Best Movies of 2021

2021 was a big year for movies. We returned to theaters (at least I did, after a full 14 month absence), and a number of films held over from 2020 finally saw the light of day. That’s not to say that things are back to what we used to know as normal, but as they’ve done ever since the medium’s inception over a century ago, movies provided a much needed escape from the chaos of the real world. After what felt like a slow start to the year, the last few months in particular have seen the release of an onslaught of wonderful new films. We’ve been so lucky to receive works from established auteurs like Wes Anderson, Paul Thomas Anderson, Steven Spielberg, Jane Campion, and Ridley Scott, to impressive debuts from filmmakers like Michael Sarnoski and Edson Oda. As of the end of this year, I haven’t had the opportunity to watch every movie (I’m still eagerly awaiting a local release of Sean Baker’s “Red Rocket” and Pedro Almodóvar’s “Parallel Mothers”), but I’m grateful to have been given the chance to watch as many films as I have, and feel pretty good about the best of the year list I’ve landed on. You can read about my 10 favorite films of the year below (click the links to read my full review of each movie), as well as a list of honorable mentions. Happy new year, and thanks to all of you who have read this blog this year—here’s to 2022 and all the great new movies to come!

Alana Haim and Cooper Hoffman in “Licorice Pizza”
  1. LICORICE PIZZA

I waffled a lot over the last couple of days over what movie was my top pick of the year. Paul Thomas Anderson’s “Licorice Pizza” feels almost too fresh in my mind for me to definitively land on it (I was only just able to watch it finally this week), and a couple of racialized “jokes” aren’t easy for me to compartmentalize and bring the entire movie down for me a peg. But I can’t get Anderson’s nostalgic coming-of-age tale set in early 1970s Los Angeles out of my mind. A series of vignettes center around 15-year-old Gary (Cooper Hoffman, son of frequent Anderson collaborator Philip Seymour Hoffman) and 25-year-old Alana (Alana Haim) and the strong bond that they form as they navigate their lives and relationships. “Licorice Pizza” is funny and earnest, and the performances across the board, but in particular the stunning film debuts from Hoffman and Haim, help craft some of the most memorable characters in any movie this year. There’s so much to mine from “Licorice Pizza,” from the way it straddles old and new Hollywood to its exploration of the ways Gary and Alana view maturity and adulthood (Gary is eager to grow up, while Alana is already there and seems to prefer chasing the carefree feeling of adolescence that comes with hanging out with Gary and his friends). I’m going to keep coming back to this movie, imperfect though it may be, but perhaps the most ringing endorsement I can give it is that the waves of comfort that washed over me while I watched it made me feel the most content that I have in a long while.

“Licorice Pizza” is now playing in theaters.

Nicolas Cage in “Pig”
  1. PIG

“Pig” became my favorite movie of the year when I first saw it back in July, and it’s hovered around the top spot ever since then. I was able to watch it a couple of weeks before it was released, and sitting alone with my feelings for so long, I seriously questioned, “Am I crazy, or is the movie actually fantastic?” One of the great joys in the months since its release has been seeing other people I follow watch “Pig” and become similarly blown away by it. Writer/director Michael Sarnoski’s film is one of the most unique and assured directorial debuts I’ve ever seen, as it fast becomes apparent that what looks like a strange revenge tale about a grizzled loner (Nicolas Cage) tracking down his prized truffle pig is actually a poignant look at grief, love, and putting what really matters first. Cage, in an unusually restrained performance, and costar Alex Wolff are fantastic, and “Pig” is a movie that has truly gotten better and more impactful for me every time I watch it.

“Pig” is now streaming on Hulu and available to rent.

Agathe Rousselle in “Titane”
  1. TITANE

Writer/director Julia Ducournau’s “Titane” is, like “Pig,” another movie where I thought I was getting one thing and ended up in an entirely unexpected, but wonderful, place. In some ways, “Titane” is a bit of a mess, especially in the beginning, where it’s a little unclear what this movie is trying to be. Is it about a serial killer on the run, or a body horror story about a woman who really, really loves cars? It’s a little bit of both those thing and so much more, and Ducournau pulls the beauty out of all those messy, seemingly disjointed elements. The found family component of “Titane” is really moving and sincere, and Agathe Rousselle and Vincent Lindon turn in powerhouse performances as two people clumsily searching for connection. There’s a lot more to examine in “Titane,” such as its exploration of gender in the ways the characters remake their bodies and the blood-curdling graphic violence that is both hard to watch and hard to look away from, and the many layers to Ducournau’s utterly original, heartfelt, and massively entertaining film are why I love it and why I’ll keep coming back to it.

“Titane” is currently available to rent on Vudu.

Benedict Cumberbatch in “The Power of the Dog”
  1. THE POWER OF THE DOG

Jane Campion’s first film since 2009’s “Bright Star” is an all-timer, breaking down the hyper-masculinity associated with cowboys and westerns in this slow but riveting character study based on Thomas Savage’s novel. Benedict Cumberbatch turns in the performance of his career as Phil Burbank, one of a pair of ranch-owning brothers in 1920s Montana. When Phil’s brother George (Jesse Plemons) brings home his new bride, widow Rose Gordon (Kirsten Dunst) and her teenage son Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee), Phil takes out his loneliness and insecurities on the newcomers. Every shot in Campion’s film is intentional, every line of dialogue weighed down with meaning, and the cinematography by Ari Wegner is among the most stunning of the year. There’s more to every character than meets the eye, and Campion spends the film peeling away all their layers; in the end, it may be Smit-McPhee’s cold turn that leaves the biggest mark.

“The Power of the Dog” is now streaming on Netflix.

Hidetoshi Nishijima and Tōko Miura in “Drive My Car”
  1. “DRIVE MY CAR”

“Drive My Car” is three hours long, but I can’t remember a movie in recent memory that flew by the way this one did (I’ve never been one to complain much about runtimes, but there have been an excruciating amount of long movies released over the last several months). Director Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s film, based on a short story by Haruki Murakami, centers around Yūsuke Kafuku (Hidetoshi Nishijima), an acclaimed theater actor and director married to a screenwriter, Oto (Reika Kirishima). Oto dies suddenly, and two years later, Kafuku finds himself Hiroshima on a two-month residency directing a production of Uncle Vanya, where he finds himself in unpleasantly close proximity to Kōji Takatsuki (Masaki Okada), a young actor with a connection to his late wife. He also forms a bond with Misaki Watari (Tōko Miura), the young woman tasked with driving Kafuku to and from the theater, and who has had her own experience with loss and regret. The long runtime allows Hamaguchi to really build up the relationships between all the characters, so by the time we reach some major revelations by the end, they feel earned. Every conversation is utterly riveting, and the finale, which conveys that regardless of the hardships, we have to go on living, is beautifully realized. “Drive My Car” also serves as a lovely meditation on the ways we use not only art as healing, but the comfort found in repetitive tasks like driving back and forth, or listening to the same tape over and over again. Nishijima turns in one of my favorite performances of the year; all of his character’s sadness, anger, and regret is carried in his eyes. It’s the rare long movie that more than justifies its runtime, and that I’m itching to watch again.

Drive My Car” is now playing in limited release.

Herbert Nordrum and Renate Reinsve in “The Worst Person in the World”
  1. THE WORST PERSON IN THE WORLD

“The Worst Person in the World” is far from perfect, but it was one of the most delightful theater experiences I’ve had all year. Director Joachim Trier’s third installment in his Oslo trilogy is divided into 12 chapters, with a prologue and epilogue, and centers around Julie (Renate Reinsve), a young woman who is a bit of a mess, both in the career and relationship department. Trier and Eskil Vogt’s screenplay focuses much more on the latter than the former, but there’s so much truth it in, from the way Julie falls in and out of love with two men—an acclaimed graphic novelist 15 years her senior, Askel (Anders Danielsen Lie) and a barista, Eivind (Herbert Nordrum)—over the course of the film, to her strained relationship with her father, to her uncertainty about having children. The film may not be as messy as the title promises, and the ending ties it all together a little too neatly, but “The Worst Person in the World” is funny and moving, anchored by Reinsve’s remarkably natural performance. It also features one of my favorite scenes in any movie this year, a frozen time sequence filled with wonder that feels like it could be the climax of a typical rom-com. But there’s nothing typical about “The Worst Person in the World,” and that scene comes around the movie’s halfway mark. Ultimately, “The Worst Person in the World” is about as imperfect as its protagonist, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.

“The Worst Person in the World” will be released in theaters in February 2022.

Dev Patel in “The Green Knight”
  1. THE GREEN KNIGHT

Writer/director David Lowery’s medieval fantasy based on the 14th-century poem turns Arthurian myths on their head in riveting fashion. Knight Gawain (Dev Patel) accepts the challenge of the Green Knight after he barges in to King Arthur’s court on Christmas Day, and goes on a strange and surreal journey to fulfil his end of the bargain. Gawain is not your typical heroic knight—he’s ambitious, but cowardly, and a little clueless, all traits that Patel brings to his performance without making him an unlikeable character. The visuals are haunting and stunning, from the mossy greens of the forests that always feel like they’re closing in on him to the lavish halls of a lord’s castle that Gawain makes a stop at. But it’s the unexpected ending where “The Green Knight” really pulls everything together. “The Green Knight” presents a lot of questions without always offering an easy answer, but the film never feels too frustrating to connect with. And its weird mysteries just make coming back to it more and more appealing.

“The Green Knight” is currently available to rent.

Winston Duke in “Nine Days”
  1. NINE DAYS

“Nine Days” is a movie that really deserves to be on more “best of” lists than it is. Writer/director Edson Oda’s debut feature is set in a sort of purgatory, where an arbiter named Will (Winston Duke) interviews souls who are candidates for life. Set over the course of one week’s worth of interviews, at the end of which only one soul will get to move on while the others will fade into oblivion, the toughened Will is forced to confront his own feelings about human nature and weigh the value of life, thanks both to an unfortunate accident involving one of the lives he watches over, and a curious candidate called Emma (Zazie Beetz). The intricate world-building in “Nine Days” makes it fascinating to watch, from the low-tech nature of Will’s surroundings (he watches over the souls he passed on to life on a wall of old TV sets, and records the events of their days on VHS tapes) to the vast, lonely, and seemingly unending desert his home sits in. But the incredible performances at the heart of it sell it—Duke in particular proves himself to be a leading man of many talents with his thoughtful performance—and turn a story and message that easily could have come off as maudlin feel beautiful, sincere, and compassionate. It’s reminder that life is hard, but also that it is worth living.

“Nine Days” is currently available to rent.

Amin in “Flee”
  1. FLEE

The making of “Flee is almost as incredible as the final product, an incredibly moving documentary that uses the medium of animation to its fullest. Writer and director Jonas Poher Rasmussen’s film allows his longtime friend, who goes by Amin in the movie, to tell his story about being an Afghan refugee, fleeing his home country with his family and the hardships they endured trying to carve out a better life for themselves. Amin also talks a lot about his personal identity, how being gay was not acceptable in his home; there’s a truly beautiful scene in which he recounts his family’s acceptance of who he is. “Flee” is a vehicle for Amin to not only share his story with the world, but to make peace with his past so he can make a new future with his husband. The stylized, 2D animation is gorgeous, as is the way “Flee” plays with the medium, such as utilizing a sketchier art style to illustrate Amin’s less coherent memories, and the integration of archival footage to remind the viewer that the events in this movie are real. And while this particular story may be personal to Amin, so many of the topics it explores are universal. It’s easily the best, and most powerful, documentary of the year.

“Flee” is now playing in select theaters.

The Sanz sisters in “Petite Maman”
  1. PETITE MAMAN

Céline Sciamma’s tender fairytale for both children and adults is one of the most simply and brilliantly executed movies of the year. After the death of her maternal grandmother, Nelly (Joséphine Sanz) and her parents go to her house to clean out her belongings. Overcome with grief, Nelly’s mother suddenly leaves, but while exploring the woods around the house the next day, Nelly meets a girl her age who looks exactly like her (she’s played by Joséphine’s real life twin Gabrielle Sanz), shares her mother’s name, Marion, and lives in an exact duplicate of her grandmother’s house. What unfolds is an exploration of the relationship between mothers and daughters, viewed through the eyes of children. Through interacting with Marion as a child, a reminder that adults were once children too, Nelly comes to understand her mother and the decisions she makes as an adult better. Sciamma makes the most of the movie’s 72 minutes; every shot is weighted with meaning, and contributes to our further understanding of these characters. Brimming with love and magic, “Petite Maman” is a gorgeous film that I can’t wait for more people to see.

“Petite Maman” will be released in 2022.

Rachel Sennott in “Shiva Baby”

HONORABLE MENTIONS:

Bo Burnham in his one-man production, “Inside”

I also have to give a special shout-out to Bo Burnham’s comedy special “Inside,” which you can stream on Netflix. Are we counting it as a movie? We should, given how cinematic it is, proving once again Burnham’s immense talents not only as a writer and songwriter (I listened to the soundtrack to this ad nauseam) but as a filmmaker. There have been numerous works made about the strangeness of lockdown over the last couple of years, most of them, to put it nicely, not good, but “Inside” is sure to be the defining work to come out of the pandemic.

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