Top 50 Films of 2021

30. The Card Counter 🇺🇸

Partly to do with my lukewarm relationship to Paul Schrader’s past work, partly owing to my dubious outlook on Tiffany Haddish’s dramatic chops, and somewhat stemming from the concept of Oscar Isaac starring as William Tell, a stone-faced, fresh out of prison gambler convicted of torturing prisoners of war at Abu Gharib — there was no movie this year I was more suspicious of than The Card Counter. Schrader, to my fascination, and relief, holds complete control of a hand that could have easily folded into cringe if given to another, less daring filmmaker. Isaac gives his most commanding performance since Inside Llewyn Davis, in this cold, idiosyncratic man, who covers every inch of his hotel room in sheets, and covers his heart in a material less easy to clean. In his travels between casinos and conferences, Tell meets Cirk (Tye Sheridan), a bitter, grieving son seeking revenge against the man who ruined his father’s life, the vile Major John Gordo (Willem Dafoe). While a surprising romance between Isaac and Haddish (portraying an oddly tender vision of a femme fatale) emerges, Schrader’s slick dramatic turns form an exercise in restraint and tension, leading to one of cinema’s best, most searing inquisitions of America’s heinous torture program. 

Available to rent on VOD

29. Pink Skies Ahead 🇺🇸

One of two beguiling performance of the year from Jessica Barden (the other being Holler) came in the little-seen Kelly Oxford directorial debut, which premiered at 2020 AFI Fest, Pink Skies Ahead. Barden portrays the kinetic, blue-haired Winona, a young woman struggling with her sputtering parents in the face of her anxiety disorder. Few films, save for Punch Drunk Love and Girl, Interrupted, have so precisely covered anxiety with the weight of Oxford’s film, which features one of the best soundscapes, a tumbler of high-pitch squeals, this year. In Pink Skies Ahead and Holler, which I’ll get to soon, there’s a real sense for the fullness of Barden’s range: As she displays just as much comfort portraying a working class teenager worn down by her surrounding economic depression in Holler and a girl disintegrating from her mental health hurdles in Pink Skies Ahead with equally believability and depth.    

Available to stream on Sling TV

28. The Tragedy of Macbeth 🇺🇸

Similar to Lana Wachowski, there was always some curiosity about what either Joel or Ethan Coen could accomplish as solo acts. With the black and white shot The Tragedy Macbeth, an adaptation of Shakespeare’s classic play, which owes visual debts to Orson Welles’ 1948 film, Joel Coen delivered a rich, striking retelling of the morose story. In an ensemble mixed with stars from varying schools of acting and national origins, Denzel Washington and Frances McDormand, lead the crew as Lord and Lady Macbeth. As older actors approaching the roles, they add an urgency as the bitter, autumnal old guard looking for some recompense. The pair also veer closer to the historical realities of the marriage. Rather than a romantic partnership (there is in my opinion very little evidence of the couple’s love, at least not love in the modern sense, in the play) they craft the two as allies more than passionate lovers. It’s a different kind of chemistry that imbues this iteration of the play, one more bleak, more morbidly funny than previous versions, with a frankness that’s tied closer to the tragedy of growing old. 

Available to stream on Apple TV beginning January 14

27. Test Pattern 🇺🇸

A devastating drama concerning sexual assault, Shatara Michelle Ford’s directorial feature debut Test Pattern has continued to impress me with every passing month. The lithe script written by Michelle Ford, sees Evan (Will Brill), an amiable tattoo artist with surfer dude vibes dating Renesha (Brittany S. Hall). One night, Renesha accompanies her friend Amber (Gail Bean) on a girl’s night out, wherein they meet a couple of flirtatious white tech bros only for one of them to sexually assault Renesha. How Evan and Renesha later navigate Texas’ unaccommodating hospital system in search of a rape kit in the aftermath of that night calls into question an inert bureaucratic process, often working to the detriment of Black women, that leverages the victim’s anguish for financial profit. While Test Pattern is too real to conclude on a cathartic note. Michelle Ford’s film, with patient specificity, probes the structural inadequacies that plague women.

Available to rent on VOD

26. Limbo 🇬🇧

The cast protecting Omar’s broken arm, might as well be nursing his heart. He’s not been able to play his oud, and though he sometimes tunes the strings, the notes always sound alien to him as he pines for the place and culture he’s left behind. Ben Sharrock’s dark comedy Limbo, an exercise in spiritual and familial loneliness, follows Omar (Amir El-Masry), a Syrian refugee seeking asylum in Scotland who at every turn, from the local supermarket only stocked with salt and pepper, but not the sumac needed to make his mom’s special recipe to the country’s inhospitable weather, feels isolated. While in Scotland forms a close friendship with an endearing Fahard (Vikash Bhai), who’s waited over 32 months for a decision on his own case. The pair provide deadpan, melancholic humor in a narrative that seriously covers the microaggressions and xenophobia faced by asylum seekers, and the depression and guilt they feel as survivors. In this whip smart narrative, Sharrock never shies away from bleakness, and from the desolation of the landscape, and the heart, springs a poignant whisper to the displaced.

Available to stream on HBO Max

25. Holler 🇺🇸

I wish Jessica Barden was getting more attention in 2021. Not only did she deliver one phenomenal, lived-in performance. She delivered two: first the aforementioned Pink Skies Ahead, then Holler. In Nicole Riegel’s directorial debut, Barden plays Ruth, a blistering intelligent, working-class teen living on the unforgivable edge of poverty in the rural, manufacturing area of Jackson, Ohio. She lives there with her older brother Blaze (Gus Harper), in a soon-to-be foreclosed home while her incarcerated mother recovers from a drug habit. To make ends meet, having no other alternatives, Ruth and Blaze join a perilous gang, led by the manipulative Hark (Austin Amelio) illegally scrapping metal. 

When you see Holler, you’ll likely share my post-watch shock to discover Barden hails from England. Despite her origins, she imbues Ruth, a teenager with the potential to attend college, but not the financial means, with truthfulness. Unlike Hillbilly Elegy, Holler isn’t a movie that gawks at the opioid and economic crisis occurring in the Appalachians. Nor does it other those afflicted by the crisis either. Rather Riegel, who drew from her own life experiences in the region, and Barden, craft a stirring, honest, portrayal of a determined girl fighting for the mere chance at a real future.   

Available to rent on VOD

24. The Lost Daughter 🇺🇸

Somehow Olivia Colman continues to get better. In Maggie Gyllenhaal’s controlled debut concerning the plights of motherhood, the British actress portrays Leda Caruso, a comparative literature professor on vacation by the Greek seaside. Leda might be Colman’s most fascinating character to date: She wasn’t a “good” mother, as we discover in flashbacks featuring the beguiling Jessie Buckley as Leda’s younger self, and that guilt bubbles to the surface as she observes an overwhelmed Nina (Dakota Johnson) struggling with her adolescent daughter. Cinematographer Helene Louvart and Gyllenhaal form a formidable double-team shaping immense compositions that rests on the vibrant beach terrain and close-up of actors’ faces. But it’s Colman, her expressive visage swirling between emotions, avoiding an obnoxious overtness, who anchors a film that through her interactions with fellow bewildered parents Lyle (Ed Harris), the resort’s caretaker, and Nina, suggests an elegant chronicling of what’s lost in the sublimation from independent personhood to parenthood. 

Available to stream on Netflix

23. Attica 🇺🇸

Attica, the Showtime documentary by Traci Curry and Stanley Nelson, surveying the 1971 Attica Prison rebellion, an event further immortalized by Al Pacino’s famous refrain in Dog Day Afternoon, is both imperative and triggering, frustrating and gruesome. To recount the heinous tragedy, which arose due to prisoners protesting terrible, inhumane living conditions, the filmmakers interviewed the last surviving inmates and the relatives of deceased prison guards to take us step-by-step through the timeline. In these shocking recollections they uncover the racial prejudices that fueled the exploded powder keg, the political realities of the era, and the nefarious main players who laid the groundwork for the impending bloodshed. In a film about the ways prisons dehumanize human beings, it’s noteworthy that the filmmakers never ask any of the talking heads what their crimes were. Instead they approach them as people first. The final scenes of Attica are difficult to stomach, but they are necessary in remembering a tragedy that took the lives of many, both in terms of the time served and in regards to the time it subtracted.

Available to stream on Showtime

22. CODA 🇺🇸

Every once in a while a film arrives that so overwhelms me, hitting every emotional button in the process, that I lose all sense of discernment between the saccharine and the just plain reassuring. Sian Heder’s crowd pleasing, coming-of-age drama, CODA, short for “child of deaf adults,” takes place in Gloucester, Massachusetts. It centers a fishing family made up of two deaf parents (Troy Kotsur and Marlee Matlin), their deaf son (Daniel Durant) and their hearing daughter Ruby (Emilia Jones) as she tries to pursue a singing career without leaving her codependent parents in the lurch without an ASL interpreter. It’s a film rife with personal insecurities and the kind of common inter family squabbles that feel reinvented and fresh in this narrative. Every performance is perfectly calibrated, attuned to the dreams that can stretch bigger than your small town can contain, wrecking many teenagers in want for more along the way, and the people who feel left behind in its wake. The final scene, whereby Ruby performs for her beleaguered family, is a triumphant visual melody that expresses how deep-rooted desire and unbreakable family bonds can co-exist.    

Available to stream on Apple TV

21. A Hero 🇮🇷

I endlessly marvel at Iranian director Asghar Farhadi’s uncanny ability to make every scene in every one of his films a kind of pocket symphony of meaning and importance. While A Separation is well regarded as his masterpiece, his latest film, A Hero matches the former beat for beat in craftsmanship. In a narrative, ironically filled with no heroes, and barely any villains, Rahim (Amir Jadidi), a father in prison for an unpaid debt, is our focal point. When Rahim’s devoted girlfriend Farkhondeh (Sahar Goldoost) discovers a misplaced bag filled with gold coins at a bus stop, he doesn’t totally seize the opportunity. Instead, he opts to return the coins to their rightful owner. It’s a good deed that restores Rahim’s honor, causing everyone from the prison administration to a charity to get in on the altruistic action. But everyone is playing an angle, even, to a point, Rahim. Farhadi tugs at every narrative string to explore each character’s respective motives, constructing dense scenes that individually carry the fullness of being their own discreet films. With A Hero, Farhadi sharply deconstructs what makes a good deed and the lengths we go to, to protect our honor.

Coming to Prime January 21, 2022

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