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Eppler: The 10 best movies of 2021

This all-star cast, illuminates a dark story, brilliantly executed.
This all-star cast, illuminates a dark story, brilliantly executed.(imd)
Published: Mar. 24, 2022 at 11:18 AM CDT
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LUBBOCK, Texas (KJTV) - It’s harder than ever to keep up. With more streaming services, each producing original content and getting exclusive rights to studio films, one can’t be blamed for getting behind or just not knowing about certain titles. To wit, I probably saw fewer movies this year than usual.

Of those I did see, here are my ten favorites:

10. “Bo Burnham: Inside”

The only reason this isn’t higher on the list is because it is technically a comedy special. But it plays like a musical/comedy film, and Burnham’s filmmaking talent cannot be denied. It is, I believe, one of the most consequential and incisive pieces of art about the pandemic. Burnham explores isolation, loneliness and depression in ways that are devastating and hilarious in short sketches and songs. It’s a high-wire act executed with care and precision.

9. “The Harder They Fall”

This Black Spaghetti Western finds just the right flavor of old-school and modern. There are echoes of Sergio Leone mixed with the Blaxploitation era and a current hip-hop vibe. The movie embraces a Black identity for a genre so commonly coded White. Director James Samuel’s movie is stylish and fun, and there’s a strong suggestion at a sequel on the way. Yes, please.

8. “CODA”

It’s schmaltzy for sure, but I can’t deny that this little picture got to me – a few times. It’s the story of a deaf family and the only hearing member, a high schooler, figures out she can sing. A teacher encourages her to pursue it at the college level. The cast made up of deaf actors rightly won a SAG award for their ensemble. The movie never looks down on these characters, but rather lifts them up. There’s some powerful stuff here.

7. “Dune”

Although my expectations were low for this second attempt to adapt the novel after the Lynch version, there’s no need to grade on a curve here. Director Denis Villeneuve has become one of the most exciting and thoughtful sci-fi filmmakers of his generation (he made a better “Blade Runner!”). Although his “Dune” is only part of the story, it is a more focused vision. On top of that, the visuals are stunning. “Chapter 2″ can’t get here soon enough.

6. “Pig”

The biggest surprise of the year is this drama with Nicolas Cage as a truffle hunter living off the grid whose prize pig is stolen. Before you jump to thinking this will be “John Wick” with a pig, the picture unfolds as a mystery and character study as we slowly find out who Cage really is. The movie rarely does what we expect or maybe even want. Instead, it chooses a much more challenging path. Cage hasn’t been this good in ages, and it’s one of his career-best performances.

5. “Val”

The best documentary I saw last year. Val Kilmer has used a video recorder to document his career basically since the beginning, and he uses the footage to tell his story. It’s amazing stuff with early footage of a play backstage with a young Sean Penn and Kevin Bacon, up through “Top Gun” and behind the scenes with Marlon Brando on his final movie. But Kilmer’s throat cancer has rendered him unable to speak, so his son narrates the film for us – a perfect choice making it feel so much more personal. It’s a devastating story, but it’s told brilliantly.

4. “The Green Knight”

An outstanding example of formalism, writer and director David Lowery relies heavily on images to tell this fantasy. The picture plays out like a dream as we follow a knight (Dev Patel, wonderful) working to make good on a deal with a devil. The journey is filled with startling images, my favorite being a circular pan moving back and forth through time. It’s a movie that would be fun to dissect scene for scene and shot for shot if one only had the time. It’s just a delicious watch for film lovers.

3. “The Power of the Dog”

Jane Campion’s revisionist Western may upset the purists, but the myth of the American West is big enough to handle it. Her family drama is elegant and explosive as it tears apart the façade of the traditional American cowboy. The ensemble cast is tremendous, but Benedict Cumberbatch is the standout with a performance set to go off like a powder keg. I also love Jonny Greenwood’s score, punctuating the tension perfectly. It’s a beautiful picture, and the payoff at the end feels justly earned. I so appreciate films like this and “The Harder They Fall” keeping the Western genre alive with fresh takes.

2. “West Side Story”

Steven Spielberg did a true remake of one of the best Hollywood musicals, and he made it better. That would be unthinkable, but Spielberg reminds us he is one of the greats for a reason. The musical arrangements and time period are kept the same, but Tony Kushner’s screenplay and Spielberg’s decisions made this picture feel modern and urgent. The cast is aces from top to bottom, and the picture is gorgeous to watch. Spielberg may have never directed a musical before, but because he understands filmmaking so well, the camera movement places us in the action, rather than just settling for spectating. This is top-shelf Spielberg.

1. “Nightmare Alley”

I got lost in director Guillermo del Toro’s dreamy noir. I didn’t want it to end – although, the ending packs a huge wallop in a perfect full-circle pay-off. It is a remake, but this “Nightmare Alley” is deeper and incredibly rich. Bradley Cooper stars as a circus carney who takes his con game pro and tries to run it on some dangerous people. The movie unfolds deliberately like a great novel taking us on a journey with a perfect arc. I could pause this movie at just about any minute and be looking at a beautiful work of art to hang on a wall. It’s an absolute stunner. As much as I can appreciate minimalist filmmaking, I do still find that I love big productions that tell compelling and challenging stories. Spielberg and del Toro, both masters of their craft, gave it all to us this year.

I also enjoyed:

  • “Drive My Car”
  • “Encanto”
  • “Licorice Pizza”
  • “The Mitchells vs. the Machines”
  • “The Matrix Resurrections”
  • “No Sudden Move”
  • “tick... tick... BOOM”
  • “The Tragedy of MacBeth”

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