Top Five for 2021
No Time To Die
The French Dispatch
West Side Story
I’ve always been curious to go to the New York Film Festival. My friend Susan Luxemberg and I looked through the lineup and decided to bite the bullet, shell out the $30, and go see *Benedetta.* We had hoped to see the movie that opened the festival, *Macbeth.* But after two hours of waiting online I found out that tickets were $150! And those were the cheap seats. Forget that sauce.
*Benedetta* sounded enticing and totally lived up to our expectations. It’s the new movie by that fabulous old envelope pusher, Paul Verhoeven, the Dutch director who brought us *Basic Instinct,* *Showgirls,* my beloved *Starship Troopers,* and the surprising *Elle.* *Benedetta* was gaining a little traction as “the lesbian nun movie” and what a treat to see a group of protestors outside the theater, young white guys holding a sign saying, “We vehemently protest the blasphemous lesbian movie Benedetta, that insults the sanctity of Catholic nuns.” My guess is that the sanctity of most Catholic nuns wouldn’t be so bothered by a little blasphemous lesbian movie. Would any nuns care to respond?
Those protestors got a shout-out from the director of the NYFF, who welcomed the audience and said, “Thank you to the protestors outside. There’s a long history of protesting Paul Verhoeven’s movies, for a variety of reasons, so thank you for keeping that tradition alive!” He also said, “Some people introducing these events like to ask how many people are first time attendees of the festival. Today I’d like to ask how many Catholics are in the audience!” A small show of hands. “Well, thank you for sharing your Sunday with us.”
The movie was such a blast, a unique mixture of full throttle carnality, visual opulence, LGBTQ+ pride, and fabulous old school schlockiness. So much humor and humanity, so much that was touching, exciting, and arousing. Thank you, Paul Verhoeven! Keep up the kink!
NO TIME TO DIE
Worth the wait! I’m a lover of James Bond from way back and I think Daniel Craig is second only to Sean Connery in his performance of the role. The last three Bond movies have all had an interesting extra something: they stay true to the Bond formula (action, sex, humor) but add a human element to the story, usually something to do with Bond’s past and/or family. That makes the whole experience so much richer.
When we will find out who the next Bond is? I know my mom is hoping for my stepfather-elect, Idris Elba. I have my hopes pinned to Charlize Theron.
THE FRENCH DISPATCH
I’m a huge fan of writer/director Wes Anderson, I always have to see his new movie the theater. I was rabid to see this one because it was sort of about The New Yorker magazine (though in the movie The French Dispatch was based in Kansas) and had a drool-worthy cast. I’ll list them alphabetically:
Benicio Del Toro
Can you stand it. I don’t think it was one of Anderson’s best movies (*The Grand Budapest Hotel* is, in my opinion, his best - - and *The Royal Tennenbaums* is also great) but it filled me with delight. So full of charm and whimsy. Every one of his movies is a masterpiece in art direction and this movie was off the hook in its use of design, color, and composition. The camera movement and placement of the image in the frame becomes part of the aesthetic experience. This is obviously always the case but it asserts itself in an Anderson movie.
Tilda Swinton takes the honors for strongest performance. She is a scream. They fitted her with a strange set of upper teeth which give her voice a peculiar phonation. She also speaks with a sort of Brooklyn accent. And her yellow caftan and bright red hair, oh dear Lord, hold me back!
Maybe the storytelling was a little loose but I bought into it. It was never dull. The animated sequence near the end of the movie was a special delight.
Oh what a sweet and heart-warming movie. It’s set in the San Fernando Valley in 1973, with Cooper Hoffman playing 15-year-old Gary Valentine and Alana Haim playing 25-year-old Alana Kane. It had such a mellow and infectious groove, sort of episodic, it’s a wonder that writer/director Paul Thomas Anderson (another of my favorites) was able to keep such a consistent tone throughout. Hoffman and Haim were both making their feature film debuts in this movie and wow, they were tremendous, such presence, such power.
The biggest delight of the movie was the juicy short performances by major actors: Sean Penn, Tom Waits, Bradley Cooper, Christine Ebersole, and that world-class scene stealer Harriet Sansom Harris. She took over in her short role in Anderson’s previous movie, *Phantom Thread.* He should write something like this for her in every movie, she’s astonishing.
And the music! I saw it with my friend Susan, who turned to me at one point and said, “Cher. She is always relevant.” I said, “Cher is relevance itself!”
This was a bold, daring, original movie. The biggest surprise came near the end: the emotional apex of the movie was a scene between two relatively minor characters. It just tore my heart out.
A new Almodóvar movie is always a cause for celebration! He’s been one of my favorite filmmakers for many years and while his movies are not always great, they always have greatness in them. This movie was extraordinary. It had the broad strokes of a melodrama, but was told with such sincerity and elegance, it was very special.
Penélope Cruz was of course amazing in the central role of Janis. She’s such a powerful actor and Almodóvar really knows how to write for her. One of the biggest joys of any Almodóvar movie is his use of design and music. The colors and prints are always surprising and the music is unusually overt but never overpowering. Composer Alberto Inglesias has been nominated for an Oscar three times (for *The Constant Gardener,* *The Kite Runner,* and *Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy*) but never for an Almodóvar movie. Please, give him a nomination for this one! Dear Lord, the guy has won ELEVEN Goya awards for Best Original Score! Six of them for Almodóvar movies.
The framing device of the film focused on the atrocities of Francisco Franco. It felt a little odd to have the movie end on that subject, with the central story of the film being more or less unrelated, but to a Spanish audience I’m sure the Franco element is the underpinning of the whole film (and many other stories, I’m sure). It was a beautiful and impactful example of Almodóvar making a movie on his own terms.
WEST SIDE STORY
I saw this with my friend Susan, who said that the story of Romeo and Juliet and the original movie are part of our collective subconscious so it’s remarkable that we’re still able to get drawn into it to the degree that we are. I felt an intense sense of dread as the story unfolded.
The biggest surprise of the movie was the visual element. I hope Janusz Kaminski wins the Oscar for Best Cinematography, it was such a joy to look at. The colors had the unnaturally vibrant quality of an old Hollywood musical. Tony Kushner made some subtle but powerful changes in the screenplay - - he added a sense of sisterhood that wasn’t so prominent before, he added more backstory to many of the characters (especially Maria), and most impressive, he made the character of Anybodys a transman without breaking out of the 1950s context. Best of all, he set the movie in the context of gentrification - - the Jets and the Sharks are fighting each other but Robert Moses (never mentioned by name) is leading a big rumble against them all.
All of the performances were wonderful but the prize has to go to the sublime Rita Moreno. I know she’s not done yet but what a glorious role for her late career. I was sobbing, full tilt boogie.
BEST CAMEO, FEMALE
Audra McDonald as Aretha Franklin’s mother in *Respect.* She had very little screen time but what she had was pure magic. She’s a phenomenal stage actor (she has a record six Tony Awards) and it’s such a treat to see her doing great work in the movies and on TV.
BEST CAMEO, MALE
Christopher Lloyd as the main character’s father in *Nobody.* Brilliant casting, such a delight to see him in this role.
REMEMBRANCES OF MOVIES PAST
I’d never heard of the 1969 movie *La Piscine* (*The Swimming Pool*) but was curious to see it was a runaway hit at Film Forum, my favorite art house movie theater in NYC. They were shut down for COVID and reopened in the spring of 2021. They scheduled a restored print of *La Piscine* for two weeks and extended it, due to audience demand. It ended up running for EIGHTEEN WEEKS. That certainly sparked my interest and I was thrilled to see that it was streaming on The Criterion Channel.
What a sexy little thriller it is. It stars Romy Schneider and Alain Delon as the central couple. They were a couple in real life at the time so the audience got an extra charge out of watching them rolling around. They’re joined by a friend and his daughter, played by Maurice Ronet and Jane Birkin. The NY Times’s article said that one of the pleasures of the film is seeing four such attractive, appealing people on screen for two hours. Schneider, in particular, looks like a dream in her fabulous bathing suits.
MOVIE THAT NEEDS TO BE MADE
You know how Netflix, like Amazon before it, tracks your history and makes recommendations they hope will be useful, aka hit pay dirt? Netflix got it right at least once: they suggested *The Mitfords: A Tale of Two Sisters.* The Mitfords were an aristocratic English family prominent in the first half of the 20th century. The siblings were five girls and one boy. The documentary centered on Diana, who was a fascist, and Jessica, who was a communist. What else do you need, Hollywood? I see Gwyneth Paltrow as one of the two sisters. Take yer pick.
A new movie of Oscar Wilde’s *The Picture of Dorian Gray.* No word on who’s playing Dorian, but the screenplay is by David Birke (who co-wrote the last two Paul Verhoeven movies, *Elle* and *Benedetta*) and directed by, of all people, pop star St. Vincent. It’s listed on imdb as “announced.” I fully anticipate changes and/or development hell for this project.
Please don’t make me see any more *Avatar* movies. The first one was more than enough. I see on imdb that 2 and 3 are in post production and 4 and 5 are filming. Heaven help us all.
*Dali Land.* A movie about a young man working as an assistant to Salvador Dali with Ben Kingsley as Dali, Barbara Sukowa (from *Hannah Arendt*) as his wife Gala, also Rupert Graves. Directed by Mary Harron, who directed *I Shot Andy Warhol,* *American Psycho,* and *The Notorious Bettie Page.*
*Fever.* A movie about Peggy Lee, directed by Todd Haynes, starring Michelle Williams. Yes, please!
*Golda Meir.* A biopic starring Helen Mirren.
I’ll be anticipating this for a while, but I’m excited for the Richard Linklater movie of *Merrily We Roll Along.* Linklater thought he’d take his *Boyhood* idea of filming a movie over many years and go even further with it. *Boyhood* was filmed over twelve years, this one is going to take TWENTY. Yes, it will wrap in 2039. I’m seriously curious about whether the studio has another director in the wings in case Linklater gets cooter cancer or is hit by a crosstown bus. And with Beanie Feldstein and Ben Platt in the leads, it will be very interesting to see them age over the course of 20 years. Maybe I’ll enjoy Platt’s singing more in the late 30s (aka his late 40s). Maybe not.
MOST DESERVING OF A COMEBACK
Every once in a while I like to use this category for someone who I don’t feel hasn’t yet broken through and made a big splash, rather than someone who once made a splash and needs to splash some more. My choice for this year is Robin Weigert. She’s best known for playing Calamity Jane on *Deadwood.* She’s also been on a few Ryan Murphy TV shows and had a juicy small role on *Big Little Lies.* She’s an extraordinary actor and would really deliver in a small showy part in some indie drama or similar.
VIVA LA DIVA
Charlotte Rampling for *Benedetta.* I imagine when Paul Verhoeven decided to do a 17th century lesbo nun movie, he mused on who could play the frosty mother abbess and it took him about five seconds to come up with Charlotte Rampling. She was extraordinary, one of the greatest performances of her long and stunning career.
I had my eye on *House of Gucci,* it looked like it was going to be fabulous trash. I was most delighted to see that it was like an old-fashioned Hollywood movie, with the American and English actors playing Italian people, often in Italy, speaking English with thick Italian accents. So recherché, so out of touch, so hilarious!
The movie was too well-mannered for my taste. Also too damn long, it was two and a half hours long. Lady Gaga was spectacular as the central character, she showed herself to be a real old-fashioned movie star - - not really an actor, but a movie star. You see the distinction.
The one moment that made the movie worth seeing: in one scene the Al Pacino character has moved to New York and has opened a Gucci store on Fifth Avenue. He brings his nephew and his wife (Adam Driver and Lady Gaga) up to his office, and would you believe that you can see the Chrysler Building through the window in his office? Like an old Hollywood movie, where every window in Paris has a view of the Eiffel Tower.
I was frothing at the mouth when I heard they were bringing back the *Scream* franchise. Richard and I made our way through the first four movies in the ramp-up to the new one and what a blast that was. The new movie did not disappoint, it was loads of fun and found a happy place in the series. Do you suppose there will be more?
HOW COULD I HAVE MISSED IT?
I was all pumped for the new movie of *Macbeth,* directed by Joel Coen and starring Frances McDormand and Denzel Washington. I had dates with two friends to see it and they both canceled on me. Of course I could have seen it on my own, I have no problem with going to movies alone, but my eagerness cooled. I’m sure when I see it on DVD or streaming or whatever I’ll kick myself for not having made the effort.
BREAK-OUT PERFORMANCE: FEMALE
Ana de Armas in *No Time To Die.* Her part was rather small but she really made an impact. She displayed a fascinating collection of qualities in this movie: sexy, cute, funny, and fierce. I’d love to see more of her.
BREAK-OUT PERFORMANCE: MALE
I have two this year: first, Steve Park in *The French Dispatch.* He has the most delicate moment of the movie, it packs quite an emotional punch. He looked a little familiar and I couldn’t quite place him but upon exploration (thank you, Internet Movie Database) I see that he played Mike Yanagita in *Fargo!* And second, Cody Smith-McPhee in *The Power of the Dog.* There really is a big thrill to seeing an unknown actor (unknown to me, anyway) in a showy role like this. It really makes you sit up and take notice.
Two winners this year, who will always win this award, if they happen to have an entry: the new Bond movie (*No Time To Die*) and the new Almodóvar movie (*Parallel Mothers*). Both brands always have stellar credits, so slick and inventive. I also want to mention the stunning ending credits to *West Side Story,* a highlight of the movie.
In 2019 I had a list of five Best Cameos:
1. Truman Capote in *Murder By Death.*
2. Jack Nicholson in *Broadcast News.*
3. Diane Keaton in *Radio Days.*
4. Julia Roberts and Bruce Willis in *The Player.*
5. Brad Pitt and Matt Damon in *Confessions of a Dangerous Mind.*
These are all performances where the person is more or less appearing as him/herself, or their fame provides a lot of the juice for the performance. My dear friend David Jay and I were talking about Winona Ryder recently (as one does) and I raved about her performance in *Black Swan,* saying it was one of the great movie star cameos of all time. But really, it’s not a cameo like the cameos above - - it’s more of a short performance. So I give you Best Short Performance. There were too many so I’ve split them into women and men.
1. Winona Ryder in *Black Swan.*
2. Sylvia Miles in *Midnight Cowboy.*
3. Judi Dench in *Shakespeare In Love.*
4. Jane Fonda in *Youth.*
5. Rita Moreno in *Carnal Knowledge.*
1. Hal Holbrook in *All the President's Men.*
2. Ned Beatty in *Network.*
3. Max von Sydow in *Hannah and Her Sisters.*
4. Tom Cruise in *Tropic Thunder.*
5. Dean Stockwell in *Blue Velvet.*
Richard and I saw *Annette* with my friend Susan Luxemberg. She's a major movie fanatic and we said at the start of the pandemic that we would have a movie date when movie theaters reopened. So we made a date to see *Annette,* a musical with Adam Driver and Marion Cotillard. It sounded right up my alley, and Leos Carax won Best Director at Cannes. We were all into it.
It was an ambitious movie but didn't really hold together or deliver on its promise. The first five minutes were a wow - - the opening song was delightful and filmed in a daring and darling way. The first few scenes were wonderful. Carax was doing some inventive things with the structure, like having the audience sing along at Driver's stand-up comedy performance. Cotillard played an opera singer and usually it bothers me to see an opera singer's voice come out of a movie star's mouth, but it worked in this case. We also heard her actual voice when she wasn't singing opera. Both she and Driver have cute voices, not spectacular but appealing. It seemed to me like the singing might have been happening live on set, rather than recorded in the studio and lip-synched later.
Things derailed about midway through. The director's aesthetic got in the way. As a Tarantino fan, I'm all for a director showing off, but Tarantino does it in the service of the story and to gratify the audience - - Carax felt more like he was gratifying himself or (worse) the critics or (gasp) the jury at Cannes. Also, the songs by The Sparks Brothers grated on my nerves. The music was good, in a sense more harmonically rich than it needed to be, but the lyrics were so damn dopey! Eyerolls from me, right and left.
I'm glad I saw it and especially glad I saw it in the theater. I can understand why Carax won Best Director at Cannes, this is just the kind of thing that Cannes would go for. But I'm realizing that there's nothing more frustrating to me than great talent wasted. This movie was loaded with world-class talent and they were given a lot to do but dear Lord it really didn't work for me.
My friend Rubén told me about *Nobody,* an action movie with Bob Odenkirk playing the unlikeliest of action heroes. It was such a romp. Fabulous fight sequences, very inventive and surprising. I wish I’d seen it in the theater but Miss Covid took that option away from me…
Jennifer Hudson in a biopic about Aretha Franklin! Yes please, sign me up. The movie was sort of paint-by-numbers standard issue Hollywood biopic but Hudson made it worthwhile. Also the story of Franklin’s life is very powerful, and Jesus Lord, the MUSIC. Oo Lordy.
*Don’t Look Up*
I liked it a lot while I was watching it didn’t really stick with me. Great performances by everyone, especially Cate Blanchett as a slithery morning television host.
*Being the Ricardos*
Richard was rabid to see *Being the Ricardos* because *I Love Lucy* is his favorite TV show ever. He was crazy for the movie and I thought it was very good. I was super impressed with Nicole Kidman playing Lucille Ball, less impressed by Javier Bardem playing Desi Arnaz. I was most thrilled to see Nina Arianda playing Vivian Vance. She knocked all of my teeth out in her Tony-winning performance in *Venus In Fur* years ago and I keep waiting for her to break through in her movie career. Maybe this will be a nudge in that direction.
Writer and director Aaron Sorkin made the smart decision to have the story be about Lucy and Desi and not simply a re-creation of the TV show. This freed up the actors to play the action as people and not as an imitation of something we all know so well. When you think of it, we have very little frame of reference of what Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz were like. Everything we think we know is about Lucy and Ricky.
*The King’s Man*
Richard and I both adored the first two Kingsmen movies so of course we were excited to see the new prequel. I liked it more than he did - - I think the issue was it wasn’t what he was expecting. The first two movies were madcap action movies with the tone leaning strongly in a comic direction. This new movie was more of a war drama with a few madcap action sequences. The big fight with Rasputin, played by the divine Rhys Ifans, was the highlight of the movie.
*The Power of the Dog*
Very powerful movie, beautifully directed by Jane Campion, stellar performances by Benedict Cumberbatch, Kirsten Dunst, Jesse Plemons, and newcomer Cody Smith-McPhee.
Hated it. The tone was an overstated kind of understatement that I find dishonest and cheap.
*Death on the Nile*
The other new movie directed by Kenneth Branagh. I liked this one much more! I liked it a lot, actually, which was a relief because I was so disgusted by Branagh’s previous Poirot movie, *Murder on the Orient Express.*
The biggest fun of *Death on the Nile* was the production design, which was rather campy, deliberately cheesy and fake. There was a scene when a few characters were speaking on the deck of the boat and I swear that the view in the background was a painted backdrop.
*Drive My Car*
A beautiful movie, very touching. I think a lot of the emotional impact of the movie comes from the characters being so cut off from their emotions. It’s like the audience has to feel their sadness and grief on their behalf.
I get sucked into watching *The Proposal* every time I run across it on cable. It’s such a fun, silly little movie. Sandra Bullock at her finest, Ryan Reynolds is endlessly delicious and adorable, and they have great chemistry. Add Betty White and stir!
ON SECOND THOUGHT
Richard and I saw *Broadcast News* this past summer for the first time in many years - - I don’t think I’d seen it since it came out. That movie holds up, it might even be richer than it was back in the day. The most interesting thing is how the William Hurt character is sort of set up to be a slick and slithery kind of guy and the Albert Brooks character is the earnest, honest, more authentic person. But from my point of view, the Hurt character is true to himself and doesn’t really pretend to be anything other than what he is, while the Brooks character is an asshole. And wow, Holly Hunter is such an extraordinary actor.
BEST USE OF A POP SONG
I was so tickled to hear “Sono Bugiarda” by Caterina Caselli on the soundtrack to *House of Gucci.* Not because I knew Caselli or the song, but because it was a cheesy Italian version of “I’m a Believer” by The Monkees. It was perfect for the period and the vibe of the movie. But then that good will was spoiled later in the movie when they played “Here Comes the Rain Again” by The Eurythmics and “Faith” by George Michael, both of which were completely inappropriate to the period in the movie. This is a pet peeve of mine. I’m not saying you have to be rigid - - Tarantino used a rap song in *Django Unchained” and a David Bowie song in *Inglourious Basterds,* but they made sense in a way that these two songs definitely did not in *House of Gucci.* Maybe it’s because the time period (in *Gucci*) was just slightly off, rather than completely off (like in the Tarantinos).
*Summer of Soul* is a documentary by Questlove about the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival. This is now a FIFTH thing to add to that jam-packed summer:
1. Harlem Cultural Festival.
3. Moon landing.
5. Manson murders.
What the hell was in the water in the US that summer? The promotional materials for the movie said that a film was made at the time but then kept in a trunk somewhere for 50 years. I like to think of it as a cedar chest, would that be OK? Questlove assembled the footage, filled it out with contemporary interviews with the people involved, and made an incredible document of a turning point in African-American cultural history. Of course Mahalia Jackson is one of the most supreme performers, but I was moved to tears by The Fifth Dimension. And Gladys Knight and the Pips, they knew what they were doing.
I’m an Ingmar Bergman fan from way back and have seen and loved many of his movies. I was in San Francisco visiting my brother Howard a few years ago and a museum there was in the middle of a Bergman series so we saw *Brink of Life,* a maternity ward drama from 1958, just after he did *The Seventh Seal* and *Wild Strawberries.* I’d never heard of this movie and was really struck by it. I thought maybe I should do a complete tour of the Bergman oeuvre? Would I survive?
A NEW INVENTION CALLED “TELEVISION”
Richard and I are crazy for *The Gilded Age.* New episodes premiere on HBO every Monday night and often, on a Wednesday, when we’re trying to decide what to watch, he says, “Could we watch a new episode of *The Gilded Age*?” Um, not yet, honey!
It’s created by and written by Julian Fellowes, the genius who brought us *Downton Abbey.* It feels like it’s cut from the same cloth but of course it has a totally different setting and cast. The biggest thrill of the show is seeing all of the New York stage actors who got jobs on this show. Any New York stage actor who didn’t get cast needs to find a new agent.
The *House of Gucci* preview was so much better than the movie itself.
NEW CATEGORY: BEST FILMWORLD BIOGRAPHY
I can’t even imagine how many filmworld biographies and autobiographies I’ve read over the years. Is it close to 100? Over 100? The best one I read this year was *Can I Go Now?: The Life of Sue Mengers, Hollywood’s First Superagent* by Brian Kellow. What a fun, dishy book, full of hilarious stories I hadn’t heard before. Kellow also wrote a great biography of Ethel Merman.