2021 began with hopes of returning to normalcy after the world was crippled by a deadly virus the previous year. Our expectations were not fully met, however, resulting in changes with viewing experiences as well as content produced by Hollywood. As Hollywood earns huge profits from established franchises at the expense of ingenuity, more high-quality features are being discovered from international filmmakers, as well as American indie directors. Several of the best movies of 2021 reflect an ideological crisis in the wake of Covid, with people seeking salvation and fulfillment in an everchanging world.
10. Summer of Soul (or when the Revolution could not be Televised) – Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson made his directorial debut covering the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival, a seasonal extravaganza showcasing the biggest names in black music from around the world. The rarely seen footage taken during the festival alone would have made for a highly entertaining concert movie. But by intercutting with testimonials from some of the performers, as well as patrons, Thompson elevates the material to paint a summer event as more than a respite from tumultuously divisive times. It would also serve as a venue for a community to joyfully embrace their racial heritage. What makes Summer such a powerful experience is not only its emphasis on the importance of cultural documentation, but also the beauty conjured from communal solidarity in our bleakest hours.
9. West Side Story – When Steven Spielberg announced that his long-awaited musical feature would be a remake of West Side Story, skeptical eyebrows were raised. Thankfully, his retelling of the Broadway classic proved the master still has it late in his career, creating a version arguably superior to the 1961 cinematic iteration. Spielberg’s vision is grittier, with moments of technicolor beauty overwhelmed by the monochromatic, dystopic decay of 1950s West Side New York, its inhabitants struggling to survive in a world where love is an impossibility and a better life than the gutter is unreachable. Staying true to the original story while adding moral ambivalence to its characters, this is one of Spielberg’s bleakest films in a long time.
8. Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy – Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy may have been overshadowed by his highly acclaimed Cannes release Drive My Car, but the former proves not only that the latter wasn’t a fluke, but also Hamaguchi as one of the most exciting directors coming out of Japan in years. Wheel is an anthology feature of three stories that would have served as compelling, standalone short films. The way the connecting themes of love, loss, roleplaying, and identity shift between each tale, however, proves engrossing, as we witness characters finding meaning and purpose through chance encounters and false aliases. Heartbreaking and uplifting in equal shares, this is a stirring treasure.
7. Annette – While not beloved by all critics, nor fans of Leos Carax, watching Annette was one of the more thrilling viewing experiences I had all year. The tragic tale of a volatile comedian (Adam Driver), his opera singer wife (Marion Cotillard), & their newborn infant, this is a rock opera through and through, with its familiar themes of toxic masculinity and abuse transposed into a contemporary setting. Yet at the same time, it winks at its audience, acknowledging the craft and artistry behind its classical plot, as exemplified by the stellar music from Ron and Russel Mael of “Sparks” fame. Equal shares Cocteau, Pink Floyd’s The Wall, & What’s Opera, Doc? its combination of irony and sincerity may polarize viewers, but it also makes Annette bolder and more adventurous than most Hollywood features today.
6. Drive My Car – Hamaguchi’s Drive My Car’s premise of a grieving actor (Hidetoshi Nishijima) developing a connection with his driver (Tōko Miura) while directing a play might sound like a corny tearjerker, and an excessive one at that with its run time of three hours. Yet its greatest strength is in how its topics emerge organically from the characters and backdrop. Rehearsing a co-international production of Chekov’s Uncle Vanya at Hiroshima, “Car” explores themes mentioned in Fortune and Fantasy, in addition to trauma, guilt, and the ability to process said emotions through the arts. Drive My Car is a deliberately paced, yet ultimately enriching experience.
5. Licorice Pizza – Paul Thomas Anderson’s Licorice Pizza works dually as a sweet coming-of-age story and a Valentine to 1970s Hollywood. Anderson never loses himself in romanticizing the period, however, acknowledging socially normalized sexism and racism, deliberating if it is possible for anyone to achieve the American Dream while staying true to themselves. That’s the question Alana (Alana Haim) and Gary Valentine (Cooper Hoffman) ask themselves as they drift aimlessly through L.A. with half-baked business schemes, encountering real life figures including an unhinged Jon Peters (Bradley Cooper) and closeted councilmember Joel Wachs (Benny Safdie). Emulating the offbeat heart of a Hal Ashby classic, it’s one of Anderson’s best and funniest films.
4. C’mon C’mon – The gentleness of C’mon C’mon is its greatest strength. This may sound like a hokey statement, but the voyages of a radio interviewer (Joaquin Phoenix) and his nephew (refreshing newcomer Woody Norman) speak candidly about challenging issues like mental illness, poverty, and climate change with intimate compassion. In lesser hands, it might have been a cheesy Hallmark Holiday movie, or a Rain Man knockoff, but writer/director Mike Mills gently observes his figures and their environment without ever veering towards the saccharine. You leave C’mon C’mon with a better understanding of the world and hopeful that love will aid our children in creating a better future.
3. The Power of the Dog – Based on the 1967 Thomas Savage novel, director Jane Campion is in top form here, lending her trademark visual style of striking landscapes and erotic closeups to a fable of a misogynistic, virulent rancher (Benedict Cumberbatch), and his efforts to destroy his sister-in-law (Kirsten Dunst) by taking her son (Kodi Smit-McPhee) under his wing. Campion’s direction lends a psychological component to her characters, as her marvelous cast contends with societal expectations, power dynamics and desires. Multi-faceted in its exploration of the fight for love & survival against a cruel world, The Power of the Dog is high-caliber cinema in every department.
2. The Worst Person in the World – The Worst Person in the World was one of the last films I saw before compiling my list, and I cannot express how delighted I was to catch this cinematic treasure. Centered on a love triangle between a young woman, an older cartoonist, and a married man, writer/director Joachim Trier strikes the perfect balance in portraying his leads as deeply flawed human beings, while also attaining the audience’s affinity. These are people who test their fidelitious boundaries & bemoan over their highly controversial comic strip being sanitized into family entertainment, but we sympathize with them because of their search for connection and legacy. Filled with laugh-out-loud moments, yet equally heartbreaking by its third act, Worst Person never gives us easy answers, but like C’mon C’mon, its message is ultimately hopeful & life-affirming. An instant classic.
1. Petite Maman – 2021 was an excellent year for women directors, with highly praised work ranging from veterans such as Campion, to up and coming auteurs like Maggie Gyllenhaal (The Lost Daughter), Julia Ducornau (Titane), and Audrey Diwan (Happening). Yet I cannot think of one whose career has so quickly elevated themselves alongside the greatest like Céline Sciamma. Her follow-up to Portrait of a Lady on Fire, Petite Maman’s story of a girl making a friend while staying at her late grandmother’s house is a deceptively simple one, clocking in at a mere 70 minutes, yet uses every minute to explore profound motifs of generational division, the act of letting go, and a bond between mother and daughter. Quietly moving and enchanting, it is a masterwork from the already legendary Sciamma.