about the intoxicating realization that one is in a place populated by other like-minded freaks. To realize this vision, Haynes takes a page from Velvets patron Andy Warhol, using split screens and other analog trickery to create an immersive experience unlike any rock-doc in recent memory. Just as The Velvet Underground has inspired generations of alternative rock bands, The Velvet Underground will likely launch its share of documentarian acolytes. (Currently streaming on AppleTV+)
- ANNETTE (dir. Leos Carax)
In the end, it was always going to be Annette, a film so profoundly unlikely that I still have trouble believing it made its way to theaters: a two-and-a-half hour, sung-through rock opera, written by an unclassifiable cult band and directed by an enfant terrible arthouse legend, in which two of our boldest actors sing and emote their hearts out opposite a deliberately un-lifelike puppet child. I love everything about Annette, from its defiantly strange sense of humor to the way it pays off a central thread in the aforementioned The Sparks Brothers (seeing photos of Ron and Russell Mael beaming from the red carpet at Cannes brought a sentimental tear to my eye). But fundamental to its appeal is the fact that Annette works perfectly well as a movie, a genuinely harrowing look at fame, ego, and toxic masculinity. Annette unsurprisingly proved too strange for mainstream audiences, but that’s okay; as far as I’m concerned, it was made for me. It reminded me that movies can still show us sights we’ve never seen before, and also that a marionette can headline the SuperBowl halftime show. (Currently streaming on Amazon Prime)
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