Despite our most fervent hopes, 2021 was the second strange year for both cinema and the world. Festivals were either online or continued a hybrid format (Slamdance just announced that due to omicron, they will be online only in January), and that communal feeling we have missed being in theaters together has only partially returned. All this to say it was a most unusual twelve months—again. I saw a great many excellent films at AFI DOC and DOC NYC, and the upcoming festival circuit already looks promising. My favorite fiction films of 2021 were three rather quiet films about human relationships, plus one absolutely stellar documentary that took nearly forty years to create.
Colin Firth and Stanley Tucci star as a pair of aging gay men who, when Tucci’s scientist character Tosker begins to experience dementia, embark on a driving tour of England’s Lake District to visit old friends and favorite haunts before Tosker becomes lost to the disease. Both give amazing performances, particularly Tucci as the man of science, reason and logic who has no choice but to accept that his personality and calculations are disappearing by the minute. Firth is also tremendous as Tosker’s partner Sam, trying his best to maintain that stiff upper lip but nonetheless falling apart at a key moment.
Keep your eyes on potential Oscar nominations for both Tucci and Firth (full story)
“East of the Mountains” (featured image)
Tom Skerritt should have been a leading man long ago, but it’s incredibly satisfying to see him, at nearly 90, tackle a role that makes use of his quiet grace. Skerritt portrays Ben, a damaged widower who decides to head off into the wilderness carrying little besides his rifle and his dog. The plot is simple, and the ending is a bit of a letdown, but all throughout Skerritt is poised and confident: He knows the ins and outs of being a man aging out of usefulness but still clinging to notions of a certain type of muted masculinity that has all but been lost (this film was reviewed in the April edition of Screen Comment)
So many movies are about young love and even middle-aged divorcees finding new romance, but only a select few are brave enough to tackle the notion of late-in-life love and even (gasp) sex. Writer-director Paul Morrison’s “23 Walks” is a mature, gentle film about two dog owners called Dave and Fern (Dave Johns and Alison Steadman) who meet in the park, converse and gradually fall in love while walking their dogs. But this is no standard walk in the park as Fern has recently been left by her husband for a much younger woman, and Dave, who says his wife is deceased, has a rather big revelation for his new girlfriend.
Morrison’s script and direction are superb, with Johns and Steadman exquisite in how they make Dave and Fern not stock characters but real people with histories, wounds and discovering, rather surprisingly to both of them, a renewed capacity for joy and companionship (read the review)
“Life of Crime, 1984-2020”
Filmmaker Jon Alpert spent thirty-six years following a trio of Newark, New Jersey, drug addicts and small-time criminals who steal to feed their habit. We see them in and out of prisons and rehabs, trying to start fresh—often failing—and the cycle starts all over, again. Alpert never condemns them, only observes, but “Life of Crime, 1984-2020” is instead an unflinching indictment of America’s drug policy. For, if jailing users doesn’t work—and rehab doesn’t seem to, either, at least for these people—what can be done for them?
In the end, one of Alpert’s subjects manages to get clean, but it’s the coronavirus pandemic and its effects on social services and safety nets that ultimately undoes her sobriety. This tragedy has played itself out countless times across this country in a scourge that has killed more Americans than the coronavirus pandemic and all our wars combined (full review)
Eric Althoff is a Virginia-based film critic and contributor to Screen Comment (@singerwriterEFA)