Monday, January 3, 2022

Reverend's Movies of 2021: From Confusion to Artistry

Movie-going returned to some degree of normalcy last year after coming to a COVID-related halt for most of 2020. However, confusion often reigned supreme. Has my favorite theater re-opened? Is that movie I want to see in theaters, only streaming, or both? And do I really have to wear a mask the whole time I'm in the theater??? (Answer: yes!)

Virtually every movie involving superheroes did well at the box office, while others struggled. As 2022 begins, several traditional film awards events have been postponed or cancelled. Most of these are the result of the latest COVID-19 surge.

So what movies, especially of LGBTQ interest, have emerged as awards contenders? There are at least two major entries that have already won some significant honors. The Power of the Dog is the first feature film in 12 years by celebrated writer-director Jane Campion (The Piano). It is based on an acclaimed 1967 novel by Thomas Savage, who was a closeted gay man for most of his life. The film's plot centers on Phil Burbank, a closeted gay cattle rancher in 1920's Montana. When his brother unexpectedly marries a woman with a more openly gay son, the rancher's carefully cultivated life starts to become unraveled.

Benedict Cumberbatch stars in The Power of the Dog as the conflicted Phil and is already racking up Best Actor awards from critic groups. Kirsten Dunst, as the new sister-in-law Phil vindictively tortures, is in the running for Best Supporting Actress nods. The true revelation, though, is Kodi Smit-McPhee as Peter, the newly arrived object of Phil's growing affection. I expect him to be nominated as Best Supporting Actor by many organizations including the Academy. Campion and cinematographer Ari Wegner are also certain nominees.

This year's other big LGBTQ contender is Flee, a unique animated documentary about Amin Nawabi, who shares his story as a gay refugee from Afghanistan now living in Denmark. It premiered at last year's Sundance Film Festival and won the Grand Jury Award in the World Cinema Documentary competition. It has since been honored by many critic groups as 2021's best documentary. Most significantly, it could be the first film to be nominated by the Academy for Best International Feature, Best Documentary Feature and Best Animated Feature. It could also potentially be nominated as Best Picture. We shall see once Oscar nominations are announced on February 8th.

Which movies did this sometimes-confused critic experience as the best – and worst – artistic achievements of 2021? Ask no longer! (Note: Some award contenders including Licorice Pizza and Don't Look Up were not made available to the critics group of which I'm a member, GALECA, before press time so could not be considered here.)

The Best Films of 2021

1. The Power of the Dog (Netflix). For all the reasons mentioned above, plus its potent critique of homophobia and toxic masculinity. I also appreciated that it shows gay men in a darker but more balanced, nuanced light than we have become accustomed to in gay-themed studio films of the last decade or so.

2. Belfast (Focus Features). Kenneth Branagh's autobiographical, lovable look at his boyhood in violence-torn Ireland. Its great cast of potential Oscar nominees includes adorable newcomer Jude Hill as little Kenneth (named Buddy here), Jamie Dornan and Caitrona Balfe as his parents, and veteran actors Ciaran Hinds and Judi Dench as his grandparents. The movie also features a great score and songs by veteran rocker and Belfast native Van Morrison.

3. Cyrano (United Artists), In the Heights (Warner Bros) and Tick, Tick... Boom! (Netflix). 2021 was an excellent year for live-action musicals, with one notable exception (see my worst list below). These three were the best of the crop. The first is a deeply moving, pop-inflected version of the classic play headlined by a singing Peter Dinklage. The other two are Lin-Manuel Miranda stage adaptations boasting diverse casts, including LGBTQ characters. Former (and multiversal) Spider-Man Andrew Garfield gives a terrific performance in Tick, Tick... Boom! as late Rent creator Jonathan Larson.

4. I Care a Lot (Netflix) and Red Rocket (A24). Immoral lead characters doing despicable things have rarely been so deliciously entertaining. Rosamund Pike stars in the first as a conservator who preys on wealthy elderly people. She gets her well-deserved comeuppance via the vicious gangster son of one of her victims. Meanwhile, art imitates life somewhat in Red Rocket wherein former real-life porn star Simon Rex plays a former porn star who returns to his Texas home and sparks all kinds of havoc. Both films offer smart, frequently funny takes on cynical subjects.

5. Flee (Neon) and Fauci (National Geographic). The aforementioned Flee deserves its accolades as one of the best documentaries of the year. Also important and timely is Fauci, an insightful look at the National Institutes of Health czar who first steered the US through the AIDS crisis and is now trying his best to get us through COVID-19.

6. Moffie (IFC Films) and Swan Song (Magnolia Pictures). The two best gay-themed narrative films of the year. Moffie is a heart-rending, beautifully shot exploration of a young gay man's coming of age during the persecution of South Africa's apartheid era. Out director Todd Stephens' delightful Swan Song (not to be confused with another 2021 release titled Swan Song that stars Mahershala Ali) features a career-best turn by Udo Kier as a fabled hairstylist lured out of retirement for one last job, plus a supporting cast that includes Jennifer Coolidge, Michael Urie and Linda Evans.

7. The Humans (A24) and Mass (Bleecker Street). Two dramas that continue to haunt me long after I finished watching them. The Humans is Stephen Karam's adaptation of his Tony Award-winning play about a troubled family confronting figurative and literal ghosts in one member's rundown apartment. Mass depicts a fraught but ultimately redemptive encounter between the parents of a school shooting's perpetrator and the parents of one of his victims. Both films boast great ensemble work from their numerous stars.

8. Eternals and Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings (both Marvel/Disney). The best comic book-inspired adventures out of a crowded field of blockbusters. Asian-American filmmakers brought a welcome maturity and inclusiveness to the Marvel Cinematic Universe, with Eternals featuring its first openly gay (and married!) superhero. Their special effects are spectacular and the casting of both movies is inspired, most winningly Shang-Chi's Simu Liu and Awkwafina.

9. The Green Knight (A24). An unusual but memorable take on an Arthurian legend by gifted filmmaker David Lowery. Poetic, unsettling, funny and visually ravishing, it also marks lead actor Dev Patel's best work to date.

10. The Mitchells vs. The Machines (Sony Pictures Animation/Netflix) and Raya and the Last Dragon (Disney). 2021 was also an excellent year for animated movies but these two struck me as the most unique. Both are led by strong female characters and Katie, the main protagonist in The Mitchells vs. the Machines, is queer. They are also bold creative visions that truly offer something for everyone.

The Worst Films of 2021

1. Army of the Dead (Netflix). Pregnant zombies? That's only one of the baffling excesses to be found in Zach Snyder's ridiculous wannabe epic of the undead. (Ironically, its 2021 prequel entitled Army of Thieves narrowly missed being included among my best film picks.)

2. Dear Evan Hansen (Universal). Definitely not one of the year's best musicals. Ben Platt may have won the Tony Award for his performance of the title character on Broadway, but he is visibly too old to play the role on the screen. Ditto Julianne Moore as his mother. The film's more straightforward approach also unconsciously heightens Evan's unhealthy behavior to an unappealing degree.

3. The Suicide Squad (Warner Bros). A needless, graphically violent reboot/sequel to 2016's more entertaining Suicide Squad. Not even Margot Robbie's vivacious Harley Quinn could save it.

4. Dune (Warner Bros). I'm a decades-long fan of the sci-fi novel and was greatly disappointed by this adaptation's glacial pace and dull characterizations. David Lynch's much-maligned 1984 version covered the whole book in less time and was decidedly more energetic. (It is also gayer.)

5. The Lost Daughter (Netflix). Actress Maggie Gyllenhaal's directorial debut has been widely acclaimed but I found it baffling, although Olivia Colman and Jessie Buckley are great as usual. Sorry Maggie, yours is the most overrated movie of 2021.

Here's to a happy, healthy and cinematic 2022 for all of us!

By Rev. Chris Carpenter, resident film and stage critic of Movie Dearest and Rage Monthly Magazine.