Favorite Films of 2021, Part 2

Read part 1 here.

11. Summer of Soul (. . . or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised), dir. Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson. The Harlem Cultural Festival of summer 1969, consisting of six free concerts spread out over six sequential Sundays, is a touchstone of Black music history and culture. Attracting over 300,000 people and known colloquially as “Black Woodstock” (Woodstock took place the same summer), it featured major pop, R&B, blues, jazz, funk, and gospel artists, including Nina Simone, Gladys Knight & the Pips, Mahalia Jackson, B. B. King, Stevie Wonder, the 5th Dimension, Edwin Hawkins, Mavis Staples, and Sly and the Family Stone. But because the festival got so little media attention, both during and in the fifty-plus years since, few people actually know about it.

Questlove combines archival footage of the incredible live concert performances—drawing from the forty-plus hours shot by festival coproducer Hal Tulchin, most of it never before seen—with interviews he conducted with participating musicians, audience members, and cultural commentators, as well as with other historical footage that gives a broader portrait of the times. Thoughtfully constructed, Summer of Soul highlights several movements taking place at the time within Black communities—civil rights, antiwar, Black pride, Black Power—anchoring them in musical expressions of those ideas. One thing that keeps coming up in the film is the therapeutic aspect of music, especially gospel music; several interviewees mention how music is one way they cope with unrest, trauma, and injustice and express their pain as well as their hope.

The concert took place only one year after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., and one of the highlights for me was gospel veteran Mahalia Jackson and a young Mavis Staples singing “Precious Lord, Take My Hand” as a tribute to him. (Seconds before King died, he had requested that song from Ben Branch, who was set to perform that night.) At one point Jackson passes the mic to Staples to let her solo, which could be read symbolically as her passing the gospel music baton to the next generation.

The most revelatory sequence for me was the one where the Staples Singers’ performance of “It’s Been a Change” is interwoven with contemporary interviews about the moon landing. As Apollo 11 touched down on July 20, 1969, and the astronauts’ disembarkment was being broadcast live around the world, thousands of Black people were gathered at a park in Harlem watching the festival concert, just as they had been for the past three Sundays, instead of their television screens. A journalist was there asking attendees why they were missing this important historic event, and the responses overwhelmingly boiled down to: it wasn’t relevant to them; this music was. Several expressed frustration that with the rampant poverty, hunger, and urban decay, the pouring of tax dollars into space exploration was not only a serious misuse of funds but also immoral. These sentiments are best encapsulated in the spoken-word poem “Whitey on the Moon,” written and performed by Gil Scott-Heron the following year.

Streaming on Disney+ and Hulu.

12. West Side Story, dir. Steven Spielberg. I was skeptical of this musical being remade, as the original film adaptation from 1961 is so iconic and well loved. But I must say, I actually prefer this version! The choreography, dancing, and cinematography are phenomenal. Filming dance sequences, especially with large ensembles, is a notorious challenge, and the scene of the school dance in the gym nails it. And rather than being confined to an apartment rooftop, as it was in ’61, the “America” number moves through the streets of Manhattan and is even more colorful and dynamic.

You’re probably already familiar with the storyline, which is inspired by Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet: two teenage lovers associated with rival New York street gangs, the Sharks (made up of Puerto Ricans) and the Jets (who are white), fall in love, with disastrous consequences. I’ve always thought the love story to be pretty shallow, and for all the narrative and character fixes/updates Tony Kushner makes to the source material in this screenplay, that doesn’t really change here. Tony (Ansel Elgort) and Maria (Rachel Zegler) are given a little more dimension, but I’m still not totally invested in their romance. And Maria’s quick forgiveness of Tony for what he does to her brother (no spoilers) is just baffling to me.

Still, I appreciate the added backstories given to several of the characters, and even to the turf wars. Spielberg makes it clear that the story is unfolding against the backdrop of the real-life slum-clearance projects in San Juan Hill (Lincoln Square), in which, beginning in 1959, the neighborhood’s majority Black and Hispanic tenants were evicted to make way for the building of Lincoln Center.

West Side Story (2021)
Anita (Ariana DeBose) leads the boisterous musical number “America” in Steven Spielberg’s West Side Story. Charismatic and layered, DeBose’s performance is my favorite in the film. (Her character is given more to do in this version.)

Spielberg also corrects an egregious flaw in the 1961 film, which was the casting of white actors in brownface to play Puerto Rican characters. (Even Rita Moreno, who was a Puerto Rican playing a Puerto Rican, was made to wear skin-darkening makeup as Anita in the original.) Spielberg took care to cast Latinx actors of various skin tones. He also has them speaking occasional Spanish in the film, which is not subtitled (he did not want to “other” the language). So there’s more ethnic and cultural authenticity, and the Puerto Rican characters are more rounded. However, I understand the criticism that the story itself, despite Spielberg’s modifications, still stereotypes Puerto Rican males as violent and ignorant, and Puerto Rican women as either virginal (like Maria) or fiery (like Anita).

For an alternative musical depiction of Puerto Ricans in New York City, set in the 2000s, I commend to you In the Heights, which also released last year. It didn’t crack my top 20, and I was not impressed by the female lead, but it’s a really enjoyable watch—and the concept, music, lyrics, and screenplay are actually by Puerto Ricans (Lin-Manuel Miranda and Quiara Alegría Hudes), not by white guys.

Streaming on Disney+ and HBO Max. (But if you can catch it on a big screen, do it!)

13. Together Together, dir. Nikole Beckwith. A type of aspiring parent that I’ve never seen onscreen before, and frankly have never even thought about, is the single man in middle age who, because he has no partner but really wants a child, uses a surrogate. This heartwarming pregnancy dramedy explores the odd relational dynamic between these two people—Matt (Ed Helms), who’s getting ready to be a father, and Anna (Patti Harrison), the young woman, a stranger at first, whom Matt hires to grow his child inside her.

Many Christians have strong opinions about how children should be brought into the world—that is, through the sexual union of a husband and wife. And while that is a beautiful and God-honoring process, not to mention the most practical, there are some for whom marriage never pans out but who still desire to experience the miracle of new life bred from one’s own genes, and the joys of parenthood. What might the bond between an expectant dad and his gestational surrogate look like? They share an incredibly intimate (but nonsexual) connection by virtue of the creative act they’re participating in together, but obviously it’s sticky, because one of the parties will have to cut her attachment to the child after the birth—or will she?

The movie subverts popular rom-com tropes by showing a deep platonic relationship between two nonrelated people of the opposite sex—and I really appreciate that. We’ve been programmed to want to see, and even to expect, these two people to become romantically involved, as that’s the happiest ending we can imagine. Beckwith gives us something different. Watching Matt and Anna’s friendship blossom throughout the film is so beautiful and gratifying, and the ending is perfect.

Streaming on Hulu.

14. The Mitchells vs. The Machines, dir. Michael Rianda and Jeff Rowe: In this animated family flick, the quirky and dysfunctional Mitchell family must band together to save the world from a robot apocalypse. It’s genuinely funny, and I appreciated the foregrounding of the father-daughter relationship, which starts out strained but heals and grows through shared crisis.

Streaming on Netflix.

15. Judas and the Black Messiah, dir. Shaka King. It’s Chicago, 1968. When Bill O’Neal (LaKeith Stanfield) is caught impersonating a federal officer to steal a car, the FBI agrees to drop all charges, plus give him a monthly stipend, if he will infiltrate the Illinois chapter of the Black Panther Party to gather intelligence on Chairman Fred Hampton (Daniel Kaluuya), whose message of Black liberation and community activism toward that goal have made him a perceived national threat.

This American biopic dramatizes Hampton’s rise to power and his assassination by police. A charismatic leader with strong organizational skills, Hampton was building an alliance among gangs and minority groups in Chicago—an antiracist, anticlass Rainbow Coalition. He taught political education classes, launched a project for community supervision of the police (to hold them accountable for brutality), helped set up a free medical clinic and a free breakfast program on the West Side, and more.  

After striking his deal with the FBI, O’Neal was able to gain the trust of Party members through deception. He became Hampton’s driver and, later, his security captain. The information he supplied to agents about Hampton’s apartment layout enabled the infamous police raid on December 4, 1969, in which Hampton was gunned down while sleeping next to his pregnant girlfriend (Dominique Fishback), who survived—and who served, alongside Fred Hampton Jr., as a consultant on the film.

Significant as he is, Fred Hampton is not a person I ever learned about in school, so this film was educative for me.

Streaming on HBO Max.

16. Hive, dir. Blerta Basholli. This Albanian-language drama from Kosovo is based on the real-life story of Fahrije Hoti (played by Yllka Gashi). The film opens seven years after Fahrije’s husband went missing in the Krusha massacre in March 1999, during the Kosovo War.

Fahrije is a beekeeper, but she’s struggling to provide for her two children and her disabled father-in-law with local honey sales alone. So she starts her own business making and selling ajvar (a condiment made from roasted red peppers), first at the grocery store in town and later for export to other European countries. For help in this venture she recruits many of the other widows in Krusha, of varying ages, who form a “hive” of support for one another. But because the culture is very patriarchal, the women meet with hostility from the older men in the village who believe it’s dishonorable for women to be entrepreneurs and who see their economic independence as a threat to traditional values.

Grief and empowerment are interwoven in this inspiring story of a woman who dares to imagine a future for herself and her family apart from her husband, whom she painfully acknowledges (though not out loud) may be dead.

It’s now been twenty-three years since the massacre, and people in Krusha are still holding out hope for husbands and sons to return, putting pressure on the government to redouble its search efforts. More than 240 men from the village have been confirmed dead, while sixty-four remain missing.

Streaming on Kanopy.

17. Licorice Pizza, dir. Paul Thomas Anderson. I don’t know what to say about this one, except that it’s wacky and entertaining. An ode to LA’s San Fernando Valley of the 1970s, where writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson grew up, it centers on the “goofily chaste romance” (Alissa Wilkinson’s words) between fifteen-year-old Gary Valentine (Cooper Hoffman) and twenty-five-year-old Alana Kane (Alana Haim). She’s flattered by the attention he gives her and charmed by his precocity and cheeky drive; he, besides simply crushing on her, relishes her cheerleading and practical support for his upstart business ventures, like selling waterbeds and opening a pinball arcade. Although the age difference between Gary and Alana is a bit uncomfortable, the tone is light and the stakes are low. Their chemistry is not an erotic one, but rather one that’s sparked and sustained by their having fun together on ridiculous adventures.

18. The Tragedy of Macbeth, dir. Joel Cohen. “A tale of murder, madness, ambition, and wrathful cunning,” adapted here with stunning visuals that capture the mood of the play just right. Add to that a stellar cast. Kathryn Hunter as the three witches (aka “the weird sisters”) is especially compelling—sent shivers down my spine!

Streaming on Apple TV+.

19. Our Friend, dir. Gabriela Cowperthwaite. A celebration of faithful, embodied friendship, this drama is adapted from the 2015 Esquire article “The Friend: Love Is Not a Big Enough Word” that Matt Teague wrote after his wife Nicole’s death from ovarian cancer at age thirty-six. When Nicole (Dakota Johnson) is diagnosed and starts getting sick, her and Matt’s (Casey Affleck) friend Dane (Jason Segal) leaves his management job and girlfriend in New Orleans and moves into the Teagues’ house in Fairhope, Alabama, to provide care and support for as long as he’s needed—which ends up being fourteen months! He gets their girls ready for school in the mornings, cooks meals, does the laundry, provides mental and emotional support, and helps Nicole accomplish her bucket list. The film is sweet and sad and joyful all at once.

Our Friend has been criticized for not portraying several of the physical horrors of cancer that Matt describes in the article. But I’d say that even though it’s not particularly graphic, the film still presents cancer as ugly and disruptive and painful and exhausting; rightfully, it does not romanticize terminal illness or death. What is a shame, I’ll mention, is that the central role Christian faith plays in the Teagues’ lives, as Matt has been vocal about in interviews and Nicole shared a lot about on her cancer blog and on YouTube, is entirely absent from the film.

Segal is excellent as Dane. And it’s beautiful to see not just Dane’s sacrificial love but also the Teagues’ dedication to and inclusion of Dane throughout their married life, as we see in the many flashbacks that develop their friendship story. Married couples, especially ones with kids, tend to maintain relationships mostly with other married couples, not with singles, which should not be so—so I love that the film highlights this trio of friends in a meaningful way.

Streaming on Amazon Prime.

20. A Hero, dir. Asghar Farhadi. Rahim (Amir Jadidi) is on leave from debtors’ prison when he finds a bag of gold. He seeks to return it to its owner and becomes a local celebrity—until some people start to question his integrity.

Streaming on Amazon Prime.

HONORABLE MENTIONS: The Pink Cloud; One Night in Miami; Luca; Spencer; Lorelei; The Eyes of Tammy Faye.

2 thoughts on “Favorite Films of 2021, Part 2

  1. I think this is a wonderful list. My trouble is that Patti Harrison in the Ed Helms movie is actually a man. If we are concerned about accurate representation – as you point out for West Side Story – it should hold true for sex as well.

    Liked by 1 person

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