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Catch up with the best movies of 2021

Hello! I’m Mark Olsen. Welcome to another edition of your regular field guide to a world of Only Good Movies.

It has been a busy end-of-year time, with lots of new movies. This week is a bit of a breather, light on new releases but allowing a moment to catch up on some things and also to reflect back on the year that was.

Tracy Brown and Jen Yamato did their own reflecting — on “Matrixes” of the past — in their handy breakdown of “The Matrix Resurrections,” which, they note, “is not like the old ‘Matrix,’ and that’s very much by design. At once sequel, reboot, and self-aware critique of the previous films and their legacy, ‘Resurrections’ is sparking starkly divided reactions and cinephile debate. Will you love the Nü ‘Matrix?’” Their guide will help you determine where you might end up.

Carlos Aguilar interviewed Pedro Almodóvar and Penélope Cruz about their long-standing collaboration and their latest creation, “Parallel Mothers.” Almodóvar gave Cruz her screen debut in 1992’s “Jamón Jamón,” and the new film marks the eighth time she’s worked with the director.

“Penélope has a blind faith in me,” he said. “She has more faith in me than I have in myself.”

I surely must have fawned over Dennis Hopper here before. He lived a complicated life, not all of it laudable, but is unabashedly one of my favorite Hollywood figures.

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So the West Coast premiere of the 4K restoration of Hopper’s 1980 film, “Out of the Blue,” playing at the American Cinematheque from Jan. 6 to 28, is a cause for celebration. Arguably Hopper’s best film as director and actor, the movie takes its title from a Neil Young lyric and bristles with the raw energy of the moment’s punk rock scene in a tale of loss and redemption as a father (Hopper) attempts to reconnect with his daughter (Linda Manz) after he gets out of prison following a tragic accident he caused.

The Cinematheque is also featuring a “Late Night With Dennis Hopper” series from Jan. 2 to 6, including Tim Hunter’s “River’s Edge,” Wim Wenders’ “The American Friend,” David Lynch’s “Blue Velvet” and John Dahl’s “Red Rock West,” alongside Hopper’s own directing turns with “Easy Rider” and “The Last Movie.” There will also be a retrospective of Manz’s work, an actor who made a huge impression with a very limited filmography, including Harmony Korine’s “Gummo,” Terrence Malick’s “Days of Heaven,” Philip Kaufman’s “The Wanderers” and David Fincher’s “The Game.”

J. Hoberman recently wrote about the rerelease of “Out of the Blue” for the New York Times and quoted from his own original Village Voice review: “You rarely know what will happen next and you scarcely believe it when it does.” That’s also a pretty good summation of why Hopper remains such a riveting persona.

And this week on The Envelope podcast, my co-host Yvonne Villarreal spoke to Issa Rae about wrapping up her groundbreaking HBO series, “Insecure,” and what comes next. As Rae said of how she wanted the show to be remembered: “I want people to say, ‘This is my favorite show,’ and that this show is a part of their favorite memories, and also that I inspired them to create their own show, their own book, inspired them to just write in general. That is cool to me.”

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Best of 2021

Since this week’s newsletter will be arriving in inboxes on the last day of the year, it seems a perfect time to look back at 2021. If you are looking to catch up on the year, the breadth of titles below make for a pretty good start.

Justin Chang explored his 11 favorite movies of the year. After finally being able to return to theaters, we may be heading into a moment where that once again may not be advisable for health and safety reasons. Yet, as Justin wrote of movies and movie theaters: “Regardless of what happens: They’ll be back, I’m certain, and so will we. There will always be reasons to stay away from theaters; take away a deadly pandemic and you’re still left with inconsiderate texters, noisy popcorn chewers, the general hell that is other people. But there will always be reasons to return to them.”

And for the record — though you really should read his entire essay — Justin’s top 11 are “Drive My Car,” “The Souvenir, Part II,” “Procession,” “Memoria,” “Days,” “Parallel Mothers,” “Petite Maman,” “The Disciple,” “The Green Knight,” “The Power of the Dog” and “Passing.”

Michael Ordoña made this list of 17 things that made him feel grateful for the movies, including his favorite fight scenes, from “Boss Level,” “Kate,” “Bruised,” “Spider Man: No Way Home,” “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings,” and “Eternals.”

I also really like this write-up from the Guardian about overlooked films from 2021, including “Wild Indian,” “Anne at 13,000 Feet,” “Riders of Justice,” “The Last Duel,” “Identifying Features,” “The Night House” and others.

The fashion-centric website Tom and Lorenzo created their insightful three-part look at the best movie costumes of the year, including those in “Dune,” “The Harder They Fall,” “Last Night in Soho,” “Cruella,” “House of Gucci” and “Spencer.”

I should also take a moment to highlight a few of my own favorite films released this year. The two titles I have found my mind going back to the most are Mia Hansen-Løve’s “Bergman Island” and Janicza Bravo’s “Zola.” “Bergman Island,” set on the island of Fårö — where Ingmar Bergman lived and worked — features two intertwined stories that explore the shifting hierarchies of art, love and work-life balance with a sensational core of performances from Vicky Krieps, Tim Roth, Mia Wasikowska and Anders Danielsen Lie.

Adapted by Bravo and Jeremy O. Harris from a notorious viral tweet thread, “Zola” is playfully outrageous before veering into something harrowing and disturbing and then turning once again. A road trip saga that goes very wrong, the film stars Taylour Paige and Riley Keough with a phenomenal supporting turn by Colman Domingo. Few films captured the topsy-turvy emotions of the year quite like this one.

Both movies are available to stream on a number of different platforms. Other films that have meant a lot to me this year include “Annette,” “The Card Counter,” “El Planeta,” “Passing,” “The Power of the Dog,” “Summer of Soul,” “Titane,” “The Velvet Underground ” and “The Worst Person in the World.”

Two people stand on either side of a parked red compact car.
Hidetoshi Nishijima and Tôko Miura in the movie “Drive My Car.”
(Janus Films)

‘Jockey’

Directed by Clint Bentley, who co-wrote the film with regular collaborator Greg Kwedar, “Jockey” won a special jury prize for best actor for Clifton Collins Jr. when the film premiered at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival. It tells the story of a horse-racing jockey who knows he is nearing the end of his career, with supporting performances by Molly Parker and Moises Arias. The film is in limited release now.

For The Times, Robert Abele wrote: “‘Jockey’ belongs to a subset of indie filmmaking that wants the benefits of a narrative but within the loose framework of a documentary-like hang. (Count Chloé Zhao as the current master of this format. … Collins of course, is the movie’s sturdy emotional spine, and Bentley wisely shoots him as such. Sometimes his classically chiseled features look aged by time and experience, and in other scenes, his eyes look freshly renewed by what could be.”

Michael Ordoña spoke to Collins about the film, for which the actor is also an executive producer. The article gets into how deeply involved Collins was with the production, including script rewrites and moving equipment on set. Collins is a longtime character actor rarely given the chance to play a lead role, so the overlap between the character and his own career was not lost on him. He said he often asked himself: “You wonder, ‘Where are you going? What have you created?’”

For the New York Times, Manohla Dargis wrote: “Sentimental yet also trickier and more complex than its gleaming surfaces suggest, ‘Jockey’ is a portrait of a man facing his mortality or at least professional redundancy. … The filmmakers have set their sights beyond the track and the winner’s circle, and there’s little racing or riding in the movie and not even many horses. Instead, they show you the physical toll, how this life gets into the body, shapes and changes it, and worse. They also make smart use of Collins’ eloquent face, which ebbs and flows with emotion, its creases deepening when Jackson is alone with his pain.”

For Rolling Stone, David Fear wrote: “But let’s be honest: ‘Jockey’ works because it has an expert rider who knows when to hold back and when to push something from a fast gallop to a sprint. And it’s the joy of watching Clifton Collins Jr. color inside and outside the lines of this would-be champion — a medium-sized fish in a rapidly evaporating pond — that lifts this film up. [Jackson] Silva serves as a showcase for Collins’ talent, to be sure, but the portrayal itself makes you feel like the actor viewed this less as a star vehicle than as a chance for him to humbly give this broken man his humanity back.”

For the Wrap, Carlos Aguilar wrote of Collins: “He finally gets a lead role to match his aptitude for existential contemplation. You’ve certainly seen him before, but never quite like this.” He added: “This is more than just a career-best for Collins — it’s a career-redefining performance. His talent for profundity was always there but previously untapped to this extent. Now the hope is that this won’t be a zenith for him, but instead a revitalizing rebirth.”

Closeup of the faces of a woman and man outdoors near a racetrack.
Molly Parker as Ruth Wilkes and Clifton Collins Jr. as Jackson Silva in “Jockey.”
(Adolpho Veloso / Sony Pictures Classics)

‘Swan Song’

The last few weeks have been especially packed with new releases, and one film that slipped by is “Swan Song.” Directed and written by Benjamin Cleary in his feature debut, the film features Mahershala Ali in a dual role. (And it is not to be confused with the other film named “Swan Song,” starring Udo Kier, that opened earlier in the year.) Set in a convincing near-future, the film stars Ali as a man who, faced with the diagnosis of a terminal illness, grapples with whether to tell his wife (Naomie Harris) or follow through on a plan to have a seemingly identical clone (also Ali) assume his life. The film is streaming on Apple TV+.

Sonaiya Kelley had a warm and engaging conversation with Ali about what it had been like to have his first lead role in a feature film with “Swan Song,” his upcoming title role as the superhero “Blade” and generally how his career had changed since winning two Academy Awards.

“Since the Oscars I’m so much more aware of how much [time] I actually spend acting. Like ‘Oh, wow, you really only act 5% of your time.’ The rest is development, processing, feedback, sifting through things, but the actual time between action and cut is very limited,” he said. “So I value it that much more now and it puts an emphasis on signing up for experiences and working with people that you feel are going to be fruitful and enjoyable.

“I feel like I’m closer to consistently being able to do the types of things I want to do,” he added. “Being in the flow of a breadth of opportunities is where I want to be and stay.”

Sonaiya also spoke to Ali, Cleary and Harris about the making of the film. The film reunites Ali and Harris onscreen following “Moonlight,” and as Cleary said: “It was incredible. I’d wipe my eyes after a take and look around the room and just see a whole crew full of people wiping their eyes at what Mahershala and Naomie were creating.”

In his review for The Times, Michael Ordoña wrote: “With Ali, the most basic things, such as seeing what may be his new — and final — living quarters for the first time, feel fully experienced and informed by the roiling emotions, the conflicting thoughts behind his character’s eyes. And it’s all subtly done, without reaching or pushing. He delivers a grounded performance with so many emotional colors of mourning, resistance and longing — and he does it twice in one movie.”

An actor is shown facing himself in a scene from a movie.
Mahershala Ali plays Cam, right, and his clone, Jack, in “Swan Song,” a drama about a family man considering secretly replacing himself before anyone knows he’s dying.
(Apple TV+)


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