2021 was yet another difficult year for movies. Theaters were closed for part of the year; and even when opened, many people stayed away—because of COVID, or just because streaming has become so common. This situation has made it much harder to even figure what films belong in what year. Even the awards groups the last few years have had trouble. So some of these films, you may consider to be from 2020 or even 2022. My list, my determination.
As I said last year, “I have to admit that because so many streaming platforms were hungry for content, there are a lot of smaller films that found their way to the general public. Again. That’s both good and bad. It means some good films found audiences that they wouldn’t have reached. It also means that there was a lot of crap that made the cut. It doesn’t seem fair to give this year a grade, so I’ll just give it an incomplete.”
So for better or worse, here are the dozen (or so) films that I find to be of special note for 2021 (give or take a year):
1. Summer of Soul (…or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised) (my review) – In 1969 (the same year as Woodstock), the Harlem Cultural Festival took place over several weekends. Some of the biggest names in music took part. The footage from that event has remained stashed away for over 50 years. This is an amazing record of the times and the music. (And yes, my generation did have the best music.) It can currently be seen on Hulu.
2. Nomadland (ScreenFish review) – Yes, it won three Oscars last year (Best Picture, Best Actress, Best Director), but it couldn’t really be seen until February. It certainly deserves those Oscars. This is a story of those who live at the edge of society, some by choice, others by necessity. They live in RVs and go from job to job or just take time away. They may seem rootless, but there is a strong sense of community to be seen here. It can currently be seen on Hulu or for rent on Prime.
3. Tender Bar (my review) – Wonderful coming-of-age story of a boy/young man who learns of life from his uncle and the barflies at his uncle’s bar. It is touching, but even more, it is a wonderful look at the values that are important in shaping life. It can currently be seen on Prime.
4. Mass (ScreenFish review)—Two sets of parents come together in a church basement several years after a school shooting. It is a time of pain, of rage, of sorrow. Can it be a chance for grace? Wonderful cast. Exceptional exploration of the emotional damage that can happen in a moment. Also, of the possibility of healing. It can be rented on Prime.
5. Drive My Car (my review) – This is a film about stories and their power. It is as characters tell their stories connections are made. Even when languages are different, the stories bring people together. Currently playing in theaters. (Wear your mask!)
6. The Power of the Dog (ScreenFish review) – For those yearning for a western, here it is! It is a story built around models of manhood—and how toxic they can be. I was tempted to make a double feature with this and Tender Bar for two different ways of seeing what it means to be a real man. This is in theaters and available on Netflix.
7. Between the World and Me – Come for the language (which is beautiful), stay for the insight. The words come from Ta-Nahisi Coates’s National Book Award winning contemplation of the Black American experience. It can be seen on HBO Max.
8. Tick, Tick … BOOM! (ScreenFish review) – The story of Jonathan Larson, the creator of Rent as he struggles for success as he nears turning 30. It is a story of artistry and ambition. But it is also about the frailty of life. It can be seen on Netflix.
9. Petite Maman (festival coverage of the film) – This is a charming time-bending coming-of-age story of a young girl who meets her mother at the same age in the woods. They even have sleepovers at each other’s homes –it’s the same house.
10. Judas and the Black Messaiah (ScreenFish review)—the story of the FBI’s infiltration of the Black Panthers and eventual assassination of a Panther leader, Fred Hampton. While some may think this is about history, we also know that the racism behind this story lives and grows. It can be seen on HBO Max.
11. Holy Frit (my review) – I’m including this in spite of the fact that it has only played at festivals. I loved this doc about the creation of the world’s largest stained-glass window. The artistry is amazing. So too is the chutzpa of the guy who convinced the church he could do it, and had to learn how to along the way.
12. Nine Days (my review) – I mentioned this film is last year’s Dozen as one I hoped might be seen. And it did get a release. It is the story of several unborn souls being judged as to which one should get the chance to live. Along the way we are asked to consider what makes life important and meaningful. This can be rented on Prime.
Of course, there are a few other films worthy of the list, that I just couldn’t fit in. Nightmare Alley is a splendid trip into a noirish world of carnival life and a consideration of who really qualifies as a freak. The Tragedy of Macbeth is a beautifully done adaptation of Shakespeare’s play of ambition. One Second celebrates the love of cinema and its ability to create community. (This is another of those I hope you can see, but so far it’s only in festivals here.)
A couple of older films that I caught up with this year were The Wobblies (which was added to the National Film Registry) and the original documentary version of The Eyes of Tammy Faye.
Hoping the coming year brings more wonderful cinema.