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The Best Films of the Year (*According to Metacritic, According to Me): Part 1
In which a humbled critic binges the woefully neglected great films of 2021.
Confession: I’ve been a bad cinephile.
When the 2020 prestige cycle ended and my obligations to various freelance outlets and awards-giving bodies were over, I curbed my movie-watching habits to such an extent that I eventually stopped updating my Letterboxd page, as much out of shame as laziness. (It has since been revived.) With theaters still not an option pre-vaccine and the usual early-year trickle more anemic than usual, I spent nights on the couch doing full-season rewatches of The Sopranos and Mad Men, or tracking the exploits of NBA rookies like LaMelo Ball or Aleksej Pokusevski on League Pass. (This photo of Pokusevski on draft night was my Twitter background for a while. He looks like Stranger Than Paradise-era John Lurie.)
And so, a couple of months ago, when it looked like Keith and I were going to get this Substack off the ground, I scanned Metacritic’s ten best-reviewed films of 2021 so far to see what I missed. It turns out I’d only seen one, Summer of Soul, which we’d discussed with 1970’s Woodstock on our podcast, The Next Picture Show. Otherwise, I’d caught none of the movies my critical colleagues had praised so universally, despite all of them being just a click (or a screener request) away. We were already two-thirds of the way through the year. I had some serious catching up to do.
Maybe you have some catching up to do, too, because many of these films have gotten an extremely limited release, with small-to-nonexistent theatrical runs and streaming options that can get a little obscure. So in the interest of full transparency, I’m counting them down from 10 to 1 (10-6 today, 5-1 tomorrow), based on their Metacritic scores, to determine whether I find them “list-worthy” or the uninspired result of critical consensus.
Two important notes before I get started: 1. This was the Top 10 when I started the project over a month ago, and the rankings have shifted significantly in the time since. The most extreme case, the Canadian musical Come From Away, has fallen all the way down to #42. (For good reason, but we’ll get to that in a bit.) 2. Films that made the list but are not yet available to the general public are not included here, which leaves out a ton offestival favorites (Jane Campion’s The Power of the Dog, Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Memoria, Joel Coen’s The Tragedy of Macbeth, Todd Haynes’ The Velvet Underground) that will be rolling out in the next few months. So, if it ultimately seems I’m being a bit stingy on the list-worthiness front, it’s partly because many potentially strong entries are coming later.
10. Come From Away (dir. Christopher Ashley)
Current ranking: #42
How to watch: Apple TV +
Premise: Shortly after Broadway reopened from a year-long shuttering, cameras were brought in to film a live stage recording of Irene Sankoff and David Hein’s 2017 musical about Gander, a small town in Newfoundland that housed passengers from 38 planes stranded after flights were rerouted on 9/11.
Thoughts: A mostly no-frills piece of filmmaking like the recent Broadway-on-screen versions of Hamilton and American Utopia—though Spike Lee did add some subtle grace notes to the latter—Come From Away is only going to be as good as its material, which was fine enough to persuade many people not to recoil from the phrase “Canadian 9/11 musical.” The trick here is tone: How do you make a musical with a buoyant spirit while also registering the confusion and heartbreak of strangers separated from their loved ones and uncertain about the world they’re returning to? Sankoff and Hein’s answer is to emphasize the quirkiness and pluck of islanders who worked day and night to care for 7,000 people (and some animals) in a town of less than 12,000. The message of the musical is as obvious as it is irresistible: human beings are capable of answering an act of shocking terror and tragedy with compassion and whatever donuts are left over at Tim Horton’s. Ben Brantley called Come From Away “a big bearhug” in the New York Times, and its best quality is how the citizens of Gander interact (and sing) as one great organism of decency, modest but stout-hearted. On the other hand, I’m reminded a little of Futurama’s parody of M*A*S*H, where a robot surgeon has a toggle switch between “irreverent” and “maudlin.” (“This isn’t a war. This is a murder.”)
9. Days (dir. Tsai Ming-liang)
Current ranking: #17.
How to watch: Projectr (virtual cinema)
List-worthy?: On the cusp.
Premise: In Tsai’s latest portrait of urban alienation, his favorite star and muse, Lee Kang-sheng returns as a lonely man in Hong Kong seeking relief for chronic pain. Meanwhile, a Laotian immigrant (Anong Houngheuangsy) goes about his solitary routine in Bangkok. The two eventually cross paths.
Thoughts: Tsai has been one of my favorite working directors for two decades, even since I saw What Time is it There?, a meditation on grief and urban anomie shot a rigorous fixed-camera technique and long takes that were nonetheless infused with feeling (and, occasionally, deadpan humor). I’ve seen every feature he’s directed and like them all a great deal—The River, The Hole and Stray Dogs are my favorites, though critics like Nick Pinkerton have made a persuasive case for Goodbye, Dragon Inn—but I confess to missing the deftness and magic of What Time is it There? as Tsai has continued to pare down and minimize his effects. A title at the beginning of Days informs us that “this film is intentionally unsubtitled,” a choice that feels almost like an inevitability for Tsai and Lee, who prefer to express themselves in slight, silent gestures whenever possible. The film’s only two characters don’t come together until well after the first hour, as Tsai observes the lonely parameters of their lives—one suffering through treatments for neck and back pain, the other preparing a soup for himself in makeshift living quarters. But once Days does unite them, it’s an exceptionally beautiful, even sentimental, occasion, especially when Tsai takes a scene similar to The River and turns it to warmer ends. Not the ideal gateway—partly because of its extreme longueurs, partly because it feels so informed by Tsai and Lee’s career-long collaboration—but gorgeous nonetheless.
8. The Human Voice (dir. Pedro Almodóvar)
Current ranking: #16
How to watch: HBO Max
List-worthy?: N/A. It’s a short film.
Premise: Based on Jean Cocteau’s play, this 30-minute short stars Tilda Swinton as a woman waiting for an ex-lover to pick up his suitcases (and his dog) and getting increasingly agitated. She has an ax.
Thoughts: Formally impeccable. Beyond anything else here, I marveled at the precision of Almodóvar’s filmmaking, from small elements like the opening titles and the fussy particulars of wardrobe and set dressing to bigger conceptual touches like an apartment that’s built as a set on a soundstage, which has the effect of heightening her isolation, even as we’re aware of the artifice. “The Human Voice” is also a showcase for Swinton, who spends much of the short with AirBuds tucked in her ears, expressing her irritation to the ex on the other end of the line, who hasn’t the courtesy to turn up in person after four years. The ax comes out relatively early, and her fury only escalates from there, though “The Human Voice” is so thoroughly aestheticized that it has no actual emotional impact. It’s more of an art object, though an accomplished one.
7. The Father (dir. Florian Zeller)
Current ranking: #15
How to watch: Digital rental (Still $20!), or Showtime
List-worthy? Yes. It would have been #5 on my 2020 Top 10 list.
Premise: Anthony Hopkins stars as an 80-year-old whose dementia leaves him in a constant state of disorientation, upsetting his daughter (Olivia Colman) and caregivers, who struggle to manage his volatility.
Thoughts: So, for the first time in decades, I skipped a Best Picture nominee —the one that earned Hopkins what seemed like a shocker of Best Actor win over the late Chadwick Boseman—and it turns out to be the best film of the lot by far? There’s just no excuse for it, other than my blithe assumption that The Father would be a filmed play around a showy Hopkins performance and was not particularly essential to see in the glut of year-ending awards fodder. This was a massive error on my part. It’s an exceptionally good play, for one, plugged into the unique terror of a man whose world seems to change every day—relations, caregivers, even the flat in which he lives (and believes to be his) are mixed up and renegotiated. Such instability is perfect for the movies, which can scramble up time and space so deftly, and Keller, in his directorial debut, does so with breathtaking and often devastating elan. There are moments of cruelty here that are every bit as bracing as in Michael Haneke’s Amour, but Keller has a more sympathetic touch. (He would have to, really.) Anyone who’s dealt with a loved one whose life is starting to diminish, whether from dementia or not, will recognize Hopkins’ fury and vulnerability, and The Father handles it with a level of intimacy that I’ve never seen dramatized like this before. Perfect pairing with my #1 film of last year, Dick Johnson is Dead.
6. Wojnarowicz: F**k You F*ggot F*cker
Current ranking: #7
How to watch: Kino Now (virtual cinema)
List-worthy?: Honorable mention.
Premise: A documentary profile of the radical New York City artist, writer and activist David Wojnarowicz, whose work rankled the arts community until he died of AIDS at age 37.
Thoughts: One problem with the way audiences receive documentaries—which has arguably worsened as they’ve gained in popularity and expanded to multi-part series, many with a false patina of journalistic truth—is that their subject matter tends to get considered over their aesthetic qualities. I wrote about this years ago in an essay called “If documentaries want to be treated like movies, they need to behave like them,” and the issue will come up in Part II as I throw a small splash of cold water on the year’s most acclaimed piece of nonfiction filmmaking. But Wojnarowicz happens to be a case study in how to do a documentary profile right, which is particularly challenging when the subject is not around to speak for himself. Creator of a teeming archive of photographs, paintings, diary entries, and other artwork, David Wojnarowicz also recorded himself often on tape, which allows us to access his passion and anger directly. Chris McKim’s documentary brings in audio from his biographer Cynthia Carr and from old East Village art-world acquaintances like Fran Lebowitz, but it has no talking heads. Their observations are folded into a dense collage of the sort that Wojnarowicz himself might have produced, one bristling with pain over his traumatic past as an abused child and street hustler, and with anger over the systems that suppress his work and deny an epidemic that kills the people closest to him, like the artist Peter Hujar. Eventually, it kills him too.
Tomorrow: Part II, #5-1