I’ve given up on figuring out whether or not a given year is a “good” year for film. The conclusion is always based on a combination of personal taste and a willingness to explore. A top ten list really isn’t much more than a group of personal recommendations, and you can always find more great films if you’re willing to do some digging.
But was 2021 a weird year for cinema? Oh, yes. For sure. For all the reasons you can probably rattle off of the top of your head. My guess is that years down the road, with all the uncertainty and change we felt in the moment, we’ll look back at 2021 as a major transition year for whatever becomes of the artform. In real-time, you can feel tastes, distribution, filmmaking language shifting.
Will these fluctuations ultimately change cinema for the better in the long run? Or are they the start of its demise? I dunno, I’m just a guy who liked Malignant probably a little too much. However, to heavily paraphrase Jurassic Park, I tend to think good art finds a way.
Before we begin, my sincerest apologies go out to Memoria, The Souvenir: Part II, The Tragedy of Macbeth, Test Pattern, Wife of a Spy, Bad Luck Banging or Loony Porn, Days, Parallel Mothers, and the countless other heralded films I didn’t have the chance to see before creating this list. I’m sure you’re lovely!
But enough stalling, let’s get into my favorites of the year:
The “Very Solid Movies That Deserve Some Type of Recognition for Their Craft” Group
In the Heights
Billie Eilish: The World’s a Little Blurry
West Side Story
The Last Duel
Summer of Soul
The Human Voice
Barb and Star Go to Vista Del Mar
A Glitch in the Matrix
Some Kind of Heaven
The Card Counter
Woodlands Dark and Days Bewitched: A History of Folk Horror
The Year of the Everlasting Storm
Quo Vadis, Aida?
The “I Really, Really Like These Movies But There Are Slightly Better Movies Out There” Group
I Was a Simple Man
The “Impossibly Tough Omissions That Might Be in My Top 10 if You Asked Me Tomorrow” Group
The World to Come — Every fateful queer period piece after Portrait of a Lady on Fire is naturally being considered “less than”, but let’s not discount this beautiful, heart-rending film that includes two of the best performances of the year from Vanessa Kirby and Katherine Waterston and also one of the year’s best scores.
All Light, Everywhere — One of the more thought-provoking recent documentaries. Theo Anthony clearly and persuasively connects the notion of a fundamental lack of objectivity in a lens to implementations of body cameras and other modes of surveillance.
A Hero — Amir Jadidi offers one of the best performances of the year in Asghar Farhadi’s latest moral dilemma.
Bo Burnham: Inside — “Big ol’ motherfuckin’ duffel bag of shit.”
Judas and the Black Messiah — So I guess Shaka King is going to become one of the next great filmmakers?
No Sudden Move — Let’s all make a pact to stop taking Steven Soderbergh for granted. He makes at least one banger every single year.
Do Not Split — A vital and urgent piece of documentary filmmaking on the Hong Kong protests. Time and time again, you’ll ask yourself the question, “how did they pull this off?!?!”
Identifying Features — Haunting, harrowing, and exacting, Identifying Features is one the best movies of 2021 that no one is talking about. Mercedes Hernández is a revelation.
Opera — Erick Oh’s animated short is a great summation of, well, just about everything.
The Power of the Dog — There’s so much to admire in Jane Campion’s return to filmmaking, and I imagine it will only get better with age.
#10: Petite Maman
I tend to vault movies that strive to be “important” higher than their unassuming counterparts — I’m actively working to break that mold. And that’s not to say Petite Maman doesn’t tackle vital ideas — it revolves around the death of a loved one — but it never calls attention to itself, which ultimately makes it more enriching and emotional.
Céline Sciamma is unmatched in her ability to portray tenderness. It’s never schmaltzy, it’s honest. The amplified sound design in her movies causes you to lean in, to notice every gesture. The most mundane actions feel profound. (I dare you not to cry when Joséphine Sanz’s Nelly feeds her mom snacks from the backseat early on in the film.) Ordinary becomes extraordinary. While the film at its core is high-concept (a mother miraculously becoming her daughter’s age), it isn’t concerned with its fantasy machinations, but what the result of that fantastical setup creates. That is, a chance for two people to connect on a deeper level. To see each other on equal footing, and finally erase the unquantifiable distance between them. Petite Maman maybe isn’t the sprawling, expensive follow-up you’d expect from a director who just made an all-time romance in Portrait of a Lady on Fire, but it’s nearly as emotionally resonant.
Petite Maman is a deeply kind movie. We should all strive to appreciate how difficult it is to make that kind of art.
I’ve told this story on numerous podcasts at this point, but the first time I tried watching Titane, the theater cut off the English subtitles, so I, an idiot, just sat in my seat and let Julia Ducournau’s mesmerizing and absolutely fucked images wash over me while having no idea what any of the characters were saying. And yet, this was one of the best theater experiences I had this year.
Ducournau’s visual storytelling in Titane is next-level stuff. You can gather every character’s thoughts and interactions from the images alone, whether they be horribly deranged or oddly the sweetest thing you’ve seen. Viewing the film a second time with the subtitles confirmed everything I felt and gathered the first time around. This film is truly a beast.
Between Raw and Titane, Ducournau is interested in elevating personal change to full-on terror. And there’s most definitely a truth in delivering these ideas as body horror: change can be terrifying. For Raw, the lead character’s growing cannibalistic tendencies are a stand-in for her sexual awakening; in Titane, Agathe Rousselle’s character’s uhh…carnal love for cars is a manifestation of deep-rooted trauma lingering throughout her life. For all the holy-shit-what-the-fuck-is-going-on imagery, Titane does have a kind heart — it empathizes deeply with these humans. You get the sense that maybe Rousselle and Vincent Lindon’s characters are just desperate for love, or maybe they just need someone to see them. Their bodies are failing them (which also makes Titane a truly moving queer allegory) and they feel out of control at all times.
Maybe I’m a psychopath (a very strong possibility), but I also laughed a lot throughout this movie. It has a way of toying with its inherent absurdity, never dipping into full-blown nihilism.
You might gag, you might also offer an audible “awwww.” Or, maybe a little bit of both. Ducournau wouldn’t have it any other way.
#8: The Mitchells vs. the Machines
I’m simple. When a movie has a gigantic Furby screaming in demonic tongues, it must be on my year-end list. No exceptions.
Does The Mitchells vs. the Machines crown Phil Lord and Chris Miller as the best animation producers working? I certainly think so. Their ability to shepherd zany, strange, and laugh-out-loud hilarious projects is unparalleled. As for the writer-directors of the project, Michael Rianda and Jeff Rowe knock it out of the park in every respect. Their vision for this film is equally energetic and heartfelt.
The film is a clear successor to Into the Spider-Verse in its multimedia animation style, which makes the multiple gags per second even better. It’s a miracle something this goofy was made.
#7: The French Dispatch
The common complaint with The French Dispatch is that it’s Wes Anderson operating at his lowest level of emotional engagement yet. And to that, I say, “What movie did you watch?”
This visual representation of a New Yorker-esque magazine may seem highly esoteric at first — the long list of Anderson regulars robotically speeding through scholarly dialogue probably doesn’t help — but there is a profound sadness to these journalists, who live mostly lonely existences. Their circumstances only allow them to find joy in their work, most evident in Jeffrey Wright’s food journalist, Roebuck Wright, whose only comrade is a “solitary feast.”
It’s possibly Wright’s best performance to date, and it helps unite the rest of The French Dispatch‘s many symmetrical and dense passages. There’s a strong sense of unsung heroism underpinning the stories; in the wake of suicide, protests, and kidnapping, these journalists keep their reserved determination to pass on the stories of the extraordinary people they encounter. Their job isn’t to overpower us with emotion, but to deliver the facts in a way that gives us the tools to arrive at that conclusion ourselves.
#6: The Gaze
There are few things (if any at all) I love more in cinema than a Barry Jenkins-James Laxton close-up. They’re overwhelmingly emotional; they force you to acknowledge every inch of a character’s existence. The Gaze is fifty minutes of that, and man is it glorious.
Mentioning The Gaze here is also a backdoor way of recommending Jenkins’ titanic The Underground Railroad, his 10-hour miniseries based on Colson Whitehead’s acclaimed novel which debuted last year on Prime Video. (For my money, it’s one of the best pieces of media from the year.) Jenkins took moments on set to film actors whenever the mood struck, and compiled them here along with Nicholas Britell’s overwhelming score from the series. But as Jenkins has mentioned himself, even though The Gaze was shot throughout the making of the series, it shouldn’t be treated as an addendum to it. It’s a call to recognize these people and their histories.
#5: About Endlessness
What an amazing flex to make a movie entitled “About Endlessness” only 76 minutes long.
Filmmakers capturing the absurdity of life is something I’m endlessly fascinated by (perhaps that’s a spoiler for my number one film). It’s the most ambitious pursuit an artist can tackle — how do you even possibly begin to explain this bizarre world of ours? Sometimes it comes across as unbelievably trite (look to something like Life Itself as an example), but in the case of Roy Andersson’s About Endlessness, it’s bliss.
The film is 76 minutes of vignettes narrated by an unseen girl. (Is she a greater power? Maybe?) Some of which are returned to throughout, such as a hilarious passage about a priest who has lost his faith but his psychiatrist is only willing to help him during official office hours. Others are one-off shorts that don’t have some greater meaning, like a woman simply remembering she loves champagne. You’ll rarely see the camera move as it sits back and watches these odd moments of existence. It treats them all with the same, slightly removed interest, whether it’s watching Hitler’s demise or a couple watching the clouds. I find that amazingly poignant.
#4: The Green Knight
Who would’ve thought all those Dev Patel thirst tweets would come to fruition in the movie itself?
Far too many movies strain to be liked, sacrificing tone, pacing, or any other number of things to get there. David Lowery’s The Green Knight is one of the rare high-profile movies that knows exactly what it is at all times. From the first frame, you get the sense Lowery has a firm grip on this continuously elusive story. It leans into its ambiguity entirely. You might come away after the virtuosic final fifteen minutes thinking this is a movie about deconstructing a man of legend. Or, it’s about the folding nature of time. Or! It’s about the inescapability of fate. Whatever you take away from it, you’re probably right.
I admire how Lowery refuses to tip his hand with many of the film’s passages blurring together as if you fell asleep and missed the thirty minutes that tie them together. Even Patel’s Sir Gawain is riddled with contradictions. One second he’s an entitled brat, the other he believes he has “no story to tell.” In the process, The Green Knight reaches an important conclusion about such legendary parables: what they’re about often says more about the consumer than the text itself.
#3: The Worst Person in the World
I can already picture the bungled Hollywood version of The Worst Person in the World: it stars Anna Kendrick as someone who drinks way too much wine, is very clumsy, lives in a 5,000 square foot New York apartment working as a photographer, and has at least two sassy friends who constantly remark that she just “can’t get it together.” All cobbled together with a sense of sappiness you’d find in a late-career Gary Marshall movie.
It wouldn’t shock me at all if news breaks of a Hollywood version of this film in the coming months. It’s the sort of romantic dramedy the industry has been desperately lacking in the last decade. It definitely won’t work, however, because it won’t have Joachim Trier’s inventive, intelligent direction and Renate Reinsve’s charisma that many great actors can only dream of having.
In a just world, Reinsve becomes an international star after The Worst Person in the World. Her performance is pure magnetism — unquestionably one of the best of the last few years. She smoothly transitions between the film’s emotional extremes, making a story about people navigating through 21st-century struggles feel incredibly honest and never trite.
#2: Licorice Pizza
I understand where a lot of the backlash to Paul Thomas Anderson’s latest is coming from. Yes, the central relationship between Alana and Gary is questionable. Yes, the two scenes depicting Asian-American racism are exceedingly racist. Where I differ is that I don’t see Licorice Pizza as the fun-loving, whimsical nostalgia piece many claim it to be: it’s an anti-nostalgia film hiding its terror behind face-melting needle drops and a hell of a lot of vibes that make you want to scream “HOLY SHIT I LOVE MOVIES” from your nearest mountaintop. A key piece to note is the role of the parents here, or the lack of one. In most cases, they’re nowhere to be seen; for Gary, his mother mostly comes into the frame just to profit off of the many businesses he opens throughout the film.
Gary and Alana are constantly sprinting. Toward what exactly? Sometimes toward each other, other times toward a specific location. But the real reason is that they’re searching for…something. Gary wants to be successful, but who knows in what way that will manifest. Meanwhile, Alana is looking for anything that will get her out of this place full of people who are more than willing to take advantage of her. Licorice Pizza is purposely aimless in that way as it follows these people desperately trying (and failing) to figure things out without guardrails. Will they be successful? I’d wager probably not. PTA finds a messy, complicated truth in it all, while getting two impeccable performances from Cooper Hoffman and Alana Haim and shooting the absolute shit out of every scene.
And then there’s Bradley Cooper’s coked-out John Peters — absolute perfection. No notes.
#1: Last and First Men
I’ve made a poetic, experimental science fiction film my number one film of the year the last two years now. I guess I’ve found my niche?
There’s no doubt in my mind Jóhann Jóhannsson would have become an all-time great composer if he hadn’t tragically passed away in 2018. He was a singular talent, and was surely just getting started. Right before he died, he finished his first and only film, and it immediately deserves to join the pantheon of all-time great experimental science fiction films.
Whereas About Endlessness captures the absurdity of existence, Last and First Men ponders the end of it all. Jóhannsson captures hulking stone monuments as a narrator (voiced by Tilda Swinton in one of the best pieces of casting of the year) shares what has become of the human race two billion years in the future. The film functions as a painting that slowly changes shape, allowing you to fixate on every jagged detail of these structures and contemplate Swinton’s musings. Naturally, Jóhannsson’s accompanying score is breathtaking.
In this world, humanity has conquered just about everything. They’re nearly immortal to Earthly obstacles. They can even create a uni-mind and experience the events of past generations! But, they still can’t escape their inevitable demise. Through everything, Swinton’s narrator finds peace in the end of it all. There’s no tragedy or fear. Just acceptance. An admiration for the ways of the stars. Eventually, we must all go. It’s the nature of things. Few films have broached the concept with such elegance.
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