By Elizabeth Gracen:
Awards season is underway, the nominees joining roundtable discussions on all sorts of platforms. The Golden Globes were canceled, but the winners fall into neat, almost predictable line—the mysterious THE POWER OF THE DOG being the one exception. Who knows what the Academy Awards will look like this year or who will win all the top honors that lead up to the event? I’m not sure any of that matters. What does matter? The films!
I don’t know if it’s because of Covid that I’ve seen more films than usual, but here I am again, 10 a.m. at the AMC. With a warm box of fresh popcorn, I’m seated three rows back and center from the screen—in my usual C9. There’s no one around me—just like I planned it when I chose my seats on the app ahead of time. My mask will promptly go back on once I finish munching my goodies. I’m here to screen the new Pedro Almodovar film, PARALLEL MOTHERS, starring Penelope Cruz. Will it make my top 5 favorite films of 2021?
During the Christmas break, I had a voracious appetite for big-screen entertainment. My family was home, and it felt like all they wanted to do was eat—so I cooked . . . a lot. I needed a break lest I go mad, so I made an easy escape to movie matinees by myself (solo is my favorite way, and the earlier the matinee the better)—a film almost every other day accompanied by my dependable companion: freshly popped popcorn.
We have all watched an incredible amount of entertainment content from our living rooms since the pandemic began, and it’s hard to believe that I didn’t go to an actual movie theatre for the whole of 2020. We have excellent screens in my part of town—IMAX, Dolby theaters with recliners and just plain ‘ole theaters that have been nicely refurbished. It’s 10 minutes away, and since I’ve seen so many films this season and can purchase a ticket and treats beforehand, I go a bit later since I’ve seen most of the trailers far too many times. Yes, it is a tad obsessive, but I don’t really care. I’m stressed about the world. I find it all very depressing, and I’m an incredibly sensitive person. It’s a great trait to have if you are an actor, but for life in general, it can be a hard road at times. I practice TM, I exercise, and I’ve been known to enjoy a glass of wine or two to wind down in the evening, but sometimes that is simply not enough—sometimes the only solution is to go to a movie and watch it on a big screen. . . and eat popcorn—my favorite snack in all the world.
I used to sneak my own popcorn into films until I was shamed enough times by friends and family that I decided to stop. Yes, it is an unprocessed whole grain. Yes, it’s high in fiber and contains polyphenols that can help lower blood sugar levels and help digestion . . . but, obviously that is not why I love it. When you add grated Parmesan cheese, sea salt, and nuts (walnuts or pecans are my go-to), and maybe some butter (naughty), it turns a regular snack into something spectacular. You can see why I opted to sneak it in, but those days are long gone. I settle for movie popcorn now, and I don’t complain. It’s the perfect date.
So, before I share my Top 5 favorite films of 2021, I would like to thank the filmmakers, writers, producers, actors, composers, cinematographers, and crews who helped me escape 2021. I am grateful for the entertainment, the information, and the sheer pleasure of watching what you created. And of course . . . thank you, popcorn. I love you.
Top 5 Favorite Films of 2021
Directed by Paul Thomas Anderson
Starring: Alana Haim, Cooper Hoffman
This was the last film I saw on the big screen for 2021. I intentionally waited until December 31 to see it, because P. T. Anderson is probably my favorite contemporary filmmaker, and I just knew it would be great. I am obsessed with Phantom Thread, but The Master, Boogie Nights, Magnolia . . . c’mon. P. T. has it figured out. Licorice Pizza is set in the San Fernando Valley in the '70s. I grew up in the South in the '70s, so the mise en scene of the film is a hand in glove for me. Lana Haim is a revelation—it doesn’t feel like she is acting at all, and Cooper Hoffman is a charming co-star. I won’t give anything away about this coming-of-age in Southern California story, but it’s chock full of hysterical cameos—most notably Bradley Cooper, Sean Penn, a cigarette-smoke-clouded Tom Waits, and an incredible turn by Harriet Sansom Harris. There is only one squirmy character that I’m on the fence about that utilizes the significant comedic skills of John Michael Higgins to make racist jokes that I’m not sure pays off, but the rest of the film is full of laugh-out-loud moments and a feel-good resolution that left me satisfied and smiling. A perfect end to the year. Besides Dune, it’s the only film I itch to see again.
Directed by Rebecca Hall
Starring: Ruth Nega, Tessa Thompson
Black-and-white films are my aesthetic go-to (3 of my fav films this year were shot in black and white), so this film’s high-contrast 4:3 aspect ratio is captivating from the start. The story is adapted from a novel of the same name written by Nella Larsen in 1929 and centers around childhood friends Irene and Clare, reunited in New York City at the height of the Harlem Renaissance in the 1920s. Clare has been passing as white and is married to a horribly racist man who has no idea of Clare’s true identity. It’s a thoughtful, deeply intimate approach that deals with race and friendship that is absolutely captivating to watch. Stellar performances. I can’t wait to see what Rebecca Hall does next.
Directed by Denis Villleneuve
Starring: Timothée Chalamet, Zendaya, Rebecca Ferguson, Oscar Issac
Okay, I’ve seen this one twice on the big screen and once on the small screen at home. It is gorgeous sci-fi, well-crafted and put together by a master filmmaker. Sure the performances are solid and fun to watch (Charlotte Rampling!), but it’s the world-building visuals that sweep you up and transport you to the world of spice. It’s an epic coming-of-age story based on Frank Herbert’s novel (actually the first half of the novel), and I can’t wait for the next installment.
THE TRAGEDY OF MACBETH
Directed by Joel Cohen
Starring: Denzel Washington, Frances McDormand
Cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel shot this in a stark 1.37:1 ratio, and it is yet another gorgeous, high-contrast black-and-white film. The Bard’s familiar story of greed and murder is kicked up a notch in this stage production on steroids—a captivating German Expressionism–influenced production that is startling in its execution. If you love Shakespeare, there is no way you won’t enjoy the precise yet intimate performances and the absolutely fabulous work by Kathryn Hunter as the Witches.
Directed by Mike Mills
Starring: Joaquin Phoenix, Woody Norman, Gaby Hoffman
I wasn’t able to see this one on the big screen, but it’s another black-and-white film shot in an unconventional 1.66:1 aspect ratio (what’s up with all these great, funky black-and-white aspect ratio films this year? I love it!). It’s an intimate story about a podcaster who travels the country interviewing kids about what they think about the world (hello? Have you seen The Gen Z Collective?) but is asked to step in as guardian for his sister’s son, Jesse, when family tragedy strikes. It’s a moving film that slides forward slowly and gracefully, revealing many truths about being a parent, a sibling, a caregiver . . . and the world of children as they look to an uncertain future. It’s really wonderful.
That's only five films from a very big pool of fantastic entertainment released in 2021. I remain forever grateful that I have the luxury of taking myself to morning matinees to escape. I wish the same for you, plus good fortune, well-being, and many blessings for the coming year.