The Best Films of 2021 (Scott's List)
The year of Ryusuke Hamaguchi also included triumphs by favorites like Ashgar Farhadi and Paul Thomas Anderson. Plus: Best performance, reasons for hope/despair and the dreaded "age gap" discourse.
From the moment Keith and I launched The Reveal in late September of last year, we’ve been poring over so many major films every week that the usual January new-release doldrums will likely lead to a serious drop in cabin pressure. After a spotty 2020 and early 2021, when the pandemic led to festivals getting canceled or reduced and films getting pushed off the schedule, the vaccine uncorked an abundance of significant work over a short period of time. Of the 15 films on my best-of list below, only one was released in the first half of 2021, and catching up with the late-breaking titles has resulted in a mad dash to the finish line. And even holding these features until the first week in January hasn’t caught us up entirely, though we’re happy to allow ourselves the extra time that other publications (and awards groups) cannot abide. It was a strange, disturbing yet often joyful time for me at the movies this year, but I’ll let the list (and the other categories that follow) speak for itself.
The Top 15
15. Dune (dir. Denis Villeneuve)
I thought there wasn’t a filmmaker alive who could adapt Frank Herbert’s 1965 novel, because the directors entrusted to make large-scale, Joseph Campbell hero adventures are never the ones who can also handle epic freakouts set on a drug planet. Truth be told, Denis Villeneuve isn’t such a unicorn, either, and his Dune dials back on the far-out psychedelia of the book in favor of interplanetary intrigue and sociopolitical allegory. But the clarity of Villeneuve’s storytelling is a feat in itself, especially in a production of this size, intended for mainstream consumption. It couldn’t be done—and yet, here it is.
14. Bergman Island (dir. Mia Hansen-Løve)
There’s something dangerously cute about the premise of a volatile couple (Vicky Krieps and Tim Roth), both filmmakers, vacationing on the island where Ingmar Bergman shot many of his most important works, including Scenes From a Marriage, which looms over this pair like a heavy-breathing ‘80s slasher villain. Yet Mia Hansen-Løve doesn’t make films that are anything like Bergman’s, and she’s not interested in trying any kind of meta experiment. Bergman Island is instead a deft and lovely drama about the unique difficulties—and occasional stimulation—of relationships between creative people, and how those experiences can get transmuted into art.
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13. Quo Vadis, Aida? (dir. Jasmila Žbanić)
Žbanić’s shattering docudrama looks at the 1995 genocide carried out by the Bosnia Serb army in Srebrenica from an ingenious angle, following a UN translator, Aida (Jasna Đuričić), who’s trying to do her job while protecting her husband and sons from the massacre she anticipates well before her bosses do. The mad scramble to prevent the violence, mostly in negotiations between a disingenuous Ratko Mladic and a feckless U.N., has the highest of personal stakes for Aida, but there are limits to what she can pull off. Her rock-and-a-hard-place dilemma adds a unique tension to a tragedy that looms like a cliffside just down the road.
12. The Power of the Dog (dir. Jane Campion)
Campion’s Western arrives right on time for our era of toxic masculinity, but then again, it’s of a similar vintage to the masculinity on display in her 1993 film The Piano, with Benedict Cumberbatch in the Sam Neill role of an oppressive brute who does as much harm to himself as he does to those closest to him. The distinguishing factor here is how well Campion slips into the role of Hitchcockian suspense artist, particularly when the film focuses on the relationship between Cumberbatch’s macho rancher and a new arrival, played by Kodi Smit-McPhee, who proves to be a shiftier target for bullying than anyone might assume.
11. Days (dir. Tsai Ming-liang)
There was never a time when Tsai’s work could be considered broadly accessible—he is very much of the Asian Master Shot school of cinema—but the deadpan humor that once lightened his portraits of urban alienation, like The Hole and What Time is It There?, has dissipated as his work of late has turned further inward, drawing on his collaboration with his leading man and muse, Lee Kang-sheng. And yet once he unites the two lonely characters in Days—Lee as a man in Hong Kong dealing with chronic pain, Anong Houngheuangsy as a Laotian immigrant in Bangkok—the film develops a tenderness (and even a touch of romance) that feels like the exquisite capper to a career-long story.
10. The Card Counter (dir. Paul Schrader)
By now, we’ve seen multiple iterations on Schrader’s God’s Lonely Man type, but with First Reformed and, now, The Card Counter, he’s shown a willingness to use that character to engage with political demons that most movies have been too craven to recognize. The horrors perpetrated by U.S. service members at Abu Ghraib may seem like a thing of the distant past, but it’s not been forgotten by Schrader or his hero here, a professional poker player who can’t escape his role as a torturer. He marinates in his sins, casting out for redemption by aiding another disturbed veteran (Tye Sheridan) while seeking salvation from the shrewd woman (Tiffany Haddish) who’s staking him.
9. The Viewing Booth (dir. Ra’anan Alexandrowicz)
For his profound documentary experiment, Alexandrowicz offered Temple University students the chance to watch a series of short videos depicting Palestinian life under Israeli military rule in the West Bank. The Viewing Booth focuses on one such student, Maia Levy, whose staunch pro-Israel beliefs place her at odds with the footage that she’s witnessing. Her responses, coupled with tense conversations with Alexandrowicz, underline the way our perspectives can calcify, even when directly confronted with evidence that defies them. Filmmakers hoping that their images can change hearts and minds are treated with a cold splash of water here.
8. Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy (dir. Ryusuke Hamaguchi)
The year of Hamaguchi started with this exquisite triptych of short stories, which don’t overlap, but seem to exist in the same universe of love. loss, and an elegant, Kieslowski-like sense of chance. All three segments are excellent, but if it were feature-length the second, “Door Wide Open,” would be my movie of the year. The efforts of a woman to honeytrap an author/professor on her lover’s behalf turn on an erotic passage from one of his books, which arouses feelings from both parties that are entirely unexpected. Such is the power of fiction.
7. Licorice Pizza (dir. Paul Thomas Anderson)
Anderson’s beautiful evocation of the Valley in 1973 has an appealing lightness to it, drifting from cultural phenomena like waterbeds and pinball machines to political happenings like the oil embargo and Joel Wachs’ mayoral campaign to brushes with celebrities like Jon Peters (Bradley Cooper) and a William Holden type (Sean Penn). But that drift also reflects the directionless life of a 25-year-old (a brilliant Alana Haim) who can’t conceive a future for herself and clings to a precocious, moony-eyed teenager (Cooper Hoffman) because he’s the only person who doesn’t make her feel powerless. Like everything else in Licorice Pizza, this understanding of young womanhood is unerringly perceptive and specific.
6. Red Rocket (dir. Sean Baker)
Baker makes movies about an invisible America, focusing on sex workers and others living hand-to-mouth in the land of plenty, but there’s never a drippy earnestness to his work, which often has a lively, rapscallion spirit. Red Rocket is an audacious comedy about our national attraction to grifters, focusing on former porn star Mikey (Simon Rex), who talks his way back into his estranged wife’s home in Texas City, Texas, and causes all kinds of trouble. Baker treats the audience to the full force of his antihero’s diabolical charms without telling us how to feel about him, even as Mikey works on playing suitcase pimp to a 17-year-old cashier at a donut shop. How much sympathy do we have for the devil? (Answer: Quite a bit.)
5. Pig (dir. Michael Sarnoski)
I had the benefit of knowing nothing about Pig save for the premise of Nicolas Cage as a grizzly recluse who tries to hunt down the scoundrels who kidnapped his beloved truffle pig. (And if you happen not to have seen Pig, get thee to Hulu now and skip to #4 on this list.) When the film turned out not to be John Wick 4, that was a happy enough surprise, and the revelations kept coming from there, as the story takes us through Portland’s fine dining underground and ghosts that Cage’s character isn’t happy to conjure. In his feature directing debut, Sarnoski manages a tone that oscillates from black comedy to tragedy to off-the-wall eccentricity, trusting that Cage can handle the swings just fine.
4. Memoria (dir. Apitchatpong Weerasethakul)
I’m not sure the mysteries at the center of Weerasethakul’s latest enigma can ever be fully unpacked, but watching Tilda Swinton attempting to do so on screen is absolutely mesmerizing. Memoria begins with a mysterious (and recurring) sound that only Swinton seems to hear, and her efforts to investigate its origins take her down a rabbit hole that I can only describe as uncanny—a feeling common to other Weerasethakul joints like Tropical Malady and Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives. His films are better experienced than rationalized.
3. Bad Luck Banging or Loony Porn (dir. Radu Jude)
The defining film of 2021, hands down. Jude’s incredible provocation starts with unsimulated sex—consider this blurb a trigger warning on that—and the naked candor continues from there, as the star of this sex tape, a highly respected history teacher (Katia Pascarlu) in a Bucharest secondary school, fights for her job after the footage is uploaded to the internet. The explosion of that powder keg, coupled with the tensions sparked by the COVID-19 pandemic, sets off a much larger discussion of societal dysfunction in Romania and the sexist, militarist, hypocritical attitudes that underscore the moral response to this tape. That Bad Luck Banging could be Americanized with minimal tweaking makes it all the more disturbingly relevant.
2. A Hero (dir. Ashgar Farhadi)
Farhadi has no peers as a screen dramatist, and A Hero is his strongest work since 2011’s A Separation, turning what A.V. Club critic A.A. Dowd astutely dubbed a “milkshake duck” incident into a statement about irreducible complexity of humankind. When the news media gets word of a prisoner (Amir Jadidi) on leave who returns a handbag containing gold coins to its owner rather than using the money to pay down his debt, his selflessness gets packaged as a tight inspirational segment. But his story isn’t as simple as it seems, and neither is that of his creditor (Mohsen Tanabandeh), his girlfriend (Sahar Goldoost), or any of the other people wrapped up in it. Oh what a tangled web Farhadi weaves!
1. Drive My Car (dir. Ryusuke Hamaguchi)
The staging of an experimental production of Uncle Vanya in Hiroshima becomes the through-line for Hamaguchi’s masterful three-hour epic about grief, the creative process, and the discoveries we make about each other, even those we seem to know intimately. Though not divided into stories like Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy, Drive My Car nonetheless feels like multiple narrative strands seamlessly woven together, whether it’s dealing with a theater director who obsesses over his late wife’s infidelity, or a small moment when two stage actors are thunderstruck by the emotions drummed up in rehearsal. The title refers to a straightforward chauffeur job, but the film detours to destinations unknown.
Honorable Mention (alphabetical order): Annette, Barb & Star Go to Vista Del Mar; The French Dispatch; The Green Knight; The Last Duel; The Lost Daughter; Passing, Petite Maman; Procession; Shiva Baby; This Is Not a Burial, It's a Resurrection; West Side Story; The Velvet Underground; Wojnarowicz.
Performance of the Year: Jasna Đuričić, Quo Vadis, Aida?
In her role as UN translator, Aida (Jasna Đuričić) feels both part of and apart from the people of Srebrenica. As she aids her bosses as they deal with the encroachment of the Bosnian Serb army, she urgently needs to protect, at a minimum, her husband and sons from genocidal violence. As Aida, Đuričić projects fear, helplessness, resilience, and fury, fighting her way through a predicament that history tells us will likely not be solvable. The film itself isn’t explicit, but it feels truly violent because so much horror is etched on her face.
Scene of the Year: The truck, Licorice Pizza
Alana (Alana Haim) spends Licorice Pizza trying to figure out where her talents lie, but make no mistake that driving is definitely one of them. In the middle of the oil embargo, right after her teenage friend smashes a client’s car, the moving truck Alana is driving runs out of gas, making a getaway seemingly impossible. That’s when Alana sticks it in neutral and backs her way down the streets of a Valley neighborhood at breakneck speed, slipping around parked cars while gathering enough speed to make it through inclines, too. Paul Thomas Anderson stages it as a thrilling and hilarious ride—and also, for Alana, an existential moment. Her expression reads, “Is this my life?”
Reason for Hope: Shiva Baby at the Quad
The future of theatergoing is still up for grabs, destabilized radically by a pandemic that amped up the streaming wars and encouraged the rapid migration toward seeing movies at home. And yet Emma Seligman’s delightful indie comedy Shiva Baby played for over 13 weeks at the Quad in New York, benefitting from good old-fashioned word-of-mouth and a habit the pandemic hadn’t entirely kicked for local cinephiles. Consider it a flower poking through cracks in the pavement. (The flower is Fred Melamed.)
Reason for Despair: Red Notice
Just before I left The A.V. Club in 2013, I wrote an essay about what A.O. Scott once called “deliberate mediocrity,” the sorts of films that aren’t terrible per se, but do not really aspire to be anything good at all—which is far worse. That’s Red Notice. Nobody cared about Red Notice. It expresses nothing. It is borne entirely of the commercial calculation that three hot stars faking their way through a hybrid of heist thriller and Indiana Jones adventure will be enough to justify the cashing of many checks. I’ll take an authentic piece of shit over this any day.
Special Effect: Dancing with two partners, Last Night in Soho
In Last Night in Soho, it’s inevitable that the time-jumping fantasy of a ‘60s-obsessed fashion student (Thomasin McKenzie) will eventually curdle into horror, but director Edgar Wright makes the fantasy part so intoxicating that you hate for it to end. When his heroine starts living through the experiences of a would-be lounge singer (Anya Taylor-Joy), their identities are confused in dazzling fashion during a sequence in which both women dance with a manager (Matt Smith) who will turn out to have dark ulterior motives. In this moment, though, the effects-assisted choreography spins the two in and out of frame—with mirrors around them, no less—and the supernatural suddenly looks natural.
Most Annoying Discourse: The “age gap” discussion
Every year, an organization called the Alliance of Women Film Journalists gives out a ton of awards, including a couple of cheeky ones, like the Most Egregious Lovers’ Age Difference Award, intended to call out gross instances of the age gap between romantic partners, usually with older men paired with much younger women. The nominees for that category in 2021 were a source of deserved mockery on Twitter, because so many of them were absent important context: There is indeed a 38-year age difference between Ray Liotta and Michela DeRossi in The Many Saints of Newark, but he’s a gangster and that relationship is tied up in a subsequent age-appropriate fling between Liotta’s son (Alessandro Nivola) that, let’s say, turns out to be unseemly in other ways. Simon Rex’s porn star in Red Rocket is 21 years older than Suzanna Son’s teenage cashier, but the film is highly aware of the exploitative nature of that relationship. Things have gotten much thornier around Alana Haim and Cooper Hoffman in Licorice Pizza, also nominated by the AWFJ, but again, it’s not as if the age gap isn’t one of the film’s central themes, either. Seeing words like “grooming” and “pedophilia” thrown in a discussion of Licorice Pizza makes the discussion around it narrow and gross, even if you find the film unpersuasive.
Most Anticipated Film of 2022: Killers of the Flower Moon
David Hudson’s list of the most anticipated films of 2022 for Criterion Daily is full of mouth-watering morsels—two Claire Denis projects! a musical from the director of The Act of Killing! Noah Baumbach doing Don DeLillo! the return of the Kelly Reichardt-Michelle Williams collaboration!—but this is a Martin Scorsese year and that’s where my passion lies. David Grann’s book Killers of the Flower Moon is an excellent piece of nonfiction about the murder of Osage people who got rich off oil deposits on their land in 1920s Oklahoma, and Scorsese persuaded Apple TV+ to give him $200 million to bring it to life. May his late-career surge continue!
Welp, I've only seen three of the films on your main list and five of the honorable mentions, so my New Year's movie viewing resolution list just got longer. (And this after I started the attack on my list yesterday with "Down by Law.") I just wish I felt better about going to a movie theater at this moment, since that's the only way to see "Drive My Car" right now.
MEMORIA SPOILER ALERT (DO NOT READ FURTHER IF YOU HAVEN'T SEEN IT)
What was your interpretation of the source of the sound?