29. Ala Kachuu – Take and Run (Best Live-Action Short)
The title of Maria Brendle’s short film is a cheeky reference to its dark subject matter. It’s a disturbingly common practice in Kyrgyzstan, where the film takes place, wherein a woman is abruptly kidnapped and forced into marriage against their will. In the fictionalized version, it happens to Sezim (Alina Turdumamatova, giving a deeply felt performance), who would rather go to college and study than be part of another arranged marriage. She defies her parents and sets off on her own, when she’s suddenly taken while at work one day. The film is full of disturbing developments, but perhaps what’s most disturbing after Sezim is kidnapped is her family’s reaction to the news. Brendle shines a light on a part of life that’s rarely seen amongst the western world, and never loses focus on who it affects most.
28. The Queen of Basketball (Best Documentary Short)
Documentaries can be hit or miss when they focus exclusively on a single subject. Thankfully, Lusia “Lucy” Harris is enigmatic enough to carry the film by herself. Harris recounts her early life and career as one of the greatest women’s college basketball players of all time, a distinction which led the New Orleans Jazz to make her the only woman ever drafted to the NBA. The documentary could have dedicated more time to Harris’ life after she stepped away from basketball, but the material that director Ben Proudfoot has assembled is engaging and enlightening enough.
27. The Lost Daughter (Best Actress, Best Supporting Actress, Best Adapted Screenplay
Author Elena Ferrante reportedly refused to sell the rights to her novel for the longest time, until first-time director Maggie Gyllenhaal was able to make a solid enough pitch to adapt it. While the film didn’t completely sell me the first time around – and certainly not as much as many other prominent critics – I could see my opinion shifting dramatically after a second watch. With empathetic and soulful performances from deserving nominees Olivia Colman and Jessie Buckley, plus Dakota Johnson, Peter Skarsgaard, and Ed Harris, there’s plenty to come back to. Here’s hoping that Gyllenhaal has enough good instincts when picking her second directing project.
26. The Dress (Best Live-Action Short)
This is another short film with a simple premise that does what it’s trying to do with efficiency and pathos. Anna Dzieduszycka gives an empathetic performance as a little person who, when she’s not cleaning hotel rooms or playing the slot machines, is fretting about feeling loved. She begins a flirtatious relationship with a truck driver which progresses sweetly until the dour finale. It’s unclear what director Tadeusz Lysiak’s ultimate goal was by the end of the film, but The Dress is still a mostly solidly written original work.
25. Please Hold (Best Live-Action Short)
There’s always at least one live-action short that feels like an audition for a feature film, and Please Hold is this year’s best. Set in a kind of dystopian future where absolutely no face-to-face human interaction takes place, director K.D. Davila’s short is a satirical take not only on the prison industrial complex (taken to the literal extreme here) but on racial profiling and policing. Davila’s protagonist Mateo (Erick Lopez) is wrongfully imprisoned after a drone suddenly arrests him for an unknown crime. While the short could have really nailed its target down with a longer runtime, it’s always refreshing to see a film in the typically dour shorts categories with humor to spare.
24. Encanto (Best Animated Feature)
I seem to be the only adult without a TikTok account that genuinely likes the Lin-Manuel Miranda’s original songs in Encanto, as they’re a fun mix of genres and styles that fit nicely into the film. Disney’s 60th theatrical animated film stands out not only because it lacks a clear antagonist, or because it focuses on a Latinx family, but because it successfully blends character and spectacle.
23. Luca (Best Animated Feature)
It’s a shame that Pixar films continue to be dumped to streaming because of the three Mouse House films in 2021, Luca is easily the most vibrant, demanding to be seen on a big screen. Though over-crowded with ideas and themes at times, the film is a sweet coming-of-age story with enough humor and heart to rank among Pixar’s best in recent years. Dan Romer’s score is one of my favorites of 2021, and the voice cast is great, refusing to rest on the star power as some Pixar films tend to do.
22. Writing With Fire (Best Documentary Feature)
It’s easy (if a little condescending) to call Writing With Fire an “issue” documentary. The film focuses on an all-women newspaper in India as they battle misconceptions and a patriarchal caste system that never gave them a fair shot to begin with. Many scenes feature the journalists as they investigate stories of corruption or some other form of injustice and, as if the job weren’t difficult enough, they face discrimination because of the caste they belong to. Not to mention the prejudicial political party that comes to power later in the film. But despite it all, they carry on and gain followers; one sequence even goes to show the changes their journalism has brought to their region, including added electricity and improved roads. If nothing else, Writing With Fire goes to show that anyone, regardless of their lot in life, can make a difference.
21. The Windshield Wiper (Best Animated Short)
Of all the nominees in the Animated Short category, this is the film with the loosest plot, unfolding as a series of vignettes around the question of “what is love?” But there are profound moments to be found, and it’s the best looking animation of the entire category. Director Alberto Mielgo looks at the theme through both a micro and macro lens, adding unique layers to each scene. More than any other short nominee, this is the one I could see myself watching again and again.
20. No Time To Die (Best Visual Effects, Best Sound, Best Original Song)
Daniel Craig’s final outing as James Bond did exactly what he had done in each of his previous four films: told an over-arching story that humanizes James Bond more than any previous iterations ever did. No Time To Die may have suffered from an incomprehensible evil villain plot, but still contained plenty of exciting action set pieces to be an entertaining James Bond film overall. Receiving three nominations, including a gimme for Billie Eilish’s song, the film could have easily competed for Best Cinematography, as Linus Sandgren made a gorgeously complete visual feast, on par with Roger Deakins’ Oscar-nominated work on Skyfall. Daniel Craig will go on to make plenty more films and give more notable performances, but his impact on the James Bond franchise is going to be hard to beat.