By Sean Boelman
After a bizarre year, 2021 saw the cinematic landscape return to a bit of normalcy, as we had the return of big-budget blockbusters (Spider-Man: No Way Home is breaking records, both for the pandemic and in general) and in-person festivals to debut the big prestige pictures. As a result, cinephiles have had no shortage of options to feast on, including the return of some beloved auteurs and a stronger-than-average year for international cinema. Although narrowing a list down to 10 films was difficult — it was hard to leave out films like Antlers, Bo Burnham: Inside, and The Nowhere Inn — here are our favorite films of the year!
10. The Lost Daughter
It often takes an actor-turned-director a few attempts before they are able to confidently fall into their style, but Maggie Gyllenhaal is the newest in a recent line who have hit a home run on their first time up to bat. The Lost Daughter is a complex, quiet character study that weaves its tale of motherhood and regret in a way that is profound and moving. And it is clear that Gyllenhaal knew how to get the best out of her collaborators, as the work from lead actress Olivia Colman and cinematographer Hélène Louvart is exceptional.
9. A Cop Movie
Alonso Ruizpalacios has made the best documentary of 2021, even if it doesn’t stick to the established conventions of nonfiction filmmaking. Following two actors who go deep into character in an investigation of the Mexican police system, A Cop Movie utilizes the tropes of cop action movies to make the audience question their preconceived notions of real-life law enforcement. The way the film dissects these timely issues is quite harrowing, making Ruizpalacios’s technique much more than just a gimmick.
8. The Green Knight
The COVID-19 pandemic wreaked havoc on the film industry in 2020, and it resulted in a lot of films being delayed to this year. The best of those is David Lowery’s fantasy epic The Green Knight, which used the extra fifteen months from when it had been scheduled to premiere to be re-edited to its director’s satisfaction. The result is a unique take on Arthurian folklore that is both very atmospheric and an effective parable about honor. It’s a high spot on Lowery’s already impressive filmography, which is saying a lot.
If in 2013, you had told me that the guy who played the stoner in The Cabin in the Woods would make one of the finest films of the year of its release, and that it would be a serious drama about mass shootings, I would have had you committed to an insane asylum. But Fran Kranz’s Mass is a truly astounding film, with a stagey but powerful screenplay that will leave audiences shaken. And the ensemble is phenomenal all-around, especially with career-best work from Jason Isaacs and Ann Dowd.
6. What Do We See When We Look at the Sky?
It’s a shame that Georgia did not select What Do We See When We Look at the Sky? as its Oscar submission, as this is an extraordinary romance. The two-and-a-half-hour runtime is a bit off-putting at first, but filmmaker Aleksandre Koberidze absolutely enchants the audience with his storytelling. It’s essentially a more complicated body swap romance, but the uncommon empathy with which Koberidze approaches it, as well as some creative camerawork, which makes this stand out.
Graphic novel artist Dash Shaw made his cinematic debut in 2016 with My Entire High School Sinking Into the Sea, a quirky and fun coming-of-age comedy, but his sophomore feature Cryptozoo (co-directed with his wife Jane Samborski) is a whole different level. An ambitious, painstakingly-crafted adventure with shades of real-life mythology, Indiana Jones and Wes Anderson — it’s enjoyable, inspired, and hypnotic, making it one of the greatest independent animated films of all time.
4. Licorice Pizza
After one of his more serious outings in Phantom Thread, it was nice to see acclaimed filmmaker Paul Thomas Anderson embrace his funny side once again with Licorice Pizza, an ode to Los Angeles in the 1970s. It’s not one of the more substantial films of the year, but the vibes that Anderson deals in here are absolutely amazing. Cooper Hoffman (the son of the late Anderson collaborator Philip Seymour Hoffman) and Alana Haim make for some charismatic leads, and Bradley Cooper is a scene-stealer in his small but memorable supporting role.
3. The Tragedy of Macbeth
The Coen Brothers are some of the most iconic filmmakers of their generation, but Joel went solo for the first time (although Ethan isn’t credited on their early films) with his Shakespeare adaptation The Tragedy of Macbeth. It’s a distinctive vision of well-known material, taking “The Scottish Play” and turning it into a moody horror film of sorts. Strong performances all-around with unexpected casting, crisp black-and-white cinematography, and a faithful but interpretively directed script make this one of the best Shakespeare adaptations ever.
2. A Hero
Asghar Farhadi is a skilled filmmaker, often taking small-scale melodramas and turning them into a riveting, human story, and his latest film is one of his finest. A Hero tells the story of a man who does a good deed while out on leave from debtor’s prison, setting off an unexpected whirlwind of consequences. It’s not a film that reveals its hand early, instead taking its time to build to a climax that is entirely soul-crushing.
1. Drive My Car
Japanese filmmaker Ryûsuke Hamaguchi is without a doubt the MVP of cinema in 2021, having delivered not one but two strong films. But Drive My Car, his three-hour adaptation of Haruki Murakami’s short story, is the one that is truly unforgettable, having an emotional impact that no one would expect. It’s not going to be everyone’s cup of tea — it’s a very talky film with long sections that are just recitations of Chekov’s play Uncle Vanya — but what Hamaguchi does with it is absolutely profound.
What were some of your favorite films of 2021? Let us know in the comments below!
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