Top 50 Films of 2021

40. Jockey 🇺🇸

It’s fair to say I partly grew up at the racetrack: I can remember the stacks of programs, circled and underlined up and down in my dad’s hand, the thrown away tickets of hunches amounting to nothing, the jubilant early morning parading of horses and the later screams of defeat among the betters. But most of all, I remember the jockeys: Highly observant men and women, tending to their horses and their plans of action with equal concentration. Clifton Collins Jr. plays a member of this mysterious ilk, an injured horse rider at the end of his race, in Clint Bentley’s Sundance hit Jockey. Delicately shot by Adolpho Veloso, composed of a compendium of golden hour shots, this is a showcase for Collins in a rare lead role. It tells the physical and emotional toll of the sport of kings wherein the jockeys are often rendered paupers, and it brought back all those fragmented early morning memories from my childhood, forming a collage that rekindled those charging sounds of anticipation and desire that once enveloped my own existence.

Now playing in theaters

39. The Summit of the Gods 🇫🇷

Though I admittedly only have one animated film on my list, 2021 was a banner year (think Flee, Luca, Raya and the Last Dragon, The Mitchells vs. the Machines and so forth) for animation. Patrick Imbert’s adaptation of Jiro Taniguchi’s same-titled manga series, for me, was a clear, less talked about standout. Premised on a Japanese photographer investigating a once revered climber in possession of George Mallory’s long lost camera, the French language, vertical adventure, Summit of the Gods, offered a kind of nerve-wracking animation that caused me to cover my eyes during its vertigo-inducing climbing scenes. Soundtracked to Amine Bouhafa’s invigorating score, the vast mountainous landscapes are as sumptuous as a Caspar David Friedrich painting and the acrobats these distinctly rendered characters perform are as tightly pulled together as taut as climbing rope.

Available to stream on Netflix

38. Riders of Justice 🇩🇰

For the New York Times, I’ve spent the entirety of 2021 chronicling the best action films. And in that time I’ve come across some wonderful deep cuts (please find space to watch Cecilia Verheyden’s Ferry, Benny Chan’s Raging Fire, and Daniel Benmayor’s Xtreme, if you can). None stood out more than Anders Thomas Jensen’s Dutch action flick Riders of Justice. See, every other day there’s a filmmaker claiming their movie’s about grief. But Jensen brings the goods by casting Mads Mikkelsen as an anguished single-father made a widower after his wife’s death at the hands of terrorists. Seeking revenge, the father teams with a gaggle of numbers crunchers claiming they can use a specially designed algorithm to identify the culprits. Compared to Mikkelsen’s near career best work in Another Round, the role of the stoic Markus in this visceral, muscular cut film (edited by Anders Albjerg Kristiansen and Nicolaj Monberg) lives on a completely different planet and shows the actor’s immense range. The way he can meld his balletic physicality with hard won heartbreak gives Riders of Justice a soft core that reimagines the action genre.  

Available to stream on Hulu 

37. The Electrical Life of Louis Wain 🇬🇧

On paper, The Electrical Life of Louis Wain, Will Sharpe’s idiosyncratic biopic chronicling the titular artist, shouldn’t work. Starring Benedict Cumberbatch, in a performance that very nearly matches, in terms of quality, his hypnotic turn in The Power of the Dog, Louis Wain is a story about loneliness and cats, and the impact true love can hold over both. Very few people in Louis’ life understand him. That is, until he meets his family’s governess, an equally sensitive Emily (Claire Foy). The pair marry, and much to the chagrin of others, begin adopting cats, making a picturesque life for themselves until tragedy strikes, causing Louis to use his distinctive art to delve deeper into his fascination with cats. Sharpe takes plenty of visual swings to demonstrate the various ways the memory of Emily haunts Louis by fashioning prismatic compositions and fantastical dream sequences filled with cat people. He also offers adorable inner-kitten-dialogue that provide a lightness to the film’s crushing sorrow. You can feel Sharpe’s intense connection to this character, probably more than any other director to any other character this year. Sharpe is Louis Wain.        

Available to stream on Prime

36. Really Love 🇺🇸

At AFI Fest 2020, a film originally slated to premiere earlier that year at SXSW, finally found an audience. It concerned two star-crossed lovers—Isiah (Kofi Siriboe), a rising painter, and Stevie (Yootha Wong-Loi-Sing) —living and balancing their career goals with their stormy passions in Washington DC.  In every frame you can see the 1990s Black romance films, such as Love Jones, director Angel Kristi Williams and co-writer Felicia Pride drew inspiration from (just peep them casting Blair Underwood as Stevie’s father and Michael Ealy as Isiah’s best friend). Their swooning film Really Love, nevertheless, offers comfort and longing in the familiar. Thrumming with heat, lust grips every scene between these tempestuous lovers. In between the break-up and make-up, the “I could never live without you” and “I would die if I see you again,” is an emotional, sensual film asking: What is too high of a price for an artist to pay for their art or their love?

Available to stream on Netflix

35. Together Together 🇺🇸

One of the year’s best romantic comedies, Nikole Beckwith’s modest two-hander Together Together, centers platonic love over passionate desire. It opens with a series of prodding inquiries — “Have you ever stolen anything?” “Are you religious?” “What’s the worst thing you’ve ever done?” — delivered by the desperate Matt (Ed Helms) to the surrogate he’s interviewing, the all-too-honest Anna (Patti Harrison). In a year where cinematic age-gaps have overwhelmed the online discourse, it’s surprising how little anyone’s talked about Together Together. Because while the 47-year old Helms and 31-year old Harrison initially seem destined to conclude Beckwith’s rom-com confessing their shared ardor, this film takes a different route. The pair remain friends, and the growth, deterioration, and regrowth of their bond, hints at the hidden strengths of platonic love in a movie where the desire for a family to forestall loneliness allows for Helms and Harrison to share an easy chemistry for a brilliant, unlikely comedy duo.

Available to stream on Hulu

34. The Mad Women’s Ball 🇫🇷

You would think a film that played 2021 TIFF, ultimately premiering on Prime, would be more talked about, but French filmmaker Mélanie Laurent’s The Mad Women’s Ball has been seriously stepped over. Bearing some similarities to Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s coming-of-age Holocaust film, Never Look Away and Miloš Forman’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Laurent sets her narrative, adapted from Victoria Mas’s novel Le bal des folles, in the 1880s, when French neurologist Jean-Martin Charcot’s primitive theories concerning mental health reigned supreme. In his hospital, Salpêtrière, two women — the aristocratic spiritualist Eugénie Cléry (Lou de Laâge) and the seemingly stern head nurse Geneviève (Laurent) — are trapped within the hospital, and within a misogynistic era where any woman staking a claim for independence is diagnosed as “mad.” Asaf Avidan’s score, an acute thrumming of cellos and violins, and Anny Danché’s urgent editing, accentuates this film past period delicacy to an effective melodrama that aims to humanize the imprisoned women at its center rather than gawk at them as shards left behind by vile, lecherous men.  

Available to stream on Prime

33. Zola 🇺🇸

You know the story (or maybe not). In 2015, a Detroit waitress Aziah “Zola” King posted a 148-tweet thread of a wild ride to Florida with a fellow exotic dancer. The thread broke twitter, the internet, and reality. In the history of movies, adaptive films have arisen from radio, television, books, and articles. Never before Twitter. Janicza Bravo’s dark comedy Zola, co-written with Jeremy O Harris, is a twisting synergy of social media language with cinematic vernacular, which further establishes the director as a major force. While Riley Keough paints every scene with eye-catching flair, both Taylour Paige as the evocative titular character, and the code-switching Colman Domingo are equally as fascinating. Next to Shiva Baby, especially through its uneasy comedy and the quirky soundscape soundtracking a terrifying scenario, it’s one of the year’s most consciously unsettling films.   

Available on rent on VOD

32. A Crime on the Bayou 🇺🇸

In 1966 in Plaquemines Parish, Louisiana, Gary Duncan, at the time 19-years old, broke up a disagreement between white and Black teenagers. Those white teens, to his shock, would later falsely accuse Duncan of assault. The charges levied by this racist system, enabled by a local totalitarian government, threatened to destroy Duncan’s life. Nancy Buirski’s frustrating documentary A Crime on the Bayou recalls the difficult trials that lay ahead for Duncan and the young Jewish Civil Rights attorney, Richard Sobol, who would take his case to the Supreme Court. A Crime on the Bayou is a recollection of a frightening era, and the ways a totalitarian system viciously recoils to retain power over the oppressed. It’s a fond story between a white lawyer and Black defendant that transcends white savior Hollywood feel-good stories, both of whom share chilling stories, and demonstrates the real threats faced by the most vulnerable, and the two pillars of courage who transcended such realities.  

Available to rent on VOD

31. The Woman in the Window 🇺🇸

Two Joe Wright films could’ve easily made this list (Cyrano, by a wide margin, was my favorite movie musical of the year). But I sided with his less-than-heralded adaptation of A.J. Finn’s same-titled novel, The Woman in the Window. An ode to Alfred Hitchcock’s classic thrillers, Wright deconstructs films like Rear Window and Vertigo to tell the story of Dr. Anna Fox (Amy Adams), an agoraphobic woman spying at the outside world from her New York City brownstone. Anna suspects her gruff, frankly misogynist neighbor Alistair Russell (Gary Oldman) might’ve murdered his wife Jane (Jennifer Jason Leigh). But Anna lives her life through movies, to the point that fiction and reality blur their lines to unrecognizability. Very rarely have I enjoyed Adams when she goes for broke. I prefer her earlier work more subdued work such as The Master. Nevertheless, here, her big, manic performance pulls through Wright’s formalistic interrogation for a film that probably swung and missed, but whose presence haunted me all the same. 

Available to stream on Netflix

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