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CoramDeo's Best of 2021

2021 was complete insanity in a lot of ways, and the stuff I've seen this year has been little exception. Ranging wildly in form, content, and style, so much of it was so compelling, though, that a lot of decisions I had to make for this 'Best of' were very difficult.

Television:

Top 5 Episodes:

  1. Baby with a Machine Gun (Survivor)
    • I started getting really into Survivor in the past year, and the airing of Survivor 41 was the perfect culmination of that experience. 'Baby with a Machine Gun' is the pivotal pinnacle of that season, and one of the best episodes of the show I've ever seen. It doubled down on the season's exploration of the emotional and moral toll it takes to vote out so many people you love, and it was an incredible climactic moment for one of the season's most compelling characters.
  2. wej Duj (Star Trek: Lower Decks)
    • I loved Season One of Lower Decks, and Season Two was even better. The comedy reached new heights, the characters developed in interesting and sensible ways, and the show made some innovations to its formula that elevated the proceedings even further. 'wej Duj' was one of those innovations, with an ambitious structure covering three different ships from three different galactic powers.
  3. A Brief Reminiscence In-Between Cataclysmic Events (Superman and Lois)
    • Superman and Lois was one of the biggest new shows this year for me, and as a huge Superman fan, I absolutely adored it. 'Cataclysmic Events' is the show's big tribute to Superman, lovingly tracking the character's history in a way that perfectly captured both Supes in general and his specific character in this show. Just really lovely stuff.
  4. Terror Firma (Star Trek: Prodigy)
    • Star Trek: Prodigy was a wonderful surprise, capitalizing on the love today's kids clearly have for Star Wars: The Clone Wars and using that to slowly ease them into a love for Star Trek, too. 'Terror Firma' is my favorite episode of the bunch. Just really solid, family-friendly, lovingly crafted Star Trek. This is a great time to be alive.
  5. Kobayashi Maru (Star Trek: Discovery)
    • Having three different Star Trek episodes in my top five, and all from different Star Trek shows, is simply unreal. 'Kobayashi Maru' is Discovery's smashing season premiere, coming in strong with a steady and sure direction in mind and a confidence the show desperately needed. This may not be my favorite Trek show on the air now, but darn if it doesn't bring the hits occasionally. This is one of those happy occasions.



Best Lead Performance: Elizabeth Olsen (WandaVision)

I may not have been WandaVision's biggest fan by the time it wrapped, but one thing I can't deny is that Elizabeth Olsen is a terrific actor who brought her A-game to every episode of the series. Her effortless juggling of tone and the powerful emotional weight of especially her last few performances was easily the best part of the show. Olsen's range is remarkable, and her commanding screen presence is something to behold. Definitely an outstanding performance.

Best Supporting Performance: David Ajala (Star Trek: Discovery)

David Ajala has been a big revelation this season on Discovery. He was good in his first season, but the story and material they've given him this year has really put him in the spotlight and he now has the opportunity to shine. And shine he does, using every moment of his screentime to deepen his character. His work has been wonderful to see, and I can't wait to see what he does going forward.

Best Guest Performance: Carl Lumbly - 'Truth' (Falcon and the Winter Soldier)

It was awesome to see Carl Lumbly on my screen again, especially in a project as big as this. What was even more awesome was the work he put into his performance. In 'Truth', he really outdid himself, putting everything onto the screen. In a time when all of us were forced to reflect on America's sad and terrible history when it comes to racial equity, Lumbly's Isaiah Bradley was a front-and-center pop culture touchstone for those issues, and Lumbly handled the character brilliantly.

Best Score: James Burnett and David Vanacore (Survivor 41)

Everyone that loves and follows Survivor misses the good old Ancient Voices theme we used to hear at the start of every episode. This season was no exception; the old music is missed, as is classic composer Russ Landau. But music played a critical role in the success of this season nonetheless. The new instruments and different techniques that Survivor music hasn't often employed made this return to the screen feel momentous, and when combined with the edit, the music was employed in surprising ways sometimes that made epic moments that much more epic. Huge shoutout to the vote-out music in 'Baby with a Machine Gun', which abandoned the suspense that usually surrounds the reading of the votes for a calmer, sweeter theme to send off one of the season's most powerful characters.

Best Direction: Matt Shakman - 'Now in Color' (WandaVision)

The early episodes of WandaVision were an interesting break from what we're used to seeing from Marvel, and I loved it. 'Now in Color' was the best example of innovation in a show that kept innovating for so long before resorting to old tricks for the finale. It's mostly due to Shakman's great direction, I think, that the first few episodes are such a great success.


Movies:

Top 10:

  1. Licorice Pizza
    • Simply put, this film is magic. It isn't your bog standard 'movie magic' where something cool inspires or astounds or captivates you, although Licorice Pizza does all of those things. What makes it magical is the way that it does all these things so carefully and so meticulously, but it never at any point feels like it even lifted a finger. It's effortless, like pointing a wand and making a broom dance, like snapping your fingers and having your wish come true, like speaking a word and seeing the light.
  2. The Green Knight
    • This film is deeply layered, rich, and complex. I love the original story deeply, and this did not disappoint as an adaptation, taking the threads from the tale of Sir Gawain and weaving them tightly into a compelling picture with powerful themes and fascinating implications. Lowery's film builds upon, molds, and subverts its source material expertly.
  3. In the Heights
    • This movie is for stage musicals what Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse was for comic books. It's one of the best and most satisfying stage to screen adaptations I've seen in years. It's visually inventive and takes great liberties with the images on screen, in a way that you could never do on stage, but it also utilizes its performers and dance techniques in a way that I haven't really seen on screen before either. And it breaks with reality at critical moments in a way that transcends both. They say that in musicals, when the emotion becomes too powerful to speak, you sing, and when it becomes too powerful to sing, you dance. In In the Heights, when the emotion becomes too powerful for reality, you abandon reality.
  4. The French Dispatch
    • Perhaps the film on this list that has the greatest potential to move up several spots and improve in my estimation on future viewings. It's rare that I finish a Wes Anderson picture with such a feeling of the weight of everything I've seen. But the weight of its contents does not obscure just how sublime its material is. A feast for the eyes and a delight to behold, The French Dispatch is Anderson's love letter to the people that enable artists to practice their craft. I felt watching it like I was swimming just to stay afloat in all that it was trying to communicate. On future viewings, I suspect I will understand all that it's trying to do better, and therefore appreciate it more.
  5. The Mitchells vs. the Machines
    • This movie hit very close to home. When I watched it with my family, I was preparing to move out to California for film school. So given the subject matter, let's just say I was weeping by the end of it. So this is a very personal film for me, and that smooths over a lot of issues. Not to say there aren't issues. So many concepts, visuals, gags, and even phrases are straight up lifted from Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs that it's sometimes difficult to see past Lord and Miller's influence to the originality behind it. Still, it's funny, moving, and creative, and I loved it.
  6. Judas and the Black Messiah
    • Shaka King burst onto the scene very early in 2021 with this vibrant, skillfully crafted feature. The screenplay is tight, the direction sings, and LaKeith Stanfield and Daniel Kaluuya give career highlight performances for their already impressive careers. The complex struggles each character experiences are powerful, and none more compelling than the central - and achingly relevant - struggles of Stanfield's Bill O'Neal.
  7. Spider-Man: No Way Home
    • Delightfully character-driven, emotionally satisfying, and above all absolutely 100% Peter Parker-centered. No Way Home was a lovely surprise. Happily, the fanservice is by and large more Avengers: Endgame than Star Wars: Rise of Skywalker, and the film manages to find ways to give legitimate closure to characters I never thought would have it - or that I never knew needed it. The term 'love letter' may be overused nowadays, but it's exactly the term this film deserves. This is a love letter to the character of Spider-Man, a character I've loved for a long, long time.
  8. Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings
    • Another lovely MCU surprise. With Destin Daniel Cretton's steady hand at the helm, a charming and exceedingly capable cast as a firm anchor, and a traditional Marvel engine to propel through an entertaining two hours, Shang-Chi sails. In so doing, not only does it deliver on Marvel's sticker-price brand promises of a good time, fun characters, and a high production value, it also manages to provide some of the best action the MCU has ever seen, and occasionally it actually moved me. The lion's share of the credit belongs to Simu Liu. Not since Tom Holland has a star entered the MCU with such vigor and eagerness. The supporting cast is equally up to the challenge (Tony Leung and Michelle Yeoh? In a franchise blockbuster? Heck yes!), and the movie never overstays its welcome, overplays its hand, or leans too hard in an unfortunate direction. A resounding franchise success.
  9. Luca
    • Gorgeous as we've come to expect from Pixar, and if certain parts of the plot are a little rushed or clipped, it's worth it for the time they take to really live in the world they've created. This is one that's grown on me as time has passed since I've seen it. The colors are soothing and lovely, the story is compelling and satisfying, and the emotions run as high as ever. All in all, it's a satisfying entry into the Pixar canon, and an endearing and touching little picture at that.
  10. Last Night in Soho
    • This film is really frustrating. I have some deep and abiding problems with the third act. What is even going on there? What is Edgar Wright trying to do? It really is a whiff thematically, and it's a shame because the first two acts are absolutely incredible. Technically, narratively, and everything in between, it's such a remarkable film until it just falls back on a twist ending that's satisfying from a pure plot perspective but thematically a shot in the foot. With the bases loaded, he bunted. It still loaded those bases, which is why it sits here. But with a good, solid swing, it could've been even better.

Best Lead Performance: Alana Haim (Licorice Pizza)

In the end, one of the most incredible things about Licorice Pizza is the acting debut of beloved musician Alana Haim. Her force-of-nature determination and - to quote a character in the film - 'powerful feeling' steal both the audience's hearts and the show. Haim's down-to-earth relatability and incredible range and charm make her performance the stuff of legend, and she's never done it before. It's remarkable to watch and a true wonder. If she doesn't get a nomination this year, something is very, very wrong.

Best Supporting Performance: Jeffrey Wright (The French Dispatch)

Jeffrey Wright's been doing great work for a long time. We all know that. Here, in The French Dispatch, he outdoes himself. His narration is done so richly and beautifully that every audiobook company should be working to get him on their team immediately. But it isn't just his melodic voice. Wright's screen presence, while he's on the screen, is captivating. Truly one of the standouts of the year.

Best Direction: Paul Thomas Anderson (Licorice Pizza)

Phew, this was a hard one. As much as I love Licorice Pizza - and it's far and away my favorite of the year - the direction has a lot of really great competition. I strongly considered David Lowery for The Green Knight, Wes Anderson for The French Dispatch, Shaka King for Judas and the Black Messiah, and even my nemesis Edgar Wright for Last Night in Soho. Ultimately, however, PTA's seemingly effortless triumph, combined with his golden cinematography and pitch-perfect tonal juggling, vaulted him to the top. Am I biased because I was lucky enough to get to see a Q&A with the man himself after a screening of the film? Probably, yeah. Do I care? Eh.

Best Score: Alex Lacamoire, Lin-Manuel Miranda, and Bill Sherman (In the Heights)

If this were an actual award show, there would probably be a distinction made since most of this music was technically written for the play and then adapted for the film. But this is my personal best-of list, so consequently I don't care. The music of In the Heights is moving and vibrant, every bit as lively as the beloved Hamilton but with a distinct cultural flavor that makes it pop. The lyrics land blow after blow while the score swoops gently underneath. Love it, love it, love it.

Best Cinematography: Andrew Droz Palermo (The Green Knight)

How much did I want to give this to Licorice Pizza? A whole lot. But I've raved about that film enough here, and Palermo's bold and distinct cinematography for The Green Knight is absolutely worthy of recognition (and it probably won't get any from the awards folks considering that it didn't come out in the last four months of the year). The colors, obviously, are a big and thematically important part of the achievement, but that should not obscure the brilliance of the framing, camera movements, and everything else. Really great work.

Best Screenplay: Wes Anderson (The French Dispatch)

I'm amazed that Anderson was able to shoot this script to run less than two hours. This thing must've read like an encyclopedia sometimes, but it's absolutely brilliant regardless. The themes and ideas running through it are incredibly rich, and they are nestled deep within the layers of the narrative. It may well be Anderson's most complex work, and I'm very impressed because of it.


Still gotta see it:

Annette
Belfast
Bergman Island
The Card Counter
C'mon C'mon
Eternals
The Harder They Fall
House of Gucci
Lamb
The Last Duel
The Matrix Resurrections
Nightmare Alley
No Sudden Move
Petite Maman
Pig
The Power of the Dog
The Souvenir Part II
Spencer
tick, tick... BOOM!
Titane
Together Together
The Tragedy of Macbeth
West Side Story
Hawkeye S1
Legends of Tomorrow S6 (and S7)
Lost in Space S3
Young Justice S4

Not all of these are likely to make my Best Of. But dang, it feels like the list of what I still need to see gets longer every year.

What a year, huh? Between events in the world and events in my life, the beginning of 2021 feels a long, long way away. It's been a really good year for movies and tv, though, and I can't wait to see what 2022 brings along!

--
CoramDeo likes what you said about broccoli.

7 comments:

  1. Loved this season of Survivor as well! (I almost put it on my list too.) Honestly, this was probably one of my favorite seasons in awhile, if only because the cast was so strong. And the episode that you listed was a perfect example of that strength.

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  2. Love your list of movies and agree with most of them -- except for The French Dispatch. I went into it expecting to love it, but either I was having a very bad day or I missed the point. I did not enjoy at all, but everyone around me loved it. So, I'm sure it was me. :-)

    In the Heights almost made my list as well. Loved it!

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  3. Sometimes a movie just hits you differently from everybody else. It happens.

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  4. CoramDeo, I am way behind with movies this year -- my still gotta see list is as long as yours. I'd never even heard of Licorice Pizza, so thanks!

    Oddly, as much as I loved Hamilton with a fiery passion, In the Heights didn't do much for me, and I don't know why.

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  5. Did you see In the Heights in theatres, or at home? I saw it in the cinema and was thrilled, and on my home tv it just didn't pack the same punch.

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  6. I am so, so excited for The Green Knight! I'd intended to watch it before writing my Best Of 2021 list because I was certain that it would make the list. Alas, my internet died.

    Soon! Soon I will watch The Green Knight!

    ReplyDelete

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