Fritz: 2021 saw more theatrical releases than 2020, but it was still a very strange year. Some long-shelved movies finally came out, but others were pushed back again. What were the films that you'll remember from 2021?
David: My two favorite movies from 2021 are both remakes, which is strange because most remakes are generally inferior to the original. However, I think that both Steven Spielberg's West Side Story and Guillermo del Toro's Nightmare Alley are terrific and superior remakes.
West Side Story is a musical version of Romeo and Juliet set in Manhattan's West Side in the late 1950s. Tony Kushner's screenplay is faithful to the original film, but actually improves it with deeper characterizations. Spielberg corrected the unfortunate use of white actors in brown face in the 1961 film by actually casting Hispanic actors in his remake. And the musical sequences here are spectacular.
Nightmare Alley is a pitch-black film noir about a mysterious drifter (Bradley Cooper) who becomes a carny, then uses his skills of manipulation to become a clairvoyant to the wealthy. Del Toro creates almost unbearable tension as he examines a soul of darkness.
Fritz: I also enjoyed West Side Story. My two favorite films of the year were Spotlight director Tom McCarthy's Stillwater and the Danish film Riders of Justice.
Stillwater stars Matt Damon as a blue-collar Oklahoma man in Marseille, France trying to clear his daughter (Abigail Breslin) of a murder charge. It has elements of Frantic, Witness, and Prisoners, but it's the kind of original, adult-oriented fare that some people complain Hollywood doesn't make anymore, even though Hollywood does and the same people who endlessly make those complaints fail to show up for them.
Riders of Justice is a hard film to discuss without spoilers, but its most basic plot summary is a Danish special forces soldier (Mads Mikkelsen) loses his wife and sees his daughter severely injured in a train accident. When a group of math nerds/amateur sleuths convince him it was in fact an intentional event designed to kill a witness on board a train, they embark on a journey of revenge. It's a black comedy that touches on the nature of revenge, the human need to find greater meaning in tragedy, and the way all of our lives consist of a series of coincidences and seemingly innocuous choices piled up on top of each other until they add up to the final story of our lives.
After a 2020 lineup that consisted almost entirely of dreary, depressing fare, it was nice to see a little bit of fun return to the cinema. I expected nothing of Disney's Cruella going into it, but it was a very pleasant surprise. Emma Stone and Emma Thompson are both clearly having a blast. The script (co-written by Tony McNamara, the writer of 2018's Best Picture nominee The Favourite) does an excellent job of making Cruella sympathetic without completely removing the character's edge. I liked Shawn Levy's video game comedy Free Guy a tad less than Cruella, but it was also the kind of good-natured, entertaining, forget-your-troubles film that Hollywood used to excel at.
David: As for surprises, I thoroughly enjoyed Ghostbusters: Afterlife. It is the one belated sequel or "nostalgia reboot" that actually gets it right. It expands on the original Ghostbusters without tarnishing it, and it isn't a lazy remake. Afterlife is its own film and a hell of a lot of fun.
My favorite horror movie of 2021 is Censor, an unsettling tale of a woman (Niamh Algar) who censors violent horror movies for a living. Her life begins to unravel when one of the gory movies she watches has eerie similarities to the events surrounding the disappearance of her sister years ago. Censor is intelligent, freaky, and has the ability to get under your skin.
Fritz: Lastly, I also think some attention should be given to Kenneth Branagh's Belfast, a memoir of growing up in Northern Ireland during the Troubles. Branagh does a strong job of juxtaposing joy and innocence with grief, sadness, and violence.