2021 Year-End Review: 25 Favorite First Watches

I’m going to be shy of 600 first watches for the year, and although my caveman instinct to applaud round numbers is a little revolted by that miss, it’s worth noting that I’ll have seen more movies new to me during 2021 than I have in any other year of my life. I love watching movies which are new to me. I’m not Pauline Kael, who famously did not care to rewatch anything she’d seen already, but I am beginning to see where she’s coming from. Given my ‘druthers I watched things I’d never seen before, and tended to re-view movies I’d already watched only if I was compelled to for a writing project or for Sub Titles. I’m haunted by the sheer number of movies that I’ve never seen. It’s not that I’m bad for not having seen something until now, but that I know I’m missing out on some new angle, some knowledge or experience I didn’t have before. It’s a gap which I know is fixable, like darning a sock.

As ever, these are not the twenty-five best movies I watched for the first time this year. Some of them would make my list of the twenty-five best movies I watched this year, but it’s far from perfect crossover. This was the year I first watched Le bonheur and Andrei Rublev, Exotica and Paprika, I Was Born, But… and The Night of Counting the Years. None of them, regardless of my enormous esteem for those pictures, have made this list. In response, I’ll try to emphasize what I liked or why I liked it much more than what I find admirable or great about them.

Picking twenty-five favorites from my year of movie-watching means selecting the top four percent or so of my new movies, which means if I’m being honest the last ten on my list may as well be replaced by the first ten left off and it wouldn’t have made such a difference. Honorable mentions, listed alphabetically, would have to include Blood on the Moon (1948, dir. Robert Wise), Christmas in July (1940, dir. Preston Sturges) Drive a Crooked Road (1954, dir. Richard Quine), The Dybbuk (1937, dir. Michal Waszynski), Emma. (2020, dir. Autumn de Wilde), Housekeeping (1987, dir. Bill Forsyth), The Sea Hawk (1940, dir. Michael Curtiz), The Southerner (1945, dir. Jean Renoir), The Wrong Man (1956, dir. Alfred Hitchcock), and Vacation from Marriage (1945, dir. Alexander Korda). If you’d rather imagine that I liked some of these ten more than some of the twenty-five I’m about to reference, go wild…I’m being completely straightforward when I say that you might be right.

25) The Cameraman (1928, dir. Edward Sedgwick and Buster Keaton)

Because corporations are risk-averse, this is Buster Keaton’s last legendary film. One of the great what-ifs in movie history is what might have been if Keaton hadn’t signed with MGM. Obviously, the advent of sound pictures would have been a terrific roadblock for him, just as it was a terrific roadblock for 99% of the performers in Hollywood. I can’t help but wonder if he could have played out the string like Chaplin did into the 1930s, or maybe developed just enough of a talking persona to continue doing the magical stunts that no one else could. What The Cameraman proves is that even in a movie that doesn’t require him to do anything as brilliantly engineered as Steamboat Bill, Jr. or The General—my favorite gag in this film is about a pair of lost swimming trunks, a much more Harold Lloyd touch—Keaton was still proving himself as one of the most curious and thoughtful minds in movie history. He was so fascinated with what the camera could see and what the camera could not see, with the idea of coverage. In Sherlock, Jr. he proved that editing makes physical space itself a relative concept; in The Cameraman, a helpful monkey with his hand on the crank takes footage from a different angle and saves the day.

24) Shin Godzilla (2016, dir. Hideaki Anno)

I didn’t know much about this one going in other than its popularity with the Film Twitter crowd, and now I get the appeal. I love that this disaster film is primarily about bureaucracy. This is not Volcano, where individual heroism is the key to saving lives. People with names and faces who rush on and off the screen so quickly that it’s tricky to keep track of Who’s Who work in teams to counter the monster, and in the end they manage to do just enough to keep him from ending Japan. But the reason this movie appeals to me is the googly eyes. When Godzilla shows up on land for the first time, he is a fat monster who is like the world’s most sated snake on little legs, and he has googly eyes. It is such an incredible choice. It has “Godzilla” in the name, so it’s not like we don’t know what’s coming; we can see the damage he’s doing despite how silly he looks. And yet those googly eyes lend him this slightly dazed personality, as if he’s not even sure what compels him to wreck Tokyo. All of this changes pretty quickly, and we lose the googly eyes for a truly incredible series of monster designs as he evolves. But those wandering eyeballs are a choice, and they are stunning.

23) The Harder They Fall (1956, dir. Mark Robson)

I watched a lot of Humphrey Bogart this year, and while some of it was catching up to Jimmy Cagney beating him up in choice moments, more of it was centered on the end of his career. Three weeks after his fifty-seventh birthday, esophageal cancer claimed him. Knowing how little time he has left changes the way one looks at his movies made in the 1950s, whether it’s reading more urgency into the criminal from The Desperate Hours or builds even more melancholy into the director from The Barefoot Contessa. You can watch him dying in The Harder They Fall, which is one of the great cynical movies about the press, but instead of poking at political journalists, this one bares its fangs for an aging sportswriter. Eddie Willis, out of a job and too weary to start pounding the pavement again, becomes a press agent for an enormous Argentinian heavyweight. The catch is that the heavyweight is all sizzle and no steak; he’s ten feet tall and has a glass jaw. Through a combination of the mob paying fighters to throw matches against Toro and Eddie’s increasingly personal manipulation of the press, he manages to bathe in the kind of lucre he’s never had before, filthy or otherwise. It’s probably my favorite Bogart performance, combining much of the savagery of Fred C. Dobbs with the resentment of Rick Blaine.

22) Lydia (1941, dir. Julien Duvivier)

Lydia is a mean little movie which hides its claws under the finest of satin gloves. Wealthy Bostonian Lydia MacMillan is a delightful young woman who has credible suitors. Bob Willard is an unfortunately fratty type who she very nearly elopes with, but social climbing doctor Michael Fitzpatrick and blind pianist Frank Andre both present genuine possibilities for marriage. Both men are key figures at her school for the blind. Both men are truly good, and both of them love her with an unfeigned and barefaced honesty. The problem is that she’s fallen for Richard Mason, who is of a similar background to hers and who shares her love of the bold, poetic gesture. (The two of them go on a scandalous little trip to a remote house he owns on an island perpetually hidden by fog.) There are two shocks at the end of the film. The first is predictable but filmed and performed in such a way that it still makes you jump. The other one is terribly cruel, one of the deepest cuts I’ve seen in a movie this year.

21) The Oklahoma Kid (1939, dir. Lloyd Bacon)

My second-favorite Cagney of the year is something of a redheaded stepchild in his filmography. I was tempted to include The Roaring Twenties instead, a picture I found surprisingly moving in the last reel, but I kind of adore the knowing simplicity of this movie a little more. It’s a neatly executed western with a twist you can see coming from Texas, but like Lydia it has a moment that took my breath away. Jim Kincaid, the “Oklahoma Kid,” is the prodigal son making a tentative peace with his father, a respectable judge, after years of absence and hard feelings. No sooner does Jim come to terms with his father than the old man is lynched for being a law-abiding citizen who would reform Whip McCord’s boomtown. The movie pivots on that moment, not because it makes the outcome any different than you’d expect, but because it makes the movie feel every bit as brutal as the gangster films that Cagney is often associated with.

20) Anchors Aweigh (1945, dir. George Sidney)

I’ve never really enjoyed Frank Sinatra all that much as an actor, and Anchors Aweigh is not an exception to that rule. Here he doesn’t have any of the ease that Kathryn Grayson has in front of the camera, let alone Gene Kelly, and making him Kelly’s sidekick doesn’t do him any favors. It’s when Kelly disappears—when everybody else disappears—that gives Sinatra the room to be marvelous for ninety seconds.

19) Speedy (1928, dir. Ted Wilde)

Another last hurrah for a silent comedian, in this case Harold Lloyd, and as much as I adore the New York minute stuff, the history of Coney Island and a harrowing taxicab ride with Babe Ruth, this film won me over with a genuinely bonkers final act. A bunch of Civil War veterans, Chinese immigrants, and other assorted little guys fight for the soul of the city against gangsters and toughs in a drag-it-out free-for-all street battle. It’s the slapstick version of the Battle of Five Points from Gangs of New York. Add in that this is a true all-timer of a dog movie and I was totally smitten.

18) Above Suspicion (1943, dir. Richard Thorpe)

I enjoy a World War II espionage film more than the next guy, especially if it dates from World War II. Notorious is slightly late both in its release year as well as its literal subject matter, but I still say it counts. Foreign Correspondent is one of my favorite Hitchcock movies; I am very fond of Carol Reed’s Night Train to Munich, Fritz Lang’s Hangmen Also Die! and Ernst Lubitsch’s To Be or Not to Be. Above Suspicion, made by a lesser director than any of those pantheon figures, still hits my sweet spot. I wouldn’t put Above Suspicion above any of those other films, but what this movie about a pair of honeymooners sent on a secret mission has is Joan Crawford. This is a terrifically balanced performance from Crawford, who was near forty when she made this movie and is credibly playing a woman who’s half that age. She’s young and enthusiastic in this film, while at the same time a little trepidatious and a lot trusting. It’s not one of her signature movies, in large part because she’s playing a totally different woman than we were used to seeing in the 1930s or the mid-late ’40s, but I think she’s just fabulous here.

17) Leave Her to Heaven (1945, dir. John M. Stahl)

I admire Glenn Close as much as the next guy, but her Alex Forrest has absolutely nothing on Gene Tierney as Ellen Harland, an Electral madwoman who leaves bodies in her wake and who suffocates her loved ones to death. Tierney made a career out of playing some nasty women who remain incredibly appealing through it all—see also The Razor’s Edge—and maybe I’m crazy, but Ellen offers an absolutely incredible deal. She provides complete adoration and all you have to do is give up everything else in your life to allow her to express it. I’ve seen this movie and I still think it’s worth considering.

16) Shenandoah (1965, dir. Andrew V. McLaglen)

One of the only movies about the Civil War ever made in this country which doesn’t subscribe to the Lost Cause, and even though this is an awkward, somewhat confused picture, I find it a worthwhile successor to another one of Jimmy Stewart’s antiwar films, Broken Arrow. Like Broken Arrow, which is another favorite first watch from this year, Stewart plays a man out of step with his neighbors. In Broken Arrow, he is unusual because he believes in the humanity of Native Americans and, regardless of how dangerous they are to white settlers, trusts that they can be lived with as neighbors. In Shenandoah, his politics and religion both have given him a fervent anti-slavery position, but he still considers himself a Virginian first. Too much of Shenandoah is given to some awkward comedy or the kind of brawling-for-laughs that the director’s father did so well in so many John Ford pictures, especially given how bleak the back half of this film is. What’s special about it is Jimmy Stewart, the movie star, projecting this idea that a man must be able to answer to his conscience first in a time of violence. James Stewart, the real man, believed something very different. He was the first major Hollywood star to volunteer for World War II not because of antifacism but because of a military tradition in his family that said that if the country was at war, you owed it to your country to fight in that war. It’s the same point of view that made him pro-Vietnam, or at least anti-protestor, in the years immediately following the release of this film.

15) Barb and Star Go to Vista Del Mar (2021, dir. Josh Greenbaum)

It took a little while, but this was the moment when this movie broke me down:


Jamie Dornan’s performance in “Edgar’s Prayer,” complete with frustrated gesticulation to a seagull, just kind of cemented this thing for me. It doesn’t all work, and the second half of this thing struggles mightily to catch up to a plot that this movie did not give a rip about in the first half. It doesn’t matter. This movie made me laugh harder than anything else I watched this year.

14) One, Two, Three (1961, dir. Billy Wilder)

I understand why people like Aaron Sorkin, even if I think the guy is an unmitigated hack. There’s a particular kind of moviegoing joy that comes from watching people spit out rapidfire dialogue that is too self-evidently written to be believed. One, Two, Three is that kind of movie, except Wilder has a sense of what the camera should be doing besides making cow-eyes at the person spitting out the dialogue, and even more than that can write dialogue (with I.A.L. Diamond) that’s worth hearing. Add in James Cagney as the pontificating and ludicrous Coke executive who delivers every line like he’s trying to heave a Frisbee seventy yards, and you have a brilliant, scathing, and I daresay democratic picture. If you think MacNamara, the capitalist pigdog, has a point, then you can be on his side while he calls Otto “Spartacus” in the most derogatory fashion. If you think his son-in-law, East German tankie Otto, has a point, then you can be on his side while he makes fun of the way that American rockets tend to end up in Miami Beach instead of Earth orbit. The thing about One, Two, Three is that perfect neutrality makes the best viewer, because then you can give your sides a workout worthy of Jane Fonda’s home videotapes.

13) Edge of the City (1957, dir. Martin Ritt)

Like Shenandoah, I think there’s a little bit too much intellectual mess for Edge of the City to be a truly great movie. What Edge of the City has in its favor are three spectacular performances, which keep the movie emotionally accessible even when Edge of the City feels like it’s stuck on that continuum with films like Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner or The Defiant Ones. Poitier is aware that he’s playing the perfect Black man again—you could show those three movies to a space alien and it’d get the point about how wrong racism is—but there’s also more leeway for him to be the most charismatic person who’s ever been on screen. I’m not sure I’m exaggerating when I say that Poitier’s Tommy Tyler is the person I’ve seen in a movie who I’d most like to hang out with, or maybe drink grape Kool-Aid for. Ruby Dee is nearly as good as Poitier, albeit playing a part which requires her to perform the grief and resentment that Poitier doesn’t have to. Opposite Poitier in this film is John Cassavetes. Where Tommy is easygoing and instantly likable, there’s no point in Edge of the City where Axel isn’t revolting. Cassavetes was terrific at playing these unlikable little creeps who you’d love to suckerpunch in the teeth, and later on he’d be great at directing them too. What’s so incredible about Cassavates in this movie, and what’s exciting about Edge of the City generally, is the way that Axel is only ever a waste of oxygen. There is no opportunity for us to sympathize with this sad little smear of crap on the New York sidewalk, and Cassavetes is not playing him in a way that calls for us to do so. Between the most endearing performance I’ve ever seen and the most repulsive one, Edge of the City is the kind of thing that left me feeling gross all over even before I started thinking about the racial politics.

12) Moby Dick (1956, dir. John Huston)

I love that the thought process for this movie was “How do we create an effect which is like brittle, yellowed pages in a first edition book?” If you watch enough stuff, you start to ache for something you’ve never seen before, a perspective you’ve never come across. Moby Dick has photography like I’ve never seen in a movie before, the film that makes The Godfather look like An American in Paris, and which it doesn’t appear anyone else has been bold enough to replicate in the sixty-five years since its release. I think this would be a very interesting movie if they’d just shot it in Eastmancolor and changed absolutely nothing else from the extant version, but instead we have something that truly fires the imagination.

11) Body Heat (1981, dir. Lawrence Kasdan)

Twitter (I know, here we go) has been doing the “sex scenes don’t improve movies” bit a couple times a month this entire year. Body Heat disproves that thesis by itself. I love that this movie unabashedly cheats on Double Indemnity‘s homework, cuts out the stuff about the teenager that drags Double Indemnity down, and goes where the ’80s will allow it in terms of sex. The breaking the speed limit stuff is still here, as in a moment where Kathleen Turner asks William Hurt if he’d like to lick a spill off of her, but it’s amplified by the sex scenes; it’s not even enough for those two to screw. Once again, a film where a not insignificant amount of enchantment comes from one of the leads. Hurt is so sweaty and so tired and so unbearably horny in this movie. Disengagement is easy to aspire to but so hard to do well, and Hurt is so good at it he’s practically Monica Vitti.

10) The Passionate Friends (1949, dir. David Lean)

One of the directors I got intentional about this year was David Lean. After basically taking a break from his work after getting the basics squared away for my Better than BFI list from 2019, I started rounding out the missing pieces. With apologies to the unfairly maligned Ryan’s Daughter, The Passionate Friends was the one I feel most guilty about putting off this long. It’s so tempting to call this a rehash of Brief Encounter, but it’s a stupid temptation no matter how many Trevor Howards, railway suicide attempts, or thwarted love affairs the two might share. The power of Brief Encounter is in the title; the power of The Passionate Friends is in the long-term attraction between Mary and Steven which neither one of them is able to quash. The emotional center of The Passionate Friends is, ironically, neither Ann Todd nor Trevor Howard. It’s Claude Rains, a man who thinks he’s more noble or more sophisticated than the men who get hurt by their wives’ affairs, and who has to face up to the twin indignity of realizing his wife doesn’t love him and that he isn’t above caring. It’s a staggering film, by which I mean it’s hard to walk straight after watching it. I think this is probably the best English-language picture I watched this year.

9) It’s Always Fair Weather (1955, dir. Stanley Donen and Gene Kelly)

The Best Years of Our Lives has become one of my favorite movies, period, over the past few years, but I have to applaud It’s Always Fair Weather for making the plot of the ’46 Best Picture winner into a montage lasting about a minute. Kelly, Michael Kidd, and Dan Dailey come back from the war as the three best friends that anyone could have, and given ten years they are beaten down by the realities of what it’s like to be a civilian again. They’re successful men, but none of them have achieved the fierce intimacy of that first night back in New York ever since they left one another. It’s killing them. This is the only Gene Kelly movie short of Singin’ in the Rain where I’m more captivated by the ideas than by Kelly himself, and its company with Singin’ in the Rain should make it plain that I mean that in the best way possible.

8) Andy Hardy Gets Spring Fever (1939, dir. George B. Seitz)

Hahahaha, the Andy Hardy movies. I watched all sixteen of them this year in a fit of madness, and I found these whitebread little pre-sitcom pictures bizarrely compelling. They aren’t good, and in some cases they are fairly obnoxious; in terms of overall quality, I think they’re probably on a plane with the MCU. But they are just totally fascinating to me because they are such a statement about what bourgeois white America aspired to be in the late ’30s through the whole of the ’40s. Which values were fertilized, and which foibles were tolerated? What qualities in young boys and girls were desirable, and which were loathsome? The Andy Hardy films are more than happy to fill you in with the answers. When I enjoyed them most, the films were most focused on Andy and his family and friends as Carvel came to them rather than sending them out of town for one reason or another. Spring Fever, a more or less anonymous entry where Andy develops a scintillating crush on his drama teacher at the expense of, who else, Polly Benedict, is among the series’ most purposeful attempts to keep Andy at home. What follows is a story about a bright but overzealous boy trying to impress basically everyone in shouting distance, and of course it all falls down around his ears in some fashion. Heaven knows there are literally dozens of movies from 1939 which are better films than this one, but if you wanted to know something about what America was like in 1939, I’d point you to this before Gone with the Wind.

7) Manhunter (1986, dir. Michael Mann)

Over the course of this year, I watched Silence of the Lambs yet again, watched Hannibal for the second and hopefully the last time, and finally got my paws on Manhunter. (While we’re on Michael Mann, I also watched Thief for the first time this year, and while I enjoyed it, there’s definitely a sector of male critics and loud moviegoers who will stan for anything with bright enough colors.) Holy calamity is Manhunter the best of the Lecterverse films I’ve seen, and not coincidentally, it’s the one that sticks him in the High Museum of Art and leaves him there. It comes down to Will Graham in Manhunter to get the job done, which is exactly how it should be. Greatness is thrust upon Graham in this film, and it could not be clearer that he wants no part of it. I found his reticence to get into the Tooth Fairy case to be the skeleton key to an entire genre; he’s good at his job and he’s scared to death of it because of what it turns his brain into. He got Hannibal Lecktor and the experience petrified him, and now he’s being goaded and prodded into doing what only he can do.

In the scene above, he and his family are in hiding. He has put them back into danger, which is one of the reasons he was trying to get out of the FBI in the first place. And here in this aisle in the supermarket, with the canned fruit and breakfast cereals behind him and the coffee behind his son, he has to explain to him why he had a mental breakdown. “And the way you thought felt that bad?” his son asks. Graham’s response is so powerful and personal, almost tearjerking in its baldness. “Kevin,” he says, “they’re the ugliest thoughts in the world.” I like Silence of the Lambs, but there’s nothing in that movie as emotionally gripping as this Chekhovian moment in a grocery store.

6) The Exorcist (1973, dir. William Friedkin)

When it comes to American movies about religious faith, there’s Scorsese, there’s Malick, and then there’s everyone else. The Exorcist is the best film of that third group, and while this is obviously a scary movie about emergent womanhood and demonic possession, in that order, the scene where the two priests enter a frozen room intent on doing battle with a powerful demon in order to rescue an innocent child is one I find spectacularly moving. They will see things they have never seen before in that room, wonders which are miraculous regardless of their origin. Pazuzu will make his face known to us. It’s understood that this is the last chance Regan has, for if Father Merrin cannot exorcise the demon, no one else has the knowledge to do so. Father Merrin and Father Karras are putting themselves in God’s hands just as much as Chris MacNeil is putting Regan in theirs, and their reliance on a God who is far less visible than the demonic spirits upstairs is profound. I’d understand anyone who thinks this angle is total bunk and just wants to watch Linda Blair’s head rotate 180 degrees again. I don’t think anyone should be getting exorcised, and as far as I can tell, the Roman Catholic Church has the same opinion. But in the world of this film, where exorcism is the final and scientific answer to the question of what’s happening to Regan, Father Merrin’s sacrifice is as moving to me as Father Rodrigues’s sacrifice in Silence or Franz Jagerstatter’s in A Hidden Life.

5) The Long Gray Line (1955, dir. John Ford)

In 2018, I learned that Ingmar Bergman’s movies hit me in the way no one else’s movies had ever hit me; that remains true. In 2021, I learned that John Ford was the greatest director in American history. This was a proposition that I might have granted last year or even the year before; it’s not like I wasn’t already familiar with The Searchers and My Darling Clementine and The Grapes of Wrath and the Cavalry Trilogy and so on. But I watched a dozen Ford movies for the first time this year, most of them deeper cuts, and it’s turned my admiration for Ford into the worship which I typically reserve for Carl Theodor Dreyer. The Long Gray Line was my favorite of this group new to me, a beautifully balanced film which is kind of a biopic of Marty Maher but which is really about running or swimming, in which every new year is a lap and the only thing you can hope for is to get to run another one. The story of Marty Maher, a member of the West Point staff who never does get to go to war, is the story of a man who keeps running laps and watches everyone he loves fail to complete as many as he has. It’s tragic in its own way, but aside from some moments of true despondence, there’s a quiet hope in the film which I found absolutely lovely.

4) Crossing Delancey (1988, dir. Joan Micklin Silver)

The next three films are all romances, because I like romance, and this one has the most unambiguously happy ending of the three. Crossing Delancey is such a satisfying movie, which I usually mean as an insult but which I’m writing with a smile. Isabelle is so full of herself, but it’s a species of delusion in which the supposed grandeur is a cover for deep insecurity. Isabelle wants to be part of a WASPy literary elite in New York City and is terrified that she’s going to be visiting her very Jewish grandmother forever, only to get set up with some meek Jewish dude so the two of them can have properly Jewish kids and make this cycle persevere forever. What’s clear to us, even if it’s not always clear to Isabelle, is that she’s not better than her cultural background; it’s even obvious to us that it’s better to be loved in reality than to hope for acceptance in your imagination. It’s so satisfying to watch her cry when she thinks she’s chased off Sam for good—Peter Riegert is so decent, so solid in this movie—and it’s so satisfying to see him there, taking her back for good. Crossing Delancey is the ultimate have your rugelach and eat it too picture.

3) All This, and Heaven Too (1940, dir. Anatole Litvak)

The romantic movie with the sad ending. All This, and Heaven Too is a deceptive film, engorged with the frenzied drama of your period film, to go along with giant sets and inescapable costumes and wide shots of dandied-up people in those enormous rooms. What All This, and Heaven Too is about is something which can’t really be filmed or seen with the naked eye, and it’s the kind of film that can humble a viewer who comes to it believing s/he is smarter than the film. I was watching the film for some deeper background on Bette Davis, and didn’t expect more than that; I was shocked to discover that this film could have so much to say about self-deception. This is kind of a long movie, or at the very least it feels long, and there’s such a long stretch where it seems like Bette Davis’s governess and Charles Boyer’s nobleman could be credibly united by their shared concern for the rearing of his children when their mother is losing her mind. When that edifice finally crumbles, it doesn’t just collapse politely, like a tree falling in a forest. It implodes like a 50,000 seat stadium being dynamited to make room for a new one. That implosion is written on Davis’s crestfallen face, so disappointed at not being able to live up to those all-important rules of propriety, so confused at how a sensible woman could make such a stupid choice, and so desperate for the duke to wrap her up in the warm embrace she craves.

2) The Strawberry Blonde (1941, dir. Raoul Walsh)

I was totally enraptured by this film, yet another James Cagney vehicle, and the reason I know that is because I found myself singing along at the end. This film, which is named for that phrase from “The Band Played On,” ends with an invitation for the audience to join in a group sing-along, complete with lyrics on the screen. I had heard this song way too many times over the course of the film, and yet I couldn’t help wanting to sing with a song that I kind of don’t like anymore. This is one of the truest underdog movies I’ve ever come across, the story of a guy named Biff (oh no!) who just wants to be a dentist (the horror!) and who has made the mistake of falling in love with Rita Hayworth. Hayworth’s Virginia, the eponymous strawberry blonde of the title, is a wise lover rather than a passionate one, and she goes with the businesslike Jack Carson rather than Cagney, who loses every fistfight he gets into and even gets tossed into jail in place of Carson’s Hugo. This is a film with delightful performances—my favorite is probably Olivia de Havilland as Amy, Virginia’s friend who is Biff’s second choice and turns out to be a perfect spouse—and a series of gut punches that ultimately resolve with enough happiness to make you want to sing…or at least make me want to sing.

1) Koshien: Japan’s Field of Dreams (2019, dir. Ema Ryan Yamazaki)

I watched a number of fantastic documentaries this year, but the one I loved most, the movie I loved most from this year, was a recent one without much fanfare attached to it. The reason I’m drawn to romances and faith in fiction is because I am reliably pulled in by stories about people wanting. In Crossing Delancey, Isabelle gets what she actually wanted; in All This, and Heaven Too, Henriette never does get what she weanted. What’s important is the longing, the fearful and wonderful desire for something which creates anticipation and dread. Koshien is an exceptionally pure story about wanting. In this case, it’s the story of a manager of a high school baseball team in Yokohama named Mizutani, a man who wants above all else to win Japan’s national tournament. Mizutani, like most coaches, acts like every event is within his control; if he and his team do not advance to the final rounds of Koshien, it is a failing within them but mostly within him. On top of this titanic desire which has led him to abandon a family business (and thus his family) and which separates him from his own spouse and children, he feels immense pressure to win the tournament because his local high school won it when he might have been playing for them. Mizutani seems like a genuinely good guy. Coaching, especially coaching kids, can allow the cruelty in an adult to out itself, and Mizutani never comes close to that. He genuinely believes that the hard work that goes into training for Koshien is an end in itself, and he believes that so passionately that it’s hard to disagree with him. (Maybe it’s the Protestant in me that thinks hard work is its own reward, but I dunno. Mizutani sure isn’t a Protestant!) Besides Mizutani, the boys he’s coaching all want to proceed to the final rounds of Koshien and win that tournament as well, just like most boys in America dream of winning the World Series or the Super Bowl when they’re young. Then again, some of the boys just want to make the team. Koshien is not a very long movie, which is a spoiler on its own, but it is a movie which is absolute saturated with expectant hope. The fact that the Yokohama Hayato club fails to win Koshien—in fact, bleeds away a victory with a horrific throwing error that took my breath away—means all that hope is dashed in excruciating, beautiful fashion. Koshien is the film I watched for the first time this year which is most about internal hopes facing up to external realities, and that’s what makes it my favorite first watch of 2021.

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