Year-end movie catch-up is always frustrating for those who aren’t in New York and L.A. — and it’s especially tricky this year, when even those in the big cities may not be ready to venture to theaters yet. Luckily, plenty of great 2021 titles are available right now on the subscription streaming services; you just have to know where to look.
Nicolas Cage is magnificent in this modest drama from the first-time feature director Michael Sarnoski. As a revered Pacific Northwest chef who went off the grid for 15 years, Cage plays many of his scenes in silence and barely raises his voice above a rasp when he decides to speak; he makes his character an enigma, leaving the audience to wonder whether he chose to remove himself from his comfortable life or someone (or something) broke him. He returns to civilization when his truffle pig — and only friend — is kidnapped, but “Pig” is not the “John Wick” riff its ads promised. This is a rich, textured character study, with some of the finest work of Cage’s considerable career.
The Indian director Chaitanya Tamhane tells an emotional, complex story of uncompromising artists and the mythology they create as a Hindustani classical singer (Aditya Modak) attempts to make himself into a performer worthy of his mentors and influences. The path of the classical musician is a lonely one, eschewing the easy money and success of love songs, film scores or devotional music, and Tamhane’s perceptive screenplay nicely complicates the simplistic matter of selling out. The music and filmmaking are in perfect synch, leisurely and often trancelike, and Modak is a real find.
‘The Killing of Kenneth Chamberlain’
Frankie Faison, the wonderful and durable character actor familiar from “The Silence of the Lambs” and “Do the Right Thing,” just tied for the Gotham Award for outstanding lead performance for his wrenching work in this harrowing drama from the writer and director David Midell. It dramatizes the 2011 murder of Kenneth Chamberlain (Faison), a 68-year-old Black man who had bipolar disorder and was killed in his home by White Plains police officers after he accidentally triggered his medical alert badge. The standoff with volatile officers builds in dread and inevitability — the outcome is right there in the title, after all — as negotiation and understanding quickly give way to cowboy tactics and ill-suited pride. And the longer it goes, the more heartbreaking Faison’s performance gets, as the masterful actor poignantly puts across the fear he feels as the walls close in.
‘The Killing of Two Lovers’
The title of the writer-director Robert Machoian’s small-town drama is less like a promise than a threat, as a husband and father David (Clayne Crawford) discovers his wife, Niki (Sepideh Moafi), has begun a relationship during a marital separation. Machoian’s sparse script captures the quiet desperation of such a period, the uncertainty of a relationship that’s over yet still in progress, and the logistics of matters like shared child custody become high-stakes, life-and-death stuff. His claustrophobic framing and unnerving sound design present David as a ticking bomb, with slights and microaggressions playing out in long, mercilessly unbroken shots, offering an escape route for neither the characters nor the viewer.
Val Kilmer is credited as one of the producers of this bio-documentary, so it’s not hard to brand the results as an exercise in self-mythology. (The directors are Ting Poo and Leo Scott.) But in this case, the self-mythology is instructive; the story the divisive actor is choosing to tell is in turn telling us even more about who he is. “I’ve lived a magical life, and I captured most of it,” Kilmer explains — and he did indeed capture much of his career with his omnipresent video camera. Those fascinating images (shot behind the scenes of films like “Top Gun” and “Tombstone”) are deftly intermingled with home movies, rehearsals, audition tapes and contemporary footage, creating less of a conventional documentary than a scrapbook of memories, reflections and meditations.
‘Rita Moreno: Just a Girl Who Decided to Go for It’
Rita Moreno is currently winning raves for her performance in “West Side Story” — a remake of the movie that won her an Oscar in a different role — so it’s a fine time to enjoy this celebration of her long, multifaceted career. Mariem Pérez Riera’s documentary is a biography, a valentine and a dish session (Moreno pulls no punches about the colorful figures of her past), and while it breaks no ground in filmmaking form, the pleasure of merely hanging out with the EGOT icon for 90 minutes is impossible to resist.
The shocking 2006 murder of the actor turned filmmaker Adrienne Shelly left a sorrowful sense of a career ending just as it was beginning. (Her directorial effort “Waitress” would take Sundance by storm two months later.) This biographical portrait details Shelly’s tragic death and its emotional fallout from the perspective of one who would know: The director and narrator is her widower, Andy Ostroy. Understandably, it’s a very personal film (sometimes uncomfortably so), as Ostroy and their daughter Sophie continue to grapple with their grief and loss. But it’s also a tribute to a dynamic performer and her fascinating career, navigating the ’90s as an indie It girl, on a constant search to find herself as an artist and person.
‘All Light, Everywhere’
Theo Anthony makes knotty documentaries, works of slippery nonfiction that tackle giant topics from unexpected entry points. The ostensible subject of his latest is body cameras, and their current, unfortunate vogue as a one-size-fits-all solution to the problems of policing. But Anthony expands his canvas considerably, tackling as his subject the very act of seeing — in person, in media, in our collective imagination — and comes up with a thoughtful mediation on contemporary culture.