The Tens: Best Of Film 2021

I’m worried.

I’m sure you are, too.

It’s been a rollercoaster couple of years to be a film fan (along with everything else). 2019 was a stronger-than-average year at the movies, with sprawling, hearty, career-capping epics from major auteurs like Scorsese (The Irishman) and Tarantino (Once Upon A Time In Hollywood), ambitious, adult-oriented big screen spectacles like Ad Astra and 1917, dark and daring moral rollercoasters like Uncut Gems, Climax, The Lighthouse — and Parasite, a dark Korean drama winning Best Picture. Even the comic book movies were a little… off (Joker). And, it went without saying at the time… I saw each and every one of them on the big screen.

Then there was 2020, somber for so many reasons, a year in which I saw only one of my favorite films in a theater (The Invisible Man), a year in which the movies felt so small and muted. My Top 10 list reflected that, championing several small, quiet, unheralded movies it feels like no one but me ever saw — including The Hater, Swallow, The Nest, Matthew & Maxime, and Last And First Men. (You didn’t see any of these, did you?)

As we close out 2021, uncertainty is still hanging in the air — in general, and regarding the future of cinema. Box office hits these days are few and far between, practically nonexistent outside of franchise IP. It’s unclear whether movie theaters can still regularly make enough money to stay in business at all, and if so, whether they can still afford to show films like Spencer and West Side Story that need time to build an audience, and if so, whether studios will even continue to finance thoughtful, original films meant to be seen in a movie theater anymore. The pandemic hastened a moment of crisis for movies that was already looming. Social media and streaming television have shoved film to the sidelines. Movies have finally, definitively lost their place at the center of the mantle after nearly a century of dominating popular culture, almost since their very inception.

As I wrote last year, politics and the pandemic have replaced entertainment in the cultural conversation, at least temporarily. We haven’t all watched the same shows or seen the same movies. We don’t all know the same songs anymore. We don’t even all read the same tweets anymore, now that a certain someone was banned from Twitter. What we share now is just the virus — the way it stopped life as we knew it in its tracks, the way it changed our jobs and relationships and social lives, the way it sucked all the air out of every room and consumed everything in its path, leaving us with nothing but a giant void where our real lives used to be. That’s what we’re thinking and talking about these days. Entertainment is just helping us get through it.

So, yeah. I’m worried… (about a lot of things, but right now we’re just talking about movies). I’m worried that a year or two from now, the kinds of movies I like won’t exist anymore — or, if they do, my only choice will be to watch them at home instead of in a theater. I’m worried that our insatiable appetite for superheroes is swiftly killing off everything else worth saving. I’m worried because my favorite thing in the world is sputtering and dying, and I’m not sure anything can save it.

But.

Against all odds, 2021 turned out to be a pretty terrific year for movies. I saw all but two of my Top 10 films in theaters — and those were the two I saw back in February as part of the Sundance Film Festival’s virtual showings, which still felt enough like an “event” that watching them at home on a tablet didn’t diminish them in any way. I’m as enthusiastic about my favorites from this year as I am any other year — unlike last year, there are no caveats needed.

A lot of what was released in 2021 was originally planned for 2020, much of it shot before the pandemic. We don’t yet know what movies will be like once the film industry has fully adjusted to whatever our new normal is post-pandemic. 2021 wasn’t exactly a “triumphant return” to movies, so much as it was a trotting out of the stockpile of films that were waylaid by the pandemic… but they were good!

My concerns about the future of cinema aren’t going away any time soon, but this isn’t the place to be worried. Whether this is one of cinema’s “last hurrahs” or a beacon of hope signaling that cinema will beat the odds and weather the storm, here I count myself lucky to have a year full of films that intrigued, enthralled, and delighted me. This year, that’s meant more to me than ever.

It was a good year at the movies — maybe even the last good year at the movies — and now is the time to celebrate.

 

10. WEST SIDE STORY

“I wake up to everything I know either getting sold, or wrecked, or being taken over by people that I don’t like.”

Riff voices that sentiment early in the new West Side Story, explaining to Tony what’s fueling his fury at a rival gang. He’s white, they’re Puerto Rican, and that’s enough to justify the rift in his eyes. That tribalism resonates anew in a year that saw us so hopelessly, senselessly divided on matters of life and death. In 2021, resentment of “the other” trumped science, common sense, even the instinct for self-preservation — people were literally dying to be “right.” (They weren’t right, but it wasn’t proven until they were dead.)

I keep coming back to Riff’s line as a summary of where we found ourselves in 2021, speaking to widespread frustrations of the right, the left, and everyone in between… as we continue to battle a pandemic that demolished so much of the world we knew before… still living in an unstoppable capitalist machine that’s got all the wrong cures for what ails us… and still wondering what these uncertain times mean for the movies.

Like Riff, I’m starting to get churlish about everything I know getting sold, and wrecked, and taken over by people I don’t like. I don’t want any more of Disney’s dopey origin stories for cartoon villains or remakes that pretend the original bad sequels to a horror masterpiece never happened, only to inspire more bad sequels to the bad remake. I don’t want a Scream movie that’s ashamed to admit it’s a sequel, or a biopic about Lucille Ball that doesn’t understand what made her a legend, or another goddamned Batman. I’m tired of all the stuff I loved a quarter of a century ago, because it’s all still here — every character, every franchise. Another Ghostbusters? Didn’t we just do this? How many Spider-Men does one generation need, anyway? It’s 2021, but if you look at the box office, you’d think it was still 1984, or 1989, or 1996. The corpses of our favorites are exhumed and forced to dance, dance, dance for us all over again, but none of them are really alive anymore. I don’t want to keep watching the same movie over and over. I want new stuff to love.

With that frustration in mind, you might be surprised to find a remake amongst my Top 10. I’m a little surprised myself. The new West Side Story is a repurposing of Romeo And Juliet, an adaptation of the original 1957 stage musical, and a remake of the 1961 film adaptation that won Best Picture. It’s a play that became a musical that became a movie, and now it’s another movie, adding director Steven Spielberg and writer Tony Kushner to the list of influential names whose fingerprints are on this timeless teen romance — a list that already includes the formidable talents of Robert Wise, Jerome Robbins, Leonard Bernstein, Stephen Sondheim, and William Shakespeare.

Some complain that West Side Story is too outdated to warrant a revisit. They’d prefer to throw the whole thing out and start over. But when done right, remakes can be fascinating time capsules, and that’s certainly the case with this one. Through West Side Story then and West Side Story now, we see how the film industry changed and didn’t change in the past sixty years, how far American culture did and didn’t come over those six decades. In a moment when Hollywood flatly refuses to create anything that doesn’t already exist, the new West Side Story is much more than a regurgitation of previously profitable IP. It’s not merely reviving the past, it’s wrestling with it — and with the present.

Kushner’s script adds notable texture to the turf war between the Puerto Rican Sharks and the Caucasian Jets. This time around, the Sharks are more torn between their loyalties to two islands — the island they left behind for a land of supposed opportunity, and the island of Manhattan, their new home, where they’re treated like second class citizens. Meanwhile, the Jets fear their way of life is coming to an end, their standing in the pecking order threatened by an influx of immigrants who might work better or harder than they do. The cops give both gangs a hard time, but when the Jets misbehave, they’re just kids being kids. The Sharks? Now they’re trouble.

Sound familiar? This antiquated story, with roots in 1957 and 1597, feels newly contemporary in 2021, speaking to toxic masculinity and white privilege in ways the world wasn’t ready for last time. West Side Story still has the tough guys belting their hearts out on the way to a rumble and the girls twirling through an ode to being pretty. Can a movie this big-hearted and earnest still bring a tear to our eyes, a smile to our lips, and a song to our hearts like it’s the first time all over again? The odds were against it, but yes. In Hollywood, anything old can be new again.

Of course, the success of Spielberg’s version comes, in large part, thanks to its stage and screen predecessors — the characters we already know, the songs we already like. It’s not that different from the film we’ve already celebrated. And if West Side Story manages to pull off a second Best Picture win (which is possible), the Academy will have reached new heights in self-congratulation. In another era, it might be fair to snark at Hollywood eating its own tail again, at an Oscar winner remaking an Oscar winner, at rich white men serving up a musical about poor Puerto Ricans. But right now? I’m just grateful this new West Side Story exists, that movie theaters are back open, that I got to see this lovely Steven Spielberg movie on the big screen. We’re in the midst of a seemingly endless global pandemic that’s reshaping entertainment a little more with each passing day. If a movie can still provide the magical, transporting experience Nicole Kidman raves to no one about in the eerily empty AMC theater she appears to have rented out for herself and only herself, that’s something to celebrate, because you know what? Heartbreak does feel good there.

Spielberg’s lavish musical harkens back to old Hollywood as much as a movie possibly can without pandering — the rare film that feels classic and brand new at the same time. It’s big and beautiful and expensive and artistic. It’s been embraced by critics and became an instant frontrunner for Oscar nominations in numerous categories. It’s won over longtime fans of the original as well as many who are coming to it fresh. And it opened with a thud on December 10, one week before Spider-Man: No Way Home swung into theaters, raking in over a billion dollars worldwide (and counting). As 2021 wrapped, West Side Story became the bellwether for whether any film without a superhero could score at the box office, and the answer was… nope, sorry! That lackluster opening had commentators sounding the gong for the death of cinema, ending a pretty good year for movies on a sour note — if you believed them.

Remaking West Side Story in 2021 was a gamble that didn’t exactly pay off — at least, not right away, from a purely financial standpoint. There are too many outside factors at play to conclude that this film simply didn’t work, but its box office anemia does not make a good case for Oscar-caliber cinema going forward. That’s disappointing — but these days, what isn’t? Perhaps a year like 2021 can only be summed up by the entertainment that didn’t quite work. “America,” one of West Side Story‘s signature songs, is all about that contrast between expectation and reality, how America never quite delivers on its promises. Why should the movies be any different?

Hollywood is what it is. America is what it is. We can want and try to change them, and perhaps we’ll succeed, inch by inch. But it won’t happen overnight. It won’t even necessarily happen over a generation. Sixty years after West Side Story was a smash hit with audiences, critics, and the Academy, America’s still grappling with the same demons. Then, as now, Hollywood reflected them back at us. How rare is it that a big, splashy movie musical broaches such topicality? Isn’t it amazing that a repurposed Oscar winner from sixty years ago — based on a play that’s more than 400 years old — could speak to what’s going on today in America?

West Side Story is about how feelings get in the way of better judgment, how harsh realities sometimes clash violently with our personal affairs. It’s a movie about bitter, senseless division between tribes, released at the end of a year that began with a historic storming of our Capitol fueled by ignorance and intolerance. A year that saw verdicts in cases of racial violence carried out by police officer Derek Chauvin and teen vigilante Kyle Rittenhouse. A year that tens of thousands of lives continued to be sacrificed to spare one man from admitting he’s an idiot. West Side Story may not be the most urgent film to deal with America’s great divide — it’s more popcorn than polemic — but it’s exciting to see this marriage of Hollywood past and America present finally make it to the big screen, especially when it’s crafted so expertly, performed so vibrantly, at this scale.

As usual, several films were clawing for the final slot in my Top 10 list for the year. West Side Story won out because it’s the kind of film that’s most in danger of disappearing right now… because it failed an impossible test at the box office and got branded a “loser”… because if not even a vibrant, critically adored crowd pleaser from Steven Spielberg can get butts back in seats at the multiplex, what will?

No one knows exactly what the future holds for adult-oriented theatrical releases. For now, at least, there’s West Side Story, a movie made for those of us who crave the old-fashioned brand of spectacle — with real human beings performing! The cast dances and sings and emotes in ways no visual effect can emulate. There’s true artistry on display in every frame of every scene.

I don’t want very much of what the big studios are offering lately, but if we must only have more revamps of movies that already exist, let them be directed by visionary filmmakers who know how to make a cinematic set piece out of a musical number. Let them be penned by insightful writers with ideas that truly add something to the conversation. Let them be made like this.

 

9. DRIVE MY CAR

“She’d grasp a thread of a story from the edge of orgasm and spin it. That’s how she used to write.”

Drive My Car begins in medias res. Not in the middle of its own story, but in the midst of one being told by Oto, a naked woman in bed with her husband. She weaves a lurid tale about a high school student sneaking into her crush’s house while he’s not there. The young girl goes through his things, fighting the urge to masturbate. She always leaves a token of her visit there. And then, one day…

Oto doesn’t finish telling this story. We don’t hear the rest until much later in the film, two years after Oto’s death. It’s not the only time Drive My Car makes the point that good stories often outlive their tellers. Two years after his wife’s sudden passing, Yūsuke directs a multilingual production of Checkhov’s Uncle Vanya in Hiroshima, casting actors who speak different languages (including Japanese, Mandarin, and Korean Sign Language). In most cases, these performers can’t understand what their scene partners are saying except by memorizing the text, but the gimmick works. The confluence of languages elevates Uncle Vanya and, ultimately, Drive My Car, to feel like a truly global production, one that resonates on a massive scale. Checkhov’s themes, echoed in Drive My Car, were universal enough to survive more than a century and still be performed today. Yūsuke’s unusual production makes it clear that this Russian play from 1898 can speak to everyone in the world all at once, the way all great art resonates beyond the specific time and place it was created in. Drive My Car takes on a similar quality. It is somehow epic, despite its intimate storyline and serene, unhurried pace.

A full forty minutes of Ryūsuke Hamaguchi’s three-hour drama is a prologue to the main storyline. That sounds excessive in theory, but there’s so much texture in every scene that its length is rarely felt. The extended opening fleshes out Oto and Yūsuke Kafuku’s complex relationship in such vivid detail that it haunts us for the rest of the film, the same way Oto’s memory haunts Yūsuke. On the surface, their marriage seems sound — Oto and Yūsuke genuinely love and care for each other. They respect one another as artists. There is no rivalry between them, though both are pursuing creative careers. Under that veneer, however, is the long ago loss of a young daughter, and a dark place within Oto that Yūsuke recognizes, but can’t reach. She’s unfaithful — not just with her body, but also, we learn later, with her art. Yūsuke decides not to confront his wife when he catches her hooking up with a handsome young actor. Then she’s gone, and it’s too late.

From there, Drive My Car could become a pedestrian drama about a middle-aged man moving through stages of grief. But Hamaguchi isn’t interested in denial, or anger, or depression, stages of grief that make up the bulk of most movies like this. His narrative skips forward to a point when Yūsuke has quietly accepted the death of his wife. This film is curious about what’s next.

Oto dies, but never really leaves the story. Her voice is a constant presence in the recording of Uncle Vanya that helps Yūsuke memorize his lines while driving. The theater company hires the stoic Misaki to drive Yūsuke’s red Saab. (The titular car has already become iconic for fans of this film, something like an arthouse Batmobile.) The initial rides are nearly silent, punctuated only by the late Oto reading Uncle Vanya. Eventually, Misaki grows curious about the woman on the tape. That drives Yūsuke to share his painful past, and Misaki to open up about her own distant tragedy. Their relationship never ventures into romance. Nor does it become paternal, though Misaki is now the same age Yūsuke’s daughter would be if she’d survived. It’s not exactly friendship, either, but something deeper — an understanding, a reckoning, a meeting of two wounded but persevering souls. It’s a rare and delicate dynamic that most filmmakers tend to ruin with sap, sex, or contrivance. Hamaguchi offers not even the slightest hint of sexual tension between the two — Misaki takes her profession too seriously for that. In a story otherwise populated with directors, writers, and actors, somehow it’s Misaki who ends up coming across as the most gifted. Driving is her art.

Though Yūsuke and Misaki’s relationship is the centerpiece of Drive My Car, a number of supporting characters make lasting impressions, too. Drive My Car is about art, and about artists. It spends time on several of the actors Yūsuke casts in Uncle Vanya, including Lee Yoon-a, who performs in Korean Sign Language but is easily the most captivating actor in Yūsuke’s production — and one of the film’s most compelling characters, too. Then there’s the handsome, famous, and rather troubled young star Kôji Takatsuki, cast against type as the much older Vanya. He also happens to be the guy Yūsuke observed having sex with his wife shortly before her passing. Suspense builds as we wonder why Yūsuke would give this young man the starring role in his production — and how, or if, Yūsuke will confront him. As in the rest of Drive My Car, Hamguchi avoids the cliche and takes the plot in his own unpredictable direction, which brings us back to the story of the schoolgirl sneaking into her classmate’s bedroom. Both men hold pieces of the puzzle that is Oto’s final story. When they come together to share them, it feels like destiny fulfilled.

It’s rare for a film this quiet and reflective to take on such a grand scope. Drive My Car is rich and fulfilling in a way that feels more novelistic than cinematic at times. It is elegantly directed and beautifully shot, though quite a lot of it unfolds quietly in that red Saab. Long dialogue-driven scenes have no trouble holding our attention, thanks to the skillful screenplay (adapted from Haruki Murakami’s short story). Across the board, the performances are pitch perfect. The film’s three hour length is only intimidating in theory. Though this is a quiet, reflective three hours with few exciting plot points, the film is exquisitely paced and often riveting. (One extended sequence does overstate the film’s themes and veer too far into melodrama for my taste — but that’s a minor complaint in an otherwise magnificent movie.)

It’s fitting that a film so artfully made would also be about art. Lots of movies are about artists — writers, painters, musicians, filmmakers — but few have much to say about art itself, fewer still about the process of making it. Drive My Car begins with exactly that. Oto narrates her screenplays during sex, then asks Yūsuke to recite them back to her, because she doesn’t always remember the details so well herself. Yūsuke practices lines while driving, using recordings of her voice. Both husband and wife have unusual artistic rituals that involve the other — rituals that wouldn’t work for most people, but suit them just fine. The couple once created life together, but their child died young; now her stories are the creation they conceive together in bed. Misaki is the only major character in Drive My Car with no connection to the arts. But through Oto’s voice on the tape, playing endlessly while Misaki drives, she grows curious about the play, too — eventually, sitting in on rehearsals and attending the opening night. It’s her gateway into art.

Drive My Car is quite rightly drawing attention as this year’s arthouse darling, a film that’s almost certain to have staying power. It’s tender and touching and just a little bit kinky; a story about loss and reconnection, about finding ways to cope with tragedy through art. In its graceful and unexpected final moments, it touches on the global grief we’ve collectively shared over the past two years, suggesting that we’ll find a way through just as these characters do. Though death is deeply entrenched in this story — wives, children, mothers, and more are mourned throughout — Drive My Car is never depressing. Hamaguchi’s film shows us tragedy, but it isn’t about tragedy. It’s about how we move on.

 

8. RED ROCKET

“I’ve got my finger on the pulse of the next generation, baby.”

One man’s trash is another man’s treasure. Sean Baker makes films about people who would be dismissed by many as “trash,” but it’s clear he treasures characters who are more than a little rough around the edges. Often, they’re prostitutes or porn stars — not the glamorous, Hollywood-ized kind, played by movie stars slumming it for awards attention — but the real kind, living gig to gig, paycheck to paycheck. People America has failed in one way or another. They get by however they can. Baker isn’t above ridiculing the situations his destitute protagonists find themselves in — the catfights in Tangerine are just one example of how Baker finds humor in dire straits — but he never loses empathy for them, never judges the choices they made. He makes thoughtful, soulful films about people who are rarely the center of any worthwhile narrative.

Red Rocket stars Simon Rex as Mikey Sabre, a porn star down on his luck and past his prime. He’s fallen on undisclosed hard times. Mikey shows back up in Texas City, his middle-of-nowhere hometown, with twenty bucks in his pocket and a busted up face, knocking on his estranged wife’s front door. Lexi is a former adult entertainer, too, now turning tricks to help her mother make rent. She knows Mikey is a mess. She knows he’ll cause her no end of trouble. But she also knows Mikey can bring home some much-needed bacon, and that’s worth the risk.

She lets him in. First, into her home. Then, into her bed. Finally, into her heart — at least a little bit. She’s putting herself in a vulnerable spot, but Lexi can’t help it. When Mikey lays on the charm, he lays it on thick. He’s hard to resist. The unique concoction of winning boyishness, can-do shamelessness, and obnoxious bravado fueling Rex’s performance makes it immediately apparent how Mikey got as far as he did as a porn star. Mikey starts this story with nothing; soon he’s got everyone in Texas City wrapped around his little finger all over again. (And by little finger, I mean large penis. He is a porn a star.)

Mikey’s not the only character living on the fringes of mainstream acceptable behavior, though. In the small world Red Rocket traverses, everyone’s a hustler. Lexi sells her body on Craigslist. Her neighbor Lonnie poses as a war veteran at the mall to score handouts. Her mother Lil is a tough negotiator who makes sure she gets her due from their freeloading houseguest — she takes none of Mikey’s shit. Family friend Leondria supplies weed to local dealers. The only person engaged in a legitimate business is Raylee, AKA “Strawberry,” the flirtatious 17-year-old Mikey takes an instant interest in. She’s the counter girl at the local doughnut shop, but soon he’s wooing her with promises of (relative) fame and (relative) fortune in adult films. A lot of filmmakers would leer at characters like these — most are portrayed by inexperienced, first-time actors who have that “lived-in” look — but Baker has always found nobility in the give-no-fucks margins. Taken as a whole, his body of work suggests that maybe his characters are the mainstream. America probably identifies more with Mikey and Lexi’s fighting and fucking than it does with Tony and Maria belting their hearts out to profess true love. There are probably a lot more people like Leondria, Lil, and Lonnie out there than Hollywood thinks.

Red Rocket has more on its mind than Mikey himself does. Though it follows just a small handful of characters in one tiny Texas town, the film ties into so much of what’s gone wrong in America over the past five years, elevating it above its comedic trappings. (Fans of Baker’s previous films, Starlet, Tangerine, or The Florida Project, are already trained to expect plenty of incisive social observation and humane pathos beneath the laughs.) Trigger warning: Red Rocket is a period piece observing the 2016 presidential election. None of the characters comment upon that. None are necessarily for or against either candidate. Honestly? None of them will probably even vote. But it’s impossible not to notice that Red Rocket takes place in primo MAGA territory. (A half-glimpsed billboard foretells Trump’s impending victory loud and clear.) It’s tough to imagine a single one of these characters checking the box for Hillary Clinton (except maybe young Strawberry).

In other hands, this could be a gimmick — a condescending look at the “real America,” as told by someone who hasn’t gone near it in years. (Adam McKay’s Don’t Look Up makes the kind of thuddingly obvious, nuance-free observations Red Rocket avoids.) But these are exactly the people Baker has been telling stories about all along. Red Rocket doesn’t try to explain, lambast, or apologize for the Trumpism that’s running rampant in America’s heartland. If anything, it’s their political indifference that got Trump elected, not their subscription to his bullshit rhetoric. But through this film, we do spend a couple of days seeing the world through their eyes — and from this vantage point, a Donald Trump presidency makes as much sense as any other. No matter who wins and who loses, they won’t feel the difference.

While Trump’s rise looms in the background, there’s plenty of conflict in the foreground, too, as we bounce between allure and repulsion in response to our lead. It’s not immediately clear whether we’re supposed to like Mikey or not, even though we — like everyone else in Texas City — can’t help it. At least, not at first. Mikey appears to have stopped maturing at twelve years old. He’s boyish and upbeat and unpredictable and kind of crazy, but in a fun way. He’s never heard “no” in his whole life. (He’s been told no, but he’s never heard it.) Some of his actions are vile and toxic, but we’re tempted to look past that because he’s so dumb. How could anyone this wide-eyed and empty-headed be evil?

It’s not often a character as grinning and goofy as Mikey Sabre ends up being the villain of the piece, especially when he’s also positioned as the protagonist (and played by the only recognizable name amongst the cast). Mikey’s manic energy has always been a bit too big for Texas City; his outsized ego and thirst for attention could never be sated there. Red Rocket is a tale of Hollywood ego and infamy right up there with the best of them, though none of this film actually takes place in Los Angeles. Mikey is just “so L.A.” — talking up his porn star celebrity, wooing Strawberry toward this land of promise and pleasure. Surely Mikey indulges in this same schmoozing and bullshit back home in Los Angeles, but it looks particularly pathetic playing out in a rundown Texas town.

As it turns out, Baker is well aware that his leading man is his own worst enemy. A schmaltzier film might have used Mikey’s fall from porny grace as an opportunity for him to learn and grow — collecting life lessons from the salt-of-the-earth Texans he encounters back home. Red Rocket is more interested in how an immature lothario gets frozen in time — still dressing, talking, and fucking like he’s teenager, but with subtly emerging crow’s feet around his eyes. He loves one-upping a high school boy in the quest for Strawberry’s affections, as if stealing a clueless teen’s girlfriend is anything for a grown man to take pride in. Meanwhile, he’s got to pop a blue pill just to keep it up. Mikey’s constantly deflecting blame, letting others suffer the consequences of his own bad behavior. Mikey’s industry may be dubbed “adult” entertainment — but clearly, it’s enabled him to remain a sheltered, spoiled kid. He’s never really had to work.

Red Rocket doesn’t judge Mikey for being a sex worker, but it does have a bone to pick his parroting of the misogyny that’s so endemic to adult entertainment. Multiple characters bring up the hypocrisy of Mikey winning AVN awards for “Best Oral” when he’s the one receiving oral sex — it’s the female performer doing all the hard work. (They don’t call it a job for nothing!) He’s a lothario who uses women for sexual gratification and financial gain, then tosses them aside when they inconvenience him. He is a predator, not only in the statutory sense — Strawberry is very close to being eighteen, so perhaps we can set that aside — but also in the way he grooms this young girl for life in an industry that’s likely to chew her up and spit her out. (The same way it did with Lexi.) Men have a longer shelf life than women do — in general, but especially in porn. Lexi has graduated to prostitution, while an aging dude like Mikey continues to get it on with the youngest, hottest, newcomers. Mikey baits both Lexi and Strawberry with affection, laying it on so thick they can’t see the hook. He only loves women for what they can do for him. After that, he’s gone.

With future president Donald Trump lurking in the background on Fox News, it’s hard not to draw parallels between Mikey and all the other problematic white males whose consistent failure upward comes at the expense of anyone else getting even just a little bit further ahead. Indifference is a form of evil. So is willful ignorance. Mikey’s “me first” mantra — echoed by many modern day Americans, especially during this pandemic — does end up hurting people. He’s willing to torpedo a 17-year-old girl’s entire future to find himself back in the limelight. Perhaps Mikey thinks immaturity excuses his bad behavior, the way it would if he relaly were fifteen instead of forty. But arrested development doesn’t look as good on Mikey as it used to. When Mikey tells Lonnie he’s got his “finger on the pulse” of the next generation, that’s a delusion. What he’s got is his hand down the pants of a teenager — which is not the same thing. Nobody stays young forever, even if they do stay stupid and shameless. Mikey’s expiration date is fast approaching.

At the outset, we wonder if Red Rocket will end up glorifying Mikey’s reckless behavior, and thumb its nose at the homespun folk he’s deceiving. Baker resolves this tension in the film’s outrageous final act, eliminating any doubt about whose side he’s on in the battle between Mikey Sabre and Texas City. Mikey can’t make it on his own anymore. He plans to leech off Strawberry’s youth, exploting her naive sexual energy for all its worth. She’s his ticket back to the big time (whatever that means in porn). Our protagonist becomes a pimp right before our eyes. Only then do we see how rotten this winsome scamp truly is. Another big, bright, shining star who left himself out in the sun too long.

Though Mikey himself never realizes it, his tale is a tragedy. Red Rocket is a story about a second chance, but not about redemption. Mikey misuses his blessings, abuses the goodwill he scrapes together in his hometown. He has a shot to make things right; instead, he repeats all his old mistakes. He may end up making it work with Strawberry in Los Angeles — for a limited time only — but he’s clearly skating on the knife’s edge of irrelevance. It’s only a matter of time before he teeters over it, never to be heard from again.

The film’s final moments leave Mikey very much as we found him, suggesting that he might be finally, fully lost to his pornographic fantasia. Perhaps he, like the conniving conman we cast out of the Oval Office, will lose touch with the truth completely, submitting entirely to delusions of grandeur where he’s a winner and a star. Red Rocket may feel like a lark in some respects, but it’s also a stealthily savage sendoff to 2021, the year that began with us waving “bye, bye, bye” to the noxious conman who occupied way too much of our mental space for four long years. The age of the toxic white male is coming to a close. All hail the next generation.

 

7. PARALLEL MOTHERS

“It’s time you knew what country you’re living in.”

Pedro Almodóvar’s films have ranked on my Top 10 lists a number of times. His latest earns a spot easily this year with an award-worthy turn by Penélope Cruz and a story that packs in all the racy melodrama we’ve come to expect from the Spanish auteur, but with deeper, more resonant emotional stakes than his breezier early filmography allowed. 2019’s Pain And Glory announced the beginning of what we might call a “late period” in Almodóvar’s oeuvre. It was hailed by many (and me) as one of his best. Parallel Mothers continues a more reflective, slightly somber chapter in his colorful career, widening its scope beyond this immediate cast of characters to speak to a greater tragedy.

Parallel Mothers opens on Janis, a photographer assigned to shoot forensic anthropologist Arturo for a magazine profile. She takes the opportunity to ask for his help in excavating the mass grave where her great-grandfather and several others were murdered by Fascists at the start of the Spanish Civil War. It’s not the most traditional “meet cute,” but Janis and Arturo find themselves in the midst of a passionate fling, and soon there’s a baby on the way. At the hospital Janis meets Ana, a younger expectant mother, just before they give birth to daughters. The new mommies exchange phone numbers to stay in touch — and as fate would have it, there’s a very good reason why they should. Janis and Ana may begin this story as strangers — parallel mothers-to-be — but soon their destinies collide, their lives inextricably entangled on multiple levels.

As one expects from an Almodóvar joint, there’s a pulpy mystery at Parallel Mothers’ core; Almodóvar isn’t afraid to lean into soapy melodrama or take detours into erotic thriller territory, as fans expect. The Almodóvar of a decade ago would’ve veered further in this direction, but in this late period, Almodóvar zags where he would’ve zigged before. The result is more mature and ruminative than Almodóvar greats like Bad Education and Talk To Her, but still completely and unmistakably of a piece with his filmography. Intricate backstories are shared. Eye-popping color punctuates nearly every scene. Longtime Almodóvar player Rossy De Palma, always striking, shows up as Janis’ supportive best friend. This is, without a doubt, the Almodóvar we know and love, but Parallel Mothers brings something new to the table, a gravity that extends even beyond what we saw from him in the self-reflective Pain And Glory. Almodóvar once utilized sex and violence to keep his stories lively; these recent films are more grounded in their approach to life and death. The Spanish filmmaker portrayed by Antonio Banderas in Pain And Glory paralleled Almodóvar. The story-within-a-story flashbacks to his small-town childhood were a reflection of Almodóvar’s own youth. Parallel Mothers looks even further back, beyond the filmmaker’s own lifetime, to the Spanish Civil War and its aftermath, the consequences of which reverberate through this present day story.

Parallel Mothers threatens at times to add more intrigue and intensity than it ultimately does. It’s easy to imagine how this story might twist into a murder mystery, a revenge thriller, or a soap opera spanning decades. (Almodóvar has done all that before.) Here, though, he doesn’t play with time the way he often does. Parallel Mothers unfolds linearly and takes place over just a couple years. The story concerns multiple generations, as many of his previous filmns do, but here Almodóvar lets history stay where it is, in the past. Instead of showing what happened, his characters speak about it, reminisce upon it — and, in one key confrontation, fight about it, which is where Almodóvar’s passion for this particular project most shines through.

Ana is of a younger generation and comes from a posh, politically conservative family; she thinks the war that killed Janis’ great-grandfather is ancient history, and not worth rehashing now. But Janis is still agonizing over her family’s painful past, still angry about the tens of thousands who were abducted, executed, and left to rot in unmarked graves. The love ones they left behind were never permitted any closure, leaving the wounds unhealed. Janis confronts Ana about her millennial naivete, the twin privileges of youth and money that allow her to ignore how previous generations suffered.

Ana’s mother Teresa is a self-absorbed actress. Only now is she finally finding some success on stage. She claims to be apolitical, but that’s only because her right-wing beliefs clash with the bohemian mores of the theater world. Ana, whose pregnancy was the result of sexual violence, breaks free from the constrictive conservative shackles she grew up with, moving in with Janis, a liberal artist, as her nanny — and then much more. At one point, deceit and betrayal threaten to push these women apart, but a final reckoning with the violence of decades past bonds this unconventional family back together. Parallel Mothers’ third act might easily have dwelled on sexual intrigue and arch melodrama, given the particular twists and turns this story takes. But just when things are starting to get lurid, Parallel Mothers resolves its central conflict and makes a ruminative return to Janis’ hometown instead. Janis is joined by Arturo, Ana, and her infant daughter as her great-grandfather’s final resting place is finally uncovered.

On the surface, Parallel Mothers is another twisty, sexy Almodóvar romp about Janis and Ana. Dig deeper, and there’s more to unearth. More than 100,000 Spaniards went missing under dictator Francisco Franco’s regime; Janis, echoing Almodóvar’s own sentiments, believes the war can’t really be over until the missing bodies are returned to surviving relatives. It’s a dicey issue in Spain to this day, with many preferring silence and denial to reckoning with the truth. Parallel Mothers contrasts the cold indifference of the monied conservative class with the warm memories Janis’ relatives share of the last time they saw their fathers. It urges young generations not to turn a blind eye to the past. Parallels to similarly divisive debates in America today are obvious. Conservatives can’t let themselves confront the ugly truth, because their whole shtick is keeping things the way they are instead of progressing forward. If they admit the past was seriously fucked up, how can they justify keeping America the same as it ever was?

In Parallel Mothers, an auteur best known for his hedonism — who, as a young filmmaker, ignored his country’s dark history to revel in contemporary pleasures — boldly, brilliantly, and directly confronts atrocities that have haunted Spain for decades. The worries of modern day mothers Janis and Ana echo the sorrow of grandmothers and great-grandmothers who watched sons, brothers, and fathers forced out of their homes by the Fascist regime, never to return.

In one of Parallel Mothers’ final moments, a baby girl, far too young to comprehend what she’s looking at, stares into a mass grave. One of the unearthed men has a baby rattle in his back pocket — he was playing with his daughter just before he was hauled off to die. This little girl doesn’t know it, but the past that shaped her is beneath her, before her, around her, the same way history surrounds all of us, whether or not we dare acknowledge it. The film’s final image — also a mass grave — draws an even more direct parallel between the present and past, speaking to the ties that bind us to history, and how our own destinies are never fully untethered from the fates of generations past.

Parallel Mothers pairs perfectly with Pain And Glory. Both have Almodóvar’s signature lush visual palette and pulpy plot developments, but they tamp down the big twists and revelations Almodóvar once revealed in, telling stories that are just a little larger than life. Newfound wisdom and emotional complexity are evident in Almodóvar’s storytelling as he quietly, confidently honors the vanished victims of the Spanish Civil War in a parallel story about birth and death and the lives we live between.

 

6. MASS

“I promised him that his life would mean something. That it wouldn’t be in vain. That because of him, all of them, things would change. But nothing’s changed. Nothing! The only difference is that they’re gone.”

And now, back to what’s wrong with America! (There’s a lot of ground to cover.)

Parallel Mothers would be a fitting title for Mass, too — another film about a  tragedy, centered on two sets of parents grappling with the aftermath of a mass shooting. One kid was a killer, one was a casualty, but the agony is felt by all as they come together to try and understand what happened. The mothers, played by Martha Plimpton and Anne Dowd, inevitably steal the show.

Fran Kranz’s stealth powerhouse drama explores this dark subject matter more fully than any film before it has been able to. That’s because Mass is about a mass shooting, and only about that. It puts its four characters in an ordinary room and leaves them there for nearly two hours. They get right to the point. Six years after the tragedy, Jay and Gail (Jason Isaacs and Plimpton) sit down opposite Richard and Linda (Reed Birney and Dowd). Both couples lost sons, but Jay and Gail have the moral high ground, seeking answers from Richard and Linda about what went so very wrong with their boy. Weren’t there warning signs? Why didn’t they see what was coming?

There are no answers. Fran Kranz’s extraordinary screenplay dives directly into all the facets of this difficult conversation — a conversation we’ve been having in America for more than twenty years now — touching on violent video games, lax gun laws, mental health care, bullying, and plenty more. So much is shared — horror, despair, guilt, blame — but it’s still inadequate. There is no knowing why. There is no formula for tragedy. There is no foolproof method for identifying monsters in the making.

Kranz’s debut feature is sparse and unpretentious, quite confident in its lack of bells and whistles. The film opens on Judy (Breeda Wool), a church employee taking great pains to arrange things in the meeting room just so, as if the aesthetics really matter when you’re about to have a meeting like this. Richard and Linda’s lawyer is also overly fussy, trying to stage manage a kind of grief that cannot be “handled.” The couples greet each other politely, but with reservation, as Kranz’s screenplay neatly fills in the details about how it’s come to this. Richard and Linda are pariahs who had to mourn their son in silence. They’re now separated. Jay and Gail are still together, working through grief as best they can for their surviving daughter’s sake. All four are fundamentally decent people. The ensuing conversation gets heated on occasion, but then they walk it back and apologize. They’ve come together in an attempt to heal — but now that they’re here, how in the hell can they make that happen?

2021 was our second year swallowed whole by the pandemic. As it comes to an end, the United States is still divided on fundamental issues with life and death consequences. We’re hopelessly stuck in indecision, incapable of making the changes that would save lives. It echoes our lack of progress on a deadly epidemic that’s plagued us for much longer. Gun violence. America has never really figured out how to talk about mass shootings, as present as they are in our collective consciousness. Perhaps we should have expected tortuous inaction when the pandemic hit, since we’ve never been very good at stopping the slaughter when the killer is inside the house.

The Columbine massacre wasn’t the first of its kind, but in that instance, mass murder intersected with mass media in a way that was novel at the time. The massacre lasted less than an hour, but the headlines kept coming for months, erroneously placing the blame on music (Marilyn Manson), movies (The Matrix), fashion (trench coats), and video game violence. Even in the wake of innumerable other attacks since April 20, 1999 — many even deadlier — that fateful date has lingered in our minds ever since. It was the beginning of something — not of mass murders or gun violence, which of course predated Columbine — but of their current place in our consciousness. Right up front.

We know so many details about so many massacres. The names. The faces. Last words. Tragic twists of fate. Headline after headline, we’ve lived with the unthinkable for a full generation now. There’s no end in sight. Columbine, Virginia Tech, Sandy Hook, Parkland — their names become synonymous with the worst kind of horror, but we don’t have time to stop and mourn them anymore, because they just keep coming. Like clockwork.

The news hits. We feel sick. We watch in horror. We digest what details we can — the shooter’s name, the victims’ stories. We scan available information, hunting for motive. It never makes sense. Then, the inevitable burst of outrage — fingers pointed at politicians, gun lobbyists, the NRA — which dies down after a day or two. We shout about who’s to blame, but we don’t talk. There’s never any closure. We push it out of our heads and brace for the next one. Thoughts and prayers continue, but the killing never stops.

Art sometimes helps us process tragedy, but it hasn’t helped much with this particular epidemic. Hollywood has struggled with how to depict contemporary school shootings for nearly two decades now. A handful of filmmakers have tried; most failed to get it right. The more acclaimed attempts, like Elephant and Vox Lux, confront the horror without providing much insight or analysis. That’s understandable. How can we expect movies to answer questions we can barely ask ourselves? Elephant portrays the buildup to a Columbine-like massacre and then the bloody deed itself. There’s a lot of stomach-churning shock value, but little context. Vox Lux weaves a school shooting into a larger tapestry of how pop culture and tragedy interconnect, but it’s more about celebrity ego than the specific mode of violence that catapulted our heroine to stardom. We Need To Talk About Kevin mires us in the misery of a teen killer’s remorseful parent, as Mass does, but it’s more impressionistic than incisive about this subject matter. Kranz knows Mass can’t provide the answers we’re looking for. He knows better than to try. But there’s still value in looking at this phenomenon closely, from every angle, and asking the questions anyhow. Mass talks it out, covering every subject these four characters possibly could in under two hours. It’s nothing but talking, yet it’s as tense as any thriller.

No film that seriously takes on mass shootings so fearlessly and centrally could ever completely escape its roots as a monster movie. Mass is like a version of Halloween in which Michael Myers’ folks sit down with Mr. and Mrs. Strode and see if they can’t find some common ground. So many films underplay the cost of cold-blooded killing in favor of cheap thrills and gross-out gore — it’s almost soothing for a film to do nothing but agonize over young lives lost to senseless killing. Mass is what a true horror film looks like, without a single drop of blood seen on screen.

Mass does, in the end, offer catharsis to its bereaved quartet. It’s a kind, humane, and merciful film, even though it’s dealing with depths of despair and depravity that are hard to fathom. Do we, the audience, feel that same catharsis? Does Kranz even want us to? If Gail and Jay and Richard and Linda can find it in themselves to forgive and forge on, why shouldn’t we?

Kranz finds grace in the aftermath of a most gruesome tragedy. Following scores of blood-spattered films that touch on gun violence of some kind, Mass comes across transgressive in comparison — because true horror is not about blood and guts, it’s about the anguish and suffering violence leaves in its wake. By that measure, Mass is just a chatty version of Texas Chainsaw Massacre.

It’s rare to walk out of a film as masterful as Mass so unsatisfied. The more we learn about Richard and Linda’s troubled son, the less we understand what drove him to kill a bunch of his classmates. Mass asks “How?” and “Why?” for nearly two hours, and still comes up empty-handed — just like we have over the last couple decades. The dread has gnawed at us, chipping away at our sense of safety in our daily lives, with every successive shooting. Mass drags the demons out into the light, but it’s not enough. It never could be, never will be. That’s too much to ask of any one movie.

Like these four parents, we leave Mass with all the questions still hanging in the air, and the promise of more lives lost tomorrow. That’s a certainty.

 

5. LICORICE PIZZA

“I’m not going to forget you, just like you’re not going to forget me.”

“Licorice Pizza” sounds like something tasty until you stop to consider what that would actually be. Dough with tomato sauce and cheese and licorice on top? That doesn’t go together at all!

The movie’s central duo is a little like that. She’s licorice — looking sweet, but tasting bitter. Dark and difficult to define. An acquired taste. He’s pizza — generic, cheesy, a favorite at parties, a crowd-pleaser. And, in the end, impossible to resist.

They don’t go together. And, if you subscribe to the indignant discourse that’s flared up around this film, they absolutely should not be together. He’s fifteen, she’s in her mid-twenties… but hey, it’s the 70s. Chill out, man!

In 2021, Licorice Pizza became a litmus test for how politicized pop culture has gotten. It wasn’t the only film to take on this role — Don’t Look Up was practically begging for it — but the age gap conversation did, unfortunately, overshadow everything else Paul Thomas Anderson’s easygoing comedy has going for it.

These days, a certain kind of filmgoer — mostly young, mostly liberal — seems to prefer their cinema scrubbed and sanitized, as sterile and over-thought as a corporate Linkedin page. The film is “good” if its optics are good, if it checks the right boxes. Liking a film becomes like endorsing a politician — which, in America’s tribal political climate, is totally binary. The film is either Right or Wrong. We vote for or against it. Yes, cancel culture has come to the movies.

Of course, Licorice Pizza isn’t really “canceled.” It’s a critical darling, an indie hit at the box office, and a likely Oscar nominee. But discussion of the film has centered on whether the central relationship between an adult woman and a teenage boy is Right or Wrong — and, by extension, whether Paul Thomas Anderson is Right or Wrong in choosing to depict it.

There’s nothing wrong with calling out problematic art — or problematic artists. We should talk about the decisions characters make in a movie — whether they’re right, wrong, or somewhere in between. But since when does that turn into a judgment about whether the movie itself is behaving appropriately? Art isn’t meant to be an endorsement — that’s what advertising is.

After being fed a steady diet of brain dead Disney remakes and far too many Spider-Men for one lifetime, today’s audiences have been trained to go into a movie with their expectations set, knowing exactly what they’ll get out of it. (Nothing they didn’t go in with already.) No challenges, no new ideas — certainly nothing unseemly. Every Star Wars is basically just an advertisement for more Star Wars. When Hollywood is just repackaging and reselling the same movies back to us over and over, we get used to being placated. Then something like Licorice Pizza comes along, defying preconceived notions about how a breezy romantic comedy should make us feel. Some are bound to flip out and reject it. We’re all experts at rooting out what’s problematic in pop culture these days. We’re like lions now — it’s in our blood and in our bones to hunt and catch and kill the Problematic Thing. It’s pure instinct. What we’re not trained to do anymore is recognize ambiguity, ponder it for a while, and react later, after we’ve had time to think. Based on some of the knee-jerk responses to Licorice Pizza, you’d think the movie itself had committed a sex crime. (But I kind of get that, because Woody Allen movies actually do increasingly feel like sex crimes over time.)

I know I sound about eighty years old and super white just for saying it, but the discourse around this film made me defensive — not of Licorice Pizza or Paul Thomas Anderson specifically, but of a movie’s right to tell a “problematic” story without blatantly wagging its finger in our faces. Of a movie’s right to meander in unexpected directions, defying the formulas we’re so accustomed to. Of a real, old-fashioned motion picture, meant to be shown on 70mm in a movie theater, of all places! Sitting down to watch Licorice Pizza transported me back to a time when there were movies like Licorice Pizza to sit down and watch, and places that eager to show them. In 2021, we still have that, but barely — and we won’t have it much longer if we don’t let films be as free-wheeling and unexpected as Licorice Pizza is to differentiate them from what’s streaming on Disney+, where nothing is ever “problematic.”

Licorice Pizza harkens back to the 70s in more than just its color palette and production design. It evokes an era when storytelling itself was looser and less imitative. When audiences wouldn’t necessarily know what to expect from a movie before they’ve even bought their popcorn. Licorice Pizza is episodic to the point of being random. It surprises in the ways that life does. You can’t possibly predict what will happen moment to moment. A carefree afternoon that seems to be going one way is suddenly yanked in the opposite direction when cops bust young Gary on a murder charge out of nowhere. Alana’s attempts at romance are all derailed by weird, dumb luck. Anderson is, in some ways, working with the same motifs of chance and fate he explored so operatically in Magnolia, but instead of cruel and controlled, here the powers that be are just indifferent. They shrug and roll the dice.

Licorice Pizza is reminiscent in ways of The Graduate — both are about aimless twentysomethings at odds with where they’re supposed to be in life. Their protagonists lack direction, finding solace in a romantic foil whose age makes them an unlikely candidate for long-term happiness. Both films end on a note that may, at first, strike us as an upbeat ending, but requires reconsideration when you start to wonder what happens next.

There are numerous differences between Anderson’s and Nichols’ films, of course. Licorice Pizza is far from erotic. The sexiest moment between Alana and Gary is when she offers to show him her boobs, and when he asks to cop a feel, she slaps him. Their “relationship” is juvenile, no more serious than a schoolyard crush on a friend. The final moments are so heightened, with swelling music and soaring emotion, that we’re conditioned to feel like we just witnessed another match made in Hollywood heaven. That’s all, folks!

Is it, though? Your Licorice Pizza mileage may vary, depending on what you think it’s about. If you see it is a romantic comedy about Gary and Alana, you might be screwed. If you see it as a comedic character study of Alana, however, it becomes a deeper and richer film — casting the age-inappropriate romance as a character flaw rather than a ringing endorsement of statutory rape.

Gary is something of a superstar for a fifteen-year-old. He’s already a successful child actor, soon to become a young entrepreneur. Alana has nothing going for her. She’s a lowly photographer’s assistant who still lives with her parents and has no idea what else she might want out of life. Through Gary, Alana gets to see herself as exotic and exciting — an “older woman,” out of reach. His youthful vision of her grants her the maturity that she, in actuality, lacks. Guys her own age don’t see her that way anymore, but when she’s hanging out with a bunch of kids, suddenly Alana is cool, sophisticated, and in control. She regresses out of being an adult.

Alana tries a few careers on for size. She attempts to become an actress, then a politician. She engages in a May-December fling with a past-his-prime movie star that ends stupidly, and fancies herself the object of a local politician’s affections. She dates a suave teen actor she meets through Gary. Pretty much everyone Alana hooks up with is a celebrity. They’re the centers of their own universes. She tries to get into the swing of their orbits, and continually fails. Every time Alana wades into adulthood, she’s knocked back again, always running back to Gary and his adolescent safe haven — perhaps because Gary’s the only guy who’s willing to revolve around her for a change.

Will this last? I doubt it. Do I endorse it? No — but I believe it, and that’s good enough. More than Right or Wrong, the dynamic between Alana and Gary is true, thanks to Anderson’s insightful writing and Alana Haim and Cooper Hoffman’s casual, lived-in performances. As stylized and occasionally bizarre as Licorice Pizza is, its two central characters feel real and authentic (as does the 70s setting, thanks to perfect costumes and production design, and specific details like the 1973 gas crisis). They’re a lot like people we’ve met before — flawed, but trying. Like most young people, their romantic entanglements are doomed to fail, but will foment personal growth and better luck next time.

Licorice Pizza rhymes nicely with Red Rocket, another film on this list about a shiftless adult who leeches off a teenager to further arrest their development into a capable grownup. Alana is much less calculating than Mikey Sabre — she’s not unwilling to take on adulthood, just unable — and it’s probably good that we’ll never know what might happen if Mikey were to meet Alana, because she’d almost certainly end up in porn. Alana just isn’t the predatory type. She wants to be pursued, but it’s only this one fifteen-year-old who has the energy to put up with her endless array of bullshit.

Alana and Gary are both in a kind of purgatory, waiting for the main thrust of their lives to begin. Early in their platonic courtship, Alana says Gary is bound to forget her once he’s grown up and successful. He disagrees, and he’s right. What they’ll remember from this moment in time is what’s presented to us in Licorice Pizza — absurd situations, amusing anecdotes, the people who mattered most at the time. (In a Los Angeles-specific twist, they’ll also recall run-ins with celebrities, which make up several of these incidents.) When we think back on our younger years, it’s not prom or graduation that tend to come to mind — it’s the weird stuff, the funny stuff, the singular stuff that only happens to us, and only just this once, like that time we fucked up Jon Peters’ Ferrari, or that mortifying date with the kid who told your deeply religious parents he’s an atheist. Licorice Pizza touches on so many disparate storylines, but mostly, it’s a movie about memory. It doesn’t judge the past, even though judging the past is all the rage these days. It just reminisces.

In addition to being a shudder-inducing variation on a popular Italian dish, Licorice Pizza is the name of a Los Angeles-area record store that opened in 1969 (now defunct, natch). It’s also a slang term for vinyl itself, due to the color, size, and shape of a record. (LP. Get it?) I was expecting the store to at least make a cameo in the movie, but I think I get it now — Licorice Pizza is a record. The film is episodic, stringing together a bunch of events that don’t have much to do with each other the way we groove from one track to another on an album. Some songs (or scenes) are upbeat and some are melancholy, but they flow one into the next, one into the next. They’re all of a piece.

Most characters appear for a moment or two and then they’re gone, like songs on a record. Alana and Gary are the album — they’re what’s constant throughout, holding these disparate bits together. Gary tells Alana she won’t forget him, and of course he’s right. Most people we meet come and go like songs, but some stick around long enough to become an indelible part of our lives — part of the album. They stay with us in such a way that we can spin the record of our time together whenever we want, over and over again.

 

4. PLEASURE

“Where’s a ball gag when you need one?”

A pretty young blonde steps off a plane at LAX with dreams of stardom in her eyes. It’s a story we’ve seen a thousand times, but this time, she doesn’t have her sights set on conquering Hollywood. She’s got a different kind of stardom in mind.

Pleasure is a workplace dramedy. The workplace is porn. Ninja Thyberg’s debut feature is uncompromising and bracingly honest about the (literal) ins and outs of the adult film industry, its cast comprised of real adult performers providing full frontal authenticity to their roles. It makes Showgirls look demure.

The film follows budding starlet Bella Cherry on her quest to become porn’s next It Girl. She’s fresh from Sweden, seeking a spicier life in Los Angeles (the Valley, to be exact). She knows exactly what she wants. At least, she thinks she does — but life in porn isn’t always as pleasurable as it’s meant to look to the masturbators watching at home. Pleasure follows the typical A Star Is Born narrative, more or less, with a savvy twist on the old cliches. Star Is Born stories tend to focus on naive wannabes who fall into a series of traps — getting seduced by a predatory producer, partying too hard, selling out. But in porn, these “traps” aren’t just occupational hazards — they’re part of the job itself. Is Bella going to fuck a dirty old man? Well, of course! Willingly and eagerly. Will she choose the superficiality of stardom over her friends? Yes — that’s the game. Will Bella Cherry sell out? She already has! In porn, you sell out before your first paycheck is cashed. There’s no shame about it.

What follows is a surprisingly nuanced story set in a world that is anything but nuanced. Bella’s friendship with the particularly wanton Joy (Revika Anne Reustle) is built on shaky foundation from the get-go, thanks to the transactional nature of relationships between performers. The blushing artifice we see in tales of Hollywood-centric stardom is gone, replaced by frankness about who these girls are and what they’re willing to do for fame. In the end, the lesson is the same no matter which side of the Hollywood Hills the limelight falls on — celebrity isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.

The ironically titled Pleasure depicts the highs and lows of the porn industry from a raw, honest female point of view, something that’s sorely lacking in porn itself. We bear witness to all kinds of shoots, from the relatively soft core to the extreme. There’s lots of moaning, kissing, spitting, thrusting, slapping, and ejaculation, but one thing there’s not much of? Pleasure. (Especially female pleasure.) What little might be found arises in moments when the girls are off-camera — the gradual thawing wall of ice between performers who are bunking together, the camaraderie and halting trust that builds between female colleagues. These girls have to watch each other’s backs — but they can be backstabbers, too.

Porn is a popularity contest. It’s not unlike high school. The way Bella tests her social and sexual boundaries is not so different from the way we all explore who we are in our teens and twenties. Underneath its explicit trappings, Pleasure is a relatable story about navigating sexuality, friendship, and a career in the big city, like Working Girl with sex work. The Adults Only backdrop allows Pleasure to be more direct and honest about female sexuality than other female-centric dramas are ever allowed to be. A 19-year-old woman doesn’t have to do porn to experiment with group sex, girl-on-girl, bondage, or kink, but you aren’t likely to see that level of sexual curiosity in other female coming-of-age stories. Pleasure is about porn, but isn’t exclusive to it. It’s just slightly more extreme than the average young adult experience.

Or is that only true for those of us in Los Angeles? For Angelinos and industry insiders, Pleasure also serves as a wicked exaggeration of the Hollywood scene, depicting it at its crassest and most vapid. In a social scene like this, your friends are the people who can show you the ropes, get you into the hot parties, cut the line at the club. Who among us hasn’t had a friendship we’ve steered toward some material or hierarchical advantage? Aren’t we all whores from time to time? Pleasure is shrewd about how “glamorous” the Hollywood-adjacent life really is. The clawing and clamoring to get behind the velvet ropes, only to find that the VIPs are sitting around playing games on their phones ‘cause they’re bored. The look on Bella Cherry’s face when she finally becomes the apex predator she’s yearned to be says it all: “Did I fuck my way to the top for this?”

As much as Bella’s story harkens back to the timeless pursuit of adoration in the City of Angels, a few elements do stick out as very present tense. Bella was born in 1999, on the cusp of the millennium, just in time to have a whole different relationship to cameras than any generation before her. She’s not even slightly coy about being filmed during her first shoot, entirely indifferent to whether it’s a dick or a camera being shoved in her face. In her eyes, there isn’t much difference. Bella’s brazen attempts to gain followers also extend Pleasure‘s relevance way beyond adult entertainment. Bella Cherry lives her life playing to the cameras, but that’s true of so many people her age — not just the ones in porn.

Social media plays a big role in Pleasure because it’s such a crucial tool for new adult performers to promote themselves and build up a brand. Producers sign performers who’ve already proven themselves on camera, who have a built-in following. It proves an ingenue has what it takes to keep her audience begging for more. Young female performers don’t have much control over their professional shoots, but they can craft their image exactly as they like on social media. Technology often gets shoehorned into young-skewing films that don’t know how to use it properly — more often than not, it’s awkward and annoying when characters use Twitter or talk about Instagram. That dates a movie fast. But when Bella posts sexy videos or pics in Pleasure, it’s more than just a cute contrivance — it’s empowering, a way to give herself some agency in her chosen career. She’s in control of how she’s received as an entertainer.

Pleasure touches lightly (and possibly, accidentally) on the sea change that technology has spurred in adult entertainment, reducing the power of the gatekeepers and letting young women monetize their sexuality directly. In this way, it follows in the footsteps of Steven Soderbergh’s underrated Magic Mike, which also had more on its mind than glistening abs and suggestive thrusting. Is this the part of my Top Ten list where I say that Pleasure, like Magic Mike and Hustlers before it, is really a film about entrepreneurship, a response to how fucked up the American economy is? Yes, it is.

Bella is subjected to degrading and manipulative behavior on several shoots. In a sense, she truly did ask for it — she positioned herself as the “anything goes” girl to book more work. But soon she’s in over her head and must learn to set limits for herself. Like any other girl in any other job, there comes a point where Bella has to decide what she will and what she won’t do for money. And as in most jobs, the people trying to manipulate and cajole her, trying to mold her into what they want her to be, are men. Pleasure’s arc is ultimately about Bella learning to say no to the most powerful men in her profession, which, again, resonates far beyond just the porn industry.

Whether intentional or not, Pleasure is one of the early adopters of 2021’s Great Resignation mentality, of young people saying “fuck no” to the Man at the Top, of workers just up and quitting — not because there’s a better opportunity, or a Plan B to fall back on, but because this isn’t working. Thyberg ends Pleasure without a clear path forward for our heroine. We know she’s appraised herself as more valuable than the porn industry’s going rate, but we don’t know where she’ll take her newfound worth. But Bella, of course, has a camera of her own that she is in control of — and when she’s playing to her own fan base, she’s more enthusiastic and alive than she ever was on professional shoots. She could easily graduate over to OnlyFans, or something like that. Technology has enabled people to make a living without signing their whole lives away to one master. In 2021, that arc is particularly of the moment. The pandemic created a lot more hustlers than there used to be.

With its cast of real adult performers, the irony inherent in Ninja Thyberg’s impressive directorial debut is how credible and convincing it is when porn films themselves are anything but. As the ambitious ingenue at the center of it all, Sofia Kappel is totally captivating in her film debut. (Her look suggests Chloe Moretz’s naughtier little sister.) The no-fills screenplay is equally legit, eschewing cliches that many filmmakers would use to ramp up the drama. (And sparing us even the slightest hint of romance.) It, too, pairs nicely with Red Rocket, another film about a porn performer hustling to make ends meet — but Mikey Sabre’s at the end of his shelf life in front of the camera, and Bella Cherry is just beginning. She wouldn’t waste much time on him.

On the one hand, Pleasure is unusually sensitive and insightful, not just about the adult industry, but about female sexuality, the Los Angeles social scene, and social media in the 2020s, too. On the other hand, it’s raw and confrontational, perhaps even shocking to the faint of heart. (Pretty much any other film about sex looks like a mere tease next to this one.) This is no Showgirls, though it does entertain in some similar ways, alternately hilarious and harrowing.

Speaking of game-changing advancements in technology, I watched Pleasure at the virtual Sundance Film Festival last January, almost a year ago — it’s the only film on this list that’s yet to be released. (Sorry!) After a brief stopover at A24, which may have gotten skittish about the explicit content, it is now set to be released by Neon sometime in 2022. Consider Pleasure something to look forward to in the new year.

 

3. THE POWER OF THE DOG

“He’s just a man, Peter. Only another man.”

In the King James Version of the Bible, Psalm 22:20 reads: “Deliver my soul from the sword; my darling from the power of the dog.” The meaning of the “dog” can be expanded to anything we want it to be — whatever forces have power over us, whatever we’re unable to control. Our desires. Our diseases. Oftentimes, our fates.

Early on, The Power Of The Dog glimpses the macho cowboy at its center through window frames, recalling an early scene in John Ford’s The Searchers, one of the most iconic Westerns of all time. In The Searchers, Wayne’s Ethan Edwards sets out to avenge the murder of a married woman he loved and rescue her kidnapped daughter. Ethan Edwards is kind of an asshole, but he does the right thing by the standards of those times. He saves the helpless girl from the bad guys. He’s the hero of the piece. The Searchers is just one of many Westerns made by John Ford, or starring John Wayne, or both. Some treat their heroes with more scrutiny than others — but one thing they all have in common is a man at the center, doing the right thing, saving the day.

The Power Of The Dog is an inversion of the classic Western. It turns the stoic, macho cowboy into a brute and allows a skittish widow and her sensitive son to gently take the reins of the story. Phil Burbank (Benedict Cumberbatch) is a rancher and a bully, working alongside his brother George (Jesse Plemons), who is as decent and mild-mannered as Phil is vicious and domineering. Phil’s cruelty ends up endearing his brother to Rose (Kirsten Dunst), a widow who lost her first husband to suicide and now operates a restaurant and inn with her teenage son Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee). Soon, George and Rose are married, and Phil sets to work tormenting his brother’s good-hearted but meek bride — because he’s jealous, because he’s afraid he’ll lose the one true friend he’s got, and because he can. He’s got the power.

In a more typical Western, The Power Of The Dog might be setting up a Cain and Abel rivalry between Phil and George, with the damsel and the kid placed as pawns caught between them. But Jane Campion slowly, carefully reveals herself to be more interested in how Peter and Rose will respond to Phil’s torment, how this man’s tyranny brings out hidden strengths and weaknesses in them. Rose’s confidence erodes quickly. She starts drinking heavily, and soon finds herself in poor health. It’s clear to everyone that Phil’s persecution is slowly killing her. But Peter may be in even graver danger.

Peter is gawky and awkward, bookish and brainy. Phil brands him a “sissy” at first sight. He leads the other cowboys in mocking the way he talks, the way he dresses, and especially his artistic streak. Then, all of a sudden, Phil takes a different kind of interest in the boy. He offers to show him the ropes around the ranch. How to ride. How to hunt. We’re left to wonder if Phil’s newfound kindness is genuine, or part of a long con meant to unravel Rose once and for all. Rope becomes an ominously important symbol, as Peter admits to Phil that his father hung himself, and it was Peter who cut the corpse down from where he found it. Phil offers to weave a lasso for Peter out of rawhide, just as Phil’s oft-mentioned mentor Bronco Henry did for Phil when he was about Peter’s age. In a classic Western, Peter would idolize and emulate Phil Burbank. The two would ride off into the horizon and have adventures together. Instead, Campion fills the gorgeous, wide open spaces of 1920s Montana (which are really 2020s New Zealand) with unceasing dread and non-stop tension, aided greatly by Jonny Greenwood’s unsettling score. A shadow that resembles a snarling dog on a distant hillside implies that this landscape is ready to sink its teeth into Rose, or Peter, or George, or Phil, at any moment. We become certain that this story is building toward a fatal conclusion for one or more of these characters, and that Phil’s rope — a symbol that weaves together both adulation and menace — will play a part in the proceedings.

Will George come to the rescue? No — if there’s one thing that’s clear fairly early in Campion’s film, it’s that this is not going to be a story of a good straight man battling a bad straight man in order to save the women and children. George is good-hearted, and Jesse Plemons imbues him with more likability than the character as written probably deserves. He loves Rose and treats her well, but he’s useless when it comes to standing up to his brother. He lets Phil’s brutality go on and on, countering with only the feeblest protest. Plemons’ performance hints that he probably knows more about Phil’s sexual history than he lets on, but he remains silent, preferring the path of least resistence — even when taking action might prevent his loved ones from suffering. Rose and Peter are on their own.

If there’s one single classic Western that The Power Of The Dog turns on its head more than all the rest, it’s George Stevens’ Shane, released in 1953, starring Alan Ladd as the titular ass-kicking cowboy and young Brandon deWilde as Joey, the kid who idolizes him. Campion’s screenplay, masterfully adapted from Thomas Savage’s 1967 novel, offers strong hints about what drives Phil’s crack-the-whip callousness without ever fully filling us in. When Phil was a teenager, Bronco Henry took him under his wing. The relationship, we’re led to assume, became sexual. Some twenty years later, the otherwise stoic Phil won’t shut up about the late Bronco Henry, still harboring a private longing for the intimacy they shared together, still worshiping the man who taught him everything he knows.

But was their time together so idyllic? What are we to make of a secret relationship between an older man and a teenage boy in this era? Phil seems to be suffering from some latent Stockholm syndrome. His prickly demeanor and cruelty toward others could stem from his survival of sexual abuse. It’s hard to know where to draw the line between consent and abuse in this time and place, in a culture that is so flagrantly intolerant of anything that registers as less than 100% manly. Campion doesn’t give us many details, but my own reading of the film tells me that the relationship between Phil and Henry was a toxic one, putting Phil in a cycle of abuse that sees him prey on Rose and Peter. Phil may be a villain in Rose’s eyes, and in ours, but through another lens he could be a tragic hero — one who lost the love of his life at an early age, and now watches as his brother finds a happiness he’ll never know himself. The Power Of The Dog could be a story of Phil’s redemption, if it wanted to be, with Phil acting as mentor to Peter in the final act, and gradually warming up to Rose (and the audience warming up to Phil once he starts showing Peter some kindness). But that’s not where this story is going. A sexual tension between the man and the boy is mounting. History may repeat itself.

It doesn’t, of course. Campion manages to have it both ways, softening Phil’s role as the villain of the piece, providing some hints as to where his cruelty is coming from, even allowing him to be slightly, tragically endearing — and then still delivering a savage wallop of an ending. When we meet Phil Burbank, we want nothing more than to see this tyrant get his deserved comeuppance. Near the end of the film, though, we’re not so sure. Could it be that the brute is just… misunderstood? Mightn’t he redeem himself through Peter, somehow? Campion’s morally murky screenplay at once has us rooting for Phil’s salvation, while still harboring an underlying fear that he might do something terrible to this boy and his mother. So maybe we want to see him taken down after all?

Women and kids are always shuffled over to the sidelines in Westerns. They always need the unflappable cowboy hero to save the day. Campion puts Rose and Peter at the center of her Western, offering an alternate — and quite likely, more authentic — take on what these strong and silent men were truly like. The Power Of The Dog flies in the face of every myth we’ve ever been told about strength and heroism in the Old West, of all the archetypes set in place by Western gods of Hollywood like Gary Cooper, John Wayne, and Clint Eastwood. Peter walks through a crowd of cowboys who jeer and call him names. “Sissy.” “Nancy.” He doesn’t react. In that moment, Peter is braver than Phil or George or any other man in this story ever is. Phil is too emotionally weak and frightened to risk being branded a “sissy” himself, and George is too mild-mannered and meek to stand up for the wife who is quickly succumbing to alcoholism with no small thanks to his brother’s bullying. Peter’s father committed suicide rather than face his demons. None of these men, save Peter, have the courage to stand up to the dog that threaten to dismember them, or their darlings. And it is Peter, in the end, whose strength and silence overpowers the mythic cowboy hero who is so revered in every other story. In Campion’s Western, intelligence, patience, loyalty, and love are the true noble protector’s weapons of choice. Who’s got the true grit now, John Wayne?

The Power Of The Dog is a story of absent fathers and father figures, of mentors and protégés, of brothers, of tacit lust and secret lovers, of prey and predators. The rope is the symbol that ties all these threads together — a symbol of strength and friendship, of knowledge and tradition passed down from one cowboy to the next, but also an echo of past death and a harbinger of death yet to come. Campion elevates the role of women and children in Westerns from pawn to protagonist. She is not interested in perpetuating the old myths of heroism, but in creating new ones — exploring how machismo can be deadly for the vulnerable people on the sidelines of a hero’s tale.

Campion does romanticize the American West, as so many filmmakers before her have, but The Power Of The Dog dwells on details instead of the usual boundless grandeur of the Western, finding grace hidden in the margins rather than amidst the epic sweep — and plenty of menace amidst the romance. The film is expertly and exquisitely produced at every level, from the breath-taking cinematography (with 2020s New Zealand doubling for 1920s Montana) to the impeccable production design and the uniformly stellar performances. Kodi Smit-McPhee, the likeliest Oscar victor, is particularly excellent in a part that takes real skill to master. It builds on his work in the underseen Slow West, another unconventional Western shot in New Zealand by a non-American, which would pair perfectly with The Power Of The Dog in a double feature. (It made my Top Ten list in 2015.)

Stylistically, and largely thanks to Greenwood’s involvement, The Power Of The Dog most resembles Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will Be Blood — another tale of a towering tyrant whose bitterness leads to his own undoing. (And another one of my Top Ten picks, obviously.) That was a grander film in every sense, spanning decades, evoking the most gigantic themes. The Power Of The Dog has just as much bite, but you don’t see it coming. It’s sly and careful, biding its time until the moment is just right. It’s an undeniable contender for Best Picture, though it almost feels like it shouldn’t be. It’s too dark! It’s too good! It’s too Netflix!

Forget the old rules. The Dog has the power this awards season, and it will deserve every statue it gets.

 

2. THE HAND OF GOD

“I want an imaginary life, just like the one I had before. I don’t like reality anymore.”

“Reality is lousy,” teenager Fabietto Schisa complains to his reluctant mentor, filmmaker Antonio Capuano, in The Hand Of God. He has good reason to say so. It’s not a particularly articulate or original statement (see also: “life sucks and then you die,” “reality bites,” nearly all lyrics from 90s alternative music, and other aphorisms adopted by jaded adolescents). It does, however, adequately sum up the state we find ourselves in as 2021 grinds to a halt.

The year began in limbo and ended much the same way, but it wasn’t the full purgatory of 2020. In 2021, we came back to life… at least, we tried. After a rough four years, and an especially rough 2020, we thought we could return to some semblance of normalcy in the second half of the year, only to discover that there’s no going back. Perhaps we’ll get through the pandemic once and for all in 2022. Maybe all the nutty nonsense conservatives will eventually come to their senses in, like, 2050. (Maybe…?) But we’ve been in this too long now to ever go back to the way we were. We’ve adapted to a world that’s far worse than the one we knew a couple years ago, and there’s no such thing as unadapting. Reality is lousy now. 2021 was all about accepting that — not all at once, but piece by piece, inch by inch, ever so gradually. One by one, it’s dawning on us that the world we knew is lost to us forever now, and the world we got in its stead is insufficient. So now what?

We didn’t know how good we had it.

Paolo Sorrentino’s The Hand Of God captures that resignation without stranding us in it. In the film’s comedic first half, Fabietto is preoccupied with the kind of shallow concerns a teenage boy his age should be preoccupied with. He cares about soccer and sex and not much else. He doesn’t really play soccer, but he and just about everyone else in his orbit are obsessed with Diego Maradona, the Argentine soccer player rumored to be coming to Naples in the mid-80s. (The rumors were true.) Fabietto doesn’t have sex either, but he’s lusting after his buxom aunt Patrizia, along with every other male in the family. The rest of his family members are equally concerned with the shallow, the superficial, the everyday. The film’s first hour consists of episodic snapshots of middle class life. Fabietto’s sister Daniela is literally always in the bathroom. His brother Marchino is nearly always lounging around in his underwear. His mother Maria is a mischievous prankster, his father Saverio a bit of a cad who, it turns out, has a mistress on the side. But they move past that. Scenes unfold the way happy memories arise when flipping through a family photo album. The relationships between these people are half-loving, half-caustic, peppered with cruel jokes and nasty asides that everyone takes in stride because they’re family. Sorrentino’s flair for absurdity infuses both the comedy on the page and his off-the-wall cinematography, though that’s dialed down a notch from the operatic ludicrousness of previous works like Loro and The Great Beauty. It’s a slice of life, slightly heightened.

Then something happens. A door slams violently on Fabietto’s carefree youth, forcing him to grow up fast. The Hand Of God isn’t an entirely different film in its second half — it remains wry and comical — but there’s a noticeable shift in the storytelling. Sadness hangs over everything, even the funny stuff. We still laugh, and so does Fabietto, but now it’s with a heaviness in our hearts.

If there’s one theme that emerged more than any others in my favorite films this year, it’s how we cope with loss and process grief — often, through the arts. We might write lavish musicals about class struggles and racial strife (West Side Story). We might find ourselves speaking to historical atrocities in the middle of a melodrama about motherhood (Parallel Mothers). We might create characters who will sit down and hash out the conversations America is not actually having (Mass). Many of the best stories are borne from an artist’s desire to work through his or her or their demons. This year, several films saw artists coping with pain and hardship through art. Struggling playwright Jonathan Larsen in Tick, Tick… Boom!, somehow sensing he doesn’t have much time left to get his magnum opus to the stage; a young woman making a film about her addict boyfriend’s demise in Joanna Hogg’s largely autobiographical The Souvenir Part II; Drive My Car’s Yūsuke Kafuku, listening obsessively to his dead wife’s voice as he directs a production of Uncle Vanya; and, of course, The Hand Of God, in which Fabietto’s despair blossoms into desire to become a filmmaker. (This film, too, is largely autobiographical.)

It’s impossible not to think of Fellini when discussing Sorrentino. The revered auteur’s influence is everywhere in Sorrentino’s body of work, and The Hand Of God is no exception. Like Fellini, Sorrentino idealizes the women in his past; sometimes that feels like a tribute to their strength and beauty, and sometimes he just seems super horny for them. The camera practically drools when fixed on Fabietto’s Aunt Patrizia, reflecting the teenager’s confused desire. But by the time we leave her, the gaze has become wistful rather than leering. The Hand Of God is, in part, Sorrentino’s equivalent to Fellini’s Amarcord, but it’s more than a trip down memory lane. It’s preservation — capturing the ghosts of the past and placing them here, in this film, where they can live again. Forever. Memories aren’t real to anyone else… but a film is.

Deeply personal stories based on childhood memories can be something of a mixed bag. Belfast, one of this year’s Oscar frontrunners, is tonally uneven — getting too cute in how it visualizes “the magic of the movies,” clearly straining to be arty. The Hand Of God is Belfast done right. Both films are true to the facts, more or less, but The Hand Of God is the only one that feels that way, even though it also contains touches of the surreal. They only make it feel that much more honest. The Hand Of God joins films like The 400 Blows, The Long Day Closes, The Squid And The Whale, Roma, Pain And Glory, and Minari In bringing the interiority of childhood memory to life on the big screen, making a singular filmmaker’s experience of youth universally appealing.

Like Licorice Pizza, The Hand Of God is a window into the past. It unfolds like a memory, evoking not just a specific time and place but also a specific feeling about that moment. It’s recognizable even to those unfamiliar with the particulars of the period and setting. The Hand Of God tells us exactly what it was like to be a teen boy in Naples in 1986 — especially this teen boy, in this fucked up family. And then it tells us what it was like to have all that ripped away.

Sorrentino’s title refers to a goal scored by Maradona during the 1986 FIFA World Cup. Maradona used his hand to score it, which is against the rules, but the referees didn’t have a clear view, so it counted. Maradona said afterward that it was scored “a little with the head of Maradona, and a little with the hand of God.” The phrase has gone on to be legendary (for reasons I don’t really understand, given how little I know about international sports plays of the 1980s). As in Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s Never Look Away, another #1 pick of mine from a few years back, art and fate are intertwined in The Hand Of God. It’s as if Fabietto is hand-selected by the powers that be to become a filmmaker. He makes the typically teenage choice to stay home and watch soccer instead of joining a family excursion; this fateful indulgence ends up saving his life. One of Fabietto’s relatives exclaims that it was “the hand of God” that spared him, and he doesn’t mean divine intervention — he’s speaking about Maradona. Of course, Sorrentino is referring to both — a teenager’s boyish worship of the athlete he views as god-like, and the fateful course of events that drove him to start making films. The Hand Of God is a painfully personal film for Sorrentino. His previous films have focused on class and culture and politics, without a lot of obvious self-examination; as young Fabietto is beginning to discover his voice as an artist, we sense the much older Sorrentino on a similar journey, finally confronting the tragedy at the center of The Hand Of God in his work. It’s almost as if this film had to be made, almost as if Fabietto’s life was spared so he could make it.

As we find ourselves struggling with the strange new world the pandemic has built, I’m struck by the way these films reflect our own search for identity in the wake of tragedy. Who are we now? How, exactly, are we supposed to move on? These questions were asked by a number of characters in my favorite films this year, and not many of them found answers. It’s that sense of wandering, a little lost, through the mysteries of life that kept me coming back to these films, especially Sorrentino’s. The striking schism that splits the Idyllic Before from the Agonizing After gives this majestic coming-of-age story a little extra oomph in a year like this, one in which we watched the way of life we knew recede into the background for good. Now we know that 2020 was more than just a fluke on the way back to better days. It was the prologue to a brand new book. The second half of The Hand Of God makes subtle shifts toward the cinematic — taking on the weight of a character arc that the frivolous first half didn’t bother with. Fabietto tells Capuano he’s had it with reality — and, for better or worse, I think anyone who lived through 2021 can relate. Following a period of great darkness, we looked for dawn on the horizon, daring to hope. We were hungry for it. But 2021 had other plans. Everything that’s wrong now may, eventually, get better. But not yet. Not soon. Not easily.

The Academy Museum opened in Los Angeles in 2021. It’s an enthralling tribute to movies old and new, celebrating filmmakers from all walks of life, but it remains to be seen whether it’s a testament to an evolving art form or Hollywood’s version of the Museum of Natural History. It’s not hard to imagine its exhibits looking like fossils in another few years. Perhaps it’s cliche for someone who loves film as much as I do to rank another movie that speaks to the Power of the Arts so highly — I’m a sucker for ’em, just like the Academy. But when the theatrical experience is threatened with extinction the way it has been over the last couple years, I’ll go ahead and champion them anyway. Here’s to the good ones, while they last.

We didn’t know how good we had it.

 

1. THE WORST PERSON IN THE WORLD

“I grew up in a time when culture was passed along through objects. They were interesting because we could live among them. We could pick them up. Hold them in our hands. Compare them.”

The 21st century loves hyperbole. The enormity of the internet requires everything to be either “the best” or “the worst.” Anything in between gets swallowed up in that sea of constant content and dismissed. It’s from this millennial divarication, I believe, that The Worst Person In The World gets its title. (It’s not like our protagonist is beheading puppies or anything.)

Julie (Renate Reinsve) establishes herself as stubborn and independent early in her relationship with comic book creator Aksel (Anders Danielsen Lie). He’s 15 years older than she is and wants to start a family, but she’s not ready to have kids. She gets frustrated with his fuddy-duddy friends, who ask probing questions about where her life is headed and freak out when a dance party gets just a little too rowdy for them.

Then, on a whim, she crashes a wedding reception and meets Eivind (Herbert Nordrum), who is closer to her age. Both are in relationships. Neither wants to cheat. But there’s an undeniable attraction between them. One of the year’s hottest sequences sees Julie and Eivind actively, consciously finding ways to flirt that creep right up to the point of no return but never cross it, which admittedly gets a little strange. (There’s armpit sniffing and mutual urination involved.) The longer Julie and Eivind go without acting on their impulses, the more we’re clamoring to see them together. Just as the shark in Jaws is scarier when we don’t see it, Julie and Eivind’s romance is sexier when they won’t even kiss each other. At dawn they part ways, still technically faithful to their respective partners, but now this alternative relationship — one that could give them everything their current partner doesn’t — is planted firmly in their minds. They’ll always wonder “what if” — until they actually find out.

Julie is tempted to chase these throes of passion and run out on the encroaching responsibilities that commitment will require of her. When Aksel starts pressuring her about settling down, Julie fantasizes her way into a more passionate relationship with Eivind, who doesn’t want kids. With Eivind, she can go on a mushroom trip instead of a boring trip to the country with fortysomethings. The sex is more animalistic. He has fewer expectations of her. It isn’t long, though, before Julie again harbors serious doubts about whether the choices she’s making are right. (It’s all very millennial.) In the messiness that ensues, she doesn’t exactly behave like the best human being our species has to offer. According to the rules in our generation of polarization, that automatically makes her the worst.

Joachim Trier’s film — which could technically be classified as a romantic comedy, but is nothing like the typical “rom-com” — unfolds in twelve chapters, some with quirky titles like “Oral Sex in the Age of #MeToo” or “Julie’s Narcissistic Circus.” It follows 2008’s Reprise and 2012’s Oslo, August 31 in Trier’s unofficial trilogy of smart, observational character studies of young adults set in Oslo starring Anders Danielsen Lie. In Reprise, he played an ambitious young writer, competitive with his best friend. In Oslo, August 31, he played a depressed recovering heroin addict. In The Worst Person In The World, he’s Julie’s boyfriend. Trier’s focus shifts away from male angst to put Julie at the center, giving voice to the “girlfriend” character who is usually sidelined in stories about gifted artists.

Aksel is the more driven character. He’s got a lot more going for him — including a movie adaptation of his raunchy Bobcat comic series, its titular character sporting what one character refers to as the world’s “most iconic butthole.” He has the more dramatic arc. Aksel would be the protagonist in most versions of this story. (And, essentially, was, in Trier’s Reprise and Oslo, August 31.) But this is a film about Julie, who at one point even states that she feels like a supporting character in her own life. The amusing prologue introduces Julie’s constant indecision about what career path to pursue — she tries medical school, then switches to psychology, before deciding photography is her true calling — all of which lands her a “temporary” job in a bookstore while she further second guesses her life. She changes boyfriends with every new phase of her life. Some might consider her to be a flake. She is, in some ways, an underdeveloped character — but that’s the point. Julie is trying on identities in a world that would be just fine casting her as “the girlfriend,” “the wife,” or “the mother,” but doesn’t know what to do with her when she wants to drive her own story herself. Her journey isn’t ultimately about finding the right man, or the right job, but learning that she can stand on her own without a career or a relationship to define her. She’s made to feel that there’s something wrong with her for not settling, for wanting more than a supporting role would offer. But that doesn’t make her the worst person in the world. It just makes her the heroine of a story that isn’t going to be as predictable as some might like.

The movie’s title comes from the only chapter that focuses on Eivind instead of Julie, referring to how he constantly fails to live up to his activist girlfriend’s standards for saving the planet from its imminent destruction. Modern life is largely incompatible with environmentalism. There’s only so much we can do at an individual level to combat climate change until governments and institutions intervene. But that doesn’t stop our generation from feeling a stab of guilt every time we do something we know is adding to the problem — throw away the styrofoam our meal just came in, ask for a straw at Starbucks, drive instead of walk a half a mile to the store. The Worst Person In The World speaks to the often crippling anxiety many of us wrestle with a thousand times a day — not just about the environment, but about everything we could, in theory, be doing better. We could always be doing better — and most of the time, we’re not.

We all exaggerate our actions this way, examining what we’ve said and done too closely, bouncing between the highest highs and the lowest lows when we measure ourselves up against the people around us. In the either/or mentality that runs rampants in internet culture, being “the worst” only means not being the absolute greatest — so we’re all the worst from time to time. It’s easy to envision an angrier, shriller version of this film emphasizing Julie’s imperfections for comedic effect, and really making her “the worst.” True, she’s a bit of a Goldilocks when it comes to men, leaving the one who wants too much from her, then finding herself unsatisfied with the next, who doesn’t want enough. The Worst Person In The World neglects to pass judgment on any of these characters, though, the way a typical rom-com might frame these men as obviously wrong for her, forcing us to wait for Julie to wake up to what we could have told her all along. Neither Aksel nor Eivind is wrong for Julie; it’s quite possible that both could be right. When faced with divergent paths before us, we often fret about which is “right” — as if there is a right answer” Choosing wrong is like failing a test. We must figure out which path leads to ruin, and which leads to success. (So very millennial.) That’s how we see our lives while we’re living them, our decisions when we’re making them — but Trier, who is now closer to Aksel’s age than Julie’s, knows there is no “right.” We make a choice, and the alternatives disappear. So there was only ever that one path. What might have been never was. Other possibilities no longer exist. We’ll never make all the choices that lead to the best possible outcome, nor will we ever know the worst that could have been. It’s never as bad, or as good, as it could be. And neither are we. The internet may love absolutes, but they don’t exist in the real world. Growing up is about realizing that and accepting the gray area — learning that there is no wrong, there is no worst. Gradually, Julie discovers that it’s not about choosing right. It’s about becoming the person who can make the choice and live with what follows regardless.

In the film’s (literally) show-stopping sequence, time freezes as Julie makes a consequential decision, one she knows will alter the course of her life. It’s her decision to become the protagonist of this story. She runs through the streets of Oslo, where everyone is stuck in place but she, at last, is moving forward. Trier’s magical realism exquisitely illustrates what it’s like to have a private experience in a public space — you can be having the most profound moment of your life, and everyone else is just moving about their business, unaware. At that moment, both Julie and Eivind choose to halt the lives they’ve been living and embark on a new adventure, together. The world they knew before literally comes to a stop. In a lot of movies, that would be the ending — but in this one, Julie’s journey isn’t complete just because she might have found love. Believe it or not, that isn’t the way every story ends. (But try telling that to Hollywood.)

Though Lie does not portray Trier’s protagonist for a change, he does deliver The Worst Person In The World‘s most impactful performance, with a character arc that’s truly gutting. Following their breakup, Aksel brushes up against cancel culture during a TV interview, when he tries to defend his sexualization of women in his comics. (A lot of artists these days could relate.) Later, facing an ominous medical diagnosis, he tells Julie how the fifteen year age gap between them essentially means he comes from another world. “I grew up in an age without internet and mobile phones,” he laments. “The world that I knew has disappeared.” Aksel speaks of physical objects with reverence that will resonate with anyone who came of age in the 20th century. Aksel loves record stores and physical media. Things he could own. Things he could touch. In a digital space, we don’t own anything that can’t be wiped away with the click of a button. (And it’s not even a real button. It’s an icon on a screen.) Music, movies, books, TV — they all become the same thing. Content. They’re not really there. Aksel misses the places we could go, the things we could touch. As he got older, and the world around him grew more digital, he lost his sense of who he was without all his stuff. He realizes now that it’s kind of pathetic to grow so attached to objects, but he’s not alone in mourning the tactile, wondering whether spending so much time staring at the same screen really constitutes a life. It’s a beautiful elegy for the real world we’ve ceded, and perhaps the best distillation of our generation’s rising digital angst I’ve ever heard.

Trier’s output up until this point consists of movies that feel young — they’re about young people, made by someone who is fairly young himself — still in the thick of it. But The Worst Person In The World feels older than its protagonist, made by a man who has already learned the lessons Julie muddles her way through in this story. He is consciously questioning the assumptions men make about women like Julie, wrestling with what it means to be a straight white men telling stories in 2021. Early on, Julie complains that she knows everything about male anatomy — morning wood, erectile dysfunction, premature ejaculation — but men won’t tolerate talk of menstruation or true female desire. Later, her period makes a couple of notable cameos, and she writes rather graphically about what turns her on, which gets some traction online. The quirky chapter titles and episodic structure set up expectations for a breezier film than the one we ultimately get — at first glance, The Worst Person In The World might look as flighty and unsure of itself as its protagonist. But the script, co-written by Trier and Eskil Vogt, is actually perfectly constructed — without a single line of dialogue wasted, without a single scene out of place. Julie, at 30, is a little too old for this to be a proper coming of age story, but she’s certainly a different person from beginning to end. As in Drive My Car, the final scene silently gestures to the pandemic without commenting upon it; it, too, speaks to moving from one stage of life to another, something we’ve all had to do this year. The end of this film sees Julie transition from subject to artist.

Continuing a trend we noticed in 2020, this year further warped our sense of time passing, which might be why the arrested development at the center of this story, and several others, hit home for me. Like Licorice Pizza’s Alana, Julie finds herself in a tailspin figuring out “how to adult,” as the internet might phrase it. Not every film in my Top Ten is a coming of age movie, but they all feature teens or young adults contending with growing pains and the cruelties of maturity. An act of violence perpetrated by one teenager, claiming the lives of many others, creates the black hole at the center of Mass. Drive My Car’s Misaki is still processing conflicting emotions about her mother’s death. Ana unexpectedly becomes an unwed mother after a sexual assault in Parallel Mothers. Peter, still grieving his father’s suicide, goes to great lengths to ensure his mother’s survival in The Power Of The Dog. West Side Story’s Tony and Maria are based on the poster children for teen tragedy, Romeo and Juliet. Seventeen-year-old Strawberry gets into an inappropriate relationship with a much older porn star in Red Rocket. Bella Cherry gets it on with lots of older porn stars in Pleasure — and finds that getting paid for it isn’t as empowering as she thought it’d be. Licorice Pizza’s Alana fools around with a teen boy in order to forestall adulthood for a little while. And The Hand Of God’s Fabietto finds his idyllic adolescence ripped away by tragedy, guiding him toward a career in filmmaking he wouldn’t have pursued before. These stories involve young people growing up too soon, too late… or not at all, when tragedy strikes in Mass and West Side Story. Many of them also involve working behind or in front of cameras.

The Worst Person In The World wraps a number of compelling observations up in a film that seems, at first, to be too fresh and fun to say much about life, or death, or love. But looks can be deceiving. It may end up being one of the definitive films about millennials, one of the shrewdest dissections of this exact moment in time.

Sorry, was that too hyperbolic? In internet speak, The Worst Person In The World is the best movie ever. In reality, it’s merely the best of the year… but that’s still pretty damn good.

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