Another pandemic year of filming has passed in a flash, and it seems like there is more to see than ever before. But often it feels like filler material. Where is the good, the inspiring, the stuff dreams are made of? Don’t we need that more than ever?
One thing that a lot of films have made this year has been to rely heavily on the idea of the power of the outcasts, their bonds, their quirks, their maligned status that still makes them shine. It’s an idea that many can relate to, and in some ways, we may all feel a little bit marginalized during these times and look for connections where we can. Many of us get sick or try not to get sick.
Let’s look at the good things …
10. The Green Knight
We admit we were a little WTF with this one, an adaptation of a 14th poem. It’s a jousting game with Dev Patel, Alicia Vikander, Sarita Choudhury, Joel Egerton, Barry Keoghan and Ralph Ineson supportively, but in the hands of the Filmmaker David Lowery, who continues to infuse the film vibes of the 1970s into his work, turns it into a beautiful adult fantasy, a transporting meditation on death, legacy, pride and courage.
Visions, psychological connections, not-so-conceited childhood friends, gruesome murders, cloaked figures, Hammer Studios-style fog, Art Deco sanatoriums on cliffs, catacombs and the kitchen sink – James Wan throws everything he doesn’t while cooking Can use big, mega-budget studio films in this independently produced, New Line Cinema-released side horror project that lets him go. It’s an opera and soap opera with all of Wan’s tricks turned up to 11.
8. Last night in Soho
Courtesy Parisa Taghizadeh / Focus Features
The most ambitious and mature work of Edgar Wright, the filmmaker of Baby Driver and Shaun of the Dead, Soho brings 1960s London (or at least our idealized memory of it) to life in a beautifully fashionable film that is part of a ghost story , part time travel, part crime thriller. It’s a tricky balancing act, supported by the stars Anya Taylor-Joy and Thomasin McKenzie, who underpin the film with their appearances.
Yes, it’s half a movie. Yeah, that’s annoying. But what a half. Few filmmakers are as excellent at world education as Denis Villeneuve, who takes on the very difficult task of adapting Frank Herbert’s dense science fiction classics. There’s a “roller coaster ride” version of this film that a studio could have done with this story – and destroyed everything about it – but Villeneuve stays as true to the source material as possible and stays true to itself, which is a very Villeneuve film that keeps a lot of emotions at a distance while showing the kind of filmmaking that is immersive and dazzling.
6. Riders of Justice
This Danish action comedy, now streamed on Hulu, may feel like it is saving up on action or thinking of comedy, but it’s all Danish for sure. Mads Mikkelsen plays a stoic soldier who has to return home from the Middle East after his wife is killed in a train wreck. Now he has to deal with his grieving teenage daughter who hates his courage and, what’s worse, a bunch of weird loser freaks who say his wife’s death wasn’t an accident, and they have the algorithms to prove it. Now he has to find those responsible. I’m not sure how an American studio will approach the eventual remake, but the film works because it avoids light vengeance action film beats, honestly explores sadness and trauma, past and present, and presents the relationship between Mikkelsen and Andrea Heick Gadeberg . who plays his daughter in a refreshingly honest way.
5. The Mitchells against the machines
Courtesy of SPAI / Netflix
The snazzy and fast-paced comedic stylings by producers Phil Lord and Chris Miller can be found throughout this Sony Animated Pictures film released by Netflix. The plot centers on a dysfunctional, recalcitrant family who become humanity’s only hope when a warm and fuzzy operating system (and its devices) turn on its users and usher in a robotic apocalypse. The film gives directors Michael Rianda and Jeff Rowe a chance to delve into silly set pieces that poke fun at modern corporate and consumer culture, but it’s the two ideas that were found underneath: 1) the father-daughter -Relation at the center of the film and 2) the hug of artistic or marginalized weirdos who never feel normal but find their relatives.
4. Old Henry
Yes, it has the trappings of westerns seen before – the humiliated old man who wants to be left alone but is secretly a bloody gunslinger, trouble that comes in, the culminating gunfight – but in the hands of the Writer – director Potsy Ponciroli get these elements through authentic historical details and even a historical touch with a safe, measured approach to a new pair of boots. What gives the film its true courage is the fundamental performance of Tim Blake Nelson, who rises from secondary player to main actor and gives his tired farmer a lived and tragic feeling.
3. Shang-Chi and the legend of the ten rings
Courtesy Marvel Studios
Marvel movies sometimes work best as family dramas, and this one about a son re-encountering his father and the life he left behind years ago proves to be thanks to the skills of filmmaker Destin Daniel Cretton and actor Simu Liu as surprisingly personable and fresh. We are treated to an unexplored and culturally rich bag of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, we get one of the best action sequences in the MCU films, and we get one of the more magnetic MCU villains thanks to the calm gravity of Tony Leung. The Marvel Movie of the Year.
2. The suicide squad
Courtesy Warner Bros. Pictures / DC Comics
James Gunn parachutes into the DC Universe in a reboot remake that focuses on loser villains (or as the movie calls them, “damn idiots”) forced into doomed missions. In doing so, the filmmaker goes beyond expectations and rules. Gunn balances profane humor, blood-spattered action with human drama and intimate moments and pulls the ground under the viewer’s feet in every scene. Squad offers indelible images, imaginative scene transitions, spoils us with the best Harley Quinn so far (Margot Robbie) and offers us the unbelievable sad bag tragedy of the Polka Dot Man (David Dastmalchian). The comic film of the year.
1. Nightmare Alley
Courtesy 20th Century Studios
Not exactly the most obvious choice of material given Guillermo del Toro’s story of various creature traits, but thematically, the monstrosity of men’s hearts has always been a key feature of the filmmaker, and boy, this one has it in spades. In his most accomplished and complete work, Del Toro reveals the story of a drifter and crook, played by Bradley Cooper, who joins a carnival show and then discards his family of freaky and geeky residents when he learns the tricks of the trade. Next, he moves to the big city to improve his game, only to meet his match in the manipulative psychiatrist. The staging design is stunning and is achieved by the starry cast; Cooper is a career high, David Strathairn is soulfully tragic, and Cate Blanchett is a femme fatale who escaped a Will Eisner comic.
In the many films of this year that showed the power and love of the outcasts willing to accept the strange and different, it is fitting that it should end with a film about a man who is offered that, uses that abused, giving up, and paying a terrible price. The nerds’ revenge, indeed.