The Best Films of 2021

Movies, unlike branded entertainment, need to live in the world, not just on personal devices…because while we’re talking about infrastructure, we are also talking about pleasure — the pleasure of the cinematic object, and the pleasure of your company and conversation. It’s frustrating that people keep writing lazy obituaries for cinema, something they have no feeling for or interest in…I remain buoyed by the persistence of the art and how its ecologies adapt and persevere.”Manohla Dargis

“…Hollywood appears to be scraping the bottom of the barrel for IP that can be spun into cinematic gold. Case in point: There are (real) movies in the works based on the card game Uno, the crunchy snack Flamin’ Hot Cheetos, and the invention of Viagra.” – Variety

“The art (of cinema) advances through a generational takeover — which can happen only when movies seem worth taking over at all.” – Richard Brody

“If you want a happy ending, that depends, of course, on where you stop your story.” – Orson Welles

Sometime around the halfway mark of Paul Verhoeven’s Benedetta — close to, if not the exact moment when Christ arrives on horseback and lops off a man’s head with a broad sword — the full weight of the pandemic’s toll hit me. Here I was, back in a theater, sandwiched between a pair of elderly women and a crew of college students, watching an erotic thriller about nuns in 17th century France. It was exactly the kind of experience I’d been missing. Benedetta is a big, beautiful, stupid movie with lines and scenes that would make you cringe on your couch, but feel transcendental with the full force of a crowd’s reaction. Everyone loved it. They laughed, they screamed, they groaned in chorus. And at the risk of hyperbole, it was glorious.

Alas, that glory was short lived. Because, as you’re well aware, 2021 was another strange year. For the world, for democracy, and of course, for the movies. There was a glut of stone-cold classics and not enough audience to support them. There were cinematic treasures released straight to streaming, and cinematic travesties released only in theaters. AMC rode a wave of Reddit posts to profitability. Alamo Drafthouse rode a wave of lockdowns to bankruptcy. The iconic Cinerama dome went under. While Spider Man piled money to the sky.

All of it suggesting that the position of film (and particularly theaters) in the culture has never been more precarious. When half the country thinks your industry is over and the other half thinks you’re rebounding, your art can’t help but reflect the tension of faith vs. fact. Maybe that’s why questions of belief dominated the films of 2021. Do you believe in yourself (The Green Knight)? Do you believe her story (The Last Duel)? If you say his name five times, do you believe he’ll appear (Candyman)? Everywhere you looked characters were being asked to put their faith in something, anything. A master plan (King Richard). A rumpled scientist (Don’t Look Up). A giant ape (King Kong vs. Godzilla).

Movies asked these questions, they interrogated what it means to have faith, because from their point of view, it’s in short supply. Studios are being swallowed up. Layoffs are on the horizon. The industry senses that its glory days are fading. In fact, almost on cue, they’ve started building monuments to their legacy, like the brilliant Academy Museum in Los Angeles. It’s everything you want from a museum about cinema. But it’s still just that, a museum. An attempt to preserve a record. An attempt to lay out a history and keep Eve at bay. A testament to the hundred or so years when film dominated culture. A space teeming with beautiful exhibits, all reminding you that movies mattered. But do they? Will they? Well, that depends on what you believe.

The List:

Note: All the same caveats apply this year. Not only is this list subject to circumstance (my mood, world news, the person sitting in front of me at the theater swiping through their dog’s Instagram), there’s also so much I still haven’t seen (Parallel Mothers, C’mon C’mon, Tragedy of Macbeth, Drive My Car, just to name a few). That being said, let’s go:

12) The Voyeurs: The Voyeurs knows exactly what it is. It’s a film where our protagonists dress up as his & hers Hamburglars for Halloween. It’s a film where Thomas (Justice Smith) takes a break from his job, writing the music for pharmaceutical ads, to spy on his neighbor’s threesome. It’s a film where Pippa’s (Sydney Sweeney) topless photograph is blown up to wall-size and dramatically unveiled for a group of high-society types. It’s the best kind of trash.

11) Old: A thousand memes later and the so-simple-it’s-brilliant idea that holds Old together (a beach that rapidly ages you) endures. If Old were released by anyone else, critics would still be falling over themselves to call it a cult classic. But when you bring the reputation (and baggage) of the Shamaylan name to a project, the neckbeards bring their knives. Yet, the guy just knows how shoot a movie. Shamaylan establishes a visual language with his camera early on, teaching you how to watch as you go. A masterful freeze tag scene, a pregnancy reveal that had my theater howling, and an impromptu surgery that skips the gore and builds terror by lingering on the surrounding faces. Old is anything but.

10) The Beatles: Get Back: Get Back is the ultimate “what’s it like to sit down and do the work” documentary. It’s precisely because Peter Jackson doesn’t drown us in talking heads, or voiceover, or reenactments, or any of the other modern doc tropes, that Get Back is such a revelation. There’s nothing precious here. Jackson trusts that we’ll be mesmerized by the sharp, painful, hilarious rhythms of four geniuses in a room shooting the shit and writing some songs. And he’s right.

9) Shiva Baby: Rave debuts come and go. The Brothers Mccullen took Sundance by storm, but when was the last time you heard anyone mention it?” Meanwhile, a film like Blood Simple is still the template for every kid with a camera. I have a feeling Shiva Baby could become the latter. There was something so compulsively watchable about it. Maybe it was Rachel Sennott’s twisting expression. Maybe it was the blistering dialog. Whatever it was, we need more first films like it.

8) Dune: The Tenet of 2021. A massive, director-driven epic on which every armchair critic (myself included) pinned their hopes and dreams for the future of movies. Thankfully, Villenueve and company get the details right. Often with movies of scope, the filmmaker forgets to give us intimacy. But Dune has patience. It lingers on the shields and the stare downs, as much as it does on exploding ships. Special shoutout to Stellan Skarsgard and the 80 hours he spent in makeup for his role as Harkonnen. Is there anything more terrifying than watching a large creature emerge from ooze?

7) A Quiet Place Part II: Suspense and fear boiled down to a concentrate. The opening flashback wrings tension out of every single camera move. There are moments of such sublime simplicity (like an early scene where we see the latch to the kid’s hiding place is propped open with a rag, and you just know eventually someone will accidentally lock themselves inside). Because this is a sequel, Krasinski doesn’t have to introduce main characters, or establish any rules — he can simply put his foot on the gas and leave it there.

6) The Lost Daughter: When Nina (Dakota Johnson) asks Leda (Olivia Coleman) how it felt to abandon her family for three years and Leda blurts out “It was amazing”, I was floored. In a film where the metaphors come hot and heavy — rotten fruit, a sea slug crawling from a doll’s mouth, crackling storms when a character goes into crisis — never discount the power of having your character speak their truth out loud. Next time the adults in your life complain that there aren’t enough complicated character studies, point them in this direction.

5) The Last Duel: One of the biggest disappointments of 2021 (aside from Joe Manchin) is that more people didn’t see The Last Duel in theaters. It’s excellent. And pre-pandemic it would’ve dominated the conversation. I went in expecting a film like Doubt, where the truth is slippery. But The Last Duel makes plain what “really happened” and instead the film explores something even harder to understand – motivation for each side of the story, a why, a point of view. Even when the characters are wrong and repulsive, you come away understanding the intention behind every action. Yes, it’s a serious subject. Yes, it’s a strong condemnation. But The Last Duel is not a lecture. It’s a bawdy, absurd, self-aware film that revels in contradictions. A film that enjoys the pleasures of violence and pride even as it’s subverting and critiquing them.

And I’ll never tire of watching Medieval people do daily tasks, like hunt stag. Any other film wouldn’t have bothered with showing children being marked with blood after the kill. It’s the kind of thing an executive would say is superfluous. But it’s also the kind of moment that makes this a masterpiece. It tells you more about the culture and expectations of this world than ten pages of dialog ever could.

4) Licorice Pizza: Like going six drinks deep with your most interesting friend and hearing their five best high school stories. The movie swoons. Alana Haim is a revelation. Cooper Hoffman holds the world together with his blemishes.

3) West Side Story: Only Spielberg could call to mind The Lady from Shanghai during “I Feel Pretty” and have it totally work. I’ll save you a hundred paragraphs on how expertly shot and edited every single sequence is (the cinematography gave me heart palpitations), just know that Spielberg delivers over and over again. He and Kushner have modernized the film in all the right ways. There’s genuine menace in the air. The gangs are dirty and wiry. The neighborhood is tactile and rundown. The violence doesn’t feel surprising, it feels inevitable. Everything, from the dialog to the dancing is so much deeper and richer than it has any right to be. And it’s all in service of an urgent theme, spoken by Lieutenant Schrank (Corey Stoll) early on, but unheeded by both sides through the bitter end: The Jets, The Sharks, and anyone else, they’re fighting on borrowed time. Money is right around the corner, and it doesn’t need to bring a weapon. Racism, tribalism, scrounging for territory — it’s all for nothing. The ultimate tragedy of these characters is that we know every sacrifice and song is going to be scrubbed away by steel. “Skyscrapers bloom in America”, and they don’t stop, for anyone.

2) The Worst Person In The World: “I don’t want to live in your memory. I want to live in my flat. I want to live in my flat with you.” A line like that looks fine enough on the page. But delivered in the midst of Jochaim Trier’s direction and two stellar performances (especially Renate Reinsve), it crushes you. Despite the unfortunate title, The Worst Person in The World is one of the most empathetic films of the year. Through a series of chapters it tells the story of a young woman who changes careers, falls in and out of relationships and negotiates that tragic liminal space: your late 20s. If that description sounds like your standard coming-of-age romance, don’t worry. The film is so effortless, so affecting, so perfectly calibrated. It presents modern characters without condescension. It incorporates news and technology without being dogmatic.

And like any great romance, time animates so much of the drama. Aksel (Anders Danielsen Lie) feels like an artist in the wrong era. Julie (Renate Reinsve) wonders if her boyfriend is going to be making coffee when he’s 50. The most audacious sequence has Julie freezing time and gliding past the landmarks and people of Oslo like an extended mannequin challenge. All of it leading to a heartbreaking finale that lays bare that sweet, brutal truth: we spend our lives hurrying from moment to moment, and the minute they pass, long to go back.

1) The Green Knight: We need more eerie seductions in castles. We need more deadly challenges from bark-covered forest creatures. We need more blood-red ponds and deep yellow shawls. We need more trippy giants patrolling misty mountain ranges. We need more of Dev Patel on horseback riding across deserted battlefields. We need more movies that are as ambiguous as they are beautiful.

Most of all, we need more movies that ask the question “Why do you want to be great? Is goodness not enough?”. Especially now. With pseudo-fascist superhero films dominating the box office, with our political leaders cowering at tweets, with so much that needs doing and too few to do it — we need more art that interrogates the very idea of heroic motivation. Is the will to act something innate? Or is it something we’re shamed into? How much of heroism is born out of reluctant obligation? Sure, there’s the rare exception who runs head first into the fire. But most heroes are filled with doubt, calculation, and fear. They kick and scream the whole way.

“What will this journey bring you?”
“Honor”
“Are you asking or telling?”

We need more movies like The Green Knight.

Superlatives:

Financier of the Year: Bron. Even before streaming scrambled the system, modern film financing was an impenetrable haze of foreign wealth funds and dentists from Idaho. So, I can’t speak to who, or what, makes up Bron Creative. All I know is their logo kept popping up before so many of my favorite films in 2021. Licorice Pizza, The Green Knight, House of Gucci, Candyman — all Bron. So, whatever overseas, crypto-backed, semi-legal conglomerate operates Bron Creative, thanks.

Schlock Doc of the Year: Bob Ross: Happy Accidents, Betrayal, and Greed. Netflix notoriously has the worst taste of all the streamers. It’s basically one row of high art (Roma) and 5,000 rows of awful (Father of the Year). So, of course they had to take a universally beloved symbol of gentleness and turn his life into a schlocky mess. Is nothing sacred??

Rocky With Egg On His Face Award for Best Performance by Food: The mozzarella (?) stuck to Al Pacino’s lip in House of Gucci. I hope that cheese is getting points on the back end.

Lazy Boomer Needle Drop of the Year: The Matrix Resurrections Trailer. 2021 saw countless films mining music from the 60s and early 70s for their soundtracks. But far and away the worst offender was the trailer for The Matrix Resurrections. Why is White Rabbit still the go-to song for futuristic paranoia? Not only is the song uninspired given the lore of the Matrix, it’s over 50 years old! A lot of music has come out between now and 1967. Was there really no other song in the past half century that could’ve worked better? Imagine catching the Alien trailer in 1979 and they score the whole thing to Jelly Roll Morton. Please Hollywood, the 60s are over, you have permission to move on.

In-Flight Ambien Award: Red Notice. Trying to fall asleep on a six hour flight to Minneapolis? You know what to do.

Two Sides Award: Rebecca Hall. Between directing an intimate examination of racial dynamics in the 1920s (Passing), and a substantial role in King Kong vs Godzilla — Rebecca Hall took the old adage of “one for you, one for me” to new heights in 2021. Lookout for 2023 when she directs a gut-wrenching portrait an opera-singing POW and stars in Spider Man: Home Fries.

Pad Out Your Darlings Award: The Chair. Paul Thomas Anderson said it best in a recent interview: “Sometimes you’re in the middle of writing something and you have way more than you need and you go, Well, maybe this should be a TV show, you know? That’s not the solution. The solution would be cut down, get to your good material, tell your story properly and make a film.” He may as well have been talking explicitly about Netflix’s The Chair (….or, last year’s The Queen’s Gambit).

Worst Film of The Year: Coming 2 America. Shoddy de-aging effects, one-dimensional female characters, reheated jokes and rehashed scenes all shot under garish digital light — Coming 2 America is all of streaming’s worst impulses slopped into a blender and set on pulse. It’s a glimpse of the soulless on-demand hell we’re all barreling toward. A future where global tech companies stuff your feed with regurgitated “IP“. Coming 2 America feels like it was written by the same AI that autocompletes your email. It’s a vague approximation of a movie. A craven shell with zero grit, zero charm, zero reason for existing other than to elicit clicks. I have no doubt Coming 3 America is in the works.

Best Press Tour 2026: Maggie and Jake Gyllenhal. Now that Maggie Gyllenhal is a lauded director, it’s only a matter of time before she and her brother work together on an acclaimed period piece about the struggle of an artistic family dealing with repression and trauma in 1980s New York. And that means a press tour for the ages. Podcasts, long magazine profiles, maybe a round of Jenga on Fallon. Set your DVRs now.

Centrum Silver Award: Ridley Scott. It was a bang-up year for geriatrics. Biden was sworn in. Tony Bennett dropped another album. And Hollywood released film after film from old dudes in their 80s — Paul Schrader (The Card Counter), Clint Eastwood (Cry Macho), David Chase (The Many Saints of Newark). But the undisputed king of the old-timers was Ridley Scott (84 years young), with not one, but two of the year’s major releases, including the brilliant The Last Duel. Starting today, I’m taking a multivitamin.

Okay, that’s all she wrote. Thanks so much for reading (or at the very least, scrolling to the bottom). Here’s hoping that movie theaters, schools, and all the gin joints in all the world bounce back in 2022. As I say every year, please keep going to the movies. Maybe I’ll see you there.

Later,
Will

2 comments

  1. I can’t remember the last time I left a comment on a blog post, but when blog posts are this memorable you simply have to do it. Thanks for the film enlightenment, as always. -Conor

    1. Conor! Appreciate it! And thanks for signing your name like a responsible online commenter. – Will

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: