2021 was a year that brought about strife not unlike the kind America went through over the course of 2020, from a seemingly ceaseless pandemic and an ongoing standstill between political parties over a myriad of issues to tensions amongst subgroups of society and a mental health crisis on the rise. It was for that reason in particular that a retrospective of this sort was not produced last year, as the start of the current decade left this critic feeling despondent about his place in the field of cinema and what the future of the medium would hold, given the uncertainty over movie theaters’ survival and the state of online discourse. Nevertheless, we endure, and for those that ventured back out into society upon getting the COVID-19 vaccine, 2021 was a year of reunitement. The vaccinated were able to see our friends and families in-person after some time away, had life experiences that were postponed a year prior, and congregated once again in the places they hold dear. The latter for this critic is the movie theater, and the silver screen boasted a plethora of phenomenal films that rejuvenated moviegoers’ passions for cinema, transported us to wondrous new worlds, reunited us with our favorite characters and asked questions about societal norms from the past, monstrous ne’er do wells, and the nature of our inner spirit. Here is a brief look back at the year in cinema that was, and a list of the ten best films of 2021.
Worst Films of the Year (from 5-1): The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It, Jungle Cruise, Prisoners of the Ghostland, Dear Evan Hansen, Music
Biggest Disappointments: Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, Malcolm & Marie, Halloween Kills, Antlers, House of Gucci
Most Overlooked Surprises: The Night House, Lucky, Swan Song (Todd Stephens), Faya Dayi, Cyrano
Honorable Mentions: Annette, The Harder They Fall, Flee, Last Night In Soho, The Mitchells vs. The Machines
10. The Power of the Dog
Based on the novel by Thomas Savage, Jane Campion’s first film in over a decade follows Phil Burbank, a rancher in 1925 Montana that’s well-liked by his brother George (Jesse Plemons) and his peers yet intimidates anyone he deems as weak, such as widow Rose Gordon (Kirsten Dunst) and her son Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee). But George soon marries Rose after George empathetically begins to help her run her restaurant, allowing Phil to cause more psychological torture that drives Rose to drinking. It’s up to Peter to stop Phil’s harassment, and his journey toward harnessing the titular ‘power of the dog’ in his own way is slow but rife with tension from beginning to end thanks to a score from Jonny Greenwood that implements sounds from the time period to underline Rose’s inner torment, Phil’s toxicity, and even Peter’s silent but dangerous cunning.
What makes The Power of the Dog fascinating, however, is its writing and direction. The script retains a chapter structure not unlike its literary material, with every segment slowly but surely pulling back layer after layer of Phil as a character to reveal what’s going on underneath his masculine surface. And while Cumberbatch displays a level of menace audiences have never seen before, he balances it out in the film’s most intimate moments with a reserve and silent longing. Meanwhile, Smit-McPhee breaks through with a predominantly quiet performance of his own, observing Phil’s tenaciousness and his mother’s suffering with facial expressions that illicit unease, further implying there’s more to Peter than his lanky stature and penchants for art and anatomy. Cinephiles everywhere hope Jane Campion takes less than 12 years to make her next film, because her return with The Power of the Dog is a tight deconstruction of the Western hero archetype and a thoughtful exploration of masculinity.
The conversation surrounding mass shootings has often been difficult to make a movie about, with most filmmakers electing to depict such atrocities as they happen, but Mass smartly and compellingly tackles it with an unflinching, intimate focus on two sets of parents left behind to have a reconciliation meeting in real time where they discuss a tragedy involving their sons from every angle, from intimate subjects like their friendship and a relocation to the universal issues of gun violence and mental illness. It’s a heavy topic that must be handled with care, and that’s why the film’s thoughtful script takes the time to show church employees setting the room up for such a meeting.
This delicate but unflinching approach extends to the direction; it’s easy for a film shot predominantly in one location to come off feeling too much like a stage play, but in his directorial debut, Fran Kranz makes the assured choice to shoot the film handheld when tensions between the two sets of parents reach a boiling point, bookended by camerawork achieved through steady movements on a tripod. Twists and turns come in the form of not only the revelations its characters reveal on the way to their conversation’s conclusion, but also in the acting ensemble that wears the intentions of each character on their sleeves as naturally as they slowly but surely convey their regrets, sadness, grief, confusion and anger in the span of just under two hours. Mass is a raw, powerful film that cannot be missed.
Tsai Ming-Liang’s newest film, Days, takes a slow, meditative and intimate approach to its story following two men from separate social classes going about their days isolated from the hustle and bustle of modern-day Taiwan until their eventual encounter. What makes Days fascinating on its own merits, however, are its motifs and minimalism. As director, Tsai uses the human body as a metaphor for pain and water as a motif for dealing with ostracization, whether it’s physical, emotional, or societal.
Meanwhile, the atmospheric use of diegetic sound and long, static shots of the two characters living their daily lives allows viewers to ponder what’s going on in their minds in a given scene, and immerse themselves in their respective pain amongst loneliness and strength in seclusion. That’s also what makes Days a timely film for the pandemic era; in days of constant solitude, what’s important are the connections we make and our memories of them. Days may test the patience of casual moviegoers, but the open-minded and visually literate will be moved by the power of the nuanced performances from its actors, be submerged into the commotion of Taipei, and reflect on the fleeting connections they’ve had in the past. Days is truly one of the year’s most remarkable films.
7. Red Rocket
Sean Baker’s latest is a darkly funny and frighteningly illuminating character study of Mikey Saber (Simon Rex), a former adult film actor returning to his home in the boonies of Gulf Coast Texas with the intent of grifting his wife, her mother, and everyone he crosses out of money for the sake of enriching himself and getting his life and career back on track. The script is brilliantly written to expose Mikey’s narcissism and monstrousness slowly but surely as the film goes along, succeeding in making viewers empathize with the residents of this segment within flyover country by juxtaposing it with something significantly worse.
And Simon Rex looks to be thriving in this role as Mikey wheels, deals, manipulates and flirts with everyone he crosses with an infectious and natural charisma and energy. What’s also worth noting is that the grain of the super 16mm anamorphic cinematography only adds to the uninviting location and the film’s raw, realistic tone; making colors more saturated and moody shadows which only add to the romance and its uneasy suggestiveness. To that point, Baker goes to some cleverly funny lengths to condemn Mikey for his disgusting nature; moments between him and Strawberry start out feeling wondrous in their intimacy thanks to the color palette and montage style of editing, only to quickly cut to a repulsive act between them to keep any and all perceptions back to reality. It may take some time for things to finally go south for Mikey, but when they do, the results are horrifying yet fascinating to watch.
6. Summer of Soul (…or, When The Revolution Could Not Be Televised)
Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson’s first foray into filmmaking unearths footage from the Harlem Culture Festival, where Black musicians of all genres gathered to perform in front of giant crowds for six weekends during the summer of 1969. As director, Questlove has festival attendees recall their experiences of living in Harlem at the time, attending the festival and what it meant to them in nostalgic detail, while having musicians watch their own concerts and openly reflect on the lifetime of oppression they faced in the industry and their lives in moments of genuine power.
Meanwhile, the use of slow cross dissolves and superimpositions in the editing room show all at once the large size of the festival’s crowds, the energetic body language of the artists involved, and the strong emotions they felt and conveyed on stage. Audiences will be informed about what went into Black fashion and trends of the time period, discover the minds behind classic songs they hadn’t been placed before, learn about the genesis of several classic songs, and understand how the ideals of African-American culture evolved with their music and history. Summer of Soul is a fascinating look at the Black experience during a time not unlike our own, a rallying cry for another event like the Harlem Culture Festival in these times, and the year’s best documentary.
5. West Side Story
Where to begin with this? The timeless music and lyrics of Broadway legends Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim respectively are made new again as they retain the old Hollywood spirit of breathtaking choreography and singing while merging it with the sensibilities of modern filmmaking; resulting in some of the most dynamic and beautiful images to grace the silver screen this year. Examples come when Anita and Bernardo’s silhouettes reflect in the laundry hanging on their balcony during a private conversation, and again when the lights of the city behind Tony reflect in the water he’s leapt into while singing about the girl he just met named Maria.
And Maria’s fiery personality, naiveté and exuberant youth are portrayed with unbelievably powerful vocals and impeccable range by Rachel Zegler, whose breakout performance here is poised to make her a star to watch going forward. In addition to the visuals, the modernization of the source material extends to its thematic ideas in this iteration; from its exploration on gentrification and the outcomes it has on all the subgroups it effects to its melancholy truths about the polarized state of America today; proposing that the only way our disagreements can be settled is for one side to understand the other’s pain. There may be spots where a certain lead actor’s off-screen allegations make his performance feel disingenuous, but those are few and far between in what is a wondrous epic about the majestic power of love’s refrain, racial tensions and class struggles, as well as a film that reminds us of the spectacle of cinema, its power as an art form, and Steven Spielberg’s genius as a filmmaker.
4. The Tragedy of Macbeth
It’s no secret that between him and Ethan, Joel is the dramatic half of the Coen Brothers, because his solo run directing The Tragedy of Macbeth succeeds at adapting the classic Shakespeare play and its ruminations on sacrificing humanity for high power and societal standing while maintaining its unsettling, medieval feel with powerful minimalism, gorgeous black-and-white cinematography and a performance from Denzel Washington that ranks among his best. Read the full review HERE.
Spencer is described in the beginning as ‘A fable from a true tragedy’, that being the unfortunately too-short life of Diana, Princess of Wales, with the fable acting as the film’s fictionalized account of three holidays in three straight days during the 1991 Christmas season. Pablo Larrain’s latest proposes that the pressure Diana bore in order to live by the high standards of the Royal Family spurned the disintegration of her marriage to Prince Charles, and Kristen Stewart conveys the horrific toll it takes on Diana’s mind in the singular best performance of the year. She slips into the role with more than just an authentic British accent; she displays Diana’s free spirit and its subsequent suffocation in every scene with looks of torture on her face as she reads about the tragedies surrounding past queens of England, and refuses to stomach the refined meals she is served yet doesn’t want, while speaking to commoners with restrained helplessness, and playing games in secret with her sons in few moments of genuine humanity.
Larrain himself is aware of Diana’s mental state, because his camera constantly follows her from a distance while she meanders down the halls of her palace as if he wants to help her but doesn’t know how, because moving closer towards her only emphasizes her imprisonment. This is further embodied by Larrain’s creative storytelling motifs, from pheasant birds and real-life figure Anne Boleyn to signify victimhood to the pearls around her neck representing restriction. The story may hit its redundant points from time to time, but Spencer is constantly hypnotic thanks to a cold atmosphere that turns unsettling by the high, screeching strings in Jonny Greenwood’s score, as well as the subtle nuances of the actors around its phenomenal lead.
2. Licorice Pizza
The mileage may vary for those uncomfortable with problematic aspects of the subject matter, but those open-minded and willing to think critically about them with nuance will not be disappointed with Paul Thomas Anderson’s look at high school in the San Fernando Valley circa-1973. Licorice Pizza is an endearing coming of age story that makes honest comedy from the freedoms of the 70s, zeroing in on why they ultimately set Gary and Alana’s relationship on trajectory toward tragedy, and pointing out how absurd said freedoms are with impeccable hindsight. Read the full review HERE.
Memoria is the new film from Thai auteur Apichatpong Weerasethakul (herein referred to as Joe), and it sees Tilda Swinton as Jessica, an anthropologist who hears a strange, monstrous noise that arises her from sleep one morning. After it continues to haunt her in her waking life, she enlists the help of a sound engineer and an archaeologist among other locals in order to retain her peace of mind and comprehend the sound’s source. The film is glacially slow and comprised of mostly static shots, but they’re articulately crafted to immerse spectators into the ethereal atmosphere of a given scene, to the point where one feels like they’re an invisible witness to Jessica’s life in Bogotá, Colombia. The sound design only adds to the visceral tone whether it’s through the diegetic ambiences of the city in addition to its nearby jungle, the incendiary sound effects that startle Jessica from out of nowhere, or a literal symphony of car alarms going off one after the other.
The shot compositions also give Memoria interpretations on transcendentalist and metaphysical levels, such as when construction workers forage through an underground tunnel surrounded in darkness as if they’re being judged by the watchful eye of an omnipotent deity, or wide shots that follow Jessica and her colleagues like an ominous apparition longing to return to the physical realm, experience human contact and listen to its favorite song again. Joe’s latest work feels haunting from beginning to end as viewers are taken on an introspective journey that asks questions about memory, man’s relationship with the environment as well as their current surroundings, and the nature of the spirit all the way up to an ending that’ll have audiences second guessing everything that preceded it. Say what you will about its release strategy, but patient cinephiles will be rewarded when the film makes its way to their city, because this meditative masterpiece begs to be seen on the biggest screen possible, yet translates wonderfully to smaller screens as well. Memoria transcends the experience of movie watching by challenging our mind and spirit to slow down and experience life in the present moment, and that’s why it’s the best film of 2021.