Volume 3, Issue 96: Theologians
"They thin my heart with little things, and my life with change."
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Hey, happy Christmas morning. This is the first Christmas that has fallen on a Saturday since I started this newsletter back in May 2016, and getting up to send this first thing is … weird? It’s a little weird. Anyway, please wait to read this until after your children have unwrapped their presents, or until after you have finished your food at the Chinese restaurant. Merry Christmas if you celebrate, Happy Holidays if you don’t, Have A Great Day With You And Yours either way. Also, this newsletter, because it has a bunch of pictures, is longer than usual and may truncate in some email clients. Just click on the headline to make sure you get to read the whole thing. And Merry Christmas.
Every year, I wrap up this newsletter season with two clip shows, to give myself a little bit of a break down the stretch. (That’s another reason I swung so big last week.) The final one looks back at the year, month-by-month, with the best pieces and newsletters I wrote all year. The penultimate one, this one, is my Top Ten Movies of the Year list, as released on the Grierson & Leitch podcast earlier this week. You can listen to that on Apple Podcasts, Spotify or wherever you get your podcasts.
But here you can get the words, straight on tap.
As Grierson and I have said on the podcast repeatedly, this has felt like the first real movie year since 2019. 2020 was a dog’s breakfast of a movie year, with movies postponed and shuttered to streaming and theaters closed for months at a time. (I have many friends who still haven’t gone back to the movies.) 2021, in part because some of those postponed movies finally got released (though not that Top Gun sequel, which started filming in May 2018 and still hasn’t come out) and in part because actors and directors were so eager to get back to work, was a pretty great movie year, even if it probably didn’t feel that way in real time. There were some real jaw-droppers this year. It was a year that reminded me why I love movies so much in the first place.
I know that people, particularly as they get older, don’t go to the movies as much as they used to. But there really isn’t anything else like it—a building, not far from where you live, where you can go into a dark room and be transported anywhere in the cosmos, and beyond, for two hours. The critic James Rocchi, who died this year, wrote, “I write about the movies, which is to say, I write about everything.” That’s why I love writing about the movies: I get to write about everything.
So! Here are my top 10 movies of the year. I’ve provided links to where you can watch them: You can actually stream most of these right now.
The Power of the Dog, directed by Jane Campion. (Available on Netflix.)
Campion’s first movie in 12 years is a Western that tackles masculinity, psychological torment, loneliness and grief in a way that’s mysterious and not always easy to parse. She’s allergic to underlining anything too clearly, which makes where this movie goes, in an ending that sneaks up on you, follow you for days afterward. This is the least Benedict Cumberbatch performance ever, which is to say it’s his best, and Jesse Plemons, Kirsten Dunst and Kodi Smit-McPhee are all great too. You can watch this on Netflix right now, but it’s not a laundry-folding movie. Give yourself over to it.
The Lost Daughter, directed by Maggie Gyllenhaal (In theaters, on Netflix on December 31)
Olivia Colman plays Leda, a professor who takes a solo vacation to Greece, meets a super-shady extended family, steals a little girl’s doll and is generally prickly, difficult and defiantly herself. Much of the discussion of The Lost Daughter has been about the film’s portrayal of motherhood, of its obligations, of its indignities, of its utter thanklessness, and all that’s in here. But the last thing Leda would want would to be defined by her motherhood, or her views on it. She’s a fully realized character who has lived a life in total before we come across her in this movie and will live a full life afterward. This is an uncompromised, thorny little movie—it’s Gyllenhaal’s first as a director, and she’s a natural—and I have a feeling it’s going to hit home for many, many people.
Quo Vadis, Aida? directed by Jasmila Zbanic (Available on Hulu)
Set during the Srebrenica massacre during the Bosnian War, Quo Vadis, Aida? (which translates to, “Where Are You Going, Aida?”) tells the story of Aida, who translates negotiations between the United Nations officials there to stave off a rampaging Bosnian genocide and the citizens of her town, who she realizes, with increasing despair, that they will not be able to save. There have been comparisons to Schindler’s List, but I think a better comparison is to the 1980s nuclear war drama Testament (which I wrote about in deep detail here), in which a mother does her best to keep her loved ones alive and sane in the face of near-certain extinction. It sounds like a dirge, and while it’s certainly not a feel-good movie, it plays more like a thriller. It just doesn’t have much of a happy ending.
The Green Knight, directed by David Lowery. (Available for rental on Amazon.)
David Lowery has become one of the most fascinating, quixotic directors going, and while this isn’t his best film (I still think that’s A Ghost Story), this is most overtly ambitious. What’s works best about it, though, is how it undercuts that ambition, how its themes are more about the fallacies of men who think they are going on Great Quests because they are Great Men and learn, ultimately, that they might not be the people they thought they were … and the world doesn’t really care anyway. The movie looks incredible, and it has moments of surreal, almost magical beauty.
Saint Maud, directed by Rose Glass. (Available on Hulu.)
The one horror film on this list, though it feels a little diminishing to call it that. It tells the story of Maud (Morfydd Clark), a devout Catholic with a tumultuous past who works as a hospice nurse for a former world-renowned dancer (Jennifer Ehle) who is dying of cancer. She becomes obsessed with saving the woman’s soul, but as we learn more about Maud, it’s clear the person everyone needs saving from, including Maud, is Maud herself. This is a truly unsettling film, but also a sharp character study of someone who has been so damaged that simply being able to determine reality has grown impossible. It’s also a great portrait of grief, and also of the loneliness of being terminally ill. And the last 20 minutes feature one knockout punch after another, including a last shot that will floor you.
Red Rocket, directed by Sean Baker. (In theaters only.)
I love seeing how artists tackle this particularly harrowing moment of our American story. Sean Baker, the director of the great The Florida Project, tells the story of Mikey Saber, a former porn star who has washed out in California and returns to his West Texas hometown essentially to con his way back to the limelight. As played by Simon Rex, Mikey is a truly poisonous person: Shameless, mean, narcissistic and absolutely relentless. He’s so venal he doesn’t even know how venal he is. He’s actually convinced himself he’s the good guy. How do horrible people not just get away with it, but actually thrive? Why do we let them get away with it? Red Rocket is about a lot of things, but that’s what it’s about most.
Titane, directed by Julia Ducournau. (Available for rental on Amazon.)
This is from the director of Raw, so prepare yourself: You’re in for some truly Cronenbergian body horror here. (There are scenes in this movie that I’d argue are physically impossible for humans to watch without blinking.) Just when I was ready to dismiss this as some sort of endurance project, Ducournau pulled the rug out from under me, turning this crazy-ass movie about a serial killer who is impregnated by a car (you read that right) into something tender and deeply affecting. This is the wildest movie that’s secretly really about isolation, grief and the desperate need for human connection you will ever see.
C’Mon C’Mon, directed by Mike Mills. (Available for rental on Amazon.)
Mike Mills’ movies are, at the core, really just about trying to capture what it feels like to be alive, which, you know, swing for the fences, right? This is his best movie, I’d argue by far, one that follows a radio journalist (Joaquin Phoenix) who takes care of his nephew (Woody Norman, in one of the most natural kid performances you will ever see) for his sister (a truly great Gaby Hoffman) while she tends to her manic depressive ex-husband. This sounds like it would be overly sentimental, but Mills and Phoenix take pains to undercut that at every turn, and the result is a movie that seems to capture something about parenting in this terrifying age in an almost eerie way. It’s also incredibly sweet and cheerful. This movie will make you feel good … but you will have to earn it.
Drive My Car, directed by Ryusuke Hamaguchi. (Available only in theaters.)
This is one of those movies that you want to know as little about as possible going in, not because it has a ton of twists and turns (though it does) but because it is preternaturally skilled at surprising you: It feels as unpredictable and quietly devastating as real life. At its core, though, it’s about how you can never truly know a person, whether it’s a spouse, a lover, a friend, a parent, a sibling, yourself. But we still plunge forward and love, regardless.
The Worst Person in the World, directed by Joakim Trier. (Available in theaters this February.)
Joakim Trier is one of my favorite filmmakers: I truly believe his Oslo, August 31st is one of the best films I’ve ever seen. (It’s definitely the best Gen X one, Before movies aside.) But what he does here blew my mind. Ostensibly the story of Julie, a twentysomething woman who is incredibly intelligent and open-hearted and hopeful and also has no idea what the hell she’s doing, The Worst Person in the World is remarkable for how specifically it details the emotions at the center of its story, how empathetic, and funny, and wise it is. It is the story of one woman, but it feels like the story of everyone I’ve ever met, including mine. David Sims at The Atlantic, who also chose it as the best film of the year, wrote that it “zeroes in on minute details to make Julie’s life feel as extraordinary as we might imagine our own to be,” and wow, that’s exactly right, that’s perfect. Because of Neon’s unusual release strategy, this is considered a 2021 movie because it played at one theater in Brooklyn for one week back in October, and it will not receive wide release until February. (The only people who have seen it did so either at a film festival, like Grierson, or via a critics screener, like me.) When it hits theaters in February, I implore you to see it. This is a movie I want to accost people on the street with.
We actually rank our runners-up, so if you’re curious:
Summer of Soul
A Quiet Place Part II
A Glitch in the Matrix
The Mitchells Vs. The Machines
In the Heights
I love writing about movies almost as much as I love watching them. If you’re curious, one of the Grierson & Leitch podcast’s avid listeners put together a massive Excel spreadsheet with the grades and links for every movie we’ve ever talked about. Sometimes, when I need a break, I’ll just flip through that spreadsheet. I find it a perfect document.
Anyway, please see all those movies, they’re all great. You’re home all week, most people aren’t working, or at least not working all that hard, go watch some movies.
Here is a numerical breakdown of all the things I wrote this week, in order of what I believe to be their quality.
Professional Sports Are Learning to Live With Covid. The Rest of Us Are Next, New York. Just about everything I think about sports, and about the world we’re currently inhabiting, and how we move forward, is in this piece. I was joking with LZ on the podcast this week that I have this weird tendency to write some my best pieces at the very end of the year, when there are a lot fewer people paying attention than usual. This piece is very much in that spirit. I said exactly what I wanted to say here, exactly how I wanted to say it, and that so rarely happens.
Guillermo Del Toro Movies, Ranked, Vulture. A new list! We hadn’t had one of these in a while. (We are Del Toro skeptics, you should know.)
How Movies Tell You You Are Getting Old, Medium. This is the longer version of my “I’m so old there’d be a younger actor to play Young Me in the movie” bit from above.
Is Scott Rolen a Hall of Famer? MLB.com. A debate with some MLB.com colleagues.
Almost Everyone’s Having a Normal Christmas, Medium. You’re having a Christmas right now. So you tell me.
The Thirty: Every Team’s All-Time Games Leader, MLB.com. Where else will you find Ed Kranepool?
Your Friday Five Lists, Medium. This is where you will find very brief Matrix Resurrections thoughts.
Grierson & Leitch, it’s Dorkfest Week! Our annual Top Ten movies of the year, something we’ve been doing since we were 16 years old. It’s everyone’s favorite show. Even if you just read the above list, listen, listen!
The Long Game With LZ and Leitch, discussing Omicron and the hope of HBCU sports. Then we welcome our guest Kurt Warner to talk about his new movie American Underdog, as well as Christianity in the age of Trump.
Waitin' Since Last Saturday, no show this week, but we’re previewing the CFP game against Michigan next week.
LONG STORY YOU SHOULD READ THIS MORNING … OF THE WEEK
“What Do You do the Day After You Storm the Capitol,” Kerry Howley, New York. I have been waiting for a really good magazine writer to do the “hey, what happened when the Capitol rioters, like, went back to their regular lives?” piece, and Howley may have been the perfect person to do it. A fantastic read.
ONGOING LETTER-WRITING PROJECT!
This is your reminder that if you write me a letter and put it in the mail, I will respond to it with a letter of my own, and send that letter right to you! It really happens! Hundreds of satisfied customers!
Write me at:
P.O. Box 48
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CURRENTLY LISTENING TO
“Blame It on the Mistletoe,” Amanda Shires. Christmas music is weird, because when I find a great new Christmas song, I want to play it constantly throughout the whole month of December. (Bob Dylan’s wonderful “Must Be Santa,” with its batshit video, remains the gold standard here.) But then the minute December 26 hits, or even the afternoon of December 25, listening to the song seems like the stupidest thing in the world. This is to say that this awesome, sexy little Christmas song—and the whole album really—from Amanda Shires has been on regular rotation this week but will vanish soon, perhaps by the time you read this.
Remember to listen to The Official Will Leitch Newsletter Spotify Playlist, featuring every song ever mentioned in this section.
My Christmas gift to you is my son breaking this freaking board.
Happy holidays, merry Christmas, good on all of you for all of it. Here’s hoping you’re with yours.
Thank you for this newsletter. Every week it's a little bit of joy in my inbox. I save it for last. And I don't even care about sports. :) Thank you, Will. Merry Christmas to you & yours!
Read your New York article. I was paying attention! Excellent work as usual.....