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From A (as in Paul Thomas Anderson) to Z (as in Zola), the past 12 turbulent months offered a wealth of instant classics that we’d be lucky to watch in any era, pandemic or not

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West Side StoryNiko Tavernise/20th Century Studios via The Associated Press

There’s no sugar-coating it: 2021 was a messed up year for movie-going. While cinemas reopened, audience behaviour shifted irrevocably – and a torrent of scary Omicron headlines threaten to reverse what little progress was made in getting butts back into seats. But let’s worry about the future of theatres – really, the future of movies – tomorrow. Today, let’s celebrate the instant classics we’d be lucky to watch in any era.

A quick caveat: There are a handful of promising 2021 films that have yet to screen for Canadian critics (The Matrix Resurrections, The Tragedy of Macbeth, Parallel Mothers), as well as a number of excellent titles that I caught on this year’s festival circuit that don’t yet have confirmed Canadian release dates (Petite Maman, The Worst Person in the World, What Do We See When We Look at the Sky?). Watch for all of them next year, when the theatrical scene is healthier – or at the very least, not worse.

1. Licorice Pizza

Ignore the unappetizing title and concentrate on what a delightful cinematic gift Paul Thomas Anderson has given us this holiday season. It is difficult to know where to start in praising this coming-of-age romantic comedy. Is it the fanatical attention to detail that Anderson employs in recreating 1973 San Fernando? Is it the astounding talent of first-time actor Cooper Hoffman, who channels his father Philip Seymour Hoffman with a sprinkling of a young Edward Norton? Maybe it’s Alana Haim, perfect as the exasperated foil to Hoffman’s smooth operator? Wait, no: It’s the hilarious mania of Bradley Cooper, who pops up as Hollywood hairdresser-turned-producer Jon Peters. It all clicks. Even the title. (Opens in select theatres Dec. 24)

2. West Side Story

If anyone doubted Steven Spielberg’s ability to deliver exactly what we desire from big-budget Hollywood, here is a glorious piece of top-tier pop-art. Shot with style, choreographed with grace, and cast with a near-perfect eye for incendiary dance-till-you-drop talent, West Side Story is a true movie-lover’s movie: the kind of transformative experience that will have you exit the cinema swooning. (Opens in theatres Dec. 10)

REVIEW: Steven Spielberg’s West Side Story is vivid, sweeping, beautiful filmmaking that shows the power of Hollywood

3. Dune

Now that Part Two has officially been green-lit, I can drop my reservations about Denis Villeneuve’s on-a-wish-and-a-prayer production tactics, and simply luxuriate in the film’s mammoth outré-ness. More than any other film this year, Dune proves the majestic and bonkers power of IMAX, delivering images and emotions that can never be fully replicated at home, or even on a regular-sized cinema. Thank goodness we’ll be able to see how it ends, too. (Now playing in theatres and available on-demand)

REVIEW: Denis Villeneuve’s tremendous Dune is pure cinematic madness

4. The French Dispatch

By this point in Wes Anderson’s career, you know whether you love the filmmaker or want to push him into a puddle. For those who cannot get enough of the meticulous, hilarious, extraordinarily confident director, then The French Dispatch is perfect peak Anderson. Jammed with wonderful actors, so intricately shot that it requires freeze-frames to reveal its true depths, and written with warm, inviting wit, the film is a sublime creation. Everyone else can go puddle-hunting. (Now playing in select theatres)

REVIEW: Is Wes Anderson’s The French Dispatch delightful, fetishistic, fanciful, hilarious or all of the above?

5. Drive My Car

Adapting Haruki Murakami’s short story, director Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s Drive My Car is an epic work that captures the philosophical meanderings of Murakami without slipping into faux-poignancy. The Japanese filmmaker – whose other 2021 film, Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy, should make its way to Canadians next year – builds a moving story of genuine human drama. (Now playing in select cinemas)

REVIEW: Epic Japanese drama Drive My Car is the best cinematic ride of the year

6. Nightmare Alley

It’s best if you walk into Nightmare Alley without knowing what kind of story filmmaker Guillermo del Toro is set on telling. Okay, a small taste: part pulp, part freak-show, part hardcore noir, the director’s latest is a deliciously dark concoction, stylized within an inch of its life and featuring a tremendous cast (Willem Dafoe, Cate Blanchett, Bradley Cooper again) having the time of their lives. (Opens in theatres Dec. 17)

REVIEW: How Guillermo del Toro turned Toronto into his very own Nightmare Alley

7. Benedetta

A quarter-century after Hollywood declared Paul Verhoeven persona non grata due to the sins of Showgirls, the Dutch provocateur is back with – what else? – a lesbian-nun romantic thriller. Eighty-three years old, and the man is still enthusiastically peddling his high-low brand of sicko cinema. Blessed be the troublemaker. (Now playing in select cinemas; available on Apple TV starting Dec. 21)

REVIEW: Blessed be Paul Verhoeven, patron saint of bedevilling, outrageous nun romance Benedetta

8. The Green Knight

David Lowery’s medieval mash-up is built on a wildly diverse collection of cinematic references, from Tarkovsky to von Trier to Howard (as in Ron). Yet the film’s power is filtering those disparate influences into a singular vision, resulting in an enchanting, disturbing, heartbreaking journey. (Available on-demand)

REVIEW: Dev Patel adventure The Green Knight is a haunting masterpiece of blood, sex and magic

9. Zola & Red Rocket (tie)

For whatever reason, 2021 featured two high-profile films focusing on sex workers from cool-kid U.S. distributor A24. Janicza Bravo’s Zola is an upside-down fairy-tale about autonomy, exploitation and power that is also achingly funny.

REVIEW: Zola is a brilliant, blistering vision of sex work, online virality and cultural appropriation

Sean Baker’s Red Rocket, meanwhile, presents a sitcom-level premise – a porn star runs back to his Texas hometown – then twists it into a darkly comic tale of ambition, greed and desire. (Zola is streaming on Netflix; Red Rocket opens in select cinemas Dec. 17)

10. Psycho Goreman & The Suicide Squad (tie)

Bloody, vicious and enjoyably demented, the scrappy Canadian nightmare Psycho Goreman and the Hollywood-slick reboot The Suicide Squad are highly targeted inventions.

REVIEW: Psycho Goreman is the Canadian splatter comedy of your dreams, or maybe nightmares

To truly appreciate their bent sensibilities, you need a love of trashy Saturday morning cartoons, Fangoria magazine and other cultural artifacts fit for the nostalgia sewer. But for those of us who like getting our hands dirty, Steven Kostanski and James Gunn’s respective films are beautifully gross achievements. (Psycho Goreman and The Suicide Squad are both available on-demand)

REVIEW: James Gunn’s The Suicide Squad is the most entertaining, and bloody, superhero film in a decade

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