A word on lists before I get to my top films of 2021. First, as is often the case wrestling these films down into a list was difficult. There is an argument to made that “lists” aren’t the best way to represent a year as these numbered spots are fluid and hardly static when set into conversation.
And yet it would be difficult to find a different system to effectively help shed light on these films. Numbers seem to catch our attention, and based on a long process of reflecting and engaging the titles that stood out for me for any number of reasons in 2021, it is at least fair to say that the titles represented on my list are ones I hope to draw attention to in this present space and time. Also, my personal paramaters, which does not include non-narrative (documentaries.. see part 1 for those) films, consider any film that got a wide release in 2021 as eligible for conversation with the exception of those represented at the Oscars. So Nomadland, Judas and the Back Messiah, among a few others, although getting wide release in 2021 are not represetned. At the same time a number of notable 2021 releases that have made numerous top of lists are not included simpy on the basis that I haven’t bene able to see them. Those include Drive My Car, Red Rocket, Flee, Mass, and the Tragedy of Macbeth.
One last word as well. I wrote earlier about certain themes that emerged from this years slate of films for me personally. A big part of this year has been the reopening of theaters. Little more has tapped into the joy of cinema for me than this. It helped revive a challenging first quarter and reignite why film matters and why its such an important voice in my life. Most of my picks represented tap into that cinematic expression, representing both the narrative and form, and truth be told I’ve been soaking in a ridiculously packed theater slate due to carry overs fromt the pandemic that is bound to disipate. So I’m enjoying it while it lasts.
With that in mind, here is my top 20 list for 2021, which is out of 254 2021 releases viewed:
Honorable Mention: The Klling of Two Lovers
18. The Eyes of Tammy Faye
17. Identifying Features
15. The Last Duel
14. Dear Comrades
13. The Matrix: Resurrections
12. About Endlessness
10. Last Night in Soho
Edgar Wright’s much anticipated horror film Last Night in Soho is a true celebration of style, substance and form. Brimming with character, it bleeds a welcome sense of nostalgia, moving us through the streets of Soho like a place caught in time and with important and necessary stories to tell. The film features complimentary performances by the eclectic and seasoned actresses Thomasin McKenzie and Anya Taylor-Joy, and explorse important themes when it comes to how it is that we wrestle with nostalgia and the past, especially when it comes to locating the struggles women face in the here to live as liberated persons
9. The Card Counter
Sitting in the movie theater in the empty space that precedes the closing credits of First Reform and hearing someone say, “What the “f” was that” is still one of my favorite movie going experiences. Not because I felt smug in my appreciation of what I would call high art, or transcendental cinema, but rather over the fact that a film that that could elict such a strong reaction. First Reformed is, admittedly, a tough watch. It is also proof of the ways in which film can challenge us to think and see outside of the box.
The good news is, for those who might be leary of Schrader’s particular style and voice is that The Card Counter is a considerately more accessible film. At least part of the reason for this is the difference between Oscar Isaac’s grounded ex-con persona and Hawke’s evocative an highly pastoral take on existential angst. Even before we get to the beautifully shot but unsettled ending of First Reformed Hawke’s enigmatic peformance is clouded in mistique and strangeness, whereas in the Card Counter we get a shell that is fairly easy to understand and grasp before Schrader breaks it, digs underneath, and attempts to piece it back together. There are so many aspects of this film that deserve ones attention, structurally, thematically, visually, audibly. The way Schrader draws this out as a litany (or liturgy) of scenes, all of which feel slightly disparate but which also experience this inevitable pull towards something shared, even if that something feels slightly out of reach for most of this film. We get these notes, these moments where a tidbit of information or a small reveal breaks through as a kind of revelatory process, forming the narrative out of what are largely conversational bits between these characters.
Forgiveness comes into play here, with the question of the difference between forgiveness of one’s self and recieving forgiveness from another becoming an important part of the films larger exploration of guilt and innocence. It is posited that we do not speak of good and bad apples, rather it is a question of whether the barrel itself is bad. This notion of childlike innocence is referenced a few times during the film, most directly twice, and in both of those cases alluding to the freedom to love and to be loved. Where this ebbs and flows between the neglect of childlike tendencies (as in we must learn to be more mature), and childlike aspirations (as in, we must learn to cater to those childish aspects if we are to mature) is a feature of this film that excited me quite a bit. I loved how it uses this to play into the larger theme of forgiveness and love, and also how it plays into this tension of that tipping point. Much of the richness of the story plays from this, including the film’s startling and iconic final scene, a scene that reaches for something truly transcendent amidst the very real questions it holds in play.
8. Riders of Justice
Daring twists and turns and misdirections that lead you through a gammot of emotions. Sharp left turns into timely humor give way to philosohpical and existential wonderings before steering us straight into the fire of its thriller based action. That it’s such a deeply felt character drama with a truly excellent ensemble piece is due to the compassionate and excellently crafted direction and a knock out role for Mads. Can’t sing high enough praise for this one. All the feels.
7. The Green Knight
A uniqe take on an old Aurthurian poem by a master filmmaker, with the interpretive take asking big and bold questions about what it means to be a man, shaped as this question is by the grand mix of myth and history with its images of heros and legends, even going so far as to wonder, if I may borrow from a favorite critic Josh Larson, whether this is a question we should still be asking at all. The film also explores the relationship between myth and history, using the religious parallel to dig deep into an exposition of where precisely our humanity intersects. A powerful film that I imagine will only grow in my imagination with time.
6. C’mon C’mon
Few films have resonated with me in 2021 in the way this one did, evoking as it does an exploration of perspective, moving between that of a child and its adult protagonist in a one two punch of the best performances of the year. The motif if the still image paired with the preserving of memory and the forming of meaningful narrative plays large here, and the relationship dynamic, built as it is on found family, reaches beyond the typical parent-child relationship in order to challenge our vision of precisely where the lines between family and friedshipmeet across these generational lines. A genuine celebration of life and wonder found in the midst of real struggle and pain.
5. The French Dispatch
I truly believe this is one of Anderson’s best works, and yet it’s hard to measure this against his previous efforts because it also feels very different, at least experientially. The emotional breadth of his style and design is more clearly on display elsewhere, which I think might make some of his other films more immediately accessible given the degree to which The French Dispatch requires you to give yourself over to the experience itself. But its also true to say that emotional breadth has never been given a more intricately crafted and expertly built frame to exist within, which is truly this films crowning jewel as it navigates the binaries of our existence using working motifs of light and dark, good and evil, isolation and relationship, art and viewer, life and death. From this is locates startling and striking images that then motivate us towards images of the good, the community, the light, the life and the celebration of art.
This crowd.pleasing, one of a kind family drama is one of the Directors best works, taking a heartfelt and compassionate approach to a deeply personal subject- family and home, and more specifically that of Ireland and its people.
The film features some exquisite framing that works with the constantly shifting camera work. There are times where it feels we are watching an elaborately screened stage production, complete with entrances and exits and choreographed to precision. There are other times where it immerses us in a dramatic sequence, with the artists imagination drawing us in through the creativity of the visusla. Still other shots settle on a specific scene, or it employs a static positioning, gradually revealing the details in the periphery that lie just outside our line of sight. Taken all together it’s a marvelous tapestry that functions as a perfect marriage with the films astute use of pacing and editing. It might be first and foremost a love letter to Ireland, but in offering us such stark and deliberate images of two sides divided it is able to center us on these brief glimpses of a more universal story of struggle and hope, reminding us of what is most important in living together.
3. Nine Days
This is a high concept film filled with existential concerns for life and its marriage to suffering. Following a lone arbitor who has the lengthy task of interviewing souls for the potential occupying of a vacant life on earth, a process that takes nine days to conclude, the film digs deep into that central tension- is the chance at living truly worth the potentoal suffering, and what do we do with life when it appears that the bad far outweighs the good. In the scope of the film, memory becomes crucial to gaining a helpful point of perspective pointing us to evidence of a central human longing that is embedded within our spirits, something we can’t always understand but something that continually has the power to point beyond us and our present experiences, beyond oursleves to a transcendent Truth, a grander narrative that enfolds this existence. A Truth that doesn’t deny or ignore the tension of existing in the struggle but which looks to speak to it in ways that can inform and contextualize, in ways that feel intuitively aware of what is not right and what we hope will be made right. That our ability to lay claim to beauty is not contingent on the trajectory of our indivdiual lives or the success of a small portion of humanity is, for me, a liberating thought waiting to break into and shed light on this films concluding image, wich is the most memorabe image of 2021 for me personally.
2. Licorice Pizza
As PTA is bound to, he manages again to take the unsettled space of these complicated character dynamics and turn into something completely captivating. It always seems so odd to me that his films can seem so simple and yet they are most decidedly not. In this case he revisits the unconventional love story setting them in an era (the gloriously reconstructed 1970s Hollywood backdrop) that he is clearly quite familiar with and thinks fondly of, and uses it to pull out subtle commentaries about race and gender relations and the tension that exists between nostalgia and reality. As he navigates this he gently pulls from this the true and pure innocence of the story using the oviously uncomfortable nature of the age gap between this 15 year old boy and a 25 year old woman. The 15 year old boy who acts like he is 25 and the 25 year old woman who struggles with the weight of maturity and its expectation of a life meet in this back and forth push and pull between the two, with these cyclical sequences subtly presenting us with a gradually emerging character and thematic arc. That this age difference disappears into the carefree nature of this relationship and its undeniable innocence once again tumbles us straight back into that existing tension between nostalgia and reality, this time with fresh perspective and a fresh lust for life and love in its purest and untainted form.
1. The Humans
The film belongs with the likes of The Big Kahuna or The Sunset Limited. It’s based on a play and the single location shoot revolves around a script that delves into matters of existential concern spanning life, family, relationship, circumstance, religion, forgivness, restitution, and hidden secrets coming to the surface. The film is beautifully shot, and the script exceptionally written, and the performances perfectly capture the full breadth of these themes as they struggle through this self contained holiday gathering. Viewer beware, this lays all the messiness of family gatherings to bare and thus should come with a serious trigger warning.
What the film does with these family dynamics is where the sharpness of its vision gets fully articulated. It encases it as a gradually emerging nightmare, with the momentary feelings of necessary escape being bound to the kind of expectaitons such gatherings entail. The problem is the more we coexist within this space the more the unspoken tensions, stifled as we try to keep them, bubble up to the surface, leaving these family gatherings as an inevitable process of laying the dirty laundry on the table. In some ways this is the necessary therapeutic process, the thing that enables us to return to this space again and again despite its potential for dysfunction and horror. For it to remain stifled is to have nowhere to go but into our isolation. And yet the irony of this, something this film captures in its essence, is that this cast of familial relations are perhaps never more aware of this feeling of isolation than when they get together. This, it seems, is the conundrum of this necessary coexistence.
The definite horror notes then breathe through the narrative with an inspired sense of awareness of this dillema, using it as a way to visually represent the common experience. And yet, what undercuts this are silent moments of beauty and assurance, this unspoken word that seems to leave us with the conviction that despite its dysfunction family, that connection and togetherness, is necessary.