Top 50 Films of 2021

10. Pig 🇺🇸

It’s not that, following a decade of taking any crass role requiring a living, breathing actor, that I’m surprised Nicolas Cage can act. There’s a reason he possesses one of cinema’s most unique screen personas, hitting a maximalist register that swings past self-consciousness into brilliance. It’s the reward of waiting so long, while knowing how good he could be, for him to return to form not as a parody of himself, but with the gravitas and thoughtfulness that catapulted him to stardom. Cage, the actor I love, finally returns in Michael Sarnoski’s emotionally elusive directorial debut Pig, playing Rob, a reclusive former chef venturing from his woodland hideout to recover his stolen best friend, a truffle-hunting pig. Cage’s entire performance, matched beat for beat by Alex Wolff, a business partner to Rob, is a series of ruminations on loss, and the denial of death and artistic purpose that tightly maneuvers with the dramatic nimbleness once familiar in every Cage performance. At its best, Pig is a fond farewell to a friend, and a welcome return to an actor I didn’t think I’d ever see again.

Available to stream on Hulu

9. Drive My Car 🇯🇵

Enigmas dominate Japanese writer-director Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s second masterwork of 2021. Drive My Car, a swift, three-hour rumination on loss and obsession, opens on a 45-minute prologue introducing accomplished theatrical actor Yūsuke Kafuku (Hidetoshi Nishijima) and his sexually promiscuous television writing wife Oto (Reika Kirishima). A disaster befalls the couple, causing Yūsuke to retrace the betrayal wielded by his wife through the man she did it with, a young, disgraced actor (Masaki Okada). During a theater workshop, Yūsuke befriends a woman (Tōko Miura) driver, seemingly as forlorn and beset by grief as himself. Every character, including the play the company is rehearsing, Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya, is a puzzle waiting to be deciphered to reveal the kind of love, hate, desire and regret we hold for deceased loved ones merely because they cannot answer back. Hamaguchi’s Drive My Car is always smooth, except in the planned tiny narrative bumps in the road that feel seismic in force, if only because the journey behind and ahead them felt so assured, so peaceful until disturbed by the unlikeliest cracks of adversity.       

Now playing in theaters

8. Petite Maman 🇫🇷

It’s nearly unfathomable to think Céline Sciamma, after her masterpiece Portrait of a Lady on Fire, would come so close to matching it, so soon. When I watched Petite Maman at the Telluride Film Festival, I couldn’t help but fear being disappointed. But somehow, the compact Petite Maman, running at 72-minutes, delivers the type of fullness and character development thought lost in a cinematic landscape littered with bloated, at points, unearned runtimes. Akin to Mike Mills’ C’Mon C’Mon and Maggie Gyllenhaal’s The Lost Daughter, Sciamma’s film takes interest in parenthood. After her mother leaves in the middle of the night, an adolescent Nelly (Joséphine Sanz) discovers a new playmate in the woods by the name of Marion (Gabrielle Sanz), living in a house very similar to her own. Their wistful adventures together, a potent potion of magical time travel, masquerading as the type of imagination kids dream up to shoulder the weight of tragedy, allows Nelly to learn and forgive her mother in a film that finds Sciamma at her most tender.

Coming soon in Spring 2022

7. The Gaze 🇺🇸

Film critic Roger Ebert often described film as an empathy machine. I think it’s also a machine fit for remembering. When Barry Jenkins released The Underground Railroad, an aesthetic and narrative culmination of the first act of his career, I religiously watched it (turning over the series seven times). Not just because I marveled at the cinematic achievement, a melding of movie and television making we’re not likely to see again soon. But because I couldn’t escape the kinship that leapt from the screen.  His addendum to the 10-episode series, is a solemn, spiritual 51-minute film entitled The Gaze. The work features the many background actors, supporting players and main performers from the groundbreaking show, defiantly standing in their costumes amid the filmed spaces that could’ve easily occupied their ancestors. Jenkins’ The Gaze, lovingly compiled through the profound work of Nicholas Brittell, Joi McMillion and James Laxton, peers through the past to connect us back to the tangible spirits that still occupy the land and the souls of those who’ve come since.

Available to stream on Vimeo

6. Spencer 🇬🇧

Between Zola and Shiva Baby, this year has been rife with films that do not necessarily fit perfectly in horror yet move with the energy of the genre. Pablo Larraín’s idiosyncratic biopic Spencer, a fictional depiction of Princess Diana (Kristen Stewart) spending a Christmas weekend over at the Queen’s Sandringham Estate, only for her to unravel from the pressures of an apathetic royal family, a rueful spouse, an eating disorder, and the memory of the life she once had, causing her to experience suicidal ideations — is the third film to move with a similar timbre. The key in Spencer, apart from Stewart’s enlivening performance, whereby she weaves through the registers of the public, private and internal Diana, is Jonny Greenwood’s limber score, which begins with a measured period grace, and morphs into a shrapnel’s blast worth of overbearing, unrelenting angst. Spencer isn’t meant to tell you the Diana you already know. It dismantles the very idea that you could ever know any celebrity, no matter how public, or the inward pain they carry with them. Instead Larraín asks you to leave your preconceptions of the woman at the door to see not an icon or a symbol, a headline or a legend, but a real person in need of empathy. 

Available to rent on VOD

5. Titane 🇫🇷

Few can fittingly describe Julia Ducournau’s absurd, ultra-violent, yet sincere follow-up to Raw without throttling the listener into disbelief. Titane is one of those movies where seeing is truly believing. In it, Alexia (Agathe Rousselle), a dancing showgirl with a titanium plate in her head, and a gnarly scar above her ear, goes on a vicious murder spree only to go in hiding as the missing son of a desperately lonely, roided firefighter, Vincent (Vincent Lindon with one of the year’s best performances). Did I mention she’s also pregnant with a Cadillac’s baby? Despite the outlandish logline, Titane isn’t altogether ludicrous. In fact, it operates on a genuine wavelength of a longing for unconditional love. Grotesque murders might happen. Needles plunged in veiny, muscular asses might make their presence felt. But there’s real beauty in the soft grace notes: the scenes featuring loose, soulful dancing, that allows Titane to ring out as an outright tale about creating the families we want in a world that barely wants us.

Available to stream on VOD

4. Parallel Mothers 🇪🇸

Two pregnant mothers-to-be — Janis (Penélope Cruz), a middle-age photographer, and Ana (Milena Smit), a wayward teen — serendipitously meet at a hospital. One is all too aware of the Fracno-era atrocities still hanging over Spain. The other, a glint in the eye of that history, wrestles between the family she never had and the new one she’s trying to make. Pedro Almodóvar’s Parallel Mothers, savors high melodrama, a mood punctuated by Alberto Iglesias’s brazen score, by calibrating this unlikely situation between these women for comedy and romance. Long-time Almodóvar collaborator, Cruz mesmerizes as she plays to the filmmaker’s elaborate dramatic swings while laying the groundwork for the film’s sudden, more serious, political turn. While Almodóvar’s Pain & Glory featured my favorite ending shot of 2019, Parallel Mothers somehow matches the former’s quality by pulling together seemingly disparate moods for a message that’s poignant in its plea for remembrance.

Now playing in theaters

3. Preparations to be Together for an Unknown Period of Time 🇭🇺

Vizy Márta (Natasa Stork), the obsessed protagonist in Lili Horvát’s loquaciously titled Hungarian-language film Preparations to be Together for an Unknown Period of Time, is peeling back a feeling more difficult to define than sadness, hate or apathy. She’s in love. And it’s a bit of a terrifying story. An accomplished neurosurgeon with a thriving career in America, Márta, not too long ago, met and fell for another surgeon at a conference in New Jersey. After their first rendezvous, they agreed to meet again at an appointed place only for the day to come, and for him not to show up. When she finds him, he claims they’ve never met before. Is Márta imagining it all? The answer to that mystery, however, is secondary to the real emotions of betrayal and confusion laying within Márta. Preparations lingers in the shadows etched by cinematographer Róbert Maly; it nestles in the space between ambiguity and truth; and by way of Stork’s hypnotic performance, our perception of whether the ailment known as falling in love is worth the bitter medicine that comes afterwards is told. 

Available to stream on Criterion Channel

2. This is Not a Burial, It’s a Resurrection 🇱🇸

Mantoa (Mary Twala Mhlongo), a weary 80-year old Lesotho widow, is nearing the end of her life, both temporally and spiritually. Both her daughter and granddaughter are dead, and now her son, a miner, has suddenly passed away too. Ready to fade away, her plans change when local government officials announce the village’s cemetery will be cleared away in lieu of a new dam that promises progress. But progress for who? In Lemohang Jeremiah Mosese’s visually sumptuous, politically defiant film, This is Not a Burial, It’s a Resurrection, a woman is revitalized to fight the outside forces threatening to destroy her heritage. A moribund village, surrounded by vibrant hues and lush hills, similarly, regains a fighting spirit. Spoken in Sesotho, plainly carried by Mhlongo’s textured, stabled performance, This is Not a Burial, It’s a Resurrection is a parable for grief, and an act of individual courage that tells the story of a region so often stripped of its resources in the name of everyone’s else progress.  

Available to stream on Criterion Channel

1. The Power of the Dog 🇺🇸

This year, many of my favorite filmmakers: Mike Mills, Steven Spielberg, Paul Thomas Anderson, Wes Anderson, Ridley Scott and so forth released films — and while I did not dislike all of what they produced, none grabbed me with the same fervor I found so compelling in their previous works. One of the few exceptions was Jane Campion, who after a 12 year absence, returned with a film so assured, so sensual, so meticulous and profound, that from the first frame, I knew it would be my favorite film of the year. Adapted from Thomas Savage’s same-titled novel, The Power of the Dog disrupts the Western from the domain of hyper-masculinity, untethering the boundaries between refinement and brutishness. Set in 1925 Montana, already divergent ranching brothers Phil (Benedict Cumberbatch) and George Burbank (Jesse Plemons) are further estranged when George falls for the quiet Rose Gordon (Kirsten Dunst).

Similar to other films on my list, The Power of the Dog is about remembering. Phil can’t shake the memory of his deceased mentor Bronco Henry (very few offscreen characters have carried as much weight as this one), opting for a tactile memorialization, surfacing in his careful buffing of Bronco Henry’s saddle and the fragrance entombed in a handkerchief. The isolated Phil seeks solace with Rose’s effeminate teenage son Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee) only to unknowingly be caught in a dangerous web. Totemic of the sensual subtext inherent in the Western genre, Cumberbatch is quite simply gripping here as a figurative tumbleweed tangled with performative masculinity, a hidden intellectualism, and a longing to hold a memory that only exists in the same place as the shadows that cover the mountains. The Power of the Dog — elegantly shot by Ari Wegner and soundtracked by Jonny Greenwood’s gliding score — is the newest Campion masterpiece in a long list of them.      

Available to stream on Netflix

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