The best films of 2021, quite possibly the last great year of movies 

click to enlarge Alana Haim, center, and Cooper Hoffman, left, in Paul Thomas Anderson’s Licorice Pizza. - MELINDA SUE GORDON / METRO-GOLDWYN-MAYER
  • Melinda Sue Gordon / Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer
  • Alana Haim, center, and Cooper Hoffman, left, in Paul Thomas Anderson’s Licorice Pizza.

This year's been an unusually full one for movies, though I fear it might be one of our last.

With delays, shutterings of theaters (R.I.P. to the Main Art), and profound instability marking the pandemic's first year, the ensuing runoff in 2021 has at least served film viewers well, with a torrent of excellent work hitting screens of various sizes throughout — and bringing to my haunted mind some better version of our mid-summer floods.

As ever, ranking a year's best is an expression of ever-changing personal tastes which could vary by the day. It involves, too, some plain feats of arbitrage — but the benefit, and the best case for bothering, lies in highlighting stuff that deserves to be seen more widely. As such, I've included a stacked slate of honorable mentions here, as well as some draws among my top ten that seem linked by theme and tone. If there's a trend among them, it's a generalized lack of grandeur and a willingness to pay close attention to emotional realities at a small-scale — while allowing for proceedings to inevitably speak wider than that might obviously imply.

For this year, there's stuff that might well place that I haven't even seen yet, though not for lack of trying; the new Matrix installment lands this week, and I've not yet caught Asghar Farhadi's A Hero or Ryusuke Hamaguchi's new Haruki Murakami adaptation Drive My Car (the latter plays the suburbs early next year). These lists can never, ever be totally authoritative or comprehensive — but that doesn't keep them from being worthwhile. Most of what's here will play online or locally within a month or so if they haven't yet, and all that's featured here absolutely deserves more readers' time.

10) Procession (available via streaming on Netflix): Robert Greene's richly collaborative re-staging puts a profound trust in his documentary subjects: a small group of (older, white) men, all survivors of clerical sexual abuse. The makeshift community they form and the filmed work they produce express both a shared subjective experience and a set of engrained tastes and sensibilities — while rebutting any macho notions they or we might harbor of self-sufficient individualism.

9) Red Rocket (dir. Sean Baker, in theaters locally soon) + El Planeta (dir. Amalia Ulman, played FilmFest Detroit earlier this year): These tied films see lead characters reckoning with their marginal, coastal hometowns (one near Galveston, one in the nearly vacant setting of Asturias, Spain) in ways that are direct, wryly self-reflexive, and joyfully made while refusing any air of romance. Both benefiting from the rowdy sensibilities of their writer-directors and stars (in El Planeta they're the same) while working on a small scale, each comedy of place here outstrips most stated satires for capturing the trials of getting by as we know them to be.

8) Wife of a Spy (dir. Kiyoshi Kurosawa, available on most VOD services): While Hamaguchi's self-directed works have netted more attention this year, Wife of a Spy's 1940-set dawn-of-wartime thriller channels Hitchcock, Welles, and plenty others to fine and even humorous effect. Distinguished by searing digital photography and a film-literate, semi-classical performance style which features a brilliant Y Aoi as its title character and center, Wife refuses nostalgia while observing its characters' sense of abandon, romance, and profound self-regard in a rapidly careening world.

7) The French Dispatch (dir. Wes Anderson, available on VOD and in some theaters): Structured around the construction and shuttering of a New Yorker-style magazine quartered in a small French town, Anderson's newest anthology-style work foregrounds (and demonstrates) the value of the Epicurean while shooting through a lens that's startlingly aromantic. In evoking a range of writers' and editors' voices, it cuts its rich pleasures with an air of blunt circumspection, while making the most of its sterling cast. Jeffrey Wright more than earns his film-stealing role here and worlds more.

6) Souvenir, Pt. II (dir. Joanna Hogg, available free on Kanopy and on VOD) + Bergman Island (dir. Mia Hansen-Løve, available on VOD): This pair of semi-autobiographical works showcases the process of filmmaking from conceptualization to realization, foregrounding the emotional and intellectual act of remolding experience into art. Seeing, respectively, a young film student and a married couple on an artistic retreat working through questions of process, these sharp but ultimately patient, empathetic works are true to the bumpy, at times embarrassing experience of turning the stuff of life into art.

5) North By Current (dir. Angelo Madsen Minax, currently streaming on PBS): Set in Grayling, Michigan, this essayistic documentary focuses closely on its maker and his family working through alienation, cultural divides, and the shadow of a recent loss. Spotlighting a web of evolving relationships revisited at intervals over several years, North By Current provides a nearly diaristic, self-reflexive portrait of a queer, transgender artist and his conservative, grieving family coming to halting terms with one another.

4) France (dir. Bruno Dumont, likely hitting VOD soon) + Worst Person in the World (dir. Joachim Trier, in theaters next year): Léa Seydoux's best turn on-screen this year could hardly function without her as its subject, privileging her emotional experience while deftly satirizing her entitled, upper-crust European milieu. Trier's Worst does the same in Norway a bit more softly, amid more modest trappings with Renate Reinsve at its center; each brings small dramas that speak widely in works that never lack for humor, benefitting from their respective filmmakers' expertly conjured worlds.

3) Memoria (dir. Apichatpong Weerasethakul, this honestly might never play here): A close collaboration between Tilda Swinton and one of the world's greatest working filmmakers, Memoria caters to Weerasethakul's strengths in focusing on the sensory as a nagging signifier of what's beyond easy comprehension, explanation, or reach. Finding its expat lead character in Colombia struggling to reckon with a mysterious sound that jars her at odd and haunting intervals, the film reckons with the small-scale and psychologically acute as finely as it does a more pervasive, globalized sense of turmoil and unease.

2) Licorice Pizza (dir. Paul Thomas Anderson, in theaters Dec. 24): Easily its writer-director's loosest, sweetest film, Licorice Pizza centers a '70s-set platonic romance between a lead duo comprised of Alana (Alana Haim, of pop rock band Haim, whose real-life family also features), a seeming cynic in her mid-20s, and blustery high schooler Gary (Cooper Hoffman, the teenage son of the late, longtime Anderson collaborator Philip Seymour Hoffman). Emotionally open, exploratory, as well as refreshingly giving and nonjudgmental, the movie's modest, touching pyrotechnics examine its characters drifting into differing states of awareness of a wider world while regarding them from the deepest possible well of affection.

1) Days (dir. Tsai Ming-liang, currently available for streaming on MUBI): While hitting festivals just before the pandemic, Taiwan-based auteur Ming-Liang's latest work didn't hit the United States officially until the middle of this year. Following his longtime muse and sometime roommate Lee Kang-sheng working through his isolating real-life physical afflictions via a range of grueling treatments, the film's slow-cinema stylings make the bruising physical trauma involved the fulcrum of its stirring proceedings. The nearly silent (and unsubtitled) film's masterstroke, though, throws this into relief with its depiction of a meeting between Kang-sheng and a visiting migrant worker and masseur (played by new-to-screen Anong Houngheuangsy), creating a space that offers a level of intimacy and relief rarely shown onscreen. What Memoria renders through the sensory and relatively abstract is here made more corporeal, physical, and ultimately immediate – with bodily fragility and physical need the bedrock of its plainly realized and deeply felt concerns.

Honorable Mentions:

Annette (dir. Leos Carax), Benedetta (dir. Paul Verhoeven), The Card Counter (dir. Paul Schrader), Macbeth (dir. Joel Cohen), Old (dir. M. Night Shyamalan), Parallel Mothers (dir. Pedro Almodóvar), Test Pattern (Shatara Michelle Ford), West Side Story (dir. Steven Spielberg), Undine (dir. Christian Petzold)

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