Happy New Year, everyone! And welcome back to this week’s special edition of Above the Line Newsflash. It’s special for several reasons. Not only is it my first column of the year, but it’s also my first as the new Editor of Below the Line. As such, I felt it only fair that I should put myself out there and offer up my taste in last year’s film and television offerings for blunt judgment.
But before we dive in, I have to thank Below the Line Publisher Patrick Graham for bringing me into the fold here, outgoing Editor Ed Douglas for all his help in preparing me for this new challenge, and my trusty Assistant Editor Sarah Musnicky for aiding in the transition. We have some exciting things in store for you this year, so I hope you’ll follow along… if my Best of 2021 lists don’t scare you off first. Without further ado…
My Top 10 (or 12) Movies of 2021
I saw Sian Heder‘s movie last January as part of the virtual Sundance Film Festival. I watched it on my couch all alone in the middle of the night, and I was either smiling or sobbing the entire time. Against all odds, this heartwarming Massachusetts tale — a remake of a French film I hadn’t heard of — remained my favorite movie of the year for the next 12 months as one highly-touted Oscar contender after another left me disappointed. Emilia Jones is absolutely fantastic as Ruby, an aspiring singer who yearns to go to music school, though that would mean leaving her deaf family behind to run their fishing business on their own. Troy Kotsur and Daniel Durant are both terrific as Ruby’s father and brother, and Marlee Matlin is heartbreaking in her big scene where she confesses to wishing Ruby were deaf when she was born so they could be closer than she was with her own mother. But this film’s secret weapon is Eugenio Derbez as Ruby’s no-nonsense music teacher. He imbues CODA with even more heart and soul than it already has, and it’s a shame he’s not getting more recognition for his pitch-perfect supporting performance. This movie may not offer flashy visuals like, say, Dune or The Tragedy of Macbeth, but Heder deserves extra credit for the hurdles she faced in communicating with her cast, and how she ensured that nothing got lost in translation.
2. DEAR MR. BRODY
OK, so this pick is a bit of a cheat, as this documentary isn’t slated for release until Q1 of 2022, but it made the festival rounds in 2021 after having been robbed of a Telluride premiere back in 2020. Regardless of what year you’d classify this movie as belonging to, it is absolutely fascinating, and everyone whom I’ve described it to has come away intrigued as well. So here’s how I’ve been putting it. Back in 1970, there was this cool young guy named Michael Brody who was the heir to an oleomargarine fortune. He was a total hippie, and one day he announced that he would give away his fortune dollar by dollar to those in need. All they had to do was ask for cash and have a good reason to need it. So people from all over the world write to him about their personal problems. People need money to go to school, launch their own business, or just buy Christmas presents for their kids. A Hollywood producer by the name of Ed Pressman (The Crow!) was going to make a movie about Brody, and though it never came to fruition, he got his hands on all the letters, which have been sitting in boxes inside a storage unit. When Pressman’s assistant stumbles upon them, she embarks on a campaign to return these unopened letters to their writers and read them together. It is an incredible documentary that had me in tears multiple times and I hope you’ll look for it this winter, either in theaters or on Discovery+.
3. THE RESCUE
This documentary from Free Solo directors Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi had me on the edge of my seat throughout, even though I knew the outcome for the most part. I mean, this story made international headlines back in 2018, so you likely around know that the Thai boys soccer team that got stuck in a flooded cave wound up surviving the harrowing ordeal, albeit barely. But you can’t possibly fathom how until you see this movie, which is a mix of incredibly daring footage and expert recreations, The Rescue puts you in the middle of a gripping international incident and examines how the world came together to respond to a frightening crisis. This should be the frontrunner to win the Oscar for Best Documentary, not Summer of Soul. Though I wouldn’t be upset if the next film on this list won that prize either…
This may be the most important movie of the year. Director Jonas Poher Rasmussen interviews a man named Amin who fled from his home country of Afghanistan to Denmark as a refugee, and has never told his fiancé about his past. It’s a moving love story that effectively conveys the nightmarish refugee experience, and it deserves Oscar nominations for Best Documentary Feature, Best International Feature and Best Animated Feature, if not Best Picture itself. This is the best film of its kind since Waltz With Bashir and a must-see for anyone seeking an engaging, emotional experience at the movie theater.
I’m not sure why this two-part HBO documentary didn’t get more attention when it came out last year, but it’s fantastic, and directors Matthew Hamachek and Matthew Heineman do a great job of explaining Tiger Woods‘ mentality as one of the world’s foremost competitors, and where that mentality came from. It does an even better job than King Richard of illuminating the role that parents play in shaping the lives of their gifted children. Woods has, obviously, become a divisive figure over the past decade or so, largely due to his marriage and off-the-field antics, but this movie (which, sadly, does not feature any new interviews with the golf legend himself) offers an empathetic portrait of him as both an athlete and as a man. It’ll remind you that this man was once a boy, even though he was never treated like one. Whether or not that’s a trade-off you’d make is up to you. But Tiger never really had a choice. Golf either chose him, or was chosen for him. And not that anyone really feels too bad for Tiger Woods, but that’s kind of sad, when you really think about it.
6. THE WORST PERSON IN THE WORLD
This NEON release from acclamed director Joachim Trier was one of the very last films I watched in 2021 and it left me sufficiently devastated, particularly the film’s final two chapters. Yes, it’s one of those movies. Rising star Renata Reinsve delivers a nuanced and layered performance as Julie, an indecisive young woman who doesn’t know want she wants because she doesn’t know who she is, but it’s Anders Danielsen Lie who blew me away as one of her two lovers. His performance is utterly heartbreaking and I wish he was getting the attention he deserves this season. Unfortunately, it doesn’t feel like enough people have seen this movie since it doesn’t come out in the U.S. until February. Don’t forget about this one, as it’s the kind of movie you’ll wish Hollywood was making these days.
7. KING RICHARD
I found this HBO Max sports drama to be quite moving, even if it wasn’t quite as great as I thought it would be. Will Smith shines as Richard Williams, who sacrificed so much in pursuit of a far-fetched dream that two of his daughters — Venus and Serena Williams — would become champion tennis players. I fully expect the actor to earn an Oscar for his efforts, and Aunjanue Ellis is also deserving of an Oscar nomination as the girls’ mother. Between this film and the equally sensitive Joe Bell, Reinaldo Marcus Green has proven himself a director to watch, and Zach Baylin‘s original screenplay also merits Oscar consideration this year. This is a feel-good film the whole family can enjoy and I was a big fan.
8. (tie) AFTER THE MURDER OF ALBERT LIMA and UNTOLD: CRIME & PENALTIES
These two documentaries made my list because each offers an incredible true story. After the Murder of Albert Lima follows the title character’s son, who knows who killed his father, but he can’t really do anything about it. Embarking on a quest for justice, he hires two bounty hunters to take him down to Honduras, where they basically take him for a ride and enjoy an all-expenses-paid vacation. It’s hard to discuss this film or why it works so well without mentioning its ending, but rest assured there’s a tremendous emotional payoff that justifies the somewhat uneventful movie that preceded it. This film is a triumph and the end of this movie left me in a puddle of tears, so kudos to director Aengus James for sticking the landing.
That’s the opposite response I had to Netflix’s Untold: Crime & Penalties, which I watched (twice) with a gigantic smile plastered across my face. Though it was lumped into a Netflix anthology of sports documentaries, it may very well be the most entertaining movie I saw all year, as there was a lot going on beneath the surface here. The doc follows Jimmy Galante, who was considered the real-life inspiration for Tony Soprano. He worked in the trash business and even had a son named A.J. When A.J. Galante was injured playing hockey and told he could never play again. Jimmy bought A.J. his own minor-league hockey team and put the teenager in charge of it. A.J. promptly turned it into a goon squad, albeit a very successful one that found a place in the hearts of a Connecticut community. The cast of characters in this wild story has to be seen to be believed, and if you aren’t a fan of the Danbury Trashers by the end of this film, I don’t know what to tell you.
OK, so this pick is another semi-cheat, as Pleasure hasn’t actually come out yet, but it debuted at Sundance last year and left me greatly impressed, especially with the fearless lead performance from star Sofia Kappel. She plays a young woman named Bella Cherry who leaves her hometown in Sweden to become the next big porn star in Los Angeles, though she finds that there’s a lot more to it than just lying on your back. Ultimately, she’s forced to question whether that life is truly what she wants, and if she’s even cut out for it in the first place. Writer-director Ninja Thyberg delivers much more than gratuitous sex and nudity here, as this is a really intelligent examination of porn and how it affects the people who make it, as well as those who consume it. Frankly, I think this is the directorial debut of the year alongside Lin-Manuel Miranda‘s Tick, Tick… Boom! Look for Pleasure soon from Neon, which took over distribution from A24 for some mysterious reason that likely involves its explicit content.
10. (tie) RUN HIDE FIGHT and COMING HOME IN THE DARK
These were the two best thrillers of the year, hands down. Run Hide Fight debuted on The Daily Wire’s website, so I completely understand if you haven’t seen it yet. If I didn’t know someone close to the film who hooked it up with a screener link, I’m not sure I would’ve seen it either. But I’m not here to discuss its release strategy. This is a school shooting movie that doesn’t shy away from the horrors of school shootings. You will see teenagers brutally executed in this movie, and not in a fun way, like in a horror movie. This is tough stuff, but that’s the reality students live in these days. No wonder traditional distributors shunned it. Die Hard in a school is a controversial pitch. But director Kyle Rankin pulls it off thanks to his leading lady Isabel May, who delivers a breakout performance here.
Meanwhile, the Aussie thriller Coming Home in the Dark is no slouch itself, and features the year’s most menacing turn, as Daniel Gillies really is the villain of the year (alongside Michael Greyeyes in Wild Indian). This is a revenge movie that takes a little while to announce itself as a revenge movie, though it surely starts out with a terrifying bang. This is an impressively nasty debut from director James Ashcroft, who should be being courted by Blumhouse and any other company that makes dark genre films.
And 12 More Honorable Mentions From 2021: The Alpinist, American Skin, Copshop, Derek Del Gaudio’s In & Of Itself, Luca, Old Henry, Red Rocket, Shiva Baby, Silo, Stillwater, Violation, Worth
Don’t forget the Top 10 Movies I Missed in 2021
1. Drive My Car
2. Quo Vadis, Aida?
3. In the Heights
4. The Hand of God
5. Parallel Mothers
6. Bad Luck Banging or Loony Porn
7. Language Lessons
8. Bergman Island
I apologize to all of these films, and if I had infinite time to watch movies, these are the 2021 titles I would prioritize. Fortunately, the first couple weeks of January are slow, so I have some time to catch up with these before the Oscars. But for the record, they missed the deadline for my Top 10 list.
Of course, part of the reason for that is that, in addition to watching 254 new releases this year, I also watched nearly 100 new TV shows, which finally brings us to the television portion of this year-end list!
The InSneider’s Top 25 TV Shows of 2021 – No Explanations Necessary
1. Mare of Easttown (HBO)
2. Dr. Death (Peacock)
3. Beartown (HBO)
4. Hacks (HBO Max)
5. Squid Game (Netflix)
6. The Investigation (HBO)
7. Reservation Dogs (FX on Hulu)
8. The White Lotus (HBO)
9. Only Murders in the Building (Hulu)
10. The Mighty Ducks: Game Changers (Disney+)
11. Dexter: New Blood (Showtime)
12. Chucky (Syfy)
13. Dave S2 (FX on Hulu)
14. Ted Lasso S2 (Apple)
15. True Story (Netflix)
16. You S3 (Netflix)
17. Night Stalker (Netflix)
18. Invincible (Amazon)
19. The Line (Apple)
20. Narcos: Mexico S3 (Netflix)
21. The Mosquito Coast (Apple)
22. Them (Amazon)
23. Mayor of Kingstown (Paramount+)
24. The Premise (FX on Hulu)
25. Curb Your Enthusiasm S11 (HBO)
And finally, The Top 10 TV Shows I Missed in 2021
1. The Underground Railroad (Amazon)
2. Succession S3 (HBO)
3. Scenes From a Marriage (Netflix)
4. Maid (Netflix)
5. The Beatles: Get Back (Apple)
6. Master of None Presents: Moments in Love (Netflix)
7. 100 Foot Wave (HBO)
8. (tie) Swagger (Apple) and Colin in Black and White (Netflix)
9. The Great S2 (Hulu)
10. Brand New Cherry Flavor (Netflix)
Once again, I apologize to all of these TV shows, especially Master of None and Scenes From a Marriage, because I really did plan to watch those, I just couldn’t handle any bummer shows about relationships. Maybe one day I’ll get around to watching these, but there are only so many hours in the day.
That’ll do it for my Best of 2021 lists, but stay tuned for some fun 2022 previews next week, and again, thank you for reading Below the Line. If you have any comments, concerns, questions or suggestions, feel free to email me at [email protected], and stay safe out there, folks!