The Best Films of 2021

The year 2021 was my first full year of being an accredited film critic, and what a year it was for movies. Big studio films had delayed distribution in the year 2020, building up hype for: A Quiet Place II, No Time to Die, and Ghostbusters: Afterlife. At the same time, the pandemic created opportunities for indie filmmakers to try out experimental techniques and play with pandemic-inspired stories that capitalized on the public's fears and sense of isolation: Bo Burnham's Inside, Ben Wheatley's In the Earth, or Sam Levinson's Malcolm & Marie. While there were seemingly twice as many movies to review, the variety of stories released makes choosing a top list even more difficult.

As a film critic, I have the privileged task of trying to sort out this variety and make a best-of list. When creating this list, I consider three factors: the quality of the filmmaking, the entertainment value of the movie, and the personal impact it had on me as a person. While I try to factor these equally, I always prioritize the third factor most. I value stories that rock my world in one way or another. These stories transport me to a new place or help me see things in a new light.

The Best of the Best  

C'Mon C'Mon, directed by Mike Mills (A24)

C'mon C'mon is this year's Honey Boy for me. Johnny, an emotionally stunted man who goes around the country interviewing kids about their hopes and fears for the future, has to take care of his impressionable nephew in this emotionally intense and lyrical film shot in black-and-white. When his sister needs to step away to take care of her mentally ill partner, Uncle Johnny agrees to take care of his nephew, Jesse. Johnny has to adapt quickly to his role as Manny. He quickly realizes how inadequate he is as a caregiver. Yet as their short stay turns into a longer time together, he learns that taking care of Jesse really means learning to face many emotions he has stuffed down in himself. Bring a few hankies just in case. The film includes Malick-esque montages and features a strong sense of place as the pair visit different locales in the US. Full review here.

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CODA, directed by Sian Heder (Apple TV)

In this sweet coming-of-age story, Ruby is the sole hearing member of an all-deaf family. The family rely on Ruby to help them navigate conversations with the hearing world about everything from their fishing business to their medical visits, but Ruby has her own dreams of being a singer. When she gets the opportunity to attend a music conservatory, Ruby feels torn between her desires and her obligations to the family. The movie is packed with situational humor which arises because of the family's disability. The tender displays of fierce love and affection between Ruby and each of her family members will break your heart. While Emilia Jones as Ruby is a breakout performance for sure, Ruby's parents, played by Troy Kotsur and Marlee Matlin, made me weep in this celebration of music, finding your voice, and family.

Dune, Part 1, directed by Denis Villeneuve (Warner Brothers)

Every year needs a big spectacle picture, and for me, this year it's Dune. This visionary science fiction picture immerses us with symphonic and sensory cinematic techniques. For 2.5 hours, I was transported, never asking what time it was or looking at my watch. Part 1 makes use of world-building techniques -- panoramic shots, entrancing music, and novel modes of transport – to boggle the mind. Paul comes into his own and tries to understand the domains around him. From a technical merit, this has all the mesmer one could ask for. Sure there's more world-building than story but there's enough to sway us to follow Paul and the Fremen into the desert, anticipating the next chapter.

The Green Knight, directed by David Lowery (A24)

David Lowery's atmospheric and surreal fantasy is loosely based on the Arthurian legend of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Viewers who expect a traditional hero's journey are in for a surprise. In this cautionary tale, Gawain learns the hard way that there are no shortcuts to being the stuff of legends. Gawain accepts a challenge to play a game with the tree-like Green Knight and must travel to the Green Chapel in one year to complete his end of the bargain. Gawain is hardly a role model for a would-be knight, and at each step, he must choose whether to follow the path of vice or virtue. The story subverted my expectations in every way and really inspired one of the best film discussions I had all year.

The Humans, directed by Stephen Karam (Hulu)

I am realizing that one of my favorite tropes is the "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner" type of picture where people converge in one spot to prepare and share a meal together. Richard and Brigid have just moved in together at a crummy New York basement apartment. They invite Brigid's family for Thanksgiving dinner. The festivities are just as awkwardly sweet as you would expect, with characters who are believable, flawed, sympathetic, and relatable. Secrets are revealed, conflicts brew, and alliances are made and challenged. The apartment becomes an extra character. The walls are beset by cracks and water stains. One can hear groans that rival a haunted house. When you enter a house one the brink of ruin, you have to hope it has a strong foundation that can weather the storms -- just like a family. An ensemble cast of Richard Jenkins, Jayne Houdyshell, Steven Yeun, Beanie Feldstein, Amy Schumer, and June Squibb all put in equal heft, and each has a shining moment.

Mass, directed by Fran Kranz (Bleeker Street)

Four people arrive for a difficult conversation in the backroom of a church that all of them have agreed to, but which everyone is dreading. The two couples are connected by a school shooting that happened years ago. The film chronicles what happens during this tense meeting. Not a moment is wasted in this minimalist picture that still manages to have one of the best screenplays of the year and four of the rawest performances. Kranz takes an issue ripped from the headlines and strips away the politics and grandstanding. Every viewpoint and assumption will be challenged. Remember to breathe when you watch.

Nine Days, directed by Edson Oda

In this existentialist and high-concept fantasy set in an unknown realm between heaven and earth, men and women take on the role of deciding which souls will earn a chance at life. These souls apply for the position as if it were a vacancy. And the bureaucrats in charge watch from a distance all through their lives. When Will's favorite charge, a violin prodigy named Angela, dies unexpectedly, Will must fill her spot with one of the souls who shows up at his home, eager to please. At the same time, Will begins to review Angela's footage, trying to decipher how this happened. Many of the actors give fine performances, but the wow factor goes to Winston Duke and his final monologue.


Pig
, directed by Michael Sarnoski

A total shocker of a film in all the good ways possible. When a man's truffle pig is stolen, he enters the seedy underground world of chefs and restaurant workers to reacquire his stolen property and best friend. The mystery of Rob's identity never fully gets answered, but the impact his full name has on the people he seeks out for clues makes for much of the fun of this film. This role allows Nicolas Cage to shine in unexpected ways. He gives a muted and meditative performance that will not be quickly forgotten. Full review here.

One for the Road, directed by Nattawawut Poonpiiya (Undistributed so far)

This road trip movie combines friendship, true love, cocktails, and music into a love letter to the people we meet and love, even if it's for a short season. When Boss' estranged friend, Aood, calls him out of the blue to tell him he has cancer, Boss agrees to go on a trip with Aood to visit all of his ex-girlfriends one last time. The fun bouncy story morphs halfway through into something much deeper. The truly satisfying ending may have you longing for a trip to the coast as soon as possible. A New York Sour for the road, please.


Spencer, directed by Pablo Larrain (NEON)

This surreal drama takes place over the course of three days as Princess Diana spends the Christmas holidays with the royal family at Sandringham Estate. As Diana tries to maximize her time with her boys and minimize her interactions with the rest of the family, she contemplates her failed marriage and her childhood at the Park House, which is just past the fence. This tension-filled picture keeps you wondering if Diana will eat anything. While we know how the story plays out in real life, Larrain focuses on Diana's perspective and how she might have felt during these pivotal days. Kristen Stewart fully immerses herself into becoming the people's princess. The film is shot like a horror movie with creepy music, a looming estate, a ghost from the past, and disturbing imagery. Podcast review here.

Honorable Mentions

The Mitchells vs the Machines, directed by Michael Rianda

So good! The snappy humor, awkward family dynamics, and the visually challenged dog pulled me in. Perfect for family viewing and nicely wedded to the current cultural climate, viewers will automatically fall in love with this rise of the machines animated feature.

The Night House, directed by David Bruckner (Searchlight)

Beth spirals after her husband Owen commits suicide. Her mourning process begins in a normal way: she drinks wine and watches videos of their memories together. Her sanity begins to fray, however, when she begins to suspect that a ghostly presence has entered the house. All signs point to this being the case, and Beth wonders if Owen has found a way to come back to her. At the same time, as she begins the painful process of sorting through Owen's things, she uncovers secrets about her husband that rock her to the core. Viewers tired of the variety of horror built on jump scares or chainsaw massacres will relish this film that deals more with the terror of the mind than the body. This movie dropped at a difficult point in my life and grieving along with Beth was quite therapeutic. Full review here.

The Novice, directed by Lauren Hadaway (IFC)

In this psychological drama, a freshman tries out for her college rowing team and sets out to be the best on the team, no matter the cost. Few understand the physical toll rowing crew takes on the body. Injuries can happen in almost any region of the body. The Novice attempts to show viewers the brutal reality in a visceral way. While initially we root for Alex Dall, who presents as an underdog, over time, it's harder to accept her choices as healthy. Dall's journey of obsession keeps the viewer hanging on by a thread, captivated by her every move. While it's horrible to witness, there's no denying our draw to her one-of-a-kind psyche. Lauren Hadaway is able to build empathy for this twisted and driven character, which makes her a director to watch. Interview with director

Violation, directed by Dusty Mancinelli and Madeleine Sims-Fewer (Shudder)

With brain-searing imagery, Violation unspools the carefully orchestrated revenge plot of a woman who feels helpless after a traumatic event. With no safe place to land after, she takes matters into her own hands in a methodical, chilling way. While the subject matter of sexual assault, murder, and gaslighting, makes this a triggering picture in every way, I can't deny that Violation was the movie that haunted me the most this year. I watched it multiple times, interviewed the directors, and watched everything they had made before. This movie shows the true cost of revenge on the body and soul. Full review here.

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