We asked some of our writers to contribute a paragraph or two about the most memorable movies and TV shows they saw this year.
It tells you everything you need to know about the sorry state of contemporary Hollywood that the most astonishing film I’ve seen this year was released a decade ago. It’s Kenneth Lonergan’s Margaret, now available on the Criterion Collection app, after a lengthy battle between creator and distributor, in its original three-hour cut.
My colleague Armin Rosen described the film perfectly in Tablet Magazine: “This is primarily a movie about teshuva,” he wrote, using the Hebrew word for “repentance,” “or maybe about how teshuva can go wrong. . . . Its core plot is something like the Book of Jonah on the Upper West Side, with high school classrooms and lawyers’ offices standing in for the fish’s belly and Tarshish.” More precisely, the plot involves Lisa Cohen (Anna Paquin), a student at a smug liberal high school, who believes she is responsible for an accident involving a distracted bus driver and a pedestrian he struck and killed. As she struggles to make sense of immense constructs—responsibility, morality, family, politics—she begins to wonder if her impassioned quest for justice isn’t just a “moral jungle gym,” the sort of empty intellectual amusement common in her liberal milieu. The film’s last ten minutes, a stunner scene set at the Metropolitan Opera, delivers a moment of transcendence not only for Lisa, who finally embraces the sort of wisdom and grace it takes some of us decades to find, but also for us viewers, consoled by the knowledge that cinema can still tackle the timeless mysteries of human existence, not only the sound and fury of a popular culture gone sour.
Francis X. Maier
I’ve been a lifelong science fiction fan. So you can imagine the damage done to my tender sensibilities by the 1984 David Lynch adaptation of Frank Herbert’s great novel Dune. With a production design apparently cooked up by a gender-confused lunatic on LSD, it’s one of the worst movies ever made. This makes the 2021 version, Dune: Part One, all the more satisfying. It’s superbly done with a great cast, writing, and direction, all set within a meticulously imagined and vividly realized distant future. Dune: Part Two will arrive in 2023. It’s hard to wait.
My other favorite films of 2021: The Green Knight (slow, and not to everyone’s taste); Nobody, a darkly comic tour de force with Bob Odenkirk of Better Call Saul; Old Henry, a very good Western with a unique twist at the end; Werewolves Within, a shrewdly written, scary, and very funny horror-comedy; The Last Duel, a harsh medieval love triangle (I use the word “love” very loosely here) with a great cast, skillfully directed by Ridley Scott; and Kenneth Branagh’s semi-autobiographical Belfast—obvious Oscar material and probably the best movie of the year, about growing up during the Troubles of Northern Ireland.
As for 2021 television: Most of it is forgettable—although no “twelve days of Christmas” are complete in any year without watching The Christmas Chronicles. It’s a wonderful, family-friendly made-for-Netflix film, filled with sly humor and a terrific, fun performance by Kurt Russell as Santa, whose Chicago jailhouse version of “Santa Claus is Back in Town” is hands down better than the Elvis Presley original.
Beyond that, Apple TV’s two new science fiction series, Invasion and Foundation, adapted from Isaac Asimov’s classic trilogy, are both interesting efforts. The sixth season of Line of Duty, the outstanding British crime series, is available on Amazon Prime and well worth watching. Season Two of another excellent Brit police drama, Manhunt, starring Martin Clunes, is likewise worth viewing on Acorn TV. If you’re looking for golden oldies to fill in your evenings, the series Narcos and Narcos: Mexico are both quite good, as well as Fauda, the Israeli counter-terrorism drama.
Finally, being Catholic, I’ll end with a confession: My wife and I begin every December by watching Love Actually, the 2003 British ensemble comedy with a Christmas theme. It’s permanently on the naughty list, thanks to explicit scenes and language. But it has a marvelous cast, is laugh-out-loud funny, and, in the end, joyful, real (OK, “real-ish,” and even that’s a stretch), and life-affirming. At this point, we’ve seen it a dozen times. Bill Nighy is spectacular as an aging, dissolute rocker. We never get tired of it. But note this important caution: It’s best viewed by married couples, and definitely not for the whole family.
Last year I recommended Kenneth Branagh’s Much Ado About Nothing as the perfect antidote to the cold and drear of winter. This year I re-watched Branagh’s As You Like It, which came out in 2006 and is set in nineteenth-century Japan, as the kimonos of the old world gave way to the suits and ties of the new. It’s good fun, with love found, lost, and found again, set in a bucolic forest with a suitably bucolic score—an altogether Edenic comedy. The comic gender mix-ups have an unexpected innocence in the confusion of our present moment. Kevin Kline’s Jaques delivers some of Shakespeare’s most famous speeches, including “All the world’s a stage.” And Brian Blessed plays a samurai.
Leah Libresco Sargeant
Between COVID and the cost of babysitting for a toddler, my husband and I saw very few movies in theaters this year. Without question, the standout was David Lowery's The Green Knight. To call it an adaptation of the poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight would be inaccurate. It's a wrestling match with the tale, and with the ideal of chivalry itself. I can't recommend it for teen viewers, as this is a decidedly unchaste Gawain. But it's a good movie to see with friends, provided you watch it early enough in the evening that you have time for at least an hour of argument afterward. Lowery's Camelot is a fading kingdom. His protagonist is himself green, not yet knighted, and not ready to live up to the demands of knighthood, marriage, or any vocation of sustained faithfulness and sacrifice. When he answers the Green Knight's Christmas challenge, the film's Gawain is hoping this fight will change something in him. In his subsequent quest, he's still seeking a great act, worthy of song and story, big enough to swallow up his life of persistent sin and broken promises. He hopes, like one of Flannery O'Connor's characters, that if he can't be a saint, “[he] could be a martyr if they killed [him] quick.” Not everything in the film was satisfying, but it took serious questions seriously. I'm grateful A24 and Lowery spent the time struggling with the question of how to live well. It would pair very oddly with Terrence Malick's A Hidden Life, but I'd love to attend a doubleheader and discussion (if someone volunteers to babysit my toddler).
I saw The Green Knight with Leah and came away intrigued, disturbed, and interested in seeing more of David Lowery’s work. We rented The Old Man and the Gun, his 2018 crime film about a elderly, well-mannered bank robber. It’s a movie with a very different tone than The Green Knight, far more gentle, easygoing, and charming (like its protagonist). It works well, however, as a companion piece to the latter film: Both are about masculinity, specifically whether and how men can be domesticated.
The title character of The Old Man and the Gun is Forrest Tucker, a career criminal in his golden years, played with off-the-charts charisma by Robert Redford in something of a farewell performance. Tucker was a real person, but Lowery’s film is more interested in dramatizing Tucker’s self-perception as a gentleman thief than in precisely following a real-life story. The movie’s Tucker sticks up banks with quiet threats and boundless charm, leaving tellers and managers confusedly explaining to police how likable they found the robber. The camera never pans down to the gun he indicates he’s packing, leaving a touch of ambiguity about whether the titular weapon is really there—or if Tucker’s force of personality is enough to sell that he’s armed.
Unlike the hapless not-quite-a-knight Gawain, Tucker knows exactly what he wants to be doing and relishes the life he’s chosen. He follows a chivalric code of sorts, living as the last cowboy outlaw or gentleman thief. Does that mean he’s found the honor Gawain is seeking? The film offers occasional glimpses of the damage Tucker does to those who stay in his life longer than his bemusedly charmed victims. Elisabeth Moss appears in a single, crucial scene as a daughter Tucker doesn’t even know he has. Lowery lets us enjoy a venerable rogue reflecting on his picaresque life, while leaving open the question of what it would take for such a man to be part of a family or a society
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