I think most of us can agree that 2020 was a blur. So much of our lifestyles were disrupted and so many films were delayed. Even as a year of film, 2020 did not leave a strong impression. Perhaps that shaped my expectations and hopes for 2021, that the next year will offer some new refreshing titles. Even with those hopes set in place, I was taken aback by 2021’s lineup. Truly, it felt like the moviegoing and theatrical experience came roaring back with a vengeance.
But perhaps the most invigorating thing about this year’s films – and this is the theme that connects my 15 picks – is each one of them uses simplicity as a weapon to subvert or embrace genre tropes, while proving in their own ways that cinema still has so much to offer in terms of originality.
Movies are still good! But first, honorable mentions that just missed the cut: Belle, Benedetta, Bo Burnham’s Inside, CODA, The French Dispatch, The Green Knight, Language Lessons, No Time To Die, West Side Story
These are my 15 best films of 2021:
15. DUNE (Denis Villeneuve)
Let me get the negative out of the way. Dune is an incomplete film (for now). It’s not even half a movie. It’s more like Disc 1 of The Fellowship of the Ring Extended Cut. I sat in the IMAX theater and when the film ended, I thought to myself “But the story just started!”
Other than that, Dune is pretty much a flawless showcase of technical craftsmanship. This is some of the best production design, cinematography, visual effects, and sound design you’ll see all year, and all of it is in service of world-building. Perhaps the best thing about Dune’s world is, unlike other big expensive sci-fi blockbusters, the film doesn’t have to explain its rules too much to the audience. Though the lore is there for those who care about it, it’s not essential for moviegoers to understand the story – exactly the same kind of world-building and storytelling in The Lord of the Rings.
For a slow-burn, droning sci-fi epic, Dune paces surprisingly well. There is always a sense of danger, both physical and political, that looms over the characters. Every actor in this massive cast came to play – the real scene-stealers being Rebecca Ferguson, Jason Momoa, and Oscar Isaac. I am confident that the film will only play better in my mind once we get the rest of the story. Thankfully, Part 2 is happening!
But we must not forget one of Dune’s biggest achievements, thanks to composer Hans Zimmer. It finally gave me a piece of music played by the bagpipes… that I actually liked.
14. LICORICE PIZZA (Paul Thomas Anderson)
Essentially Paul Thomas Anderson’s response to Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. His take on a Robert Altman movie. It’s kind of amazing (and not surprising at all) to see this film – a portrait of a time and place – be criticized for not having enough commentary or for endorsing certain toxic or dangerous behavior, when really so much is being said by PTA by showing everything to us laid bare. There is something pure but troubling about how our two leads, Gary and Alana, interact. Within the first few minutes, the film acknowledges their age gap, that they really shouldn’t be seeing one another, and that the world they live in is trying its damnedest to corrupt them both.
The three older men in the film – played by John Michael Higgins, Sean Penn, and Bradley Cooper – give us a deeper look at this time period. They are wealthy, successful, and absolute scumbags. They make the world so much harder for Gary and Alana, especially Alana, to grow and thrive. Perhaps the most suspenseful element throughout the film is we’re afraid if Gary will grow up to become like one of those men.
The fact that they get together time and time again is not really a celebration of romance. In fact, it’s not really a celebration of anything. It’s simply a portrayal of our need to connect and feel wanted by someone and the tricky navigation that comes with that, especially during adolescence. PTA understands that, and frankly, he should make more entertaining but sobering films like this one.
13. A HERO (Asghar Farhadi)
Asghar Farhadi has a gift, a rare incredible gift in giving every character attention and empathy, no matter how minor they are. In addition to the protagonist, every minor character gets a chance to be heard and understood. It’s almost as if the film lets everyone have a moment to be the protagonist. It’s because of this sensibility that he can take a simple premise and weave the most complicated, frustrating drama out of it.
A Hero achieves this with brilliant effect. Rahim (Amir Jadidi) stumbles on a bag of gold coins and returns it to its rightful owner, and is very quickly hailed as a local hero. But just as quickly, the rumors on social media take off, and we reach a point where the truth no longer matters, because there will always be an *interpretation* of the truth.
Farhadi continues his brilliant sensibilities as a director, making all the delicate choices as to where the camera sits, whether or not we have access to a character as they’re speaking on the phone, and whether or not a child will be there to witness a conversation. It’s all told and filmed like a documentary, like there is no judgment or agenda set in place, or like how Farhadi explained it best – “Tell the situation in a way as if there is nobody there to tell the situation.”
There is no better dramatist out there today than Farhadi. A Hero not only continues his winning streak, but it proves once again that some of the best films out there just need a simple premise and a good script. Visuals, style, all of that is secondary. The most fundamental piece is the drama.
12. DRIVE MY CAR (Ryusuke Hamaguchi)
Drive My Car is three hours long, yet it paces better than most other films this year. This is largely due to a phenomenal screenplay that revels in scene beats and subtext between characters. You find yourself drawn into every conversation, every glance a character makes. It’s always in the silent moments that drama and progress occurs.
Before you know it, you forget that you’re watching a film. You think about Yūsuke (Hidetoshi Nishijima, in one of the best performances of the year) and his quiet relationship with his driver Misaki (Tōko Miura). You think about his unique method in casting actors for his play, where every actor must speak in their native language – they must work off of each other’s performance and rhythm in order for the play to succeed.
Director Ryusuke Hamaguchi makes the most out of three hours to tell a profound story about trusting and understanding “the other person,” in ways that only silence and time can. By the time you reach the finale (a brilliant silent sequence), you will find the rug pulled out from under you. Drive My Car is a film that quietly rewards your patience, one that performs better and better as it lives longer in your mind.
11. PIG (Michael Sarnoski)
It brings me so much joy to see Pig still on my list, because there are moments in this that I’m still thinking about. Who knew that so much emotion could be felt from Nicolas Cage asking for a salted baguette? Or him cooking a pigeon, basting it in butter with garlic and thyme?
For a premise surrounding a truffle hunter on a journey to retrieve his kidnapped pig, you would think the film is in line with something like John Wick or Mandy. It turns out that writer/director Michael Sarnoski has deeper, more earnest ideas in mind. Pig has more to do with Manchester by the Sea than the other two films I mentioned, that is largely because the film is about grief, how a man left a life he once had, and how an entire community and industry that knows him would respond to his abrupt return.
Nicolas Cage hasn’t been this good in years, giving a heartbreaking performance, along with some striking lines of dialogue that resonated with me throughout the year – the main one being “We don’t get a lot of things to really care about.” Praise also needs to be given to David Knell and Adam Arkin, whose moments with Cage play like emotional standoffs. There is so much history and subtext going on between these characters, and we only have access to so much information. It’s a beautifully restrained script, a film that I never knew I needed until now.
10. THE WORST PERSON IN THE WORLD (Joachim Trier)
You don’t have to be the most original film. You just have to bring your personality and your sensibility to the subject matter. Joachim Trier approaches familiar topics like coming of age and the anxieties of turning 30 and weaves a beautiful story out of messy characters. The result is The Worst Person in the World, a portrait of today’s world of endless possibilities, making it harder and harder for people to commit or see things through.
Told in a fun and effective structure of twelve chapters plus a prologue and an epilogue, the story centers around three fully realized characters who all make questionable, complicated decisions; each one with their own respective consequences. Renate Reinsve gives a charming, intimate performance in Julie as she leads the first half of the film, but then comes Anders Danielsen Lie as Aksel, whose vulnerability rarely seen in male characters gets put on full display in the second half of the film.
With a beautifully subtle piano score that kicks in at the right moment every single time and a handful of visuals that are bizarre, hilarious, and memorable, The Worst Person in the World is delightful. One sequence in particular, that is Julie meeting Eivind (a fantastic Herbert Nordrum) for the first time, has stayed with me since. It’s a film that I would revisit simply to revisit its characters, the same way you would want to meet an old friend again.
9. NINE DAYS (Edson Oda)
As you’re watching Nine Days, you can feel your soul levitate out of your body and be taken to a beautiful place. So many pieces come together to create this effect. Antonio Pinto’s immaculate score, whose melodies and violin instrumentation would make your heart race. The lighting in that house, illuminated mainly by projectors and television monitors. Winston Duke’s performance. Benedict Wong’s warmth. Zazie Beetz’ pureness and curiosity. Director Edson Oda juggles philosophical debates, artistic imagery, and snippets of domestic life with a careful, steady hand.
Every character in this film is written to be flawed, fragile, and in need of love and comfort. It’s a script that never loses track of itself by explaining its rules, for it strips most of its fantastical premise down to its bare essentials, simply to contextualize and dramatize the human emotions. You will cry sad tears and happy tears, not knowing when one becomes the other. Surely, it’s one of the most original and life-affirming films in recent history. The ending will sweep you off your feet.
Perhaps the most powerful thing about Nine Days is all it takes for me to be transported back is by hearing that violin again. It’s a musical score for the books.
8. MASS (Fran Kranz)
There are words spoken in Mass where the second I heard them, I went from zero to a hundred and cried out of nowhere. So much of that power and talent goes to writer/director Fran Kranz, who knows exactly how to stage his “one-act play” of a story without overstepping his messages and interests. As Martha Plimpton’s character says at one point, the film is not interested in talking about politics.
In a similar vein as Asghar Farhadi’s A Hero, Mass is a film that reaffirms my belief in storytelling. Forget action, visuals, fancy camerawork, stylistic editing, forget all of that. All you need is a premise, a few characters, and a phenomenal script. With Mass, it doesn’t get simpler than this. Almost the entire film is four characters in one room, sitting at a table, talking. And it’s some of the most gripping, devastating storytelling you’ll ever see, offering a nuanced conversation that most Americans are still not ready to have. Though the subject matter can easily politicize the film, Kranz carefully keeps his story focused on the human connection.
All four actors – Reed Birney, Ann Dowd, Jason Isaacs, Martha Plimpton – give staggering, poignant performances. They are endlessly rewatchable, that is if you have the courage to watch the film again. In fact, I highly recommend it. You might be surprised at how your opinions about the characters change.
7. PETITE MAMAN (Céline Sciamma)
Céline Sciamma returns to make a small little film about two girls in the countryside – practically the exact opposite in story and scale of Portrait of a Lady on Fire – and it’s so profound, it sneaks up on you.
Though it tells the story of eight-year-old Nelly (Joséphine Sanz) returning to her mother’s childhood home, as she strikes a friendship with Marion, another girl who bears the same name as her mother, the film is very much an exploration of our relationships with our parents and our children. It is the mother’s story as much as it is the daughter’s story, as Sciamma uses soft fantasy to make parent and child experience the same fear, love, and affection.
Shot during the pandemic, the film makes remarkable use of one countryside house. By simply dressing it twice and shooting the hallways and rooms a certain way, Sciamma and cinematographer Claire Mathon (we will see her again on this list!) create a haunting, melancholy space for their characters.
It’s a precious little film that wins your heart, because Sciamma is not only one of the best filmmakers working today, but she is a storyteller who *loves* her characters and wants them to be alright, to overcome their anxieties and push on. What she achieves here in 72 minutes is more than what most filmmakers strive to achieve in two hours.
6. THE POWER OF THE DOG (Jane Campion)
It’s such a delight to see a quiet, slow-burn film like this one winning so many awards.
Filled to the brim with jealousy, cruelty, and melancholy in every scene, The Power of the Dog is the combination of a “classic great American novel” and a filmmaker in complete control of tone and subtlety. Jane Campion takes Ari Wegner’s cinematography with Jonny Greenwood’s score and wrings so much tension out of every frame. Full of symbolism and open-ended backstories, the film invites multiple viewings and interpretations from the audience. You will certainly finish the film with a long conversation afterwards about the characters and what some of their true motivations were.
Add that with Benedict Cumberbatch, Kodi Smit-McPhee, and Kirsten Dunst giving the best performances of their respective careers and The Power of the Dog is a force to be reckoned with.
5. THE TRAGEDY OF MACBETH (Joel Coen)
Call me shocked, because I do not even consider myself a fan of Shakespeare, but Joel Coen manages to pull off one of the best stage-to-screen adaptations of The Scottish Play.
With career-best performances from Denzel Washington, Frances McDormand, and scene-stealer Kathryn Hunter as the three witches, The Tragedy of Macbeth walks a tricky tightrope between film and theater. With a minimalist interpretation of the visuals, the film strips Shakespeare’s play down to its bare bones, focusing on its atmosphere of dread and how black and white and German Expressionist visuals can elevate Lord Macbeth’s downfall.
Full of shots that trap our actors in an endless labyrinth of lines formed by doorways, stairs, window frames, and furniture, the film has some of the best cinematography this year. It is all in Coen’s delicate balance of keeping his film feeling both cinematic and theatrical. At the same time, the cast is free to interpret certain scenes and certain lines the way they want. With Washington and McDormand being both older than the typical age range for these characters, there is further melancholy and desperation in Lord and Lady Macbeth.
McDormand once said in an interview that they wanted to honor Shakespeare’s text, but change the punctuation wherever they can. For me, that is the best way to describe The Tragedy of Macbeth. It’s a wicked reimagining that keeps the essential story beats while abstracting everything else and delivering an incredible visual experience in ways that only cinema can.
4. FLEE (Jonas Poher Rasmussen)
There is something so precious, fragile, and tender with Flee. It’s more than just a documentary about Amin recounting his experiences in fleeing his home country. On top of the archival footage and interviews, the film breaks the documentary mold to tell what is very much a narrative feature – a story of friendship between Amin and the film’s director, Jonas Poher Rasmussen.
With a present storyline involving Amin’s academics and his relationship with his partner Kasper, the film is interested in more than just unlocking his past. But once Amin opens up and returns to his repressed trauma, Flee descends into a devastating portrait of what refugees go through, kept beautiful and intimate by its animation, which I described in my review as “pictures that just learned how to move for the first time, [allowing] most of [the film] to feel like broken memories.”
Guided by Amin’s voice and a sensitive score by Uno Helmersson, Flee is a therapeutic experience. It’s more than just a true story of a gay man fleeing his country. That’s just one layer of the story. What Rasmussen taps into is a story of trust and healing. It’s about opening up again, to feel again with the people you care about, and most of all, to reclaim and reforge an identity that was once lost. The amount of kindness on display is astounding. The fact that Flee achieves this by being part documentary, part feature film, and all animation is an incredible achievement that must be recognized.
3. THE FALLS (Chung Mong-hong)
The Falls made me call my mom the second it was over. It’s a film that spoke to me deeply as an Asian American who sees so much of myself represented on screen amongst the Taiwanese characters. What starts as a tense story of a mother (Alyssa Chia) raising her daughter (Gingle Wang) soon transforms into a heart-breaking tale of mental illness, into a beautiful role-reversal in which the daughter takes care of her mother.
Though it may seem like the film meanders a lot, writer/director Chung Mong-hong creates real, tangible situations that are financial, social, and economic for its characters to deal with. In addition to the lead mother-daughter relationship, The Falls contains a large cast full of supporting characters – each one having enough time to be understood. All of it adds up to Chung creating a portrait about people getting by.
There’s something heartbreaking yet endearing about the act of getting by. Maybe it just makes me feel seen? That someone understands what an average person in domestic life is going through? I see myself in so many of Chung’s characters, from the hospital patient to the apartment landlord, from the supermarket manager to the mother’s housekeeper. It’s all an exercise in empathy, and Chung directs and films it all with a rare attention to detail.
Winner of 4 Golden Horse awards, including Best Original Screenplay, Best Lead Actress (Alyssa Chia), and Best Picture, The Falls is a film that swept me away, one that has not left my mind since I first saw it at TIFF. It’s a film that makes me grateful for the family I have, and oddly enough, it’s a film that carries me through each day.
2. SPENCER (Pablo Larraín)
For a film that is so quiet and simple in its nature, whose story follows Princess Diana over the course of a Christmas weekend, Spencer leaves such a haunting, heartbreaking impression that lingers with you long after you leave the theater. But director Pablo Larraín handles this story with so much empathy, you wish you could enter the Sandringham Estate and give Diana a hug. At least be there with her as her companion, so she wouldn’t be so alone and sad.
So much of that suffocation and powerlessness on the audience’s part comes from Claire Mathon’s talent in cinematography. We are given so much access to Diana, in a manner that’s both intimate and intrusive. Really, it’s some of the best handheld camerawork I’ve seen in recent years. Add in Jonny Greenwood’s jazz-oriented score, and most of Spencer feels like a dizzy, stressful horror film, full of ghosts and flirtations with death.
Kristen Stewart carries the entire film on her shoulders, holding so much pressure to behave, to act properly and precisely. I genuinely worried about her well-being – she completely disappears into the film. At the same time, her Diana is so strong, fighting every second to have a moment to breathe, to maintain her identity. You just wish she’s not alone in that fight.
Whether it’s a game Diana plays with her children in front of candles or a breathtaking sequence of her in multiple stages of her life, Spencer is full of unforgettable moments. Though it’s a fictionalized account of Diana during that Christmas weekend, it’s a remarkable change of what you would expect from a biopic, in that Larraín removes any expectations or knowledge you may have of the real person and paints a simple portrait of a woman in need of space, companionship, and empathy.
1. TITANE (Julia Ducournau)
I went through everything I’ve seen this year and debated how I was going to choose the number one spot. Should it be the one that moved me the most? The one that was the most well-made? What kind of film deserves that title and attention? Months passed, and my answer remained the same.
The best film of 2021 goes to the one that reaffirmed my love and passion for filmmaking, that reminded me what films are capable of doing. Films can disturb, twist, perplex, tangle, and tug your heartstrings. Julia Ducournau’s Titane did all of the above, all at once.
Featuring two groundbreaking performances from Agathe Rousselle and Vincent Lindon, Titane is both shocking and tender, brutal and profound. It’s a tale of unconditional love disguised as body horror, with enough needle drops and laugh-out-loud dark comedy to earn our trust, our confidence to follow Ducournau wherever she wants to go. Forget thinking outside the box, because Ducournau comes in with a proud agenda of destroying every box, tearing down our definitions of gender and exploring human identity and connections in its purest, raw form.
But what makes Titane more than just an insane, twisted masterpiece is how inspirational I found it to be. Seeing the film at NYFF gave me a feeling I’ve never quite had before – it made me excited for future films. It smacked me hard in the face and showed me, in all its confidence, that cinema as a medium is capable of doing unbelievable things and that the possibilities are endless. It’s a film that made me excited for 2022, and the year after that, and the year after that.
In a year of many impressive, astounding films, Titane is *the* film that took my love and faith in cinema, held me close, and gave me a dose of adrenaline. As I wrote in my review, it is “the beautiful product of a fearless filmmaker in complete command of her vision and craft.” Movies are alive and well.