The top 21 movies of 2021

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TL;DR;

If you’re short on time, skip all the text and see my Top 20 Movies of 2021 list on Letterboxd. But that’s a lot less fun.

21. No Sudden Move

After flirting with retirement from feature filmmaking about a decade ago, Soderbergh has returned with a prolific fury of films - with a wide range of quality (good and bad) in those recent efforts - but No Sudden Move is the best of this phase of his career. Vintage-era Soderbergh films like Kafka and King of the Hill demonstrated an acuity for deliberate lighting and composition that has been missing in his recent films, in favor of a more run-and-gun, shoot-it-on-iPhone-if-need-be ethos. This represents a bit of a fusion of the two Soderberghs - the film never feels bogged down by its aesthetic needs - it moves along at a brisk pace with an airy production feel, but also manages to render period detail and mood with style. Don Cheadle and Benecio Del Toro give some of their best character work in years, and Brendan Fraser emerges as an entirely different presence as a true crime-genre heavy. 

20. Bergman Island

Several years ago on a Criterion podcast I heard the story of a Bergman enthusiast who visited the island of Faro, where the Swedish filmmaker Ingmar Bergman lived and made several of his movies. Apparently a subculture of Bergman-tourism has bloomed there, with specific itineraries and events organized around the filmmaker’s life and work. On the one hand, as a (TW: pretentiousness) true cinephile, that sounds like a bucket list kind of travel goal. But on the other hand, if it makes your list of “see before you die” spots, I’d worry it’s more of a “see…. and you also die.” I’d like to go, but I’d be worried that the entire island would be like a Bergman film itself - ultimately inspiring, but filled with despair and psychological trauma.

In this film, a romantic pair - who are also filmmakers - travel to the island for creative inspiration. As filmmakers, they are given special privileges - including access to 35mm prints of the Bergman oeuvre. It wouldn’t be spoiling anything to suggest the decision of a creative romantic couple looking for a spark while staying in an actual location of Scenes from a Marriage might be tempting fate. The film wanders around Bergman’s universe, inhabiting it as if a warped Disney of the dark night of the soul - you won’t have to wait in line very often, and you won’t be singing it’s a small world after all, but you’ll certainly experience a voyage through the cold layers of the unconscious. 

19. Pig

Writer-director Michael Sarnoski deftly handles audience expectations - taking a premise of “What if Nic Cage was a John Wick-like character in the woods with a favorite pig,” and subverts the implied anticipation of chainsaw-and-machete-driven bloody revenge and transforms those ideas into a slow-burn drama driven by a zen-like psychic-samurai/chef.

Whichever weapons are at John Wick’s disposal in any given moment in that series can be assuredly discharged with speed. Pig’s main character Robin Feld is just as effective assassin as Wick, but his complement of weapons - a profound connection to the natural world, a deep understanding of human psychology, a Marilu Henneresque faculty of memory, a stunning tolerance for pain, and an array of simple kitchen utensils - are served with the deliberate pace of a master. He won’t end his targets with an instant pull of a trigger but rather destroy them in sublime slow motion. Savoring every second of victory, allowing its aroma to be slowly inhaled, its juices swirled, and then ultimately consumed to the sweetest satisfaction. 

18. The Humans

Confined inside of one setting, this stage adaptation introduces its cast with shards of realistic dialogue - featuring fragments, run-ons, short-handed comments between people who know each other so thoroughly they can communicate volumes with a slight sentence. At first it takes a moment to adjust, but once it hits its stride you feel like a member of the family. Near the end, Steven Yeun’s character conveys an anecdote that explains the title of this film. A world where monsters tell horror stories about the humans. And this film is indeed a horror story: not about serial killers or things that make you jump in the night, but rather, about the decay, diminishment, disappointment of the human condition. Set during Thanksgiving as a young couple moves into a new apartment, a combination that could suggest an overbearing theme of gratitude and renewal, the film luxuriates in misery - examining the rot in all of us - in ourselves, our bodies, our romantic relationships, our families, and even at the macro species level from a global/political perspective. And it is through this brutal examination that it subtly conveys a sense of resilience in our core - the coping mechanisms at the microscopic and macroscopic levels. It’s a film that will stay with you for days after viewing. 

17. A Hero

I admire the direct approach of Asghar Farhadi’s films. Classic morality tales - at core, seemingly straightforward - made all the more fulfilling and complex by the honesty of his observations of contemporary life in Iran. In A Hero international audiences get a forensic examination of the Iranian conception of social honor and dignity. A criminal under arrest for unpaid debts uses the opportunity of a furlough to settle his affairs and redeem himself in the eyes of the law and his peers. The exact same set of conditions in a modern liberal Western democracy would proceed in entirely different fashion. Tensions are exacerbated by outsized notions of honor and male-stubbornness to such a degree they might at first seem more other-planetary than they do other-nationally, but as this story reaches its conclusion, damned if these seemingly stubborn dudes’ perspectives connect at a visceral and universal level.

16. Titane

This year served up a handful of flicks that deliver one of my favorite go-to movie reactions - the moment the end credits start rolling - your initial thought is: 

what the fuck was THAT?

Titane is indeed in the pantheon of great what-the-fuck-was-that movies. If David Cronenberg fucked David Lynch with a robotic phallus designed by HR Giger, it would birth Titane. Descriptions of plot and character are of no use to you here. It’s a singular experience that operates on its own bizarre rules - taking twists and turns that cannot be anticipated, and can only be seen to be felt. 

15. In the Heights

I love when films manage to create an ensemble that truly feels like a well-knit community, where everyone knows your name, your business, your faults and your gifts. Each character of In The Heights is a familiar tile in a mosaic of human experience: Abuela, the provider, sacrificer, and backbone of the village; Vanessa, the talented striver with a clear goal and overwhelming obstacles to her success; Nina, the one who’s gonna make it for all of us - to make up for the fact our dreams have long faded; Kevin Rosario, the bigshot; and Usnavi - the one who bears witness. Find yourself - or at least a piece of yourself - in all of them.

14. Zola

In late October of 2015, a hilarious twitter thread went viral telling the story of a young woman who went on a trip to Florida to perform in a strip club and events did not go as planned. Nearly everyone who read the thread, myself included, thought they should make a movie out of that. 

So they did. Presumably the first-ever motion picture adapted from a tweetstorm, Zola plunges head-first into the nightmare weekend of drugs, strippers, pimps and hos, narrated in a voice befitting the real-life source material, often directly quoting tweets verbatim. The resulting ride is dizzying and hilarious, with the co-leads of Taylour Paige and Riley Keough inhabiting these characters with manic energy and authenticity. 

13. Licorice Pizza

It’s been almost a quarter century since Boogie Nights, and Paul Thomas Anderson is finally revisiting some of the elements that declared him a directorial star with his 1997 breakthrough film: an ensemble cast, in a period piece with an entrepreneurial young lead who meanders his way through layers of Southern Californian culture as he pursues his dreams. Cooper Hoffman, the young son of the late great Boogie Night vet Philip Seymour Hoffman, delivers on impossible expectations as he and PTA spin a character consumed with ambition who may be young but is far ahead of his age. Alana Haim’s screen presence is eclectic, co-starred with her real-life sisters, at first amused and lightly intrigued, and eventually consumed by her youthful pursuer. 

12. Power of the Dog

Power of the Dog is Jane Campion’s best since The Piano. Cumberbatch’s Phil Burbank is a fascinating character study - a man trapped in the schism between the fading of the frontier and the coming of modernity. He is more skilled and equipped for the modern age than his brother, who pines for it. But Burbank will have none of it. The storytelling techniques in Campion’s film reminds me somewhat of a concept that the comic creator Scott McCloud called closure - what comic books and graphic novels do best - which he defines as “the act of mentally filling in the gaps of what we observe.” And there are oh so many gaps in Power of the Dog. The gaps between feelings and expressions of those feelings. The gaps of understanding between characters who only observe a narrow slice. The gaps between the talented and the un-talented. Between the masculine and the feminine. Campion renders, once again in painterly fashion, searing images that penetrate the mind and stay with you long after initial viewing, inspiring the viewer to use their imaginations to color in what’s in between. 

11. Annette

Annette represents the second entry on this list of a film that can be best described as a shining member of the “What the Fuck Was That?” subgenre. With this film and Holy Motors, half-filmmaker half-circus-ringleader Leos Carax has become the modern heir apparent to the dreamlike cinema of Fellini. A musical about a torrid romantic affair between two compelling entertainment figures - the sultry singer Marion Cotillard and the comedian/performance artist Adam Driver - which results in the birth of an eponymous puppet. Carax has a gift for creating a chaotic world with the logic of dreams - but a set of coherent self-regulating rules that give the pieces form and the troupe of actors commit so deeply, a sense of believability emerges from the outlandish.

The faux careers of Cotillard & Driver’s characters are compelling and beautifully rendered in solitude - almost as leads of their own movies - to a degree that when they combine, the transformation of them becoming the powerhouse “it” couple of all “it” couples feels like a star-power duo on a level of “what if Madonna and Eddie Murphy got married in the 1980s?”

For the majority of the movie, it’s a high-wire act that nearly loses its balance on several occasions - straining credulity as actors pour their hearts and souls into songs about a weird-AF-looking puppet. Levels upon levels of artifice - special effect compositions, stage-like settings, musical dialogue, over-the-top plotting and emotional turmoil based on human-puppet interactions: it feels as if it’s going to fall apart any second. And then, at the very end, this mighty gamble, this jenga puzzle of cinematic parlor tricks, spins raw emotion with the force of a tornado in reverse, lifting itself and the audience from its ground-state to apotheosis - in an extraordinary finale.

10. Cherry

Cherry is easily the most underrated movie of the year. I still don’t think I’ve talked to anyone who’s actually seen it. Here we have the immediate re-teaming of the directors of Avengers: Endgame with one of the signature stars of the MCU, and yet it didn’t even penetrate the zeitgeist.

Based on a novel and following novelistic structure, Cherry is an epic about an Iraq war veteran dealing with PTSD and addiction. A little bit Jarhead, a little bit Trainspotting, a little bit Dog Day Afternoon, toss those ingredients into a bowl, blend, and you’ve got Cherry. Led by the always-likable Tom Holland… what’s not to love? The fact that it was on Apple TV+? I’m baffled why it doesn’t have more fans. It lands right in that sweet spot of commercial appeal and artistic aspiration, a film about everyday human drama but with the budget and production value of a blockbuster - the kind of films that critics spill gigabytes of pixels pining for from the good ol’ days of cinema, and yet, here it is, right fucking here delivered into your home on a wire, with the ultimate convenience, at a price that’s equivalent to a single movie ticket, plus a month-long membership with a ton of other killer content like For All Mankind, and yet the general reaction seems to be “I pay for too many streaming services.” I hear you. But this one’s worth it. Join, watch, binge Mankind and Ted Lasso and buy me a coffee in thanks next time we see each other.

9. Red Rocket

If it’s a good movie year, we’re gifted at least one original character who marches to the beat of their own drum in such a unique fashion - they cut a silhouette that no other character can match - a synthesis of direction, writing, and acting - and this year we have a bona fide character in Mikey played by Simon Rex. Do yourself a favor and avoid all capsule reviews or summaries of this film and just trust me and see it. Part of the delight is the vérité way in which audiences discover what and who Red Rocket is all about. Part con man, part unhinged bottle rocket zooming every direction, speaking in some of the most authentic-sounding dialogue I’ve ever seen in film, Mikey is one of those “they tossed out the mold when they made that one” kind of people.

Between Red Rocket and The Florida Project, writer-director Sean Baker has become an auteur of the underclass - telling compelling stories from eccentric characters off-the-grid, the forgotten souls the likes of which might be subjects in a Barbara Ehrenreich book. He truly has become the filmmaker that critics have falsely proclaimed Harmony Korine to be (don’t get me started on that fraud, trying to stay positive here).

8. Coda

The little movie that could has somehow become a co-favorite to win Best Picture. I’m delighted. In a fantastic movie year, this was a favorite. Effortlessly compelling - the contrast of existence of a single hearing-capable child in a family where everyone else is deaf - and the intricate sources of tensions that creates - made me wonder why it hadn’t been done before. And then just recently I learned it had been done before. This film is a remake of a French film. I confess this steals a little bit of the charm of the movie for me, which I’d been sold as a scrappy indie original, but doesn’t diminish the delight I felt watching it. And I am most certainly rooting for Troy Kotsur to win best supporting actor at the Oscars - my favorite performance of the year. His moments with his young daughter character hit you right in the heart. 

7. The Worst Person In The World

Once again, I’d advise to just see this one without learning too much about it. Ostensibly a romantic drama, this story reaches for more and uses the spine of relationship dramas to capture the experience of an entire life. Filled with the unexpected twists of a real life, this film concentrates on an intense period in a person’s life that ends up revealing their character and defining their destiny. At the end of this film, I felt I know the protagonist as well as a character in a 500-page novel, or a real-life friend or family member. All of the foibles, likes, loves, defects, rendered in full. Renate Reinsve gets my vote for best leading performance of the year with this one.

6. Bo Burnham Inside
So here we are, in what feels like the 730th day of March 2020. The month that changed all of our lives and put us all on pause. While the rest of us struggled to find any return to normalcy,, Bo Burnham decided to use the concept of a lockdown to create the parameters for his new comedy special. Burnham’s observations on contemporary existence penetrate so deeply, occasionally watching it makes one feel guilty as a species - hey man, stop airing our dirty laundry so publicly.

This will serve as an essential document to future historians to illustrate the many anxieties of the covid era - which aren’t entirely the fault of the coronavirus - but the pandemic has brought the dystopian aspects of contemporary living in stark relief.

The songs Welcome to the Internet and That Funny Feeling explain more in ten minutes than any essay, book, or academic study of the period could. That Funny Feeling strikes me as a spiritual heir to George Carlin’s Modern Man - if he was still around, I feel confident he would be blown away by Burnham’s piece. It matches late (and very dark) Carlin’s penchant to root for humanity’s self-destruction as a riveted spectator as much as a commentator. That Funny Feeling shares Carlin’s ability to hone in on particularly revealing turns of phrase as markers of damnation - signposts on the road to hell. Where Carlin and Burnham part ways is that the young Burnham is still invested in our success - scratching and clawing in every direction to find something to grab on and give him hope - but coming up empty - whereas Carlin would sit back, grab a bucket of popcorn, and grin with a devil’s smile as he watched the body count rise. 

5. Dune

Denis Villenueve holds the heavyweight championship belt for filmmaking. He might not have the greatest body of work of every filmmaker alive, but, he’s at the height of his powers, and every time I walk into a cinema to see his name in the opening credits, I expect nothing less than a film that works on every level - and he’s still in that glory streak. Each of the myriad of technical and aesthetic choices he had to make to bring this supposedly-impossible-to-adapt sci-fi classic to screen are made with care and skill. Without fail, they translate difficult abstractions and concepts into real objects with weight and purpose, captured with exquisite cinematography. 

When it reaches the two-and-a-half hour mark, only halfway through the story of the first novel, and the closing credits begin, one can only feel a sense of anticipation and anger that we cannot watch the second film right then and there. It had the feel of the shortest, swiftest, long-ass movie in recent years.

4. The Card Counter

At 75 years of age, Paul Schrader is hitting his stride… again. The legend behind some of the greatest films of the 1970s and 1980s, between First Reformed and The Card Counter, cinema may have moved from the McConaissance to the Schraderaissance. In this film, Schrader revisits a number of the essential elements of his best work - an isolated protagonist with a violent past, narrating paranoia-infused observations on the undertow of society, presented with opportunities for redemption - having to choose between the constructive or destructive redemptive path.

In The Card Counter, Schrader places America under Oscar Issac’s gaze, as penetrating as a machine resonance imaging chamber. Isaac’s character has a gift for counting cards - seeing through the game - but Schrader sees through American mythology, the heroic stories it tells itself on the surface in contrast to the people trapped in that undertow who see things through a different prism.  

3. Drive My Car

In the past few years, a series of films have accomplished a shift in cinematic storytelling that feels like a mini-revolution: narrative structures that vivify. Stories that feel authorless; they meander with the freedom of a butterfly; they seem to have emerged from the void without pre-planning; they defy being diagrammed in a Syd Field or Robert McKee formula. Storytelling that ditches engineering and architecture for chemistry and biology. 

I’m thinking of Burning, Licorice Pizza, The Worst Person in the World, and of course, Drive My Car. Even after experiencing the first 40 minutes of this film before its quite-delayed opening credits, I could not have, in a million years, have predicted the dynamics of the story to be told.

Drive My Car utilizes a technique that I often bristle against: using a story-within-a-story to illustrate (and far too often, over-explain) the themes of the main story. In this case, the main character is a creative professional staging Russian plays in multi-lingual formats, and the interplay between the “real” characters and the circumstances in the “play” are endlessly fascinating - reverberating between each other with new levels of understanding with each iteration. At its core, the story is about the challenge of empathy - the inherent impossibility of truly understanding other people and the paradox of being unable to communicate one’s own perspective to the other - as if empathy itself is short-circuited at both ends of the process - but it’s all about making the effort to walk in the other’s shoes, or, to drive their car. This will probably be the most re-watchable film offered in 2021. I expect it will be endlessly rewarding, especially to those familiar with the play within the film (Uncle Vanya, which, sadly, I have no experience with). I shall remedy that ignorance and play catch-up when Drive My Car arrives on Criterion in July. It’s probably the “best” film of the year in a critical sense, and I expect I’ll revisit it many times… but, upon first viewing, I had a bit more fun with two others…

2. In and Of Itself

What draws me to the movies? So many things. Among them is the occasional chance to witness miracles. The Wachowskis literally used the word miracle in the screenplay of The Matrix to describe the moment of Neo’s resurrection. That’s part of the fun of the medium - the unlimited vista of imagination that movies can do - but here is a movie that delivers a real-life miracle that happens in a fucking documentary.

This film captures a stage event by the magician Derek DelGaudio. It’s part autobiography, part showcase for illusion, part examination on the nature of truth, and utterly magic. DelGaudio proves himself a riveting narrator as he weaves small stories into a tapestry of a larger life story, culminating in a stunning conclusion. Filmed in front of a live audience that becomes key participants in the final act, In and Of Itself delivers a sustained moment where these spellbound individuals take part in a “trick” so well-crafted, so well-executed, it is a documented witness of an act of a genuine wizard. He may not have a funny hat, but DelGaudio has earned the right to roll with Gandalf and Dumbledore. Nothing supernatural occurs, no laws of physics are violated, but what those live audiences saw is a genuine miracle: they were moved to tears, as you will be. 

1. Spider-Man: No Way Home

My apologies to those of you who’ve made it this far only to arrive at the inevitable: of course this was the best movie experience of the year. Covid variants be damned, this is when audiences decided to return to movie theaters - the cathedrals of we movie zealots - en masse. To once again be side-by-side with my fellow churchgoers, observing the cinema sacraments of cheers and applause as a trinity of movie legends (re-)appeared on the big screen, was such a once-in-a-lifetime thrill. Two years of pent-up frustration and cabin fever, released in a wave of joy.

When (predictable spoiler one) happened, I was surprised at how active my crowd was - but when (predictable spoiled two) happened, even though I should’ve been prepared, I still was jolted by the thunder of foot-stomps, shrieks of enthusiasm, and bruising hand-claps.

Aside from the return of the live theatrical experience, No Way Home is a top MCU film in its own right. It not only provided a potential conclusion to Tom Holland’s run as Spidey (which was, at the time, a strong possibility), but also redeemed the entirety of the rest of the live-action Sony Spidey movies - anything that was lacking in those films got a quick band-aid and/or the elixir of MCU everlasting life.

And perhaps most astonishing of all, despite this being the sixth time Holland suited up as Spider-Man, they managed to bring it all home and create a stealth re-imagining of Amazing Fantasy #15. When a key moment (spoiler essential moment in Spidey history is revised) started to unfold on screen, I couldn’t believe what I was witnessing - an origin story as a sixth chapter. At last, an on-screen Spidey becomes one hundred percent authentic to Ditko and Lee. We all know the signature ethos of the mythology, but, this is the first time the movies quoted it accurately. I never would’ve predicted (spoiler actor name) would be the one to finally deliver those immortal lines, but they hit as hard as ever.  Under the stewardship of Holland, Watts, and Feige, the filmmakers have lived up to the calling: With great power, there must also come great responsibility.

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