This year in cinema was a lot like this year, period.
Certainly, movies were as deeply divided as the nation. Chain theaters gorged themselves on popcorn movies; deep-pocketed streaming services bankrolled serious films. Meanwhile, the great middle — wide theatrical releases made for adults actually willing to put on a mask and go out — was harder to find, especially with many neighborhood houses shuttered.
Artistic disappointments and compromises abounded, too. Too many promising films — “The House of Gucci,” “Spencer,” “King Richard” — stranded one good performance in a so-so movie. Others — the colorfully choreographed “West Side Story,” the warmly sentimental “Belfast” — entertained energetically, but couldn’t quite camouflage one or two nagging flaws.
Yet look a little harder and you could find plenty of fascinating films that seemed interested in something more than chasing after fanboy cash (or safe, shallow, star-driven Oscar respect). They told their stories with honor and honesty — and often still engaged audiences with lively entertainment and stirring drama.
Here is an alphabetical list of 10 movies I not only loved, but would love seeing again right now.
THE CARD COUNTER
Director Paul Schrader follows up “First Reformed” with another great, late-career drama, with Oscar Isaac starring as a vet — and ex-con — now working as a traveling card sharp. Cold and contained, the man defines “poker face” — until a character from his past reappears and forces him to confront some hidden ugliness. With its emotionally wounded hero, stubbornly alone in a world of noisy vice, it’s a strangely fitting partner to Schrader’s “Taxi Driver” script — and would be an artistic achievement for anyone.
You know the movie — curmudgeonly character gets temporary custody of an adorable kid, heartstrings are tugged, and Oscar campaigns are launched. But if so, you don’t know this movie, as Mike Mills’ deliberately off-center take stars the perpetually anti-cuddly Joaquin Phoenix as an NPR reporter taking temporary charge of his moody, difficult nephew. Full of sentiment sans sentimentality, it’s a beautifully broad yet specific portrait of family, New York, New Orleans, and the way we live now.
THE FRENCH DISPATCH
Wes Anderson didn’t invent the word “quirky” but he certainly defines it — a superbly singular filmmaker whose movies combine a deep love of everything from stop-motion puppets and Joseph Cornell shadowboxes to “The New Yorker” and Bill Murray. The last two figure especially in this, an omnibus film that imagines an eclectic magazine and then creates the sort of stories that might fill it. A constantly prowling camera, an extraordinary cast and Anderson’s own wry attitude command every frame.
Is there any longing more wistful than nostalgia for an era you just missed out on? Certainly not in Paul Thomas Anderson’s sprawling film about the lives of teens and 20-somethings in 1973 Southern California. Of course Anderson, born in 1970, can only imagine the fun — and so he lets his imagination run wild in a story crammed with teen crushes, waterbeds, movie stars, pinball wizards, and Bradley Cooper as manic movie producer Jon Peters, probably on something and definitely on the make.
Fiercely formidable females, the world of post-Franco Spain, intricately reflective narratives and the life force that is Penélope Cruz — all of Pedro Almodóvar’s favorite obsessions come together in this marvelous movie mélange. It begins as melodrama — unplanned pregnancies, hospital mix-ups — but then, like real life, complicates things, going in unexpected directions before circling back to its original themes of remembrance and the importance of unvarnished honesty, no matter how high the cost.
Actress Rebecca Hall made an impressive and unusual directing debut with this assuredly stylish adaptation of Nella Larsen’s 1929 novel in which an upper-class and proudly Black matron suddenly bumps into a long-ago friend — and discovers she’s concealed her race and married a white man. It’s a film about identity — not just race, but class and gender, too — and while telling it through poetic, silvery images, Hall also makes room for great, layered performances from Ruth Negga and Tessa Thompson.
THE POWER OF THE DOG
If Paul Schrader’s “The Card Counter” revisits and reflects “Taxi Driver,” Jane Campion’s film does the same for her “The Piano” — there is a lonely woman, a barren land and a giant keyboard, but this artful, melancholy Western has different concerns. And different characters at its heart: Kirsten Dunst’s sad widow, Benedict Cumberbatch’s angry cowboy (a man as tough as a piece of jerky) and Kodi Smit-McPhee as the person caught between them, an awkward youth no one really knows. Until it’s too late.
Few experiences in the movies are quite as exhilarating as the “What the hell was that?” feeling you get from a genuine surprise, and Rose Glass’ barely released film was certainly that, a grisly modern Gothic featuring a crumbling seaside resort, an equally decrepit ex-celebrity and Morfydd Clark as the caregiver who wants to be a help. Unluckily for her and everyone around her, she also wants to be a modern martyr. A truly disturbing story of guilt and redemption, religious ecstasy and excess.
TICK, TICK… BOOM!
The immensely talented Lin-Manuel Miranda makes his movie debut with this, a project that couldn’t be more squarely in his wheelhouse: The bio of another musical prodigy, Jonathan Larson, who gave us the amazing “Rent” before dying, too young, at 35. What makes things fresh is that this story, based on an earlier Larson musical, is about his life before success; what makes it thrilling is Andrew Garfield’s terrific performance, and Miranda’s ability to flood the screen with dazzling energy, emotion and motion.
THE WORST PERSON IN THE WORLD
The title is ironic: The “sins” of the heroine (aimless in college, faithless in love, unsure in career) would be the building blocks of any fictional hero’s journey. And that, ultimately, is what Norway’s Joachim Trier has made — a picaresque growing-up story that, instead of starring a man, features a funny, frustrating and ultimately endearing woman played by the engaging Renate Riensve. A playful film (the “serious” narration is anything but) that still delivers a wisely feminist message. And a lot of fun.
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