Best of 2021

Another weird year for cinema means another caveat-laced Best Of list, something just south of comprehensive, perhaps, largely due to a significant scaling-back of my usual moviegoing frenzy. I like to think I saw all the big blockbuster stuff in the cinema — as opposed to on the couch — like Dune, Last Night in Soho, No Time to Die, a few Marvel flicks, etc. And a few of the “smaller” films that actually made my Top Ten were also experienced out in the wild, which I’m thankful for, not that this ultimately had much bearing on how good or bad the film actually was.

Fact remains that I saw fewer movies this year than I usually do, so this Best Of list does not reflect Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s Drive My Car, Joachim Trier’s The Worst Person in the World, Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Memoria, Celine Sciamma’s Petite Maman, Mike Mills’s C’mon C’mon, Steven Spielberg’s West Side Story, Guillermo del Toro’s Nightmare Alley, Joel Coen’s Tragedy of Macbeth, Sian Heder’s CODA, Julia Ducournau’s Titane, and a bunch of other films that would likely upset the following rundown. Still, from what I did see, here are the ones that moved me the most.

And as always, please remember to visit our Support Film Art page, aimed at encouraging relief to local arthouse theaters.

10. Beginning

Beginning (2021)

One of the most brutal films of the year is also one of the most tranquil, at least in cinematography terms. Georgian writer/director Dea Kulumbegashvili’s feature debut is comprised almost entirely of long, motionless shots, save a slow pan here or there. It’s a huge gamble, usually, because motion is so inextricable from the medium of film itself. But in Beginning, what unfolds onscreen is so difficult to watch that the unflinching camera serves a bold purpose. The nine-minute-long first shot is the most stunning opening to a film I’ve seen in a while, and Beginning lingers in the mind long after that logic-melting conclusion.

Where to watch: streaming on Mubi.

9. Summer of Soul

Summer of Soul (2021)

“There’s a performance from a young B.B. King early on in Summer of Soul, twanging away on his beloved Lucille and groaning to “Why I Sing the Blues.” The song’s positioning in the documentary makes the answer to that question inescapable. After the recent assassinations of JFK, MLK, RFK and — perhaps most significantly to the Harlem crowd — Malcolm X; after an endless war in Vietnam that had claimed the lives of countless young black men; after the ascension of Richard Nixon earlier that year, with the promise of notable social reform waning under his “leadership” — at this point the reasons for a black man singing the blues were abundantly clear. “The whole festival may very well have been to stop black folks from burning up the city in ’69,” recalls one attendee. Another frames it in a more direct manner: “We needed that music.”

Read the full review here.

Where to watch: streaming on Hulu.

8. Sin

Sin (2021)

The most refreshing biopic I’ve probably ever seen, Sin eschews everything Western audiences have come to expect from such a picture. The Hollywood version of Michelangelo’s story would likely follow the famed artist from youth, signposting his genius along the way, focusing on the magic of the art itself. In this less-affecting version Michelangelo would also likely be played by Benedict Cumberbatch. Instead, Sin is a complex peek into a short period of the sculptor’s life, as much an investigation of the social politics of Renaissance Italy as a biography of the man himself. Alberto Testone plays Michelangelo not as a touched artiste, but as a mad drunk wracked with paranoia. And the down-and-dirty production design is just incredibly detailed, enough to make you want to take a shower after the credits roll.

Where to watch: streaming on Mubi.

7. Faya Dayi

Faya Dayi (2021)

If Sin is a new brand of biopic, then Faya Dayi is a documentary in the same vein. Jessica Beshir’s film taught me much about khat, Ethiopia’s most lucrative cash crop and the leaf Sufi Muslims chew for religious meditation. But it doesn’t treat the subject as a documentary normally would, with talking heads and statistics onscreen. Faya Dayi swoops through the highlands of Harar, observing the lives of those who seek the plant, those who harvest it, those who sell it, consume it, and those who watch their loved ones become addicted to it. Fittingly, the effects of Beshir’s film are similarly hallucinatory, a spiritual journey for the senses.

Where to watch: streaming on Criterion Channel.

6. The Green Knight

The Green Knight (2021)

The Green Knight grew on me the more I reflected on it, and that’s certainly the type of movie David Lowery has crafted here: nearly devoid of action, the methodical pace of Knight simply begs for interpretation at every turn. Much thematic, social, political and historical relevance has been projected onto the tale of Sir Gawain, perhaps most notably by J.R.R. Tolkien in his famous translation of the Arthurian legend. But Lowery threads the needle perfectly, allowing symbols to garner their own significance rather than ascribing meaning himself. The Green Knight poses many questions and offers no easy answers, but anchored by a bravado performance from Dev Patel, it’s one of 2021’s boldest films.

Where to watch: in theaters.

5. Bo Burnham: Inside

Bo Burnham: Inside (2021)

Yes, this counts as a film. I once saw two questions posed about the pandemic: “How can you possibly make art about this?” alongside “How can you possibly not make art about this?” Amidst the slew of pandemic-inspired films we had this year, Bo Burnham’s Inside grapples with those questions more fully than any piece you care to name. There’s an unfair amount of talent on display here, with Burnham pulling duty as a hilarious comic, a keen musician, and a genuinely impressive crack at cinematographer. But the willingness to bring the absurd, tragic loneliness of the pandemic into the light is what sets Inside apart — that and relentlessly shitting on Jeff Bezos.

Where to watch: streaming on Netflix.

4. The Power of the Dog

The Power of the Dog (2021)

I’ve been watching a lot of Westerns lately — ranging from the earliest “Eastern” Westerns to the A- and B-Westerns of the ‘30s/’40s to the “classic” Western (á la Ford) to the revisionist/spaghetti Western (á la Leone) — and at a certain point many of them do blend together. But I’ve never seen a Western quite like The Power of the Dog, which has a ruminative quality as unsettling as any guns-blazing frontier tale you care to name. Director Jane Campion knows how and when to leave a thing unsaid, most apparent during a tense, wordless showdown between the piano-playing widow Rose (Kirsten Dunst) and the banjo-plucking rancher Phil (Benedict Cumberbatch). Like The Green Knight, this one grew on me more and more, drifting through my brain like a shadow on the mountainside.

Where to watch: streaming on Netflix.

3. Passing

Passing (2021)

“Passing, one of the most unassuming and unpretentious films to premiere at this year’s Sundance, might have been the festival’s best. As noted by The Guardian way back in 2018 when the project was announced, the film’s subject matter revives a cinematic trope that used to be fairly popular in the ’40s and ’50s: non-white characters “passing” in order to enjoy the privileges of whiteness. Odd, perhaps, to think of such a thing as a “trope,” as “popular,” or as fodder for melodramas like Pinky or comedy-musicals like Show Boat. As it pertains to real life, the practice is decidedly more complex than its depiction in film would lead one to believe. Passing is one of the few to treat this social maneuver with care and restraint, and in doing so it instantly becomes the defining film on the subject.”

Read the full review here.

Where to watch: streaming on Netflix.

2. Licorice Pizza

Licorice Pizza (2021)

The truck sequence alone would land Licorice Pizza on this list, but the movie on the whole marks a brilliant reckoning of nearly everything else Paul Thomas Anderson has created to date. Reverse the uncomfortable age gap seen in Phantom Thread, structure it with the subtle complexity of Magnolia, bring in the youthful verve of Boogie Nights and the carefree attitude of Inherent Vice, then focus everything around a pair of awkward lovers as in Punch-Drunk Love, and you’ll come close to envisioning Licorice Pizza. Everything works here, hung on a brilliant pair of performances from two first-time actors (Alana Haim and Cooper Hoffman) who are now instantly and forevermore movie stars.

Where to watch: in theaters.

1. Red Rocket

Red Rocket (2021)

Suspension of disbelief is a common film-crit phrase, and one that I’ve come to loathe. Red Rocket — like Sean Baker’s other films Tangerine and The Florida Project — is cinema at its most pure, largely because there is no requirement for this avoidance of critical thinking on the audience’s part. Everything here feels real, and that spontaneous docu-drama style certainly belies the care with which Baker crafted this film. Simon Rex gives an awards-worthy performance as Mikey Saber, an utterly despicable character who’s somehow charming all the same. But Baker is the true star here, and like Robert Eggers (The Witch, The Lighthouse) and David Gordon Green (Joe, Manglehorn), he shapes the smaller details of Red Rocket in such a way that it’d be impossible not to get swept up in Mikey’s shenanigans.

Read the full review here.

Where to watch: in theaters.

Honorable Mentions:

The Last Duel, Mass, The Sparks Brothers, Monster, Judas and the Black Messiah, The Mauritanian, No Sudden Move, A Quiet Place II, Ste. Anne

Worst of 2021:

Red Notice, Boss Level, The Little Things, The Tomorrow War, Reminiscence, Chaos Walking, Army of the Dead

What were your 2021 favorites? Hit the comments!

Get all of our full-length film and television reviews here.

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