Honorable Mention (in alphabetical order):
- Anne at 13,000 ft.
- Barb and Star Go To Vista del Mar
- Bergman Island
- Drive My Car
- Dune: Part One
- The Harder They Fall
- The Killing of Two Lovers
- The Last Duel
- The Mitchells vs. The Machines
- Parallel Mothers
- Summer of Soul (…or When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised)
- Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy
Yes, it’s a clever bit of marketing to cast Nicolas Cage in a revenge movie involving a stolen truffle pig. But those going into Pig expecting another bonkers Cage performance a la Mandy or Color Out of Space will likely be disappointed. Rather, Cage gives one of his best performances in recent memory, quietly grounding his character – a retired chef, secluded from the world after a recent death – with a surprising amount of pathos. First-time writer and director Michael Sarnoski’s confident film is a thoughtful yet unpredictable examination of regret and grief. One of the year’s biggest film surprises wasn’t that Cage could deliver such a strong performance, but that a film with such a familiar logline could have something so profound to say.
It’s a damn shame that Nine Days didn’t have a bigger rollout when it quietly premiered in the summer. A holdover from Sundance in 2020, Edson Oda’s debut feature has more heady ideas at play than some major awards contenders this year. Unfolding like a Kurt Vonnegut short story, Nine Days investigates what it means to be alive, from the mundane inanities that populate our everyday lives to the more profound moments that we’ll always remember. It’s a unique pseudo sci-fi film that prioritizes an emotional journey over logistical world building. Grounding it all is Winston Duke as Will, a gatekeeper in a sort of purgatory who interviews potential candidates and determines if they’ll be fit to be alive. Duke is fantastically magnetic, carrying the weight of his duties with the experience that only he has because he was previously alive himself. The film features some great back and forth moments with a never-better Zazie Beetz, a candidate that constantly questions Will’s methods. 2021 featured plenty of films from first-time directors, but few were as emotionally fertile as Oda’s lyrical debut.
8. The Card Counter
A bustling casino turns out to be the perfect setting for a film about a man who’s haunted by his past actions. Surrounded by the whirring of slot machines and perpetual fluorescent lighting, Oscar Isaac’s William Tell can block out the rest of the world and simply focus on winning his card games. Paul Schrader’s newest film has a lot in common with First Reformed – right down to the protagonist’s voiceover as he writes in a darkened room – and that’s ok. Isaac nails the deeply repressed pain hiding behind his eyes, a perfect vessel for Schrader’s screenplay. Once he meets Tye Sheridan’s Cirk, a young man who hasn’t figured out how to cope with his trauma, Schrader’s themes come into play in a wholly original way. The Card Counter subverts expectations at every turn because Schrader knows exactly how to compellingly portray fractured masculinity.
It’s unfortunate that a film like Mass has to feel so familiar, but such is the state of this country in 2021. Taking place almost exclusively in a single room, writer and director Fran Kranz’s debut film tackles the aftermath of a school shooting in a heartbreaking but hopeful way. It’s true that some version of this film could take place on stage, but Kranz’s direction provides an intimacy that wouldn’t translate as well in a different medium. Picking the best performance amongst Jason Isaacs, Martha Plimpton, Reed Birney, and Anne Dowd is a fool’s errand because they’re all captivating in their own way, guiding their characters on their own unique emotional journey as they try to make some sense out of the unthinkable. That Kranz writes his characters with enough specificity to make them feel like real people, and without falling into familiar beats, is a feat unto itself. A stunningly assured debut.
If the work wasn’t already hundreds of years old, you would think that The Tragedy of Macbeth was an original Coen brothers property. Joel and Ethan’s best work typically involves bad people receiving their due comeuppance, and Macbeth is essentially the urtext of those narratives. Joel’s first solo film as a director is a uniquely realized vision of Shakespeare in virtually every facet. For a year that featured several high profile black and white films, Macbeth may be the best looking, shot in a boxy Academy aspect ratio that sells the walls closing in around Macbeth and his conspirators. Coen’s casting of Denzel Washington and Frances McDormand even underscores Macbeth and Lady Macbeth’s seizure of power as an aging couple’s last chance at making something of their lives. Whether you’re a Shakespeare expert or a newcomer, The Tragedy of Macbeth provides enough small wonders to make an entrancing experience on almost every level.
5. The Power of the Dog
To call The Power of the Dog a story about toxic masculinity is only half true. The same can be said of calling the film a Western. Jane Campion, returning to feature filmmaking for the first time in 12 years, uses every detail to tell a story of repressed desires and happiness. Even the film’s setting is purposeful: 1920’s Montana was at a crossroads between the Old West way of life and the new era of industrialization. Caught in the middle are Benedict Cumberbatch as Phil, a self-assured rancher, Jesse Plemmons as George, his ambitious brother, Kirsten Dunst as George’s new wife, and Kodi Smit-McPhee as Peter, her son – all doing career-best work. The easy read on the film is that Phil terrorizes those around him because of his suppressed sexuality, but it’s also a film about four people who either lie to themselves or others about who they truly are for one reason or another. If nothing else, The Power of the Dog proves that the world is a better place with Jane Campion making films.
We’ve seen Paul Thomas Anderson’s take on 1970’s California before, but never in such a breezy, light-hearted way. Alana Haim and Cooper Hoffman provide a natural, infectious chemistry to help sell their star-crossed semi-romance. But PTA layers his film with more themes than a simple romantic comedy. The film works best as a coming of age story with both Hoffman and Haim trying through various methods to figure out who they want to be and what they want to do with their lives. Whether by quick grifts like a waterbed company or a respectable job at a local political campaign, both leads try through trial and error to make some sense of what the rest of their lives will look like – a rarely universal theme amongst PTA’s filmography. It probably doesn’t help that virtually every adult is either a deranged weirdo, a veiled psychopath, a bumbling idiot, or some combination of the three. While Licorice Pizza may not be considered the best of Anderson’s formidable filmography, most directors would kill to have a fourth or fifth best film as great as this.
3. The Green Knight
I’m sure an alternate universe version of The Green Knight exists as a sword-clanging, battle-heavy action adventure. But David Lowery’s film – his latest in an ever expanding list of genres that he’s conquered – has grander designs than a simple medieval tale. Lowery’s liberal adaptation of the chivalric poem works on more levels than one would initially believe. There’s the climate-change metaphor and our modern relationship to the environment; there’s the allegory of faith. But most of all, The Green Knight is a film that upends the very idea of chivalry, where Dev Patel’s Sir Gawain is constantly tested to prove his worth in unexpected, often supernatural ways. Virtually every frame of this film could be hung on a wall thanks to Andrew Droz Palermo’s gorgeous cinematography. The film’s themes all come to a blistering head during the final 15 minutes, where Lowery and Patel flex their creative muscles to prove that there can still be new ways to interpret text, no matter how old it is.
2. Petite Maman
Celine Sciamma’s follow-up to her breakout masterpiece Portrait of a Lady on Fire shares plenty of similarities but establishes its own unique voice as another stellar entry in the director’s filmography. Sciamma’s gift for writing natural but resonant dialogue is on full display here, spoken mostly by two children – thanks to fantastic performances from Josephine and Gabrielle Sanz. A fresh rumination on death, the film shows what healing – this time over the death of a grandparent – looks like from a child’s perspective, and how children perceive their parents’ own grieving process. I hesitate to mention too many plot details because part of the magic of Petite Maman is in the discovery of Sciamma’s ultimate goal. Sciamma’s best touch may be in the lightness with which she portrays a young girl’s connection with her mother over such a dour subject. At 72 minutes there isn’t a moment wasted; but I find myself wanting to live in this world as long as possible without wishing its runtime were any longer. Sadly, distributor Neon hasn’t announced a wide release date yet, but seek this film out whenever possible.
I’ve never before seen a film do what The Souvenir Part II does. On the surface, the film is about a filmmaker trying to understand the world around her, but Joanna Hogg’s sequel is full of hidden delights. Julie (Honor Swinton Byrne) spends the first act trying to understand her lover, who died at the end of The Souvenir from a heroin overdose. The rest of the film revolves around Julie interrogating herself as she tries to understand how she could put herself in such a toxic relationship, by directing a film about it. In a year when seemingly every other movie is about grief or trauma (including about half of the ones on this list), writer and director Joanna Hogg presents a brand new way of imagining the healing process. Indeed, the film gains an entirely new appreciation when you realize that both Souvenir films are retellings of Hogg’s own experiences. Plenty of directors have made semi-autobiographical films (one is a front-runner for Best Picture this year) but none have felt as emotionally honest as Hogg’s films. Roger Ebert famously declared that movies are like machines that generate empathy, and Hogg generates a level of empathy that very few filmmakers have done before. There were films this year that had bigger action set pieces, showier performances, or were more visually exciting (though the final shot of this film is one of the best of the year), but none wormed their way into my brain in the same way that The Souvenir: Part II did.