Sunday, January 16, 2022

Best of 2021: Top 10 Films of the Year

 

Another film year has come and gone with 2021 proving that cinema is still as vibrant as ever. I was truly delighted by the year's many works of art which subverted and exceeded my expectations with their entertaining storytelling, unforgettable characters and impeccable craft. Without further ado, here are my 10 favourite films of 2021, including links to reviews for my fulsome thoughts on these precious gifts.

Honorable Mentions: President, Summer of Soul, Passing, Citizen Ashe

Best of 2021: Top 20 Acting Performances


Each time I make my annual year's best lists, this one is always the most difficult to narrow down. And from where I stand, 2021 was a particularly strong year for acting performances. This year's thespians brought to life a plethora of intriguing characters with impressive skill. It's therefore my pleasure to salute this year's troubled and troublesome women, ambitious men and everyone in between. These are my Top 20 Acting Performances of 2021:

REVIEW: Flee




It's always a treat to find a film that defies easy categorization within rigid lines of genre, country and style. You've probably heard the incorrect assumptions that animation is for kids, subtitled films are hard to follow and documentaries should be plainly informative. But Jonas Poher Rasmussen's deftly dismisses these claims with "Flee", an animated Danish documentary about an Afghan refugee. A heartrending odyssey of epic proportions, this innovative film is truly one of the highlights of 2021.

The film's transcontinental journey begins in Afghanistan, where our narrator (using the alias Amin Nawabi to protect his identity) is growing up with his loving family of two parents, a brother and a sister. That family unit is soon broken apart, however, when his father is taken away by the Mujahideen during the Afghan Civil War. As the country becomes further embroiled in conflict and places the entire family in danger, they join the many others who are forced to become refugees. Thus begins a tumultuous life across several European countries as the family braves the world of human trafficking and unwelcoming immigration policies to find a new place to call home.

A sense of both personal and national histories unfolds as Nawabi recounts the awe-inspiring experiences which led to his present day life as an academic in Denmark. From the tense moments of social upheaval, to the subsequent treacherous voyages across land and sea, the scale of this journey is astounding. And as Rasmussen utilizes diversified animation styles and live action news footage from the time period, the film brilliantly illustrates the nuances of personal and collective memory. While some scenes use a more impressionistic approach with ill-defined lines and shapes, the constrasting archival footage and more fully sketched images intrinsically show how painful recollections of the past can be alternately unforgettable or hazy (intentionally or not). 

Indeed, "Flee" is ultimately about the struggle to reclaim your past. As Nawabi reveals how he was forced to relinquish parts of his identity to survive, there's a palpable sense of relief in his voice. And as he forges his new identity, this already impactful story becomes even more complex through his own struggles with homosexuality. As he reflects on this aspect of his life - his amusing childhood infatuation with Jean-Clade Van Damme, his self-imposed torture about coming out - it builds to a cathartic climax to an already powerful life story conveyed with stunning artistry, visceral truth and sociopolitical resonance.

REVIEW: The Green Knight




King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table have long enjoyed a storied reputation as symbols of valor and honor. It seems that Hollywood mines the Arthurian legends for a new swashbuckling film every other year. Rare is the cinematic adaptation that centers a figure outside of King Arthur's inner circle. But as David Lowery proves with his sensational "The Green Knight", the stories of the unsung heroes can prove to be just as worthy of being told.

"The Green Knight" is the story of Sir Gawain (Dev Patel), the nephew of King Arthur. We meet him under inauspicious circumstances, as he leaves a brothel following his latest tryst with his lover Essel (Alicia Vikander in a showstopping dual performance). With no knightly title ascribed to him, he feels unfit to sit among the esteemed company at Camelot, where King Arthur is hosting a Christmas feast. Gawain's destiny may soon change, however, when the merry proceedings are interrupted by a mysterious visitor. This monstrous figure is revealed to be The Green Knight, who issues to a challenge to the brave men present. He dares a volunteer to deal him a fatal blow in what he describes as a "Christmas game", in exchange for his powerful green axe. Sensing an opportunity to improve his standing, Gawain steps up and successfully beheads tree-like creature. But as his decapitated victim reminds him while walking away with head in hand, the challenge requires Gawain to seek him out one year later to be similarly attacked. As the fateful date looms, Gawain must now summon the courage to embark on a foreboding journey to secure his coveted honor and legacy.

An epic adventure thus unfolds with the dashing Gawain looking every bit the knight aspires to be. Patel's is at his magnetic best, with a humility and vulnerability that really draws in the audience. His gentle, approachable demeanour invites us on this journey with him, fearful for what awaits.

Admittedly, "The Green Knight" is hardly action-packed in the usual sense. But that doesn't mean it's uneventful. In fact, the captivating narrative constantly tests his mettle along the way as he comes across violent strangers, supernatural occurrences, unforgiving natural elements and an imposing landscape. And it's all depicted with increasingly saturated, colorful cinematography, creating some of the most mesmerizing imagery of the year. Meanwhile, the score's ethereal choral motifs further instill a mythic atmosphere.

As this beguiling fantasia builds to its stunning conclusion, Lowery's heady (pun intended) screenplay asks pertinent questions of its protagonist and audience alike. What makes a man great or honourable? Or as Vikander's Essel asks, "is goodness not enough?" Lowery beautifully explores the answers, this noble but unequivocally foolish quest proves to be humbling and deeply satisfying. Among the many medieval depictions which celebrate reckless machismo, this boldly conceived film is a breath of fresh air.

REVIEW: The Tragedy of Macbeth




Since the invention of cinema, William Shakespeare's plays have long been a source for adaptations in many countries and languages. "The Tragedy of Macbeth" is one such story that has fascinated filmmakers for its devious characters and sinister plot. With a filmography dedicated to unmistakably American stories, one wouldn't associate director Joel Coen with this medieval drama about a ruthlessly ambitous Scottish lord. But in this rare solo outing for famous Coen brother, he delivers one of the most impressive productions of Macbeth to date.

The story begins in the aftermath of a war, when compatriots Lord Macbeth and Banquo encounter three witches with a premonition. They declare that Macbeth will be King and Bancquo will also father a dynasty of kings. Now with this idea of a prosperous future implanted in his head, Macbeth becomes obsessed with making it a reality. With the support of his equally power-hungry wife (Frances McDormand) the pair devise a scheme to assassinate the King. But their murderous scheme comes at a price for his sanity and physical safety, as violence begets more violence and his guilt overwhelms him.

With iconic quotes that have become repurposed by pop culture, Macbeth's subsequent decent into madness is well known. And Coen wisely maintains the rythmn and eloquence of Shakespeare's words. But this adaptation feels far from stage-bound thanks to the film's stunning visual aesthetic and performances. Coen's longtime collaborator Bruno Delbonnel is in fine form as cinematographer, capturing the shadowy interiors and foggy exteriors with shot compositions to die for. It is handly the best cinematography of the year. Likewise, the production design is simple but evocative, featuring stately gothic arches, towering walls, and seemingly endless hallways. The setting feels at once claustrophobic and grandiose. Altogether the visual design creates the chilling atmosphere for the poisonous corruption to fester. 

With the scene set for this tale of paranoia and murderous betrayal, the masterful ensemble further brings forth its themes and emotions. As Macbeth, Denzel Washington makes Shakespeare's dialogue look easy, bringing a tortured realism through every furrowing of the brow, whispered ephiphany and furious cry of outrage. By his side, McDormand's knowing theatricality delights in both the regal poetry of the text and the character's carnal desire for power. Meanwhile, Kathryn is a scene-stealer with her superlative performance as the Witches, giving a contortionist physicality and feral vocal inflections that are simply unreal. The cast is nearly flawless, save for an out of place Ethan Hutchinson, who feels like he arrived directly from the "Queen Sugar" set and stayed in character.

Fortunately, this minor misstep doesn't detract from the overall experience. In the end, there's no denying the artistic excellence on display in Joel Coen's delicious cinematic take on "The Tragedy of Macbeth". Adaptations of this dark tale will come and go, but you won't forget this one anytime soon. 

REVIEW: The Lost Daughter




Picture it: a rustic Greek hotel by the seaside with the warm rays of sunlight caressing her skin and the soothing sounds of waves gently kissing the shore. You can hardly find a better place to unwind and escape from the stresses of everyday life. But as anyone who's been on holiday can attest, it doesn't take much to be suddenly reminded of what you've left behind, whether it be work obligations, a relationship or even the "crushing responsibility" of motherhood, as described by the fascinating protagonist Leda Caruso in Maggie Gyllenhaal's "The Lost Daughter".

Leda is portrayed brilliantly by Olivia Colman as a middle-aged professor who gets an unpleasant wake up call during her dream vacation in Greece. Not long after settling in to soak up the sun on the beach following check-in, she is greeted by a lively family of Italian-Americans. Among them is a young mother named Nina (Dakota Johnson) and her typically energetic young child. As she watches from afar, Leda becomes fascinated with Nina, who struggles to keep her daughter in line. Instantly, it brings back memories of her own challenges as a young mother to two girls, which significantly shaped her life. After the pair are introduced, Leda's interest in Nina turns dangerous, however, when she commits an inexplicable act of theft.

Leda's present-day theft is just the latest in a series of questionable decisions throughout her life, as seen in flashbacks to her younger self (played by Jessie Buckley). Tapping into the familiar daily struggles of parenting, Gyllenhaal's assured direction and Buckley's skilled performance authentically conveys these domestic scenes filled the grating soundtrack and physical labor of attention-demanding, crying children. Contrasted with the more jovial scenes of Caruso's more professional pursuits and social interactions, the film viscerally demonstrates the loss of self that can come with motherhood.

As the older Leda reveals later in the film, she is an unnatural mother. And while "The Lost Daughter" doesn't quite forgive her selfishness and neglect, Buckley and Colman expertly humanize the character under Gyllenhaal's sympathetic female gaze. The pair may not resemble each other, but they share a penchant for fully embodying flawed woman with unvarnished sharpness and specificity. Likewise, Dakota Johnson is perfectly alluring as Nina, utilizing her intense stare to disarming effect. And among the male cast, Colman's interactions with Ed Harris as her welcoming host and Paul Mescal as a charming hotel worker bring out a softer side to her prickly shell.

Indeed, the rich performances and honest screenplay generate remarkable empathy for an abrasive character. You may even find yourself being amused by and identifying with this objectively "bad" mother with low-key "Karen" tendencies. If you ask me, this accomplishment speaks to the minor miracle that is Maggie Gyllenhaal's "The Lost Daughter".

REVIEW: The Worst Person in the World




Being young today is different. So says a middle-aged woman to the rapidly approaching 30-year old protagonist Julie (Renate Reinsve) at a casual backyard gathering. In the context of this situation, this is a throwaway comment about the complexities and distractions of the digital age. But on a third watch of Joachim Trier's "The Worst Person in the World", it resonates a prescient thesis statement for the deeply relatable character study that subsequently unfolds.

Indeed, Julie is instantly recognizable as a modern young woman, prone to changing her life trajectory as easily as she changes her hairstyle. When we meet her, she is studying medicine before subsequently dabbling in psychology and then photography. Unsure of her career path, it's hardly surprising that her love life is equally insecure. After striking up a relationship with an older comic artist named Aksel (Anders Danielsen Lie), they quickly realize that they are at contrasting stages of life, particularly when it comes to Julie's hesitancy towards motherhood. As they work through their differences, however, Julie's life is further complicated when she becomes fascinated with another man (played by Herbert Nordrum) with a more carefree disposition.

While the plot outline may suggest otherwise, Trier and Vogt's screenplay pays no heed to the tired tropes of the manic pixie dream girl archetype. Fiercely independent, intelligent and more than a little self-serving, Julie is a fully realized character with a lot on her mind. Indeed, much of the film is reserved for contemplative moments which invite the audience to interpret her myriad inner thoughts expressed through her endlessly searching eyes. Reinsve is truly radiant in the role.

As Julie vivaciously moves through life, the filmmaking is equally dynamic, nimbly moving through the defined chapters as fluidly as its protagonist. Transitioning through extremes of comedy, drama and romance, Trier balances the tonal shifts brilliantly with the aid of the expressive music, moving performances and a perceptive screenplay. Composer Ola Fløttum's score alternately conveys the sweetness of a fairytale, the melancholy of a serious drama and the exuberant energy of a comedy through her up-tempo needle drops and simply expressive melodies. Meanwhile, Reinsve is perfectly matched with her on screen partners. Danielson Lie in especially amazing, as he is grounded and present in every scene, providing the perfect foil for Julie's restlessness. He injects crucial wisdom and gravitas to counter the film's equally necessary humor afforded by Reinsve's playfulness and the narrative's intermittent flights of fancy.

Indeed, some viewers may find Aksel to be the most likable and sensible character in the film. Indeed his traditional views on adulthood are reminiscent of conversations with my parents. But while her unfocused attitude may frustrate some, Trier's keen understanding of her perspective generates empathy for her outlook. Few films are as astute about the dual blessing and curse of the endless possibilities afforded today's millenials. As such, "The Worst Person in the World" feels like an instant touchstone of cinematic stories about my generation.

REVIEW: Pig




With a recent filmography that includes such pulpy genre fare as "Mandy" and "Bad Lietenant: Port of Call New Orleans" it's safe to say that Nicolas Cage's reputation for starring in b-movies precedes him. When the trailer premiered for Michael Sarnoski's "Pig" was first released therefore, it drew immediate comparisons to the avenging, animal-loving "John Wick" franchise. But while the basic premise may bear similarities, "Pig" is an altogether different beast, cutting deeper for a more understated and moving drama about loss.

Indeed, "Pig" begins far from the urban jungle of John Wick's New York, where retired chef Robin Feld lives in the woods of Oregon with his trusty truffle pig. Living a simple life enjoying his favorite home-cooked meals with his animal companion, the rare human interaction comes from weekly visits from Amir (Alex Wolff), a young businessman to whom he supplies truffles for the city's restaurant industry. Their cordial arrangement is upended one night, however, when thieves kick down Robin's door and steal his beloved pig. Determined to recover her, Robin is forced to return to the urban world he left behind, uncovering a dangerous and intricate underground network of dealers fueled by greed.

The cliche follow-up to this setup would be that our grizzled protagonist will do "whatever it takes" to get his pig back. And indeed, Feld does find himself in a "dog eat dog" world. But Sarnoski throws the first of many surprises as Feld quickly reveals a more subdued approach to his mission. Even as he teases the imposing threat of the film's assortment of unscrupulous characters, the violence is kept to a minimum. As such, "Pig" is an anti-action movie of sorts.

Instead, the film finds its rhythm in more existential concerns about the fleeting, precious nature of genuine human connections and the life-affirming memories which accompany them. From lovingly cooked meals, to the characters' favorite songs, the film embraces a sentimentality that beautifully counters the gritty tensions underlying capitalist greed. And through this approach, he peels back the layers of these characters like onions. Most impressively, it allows Nicholas Cage to showcase his range, as he portrays the nuanced dramatic thespian and impulsive tough guy with equal aplomb. 

Indeed, Cage's melancholic chef sets a tone that brilliantly juxtaposes tenderness and worldly rigor, cooking up the right recipe for one of the most rewarding films of the year. "Pig" truly subverts expectations at every turn, with its bleak visual aesthetic and premise masking a deeply humane film. I look forward to whatever Michael Sarnoski does next.

Monday, December 6, 2021

REVIEW: The French Dispatch


With the onslaught of prestige films flooding our screens at this time of year - and for film critics, our physical and digital mailboxes - it can be both an underwhelming an overwhelming period. Amid the conventional biopics and serious dramas, however, there are still exciting, bold creations that rise to the top. One such example is "The French Dispatch", the latest delightful curio from the singular mind of Wes Anderson. 

After his previous rendezvous in Japan ("Isle of Dogs") and the fictional Zubrowka ("The Grand Budapest Hotel"), Anderson continues his international tour with an anthology film set around the publication of the Liberty Kansas Evening Sun in the fictional French city of Ennui-sur-Blasé. In the aftermath of its editor's death, the magazine's next issue will be its last, as stipulated by its editor's will. To signify the occasion, a collection of past articles are to be republished. 

In the first article, a reporter (Owen Wilson) gives the lay of the land via bicycle as he gives a tour of the past and present of Ennui-sur-Blasé. In the next, an imprisoned man (Benicio del Toro) becomes a world-renowned painter after being inspired by his affection for a beautiful prison officer (Léa Seydoux). The subsequent story involves a misguided student protest that attracts international attention. And in the final story, a journalist (Jeffrey Wright) recalls how a special dinner with the police Commissaire (Mathieu Amalric) is interrupted when his son is kidnapped. 

As is his trademark, Anderson employs an impressive ensemble to play out his quirky visions. And once again, his troupe is up to the task with memorable performances from Benicio del Toro, Lea Seydoux, Frances McDormand, Timothee Chalamet, Jeffrey Wright and more. Each actor is completely keyed in to his unique aesthetic of droll comedy and loquacious line delivery.

Indeed, the dialogue comes at you fast and the plotting even faster, as Anderson gleefully revisits some of his favourite tropes and character archetypes, including madcap chase scenes and precocious children. Yet despite the zany happenings, he keeps the storylines grounded in genuine human emotions, particularly those of love, best exemplified in the unlikely romances which fuel the stories of "The Concrete Masterpiece" and "Revisions to a Manifesto". 

Even if you don't warm to the oddball pretensions of the literal storytelling, there's much to appreciate in Anderson's dynamic visual storytelling. From animation, to exquisitely symmetrical compositions, to charming black and white tableaux, there's so much to take in that it begs repeat viewings. Indeed, amid the mostly unadventurous visual language of most cinematic fare, "The French Dispatch" truly feels like a full feast after a period of starvation.

Tuesday, September 21, 2021

REVIEW: In The Heights




Long before "Hamilton" become a Broadway phenomenon, multi-hyphenate Lin-Manuel Miranda began his theater career with a contemporary musical by the name of "In the Heights". That production went on to win the Tony for Best Musical and the rest, as they say, is history. Fast forward to 2021 and that debut musical is now a splashy feature film directed by Jon M. Chu and written by Quiara Alegría Hudes. But although Miranda takes a more backseat role in this adaptation, his imprint is all over this rousing story about Latin pride.

"In the Heights" derives its title from the neighborhood of Washington Heights in New York City. It is home to a primarily Dominican population, including Usnavi de la Vega (Anthony Ramos), the owner of a local bodega. Like many in his community, Usnavi longs for a better life. But while others have their eyes set on the American Dream, he is determined to return to his native Dominican Republic and revive his father's seaside business. As the time draws near, Usnavi enjoys an eventful summer, filled with romance, dancing, precious moments with family and friends and a blackout for good measure. At the end of it all, Usnavi comes to realize the immeasurable value of what he would be leaving behind.

Indeed, the vibrancy of the Washington Heights community shines through in "In The Heights" as Chu delivers the best of both worlds (i.e. theater and film). From a visual perspective, the film features radiant cinematography enlivened by immersive camerawork that weaves in, out and around the talented ensemble. Furthermore, visual effects wizardry is imaginatively used to express the inner desires of the various characters. Meanwhile, Miranda's trademark musicality is evident through catchy songs and inspired choreography that honors its Latin roots.

"In the Heights" is truly a festive experience, with Anthony Ramos leading the way with his innate star power. In fact, the entire ensemble is impressive, with each major character getting their time in the sun. Audiences will surely relish the warmth of Olga Merediz as the community's matriarch, Corey Hawkins' silky-smooth voice in the role of Benny and the indefatigable spirit of Daphne Rubin-Vega's Daniela. 

The film is more than just a big "carnaval del barrio" (as referenced in one show-stopping number) however. It also examines the struggles of Latin immigrants in achieving their potential, especially those who are undocumented. In doing so, "In The Heights' is ultimately a film about perspective, pitting its characters against each other in an ideological tug of war between those who see the metaphorical glass as half full or half empty. In the end, there's no denying that the filmmakers stand firmly on the side of optimism. And through their efforts and the entire creative team, "In the Heights" triumphs as the feel-good movie of the year so far.