Best Discoveries of 2021: The 2000s
(Last year's list here)
If you know me, you know that most of my movie-watching consists of films from 40, 50, 60 or more years ago. I don’t watch that many newer films, so you won’t see a lot of current stuff here. But this is the best of the lot from what I consider “current.”
Tsotsi (2005) Gavin Hood (Miramax DVD)
Stunning film about a young South African boy called Tsotsi (meaning “gangster”) who commands attention from his fellow gang members with his fists, a gun, or both. When Tsotsi (Presley Chweneyagae) steals a car after shooting its driver, he makes a startling discovery. This film could’ve gone wrong in so many ways, but is smart enough to avoid such pitfalls. Winner of the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar in 2006.
Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom (2020) George C. Wolfe (Netflix)
This Netflix film is based on August Wilson’s play about a 1927 recording session with blues legend Ma Rainey (Viola Davis) and her band, including an arrogant young cornet played named Levee Green (Chadwick Boseman). The production values, costumes, and performances are fantastic. Man, do I miss Boseman…
The Professor and the Madman (2019) Farhad Safinia (Netflix)
Based on Simon Winchester’s nonfiction book whose full title reads, The Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary, the 2019 film is a compelling adaptation. Tasked with overseeing the project of compiling entries for the OED, Oxford professor James Murray (a heavily-bearded Mel Gibson) struggles with the enormity of the project. Even worse, not all the members of the OED oversight committee are giving Murray their full (or sometimes partial) support. Yet when Dr. William Chester Minor (Sean Penn) - imprisoned for murdering a man he thought was trying to kill him - begins sending Murray letters containing multiple word origins and definitions, Murray believes his troubles are over. Murray only has to hide the fact that large portions of the OED have been furnished by a murderer who is also probably insane. I have no doubt the stars of this film and their baggage have kept audiences away from this one, but they should seek out the film for the film’s sake.
Five Came Back (2017) Laurent Bouzereau (Netflix)
If you haven’t read the Mark Harris book Five Came Back: A Story of Hollywood and the Second World War (2014), you’ll want to do so after watching this excellent film. Even at three hours, the documentary can’t tell the full story, yet it’s quite impressive. We hear the stories of what brought these five successful film directors - John Ford, George Stevens, John Huston, William Wyler, and Frank Capra - into the depths and darkness of World War II, but we also see how the war changed these men as they documented the war. Essential viewing (and reading).
One Night in Miami (2020) Regina King (Amazon Prime)
Much like Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, One Night in Miami focuses largely on one narrow moment in time, the night of February 25, 1964, when Cassius Clay (Eli Goree) defeated Sonny Liston for the world heavyweight boxing title. Yet after the fight, the real fireworks begin between Clay, Jim Brown (Aldis Hodge), Sam Cooke (Leslie Odom Jr.) and Malcolm X (Kingsley Ben-Adir), all of whom are facing crucial decisions in their careers and lives. Absolutely tremendous performances. Don’t miss it.
Chop Shop (2007) Ramin Bahrani (Criterion Channel)
Alejandro (Alejandro Polanco) is a 12-year-old Latino street orphan working in one of the many auto-repair/junkyard shops in Queens. When his 16-year-old sister Izzy (Isamar Gonzales) comes to live with him, Alejandro struggles to make their lives better. Chop Shop is a tough, gritty film with fantastic performances from mostly non-actors. Director Bahrani also directed Man Push Cart (2005) and a film that might be better known by American audiences, 99 Homes (2014), starring Michael Shannon. But don’t miss Chop Shop.
We Are the Best! (2013) Lukas Moodysson (Kanopy)
A delightful film about three girls in Stockholm trying to form a punk band. I watched the film in preparation for our Great Movies virtual discussion with special guests Cole Roulain and Ericca Long from The Magic Lantern podcast.
La Flor (2018) Mariano Llinás (Criterion Channel)
At 13+ hours, La Flor is the longest film I’ve ever seen as well as the longest film in the history of Argentine cinema. The film consists of six different episodes all starring the same four actresses in various roles (from L to R in the photo above): Elisa Carricajo, Laura Paredes, Valeria Correa, and Pilar Gamboa.
The episodes fall loosely into the following genres: a B-movie horror tale, a drama/musical (sort of), a spy story, a comedic meta narrative about the making of the film (including the actresses turning against the director), a silent black-and-white remake of Jean Renoir’s A Day in the Country (1936), and a historical story from the 19th century. Yet the film is far more complex than that, yet never completely out of reach for the viewer.
If you’re still with me here and want to know more, I wrote a longer review of the film.
Chinese Take-Away (2011) Sebastián Borensztein (Kanopy)
Most of the advertisements for Chinese Take-Away will lead you to believe it’s a comedy. It’s not, although it contains several comedic moments. Ricardo Darín (my favorite non-English-speaking actor working today) stars as Roberto, a gruff, solitary shop hardware store owner in Buenos Aires who witnesses a man being thrown out of a taxi near his shop. Roberto reluctantly decides to help the young Chinese man (Ignacio Huang), but the man can’t speak Spanish and Roberto can’t speak Mandarin. Instead of a comedic farce, director Borensztein gives us a film that delivers multi-layered characters and a gut punch of the best kind. Again, understand that you’re not watching a comedy, and check this one out.
After the Storm (2016) Hirokazu Kore-eda (Kanopy)
This was the first Audience Choice film that kicked off our summer 2021 series of virtual movie discussions at the library, and it’s terrific. Thanks to my friend Jeff D. for recommending it, nominating it, and leading the discussion. Hiroshi Abe plays Ryota, a once promising novelist who now works as a private detective. Working on his own, Ryota follows his ex-wife (Yoko Maki) and her new boyfriend while trying to borrow money from his sister and mother (Kirin Kiki, who steals the show). Ryota wants to spend more time on with his son Shingo (Taiyô Yoshizawa), but there’s usually not much money left after Ryota’s bad luck at gambling. After the Storm is a wonderful look at a man trying to escape his past, yet refuses to play manipulative games the way most films of this nature would. A wonderful discovery. Many thanks, Jeff!
Amores Perros (2000) Alejandro González Iñárritu (Kanopy)
An opening car crash links the lives of several individuals in Mexico City. Seen in flashback, we take a closer look at these people, all of whom in one way or another have dogs in their lives: a young man (Gael Garcia Bernal) longing to run away with his sister-in-law (Vanessa Bauche), who herself longs to escape her violent husband (Marco Pérez); a supermodel (Goya Toledo) who’s seemingly on top of the world; and a homeless man (Emilio Echevarría) seeking to reconnect with his daughter. The film is much more than this, almost Magnolia-like in its approach, but containing layers of depth and first-rate storytelling. It’s stunning that this was Iñárritu’s directorial debut, made before his other films 21 Grams, Babel, Biutiful, The Revenant, and Birdman. Amores Perros is an amazing film, but brutally violent, containing several disturbing scenes involving dogfights. It won’t be for everyone.
Another Round (2020) Thomas Vinterberg (Kanopy)
Four teachers at a Danish high school (including Mads Mikkelsen) decide that their lives - and their teaching - could use a little shot in the arm, or perhaps a shot from bending the arm. Based on a study one of the men discovers, the quartet decides to enhance their teaching with just a little bit of alcohol during the teaching day. This movie could’ve gone so many ways from stupid “men behaving badly” comedy to dismal tragedy, but director Thomas Vinterberg delivers a thought-provoking film that manages to provide comedy, drama, tragedy, and exhilaration. We’ll be discussing this movie at our Great Movies virtual program in February. Maybe you'll consider joining us?
The Dish (2000) Rob Sitch (Warner Archive DVD)
In the late 1960s, a group of oddball scientists led by Cliff Buxton (Sam Neill) operate and maintain a large satellite dish near a remote Australian sheep farm. Due to some mishaps with relaying the filming of the Apollo 11 mission, they find themselves in the position of being the only hope for receiving and transmitting Apollo 11’s images to the world. The Dish is a that rare movie that’s light, somewhat goofy, yet weighty in its own way. It’s a film that should be more celebrated. Thanks to my friend Sam for letting me borrow it.
Mysterious Object at Noon (2000) Apichatpong Weerasethakul (Martin Scorsese's World Cinema Project, No. 2 box set, Criterion)
I’m slowly working my way through the Martin Scorsese’s World Cinema Project, No. 2 box set, where I’m finding some real treasures, including this fascinating Thai film, shot in 16mm black and white, which adds to both the documentary and surrealistic aspects of the movie. This unscripted film uses the exquisite corpse device as each person or group of people interprets a strange event that occurred between a disabled boy and his teacher. If you’ve seen Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (2010, also directed by Weerasethakul), you have some idea of what you’re in for. Absolutely fascinating.
That’s it for me. Please tell me what you enjoyed from the 2000s.
In a few days, I’ll start my genre lists, beginning with Science Fiction and Horror. Thanks for reading.