By Dwight Brown
NNPA Film Critic
In 2021 we could watch movies in theaters or screen them on streaming services. Two venues. Two choices. It’s a great way for more films to be seen by more people.
The best and brightest of this year’s films were inspiring, noteworthy and will vie for awards in weeks to come. Check out the best productions, performances and artistry in 2021.
Best Feature Films
Being the Ricardos (****) – Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz, TV rom/com pioneers, finally get their due as filmmaker Aaron Sorkin (Chicago Seven) lets audiences peek into a specific window of their lives. It’s the week the couple shot the first iconic I Love Lucy Show. In a very wordy, detailed and enlightening script, Sorkin reveals the brilliance, courage and stubbornness needed by a white woman and Cuban man who dared to break the TV sitcom mold. Nicole Kidman as Ball and Javier Bardem as Arnaz capture the essence of the real people behind the TV characters. Drama on and off set is so intense you wonder how comedy is even part of the equation. Nina Arianda as Vivian Vance (Ethel) and J.J. Simmons as Willian Frawley (Fred) fill out the exceptional cast. Jon Hutman’s production design, Andres Cubillan’s art direction, Ellen Brill’s set decoration and Susan Lyall’s costumes aptly recreate the ‘50s era and studio locations. Tight editing (Alan Baumgarten), incandescent cinematography (Jeff Cronenweth) and captivating music (Daniel Pemberton) complete the picture. Kidman’s interpretation of Ball is as ingenious as it is emotionally nuanced. Sorkin’s most balanced writing/directing effort ever.
Dune (***1/2) — In the year 10191, the desert planet Arrakis is fought and lusted over for its precious minerals. Different groups vie to rule the environs, and all are led down the same path of destruction. Canadian writer/director Denis Villeneuve creates a wondrous canvas, using his and screenwriters Jon Spaihts and Eric Roth’s rich script as a guide. A brilliant tech crew fulfills their dreams and creates the most stunningly beautiful event movie of the year as viewers journey to a mecca set among high sand dunes. The who’s who cast walks around with such pageantry it’s as if they’re living a biblical sci-fi life. Oscar Isaac, Timotheé Chalamet, Rebecca Ferguson, Jason Momoa, Sharon Duncan-Brewster, Josh Brolin, Chang Chen, Dave Bautista and Zendaya are on patrol. Gorgeous craftsmanship.
The Harder They Fall (***1/2) — This wild cowboy yarn is unapologetically Afrocentric and as cutting edge as it is retro. It’s the brainchild of musician-turned-writer/director Jeymes Samuel who gets a worthy assist from co-writer Boaz Yakin. Together they tell a riveting tale of cold-blooded revenge. Nat Love (Jonathan Majors) has been trailing and killing the badmen who messed with his family decades ago. The last killer on his bucket list is the cunning and elusive Rufus Buck (Idris Elba). Regina King, Zazie Beetz, Edi Gathegi, R.J. Cyler, LaKeith Stanfield and Delroy Lindo fill out a supreme acting ensemble of wild west gangstas. It’s on. Someone’s gonna die today.
Herself (***1/2) — A mom (Clare Dunne) tries desperately to regroup with her two young daughters, escape an abusive husband’s (Ian Lloyd Anderson, Game of Thrones) savagery and build a home. It’s a premise, that in the wrong hands, could be either repulsive or cloyingly melodramatic. Under Dunne’s sensitive guidance, as lead actress and the screenwriter, her highly emotional performance glistens and her empowering screenplay takes viewers on a sjourn that is as gripping as it is up lifting. Phyllida Lloyd’s judicious direction makes sure all the fundamentals are in place. A feminist allegory with a lasting effect.
King Richard (***1/2) — The spirit of the prescient planner, dreamer and barker Richard Williams, the work ethic and faith of his wife Oracene “Brandy” Price and the talent of Venus and Serena are on view in this inspiring bio/dra. Tennis-lover/screenwriter Zach Baylin (Creed III) finds the guts and glory in their story. Director Reinaldo Marcus Green (Monsters and Men), with the classic against-the-odds script, heaps so many challenges on the family you’ve got to root for them. Championship performances from the entire cast.
Mass (****) — In a suburban church, two couples confront each other face-to-face after a high school tragedy has occurred. The writing and directorial debut of actor-turned-filmmaker Fran Kranz is astounding. The production is written like a play and staged like a claustrophobic encounter. Reed Birney, Ann Dowd, Jason Isaacs and Martha Plimpton get primal in ways only seasoned actors can do. Sparks fly, emotions boil over, loathing is confirmed. All participants struggle for ways to end the incessant PTSD that comes from surviving the nightmare of a school massacre. Taunt and tense. Searing dialogue. Says one parent about her child: “The love we had was true … but I raised a murderer.” Couldn’t be more timely.
Mogul Mowgli (***1/2) — Culture clash powers this feature film debut by director Bassam Tariq. Zed (Riz Ahmed, Sound of Metal), a rebellious British/Pakistani rapper, freestyles brilliant streams of thought condemning colonialism, imperialism and racism. When he becomes physically debilitated, Zed returns home to his family and very conservative father Bashir (Alyy Khan). It’s a day of reckoning for the central character, his dad and anyone invested in a culture not their own and forsaking their roots. The thoughtful premise and profound script are a collaborative effort by the Oscar-nominated actor Ahmed and the Sundance award-winning filmmaker Tariq. Genius.
The Tragedy of Macbeth (****) — There comes a point in every year when audiences see a film they believe is the year’s masterpiece. This is it. Writer/director Joel Coen (Fargo) creates a magnus opus that reinterprets one of Shakespeare’s most famous plays, embracing and accentuating pivotal parts. Three witches (Kathryn Hunt) predict Macbeth (Denzel Washington) will be king someday. Egged on by his ambitious wife Lady Macbeth (Frances McDormand), he kills anyone in his way. Stunning black and white cinematography (Bruno Delbonnel). Magnificent production design (Stefan Dechant), art direction (Jason T. Clark) and set decoration (Nancy Haigh). Regal costumes (Mary Zophres). Cohen’s netherworld follows a trail of lies, deceit and betrayal that’s as breathtaking now as it was when it was written in the 1600s.
Wild Indian (***) — In his feature film debut, Lyle Mitchell Corbine Jr. writes, directs and tells a cautionary tale about child abuse and its aftermath that is both vengeful and just. When a sociopathic executive name Michael (Michael Greyeyes) was a kid, he was beaten by his dad and found refuge hanging with his young cousin Teddo. As boys, one of them committed a homicide and then their paths diverged. As adults, Teddo (Chaske Spencer) is a haunted man who seeks out his former best friend demanding an explanation for his behavior and disappearance. Sparks fly. Corbine Jr.’s sobering narrative warns that cruelty just breeds cruelty and more victims. His direction is as instinctive and solid as the cinematography (Eli Born), editing (Ed Yonaitis) and costumes (Matthew Hixenbaugh and Nikki Pelley). Outstanding performances by Greyeyes and Spencer. A very disturbing character study and a missive that will cause viewers to ponder.
Zola (***) — Satire reigns supreme in this very raunchy anecdote about young streetwise women who get snared up in sex trafficking and prostitution. An unwitting Hooters waitress and stripper Zola (Taylour Paige, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom) is befriended by a fellow dancer Stefani (Riley Keough) and invited on a road trip from Detroit to Florida that’s been arranged by a man named X (Colman Domingo, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom). What looks like days of fun and sun turns into forced confinement and “trapping” (sex for money). The real-life premise mirrors the experience of waitress/stripper A’Ziah “Zola” King. She recollected her weekend from hell in a 148-tweetstorm that garnered 108,000 followers who christened her “Queen of Hoeism.” That’s the kind of exotic dancer adulation usually reserved for superstars like Cardi B.
Playwright turned screenwriter/director Janicza Bravo (Lemon) and co-writers King and Jeremy O exhibit a wicked sense of humor that uses profanity, sex, nudity and intimidation to make audiences howl. Bravo creatively plays with the footage: e.g., using framed scenes that scroll down the screen. She makes this 86 minutes of eye candy, that isn’t perfect, perfectly silly to watch. Paige talks a lot of s—t, Domingo plays X the pimp with conviction and Keough, as the world’s trashiest white stripper, turns in the year’s most wacky performance. The filmmakers, writers and cast are so criminally funny they should all be hailed for shining a light on a serious subject and then arrested by the vice squad for their naughty humor. 2021’s funniest movie.
The best performances and artistry from a diverse set of today’s top talent.
Best Directors: Jane Campion (The Power of the Dog), Joel Cohen (The Tragedy of Macbeth), Fran Kranz (Mass), Jaymes Samuel (The Harder They Fall), Denis Villeneuve (Dune)
Best First Films: Faya Dayi (Jessica Beshir), The Harder They Fall (Jaymes Samuel), Mogul Mowgli (Bassam Tariq), Passing (Rebecca Hall), Wild Indian (Lyle Mitchell Corbine, Jr.)
Best Foreign Language Films: The Disciple, Drive My Car, Hive, Parallel Mothers, The Worst Person in the World
Best Documentaries: Faya Dayi, Flee, Homeroom, Julia, Summer of Soul (…Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised),
Best Actors: Riz Ahmed (Mogul Mowgli), Clifton Collins Jr. (Jockey), Peter Dinklage (Cyrano), Frankie Faison (The Killing of Kenneth Chamberlain), Jonathan Majors (The Harder They Fall)
Best Actresses: Claire Dunne (Herself), Jennifer Hudson (Respect), Nicole Kidman (Being the Ricardos), Tessa Thompson (Passing), Kristen Stewart (Spencer)
Best Supporting Actors: Corey Hawkins (The Tragedy of Macbeth), Jason Isaacs (Mass) Alyy Khan (Mogul Mowgli), Delroy Lindo (The Harder They Fall), Masaki Okada (Drive My Car)
Best Supporting Actresses: Ariana DeBose (West Side Story), Kirsten Dunst (The Power of the Dog), Aunjanue Ellis (King Richard), Toko Miura (Drive My Car), Ruth Negga (Passing)
Best Screenplays: Being the Ricardos (Aaron Sorkin), The Harder They Fall (Jeymes Samuel, Boaz Yakin), Herself (Clare Dunne), King Richard (Zach Baylin), Mass (Fran Kranz)
Best Cinematography: Belfast (Haris Zambarloukos), Dune (Greig Fraser), No Time to Die (Linus Sandgren), The Power of the Dog (Ari Wegner), The Tragedy of Macbeth (Bruno Delbonnel)
Best Animation/CGI: Flee, Encanto, Raya and the Last Dragon
Other Great Films: Ailey, Attica, Belfast, Benediction, Candyman, CODA, Coming 2 America, Concrete Cowboy, Don’t Look Up, A Hero, Jockey, Joe Bell, Luzzu, Ma Belle My Beauty, Mothering Sunday, Never Gonna Snow Again, New Order, No Time to Die, Old Henry, The Power of the Dog, Respect, Together Together, The United States vs. Billie Holiday, White Tiger…