To say that 2021 has been an interesting year for cinema would be a gross understatement. Many of the year’s biggest releases were pandemic-delayed holdovers from last year (No Time to Die, A Quiet Place: Part II, the entire slate of Phase IV Marvel films), while theater closures, virtual film festivals, and direct-to-streaming releases (or the “day-and-date” model favored by HBO Max) continued to fundamentally change the way the majority of us consumed cinema.
Even still, I found certain themes repeating. Was it my desire for escapism that drew me, a noted late-in-life Musical Theater Gay, deep into the throes of not one, but two splashy revivals of decades-old musical theater productions? Was it my current age (27) pushing me towards films about young adults trying to figure out the meaning of life before they’re too old to?
As always, there were movies I didn’t like that others seemed to love (I’m looking at you, Belfast, which, to me, plays like a cheap knockoff of Alfonso Cuarón’s far superior Roma). But overall, I found 2021 to be a year defined more by consensus (even my “anti-cinema” friends are raving about The Power of the Dog’s slow-burn) than dissension. Below, I tried to rank my ten favorite films of the year. As always, I failed immensely when trying to narrow down my list.
10. Barb and Star Go to Vista Del Mar
To me, there is no higher mark for a film than playing well on an airplane. Being able to enjoy a nice laugh (or cry) while surrounded by screaming babies, overbearing stewardesses, and a snoring stranger taking up the entire armrest is a luxury few are afforded. But sometimes, a movie finds just the right tone to take your mind off the airborne chaos around you. Barb and Star Go to Vista Del Mar, the latest film by Bridesmaids duo Kristen Wiig and Annie Mumolo, is one such movie; I know because I first encountered it on an international flight earlier this year. A playful caper about two Nebraskan best friends who, after losing their longtime jobs at a furniture store, decide to leave their midwestern hometown for an impromptu trip to tourist-trap Florida, Barb and Star is confidently silly and self-awarely cheesy; it’s a film about vacationing that somehow feels like a vacation itself. Again, it’s the perfect airplane flick.
From the early joke about their name (Star is short for “Starbra” while Barb isn’t short for anything) to the winking casting of Wiig as both hero and villain, the film is an endlessly quotable romp — the kind you want to return to again and again. (I’ve watched it three times this year alone.) And while it is, unfortunately, the kind of mid-budget comedy that rarely gets made anymore, it also serves as a reminder that these movies still have value in the era of blockbuster franchises and ceaseless sequels. I mean, just look at Jamie Dornan: though he is getting tons of awards attention for his role in Belfast (again, a movie I did not really care for), it’s quite clear that the Fifty Shades actor had much more fun filming his go-for-broke performance in Barb & Star, which, amongst other things, found him pirouetting on the beach, climbing up a palm tree, and (quite impressively) singing to “seagulls in the sand.”
9. Drive My Car
I love Chekhov, so naturally, I was always going to fall for Drive My Car, Japanese director Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s three-hour epic about theater, sex, identity, grief, and healing. Loosely based on the short story by Haruki Murakami, the film follows middle-aged theater director Yûsuke Kafuku (Hidetoshi Nishijima) as he attempts to stage a multi-lingual experimental production of Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya. Stationed quite far from the Hiroshima theater where the production will take place, Yûsuke is begrudgingly assigned a driver, Misaki Watari (Tôko Miura), who is strikingly silent but undeniably skilled behind the wheel. The relationship Yûsuke builds with Misaki is an essential part of the story, but Drive My Car isn’t just about an unlikely friendship between two very different people. Yûsuke is a theater director, but he’s also a fairly recent widower, who, for some reason, casts a man he knew to be having an affair with his wife in the lead role — a role the young actor is much too young to convincingly play.
Part of Drive My Car’s appeal is trying to understand why certain characters make the decisions they make. Just like Yûsuke’s casting decision bewilders his other actors (and us in the audience) until it suddenly makes sense, many of the characters in Hamaguchi’s film seem to act against their own interests — mostly because they’re all personally struggling to make sense of some profound loss. Mirroring a Chekhov play, every character in Drive My Car has a secret inner-life, details of which reveal themselves slowly and deliberately. 2021 was a year full of way-too-long movies, but Drive My Car takes full advantage of its sprawling runtime, using its languid pace to more effectively unfurl its essential truths about the human condition.
8. West Side Story and tick, tick...BOOM!
2021 has been a huge year for musicals. There have been terrific ones (Jon M. Chu’s sparkly In the Heights; the queer-affirming Everybody’s Talking About Jamie), plain weird ones (we need to talk about Annette), and then some truly dreadful ones (Dear Evan Hansen — why). Then, there was West Side Story and tick, tick…BOOM!, which soared above the pack for very different reasons.
One of the main tentpole films to have its release delayed by the pandemic, Steven Spielberg’s West Side Story arrived this month, 60 years after the original dominated at the Oscars. And while much can be debated about the need for reboots and remakes in a film age starved for original ideas, Spielberg and screenwriter Tony Kushner successfully make a case for their update’s existence. Just as glittering and cinematic as Robert Wise’s, this new take captures everything that makes this musical great (bright costumes, nimble dancing, and beautiful voices to sing and act out its peerless songbook), but also makes several changes that brilliantly update the story for the 2020s. (Yes, all of the Sharks are played by Latino actors.) Though the presence of disgraced actor Ansel Elgort does put a damper on the film, the rest of the cast (especially Mike Faist as Riff and Ariana DeBose as Anita) do more than enough to make up for his inclusion. By the time Rita Moreno (the original Anita, who won an Oscar for the part in 1962) shows up, in a new role, to perform “Sometimes,” you’ll be hard-pressed not to cry.
While West Side Story felt appropriately grand, tick, tick…BOOM! succeeds for the opposite reason; it’s the rare stage-to-screen adaptation that benefits from not abandoning its theatrical origins. A whimsical reimagining of the original Off-Broadway play, Lin-Manuel Miranda’s directorial debut lovingly pays tribute to Rent writer Jonathan Larson, who never got to see this show (or Rent) take hold in the cultural zeitgeist. Taking place in the days leading up to Jonathan’s 30th birthday, this intimate musical is both a midlife crisis story and a testimonial about the ebb and flow of unbearable frustration and undeniable joy found in the creation of art. Anchored by a career-best performance by Andrew Garfield and a wonderfully re-recorded renditions of its impossibly catchy soundtrack, tick, tick…BOOM! is a small story with seismic impact. That the film touches upon Larson’s untimely death but still ends on a high, hopeful note says a lot about the balance of sincerity and reality Miranda has achieved.
Last year, Christopher Nolan spent months positioning his latest film Tenet as the project that would get people off their pandemic-sunken couches and back into the reclining seats of IMAX theaters around the world. For a variety of reasons, that wasn’t the case — none morseo, though, than the fact that the movie just wasn’t that good. Despite having all the makings of a blockbuster, it failed to translate as an enjoyable popcorn flick. So thank god for Dune. As directed by Denis Villeneuve, this latest attempt at adapting Frank Herbert’s famed sci-fi epic was the big-screen spectacle that Nolan swore Tenet would be. A colossal triumph with real heart, it was the only 2021 film I felt comfortable being a snob about: yes, you really should see this movie on the largest screen possible — simultaneous HBO Max release be damned.
Starring Timothée Chalamet as reluctant “messiah” Paul Atreides, Dune turned Herbert’s carefully-crafted world into a surprisingly coherent story about colonialism, predestination, and…spice. The film is a technical masterpiece — everything felt cinematic, all the way down to the butthole-referencing design of those infamous sandworms. But what stood out most was just how human the film felt. Even amidst the flying spaceships and floating villains, Dune always circled back to the people being directly affected; the conflicted relationship Paul shares with his mother, Lady Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson), often felt like the film’s beating heart while Paul’s semi-flirtatious dynamic with swordmaster Duncan Idaho (Jason Momoa) is the stuff of fan-fiction dreams. Much has been said about the fact that Dune, clocking in at more than 2.5 hours, stops right as things seem to be getting interesting. Does this really qualify as a “film” if it only feels like half of a story? That it still resonates in spite of its clipped storytelling is a testament to its brilliance. Dune: Part II really can’t come soon enough.
6. The Green Knight
When revisiting familiar stories, the best thing a director can do is blow up everything we ever thought we knew about it in the first place. David Lowery certainly achieves this with The Green Knight, turning the popular Arthurian legend into a darkly meditative examination of foolhardy chutzpah. Starring a never-better Dev Patel as the doomed Sir Gawain, who agrees to play a “game” of which he has no real chance of winning, Lowery’s adaptation of the 14th century poem finds the lure in a story we all know the devastating end to. As Gawain attempts to fulfill his duties as a knight at King Arthur’s table, demonstrating courage and chivalry even in the face of inevitable demise, both director and star tap into previously unseen layers for their protagonist.
The Green Knight stands out for its bold weirdness — there are talking foxes and giant alien people who walk around through clouds of fog — but these stranger impulses work to further highlight the very grounded dilemma at the film’s center. As soon as The Green Knight picks his own head off the ground and gives Gawain a date for his beheading, it’s clear that death awaits him. But what he’s willing to do with his time before that — especially as it relates to his passionate affair with Essel (Alicia Vikander, perfect as always) — is, ultimately, the more compelling tale.
5. The Souvenir: Part II and The Worst Person in the World
In 2019, Joanna Hogg released The Souvenir, a criminally underrated semi-autobiographical drama about Julie (Hogg’s stand-in, played by newcomer Honor Swinton Byrne) and her exploitative relationship with an older heroin addict. This year, Hogg followed up with a superior sequel: now reeling from the death of her boyfriend, Julie is determined to use their volatile relationship as the basis for her senior thesis film. Though Hogg does a fantastic job turning the act of filmmaking into an interesting film unto itself, Part II works even better as an exploration of the aimlessness of young adulthood. While Julie is assured in her desire to make films, she’s also sometimes confused about how to do so. Mining her personal life for source material proves to be difficult, as she occasionally lets her personal feelings color interactions, rather than giving her characters their own guiding motivations. Part II, which has been described as “a deconstruction of a reconstruction” in press notes, is as much a story about learning to perfect your craft as it is about finding yourself through it. That we know how the meta-story ends (with Hogg, now 61, successfully mining her history for her films) only adds to the enjoyment.
The Worst Person in the World mines similar territory. Directed by Joachim Trier, the Danish film is ironically titled: its protagonist, also named Julie (a sublime Renate Reinsve), is quite obviously not the world’s “worst person.” But that also doesn’t matter — the title encapsulates the unease we all feel in our late 20s and early 30s; as the main character of our own ever-evolving stories, we often assign ourselves superlatives — our own toughest critics. Split into twelve “chapters” (plus a prologue and epilogue), the film follows Julie as she glides through life trying to figure out what she wants. She dates older men, takes shrooms, switches careers, crashes weddings, and writes articles about being a feminist that enjoys getting face-fucked. Her lack of direction sometimes irks those around her, but she also knows that, in the end, she can only answer to her own desires. Like The Souvenir: Part II, The Worst Person knows what it’s like to not have everything figured out. But perhaps even more notably, the film also assures us that, even in those moments when we don’t, life keeps moving.
4. C’mon C’mon
For a decade and a half, Mike Mills has been making sensitive features about nontraditional family structures. In many ways, C’mon C’mon, the Oscar-nominated writer/director’s latest, feels like a natural extension of this trend: it follows single man Johnny (Joaquin Phoenix at his most relaxed) as he steps in to temporarily parent the young son (12-year-old Woody Norman, a revelation) of his sister, Viv (Gaby Hoffmann), who he hasn’t spoken to since their mother died a year ago. Like its predecessors, C’mon C’mon is a story about the weird dynamics that exist between parents (or parental figures) and their children — Norman’s Jesse is precocious but noticeably quite strange; for better or for worse, Viv has found herself indulging some of his most peculiar habits — but here, Mills seems to have other things on his mind as well.
The best of this year’s many black-and-white offerings, C’mon C’mon is simultaneously interested in how the youth see the world and envision the future. By day (and by night, because a reporter’s job is never really done), Johnny works as a radio journalist; his current project finds him traveling the country to interview children about the state of society. Though they can sometimes be understandably inarticulate, their answers are also boldly insightful. Interspersed as they are within the main story, these chats serve as the film’s backbone, adding an unexpected layer of context to the Misadventures in Babysitting-like antics of Johnny and Jesse. To see Mills expanding his cinematic palette while still exploring the themes he knows best is joyous. To be able to spend two hours with the preternaturally charismatic Woody Norman is an added bonus.
3. The Lost Daughter and Parallel Mothers
Motherhood can be strange, complicated, and often, quite messy. Mothers are believed to have a stronger bond with their offspring, and as such, in childrearing, most of the burden is put onto them — to be the responsible ones, the caring ones, the nurturers. But in reality, mothers are just as fallible as everyone else. Their desires can just as easily work in opposition to their responsibilities; they can be just as prone to making mistakes. With that, the connections shared between mothers can sometimes be even stranger — and both The Lost Daughter and Parallel Mothers understand the inherent complexity of this particular dynamic.
The former, the directorial debut from Maggie Gyllenhaal, places 40-something professor Leda Caruso (Olivia Colman) against young mother Nina (a black-haired Dakota Johnson). While on vacation — Leda alone; Nina with her wealthy, obnoxious in-laws — the pair form a tenuous bond, with Leda recognizing in Nina some of the same frustrations she dealt with years ago as a mother herself. In this menacing thriller, long-buried memories, fragmented and fleeting, manifest in the present through devious actions that unnerve but also intrigue. Leda, with her brazen sense of entitlement and fondness for dirty jokes, is both heroine and antihero, depending on how you watch the movie — but Colman keeps you engaged regardless, begging to see what she does next.
Pedro Almodóvar’s Parallel Mothers similarly traces the experiences of two mothers — albeit here, the pair (Penélope Cruz’s Janis and Milena Smit’s Ana) start by giving birth at the same time, right next to each other in the same hospital room. As the years go by, Janis and Ana cross paths every now and again; while their circumstances differ drastically (Janis is a successful photographer; Ana is a precariously-employed teen caught between two parents), their lives keep intersecting accidentally, until a mid-film reveal causes them to intersect in ways quite deliberate. The film poses questions that resist easy answers, inviting discussion about love, child-rearing, the limits of connection, and the moral consequences of secret-harboring. After turning the gaze onto himself for 2019’s impeccable Pain and Glory, Almodóvar returns to his usual fare with Parallel Mothers, telling the story of two women forced to navigate an impossible situation.
2. The Power of the Dog
Twelve years after her last film (2009’s swooning period romance Bright Star), Jane Campion returned to the silver-screen with a slight surprise. Unlike her past work (the multi-Oscar winning The Piano; the polarizing In the Cut), her latest, The Power of the Dog, turns the camera onto a male protagonist. Based on Thomas Savage’s 1967 novel, the 1920s-set western stars Benedict Cumberbatch as Phil Burbank, a sadistic but intelligent unmarried rancher who gets off on instilling fear in everyone around him. Phil lives a comfortable, if rather atypical life with his brother, the more sensitive George (Jesse Plemons). But after George unexpectedly marries a widow (Kirsten Dunst’s pitch-perfect damsel Rose), Phil is forced to reckon with a new normal when Rose and her lanky, soft-spoken son Peter (breakout Kodi Smit-McPhee) move in.
Initially, Peter becomes the homophobic target of Phil’s sinister ire. But soon, the pair form an unlikely bond that unsettles Rose, who in turn descends into alcoholism. The push-and-pull between Phil, Peter, Rose, and George works to create its own brand of melodrama, while the mysterious connection between Phil and Peter tugs on a slightly tenser rope, tinging certain elements of the film with a thrillingly erotic sensibility. A western that deconstructs machismo more than uplifts it, The Power of the Dog hyperbolizes these attributes until they implode on themselves in one of the most arresting final acts of the year. (No film on this list benefits more from a rewatch.) A boldly queer take on subterfuge and revenge, Campion’s latest will lodge itself in your brain for weeks afterward. That the celebrated auteur is currently a frontrunner for Best Director (with Cumberbatch also leading for Best Actor) feels quite right.
By definition, documentaries are not narrative features. While the former seeks to recount an essential truth, to tell the factual story of something as it actually occurred, the latter, for the most part, primarily exists to entertain — to take the viewer on an immersive journey. Every now and then, though, the boundaries between the two forms converge. Many of the best documentaries entertain as much as they educate, and in 2021, none met this criteria as effectively as Flee, which defied the constraints of its form both visually and contextually. Directed by Jonas Poher Rasmussen, Flee tells the story of Amin, a refugee from Afghanistan who, after being forced to abandon his home country, spends the majority of his childhood on the run, bouncing from one country to another as he attempts to settle somewhere that he can truly call home. As is the case for many refugees, Amin’s story is often harrowing, but it’s also captivating — especially since we know our subject lives to tell his tale.
Due to the sensitive nature of Amin’s story (he lied to government officials on multiple occasions to gain his refugee status, amongst other things), much of Flee is animated to protect his identity. The striking hand-drawn imagery is one of the film’s strongest features, but it also, perhaps incidentally, speaks to one of the documentary’s most interesting themes: the idea of truth. Throughout Flee, Amin goes back and forth on certain details, keen to share some stories and reticent to speak about others. Though he’s clearly ready to open up about his complicated past, he’s also only human, and the documentary finds him sorting through his own memories, attempting to untangle the “facts” of his real story from some of the “truths” he’s internalized over the years. Ironically, though the animation serves as its own form of continued obfuscation, it also becomes our subject’s only viable path to true clarity. When the animation fades out to reveal a true image in the documentary’s closing moment, it feels like Amin has shed the weight of his own burden — that he’s finally allowed himself to breathe as himself. Eleven months after crowning Flee “The Best Thing To Emerge From Sundance 2021,” I can safely declare that this compelling exercise in trust is actually The Best Thing To Emerge In Cinema 2021, period.
...And Some Honorable Mentions
The Matrix Resurrections: Perhaps my most-anticipated film of the year, the fourth installment in the Wachowski’s era-defining sci-fi action franchise is a film that doesn’t need to exist and seems completely aware of that fact. Bold in ways borderline indescribable, Resurrections is a sequel that flips the bird to the very culture that produced it. It’s also the year’s best love story.
Passing: Rebecca Hall’s directorial debut turns Nella Larsen’s underrated novel into a compelling drama that, at times, plays like a bone-chilling thriller. Featuring awards-worthy performances from Ruth Negga and Tessa Thompson (both playing light-skinned Black women living on opposite sides of the color line), the film is a deliberately complex examination of racial norms, the burden of secrecy, and queer desire. The debates it ignited about who should actually be considered “passable” helped to prove Hall’s point more than dismantle it.
The Tragedy of Macbeth: Joel Coen’s debut as a solo director is an indisputable cinematographic feat with a typically dazzling lead performance by Oscar winner Denzel Washington. But the real MVP in this chillingly stark Shakespeare reimagining is stage veteran Kathryn Hunter’s shapeshifting performance as the Three Witches.
Spencer: 2022 might be the year Kristen Stewart finally breaks free of Twilight to become a bona fide Oscar darling, and I couldn’t think of a more deserving performance to usher her into this next phase of her career.
King Richard: Will Smith is back, baby!
Petite Maman: Two years after Portrait of a Lady On Fire burned a hole straight through our collective hearts, French auteur Céline Sciamma returns to her usual coming-of-age fare with this intimate story about a young girl connecting with her emotionally-stilted mother through the eyes of another child. In a year full of overstuffed runtimes, this 72-minute beauty proved that the best stories don’t need forever to make a lasting, emotionally resonant point.
The Last Duel and House of Gucci: Of the two Ridley Scott films released this year, the trial-by-combat triptych of The Last Duel is inarguably the better offering. But I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t thinking about Lady Gaga’s performance in House of Gucci just as much.
CODA: This uplifting family drama, about the sole hearing child of a deaf family and her dreams of becoming a singer, is worth it for the always wonderful Marlee Matlin and Troy Kotsur alone.
Zola: Translating a Twitter thread into a feature-length film is probably the most “now” thing a director could even attempt in 2021, and luckily for us, Janicza Bravo and her co-writer Jeremy O. Harris found several clever ways to translate the frenzy of social media into watchable art. Special shoutout to Riley Keough and Colman Domingo for their completely committed performances as, respectively, a proudly Blaccented sex worker and her overbearing pimp.
Benedetta: When Paul Verhoeven does nunsploitation, of course a crucifix will be used as a dildo.
The Mitchells vs. The Machines and Encanto: Two animated films about families overcoming their differences to save their worlds from crumbling to the ground. I’m not ashamed to admit that both made me cry.
Luca: This is the animated version of Call Me By Your Name. You can’t convince me otherwise.
Memoria: If a thud bangs in Tilda Swinton’s head but no one else is around to hear it, is she even speaking Spanish? The sound design in this Apichatpong Weerasethakul wonder is unparalleled.
Together Together: Back in February, I crowned Patti Harrison a breakout star for her leading role in this hilarious comedy about two people forming an unlikely friendship when one agrees to be the surrogate for the other. Eleven months down the line, I haven’t changed my mind one bit.
Mass: A taut four-hander about school shootings, parental responsibility, and the heavy burden of grief, actor Fran Kranz’s directorial debut feels like the year’s most stirring stage play — and for the first time, I mean that as a compliment.
Licorice Pizza: I had some fundamental issues with the latest from Paul Thomas Anderson, but it did feature several of my favorite moments this year — most crucially, the seamless truck-driving scene that finds Bradley Cooper’s lecherous Jon Peters demanding to be escorted to a gas station by two waterbed salespeople, played by perfectly-cast newcomers Cooper Hoffman and Alana Haim.
Judas and the Black Messiah: Oscar winner Daniel Kaluuya. Doesn’t that sound right?