The Best Films of 2021
My Annual Year-End List Returns to the Theater...
In May 2021, I returned to a movie theater for the first time in fourteen months.
It was the longest time in my adult life I had gone without tasting movie theater popcorn, without sitting through previews or reclining my chair. The film was “A Quiet Place Part II,” delayed from its original scheduled release date of March 2020. Sitting there before the film, mask on and snapping photos with exuberance, it was like I had never left.
A year of watching blockbusters at home, of watching the next James Bond movie get pushed and pushed and pushed again, had suddenly ended. It was time to stop binging classic movies to reenter the world - get back to restaurants and bars, to parties.
In a year when art is increasingly minimized as “content,” and our attention spans are shortened by the devices in our hands, I found extra solace in the ability to sit in the dark and lose myself for two hours amongst a group of strangers. My favorite hideaways - the Alamo Drafthouse in Brooklyn, the Nitehawk cinema by Prospect Park.
Some of the films I saw in 2021, such as Dune and Spielberg’s West Side Story, unsurprisingly lived up to the promise of the theatrical experience. However, I found that even character dramas held more potency for me this year, my emotions heightened and overflowing after a year when they had to be contained. I can’t even name all the films that caused me to tear up this year - CODA, Belfast, C’mon, C’mon (and those are just the not-embarassing ones!)
I think it’s so important that we share the stories that matter to us, rather than retreating into our own content bubbles and letting the algorithm make our decisions for us. I curated this list in that spirit, with an eye toward the underseen and the idiosyncratic.
So…may we start?
1. LICORICE PIZZA
Paul Thomas Anderson might be the most prolific director to possess (in my view) a flawless filmography. I love the go-for-broke ambition of Boogie Nights and Magnolia. I love the formalism and timeless storytelling of There Will Be Blood and The Master and Phantom Thread. I love the daffy romance of Punch-Drunk Love and Inherent Vice. When I list the reasons why Paul Thomas Anderson may be my favorite working director, I always feel like I’m leaving something out. He is infatuated with wildly different subjects, which are bound only by his personal vision.
However, there’s one love that persists in his work - his heart clearly lies in the San Fernando Valley where he grew up. Licorice Pizza sees him return home, and the result is PTA’s most relaxed work as he catches his breath after decades of masterpieces.
By letting it rip, Anderson proves that he is a preternatural talent. He casts two non-actors as his leads as if it’s a no-brainer. He simply lets the camera roll on the sparks between Alana Haim as an aimless twenty-something and Cooper Hoffman as the teenage child-actor with a crush on her. This ‘70s period piece takes on the looseness of a hangout movie like American Graffiti or Fast Times at Ridgemont High effortlessly. It has an irreverence, a tossed-off slice-of-life quality that most movies today lack. It’s a gauzy teenage dream that’s shot with love and affection.
It makes so much sense that Anderson is often compared to Jonathan Demme and Robert Altman, as he understands how to synthesize situations and performances and a perfectly-curated soundtrack to make magic. I continue to replay moments from this film in my head like a skipping record player (I’ll never hear “Let Me Roll It” by Wings again without thinking of a scene in this film).
For the sheer joy his film brought me, PTA has finally earned the top spot on my year-end list.
Licorice Pizza is currently in theaters
2. C’MON, C’MON
C’mon C’mon, the third film from Mike Mills (Beginners, 20th Century Women), sneaks up on you. It is more understated than his previous works, which were recognizably personal stories but still infected with vestigial elements of early 2010s twee-ness. There’s no such artifice here - the narrative stripped down to the core relationships.
Joaquin Phoenix plays Johnny, a radio producer who takes responsibility for his young nephew Jesse (whose mother Johnny has been slightly estranged from for years). This is Mills’ movie about fatherhood, interrogating how it feels to be a parent or child in the modern world. However, it doesn’t hit any of the obvious marks, or have any Oscar bait-y plot twists. Phoenix is in full Her mode here. He’s gentle and typically mumbly, the child in him showing through (remember - Joaquin and his brother River were kid actors themselves).
I didn’t realize how much this film had affected me until the final exchange, when Jesse (played by Woody Norman) tells Johnny how much their time together has meant to him. That’s when the dam burst and the whole theater was in tears. It was such a simple story that was being told, and such an idle turn of phrase from Jesse that ended the movie. However, Mike Mills has a way of making the most tried movie platitudes seem new and fresh when filtered through his humane lens.
C’mon C’mon is currently in theaters and On Demand
3. THE POWER OF THE DOG
The Power of the Dog leaves much to interpretation, but is possessed of clear thematic intention. In other words, it’s a Jane Campion film. The film’s slow and steady beauty proves there is still territory left unexplored in the revisionist Western genre, as Campion once again takes the threat of insecure men as her subject.
A cast-against-type Benedict Cumberbatch is Phil Burbank, a rancher whose machismo terrorizes all those who come in contact with him. His brother’s new wife played by Kirsten Dunst becomes a primary target to his malice. However, when Dunst’s son Peter (played by Kodi-Smit McPhee) enters the picture, the film veers in unexpected, subversive directions. Hanging over the proceedings is Phil’s mysterious relationship with his deceased mentor Bronco Henry.
You can feel Campion’s experienced hand as the camera glides over the landscapes of New Zealand subbing for Montana, or over Benedict Cumberbatch’s rough hands as they thread together a rope. The film is a work of delicate craftsmanship - further evidence that Campion is one of the great masters of the form.
The Power of the Dog is currently streaming on Netflix
4. TICK, TICK…. BOOM!
Even in his best roles, Andrew Garfield has always had pretty major theater kid energy. Take the way he dramatically smashes a computer in The Social Network or his commitment to portraying a crisis of faith in Scorsese’s Silence. Even his Peter Parker was a spark plug who wore his heart on his sleeve.
It makes sense that in Garfield’s most memorable role (and my favorite male performance of 2021) he embodies the ultimate theater kid - that of Rent creator Jonathan Larson. Tick Tick…BOOM! is based on Larson’s one-man show he performed before Rent, about his fear of turning 30 as an unsuccessful writer of musicals (Larson would only live to 35, dying shortly before the premiere performance of Rent).
It’s easy to see why Larson’s story appealed to director Lin Manuel-Miranda. In addition to allowing Miranda to stage musical numbers with actors from the New York theater scene, the film also includes themes such as legacy and “running out of time” that were prevalent in Hamilton.
Unfortunately for those who are tired of Lin Manuel-Miranda succeeding at everything he does, Tick, Tick…BOOM! is an incredibly impressive directorial debut. The film escapes the stage with a sense of style and propulsion, helped along by catchy numbers like “30/90” (an uncomfortably relatable song about aging).
It’s Garfield’s performance that sets this film over-the-top for me. In addition to having a spectacular singing voice, he is able to imbue Larson with a sense of longing that feels poignant rather than irritating - a balance similar to that struck by Sondheim’s “Merrily We Roll Along.” It’s an affecting portrayal that is only made haunting by the fact that the audience knows exactly how the story ends.
Tick, Tick…BOOM! is currently streaming on Netflix
I saw Stillwater in the doldrums of the summer, and I found it to be my favorite type of film - one that resists genre classification, and transforms before your eyes.
The pitch - Matt Damon as a goateed MAGA supporter in France on a mission to save his daughter from a lengthy jail sentence - had the potential to be a groan-worthy slog. Instead, Spotlight director Tom McCarthy and his French co-workers create empathy for the character of Bill Baker, but don’t pull punches when portraying his flaws (specifically his stubbornness). In today’s divided media landscape, it’s hard to find a character study with that kind of balanced perspective.
This is also a film that evolves from the initial concept that was widely marketed, but does so in an organic way that feels true to the characters. It’s far from a Taken rip-off as the trailers would suggest.
Damon was also the co-writer/star of Ridley Scott’s The Last Duel this year, which similarly toyed with interesting ideas about masculinity and was punished for it with poor box office. Dramas like Stillwater and Duel - which leave you with complicated feelings rather than leave you waiting for a post-credits scene - are the movies I’m most concerned about losing entirely to streaming. I hope there’s still a place for this type of star-driven auteur cinema in theaters, and that it isn’t always just a “throwback.”
Stillwater is currently available On Demand
Like Stillwater, Pig similarly defies expectations set up by its lead and its marketing. Nicolas Cage has been in direct-to-DVD limbo for over a decade, as the Oscar winning actor has cashed untold amounts of paychecks for B-movies. He occasionally takes a project that serves as a reminder of his talent like 2018’s Mandy, but even that film is an elevated version of the revenge thrillers he regularly stars in.
Pig is different. The film, about a former chef in Portland who reenters the world after his beloved truffle pig is stolen from him, has a summary that sounds like a John Wick sequel. Instead, Michael Sarnoski’s film is a deeply empathetic portrait of a man living under the shadow of grief. Nicolas Cage shows atypical restraint, delivering a quietly soulful performance. Here is a film that takes you on a trip through heartbreak with its lead character, but ultimately offers a message of hope.
Pig is currently available On Demand and streaming on Hulu
Dune is a space opera of immense scope that is grounded by superior performances. It’s one accomplishment for Denis Villeneuve to push the boundaries of production design, sound design, score, and visual effects to achieve his vision. However, none of this would work without the contributions of Timothée Chalamet and Rebecca Ferguson as a mother and son whose lives are tied to the fate of the universe.
It’s yet to be seen if Dune and its eventual sequel will have the same lasting cultural impact of another book-to-screen translation - The Lord of the Rings trilogy. However, the film is a big-budget epic in a way that endlessly-sequelized superhero films can’t achieve. If this is the closest we have to a modern Lawrence of Arabia (as James Cameron recently remarked), it’s good to have a true seeker and fan like Denis Villeneuve at the helm.
Dune is available On Demand and will return to streaming on HBO Max soon
8. THE GREEN KNIGHT
Director David Lowery continues to make films that treat out-there concepts or genre exercises with seriousness and reverence. He hits a new level here, marrying both craft and the musings on mortality of A Ghost Story.
The plot is from the poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight - unexpected source material for an A24 indie film. Dev Patel stars as Sir Gawain, a knight tasked with defeating The Green Knight and fulfilling a prophecy that may mean his demise. The visual style and production design make this a film that is meant for the big screen. However, the film is more than just a candidate for the “One Perfect Shot” Twitter account thanks to the modern resonance that Lowery brings to the age-old poem.
Through Patel’s performance, Lowery makes this the universal story of struggling through life while knowing that the clock is ticking (I sense a connection with Tick, Tick…BOOM!…). It has the existential dread (and, ultimately, the simple truths) of a Bergman film. Speaking of which…
The Green Knight is currently available On Demand
9. BERGMAN ISLAND
Mia Hansen-Løve makes films that are just as notable for the events that don’t occur in characters’ lives as the ones that do. Her film Things to Come was about romance unconsummated. Eden was about a DJ in the French house music scene who doesn’t have a Daft Punk-like breakout.
In telling the story of two filmmakers visiting the island of film legend Ingmar Bergman, there are so many opportunities here for Hansen-Løve to redo Scenes from a Marriage or be too heavy-handed in the meta-narrative. However, as always in her films, she zags and chooses subtlety and ambiguity over oppressive narrative schemes. Hansen-Løve also wrestles with her own creative imprint, reflecting on how she constructs stories.
There have been so many instances of filmmakers making auto-fiction over the past few years (see: Belfast, Roma, even Spielberg’s upcoming The Fabelmans). Hansen-Løve uses what she knows (having lived with director Olivier Assayas for years before their break-up) more as a setting rather than an inspiration for narrative incident or gossip-y truth-telling. She uses the tools at her disposal in a way that is identifiable to her.
Bergman Island is currently available On Demand
Annette is a film that I just had to add to my list, despite its uneven sections. That’s what happens when you have so many ideas, so much creative energy, being thrown at the screen.
Directed by Leos Carax (Holy Motors) and featuring music by Sparks, Annette is a comic musical tragedy. It is a film that constantly reminds you of the frame, fittingly so because it is about the distance we place between ourselves and our art.
Brian Burns’ Favorite Actor Adam Driver, in an all time committed performance, plays a renegade artist who struggles to live a domesticated existence upon marriage to Marion Cotillard’s Ann. The biggest twist comes when Ann gives birth to a marionette puppet called Baby Annette.
Annette is not a film for everyone. It is deliberately stage-y (a key dramatic scene takes place on a ship that is clearly a soundstage), and has moments of childlike whimsy alongside moments of very-adult pain. However, it is a complete, weird, one-of-a-kind journey that proves in its final frames that it has something to say rather than being just an exercise in oddity.
(Here, I want to give a special shout-out here to Sian Heder’s CODA, which is first in my honorable mentions and barely missed out on making this list after rewatching it with my family this past week. It’s the kind of low-key feel-good family drama that we need more of)
Annette is available to stream on Amazon Prime
Honorable Mentions (Movies I Loved)
CODA, Shiva Baby, Summer of Soul (…or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised), Those Who Wish Me Dead, West Side Story, Red Rocket, The Matrix Resurrections, Passing, Benedetta
Movies I Liked
Judas and the Black Messiah, A Quiet Place Part II, The Sparks Brothers, No Sudden Move, Black Widow, Old, In the Heights, The Suicide Squad, Free Guy, Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, Cry Macho, Luca, The Last Duel, The Card Counter, Titane, Venom: Let There Be Carnage, No Time to Die, The French Dispatch, Last Night in Soho, Eternals, Spencer, Belfast, King Richard, Spider-Man: No Way Home, Nightmare Alley, Being The Ricardos, Encanto, The Lost Daughter
Could Have Been Better
The Little Things, Malcolm & Marie, Bad Trip, Zola, Roadrunner: A Film About Anthony Bourdain, The Many Saints of Newark, House of Gucci, Don’t Look Up
Movies I Missed (And Intend to See)
The Tragedy of Macbeth, Drive My Car, The Souvenir Part II, Parallel Mothers, The Worst Person in the World, Petite Maman