Top 10 Films of 2021

The year movies came back. But movies never went anywhere as evidenced by last year’s Best Of list. Theatres reopened for business again and the multiplexes were filled with mostly big-budget spectacles. You won’t find any of those on this list. There’s only one film on this list that didn’t premiere at a film festival and its budget was less than $4 million. Will the future of cinema be IP-driven spectacles on the big screen as everything else heads to streaming? I dunno. But the present has given us plenty of movies worth celebrating and even though the pandemic has prevented me from catching up on a number of key films released theatrically at the end of this year (Licorice PizzaWest Side StoryThe Souvenir Part IIRed Rocket, The Lost Daughter, Spider-Man: No Way Home, etc.), I still had a very difficult time narrowing down this list to just ten titles. Here they are in approximate order of preference.

1. The Worst Person in the World

Easy choice. The Worst Person in the World moved me beyond words when I saw it at TIFF in September – I just knew that I’d already seen the best movie of the year. As for that title, well, she isn’t, though she may think that of herself. The film centers on Julie (a luminous Renate Reinsve in the performance of the year) and follows her through four years of her life in contemporary Oslo as she enters her 30s and tries to figure out what to do with her life and decide who she’ll spend it with. Partitioned into twelve episodic chapters, a prologue, and an epilogue, Joachim Trier’s character study has a novelistic quality. But it’s also incredibly cinematic. Take, for example, a scene of movie magic where Trier freezes time for everyone except Julie – she rushes past neighbors frozen in her apartment and races through the streets towards the person occupying her mind. It’s a truly exhilarating moment in a movie that has the same sort of spontaneous energy as Julie (and even slows down and becomes more meditative as she gets older and learns from experience). Hilarious and heartbreaking in equal measure, The Worst Person in the World is the rare account of millennial indecision that isn’t patronizing. The movie feels like it was eerily made for me. Opens theatrically in Feb 2022.

2. Petite Maman

Celine Sciamma’s follow-up to my favorite movie of 2019, Portrait of a Lady on Fire, may at first glance appear slight with its small cast and brief running time of 72 minutes. But she packs an overwhelming amount of feeling and insight within this compact framework. Nelly (Josephine Sanz) is an 8-year-old who has just lost her grandmother, a death affecting both her and her mother (Nina Meurisse). When Nelly goes outside to play in the woods, she meets a girl named Marion (Gabrielle Sanz) – they form a transcendent bond and what happens beyond that I’ll leave for you to discover. Maybe it’s because I lost a parent a few weeks ago but, in the days since, my mind has returned to this movie often – moments such as when Nelly gives her mother a snack and a sip of her juice box feel like a warm hug. Sciamma has crafted a tender, delicate coming-of-age story that’s also a deeply profound meditation on family, love, and the grieving process. Will stream on MUBI in Feb 2022.

3. Identifying Features

Fernanda Valadez’s masterful debut about a mother (Mercedes Hernandez) venturing on a journey to search for her son who vanished while trying to cross the Mexican-American border left me speechless. This personal tragedy is representative of countless others. Did her son die in the desert? Did he become a casualty of the drug war? Hernandez’s dialogue is minimal, but her gestures effectively convey the anguish and terror of her character. There’s a haunting quality to the way the film’s images are composed that obliterate the hopefulness associated with a coming-to-America narrative. The reality is so much more devastating. I’ll never forget the film’s horrifying conclusion. Available to rent.

4. Nine Days

Edson Oda’s Nine Days is one of the most ambitious feature debuts I’ve seen. Taking place in the weird purgatory space before life, a bureaucrat named Will (Winston Duke) interviews and evaluates new souls over the course of nine days, deciding which will be given a chance at life. Imagine pre-life as a purgatory instead of after-life. The analog world-building here is meticulous – the video recordings of life unfolding on Earth validate Roger Ebert’s theory about movies as an empathy-generating machine. Cinema has the power to teach us about existence. And this is a movie about what it means to be alive. The moments of joyful expression that make life worthwhile. The moments we want to re-experience if we know we’re going to fade into the void shortly after. Available to rent.

5. Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy

Director Ryusuke Hamaguchi is having a big year. His film Drive My Car picked up the Best Screenplay award at Cannes this year and is, as of this writing, considered the critical favorite of this year, appearing on more Top 10 lists than any other 2021 release. But I prefer his other, less celebrated film of 2021, Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy. While both films are driven by short stories, the storytelling style is much more compact in Wheel’s anthology format. Three thematically linked stories – a love triangle, a honey pot seduction, and a future-set encounter based on a misunderstanding – are each shaped by romantic possibilities, chance, and coincidence. There are many moments of beauty and grace alongside amazing conversational high-wire acts. The finale moved me to tears. This is a beautifully observed tribute to the power of storytelling. Available to rent on Jan 11th, 2022. 

6. Titane

Still can’t believe that Titane won the Palme d’Or at this year’s Cannes Film Festival. Here’s a movie whose protagonist is an erotic dancer with a titanium plate in her head, has a…bizarre fascination with automobiles, murders people with a hairpin, and presents herself as the missing son of a firefighter. It’s certainly the most audacious film of the year and a jury led by Spike Lee would certainly respond to that. Newcomer Agathe Rousselle delivers an incredibly visceral performance even though she barely utters a word throughout. The most surprising thing about Titane isn’t its shock value; at the heart of this wonderfully deranged picture by director Julia Ducournau is a tender parent-child story and a thoughtful exploration of gender fluidity. Available to rent.

7. The Power of the Dog

Jane Campion exquisitely adapts Thomas Savage’s Western novel of toxic masculinity, enveloping us in the story’s unhurried rhythms. Using her homeland of New Zealand as 1920s Montana, Campion presents us with a grand, big-sky Western in the tradition of old-school Hollywood. Phil Burbank (Benedict Cumberbatch, a career-best performance) is a malignant rancher determined to wreck the happiness of his much sweeter brother (Jesse Plemons), his sister-in-law (Kirsten Dunst), and her son (Kodi Smit-McPhee). The Power of the Dog unfolds as a thriller, superbly directed with scenes of unbearable tension. It’s a highly controlled piece of filmmaking where every element – the performances, Johnny Greenwood’s score, Ari Wegner’s cinematography, and Peter Sciberra’s editing – works in unison to produce an absolute stunner. Streaming on Netflix.

8. Pig

It’s been a while but here’s a Nicolas Cage role worthy of his enormous talent. Cage plays a recluse living in a remote cabin in the Oregon wilderness whose only companion is a beloved truffle pig. When the pig is kidnapped, Rob returns to the Portland culinary scene, where he was a once celebrated chef, to try to save her. This sounds like the sort of “Give me back my pig!!!” revenge actioner that would provide us with an over-the-top Cage performance and so I was unprepared for where this peculiar film took me. Director and co-writer Michael Sarnoski completely upends our expectations, presenting us with a heartfelt portrait of grief whilst drawing a brilliantly restrained performance from Cage. Currently streaming on Crave. 

9. Riders of Justice

Riders of Justice is the kind of R-rated action/revenge thriller/absurdist comedy that Hollywood seems to have forgotten how to make so I’m thankful for this Danish export. After losing his wife in a train accident, a gruff marine (Mads Mikkelsen) is informed by a trio of analysts that it is statistically near impossible for this tragic event to be an accident and that it was likely orchestrated by a biker gang known as the Riders of Justice. The revenge story that follows isn’t what you’d expect; writer-director Anders Thomas Jensen is more interested in using this setup as a means of exploring questions of randomness vs. determinism, and how we try to draw meaning from a senseless world. Available to rent.

10. Saint Maud

Writer-director Rose Glass’ astonishing debut feature buries us in a deeply horrifying place: the title character’s mind. Maud (Morfydd Clark, a revelation) is a newly born-again Christian caregiver resolved to save the soul of her patient (Jennifer Ehle). As Maud spirals into a self-destructive obsession, this disquieting chamber piece turns into a visceral psych/body horror. Glass tightens the screws and doesn’t let go, building to a shocking final shot that has been seared into my brain. I had nightmares after seeing this one. I wish I could have seen this with a Midnight Madness audience. Currently streaming on Netflix.

Honorable Mentions: “Drive My Car”, “Flee”, “Judas and the Black Messiah”, “Quo Vadis, Aida”, “Summer of Soul”, “Those Who Wish Me Dead”, “The Velvet Underground