That Shelf’s Jason Gorber recently contributed his top ten list to RogerEbert.com‘s compilation of the best films of 2021. Get the full lists of the Ebert crew here, and stay tuned for That Shelf’s picks for the best of the year next week!
It’s not often that a film can literally reshape history, but Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson’s ecstatic film does just that. Drawn from footage that sat on a shelf for decades, combined with contemporary interviews and precise and rhythmic editing style befitting the celebrated drummer, this is the most musical of musical films, the most profound of documentaries, and the most fun to be had revisiting a hot 1969 summer, where the crowds gathered and were wowed by a concert event for the ages.
Frank Kranz’s blistering debut is a challenging, riveting portrayal of grief and denial. The story is parsed out deliberately, so going in as free from expectation and knowledge of the plot as possible in order to be swayed by the emotional power of the narrative. With stellar performances by Reed Birney, Ann Dowd, Jason Isaacs, Martha Plimpton and Breed Wool, this is a film with the power of an intimate stage production that never fails to feel profoundly cinematic.
Leave it to the octogenarian Paul Verhoeven to so youthfully take this true tale of lust-in-a-convent and somehow turn it into a deeply philosophical rumination of life during plague time, the demonic vagaries of a bureaucratic class, the fine, often invisible line between religious fervour and insanity, and wrap it all up within a film that’s equal parts jet-black comedy and ice-cold bleak tragedy. Based on Judith Brown’s academically rigorous Immodest Acts: The Life of a Lesbian Nun in Renaissance Italy, this film defines the truth-stranger-than-fiction trope (“It really happened” was Verhoeven’s retort against those that described it as “blasphemous”), and with yet another killer take by Charlotte Rampling, along with Virginie Efira, Lambert Wilson, and Daphne Patakia, you’ve got the trapping of a late career masterwork by the ever vigorous Dutch master.
Wes Anderson’s films certainly aren’t for everyone, but the magical effect felt seeing this film while surrounded by bemused if not hostile French folk elevated this sardonic love letter to the quirks of l’Hexagone will never be forgotten. Told in parts, with an extension of the already exemplary ensemble of actors he has assembled over the decades, it’s another take where Wes weaponizes whimsy, as my review put it, sending out a cascade of references and visual treats that’s often as overwhelming as it is enjoyable. A deeply literary and acute take on a dying breed of travelling journalist, the film’s nostalgia is palpable, but somehow it turns these phrases and constructions of the past into something not merely backwards looking, but entirely of the present. It’s the wildest ride of the year, by far, even when it accidentally tumbles into the sewers, and for those welcome to its charms, you’ll adore how it all unfolds.
It seems silly perhaps to celebrate a blockbuster for taking risks with beloved source material, yet if history is any judge, many would have thought that Herbert’s narrative would be, frankly, unfilmable. Denis Villeneuve and his collaborators wisely cut the novel in half, concentrating almost entirely on the interaction of characters rather than the Byzantine political machinations, resulting in a film that echoes Lawrence of Arabia as much as any sci-fi epic has. The overtly prophetic narrative makes for some obvious shifts in plot (with such tendencies setup to be completely undercut in Part II, of course), but freed from rigidly presenting every narrative turn we instead get to revel in the sumptuous visuals, the committed performances (all hail Charlotte Rampling!), and exquisite attention to the human scope within the grandeur of this intergalactic conflict.
Ridley Scott’s return to form is perhaps the biggest surprise of the year, particularly when a second film towards the end of 2021 illustrated one of his grandest misfires. The contrast between Duel and House of Gucci is somewhat fascinating, as the clear delineator is the caliber of the former’s script by Oscar-nominee Nicole Holofcener and Oscar-winning writers (!) Ben Affleck and Matt Damon. This Rashômon-y film about assault, guilt and retribution twist its historical tale in wonderful ways, with the broad, campy yet convincing portrayals providing a rich, at times bawdy, at times tumultuous tale.
Sean Baker’s keen eye for unique American subcultures continues with this broad, tragi-comic look at a former porn star who crashes back to Earth, force to navigate the quotidian banality life in his hometown. Simon Rex, Bree Elrod and a revelatory performance by young Suzanna Son take this libidinous, ludicrous story and somehow make it all feel almost like a documentary. Baker’s attention detail is as acute as ever, and with a galaxy of fascinating character (Judy Hill as Leondria shines, as does Brittany Rodriguez), as well as enough ribald randiness to keep the juices flowing, this is definitely one of the most rambunctious films of the year.
Many asked, do we need a new version of this 1961 classic? Wasn’t Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins’ take already one of the best films ever made? Well, leave it to that quiet kid who grew up in Phoenix to find a new way to bring NYC alive, exposing the power of the original production to a new generation. Spielberg’s film goes out of its way to avoid any overt echoes to the original, drawing inspiration right down to the orchestration from the stage musical that was birthed by, as he put it in a recent interview, “four homosexual Jews.” Bernstein, Sondheim, Robbins and Laurents were men who helped reshape Shakespeare to present a contemporary story of prejudice, passion and retribution. But it’s this new generation, including an army of blistering Latinx talent, that’s here to truly bring this tale to life. Take a look at the bravura opening sequence, one that equals yet is entirely different to the majesty of the original, and revel in every near-perfect moment that follows.
Alex Camilleri look at a Maltese fisherman and his woes is brilliantly realized, taking grand Mediterranean myths and deep ideas such as Theseus’ thought experiment and wrapping it into a contemporary story about the changing economy and culture at the edge of European society. Officially the first film shot in the nation with a local cast and crew, and using the language and elements of those from the island rather than the usual tack of pretending to be somewhere else that’s either rugged or exotic, Camilleri’s lens always manages to bring into focus the reality of the situation without it ever feeling forced or manipulative. It’s a quite tale told boldly, a small story that feels as epic as its surroundings.
Rebecca Hall’s exceptional adaptation of Nella Larsen’s 1929 novel is easily one of the year’s best, full stop. Tessa Thompson and Ruth Negga are electric in their roles, and Eduard Grau’s photography literally draws shades of grey between black and white. A deeply personal story from Hall, this easily could have come across as forced or over arch, yet her script deftly navigates the various subtleties in ways that quietly astonish. The result is a deeply affecting, brilliantly accomplished work that resonates long after its final moments.