Best Movies of 2021
Even when a film wasn’t great, filmgoing was. But there were some truly wonderful releases, ranging from music docs and musicals to westerns and the just plain weird.
The 10 Best Arguments for the Importance of Movies
This year, it felt to me as if every good movie was also an argument for why movies matter. There is a lot of anxiety, pandemic-related and otherwise, about what the future of the art form might look like. Will everything be streaming except a handful of I.P.-driven spectacles? Will streaming platforms (and their subscribers) be receptive to daring, difficult, obnoxious or esoteric work? Anyone who claims to know the answers is a fool. What I can tell you for sure is that these 10 movies, and the 11 that almost made the list, do what they can to resist the dishonesty, complacency and meanness currently rampant around the world. They reward your attention, engage your feelings and respect your intelligence. Every little bit helps.
1. ‘Summer of Soul’ (Questlove)
This documentary about a series of open-air concerts in Harlem in 1969, interweaving stunning performance footage with interviews with musicians and audience members, is a shot of pure joy. The lineup is a pantheon of Black genius, including Stevie Wonder, Sly Stone, the Staple Singers, Mahalia Jackson and many more. But the film is more than a time capsule: It’s a history lesson and an argument for why art matters — and what it can do — in times of conflict and anxiety. (Streaming on Hulu.)
2. ‘Bad Luck Banging or Loony Porn’ (Radu Jude)
From its hard-core opening to its riotous conclusion, this category-defying Romanian film captures the desperate, angry, exhausted mood of the present almost too well. A Bucharest schoolteacher (the brilliant, fearless Katia Pascariu) finds her job endangered after a sex tape she made with her husband goes semiviral. Meanwhile, the Covid pandemic and simmering culture-war hostilities turn everyday life into a theater of grievance and anxiety. Holding everything together — barely — is the abrasive intellectualism of Jude’s direction and the earnest rage that fuels his mockery. (In theaters.)
3. ‘The Power of the Dog’ (Jane Campion)
There are a lot of talented, competent, interesting filmmakers working today. Then there is Jane Campion, who practices cinema on a whole different level. The craft in evidence in this grand, big-sky western — the images, the music, the counterpointed performances of Benedict Cumberbatch, Kirsten Dunst, Jesse Plemons and Kodi Smit-McPhee — evoke the best traditions of old-style Hollywood storytelling. But there is nothing staid or conventional in the way Campion tackles Thomas Savage’s novel of jealousy, power and sexual intrigue. (Streaming on Netflix.)
4. ‘Petite Maman’ (Céline Sciamma)
The death of a grandmother, the grief of a parent, the acquisition of a new friend — these ordinary experiences, occurring over a few weeks in the life of an 8-year-old girl, provide the basic narrative structure of this spare, perfect film. Whether it’s best described as a modern-dress fairy tale, a psychological ghost story or a low-tech time travel fantasy is up to you. What’s certain is that the performances of Joséphine and Gabrielle Sanz, real-life twins playing possibly imaginary friends, have a clarity and purity that Sciamma (“Portrait of a Lady on Fire”) deploys for maximum emotional impact. (Coming to theaters.)
5. ‘Bring Your Own Brigade’ (Lucy Walker)
This harrowing documentary about California wildfires is also, almost by accident, an exploration of the country’s polarized, chaotic, self-defeating response to the Covid pandemic. The picture Walker paints is complicated, partly because that’s the way people are: stupid, generous, reckless and brave. The movie is hardly optimistic, but its open-mindedness, compassion and intellectual rigor provide a buffer against despair. (Paramount+)
6. ‘Bergman Island’ (Mia Hansen-Love)
In a year when rumors of the death of moviegoing spread along with all the other bad news, it was delightful to encounter this warm, wry, emotionally savvy exploration of movie love, moviemaking and movie-centered tourism. Two filmmakers travel to Faro, a Swedish island where Ingmar Bergman lived and worked, and discover either that movies are life, or that there’s more to life than movies. (For rent on most major platforms.)
7. ‘Drive My Car’ (Ryusuke Hamaguchi)
A theater artist (Hidetoshi Nishijima), recently widowed, travels to Hiroshima to direct an experimental version of Chekhov’s “Uncle Vanya.” A young woman (Toko Miura), also stricken by loss, is hired as his driver. Out of this scenario — and out of Haruki Murakami’s novella — Hamaguchi builds an understated, multilayered meditation on the complexities of human connection. The spirit of Chekhov hovers in the background and is honored by the film’s unsentimental, compassionate regard for its characters. (In theaters.)
8. ‘Memoria’ (Apichatpong Weerasethakul)
Weerasethakul’s movies defy summary or easy categorization. To describe them as dreamlike is incomplete, since you never know who is doing the dreaming. In this case, it might be Jessica (Tilda Swinton), a Scottish expatriate living in Colombia. Or it might be alien visitors, the filmmaker, the Earth or time itself. What is certain is that this film sharpens the senses and activates emotions that are no less powerful for being impossible to name. (Coming to theaters.)
9. ‘West Side Story’ (Steven Spielberg)
Somehow, Steven Spielberg and Tony Kushner — and an energetic young cast of Jets and Sharks — pulled off a surprising cinematic coup. Respecting the artistry and good intentions of the original stage musical, they turned it into something urgent, modern and exciting. There’s a lot to unpack in the movie’s gestures of reverence and revisionism, but mostly there are big emotions, memorable songs and an unabashed faith that sincerity will always be stronger than cynicism. (Coming to theaters.)
10. ‘The Velvet Underground’ (Todd Haynes)
Like “Summer of Soul,” this documentary revisits the music of the 1960s in a spirit that is more historical than nostalgic. Rather than assemble present-day musicians to pay tribute to their forebears, Haynes concentrates on the Velvets in their moment and on the artistic scene that spawned them. In particular, he focuses on their connections to the experimental cinema that flourished in New York, work that inspires his own visceral, cerebral, visually dense style of storytelling. (Streaming on Apple TV+.)
“Annette” (Leos Carax), “The Disciple” (Chaitanya Tamhane), “Flee” (Jonas Poher Rasmussen), “The Green Knight” (David Lowery), “The Hand of God” (Paolo Sorrentino), “King Richard” (Reinaldo Marcus Green), “Mogul Mowgli” (Bassam Tariq), “Parallel Mothers” (Pedro Almodóvar), “Passing” (Rebecca Hall), “El Planeta” (Amalia Ulman), “The Souvenir Part II” (Joanna Hogg), “Spencer” (Pablo Larraín), “The Tragedy of Macbeth” (Joel Coen).
The Best Film Was One in a Theater
In July, I watched one of the most mediocre movies that I’ve seen this year — and it was glorious. After more than 16 months of streaming at home, I went to a theater to watch Matt Damon sing the white-guy blues in “Stillwater.” The movie was poky and trite and irritating, and I reviewed it accordingly. And while I regretted it wasn’t better, I was still grateful because it sent me back to theaters, big screens and other moviegoers.
Those other people admittedly did give me pause. They were masked, well, most were, kind of, but could I be safe and feel at ease with these people for two or so hours? I was vaxed and masked but also still navigating being back in the world. But the room was great, the screen huge, and I decided that I could — though first I had to tell a guy near me that, yes, he did need to wear the mask he’d parked on his chin. He put it on. I settled in, back in the place that makes me supremely happy: I was at the movies.
Since then, I have watched many more new releases in person, including at two festivals where I gorged like a famished person (so many thanks to both the Toronto International Film Festival and the New York Film Festival). I had spent the first part of the year on book leave, and while I’d streamed plenty of new and old films then (hello, Marie Dressler!), I missed going out (anywhere). I missed really, really big bright images and I missed the rituals, including the quick search for the most perfect seat and the anticipatory wait for the movie to begin, for someone to hit the lights and start the show.
Movie critics tend to write about movies as discrete entities. Even when writing about franchise copies of franchise copies, we often stick to the object. Although we sometimes share how a movie makes us feel (happy, sad), we rarely write about the true depth of our experiences as we watched these movies — how it felt as the images flowed off the screen and into our bodies and memories — and how this too affected us. There are a lot of reasons for this, including reviewing conventions, which tend to measure movies by certain, traditionally prescribed, often literary and commercial values: Was it a good story, did it say something, is it worth leaving the house for, worth spending money on?
It’s a given that money is always part of the equation, as much of the discussion around the future of moviegoing underscores. Most of the chatter about moviegoing these days often devolves into journalists and industry types parroting the logic of capitalism, i.e., whatever industry power dictates. Netflix and other big streamers have had a huge impact, no question, and we can chat about what it all means in a few years. But whatever the rationalization, the reasons there’s so much intense focus on Netflix and Disney is their monopolistic grip not simply on the entertainment industry but also on the hive mind of the mainstream media. But there are other considerations, as well.
So, yes, more people will likely watch “The Power of the Dog,” the latest from Jane Campion, than any other film in her decades-long career because it’s on Netflix. But what matters is the movie. And you should watch it whether at home or, if you can, in a theater. It looks beautiful no matter the size of the screen. But I’m grateful that I’ve seen it several times projected in theaters. For starters, I could focus on it rather than the distractions of my home, but mostly I could more fully experience the monumentality of its images, could feel on a profound, visceral level both the claustrophobia of its shadowy interiors and the liberating, heart-clutching boundlessness of its open landscapes.
Like all the movies I love, “The Power of the Dog” got under my skin. I watched it, fell into it, felt it. And like all the movies I care most about, it is far more than the sum of its finely shaped story parts. I admire its narrative ebb and flow, but the movie’s meaning extends beyond its chapter breaks and dialogue. In Campion’s aerial shots of an arid, lonely land and in the anguished close-ups — in backlighted bristles of horsehair and in the rhythmic rocking of a strand of braided leather on a man’s body — she sets loose a cascade of associations. You see Benedict Cumberbatch, who plays its tormented villain, and in his strut you also see John Wayne, Gary Cooper, Clint Eastwood. You see the sweep of the western genre, the men and women you know, the world you live in.
1. ‘Drive My Car’ (Ryusuke Hamaguchi)
A masterpiece about life and death and art from one of the most exhilarating directors to hit the international film scene in a long while, “Drive My Car” draws from theater and literature — a splash of “Waiting for Godot” but mostly “Uncle Vanya” and the Murakami short story that gives the movie its title — to create a work of pure cinema. (In theaters.)
2. ‘The Power of the Dog’ (Jane Campion)
Much has rightly been made of Benedict Cumberbatch’s powerful performance as a malignant force named Phil in Campion’s latest. Much more should be said about how delicately and beautifully Kirsten Dunst, as Rose, holds the movie’s moral center with a gutting performance that shows you how brutally optimism can both die and be reborn. (Streaming on Netflix.)
3. ‘The Velvet Underground’ (Todd Haynes)
Everything comes together in Todd Haynes’s superb testament to a lost world that helped make our own: the music and art, the drugs and ideas, Lou Reed and John Cale, Andy Warhol and Jonas Mekas, the beauty and ugliness, the affordable New York housing and the artistic freedom that cheap rents allowed, the droning and strobing and darkening shadows that swallowed people whole. It’s all here. Watch it — play it — loud. (Streaming on Apple TV+.)
4. ‘Summer of Soul’ (Questlove)
There’s much to love in Questlove’s documentary about a New York concert that took place in the summer of 1969, most obviously the music that takes you higher. But consider too the formal design and rigor, and how the movie contracts and expands in time with the onstage call and response, how Questlove narrows in on a moment of beauty — a soaring note, a sliding foot, a beaming face — only to gracefully expand your horizons as he dialogues with the past, the present and the possible future. (Streaming on Hulu.)
5. ‘Passing’ (Rebecca Hall)
Set in the 1920s, Hall’s exquisite heart-wrencher centers on two African American women, friends from childhood, who can and do present as white. One (Tessa Thompson’s Irene) will pass for convenience, as when she enters a racially restricted hotel, while the other (Ruth Negga’s Clare) lives as white. Separately and together, with yearning and dueling looks, they negotiate the color line, which W.E.B. Du Bois called “the problem of the 20th century” and that still stubbornly defines and divides this country. (Streaming on Netflix.)
6. ‘Azor’ (Andreas Fontana)
With chilled detachment and meticulous control, this shocking drama tracks a Swiss banker and his wife on a seemingly routine business trip through Argentina in 1980. As they travel about, the juxtaposition between the bourgeois homes they visit and the ever-present military creates an increasingly unnerving tension, culminating in a shattering finale. Here, every polite smile and bland pleasantry is in service to a world of evil. (Streaming on Mubi.)
7. ‘The Card Counter’ (Paul Schrader)
For decades, Schrader has been telling his favorite story — that of a man alone in a room, alone in his head — to greater and lesser if always interesting effect. Now, with Oscar Isaac, Tiffany Haddish and Willem Dafoe, Schrader tells that tale again, getting into your head with feeling, some scattershot politics, horrific violence and auteurist confidence. (Available on most major platforms)
8. ‘The Disciple’ (Chaitanya Tamhane)
Every so often, the title character, a Hindustani classical singer (Aditya Modak), rides through the dark night, the voice of a musical guru filling the air and stirring your soul. Our young singer yearns for greatness, but as the years pass and practice never quite makes perfect, the divide between aspiration and reality grows impossibly wider. In a year of wonderful soundtracks, this is the one that soars highest. (Streaming on Netflix.)
9. ‘Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy’ (Ryusuke Hamaguchi)
This movie, the other of Hamaguchi’s to receive an American release this year, is split into three intricate stories that turn on chance and were, he has said, inspired by Eric Rohmer. Not all of the parts work equally well, but all have moments of beauty and grace along with amazing, complex rivers of words. By the time a character rests a hand on her heart in a rush of feeling, you may find yourself doing the same. (In theaters)
10. ‘Spencer’ (Pablo Larraín)
Larraín’s atmospherically perfect (and creepy) drama is at once a blistering takedown of the British monarchy, a blazing psychological portrait and a queasily funny Gothic horror freak-out. If you’re still chuckling and sometimes weeping over that soap opera called “The Crown,” this may wipe off your smile — or just make you roar with laughter. (Available on most major platforms.)
“Bring Your Own Brigade” (a smart, cleareyed, solution-oriented documentary about the climate crisis that won’t leave you curled up in a ball sobbing); “Dune” (yeah, I know, but I dug this immersive big-screen spectacle, the sort Hollywood rarely produces today); “The Electrical Life of Louis Wain” (part of this year’s Benedict Cumberbatch wave and a must-see for animal lovers or, really, anyone with a beating heart); “Faya Dayi” (a gorgeous dream to slip into); “The First Wave” (a moving, intelligent, deeply human documentary on the pandemic); “In the Same Breath” (a tough, compassionate look at the pandemic via China); “Licorice Pizza” (especially the truck sequence — I could watch two hours of that amazingly directed, staged and choreographed camera-and-wheel work); “Prayers for the Stolen” (stirring and upsetting); “Preparations to Be Together for an Unknown Period of Time” (a gorgeous labyrinth); “Stillwater” (eh, it isn’t good but it brought me back into theaters); “The Truffle Hunters” (a touching lament for rapidly disappearing communities and traditions); “The Woman Who Ran” (elegant, wry, touching cinematic serialism).