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Jeff Simon: It's not a year for a top 10 list, but there were several movies worth seeing

Jeff Simon: It's not a year for a top 10 list, but there were several movies worth seeing

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I just can't do it.

I can't shoot out a 10-best movies list for 2021 the way I did for so many decades. I simply haven't seen too many of the movies that veritably beg for all of our "consideration" – from "West Side Story," to "Dune," to "Drive My Car" to "The Tragedy of Macbeth" – courtesy of Denzel Washington, Frances McDormand and her husband, Joel Coen, in black and white no less.

Covid and other circumstances got in the way.

Movie critics tend to be the people among us who love movies the most. And, as a general rule, we're scared at the moment. Blame the killer one-two punch of Covid-19 and a business that finds it ever easier to forsake demanding adults for the sake of the throng breathlessly awaiting the newest comic book spectacle.

I'm finding it ever more difficult to attach superlatives to any of the movies I'm reading raves about online. I've seen a great many of them. Most are at least watchable. Some are very, very good.

But only in three cases does it seem completely natural to fling major superlative praise to them: Peter Jackson's six-hour documentary of the Beatles' farewell concert, "Get Back" and Questlove's "Summer of Soul" – which both carry the imprimatur of major revisionist pop music history – and Jane Campion's first movie in 12 years, the magnificently photographed "The Power of the Dog."

Jackson's Beatles revisionism was written about everywhere. I was able, briefly, to have my say about the slowly burning explosion of "The Power of the Dog." But Questlove's "Summer of Soul: When The Revolution Could Not Be Televised" is a hugely important documentary using footage from that annus mirabilis 1969 that had never been seen before.

This is the extraordinary Black music that was contemporary with the culture-changing music for half of a million people at Woodstock. Questlove's film puts together footage from six summer concerts in Harlem, some of which overlap with Woodstock. Questlove is the drummer and leader of the Roots and, therefore, the bandleader for Jimmy Fallon's TV band. He is also, by DNA, a prince of American Black music. His father was the leader of the sublime doo-wop group Lee Andrews and the Hearts ("Try the Impossible"). The roster of artists appearing in "Summer of Soul" is mind-boggling: Stevie Wonder, Gladys Knight, Nina Simone, Sly and the Family Stone (who also ripped up Woodstock), B.B. King, Mahalia Jackson, Max Roach and Abbey Lincoln. In so many ways, it was one of 2021's most necessary movies.

Here, in a year, when the most ardent movie lovers have reasons to worry about the survival of an art form they dearly love, is a list of some much-praised movies, all worth seeing before Oscar nominations are announced Feb. 8.

• "Licorice Pizza." The newest and lightest movie, by far, from Paul Thomas Anderson, of "Boogie Nights" "Magnolia" and "There Will Be Blood" fame. This one is set in 1973 and is yet another brush with San Fernando Valley nostalgia. It's about a 15-year-old showbiz brat and hustler who manages to successfully romance a girl who seems to be 25. He is played by Cooper Hoffman, the son of Philip Seymour Hoffman. She is played by Alana Haim, who sings with her sisters in a group that takes their last name. Bradley Cooper, Sean Penn and Tom Waits drop in for some jolly and occasionally inspired hacking around for their pal Anderson. (Cooper is particularly juicy playing hairdresser-turned-movie-producer Jon Peters who was, in 1973, the consort of Barbra Streisand.) The film is good fun but not much else from a director who has made some of our most ambitious movies of the past three decades.

• "Belfast." More nostalgia. (Boy, is there ever a lot of that these days.) In this one, Kenneth Branagh tells the autobiographical story of a child growing up in Belfast during "the troubles" when Catholics and Protestants were at war in the streets of the city. It's certainly an engaging film but not a patch on the genuine classic that obviously provided the model for it: John Boorman's 1987 masterpiece "Hope and Glory," which told the story of his family's survival of World War II bombings during the Blitz.

• "The Lost Daughter." A hugely welcome directorial debut by a terrific contemporary actress: Maggie Gyllenhaal. Her family is a part of Hollywood's talent aristocracy. Her famous actor brother is Jake, her father is 72-year old director Stephen and Jake and Maggie's late mother was the very fine screenwriter Naomi Foner ("Losing Isaiah," "Running on Empty," "Violets are Blue"). Maggie's ascension into the family profession – writing and directing – managed to get the screen rights to the novel of the same name by mysterious best-selling Italian novelist Elena Ferrante – whose real name isn't known. It's a good film starring the splendid Olivia Colman and Dakota Johnson but it manages to be frustratingly opaque about the reason for its very title. If you can ignore that, it's a graceful tale about some notably ungraceful realities of motherhood and the anxieties of contemporary womanhood. It's disturbing and puzzling simultaneously. I wish it had been more satisfying in its claustrophobia. (Pedro Almodovar's new film coming out as we speak is "Parallel Motherhood" starring Penelope Cruz as a new mother.)

• "Spencer," named for the maiden name of Princess Diana. Controversial actress Kristen Stewart plays Princess Di during a week in which she creates fretful problems for her husband, Prince Charles, and her mother-in-law, the Queen. I must confess I'm a huge fan of the often disparaged actress but I just don't think Stewart was artful casting in this role. Diana was tall and effortlessly regal. In public, she was a swan – hopelessly and irretrievably. Stewart here is a self-doubting and confused duckling who, for some unexplained reason, performs the role stoop-shouldered (which Di, at 5-foot 11 could do while looking very different from Stewart's 5-foot-5). A nice try and worth seeing but it just doesn't work.

• "The French Dispatch," another small miracle by Wes Anderson, whose films are like full-scale miniatures even though they're nothing of a sort. What no one has ever quite known is just what "sort" of films they are. He confirms here how very close he has always been to the unique sensibility of the New Yorker magazine, which transformed mid-America into Manhattan sophistication. What we see in this movie about a French version of the New Yorker are fictional impressions of real New Yorker figures Harold Ross, A.J. Leibling, Calvin Tomkins, Mavis Gallant and James Baldwin.

Get this cast: Bill Murray, Frances McDormand, Benicio del Toro, Tilda Swinton, Jeffrey Wright, Owen Wilson, Willem Dafoe, Edward Norton, Lois Smith, Saoirse Ronan, Liev Schreiber, Henry Winkler.

• "The Mitchells vs. The Machines." Among the authentic scandals of nominations by the Golden Globes was the omission of a nomination for this terrific animated film, one of the best, by far, of the year. A great animated family feature.

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Semi-Retired Columnist and Critic

Jeff Simon began working at The News as a copyboy 57 years ago. Since that time, he has been closely involved in all aspects of The News' cultural coverage – as critic, columnist and Arts and Books editor for 25 years.

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