Nominations for the 94th Academy Awards are announced on Tuesday, February 8. But before Tinseltown tells you which titles and performances were the best of 2021, the critics at Wylie Writes wanted to pitch in their two cents.
Remember, click the highlighted titles to read Wylie Writes’ reviews!
#5. tick, tick… BOOM!
I have given Jonathan Larson’s rock musical Rent more than a fair shake – I’ve seen it twice on stage, I’ve seen the 2005 film adaptation, and I’ve heard the music countless times – and it’s never gelled with me. But Lin-Manuel Miranda’s directorial debut tick, tick… BOOM!, a musical autobiographical biopic about Larson’s rise towards Rent, has me wanting to give the stage show another shot.
tick, tick… BOOM is a wonderful movie that shows a personal side to Larson’s inspiration, which is paired well with Andrew Garfield’s sensational performance as the aspiring playwright. Miranda’s ingenious approach to the storytelling and structure provides an angle that not only gives Rent a new dimension, but perfectly enlightens audiences to the highs and lows of an artist’s creative process.
Following up with another fantastic directorial debut from an experienced musician, Questlove’s Summer of Soul (…Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised) is a remarkable documentation of a cultural movement. The film, that consistently has a rhythmic passion for the music and the Harlem Cultural Festival its covering, recollects and restores classic musical acts while providing context to why these performances were so important to the era and how the ripple effects still last to this day.
Though I brought my own experience into Pieces of a Woman (which you can read more about in my review), the film’s ethereal portrayal of child loss and the grieving process is special to behold. Vanessa Kirby (earning a dark horse Oscar nomination last year for this role) is a layered and delicate performance that uses silence and environmental negative space to explain so much about heartstriken stress and emptiness. Kirby is surrounded by an exceptional supporting cast, a fascinating screenplay by Kata Wéber, and considerate direction by White God filmmaker Kornél Mundruczó.
Another movie about loss that floored me was Mass, Fran Kranz’s debut as screenwriter and director. As a self-contained drama, Kranz’s filmmaking does an excellent job building tension, addressing delicate topics, and exploring every angle and motivation of his characters. As for the small ensemble, it’s an inspiring production featuring four masterclass-calibre performances. While it’s a tough movie to face head-on, Kranz and his production realize this approach is not only the best way to handle the material, it’s absolutely necessary.
Lee Isaac Chung’s film is, simply put, one of the best movies ever made about aspiring to achieve the American dream and the sacrifices that are made (sometimes unintentionally so). Deserving of its praise and accolades last year (which, of course, includes Yuh-Jung Youn’s Oscar win for Best Supporting Actress), Minari didn’t make compromises to be relatable or please audiences. Chung (along with the perfectly cast ensemble) finds genuine heart and soul in this story that finds an incredibly natural connection with movie goers. It’s a rousing, and sometimes heartbreaking, miracle.
As someone who edits the work of Wylie Writes, I too watch a lot of movies – usually with Addison. Here’s my list:
#10. The Green Knight
#9. The Vigil
#8. Everybody’s Talking About Jamie
#4. The Mitchells vs. The Machines
#3. Red Rocket
#2. Pieces of a Woman
#1. Barb and Star Go to Vista Del Mar
Still Haven’t Seen: Dune, The Green Knight, House of Gucci, The Last Duel
THE BEST (in no particular order):
Godzilla vs. Kong – As absurd as this film is, it would be hard to picture a movie where a giant ape fights a giant lizard that could ever be done better than this. The very nature of such a premise demands an over-the-top spectacle, and this movie delivers. Yes, the film has too many subplots and a surplus of illogical narrative elements. But, the big monkey punches the dinosaur, and it’s a lot of fun to watch.
Free Guy – As an action-comedy, this film gets just about everything right, even though it overstays its welcome. Ryan Reynolds plays his typical wise-ass self, and his naïve character rightfully carries the movie. Free Guy is definitely too long, and Taika Waititi is criminally miscast as a walking cliché, but there’s still plenty of laughs throughout, especially for video game fans.
The Card Counter – Edgy and dark, writer-director Paul Schrader’s The Card Counter is much more than just a gambling film. A long-time collaborator of Martin Scorsese, Schrader’s previous writing credits include Taxi Driver and Raging Bull, which makes sense given the overall tone of this film. The film goes in surprising directions, with an unsettling, atmospheric feel throughout. Oscar Isaac is fantastic in the lead role as a guarded, quiet gambler with a dark and troubling past.
No Time to Die – An action-packed spectacle, Daniel Craig’s final outing as James Bond is a superb spy-thriller that effectively brings the curtain down on his portrayal of the character. All the necessary loose plot threads from his run as 007 are (hastily) tied up and, love it or hate it, the film’s final moments are quite surprising; breaking some unwritten rules of the franchise. Cinematography by Linus Sandgren is striking and vivid, and director Cary Fukunaga’s ability to build suspense and tension is effectively put to use here, especially during the film’s harrowing opening scene. While this isn’t a flawless movie, it’s a strong sendoff for Craig, ending his tenure in the tux.
Honourable Mentions: Last Night in Soho, Shang Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, The Mitchells vs. the Machines, 8-Bit Christmas, Encanto
Some of the most fun at the movies this year: Cruella, Werewolves Within, Falling for Figaro (2021 Canadian release date), In The Heights
#10. The Lost Daughter (DIR. Maggie Gyllenhaal)
#9. Licorice Pizza (DIR. Paul Thomas Anderson)
#8. The Forgotten Battle / De Slag om de Schelde (DIR. Matthijs van Heijningen Jr., 2021 Canadian release)
#7. Judas and the Black Messiah (DIR. Shaka King)
#6. As In Heaven / Du som er i himlen (DIR. Tea Lindeburg)
#5. Zola (DIR. Janicza Bravo)
Adapted from the viral Twitter thread, Janicza Bravo’s Zola recounts one young woman’s harrowing story in a triumphant dark comedy and subversive social critique. Zola is groundbreaking in its conscientious development of a 360-degree cinematic language. Bravo’s fusing of physical, digital, cinematic, and social storytelling is nothing short of genius. Stylistically revolutionary while also referencing cinematic classics, Zola is a feast for the senses.
#4. The Electrical Life of Louis Wain (DIR. Will Sharpe)
The film will deservedly be noted for its quirky and charming aura, yet it should also be pointed out how ambitious it is. The Electrical Life of Louis Wain is a biopic of the artist and inventor Louis Wain. Will Sharpe’s take is tenacious, yet also earnest in its care and portrayal of Wain – a man who possessed a brilliantly creative mind and also struggled with mental illness and the constraints of his time. The film is Julie Taymor-esque, with hints of Tim Burton (without the darkness). Sharpe displays a fresh and promising voice. Benedict Cumberbatch delivers a magnificently committed and seamless performance, further solidifying his standing as one of the finest actors of his generation. The film is compassionate and honest in its portrayal of love, grief, and mental illness.
#3. The Power of the Dog (DIR. Jane Campion)
Jane Campion’s finely wrought tale set in Montana circa the 1920s is a masterful study of the human psyche and the searing restraints we impose on others and ourselves.
An exploration of personal violence, Campion weaves the wide open dioramas of the Montana countryside with gnawing tension. The characters are bound together. The grand openness of their surroundings is both oppressor and liberator. Private solace and crushing isolation are at odds with each other – leading our characters to crack under the pressure. Benedict Cumberbatch and Kirsten Dunst deliver incredible performances. Ari Wegner’s stunning cinematography captures the oppressive beauty and sterility in which this family must survive. The Power of the Dog is a must-see by a master.
#2. Dune (DIR. Denis Villeneuve)
Dune is a wholly sensory experience. Physically exhilarating and spiritually provoking, it is a ‘cinematic experience’ in the truest sense of the word. Denis Villeneuve expertly handles Frank Herbert’s “unfilmable book.” Indeed, I think the film adaptation of this story belongs in his hands. With Dune, Villeneuve presents a visually-minimalist epic. As we’ve seen in Arrival and Blade Runner 2049, Villeneuve’s ability to create humanistic worlds within the sci-fi genre on a grand scale is unparalleled. Villeneuve is, without a doubt, a modern auteur.
#1. Small Body / Piccolo Corpo (DIR. Laura Samani)
CW: Infant death, religious constraints
Please note that due to the subject matter of this film, Small Body may be painful or triggering for people. TIFF wrote a great summary of the film that may help you determine whether this film is right for you: https://www.tiff.net/events/small-body. Always put your health first.
TIFF Programmer Diana Sanchez perfectly described Small Body in one word: “mythopoetic.”
Small Body is a transcendental epic. In a stunning labour of love and historiography, Laura Samani has cultivated a mythology of grief, gender, and faith rooted in oral history from Northern Italy.
I once heard that Tolkein created Lord of the Rings to build a mythology for the UK. In Small Body, Samani presents an offering to eulogize generations of people, particularly mothers, affected by the indescribable grief of losing a baby.
Rather surprisingly, Small Body is Samani’s feature film directorial debut. It’s “philosophically ambitious” as Sanchez put it. Small Body explores the confines of religion and the salvation of faith. It explores the raw strength of an individual and the selfless grace of fellowship. Sublime and haunting, Small Body is profoundly humbling.
Honourable Mentions: Jump, Darling, Passing
#5. The Summit of the Gods (DIR. Patrick Imbert)
#4. Zola (DIR. Janicza Bravo)
#3. Spencer (DIR. Pablo Larraín)
#2. Shiva Baby (DIR. Emma Seligman)
#1. Titane (DIR. Julia Ducournau)
Every now and then a movie comes along that feels like it was made just for you. For me, this year, that movie was Titane, director Julia Ducournau’s follow up to her gristly 2016 debut, Raw.
Anyone who follows my reviews here at Wylie Writes will have noted my penchant for horror (the more violent, gruesome, and feminist, the better), as well as my weakness for queer narratives of all kinds. But my opinion of Titane is not just a product of my specific cinematic tastes. Though it certainly checks all the boxes I look for in a film, I cannot remove my enjoyment of this movie from my personal experience as a survivor of a vehicle-related head injury.
Ducournau draws a clear link between injury and self-reinvention—and then between the invented self and interpersonal relationships. It’s a lot of ground to cover, but Titane makes dramatic changes in tone appear seamless and natural.
This is not a film for the squeamish. But, while many have focused on Titane’s shocking and disturbing scenes, there is far more to this movie than the headlines would have you believe. Titane is many things at once: it is a love story, and it is a thriller. Depending on which layer one chooses to peel back, it is horror or myth. It also works as a narrative of found family, and deftly explores themes of gender and sexuality. It is both disgusting and beautiful, horrific and tender. All to say nothing of Agathe Rousselle’s stunning performance as Alexia or Jim William’s gut-wrenching score.
Again, Titane is not for everyone. But, it’s the most memorable, original, and moving film I saw all year.
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