Archive | December, 2021

2021 Review

31 Dec

By Tanner Smith

It’s the most wonderful time of the year–celebrating the holidays, spending time with loved ones, and of course, perfect for a movie guy like me, checking out all the film critics’ year-end lists.

By now, I have a reason to hate making these lists–while they’re a reflection of how I feel in the moment, they don’t represent the changes of perception to the subjected movies, and how could they? (Many of these movies on the list, I’ll have only seen once as of now.) But at the same time, I still love making these lists for three reasons–because I like looking back at the past year at the end of said-year, I like looking back on them years later to see what’s changed, and it doesn’t mean I’m going to change my opinion of how I felt in the moment (I can only change my opinion of a movie after more time and viewings pass).

I’ve seen many movies in 2021. However, at the time making this list, I’ve missed a few well-received titles such as Being the Ricardos, Mass, CODA, Don’t Look Up, The Power of the Dog, and The Lost Daughter. But that doesn’t mean I’m never going to see them, and if I like one of these movies enough, I’ll find reasons to write about them.

Oh, and there are two movies on my list that have made critics’ year-end lists for 2020–to that, I say they were released to the public in 2021 and thus they’re qualified for my list. (You’ll know them when you see them.)

So let’s get started!

I’ll do things a little differently this time. For starters, I will present my top-10 list first–and in alphabetical order simply because…well, it’s my list and I’ll do with it what I want. So, here they are–my Top 10 Favorite Films of 2021 (in alphabetical order)!

  1. Bo Burnham: Inside
    Is it really a movie or a comedy special? Why is that even a debate? Let it be what it wants to be; for me, comedian-musician’s Bo Burnham’s visual album that represents being alone in quarantine is one of the most entertaining things I’ve seen all year! My favorite song on the playlist: “Facetime With My Mom Tonight.” Available on Netflix.

2. C’mon C’mon

I love writer-director Mike Mills’ work and I’m glad to have seen his latest film in time for a year-end list for once. This is a beautiful movie about connecting and with a moving performance from Joaquin Phoenix and wonderful moments of gentleness and sincerity.

3. Language Lessons

“Bo Burnham: Inside” and “Language Lessons” are two sides of the same coin–they show us what can be done when we’re forced to make art using very limited resources while in isolation. Director/co-writer/co-star Natalie Morales and her collaborator Mark Duplass might have played my favorite movie duo of the year as two lost souls who virtually find each other.

4. Licorice Pizza

Whew! Saw this one just in time, and man, am I glad I did! The great filmmaker Paul Thomas Anderson has delivered what I think is one of his absolute best works with this uplifting and sweet-natured 1970s period piece about the awkwardness and charms of first love. A wonderful film. (Maybe the reason this list is alphabetical is because not enough time has passed for me to properly rank it. Is it #5? #2? #1?? Check back with me in a month or so.)

5. Minari

Here’s one of the two 2020 holdovers that made it onto my 2021 list because come on, it was officially released to the public in early 2021, so that’s how I see it. (Fun fact: this was also the first movie I saw in a cinema since before the pandemic happened.) “Minari” is a beautiful film with moving performances and a touching story about family and ambition.

6. The Mitchells vs. the Machines

Disney has presented some great animated treasures in 2021. But while Sony’s “The Mitchells vs. the Machines” doesn’t have the grand scale of “Raya and the Last Dragon,” the warmth of “Luca,” or the emotional impact of “Encanto,” it is my favorite animated film of the year because it’s just a ton of fun. Available on Netflix.

7. A Quiet Place Part II

Instead of letting this sequel to the 2018 horror smash hit “A Quiet Place” go straight to streaming in 2020, writer-director John Krasinski and Paramount Studios decided to wait a full year to give us this wholly entertaining thrill ride to the big screen. And God bless them for it, because this is a great sequel.

8. Spider-Man: No Way Home

Yep, it’s the number-one movie of the year, and I, an unapologetic Spider-Man fan, can see why! I was very impressed with the previous “Spider-Man” movies in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (“Spider-Man: Homecoming” made my 2017 list; I still stand by that)–but even I had no idea that it was all leading to what is undoubtedly one of the greatest films in the MCU. Tom Holland, who was already immensely likable as Peter Parker, grew into being a great Spider-Man; the directing from Jon Watts is top-notch (even above his work on the previous movies); and…I didn’t know being a fan of the other “Spider-Man” movies (from outside the MCU) would pay off in such a major way! (Does this mean I don’t have to apologize for liking “The Amazing Spider-Man” anymore?)

9. The Water Man

“The Water Man” is proof that the family film is alive and well even today–both children and their parents can get something out of this beautiful story filled with tense adventure and well-deserved drama plus appealing characters going through it all. Check it out, show your kids, and prepare for an interesting blend of fantastical legend and human interest.

10. West Side Story

Steven Spielberg’s take on the classic “West Side Story” is not just another film–it’s an experience. Everything about this musical screams “OUTSTANDING!” The cinematography, the choreography, the acting from the outstanding cast, the set pieces, and of course, the music direction are more than enough for me to say go check it out–but there’s more to it than all that: modern context helps make the hindsight look clearer. I’m surprised Spielberg hasn’t made a musical before.

And now…my OTHER Top 10 of 2021 (also in alphabetical order)!

  1. Belfast–Kenneth Branagh’s heartwarming personal story
  2. Encanto–I still can’t get that “We Don’t Talk About Bruno-no-no” song out of my head!
  3. Ghostbusters: Afterlife–THIS was the “Ghostbusters” follow-up I was waiting for!
  4. Luca–simply delightful Disney/Pixar flick
  5. Nightmare Alley–Richard Roeper of the Chicago Sun-Times put it best: ” a great, great movie about some bad, bad people.”
  6. Nomadland–this is the other “2020 holdover” I mentioned.
  7. Raya and the Last Dragon–Disney had a great year!
  8. Ride the Eagle–I love indie dramedies, and both this and “Language Lessons” were my two favorites this year. Great work from actor Jake Johnson.
  9. Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings–Great year for the MCU too!
  10. Val–A loving tribute to actor Val Kilmer helped by Val’s son Jack. Available on Amazon Prime.

And now, a bunch of honorable mentions, in no particular order: Long Weekend, Fear Street Part Three: 1666, Old, Adrienne, The Suicide Squad, The White Tiger, The Stylist, tick, tick…Boom!, Jakob’s Wife, No Sudden Move, Last Night in Soho, Stillwater, Our Friend, Candyman, Slaxx, Together Together, The Vigil, Passing, Judas and the Black Messiah, Operation Varsity Blues, Pig, My Salinger Year, and Shiva Baby.

And last but…maybe least, I dunno…I have to mention this one film in particular because whether it’s good or bad, I don’t care because it’s the silliest movie I’ve seen all year (and one of the most entertaining–as I said in my review of the movie, it’s my kind of silly). It’s the German import Help, I Shrunk My Friends.

There is no way I can further defend it better than I’ve already tried in my initial review, so you can check that out–my opinion of it hasn’t changed; it’s still one of the more bonkers and entertaining films I’ve seen this year, and that has to count for something!

And that’s it! I love this time of year and I love going into a new year not knowing what truly great movies await me. There’s only one way to find out and that’s support local art, go to the movies, and because streaming services are bigger now than ever, give some underappreciated Netflix Originals a chance.

See you later!

My Favorite Movies – Black Rock (2013)

14 Dec

By Tanner Smith

Three girlfriends go camping on an isolated island and guess what–they’re not alone. That’s the setup for the tense and well-executed thriller “Black Rock,” which mixes both mumblecore and bare-bones genre filmmaking flawlessly. Who cares how limited resources were for making this film when there’s such skill and craftsmanship, not to mention an appealing cast of protagonists to root for, involved?

Directed by and co-starring Katie Aselton and written by her husband Mark Duplass, “Black Rock” features three women (Aselton, Kate Bosworth, and Lake Bell) who decide to rekindle their childhood friendship by escaping to their favorite place from growing up: an island off the coast of Maine. Two of the friends (Aselton’s Abby and Bell’s Lou) aren’t on good terms due to a betrayal from long ago, but the third and ringleader of the trio (Bosworth’s Sarah) manages to keep the peace (for a little while, at least).

Right off the bat, all three actresses are extremely believable in their roles. I buy them as friends, their dialogue rings true, they share unique chemistry, and they’re a cut above your standard thriller movie characters. (Aselton, in particular maybe because she also directed the film, stands out with real charm as a comic actress early in the proceedings–but her emotional moments late in the film are effective too.)

Not long after they’ve set up camp, they find they’re not alone, as three hunters (Will Bouvier, Jay Paulson, and Anslem Richardson) happen upon them. They recognize one of them from way back when, so they figure they’ll spend some time together, catch up, get a little drunk, and have a good time…

It doesn’t turn out that way.

Without giving away specifics as to how this came to be, all three women are now threatened with death by these gunmen (who, by the way, were in the military and have served numerous tours overseas), who plan to hunt them through the woods and kill them. A bit of “Deliverance” mixed with a bit of “The River Wild” mixed with a chilling and tight script from Duplass help make the back half of “Black Rock” effectively thrilling. What also helps is that by then, I’ve come to know the key characters and root for them to take some control of the horrific and grisly situation. Thankfully Sarah, Lou, and Abby aren’t completely helpless nor are they invincible superheroines–they feel like real people thrust into a world they didn’t make.

But when the chips are down, they do prove to be worthy badasses. An interesting theme “Black Rock” keeps is one of the power of friendship, as cheesy as that sounds. Each group, of the heroes and the villains, is loyal to each other and that’s what motivates their actions.

Oh, and while keeping this spoiler-free, there is a scene in which Lou and Abby strip naked in the woods at night–but this scene isn’t gratuitous; there’s a reason for why they’re doing this.

You know how they say don’t go camping in a horror movie? Well, how can you know you’re in a horror movie unless something terrifying happens while you’re camping? That’s essentially the mindset of the movie.

C’mon C’mon (2021)

9 Dec

Smith’s Verdict: ****

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

I’m not gonna lie–I had to sit with what I just saw for about 10 minutes before writing about “C’mon C’mon.”

I’m a big fan of writer-director Mike Mills’ work–he makes deeply personal films about inter-family relationships and characters I deeply care about. With his 2011 drama “Beginners,” it was Ewan McGregor learning from his father (Christopher Plummer) how to relate to someone again. With 2016’s 20th Century Women, it was Annette Bening struggling to relate to her teenage son (Lucas Jade Zumann) in changing times. And now with “C’mon C’mon,” we have the always-interesting Joaquin Phoenix in one of his softer roles as a radio journalist having to connect with his 9-year-old nephew.

I didn’t see “20th Century Women” in time for my best-of-2016 list (and only after did I check out “Beginners,” so obviously that one wasn’t on the 2011 list either)–this time, I can finally have a Mike Mills film on my year-end list.

As I mentioned, Phoenix plays a radio journalist named Johnny, who goes around different cities asking many different children questions about particularly heavy topics like how they see the future. One of the great touches of the film is when he teaches his little nephew Jesse (Woody Norman) how to use his equipment to record natural sound as they walk around the city–whether Johnny knows it or not, it’s helping open up Jesse’s mind to the world around him.

Side-note: there’s already critics asking why this film had to be presented in black-and-white, especially since it seems set in modern times and there were two recent films set in the past (Belfast and Passing) that were also in B&W–I will not argue against this decision, especially because all this talk about the future helps give the film a sense of timelessness. (Plus, Johnny and Jesse are often walking around the city streets of Los Angeles, New York, and/or New Orleans–Jesse lives in LA, Johnny takes him with him to NY, and the two later visit NO–and the cities always look great in black-and-white.)

NY-based Johnny calls his LA-based sister Viv (Gaby Hoffman), with whom he doesn’t usually talk except on occasions such as the one-year anniversary of their mother’s death, and Viv needs a favor from him. She needs to go to Oakland to be with her manic-depressive soon-to-be ex-husband Paul (Scoot McNairy), because he had another breakdown recently, and she needs Johnny to look after her 9-year-old son Jesse. So, Johnny moves into Viv’s house to be with Jesse, who is a very strange but also very bright little boy. Naturally, the two don’t know how to get along, but as some time passes, he decides he likes the little tyke and doesn’t mind being a parent.

But naturally, this is only the beginning. With Viv’s permission, Johnny takes Jesse back to New York with him so he can get back to work and spend more time with him. Of course, with Jesse being a little kid who lives in a world all his own, Johnny realizes that this parenting gig isn’t as easy as he thought. When he tells Viv about how difficult things are with him, she responds, “Welcome to my f***ing life”–but she also assures him that nobody knows what they’re doing and there are going to be times when you want to be away from your kid and times when you love your kid, but you just have to keep going.

There are beautiful moments of gentleness and sincerity in the moments where Johnny and Jesse truly bond together, and there are heart-stopping dramatic moments such as when Johnny loses Jesse on a busy city street(!)–one of the things I love about Mike Mills films is the way he balances lighthearted humor and heavy emotional drama. The relationship between uncle and nephew is at the heart of the movie and it’s wonderful seeing seasoned veteran Joaquin Phoenix and pre-pubescent newcomer Woody Norman interact together as these two characters.

C’mon C’mon is one of my favorite films of 2021 and I’ll make sure it gets a spot on my year-end list.

My Favorite Movies – Gremlins (1984)

3 Dec

By Tanner Smith

“Die Hard” is technically a Christmas movie, but I’ll watch it anytime. “Gremlins,” however…even though it was initially released in the summertime, it just feels right to watch only in Christmastime. (That’s probably just me though.)

I DO think of Christmas when I think of “Gremlins.” The pleasant small-town setting looks like a Norman Rockwell painting. Christmas tunes are either hummed by characters or played in the playground. It even begins with the adorable little creature Gizmo being given as a Christmas present.

But I guess I can see why some people don’t like to associate “Gremlins” with the holiday season. The little red-eyed monsters attack Santa Claus, they tie up the dog outside in Christmas lights (poor pooch), and then there’s that random hella tragic speech about how the female lead found out there was no Santa Claus!

But that’s kind of why I love to watch this movie each Christmas too. I already have “Home Alone,” “It’s a Wonderful Life,” “A Christmas Story,” “Arthur Christmas,” and whatever “Christmas Carol” adaptation I feel like watching–why not a twisted horror-comedy about little monsters raise hell in a quiet little town on Christmas? I need a little variety! (And hey, why not a little dark comedy like “Bad Santa” or “The Land of Steady Habits” to go along with it? Those take place on Christmas too.)

“Gremlins” is a Spielberg production directed by Joe Dante (who made another favorite of mine: “Matinee”). It begins with a Spielbergian touch as young adult Billy (Zack Galligan) cares for his new pet, a strange big-eyed little creature called a Mogwai, named “Gizmo.” Right off the bat, Gizmo is freaking adorable–he reminds me of my late beloved Shi Tzu puppy.

But there are rules that come with owning a Mogwai: keep it away from bright lights (and sunlight will kill it), don’t get it wet (just let it clean itself like a cat), and NEVER feed it after midnight. (Whatever you want to say about how it’s “always ‘after midnight'” is pretty much moot–“Gremlins 2: The New Batch” already had fun with analyzing the concept.) When all three rules are broken, that’s when Gremlins gets more fun, as Dante goes with a sci-fi thriller approach, paying homage to 1950s monster films.

Oh, not just with the small town being invaded by otherworldly beings–Dante literally throws in Robby the Robot and the infamous Time Machine at random spots of the movie! (Dante always likes to fit in references to such in each of his films.)

“Gremlins” has a body count–don’t show this to kids unless you’re sure they can take it. When the Mogwai multiplies into more of them, they become vicious fanged beasties with scaly claws instead of furry paws. And they do kill people, and many of the Gremlins themselves get killed in pretty grisly ways too, especially when Billy’s mother (Francis Lee McCain) defends herself against some of them in her own kitchen. There’s also an intense scene in which Billy is nearly sliced by a Gremlin with a chainsaw. This film is rated PG, but this was back when PG didn’t just mean “Practically G” and also it paved the way for the PG-13 rating (along with Spielberg’s “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom,” which came out the same year as “Gremlins”). If you want to show this to your younger family members, keep that in mind.

I guess you could say “Gremlins” is a lovely bit of coal to fit into your Christmas stocking–and I enjoy it as such.