It’s the time of year when arts critics of all kinds present to the world their favorite works of the year just past—yet despite this being an annual tradition, people are getting worse and worse at understanding what such lists do and don’t mean. In the interest of fending off familiar gripes and objections, here’s a brief prologue to my own choices for the best movies of 2021.
It’s not a deliberate attempt to revel in obscure things you probably haven’t seen. I viewed more than 300 new releases this year; you, in all likelihood, did not. If my role is not at least in part to showcase things I loved that flew under most laypeople’s radar, I don’t know what it is.
It’s not an invitation to ask, “Why isn’t [film you liked] on your list?” The answer should be obvious: Because it wasn’t one of my favorite movies of the year.
It is completely and idiosyncratically mine. Artistic works touch us all to different degrees and for different reasons. I’m not Rotten Tomatoes, aggregating a consensus, and my own tastes lead me in peculiar directions.
All right, enough of that. Onward with 2021’s best.
10. West Side Story: Director Steven Spielberg and screenwriter Tony Kushner understand that the foundation of this classic musical has always been the anger and tension perpetually threatening the idea of the American “melting pot.” They bring this notion to the forefront in a way that never sacrifices the glorious songs, while Spielberg shows that his brilliance extends to directing musicals the way musicals should always be directed.
9. Procession: The tension between documentary and fictionalized re-creation has been a recurring theme of director Robert Greene’s work. Here, he explores how survivors of childhood sexual abuse by Catholic clergy use “drama therapy” to make sense of their experiences— sometimes filled with rage, sometimes filled with a quest for closure, but always compelling.
8. The Worst Person in the World: Joachim Trier crafts the episodic story of a young woman named Julie (the terrific Renate Reinsve) muddling through her late 20s and early 30s, using both fanciful dramatic devices and painful intimacy for a sympathetic portrait of figuring out what (and who) you want to be when you grow up.
7. Can You Bring It: Bill T. Jones and D-Man in the Waters: What makes a piece of art transcendent? That’s the core of this documentary about the re-staging of a 1989 dance piece inspired by the AIDS crisis, mixing history with the contemporary rehearsals to understand how artists can continue to find meaning that brings old works to new life.
6. John and the Hole: Divisive, chilly and occasionally confounding, this psychological thriller uses a high-concept premise—a troubled teen (Charlie Shotwell) who holds his family captive—to tell a story steeped in fairy-tale imagery, digging into the eternal tension between young people wanting their independence, and needing people in their lives they can trust to always be there.
5. Drive My Car: Ryûsuke Hamaguchi adapts a Haruki Murakami short story into a 3-hour epic that feels profoundly intimate, using a theater director’s unprocessed grief over his wife’s death to tell a story about the way art itself can make meaning out of pieces that are individually hard to understand.
4. Bo Burnham: Inside: Comedian Bo Burnham’s snarky stage persona might make him an unlikely-seeming sage for pandemic-era emotional fragility, but anyone who saw his Eighth Grade understands his compassion for people facing isolation. Though it might play as mostly a collection of music videos, the brilliant songs and dazzling directing choices make this a time capsule that’s also a gut-punch.
3. A Hero: Nobody makes moral choices more harrowingly complex than writer/director Asghar Farhadi, and those talents are on display once again in this tale of a man who becomes celebrated for a good deed that somehow exposes everyone’s desire to look good, rather than necessarily be good. Every decision has an unexpected ripple effect, leading our protagonist to hard realities about what constitutes real heroism.
2. Test Pattern: The year’s most electrifying feature film debut came from Shatara Michelle Ford, telling the story of a young couple (Brittany S. Hall and Will Brill) whose relationship is strained after a sexual assault. The subject matter never once comes off as a lecture, thanks to a directing hand so steady that every moment feels like a revelation.
1. Memoria: Director Apichatpong Weerasethakul has long made movies steeped in mysticism that make trying to “solve” them feel like missing the point. Through the narrative thread of a woman (Tilda Swinton) troubled by a strange noise, Weerasethakul crafts another one of his hypnotic creations that works as pure filmmaking, while tapping an emotional core you feel rather than understand.
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