Let’s face it, the experience of going to see a movie in a theater has changed forever.
With streaming services becoming the dominant platform for most movie watching, theatrical-only releases are feeling the pinch (see “West Side Story,” which is considered to be a “box office bomb,” as an example). The unvaccinated and the Greek alphabet of variants also add to the strain. Nevertheless, 2021 proved to be an exceptional time for film, and the following list highlights some of the year’s best.
1. “Swan Song” (Magnolia): If the mayor of Sandusky, Ohio hasn’t done so yet, he should present gay filmmaker and native son Todd Stephens with a key to the city. Stephens has managed to make Sandusky, which Charles Dickens described as “sluggish and uninteresting…something like the back of an English watering-place out of the season,” somewhat captivating in his masterful, award-winning “Swan Song.” “Inspired by a true icon” (Pat Pitsenbarger, 1943-2012), “Swan Song” stars the brilliant out actor Udo Kier as Mr. Pat, the formerly famous gay hairdresser known for the magic he worked with a brush, a comb, and hairspray on the heads of the city’s socialites, in what is essentially a road movie on foot.
2. “Zola” (A24): Every few years, a movie comes along that completely flips the script, so to speak. Sean Baker’s 2015 masterpiece “Tangerine,” shot on an iPhone, is one example. So is Janicza Bravo’s “Zola.” Based on the tweets of Aziah “Zola” King and the article “Zola Tells All: The Real Story Behind the Greatest Stripper Saga Ever Tweeted” by David Kushner,” the movie is original, immediate, fresh, futuristic, and certain to inspire countless imitations, due in part to the gusto of Taylour Paige’s gutsy performance as the titular character, as well as out actor Colman Domingo.
3. “Together Together” (Bleecker Street/Obscured Pictures): Writer/director Nikole Beckwith’s marvelous and heartwarming comedy “Together Together” has the potential to do for surrogacy what Gillian Robespierre’s “Obvious Child” (from 2014) did for abortion. Not only is it a smart and sensitive movie, but it features one of the great performances of 2021, given by trans actor Patti Harrison.
4. “Pig” (Neon): Nicolas Cage, an actor many had written off following his disappointing output from the mid-2000s to the mid-2010s, has experienced an impressive career resurgence that extends into the early 2020s. “Pig,” the first porcine-centric movie since “Babe,” puts Cage high on the hog. It’s hard to imagine another actor who could have done what Cage did with the part of eccentric loner Rob. Even vegans will find something to like about “Pig.”
5. “Sublet” (Greenwich Entertainment): Since Eytan Fox’s 2002 breakout film “Yossi & Jagger,” the gay Israeli filmmaker has consistently made films of the highest quality, including the 2012 “Yossi & Jagger” sequel “Yossi” (which greatly improves on the original), as well as 2007’s “The Bubble.” With “Sublet,” Fox breaks new ground by featuring an American actor, John Benjamin Hickey (who is gay), in the lead role. Additionally, most of the dialogue is in English, with the remainder in Hebrew. Hickey and co-star Niv Nissim are marvelous, making “Sublet” a successful and welcome addition to Fox’s canon.
6. “Language Lessons” (Shout! Studios): An intimate, essentially two-person story that balances comedy and tragedy, “Language Lessons” is presented via Facetime and video messages and speaks directly to the heart. Costa Rica-based Cariño (Natalie Morales, who directed and co-wrote the screenplay) is hired by the husband of Oakland-based Adam (Mumblecore pioneer Mark Duplass, who co-wrote the screenplay) for 100 weekly online Spanish immersion lessons. It’s the first in a series of surprises, not the least of which is the way these two characters learn so much from and about the other.
7. “Minyan” (Strand Releasing): Screenwriter/director Eric Steel’s feature debut “Minyan,” set in an orthodox Jewish enclave in Brighton Beach in the mid-to-late 1980s, opens fittingly enough with family and friends reciting the mourner’s prayer. David (Samuel H. Levine in a breakout performance), the grandson of the deceased, becomes increasingly aware of his attraction to other guys, despite his religious upbringing. As coming out stories go, “Minyan” is atypical in many ways, and given both its chronological and geographical locations, is a unique experience.
8. “Moffie” (IFC Films): Set in Apartheid-controlled South Africa in 1981, the bleak and brutal “Moffie” (another word for faggot), follows gay 16-year-old Nicholas (Kai Luke Brummer) at the beginning of his two-year compulsory conscription in the South African military. “Moffie” is a non-traditional horror movie in which the monsters are human. If you’re able to tolerate the depiction of the emotional and physical cruelty (the explicit homophobia is soul-crushing), then you have a chance to watch an exceptional film achievement.
9. “Little Fish” (IFC Films) As timely as a movie can get, “Little Fish,” artfully directed by Chad Hartigan from a screenplay by Mattson Tomlin (based on Aja Gabel’s short story), gives us a variation on a familiar theme. Set in the near future, NIA (neuroinflammatory affliction), a virus that no one knows how it’s spread, is wreaking havoc on the population. Causing total loss of memory, NIA can infect anyone and there’s no cure. Both a love story and a horror story, it draws unavoidable parallels to the AIDS crisis, as well as the current pandemic, as the horrors of the virus dominate almost every frame.
10. “The Killing of Two Lovers” (Neon): Cinematic depictions of the dissolution of marriages are nothing new. Some can be comedic (“The War of the Roses,” “Mrs. Doubtfire,” “A Serious Man,” and 1939’s “The Women”) and some can be serious (“Kramer Vs. Kramer,” “The Squid and the Whale,” “Carol” and “Marriage Story”). Writer/director Robert Machoian’s “The Killing of Two Lovers” falls into the latter category. Even at only 84 minutes, it’s the kind of emotionally draining movie that is difficult to watch in one sitting. It is, nevertheless, well worth seeing, especially for the mesmerizing first 13 minutes.
Honorable mention: “Belfast” (Focus Features), “C’mon, C’mon” (A24) and “Passing” (Netflix) - Three stunningly rendered black and white films, directed by Kenneth Branagh, Mike Mills and Rebecca Hall respectively, reminding us that when combined with the right cast and the right script, they can be as colorful any other movie.
Gregg Shapiro is the author of seven books including the expanded edition of his short story collection How to Whistle (Rattling Good Yarns Press, 2021). An entertainment journalist, whose interviews and reviews run in a variety of regional LGBTQ+ and mainstream publications and websites, Shapiro lives in Fort Lauderdale with his husband Rick and their dog Coco.