Half the film lists from this past year have made bold statements about the state of movies. I don’t really have those same thoughts. The movies I love continue to be made, are in production now, are being greenlit. The movies I don’t love continue to make most of the money, but maybe that’s just called turning thirty. The fact is that in 2021, many of my favorite filmmakers made new films, almost all of those films were great, and I had the opportunity to see many of them in a theater if I had wanted to do so.
It feels good to be back at the movie theater. I did not see most of the movies on this list in a movie theater. I’m not sure I typically see most of my best-of list in a movie theater. This isn’t some comment on the state of streaming vs. theaters, or on my own taste. I like my couch. My dog’s here, and if I need to get up and go pee, I won’t miss the climactic death of the film’s leads (as happened at my screening of one of this year’s best films.) My couch is where I’ve watched masterpieces by Tarkovsky, Keaton, Varda, Dunye, Antonioni, etc. And yet it feels good to be back at the movie theater. Heartbreak really does feel good in a place like the movie theater.
While I do keep a spreadsheet with my best actor, best director, best documentary, etc. etc., my picks are hardly so out there that they require special notice. I will identify those when I name the movies that gave me them. Of all the movies that can’t make this list, I’m saddest that Escape Room: Tournament of Champions and Malignant slipped away – as far as movies I’d recommend for pure fun, those are the two that I’ve smiled about over and over again.
As for the films I’m saddest I haven’t seen, and hopefully will catch up with someday: I hope to love F9, Memoria, The Tragedy of Macbeth, Saint Maud, Earwig and the Witch, Malmkrog, The Woman Who Ran, French Exit, The Voyeurs, About Endlessness, Venom: Let There Be Carnage, A Hero, Cry Macho, All Light Everywhere, The World to Come, Procession, Belle, The Truffle Hunters, The Night House, Bad Trip, and Azor. No, I did not see Spider-Man: No Way Home. I let Endgame be my offramp from the MCU – 22 of those were enough for me.
Dir. Denis Villenueve
After repeatedly sharing my distaste for Villenueve’s previous science fiction, I have to be nice to Denis – my fear that he’d sell out Dune’s integrity for emphasis on the Bene Gesserit witches or Game of Thrones-esque scheming were unfounded. Villenueve’s approach to adapting Dune may be humorless, but, for example, allowing Rebecca Ferguson to take such a risk in humanizing the role of Lady Jessica really speaks to him understanding the core tension of the material. I still prefer Lynch’s take, but Villenueve’s Arrakis has such incredible mystic power. I hope he can bring it home in part two.
Dir. Ferdinando Cito Filomarino
The fact that Beckett, one of the most fun films of the year, has been completely buried is a tragedy. A political thriller about a guy (John David Washington) having the worst “vacation” of his life in Greece, this is just fuckup cinema at its finest. What anchors this film is its incredible team – shot, edited, and scored by some of the business, Beckett had me more and more excited as it went along, to the point where its ultimate political message fell aside to just rooting for this sad, broken, constantly frazzled man unwilling to die. If they announced a Beckett 2, I’d be there day one.
It’s crazy that this is the point in the list where the ranking becomes sort of irrelevant – from here on just up to the top 5, every film does exceptional things, and in five years, I could see myself mixing and matching this entire remaining order.
19. West Side Story
Dir. Steven Spielberg
Modernizing West Side Story feels like a foolish errand, and smarter, more appropriate people than me have written about how this film, while better incorporating Spanish, is still failing Puerto Ricans. Beyond that, there are choices I would not have kept – holding I Feel Pretty directly after the rumble without an intermission feels too sharp, moving Gee, Officer Krupke before the rumble makes the second half pretty dour, no matter the metatext Somewhere’s beauty is as a duet!! – but they belie my love for this damn show, and the old Robert Wise film, too. Spielberg’s direction here is often breathtaking. It’s hard to beat the dance at the gym, which is maybe the best scene Spielberg’s captured since the ending of Close Encounters of the Third Kind. But…he manages to come close, from the reflective puddle shot in Maria to the street dancing of America.
Dir. Christian Petzold
The third Petzold film in a row to make my year-end list, if Beckett resembles Hitchcock doing North by Northwest, Undine resembles Vertigo. Fate and fantasy intermingle in the love life of Paula Beer’s Undine, but it’s in the staggering unreality of regular life that Undine hits hardest. Watching her speak about Berlin’s urban development only to lose herself in the scale model midway, or attending the bottom of a nearby lake with Franz Rogowski’s Christoph to visit the legendary giant catfish Big Gunther, there is a powerful feeling that the world is too big and majestic to comprehend. The back half retains some of the myth’s tragedy without adapting it beat for beat – like every Petzold I’ve seen, its ending hits a powerful melancholy.
17. The Souvenir Part II
Dir. Joanna Hogg
Hogg’s prior film, 2019’s The Souvenir, depicts a semi-autobiographical romance with a manipulative addict that ends in grief. I didn’t connect to it – while it was honestly made, I found it uncharismatic. But it was always conceived with this second film in mind, a sequel film in which the fictional version of Joanna Hogg makes a fictional version of The Souvenir, and the process of sorting through her love and pain. This film has more room for light slipping back into Julie’s life, including an electric reprise from Richard Ayoade (a high point of the first, too, but even sharper and more fully drawn here,) funny scenes with Joe Alwyn and Charlie Heaton, some rich and warm visual experimentation that (to me) recalled The Archers and Derek Jarman. That added warmth gives the tragedy of the first film room to hurt deeply. I’m excited to revisit the first eventually and give it more credit, as this film would not work as well if it weren’t earned by the first.
16. Parallel Mothers
Dir. Pedro Almodovar
Without wanting to spoil this film, because a lot of the fun is in discovering winding corridors, few directors on earth are as good at framing the way love and betrayal can make having the conversations you need to have incredibly complex without taking the film into hysterics. There’s a subdued quality to this almost soap-opera story that makes the film feel quite He uses this emotional, personal story between two women as an anchor for his more targeted political commentary, a conversation about denial individual and national. Cruz would rightfully win on Sunday for her funny, well-rounded, never withdrawn performance.
Read Alex Bilme’s interview with Almodovar. (warning: some spoilers re: the film’s political content)
Dir. Paul Verhoeven
I was predisposed to like the “nun sexploitation thriller” by the director of RoboCop and Showgirls, but I’m not sure that description is entirely appropriate. Verhoeven didn’t make an exploitation film, really, but a film about the punishment of believing Too Deeply meeting its match in mania and self-aggrandizement. Protesting the film’s sexual content seems absurd when the film is based on a true account of the persecution of sexuality in the Catholic Church. But also it is actually sexy, and it’s also almost as funny as RoboCop, and it’s also gross and outrageous and righteous in its violence and sexuality. It’s among the most fun movies I watched all year.
Read Veronica Baker on this film as well.
14. The Card Counter
Dir. Paul Schrader
Contending with the lore of Paul Schrader, the cardshark misogynist who posts incessantly on Facebook while writing forty years of incredible screenplays, is not something I’m equipped to do here. The Card Counter barely even uses his knowledge of poker as it explores the subculture of gambling as the small talk between the scenes of the film’s real target – the torture committed in the name of the United States at Abu Ghraib. The Card Counter explores how perpetrators surviving a system of abuse become classical Bickle-esque time bombs. Oscar Isaac gives his best performance in eight years (since his incredible work in A Most Violent Year) as the dead man walking William Tell.
13. The Last Duel
Dir. Ridley Scott
Unfortunately, every clip of The Last Duel I can find sells this movie as miserable and grim – which erases just how funny parts of it can be. Marketed all wrong as a kind of combination #MeToo reckoning and period piece, I know all too well the reasoning behind this film earning deep vitriol. The Last Duel doesn’t quite fail Jodie Comer, but I can’t vouch for the film’s success on her behalf, its politics about sexual violence too pat and its characterization of her lead too neat. More interesting as a study of fraternal attitudes than feminist activism, Matt Damon and Ben Affleck started their careers under Harvey Weinstein’s wing, and this film successfully portrays the way their boys club culture sweeps evil under the rug. Interrogated, too, is Damon’s weird lack of charm: when Ben Affleck groans, “he’s no fucking fun!,” it feels true to the man’s distasteful descent into disconnected bigotry and crypto endorsement. Both men, really, are doing career best work here – Ridley acquits himself well, too, and surpasses that in the titular Last Duel, which is one of the most grueling and visceral action sequences I’ve seen in a long time.
12. No Sudden Move
Dir. Steven Soderbergh
A crime comedy about a fiasco robbery from the director of Ocean’s Eleven should be a slam dunk crowdpleaser, so of course it swiftly vanished from esteem. The fisheye lenses, the Tommy Newman score, the deep bench of supporting performances – it’s almost easy to take Soderbergh for granted, as he’s made one of the best films of the year nearly five years running now (I except 2018’s Unsane but include this year’s Kimi already) and all of them have come out on HBOMax or Netflix instead of in theaters. But, really, Don Cheadle, Benicio Del Toro, David Harbour, Brendan Fraser, these stars all make meals of their roles in this just as smaller names Amy Seimetz and Bill Duke do. The ultimate reveal that this is also part of a broad Brockovich-esque corporate conspiracy is the sort of icing on the cake that shows why Soderbergh is one of the best working. He recognizes the way power appreciates power from the streets to the suites – a surprise supporting role that appears toward the end of the film puts a great exclamation mark on this thesis.
11. The Worst Person In The World
Dir. Joachim Trier
I recently heard this film described as subdued, like “a collection of moments that wouldn’t normally be considered movie-worthy.” This, I think, is insanity. The Worst Person in the World has at least five scenes that are so incredible each would be reason enough to revisit the film twenty years from now on its own. The party where two people “don’t cheat” is one of the sexiest scenes I’ve seen in a movie in years. The film’s first breakup, incredibly real and well acted. A TV interview gone wrong, electric and real. The lead performances from Renata Reinsve, Anders Danielsen Lie, Herbert Nordrum – three of the absolute best of the year.
10. The Green Knight
Dir. David Lowery
Fog, haze, and hard light define the aesthetic of The Green Knight, setting itself firmly in the selective memory of Boorman’s Excalibur. I know some people feel this didn’t cohere to a greater whole for them, but I really treasured the way this characterized Dev Patel’s Sir Gawain. Lowery expands with fantastical interludes that highlight the psychedelic danger of the Arthurian world and anchor his interest in Gawain’s sexual encounters with Alicia Vikander’s Essel. The ending is a proper “best of both worlds” moment, a study of fatalism against bravery.
9. Evangelion 3.0 + 1.0: Thrice Upon A Time
Dir. Hideaki Anno
For starters, no, you cannot dive straight into this last chapter of the Neon Genesis Evangelion story. The anime saga about children piloting giant robots (that turn out not to be robots) has come to a head with Thrice Upon A Time, the fourth film in the “rebuild” saga. These films represent a different kind of remake. These films start quite literally shot-for-shot adapting the TV anime, but, slowly, small changes butterfly effect until massive alterations to the timeline send the second half of this story into entirely new directions. This finale takes Evangelion somewhere it never had space for – it creates hope for kindness and life surrounded by the monstrous apocalypse at the heart of this series. The Evangelion saga has remained among the most visually impressive, well-acted, emotionally intense animated works for over twenty five years – somehow, this final film still manages to surprise.
Dir. Leos Carax
Dumb guy pitch for Annette – for like two hours, the most outrageous shit imaginable happens and is also a rock opera. In this world, babies sing and fly, sex is an act of reverent sacrifice, comedians twirl around in a boxer’s robe and unleash verbal abuse on their audiences. There’s murder, sex, music, dance, comedy, a halftime performance at the Hyperbowl. Simon Helberg of The Big Bang Theory gives maybe one of the five best performances of the year as an accompanist and conductor. And underneath all of that, Carax swirls dreams, self-doubt, grief, power plays, and parenthood’s obligations. Of every film this year, this is the most audacious.
Dir. M. Night Shyamalan
“The beach that makes you old” is an incredible concept for a movie. But it isn’t an obvious fit for a summer horror movie – rather, it better fits an existential drama, one about how bodies affect our relationships to one another and ourselves. Shyamalan finds a balance between his stilted, mannered dialogue and intense emotion while still including a handful of really greasy-handed grossout horror gags. There’s an incredible anger in this film at the feeling that we lost the best years of our lives for reasons totally out of our control that I found very relatable. The film is directed with an incredibly athletic pacing and top shelf cinematography by Mike Gioulakis, without which the story could not have such heart. I recognize that this film is too ridiculous for some people, that the dialogue doesn’t work, in the same way Twin Peaks The Return and Showgirls chase people away. But, boy, I haven’t stopped thinking about it since I saw it.
6. Licorice Pizza
Dir. Paul Thomas Anderson
Alana Haim and Cooper Hoffman are my paired favorite performance of the year – they both excel when they’re apart, but they also could not exist without one another’s presence. Cooper Hoffman is a magician. The son of maybe my favorite actor of all time obviously had this role tailor-made for him, but he still manages to summon up incredible life for Gary Valentine, from limitless charm to bewildered fear of a sudden end. Alana Haim, meanwhile, plays such forward arrested development, richly funny while also playing insecurity and occasional petty meanness. Their relationship, obviously one we’d condemn in real life, still feels wholly real, mutual, frustrating, and yet clearly we see why they come back to one another. Full of brief supporting turns that had me howling with laughter (one discourse-dominating omission aside), Licorice Pizza could do the same as every other PTA and eventually steal this whole list.
5. The Power of the Dog
Dir. Jane Campion
Listening through the Blank Check miniseries on Jane Campion’s films this winter, The Power of the Dog is maybe Campion’s most straightforward film since The Piano. For how ambiguous its story can be, it’s a film that takes great pains to make sure you understand how to feel about each character as you’re watching. It’s also probably the culmination of her work and her best film? Compared to other Campion films, this one operates more on an architectural ecologic level, where the takeaways for the film aren’t necessarily as direct on the story so much as the ways characters respond to one another’s circumstances. The little moments of characters alone doing soft stims – Cumberbatch blowing bubbles, Smit-McPhee rubbing his comb, the tragic fate of Dunst’s Rose – belie a film about seeking input in a lonely, quiet world. I relate to the way this film portrays how difficult it can be to sit with your thoughts.
4. On-Gaku: Our Sound
Dir. Keiji Iwaisawa
Easily the most obscure film on my entire list, On-Gaku Our Sound is a crowdfunded anime film almost entirely made by its director. That independence allows him to make an extremely funny anime about a high school delinquent trio that decides to start a…masculine “rock” band that blows almost its entire animation budget on rotoscoping incredible musical sequences. It’s not a deep film, though it does address concerns of burnout, stage fright, and the trap of rejection. Its heights are largely in how hard it made me laugh and the fact that the final musical performance in this film is just the best work of animation I’ve seen in a film since Spider-Man: Into The Spider-Verse. I could watch this thing a hundred times.
3. The French Dispatch
Dir. Wes Anderson
My friend Jack Read pointed out the moment in The French Dispatch where after a life of violence, the two actors portraying the mentally disturbed violent convict Moses Rosenthaler trade places. Tony Revolori, seated in his cell, looks straight at the camera – Benicio Del Toro enters from behind, taps his shoulder, and takes his place in the chair, is given Moses’s signature necklace, and Revolori walks off camera. It’s a sweet moment only Wes Anderson seems to trust he can include in a film – it’s a technique you might see in staged theater, but by creating a film that exists in aesthetic reality rather than any one logic, he can depict it without derailing anything he has happening.
Artist convicts, student revolutions, food critics getting wrapped up in kidnappings – at first blush, the soul, comedy, and artistry of The French Dispatch overwhelmed my ability to study the way Wes Anderson’s new anthology looks at the role of police brutality, oppression, and the role of a free press, but at this point, I’ve gotta say it’s just the whole package. Jeffrey Wright’s food critic is my MVP, great as he’s ever been, evoking both Orson Welles and James Baldwin without ever betraying that both could be egotists. I would have been happy to see this in a theater anyway just for the shot of the cats of Ennui and the illustrated covers of The French Dispatch in the credits – Anderson remains maybe the most influential and iconic visual artist of the 21st century, and there’s no reason style can’t be substance. That it’s Wes Anderson’s best live action movie since The Life Aquatic was a pleasant shock.
2. The Matrix Resurrections
Dir. Lana Wachowski
The moment I saw the trailer, I said “this is gonna be the greatest film of all time.” It…wasn’t quite that great, but it was a hell of a lot closer than I feared. The first act of this film is as on-the-nose a media satire as anything in Speed Racer, but Keanu plays the emotional reality of a day-in, day-out loop with outsized honesty and a great sense of humor. The “White Rabbit” montage is maybe the definitive pandemic scene in a movie. As this extends into its more science fiction second and third acts, it extends to come to the universal thesis of Wachowski films – love conquers all, and when there is The One, there are always those who carry him.
And, of course, as Lana Wachowski has said, this is a film about contemplating stepping off the platform. An incredible moment of this film is about how survival inspires survivors. I deeply connected to the way this film addressed the despair of cognitive distortions that make a world seem totally empty and the suicidal impulse of meaninglessness. I saw it a little later than a couple people who wrote incredibly on the subject. I’ll link them here.
1. Drive My Car
Dir. Ryusuke Hamaguchi
Sometimes, it really is just obvious. Hamaguchi’s three hour low key drama about a staging of Uncle Vanya and the secret things we keep inside is just the best film of the year. The core narrative of the film expands on Haruki Murakami’s short story in which a driver and passenger discussing the passenger’s relationship with his deceased unfaithful wife and the man he caught her having sex with – Murakami’s story is blunt, frustrating, uncut Murakami tabloid gossip. Hamaguchi gives all four of these leads far more humanity, depth, their own secrets and histories. The performances in this film are full with everything I want to see in a performance.
And yet it’s the portion of the film that is entirely Hamaguchi’s invention that really blew my heart open – the multilingual performance of Uncle Vanya, attempting to break open the barriers of theatrical convention, characters conversing without conversing. I can’t intellectualize why this depiction of people working so hard together to make something new spoke to me so deeply – multilingual theater as a real concept dates back decades, as you can find searching for thesis statements on the subject. But this film dramatizes that production, addresses the difficulty that can come with condescension between different languages (especially towards mute languages – a powerful conversation midway through the film is between our Japanese protagonist and a speaker of Korean Sign Language) and never takes for granted that this vision would be “easy.” It moved me very deeply – the final performance is the most moving scene this year in film. I finished these three hours and thought to myself, “I could watch this again in its entirety right now.”