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

“The Eyes of Tammy Faye” Film Review

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 Sick) heartfelt, 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.

In the 1970s, Tammy Faye Bakker and her husband, Jim, rise from humble beginnings to create the world’s largest religious broadcasting network and theme park. Tammy Faye becomes legendary for her indelible eyelashes, her idiosyncratic singing, and her eagerness to embrace people from all walks of life. However, financial improprieties, scheming rivals and a scandal soon threaten to topple their carefully constructed empire.

I already want to see it again! And it’s definitely becoming an addition to my physical media collection. This narrative film is based on the award-winning documentary by the same name, directed by Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato, and I suggest watching it as a companion piece. In many respects, the storytelling structure of The Eyes of Tammy Faye parallels the approach Craig Gillespie took in I, Tonya. In addition to the awards-talk around the performances, I would look to see this film in other conversations such as makeup, screenplay, and perhaps directing and picture. 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.

Showalter’s candid picture gives Tammy Faye and Jim the full treatment as he takes audiences on a journey through their story, including the scandal that rocked a nation, whilst treating them with dignity and respect as they are–as we all are–flawed humans. This biographic drama seeks to understand (mostly Tammy Faye, but a little of Jim too) the Bakkers, not mock them or their work. Tammy Faye is a breath of fresh air in an environment polluted by stale, lifeless, and downright rotten individuals. From the beginning of the film, you learn that her faith in God and love of Jesus was not going to be defined by her circumstances or what people thought of her. If you told her she couldn’t, she would prove to you that she could. That is a trait that she could continue through her entire life, even after her scandalous fall from grace. You also learn that while she lived an opulent lifestyle, she was never defined by her material possessions. Oh don’t get me wrong, she loved her signature clothing style and trademark makeup and hair, but those things did not define her or her faith. Well, except for her eyes. She said “if you remove my [fake] eyelashes, I wouldn’t be me.”

While her husband was pulling the strings, she was doing everything she could to reach people for Christ; however, it was also clear that she loved the performance, the camera, and the microphone. If she hadn’t gone into televangelism, she very well could have been a Broadway star with her larger than life showmanship and personality. We also learn that Tammy Faye was likely unaware of the dishonest and illegal dealings of her husband, even though she at times suspected he wasn’t being honest. Chalk it up to extreme naivety. Despite no reports of Jim being physically abusive to Tammy Faye or their two kids, he was shown to be psychologically and emotionally abusive to Tammy Faye. Even to the extent that he used Tammy’s minor indiscretion with a Nashville music producer against her, to humiliate her on international television in an effort to raise more money because of her testimony. Tammy’s flirtation with the an elicit affair goes to show that we are all flawed individuals that toy with or fall victim to the same temptations, in whatever form they take. But we understand how and why Tammy Faye was tempted to search for love elsewhere; she was not appreciated as a person by Jim, but only as a tool to get more money out of PTL’s “partners.” Even when the reality of Jim would peak through, she never let that detour her from spreading the love of God to everyone in her signature style.

While we ostensibly watch the events of the rise and fall of the Bakkers through Tammy Faye’s eyes, in a similar fashion we did in I, Tonya, we also get glimpses of the story through Jim’s perspective when it serves to advance the emotional journey of the characters, especially when it comes to his complicated relationship with the then and now unlikable Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell. For example, I did not know that it was Jim and Tammy Faye that started the 700 Club. But when the innovative Christian talk show became a popular program on the fledgling CBN Network, Pat Robertson placed them on a maternity/paternity sabbatical, but was actually steeling their show in a jealous power-grab. The Bakkers then started what would become the TBN Network, but were ran off from there too. Finally, they began the PTL Club (later massive, worldwide PTL Satellite Network), and the success of that venture would eventually spawn a 24-hour network, neighborhoods, and a theme park that would become the third most visited in the country after Disneyland and Disney World.

While PTL was growing by leaps and bounds, Robertson and Falwell were seething with jealously at the success of Jim and Tammy Faye, a motive that comes into play when they discover the payment of PTL funds for the hush-money regarding Jim’s affair. Little did Tammy Faye know that Jim surrounded himself with a conniving mafia-like group of “Christians” that sought to take down the power couple after they departed from the Robertson-Falwell fundamentalist agenda. This mafia-like mentality is most apparent when Tammy Faye televises the emotional interview with a gay AIDS patient, also a Christian pastor, on her show. She ends the interview with reminding the viewers that Christians are called to love as Jesus loved. It was shortly after that, that Robertson and Falwell actively looked for ways to dethrone the king and queen of televangelism. Of all the examples of Christians in the film, amongst the lead and supporting characters, Tammy Faye is the best example of how a Christian should love and act.

Chastain has instantly shot to the front of the Best Actress in a Leading Role category, and Garfield may find himself in the Best Actor conversations as well. Chastain disappears behind the trademark Tammy Faye makeup and delivers a larger than life performance! And since Tammy Faye, herself, was the definition of camp and larger than life, it’s an incredibly authentic, sincere performance. It’s easy to see how the LBGTQ community was drawn to the person of Tammy Faye then and now, because the LGBTQ community often greatly admires women who remain strong in the face of adversity. But Chastain’s performance of the person of Tammy Faye will undoubtedly inspire and win the admiration of all kinds of people from all walks of life. While Chastain is brilliantly portraying the character of Tammy Faye, we learn in the film (and in the documentary, the interviews, and PLT flips that many will undoubtedly pour through after leaving the film) that Tammy Faye wasn’t a character at all but one of the most genuine, sincere loving people that ever walked the planet. Chastain captures every nuance of Tammy Faye with uncanny precision.

Even the indelible Cherry Jones as Tammy Faye’s love-to-hate mother that was so often Tammy Faye’s harshest critic may be in the supporting actress conversations. She’s a scene steeler herself, much like Allison Janney was as LaVona Harding in I, Tonya. All the lead and supporting performances are perfectly executed, and the hair/makeup on everyone leaves an uncanny resemblance between the actors and the real-life people that are being portrayed. If Tammy Faye was still alive, I feel strongly that she would appreciate the film. Her son Jay appears to like the film from what I’ve read of his comments.

I’d be remiss not to mention, what is perhaps the most telling scene of who Tammy Faye was. Months or perhaps years after the collapse of the PTL Empire and all her fine things were sold (and house actually burned to the ground), and she’s driving a crappy Honda Accord and living in a rundown apartment, she pulls into her parking spot one day. And she gets out, she hears a few of the neighborhood punk teens making fun or her. She walks over to them, and graciously says, “if you’re going to talk about me, since I am your neighbor, you should at least shake my hand and meet me first; hi, I’m Tammy Faye” (or something to this effect).

What we have here is a brilliantly produced biographical drama that works as trifecta comprised of a cautionary tale, a redemption story, and film that provides social commentary on topics such as politics, religion, and patriotism as our country is becoming increasingly polarized on these subjects.

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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 or meet him in the theme parks!

Follow him on Twitter: RLTerry1