3rd Annual Grouches: 2021 Movie Year Awards

(To see the results of last year’s Grouches, go here. To see the first Grouches, which also carries a significantly more complete version of my criteria, go here.)

The Grouches are back this year to award last year’s films, although I’ve timed this up to be on a similar timeframe for the Oscars. (I got on the wrong side of the library’s waitlist for a few movies and thus I’m two weeks behind…so it goes.) Here are the short versions of my self-imposed rules and some clarifications.

  1. I do the Grouches because the Oscars exist, but there are movies which are not eligible for this year’s Academy Awards because they got thrown into last year’s Academy Awards. I promised that Judas and the Black Messiah and Barb and Star Go to Vista Del Mar would be eligible in this edition of the Grouches, and I intend to deliver.
  2. Also filed under “I do this because of the Oscars” is the caveat about films which are not from Anglophone Commonwealth nations and the United States. Parasite was included alongside a bunch of American and British movies in the 1st Grouches because it was part of the zeitgeist. Another Round showed up last year. This year, I’m going to be a little more prickly about making the Grouches more about Anglophone cinema and less about which three or four foreign language films happened to break through at the Oscars. A Hero didn’t get any Oscar nominations, but Asghar Farhadi has twice won the Best International Feature prize at the Academy Awards for Iran…should he be eligible? (Since I originally wrote that, this example has gotten weird but I stand by it.) If Drive My Car and its four nominations make it to the Grouches, then shouldn’t Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy, by the same clearly accessible director, be on the menu? As ever, the Grouches understand that we are a middle finger pointed in AMPAS’s direction and not an index finger pointing the way forward. The goal is more to take the temperature of Anglophone film (read: accessible for those of us with budgets living outside New York and Los Angeles), not to pretend like we have access to screeners.
  3. As it has been for the past decade, the line between film and television is only getting thinner, sadder, and more threadbare. I don’t think Twin Peaks: The Return is a movie, but at this point any non-episodic audiovisual text that debuts on one of the major streamers has to be considered “film” regardless of how many or how few festivals it played at, or how many or how few theaters it premiered in.
  4. The Grouches award a full-size galvanized metal trash can to the winners in the following categories, which are limited to five nominees and one winner unless otherwise noted: Best Picture, Best Director, Outstanding Actor (twenty nominees, four winners), Best Casting, Outstanding Screenplay (ten nominees, two winners), Best Cinematography, Best Editing, Best Mise-en-scène (a combination of Production Design, Costume Design, and Hair and Makeup), and Best Music.

Best Music: Licorice Pizza

Other nominees

  • Annette
  • Barb and Star Go to Vista Del Mar
  • The Green Knight
  • Summer of Soul (…Or, When the Revolution Could Not be Televised)

The Grouch for Best Music goes to the film which uses music best, regardless of what kind that may be. In the world of traditional scores, it was a year where the intended effect was to unsettle rather than uplift or awe: Jonny Greenwood twice for Spencer and The Power of the Dog, Hans Zimmer for Dune, Nathan Johnson for Nightmare Alley, and Daniel Hart for The Green Knight. Hart has the best of these, although I wouldn’t say that anything he does measures up to the thin, disharmonious strains of “We love each other so muuuuch” in Annette. The score and songs by Sparks, often musical in a literal sense but defying any of the prettiness or attractiveness one usually takes for granted in that word, does more than any other single element in making that film unsettling. As for our other nominees, I include Barb and Star joyfully and Summer of Soul a little grudgingly. My issue with Summer of Soul was always with the talking heads, who actively make the movie less exciting when they’re cut to. More of the Edwin Hawkin Singers performing “Oh, Happy Day” or Fifth Dimension doing “Let the Sunshine In,” less of famous people talking about famous people. Mahalia Jackson doesn’t really need exposition. On the other hand, Barb and Star does not go out of its way to explain its chipper score, let alone its musical interludes: Richard Cheese on the subject of shirt potatoes, and above all else “Edgar’s Prayer,” truly the “Ja Ja Ding Dong” of 2021. But as tempting as it is to push Barb and Star over the edge, it still has to be Licorice Pizza, which has a brilliantly curated soundtrack even if we can quibble about some of the choices being a little easy. If this were up against Boogie Nights, let alone Lovers Rock, Licorice Pizza wouldn’t win this category. But in a year like this, something like that needledrop of “Let Me Roll It” after Gary and Alana make up after a motorcycle jump is enough to push Licorize Pizza over the top. A pulsing lead guitar, a moderately doofy central metaphor, and the total honesty those have together make that an absolutely inspired choice for one of the movie’s most important scenes.

Best Mise-en-Scène: The French Dispatch

Other nominees

  • Annette
  • Barb and Star Go to Vista Del Mar
  • Bergman Island
  • The Green Knight

A similar group of nominees here as we had for music, which was not purposeful. (Licorice Pizza and Cryptozoo were both pretty close to making the cut here) The Green Knight and Annette are both movies I thought about as Cinematography nominees, although what I like about those movies has more to do with mise-en-scène or makeup or something else about the production values: the look of Ralph Ineson’s Green Knight, the Green Chapel, the venues where Henry McHenry or Annette perform, the Baby Annette doll itself. (I wasn’t sure where else to recognize that doll/the several dolls they used for the part, which are used to brilliant effect throughout the second half of the film.) Barb and Star looks exactly like coastal Florida wishes it looked; Bergman Island is in its own fantasy world, Fårö. Bergman Island, which makes Fårö new while still emphasizing the places we know from Persona or Through a Glass Darkly, which can see it as the honest home of an occasionally misanthrophic director as well as the home of a self-titled safari devoted to said director, was my second choice here. Maybe it’s boring to choose a Wes Anderson movie for this category, but, spoilers, I think The French Dispatch is so much more than the criticisms that many people (not excluding yours truly) have flung at him in the wake of a Moonrise Kingdom or Isle of Dogs. The preciousness of The French Dispatch is in its full title and its setting (“Ennui-sur-blasé”), not in its looks or sets. Tilda Swinton’s hilarious little interludes are all the funnier because of her hair and costume; Timothee Chalamet’s hair is doing so much work, ditto Jeffrey Wright’s; Benicio del Toro gets a lift from an outstandingly ragged costume. And then there are the sets, which keep the lovingly artful precision of The Grand Budapest Hotel but which are much more original. Rather than (brilliantly) parodying the best and worst of fine lodgings, The French Dispatch is bringing that same craft to garrets and police stations, asylums and their underbellies.

Best Editing: Aljernon Tunsil, Attica

Other nominees

  • Andy Jurgensen, Licorice Pizza
  • Marion Monnier, Bergman Island
  • Kristan Sprague, Judas and the Black Messiah
  • Andrew Weisblum, The French Dispatch

For the first time, the Grouches are giving the top editing award to a documentary rather than a narrative feature. Attica is absolutely deserving, and as one would expect from a doc with talking heads and historical footage/photography, it must rely on its editing as a primary source of power. As the editor of the most powerful movie of the year, it follows that Tunsil must be doing something right. Attica is structured so well that I struggle to imagine any changes to it. It has the urgency and pace of a political thriller, which is what Attica is when you boil it down to genre. It never lingers too long on its introductory material, and what it does put focus on is absolutely essential and never stereotypical. An average viewer (like me, say), would not have guessed that Attica, New York was basically a company town where boys grew up to be prison guards like boys in West Virginia grew up to be coal miners or boys in California grew up to harvest fruit. Yet there is just enough of that in Attica to make it clear that the prison uprising is not just a fight between prisoners and a political class which despises them, but that local politics infused the hatred that turned an insurrection into a massacre. The highest praise I can give the editing in this film is that it makes this film move, and the urgency of the picture makes its final twenty minutes as crushing now as they must have been on September 13, 1971. I think very highly of the editing in these other movies, especially Monnier’s work on Bergman Island, but to be perfectly honest this is probably the biggest blowout victory in any category.

Best Casting: Passing

Other nominees

  • Barb and Star Go to Vista Del Mar
  • Bergman Island
  • The French Dispatch
  • Judas and the Black Messiah

The primary factor for this award is the chemistry of the cast rather than taking the performances one by one and adding them up. By that measure, Passing takes this one by kind of a sizable margin. Barb and Star has delicious chemistry that raises it above the level of some films with more prestigey acting and nowhere near as much effect. Judas has so many good performances in leading and supporting parts alike, down to the extras, that I feel sort of guilty not choosing it here. On the other hand, if we’re splitting hairs then Judas does have a small issue with Daniel Kaluuya breathing the majority of the air in the room even when the film wants us to focus on Lakeith Stanfield.

On a person-by-person basis I probably like the Bergman Island cast a little bit better, and the stunt casting in The French Dispatch is beyond ludicrous, the intimacy of a fairly small group in Passing is what pushes them over the top. Tessa Thompson, Ruth Negga, and Andre Holland are so good together in this film, whether that’s in twos or threes. Add in Bill Camp, playing one of those enlightened white men of the time (who is “enlightened” in the same way a first-grader is literate) and who seems to bedevil Thompson as much as the other two put together, and there’s a terrific tension that’s generated just from seeing those people in the same room together. As much as I’ll praise the photography of this film in a minute (and as much as I like the screenplay), there’s no question that Passing would simply not be as good with three other people tying the picture together.

Best Cinematography: Michael Bauman and Paul Thomas Anderson, Licorice Pizza

Other nominees

  • Sean Bobbitt, Judas and the Black Messiah
  • Eduard Grau, Passing
  • Ari Wegner, Zola
  • Robert D. Yeoman, The French Dispatch

Three out of five of the nominees this year were shot on film. Only Judas and Passing were shot on digital, and both of those are doing some really interesting work outside of simply looking good. Judas is in many ways as athletic and ambulatory a film as something like 1917, which is constantly on the move, and the color grading gives Chicago this dank look that you can almost smell. Passing, on the other hand, is using its aspect ratio to marvelous effect, smoothly connecting the frame to something more sinister, like the characters are being hemmed in rather than highlighted. As someone who’s always on the lookout for black-and-white cinematography in the present that really works, what Eduard Grau does on this film belongs in a conversation with the work that Lukasz Zal did for Ida. Both films create their subjects primarily through the ways we look at them, and the ratios make us peer at them rather than gaze. Ari Wegner is doing something similar in Zola, although it’s on color and purposefully garish at times. Zola is shot on 16mm that makes a Florida story grainier than Montana, a very welcome difference from A24’s reliance on digital cinematography for inferior Sunshine State movies like The Florida Project or Waves. In a film where sex workers are the (occasionally unwilling) protagonists, it’s Wegner who makes that work into labor which threatens those protagonists with extreme degradation.

Once again, in Grouches tradition, technicians working extremely closely with directors are picking up wins and nominations: longtime gaffer Michael Bauman with Paul Thomas Anderson, camera operator Robert Yeoman with Wes Anderson. Licorice Pizza picks up its second win of the post for the photography that gives us that hazy vibe of the time and place, the moving camera which suffuses the film with its slightly sub-manic energy. As much as people tease the film for how many people are running around, those scenes genuinely do work, and that’s a function of camera movement which brings us along with these weird young folks on a pretty weird narrative.

Outstanding Screenplay: Will Berson, Shaka King, Kenny Lucas, and Keith Lucas, Judas and the Black Messiah / Mia Hansen-Løve, Bergman Island

Other nominees

  • Paul Thomas Anderson, Licorice Pizza
  • Wes Anderson, The French Dispatch
  • Janicza Bravo and Jeremy O. Harris, Zola
  • Maggie Gyllenhaal, The Lost Daughter
  • Rebecca Hall, Passing
  • Ron Mael and Russell Mael, Annette
  • Dash Shaw, Cryptozoo
  • Nanfu Wang, In the Same Breath
  • Kristen Wiig and Annie Mumolo, Barb and Star Go to Vista Del Mar

Gotta say that this was my least favorite category of this year by a country mile. I really struggled to come up with a tenth film, which ended up being The Lost Daughter (sorry if that’s rude, we all know James Harden got picked last for the All-Star Game this year), and while there are a number of movies I think have good screenplays, this was just not a good year for them. I have a hard time believing we’ll get another documentary with a screenplay nod at the Grouches in the near future, although if I were to go all the way down and rank these I think I’d probably put Wang’s screenplay fourth or fifth. (Her narration about the similarities of China and America’s responses to covid-19 binds that really good film together more than any other single piece of it.) But at the same time, and with no disrespect for documentaries intended, how often does a doc probably have one of the five or six best screenplays in English in a year?

If there’s a first place for this award, it belongs to Mia Hansen-Løve. The screenplay for Bergman Island is so exquisitely subtle, a world of implications in the dialogue that rarely sparkles but always lands. A whiny comment where Chris wishes that her favorite artists were good people is so much about her slightly distant partner, Tony. A screenplay idea she has which uses a white dress as a symbol of ill fit or misplaced purity is good enough for a whole movie, not just the movie-within-a-movie that Hansen-Løve plugs it into. Even the Bergman movies that Tony and Chris have to choose from feel weighted with import. They decide they want to watch Saraband, but they don’t have Saraband, a movie about reconciliation. They watch Cries and Whispers instead. As for Judas, what that screenplay lacks in subtlety it gains in leaving bruises around the viewer’s jaw and kidneys. Fred Hampton rises out of myth and legend in this film…sort of. Judas finds the man in those scenes where Daniel Kaluuya is opposite Dominique Fishback, but the impressions of the Black Messiah most left by this screenplay are in the sequences where Fred Hampton the young demigod bends rooms to his cause with missionary charisma and personal fortitude. Just as meaningful are those quite scenes between Bill O’Neal and his FBI handler, as hushed and intense as scenes featuring Hampton tend to be loud.

Outstanding Actor: Alana Haim, Licorice Pizza / Andre Holland, Passing / Daniel Kaluuya, Judas and the Black Messiah / Jeffrey Wright, The French Dispatch

Other nominees

  • Jessie Buckley, The Lost Daughter
  • Daniel Craig, No Time to Die
  • Anders Danielsen Lie, Bergman Island
  • Benicio del Toro, The French Dispatch
  • Adam Driver, The Last Duel
  • Simon Helberg, Annette
  • Jack Huston, House of Gucci
  • Troy Kotsur, CODA
  • Annie Mumolo, Barb and Star Go to Vista Del Mar
  • Ruth Negga, Passing
  • Taylour Paige, Zola
  • Jesse Plemons, Judas and the Black Messiah
  • Saniyya Sidney, King Richard
  • Lakeith Stanfield, Judas and the Black Messiah
  • David Strathairn, Nightmare Alley
  • Mia Wasikowska, Bergman Island

As always, we at the Grouches are not cowards, and unlike the Oscars we are happy to mention the first four out: Adam Driver, Saniyya Sidney, Troy Kotsur, Taylour Paige. Driver had a great, full year, and just misses out on his first Grouch. (Jessie Buckley, who is the only other person besides Driver to be nominated for one of these twice, was closer for Wild Rose than she is for The Lost Daughter.) Saniyya Sidney as Venus Williams was the real anchor of King Richard, far more than Will Smith or Aunjanue Ellis, a moral force without overstatement and the center of its climactic scenes. Troy Kotsur has gotten the Oscar (or as we call it around here, the “fancy Grouch”) and Taylour Paige the Independent Spirit Award (“cool Grouch”), and we probably don’t have to say too much more about two great performances. While this wasn’t that great a movie year in Anglophone movies, there are definitely a number of performances I wish had gotten more credit. I thought Jack Huston was the only thing tethering House of Gucci to the ground in much the same way that David Strathairn was responsible for basically all the sadness in Nightmare Alley. And in a more just world, Annie Mumolo’s performance which is every bit as physical and goofy as Kristen Wiig’s but frequently aching with sadness would be recognized widely.

But on to our winners. Holland is this profound oppositional force in Passing, for it’s not really Clare or the white men in Irene’s life who she’s pressing against, but her intelligent and serpentine husband. We so often privilege raw menace in our supporting roles—I’ve done it at the Grouches before, when Tom Burke won for The Souvenir—but what Holland is doing is another kind of menace which I imagine has to be even more common, a menace of denigration and condescension wrapped up with a sensible bow. Holland is very nearly peerless among other actors, and he shows that here. Daniel Kaluuya we’ve talked about a lot already…he is so monumental and stunning in Judas that if there is a peer for Holland, it has to be him. Back when the movie came out I wondered if he might have already given the best performance of 2021; it’s probably only the second-best, which we’ll get to, but I wasn’t far off. Then there’s Jeffrey Wright in The French Dispatch, playing the expat journalist Roebuck Wright in his glory and somewhat after it, too. Although the line of the film is spoken by Steve Park (“I’ve never tasted that taste in my life. Not entirely pleasant, extremely poisonous, but still, a new flavor. That’s a rare thing in my age.”), Wright’s reaction to it is essential to that line landing with the painful, wonderful force it does. Roebuck is not given to emotional displays, but something about finding something new even if it might be fatal, about the wonder of understanding differently at great cost, is written on Wright throughout that final third of The French Dispatch.

The performance of the year, and of the 2020s, is still Alana Haim in Licorice Pizza. Because I’ve gushed about it elsewhere I’ll just repeat myself here:

The more I think on it and compare her work to other recent performances, the more I convince myself that this is really the best performance of the decade so far. Haim is so extraordinarily believable, and Alana is so many different things, and that is a treacherous road for a performance to walk. Alana is prickly and generous. She is self-aware but lies to herself with feverish abandon. She would make a pretty fair entrepreneur in her own right, or a good politico, but she displays her immaturity and naivete in both settings. She can give it but struggles to take it. 

I really don’t know if we’ll ever get another performance from Alana Haim, and in some ways I kind of hope we don’t. Most actors never even give one this good; I don’t know how she could equal it.

Best Director: Wes Anderson, The French Dispatch

Other nominees

  • Paul Thomas Anderson, Licorice Pizza
  • Mia Hansen-Løve, Bergman Island
  • Shaka King, Judas and the Black Messiah
  • Stanley Nelson, Attica

Best Picture: The French Dispatch

Other nominees

  • Attica
  • Bergman Island
  • Judas and the Black Messiah
  • Licorice Pizza

For the first time, the Grouches have gone 5-5 between Director and Picture. (Eagle-eyed readers will remember that these are the same five movies with Editing nominations. Pray for a more interesting movie year next year so we won’t have to be as boring.) It’s worse than that, even, because the first movie out was Passing…and the first director out was Rebecca Hall. For the sake of brevity, the Grouches can point you back to the Screenplay category, where King and Hansen-Løve won, or Cinematography where Paul Thomas Anderson won, or Editing, where one imagines Stanley Nelson probably had some real influence.

In an effort to be more interesting, here’s the order: French Dispatch, Attica, Licorice Pizza, Bergman Island, Judas and the Black Messiah. And to be even more interesting, the first two were the only ones which really had a shot at the top spot. Licorice Pizza is a lovely film, but there is no moment of transcendence in it despite all its craft and frivolity. Bergman Island I hesitate a little to call any more than a top five movie, because I recognize that a lot of what makes the first half go for me is a Bergman adoration which comes dangerously close to violating the First Commandment. It’s a good movie, but again, doesn’t have the transcendence which I associate with L’avenir, for example. And Judas, which I think is arguably the most engaging film of the five named here, has things (e.g., a cast that’s really too old to be playing these babyfaced revolutionaries) to nitpick that drop it a little bit below the others.

That leaves the year’s two best films, with the two best efforts in direction as well. Attica is the film from this year that made my eyes pop, richly researched and movingly told, sewing the stories of people who were there together with such grace and compassion. As it currently stands, Attica is pretty cleanly the best documentary I’ve seen from this decade so far. It’s a 1B for me in 2021 through no fault of its own. It just feels like Wes Anderson has reached an apex that he’s teased at before in other films but never quite been able to wrangle into a genuinely great one. The French Dispatch is nostalgic, which is not exactly a new idea in Anderson, but in each of the film’s three sections he manages to take some nostalgic feeling and transform it. The idea of the mad artist and his sensible muse, a stereotype at best, is transformed in “The Concrete Masterpiece” into something really lovely. Rosenthaler makes art that he believes will be permanently ensconced within the prison where he resides, and in the end every bit of that place is stripped of what made it lovely: the frescoes are shipped out to a museum, Rosenthaler is paroled, and his muse, ex-guard Simone, goes her own way. Implacable concrete turns out to be malleable. In the second section, “Revisions to a Manifesto,” the old story of young revolutionaries with minds turned old by legalese and political dogma is revealed to be something far more romantic. This is not La Chinoise, a film where Anne Wiazemsky carries satire of a movement hellbent on tearing down the old. This is a love story about two young people, each of them slightly ridiculous with their haircuts and headgear, and about how revolution is a game for the young and not for the old, no matter how indulgently they feel. And then there’s that marvelous third chapter, “The Private Dining Room of the Police Commissioner,” which is on its face about a kidnapping and which in practical terms is about trying to recapture a lost vitality, a missing sense of belonging that one is too tired or old to really dig fingernails into. Over and over again, The French Dispatch does things that I’ve never seen in Anderson before, but which I truly hadn’t seen done to this extent or this well ever before.

3 thoughts on “3rd Annual Grouches: 2021 Movie Year Awards

  1. Let Passing slip through the cracks, but I love Andre Holland. Think he is incredible and should be cast more, but it kind of seems like he’s choosing the projects, not getting passed over. Will have to go back for that movie.

    I liked Bergman Island a whole lot. I think that Bergman Island and the Lost Daughter would be a fun “Beach Movie” double-feature.

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