2021 in Review: Ten Favorite New-to-Me Movies
We’re halfway through January, so I’m not sure if what I’m about to say is still appropriate, but here goes: happy new year, friends!
When we rang in the new year, I was sick with what might have been the flu, so I didn’t have the energy to participate in any of my usual year-in-review activities. I’m feeling much better now thankfully, so I finally took the time to sit down and put together the list of my ten favorite new-to-me movies of 2021!
The rules are the same as always: no movies from this past year (2021) or the year before (2020). Every other year is free game. All ten of these movies are wonderful and well worth your time, so consider this a strong endorsement for all of them. I’ve also included ways to watch all of the films (as of this writing: Jan. 18, 2022).
10. It’s Always Fair Weather (dir. Stanley Donen & Gene Kelly, 1955; USA; 102 mins.)
I can’t believe I hadn’t even heard of this film before this year. It’s Always Fair Weather is like if The Best Years of Our Lives and On the Town had a baby and also that baby had depression. I mean that in the best way possible. So much happens in this film (Betty Comden and Adolph Green’s script is a miracle) that it’s hard to describe without getting lost in the weeds, but there are two elements that deserve individual recognition: first, Dolores Gray, who steals the film as a vapid, manipulative TV hostess, and brings the house down with her big number “Thanks a Lot, but No Thanks;” second, just like in Singin’ in the Rain, the most wonderful moment in the film is a solo performed by Gene Kelly on the street: “I Like Myself,” an irrepressible expression of joy and one of the best numbers of Kelly’s career.
It’s Always Fair Weather is available to rent online.
09. 35 Shots of Rum (dir. Claire Denis, 2008; France; 100 mins.)
Claire Denis is indisputably a master storyteller, but she’s also one of the most perceptive, empathetic filmmakers walking the planet. Taking inspiration from Ozu’s Late Spring, she infuses the mundane beauty in the world and in the day-to-day intricacies of our familial relationships with an almost cosmic grace. A lesser film might put the father-daughter relationship in the background in favor of the romance, but not Ozu, and certainly not Denis, and thank goodness for that: 35 Shots of Rum comes most alive when we linger in the bittersweet, frustrating love that Alex Descas’ Lionel and Mati Diop’s Josephine have for each other. By the ending, the audience feels like they’ve spent several months with this family rather than just 100 minutes. It’s a real wonder.
35 Shots of Rum is currently streaming on MUBI.
08. Silkwood (dir. Mike Nichols, 1983; USA; 131 mins.)
Undoubtedly one of the high points in the legendary careers of both Mike Nichols and Meryl Streep. It’s a terrifying film — terrifying because the ways Karen Silkwood was destroyed, psychologically and physically by men in power — but it’s also utterly infuriating in its clear distillation of her injustice. From the beautifully observed interpersonal relationships around the factory to the gradual fraying of the central friendship between Streep’s Karen and Cher’s Dolly, the film’s human component is always firmly front-and-center. That doesn’t make it any less politically toothy though: the story of corporations trying to destroy unions and the people who run them is as American as apple pie. That truth makes Silkwood one of the most essential films this country has ever produced.
Silkwood is available to rent online.
07. Rocco and His Brothers (dir. Luchino Visconti, 1960; Italy; 178 mins.)
Rocco and His Brothers is huge, but tremendously powerful and pretty handily my favorite film from Visconti so far. Brutal, precise, tragic, and beautifully realized, this epic family drama is anchored by a slew of great performances from Alain Delon, Katina Paxinou, Max Cartier, and Annie Girardot, but it’s Renato Salvatori who walks away with the film. His devastating portrait of toxic masculinity is astonishing to watch. Essential viewing.
Rocco and His Brothers is currently streaming on the Criterion Channel.
06. 2046 (dir. Wong Kar-wai, 2004; Hong Kong; 128 mins.)
I was nervous it wouldn’t live up to the hype. I mean, how could it? In the Mood for Love is so singular a cinematic achievement, an all-time masterpiece that was rightfully canonized almost immediately, and then Wong Kar-wai tempted fate by releasing a sequel. I shouldn’t have worried: 2046 is a marvel that blurs the lines between reality and fiction, history and the imagined future. Unlike its predecessor, which is an intimate chamber piece, this is a much larger meditation on the very experience of heartbreak, of rebuilding oneself after a love affair has turned sour. This is a deeply empathetic, almost unbearably gorgeous film.
2046 is available to rent online.
05. Three Colors: Red (dir. Krzysztof Kieślowski, 1994; Switzerland/France/Poland; 100 mins.)
I’m not proud of the fact that it took me over four years to finish watching the Three Colors trilogy, but from what I can remember, Red is by far the most satisfying chapter. With two fully fleshed-out characters played beautifully by Irène Jacob and Jean-Louis Trintignant and a script that feels comfortable wrestling with multiple big ideas (god complexes, odd couples, fate, artistry, justice, the cyclical nature of love, etc.), Red feels far more complete than its predecessors. It probably helps that it’s inarguably the warmest and most optimistic film of the trilogy too. An utter joy to watch and to dig into.
Three Colors: Red is currently streaming on the Criterion Channel and HBO Max.
04. A Woman Under the Influence (dir. John Cassavetes, 1974; USA; 155 mins.)
I’m a little embarrassed to confess that this was my first experience with John Cassavetes. The film lives and dies by Gena Rowlands, who does GOAT-level work here. She’s legendary, and rightfully so: her Mabel emerges as an unflinchingly authentic human being, a whole bunch of nervy contradictions bundled together into one woman stuck in a marriage with an emotionally stunted husband who doesn’t fully understand her. Brutal and shocking, raw and warm, exhausting and devastating, this is an undeniably great — if taxing — film.
A Woman Under the Influence is currently streaming on the Criterion Channel and HBO Max.
03. The Big City (dir. Satyajit Ray, 1963; India; 131 mins.)
At this point, I don’t really feel like I’m being too hyperbolic when I call Ray one of the wisest and most empathetic dramatists of the 20th century. Anchored by a tremendous performance from Madhabi Mukherjee, The Big City follows the tension in a middle-class conservative Calcutta family after Arati, a housewife, gets a job to earn the family some extra money. It’s a terrific feminist film, one that paints a vivid picture of 1960s attitudes towards womanhood in India without being too on-the-nose about it. And, like in Ray’s best films, the conflict that arises from the rest of the family unfolds honestly and poetically. There are no bad people in this Big City — just complicated people who sometimes hurt each other. A masterwork from one of the best to ever do it.
The Big City is currently streaming on the Criterion Channel and HBO Max.
02. The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek (dir. Preston Sturges, 1943; USA; 98 mins.)
I have no earthly idea how The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek got made. Mercilessly skewering practically every tenet of the American way, from motherhood to virginity to marriage to the press to the war effort, this film is a screamingly funny screwball comedy with a surprisingly huge heart. Sturges guides his phenomenal cast to a host of great performances: Eddie Bracken, Betty Hutton, Diana Lynn, and William Demarest (who delivers some shocking pratfalls) all turn in top-notch work. It’s breathlessly ridiculous and I loved it so, so, so much.
The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek is available to rent online.
01. Yi Yi (dir. Edward Yang, 2000; Taiwan; 174 mins.)
Over nearly three hours, Yang explores the emotional struggles of a middle-class family living in Taipei. It’s not quite a spoiler to say the film opens with a wedding and closes with a funeral, because the plot isn’t necessarily the important thing in Yi Yi. What matters are the moments of human connection — a casual chat with a work colleague, a one-sided conversation with a comatose grandmother — and those nearly imperceptible turning points in our lives — a new hobby, an unexpected tragedy, a visit to an old friend. This is the first film I’ve seen from Yang, but if Yi Yi is any indication, he really understood people. As a work of cinema, as a human drama, as a meditation on the act of being alive, Yi Yi is magnificent. It’s as rich and empathetic a film as I’ve ever seen.
Yi Yi is currently streaming on the Criterion Channel.
Honorable mentions (in alphabetical order): Big Deal on Madonna Street (Mario Monicelli, 1958), The Bigamist (Ida Lupino, 1953), Blood Simple (Joel Coen, 1984), The Children’s Hour (William Wyler, 1961), Common Threads: Stories from the Quilt (Rob Epstein & Jeffrey Friedman, 1989), Dance, Girl, Dance (Dorothy Arzner, 1940), Distant Voices, Still Lives (Terence Davies, 1988); The Eternal Breasts (Kinuyo Tanaka, 1955), Floating Weeds (Yasujiro Ozu, 1959), Funeral Parade of Roses (Toshio Matsumoto, 1969), The Gleaners and I (Agnès Varda, 2000), Hail the Conquering Hero (Preston Sturges, 1944), The Heartbreak Kid (Elaine May, 1972), It Should Happen to You (George Cukor, 1954), The Last Detail (Hal Ashby, 1973), Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday (Jacques Tati, 1953), Morocco (Josef von Sternberg, 1930), My Neighbors the Yamadas (Isao Takahata, 1999), News from Home (Chantal Akerman, 1977), Nights of Cabiria (Federico Fellini, 1957), One Week (Buster Keaton & Edward F. Cline, 1920), Paprika (Satoshi Kon, 2006), Point Break (Kathryn Bigelow, 1991), Popeye the Sailor Meets Sindbad the Sailor (Dave Fleischer, 1936), Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping (Akiva Schaffer & Jorma Taccone, 2016), A Raisin in the Sun (Daniel Petrie, 1961), Salt of the Earth (Herbert J. Biberman, 1954), The Sea Wolf (Michael Curtiz, 1941), Sweet Smell of Success (Alexander Mackendrick, 1957), The Taking of Pelham One Two Three (Joseph Sargent, 1974), To Joy (Ingmar Bergman, 1950), Touch of Evil (Orson Welles, 1958), Twenty-Four Eyes (Keisuke Kinoshita, 1954), Uptight (Jules Dassin, 1968), Wanda (Barbara Loden, 1970), and Where is My Friend’s House? (Abbas Kiarostami, 1987).
And some miscellaneous viewing stats:
- First movie watched in 2021: Carmen Jones (Otto Preminger, 1954)
- Final movie watched in 2021: When Harry Met Sally… (Rob Reiner, 1989)
- Worst movie watched: The Snowman (Tomas Alfredson, 2017)
- Oldest movie watched: Les Vampires — Episode Two: The Ring That Kills (Louis Feuillade, 1915)
- Longest movie watched: War and Peace (King Vidor, 1956; 208 minutes)
- Month with most amount of movies watched: April (42 movies, including shorts)
- Month with least amount of movies watched: September (7 movies)
- First movie from 2021 seen: Judas and the Black Messiah (Shaka King, 2021)
- Total movies watched: 282