My Top 7 Films of 2021

This end-of-year Top 10 is a little different because–well, quite frankly–there simply weren’t 10 films that I felt made muster for what I look for in a Top 10 of the year list. Now, that doesn’t mean that I only liked 7 films; it means that there are only 7 films that truly left an impression upon me. In short, what I look for in a Top 10 of the year is a film that I still think about weeks or months after having seen it. Furthermore, these are films that command rewatches. Excellence in filmmaking can take on many forms, but I respond most favorably to those that provide opportunities for close readings, those that are driven by plot and character and NOT the writer-director’s agenda, and those in which the hand of the artist is clearly visible in ways that don’t compensate for a weak or intentionally pretentious narrative. In other words, tell me a great story with entertaining or complex characters and a thoughtful plot! There are certainly films from 2021 that I recommend to people that didn’t make the 7, but that’s because they are good! Just not quite good enough to make my Top 10. And because of this, I do have three honorable mentions.

No.7 No Time to Die

Epic! Everything you want in a James Bond movie!! Treat yourself to the premium format in your cinema for the final chapter in Daniel Craig’s Bond saga. With gripping action and ample espionage, No Time to Die is a wildly entertaining throwback in the vein of Golden Eye, but even better! Return to the Cold War era espionage in which the Russians are the baddies and operating out of secret bunkers, vodka martinis are shaken not stirred, the one-liners, and the Aston Martin has machine-gun headlights. From sweeping establishing shots of exotic destinations far and wide to intimate character moments, the camera paints a beautiful portrait of Craig’s sendoff as our Bond for the last fifteen years. Is the plot melodramatic? Of course, but aren’t most of these movies??? Even though the plot is motivating the actions of the characters more than the internal needs and desires of the characters, there is a great relationship between the action plot and emotional drives. The film is larger than life, but never campy or goes to ridiculous proportions that take you out of the story. All the foundational elements that make a Bond movie a Bond movie are here, and will hook you from beginning to end. 

No.6 Nightmare Alley

A phantasmagorical cautionary tale on the cruel predictability of the human condition that’s told through a beautifully orchestrated symphony of exploitation, deception, and just desserts, wrapped in a delicious neo-noir film. In the second big screen adaptation on the 1946 novel by William Lindsay Gresham, del Toro certainly applies his particular cinema stylo to Nightmare Alley, yet delivers a motion picture that stays true to its roots in film noir. Gresham’s book and Edmund Goulding’s critically acclaimed 1947 adaptation are the perfect source material for del Toro’s penchant for dark fantasies. But what this film allows for del Toro to do, that he hasn’t done before, is direct a neo-noir, complete with all the tropes and stylistic conventions. And he’s recently announced that there is a grayscale version of the film, which I will want to check out soon. Del Toro’s update to the dark dale explores characters that are impacted by vicious business practices built around exploitation and deception. Audiences will simultaneously find the story and performances, by the lead and supporting cast, both alluring and repulsive. The film can be read as a cautionary tale what happens when we lead a humanist or nihilistic life; furthermore, this film is a fantastic metaphor on reaping what you sow. If you sow deception, eventually you will reap deception by (1) being deceived by someone or (2) maybe even deceiving YOURself by beginning to believe your own lies. The systems are a symptom of the broken world in which we live, a broken world whose source is, at the end of the day, a heart problem.

No.5 The Last Duel

Captivating! Game of Thrones meets legal drama in a thought-provoking exploration of truth, perception, and inequality told through a Rashomon-like nonlinear story that is punctuated with dark comedy to provide emotional resets and strategic tonal shifts. Easily one of my fave films of the year! I was cautious going into this film because Ridley Scott has simply not lately been delivering what we came to expect from and love him for in AlienBlade Runner, and Gladiator. So after many swings and misses, I was cautiously optimistic at best (and that’s being generous). Boy, was I wrong! The Last Duel is an outstanding film, full of thoughtful content, laugh out loud moments, and relevancy to contemporary topics. Perhaps the story takes place in the 1300s, but the characters are all archetypes we see today on screen and in real life. While the Rashomon-like approach to the central story is not new, it is an approach that isn’t used often, and can easily be abused, misused, or simply not dramatically justifiable. From the hilarious to intimate performances, the cast will keep your eyes glued to the screen. You’ve never seen a medieval period drama like this one before! While this may not look like a classic Ridley Scott film in the vein of ALIEN or Blade Runner, it does bear similarities in stylistic approaches to Gladiator. The sweeping landscapes, the intimate character moments, the visceral atmosphere sucking you into the setting of the story, it’s all here!

No.4 Cyrano

Outstanding! Joe Wright (Darkest Hour) delivers a thought-provoking musical adaptation of the classic story inspired by the real Cyrano de Bergerac–yes that’s right, before he was immortalized in Edmond Rostand’s 1897 play, he was indeed a real-life person. Furthermore, this adaptation of the timeless stage play provides audiences with immense depth by exploring romanticism versus reality. A topic that resonates with anyone that experiences this mesmerizing motion picture. From the 17th century Sicilian setting to the beautiful costumes to the phantasmagorical choreography, Wright captures the soul of the original story yet finds a fresh perspective that will touch audiences everywhere. Peter Dinklage’s Cyrano writes and sings things (mfellow Game of Thrones fans will appreciate that reference). The chemistry between he and his co-stars Haley Bennett (Roxanne) and Kelvin Harrison Jr. (Christian) is fantastic! Although there is undeniably a healthy level of intentional camp in this otherwise naturalistic melodrama. The subtext of the entire story isn’t so much one of star-cross lovers caught in the middle of a deadly rivalry, but one of romanticism versus reality. While Wright isn’t the first to bring de Bergerac to the big screen, he is the first to reinvent the classical tale though a spectacular big screen musical in the vein of the MGM Musicals of the Golden Age of Hollywood. You don’t want to miss seeing Cyrano on the big screen!

No.3 Being the Ricardos

I Love Being the Ricardos. Whether you are a fan or scholar of I Love Lucy or not, this biographical motion picture is for you! Go behind the walls of 623 E. 68th St. (an address that in real life would be in the East River), and get up close and personal with one of the toughest weeks in Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz’ careers and the run of the sitcom. Being the Ricardos also represents Aaron Sorkin’s directorial debut, and be brings with him his penchant for exploring the human condition through dialogue steeped in subtext, thus adding the dramatic dimension to the dialogue. What I appreciate about Sorkin’s approach is how he seamlessly layers two timelines and a meta narrative into one another, in a manner that is consistently driving the plot forward in terms of plot and character. While the central focus of the film is on Lucille Ball being accused of being a communist, there are ancillary stories on Desi’s affairs and Vivan Vance’s complicated relationship with Lucille Ball and her character Ethel Mertz. William Frawley is depicted as the most level-headed out of the whole cast. Other dynamics of the mother of all sitcoms include the the power dynamic between the writers Madelyn Pugh, Bob Carroll Jr., and executive producer Jess Oppenheimer. Any reviews you’ve heard or read that suggest Being the Ricardos is too inside baseball are wildly exaggerated. Yes, there is a greater appreciation for the film by those that know I Love Lucy well, but even those that only know of the sitcom will appreciate it. Throughout the film, one theme is clear: home. What does a home mean or look like to you? Lucy desires a home, and she will fight for it.

No.2 Last Night in Soho

Mesmerizing! Dressed to Kill meets Mulholland Drive meets Suspiria! It’s like Edgar Wright channeled the best of Lynch, de Palma, and Argento to craft his spellbinding thriller! One of the best films of the year, and one that commands a rewatch. Just speculating here, but I could definitely see this film as one that cultivates a cult following and is talked about in classrooms much like Mulholland Drive. Quite different from the other films in Wright’s cinematic library, if you’re going into it for a Shaun of the DeadHot Fuzz, or World’s End, then you may be disappointed. Although they are dissimilar in most respects, the film that this one shares commonality with is Baby Driver. I’ve only seen it once, but I need to see it again. Not because I didn’t understand it–quite the opposite–the storytelling is top shelf! But I want to pay closer attention to details to gain a greater appreciation for how this kaleidoscope delivered such an immersive cinematic experience. The vibrant 1960s in London some alive in this dream-like psychological horror punctuated with giallo-esque mystery and slasher elements and nostalgic fashion. Told though a Lynchian cinematic framework, the surrealist experience of this film will capture your imagination and beckon you into the seedy underbelly of the iconic Soho district of London. Much like in Suspiria, the idyllic atmosphere and setting descend into madness in a beautiful symphony of terror! Clearly, Last Night in Soho is Wright’s most personal film; we can not only see this passion but feel it in every frame.

No. 1 The Eyes of Tammy Faye

The Eyes of Tammy Faye will penetrate to your soul. You may think you know Tammy Faye’s story, but go beyond the tabloids in Michael Showalter’s (The Big Sickheartfelt, hilarious, honest film that paints a humanizing portrait of the ridiculed and often parodied Tammy Faye Bakker. You will undoubtedly be blown away by Jessica Chastain’s jaw-dropping performance as the “Queen of Eyelashes” in this powerful rise, fall, and redemption story. Tammy’s eyelashes may be fake, but there is nothing fake about this candid portrait of the late television icon. Playing the mastermind of the PTL Network scandal is Andrew Garfield in a showcase performance that will have you despising Jim, but praising the uncanny portrayal. The film highlights Tammy Faye’s genuine love for God and her love for people–everyone! Even in the 1980s, when the LGBT community had little to no voice, especially amongst fundamental evangelicals, she was a loving voice for them. While it would have been so easy for the film to have been devoid of genuine levity, audiences will find there are some hilarious scenes that work as fantastic humanizing elements, especially early on when Jim and Tammy Faye engage their lustful adolescent interests as hormonally charged young adults and newlyweds. Showalter, Chastain, and Garfield deliver a fresh perspective on Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker that depicts human beings, not one-dimensional caricatures of televangelism. Showalter’s film explores the world of Tammy Faye, as seen through her unmistakable eyes; furthermore, he treats the character (the person) of Tammy Faye with respect as a flawed but loving woman rather than the heavy-makeup-wearing satirical and parodied caricature that many remember from the tabloids. Perhaps the thousands of times she said “God loves you” may have came across as insincere; but the truth is, she wanted the world to know that God and Tammy both love them.

Honorable Mentions

Wrath of Man

Guy Ritchie’s Wrath of Man is a no-holds-barred heist movie! It’s an extravaganza of beginning to end action and thrills. Jason Statham does his best Stathaming, and the nonlinear storytelling never loses the audience – while packing a punch. Everything about this movie just works — and works nearly flawlessly. From the moment it opens until the credits roll, it is non-stop balls-to-the-wall action, and at the center of that action is Jason Statham. Wrath of Man is one of those movies that doesn’t pretend to be anything other than what it is. And what is that? A fun, entertaining movie without case for any kind of thoughtful subtext or socio-political agenda. Just an entertaining movie, plain and simple. And yet, you enjoy the characters and know just enough about each to care about them (or hate them). Point is, you feel something for these characters. We have a simple plot, and a complex central character. And this central character has a well-defined external goal that is met with obstacles brought on by a character of opposition. In other words, this is a movie with solid bones and foundation.

Antlers

Intense! Antlers is a terrifying film that will truly absorb you! From stunning, terrifying creature effects to thoughtful, provocative commentary on the trauma of grief and loss, this is one to watch! Directed by Scott Cooper and produced by Guillermo del Toro, this highly atmospheric film is based on the novel The Quiet Boy by Nick Antosca. Every element of the mise-en-scene works flawlessly to capture your imagination and take it to some incredibly dark places where you will confront the stuff of nightmares. Del Toro’s eye for the visual storytelling of a darkly fantastic world is witnessed in every frame of this outstanding motion picture. Cooper has clearly worked closely with del Toro in order to combine their various cinematic storytelling methods to craft a modern story steeped in mythology. Keri Russell and Jeremy T Thomas deliver frightening performances; especially Thomas–he is incredibly creepy! Antlers is the type of horror film that is surely gong to find a place amongst the classics in the future.

The Protege

Nonstop action, perfectly punctuated with humor and thrills! Don’t miss The Protege. It was THE most summer movie of 2021! Everything about this explosive action thriller works brilliantly, and it truly is the don’t miss movie of the summer. From beginning to end, you will be glued to your seat as the story unfolds. The Protégé takes the action plot of a 1980s action movie and combines it with contemporary characters to deliver a movie that is simultaneously both familiar and fresh. This movie is the whole package: high flying action, killer fight sequences with outstanding choreography, and a well-developed lead cast that you will love to see on screen. Where so many action movies suffer is in the screenwriting. Not so with this one. The dialogue snaps, crackles, and pops, and there is plenty of humor to break up the darker elements of the film. Even with its 2hr runtime, you will never feel restless or bored because the pacing and plotting are both on point! It never sacrifices thrilling storytelling for an agenda. Furthermore, it boasts a diverse cast that is also never made into the center piece. The film isn’t saying “look at our diverse cast.” No, it is saying “look at our outstanding characters” that happen to look like the people you and I interact with on a weekly basis. That is how you promote representation in cinema in movies, that twenty years ago would’ve been filled with predominantly white characters.

Ryan teaches American and World Cinema at the University of Tampa. If you like this article, check out the others and FOLLOW this blog! Interested in Ryan making a guest appearance on your podcast or contributing to your website? Send him a DM on Twitter or email him at RLTerry1@gmail.com! If you’re ever in Tampa or Orlando, feel free to catch a movie with him.

Follow him on Twitter: RLTerry1

NIGHTMARE ALLEY film review

A phantasmagorical cautionary tale on the cruel predictability of the human condition that’s told through a beautifully orchestrated symphony of exploitation, deception, and just desserts, wrapped in a delicious neo-noir film. In the second big screen adaptation on the 1946 novel by William Lindsay Gresham, del Toro certainly applies his particular cinema stylo to Nightmare Alley, yet delivers a motion picture that stays true to its roots in film noir. Gresham’s book and Edmund Goulding’s critically acclaimed 1947 adaptation are the perfect source material for del Toro’s penchant for dark fantasies. But what this film allows for del Toro to do, that he hasn’t done before, is direct a neo-noir, complete with all the tropes and stylistic conventions. And he’s recently announced that there is a grayscale version of the film, which I will want to check out soon. Del Toro’s update to the dark dale explores characters that are impacted by vicious business practices built around exploitation and deception. Audiences will simultaneously find the story and performances, by the lead and supporting cast, both alluring and repulsive.

In 1940s New York, down-on-his-luck Stanton Carlisle (Bradley Cooper) endears himself to a clairvoyant and her mentalist husband at a traveling carnival. Using newly acquired knowledge, Carlisle crafts a golden ticket to success by swindling the elite and wealthy. Hoping for a big score, he soon hatches a scheme to con a dangerous tycoon with help from the mysterious psychiatrist Lilith (Cate Blanchette) who might be his most formidable opponent yet.

Much like we witness sleight of hand in the carnival acts managed by Willem DaFoe’s carnival barker character, del Toro himself is a master magician. Teaching film history as part of my cinema studies classes reminds me every semester of how the world thought of film as the work of a magician, and I love just how many layers of magic we have within this marvelous motion picture. Just as various characters are playing on the predictability and fears of the audiences within the film, del Toro is toying around with our perceptions of what is really going on. The art of misdirection and illusion is alive and well in Nightmare Alley. Unlike most of del Toro’s previous films such as Pan’s Labyrinth and The Shape of Water, there is neither a monster, in the conventional sense, nor mystical or supernatural dimension in this film other than the magic and mentalism of the metaphoric monsters in the film.

Taking place in the early 20th century at the time when carnival sideshows, with their seemingly endless variety of oddities (still a fun attraction at modern day fairs and carnivals), dotted the rural landscapes, this film is populated with characters that have in one way or another experienced some form of trauma that has prompted them to find solace or absolution in their (exploitive) work as a sideshow performer. And our central character of Stanton (Bradley Cooper) is of no exception. Following the dumping of a dead body and setting a house in an idyllic setting ablaze, Stanton joins a seedy carnival. Although we are never given explicit details as to why he did what he did, it works perfectly because we don’t always need to know what a character’s motivation is. This unknown makes them more terrifying and unpredictable.

From what I have read, there are a few changes from the book that del Toro made in this adaptation, and for all the better! One of these changes is not spending too much time on Stan’s backstory. We learn and see just enough to keep his history ominous–he keeps this film lean. Far too often, nowadays, writers and directors feel compelled to psychoanalyze and delve into all the reasons for immoral or unethical behavior, and somehow try to rationalize and explain. This explanation removes a significant degree of threat. All we need to know is that a trauma affected Stanton to the degree that he killed the source of the trauma in order to start a new life. And the same could be said for other characters and their respectful traumas. But for all their baggage, this ragtag group of sideshow acts forms a close-knit community.

Without getting into specifics, the story follows the character (negative) growth arc model, which is very much in line with many film noir motion pictures. Furthermore, del Toro includes the iconic femme fatale (in the form of Blanchette’s character) and a villainous mob-like boss that is not to be trifled with. Nightmare Alley embodies a cynical soul, which is often a characteristic of film noir. This cynical nature demonstrates two or more opposing forces that are opposite sides of the same coin, both equally corrupt. As Stan is refining his skill and showmanship for what would become his high society headlining mentalist act, he receives a dire warning not to do the “spook” show because it leads to a dark path, a path on which the actor starts to believe his or her own lies.

Through lead characters Stan and Lilith, we witness two strong-willed, cunning individuals that are equally master manipulators. There are few things more dangerous than a con-artist who believes their own spiel, and del Toro takes that dynamic to its inevitable conclusion. While the level of violence and gore in this film are rather subdued compared to his other work, when the gore hits, it HITS! There is one scene in particular that is reminiscent of the Pale Man scene in Pan’s Labyrinth. When you hits all the tropes necessary for a neo-noir, you can then bend the conventions a little in order to maintain your authorship of cinema. For fans of Sunset Boulevard (my pick for greatest film of all time), you will also love the rich character-driven conflict.

The film can be read as a cautionary tale on various systemic societal constructs and practices that prey on the most vulnerable. And many that ascribe to applied postmodernist worldviews, will find this resonating in the film. However, it can also be read through the lens that individuals may find themselves ripe for the picking to be a carnival’s next “geek” by intentionally making decisions that lead them to the carnival barker’s office. When you are in this weakened state, there are systems that will swallow you whole. So, I feel that it’s the opposite: a cautionary tale on what happens when we lead a humanist or nihilistic life; furthermore, this film is a fantastic metaphor on reaping what you sow. If you sow deception, eventually you will reap deception by (1) being deceived by someone or (2) maybe even deceiving YOURself by beginning to believe your own lies. The systems are a symptom of the broken world in which we live, a broken world whose source is, at the end of the day, a heart problem.

Ryan teaches American and World Cinema at the University of Tampa. If you like this article, check out the others and FOLLOW this blog! Interested in Ryan making a guest appearance on your podcast or contributing to your website? Send him a DM on Twitter or email him at RLTerry1@gmail.com! If you’re ever in Tampa or Orlando, feel free to catch a movie with him.

Follow him on Twitter: RLTerry1