2021 was The Year that New Movies Were Everywhere. Back in theaters. Premiering on Netflix. Streaming on HBO Max, a notable evolution that synced at-home WB releases with theatrical showings for 30 days.
The moviegoing experience used to involve picking a movie and a moviehouse in which to see it (and snack selections, of course). Now, it can include finding the proper streaming service or virtual theater option, and setting the entire viewing environment, from room lighting (dark, please) to the pause button (leave it alone).
The greatest value to this rapid expansion of viewing windows has been, of course, greater access to more movies. I’ll always prefer the community and aesthetic of a theater, but appreciate the comforts and convenience of home, too. Comparing the experiences has become an ongoing hot-button online debate, but I can’t recall a time in which the choice of films has been so wide open, so global, and so exciting.
Regardless of how or where we watched movies during the year, a best-of list is always a tantalizing annual habit. Here’s my take on the 10 best films of 2021:
1. The Power of the Dog
After a decade-long leave from feature films, New Zealand writer-director Jane Campion delivers her most accomplished work, a study of myth and manhood set in 1925 Montana. Adapting the Thomas Savage novel, Campion introduces character stereotypes – an aggressive cowboy, an effeminate young student – and then gradually shatters expectations, in unexpected ways. The performances are uniformly excellent, with Benedict Cumberbatch effectively disappearing into the lead role of Phil Burbank, a mean, enigmatic cattle driver with plenty of secrets.
2. The Killing of Two Lovers
One of the greatest small American indie films of recent years, and certainly the most overlooked of 2021. It’s the story of a guy (Clayne Crawford) dealing with a recent separation from his wife, and his mental anguish over her new boyfriend. Filmmaker Robert Machoian uses smalltown spaces – a truck cab, a convenience store, a couple blocks – to create an impressive closed-in tension for the film’s 85 minutes. A simple, flawless screenplay that’s carefully shot and very well-acted.
3. The Worst Person in the World
Norwegian filmmaker Joachim Trier delivers the most entertaining movie of 2021, sharing four years (and 12 chapters) in the life of Julie, a woman figuring out romantic relationships and her place in the world around her. Renate Reinsve is stunning as Julie, taking full advantage of Trier’s scope and creativity. The director pulls out all the stops for Julie: stopping time, dropping her into a psychedelic trip, recalling the generations before her. Reinsve makes sure it’s all worth Trier’s effort and certainly worth our time. Frequent Trier star Anders Danielsen Lie is excellent as a boyfriend who makes his gratitude for life as heartbreaking and palpable as any performance I can recall.
4. About Endlessness
During the first 20 minutes of Roy Andersson’s latest set of static mini-plays, I figured I’d seen it from Andersson before, especially in his 2014 film A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence. But I soon became mesmerized by the Swedish simplicity, the low-pulse pace, the perfect points in which we leave one short and begin another. Andersson is expressing the life that exists in each moment, often with his stoic humor, always with his camera locked down. One sequence, in which three girls spontaneously dance by a seaside cafe, is one of the happiest and coolest scenes of the year.
5. Petite Maman
Céline Sciamma’s delicate follow-up to Portrait of a Lady on Fire is a sweet time-travel story full of complexity, simply told. A grade schooler visits her mother’s childhood home, where she learns about her mom as a young girl – and then meets her at that age. In Sciamma’s beautiful script, the two kids are incredibly aware and perceptive (as kids will be), forging a friendship while sharing decades of pasts and futures with one another. Watching the two stars (twins Joséphine and Gabrielle Sanz) play and explore is a joy.
Incredibly slow and immensely satisfying. This cerebral mystery from Apichatpong Weerasethakul focuses on one elusive sound, a bang (or boom?) that awakens Jessica (Tilda Swinton) and sets her on a determined journey to describe and identify the sound. Weerasethakul’s settings and ideas encompass the entirety of humanity (and beyond?) with as much originality as Kubrick did in 2001: A Space Odyssey.
7. Bad Luck Banging or Loony Porn
From Romanian director Rade Jude, a three-part hardcore satire about sex, hypocrisy, and a society that’s become increasingly judgmental in the face (or facemask, if you will) of COVID. A respected school teacher becomes a potential pariah after her homemade sex tape unexpectedly hits the internet. By the film’s end, she’s forced to defend her actions in an open, fully masked interrogation by her class’s parents – complete with a full viewing of her onscreen lovemaking. Part street drama, part seething political documentary, part wacky courtroom comedy.
8. Riders of Justice
If this multifaceted Danish thriller had been an English language movie, it would have been a giant hit. Mads Mikkelsen stars as an exceptionally skilled soldier who leads a group of tech misfits searching for the terrorists they believe bombed a train, killing his wife. Writer-director Anders Thomas Jensen, directing Mikkelsen for the fifth time, blends dark humor, brutal violence, and a troubled hero’s self-awareness, all topped with a Christmas bow.
Here’s what happens when a popular, manipulative TV journalist becomes the center of her own media scandal. Bruno Dumont’s presentation is sly and snarky; his star, Lea Seydoux, gives the performance of her career as the title character, mastering the fine line between sincere compassion and faux emotion. Some argued that Dumont’s point is outdated; in the social media era, I think it’s as relevant as ever.
10. Bergman Island
Mia Hanson-Løve sets up an odd, almost mysterious story of two screenwriters visiting the home of Ingmar Bergman; she then creates a movie within the movie, a story that less-experienced writer Chris (Vicky Krieps) pitches to her partner (Tim Roth). The rhythm that Hanson-Løve creates between the “real” and “fictional” settings is outstanding, with Mia Wasikowska a standout as the familiar lead character in Chris’s imagination.
Other notables: Drive My Car, Zola, The Novice, Film About a Father Who, Flee