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Best movies of 2021

In a year that saw the return of movie theaters and blockbusters, cinema was not only as comforting as ever—it was as expansive as ever.
Credit: Courtesy: A24, Neon, Amazon Studios, Netflix, Kino Lorber, Bitters End

It’s late December, Spider-Man just set the box office on fire, a Japanese odyssey largely unfolding in the backseat of a car is winning critic's awards left and right, and some guy named Steven Spielberg just remade a musical called “West Side Story.” Are the movies back?

An answer, in reality, doesn’t come as easily as flicking on the lights in the box office. To suggest that movies ever left us would be to suggest that we stopped having experiences worth sharing or an imagination worth exploring. The tumult of 2020 restricting our communal engagement of the former only served to embolden the latter, if this year's most original, most moving and most daring films are any indication 

It’s always been true that stories can enthrall us, that different perspectives may enlighten us. And it's no small thing that we may have rediscovered that for ourselves this year, whether while hurtling toward fictional planets or falling under the spell of an impossible connection. There isn’t a single person alive, after all, who knew a time before movies. It’s nice to be reminded every once in a while, whether in the democratizing dark of the theater or upon a captivating streaming discovery, that their existence isn’t to be taken for granted.

Are the movies back? I won’t hold it against you if you definitively answer in the affirmative. But the movies don’t go away, and the movies won’t go away—for this viewer, that’s as comforting a thing to type as ever. The below films are prime examples as to why.

Honorable Mentions: "About Endlessness," "Annette," "Billie Eilish: The World's A Little Blurry," "Days," "The Matrix Resurrections," "Memoria," "No Sudden Move," "Pig," "Preparations to Be Together for an Unknown Period of Time," "Procession," "Quo Vadis, Aida?", "Red Rocket," "Shiva Baby," "Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy" and "The Worst Person in the World."

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10. “Undine” (dir. Christian Petzold)

The newest entry in the catalogue of soft reality-bending love stories from German filmmaker Christian Petzold – who had as strong a decade in the 2010s as anyone – sees him (literally) dive deeper into concepts of myth and fantasy while restraining the temptation for bloated storytelling. We have yet to get a movie longer than 110 minutes from Petzold, a storyteller enamored by characters deepened by the internalized weights of history. “Undine” is a film that carves devastatingly romantic, and also just purely devastating, drama from that contradiction.

At the same time, on a simpler but no less effective level, “Undine” understands the pure melancholy that can be associated with faces; here our exhibits are Franz Rogowski and Paula Beer, reuniting for another Petzold project in which their simple strolling along an urban river walk is enough to tear up audiences at the tragedy and inexplicability to come. Past and present converge to shattering effect in “Undine,” but the thing that leaves an impression are the moments of bliss in which we’re briefly convinced these young lovers can stave inevitable cataclysm.

Watch it: Streaming on Hulu, and available on VOD platforms. 

MORE: 'Undine' Review: Melancholic German fable is at first elusive, then unforgettable

9. “Slalom” (dir. Charlène Favier)

Behind every triumphant athlete are the people who helped them get there, and the complicated suggestion propelling French writer-director Charlène Favier’s frostbitten feature debut is that someone will always be looking to take advantage of that narrow path toward the spotlight. Marvelously marrying a competitor’s uber-focused state of mind with the cold isolation of a mountain’s ski slopes, “Slalom” takes a simple situation of ostensibly straightforward antagonism and morphs it into a thicket of compromises pitting the young skiing wunderkind Lyz against the realization that her one shot may cost more than she ever imagined.

The result is a small-scale sports drama that nonetheless provides us with a thorny new perspective on the dynamics of gender and agency in that world. That the snowy mountain ranges providing “Slalom” with its setting go from looking like a place of opportunity to one of foreboding before we're ready for it is indicative of the talent Favier teases in her first full-length movie, and of the newfound flexibility it seems to provide the sports story with as a whole.

Watch it: Available to rent on VOD.

MORE: ‘Slalom’ Review: Frostbitten French drama examines abuse in the world of amateur athletics

8. “Titane” (dir. Julia Ducournau)

A genre-fluid parable of unlikely human connection slathered in blood and motor oil, the Palme d’Or-winning “Titane” is both a confirmation of the promise Julia Ducournau showed with 2016’s “Raw” and the most sensorially visceral film on this list. It’s as wild as you may have heard, enough to test the stomachs of the most hardcore midnight-movie audiences with its outbursts of extreme violence and inexplicable consummation bringing mischievous new meaning to “sex drive.”

Then something else happens. The primal screams rippling through “Titane” take on a pitch sounding eerily like vulnerability, and the raw ferocity of Agathe Rousselle’s astounding debut performance begins to take shape as something closing the distance between us and the explosiveness of what we’ve seen. By the time it ends, in a place defying familiar fleshy limits with the start of whatever book follows the end of Revelations, what we’ve seen is no less inexplicable than how it begins—only now it’s become something rooted in deeply human traits of searching and carnivorous curiosity, of not having much of a clue as to what we’re looking for but being no less tenacious in the pursuit of it. 

In “Titane” the new era of French horror finds its captain, and genre aficionados the world over find a new filmmaker wielding garden shears to slash through the movies' ostensible boundaries.

Watch it: Available on VOD. 

7. “Test Pattern” (dir. Shatara Michelle Ford)

It took just one feature-length effort for Shatara Michelle Ford to stake her claim as one of our filmmakers most bracingly situated in the sociopolitics of today. A maze of a movie outlining the shimmer of millennial love with the shifting constructs of gender, race and sex, “Test Pattern's"  bareknuckle drama is as suffocating as its early meet-cute is swoony.

Ford traverses the tonal range with precision, specificity and devastatingly passive emotional warfare, its extent nowhere more apparent than behind the eyes of her two marvelous leads, Brittany S. Hall and Will Brill. As their young lovers drive from hospital to hospital in zig-zagging search of an elusive rape kit, prolonged frustration becomes a kaleidoscope of interpersonal tension magnified by controlled adjustments in performance and the slow-onset realization that some labyrinthian systems aren’t meant to be mapped out. All the while, the scope is intimate enough that we’re pierced by the sight of what’s being lost in the process. “Test Pattern” is as much a lament as it is a pressure-cooker thriller.

Watch it: Streaming on Starz, and via VOD platforms. 

6. “The Disciple” (dir. Chaitanya Tamhane)

There are two Netflix movies on this list, both of them interested in what the passage of time does to a person. In “The Power of the Dog” (which you can read more about below), the effects of 25 years provide a spark to light the movie’s fuse, setting events into motion which can’t be predicted until the closing moments. By contrast, Chaitanya Tamhane’s “The Disciple” captures the viewer in an hourglass where anticipation gives way to dismay and coarse sands of time turn life’s unrelenting advance into its heaviest burden.

Mainstream success may be no easier an endeavor than Sharad Nerulkar’s feverish pursuit of mastering an exquisitely difficult caliber of classical Indian song, but at least there’s certain comfort in finding relevance on the “American Idol” stage. Sharad’s journey is a volatile and excruciatingly lonely one, defined increasingly by a lack of assurance that he’ll reach his destination before he has anyone to share the triumph with. And real life doesn’t have cloaked sorcerers to conjure up do-overs.

Tamhane, who at just 34 is a name to remember, isn’t the first filmmaker to blur the line between artistic obsession and fulfillment. But the ceaseless drip-drip-drip of his highly viscous style – minutes-long scenes unfolding without cuts, zoom-ins so agonizingly slow that we’re not sure if what leaves the frame isn’t gone forever – injects “The Disciple” with a particular psychological intensity and renewed vitality in one enduring question: At what point does sacrifice in the name of ambition become selfishness?

Watch it: Streaming on Netflix. 

5. “Petite Maman” (dir. Céline Sciamma)

Give Céline Sciamma 72 minutes and she’ll give you the world, this one viewed through the eyes of 8-year-old Nelly, smart enough to recognize her mother’s sadness in the wake of death but unsure of how to compartmentalize it. To say that “Petite Maman” unfolds primarily within small kitchens and backyard woods is to tease the magical conceit which has led to its Studio Ghibli comparisons, while also signaling Sciamma’s ability to rub a sweet family odyssey out of a few simple parts (and even fewer primary characters).

Charting the week-long friendship between Nelly and another young girl she meets one day in the forest, “Petite Maman” is a cinematic spoonful of impossible grace, warmth and humility. The two sisters playing Sciamma’s young companions melt the coldest heart’s walls, and thoughtful sound design heightens the potency of the most ordinary actions—the knotting of a tie, the crunch of cereal. Those moments spin the film into a superb testament to the spontaneity of childhood, as well as an affirmation that preparing for the inevitable conjures up a whole different kind of melancholy. Though “Petite Maman” is ostensibly a movie of scant resources, it’s everything but minor.

Watch it: "Petite Maman" will release wide sometime in 2022 following a brief qualifying theatrical run this fall. 

4. “The Power of the Dog” (Jane Campion)

Set against regal New Zealand landscapes turned stormy by a cruel bully’s turbulent motivations, Jane Campion’s long-awaited return to movies after 12 years is a triumphant rendezvous that sheds genre skins as fast as it slips into them.

To varying degrees and at various points, “The Power of the Dog” is a thriller, a character study, a romance, a barbed-wire lasso and a meditative reflection on toxic masculinity’s roots. More to the point, it’s the year’s most carefully constructed story, one that leaves the viewer equally satisfied and mystified by the culmination of the strange relationship which forms between Phil, Benedict Cumberbartch’s snakelike cowboy, and Peter, Kodi Smit-McPhee’s effeminate and odd youngster. The performances (along with those of Jesse Plemmons and Kirsten Dunst) are spectacularly layered, and the same goes for the contributions of cinematographer Ari Wegner and composer Jonny Greenwood, conspiring with Campion to create an atmosphere where the splendid open-range beauty belies a freedom to be who you want to be. In reality, “The Power of the Dog” suggests, there are masks we couldn’t pry off now matter how hard we tried.

This movie left me dizzied, dazed and desperate to watch it again immediately to pick up on the clues Campion puts in plain sight while enriching her ambiguities. If it has the same effect on you, good news: It’s right there on Netflix, a rewatch always a click away.

Watch it: Streaming on Netflix. 

MORE: 'The Power of the Dog' Review: The Western's reassessment continues with Jane Campion's sensational new drama

3. “Licorice Pizza” (dir. Paul Thomas Anderson)

An onslaught of age-gap discourse couldn’t dampen the elation of a new Paul Thomas Anderson picture. Somewhere in the film’s virtuosic opening – as 15-year-old Gary Valentine tries his luck at courting a halfway-annoyed, half-amused 25-year-old Alana Kane while the fresh-faced actors playing them exude intoxicating naturalism – we knew that it wouldn’t.

What those conversations have managed to do is confirm Anderson’s prowess not just at establishing slippery moods, but in plucking them like strings. Yes, it’s weird that Alana gravitates towards Gary’s exploits. And yes, it’s weird how Gary tries to act twice his age, motivated by the sweetened sixth sense of possibility lingering in every empty storefront of his 1970s San Fernando Valley streets. But if coming-of-age stories are about characters getting their emotional bearings, the ragamuffins of “Licorice Pizza” are slip-sliding atop a quivering compass point that can’t spot true north amid the unstable grown-ups trying to navigate LA at a pivotal point of transition.

Many have referred to “Licorice Pizza” as Anderson’s most accessible film in years. Viewing it as collection of uproariously funny and outrageous confrontations casually strung together with a spare shoe lace to juxtapose “Phantom Thread’s” baroque atmosphere or “Inherent Vice’s” pothead mysteries, they could be right. But break through the looking glass of that lens, one inherently associated with the movies (and thus with Anderson’s setting itself, just out of Hollywood’s sight), and this film’s comedy resides in the same territory as its tension. At the same time, Gary and Alana’s strange, endearing and defenseless bond starts to resemble a phalanx of youthful California bliss standing its ground against that truth she’s started to recognize: You can steal away to fantasy once the credits roll, but time doesn’t stop when the movies do.

Watch it: In theaters now. 

MORE: “Licorice Pizza” Review: A sublime Alana Haim anchors PTA's slippery coming-of-age dramedy

2. “Drive My Car” (dir. Ryusuke Hamaguchi)

For a movie about coping with the canker sore of tragedy, Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s astoundingly empathetic “Drive My Car” may make you feel like you’re levitating a few inches off your seat, its gentle moods and mannerisms turning the act of watching into one of gliding. Hamaguchi’s latest (one of two excellent movies to come from the director this year, along with “Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy”) is intelligent about many of the more unpredictable aspects of life, including how grief can yield the sensation of being unmoored from your own story as you’re looking down at it from above.

That’s appropriate for a film that commits a fair share of its 179 minutes to scenes of drives along twisty Japanese highways. It makes even more sense when you consider its narrative backbone, the weeks-long rehearsal of a multilingual production of Chekhov’s “Uncle Vanya,” headed up by a stage veteran forced to adjust a habit of long, lonely commutes when he’s assigned a young chauffeur seeking closure of her own. It’s a premise which produces uncommon humanity in Hamaguchi’s supremely patient hands, softened by that cinematic glow of watching disparate characters connect for common artistic cause while real life blurs the lines separating stories and self.

If you’ve ever driven down that empty road at a moment of crisis in your own life, the sentiments of “Drive My Car” may ring familiar, as will its comforts. It’s a cinematic embrace, rejuvenating to the point that its three-hour runtime is something to praise.

Watch it: In some theaters now, coming to more in early 2022. 

1. “The Green Knight” (dir. David Lowery)

There are some storytelling trends which can’t be explained. In 2021, one of the premiere examples came in the form of filmmakers interrogating the hero’s journey. What are the repercussions of an entire planet having been groomed to await its eventual messiah in “Dune,” or of an audience applauding vengeance as a perfectly suitable coping mechanism in “Riders of Justice”?

The questions may come easy; the answers do not. And no film this year was more visceral in exploring those murky marshes between destiny and self-preservation than the best film of the year, “The Green Knight.” Reimagining an anonymously penned Arthurian myth through the lens of David Lowery’s enduring fascination with the anxieties of legacy, it’s a medieval epic that all but defies the traditional parameters of an epic, imbuing cosmic scale into the personal vulnerabilities that Dev Patel’s young Gawain shoulders as he lumbers through barren landscapes as if marching to the end of the world.

It’s also proof positive that you don’t need a blockbuster’s budget to create otherworldly atmosphere, which bodes well for a looming moviegoing future where the only stories in which we’ll see cloud-scraping giants and baroque antagonists are the ones where they’re battling spandexed comedians. In “The Green Knight,” the mood is potent enough to burst through whatever sized screen you’re watching on, yet it doesn’t lose sight of where Gawain will end up in the tumult. Try as he might, he won’t come out alive. Lowery understands as well as anyone that that’s precisely what it takes if you want to live on.

Watch it: Available on VOD platforms. 

MORE: ‘The Green Knight’ Review: The best movie of 2021 so far is a magical and masterful deconstruction of legend

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