Continuing my recap of the 2021 movie year, this week I will present my personal nominees and winners for Best Director, Best Actor and Actress, and Best Supporting Actor and Actress. I have now caught up with almost every movie on my watchlist, so I’m pretty confident these lists won’t change.
Before I start, I’d like to shout out a couple of additional musical movie moments that I hadn’t yet seen when writing last week’s posts.
One is the ‘Wherever I Fall‘ sequence in Cyrano, which depicts doomed soldiers singing their final letters home. It’s the film’s best song and best scene, a powerful use of music to plumb the depths of despair.
The other is NSYNC’s ‘Bye Bye Bye,’ heard a few times during Sean Baker’s Red Rocket, most memorably when performed by actress Suzanna Son in a slowed-down version on piano. It’s a heartbreaking scene that bubbles up unexpectedly in the middle of a darkly hilarious movie.
Now, on to my personal nominees for Best Director of a 2021 film.
Wes Anderson – The French Dispatch
I did a Wes Anderson deep dive last year in preparation for the release of The French Dispatch, and also read three books on the making of every one of his films before this one.
That immersion made me appreciate his unique style and perspective more than ever, and I was thrilled when Dispatch met my high expectations.
Anderson is in peak form here, conducting a massive ensemble through five different stories and packing literally every frame with touches of wit, whimsy and pathos.
Sean Baker – Red Rocket
Four years after The Florida Project, one of my favorite movies of the last decade, Baker returns with another look at a community not usually depicted onscreen.
This time it’s the hard-luck citizens of Texas City, a poor oil town, who are revisited by Mikey Saber, a washed up and beaten down former porn star who was once a hometown hero.
Baker has an eye for the beauty in the mundane, and does for Texas City what he did for Kissimmee in The Florida Project, directing non-actors and first-timers in their own element and making it feel like poetry. This time, though, he ramps up the black comedy and dares us to empathize with his rotten protagonist.
Janicza Bravo – Zola
In the first film ever based on a Twitter thread, writer/director Bravo brings to vivid life the outrageous story of stripper Aziah “Zola” King’s wild road trip with fellow dancer, and part-time prostitute, Stefani.
Zola is one of the few films to truly capture the rhythms and quirks of internet culture. I can’t imagine a better translation of the source material.
Other writer/directors could have turned the same tale into a gritty drama, a madcap comedy, an indie thriller, you name it. Brava did all of that, but also crafted something that feels brand-new.
Steven Spielberg – West Side Story
How wonderful to see Steven Spielberg, at 75, receiving some of the most glowing accolades of his legendary career. He’s an artist too often taken for granted, but his West Side Story made that impossible.
Recently, a tweet made the rounds calling out one particular virtuoso shot from a West Side Story dance sequence, prompting Guillermo Del Toro to write a gushing Twitter thread of his own about Spielberg’s technique. You could spark similar conversations about any number of shots, scenes or sequences from this film.
On top of his technical prowess, Spielberg has a marvelous way with actors, coaxing brilliant performances from a cast of mostly newcomers (and a late-career triumph from another legend, Rita Moreno).
He’s A Mount Rushmore director, still churning out masterpieces long after he could have been content to be chiseled into stone.
Joachim Trier – The Worst Person in the World
Norwegian writer-director Trier has concocted a refreshingly modern and introspective spin on the romantic comedy (though maybe romantic dramedy would be a more appropriate classification).
He proves equally adept at bold showmanship (a bravura “frozen in time” sequence) and tender moments between lovers and friends. He shoots his hometown Oslo with the same sort of affection Greta Gerwig showed to Sacramento in Lady Bird.
The Worst Person in the World is funny, sad, smart and ultimately hopeful. That is a tribute to Trier’s Oscar-nominated screenplay, but also his direction, which manages to harness the film’s tricky, shifting tones into something quite beautiful.
And the winner is… Spielberg. Give the man his third directing Oscar. He should have at least that many already.
Only you, you’re the only thing I’ll see forever
In my eyes, in my words, and in everything I do
Nothing else but you ever
[TONY & MARIA]
And there’s nothing for me but Maria
Every sight that I see is Maria
[TONY, MARIA & BOTH]
Always you, every thought I’ll ever know
Everywhere I go, you’ll be
All the world is only
You and me!
It all began tonight
I saw you and the world went away
There’s only you tonight
What you are, what you do, what you say
Today, all day I had the feeling
A miracle would happen
I know now I was right
For here you are
And what was just a world is a star
[MARIA, TONY & BOTH]
The world is full of light
With suns and moons all over the place
Thе world is wild and bright
Going mad, shooting sparks into space
[TONY & BOTH]
Today the world was just an address
A placе for me to live in
No better than all right
But here you are
And what was just a world is a star
María, vente pa’ dentro.
Sí, ya voy, me estoy vistiendo. Tomorrow.
Sí, okay. Wait, wait… I forgot why I called you.
I’ll wait till you remember.
Good night, good night
Sleep well and when you dream
Dream of me
I’m with you on West Side Story, but the rest of your selections I either saw and didn’t like all that much or have no desire to see at all.
I’d only read part of del Toro’s praise, so thank you for the link. I love his comparison to Salieri… “slow down; you’re going too fast!” And his insistence that we recognize and honor the artisans of cinema (and award them live during the Oscars!).
I’ve only seen two of the films you list here, and I can appreciate your pick of both Spielberg, who I hope will take home the statue, and Bravo, who made one f the freshest films I’ve seen in ages. The 30 minutes or so I saw of French Dispatch left me feeling that this was the same old, same old. While I admire Anderson’s craft, I want to see him do something different. I’m eager to see The Worst Person in the World, and, if only to weigh in on the internal family debate, Red Rocket. 🙂
I would put Joe Wright on my list, as he did for Cyrano what Spielberg did for WSS, especially in “Wherever I Fall,” a scene that was a highlight of the year. I might also include Sian Heder for directing one of the most touching and enjoyable films of the year and providing rich material for wonderful actors who often don’t get the opportunity to play such realized characters. Those are the two that immediately came to mind. I’ll reflect a bit and come back to add my final two favorite directors of the year.
I hadn’t realized you left off Kenneth Branagh, so I’ll add him back along with Michael Sarnoski for Pig.
I have no problem with Spielberg being chosen. He is always amazing and West Side Story was wonderful. Would love to see him win.
First of all thank you for these incredible reviews! I must be honest and say I have been a bad film consumer this past year and need to catch up on all these Oscar contenders. Your words on “Red Rocket” make me eager to see the film and I can’t wait to watch it now. Wes Anderson is often hit or miss for me and I heard mixed feelings on French Dispatch, but now I’m eager to give that a watch too!