The 10 best films of 2021
When the pandemic shuttered movie theaters in 2020 and upended movie studio release plans, it resulted in a year of smaller screens and smallish dramas. "Nomadland," "First Cow," "Sound of Metal" and "Never Rarely Sometimes Always" were exquisitely crafted and unforgettably haunting. But they weren't "Lawrence of Arabia."
The big screen came back in 2021, for a while, before Omicron reared its head and sent us back to streaming.
But regardless of where a film was shown this year, the most memorable movies were those of great ambition in which filmmakers took bold chances and made us forget the limitations of the day, expanding the scope of our world with peerless performances, timeless music and apocalyptic satire. The films may have been obliquely aware of the pandemic, but the beauty of the works on the list below — including the non-fiction titles — is that they derive their power not from current events but from a humanity that transcends the day's news. We will one day get past this pandemic, and these films allude to what awaits us there.
- "The Beatles: Get Back"
Peter Jackson's astonishing achievement invites viewers into The Beatles' final rehearsals and recording sessions, capped by what turned out to be their farewell group performance on the rooftop of Apple Studios on January 30, 1969. By bringing to light 55 hours of mostly-unseen film footage and 140 hours of audio recordings, Jackson's three-part film, spread over eight hours, takes a leisurely approach in which the personalities, tensions and camaraderie of the group are shown with unprecedented candor — rewriting the common assumptions we've made about the band's breakup and presenting instead a look at four extremely talented souls who enjoyed playing together (and did it better than anyone else).
The film expands on the history of the band beyond what was glimpsed in the 1970 documentary "Let It Be." It also does great service by revealing the enormous contributions of keyboardist Billy Preston, who sat in on the recording sessions as a sort of fifth Beatle, while also raising the question: What exactly was Yoko Ono doing there?
Younger audiences might not appreciate the film as much as their parents or grandparents who grew up with the Fab Four, but the film's intimacy and crisp look make it feel shockingly current, even though the events documented took place half a century ago. It even makes us forget, for a bit, that John Lennon and George Harrison are no longer with us. It's magic, to the core.
To watch a trailer, click on the video player below:
2. "Dune: Part One"
Denis Villeneuve has already proved his mettle on visionary science fiction with "Arrival" and "Blade Runner 2049" — smart dramas that created rapturous worlds which did not quite overwhelm the human actors (but did confront them head-on). So, he seems the ideal dramatist to take on Frank Herbert's mammoth 1965 sci-fi novel, which begat a series of sequels and off-shoots detailing the political and spiritual machinations of a universe thousands of years in the future.
But for all the exquisitely detailed world-building, the story is really that of a single individual, Paul (Timothée Chalamet), and his maturation from the son of Duke Leto, head of the House of Atreides, to the leader of a resistance movement on a barren planet (and, ultimately, a Messiah figure). It's a proper mythic hero's journey, a tale consumed not just with moral tests, political intrigue, betrayals and family bonds, but also dreams, witchcraft, advanced technologies and monstrous beasts.
While Herbert's stories have inspired visionary directors before (David Lynch concocted a beautifully detailed but over-stuffed version in 1984, and Alejandro Jodorowsky's conceived-but-never-filmed version has still earned cult appeal), Villeneuve's crew has done superlative work with production and costume design, cinematography, visual effects and editing that are better than we could have dreamed of, and with a cast that is as grand as the settings. And throughout the film's 2.5-hour running time, the exposition never really gets ahead of the audience, even for those unfamiliar with the arcane language of the books. It's a luscious, tactile big-screen epic, the kind they supposedly didn't make anymore. And now, we can look forward to "Part Two," the release of which is penciled in for October 2023.
3. "The Power of the Dog"
Jane Campion, an Oscar-winner for "The Piano," adapts Thomas Savage's 1967 Western novel about a particularly sadistic ranchman, Phil Burbank (a riveting Benedict Cumberbatch), whose petty cruelties against his brother and business partner, George (Jesse Plemons), ratchet up and spread to George's new wife, the widow Rose (Kirsten Dunst), and her sensitive son, Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee).
That Phil is a poisoning influence on his brother's new family is harrowing to Rose, but her fears of him increase when Phil's attitude toward Peter appears to turn from mockery to mentorship — is it a threat, or an expression of love? Cumberbatch's beguiling characterization leaves the audience on edge, especially once Phil feels he may have met his match with Peter, a young man who has learned to play his cards very close to his chest.
This is Campion's first feature in 12 years (since 2009's "Bright Star"), and it's a welcome return. While the film contains impressive shots of the New Zealand landscape (fulfilling the role of 1925 Montana), the camera's focus is primarily on the chamber drama of family dynamics being redrawn. The cast is uniformly excellent, as are the picture's technical credits and Johnny Greenwood's score.
4. "Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy," and 5. "Drive My Car"
Japanese director Ryûsuke Hamaguchi earned two spots on the list with two very different films that are both masterful, and show his talent at writing and teasing out performances of unusual delicacy.
The anthology film "Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy" is a trio of short stories that is remarkably deft at presenting characters that refuse to adhere to our expectations, whose lives, loves and obsessions turn on miscalculations or subterfuge. In the first story, a young woman reveals the story of her burgeoning love affair to the wrong person; in the second, a couple plot revenge against a renowned college professor; and in the third, a school reunion brings about a surprise meeting between two former schoolgirls. In addition to the delicately nuanced writing, the performances by the cast are expertly attuned to each other, raising emotions that never feel false or schematic.
"Drive My Car," adapted and expanded from a Haruki Murakami short story, is a three-hour tale of grief and forgiveness about a theater director, Yûsuke (Hidetoshi Nishijima), whose life has been upended by tragedy and an unfaithful partner. His refuge from the world has been the privacy of his car, a trusty old, red Saab. But when he travels to Hiroshima to direct a production of Chekov's "Uncle Vanya," he learns that he must allow a driver to chauffer him around.
What begins as a wary acquiescence to the young woman behind the wheel, Misaki (Tôko Miura), becomes (for driver and passenger) a revelation of secrets that have been the source of trauma for them both, and an avenue to acceptance of responsibility, pain and jealousy. The journey they each make acknowledging long-buried hurt is framed by rehearsals that, in a twist of fate, bring together Yûsuke and a young actor with whom his wife had had an affair. (Chekov would have approved.)
The drama is remarkably attuned to the tensions of two people forced to accommodate one another and who grow from the experience, and the film — despite its running time — never flags. In fact, it sails. ["Drive My Car" was named the year's best film by both the New York Film Critics Circle and the Los Angeles Film Critics Association.]
6. "Summer of Soul (...Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised)"
The Woodstock Music and Art Festival, held on a farm in Bethel, New York, in August 1969, became a cultural linchpin of the '60s thanks in part to the Oscar-winning Michael Wadleigh documentary film, which preserved its classic performances. But earlier that same summer, the Harlem Cultural Festival was held over several weekends in New York City, featuring a jaw-dropping lineup of jazz, blues, gospel and R&B artists (Stevie Wonder, B.B. King, Sly and the Family Stone, Mahalia Jackson, the Staples Sisters, and Gladys Knight and the Pips, to name just a few), with attendance reaching 300,000. Although it was meticulously staged and filmed, a "Black Woodstock" concert film could not find a buyer, and so the 45 hours of footage sat in a basement for five decades.
It could easily have ended up in a landfill, and the impact of the festival entirely forgotten, were it not for director Ahmir "Questlove" Thompson, bandleader of The Roots, who helped bring this event back to life. Learning from producers David Dinerstein and Robert Fyvolent that there had been a festival that rivaled Woodstock was a shock to him, he told Sundance Film Festival audiences: "How has this been forgotten? How did that happen in New York City and no history was preserved whatsoever?"
Thompson has shaped the documentary into a cultural artifact of a critical time in the life of New York City. The musical performances are joyous, the footage restoration is superb, and one can't help but smile when watching Bill Davis Jr. and Marilyn McCoo of The 5th Dimension smile as they watch themselves perform "Aquarius/Let the Sunshine In" 50 years later.
(Winner of the Grand Jury Prize and Audience Award at Sundance.)
7. "The Tragedy of Macbeth"
It is not so strange, given the Coen Brothers resumes' bubbling cauldron of crime and punishment, that Joel Coen's vivid telling of Shakespeare's bloody story of murder and revenge would work so well in dramatizing the naked ambition of Lady Macbeth (Frances McDormand) and her pliable husband (Denzel Washington).
Filmed in black-and-white on beautifully-abstract and shadowed sets that blur stagecraft with film noir, this is an invigorating addition to the cinematic Macbeths of Orson Welles, Akira Kurosawa and Roman Polanski. Washington's magnetic murderer is a jumble of pride, indecision, fury, and weakness in the face of supernatural forecasts, while McDormand (who first played Lady Macbeth at age 14) brings a tortured barrenness to her aging Lady's yearning for power. With a cast that includes Brendon Gleeson as Duncan, Corey Hawkins as Macduff, Bertie Carvel as Banquo and Harry Melling as Malcolm, the performances are forceful without being showy, while the verse is beautifully complemented by the movie's mystical incantations (Kathryn Hunter's witches are particularly chilling).
High praise goes to veteran Coen Brothers collaborators: production designer Stefan Dechant, cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel, costume designer Mary Zophres, sound designer Skip Livesay, and composer Carter Burwell. The film is a fleet 105 minutes, with images that will linger long after the final, black drop of blood is spilled.
In this touching dramedy (a multiple prize-winner at Sundance), Emilia Jones stars as Ruby, a young girl in Gloucester, Massachusetts, suffering from traditional teenage angst (mean girls drama, cute guy butterflies), which is made substantially more isolating because Ruby's mother, father and brother are deaf. ("CODA" stands for Child Of Deaf Adults.) For most of her life she has borne the responsibility of serving as translator between them and the hearing world, but the weight of that job, which turns increasingly crucial when the family opens its own fishing business, becomes potentially crushing once she decides to pursue her dream of singing — a talent that neither her parents (Marlee Matlin and Troy Kotsur, both excellent) nor brother (Daniel Durant) can appreciate.
Writer-director Siân Heder puts considerable weight upon Ruby's shoulders, and on occasion puts the audience in the shoes of Ruby's parents with heart-breaking effect. Jones is winning as a spirited but landlocked teen who just needs a confidence boost (enter music teacher Eugenio Derbez) to break out.
9. "Faya Dayi"
In this lyrical black-and-white documentary of Ethiopian khat harvesters, filmmaker Jessica Beshir observes the quiet lives of men and women who are in some ways touched by the cultivation, sale or use of the stimulant plant.
It's a film whose ephemeral beauty – of smoke, steam and water – frames the seeming narcotic haze of young people dreaming of migrating to a better life, or of older people attached to memories and regrets. Notwithstanding the sight of laborers toiling, it's languorous and sensual.
10. "Don't Look Up"
Adam McKay's Doomsday comedy jumbles absurdist humor with pointed satire about politics, social media, journalism, and a human willingness to avoid or rationalize away bad news — even when it's a comet several kilometers wide making a beeline for the only planet we have. And while some of the targets are easy (Meryl Streep's president might be funnier if her Oval Office narcissism and selfishness weren't so depressingly recognizable), the film's second half takes the premise of an impending planet-wide extinction event and reduces it to a very moving picture of human beings, stripped of power, facing the end with dignity, humor and love. (And yes, the vile characters get their comeuppance.)
The stellar cast is topped by Leonardo DiCaprio, Jennifer Lawrence, Timothée Chalamet, Rob Morgan, Jonah Hill and Melanie Lynskey, with Mark Rylance brilliantly scary as a sociopathic Silicon Valley CEO who has no compunction about risking the fate of every species on our planet in order to become much, much, much richer.
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