The Best of 2021: A Year In Film

I didn’t make it to 100 new movies this year, but that doesn’t mean this year wasn’t pretty great. I’d say the bench was pretty deep (full of four and half star movies), but no fives this year; which feels odd. I saw new films from three of my top 5 favorite directors, the return of the MCU, and had access to movies in a way we haven’t seen before. So why a few less films than normal (98 isn’t bad!)? I think I’ve become more picky, have been busy, and am not going to just give over my time to the latest crap Netflix is slinging (until they aren’t). Still, a lot of love to give, so let’s get to it.

Every 2021 Movie I Saw…

Best Scene of the Year: Gawain’s Future – The Green Knight
The Green Knight resets everything you’ve thought about it in its finale, as we watch our protagonist Gawain run away from his blow he is owed by the titular knight, or so we thought. The flash forward of a potential life in the face of cowardice is full of sadness, death and heartbreak. And for what? A throne he’ll never keep. A wife he’ll never love. A child who will never know their mother. When Gawain removes that belt his mother swore would protect him, a piece of false hope that did nothing but bring him sadness, we are brought back to the moment at hand. A man ready to face the future, whatever that may be and however short, is a man that has made a journey of discovery and come out something more on the other side. Beautiful stuff from David Lowery. 

Best Shot of the Year: A Look Of Longing – Licorice Pizza
Paul Thomas Anderson’s film about a horny teenage actor and a lost twenty something loser is great for a number of reasons, but a single shot under the needle drop of the year (Paul McCartney’s “Let Me Roll It”) says so much about sexual desire and wanting that I’d be hard pressed to find a more true shot in this year’s slate of films. 

Best Score of the Year: Jonny Greenwood – The Power of the Dog
Jonny Greenwood contributed music to three of my top 20 films this year, but it is his work in The Power of the Dog that is the best. From the start his work grabs you by the collar and carries you through the film. Yes it’s deliberately paced, but Greenwood’s score never leaves a dull moment as he keeps us unsettled and on edge as we watch all of the angels unfold in Campion’s film. An evolution in intensity from his work on There Will Be Blood, but a cousin of that expert work that deserves as much credit to this film’s success as it did to PTA’s. Give Greenwood an Oscar already. 

Most Underrated Film: Malignant
James Wan’s delirious film knows exactly what it is and if you are ready to get on its wavelength there is a lot to enjoy. The craft on hand is top notch, the scares are plentiful and the script goes delightfully off the rails with the best intentions possible. The jail cell fight scene is one of the year’s best moments, but it’s when Malignant (I know that’s not their name) tosses a fuck you chair across a police precinct to knock out one last victim, I was feeling ecstatic. 

You Had It Until the Third Act: Ghostbusters: Afterlife
I was not expecting to enjoy Ghostbusters: Afterlife. I really liked Paul Fieg’s Ghostbusters movie from a few years back and really hated all the bullshit around it that arose on the internet. So when we were told we are getting another attempt at revitalizing the franchise with a movie “for the fans”, color me concerned. Jason Reitman’s film actually turns out to be a pretty fun homage to Amblin films, is quite proud of its nerdiness and has a delightful character named Podcast. Paul Rudd is funny. Carrie Coon is Carrie Coon! It was all going pretty great. I even liked muncher. Then the references start rolling in. Then the cameos happen. The movie just sacrifices everything it had going for it to become a nostalgia machine. It’s not that it gets bad, it’s just that it abandons trying to be something new. And that’s a shame. Maybe next time. 

The Also Rans (All Movies Worth Your Time And Discussion):
Last Night in Soho, Summer of Soul, A Glitch in the Matrix, Bergman Island, King Richard, tick, tick…BOOM!, Mare of Eastown, The Rescue, Black Widow

The Contenders:

Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings
Destin Daniel Cretton’s first MCU entry might be the best origin story in the MCU??? It certainly is having a blast, with a cast of characters I can’t wait to be unleashed into the greater story at large, but it also has one of the best villains to date in Shang-Chi’s father played by the terrific Tony Leung. Simu Liu’s a star already and the action set pieces have never been better in the MCU since The Winter Soldier. It does feel a bit out of balance as it has to bounce back between origin and crazy, fun, kung fu movie, but each element is done so well you can’t really get all that mad. Plus, Trevor and Morris, forever!

Nightmare Alley
Guillermo del Toro’s latest is a slow burn descent into one man’s madness, played to stunning effect by Bradley Cooper, that sort of threw me for a loop on first watch. I was waiting for the monster, there wasn’t one. Well, not as we’ve come to expect from del Toro. Gorgeously crafted and deliberately paced, we watch as Cooper’s Stan slowly adds to his arsenal, before it all will come crashing down. Surrounded by one of the best casts of the year, the show is really Cooper’s through and through. It’s probably his best lead performance and he’s matched by an effortless directorial turn by del Toro. Effortless in that you never doubt a moment up on screen, it all feels so confidently told that you barely see the director pulling you this way and that. Plus, that final scene, damn.

Red Rocket
Sean Baker is back with back with another character study of a person operating on the fringes of society, this time a down on his luck porn star who is forced back to his hometown after a falling out in his mini-porn empire in LA. Simon Rex starts as Mikey Saber, whose return is met with derision, intrigue and well a lot of mixed feelings across the board. Mikey is a fast talking charmer, one you can’t help but be endeared by even as he makes some sketchy decisions, but he meets his match in Strawberry (a magnetic Suzanna Son) who he attempts to groom into his starlett only for us to realize that she’s neither as naive as he thinks and may just as likely being using him to get out of her small town existence. Mikey’s bravado isn’t just popped by Strawberry either, as his “ex” (a great and sad Bree Elrod) is just one of many who ultimately get the best of a guy who always thinks he is on top. Son’s cover of NSYNC’s “Bye, Bye, Bye” is one of the best moments of the year.

Paul Verhoeven’s “lesbian nun” movie certainly is that, but it is most focused on the power of religion, how that power can be wield in unlikely hands, and how those whose power is threatened will react to someone coming on their corner of bullshit. Based on a real woman, Benedetta (a very game and very good Virginie Efira) starts in one place, presenting her divine connection as gospel, before introducing the doubt around her that seeps into our minds as well. When a young woman (a rebellious Daphne Patakia) enters the picture is when those around Benedetta really begin to worry and start the machinations to bring her down. The back and forth between the two battling parties is a joy to watch, while never letting us forget the BS these people will sling to try and remain in prestige and power as the world crumbles around them. The best use of “the voice” in 2021.

Julia Ducournau won the Palme d’Or, but it might as well have been the award for most WTF. I mean, seriously, where does this movie come from. I might be even afraid to ask. Titane follows a unique individual (an all out Agathe Rousselle) who has a hard time relating to almost any human being, so when a car comes calling she answers. What unfolds from there is hard to describe, but a murderous steak in Rousselle’s Alexia sends her on the run, as she decides to impersonate a lost boy who has finally returned home. Enter that boy’s father Vincent (an intense, powerful and complex Vincent Lindon) who is so remorseful and damaged from his son’s disappearance years ago that he is willing to believe Alexia’s grift. From there, a father/daughter(son) relationship strenuously begins to form between the two, as Alexia struggles under fear of being found out and having someone show them affection, while Vincent attempts to make amends with his own past and demons. Flipping between cinematic insanity and grounded drama is never not boring, but your mileage may vary. I was on board for the ride.

Valdimar Jóhannsson’s film would be the holy shit movie of the year if it wasn’t for the entry right before it, but this twisted folk horror tale is mostly a bizarre story about grief, family and a strange humanoid lamb and her adoptive parents looking to fill a hole in their heart. Sometimes shocking along the way, props to Jóhannsson for being willing to go big in the end while playing it subdued for most of his runtime. You can’t help but appreciate Ada, and the cast around her does such a fine job of playing the seriousness of the absurdity of what we are watching that it allows everything to click. I gasped multiple times watching this film, I never knew what to expect, and that’s often all we can ask for. 

No Time To Die
Cary Joji Fukunaga’s first foray into the Bond world (he seems tapped to reboot post Craig) is also the swan song for Daniel Craig. An action light (by Bond standards) and emotionally wrought story at its core, No Time To Die is not what I expected. It feels like a fresh start from the baffling shortcomings of Spectre (Sam Mendes’ follow up to his directorial high Skyfall), while also making that film better by making the character’s it introduced feel more vital and important. Craig’s having as much of a blast here as ever before, while also understanding the assignment and feeling a bit more loose knowing this is his last shabang. Special shoutout to Ana de Armas who flies in and out of this film in a matter of minutes, but makes such an impression that I would gladly watch a whole spin-off franchise of her exploits running around.

Zack Snyder’s Justice League
Zack Snyder was finally able to make the Justice League he always wanted. His vision was being compromised in the wake of Batman v. Superman’s “failure” at the box office, and was wiped away when he had to leave the film due to a family tragedy that gave the studio some cover to move him off a movie they seemed to want to fire him from anyways. Flash forward a few years, a couple million cries from Zack’s fanbase and the need to provide a launching streamer with something exclusive and we get something we will probably never see again. Snyder’s given the keys back to his castle and Warner Brothers throws in millions of dollars for renovations. Snyder doesn’t disappoint, with a film that feels completely unfettered and a vision that goes for broke every time. The Snyder-verse of DC keeps growing in my estimation (and I’m no Snyder-bro, even if I’ve liked/loved most of his films), but one wonders if a hashtag will ever turn out to be so well paid off when it’s all said and done ever again. 

No Sudden Move
Steven Soderbergh is taking full advantage of the freedom he is being given by the streamers and No Sudden Move shows he’s getting better and better at putting out material that fills a gap in our current movie slate that has too little support. A throwback crime thriller, lead by a fantastic Don Cheadle, that sprinkles in some interesting social commentary to boot. This film keeps evolving as it stays a few steps ahead of us all the way until the end, and it feels fun to not know what the heck is going to happen next. Who cares if it’s a little shaggy when you can get a cast like this to show up to elevate your picture even further, while also surprising you because you’re watching a standalone piece of material that can literally go any which way. Soderbergh’s the best you guys.

The Beta Test
Jim Cummings’ latest is a dark comedy about the underbelly of Hollywood, wrapped around a weird blackmail plot that allows his characters (himself) to twist into knots trying to solve the problem. Cummings is such an interesting presence on the screen and he knows how to bring the most out of himself with scripts that cater to his strengths. Abrasive, but weak. Defiant, yet a pushover. Cummings feels like a contradiction that you also believe is capable when everything is said and done. His film’s look way better than you’d expect at the budget he’s operating at, and I’m constantly impressed by what he is capable of creating at such an economy of scale. Someone give this guy some money, why don’t ya. 

Bad Trip
Kitao Sakurai and Eric Andre’s hidden camera comedy had me in stitches throughout its runtime and had me pretty impressed along the way at how well they were able to make a coherent narrative out of this series of “pranks”. You have to put that in air quotes because this film is interested in making fun of the real people that populate this film, it’s more concerned with finding people having genuine and compassionate reactions to Andre, Lil Rel Howery and Tiffany Haddish getting into some seriously crazy shit. Some of the bits in the movie are genuinely surprising and inventive as well, while the script has fun at the expense of romantic comedy tropes all the way through the film’s crazy closing set piece. This feels extremely underrated at this point, but you have to respect the balls and ability this cast has to not only stay in character in the face of the madness they set up, but to be able to do so with a completely unaware public every time out. 

Plan B
Natalie Morales delivers the comedy of the year, in this road movie about two girls who are trying to get one of them the Plan B abortion pill. Outrageous and vulgar, full of great characters dropping in and out of the story to add another layer of insanity to the crazy lengths this girl has to take to get a Plan B pill. Kuhoo Verma and Victoria Moroles are instantly believable as best friends, with a script that feels authentic to these young women and a generation of high school that doesn’t fall into the stereotypes you come to expect from the genre. A few of the diversions they come across on their trip are some of the best comedy setpieces I’ve seen in some time, with Doug and Claire’s piercings playing roles in my two favorites. Verma, Moroles and Morales should all be making more stuff ASAP, they can go toe to toe with anyone in the comedy field.

The Matrix: Resurrections
Lana Wachowski’s solo attempt at bringing The Matrix back after all these years is extremely successful, even though it doesn’t really give us what we thought we wanted. I kept waiting for the next great revolutionary action scene to kick in and blow my mind, but that’s not what this film’s about. Neo doesn’t fire a gun, he barely punches people, and while I was a little caught off guard by this change in space, I still really enjoyed the film. The film’s first half is actually sort of incredible, with Keanu delivering a nuanced and evolved rendition of Mr. Anderson, while the back half fills in the blanks of what has happened in both the real world and The Matrix since we last saw Neo & Trinity. Incredible effects, awesome world building and plenty of new philosophical takes and ideas for viewers to chew on are spread all across this film, and I only imagine this will be going up in my summation once I get a chance to revisit it.

Enrico Casarosa’s feature debut was the only Pixar film last year and it was a pretty low stakes coming of age story set in a beautiful Italian seaside town. That’s not a knock, as it’s another gorgeous entry from the studio, and its simplicity in story allows it to really focus on its lead characters and the relationships that bring them together. As a literal fish out of water tale, the film finds plenty of humor in that scenario, while giving the grown-ups surrounding our three child protagonists some really great beats of humor. The film’s finale, centered around acceptance, no matter who you are, will hopefully pay off dividends in future generations, giving people who are different a chance to find themselves in a world that won’t try to keep them down. Also, Uncle Ugo for the win.

Parallel Mothers
Pedro Almodóvar’s latest is a twisty melodrama that never takes itself too seriously (well, maybe it does in the final moments?), but the surprises and turns never get too dramatic; even if some pretty shocking developments unfold. Maybe that’s because Almodóvar trusts these changes in these women’s lives to be compelling as we watch his gifted actors come to grips with their character’s new realities; not react in the moment but bounce off one another’s emotional responses. The twists are there to pull the viewer along, but it’s these characters that keep this story of motherhood so engaging. Penélope Cruz and Milena Smit work wonderfully off one another, and are able to sell every step of their journeys, both together and apart. Europeans certainly have some progressive views on parenting and relationships!

The Last Duel
Ridley Scott’s better of his two films released this year, was written by two of its stars (Matt Damon and Ben Affleck, along with Nicole Holofcener) and damn well deserve to be higher on this list. Telling the story of a woman (Jodie Comer’s Marguerite) who is raped and the duel that comes about to resolve her being put on trial. Told three times, from three different perspectives, the film works as well as it does for both those telling differences and shocking similarities. Even though the log line of this film centers around a terrible act, every character and actor still has a lot of room to play off one another and have some fun, without taking away from the harrowing moment that brings everyone’s story towards the same conclusion. Affleck is the bomb here, while Damon is delightfully unlikable, with Driver and Comer wonderfully playing against everyone and each other. Don’t sleep on this one like everyone already did. 

The Top 20:

20. Spencer
Pablo Larraín’s Princess Diana film by way of the horror genre is an nerving descent into the madness of the royal family. Kristen Stewart is phenomenal as the people’s princess, vibrating with stress and tension at the demands her family puts on her, trapped with a man who doesn’t love her, but is able to still fully come alive with her children. Larraín lets the horror slip away when we see Diana with her children and it’s these scenes that really hit home with how big a loss she must have been for those two, leaving you to wonder how things might have been different had she survived. When she’s not engaging with her kids, she’s agonizing over the schedule, dresses and dinner plans, which sound frivolous and quite ridiculous, but Larraín never misses a moment to make it feel upsetting. You’ll never look at pearl necklaces the same way again, and thanks to Larraín for sending us home on a high note.

19. Eternals
Chloé Zhao’s Eternals is the most human movie the MCU has made yet, even though it is populated almost entirely by a group of androids who are immortal. The most un-MCU film yet, I can understand why people had a hard time embracing a film who avoids embracing the formula that made this franchise so successful since 2008, but I welcome that breath of fresh air. Zhao’s direction delivers some of the best action we’ve seen yet in the MCU and introduces us to a ton of new characters that I think will be quite compelling in the greater MCU moving forward. Still, this film works on its own, with its core relationships and payoffs working pretty damn well in the end, executed around some crazy imagery and big ideas the scope of the other entries in the MCU don’t really have the space to tackle. Hopefully, Lauren Ridloff will punch the hell out of everyone in the MCU for the foreseeable future.  

18. Don’t Look Up
Adam McKay is angry about the state of the world. I’m angry about the state of the world. Many of us are angry about the state of the world. Don’t Look Up is angry at the world. We’re all angry. Don’t Look Up feels like the movie we deserve right now. One that we might look back on in ten years as being incredibly prescinet, very much of its time, or not nearly forward thinking enough. It’s attacks on Big Tech actually feel the most relevant to our current crisis’ facing us at the moment, but it’s take that Americans are pretty fucking dumb and just about anyone would sacrifice their morals if they might become just a little bit famous aren’t to far behind. Still, McKay tries to find hope in the face of annihilation, let’s just hope we can all collectively look up at the problems facing us all before it’s all too late. 

17. The King’s Man
Matthew Vaughn’s long delayed prequel to his Kingsman franchise turns out to be maybe the best prequel to date? It’s a pretty hard reset in genre for the spoofy send-up the two previous entries have served as, with Vaughn instead settling on a far more grounded affair that is more of an anti-war movie than anything. It’s a weird place to end up in, and my wife who loved the first two entries just bailed on this one half way through. Vaughn’s craft kept me around, and while he does try and give the fans a couple of knowing nods of silliness, the film also has a fairly harrowing mini-movie in the middle of it that fully captures the horrors of war. Vaughn walks the edge of having his cake and eating it too. Never quite rubbing our noses in it for taking pleasure in his thrilling images of violence, while also firmly landing the emotional senselessness of it all the same. IDK, I liked it a lot! And he seems to be building up towards what the original film was stylistically, especially with the deliciously absurd set-up for a sequel to this film. I feel like I might be on an island with this one, but, not my first. 

16. Undine
Christian Petzold’s telling of the mermaid fable is both a tender romance and a compelling mystery that takes its time to unfurl both. The title refers to the mythology around a water nymph and reunites Petzold’s Transit stars in a grounded version of this folklore tale. Both Paula Beer and Franz Rogowski impress in their respective halves of the film, which flip back and forth with one another as tragedy and destiny come in between them. The film can often be crushing emotionally, but Petzold doesn’t twist the knife after he plunges it inside you. He instead tries to put you back on the mend, and is mostly successful at all that, but isn’t afraid to get a little lost along the way. Small and simple, but Petzold’s assuredness continues to make him a director you can’t avoid when they put something else out into the world.

15. The Green Knight
David Lowery’s adaptation of the Authurian era takes Dev Patel on a journey into manhood, chivalry and knighthood, only to be tested and tormented almost every step of the way. Lowery finds modern day parallels to provide some commentary on our world at large, while keeping us on our toes as Patel’s Gawain encounters a number of fantastical entities along his journey (yes, fantastical includes the actor Barry Keoghan). Beautiful to look at, filled with more than a handful of brilliant shots, all capped with a finale that really just comes and knocks your socks off. What makes a person if they can’t even make their own decisions? Can’t forge their own destiny. What if a giant plant knight wants to chop off your head? These are the kinds of questions this film asks, as Lowery continues to become one of our most consistent directors of his generation.

14. The Lost Daughter
Maggie Gyllenhaal’s feature debut is a stunner, as she dives deep inside our protagonist’s past and present, an odd woman (played by Jessie Buckley in flashback, Olivia Colman in the present) who’s just trying to have a vacation. And feel respected. And find someone to give her some happiness. Colman smiles through gritted teeth as she navigates a vacationing family of slightly unsavory individuals (Dakota Johnson and Dagmara Domińczyk providing some excellent tension), while her younger self is played like a raw nerve by Buckley. The film is a dark and harsh look at parenthood, how it’s not fucking easy, and let’s Colman/Buckley’s Leda show her warts and all without ever really passing judgement. But that doesn’t mean Leda can’t… A film that takes you to some quite low places, but can also find some hope in the end? It at least gives us an adorable Ed Harris in a tiny hat. This feels like it should be higher up on my list and feels like the awards season folks missed the boat on this one too. Great cinematography, score and editing alongside Gyllenhaal’s razor sharp direction. 

13. The Beatles: Get Back
Peter Jackson’s behind the scenes re-edit of hours of The Beatles footage started as a film, but expanded into nearly an eight hour piece of entertainment; and I couldn’t be happier. What we get is such a deep and intimate look at arguably the greatest band of all time and what their friendships and creative processes looked like at a turning point of their career. You quickly understand why Jackson doesn’t want to cut anything, it’s all incredible stuff he puts up for us to take in, and he even has to montage his way through a number of recording sessions just to try and display what these four were capable of. This could have easily been hours longer and nobody smart would have complained. And the film isn’t just great because you are getting this behind the curtain look at The Beatles, it’s an engaging character study as we watch the power dynamics of these people swirl to just try and be the best they can be. And it all culminates with the rooftop concert, which we get pretty much uncut, but is also brilliantly juxtaposed against the attempts to shut it down as the cameras were everywhere and catching the drama as it plays out in realtime. Also, I’ll never forget that look on Paul’s face when Billy Preston comes in on “I’ve Got A Feeling”, it’s an incredible moment of game, recognizing game.

12. Spider-Man: No Way Home
Jon Watts’ trilogy ending Spider-Man film is a game changer for the MCU, and serves as a template for viewers in how the multiverse might be a whole lot of fun in the coming years ahead for the Marvel franchise. So as a piece of money making IP it has that going for it! But the film is also the best live action Spider-Men movie to date, and it achieves this by just having a blast from start to finish. Folding in representations of all of the cinematic iterations of this franchise over the last twenty years is done so quite ingeniously, with them even making up for shortcomings and giving paths of redemption that make this more than just a nostalgia fest. Watts’ and his team are serving characters first and foremost, while reaping the benefits of the situations that arise because all of these parties end up in the same place. No Way Home is a fantastic caper to a great and underrated start to the theatrical arm of Phase 4, it’s almost a top 5 MCU entry and it puts the title character in a place where they can do just about anything they want with him. I hope this isn’t the last we see of Tom Holland’s Spider-Man.

11. The Card Counter
Paul Schrader’s latest is an interesting companion to his previous effort, First Reformed, which puts us in the mind of a man obsessed with finding absolution and finding a way to atone for his perceived sins. Oscar Issac is just phenomenal in the lead role here, as he simmers with an intensity and menace that we are never quite sure when it might boil over. A common theme this year is a slow burn that all of a sudden you realize has you by the collar in the end and The Card Counter is no different. The film questions what a person should value and how they should uphold it. Willem Dafoe pops up for a couple of great scenes, while I wish there was maybe a little more there between Issac and Tiffany Haddish. That said, the flashes back to Issac’s William Tell’s past allow the actor to show off his range, all while rubbing the viewers face in the atrocities we’ve committed as a country and would like to just quietly forget. Not for everyone, but if you were a fan of Schrader’s last, I think you can get on this one’s wavelength.

10. The Tragedy of Macbeth
Joel Coen reclaims the director’s chair for himself while his brother semi-retires, and his adaptation of Shakespeare is a sight to behold. A beautiful visual palette to engage the audience, with a stark beauty that’s both arresting and minimalist at the same time – to allow us to focus in on Coen’s stars as they eloquently unfurl the plots and schemes that lie within the Bard’s tale. It doesn’t hurt to get Denzel to play the title role, as he tears apart the screen with his power and ferocity, while also able to show a weakness and vulnerability that his age brings to the table. McDormand is also having a blast playing the Lady of the house, while Alex Hassell’s Ross threatens to steal the movie every time he slinks onto the stage. Kathryn Hunter does steal the film though, as her twisted witches unsettle and screech into your soul, the same as they do to Macbeth’s. Coen’s assuredness just carries through to the end, never letting things drag and finding beautiful frames to fill every scene. I hope we haven’t seen the last of the Coen Brothers, but Joel has quickly proven he can still do things quite well on his own.

9. West Side Story
Steven Spielberg is back and as great as ever. Even though this probably doesn’t touch my top ten of his filmography, as you can see, he’s still able to do it as well as anyone. Any nitpicks I have with this film are inherent to the source’s source material of love at first sight, but honestly, on a second viewing, I bought the connection between Maria and Tony. Mike Faist is a STAR here as Riff, while Rachel Zegler, Ariana DeBose and David Alvarez all pop off the screen as Spielberg beautifully frames them as they sing and dance. Woo, the wait for a Spielberg musical was worth it, and I was blown away with his staging and set-ups that are not afraid to just sit back and let his stars do the work. The rendition of America here is marvelous, while Kushner’s script is always finding a way to pull this period piece into a modern mindset. This went down even easier on a second viewing, looking forward to seeing this one again and again. 

8. The Souvenir: Part II 
Joanna Hogg’s follow up to her dark relationship drama feels even more auto-biographical as we watch a film about her making a film that tells the story from the film we previously saw. This sequel is more accessible and easy to watch, but it also dives deeper and is a compelling look at one woman’s attempt to balance her inner battle to find some peace in her grief while also becoming the filmmaker she always hoped she could be. Watching Hogg’s avatar, played by Honor Swinton Byrne, navigate this delicate path yields a struggle you can empathize with, while Hogg never wastes a moment and always finds the right balance of melancholy, joy and excitement as Swinton Byrne’s Julie just tries to figure this shit out. The journey is warmer than I’m making it sound and, like another film on this list, it is a great example of how art can be used to process your emotions and give you a new found perspective on the world in front of you. Hogg just keeps rolling everything all together and at the end you feel knocked out by it all.

7. The Underground Railroad
Barry Jenkins’ adaptation of Colson Whitehead’s novel may not be a film, but I basically ingested it’s 585 minute runtime in almost one sitting. Jenkins’ accomplishment is gorgeous to look at and harrowing to endure, as we follow Cora (played powerfully by Thuso Mbedu in maybe the best performance of the year?) through the hell of slavery and every form of racism we can and cannot have imagined. Jenkins’ never flinches, and while the brutality is kept mostly off screen outside two key sequences, every ounce of pain is felt through his lens and Mbedu’s performance. Cora’s journey is one that takes us all across the South, through fantasy and reality, among good and evil, and she keeps moving forward. She keeps surviving. For that’s all she really is able to do. Jenkins’ portraits of many of the faces we come across will stop you cold in your tracks, as these actors force us to look through history and to see the humanity we’ve destroyed along the way. I can’t wait to see Jenkins’ next proper film, but there weren’t many more powerful pictures put up on my screen this year than he delivered in this mini-series. Seek this out.

6. Dune
Denis Villeneuve’s latest is a Part 1 and that is about the only thing I can hold against it. I’d watch the four hour version of this film, as Villeneuve creates as encompassing a world on film as I’ve seen in some time. We feel like we are barely scratching the surface of the world of Dune, while the film feels parsed down to the most essential parts that work every step of the way. The only thing I wish is that I didn’t have to wait two more years to see the next part of Paul’s journey. And that’s another interesting wrinkle, Paul is compelling and played pretty damn well by Timothée Chalamet, but he’s also like the 5th or 6th most interesting character in this movie. Ferguson, Issac, Bardem, Skarsgård, Duncan-Brewster and Momoa are all GREAT, plus the film looks absolutely otherworldly. Villeneuve has crafted himself a playground he, thankfully, will get to play around in for at least one more film, and I can’t wait to see how he closes out Part 2 of this saga. When it’s all said and done, we might be putting Dune right up there with the best of the best in the sci-fi canon…it’s practically there in only half of the story.

5. Licorice Pizza
Paul Thomas Anderson’s (my favorite director) latest caught me off guard a bit on first viewing. Not that I didn’t enjoy it, but I didn’t know what to expect. It’s his least plot driven film and at its center are a pair of characters who are never quite able to all the way connect. And maybe we don’t want them too? Alana Haim and Cooper Hoffman are magnetic with one another, but Hoffman’s Gary’s courting of the older Alana is a relationship we don’t really need to reach the level of intimacy the young boy is hoping for as he tries to sweet talk every girl/woman who crosses his path. Plus, something always seems to push them away the closer they get to one another. But on a second viewing I was more able to embrace their connection as something that was inevitable for the both of them and will ultimately send them off to be strong individuals wherever their paths may lead. They bring the best out of each other, even when they might be ready to tear each other down, and their orbits will keep bringing them back around to each other until they eventually collide. The film’s vignette structure also solidifies on a second viewing, while the emotional throughline of Alana particularly takes hold of the film and drives it forward. Plus, B.C. comes in for 15 minutes and just blows the doors off everything and it was one of the highlights of the year for me.

4. Drive My Car
Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s meditative journey through grief and the power art can have to help people overcome grief feels like a marvel. The way Hamaguchi structures the film is a stroke of genius, paralleling his characters’ feelings with the scenes we are shown in their rehearsal of our lead’s (Yūsuke) bi-lingual adaptation of Uncle Vanya, that just keeps informing our point of view, while teeing up or putting a button on his character’s emotional journeys throughout the film. We see how actors can bring their reality into the reality of their work, while also feeling the payoff of Yūsuke’s interesting rehearsal techniques time and time again. Hamaguchi is able to deliver the emotional wallops of his characters’ in their day to day lives and when we get to finally see them go for it in the play they are putting on. Each scene builds and builds towards catharsis, for Yūsuke’s and his driver, Misaki, in particular, but they both learn they can’t get there solely on their own. A beautiful film that gives you just about everything you can hope for when you walk into a theater.

3. The French Dispatch of the Liberty, Kansas Evening Sun
Wes Anderson, we do this dance every year when you release a film (which might be the first of three years consecutively we will see new work from him!), always placing you near the top of my lists. He’s one of my five favorite directors and with this collection of short stories, framed in a New Yorker-esque magazine structure, we are given a plethora of new characters, actors and tableaus for him to play with; and it’s delightful. Benicio del Toro and Jeffery Wright both show up and instantly place themselves near the top of the best of Wes’ character heap, while everyone else who comes in clearly knows the assignment. Swinton! Brody being a dick! Léa Seydoux possibly being the most attractive human being on the planet! Chalamet hamming it up and having a blast! Owen Wilson bicycling around town! Gah!!! This might be the film I end up watching the most on this list…

2. A Hero
Asghar Farhadi’s latest is only the second of his film’s I’ve seen (A Separation being the other), but the morality play he puts on here (a trend common in his work) is one that just gripped me from frame one and had me changing my feelings about everyone wrapped up in this tale with every scene. You always have a rooting interest in our protagonist’s plight, an incredible Amir Jadidi as Rahim, but as more and more details unfold, more and more perspectives are shown, and as things go less and less according to plan, we see a man’s resolve crumble. It can be heartbreaking to watch, but never unfair in its view of its subjects. Jadidi’s performance might be my favorite of the year??? And that smile?!? It’s Farhadi and Rahim’s sharpest weapon in this film’s arsenal, and it’s incredible to see it wither away as you just hope Rahim can dig himself out of this mess. Props to Mohsen Tanabandeh as well, who is nearly as great as Jadidi, as you might 180 on his aggrieved Bahram, a feeling you would have never thought possible the first time we meet him. Great, nuanced, and with no easy answers, A Hero can be a nerve racking experience, but a compelling one I highly recommend you take.

1. The Power of the Dog
Jane Campion is/was a filmmaker I only had a small connection to when I saw The Power of the Dog, but I definitely will be checking out her filmography more after this (The Piano was the first of her film’s I scratched off my to watch list, great!). Bright Star and Top of the Lake were both fine projects, but I don’t think I was quite prepared to be bowled over like I was with her latest. The film doesn’t necessarily smack you over the head with its greatness…well that’s a lie. It sounds amazing, with Greenwood’s score grabbing you from the get go. It looks beautiful, as New Zealand stands in for the mountains of Montana. It is superbly acted from top to bottom, with Cumberbatch and Smit-McPhee delivering career best work, while Dunst and Plemons let sadness slowly swallow them up. Campion’s direction never wavers and the film moves along beautifully, with a script that finds dark humor and heartbreak in places you never expect. There is A LOT to love and appreciate across the run time. But as the film comes to a close, and all those strips come together, you are left with your socks knocked off and asking yourself what the hell you just saw. I was wowed in the end and I sure hope you were/will be too.

Thanks for reading, and here is some other The Best Of content by me:

A Year In Film: 2020, 2019, 2018, 2017, 2016, 2015, 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007

The Decade’s Best: 2010-19 – Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4

The Decade’s Best 2000-09 – Part 1, Part 2, Part 3

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