Top 10 movies: Film critic Dann Gire offers his favorites from 2021

  • Tony (Ansel Elgort) has his life changed by a chance meeting with Maria (Rachel Zegler) in Steven Spielberg's "West Side Story."

    Tony (Ansel Elgort) has his life changed by a chance meeting with Maria (Rachel Zegler) in Steven Spielberg's "West Side Story." Courtesy of 20th Century Studios

 
 
Updated 1/2/2022 9:22 AM

In 2021, the COVID-19 pandemic has impacted critics just as much as it has film production and movie theaters.

In my case, I have tried to avoid all theatrical press screenings that admit random members of the public. Digital screeners are supplied for many films, but I have declined to review them if they have been visually sabotaged by anti-piracy logos, emblems, warnings or running time clocks.

 

First, it is an unethical practice to review movies that have been aurally or visually altered from the version the public will actually hear or see. Second, the distracting sight of my name in white letters plastered over the picture (a favorite anti-piracy device) makes it extremely difficult to become immersed in the movie experience. To review that screener would be unacceptably unfair to the filmmakers.

As a result, this year's top 10 movie list could be the least comprehensive one I have compiled in the last 43 years. But I managed to put together what I hope is a respectable representation of cinema's best offerings. Happy viewing.

1. "West Side Story"

Take a 1961 American movie classic that reinvented the traditional Hollywood integrated musical, recast it with no A-list stars, change the sex and sexual orientation of characters, then reshuffle the established order of its songs, and what do you get? You get a career suicide mission that Steven Spielberg turns into a miracle titled "West Side Story." This re-energized re-imagining, pumped with new relevance, improves upon almost every element in the original -- casting, cinematography (by Columbia College Chicago grad Janusz Kaminski), choreography, production design and screenplay (by Tony Kushner, whose comprehensive adaptation fills in the narrative blanks from the 1961 production). It's the best cinematic adaptation of the Bard's "Romeo and Juliet" since Franco Zefferelli's definitive 1968 retelling of the star-crossed lovers.

High school teen Ruby Rossi (Emilia Jones) is the only hearing member of her family in "CODA."
High school teen Ruby Rossi (Emilia Jones) is the only hearing member of her family in "CODA." - Courtesy of Apple TV+
2. "CODA"

If you're going to make a formula family heart-tugger designed to increase the sales of tissues, make it the best. Director Sian Heder does just that in the perfectly machined, crowd-pleasing "CODA," an acronym for "child of deaf adults." Teen Ruby Rossi (an explosively luminous Emilia Jones) is the only hearing member of her family, including her randy fisherman dad (Troy Kotsur), impulsive brother (Daniel Durant) and fearfully controlling mom (Hersey High School grad and former Harper College student Marlee Matlin). Ruby has a tremendous singing voice and wants to go to college, but the family desperately needs her to always be their ears in the hearing world. Will she stay? Or go? Will she ever connect with the swoony nerd (Ferdia Walsh-Peelo) who sings duets with her under the direction of their demanding and eccentric, right-out-of-central-casting teacher (Eugenio Derbez)? These characters are so well-wrought, the direction is so spot-on and the emotional investment we make in this dedicated family is nothing short of magical.

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Phil (Benedict Cumberbatch) is an alpha-male variant effusively sweating male toxicity on a 1925 Montana ranch in "The Power of the Dog."
Phil (Benedict Cumberbatch) is an alpha-male variant effusively sweating male toxicity on a 1925 Montana ranch in "The Power of the Dog." - Courtesy of Netflix
3. "The Power of the Dog"

Easily the Oscar front-runner for Best Picture, Director, Sound and Actor, especially with the frighteningly versatile Benedict Cumberbatch as Phil, an alpha-male variant effusively sweating male toxicity on a 1925 Montana ranch. There, his disciplined world gets disrupted by the arrival of his new fragile sister-in-law (Kirsten Dunst) and her lispy teenage son (Kodi Smit-McPhee) in a movie that my colleague Raymond Benson has called "Hud's Days of Heaven on Brokeback Mountain." It's director Jane Campion's first movie in 12 years, and one well worth the wait.

Things go a little off the rails for Bradley Cooper, Cooper Hoffman and Alana Haim in "Licorice Pizza."
Things go a little off the rails for Bradley Cooper, Cooper Hoffman and Alana Haim in "Licorice Pizza." - Courtesy of MGM
4. "Licorice Pizza"

This sweet, yet slightly acidic, chronicle of teenagers running rampant in the San Fernando Valley during the Nixon years possesses an "American Graffiti" vibe for sure. Paul Thomas Anderson tells the comically pell-mell life of wannabe teen actor and super-salesman Gary Valentine (the late Philip Seymour Hoffman's son Cooper Hoffman), who's hopelessly in love with a 25-year-old photographer's assistant (a stellar, unfussy Alana Haim). Anderson nails the hopeful optimism and random, up-for-anything essence of adolescence, capped by a career-milestone performance from Bradley Cooper as hairdresser-turned-movie-producer Jon Peters.

5. "Belfast"

Great Britain's greatest Shakespearean export since Sir Laurence Olivier, Kenneth Branagh recreates his selected youthful memories growing up in Belfast, Ireland, in a surprisingly tenderhearted family drama tinged with comic flourishes and frightening moments. In fact, its opening sequence recalls the abrupt intrusion of invaders at the start of "A Quiet Place Part II." Shot in gloriously framed and composed black-and-white images, "Belfast" sidesteps the cliches and cheap sentiment of lesser domestic dramas, letting his young alter-ego (Jude Hill) interact with his parents (Jamie Dornan and Caitriona Balfe) and grandparents (Ciarán Hinds and a vanity-free Judi Dench) for the movie's principal conflicts.

Denzel Washington and Frances McDormand give stellar performances in "The Tragedy of Macbeth."
Denzel Washington and Frances McDormand give stellar performances in "The Tragedy of Macbeth." - Courtesy of Apple TV+
6. "The Tragedy of Macbeth"

Speaking of Shakespeare, who could have guessed that one of those Coen brothers (Joel) would create the most vibrantly cinematic of all the Bard's plays ever committed to film? Here, Joel apparently binge-watched Carl Theodor Dreyer's seminal, starkly black-and-white 1928 historical silent drama "The Passion of Joan of Arc" for three days straight before creating this color-starved, fever-dream experience rife with shape-shifting witches, daunting German-Expressionistic sets and the mighty Quinn himself, Denzel Washington, as the titular king destined for ruin. Frances McDormand and Brendan Gleeson lead the cast with a barbed-wire score composed by frequent Coen collaborator Carter Burwell.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

7. "Nightmare Alley"

Guillermo del Toro wisely avoids invoking the biblical passage "for whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap." But that's the moral take-away in his dark, seductively eye-popping descent into violence and cruelty committed by characters who rate worse than monsters: They're horrifying barnacles on the human race. Sleazy, seductive, sociopathic con man Stan Carlisle (Bradley Cooper bringing his A-plus game) joins a circus sideshow, then applies lessons learned on how to exploit human weaknesses for fun and profit. He teams with Cate Blanchett's high-society shrink, not realizing what a kindred spirit she truly is. Del Toro dumps his usual fixation for the supernatural in favor of a graphic, noiry variation of a gruesome, exploitative E.C. Comics tale with opulent production designs and costumes.

8. "The French Dispatch"

Granted, it's no "Budapest Hotel." But Wes Anderson continues his penchant for meticulously composed aesthetics in a whimsical, periodically obtuse, rompy ode to journalism as practiced by American ex-patriots in the fictional town of Ennui-sur-Blasé, France. Divided into five magazine chapters (a travel guide, obituaries and three feature stories), Anderson's anthology recruits the formidable talents of Bill Murray, Frances McDormand, Benicio Del Toro, Adrien Brody, Tilda Swinton, Léa Seydoux, Timothée Chalamet, Jeffrey Wright, Mathieu Amalric, Owen Wilson, Christoph Waltz, Edward Norton, Jason Schwartzman, Liev Schreiber, Elisabeth Moss, Willem Dafoe and Anjelica Huston. So, if the Kubrickian symmetry, alternating aspect ratios and obscure references to 1950s and 1960s Paris cultural trends don't knock your socks off, the sheer star power will.

A bachelor radio journalist (Joaquin Phoenix) and his nephew (Woody Norman) bond in "C'mon C'mon."
A bachelor radio journalist (Joaquin Phoenix) and his nephew (Woody Norman) bond in "C'mon C'mon." - Courtesy of A24 Films
9. "C'mon C'mon"

Just when you might think black-and-white movies all look the same, take a gander at the warmest, most sumptuous and thoughtfully composed example of the art form in Mike Mills' charmingly life-affirming drama "C'mon C'mon." It stars Joaquin Phoenix as a bachelor radio journalist who offers to temporarily take his 9-year-old nephew (a wonderfully charismatic Woody Norman) off the harried hands of his stressed-to-the-max mother (Gaby Hoffman). The two visit several North American cities as part of Phoenix's project to ask young people what they think about their futures. Along the way, the movie buries the "goofy uncle" Hollywood stereotype with a sincere, caring, honest, yet flawed portrait of the uncle we all wish we had while growing up.

10. "The Lost Daughter"

"Children are a crushing responsibility." That single line, delivered by Olivia Colman's troubled college professor Leda, lays the foundation for plucky actress Maggie Gyllenhaal's searingly insightful directorial debut. Movies usually portray kids as blessings for parents. Leda (and her younger self, played with empathetic panache by Jessie Buckley) views motherhood like an iron maiden slowly closing in on her. Now, vacationing on a Greek island, Leda contemplates her choice to abandon her family in flashbacks revealing the noose of paternal demands and responsibilities strangling her sense of self. (This could well be a back story for Meryl Streep's runaway mom in the Oscar-winning "Kramer vs. Kramer.") Gyllenhaal creates a nonjudgmental narrative that seeks to understand and explain an unpredictable, appropriately complex, psychological character study of motherhood in crisis.

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