Top 50 Films of 2021

Roger Ebert once said that cinema is an empathy machine. I believe it’s also a remembering machine. “Remembrance,” though not apparent in all of my selections, is the theme that most often guides a list — composed of documentaries, interrogations of personal and shared histories, and attempts to reconnect with ancestors  — of my favorite films of 2021. 

For this list, I considered films with at least a qualifying 2021 theatrical or streaming run. Some festival films, even if they appeared at multiple festivals I attended (please check-out upcoming releases like Strawberry Mansion, The Gravedigger’s Wife, Saloum and so forth when they’re formally out in the world), will count toward my 2022 list. While some movies that others loved did not make my final accounting for the year. That doesn’t mean I didn’t like them or that I didn’t watch them (From 2021, I viewed 289 new releases). It just means I didn’t love them enough for them to make my list. 

Typically, my list doesn’t run longer than 25 selections. But in a year that felt harder than others, I tended not to gravitate toward the movies everyone else enjoyed, which often left me feeling out of the loop. I want to celebrate the pictures that were closest to my heart. And in a year where we’ve lost so much, in ways that aren’t totally possible to add up yet, it makes sense that I would use cinema as a remembering machine to cope with a worldwide reality that feels like it has zero signs of abating. On a hopeful note, here are the 50 films that most comforted me through the act of remembering. 

Honorable mentions: 17 Blocks, Citizen Ashe, Cyrano, I Blame Society, Julia, Luzzu, The Most Beautiful Boy in the World, Operation Hyacinth, The Outside Story, Procession, Swan Song (the Udo Kier starring film), and Raging Fire.

50. Venom: Let There Be Carnage 🇺🇸

By the time you conclude with this list your brain will probably race back to a single thought: He thought Venom: Let There Be Carnage was better than x movie that didn’t make the list? The short answer is “yes.” Unlike many others, I loved the first Venom, wherein journalist Eddie Brock (Tom Hardy) unites with a raging symbiote from space to form a tender odd couple. The pair return in Andy Serkis’ follow-up, Let There Be Carnage, to confront a destructive spree instigated by serial killer Cletus Kasady (Woody Harrelson) and his vicious red symbiote Carnage. While that conflict might be a selling point for many, it’s only the subplot to the main quarrel plaguing Eddie and Venom: Their unspoken love for each other. Serkis and Hardy advance the prior film’s queer coding in this iteration, making the pair roommates who border closer to a squabbling married couple. While this sequel is chocked full of action, it wasn’t the bombastic fight scenes between Venom and Carnage that most enthralled me. It’s the healthiness of Venom and Eddie’s relationship that made me totally invested. Let There Be Carnage is probably the most romantic film of 2021.      

Available to rent on VOD

49. The Novice 🇺🇸

I’ve been perplexed by how under the radar writer-director Lauren Hadaway’s The Novice has flown. Granted the sports drama isn’t an easy watch. Nor is rowing the most attractive subject matter. But those concerns drift away in the face of Hadaway’s unflinching vision. Following college student Alex Dall (Isabelle Fuhrman) after she takes up rowing, seemingly on a whim, Hadaway charts the woman’s descent into pure competition. For Alex, her pursuit to be the best does not stem from a genuine love of the sport. It’s the ability to prove others wrong, to push herself mentally and physically beyond everyone else, damning friendships and love in the process. Too often the word “transformation” is loosely applied to actors. But in Fuhrman’s case, she withers on camera, her skin cracking and peeling and her face drained of color, making herself an unsettling shell of the person she once was. If the ends justifies the means, then The Novice wonders aloud if the ends of those means is ever really meaningful.

Available to rent on VOD

48. The Year of the Everlasting Storm 🇺🇸

To varying degrees of success, but mostly through failure, filmmakers have been aiming to grapple with the upheaval — emotional, psychological or otherwise — felt during this endless global pandemic. It’s a fool’s errand to measure the magnitude of the storm when you’re within it. But the six directors behind the omnibus The Year of the Everlasting Storm, nevertheless, do successfully translate the nearly immeasurable loss felt by the world. David Lowery connects this plague to South Western America’s sickly past. Jafar Panahi documents his charming family in India. Anthony Chen records a noxious marriage crumbling under the weight of crushing isolation in China. Laura Poitras interrogates the present global police state. Malik Vitthal and Chilean director Dominga Sotomayor’s respective films capture separated families working to reunite amid bureaucracy and the virus’ spread. Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Thai art installation concludes, on a ruminative note, a collection of disparate films united by a sense of regret and urgency. In tandem the shorts offer no solutions. Rather they’re pieces of therapy through art in the eyes of six perceptive filmmakers that says more in their mere existence than their undoubtably dizzying quality.

Available to rent on VOD

47. The Matrix Resurrections 🇺🇸

In a year filled with milquetoast blockbusters, ranging from cash-grab sequels to soul-sucking IP-laden caverns— and cinematically bankrupt aesthetic nightmares — Lana Wachowski returned, minus her sister Lilly, with the kind of bold big budget storytelling so sorely missing from the theatrical landscape. The Matrix Resurrections, the fourth installment in The Matrix franchise, interrogates the dearth of creativity, the lack of artistic courage all too common in the present movie ecosystem. Wachowski doesn’t do so in smugness: She pokes fun at herself for taking the devil’s bargain to return to a franchise she began over two decades ago. A warranted cynicism swirls in the first half of Resurrections, but it soon cedes to a gall of the big heart, “love will conquer the day” filmmaking the director has made her closest friend. Characters filled with hope such as Bugs (Jessica Henwick), a determined captain, and a digital Morpheus (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) shine as bright as the luminous rays coloring the film’s warm photography. But it’s Neo (Keanu Reeves) and Trinity (Carrie-Anne Moss), two romantic characters holding the revolutionary spirit that’s always coursed through these adventures, breaking down both binaries and rules, that give Wachowski’s Resurrections its sexiness and heart, and its reason to live again. 

Available to stream on HBO Max

46. Memoria 🇨🇴

Memoria is Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s second film on my end of the year list and despite the enigma silently awaiting to be heard, it’s somehow the most straightforward of the two. Jessica Holland (Tilda Swinton) is an expatriate Scottish woman living in Medellín, Colombia. At night a thumping sound, emanating from a primordial origin, awakens her, then haunts her over the coming days. She investigates the nature and meaning, and texture behind the sonic companion to little avail. Memoria features a unsettling performance from Swinton, relying on her angular features and curious aura to buoy a deliberate, meditative sonic journey. Through the film’s meticulous sound design Weerasethakul crafts an unsettling contemplation on the nature of shared memories, emotional bruises whose wounds reach back generations, that rattled me to a primitive core I still cannot shake. 

Now playing in theaters

45. In the Same Breath 🇺🇸

Sometimes, even as early as Sundance, you know a film is gonna be on your end-of-the-year list. At Sundance 2021, that feeling came from the first movie I watched: Nanfu Wang’s potent, clear-eyed documentary In the Same Breath. Of the films charting the first few perilous months of the COVID-19 pandemic, Wang’s rises above the others through its investigative diligence and its personal realities, speaking to both the shortcomings of the moment while informing us of the deep, costly fissures we continue to trip over. It reveals how a thirst for power by governments undermines their ability to wholly deal with national emergencies and the patterns they use to consolidate control, along with the prejudices we cling to when the center cannot hold. Wang doesn’t present a happy ending. Rather she measures the repetitive particles swirling in the air that could lead to this tragedy happening again, except worse. Even in this current breath, In the Same Breath remains prescient. 

Available to stream on HBO Max

44. My Name is Pauli Murray 🇺🇸

Co-directors Julie Cohen and Betsy West produced two films that could’ve easily made my list (go check out Julia, their delightful documentary about television chef Julia Child) but the singularity of My Name is Pauli Murray won me over. Outside of a few queer studies programs, the wider importance of Murray has been somewhat lost. A lawyer and activist, they were critical in arguing for an equal protection under the Fourteenth Amendment to combat sex discrimination. While Cohen and West profoundly cover Murray’s trailblazing work, they are, thankfully, equally enamored by how Murray moved through the world while combating the slings of sexism and racism, and their own internal battles with gender dysphoria. My Name Is operates on a narrative continuum that pieces together Murray’s life through their detailed writing and expansive, archival interview footage. If you’re looking for little-known stories about seismic people, My Name is Pauli Murray (and this next selection) should be high on your list too. 

Available to stream on Prime

43. Black Art: In the Absence of Light 🇺🇸

In any year, several Sam Pollard films could make my concluding list (in 2021 I also had to choose between Citizen Ashe and Mr. Soul). But Black Art in the Absence of Light most captured my attention. See, Pollard has spent his career revealing the contours of Black America through both well-known cultural heroes and unlikely historic figures. But few of his films feel as revelatory, with regards to how unknown its documented events are to a wider population than Black Art, which recalls the history of Black visual art through the frame of curator David Driskell’s landmark exhibition Two Centuries of Black American Art. Through that celebration, Pollard, in a decisive, measured manner, unfurls the varied movements and creators — Theaster Gates, Kerry James Marshall, Faith Ringgold, Amy Sherald and Carrie Mae Weems — who compose the artistic legacy of Black folks (and America). Pollard’s film is packed. But never overstuffed. Fleet. But never rushed. And it’ll open you to a visual world you may never have known existed. 

Available to stream on HBO Max

42. Bob Dylan: Shadow Kingdom 🇺🇸

Following the disturbing accusation attached to Bob Dylan, I wrestled with whether to include Alma Har’el’s intimate and inventive live stream concert film, Shadow Kingdom, on my list. Har’el’s work, however, is too brilliant to be buried. The pandemic instigated one of Dylan’s longest stretches from touring. For many fans, Shadow Kingdom, filmed on a Santa Monica set imitating a smokey jazz club, fitted with a retro band and dancers posing as audience members, offered the next best option. Har’el understands the appeal of Dylan: the enigmatic aura that catapulted the folk lyricist to cultural icon and the storybook songs whose imagery enrapture listeners to this day. Next to Rebecca Hall’s enlivening work on Passing, it’s the best use of black and white photography this year, and finds as much interest in the isolated smoker sitting in the corner of the club, lulling under the singer’s spell, as Dylan himself.

Presently unavailable

41. The Legend of the Underground 🇳🇬

In Nigeria gay sex is punishable by 14 years in jail. Switching between Lagos, Nigeria and New York City, Nneka Onuorah and Giselle Bailey’s stylish documentary The Legend of the Underground steadfastly chronicles the trans-Atlantic effort led by several Nigerian LGBTQIA+ activists to stem the wave of discriminating homophobic lawmaking in the African country. Photographed to poetic degrees, The Legend of the Underground uses distressing stories and the tight-knit gay community’s nurturing bonds to create a resilient kaleidoscope of heels, dance, and strength. In one scene, Mikael visits a catwalk class, and watches a lyrical dance sequence. Shot in slow-motion, enveloped in red and blue neon lighting, these figures display a combination of powerfully assured movements and whiplashing gyrations that encapsulate their unflinching existence. The Legend of the Underground details the heartbreak and resiliency in Nigeria’s gay community and creates an uplifting expression of personal freedom.

Available to stream on HBO Max

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