“Top.” “Best.” What do these words mean? Nothing, really. They are SEO-friendly buzzwords which stand for nothing in particular. Objectivity is a lie. These are my opinions, thus this (like all Top 10 lists) means only what you want it to. If your favorite movie doesn’t make the cut of this list, I either didn’t see it or didn’t like it.
Speaking of SEO-friendly keywords, let’s talk about “Worst.” Normally, I end the year with two annual lists, one for the best movies and one for the worst. Weird as 2021 was for movie releases, I did manage to see roughly 175 titles which are eligible for this list. All the same, those I didn’t like were not blasphemous enough to motivate me to write a worst-of list. I’d much rather write best-of lists than worst-of lists. The reason I continue highlighting cinematic dishonorable mentions year after year is because enough movies frustrate me that I feel compelled to ward people off from them.
This year, the worst movies included Space Jam: A New Legacy, Tom & Jerry, Me You Madness, Black Easter, The House Next Door 2, and The Reckoning. These are movies I would not recommend to my worst enemy (except Black Easter, which is mildly entertaining if you enjoy bad movies). But I also have pretty ambivalent takes on these films. Thus, no second list.
As for the best, I am similarly ambivalent. Few movies this year grabbed me intensely as my favorite movie of 2020 did (Minari), let alone rocked me with its beauty like 2019’s exemplary Portrait of a Lady on Fire. Still, there is plenty to recommend in 2021. I’ve managed to scrounge together 10 laudable films and a handful of honorable mentions.
Honorable Mentions: Encanto, Flee, The Green Knight, In the Heights, No Sudden Move, No Time to Die, Procession, Red Rocket, Summer of Soul, The Tragedy of Macbeth, Val, West Side Story, The Worst Person in the World
10. We’re All Going to the World’s Fair
There were a handful of films this year with gorgeous production design, costumes, cinematography, etc. (West Side Story, The Green Knight, The Tragedy of Macbeth, Dune, and so on). There were films centering on strong characters and which brimmed with intense emotions (Flee, The Worst Person in the World, Val, Spencer, Memoria, yadda yadda). These are all films which could easily have made the 10th spot on this list.
We’re All Going to the World’s Fair edged them out for its comparative simplicity. The technical aspects of the film are not particularly elaborate. The story is not particularly complex. But Jane Schoenbrun manifests a continually unsettling tension out of this simple premise. It is Creepypasta without the usual studio misunderstanding of what makes online mythologies tempting, particularly to young people. This isn’t Slender Man, is what I’m saying. This is a thoroughly gripping character study about the brutality of isolation.
9. Labyrinth of Cinema
Nobuhiko Obayashi’s final film is an epic with both fantastical and historical dimensions. It is a love letter to cinema wrapped up in a meditative look at Japanese military history and the nature of memory. The anti-war message is simplistic, but it is merely one layer in Obayashi’s passionate film.
The only other Obayashi film I’ve seen is House (which is such a delight). While a completely different film in terms of tone and genre, Labyrinth of Cinema contains a similar personality. It is alive and vibrant, joyous and melancholic. As much as it is a cliche to say, this is the type of film which touches the heart and ignites the imagination.
Paul Verhoeven has always been a provocative director. His films, even most of his blockbuster efforts, have been transgressive and thought-provoking. Hence, I am a pretty big fan.
Benedetta is no different from these earlier films. It may have been sold on the titillation of being the “lesbian nun movie,” but the film is doing so much more than this label suggests. The central lesbian relationship of the film is transgressive for the narrative’s time period, and the subject matter was actively picketed by Catholics in 2021. But I have a sneaking suspicion these protestors didn’t view the film, because if they saw the film for what it was they would likely be just as offended by the depiction of the Church as oppressively patriarchal and classist than by nuns having sex. Verhoeven’s take on the Catholic Church is unfiltered and damning, and it makes for a striking and complex film.
7. The Power of the Dog
Jane Campion is a director whose filmography is a bit of a blindspot for me (I’ll be remedying this as best I can in 2022). I’ve seen The Piano twice, but no other of her films. Until The Power of the Dog, that is. And her new film is pretty great.
On the backdrop of a gorgeously-rendered Western setting, the film wraps a tight yarn about four characters with increasingly knotty and tense relationships. All four of these performances are capable and handle Campion’s adapted script well, particularly Benedict Cumberbatch and Kirsten Dunst. The Power of the Dog grows more gripping as it moves along, building toward a fairly striking climax.
It is hard for me to describe what exactly it is about Pig that grabbed me so hard and wouldn’t let go. Michael Sarnoski’s film is incredibly still and filled with sadness (even when it arrives at a scene depicting Portland’s underground fight club). Multiple times during the film, I found myself acknowledging just how transfixed I was by conversations about truffle pigs, culinary taste cultures, and hipster (in)authenticity. All conversation topics I would never imagine being engrossed by in a film.
The story in Pig is largely pretty thin, and the protagonist’s dead wife complex isn’t the most interesting narrative hook. But these quiet conversations animate the film in compelling ways, and Nicolas Cage delivers a career-high performance.
There is something so self-assured about how director Ben Sharrock handles his second feature, Limbo. It is austere and filled with empathy. Not to mention humor, in moments when it riffs on non-refugees’ perceptions about refugee life.
With a premise that could easily slip into the realm of tragedy porn, Limbo balances pathos with personality. Richly drawn characters meet and interact in engaging ways, finding moments of connection in an otherwise vast emptiness. Isolating wides capture both literal and figurative instances of this emptiness. It is a simple, repetitive trick that worked wonders on me, drawing me into the alienation of the protagonist’s experience in Scotland.
4. Licorice Pizza
Licorice Pizza is a film about two characters, one desperate to be older than he is and one who finds herself drawn to the immaturity of those younger than she is. As much as the rhetoric about the film is about how these two characters engage in a romantic relationship (kind of) despite a potential 10-year age gap, I see the film being more about youth yearning for something that feels impossibly out of reach. In this case, the characters feel that this thing directly involves the other person, hence the romantic feelings, but what they really want is to live a life that is just outside of their grasp.
And that desperate youthful energy is what makes Paul Thomas Anderson’s film so exciting. It is a gorgeous film filled with strange incident and clever dialogue. And it doesn’t hurt to have Alana Haim giving one of the best and most confident performances of the year.
Julia Ducournau’s Titane is easily the most original film I watched in 2021. Not that novelty necessarily correlates with quality. Some would say M. Night Shyamalan’s Old is the most original film of the year, and I was firmly in the camp which did not enjoy Old.
What sets Titane apart is that not only is the progression of its plot unpredictable and, in moments, shocking, but that it mixes the inherent bleakness of horror with the compassion of a family drama. Ducournau extracts what humanity can be mined from these characters which she writes to be almost always at arm’s length from the audience. This tightrope act makes the experience of watching Titane fascinating, and it gives the film an enigmatic quality which (at least for me) remains upon rewatch. I can see myself revisiting this film again and again.
2. Shiva Baby
Emma Seligman’s Shiva Baby contains the most humorous script I’ve experienced all year. It is a film which is extraordinarily tense and filled with pent-up emotions, but which is also laugh-out-loud funny. Seligman’s ability to balance these tones, which in another film would antagonize each other, is truly impressive.
As are the simple shot choices, which animate the entire experience of a young woman stumbling upon her sugar daddy at a family member’s shiva. Nauseatingly tight close-ups on Rachel Sennott’s face make this house feel more like the setting of a horror movie than that of a funeral wake. And Sennott, in her own right, gives a great performance.
1. Drive My Car
Haruki Murakami’s “Drive My Car” is a roughly 40-page short story. Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s Drive My Car is a three-hour-long film. What fills the gap between is pretty magical. Entire characters and plotlines are added to this ensemble drama about a widowed theater director putting on a multi-lingual production of Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya. These additions emulate Murakami’s style of heady introspection and characters whose compassion fights through deep wells of pain.
The film is beautiful and serene and, if I may be so bold, does Murakami better than Murakami. It is also a three-hour-long quiet character drama filled with empty spaces and ruminative conversation. So if that is not your bag, then this will probably be an insufferable experience. For everyone else, Drive My Car should excite the mind and fill the heart.
And I may as well leave 2021 behind on that treacly, borderline cliched note. There will be plenty of time for cynicism in 2022.
As always, thanks for reading!