Best movies of 2021

22 Dec

Any movies that we saw last year were most likely filmed before the pandemic, AKA the before times. Movies that we saw this year, however, were filmed in the trickiest circumstances. The quality of movies was so high this year that it seems like filmmakers were chomping at the bit to put their visions, once and for all, into the world. Last year, my favorite movies of 2020 were all seen at home; this year, I ventured out to theaters, mask worn from beginning to end of the show (movie popcorn will have to wait). It was hard to choose, but below are my favorite movies of 2021 (and my favorite movies from years past are: 2019, 2018, 2017, 2016, 2015, 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, and 2010, where it all began).

Barb and Star go to Vista del Mar: Today the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences released the shortlist for several Oscars categories, and it’s a downright shame that nothing from this comedy was nominated- not “I love boobies” by Dick Cheese, not even Edgar’s Prayer, which features Jamie Dornan kicking and prancing on the beach. This is not the most prestigious movie of the year, by far. But I enjoyed it immensely- the silliness, the spoofing of Midwestern culture and movie musical tropes. I think we’ll be watching this one and laughing for years.

Cyrano: The sign of a good musical is that the songs and score linger in your mind long after the movie, and in this sense, Cyrano has succeeded. A simple story about a love triangle and love unrequited benefits greatly from passionately-sung music, and Haley Bennett enriches the soundtrack with her rich voice. Kelvin Harrison, Jr. and Peter Dinklage aren’t nearly as talented musically, but they make up for it with wonderful acting, especially Dinklage, who can say so much with a downward glance, or a smirk. “Cyrano” is cinematic, and well worth seeing.

The Green Knight: Like “Cyrano”, “The Green Knight” takes old (very old) material, and makes it fresh. It also doesn’t play the gimmick of taking telling an old story in a modern setting. It takes place firmly in the 14th century, but filmed with bravura by a director, David Lowery, who I’d never heard of before, but who I will be seeking out now. Each scene is gorgeously filmed, lending the story a truly mythic quality. The English countryside is gorgeous, but star Dev Patel ably carries the film, and matches the lovely scenery in beauty. This was one under-the-radar film from the spring that was well worth watching.

West Side Story: Yes, there are a lot of musicals on this short list. It’s not just because they’re musicals; they’re really, really well done. Music and lyrics, when they’re well-written, can be the perfect engine to convey deep emotion, and also to create a really fun time. “West Side Story” achieves this easily. Yes, the dance and music are (mostly) the same as the original movie, which is one of my all-time favorites. But the love story between Tony and María has real urgency as portrayed by Rachel Zegler and Ansel Elgort. And the color and vibrancy of the sets make the case for this remake. Steven Spielberg can definitely direct all kinds of movies, musicals included.

C’mon C’mon: Perhaps I’m more sensitive to the beauty of a story of an uncle and nephew because of I’m an aunt to a niece and two nephews. And I love the idea of a precocious boy finding solace with a trusted adult, who in turn becomes a paternal figure and role model to his nephew. The film has a documentary quality, with its slow pace, observing its central characters at a remove. Joaquin Phoenix does an outstanding job- it’s a subtle performance, with no fireworks. Just the subtlety of an uncle and his young nephew. Also, bonus points for using a lovely version of “Clair de lune”.

Honorable mention: “Palm Springs”, which came out in 2020, but which I finally saw this year. Original premise- a love story in a time loop- and achingly funny (especially everything with J.K. Simmons). Outstanding.

Best TV of 2021

15 Dec

Sometimes we just turn on the TV to have some ambient noise in the background while cooking or cleaning, and we don’t want shows that require attention to the dialogue. Just sound. But in the evening, after I’ve showered, I like to sit and watch something of quality, something beyond just reruns of old sitcoms. Below is a selection of the shows that blew me away this year:

Schitt’s Creek– The series may have ended in 2020, but I spent my summer evenings with the Rose family in their charming, little town. I’ll admit- I rarely found the show funny. Not laugh-out-loud funny, anyway. Catherine O’Hara as Moira was hilarious, though- a divine mix of over-the-top physical comedy (those wigs!) and that ridiculous accennnnt. But mostly I enjoyed the show because of the lovely, little world that Dan Levy created- a small town where the local yokels accept the kooky Roses, and where the Roses in turn feel totally at home. Stevie the sassy front desk receptionist at the motel, Twyla the bubbly waitress at the cafe, and of course Patrick, who, along with David, was half of one of the most endearing couples on TV. I was sorry when my time with these characters ended. But I’ll watch anything Dan Levy does now.

Love Life– Both seasons of this HBO Max show were unexpectedly deep, going beyond the typical rom-com clichés to show every aspect of two young people’s maturation as they move from their 20’s into their 30’s. Season 1 focused on Darby, played by Anna Kendrick and shows how certain male figures move in and out of her life, with a visit into her high school days in the middle of the season to gain further insight into her insecurities. Season 2 followed Marcus Watkins, brought to life by William Jackson Harper, and we similarly see his flirtation with a friend/lover throughout the years as he dates other women and eventually settles down with said best friend (a phenomenal Jessica Williams). For showing the beauty and heartbreak of navigating big city life in one’s 20’s, Love Life was outstanding.

Hacks– Another standout show on HBO Max, this one starred a woman over a certain age partnering with a much younger woman, brought in to punch up the veteran’s stale standup act. It’s a great premise that Jean Smart and Hannah Einbinder bring to life with great chemistry- though it’s not always smooth sailing. The fireworks between these two very different funny women drive the story, and the writing is top notch. There’s a scene in an antique store in the middle of the Nevada desert that is hilarious- high stakes and high camp. The next season promises to be just as delicious.

Squid Game– What can I say about Squid Game that hasn’t already been said? I wrote previously about how much I adored “Parasite”, and it seems that Korean filmmakers are able to tell brutal stories about inequality and the desperation of the have-nots in a way that storytellers from the U.S. and other countries cannot. Squid Game is brutal not just in its violence- and it’s very violent- but also in its worldview, that some people would rather risk death than live their dreary, debt-filled lives one more day. And yet the show was very entertaining, expertly paced, and very, very good.

The Underground Railroad– I would watch Barry Jenkins direct a Geico commercial- I love his style so much, and this series was the perfect marriage of material and maker. Each episode aligned with a chapter of Colson Whitehead’s book, so we see a chilling distillation of different horrors of African-American history (a town where medical experiments reminiscent of Tuskegee and the early days of gynecology lurk beneath the surface; an all-white town that has expelled blacks; and a community of free blacks that coexists uneasily with local whites). And all along the way, a moving score by Nicholas Britell and luminous cinematography by James Laxton take us on this journey further and further north. William Jackson Harper also stands out as a young man, Royal, who falls in love with Cora, the lead played by Thuso Mbedu. Ten hours of a moving story told by Barry Jenkins, this era’s Terrence Malick- what a delight.

Downton Abbey (inspired by Films to be buried with)

7 Mar

Film as comfort food. We may watch different movies for different reasons- to have a good cry, like with “The Joy Luck Club”, or to have a good laugh, like with “The Birdcage”. But some movies are just like warm blankets, something to snuggle up with and enjoy when you’re in the mood for something pleasant and not too challenging. With the pandemic and shelter in place of the last year, many of us have watched and rewatched certain TV shows and movies to get our minds off of the awfulness of the news outside our doors. Last March, during the initial shutdown, I found myself watching the movie “Downton Abbey”. For me, it was like discovering a whole new world, since I had never seen the TV show. The movie received poor reviews, because it had a scant plot, barely a reason to exist. There is no story, but rather a two hour hangout with beloved characters in a welcoming setting. And that is what has made it such comforting cinema to watch and rewatch.

The gorgeous music, the sumptuous interiors of the home, the green fields surrounding it- for me, these are the main attractions of the world of “Downtown Abbey”. The characters are mostly secondary, but even their dramas are quaint in comparison- a butler experiences a gay night on the town, the princess learns to accept her curmudgeonly husband thanks to an exchange with Tom, the Irish widower who lives at Downton Abbey. The plot is low stakes, and I love it. All the better to sit back, relax, and spend two hours in this lovely little early-20th century world.

Legends of the Fall (inspired by Films to be buried with)

6 Mar

I’ve been wanting to write about a movie that I consider to be the sexiest movie, but there’s been a problem- I’ve had trouble deciding on what is the sexiest movie. I can think of sexy scenes easier than I can think of a sexy movie. And is this a movie that inspires lust, or that just portrays it? I decided to go for a sensual movie, one with a sweeping, epic story about three handsome brothers, one in particular. “Legends of the Fall” is one particularly sexy movie that marked the adolescence and teen years of a lot of women my age. Brad Pitt as Tristan in that movie was the definition of what a manly, loyal, passionate man looks and sounds like.

“Legends of the Fall” also has the bonus of being about many things, not just a sexy couple spending lots of time romping around together in bed (not that there’s anything wrong with that). Perhaps that’s my Catholic shame peeking through- I can’t focus on a sexy movie about love and sex, so I choose one that instead shows a family over a period of many years. Yet at the heart of the movie is the tension between one brother, Alfred, who is logical and wants to live a respectable life, and another brother, Tristan, who is untamed, passionate, and as wild as the Montana wilderness. He goes on to have an affair with his brother Alfred’s wife (during the regrettable part of the mid 90’s when Hollywood tried to foist Julia Ormond on us). She is drawn to him for every way that he is different from her aloof husband. And Brad Pitt gets many chances to smolder directly into the camera. Which makes this movie the sexiest of all.

Temple of Doom (inspired by Films to be buried with)

5 Mar

Is there a film that you used to love but have since come to realize is pretty bad? The answer, for me, comes in the form of Indiana Jones, Willie Scott, and Short Round in “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom”. This movie fell very far for me- it used to be way up there, and now, when I recently watched it, I could only count the many ways it failed. How could a movie that once brought me so much joy be so bad, after all? Let’s see:

The story is a mess (first we go from China, to a plane crash, to an Indian village, to a trek to an Indian palace…). The editing, continuity and sound mixing are bad (Willie Scott yelling at her elephant like a ventriloquist). The one note characterization of Short Round, Indiana’s sidekick who has seemingly known him forever? The cartoonish portrayal of the evil Thuggi cult, and the icky foreign food like chilled monkey brains. So much of it now is eyeroll-inducing. And yet as a kid the sense of adventure that animates “Temple of Doom” won me over. There was a period of several months during elementary school- several months!- when my brother and I would pop this VHS tape in our VCR and watch it promptly after school EVERY DAY. We knew all the lines and every beat by heart. We cheered as Indiana and his friends liberated the imprisoned Indian children. Perhaps this movie is best watched with an uncritical eye. But as I recently discovered, it’s hard to watch as an adult.

Lady Bird (inspired by Films to be buried with)

4 Mar

Lady Bird, more than any recent movie, felt very much like watching my own teenage years play out onscreen. There are details, of course, that I don’t have in common with main character Lady Bird (real name Christine), like her required school uniform, losing her virginity to Timothee Chalamet, and her best friendship with Beanie Feldstein. But more broadly, the contours of Lady Bird’s coming of age mirror my own. I also was a precocious, independent, headstrong, creative teenage girl, so some of the things that Christine does, like dye her hair pink and date inappropriate boys, ring very true for me. And there is a scene where she and her mother, played so well by Laurie Metcalf, have a prolonged interaction in a clothing store that starts with a fiery argument and ends in mindless chit chat. It feels very close to mall outings I have had with my own mother that can go from 0-60 in no time, then back to 0.

Lady Bird applies to colleges on the East Coast, even though her grades aren’t stellar, and even though she can’t really afford it, because she has big dreams for herself and aches to move away from her hometown, for which she only develops some affection after she leaves (like writer/director Greta Gerwig). I also attended a Catholic high school, and although we didn’t have to wear uniforms, I’m aware of the restrictions (and joys) of life on a small Catholic school campus. This was another aspect of the story that rang true for me.

Saoirse Ronan plays this role so well, and Greta Gerwig does such a lovely job bringing Sacramento to life on the big screen, a city that rarely gets a chance to shine on the big screen. “Lady Bird” very accurately portrays me as a teenager, just a few years later and a few miles north.

The Birdcage (inspired by Films to be buried with)

3 Mar

I don’t know if “The Birdcage” qualifies as the best movie ever made by Hollywood, or by critics, or by audiences, but in my book it’s perfect. What are the many ways in which it is perfect? Let’s see:

Directed by Mike Nichols

Written by Elaine May

Starring Robin Williams, Dianne Wiest, and a very memorable, heavily accented Hank Azaria.

“The Birdcage” ably straddles the line between slapstick, silly humor (“Madonna! Madonna! But you keep it all inside”), intelligent, turn-for-a-second-and-you’ll-miss-it dialogue (“Mary, it’s porno, not pronto), and adept social commentary. I often think of what a favorite college professor of mine said, and it applies here: Steven Soderbergh could have written a million op-eds decrying the war on drugs. Instead he made Traffic. Which I always interpreted to mean: a well-crafted, two hour movie can say as much as a host of polemics on a timely subject- and can often say it better, and in a more entertaining way. The moral of every Disney movie is ‘Be yourself’. The moral of “The Birdcage” could be summed up in the same way, while also critiquing the mind-numbing hypocrisy of 1990’s political life (the holier than thou family values crew in Washington and their very unsavory private lives). This movie is so quotable, I don’t know where to start (“Lady, not for a million bucks”, “May I take your purse as usual or….for the first time”), but it’s incisive and hilarious at the same time, a real rarity.

The Joy Luck Club (inspired by Films to be buried with)

2 Mar

Crying because of something you see in a movie is a disorienting experience. It’s cathartic, so at times it’s an experience to seek out, and yet at other times it’s an experience to avoid. Because you know how you’ll react. For a while now, my Dad has been reminding me that “The Joy Luck Club” is newly recorded on our TV, and yet I hesitate to watch it. Maybe some evening when I’m all alone, and need a good cry. Or when I miss my Mom.

I don’t think it usually pops up on lists of movies that make audiences cry- it’s no “Dead Poets Society”- but it’s about the relationships between a set of mothers and daughters- specifically, immigrant mothers. Naturally, the comparison to my family is apt, since my Mom was born in Mexico, the only one of her friends to not be born in the U.S. Yet there are aspects of her life in the old country, and her striving for a better life in America, that resonate in the movie. One obvious theme that comes through is the idea that mothers will do anything at all for their children. I recall a scene where an exhausted woman leaves her howling twin babies by the side of the road, as she continues on her journey with one older child. Then, towards the end of the film, this grown baby, now an adult, travels to China to meet the twin sisters she never knew. The durable ties of family. Cue the tears.

The one scene, besides that one, that always gets my tears flowing is the one where this same daughter, played by Ming-Na Wen, argues to her mother that she is nothing like her peers because she isn’t as smart, or beautiful, or successful. Her mother stops her and says, “You have perfect quality heart. I see you”. I can barely type the sentence without tearing up now! What a resolution to a difficult mother/daughter relationship. Maybe I relate to the young woman who always compares herself unfavorably to her peers, and just wants that familial (motherly) recognition. I see you. It’s so simple, and so moving.

Requiem for a Dream (inspired by Films to be buried with)

2 Mar

No movie has produced such a visceral reaction in me than “Requiem for a dream”. By the end of it, I was ugly crying, sobbing, in the living room. Why did it shake me to my core? And how on Earth did this start with the movie “White Chicks?”

I went to see the movie White Chicks in the theaters with my Mom, and on the way home she casually mentioned that Marlon Wayans had done a dramatic role once- and I should check it out, because he was really good in it. For whatever reason, we found “Requiem for a dream” on TV and watched it right away (was it a Saturday? Was it the summer? Why did we have all the time in the world?). I was horrified by the lengths that the characters in the movie- played alternately by Marlon Wayans, Jared Leto, Jennifer Connelly and Ellen Burstyn- went to to get their next drug high. In two hours, addiction takes over their lives, and we see as they lose their selfhood in the pursuit of the next hit. I see Marlon Wayans working on a chain gang in the South, the lower half of his arm missing (I don’t remember why. Wasted away with too much heroin use?). I see Jennifer Connolly getting dollar bills thrown in her face as men yell “Ass to Ass!”, and she furiously pumps away. And the saddest scene of all, the friends of Ellen Burstyn’s character, embracing each other on a bench, consoling each other as they sob, mourning the loss of their friend, still alive but ravaged by too many electroshock treatments.

And in between it all, the hiss and gurgle of blue water trickling and the drug (heroin?) hissing as it cooks on a spoon. This is all what lingers from “Requiem for a Dream”. There are no ghosts or corpses, but it is still the scariest movie I can think. I haven’t watched it more than once, and I don’t think I could.

January and February and everything after

2 Jan

Luckily, 2020 is already receding quickly from memory, and living with my parents becomes just another fact of life for me. But a year ago I was attending a New Year’s Day fitness class at Barry’s Bootcamp, taking a Lyft from my apartment to get to the Castro district location, then walking back to 17th and Castro, where I waited for a 24 Divisadero bus to take me over the hill towards home. Well, first I probably stopped and had lunch at Dara Indian, because stopping in there after a workout and stuffing my face with vegetable curry and rice and chai is what I liked to do. It was part of that nice little city life routine I had worked out for myself. It wasn’t grand, but it was part of the rhythm of my days. It broke about two months into 2020, and it now feels like a very distant memory. Walking down Castro Street to pick up coffee in the Castro, or walking in the other direction to stroll 24th Street in my neighborhood, Noe Valley. I guess one thing these recollections have in common is independence. Freedom. The freedom to encounter familiar face, neighbors, the occasional tourist with a map and a camera. In February, I bought Girl Scout cookies from a young girl towing her cookies in a red wagon in front of the Castro Theater. I took Muni to Cole Valley to meet girlfriends at Padrecito for margaritas and Mexican food on the night of the California primary election. On our way out, I stopped to excitedly tell a couple at a table near us that I had also voted for Elizabeth Warren (one or both of them were wearing Warren caps, the memory fades for me a bit, but I remember at least one khaki baseball cap). I waited in the cold with my friends until we all got Lyfts and Ubers home. And that cold, February night was the last night any of us would see each other for a long time. I haven’t seen them since.

Recently, I’ve seen a lot of positive reflections of people feeling gratitude for the lessons taught by 2020. I feel enormously grateful for making it through my summer of physical rehab, which also feels like a distant dream, like something that will just be a bit of trivia in no time. Yes, we should thank the year that’s passed for teaching us what’s important, what we value. What we miss. For me, that’s other people. It’s the friends and coworkers who made up my days, but also the hundreds of people who make up daily life- the commuters packed into a morning Muni car, the people jammed into cafés in the morning, packed restaurants at lunch, crowded bars at Happy Hour where I’d gather with coworkers to talk about anything and everything non-work related. The common thread was people- everywhere, at all times. Sometimes loud, sometimes annoying, but always there. It’s the crowds and strangers I miss, the ones I’ll be happiest to see when life comes crawling back. People. They’re what I won’t take for granted in 2021.