In his seminal memoir, Adventures in the Screen Trade, screenwriter William Goldman wrote that there is one truism in Hollywood – "Nobody knows anything." Case in point, the gross for the opening weekend of Steven Spielberg's West Side Story was $10.5 million. Stop and think about that – the great American filmmaker of the last half-century remaking a Broadway and film classic, one that premiered exclusively in theaters and not simultaneously on a streaming service – and it grosses one-tenth of what it cost to make. Goldman's words were never truer than they are now.
As Hollywood tries to find its footing after a prolonged shutdown due to COVID and a fear of returning to theaters still felt by many, there are no certainties, except for the fact that Warner Brothers' decision to premiere its slate of 2021 movies in theaters and HBO Max on the same day was a colossal blunder. Anemic box office takes for In the Heights, The Many Saints of Newark and King Richard were proof that audiences are more than happy to stay home and take in features that lack the sort of spectacle that big-budget movies provide, lending credence to the notion that theaters and multiplexes will ultimately become the home of superhero movies, science fiction epics, action blockbusters and little else.
Credit Netflix, Apple TV and Amazon Prime for continuing to be the place where projects that aren't meant to gross billions of dollars can land. Each of the streaming services produced quality small-scale movies while picking up studio castoffs to present an eclectic, solid slate of films. Jane Campion's The Power of the Dog, Adam McKay's Don't Look Up, Maggid Gyllenhaal's The Lost Daughter and Lin Manuel-Miranda's tick...tick...Boom! – two character studies, a small-scale musical and a polemic political satire – were all produced and heavily touted by Netflix, while Apple TV set a record to acquire the charming family drama CODA and Joel Coen's minimalist version of The Tragedy of Macbeth, with Amazon Prime producing Aaron Sorkin's biopic of Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz Being the Ricardos and George Clooney's poignant The Tender Bar. Would any of these have been produced by the major studios? Those with big stars attached (Nicole Kidman, Ben Affleck, Leonardo DiCaprio) perhaps, but the rest would have withered on the vine. While I will always be a proponent of the communal, larger-than-life experience of seeing a film in a theater, I'm thankful the streaming services provide a home for small-scale, intimate fare.
The truth is, Hollywood isn't going anywhere, and neither are the major studios. Day-and-date premieres of films in theaters and via home viewing was inevitable; the COVID crisis simply accelerated its viability. Like the advent of sound, the coming of television and the invention of the VCR, this latest fly in the ointment is simply another opportunity for the industry to evolve, which it is doing with remarkable speed. Warner Brothers, Paramount Pictures and Universal Pictures all have their own streaming services, ensuring that each gets a piece of the latest iteration of the home-viewing pie.
The product hasn't changed, but the delivery system has. The wide-scale shuttering of theaters hasn't occurred...yet. Time will tell if a steady diet of big-budget fare alone will be enough to draw people out of their homes to keep the nearly 6,000 screens in the country open. And while Netflix and other streamers will continue to grow, the bet here is that theaters will continue to exist in smaller numbers with greater perks to justify higher ticket costs.
As for the movies themselves that were released in 2021, it proved to be a very strong year. Perhaps the combination of delayed releases and those originally slated for the calendar year resulted in a seeming glut of quality product. No matter, there was more than enough engaging fare to satisfy viewers of all tastes, making a "Best of" list of only 10 a difficult, but enjoyable, task.
The Power of the Dog – Jane Campion's adaptation of the novel by Thomas Savage is a frightening and poignant look at a damaged soul, rancher Phil Burbank, a bully who keeps the world at arm's length due to a traumatic experience in his youth that he's failed to come to terms with. Set in Montana in the 1920s, it's a visually sumptuous, intriguing film that forces us to challenge what we see as monstrous, in its examination of the villain at its center. Benedict Cumberbatch delivers a frightening, poignant performance, creating a character raging at the world, yet a vulnerable child at heart. Great work from Jesse Plemons as Phil's brother George, Kirsten Dunst as his new wife, Rose, and Kodi Smit-McPhee as her son, Peter, adds to the complexity of the film, each of these grappling with their own fears and doubts while being subjected to Phil's abuse. This one proves hard to shake as Dog attempts to come to terms and understand the monsters who live among us, making it a most vital and timely film. Streaming on Netflix.
Belfast – Kenneth Branagh's elegiac look back at his formative years in the titular city is perhaps the most heartfelt movie of the year, propelled by strong work from its ensemble cast and a sense of melancholy and gratitude that's profoundly moving. Newcomer Jude Hill is Buddy, an 8-year-old dealing with struggles in school, his first crush and the fate of his eternal soul. Violence swirls about him as troubles between the Protestants and Catholics ensue, leading the boy's parents (Jamie Dornan and Caitriona Balfe) wondering if they should remain with their family or move to England where opportunity and relative safety are present. Branagh never makes the mistake of taking a maudlin approach to these events, the film grounded by an unadulterated portrayal of the seminal events that formed him, making it all the more moving. In theaters.
The Last Duel – Ridley Scott's criminally overlooked medieval epic is a historical epic on the surface but is really an effective #MeToo parable at its core. Matt Damon and Adam Driver are two French warriors who, while brothers on the battlefield, find themselves combatants in court when the former accuses the latter of raping his wife (Jodi Comer). This story is told thrice, a different perspective each time as each of the three principal characters provide their versions of the tragic events. Riveting, infuriating and timely, this is the best movie no one saw in 2021, one that will hopefully be rediscovered in years to come.
Dune – Director Denis Villaneuve shoots for the fences in his big-screen adaptation of Frank Herbert's sci-fi classic and succeeds in creating a film suffused with visual grandeur and timely commentary. Political, social and gender issues abound in this look at a planet on the verge of civil war when a new royal family is given control of harvesting its resources with no regard for its inhabitants. Despite initial peaceful overtures, there's tension aplenty, which is compounded when the natives start to think the prince of the household, Paul Atreides (Timothee Chalamet), may be the messiah they've been waiting for. Villaneuve embraces the challenge of bringing the complex narrative to the screen while capturing the splendor and danger of the titular planet, one that proves to be a vivid metaphor for our own.
The Tragedy of Macbeth – Director Joel Coen strips the Shakespearean classic to the bone with this spare, vivid retelling of the oft-told tragedy that gains power due to the streamlined narrative and haunting visual approach. Denzel Washington takes a while to find his footing in the title role but Frances McDormard commands the screen from the moment we see her as the duplicitous Lady MacBeth. However, Broadway veteran Kathryn Hunter steals the show, playing all three witches by employing a grotesque physical approach that's both mesmerizing and genuinely frightening. This tale of the abuses of power couldn't be timelier or more powerfully told. Coming to Apple TV.
No Sudden Move – Director Steven Soderbergh's slick crime caper is far more than a heist film gone wrong. Don Cheadle and Benicio Del Toro are two hoods with the simple task of keeping a Detroit family occupied while a clandestine theft occurs. However, things go wrong, as they always do, the pair setting off to get some answers as to why everything went so wrong. What they uncover is a corporate plot of far-reaching implications which puts profit over human life. Intriguing from the first moment, this is a constantly surprising film that keeps you on the edge of your seat, ultimately proving to be, much like the story itself, more than it appears to be. On HBO Max.
The Killing of Two Lovers – Robert Machoian's sleeper is the cinema at its most basic and powerful. There is no artifice at play in this story of a family in crisis, David and Nikki (Clayne Crawford and Sepideh Moafi) having separated due to her feelings of dissatisfaction. As the former tries to hold his family together, the latter starts to date Dereck (Chris Coy), a nice guy who's not quite what he seems. Machoian employs long takes throughout, giving the film a sense of intimacy as we watch the conversations the couple and their kids have seemingly develop before us. Shot on the fly on a shoestring budget, this proves to be a heartbreaking tale of love, loss and possible redemption that lands with an emotional force that's all too rare.
CODA – Apple TV set a record by paying $25 million at the Sundance Film Festival for the rights to Sian Heder's charmer. Emelia Jones is captivating as Ruby, the only hearing member in a deaf family that relies on her to be the bridge to the hearing world. This causes a problem as she enters her senior year in high school and begins looking at colleges, her guilt and her family's insistence that she stay holding her back. Jones is funny, poignant and can belt out a tune, while Heder does a marvelous job of not letting the film get too sentimental. Genuinely moving, Eugenio Derbez provides solid support as Ruby's supportive music teacher. On Apple TV.
Together – Very much of the moment, this two-hander by writer Dennis Kelly deals with a bickering couple (James McAvoy and Sharon Logan) who are forced to quarantine because of the COVID pandemic in order to take care of her son. Speaking directly to the audience, they recount the ups and downs of their relationship, as well as their individual doubts and fears in dealing with a crisis the government has failed to anticipate. At times heartbreaking, at others uproariously funny, this is a testament to our times and will serve as a bracing document of this era, one that either drove people apart or brought them closer together than they thought possible.
The World to Come – Mona Fastvold's period drama takes place on the American frontier during the mid-1800s. Dyer and Abby (Casey Affleck and Katherine Waterston) fight the harsh elements, struggling each day. The solitude they're forced to endure is nearly unbearable, so they're relieved when a couple move in nearby (Vanessa Kirby and Christopher Abbott), though the friendship they hope will develop with them takes some unexpected turns. Realistic in its portrayal of frontier life, the film is driven by Waterston's and Kirby's performances, the intimacy their characters develop a deeply moving example of genuine love.
Tied for 11th place – Adam McKay's blistering Netflix parody on climate change, Don't Look Up; Nicholas Cage returns to form in Pig; vampirism serves as a metaphor for codependency and terminal illness in the low-budget shocker My Heart Can't Beat Until You Tell It To; motherhood takes on a distinctly different perspective in the haunting Lamb; Benedict Cumberbatch continues to show his versatility in the Cold War thriller The Courier; Ryan Reynolds is an avatar that achieves consciousness in the surprisingly smart Free Guy; Jake Gyllenhaal is a cop on the edge with a secret in The Guilty; the origin of Tony Soprano is on full display in The Many Saints of Newark; young love and California dreaming are center stage in Licorice Pizza; Daniel Craig is given a memorable swan song in No Time to Die and existential angst drives the thrilling and moving Spider-Man: No Way Home.