in Top Ten

After the big black hole of nothing that was movies last year, 2021 couldn’t help but feel like a step up in comparison. But regardless of that, this did feel like an especially great year for movies, possibly because so many good ones were delayed and finally released under the best possible circumstances. Though of course, those circumstances still weren’t perfect, since there are plenty of movies I wasn’t able to see since Omicron forced me to spend a lot less time over the holidays in movie theaters than I was planning on. Also, as is the case even in a normal year, some arthouse or foreign films are just an ordeal to see or they don’t get released properly until February.  So to the likes of Red Rocket, The Worst Person In The World, Parallel Mothers, and The Souvenir: Part II, guess we’ll have to acquaint ourselves some other time.

Honorable Mentions:
C’Mon C’Mon
The Tragedy of Macbeth
Tick Tick… Boom!
Bergman Island

10. Passing

This year was a pretty good one for striking black and white films. The Tragedy of Macbeth may have been the most striking of all, but Rebecca Hall’s directorial debut’s source material was a little easier for me to sink my teeth into. That said, the film takes kind of an odd approach to depicting the disparities that happen when two Black women decide to take divergent paths in embracing their own identity. It’s a decidedly meditative little film, never becoming overwrought in the moral quandary at the center of it, but instead letting its characters soak in its loose themes while bathed in its gorgeous photography.

9. The French Dispatch

A film that I get the feeling was a little too clinical for some people, and that’s totally fine. Though I would also argue that the film has the same sneaky amount of heart underneath all of its cinematic over-perfections that the best of Wes Anderson’s work has. After all, each of these vignettes contained within the film is about the reporters from this fictional newspaper trying to do the best work that they can while also getting caught up in the messy imperfections of human emotion. But besides that, it’s also just a wonderfully constructed ode to a very specific kind of journalism made by a very specific kind of filmmaker.

8. In The Heights

Honestly, this movie probably isn’t as good as I remember and maybe wouldn’t make this list if I saw it again. However, it’s just impossible for me to separate In The Heights from the fact that it was the first film I saw in theaters since February 2020, and the high I felt coming out of the theater was unlike any other I’ve experienced. I think this was due to the fact that the musical has the potential to be the most cinematically joyous genre (which we’ll revisit later) and the maximalist nature of this Lin-Manuel Miranda adaptation hits every sweet spot of what you would want out of a movie musical. Again, I’m sure this is just me saying this through the mindset of being drunk off of being in a movie theater for the first time in forever, but it’s still an experience I cherish and one that makes me wish the many great musicals that were released this year had actually made the impact they deserved.

7. The Power of The Dog

My only other exposure to Jane Campion was reviewing one of her films for Criterion Month, so I’m still having a little trouble grasping her signature touches as a filmmaker. This is especially true when a film like The Power of The Dog is so elusive in what it’s trying to say and in how it paints its characters. Benedict Cumberbatch’s always-questionable American accent actually works quite well here, since he’s playing a character who is charismatic but also unknowable, making it hard for anyone to penetrate his gruff exterior. Seeing as this is Campion’s first film in over a decade, it’s a testament to how even the legendary women directors don’t get to carve out the kind of filmographies as their male counterparts, but hopefully, this film’s visibility on Netflix doesn’t mean we’ll have to wait another decade for Campion’s next film.

6. Pig

Always nice to just sit down in a theater and not really know where a film is going to take you. I don’t think I’d ever say I’m someone in the cult of Nicholas Cage, but I do always love the manic energy the guy brings to the screen, even if I’ve been pretty checked out on whatever the hell he’d been doing in the decade or so before this movie. Anyways, most of Cage’s high-strung antics are almost nonexistent in his performance here, yet the movie still manages to embody the kind of absurdity that the man reeks of. And beneath all that there’s still a solemnness and a wrestling with loss that the movie gets at surprisingly effectively in its own weird way.

5. Licorice Pizza

As breezy as this film may look on the surface, it’s still one I’m wrestling with a bit since I saw it the other night. Which honestly, is not a surprise. I’ve seen the past five Paul Thomas Anderson films in theaters, and every single time I’m never quite sure what I just watched after coming out of it. Granted, there is something a little more digestible here than say, The Master or Inherent Vice, in it’s sometimes funny, sometimes strange account of a teenage actor growing up in the San Fernando Valley in the early 1970s and his friendship (that he wishes was more than a friendship) with a woman in her 20s. The age difference is obviously hard to know what to make of, and I honestly don’t begrudge anyone put off by it. However, I found that the way the movie navigates this uneasy relationship in so many revealing and specific ways makes for a coming-of-age tale not quite like any other I’ve seen.

4. The Green Knight

Speaking of films not quite like any other I’ve seen, The Green Knight felt like the kind of visionary epic that doesn’t have much right to exist in our current movie landscape. Maybe chalk it up to David Lowery’s ability to navigate the lines in between mainstream cinema and his more indie roots. Heh, roots. Makes me think of that scary tree guy (aka the titular character). Obviously, I’m stalling a bit because I don’t have anything new to say about this movie. It’s just weird, atmospheric, visually overwhelming, and a wonder for your eyes and brain to feast on.

3. Drive My Car

It being a 3-hour film with no overt hook from a director that I’d only vaguely heard of almost kept me from seeing Drive My Car, but I’m sure glad I got in the passenger seat. It’s a story that feels small and intimate and yet there’s so much that happens between the film’s limited cast of characters that you feel like you’ve gone on this huge emotional journey by the end of it. Some of it is a bit heart-wrenching and sometimes a bit overwrought, but considering the way the film is so much about acting and drama and the way we frame our own lives in the context of this great narrative, it all feels of a finely-tuned piece. Also, he just has a really cool car. Easily one of the most iconic ones I’ve seen in a movie in a while.

2. Summer of Soul (…Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised)

An instant classic music doc that feels like it should’ve been made decades ago. However, I think you could easily argue that the power of hindsight makes this documentary even more thrilling, especially when seeing the interviews with those who were actually at the Harlem Cultural Festival, a festival that had every right to be as mythologized as Woodstock. With a line-up of artists consisting of Nina Simone, Stevie Wonder, B.B. King, and Sly and The Family Stone at the peak of their powers, the performances are unsurprisingly great. However, the way the film places the festival in the context of everything crazy that was going on in not just the Black community, but the world at large in 1969, really makes the doc feel like its capturing a truly magic moment that had been hidden away for all these years.

1. West Side Story

Would not have predicted this being my number one film of the year, since I was initially a bit resistant to the idea of remaking such a classic. However, I became a little more receptive to Steven Spielberg’s adaptation of this revered musical once I saw conversations happening about how the 1962 film version has some major representation issues. This film not only remedies that in a lot of ways, but it’s also just a more visually thrilling adaptation of the material, to the point where I have been questioning whether this version is actually better. Either way, though West Side Story has never been my favorite movie musical, it does have maybe my favorite collection of songs in a musical, so seeing a master like Spielberg realize in such a thrilling way is flat-out the type of thing we go to the movies for. I’m especially glad I was able to see this one on the big screen, right before Omicron started to surge and theaters started to look a little less hospitable. Also, wish I could’ve seen it at least one more time in theaters, since more than any other film from 2021, I can’t wait to see it again.