David’s Top 10 Films of 2021

We don’t get a lot of things to really care about; here are some movies.

As usual — apologies to all of the critically acclaimed films I haven’t gotten to see yet, including Licorice Pizza, The Lost Daughter, The Worst Person in the World, CODA, Nightmare Alley, Mass, Drive My Car, Red Rocket, Annette, Titane, and surely many more. This list is mine — my own! My precious! (Happy 20th Anniversary to The Fellowship of the Ring, by the way.)

Time for Honorable Mentions!

  • Encanto: Disney’s 60th animated feature is a charmer, bursting with color and heart and subverting the Disney formula in a few key ways. It’s not a “journey of discovery”; there are no animal sidekicks; and though its storytelling is pure magical realism, it’s rooted in the realities of Columbian life and history. With catchy songs (Lin-Manuel Miranda) and a winning performance from Stephanie Beatriz, it’s one of the studio’s best efforts of the past decade. (Reviewed in November).
  • The Father: The first of two 2021 Oscar nominees (thanks to the COVID-extended eligibility window) listed here, and much more than a staid chamber piece. Florian Zeller adapts his own play into something transformationally cinematic, utilizing shifting set design and clever editing to intentionally disorient his audience, putting us in the shoes of a stubborn man (Best Actor winner Anthony Hopkins) raging against the dying of his inner light. (Reviewed in April)
  • The French Dispatch: Every meticulously-composed frame of Wes Anderson’s latest is jam-packed with detail, dizzyingly technical, and maximalist to a fault. It’s also more than the sum of its parts — a celebration of craft, and the joy of a creative enterprise where everyone feels like they have a voice, and the satisfaction of sharing it with the rest of the world. (Reviewed in November)
  • The Last Duel: It sucks that this bleak and troubling chamber drama for the #MeToo era is apparently the year’s biggest flop, because it’s also a pretty great movie with a lot to say about masculinity through the ages, acted to near-perfection by Adam Driver, Jodie Comer, Matt Damon, and Ben Affleck, and lensed by a legendary director who hasn’t yet run out of inventive ways to stage a bloody sword fight. (Reviewed in October)
  • The Matrix Resurrections: Lana Wachowski’s return to the groundbreaking franchise is The Sequel as sentient creation, an epic poem for the Too Online, a far more satisfying coda than the dreary chaos of Revolutions, and — naturally — I loved it. It deftly balances a furious, meta diatribe against the numbing sameness of our cultural landscape with a warm and sincere romance. No small feat. (Reviewed in December)
  • Nine Days: A high-concept, meditative feature debut from Edson Oda, Nine Days makes a fascinating companion piece to Pixar’s Soul: similarly interested in not the Great Beyond, but the Great Before, and how much of what makes you you is innate, rather than nurtured or formed. But it’s the performances that must transcend the staginess of the film’s conceit, and the Yale-trained Winston Duke especially delivers, right down to the film’s exuberant, if bittersweet, final shot. (Reviewed in November)
  • No Sudden Move: Glory be, it’s a new caper from Steven Soderbergh! Don’t mistake this, however, for a breezy Ocean’s film — this time the highly prolific director offers something darker in tone and palette. A bevy of great performances from Benicio del Toro, Kieran Culkin, Don Cheadle, Brendan Fraser, and more serve as distinctive anchors amidst Ed Solomon’s labyrinthine plotting. (Reviewed in July)
  • The Rescue: One of the year’s best documentaries, and a white-knuckle account of the 2018 rescue of twelve boys and their soccer coach from a flooded Thailand cave. Directors Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi (Free Solo) seamlessly mix firsthand footage with reenactments featuring many of the principal figures; my jaw was often on the floor at the ingenuity and bravery on display. (Reviewed in December)
  • Spider-Man: No Way Home: Marvel’s best theatrical outing is a total blast, serving up a four-course dessert of nostalgia and redemption from across twenty years of the Spiderverse. The best scenes aren’t the action beats at all, but when the three Peters (spoilers, if that’s still possible) are just kinda hanging around, talking about their problems. (Reviewed in December)
  • tick…tick…BOOM!: It’s not hard to see why the prolific, endlessly energetic Lin-Manuel Miranda was drawn to Jonathan Larson’s story, and he found the perfect vessel in (a frankly astonishing) Andrew Garfield. The “Sunday” number packs in such a cartoonish number of cameos (Joel Grey! Andre de Shields! Bebe Neuwirth!) that it’s basically Ready Player One for the New York theater scene. (Reviewed in November)

Now for the Top 10:

10. The Tragedy of Macbeth

Directed by Joel Coen

You could say that Joel Coen has been building to this his entire career — in the first film made without his brother, Ethan, he has gone back to the primordial ooze from whence many of their best stories have come. The Tragedy of Macbeth is a fascinating, highly theatrical experiment: the sets are spare and blank; the Expressionist lighting shifts through impenetrable shadow and blinding mist. The framing and blocking are subdued. All of this seems to put the focus squarely on the text, and how the accomplished cast delivers it. Headlining the exercise is Denzel Washington, whose raw intensity comes full bore the more paranoid and self-destructive Macbeth becomes; Frances McDormand, as his Lady, colors her portrayal with bitterness and desperation. Other standouts include Alex Hassell (Ross), Bertie Carvel (Banquo), and the deeply unsettling Kathryn Hunter, who plays all three Weird Sisters as croaking, contorting nightmare fuel. Perhaps it’s not in the top tier of Coen films about men who try to crime their way out of a devil’s bargain, but it’s the one with the best dialogue. (In theaters now; on Apple 1/14)

9. Judas and the Black Messiah

Directed by Shaka King

From February: Judas and the Black Messiah leads inexorably to the tragic night of Fred Hampton’s assassination; the dread is palpable even as the rhetoric soars and the cast leaps off the screen. It’s more than a little remarkable, even in 2021, for this film to even exist as the product of a major studio like Warner Bros. It’s not hard to imagine the concessions that director Shaka King had to make; how much additional attention the narrative had to give to “conflicted white agent” Roy Mitchell (Jesse Plemons), who in the end wasn’t all that conflicted, or to Martin Sheen’s odious J. Edgar Hoover. But ultimately the film is about the two men of the title, and two sensational performances: LaKeith Stanfield as the former, and Daniel Kaluuya as the latter. Stanfield’s sleepy-eyed twitchiness is well-suited for the role of Bill O’Neal; by contrast, Kaluuya’s (Oscar-winning) performance as Hampton is so ferocious the camera can barely keep up with him. His thundering church pulpit speech is one of the year’s most unforgettable scenes. (Currently on HBO Max and VOD)

8. C’mon C’mon

Directed by Mike Mills

One of the better gifts I gave myself was to rent Mike Mills’s latest on Christmas Day. It’s not intended to be a holiday film, of course, but it’s shot through with a sweetness and generosity of spirit that suited the occasion. It also features Joaquin Phoenix’s most grounded performance in ages; he plays Johnny, a radio documentarian who is asked mid-project to take temporary custody of his brilliant-but-strange nephew, Jesse (Woody Norman). C’mon C’mon unspools gently, skipping from city to city along with them as they bond; Johnny teaches Jesse how use the audio equipment; Jesse plays pranks and wanders away. Both struggle to navigate the emotional landscape of the family crisis that brought them together. But Phoenix and Norman — giving the best, most alive child performance in a pretty good year for child performances — are brilliant together, almost as if Mills gave some vague direction then just let the cameras roll. That looseness carries into the film’s framing device, in the interviews Johnny/Phoenix conducts with real kids across the country about their hopes, dreams, and fears for the future. There is so much to learn, if we’re only willing to listen. (Available on VOD)

7. The Power of the Dog

Directed by Jane Campion

From December: Its craft is undeniable: Jane Campion’s bowstring-tight direction; Ari Wegner’s gorgeous cinematography; Jonny Greenwood’s evocative score (probably the years’s best); and all of it anchored by a quartet of impressive performances from Benedict Cumberbatch, Kirsten Dunst, Kodi Smit-McPhee, and Jesse Plemons — at least three of which, I expect, will be nominated for Oscars this Spring. The film, based on Thomas Savage’s novel, demands a lot of patience. For the first meandering hour, I really wasn’t sure what it was about or where it was going; we were just watching Cumberbatch tear into the role of Phil Burbank, Evil Cowboy, and the most chilling banjo player since Deliverance. But each choice the film makes is justified in hindsight — a slow burn with a truly shocking climax, a powerful statement about masculinity, and Cumberbatch’s finest performance to date. It may not have grabbed me as tightly as it did some critics, but it’s unquestionably worthy of a place here. (Netflix)

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

Directed by Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson

From July: As a brilliantly edited treasure trove of archival footage, it’s difficult to describe the pure euphoria of Summer of Soul. The music, of course, is sensational. Every chosen performance, often captured in close-ups so raw you can see the performers’ fillings, is exhilarating. Yet this is not just a concert film, but a document of a moment in time — the moment, as Al Sharpton says, where “Negro died and Black was born.” It was a generational shift in culture, music, fashion, and outlook on the world. The three hundred thousand festival attendants took time to acknowledge what they’d lost (Mahalia Jackson & Mavis Staples’s performance of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s favorite hymn, “Precious Lord, Take My Hand,” a year after his assassination, is beyond words), but also to look hopefully into the future, though they might disagree on the best way to get there. Throughout the film, Thompson supplements the kinetic concert footage with interviews with performers and attendees, and everyone has a fascinating story to share. (Hulu)

5. West Side Story

Directed by Steven Spielberg

From December: The question of “Why remake West Side Story?”, while posed in good faith, overlooks the obvious: It’s been sixty years, and the original is beloved but imperfect. Provided, of course, the new director and screenwriter had something to say, and weren’t doing it just because they could. Those are guys named Steven Spielberg and Tony Kushner. Ever heard of them? The result is Cinema on the grandest scale, a dazzling and rousing experience that pays proper tribute to what came before while showcasing Spielberg’s innate gifts in blocking and camera movement. Kushner’s book, meanwhile, simultaneously integrates of-the-moment themes surrounding race, class, gentrification, and political violence that enhances the source material, consistently for the better.  Rachel Zegler, Ariana DeBose, and Mike Faist are especially brilliant, supported by Janusz Kaminski’s evocative lighting and Justin Peck’s muscular choreography. It may be too soon to say whether this new version surpasses the classic, but that it’s even a real debate is a big deal. (Currently in theaters)

4. Dune

Directed by Denis Villenueve

From October: To put it simply, Dune rocks.  Years ago, I made it just fifty pages through Frank Herbert’s seminal novel in my first attempt to read it. (I remembered the Gom Jabbar, though.) But whatever Denis Villenueve had to cut in adaptation to the screen, he more than makes up for with scale and ambition. The scope is epic; the visuals are frequently gobsmacking; every actor seems perfectly cast — even Timothy Chalamet as our sandy Space Jesus. The movie’s just awesome in the truest, most literal sense of the word: it left me full of awe. Any quibbles feel small in the face of something so damned impressive, with Hans Zimmer’s score droning in your ears and the infinitely pristine vistas of Arrakis only broken up by the movement of gargantuan sand worms on the horizon. For all of that, and the nifty hand-to-hand combat, accessible worldbuilding, its all-star cast, and Stephen McKinley Henderson’s parasol, I say thank you. And thanks to everyone else who streamed it or bought a ticket, because we’re definitely getting a Part Two. I even went back and finished the book! (Available on VOD)

3. Belfast

Directed by Kenneth Branagh

From November: The knotty, contested details of The Troubles are beyond the scope of Belfast, which instead dramatizes one tumultuous year in the life of nine-year-old Buddy (Jude Hill, remarkable). He’s too young to grasp why there is suddenly a military checkpoint on his street, or why he is supposed to avoid certain unsavory neighborhood characters, and Branagh — drawing directly from his own childhood — doesn’t choose sides either. Instead, Buddy’s parents (Jamie Dornan and Caitriona Balfe) and grandparents (Ciarán Hinds and Judi Dench) represent the many thousands who were forced into impossible choices as their world fell in around them, when they would rather simply continue to be good neighbors. Branagh is not an especially gifted screenwriter, but to his credit, Belfast is a deeply felt film, beautifully lensed by Haris Zambarloukos, and a moving tribute to a community torn asunder. The script isn’t poetic because of the way it’s written, but because it feels utterly true to itself. I was delighted and moved. (Available on VOD)

2. Pig

Directed by Michael Sarnoski

From August: Michael Sarnoski’s stunning debut was initially perceived as another John Wick clone, with Nicolas Cage set on a bloody mission of justice after his porcine partner gets stolen. Not so; instead, Pig eschews B-movie excess at every turn, telling its story with subtlety and revolutionary grace in an efficient 92 minutes. It presents the underbelly of a world we kinda know — Portland fine dining — but with enough heightened originality to keep us on our toes. And from the first frame to the last, Cage is magnificent. No bombast, no crazy eyes, just a perfectly controlled performance. Alex Wolff is also fascinating as Amir, a grasping entrepreneur who learns by helping Rob that there are no shortcuts from mediocrity to a life of meaning. “We don’t get a lot of things to really care about,” a bearded, bloodied Rob tells a former kitchen protege, and looking into Cage’s eyes, you feel every ounce of his pain, but also his empathy. My harebrained take is that Rob might be an analogue for God; the film’s climax, which joins Ratatouille and Babette’s Feast in the pantheon of cathartic dinner scenes, is practically a religious experience. (Available on Hulu and VOD)

1. The Green Knight

Directed by David Lowery

From August: I never could stop thinking about it. Trying to unpack it. The film’s an overwhelming experience — an enthralling, brilliantly performed phantasmagoria that reimagines not just a single myth, but the entire Arthurian mythos. It’s a blending of the sacred and the pagan; the strength of Man against the unyielding wilderness. Many viewers may be completely baffled by it. I adored it. In Lowery’s telling, Gawain (a mesmerizing Dev Patel) is not yet a knight, but a layabout disappointment to his family and his King. Before he can answer the summons of the titular Green Knight (Ralph Ineson), the being with intimidating countenance and a big-ass axe whom Gawain rashly and temporarily decapitates, the royal nephew will be sorely tested, and taught the true meanings of honor, courage, and chivalry. Through each chilling encounter, Lowery’s deliberate pacing and stunning cinematography (from Andrew Droz Palermo) kept me enraptured — all the way to the film’s bravura final act, a sequence which should be equally praised and analyzed down to the enigmatic last shot. The Green Knight is The Seventh Seal with a talking fox; The Last Temptation of Christ with Treebeard, and was never going to be anything less than my favorite film of the year. (Available on VOD)

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