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Damian: My Favorite Films of 2021





I’m not entirely sure if it was something about me, or just something about this past year, but there was a great deal of theater kid energy in the films I most connected with this year. Like with David Byrne’s American Utopia from my list last year, two of my top ten were filmed versions of stage shows. I do consider it a high bar to clear to consider a stage show on par to a traditional film, but the two I have on my list cleared that bar for me. Another is a very filmic reconceptualization of a stage show. Another three are so stagey they could probably be ported over to a theater with little to no changes.


Of the remainder of my list, a common theme is that there was little to no grounded realism. With one exception, I wasn’t seeking out or connecting with, anything working with big, visceral, negative emotions. Like many, I’ve had enough cortisol in my life these last few years, so what I’ve needed more than anything was escapism and big, singing, dancing, flights of fancy. Thankfully, this year’s films delivered on that.




Honorable Mention - Lapsis


Noah Hutton’s Lapsis was one of the more interesting surprises of the year for me. It wasn’t a film I had heard anything about, but I was so struck by its poster that I couldn’t get it out of my head until I finally checked it out. Because of how little attention it’s gotten, I’ll be sparing in my description, but I can say that it’s a soft-touch sci-fi story about exploitation and workers' rights in the gig economy. It feels a little low budget at times, but in ways that actually make the world feel more real. It’s not slick and shiny, but that actually serves the premise by making it feel like the world of this story is not only possible, but could be just months away.



#10. Dune


Denis Villeneuve’s Dune appears to be the first 50% of a masterpiece. I knew going into the film that it was only going to be the first half of the book, so I didn’t have an issue with the film’s abrupt ending, but I haven’t been able to treat it like it’s a finished work, yet. It doesn’t feel like the first in a series of standalone stories, but one story that’s simply been stopped to pick up again later. If the story is eventually completed, Dune has the potential to be something like my favorite film, but, were something to stop the story from being finished, I might be too disappointed to return to this first film ever again.


I was a modest fan of David Lynch’s 1984 version of Dune. It was a mess, but with more than enough in terms of ideas and visuals to be worth watching. I forgave it a lot of its shortcomings on a belief that it actually was an unfilmable story, but Villeneuve, albeit with the benefit of more running time, manages to seamlessly build the worlds and assorted intrigues of Dune without having to lean on clunky exposition, all while delivering generally more impressive visuals and much better performances. It’s master craftsmanship, and I look forward to eventually seeing the finished product.



#9. The Green Knight


David Lowry’s The Green Knight has a special spot on this list because it was the first film that I got to see in a theater since the start of the pandemic. In this adaptation of a 14th-century Arthurian story, Gawain is a nephew of King Arthur who accepts a challenge from The Green Knight. Gawain can deliver any blow he likes to The Green Knight, but The Green Knight can return that same blow a year hence. The focus of the film is Gawain’s quest to find The Green Knight to receive his agreed-upon blow. Dev Patel is incredible as Gawain, and the world that Lowry creates is incredibly sumptuous, dreamlike, and meditative. Taking place at two successive Christmas times, I expect this to become a holiday staple for me.



#8. Psycho Goreman


Steven Kostanski’s Psycho Goreman isn’t a film I’m recommending to anyone. It’s a strange little gem that seems to have been made solely for me. Maybe if you share my preference for Army of Darkness over the other Evil Dead movies, this might appeal to you. Or, if like me, you have absolutely no interest in horror movies, but a deep fondness for gory, horror-comedies, this might appeal to you, as well. Even then, I don’t know, I really think it’s just for me and the cast and crew of the film. Consider yourself warned.


Psycho Goreman is in some ways the E.T. trope of young kids finding and befriending an alien, only in this case, the kids are kinda sociopaths and the alien is an imprisoned evil menace bent on destroying all life in the universe. It’s a film I was never ahead of the first time I watched it, and, on each rewatch, I’ve continued to be tickled by all of the bizarre choices it makes.



#7. Come From Away


One of the projects that was lost to the pandemic was a planned film adaptation of the musical Come From Away, telling the story of the 38 planes that were unexpectedly forced to land at the Gander International Airport in Newfoundland on September 11th, 2001, and how the surrounding community came together to take care of their nearly 7,000 surprise guests. Instead, what we have here is a filmed version of the Broadway show, made 14 months after Broadway was shut down by Coronavirus, and 4 months before shows would reopen again to general audiences. In recent years, we’ve gotten high-quality filmed versions of Hamilton and, one of my favorite films of last year, David Byrne’s American Utopia. This filmed version of Come From Away doesn’t have the visual flair of either of those others, but the show itself is such a feat that it more than makes up for it.


In some sense, the show has the feel of being one continuous take. There’s no intermission, and everyone in the small cast plays multiple characters without costume changes and rarely even leaving the stage. Each scene feeds quickly into the other, giving the show an incredibly propulsive feel. I can imagine a more traditional filmed version of this story that would be good, but not one that could easily retain these elements of the stage show that make it so unique. I do hope that film is someday made, but I would be very surprised to see it turn out better than what has already been captured in this version.



#6. Annette


All hail the big swing! I don’t know for sure if I would have connected with Annette if I hadn’t seen The Sparks Brothers documentary first. Having thoroughly met musicians Ron and Russell Mael, and gotten some sense of their unique approach to the world, I started their musical, Annette, as open-minded as can be. I was enthralled with its opening number and was able to adjust when the rest of the songs in the film were serving a far less straightforward role. I was entirely on board when I discovered how the character of Annette was going to be handled and thought the final culmination of that character choice to be just breathtaking. I found it perfect from first frame to last.



#5. Mass


I’ve long been a fan of Fran Kranz. He’s the only figure in the one movie poster I have on my wall, from when he played Claudio in 2012’s Much Ado About Nothing. I thought he was surprisingly great in both Cabin in the Woods and the TV show, Dollhouse. I was looking forward to Mass as his writing and directorial debut, but I was in no way ready for the film he’s made.


It’s possible to see this film and be unaware of its central conceit, so I’ll tread lightly. It’s a devastating film, which is not a feeling I generally seek out, especially not this year, but it’s so empathetic and open-hearted about its subject and characters as to make the devastation worth it. It would work just as well on stage as it does on film because of how stripped down it is, being almost entirely a conversation between four characters in one room, trying to help one another recover from the central catastrophe of their lives.



#4. Nine Days


Edson Oda’s Nine Days is a very good movie that sneaks up on you as a great one in its final scene. It’s a meditation on what it takes to cut it in the world, against what we wish the people in the world were actually like. Like an inverse of Albert Brooks’s film Defending Your Life, instead of someone defending the life they had led in order to prove themselves worthy of moving on to the next plane of existence, here we see numerous souls interviewing for a chance to be born into life for the first time. As a pitch, it feels like it could be a lower-tier Pixar movie, but in execution, it winds of being something more patient, contemplative, and wonderful than that, before blossoming into something truly electric, that will stick with you for a long time in its final scene.



#3. Derek DelGuadio’s In & Of Itself


I got to see In & Of Itself during its theatrical run in NYC. It was an experience that stuck with me, and I was looking forward to revisiting it when I heard there was a film being made documenting the final performances of its run. Live theater doesn’t generally translate well to recording, and magic translates particularly poorly, so I didn’t have the highest expectations for how this would turn out, but working with Director Frank Oz, Derek DelGuadio made something truly special. By working in some multimedia elements, the show was expanded beyond what was possible on stage, and by working in audience reactions and participations the way they did, sometimes including a dozen different audience members from different shows in the same set-piece, the show was expanded beyond what it could be in any one performance, creating a unique feeling of immediacy that translates wonderfully to the audience at home.


Separate from its execution of documenting a live performance, the show actually does have something very interesting to say in how it interrogates notions of personal identity. Through storytelling and magical set pieces, we see DelGuadio push against the various ways he has seen himself in his own life, push the audience to examine how they see themselves and others, often bringing volunteers up on stage to either bequeath an identity or transform one.



#2. & #1. Bo Burnham: Inside & tick, tick…BOOM!



I grouped together my top two films because they’ve become inextricably paired in my mind, and, taken together, they almost perfectly capture my feelings about this past year. Both are about a young central protagonist, struggling with their first anxieties about growing older and feelings of failure, but with diametrically opposed messages


Based on its absence from most of the year-end best-of lists that I’ve read, it seems like Bo Burnham: Inside has either been somewhat forgotten since this past spring or stopped being considered a film after Netflix submitted it for Emmy consideration. That is a shame because not only is this one of the more impressive films I’ve ever seen, that actually seemed to be the consensus view when it first came out.


There are only a handful of people credited on Inside because Burnham wrote and directed it, is the only performer in it, composed and recorded all of the music for it, and handled all of the cinematography and film editing for it himself. For a film looking to capture, among other things, the feeling of being trapped inside with your own thoughts during the pandemic, it helps that no other hands were involved until post-production.


That said, and for as great as I think it is, I had been very resistant to having it wind up as my top film for this year. I had started a review of Inside shortly after it came out, but could never motivate myself to finish it because of how acid and hopeless it is as a film. Somewhat like watching late-career George Carlin, you can laugh and be entertained while you're watching it, but the view of people and the world underneath it all is so caustic that it can be depressing to interrogate what is being said too closely.


On quite the opposite end of the spectrum is Lin-Manuel Miranda’s directorial debut, tick, tick…BOOM! There is a light, popcorny feel to tick, tick…BOOM! that also made me briefly hesitant to give it the top spot on my list for this year, but if I’m being fully honest with myself, this is already the film from this year I’ve rewatched the most, and the one I expect to return to the most in the years ahead.


tick, tick…BOOM! is about the early career struggles of Jonathan Larson, who would go on to write the phenomenally successful musical Rent, but pass away right before its off-Broadway premiere. It’s an adaptation of an autobiographical musical written by Larson, that he performed while he was still alive, and has been staged in different forms since his passing, notably in 2014 with Miranda playing the role of Larson. This version mixes together Larson performing tick, tick…BOOM! with depictions of the events being recounted in the performance.


Thematically, tick, tick…BOOM! takes a lot of the opposite, and more hopeful, positions to those taken by Inside. Both films deal with the pressure to make your mark in the world, anchored on the main character turning thirty. But while Burnham jokes(?) about killing himself if he lives to see forty, Larson’s arc is to make peace with simply doing the most he can with whatever time he has left. Where Burnham attacks the value of making content at all, Larson takes the position of creating art as being one of the most important human endeavors.


tick, tick…BOOM! is also helped by one of the best lead performances of the year with Andrew Garfield as Jonathan Larson. Garfield trained for a year to handle the singing in this film, and his handling of the songs is better than any other production of the show I can find, even those by Larson, himself. Along with that though, Garfield is just incredibly likable as a leading man. In some sense, that likability captures the biggest difference between Inside and tick, tick…BOOM! for me. Inside is the more impressive artistic statement, but tick, tick…BOOM! is just a more likable and enjoyable film, and this year, that’s what I’ve been seeking out more than anything else.




Other films considered for this list: A Glitch in the Matrix; Barb & Star Go to Vista Del Mar; Benedetta; The Card Counter; Clerk; CODA; The Courier; The Dig; Finch; The French Connection; I’m Your Man; In the Heights; Judas and the Black Messiah; Kurt Vonnegut: Unstuck in Time; The Last Duel; Listening to Kenny G; The Map of Tiny Perfect Things; The Matrix Resurrection; Minari; The Mitchell’s vs The Machines; No Sudden Move; Nobody; The Paper Tigers; Pig; Quo Vadis, Aida; Riders of Justice; Small Engine Repair; The Sparks Brothers; Summer of Soul; Val; The Velvet Underground; Werewolves Within, Zola




 

Damian Masterson

Damian is an endothermic vertebrate with a large four-chambered heart residing in Kerhonkson, NY with his wife and two children. His dream Jeopardy categories would be: They Might Be Giants, Berry Gordy’s The Last Dragon, 18th and 19th Century Ethical Theory, Moral Psychology, Caffeine, Gummy Candies, and Episode-by-Episode podcasts about TV shows that have been off the air for at least 10 years.


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