It’s been another rough year in a lot of ways, but at least we (sort of) got movies back. Whether we’ll get to keep them is another matter. Being able to tentatively, selectively get back into theaters was, for me, a reinforcement of how great it can be to lose oneself in a darkened, distraction-free room. And there were some legitimately great films this year, some pushed back from 2020, others made during the pandemic and reflecting a forever-changed world. Here are my Top 10 films of the year, in ascending order, for maximum suspense:
(Honorable mention: Bergman Island, Lamb, Licorice Pizza)
2021: THE YEAR IN REVIEW
10. Memoria: Thai arthouse auteur Apichatpong Weerasethakul ventures outside his home country for the first time in this typically beguiling, obliquely told tale that centers on a Scottish woman named Jessica (Tilda Swinton) living in Colombia and looking after her ailing sister. Jessica is plagued by the occasional occurrence of a loud banging sound that only she can hear. She befriends an archaeologist (Jeanne Balibar) who has discovered some ancient remains during the construction of a new highway tunnel. She consults with a sound engineer in an attempt to replicate the noise in her head. She encounters a hermit scaling fish who may offer her a way to understand the phenomena. Despite working in a new environment, a new language, and with professional actors, Weerasethakul’s poetic, hypnotic style remains as undiluted as ever. (Opens Friday, Dec. 26 in New York City, but it might be a while before it shows up in these parts)
9. Don’t Look Up: It only makes sense that the funniest American comedy of the year is about the end of the world. Writer-director Adam McKay continues his string of acerbic takes on contemporary idiocy, but in a broader mode, marshalling an all-star cast in this fable about how humanity might react to the prospect of a planet-killing comet. (Spoiler alert: not very smartly.) Leonard DiCaprio and Jennifer Lawrence are the astronomers who detect the approach of the rogue space rock and bring their concerns to the President (Meryl Streep) and her idiotic son/chief of staff (Jonah Hill). Frustrated by the government’s inability to take the threat seriously, they appear on a TV news show whose hosts (Cate Blanchett and Tyler Perry) display similar cognitive dissonance. Even as certain doom approaches, a sizable percentage of the population chooses to ignore the problem and denigrate scientific expertise. (Sound familiar?) Toss in Mark Rylance as a perfectly warped billionaire tech guru, Timothee Chalemet as a skate punk, and Ron Perlman as a gung-ho war hero and you’ve got perhaps the most hilarious extinction event since Dr. Strangelove. (Currently playing in selected theaters; premiered on Netflix on Dec. 25)
8. Labyrinth of Cinema: The final film of Japanese director Nobuhiko Obayashi (best known in this country for the 1977 cult classic Hausu) is a kaleidoscopic valentine to film and an urgent plea for peace. On the last night in business for a beloved local theater, a crowd gathers to watch an all-night war movie marathon. Lightning strikes, and three of the spectators are sucked into the world on screen, where they bumble their way through decades of patriotic mythmaking. Obayashi’s unique style blends intentionally obvious special effects, seemingly random editing, cartoonish performances (sometimes literally!), and an awareness of cinema’s twinned power to divert and to dictate. The result is a three-hour explosion in your brain, one that sadly only played one night in Portland, at the Hollywood Theater in November. (Currently available to stream exclusively at mubi.com)
7. Drive My Car: Yusuke (Hidetoshi Nishijima), an accomplished theater actor and director, arrives in Hiroshima for a two-month residency, during which he is to mount a multilingual production of Uncle Vanya. Despite his objections, he is assigned a driver for the duration, and they form a tacit bond as Yusuke listens to Chekhov’s lines on tape during their daily hour-long commute. Everyone assumes that the experienced Yusuke will play Vanya, but instead he casts a disgraced former TV idol who he had encountered in the past. That plot sketch omits the movie’s first twenty-five minutes, which set our characters up for a captivating meditation on love and loss, the creative process, and self-forgiveness. Adapted from a short story by Haruki Murakami. (Opens Dec. 26 at Cinema 21.)
6. Last Night in Soho: Edgar Wright’s best and most personal film follows a quiet fashion student in present-day London (Thomasin McKenzie) who finds herself mysteriously transported back in time to the swinging ’60s era she adores, where she inhabits the body of a glamorous up-and-coming singer (Anya Taylor-Joy). A clever concept embellished by some fascinating plot twists, razor-sharp editing, fantastic costumes, a pair of great lead performances, and the final screen role of the cherished Diana Rigg—this is smart, stylish moviemaking. (Available to stream on demand for $20 at various providers)
5. Annette: One of the year’s most divisive films came from French auteur Leos Carax, making his English-language debut with this cockeyed musical written by the cult-favorite musical duo Sparks. It follows the tumultuous romance between a stand-up comic with a performatively abrasive act (Adam Driver) and a renowned opera singer (Marion Cotillard), with the third leg of the triangle provided by the singer’s devoted accompanist (Simon Hedberg). Complications arise due to the unique nature of the couple’s child. To say more than that would ruin a surprise that, if it hasn’t been yet, shouldn’t be now. From its jaw-dropping opening one-shot to its employment of Adam Driver’s singing voice, this is filmmaking without a net that not everyone will get. (Available to stream on Amazon Prime)
4. The Tragedy of Macbeth: Director Joel Coen, working for the first time in forever without his brother Ethan, takes a big swing here: adapting the Scottish play with Denzel Washington and Frances McDormand as Lord- and Lady-You-Know-Who, and filming it in a black-and-white, minimalist style that evokes some of Orson Welles’ shoestring Shakespeare films. The swing connects, though, with both titans giving titanic performances, and the brilliant cinematography and production design perfectly meld the arts of stage and screen into an unnerving masterpiece. (Opening in limited theaters on Dec. 25 and streaming on AppleTV+ starting Jan. 22)
3. Bad Luck Banging or Loony Porn: The timeliest, most hilarious movie of the year came from the fertile cinematic soil of Romania, in the form of this shocking, angry takedown of hypocrisy and stupidity in the age of COVID. Shot during the pandemic, it centers on high school history teacher Emi (the amazingly deadpan Katia Pascariu) and the sex tape she made with her husband (shown in its entirety). When the tape is inadvertently uploaded, local parents insist on holding Emi to account, but she refuses to surrender to their puritanical condemnation. Director Rade Jude makes the vivid suggestion, especially during a half-hour, mid-film montage critiquing contemporary morals, that it might be time to reconsider our definition of obscenity. (Not currently available in theaters or online.)
2. The Power of the Dog: Jane Campion should become the first woman nominated twice for a Best Director Oscar (which is, of course, pathetic) for this stunning psychodrama set in 1930s Montana. Benedict Cumberbatch and Jessie Plemons play a pair of cattle-ranching brothers, the former a crude misanthrope and the latter a gentle soul who brings his new bride (Kirsten Dunst) and her son (Kodi Smit-McPhee) into their orbit. What starts out as a mundane tale of sibling rivalry and jealousy slowly twists into something altogether more fascinating, keyed by remarkable performances from both Cumberbatch and McPhee. (Currently streaming on Netflix and playing at the Hollywood Theatre.)
1. The Lost Daughter: The best new movie I saw in 2021 doesn’t really knock your socks off with visual pizzazz. It’s a straightforward drama that doesn’t color outside the lines or elevate its heart rate too much. Adapted from a short novel by Elena Ferrante, it does, however, mark a more than auspicious writing and directing debut for the actress Maggie Gyllenhaal. Olivia Colman gives another in her string of effortlessly lived-in performances as a literature professor on solo vacation to a Greek island. There she develops a fascination-turned-friendship with a younger woman (Dakota Johnson) who has a small daughter. There’s a missing doll, a handsome American (Ed Harris), and a batch of flashbacks, with Jessie Buckley playing a younger Colman, that gradually reveal the ambiguities of motherhood and the untidy nature of life. There are no false notes in this thing, and I can’t wait to see what Gyllenhaal does for an encore. (Opened at the Salem Cinema on Dec. 24; premieres on Netflix on Dec. 31)
In “The Power of the dog” it’s mother and son. Not her brother.
Thanks, Gudrun — you’re absolutely right. We’ve updated the story to reflect this.