Best Feature Films 2021, Part 2 – The Best of the Rest

Here are the best of the rest of what I saw last year, 18 films in alphabetical order. I don’t claim that all of these are great films (though some of them are), but they all got my attention and engaged me in one way or another. Sometimes it’s just a performance, a feeling, more often it’s the whole package. You’ll also notice that with one exception, all of these films were written or co-written by their directors. I think this obviously makes a difference in the result.

With the exception of Parallel Mothers, all of these films are currently available for streaming from various services. I’ve tried to be as accurate as I can in listing sources, and apologize in advance for any mistakes or omissions.

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Belfast (Kenneth Branagh, director & writer)  Definitely a feel-good movie, but I think it earns the emotions it elicits. Kenneth Branagh has called this his most personal film, and it’s easy to see why. His own circumstances reflect those of the family in Belfast, Northern Ireland in the late 1960s during “The Troubles.” The cast is very strong. Jude Hill plays the 9-year-old son, Buddy. Jamie Dornan is his father Pa. The always excellent Ciarán Hinds and Judi Dench are Buddy’s grandparents. My favorite in the cast is Caitriona Balfe as Buddy’s mother. I’d not seen her before and was very drawn in by her performance. Belfast opens with color shots of the city landscape, then shifts to crisp black and white for the movie proper.

Currently available for streaming on Amazon Prime at a $19.95 rental. This price is sure to drop at a later date.

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Bergman Island (Mia Hansen-Love, director & writer)

Here’s an edited version of what I wrote in a previous post after seeing this film at the New York Film Festival:

I’d especially liked Mia Hansen-Løve’s earlier film, Father of My Children (2009), so I was looking forward to this. Tony (Tim Roth) and Chris (Vicky Krieps) are a married couple who have come to the Swedish island of Fårö, where Ingmar Bergman lived and shot many of his films. Tony and Chris are filmmakers, each working on a screenplay. They are staying in one of Bergman’s homes and hope to be inspired by the location and the Bergman vibe that seems to be everywhere. Chris is having difficulties with her writing. At one point she begins describing the story of her script. As she does this, the story of her script begins to weave in and out of the film we’ve been watching. Mia Wasikowska and Anders Danielsen Lie play characters in Chris’ story. At times it seems like the film within a film is beginning to take over. After it ended, I wasn’t sure if the film worked, but it’s stayed with me, which is a good sign. One of the most interesting features of Bergman Island is that it was shot in Bergman’s actual homes on the island, and people are constantly talking about Bergman and his films. At those times, Bergman Island takes on a documentary aspect.

Available for streaming on Amazon Prime and Apple TV.

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Copshop (Joe Carnahan, director & co-writer)  If I believed in the concept of Guilty Pleasures, which I don’t, this film would fit the bill. Copshop is an action thriller that takes its time setting the stage before blowing the doors off. The storyline shares some DNA with Rio Bravo and Assault on Precinct 13, but that shouldn’t get in the way. There’s a high body count and a lot of Tarantinoesque back and forth. Most importantly, the cast really sells it. Over the last few years, I’ve grown to like Gerard Butler, after initially dismissing him as too thuggish and unappealing. Frank Grillo stands out in all the supporting work he’s done. Here he’s more center stage. Toby Huss, who I’ve liked ever since seeing him the series Halt and Catch Fire, shows up as a very funny, very psycho gunman. For those who like this sort of thing, and we know who we are, Copshop is worth the ride. It does the job.

Available for streaming on Amazon Prime.

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Dune (Denis Villeneuve, director & co-writer)

Here’s an edited version of what I wrote in a previous post after seeing this film at the New York Film Festival:

Denis Villeneuve is an excellent director, one of the best, and a favorite of mine. I love Sicario (2015), which I find endlessly repeatable. Blade Ruuner 2049 (2017) is also excellent and proved that Villeneuve could easily work on the large scale that Dune required. Frank Herbert’s Dune, published in 1965, became a science fiction classic with a cult following over the years. Many sequels and spinoff novels followed. The first attempt to film the novel was by David Lynch in 1984. The accepted wisdom is that it was a disaster. Having seen it, I concur. Villeneuve’s version is not; it’s excellent and really delivers. But it covers only the first half of the book, so in a sense it’s all setup and prologue. Audiences will have to wait for Part Two to see how it all plays out.

Dune is set far in the future (in a galaxy far, far away). The House of Atreides (yes, there’s a Game of Thrones vibe to all this) has been ordered by the Emperor to take over spice mining operations on the planet Arrakis, aka Dune. Spice is a priceless commodity, somehow essential to interplanetary travel. The cast is excellent. Timothée Chalamet plays Paul Atreides, the protagonist of the story. Oscar Isaac is his father, Duke Leto Atreides, the head of their clan. Rebecca Ferguson (especially excellent) is Paul’s mother, Lady Jessica. Others in the cast include Javier Bardem, Charlotte Rampling, Josh Brolin, and Zendaya. My favorite is Jason Momoa, who plays Duncan Idaho. He brings warmth, humor, loyalty, and heroism to the role.

Dune was shot with IMAX cameras. Denis Villeneuve has said that Dune was “dreamed, designed, and shot for the IMAX experience.” At the NYFF I saw it at the Walter Reade theater. It was fine on that screen, but I’m when I later saw it in IMAX (twice), it was almost like seeing an exponentially different film. That said, if a story is solid, it should work in any format. I think Dune does.

Available for streaming on Amazon Prime and Apple TV.

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The Electrical Life of Louis Wain (Will Sharpe, director & co-writer)  This film is quite wonderful. Benedict Cumberbatch, in another sharply drawn role, is endearing as the eccentric title character, who actually existed. I’d not heard of him, but it turns out I was familiar with his cats. In 1881, Louis becomes the primary breadwinner of his family. He supports his mother and five sisters as an illustrator for a London paper. Cats become his main subject. Within 10 years his cat pictures have become enormously popular. But since Wain failed to copyright his work, he gets no profit from the many reproductions than ensue. Louis Wain was a visionary artist, but ill-equipped to deal with the realities of his world. His life becomes both sad and tragic, but is finally triumphant.

The cat pictures below show that he anticipated a psychedelic way of seeing the world, though this probably reflected his mental state at the time.

Besides Benedict Cumberbatch, the cast includes Claire Foy as the governess who becomes Wain’s wife and Toby Jones as the editor of The Illustrated London News who initially employs Wain.

Available for streaming on Amazon Prime.

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The Father (Florian Zeller, director & co-writer)  Anthony Hopkins and Olivia Coleman are a powerhouse combination. I watched them in amazement in this film. Hopkins is the father of the title and Coleman is his daughter. He has dementia, which is depicted in a way I’d not seen before. As his reality shifts, it shifts for us, too. We see and hear what he sees and hears. It’s quite unusual. We’re taken inside this man and his confusions. The Father is tragic and very human.

Available for streaming on Amazon Prime and Hulu.

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The French Dispatch (Wes Anderson, director & co-writer)

Here’s an edited version of what I wrote in a previous post after seeing this film at the New York Film Festival:

To say that Wes Anderson brings a granular attention to detail in his films is putting it mildly. His films, and this one in particular, are like finely crafted dollhouses, symmetrical and highly detailed. It’s like his films are etched on the head of a pin, or impossibly intricate needlepoint tapestries. A friend of mine calls them “fussy,” which I think is correct without being perjorative. I may not get emotionally involved in his films, but I do marvel at them.

Available for streaming on Amazon Prime and Apple TV.

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The Hand of God (Paolo Sorrentino, director & writer)  Beautiful coming of age story filled with memorable, eccentric characters and situations. Rich texture and detail. Naples has never looked more stunning.

Available for streaming on Netflix.

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Hive (Blerta Basholli, director & writer)  This is a powerful portrayal of resilience and human dignity, based on a true story. Last year it was the first film in Sundance Film Festival history to win all three top awards.

In a tough, taut drama, the director Blerta Basholli explores the lives of women whose husbands went missing in the Kosovo War. (New York Times)

Like many women in Kosovo, Fahrije (played by Yllka Gashi) is hoping for news about her husband, who is still missing seven years after the war. Widows are not expected to work, but she has to provide for her family and joins forces with other widows to start a business producing ajvar (a hot pepper sauce). This is even though the community already condemns her for daring to drive. The film was inspired by the true story of Fahrije Hoti. (IMDb)

Click here for the complete New York Times review.

Available for streaming on Amazon Prime and Kino Now.

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I’m Your Man (Maria Shrader, director & co-writer)  Maren Eggert plays Alma, an anthropologist at a museum in a near-future Berlin. In exchange for research funds, she agrees to have a humanoid robot, Tom, live with her for three weeks as part of a test to determine if such robots should be given rights as citizens and become more integrated into society. Tom is played by Dan Stevens (speaking fluent German). Can Tom be a perfect companion? Alma is very resistant to the whole idea, and initially rejects Tom at every turn. There have been many films and television shows that feature robots who are otherwise indistinguishable from real people, at least in appearance. They almost always raise the issue of what it means to be human. I liked this film a lot. It’s touching, funny, clever, quirky, and yes, human.

Available for streaming on Amazon Prime.

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The Lost Daughter (Maggie Gyllenhaal, director & writer)

Here’s an edited version of what I wrote in a previous post after seeing this film at the New York Film Festival:

based on the novel by Elena Ferrante. It was written and directed by Maggie Gyllenhaal for her feature film debut. The strong cast includes Olivia Colman (awesome as always), Dakota Johnson, Jessie Buckley, Peter Sarsgaard, and Ed Harris.

Colman plays Leda, a divorced college professor on a solo vacation on a Greek island. She becomes involved with a large family that she initially finds annoying. A child’s lost doll figures heavily in the narrative. The present is interwoven with the past and Leda’s memories of her younger self and her relationship with her two daughters. I wasn’t initially sure that the film worked for me, but, like Bergman Island, it’s stayed with me, which is always a good sign.

Available for streaming on Netflix.

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Nightmare Alley (Guillermo del Toro, director & co-writer)  This remake of the 1947 film starring Tyrone Power goes deeper into the material, but isn’t necessarily an improvement. It felt right to me when I first heard del Toro was doing this. I’ve been a big fan since seeing Cronos (1993), The Devil’s Backbone (2001), Pan’s Labyrinth (2006), and The Shape of Water (2017). His attention to affection for weird, off-beat, disturbing detail seemed a good fit for this tale of carnival sideshow geeks, alcoholism, and phony spiritualists. Bradley Cooper is excellent in the Tyrone Power role. The rest of the cast is very strong. Especially good is David Strathairn, always completely authentic every time I see him. He doesn’t have a lot of screen time here, but he makes every second count. Del Toro has made a solid film, disturbing and engaging, with a rich period setting,  I only wish he’d taken it further.

Available for streaming on Hulu and HBO Max.

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No Time to Die (Cary Joji Fukunaga, director & co-writer)  Sean Connery was my first, so he’ll always be James Bond for me, but in five films Daniel Craig has more than made the role his own. Skyfall (2012) is the best of the Craig films for me, but No Time to Die is very good. At two hours forty-five minutes it’s also the longest Bond to date, and like the previous films, it’s a big, globe-trotting production. All the money spent is on the screen. Given the body count, which includes established characters from previous films, the title No Time to Die is rather ironic. This is Craig’s last time as Bond. There’s a sense of loss and of things coming to an end, for Bond as well as Craig. I was jolted by the ending. It will be interesting to see where they go from here, because there certainly will be more James Bond films.

Available for streaming on Amazon Prime.

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Nobody (Ilya Naishuller, director)   This is the second Not-Guilty Pleasure on this list. It definitely comes out of the John Wick gene pool. This makes sense, since it was written by Derek Kolstad, who has also written the Wick films. The casting of Bob Odenkirk is what initially got my interest. He’s introduced as a seemingly ordinary guy who has a wife and two kids and a mundane office job working for his father-in-law. Then he’s revealed to be a former government assassin, a lethal killing machine forced out of a dreary retirement. This is a jolt because, after all, he’s played by Bob Odenkirk. He brings a quirky sensibility to the character. The film is a black comedy as much as anything else, and very violent, but in ways that don’t feel like what we’ve seen before. The lengthy and inventive fight on a city bus is an impressive centerpiece. And again, it’s Bob Odenkirk doing the ass kicking, so I’m along for that ride.

Available for streaming on Amazon Prime, HBO Max, and Apple TV.

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Parallel Mothers (Pedro Almodóvar, director & writer)

Here’s an edited version of what I wrote in a previous post after seeing this film at the New York Film Festival:

Almodóvar’s films are full of life and energy. I was really looking forward to Parallel Mothers, so I hate to say that I found it disappointing, especially after his previous film, Pain and Glory (2019), which I loved. Though it’s probably more accurate to say that I was disappointed, not that the film was disappointing. My expectations got in the way. Penélope Cruz is excellent, as is Rossy de Palma. They play Janis and Elena, two pregnant single women in the hospital at the same time to give birth. They become friends and develop a relationship after their children, both daughters, are born. This leads to a big twist that’s not much of a surprise when it comes. There’s a second story line concerning the killing of hundreds of civilians by the Franco regime during the Spanish Civil War. This is a powerful subject, which I think Almodóvar felt he had to address. Despite my ambivalence, I know this is an important film from a unique director.

Not yet available for streaming.

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Passing (Rebecca Hall, director & writer)

Here’s an edited version of what I wrote in a previous post after seeing this film at the New York Film Festival:

Based on a short novel written by Nella Larsen and published in 1929, Rebecca Hall’s Passing examines a powerful racial issue. The film is set in New York City in the same period. Irene (Tessa Thompson) lives in Harlem with her husband Brian (André Holland), a successful doctor. One day, in a posh hotel in Manhattan, Irene sees a childhood friend, Clare (Ruth Negga), in the hotel restaurant. They haven’t seen each other for many years. It turns out that Clare has been passing for white, married to a white man, John (Alexander Skarsgård). Told mostly from Irene’s point of view, the film looks at how her relationship with Clare develops, given the circumstances. Passing is shot in crisp black & white, and evokes the period with skill and economy. The excellent cast also includes Bill Camp, who I always like seeing.

Clare is passing for white, but is not white. At the outset, Irene is the only one in the film who knows. Clare’s husband John is a virulent racist. He has no idea that she is anything but white. At one point, he makes a “joke” that if Clare doesn’t stay out of the sun she’ll turn into an n-word. What must it cost Clare to hear this and know her husband hates Blacks? She says nothing, which to my mind makes her complicit. These are powerful story elements, but the film doesn’t question Clare’s tolerance of her racist husband, at least not directly. I find this disturbing, but maybe I’ve misread the film. Passing is too well made and well acted to ignore.

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A Son (Un fils) (Mehdi Barsaoui, director & writer)

Per IMDb: When driving home from southern Tunisia, Fares and Meriem’s car is hit by a stray bullet during an ambush by an armed group; their young son Aziz’s liver is punctured. At a local hospital, the need for a transplant uncovers a secret that risks Aziz’s life should a donor not be found in time. But this is only the beginning of the unexpected twists in a story so deftly crafted that it offers both a probing look at Tunisian society’s anchored social and legal realities, and an unshakable need to ask yourself what you would do in the same situation. As their world falls apart, the subtleties of the couple’s shifting emotions are handled masterfully.

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The Tragedy of Macbeth (Joel Coen, director & writer)  Written by Joel Coen (with some help from William Shakespeare), this the first film directed by Coen without the partnership of his brother Ethan. Shot in black & white, it has a very stylized look. The minimal settings are very sharp and angular. The shot below gives a sense of this.

Denzel Washington and Frances McDormand are excellent as Lord and Lady Macbeth, frightening, ominous, and increasingly paranoid as the bodies pile up. But it’s Kathryn Hunter as the Witches (all three of them) who brings a sense of profound weirdness to the proceedings, as seen in the clip below.

My favorite film version of Macbeth to date is Akira Kurosawa’s Throne of Blood, but Joel Coen’s film is a fine addition to the catalog.

Available for streaming on Apple TV.

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That’s it for now. Next up will be my picks for the best documentary features of last year. In the meantime, for those of you in or near New York City, this past Friday Film Forum resumed offering concessions. For me, that means one thing: the best POPCORN in the known universe. Stay safe. – Ted Hicks

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About Ted Hicks

Iowa farm boy; have lived in NYC for 40 years; worked in motion picture labs, film/video distribution, subtitling, media-awards program; obsessive film-goer all my life.
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2 Responses to Best Feature Films 2021, Part 2 – The Best of the Rest

  1. David M Fromm says:

    Saw Belfast and liked it a lot. Now more to see/ Great suggestions.

  2. Connie Corcoran Wilson says:

    “Last Night at Soho” should have received more attention, if only for its inventive cinematography.

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