Best Watches of 2021: "New" and "Old"
The late Peter Bogdonavich said it best, "There are no 'old' movies really - only movies you have already seen and ones you haven't"
In the past on this blog, I would post my list of the best films of the past year to coincide with the Academy Awards. But with it becoming harder to get to a theater and a general disinterest in trying to consume every new release in time to compile such list, I've decided to approach my yearly lists differently. Over the course of 2021, I posted my monthly watch journal, cataloging every film or notable thing (mini-series, documentary, etc) that I watched for that month. With my version of the yearly best movies list, I'm ranking the top ten "new" releases I watched in 2021 along with my favorite 2021 Blu-ray releases of older films. As chronology is increasingly blurry with film releases jostling between theatrical and streaming, I don't see the point in trying to "keep up" any longer. Especially with streaming service and Blu-ray labels opening up a lost world of films waiting to be discovered. Many times these older films are infinitely more interesting than the new stuff. But then in 20 years, I could be saying the same about the movies of today.
Top Ten New Releases
Can't Get You Out of My Head: An Emotional History of the Modern World - Adam Curtis
The 20/20s are a time of the official narratives no longer commanding the crowd and the evaporation of status quo. Curtis predicted this phenomena in HyperNormalisation, where systems of power continued to behave as if society was still functional, but the masses began to realize things were fucked and started to put faith in populist movements such as Brexit and Trumpism.
Under the shadow of a global pandemic and civil unrest in 2021, Adam Curtis released Can't Get You Out of My Head, a sprawling 8 hour episodic documentary. In following-up HyperNormalisation, Curtis sought to understand why there was no viable alternative to populism by examining sociopolitical revolutions of the past. In the first two episodes, Curtis explores the stories of key revolutionary figures from different walks of life: the wife of Mao Zedong, Jian Qing; the mother of 2Pac, Black Panther Afeni Shakur and enforcer turned activist Michael de Freitas aka Michael X. Through his signature video essay style of marrying stark, obscure archival clips with a wide range of musical numbers, Curtis elevates the footage to make history not only speak but reverberate.
The rest of Can't Get You Out of My Head examines how the modern world slipped into chaos due to the miscalculation of those in power. At many times, the populace was too mesmerized by an addiction to consumption, be it cheap goods or substances, to notice. One of Curtis' most potent theories is that America, founded on revolution in freeing itself from British rule, has been a paranoid nation since its conception. This deeply rooted paranoia has been further exploited in the modern era since identified by Richard Hofstader's 1964 essay 'The Paranoid Style in American Politics'. This inherent mistrust leads to a fractured society, believing in conspiracy theories and invisible enemies. But it's not only Americans that are subject to conspiracy propaganda, as it has become the tool of choice for regimes around the world to influence the masses.
The final episode of Can't Get You Out of My Head demonstrates how, from 2Pac to Google, innovation is poisoned by money. "I think I want to make the world a better place," says Sergey Brin in an interview from 2000. But instead, Curtis explores how in the first twenty years of the millennium, technology is being used by governments and corporations to control society. Yet this grasp is slipping as these institutions are still unable to present viable alternatives to the crumbling status quo.
But Can't Get You Out of My Head ends with hope, that we could make the world into whatever we want it to be. But that only seems to be the case if we can get out of own heads.
Soul - Peter Docter
The joyous Soul takes some tropes of Inside Out and turns them into a metaphysical jazz musical. A much needed feel good film.
Don't Look Up - Adam McKay
Scientists have discovered an asteroid heading towards the planet and warn the government and media that we only have 6 months to take action. The only problem is: everyone is incompetent and cynical. A streaming phenomenon that has captured the zeitgeist, the star studded Don't Look Up satirizes many of the real problems Adam Curtis laid out in Can't Get You Out of My Head. Simply put: institutions and corporations, when faced with a crisis, can't be trusted to do the right thing. Compared to Dr. Strangelove and Network, Don't Look Up continues director Adam McKay's skewering of neoliberal and neoconservative elitism and how these ideologies continually lead us to disaster.
Zola - Janicza Bravo
On the surface, Zola is a film based on a tweet about two strippers who embark on a wild road trip to Florida to make some quick cash. But it's really about the desperation that forces people into the shadow economy. Janicza Bravo is a true visionary and I'm excited to see what she does next behind the camera. Zola's haunting score, by Mica Levi, is the one of the year's best.
The Beta Test - Jim Cummings, PJ McCabe
The Beta Test is a delicious dark comedy from Jim Cummings and PJ McCabe. Cummings plays Jordan Hines, a sleazy Hollywood agent who is faking it till his makes it. He leases a Tesla and feels he is one client away from being a big showbiz player. The only problem is that he's entrapped in a sex blackmail plot that threatens his career and upcoming nuptials. With shades of Eyes Wide Shut and American Psycho, The Beta Test goes beyond the boilerplate internet thriller with a wicked performance from Cummings. It's also one of the most well crafted indie films in recent memory, made for only $250k.
The Card Counter - Paul Schrader
Paul Schrader's latest tome of human suffering follows the story of a former Abu Ghraib guard William Tell (Oscar Issac) who learned to count cards in prison and now roams around the country gambling. Released in the days before the 20th anniversary of 9/11, Schrader's film spotlights how the consequences of the war on terror trickle down to the little guy, with a slickly stoic performance from Issac as a cipher for the everyman. What looms large over this film to me is how the recent Robinhood Gamestop trading fiasco is a parable to the card player in the film, as many who suffered at the hands of the elites got their revenge through the ultimate short squeeze.
JFK Revisited: Through The Looking Glass - Oliver Stone
Oliver Stone has said in recent interviews that a 4 hour version of this riveting documentary will be released soon. I can't wait to go down that rabbit hole.
The White Lotus - Mike White
Until we eat the rich they will feast on us.
You're Watching Video Music Box - Nasir Jones
Directed by Nas, this documentary tells the story of Video Music Box, the longest running public access television show. The Box has been around to document hip-hop from its early beginnings in New York to its rise as a dominant cultural phenomenon. Watching all of the archival footage and interviews with rap legends is a real treat. In a year with some very strong music docs, this was my favorite.
The Empty Man - David Prior
Unsure about what to make of the film, 20th Century dumped The Empty Man into theaters in October of 2020 and forgot about it. Critics weren't kind either. But word of mouth has spread about David Prior's unsettling, unconventional horror film and it has picked up a following since hitting streaming services. I recommend going in cold.
Top Ten Archival Blu-Rays:
The Parallax View - Criterion Collection
For years it seemed that Alan J. Pakula's assassination conspiracy classic, The Parallax View, would be relegated to a subpar Paramount DVD. But then the Criterion Collection released Klute, the first entry in Pakula's paranoia trilogy in 2019 and there was hope that a Blu of The Parallax View was in the pipeline. The Warren Beatty starring vehicle has been my Blu-ray holy grail for years and that it finally was released in 2021, with a sparkling 4K restoration from the original 35mm camera negative no less, makes it a no-brainer for my favorite release of the year. Among the special features is an introduction by filmmaker Alex Cox (Repo Man) about conspiracy theory films of the New Hollywood era.
Straight Time - Warner Archive
Warner Archive's sublime Straight Time Blu-ray features, in my opinion, the finest performance Dustin Hoffman has ever given as habitual criminal Max Dembo. Straight Time's Blu-ray features great slice of life 1970's Los Angeles locales and the fresh faces of Kathy Bates, Gary Busey and Theresa Russell. A forefather to Heat (Michael Mann is an uncredited co-writer), Straight Time is one of the best crime films ever.
Reds 40th Anniversary - Paramount
Paramount breathes new life into Warren Beatty's bolshevik epic with this wonderful remaster of Reds. How Reds lost Best Picture to Chariots of Fire is beyond me.
Smile - Fun City Editions
Jonathan Hertzberg's boutique label Fun City Editions debuted in 2021 with its first release, Alphabet City and in the last year they have been knocking it out of the park with lovingly crafted restorations packed with special features and limited slip covers. FCE is committed to re-introducing forgotten, lost and neglected films to a new audience and Smile is perhaps the best example of the label's mission. A delightful time capsule of Americana, Michael Ritchie's Smile features one of Bruce Dern's best performances as a used car salesman highly dedicated to being a judge for the local beauty queen pageant. The FCE disc features a great interview with "Dernsy," reflecting on Smile and his career.
Tough Guys Don't Dance - Vinegar Syndrome
Oh, God! Oh, Man! Oh, God!
Tough Guys Don't Dance is more than just a meme. A truly wild ride, Norman Mailer's zany noir set in Provincetown has aged into a cult classic. An oddball mystery with over the top performances from the likes of Ryan O'Neal and Wings Hauser and an excellent score by frequent David Lynch collaborator Angelo Bandalamenti, the film is a Golan-Globus version of Twin Peaks. The perfect movie for a Vinegar Syndrome disc, their restoration and special features don't disappoint.
Prince of the City - Warner Archive
Sidney Lumet's slow burn police procedural is a forefather to such modern cable classics like True Detective. Treat Williams is excellent in this and Warner Archive's Blu-ray is a revelation, with a sparkling picture that pops with the early '80's New York grit, from the restaurants to the snazzy outfits.
The Black Marble - Kino Lorber
Adapted from Joseph Wambaugh's detective novel of the same name, The Black Marble is a unique detective yarn in the vein of Robert Altman's '70's L.A. take on The Long Goodbye. But I actually prefer The Black Marble and Robert Foxworth's Sgt. Valkinov to Elliot Gould's Phillip Marlowe. The Black Marble has a zany plot concerning dog kidnapping, with Harry Dean Stanton as a desperate dog breeder. Wonderfully shot by Owen Reitzman, Kino Lorber's pristine Blu-ray preserves '70's California in vivid color.
Deep Cover - Criterion Collection
The red and blue hues shine bright in Bill Duke's masterful noir from 1992, Deep Cover. Immortalized by the Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg song for the film, the movie itself features Laurence Fishburne and Jeff Goldblum dueling at the top of their craft. Criterion's lush 4K master was approved by Duke and the special features, especially the discussion on 'neo-noir,' are excellent.
Who'll Stop the Rain - Scorpion Releasing
Without boutique labels like Scorpion Releasing, rare gems like Who'll Stop the Rain would be never get their proper dues. With a sharp 2K master and excellent special features, Scorpion's Who'll Stop the Rain Blu-ray is a must have for fans of jaded Vietnam hangovers like First Blood and Rolling Thunder. Nick Nolte gives a masterful performance as a veteran who gets wrapped up in a heroin smuggling plot on his return home to California. Based on Robert Stone's best seller Dog Soldiers and released by United Artists in 1978, Who'll Stop the Rain is a prime deep cut of '70's post-war paranoia and the sort of film that rarely gets greenlit today.
L.A. Story 30th Anniversary - Lionsgate
In Mick Jackson's surreal Hollywood satire L.A. Story, a traffic sign offers advice to jaded weatherman Harris Telemacher (Steve Martin). While parodying showbiz, L.A. Story is also a charming romantic comedy with a refreshingly earnest view on love and relationships. Porting over the special features from the DVD, the cut scenes featuring John Lithgow as a jetpack riding hotshot are golden, Liongate's Blu-ray does include a new interview with director Jackson and a solid picture and audio presentation (although the cover art leaves much to be desired - the original theatrical poster would've been awesome). L.A. Story boasts a pre Sex and the City performance from Sarah Jessica Parker as SanDeE*, who has a fling with Telemacher, as well as some other ace cameos from the likes of Patrick Stewart, Rick Moranis and Chevy Chase.