I didn’t think I watched a lot of movies in 2021 (except November, which I’ll explain shortly) but when I added them up I was well over 20. Plus, I decided to take up the Noirvember challenge and watch a classic film noir each day. Somewhere in the middle of that 30 day journey I realized that one reason I thought I wasn’t watching as many movies is that (like everyone) almost all of my post-Covid movie watching is at home, and my household is active enough that carving out 2 or 3 hours to get immersed in anything is hard. Modern movies are so much longer than the lean noirs of the 1940s and 50s, which rarely topped 100 minutes; in most cases, this extra length brings no added benefit. Saying modern movies are bloated is obviously a cold take, but my November experience confirmed that my problem isn’t watching movies at home, just watching long movies at home. Because when I looked at my list of modern movies, I realized that I watched most of them in 2 or more sittings.
Because of the volume of movies I watched this year (more than 50 overall) I’m only going to offer extended comments on my favorites. I want to highlight that if you really enjoy well-made movies you should consider The Criterion Channel. For $11 a month, you get hundreds of classic films and modern cinema from the US and around the world. Like all streaming services there are films that come and go every month, and they also will offer specially curated lists of films themed by subject matter, era, filmmaker, and style. I find something new to add to my watchlist every time I log on.
Finally, if a movie was one of my favorites this year, I’ll bold face the entry.
Anyway, on to the list…
New Movies (2020/2021):
- Wonder Woman 1984 – You’ve heard (and maybe experienced) enough disappointed takes on this one by now.
- Bad Education (HBO) – Pretty interesting. Hugh Jackman and Alison Janney chew up a lot of scenery.
- In and Of Itself – filmed adaptation of the Derek DelGaudio stage show around the themes of being seen and identity. Oddly affecting and astonishing, but I don’t think I had the profound reaction many had.
- Zach Snyder’s Justice League – So long. So, so long. Still, more coherent than the original release, and I think I prefer it. Just not in one sitting.
- Wolfwalkers (Apple TV+) – A visual and emotional feast. Hand drawn animation, the third film in an Irish Folklore trilogy by Cartoon Saloon. The story of people who are wolf at night at a time when the forest is ceding to the encroaching village. So many themes flow through this tale: love, loyalty and friendship, welcoming the outsider, environmental degradation, parent/child relationships. Don’t be too grown up for animation – see it.
- Godzilla Vs. Kong – Man, this movie was dumb. That special combination of bad storytelling and numbing action sequences. Truly, a disaster movie.
- Nomadland – A gentle film that had me on edge throughout, because I am so used to films in which characters succumb to menace that I never trusted that this would just be a human story in which people lived their lives. I appreciate that it was that kind of story, with people like Fern and Dave simply being brave without being heroes and without the world utterly changing. Watching this helped me reflect on the reality that I didn’t really go after the “American Dream,” and I still don’t know how that is going to turn out for me and mine.
- Pixar’s Luca – because we see all the Pixar movies. Not in the top rank.
- Summer of Soul – Oh, what a delightful collection of performances, and a fascinating story. As I think about it now, ?uestlove probably had as much or more footage to work with as Peter Jackson did for “Get Back”, and that project (which I also liked a lot) highlights how challenging it must have been to tell the story of the Harlem Cultural Festival for one single sitting. I would definitely take the 9 hour cut of this, if it exists.
- Marvel’s Black Widow – I thought this was a solid movie, better than many of the films in the Avenger/Thanos cycle, and I wish that they had figured out how to make it and fit it during that run instead of after. I think for all the glue Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow provided to the rest of the MCU she deserved that. On the other hand, maybe not having to have her film be burdened with carrying the Grand Storyline another 5 yards downfield was a gift.
- Jungle Cruise – don’t ask. I mean, if you want to watch Jesse Plemons play a pudgy German bad guy, go for it.
- The Suicide Squad – I didn’t hate it. Not that I remember a lot of it, except the Polka Dot Man.
- Free Guy – Sure, it’s dumb. And I’ve heard it referred to more than once in ominous tones as the future of movies. Honestly, we could do worse. I enjoyed myself.
- Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings – A pretty promising start to the next phase of Marvel Studios World Domination. Fun, funny, not quite as destructive on a massive scale as the last phase. I’ll take more of this sort.
- No Time to Die – I’m in the camp of not hating this. Keep in mind, Daniel Craig is my entry point into Bond, and having a through line connecting the movies didn’t bother me. I would prefer if that was the case for however long a particular person was playing Bond. Disconnected from one movie to the next seems really weird to me.
- Dune – I never saw the David Lynch Dune, and I don’t know why. I think I confused Frank Herbert with L. Ron Hubbard and thought I needed to stay away from it. I enjoyed this quite a bit, and I’m looking forward to the next one. I think I almost liked it enough to bold face it.
- The Beatles: Get Back – As I mentioned above, there was a lot here. It was almost as long as the first Hobbit movie. I did like it, and I found the things it seemed to reveal about creative process and interpersonal group dynamics to be really interesting. And I now like John Lennon more than I did.
Classic (or at least Older) Movies:
- M – Oh, man. Is this the first serial killer movie? Fritz Lang creates a wild journey. Peter Lorre is creepy. Seriously creepy. Lang tells the story in a way that keeps pushing all parties toward an explosive conclusion. The courtroom scene (of a sort) is maybe my favorite part of any movie I saw all year. Seriously, this is why I’m saying you have to get The Criterion Channel!
- The Executioner – Black comedy from 1963, by Spanish filmmaker Luis Garcia Berlanga. Man is trapped in his life. Every move he makes to free himself gets him more tangled in the web of life. The only certainty in life is absurdity.
- The Searchers – Many consider this the greatest Western, and I can see that. It’s got beautifully sparse landscape shots, the primal elements of the anti-hero, and John Wayne.
- The Birds – I’d never seen this, somehow. What I thought was amazing about this was how utterly unresolved it is. It is a slice of life – really a long weekend – that abruptly ends, and no questions get answered. I think today that would seem to be the set up for a sequel, but here it just leaves you unsettled. That’s pretty great.
- Hunt For the Wilderpeople – I’m a total sucker for the very things at the heart of this movie. Funny, but sad and a little bitter. Characters who have to learn to accept each other and come to need each other. Spiraling misadventure. Sam Neill is great. The Taika Waititi point of view is pretty obvious, right from the start.
- The Battered Bastards of Baseball – Delightful Netflix doc about the Portland Mavericks, an independent baseball team playing in the organized minor leagues in the 1970s. A fun look at a moment in professional sports that probably can’t ever happen again.
The Noirvember List:
- The Maltese Falcon – Obviously. It’s the archetypal noir, and with good reason. Bogart defines hard-boiled private eye, but Peter Lorre is my favorite part of this one.
- Night and the City – One of the things I really enjoyed while watching all these was finding films that varied in one or more ways from the most notable conventions of noir, particularly locale (typically cities, even more particularly San Francisco, Los Angeles or New York). This film is set in England, and was my introduction to Richard Widmark, who shows up in several classic films. Widmark fascinates me because he plays a Menacing Bad Guy several times, but he was not tall, or beefy, and he was blonde. The menacing isn’t on the surface, it all comes from within, which may be why he was also able to play a hero at other times. The other unusual element of this film compared to other noir is that it is about wrestling.
- Gilda – Femme Fatale? Here’s your Femme Fatale: Rita Hayworth. Glenn Ford (another actor whose menace comes from within, not from his appearance) plays Johnny, who ends up as the right hand man to a mobbed-up casino owner in Buenos Aires (another unusual locale). When the boss brings home a new wife, it turns out the three of them form a nasty triangle. This is a classic for a reason.
- Out of the Past – I’m not completely sure that Kirk Douglas holds his own against Robert Mitchum, but who does?
- In a Lonely Place – One of several on this list that looks at Hollywood. A different kind of character for Bogart. One of the most unexpected endings of any film I saw this year.
- The Third Man – Saying anything about this is saying too much. Joseph Cotten and Orson Welles are great. Just see it if you haven’t.
- Sunset Blvd – Billy Wilder made a movie that still feels contemporary in the way it speaks meta narrative. Watch it (or watch it again) and see probably two dozen ways subsequent films and tv shows have cribbed from it.
- Nightmare Alley – A distinctive noir in that it wasn’t based in the city, but in the carnival. They slapped a “happy” ending on to satisfy audiences (the book ends darker)…except the happy ending still isn’t very happy. I haven’t gotten to Guillermo del Toro’s remake yet, but I love the audacity of making it, because that setting made this feel like maybe the hardest film on this list to translate to 2021 audiences.
- Laura – Vincent Price plays a very different character than you’re used to from him.
- No Way Out – Sidney Poitier’s first leading role, and he’s up against Richard Widmark at his most menacing. Unflinching on racism and race relations. Poitier’s hero is one of the only characters in all of these films who does not have obviously mixed motivations. Still, I loved this movie.
- Panic in the Streets – Widmark again, this time in one of the good guy roles. Again, a different kind of noir, as it’s built around a medical emergency. Since that medical emergency is a highly contagious and fatal disease, you might want to wait on this one for now.
- The Night of the Hunter – Again, different setting than classic noir, as it ends up in a small town with a foster mother who is more than she seems.
- Stray Dog – Japanese master Akira Kurosawa’s take on noir ends up on the rough streets of post-war Tokyo, where old-world and new-world Japan were still trying to co-exist.
- Ace in the Hole – Kirk Douglas plays a newsman who is willing to do what it takes to make sure a big story continues to be a big story – and only his story.
- The Lady from Shanghai – Orson Welles takes big swings here: shooting on location instead of at a studio (unusual at the time), specifically seeking out a documentary-style look, making his losers creepy in unexpected ways. The climactic funhouse mirror chase has been endlessly referenced.
- The Big Sleep – Bogart in the first of Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe stories to make the screen, trying to figure out just how many people are playing him at once. The whole “Bogie & Bacall” thing originates here.
- Somewhere in the Night – Eh. Moody, about an amnesiac trying to figure out who he is. I prefer “Memento”.
- Elevator to the Gallows – Amazing storytelling, as a devious plot spirals out of control and just keeps spiraling. Also amazing: the Miles Davis soundtrack.
- Hangover Square – Weird and affecting story about a London composer who keeps losing track of time. This one has the classic elements (crime, mystery, femme fatale) but stirs them in a very different way.
- The Big Heat – Glenn Ford originates the trope of the lone cop taking on the department and the bad guys. This movie is more overt in its violence than anything else on this list; the bad guy throwing a pot of hot coffee in his mistresses’ face is here.
- Murder, My Sweet – Dick Powell gives a take on Philip Marlowe that is radically different from Bogart’s. History has sided with Bogart, but I thought this was really intriguing. And, of course, it’s a great Chandler story.
- Shadow of a Doubt – Thorton Wilder writing, Alfred Hitchcock directing, and Joseph Cotten creeping everyone out as Uncle Charlie, the long lost little brother whose been up to bad things. You thought your relatives were bad? Hope they aren’t Uncle Charlie. This is a standout.
- The Asphalt Jungle – The birth of the heist caper by a masterful John Huston. Seriously, this invents the genre. Twisty, with double crosses abounding as the walls close in on everybody who thought they were a step ahead.
- Touch of Evil – Welles again, and it’s wild. This is from 1958, and Welles has given up on controlling his personal appetites. Bloated, sweaty and haggard is how Welles the director shows Welles the actor, and the actor pays it off as the soul of the character matches the appearance of the man. Charlton Heston is opposite him as a Mexican cop (Seriously!) in this story of border-town crime and corruption. Mexi-Heston might not even be the craziest thing here. Dennis Weaver is a simpering hotel Night Manager, and Janet Leigh is made the woman-in-peril in truly unnerving ways. Even with all of that insanity, I will definitely return to this film.
- Where the Sidewalk Ends – Cops on the take, twists, crises of conscience, and some actual detective work by Karl Malden (!). Has more of a moral than most noir, which might be why I thought it was good but not great.
- Criss Cross – Men do stupid things for the women they love. Sometimes, it might just be because they are stupid. This might be one of those times.
- The Killing – Stanley Kubrick’s debut, and it’s amazing. He takes the caper and executes it perfectly, but throughout imbues it with the same dim view of corrupt human intentions that shows up later in Dr. Strangelove, which continues to blossom right through the final scene. The funniest noir ever, I am sure.
- Sweet Smell of Success – This didn’t do it for me. Probably my least liked film of this entire cycle.
- The Killers – The twist here is that the investigation which unspools the plot is carried out by an insurance investigator. The opening sequence is great, and the performance by Burt Lancaster is strong.
Have you seen any of these? Tell me what you thought? What did I get right or wrong?