The Bay Area film industry managed to stay afloat in 2021, even though attendance was in a free fall for most indies and documentaries making it up on financially strapped movie theater screens.
Leave it to a superhero to save the day, resuscitating a beaten-down box office toward the end of the year. While many showed up or are still showing up in droves for “Spider-Man: No Way Home” — co-starring Oakland’s Zendaya — numerous other titles are failing to attract as much attention.
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We’re hoping to change some of that.
Here are just some, but by no means all, 2021’s cinematic standouts that had San Francisco Bay Area associations, from the high profile to that little hidden gem.
“The Matrix Resurrections”: The fourth entry in the mind-game-playing franchise is a Bay Area treat. Not only is it directed by an innovative regional filmmaker — Lana Wachowski — but it was also primarily shot on the streets of San Francisco. Add in the fact that it features a red-hot rising star with Bay Area ties (lived in Oakland, went to UC Berkeley, worked at San Francisco City Hall) — Yahya Abdul-Matten II of “Candyman” fame — and you have a homegrown product writ large. The movie itself is a whole lot of fun too. It resurrects Neo (Keanu Reeves) and Trinity (Carrie-Anne Moss) for a middle-aged romance that celebrates shedding the image of whom others think you are for whom you truly need to be, a message that will in particular resonate with LGBTQ audiences. It’s available Wednesday in theaters and on HBO Max.
“C’mon C’mon”: Berkeley native Mike Mills’ gentle ode to connection and empathy could have been unduly precious and schmaltzy. While this uncle (Joaquin Phoenix) and nephew (outstanding young actor Woody Norman) bonding experience makes you blubber and lose all control, it’s much more artful and wise than you’d assume. It also has a fleeting bit of Oakland as well. Do yourself a favor and rent one of the best films of 2021.
“Red Rocket”: Everywhere you look, San Francisco native Simon Rex seems to be about — in magazines, news articles and all over social media. The multi-hyphenated homegrown talent (he attended Alameda High School) deserves to be back in the spotlight for his earthy, raw and real performance as a terrible and terribly charming former porn star. It’s really the performance of 2021, and “Red Rocket” finds director Sean Baker (“The Florida Project” and “Tangerine”) in his fly-on-the-wall element to depict Americans on the fringes and their hard-bitten realities.
“Lead Me Home”: San Francisco documentary maker Jon Shenk takes us on an impressionistic journey into a crisis that’s afflicting American cities and calls into question how such a mighty global power has so bungled helping the unhoused. Co-directed by Pedro Kos, the short Netflix documentary spends time mostly talking to the unhoused in three cities — San Francisco, Los Angeles and Seattle. It’s both a telling and damning portrait.
“Homeroom”: Few documentaries were as of the moment in 2021 than award-winning Oakland filmmaker Peter Nicks’ final entry in his Oakland trilogy. Nicks and his crew tagged along with the resilient but challenged in every way 2020 graduating class of Oakland High School for an unprecedented senior year. As in all of Nicks’ carefully crafted features, events dictate where the cameras will take us, and this time, Nicks’ lens finds students dealing with police in their school and a health crisis that upends what should be a celebratory time. It’s available on Hulu.
“Try Harder!”: San Francisco filmmaker Debbie Lum also chose to shine a spotlight on Bay Area youth with this incisive portrait of stressed-out Lowell High School students — all of whom are in emotional knots over where they will land for college. Lum’s film is funny and informative but wields a pointed edge to it, too, highlighting how Asian American students face even more academic scrutiny.
“Rita Moreno: Just a Girl Who Decided to Go for It”: The much-admired, much-loved Berkeley resident is busier than ever. Not only did the only living EGOT actor celebrate her 90th birthday this month, but she also had a boffo year at the movies, not only appearing in Steven Spielberg’s “West Side Story” — a revitalized retelling of the musical that had previously won her an Oscar — but also being the candid subject of Mariem Perez Riera’s revealing documentary, available to stream on Netflix. The forthcoming star’s brilliant career came with a price, as she endured racism and sexism in the Hollywood system. She’s a treasure, as is this meaningful Sundance documentary.
“In the Heights”: Although this effervescent, big-hearted Lin-Manuel Miranda/Quiara Alegría Hudes musical version uncorked so well by Palo Alto-born director John M. Chu flopped dramatically at the box office, it remains a joy to revisit and rewatch. Anthony Ramos sings and acts his heart out as a New York bodega owner dealing with romance, dreams and tight bonds with his Washington Heights community. The pool scene alone makes it worth the watch.
“Freeland”: Gorgeously shot and wonderfully acted, this illuminating indie character study from Bay Area native Kate McLean and Oakland’s Mario Furloni is rooted in the ever-changing pot-growing community in Humboldt County. Krisha Fairchild is sensational as a growing-desperate small-time hippie farmer slapped with an avalanche of paperwork and bills by the city and county. It’s based on the filmmaking duo’s short doc “Pot Country” and thrums with a sad song about the loss of the counterculture.
“The Seer and the Unseen”: Berkeley’s Sara Dosa graced us with not only one of the most unique documentaries of 2021 but also introduced us to one of the cinematic year’s most intriguing true-life characters: Icelandic environmental activist Ragnhildur “Ragga” Jonsdottir, who talks to elves. Dosa takes great care in relating Jonsdottir’s story, a respect that might not make everyone true believers, but does a convincing job of making us question our own realities. We also can’t wait to see Dosa’s latest “Fire of Love,” which explores the true romance between two volcanologists, when it debuts in January at the Sundance Film Festival.
“Luca”: We all need to give thanks to Berkeley filmmaker Enrico Casarosa. He managed to whisk us off on a much-needed trip to the Italian Riviera over a summer in which travel plans often got tabled. This bittersweet animated pick-me-up on the staying power of childhood friendships comes loaded with numerous sly references to Italian filmmaking greats, and brings a little sun and fun into our lives just when we need it. It’s available on Disney+.
“Barbara Lee: Speaking Truth to Power”: Oakland documentary maker Abby Ginzberg needed to be persistent to persuade the busy Oakland congresswoman to agree to be her subject for her latest documentary. All that convincing was well worth it. This informative documentary provides an excellent overview of Lee’s commitment to stand up for what she feels is just.
“Sator”: Some filmmakers do it all in order to get their films made, and while that can be admired, it often doesn’t produce the best results. Meet Santa Cruz filmmaker Jordan Graham.
He multitasked to get his personal horror story in the woods film made, and his ingenuity, talent and tenacity paid off. This is a slow-burning horror feature that really crawls under your skin. Can’t wait to see what he can do with a bigger crew and budget.