Last year marked the return to theatrical moviegoing for many people – masked, trepidatious moviegoing in search of a return to some kind of normalcy. With it came a handful of bold, visceral, compelling films, both mainstream and obscure, from all corners of the globe. If it seemed like 2021 was a strong year for movies, maybe that's just because it was a thrill to visit cinema once more on the big screen, where it belongs. Even so, what a relief to experience trauma and heartache (and joy and beauty) vicariously in movies instead of in real life, though as we all know, there's still plenty of that raging in the world around us.
At the same time, one couldn't help but feel that the more things change, the more they stay the same: movies in 2021 were defined by many of the digital-age, late-capitalist crises that have abounded for a decade or more, from the dominion of streaming platforms to the waning of celluloid to political divisiveness either allegorized or shut out of mind. As historical events multiply outside of movie theaters (or living rooms), it's hard not to feel like we're approaching the end of...something, an empire either national or cinematic. Such cataclysmic feeling sounds dismal, but as always, art is there to ameliorate our wounds, and the films of 2021 often answered the call with resolute bravado.
(Note: I consider a film a 2021 release if it had at least limited theatrical or streaming distribution in the United States during the calendar year. That means a film that premiered at festivals in 2021 but didn't get a wider release until 2022 – for example, The Worst Person in the World, which would have been very high on the list below – is a 2022 movie in my book.)
1. This Is Not a Burial, It's a Resurrection
From Lesotho comes the best movie of 2021, a masterpiece as singular and profound as it is stunningly gorgeous. It follows an elderly widow named Mantoa (played by longtime South African film and television actress Mary Twala Mhlongo), who has outlived her entire family. Her faith in God having all but evaporated (which is somewhat taboo in the tight-knit Mosotho village in which she lives), Mantoa wants only the respite of death but simply keeps surviving, one day after the next. Eventually, some kind of calling appears to her: in the face of government plans to relocate her entire village and make way for a dam, Mantoa begins a one-woman quest to fend off the developers and keep her people (and their ancestors) on their ancient land.
There's a clear parable of globalism and modernity, and even a somewhat triumphant stand against the violent forces of progress (albeit a triumph tinged with sacrifice). But This Is Not a Burial, It's a Resurrection has more on its mind than a simple paean to bygone ways. It touches on colonialism, religion, ancestry, activism, and art, offering a fascinating depiction of the unique form of Christianity in this area (a product itself of colonialism) and asking what is the price of resistance for mere individuals working against the torrents of history (a theme relevant across the globe).
It's all presented by writer-director Lemohang Jeremiah Mosese with an overpowering style that welds cultural specificity with arthouse grandeur. The soundtrack moans with austere music that's played mostly on an African instrument called a lesiba. An onscreen griot (Jerry Mofokeng) narrates the film in otherworldly whispers, his recounting of Mantoa's tale offering one of several "resurrections." And the bright, vivid aesthetic, comprised of eye-popping colors I thought were no longer possible in cinema, present the Mosotho landscape in all its glory, recalling the precise compositions of Tarkovsky with an earthiness and spiritualism all its own.
Are Twitter and its ilk a democratizing medium for anyone to tell their story to the masses, or an exercise in shallow hot takes slowly contributing to the corrosion of humanity's soul? As Zola would have it, undeniably both – and that's one of the least complex ideas on its mind.
Adapted from a series of tweets by A'Ziah "Zola" King that went viral in 2015, Janicza Bravo's explosive adaptation is a crime movie and a dark comedy, a sobering drama and a vicious commentary on gender and race relations in modern America. It starts as the eponymous Detroit stripper (played with a nice sardonic humor by Taylour Paige) is abruptly befriended by a white woman named Stefani (Riley Keogh, fearless), who appropriates Black culture every chance she gets. Stefani invites Zola to dance at a club in Florida, promising wealth and a more tropical climate, but as soon as they whisk away to the south with Stefani's gullible boyfriend (Nicholas Braun) and her imposing would-be pimp (Colman Domingo), they enter a sleazy web of prostitution, extortion, and sexual abuse.
The story has vague similarities to Harmony Korine's Spring Breakers (2012), but the comparison does a disservice to the latter: Zola's satire is more purposeful and less hypocritical than Korine's. For one thing, Bravo is unapologetic about the cynicism that pushes Zola forward: the film is highly skeptical that cross-racial friendships can be selfless, that female camaraderie is colorblind, and that sex work can be empowering, as it's very quickly commodified by a rampant capitalism that turns people only into consumable products. (Cell phones, Twitter, and hookup apps are instrumental in that soulless process: they make people all too eager to sell themselves, literally and figuratively.) Even though Zola is often darkly funny, it's also palpably angry and disturbing, which feels appropriate given our current American climate, seemingly perched on the edge of violence every instant.
From the character of Abegunde Olawale, a pimp of African descent played by Colman Domingo on a razor's edge of humor and wicked irony; to a scene in which a circle of strippers in a dressing room pray to God for clients with big dicks and large bank accounts; to an impending rape scene that is abruptly cut off, only to radically shift the film's perspective, Zola gives zero fucks about offending people. That might have been grating if there weren't so much legitimate outrage behind the provocation. As it is, the film feels like a nauseating (and exhilarating) snapshot of where we're at as a country. Even the appearance of Run the Jewels' "Love Again (Akinyele Back)" on the soundtrack is politicized: as the vulgar chorus switches to a verse from white rapper El-P, the film's themes of rampant misogyny and appropriation of Black culture coalesce musically, aimed with immaculate precision. (And this is coming from a Run the Jewels fan.)
Without ever depicting rape onscreen (as a pseudo-moralizing male director like Ridley Scott might do, repeatedly) or relying on simplistic revenge fantasies and genre tropes (as a self-congratulating movie like Promising Young Woman would do), Zola conveys, with all the ferocious adrenaline it can muster, the myriad aggressions committed against Black women in the United States. It's jaw-dropping and volatile, plunging unimpeded into territory most American movies wouldn't dare to enter.
3. The Power of the Dog
The endless unknowability of human nature will always be ripe subject matter for artists, but rarely does that theme feel as mysterious and feverish as it does in Jane Campion's neo-western. With her native New Zealand standing in for 1920s Montana (and doing its best imitation of John Ford's Monument Valley landscapes), Campion crafts a story of hidden lusts and quiet vengeance, illustrating the lengths we'll go to to protect the ones we love. The film explores expressions of masculinity and repressed sexuality in an environment normally known for its rugged machismo – a world of stoic cowboys that values physicality over interiority. There's nothing new about that: Brokeback Mountain (2005) did something similar, and Damsel (2018) also made the point that supposed heroes might in fact be the cruelest villains, and vice versa. That said, such a portrayal was a bit more radical when Thomas Savage wrote the novel upon which The Power of the Dog is based in 1967, using his own experiences as a queer man in the American West as a springboard.
The Power of the Dog's impact lies not in its gradual reveal of burning same-sex desire (which should no longer be a shocking plot twist in movies; one hopes we've gotten past that point in our cultural climate), but in its sensitive and complicated portrayals of the ways in which we delude ourselves and the people around us, especially those we love most. (No disrespect to to The Atlantic's Spencer Kornhaber, but that's why I disagree with his article "The Power of the Dog Has a Queer Problem"; where he sees pat psychologizing, I see a fiery depiction of how social constraints deform human behavior.) We see self-delusion not only in the character of Phil (Benedict Cumberbatch, never better) but also in his brother George (Jesse Plemons), who thinks he can ascend the class ladder but remains emasculated by his East Coast-elite parents; in his sister-in-law Rose (Kirsten Dunst), who hides her loneliness in alcoholism; even, arguably, in the men who try to conquer the Western landscape, though their aspirations of manifest destiny can't hide their innate fragility. The reason why The Power of the Dog is so transfixing is because the most self-assured character is the one we least expect – we know a reckoning is coming, but we can't begin to guess at its specifics. It all plays out like an ancient tragedy with wonderfully singular genre elements, a drama that feels more uniquely Shakespearean than Joel Coen's The Tragedy of Macbeth.
4. The Souvenir: Part II
Parts one and two of The Souvenir have a lot in common with Céline Sciamma's Portrait of a Lady on Fire: on the surface, they deal with the artistic awakening and romantic dramas of a young woman, but deeper down, they explore the various ways that an artist can translate lived experience to a creative work, from representational realism to abstract expressionism. The Souvenir movies do so by splitting their aesthetic tactics between two separate films: if part one used a gritty, naturalistic tone to convey young filmmaker Julie's (Honor Swinton Byrne) doomed relationship with a heroin junkie, then part two portrays her triumph over grief and self-doubt through opulent stylistics. Indeed, The Souvenir: Part II – most notably through the film-within-the-film that Julie creates at the end of her collegiate experience – pays homage to The Red Shoes and The Lady from Shanghai, tipping the cap to Orson Welles and Powell & Pressburger as much as the first film emulated Cassavetes.
It's not all wild surrealism: director Joanna Hogg nails the 1980s milieu (the costumes and sets look like they've travelled through a time machine) and movingly presents her own experience as a young woman trying to break into a male-dominated field. Among many other things, it's a rallying cry for women artists to trust their instincts (even if their cast, crew, and producers criticize them through offhand paternalism) and not shy away from self-critique or illogicality. (Julie, for example, is comfortably upper-class and might not have been able to become a filmmaker without her parents' assistance; The Souvenir is clear-eyed in presenting that fact, complicating what could have been the simplistic feminism of the character.)
Taken together, parts one and two of The Souvenir make us question the very nature of sequels and what they're supposed to do: in retrospect, the aloofness of part one was intentional, as that film isn't really complete without this follow-up (just as part two is incomplete without its predecessor). It's a remarkable bit of cinematic self-reflexivity, placing two aesthetic and narrative styles in dialogue with each other, and it's some kind of miracle that these two disparate films were funded and released in the first place.
5. West Side Story
The opening shot of 2021's West Side Story displays the quietly radical subversion of Steven Spielberg's remake: a swooping crane shot passes by a sign indicating that this "slum" (San Juan Hill in west Manhattan) will soon be razed to make way for the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts – slyly acknowledging that artistic powerhouses are usually indifferent to the plight of communities who don't provide the bulk of their profits. (And maybe a slight dig at the original West Side Story, which had fairly clear character allegiances?) After the musical number that follows – in which we're introduced to the warring Sharks and Jets – a white cop shows up to stoke their racial divisions. By the time we're fully immersed in the lives and dreams of the Puerto Rican Sharks (whose dialogue is often spoken in unsubtitled Spanish), it's clear that this isn't your parents' version of West Side Story (although it is dedicated to Spielberg's own father, who counted the original as his favorite movie).
A strange evolution has taken place in American film production and distribution: once upon a time, the major studios were the meddling tyrants, necessary evils that prioritized money and power above all else, even if masterworks were frequently made within that system. These days, it's hard not to feel sympathy for the Paramounts and Universals of the world, who must contend with Netflix, Amazon, streaming devices, and so on – an industrial challenge that Hollywood hasn't really faced since television showed up to usurp its audience in the late 1940s. I now cringe when I see Netflix's logo at the beginning of a film and smile when I see the classic logo for 20th Century or Warner Bros. (though I realize those companies belong to multinational conglomerates – they don't deserve too much pity).
I've had a similar rollercoaster relationship with Spielberg, who has at times represented the lack of adventurousness in mainstream narrative films, though now I would count him as one of the few remaining visual masters of the studio era. Indeed, aside from the massive emotional impact of the remake (which is perfectly suited to mourn our divisive current climate), what's most special about this West Side Story is its euphoric rush of pure cinema: on a formal level it's flawlessly made, visual storytelling at its finest (when many directors today don't seem to care about such a skill). How many other movies in 2021 could make you gasp with a simple close-up of a woman (Rachel Zegler, magical as Maria) peering over a fire escape?
6. Red Rocket
Sean Baker's movies come dangerously close to poverty porn, but somehow – thanks largely to his larger-than-life casts – his characters have the depth and messiness of real people, who just happen to live on the fringes of society. Red Rocket, which is set in the middle of Trump Country (Texas City, Texas) in 2016, casts a sympathetic eye on communities not often seen in American movies, and does so in a way that reveals how limiting notions of good taste and political correctness can be. The most meaningful conversations, the movie suggests, should make you feel a little uncomfortable.
The film follows a washed-up porn star, Mikey Saber (Simon Rex), who returns home from Los Angeles to crash on the couch of his estranged wife (Bree Elrod). He makes some extra cash selling weed for a neighborhood drug dealer (Judy Hill) and strikes up a relationship with an underage girl (Suzanna Son), hoping to groom her as the next adult film phenomenon – and his triumphant return to the industry.
Mikey is a repugnant character, casually misogynistic, who considers sex little more than a tool of power and control. In this, he's inspired by the society around him, which regards the value of a human being only in terms of wealth and stature – and in this town, populated with pro-Trump billboards, those are hard to come by. The intersection of sex, capitalism, and American desperation is epitomized by the best shot of 2021: Mikey running down a street bare naked, dick flopping everywhere, as an American flag flutters from an oil rig in the background, a composition that's not only loaded with symbolism but is also visceral, filthy fun.
And yet, there is some sympathy for Mikey and his cluelessness as he navigates the social, political, and economic terrain of Texas City. He's a handsome white man who's always enjoyed his privilege, and when that's taken away from him, it's virtually impossible for him to forge human relationships, either romantic or otherwise. It all collides in a final image that's baffling, tragic, and absurdly funny, as sleazily invigorating as Red Rocket as a whole.
While Christian Petzold's Transit (2019) was received with near-unanimous acclaim, his 2021 film Undine hardly seemed to get critical attention. This is strange, since I had the exact opposite reaction: Transit struck me as overly cold and academic, whereas Undine is strange, haunting, and unexpectedly poignant.
Petzold adapts an ancient myth about a water nymph who, after she is separated from her lover, must kill him and return to her aquatic lair. German cinema has a long legacy of using mythology to reflect on modern culture (think Fritz Lang's Die Nibelungen or Werner Herzog's Nosferatu the Vampyre). In the case of Undine, Petzold is able to turn this preposterous story into an allegory for reckoning with the past on both a national and personal level. The titular character (a fantastic Paula Beer, who's able to inhabit Undine with surprising nuance) works at a German history museum and lectures on the country's reunification, with models of Berlin's urban areas laid out in front of her. Just as her city has had to overcome its traumatic history to become the metropolis it is today – filmed with obvious tenderness by Petzold and cinematographer Hans Fromm – Undine also must overcome loss to experience something close to love, though she realizes it almost too late.
The allegory could have been weak or ridiculous if portrayed with less sincerity, but the film succeeds thanks to its marvelous performances (Franz Rogowski is also excellent as Undine's new lover) and striking visuals that achieve a tone of bittersweet romanticism. Some of the best moments occur underwater, in the dark stillness of an eerie lakebed, where massive catfish and pale human bodies appear out of nowhere, representing the desperate desire to connect.
If the title seems a little too on-the-nose, it helps to think of France as an experiment existing entirely in a world of metaphor and abstraction, as many of Bruno Dumont's movies do. Viewed in such a way, the emotional coldness and illogicality of the characters don't seem like faults as much as they do powerful rhetorical devices – methods of alienating the audience to achieve Dumont's larger philosophical intent.
What is that intent? On the surface, France is a satire of media callousness: it follows celebrity newscaster France de Meurs (Léa Seydoux) through a series of episodes, as she reports on war and immigrant crises in an unnamed Middle Eastern nation, accidentally hits a motorist with her car and pays for his hospital bills, takes a break from her news program to attend a remote spa in the Alps, and struggles to relate to her self-absorbed husband (Benjamin Biolay) and precocious son (Gaëtan Amiel).
But that doesn't begin to explain the beguiling richness of the movie. On a deeper level, Dumont aims for a deconstruction of cinematic affect, dissecting the ways that emotion is conjured and conveyed through moving images (France's newscasts most obviously, but also implicitly in film). The mind-boggling tone of several scenes, like the farcical humor in an opening interview with French president Emmanuel Macron or an operatic car crash that results in the deaths of several characters, thus feels like a discordant experiment: what happens when a movie adopts an emotional register that feels entirely contradistinctive to the scene on display?
Dumont extends this theme to modern life in general, suggesting that, as a human race, we've lost the ability to feel and exhibit genuine emotion. This is most damningly seen in France's reactions to the besieged civilians trying to escape their dangerous situation in the Middle East; France responds to them as if she's constantly onscreen, manipulating her camera-ready reactions, to the extent that she no longer has an emotional response to significant events. Dumont's philosophical rigor is admirable, but this is just as much Seydoux's film as it is the director's. From one frame to the next, she exudes a wild array of affective responses, from joy to misery to disgust to fury to absolute passivity. Her performance is miraculous, not least because she's inhabiting not a character but a concept.
9. Drive My Car
With hypnotic grace and patience, Ryusuke Hamaguchi explores communication, human connection, art, memory, national identity, sex, a whole superhighway of ideas with Drive My Car. Adapting Haruki Murakami's short story, Hamaguchi reminds us that dialogue can be raptly cinematic, especially when it presents human relationships as enigmatic as these.
The bulk of the film takes place in a theater community in Hiroshima, and even though we primarily follow the director, Yusuke (Hidetoshi Nishijima), Drive My Car shows equal sensitivity to the entire ensemble: his driver, Misaki (Toko Miura); a young and tempestuous actor (Masaki Okada); a Korean producer (Jin Dae-yeon) and his deaf wife (Park Yu-rim); and so on. The characters orbit around each other, coming close to knowing one another intimately but never fully, as layers of history and understanding gradually unfold with the suspense of a finely-wrought thriller.
A long conversation in the back of a car at night may be the most compelling scene in any movie from last year, and it's closely rivalled by another moment in which two actresses rehearse a scene from Uncle Vanya, sharing an unspoken and spontaneous bond. It's moments like these that keep Drive My Car transfixing for its entire three hours, reminding us that art in all its permutations may not crack the code of human nature, but it comes awfully close.
10. The Inheritance
Ephraim Asili's proudly Afrocentric experiment is one-third documentary on the MOVE organization in Philadelphia, one-third fictional narrative following the various members of a Black socialist collective, and one-third tribute to African American revolutionaries, artists, and philosophers, from Harriet Tubman to Audre Lorde to Angela Davis. Leaping unpredictably from archival footage to newly-shot, sumptuously colorful 16mm film, The Inheritance consists of political aphorisms, musical performances, poetry recitations, theatrical stagings, a dizzying array of art and activism that embraces the history of Black revolution in the United States. It picks up the legacy passed down by Jean-Luc Godard (whose La Chinoise is explicitly referenced in The Inheritance) and Spike Lee, celebrating the ability for cinema to be explosively political.
It all could have been strident (though in this case that might be seen as a compliment), but what keeps the film exhilarating instead of exhausting is its beautiful artistry and its sense of humor. It's one of countless examples that the depth and color of celluloid is preferable to the flat sheen of digital photography in most instances. (One jazz performance in the film is a kaleidoscopic wonder to behold.) And even if its fictional narrative seems comparatively slight at times, its attention to the characters' various class backgrounds and their mounting life crises (like an unexpected pregnancy at the end) subtly shows how difficult it can be to sustain a committed praxis like this one. It manages to be joyous, electrifying, and impassioned all at once.
The Next Ten
If France dissects how visual media have supplanted real emotion, C'Mon C'Mon proves that cinema can still provide moving, complex melodrama. Mike Mills' film follows Johnny (Joaquin Phoenix), a radio journalist touring the country and interviewing young people about their thoughts on the future, hope, racism, climate change, family, the myriad issues facing future generations. When asked to care for his precocious nephew Jesse (Woody Norman, giving a miraculous child performance that manages not to be cloying), Johnny takes him to New York and then New Orleans, offering an ambivalent but heartfelt snapshot of modern American life. The film shares some themes with other movies on this list (the joy and difficulty of communication, the ability of art to preserve memory, the ways in which politics affect people's lived experience) but is unabashedly sentimental as it charts Johnny and Jesse's deepening relationship. That shouldn't be perceived as a criticism: by the time the conclusion tugs at your heartstrings, you feel like C'Mon C'Mon has earned its surplus of emotion.
Bringing to mind political thrillers like Z (1969) and The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum (1975), the Argentine-Swiss coproduction Azor, written and directed by Andreas Fontana, is almost unbearably tense even though there's hardly any violence depicted onscreen. Set in 1980 in the midst of Argentina's military junta, the film follows a Swiss banker, Yvan (Fabrizio Rongione), who travels to Buenos Aires after the mysterious disappearance of his former partner. Before long, Yvan begins to realize that many of his clients are benefitting from the ominous disappearances of "dissidents," who have likely been killed by the new regime. He then must grapple with an uncomfortably relevant question: how much would you suppress your moral instincts to profit from a corrupt system? What are the wages of complicity? With a climax that nods to Heart of Darkness (and Apocalypse Now) in its upriver journey to abject shame, Azor becomes the most suspenseful movie of the year – and it barely breaks a sweat in trying.
The original Candyman (1992) was a landmark in horror, a gory, Gothic, ambitious film that tackled gentrification, urban renewal, slavery, and mythology. As Jordan Peele, Rusty Cundieff, and others have claimed, it was also a turning point for depictions of Black culture in horror, even though it was directed by a white English filmmaker (Bernard Rose). The 2021 remake by Nia DaCosta is (not unlike West Side Story) a lesson in how to pay homage to the original while updating it in clever, subversive ways. Themes of urban decay and revitalization are still there, not to mention the importance of folklore in grappling with a traumatic history. Added to the mix are a depiction of how Black artists translate personal and cultural experience through the catharsis of art, as well as a bleaker focus on how the pressures of capitalism can fracture relationships. Various criticisms were flung at the film upon its release: it misunderstands gentrification, its depiction of queer characters is questionable, its sympathy is reserved for upper-class characters, or so the accusations went. The movie isn't perfect, but I think many of these supposed flaws are intentional points of contention, and in any case the movie's considerable strengths outweigh its weaknesses. Case in point: a shocking ending involving police brutality and violent retribution, a bloody and volatile depiction that would have been unthinkable thirty years ago.
My patience with "slow cinema" has waned over the years – you need to have an awfully good reason for a five-minute shot of a man looking out a window, for example – but Tsai Ming-liang has been one of the best practitioners of this rigorous aesthetic for decades. His 2021 film Days uses slowness and austerity to powerful effect, depicting the loneliness and isolation of modern urban life; it would have been poignant even without the context of COVID. We observe two men from different walks of life as they bathe, sleep, make meals, and wander the city; eventually, their paths cross and an emotional connection is forged, but it can only remain fleeting. The ending is surprisingly sentimental by Tsai's standards, showing bittersweet sympathy for two men who feel (justifiably) that the world has sped past them.
The gorgeous visual style, bombastic music, and episodic structure of The Green Knight were what people noticed most of all. It's understandable: the vibe is as sumptuous and maximalist as that of Dune: Part One. But I think The Green Knight has a sneaky thematic core that doesn't get enough credit. The Gawain we see here (played with a pleasant sense of anachronism by Dev Patel) is content to drink, whore around, stay up all night and sleep til noon; it's only because of his Lady Macbeth-like mother that he's thrust into a epic tale of glory and heroism. Almost too late, Gawain realizes that the noble life of knightly valor expected of him is a road to misery, death, and loneliness – if hedonistic happiness is truly impossible, perhaps sacrifice is the better alternative after all. It's the old tale of self-destructive hubris given a modern, self-indulgent spin, but through its over-the-top aesthetic I found myself exhilarated; if its style outweighs its substance, that's a ratio I'm comfortable with.
I often feel like I should like Guillermo del Toro more than I do, but I would count Nightmare Alley as my second-favorite of his films (after his feature debut, Cronos). Most critics seem to have disagreed, preferring something like The Shape of Water or Pan's Labyrinth to Nightmare Alley, but this is one of the few times del Toro's pessimism about human nature (and his preference for all things monstrous and grotesque) felt fresh and purposeful. A traveling circus is the ideal milieu for del Toro's fantastic imagination, and it's nicely contrasted with the upper-class sheen of Chicago's elite in the second half of the film. This entire world, from the sham "mentalism" of Bradley Cooper's character to the psychoanalysis of Cate Blanchett's doctor to the institutions of war and religion that are frequently alluded to, are revealed as empty: illusions to give meaning to what is basically an animalistic world. The flaws we see so often in del Toro's work – thin characters, an overreliance on cliché, reductive dialogue – are still there, but ably overshadowed by a marvelous visual style and a surprisingly cynical core.
Ryusuke Hamaguchi's other movie of 2021 was Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy, a trio of stories which – like Drive My Car - focus on the difficulties of communication and the unknowability of any individual. It also features a handful of revelations that take place in moving vehicles (taxis, buses, trains), embracing that most uniquely cinematic of settings, simultaneously interior and exterior. The characters in these stories (which range from a lovelorn, seemingly callous young woman, to a literature student who tries to entrap her professor, to a lonely older woman who tries to reconnect with her high school love) bloom before our eyes, slowly and intricately. Hamaguchi has preternatural skill for writing dialogue, and he elicits moving, subtle performances from his cast. If the emotional impact here is less resonant than in Drive My Car, you may find yourself mulling over the quietly absurdist ideas in these stories for longer than you'd anticipated.
The best and worst thing about Paul Schrader's cinema is that he's unafraid to announce overt sociopolitical metaphors from the rooftops, telling stories with brash immediacy. That makes The Card Counter more successful as existential parable than emotional narrative, but it's a worthy trade-off for a movie that feels as impassioned and alive as this. Oscar Isaac plays William Tell, a former soldier who participated in the torture of detainees at Abu Ghraib; now an isolated gambler trying to overcome his guilt, his old demons are awoken by the appearance of a young man (Tye Sheridan) whose father served with Tell, and who spiraled into drug addiction, violent abuse, and eventual suicide after he was dishonorably discharged. Meanwhile, the appearance of a promoter named La Linda (played by a charismatic Tiffany Haddish, who seems to have wandered in from another movie – a welcome dose of levity) provides a specter of potential happiness. The movie unfortunately ends about as dully as it can (with Schrader offering yet another homage to Bresson's Pickpocket) and its emotional impact is muted by the didacticism of the characters and their dialogue, but this still has some of the most riveting ideas of 2021. The Card Counter was criticized by some for redeeming an irredeemable character, but those who took issue with that narrative arc are missing the entire point of the movie: if a person can't be forgiven for the most horrific sins imaginable, is extreme forgiveness or absolute redemption even possible?
It's unfortunate that Paul Verhoeven's Benedetta devolves into a straight man's fantasy of orgasmic lesbian nuns, since the first hour of the film contains some of the director's wickedest and most cohesive attacks on religious institutions. Based on Judith C. Brown's nonfiction book Immodest Acts: The Life of a Lesbian Nun in Renaissance Italy, the movie follows the titular nun (Virginie Efira), who is revealed to be some kind of holy messenger since childhood: in the first scene, as her mother is being attacked by bandits, a young Benedetta communicates with the Virgin Mary and causes a bird to shit in the eye of one of their attackers. From the start, divinity is seen as something crude and violent. Indeed, the movie makes the point that blasphemy is impossible, since religion is defined by lust, jealousy, rage, cruelty, the very things that propel humanity. Benedetta experiences florid, miraculous visions in which Jesus Christ appears to her as a long-locked hero fending off evil serpents or (in the movie's gutsiest moment) as an erotic figure with female genitalia crucified on the cross; the film thus equates sexuality with piousness, giving a literal spin to the axiom that nuns are "brides of Christ." Even as Benedetta becomes needlessly titillating in its provocations, it still makes the point that religion is merely an extreme microcosm for humanity in general, and it condemns the men who abuse their positions of ecclesiastical power (although some of the same criticisms could be applied to Verhoeven in this case).
Licorice Pizza is so well-made – so immediately visceral and gorgeously dreamy – that you don't realize its rather significant flaws until after it's over. The film is too reliant on farce and over-the-top quirkiness, has at least one too many scenes of characters running as they experience emotional epiphanies (I'm not convinced the movie plays with that trope in a substantive manner), and nearly non-existent as character study, though focusing on these characters' psychologies would admittedly ruin Licorice Pizza's kinetic energy. But that's not what you notice when you watch the film. Instead, you're enamored with the opening dialogue between young Gary (Cooper Hoffman) and Alana (Alana Haim) as Nina Simone sings on the soundtrack; you're astounded by the visions of Los Angeles at twilight; you're following breathlessly as Gary races through an exhibit hall where he's peddling waterbeds, accompanied by the exotic sounds of the Chico Hamilton Quintet's "Blue Sands." Paul Thomas Anderson has always been a better stylist than commentator, and in a way the simplicity of Licorice Pizza is refreshing: without the dark pretense of The Master or There Will Be Blood, we can simply exist in the movie's overwhelming sensory world. A love letter to L.A., a snapshot of a weird but genuine friendship, the funniest movie of 2021: Licorice Pizza is many things, and most of them are hard to resist.
For a film with so many shocking transgressions on the surface, Titane conceals a surprisingly sentimental core, ending with birth, death, and an unbreakable bond between surrogate father and daughter. Give the movie credit for making the craziest possible iteration of a family melodrama, but one still wishes the ending were more adventurous, in light of everything that's come before. I prefer Julia Ducournau's feature debut, Raw, but can't wait to see whatever she does next.
There's a lot I admire about Bad Luck Banging or Loony Porn, but not much I love about it: in theory, the film's anger and abrasiveness are noble, but when every possible ideology is revealed as equally vacuous, you start to get the impression that the movie doesn't have a clear viewpoint or statement of its own. The provocations outweigh the insights, then, but I'm still glad the movie exists.
It's hard to tell what motivated Joel Coen to make The Tragedy of Macbeth at this specific moment, aside from a bid for automatic prestige. I'd like to consider it more Denzel Washington and Frances McDormand's achievement than Coen's: the actors breathe new life into the age-old story, but the authorial perspective can't match the austerity of Orson Welles' version, the horror of Roman Polanski's, or the majesty of Akira Kurosawa's. (Unfair comparisons, perhaps – but warranted if you're adapting Macbeth for the umpteenth time.)
The Ukrainian film Atlantis displays unnerving foresight (it was released more than a year ago) as it tells a dystopian story of soldiers suffering through PTSD in 2025, after a war with pro-Russia separatist groups. Watching it now provides a bleak and troubling experience, thanks partially to its slow pace and grimly beautiful camerawork, but more significantly because of its real-world parallels. Life imitates art in the worst way imaginable.
Guilty pleasure of the year goes to Dune: Part One, which isn't all that different from the hero's quest storyline we see in Star Wars and Harry Potter and practically every other mainstream adventure film, but it has a massive, gobsmacking aesthetic that truly does inspire awe. Best use of CGI since A.I. Artificial Intelligence?
It wasn't the uber-Wes Anderson stylistics that turned me off of The French Dispatch; it was, rather, the fact that the movie doesn't have much to say about journalism, French culture, or really anything at all. Freed from the pressure to tell a single, cohesive story, Anderson concocts a series of episodes honoring The New Yorker and paying homage to his favorite slices of French cinema (Renoir, Godard, Feuillade, etc.). But why? As with Isle of Dogs, the subject matter constantly begs for sociopolitical undercurrents that Anderson resolutely keeps out of the picture, as if they'd meddle too obtrusively in his fantasies. Sure, the visual style is immaculate, and occasionally that is enough to keep you entranced (one cut from black-and-white to color in which we're treated to a close-up of Saoirse Ronan's eyes made my heart skip a beat). But it's a glittering jewel without a purpose.
Perhaps no other movie personified 2021 more than The Last Duel, which doesn't necessarily mean it's good. Ridley Scott, a director more known for brawny action movies than prestigious moralizing, tackles the #MeToo era by transplanting it to 14th century France. In the manner of Rashomon, The Last Duel offers three differing perspectives of the rape of a woman, depicting that atrocity not once but twice. (Even if there's thematic justification for such repeated depictions, the movie still commits its own kind of brutality.) The appearance of Ben Affleck and Matt Damon here – both actors who have faced their own accusations of assault or complicity – is disgustingly meta; you get the sense that they were cast because of their innate unlikability, and their allegiance with pseudo-feminism in this case seems performative (at least to cynical eyes).
Several horror movies, such as Gaia and In the Earth, used fantastic genre elements to lament humanity's destructive impact on the planet and our rapid hurtling towards a dystopia of climate change. Neither movie is totally successful, but I admire the use of genre form to allegorize apocalyptic themes that might be hard to digest otherwise.
Shoutout to Antlers, Don't Breathe 2, and Old, which prove why horror is my favorite genre: a mediocre or even bad horror movie is often more stylish and visceral than a "good" (well-made, tasteful) film in a less spectacular genre.
Annette is the most admirable failure of the year, but it's a failure nonetheless; Leos Carax's hodgepodge leaps from absurdist comedy to tragic melodrama to stylized musical to gender commentary, but doesn't find much insight in these contrasts. (The film's central, uninteresting conflict: men are fragile egoists and women ever-suffering saints.) Most unfortunate is the dull, insufferable music, which offers tuneless dirges that flatly intone the characters' somber emotions.
Don't Look Up is not a great movie; it's probably not even a good one. Adam McKay has always been a better writer than director, and this film has barely an ounce of cinematic style. That said, I was somewhat baffled by the film's vitriolic reception. Critics took issue with the movie's overt politics (Variety called it a "leftie answer to Armageddon") and its scathing takedown of our culture's paragons of ignorance (the A.V. Club said "it makes no bones about exactly what the filmmakers think of climate-change deniers and social media distractions"). In the less polemical alternative that these critics might prefer, the "other side" of climate-change deniers and anti-science clowns would be legitimized and their viewpoints validated. The pseudo-populist belief that every opinion should be respected is what indirectly led to over 960,000 COVID-related deaths in the U.S., not to mention the regressive mindset that white supremacists are as free to practice their beliefs as anti-fascists. So, yes, Don't Look Up may be smug and obnoxious, and it may be "leftist propaganda"; if so, it's trying to proselytize about the impending destruction of our planet before it's too late. For as obvious and strident as the movie can be, I'm willing to forgive a lot of its faults.
Finally, movies like Last Night in Soho and The Harder They Fall represent the nadir of postmodernism: revisionist works that tackle weighty issues like sexual assault and America's legacy of racism through winking irony and self-awareness. Redeploying genre and narrative tropes to encourage critical thought can be a valid tactic, but only if the movies using such a strategy have something substantial to say in the first place.