The 21 Best Films of 2021

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. 

21. Dune

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.

20. Beckett

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. 

18. Undine

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)

15. Benedetta

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

HBO Max/Hulu

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

Amazon Prime

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.

8. Annette

Dir. Leos Carax
Amazon Prime

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.

7. Old

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.

Sam Bodrojan

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.” 

My Top 15 Films of 2015, For Posterity

After an amazing year of over 500 flicks, it took me an age to narrow down the best films of 2015. What an astounding year we’ve had. I may narrow this down to a top 10 eventually, but, for now, it’s a beautiful top 15. The order, of course, will trade as months or years go by.

I’ll be catching up later with A Pigeon Sat On A Branch Contemplating Existence, Shaun the Sheep, The Russian Woodpecker, Peanuts, The Big Short, Anomalisa, The Assassin, Taxi, and 45 Years, along with many others over the rest of my life. Though there are another five or ten films that could make this list (and may, someday,) the true honorable mention goes to Don Hertzfeldt’s WORLD OF TOMORROW, a great short film which warms my heart more as time passes.

I linked to my Letterboxd list in an earlier post, but I realized I’m planning to let that Letterboxd list be edited at some point. So this will be the standing record of my favorite films of 2015. Since the original version of this text, I’ve seen Anomalisa. It’s fantastic, and equally worthy of placement, but I like what I have here.

15. Bridge of Spies

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Spielberg’s film is one of his most understated successes; part Le Carre glare-off and part Capra-esque morality fable, the film works equally well as entertainment and political statement. The Coens’ touch, perhaps simply to have the running joke about “this cold,” remains one of the subtlest and most entertaining details in a film this year. I think that joke works thematically to exemplify that maybe everyone is so eager to get their job done in the first place that they don’t stop to think if they’ve done it right until they’re on the precipice of its completion. Hanks and Rylance excel, and the film’s levity helps establish the film as one of the best of the year.

14. Clouds of Sils Maria

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I can’t deny the performances of Binoche and Stewart in Clouds of Sils Maria, a film which portrays the critique found in, say, Birdman, as simultaneously vital work against juvenility and pure cynicism. Similarly to Carol, its sexuality exists on its periphery, allowing excellent dialogue, performance, setting, and filmmaking to make the film’s statement. Hazier and more abstract than many of the films on this list, I suspect rewatching Clouds of Sils Maria may shoot it higher along.

13. The Revenant

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This poor flick is clouded by Academy Awards, talk of difficult shoots, and Birdman. It ought not to be. DiCaprio doesn’t give the best performance he’s ever given (that remains Django Unchained) but he gives an excellent one, with physicality enough to make the film’s mostly non-verbal second act a treasure to take in. The natural lighting results in a beautiful film, and the supporting turn from Hardy fills in a movie with a gap. As a revisionist Western, it does enough to favor the Native Americans to escape offense. It’s not even the most profound Western of the year, but it is one of the most enjoyable Westerns I’ve seen, and one of the most astounding as filmmaking.

12. Furious 7

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The Fast & Furious movies continue to be a highlight of my movie year. I watched Fast Five and was impressed by the amount of fun I had; I saw it because I won a t-shirt in a trivia competition. I watched all of the films in preparation for Fast & Furious 6, which I quite enjoyed, but was a little disappointed by upon first viewing. This year, for Furious 7, I rewatched Tokyo Drift, Fast Five, and F&F 6, and I enjoyed the last much more this time. But I’ve yet to enjoy any of these films like Furious 7, an insane romp which explodes off the screen with enthusiasm, invention, and delight. Furious 7 is a ride filled with small great elements like fights with Ronda Rousey and Tony Jaa. But the bravery comes when it includes moments like the graveyard scene, in which Walker says from the grave, “No more funerals.” I’ve never seen a film include its own in memoriam; the last frames of that sequence are so moving, so light, that the bold stroke works. Furious 7 eschews the line between fact and fiction, ingratiating the audience into the Toretto family and then honoring the audience’s need to grieve.

11. Sicario


Some people will watch Sicario and determine the path to hell is laid with best intentions. They’re missing the point; that justice is not the best intention when you make a deal with harbingers of doom, and that passion replaces clarity when we take the sword of justice into our own hands. Flagrant disregard for the law throughout Sicario creates a chaotic zone so toxic as to seem unsolvable. I walked out of Sicario red-eyed, not from tears, but from high-wire anxiety. The best use of Denis Villenueve’s talent for tension yet, Sicario is the first of his films that I would want to rewatch; I hope I will continue to find new volume in it over years.

10. Ex Machina

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From my review: “Ex Machina is simultaneously a film of this moment and a film which can last beyond it; its concerns about the objectification and domestication of women, its depiction of the hypermasculine domestication by web technologists of its consumers, and its concerns about levity in a time of moral panic all should hold some resonance for many years and spin from our very current concerns. One of the better dramas of the last several years, Ex Machina has that special touch where a screenwriter discovers that they, too, can direct, as well as the directors who have ever held their work, and they may begin to discover their own autonomy.” I haven’t come up with anything more succinct than my writing about this fun Alex Garland flick. A24 makes the coolest movies in the world.

9. Tangerine


I don’t know if Tangerine would have made the same impact upon me had I not seen it in a theater. Something about seeing this story, this camera, these actresses on a big screen validated Tangerine as something more than “a cool thing shot on an iPhone.” I’m glad I watched it in a venue separate from where I might watch DJ Khaled’s SnapChat story or read about Zola. I hope I still would have found it entertaining, empathetic, multilayered, and worthy of its commentary on sex, poverty, cultural baggage, and hegemony. Some are still furious that Kitana “Kiki” Rodriguez and Mya Taylor were not nominated for acting awards. I think they should have been up for Best Original Screenplay; my belief in the entire project comes from their belief in their portrayal.

8. Carol

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This premise sounds like it was practically designed to sweep the 2016 Oscars; in reality, it’s a miracle that it wound up excellent, and the forgotten Freeheld helps exemplify exactly where its statements about sexuality could have become too political. Instead, Carol works as a political act by being an expertly made romance drama which lets its lesbian romance speak as its own political statement. The film works best as a character drama and as an aesthetic accomplishment, with some of the most beautiful filmmaking and scoring I can recall. A taut screenplay lets it stick as a remarkable achievement; Blanchett and Mara develop career performances in their work off one another.

7. Room


I really need to get around to Abrahamson’s Irish films; his prior film, Frank, is an empathetic film which achieves sublimity with its closure. Room is equally empathetic and sublime from the start, but it doesn’t lose steam once its denizens escape Room. Larson is an actress I’ve found compelling since her brief turn in Scott Pilgrim vs. The World, but it’s with this film that I turned into a fan. Her and Tremblay, together, work within the limited confines of Room and make it wholly compelling. When they leave, Abrahamson gives the film the brain it needs to stay moving. The structure of this is so effective, the emotional depth so fantastic. And the final moment, a treasure.

6. When Marnie Was There

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There is no shock that Studio Ghibli winds up on my list once more. My favorite film studio made sure that each of its directors’ last features would be each of their best work, and When Marnie Was There is certainly the best film directed by Hiromasa Yonebayashi as of 2015. The film’s best element is its lead character, a young artist named Anna. Anna is one of the studio’s most fully realized characters, and I fell wholly into her story of love and loss. If this is the last official Studio Ghibli film, they’ll have gone out as well as imaginable; I look forward to wherever Yonebayashi makes movies next, and I hope they have the same degree of empathy as this great film.

5. Mad Max Fury Road

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What can be said about Mad Max: Fury Road that hasn’t been said already? That it would probably entertain those who think they’re done with action movies in a post-The Dark Knight world? That it, when looked at as a series of scenes or great images, works in ways unimagined when you just watch it as a sort of lore factory? That, somehow, it uses the orange and blue color palette of the modern blockbuster to reach an apex of visual filmmaking? Watch Mad Max: Fury Road. We can all keep watching Mad Max: Fury Road. It will always be here.

4. Spotlight


Spotlight is, essentially, perfect. Spotlight is activist and emotional and empathetic while remaining dispassionate, complex, not exploitative. The story of the exposure of the Boston Catholic Church as a brotherhood of secrecy and permission of child molestation reveals so much about how the brain should work. Schriber’s character, who demands a full and complete dismantling of the system because the Boston Globe has the power to do more than expose bad priests, is a model for how the individual has intense power. Spotlight is entertaining in that it is enjoyable to watch people do their jobs well; it is emotional in that it respects those on its sideline. I have naught but praise for Spotlight, and it should not just be a model for how to handle ensemble drama, but a model for how to handle one’s own life.

3. The Hateful Eight

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I expected to find myself wholly disappointed by The Hateful Eight. Another Western, and one less obviously political than Django Unchained? It seemed a wasteful half-step. But no Tarantino film has better transformed the idea of what a Tarantino film might do; the film rewards not surface level analysis but deep meditation and immersion, having far more to say by saying several things less emphatically. We’ve become accustomed to genre movies screaming themes at us without subtlety. The Hateful Eight pulls them into an ensemble of figures who conflict with one another, making a muddy collection of ideas that actually reward using one’s brain. Each performance is astounding; Jennifer Jason Leigh obviously makes a mark, but how about Jackson’s great work, or the astounding performance from Bruce Dern? Rarely has the violence itself in a Tarantino film felt so criticized. This feels like his film that looks at all the misery in his work over the years and bothers to make it clear that this violence is not that of Randian evolution but of the end of the world. Some justice.

2. Magic Mike XXL

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Industrial welding. Magic Mike XXL utilizes the first film’s focus of the lack of glamour and stability in sex work and hangs this cloud over a more joyful film about all of sexuality’s greatest gifts. The convenience store. Some zany antics support the smiles, body positivity, gender dynamics, and comments on self-transformation that make Magic Mike XXL a magical experience for almost any viewer. Rome. There is a moment where this film transforms into a sort of odyssey, and the remaining encounters each are so progressive and beautiful as to make me laugh and cry all over again. Heaven. And with the last half hour, I knew I had a new favorite comedy on this earth. Magic Mike XXL is better than the film we need; it’s the film I love.

1. The Look of Silence

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I was aware there would be no hope in seeing anything better than The Look of Silence as soon as I saw that it existed. Oppenheimer’s The Act of Killing shows a destroyed nation where its executors still hold power over the subjugated survivors, and the documentary evokes Werner Herzog (an executive producer on both films) as it heightens Indonesian genocide to divine tragedy. The essential antidote is The Look of Silence, a film which returns to earth and places an optometrist named Adi as a sort of vigilante investigator into his own brother’s death in those genocides. The latter evokes the other executive producer, Errol Morris (The Thin Blue Line, The Fog of War) as it chases down those involved in Adi’s brother’s killing, but does not lose sight of the prior film’s gorgeous cinematography. If The Look of Silence were fiction, it would be receiving the same criticisms as Bridge of Spies, called a Capra-esque morality tale that sits as too unbelievable to be successful. As reality, the confrontations Adi has with those who perpetrated the genocide, or those who willfully enable their family members who did, are some of the boldest filmmaking I’ve ever witnessed. The Look of Silence is the year’s best film.

Thoughts On “Star Trek: Into Darkness” and Character Humanization

When I saw Into Darkness about a month ago, I expected I’d enjoy something else less by this point in the summer. But, due to my failure to see some of the summer’s larger “disappointments” (again, I haven’t seen them,) Into Darkness remains my summer bummer.


To be blunt, large parts of the movie are still pretty cool. Aside from the moments where Dan Mindel properly conveys thematic statements through cinematography, it’s the parts where characters just talk to each other. Whether comedic or dramatic, it’s usually very, very engaging. The characters that receive focused are well executed and generally well acted. They’re snippy, funny, and have fantastic chemistry, and they’re occasionally capable of engendering some real pathos.


Shining amongst the examples is an early scene where Kirk winds up in a long elevator ride with Uhura. They’re about to set off on their primary mission for the film; Uhura, off-handedly, asks the captain if everything’s all right; everyone else thinks he looks kind of exhausted. Even before the tragic events that lead to the mission they’re embarking upon, Kirk was drinking himself into a stupor; Kirk has since been “put upon,” to underemphasize things. He says he’s fine.


Then, he doubles back to say “no, I’m not okay.” He explains that one of his beloved crew has quit and that he’s full of self-doubt and grief and has no idea what he’s doing; we’re witnessing the makings of an anxiety attack or depressive breakdown. It’s a fascinating moment in a film thus far bereft of these deeply emotional scenes. To top it all off, Kirk is arguing with Spock, who Uhura is dating at the time. She vaguely implies that she and Spock aren’t exactly sailing smoothly either. Kirk takes this as a moment for his own bravado, joking about the idea of having a lovers’ spat with Spock.


This is the last we will see of Kirk’s self-esteem issues, grieving, or anxiety. In fact, apart from a follow-up conversation in regards to Spock’s fight with Uhura, this is the last deep angst we’ll see out of any of our characters that doesn’t come in the form of a right hook.  Somewhere, a writer had a pathological arc for Kirk to become the bold captain we know him to be, but all traces of it but this one scene are struck from the script.


On the one hand, I want to congratulate them for even including a hint of that level of complexity; on the other, I chastise them for not making the more interesting film. What’s even left to beg for? Apparently, Iron Man 3 offers multiple nervous breakdowns that don’t facilitate the plot, and The Dark Knight Rises gave Christian Bale more screentime with a broken back than he got wearing a cowl. Prometheus, a film filled with ambition, made its budget back more than threefold. An ambitious, cerebral, empathetic megahit is entirely possible.


It’s not like J.J. Abrams is incapable of making something with heart; Super 8 is a perfect example of his repartee on full steam, without a massive budget to bog him down. And when Into Darkness abandons its more seriously interesting character arcs, it becomes a lot harder to forgive the empty plot, ridiculous fanservice, marginalization of all non Kirk/Spock/Cumberbatch characters, boring action, and truly awful ending. Delving into that stuff would require seeing the movie, and, unfortunately, I don’t plan to make that happen any time soon.

I’ll leave on a hopeful note, though. A similar note of humanity come in an early scene in which Spock accepts his oncoming (and subverted) demise. The score and cinematography aspire to the same heights Prometheus achieved last year. These short bursts of pure empathetic filmmaking reminded me of what the Star Trek film series can be; hopefully, with the somewhat unremarkable performance of Into Darkness domestically, a scaled back budget will force the Abrams understudy who takes over to really study what truly works about these first two films.