Another year is in the books, and while the moviegoing landscape wasn’t as strange as it was last year, it still didn’t quite feel “normal” — whatever that means anymore. Yes, many of us went back to theaters, but postponements, delays, and pivots to virtual screenings and festivals remained abundant. That being said: 2021 was a pretty fantastic year for movies, with a prolific emergence of exciting new talent and the thrilling re-emergence of many of our great filmmakers. As in any year, it was hard to narrow down the films I most wanted to recommend (my honorable mentions could be a list unto themselves), but ultimately these were my favorites:
13. Quo Vadis, Aida?
Nominated for Best International Feature Film at last year’s Academy Awards, Jasmila Žbanić’s depiction of the Srebrenica massacre of 1995 stood out as one of the most harrowing and painful watches of the year. As writer and director, Žbanić expertly balances tension and pace while grounding tragedy in a manner that doesn’t ever let you detach from the horrors on and off screen, but the standout element here is lead Jasna Đuričić, who gives the performance of a lifetime as a United Nations translator trying to help prevent the unthinkable. A film that’s hard to shake, even close to a year later.
12. Barb & Star Go to Vista Del Mar
Odd teaser trailers and a pivot to a February video-on-demand release in the midst of the pandemic had admittedly not left me with high expectations for Barb & Star, but rarely have I been so happy to have been wrong. Along with director Josh Greenbaum, writers and stars Kristen Wiig and Annie Mumolo deliver a joke-dense absurdist comedy that happens to feature one of my favorite scenes and favorite supporting performances of the year — Jamie Dornan may snag an Oscar nomination for Belfast, but in my heart that’ll be the Academy honoring “Edgar’s Prayer.”
11. Test Pattern
As far as directors go, this was an outstanding year for both glorious returns and exciting new discoveries — of the films listed here, four are from directors I’d count among my all-time favorites, but three are from first-timers. That list starts with Shatara Michelle Ford, whose Test Pattern left me awestruck at the stylistic control and smart flourishes that define her searing debut. Anchored by a wonderful Brittany S. Hall, Ford’s script tackles issues of sexual assault, the American healthcare system, and relationship-based gender and racial dynamics in near-seamless fashion; the film is complex, nuanced, daring, and hopefully the start of a prolific career.
10. The World to Come
The Sundance film festival occupies an odd space when assessing one’s favorite movies from the past year. As the first major festival of a new year, there’s a thrilling sense of being unmoored, with so few other points of reference for how the year in film might play out, and you sometimes have to really think about how those early viewings might compare. Giving space to Mona Fastvold’s frontier romance, however, gave me little pause — an open-air chamber piece, Fastvold crafts a cinematic experience that feels beautifully novelistic, drawing mournful but electrifying performances out of the great Katherine Waterston and Vanessa Kirby in particular. With gorgeous 16mm cinematography and a moving clarinet score, it’s a fantastic example of a fully realized period piece that still feels completely modern.
9. Drive My Car
Ryuskue Hamaguchi’s opus nearly defies description: ostensibly an adaptation of a Haruki Murakami short story, the film not only incorporates elements from other Murakami works but acts as a sort of loose adaptation of Chekov’s Uncle Vanya as well — the staging of which also serves a major narrative function. The notion of a “meditation on grief” has become almost laughably pervasive over the past few years, but few films deserve the positive connotation of meditation more than this one — thoughtful, compassionate, and unafraid to wrestle with the complexity of emotion, Drive My Car provides cathartic exhaustion like little else this year.
Speaking of defying description: if there’s one film from that past year that you should still be trying to see as blind as possible, it’s Julia Ducournau’s Palme d’Or-winning sophomore effort. Ducournau melds Cronenbergian-style body horror with a gentle and moving examination of identity and family and what those terms truly mean, all while maintaining a consistent macro-style while the narrative twists and turns and the emotional throughline shifts and morphs into something stranger yet even more authentic. Violent, maximalist, and wonderfully acted by newcomer Agathe Rousselle and the great Vincent Lindon, Titane is a singular empathetic vision by a rising master.
7. The Worst Person in the World
While I expect that the themes in Joachim Trier’s latest are universal enough to hit home with all sorts of audiences, I was struck by how empathetically and accurately the film depicts a very specific sort of millennial malaise. Now, perhaps The Worst Person in the World acts as a sort of Rorschach test, allowing one to read their own life into it in one fashion or another; if so, that’s a very impressive piece of movie magic from Trier, and I’ll freely admit that the emotional resonance on display — attributable in large part to the wonderful central performance by Renate Reinsve — was so strong that I’m not entirely sure I can objectively assess that particular element. I caught up with the film just under the wire and have already moved it up this list multiple times as I wrestle with its complexity — it very well may continue to rise as new chapters of my life are written.
Once again we were reminded — in glorious fashion — that nobody does satire like Paul Verhoeven. The director who skewered the likes of privatized law enforcement, corporate America, the entertainment industry, and the military industrial complex in iconic masterpieces like Robocop, Starship Troopers, and Showgirls sets his sights on religious and political institutions in the fiendishly clever, darkly hilarious, and deviously slippery Benedetta. Based loosely on a real-life 17th century Italian nun, notorious for her mysticism and same-sex affairs with other nuns, the film brilliantly keeps the audience guessing as to the motivations and inner thoughts of the protagonist. Is Sister Benedetta a fraud or a true believer? A madwoman or a miracle worker? Verhoeven’s sly answer seems to be that such dichotomies may not matter in the slightest.
5. The Novice
Lauren Hadaway’s debut might best be described as a cross between Black Swan and Whiplash, with a dash of The Social Network’s regatta sequences — all positive comparisons, though the film mixes up all those elements and more until we’re left with a thrilling and individualistic character study. Hadaway has been an industry professional for over a decade, primarily working in sound departments (including as the sound editor for Whiplash) and it shows: not only is The Novice’s soundscape one of the best of the year, but Hadaway’s overall direction is assured in a way few first forays behind the camera are. Rarely has the undergraduate experience seemed so overwhelmingly intense.
4. The Matrix Resurrections
Full disclosure: I love The Matrix. Not just the 1999 original (one of the 20th century’s most important films), but the two unfairly (but, I admit, understandably) maligned 2003 sequels as well. I’ll even go a step further and go to bat for essentially the entirety of the Wachowski’s filmography, from Bound and Speed Racer (masterpieces!) to Jupiter Ascending (fun!). Even though only Lana Wachowski is on board for The Matrix Resurrections, she ensures that the film feels of a part with the siblings’ larger body of work: inventive, interrogatory, exciting, and — most importantly — filled with an authentic and full-throated defense of the power of human connection. In the era of oversaturated and cynical IP cash grabs, leave it to The Matrix to find a way to build something new from the commercialization and misappropriation of the old.
Easily one of the best surprises of the year — a cockeyed John Wick riff set in both the glistening restaurants and the seedy underbelly of Portland’s gourmet culinary scene, Michael Sarnoski’s debut is idiosyncratic with a purpose, shifting our conventional notions of genre just enough to provide grounded emotional breakthroughs. But as excellent as the writing, direction, and technical elements of this film are, the highlight is Nicolas Cage in a transcendent performance that ranks among the best of his long career. Cage fully harnesses the tired pathos we’ve caught glimpses of in recent projects like Mandy, turning his grizzled outsider into a figure of incredible empathy and relatable humanity. There are two exquisite scenes here that bring me to tears, and Cage is at the center of it all. Truly a remarkable accomplishment.
2. West Side Story
I’ve found a good rule of thumb is to never doubt Steven Spielberg. Sure, he’s not going to churn out a masterpiece every time, but he’s done it so often that you’re really rolling the dice by preemptively assuming failure. There were plenty of questions (namely: “why?”) surrounding the decision to film a new adaptation of West Side Story — the beloved Tony-winning musical that became a beloved Oscar-winning film — but with the great Tony Kushner on board to rework the book and one of cinema’s greatest directors at the helm, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that this new version instantly becomes the definitive production. Kushner’s script fixes most of the original’s flaws, and Spielberg once again shows that he has few equals when it comes to shot creation. It may have disappointed at the box office, but this West Side Story should go down as an American classic.
1. The Power of the Dog
Twelve years. That’s how long it had been since Jane Campion’s last feature, 2009’s phenomenal Bright Star, and I beg her not to take so long a break again, regardless of how much television she’s working on. That being said, it might have been worth the wait — The Power of the Dog is simply phenomenal, a masterclass in crafting a film where every single element works in perfect harmony. Campion’s prodigious skill with actors is on full display, with Benedict Cumberbatch, Kodi Smit-McPhee, Kirsten Dunst, and Jesse Plemons all at the top of their game, and her brilliant script effortless and patiently translates a complex psychosexual narrative in the manner that really only she can. Beautifully shot and beautifully scored, with no ragged edges to speak of, The Power of the Dog is evidence of a world-class filmmaker at the absolute top of her game, and it’s the best film of the year.