My Top Ten Favorite Movies of 2021

These are my personal favorite movies released in the U.S. in 2021. They are not meant to reflect the box office or award-winners for the year. I suggest that if you like four or five of the movies on the list, you might share my taste and sensibilities, and it might give some credence to you checking out the other films on the list.  Or not, because it might just be a coincidence.

Last Night in Soho



Eloise, an aspiring fashion designer, is mysteriously able to enter the 1960s where she encounters a dazzling wannabe singer, Sandie. But the glamour is not all it appears to be and the dreams of the past start to crack and splinter into something far darker.

First, I have to admit to be a big fan of Thomasin McKenzie and Anya Taylor-Joy, so I also admit to expecting to like this movie.  I was more than happy it turned out to be better than even I expected.

Grandmother Peggy: (gives Ellie a portrait of Peggy with her daughter) I want us both to be there.
Eloise: I won't let you guys down.
Peggy: You never could.

Not quite a ghost story and not quite a murder mystery but with elements of both, it is an intriguing thriller with enough psychological twists to keep the viewer engaged and off-kilter.

Eloise: Has a woman ever died in my room?
Ms Collins: This is London. Someone has died in every room in every building and on every street corner in the city.

In addition to the young starlets, the movie features Diana Rigg in her final release before her passing and strong work from Rita Tushingham, Matt Smith, and Terence Stamp.

ELLIE (O.S.) I’ve let you down. I’ve let Mum down.
PEGGY (O.S.) You haven’t let anyone down. You never could.
 

The Power of the Dog



Set against the desolate plains of 1920s Montana and adapted by Jane Campion from Thomas Savage's novel, a sensitive widow and her enigmatic, loving son move in with her gentle new husband.  A tense battle of wills plays out between them and his brutish brother, whose frightening volatility conceals a secret torment, and whose capacity for tenderness, once reawakened, may offer him redemption or destruction. Campion, who won an Academy Award for her direction here, charts the repressed desire and psychic violence coursing among these characters with the mesmerizing control of a master at the height of her powers.

George Burbank (played by the versatile, deceptively sturdy Jesse Plemons) and his brother, Phil (Benedict Cumberbatch, seemingly against type) have taken over the operation of the family cattle ranch.  Driving their cattle to sale, they stop at a bording house run by Rose Gordon (played by former child star Kirsten Dunst, maturing into a superb actress) and her son, Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee, so good in everything he's been in since age 9 some 15 years ago).  The boy helps his mother with everything from slaughtering the animals for the meat to meal prep and even decorating the tables with fabric flower arrangements.  It is this that draws the derision of the cowboys, led by Phil Burbank.

George Burbank: What you said about her boy tonight, Phil. It made her cry.
Phil Burbank: She had her ear to the door?
George Burbank: She was crying, Phil.
Phil Burbank: Well, hell. The boy had to snap out of it and get human. Just pointed it out, is all. She should damn well know.

George falls in love with Peter's mother and soon marries her.  He takes her to live at the ranch and when Peter returns from school, studying to be a doctor, he lives at the ranch for the summer.

ROSE: You mean Phil? Does he scare you?
PETER: I’m not afraid, I have my ways.

It is impressive the way Campion keeps such a strained, but subdued tone throughout the movie in complete contrast to the roiling emotions and power struggles occurring just beneath the surface.  Dunst gives a layered performance as the mother slipping into alcoholism to combat her alienation and worry over her son's ordeals at the ranch.  Plemons is solid as the awkwardly kind, business smart, but dull-witted husband.  It is McPhee who has his way, allowing himself to come under Cumberbatch's wing instead of defying him in the bully's arena.

Peter: Phil, I’ve… I’ve got a raw hide to finish the rope.
Phil: You got it? What were you doing with the raw hide?
Peter: I cut some up. I wanted to be like you. Please take what I’ve got.
Phil: It’s damn kind of you, Pete. I’ll tell you something. Everything’s going to be plain sailing for you from now on here. You know, I’m going to work. Finish up that rope thing, right? You watch me do it.

Ultimately, the cagey story comes down to choices as all stories do, intellect over ignorance; sensivity over brutishness; courtesy over coarseness; and even hygiene over carelessness.

The World to Come

In this powerful 19th century romance set in the American Northeast, Abigail, a farmer’s wife, and her new neighbor Tallie find themselves irrevocably drawn to each other. A grieving Abigail tends to her withdrawn husband Dyer as free spirit Tallie bristles at the jealous control of her husband Finney. Together, their intimacy begins to fill a void in each other's lives they never knew existed.

Abigail: (narrating her writing in her journal): Tuesday, January 1st, 1856. This morning, ice in our bedroom for the first time all winter. The water froze on the potatoes as soon as they were washed. With little pride, and less hope, we begin the new year.

Abigail: After the calamity of Nellie's loss, what calm I enjoy does not derive from the notion of a better world to come.

We learn that her daughter Nellie died of diptheria around age five and the grief and loss has caused an emotional rift with her husband, Dyer (Casey Affleck in his usual somber but earnest style).  She persists as his partner in the farm, but as his wife in name only. Her only dreams are to one day travel, to read, to record her life in writing, and to learn, until she meets Tallie (a glowing, charasmatic portayal by Vanessa Kirby), her new neighbor.

Tallie: How pleasant and uncommon it is to make someone's day.

Tallie is married to a brooding man, Finney (the unsung Christopher Abbott who is always a stand-out), who sees himself as the wronged party in all interactions, business and human alike.  Whereas Dyer sees Tallie as a friend who might make his wife happy and help her past her grieving, Finney is jealous of any time Tallie is not spending on him or their farm.

Tallie: He was instantly smitten by you.
Abigail: He admired what he viewed as my practical good sense.

Abigail: And I have so far refused to engage his persistence on the subject of another child.

Portions of the movie are epistolary voiceovers while showing the actions or reactions resulting from the letters.  This is particularly effective when Finney forces Tallie to follow him when he skips out on his failing farm.

Tallie: (in a letter to Abigail from her new home in Onondaga): Finney reads aloud instructions for wives from the Old Testament. But when it comes to the Bible, I have to say that there are a lot of passages he may know word for word, but which haven't touched his heart.

Tallie: And do you know what memory it is that I most cherish? It's of you turning to me with that smile you gave me once you realized that you were loved.

It's been awhile since I've seen a more genuine, heartfelt portrayal of unadorned friendship and love.  It's exhilarating, agonizing, mournful, and finally, inevitable.

Don't Look Up



Kate Dibiasky (Jennifer Lawrence), an astronomy grad student, and her professor Dr. Randall Mindy (Leonardo DiCaprio) make an astounding discovery of a comet orbiting within the solar system. The problem — it’s on a direct collision course with Earth. The other problem? No one really seems to care. Turns out warning mankind about a planet-killer the size of Mount Everest is an inconvenient fact to navigate. With the help of Dr. Oglethorpe (Rob Morgan), Kate and Randall embark on a media tour that takes them from the office of an indifferent President Orlean (Meryl Streep) and her sycophantic son and Chief of Staff, Jason (Jonah Hill), to the airwaves of The Daily Rip, an upbeat morning show hosted by Brie (Cate Blanchett) and Jack (Tyler Perry). With only six months until the comet makes impact, managing the 24-hour news cycle and gaining the attention of the social media obsessed public before it’s too late proves shockingly comical — what will it take to get the world to just look up?!

In my opinion, Adam Mckay has developed into one of my favorite filmmakers, and may be one our most important directors when all is said and done.  He is courageous in content and innovation.  He has an active sense of humor, both physical and cerebral, and has an inate sense of modern storytelling.  I am a lesser fan of his collaborations with Will Ferrell, but a huge fan of The Big Short and Vice. I don't believe this movie is quite up to the standard set by those two masterpieces, but in a troubled year for movies, it still stands out.

Kate Dibiasky: Well maybe the destruction of the entire planet isn't supposed to be fun.  Maybe it's supposed to be terrifying. And upsetting. And you stay up all night every night crying... when we're all 100%, for sure, going to fucking die! 

In many interviews, McKay suggested the comet on a collision-course with earth was meant to symbolize the scientifically-substantiated onset of global disaster presented by the climate crisis facing the planet in the coming years.  The movie is a satire lampooning the reaction, denial, and lack of action implemented by global leaders in the vast majority of countries on the planet.


Congressman Tenant
:
So these two Marxists wave around the word “science” and we’re all supposed to do whatever they say? How do we even know there is a comet?

KateCongressman, this
data has now been confirmed and peer reviewed by hundreds of world-renowned scientists.

Congressman Tenant: And we’re supposed to trust you? The comet’s got your name!


When no action is taken and collision is imminent, no one has budged from their previous positions:

Kate: They found a bunch of gold and diamonds and rare shit on the comet and now they’re going to let it hit earth to make a bunch of rich people even more disgustingly rich!

Randall: And if we can’t all agree at the bare minimum that a giant comet the size of Mount Everest hurtling its way toward planet Earth is NOT A FUCKING GOOD THING, then what the hell happened to us? I mean, my God, how do- How do we even talk to each other? What have we done to ourselves? How do we fix it? We should’ve deflected this comet when we had the fucking chance, but we didn’t do it. I don’t know why we didn’t do it.

The President's son, y'all:

Jason:
Mom? Mom! (into his phone) What's up, y'all? I'm the last man on earth. (looking around) Shit's all fucked up.  Don't forget to like and subscribe. Mom!

Riders of Justice



Markus, who is released from extended military duty to return home to his teenage daughter, Mathilde, when his wife dies in a tragic train accident. By all outward signs, it seems like an accident until a mathematics geek, who was also a fellow passenger on the train, shows up with two colleagues who believe they have prood that it was not an accident.

Otto: The probability of a key witness in a gang-related homicide case and his lawyer dying in an accident 13 days before he set is to testify is, according to my calculations… Let’s see. One to 234,287,121. Too big of a number for it to be ignored.

Otto also saw a man get off the train before it departed after dumping an expensive barely-eaten sandwich and drink into the garbage.  They trace the man through facial recognition to being the brother of the leader of the motorcycle gang, the Riders of Justice, who is on trial with other members for murder.  In addition to Markus's wife, a witness against the motorcycle gang leader were also killed on the train.

Markus: Sweetie, open the door. Come on.

Mathilde: Why don’t you just kick it in, you fucking psycho? (whimpers)

Markus: (sighs) Mathilde, I didn’t mean to hit him that hard. I shouldn’t have hit him. Who is he? Is he your boyfriend?

Mathilde: I don’t know now that you beat him up!

Markus: Yeah, that was kinda… I didn’t know he was your boyfriend.

Mathilde: No, because you were never around. You don’t know anything about me. You don’t know me at all!


Otto and his colleagues help Markus get closer to the gang and along the way collect more helpers who all become a sort of dysfunctional family around Mathilde nad her father, first pretending to be therapists helping her father deal with his loss, and eventually as friends and confidants.


Otto: All your incidents will have their own threads intertwining with other events and other people’s lives, not into infinity   but in a very big equation. Not even the most powerful computers in the world would currently be able to process all your data, and even though you’re a bright girl your human brain will never process just a fraction of that amount of data and you will therefore never be able to draw a useful conclusion. It’ll never, ever make sense.

Mathilde: I know.


In the end, the motorcyle gang finds Markus and his daughter through a facebook post made by Mathilde's boyfriend.  The final showdown is one of many twists and many culminations set up so well in the inventice script and solid execution of that script by writer-director Anders Thomas Jensen.  There's healing, bonding, extended family, and even Christmas.

Concrete Cowboy



This movie is inspired by the real-life Fletcher Street Stables.  Because she can't help him stay out of trouble, Amahle (Liz Priestley) sends her 15-year-old Cole (Caleb McLaughlin) to live with his estranged father Harp (Idirs Elba) in North Philadelphia. There he discovers the city's vibrant urban cowboy subculture, which has existed for more than 100 years providing a safe haven for the neighborhood despite the surrounding poverty, violence, and encroachment of gentrification.


Amahle: This life isn't working, Cole. You are drowning out here. You are going to drown! I've literally done everything I could think of for you. And still, here I am again, leaving work, trying to convince another principal, and another police officer, that my son knows better. And you don't. And neither do I anymore.

Cole: There's a horse in your house.
Harp: (points to the couch) Well, this you, right here.
Cole: I ain't staying here.
Harp: Alright. I'm going to hit it though. But once you step out, that door stays locked till morning.
Cole: I'll leave in the morning...

There is a lot of adjustment which needs to take place for both Cole and his father who has never had to care for or be responsible for the boy.


Harp: I was on charges when your mama got pregnant. Yeah. But I hid out. I hid out because I wanted to meet you, man. I ain't want them to take that away. I wanted to meet you. But they squeezed her. She flipped on me. I ain't never blame her, man, because, you know, she was just trying to do right by you, you know? She was mad at me.

With nowhere else to go, Cole sleeps in the stall of the worst-behaving horse in the stable.


Nessie:You should have got your head bashed in. What do I find? Daniel laying there in the lions den, snuggled up side by side.
Cole: What that mean?
Nessie: Means that Boo yours.
Cole: No.

Cole and the horse form a tenuous bond so Harp asks Cole to take care of the animal and eventually try to ride him.

Harp: (watching Cole ride Boo] Wow, he's doing it.
Rome: Yes, sir. He done broke Boo.

Though the story is not only about a troubled boy and an equally troubled father trying to build a life together, it is also about the stables and the community it offers to those who work it and benefit from it.  The city is always trying to move or shut down the stables to use the land for more valuable purposes.  Cole and his father step up to take a role in that fight.

Many of the roles in the film are played by actual Fletcher Street Stables verterans and regulars.

Reminiscence



A scientist discovers a way to relive your past and uses the technology to search for his long lost love. Whilst a private investigator uncovers a conspiracy while helping his clients recover lost memories.

Another disclaimer, I believe Rebecca Ferguson is one of the most talented performers working today.  She can sing.  She can act. She doesn't have classic beauty, but can play sultry, frumpy, evil, nice.  There always seems to be an aura of the mystical in her performance.  I am a lesser fan of Hugh Jackman, but I believe he as well has shown a range he was originally never asked to play.

So, when you scan the ratings of this movie, you may decide some of my placing it in my Top Ten favorites may be attributable to my regard for the stars.  However, I also found the story, written and directed by Lisa Joy of TV's "Westworld", to be an innovative interpretation of modern noir with a desperate love story at its center and an element of melancholy revenge.

Nick Bannister: The past can haunt a man. That's what they say. That the past is just a series of moments. Each one perfect. Complete. A bead on the necklace of time. The past doesn't haunt us. Wouldn't even recognize us. If there are ghosts to be found, it's us who haunt the past. We haunt it, so we can look again. See the people we miss, and the things we missed about them.

The script is perhaps a bit too lush with wonderful language and interplay too perfect the subject matter, but I'll take that over the opposite choice.

Nick Bannister: No such thing as a happy ending. All endings are sad. Especially if the story was happy.
Mae: Then tell me a happy story, but end it in the middle.

Thandiwe Newton (who never gives a bad performance) plays Watts, Jackman's assistant, who fears for his business and his future if he continues to search for Mae.

Nick Bannister: We'll be fine. Watts. Nostalgia never goes out of style.

Mae: Don't say always. Always makes promises it can't keep.

Nick: Memories are like perfume, better in small doses.
Mae: Maybe you haven't made the right memories.


Mae: Maybe memory fades for a reason. If we just dwelled on the bad things in the past, we'd never get over them. And if we just dwelled on the good, we might never match it again.

Emily 'Watts' Sanders: Missing people is part of this world. Without that sadness, you can't taste the sweet.


Phantom of the Open



Maurice Flitcroft, a dreamer and unrelenting optimist, managed to gain entry to The British Open Golf Championship Qualifying in 1976 and subsequently shot the worst round in Open history, becoming a folk hero in the process.  Flitcroft played by the astounding Mark Rylance is a crane driver for a shipyard in Barrow-in-Furness a small harbor town in south Cumbria, England when he is about to be laid off when the shipyard is nationalized so he looks for another pursuit.  He takes up golf and sets his sights on the British Open, assuming it's open to all Brits.

Keith Mackenzie (Rhys Ifans): Why would someone say they're a professional when they're not?

Jenny
(Amy Alexander): Well, to get into the Open.

Mackenzie: I don't think anyone's gonna be stupid enough to do that, my dear.

Flitcroft does get into the British Open and shoots a 121, the worst score of all time.  During the round, he refuses to withdraw and vows to try again.

Flitcroft: Golf club membership is for amateurs only. As I entered the Open as a professional, I can't join a club?

Country Club President: Correct.

Flitcroft: Professionals can play on any course in the country.

President: Yes.

Flitcroft: Great!

President: Simply show them your Professional Golf Association certificate and away you go.

Flitcroft: But I don't have one, Bruce. There's no chance of me even getting one unless I belong to a club.

Flitcroft tries many times to enter the Open under aliases and by other subterfuges but can only make a meager living off his limited fame.  His son Mike thinks he's ruined his wife's happiness and left his children with nothing but foolish pipedreams.  His mother sets him straight.

Jean Flitcroft (played by the incomparable Sally Hawkins): I got pregnant. I wanted to keep you, Michael. No question in my mind about that. But, um... nobody supported me. Not my father, not my mother. Not my friends. I trained as a secretary off my own back. Set up the little theater by myself. I brought you up by myself. And... not a soul stood by my side for a single second. And then I met your father. So, don't you tell me he's made my life a misery. He's made my life. He's made all our lives.

Soon, Michael finds that whenever his last name is recognized by clients it is because they know and admire his father, and many wonder if he might be willing to play a round of golf with them.

Percy vs. Goliath



Percy Schmeiser (Christopher Walken), a third-generation farmer, is sued by corporate giant Monsanto for allegedly using their patented seeds. With little resources to fight the giant legal battle, Percy joins forces with a junior lawyer Jackson Weaver (Zach Braff) and environmental activist Rebecca Salcau (Christina Ricci) to fight one of the most monumental cases all the way up to the Supreme Court.


Percy: Some farmers buy their seeds from the big guys every year to plant. Me? I save my own. That’s what I do. I’m a seed saver. I haven’t lost a crop in 50 years.

Weaver: And to what would you attribute your success?

Percy: I’m a seed saver.

Weaver: And what does that mean?

Percy: Well, every summer I study my crops. I get to know them. I study how they react to too much heat, drought, too much rain. I try to find the plants that are the most virile and I save those seeds for next year’s planting. It’s how my father taught me to farm and his father taught him.

Rebecca Salcau of the PEP (People for Everonmental Protection) seeks out Percy when it becomes clear Monsanto will win early cases and appeals based solely on lab evidence and narrow legalities.

Rebecca: You try to fight them on your own, you will lose. We can help pay your legal fees.

Louise, Percy's wife: How?

Rebecca: Percy tells his story. We collect donations.


Percy: I’m no charity case.

Rebecca: It’s not charity. There are thousands of people who want to support you.

Percy: I’m no poster boy, neither.

Soon, Percy has no choice and sees that he needs help and that he might be able to help other farmers in his own country and around the world. After many years and much attrition on Percy and his family, the Supreme Court of Canada agrees to hear Percy's final appeal.

Jackson: Now, I believe there is some sense that unless Mr. Schmeiser loses today, unless there is a victory for Monsanto, then companies like Monsanto will just pull up their stakes and go elsewhere. Well, that is not an argument that can hold any sway in this case. If there is no basis to hold Mr. Schmeiser as an infringer, if, in fact, their patent doesn’t cover this type of invention, which is a living, reproducing plant, then I implore you… let justice be done.

Walken, a bit more understated as the farmer who never wanted to be heroic, is excellent in this role and the movie rises with him and the importance of the mostly true story.


The Marksman



Jim Hanson (Liam Neeson) is a former Marine who lives a solitary life as a rancher along the Arizona-Mexican border, but his peaceful, if meager, existence comes crashing down when he tries to protect a boy on the run from members of a vicious cartel. When the boy's mother asks him to take her son to her family in Chicago, the two hit the road with the cartel's assassins in pursuit.


These are the sorts of roles that have become Neeson's bread and butter and this may be one of his best as he is allowed to fail a bit and show some humanity.  The relationship with the boy and his dog is a plus.

Jim: I was in last month, explained my situation to Ned Fremont. He assured me…

New Bank Man: Yes, well, Ned’s no longer with us. Not sure why he didn’t follow it, but bank policy is to take action if there hasn’t been a payment in over six months. You should also know, Mr. Hanson, that the bank has the right to sell the property before those 90 days if it receives a reasonable offer from a third party.

Jim: I guess I’m trying to understand how you work your whole life, serve your country, pay your taxes, and end up without a pot to piss in.  Lost my home, my livelihood, and the only person that made any of it worthwhile.

Even though his mother has been shot and killed by the cartel,
Miguel (Jacob Perez) isn't sure he wants to go along with the crazy white man with the dog and the big gun.

Jim: I’m doing what your mother asked. I’m taking you to your family in Chicago.

Miguel makes friends with the dog, Jackson and wonders whether Jim has other family himself.

Jim: My wife died. Cancer. Shitty disease. They say you get used to being alone after a while. That's just crap.

The cartel sends Mauricio and a couple of sicarios to track down the boy whose uncle stole cartel money and must be returned to become a sicario.  On his way to Chicago, Jim uses his credit card and makes a few other mistakes, but is shrewd enough to stay just ahead of their pursuers.  Along the way, Miguel asks if there is a way his mother could have a funeral service.  Hanson finds a church and asks the pastor for the favor.

Minister: He’s your, what? Grandson?

Jim: No. Um, I knew his mother. She asked me to look after him.

Minister: That’s no small request. She must have had a lot of faith in you.


They are not quite to Chicago when Jim can see they aren't going to make it if he doesn't make a stand.  He prepares an ambush and shows Miguel how to use a gun.

Miguel: You fought in a war? You killed other soldiers?  Someday, I will kill those men.

Jim: There’s absolutely nothing that feels good about killing another man. Your mother died to give you a chance at a better life. Don’t waste it.

Honorable Mention:

Coda

Pig

Last Looks

Belfast

Jockey