The best Jewishish movies and performances of 2021

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Dan Buffa, Special to the Jewish Light

It’s that time of year again when film critics decide the good, bad, and ugly of the year that is about to expire. Awards groups for each city have announced winners, including the St. Louis Film Critics group. While there are still movies to watch before 2022 gets here-the movie release game doesn’t stop like sports-it’s important to stop and recognize the achievement in the year of film. By doing that, we’re giving Jewish filmmakers, producers, actors, writers and anyone else who works in the film business and who is Jewish,  a little more of our time and a chance to appreciate their products even more.

The top five Jewishish movies of 2021

“Pig,” written and directed by Michael Sarnoski, was unconventional, moving, and a reason to believe in original filmmaking again. Nicolas Cage was tremendous as an isolated truffle hunter who loses his pig and goes searching for his best friend, with the help of truffle dealer Alexi (Jewish actor Alex Wolff). Wolff, one of the better young actors working today, held his own with Cage and helped produce this unlikely pig-searching duo adventure. The film resonated deeply upon subsequent viewings.

“Licorice Pizza,” written and directed by Paul Thomas Anderson, featured a potpourri of worthy entertainment. Starring Jewish actress Alana Haim (making her film debut) and Cooper Hoffman as a pair of best friends going on adventures in 1970’s San Fernando Valley, Anderson’s film had great music and a plot that wasn’t in a rush to mean something. With memorable cameos from Bradley Cooper and Sean Penn, this is the kind of movie that shows compassion for a time period and lets the audience in on the fun.

“Shiva Baby,” written and directed by Emma Seligman, reinvented the irony of comical hysteria involved in bar mitzvahs. By showcasing the awkwardness and sullen atmosphere of a Jewish funeral and the uproarious humor that comes as a result, Seligman gave us a comedy with some edge and weight attached. Rachel Sennott’s’s college student running into her sugar daddy at a bar mitzvah ignited career best performances out of Polly Draper (Alex Wolff’s mom) and Fred Melamed. Wait for the scene at the end where Melamad’s patriarch tries to jam his entire family into one small minivan.

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“Mass,” written and directed by Fran Kranz, bolstered the finest acting ensemble of 2021. Four powerhouse performances, an easy-to-understand plot, one setting, and a lot of emotion. Jewish actor Jason Isaacs and Martha Plimpton (who claims to be an honorary Jew) are grieving parents who agree to meet Gail (Ann Dowd) and Richard (Reed Birney), who are also grieving parents, at a church. The catch: Gail and Richard’s son killed their son in a school shooting, before taking his own life. You won’t find a better movie this year that was also hard to watch. As a parent or not, this one punches deep and hard.

“Old Henry,” written and directed by Potsy Ponciroli, starred Jewish actor Tim Blake Nelson as a quiet farmer living and working on a desolate piece of land with his son. When they discover a wounded man next to his horse, they take him in and that brings bad men to their home (including Stephen Dorff). Everything about this movie feels standard until the final 30 minutes. Once a twist is revealed and the final shootout commences, you won’t be doing anything but pulling your elbow out of the chair and your jaw off the floor. Nelson, usually an ensemble player, is brilliant as the mysterious farmer who can fire a pistol quite well.

Now that the elephant is out of the room, let’s take a look at a few specialty categories:

Best Remake: “The Guilty,” starring Jake Gyllenhaal as a police dispatcher desperately trying to save a woman’s life over the phone. It was the Jewish actor’s lead performance that made Antoine Fuqua’s remake of a (better) Danish film work so well. He’s in every scene and holds the movie up until the heartbreaking ending.

Best Performance by an actress: Although she’s not a Jewish actress, Polly Draper’s breakneck, sharp wit-stuffed performance made the film “Shiva Baby.” Hearing her vocally dismantle a couple of people at a bar mitzvah while putting her daughter in her place is wicked.

Best Performance by an actor: Jason Isaacs. Most cinema fans know him as the bad guy in “The Patriot,” but his work in “Mass” holds the high note these days. Hearing Isaacs’ Jay describe the final moments of his son’s life in a school shooting should rattle you to the core. It’s the tensest five minutes you’ll see this year.

Busiest actor: Jon Bernthal, who was in five movies this year. Here’s the impressive thing: “Those Who Wish Me Dead,” “King Richard,” “Small Engine Repair,” “The Many Saints of Newark,” and “The Unforgivable” were all good movies. That’s an accomplishment. 70 credits into his career, Bernthal just gets better and better.

Best Musical: “Tick, Tick, Boom!” takes the cake here. Unlike the tired “West Side Story” and wired “In the Heights,” the story of Jewish playwright Jonathan Larson is bittersweet, passionate, and just unconventional enough. Andrew Garfield is a revelation.

That’s all there is. 2021 wasn’t a big win for commercially-driven films, but the indie darlings sure did well. In a world that is rapidly changing with too many people unwilling to change in it, the movies will always be a destination worth driving to.