9. The Worst Person In The World (Best International Film, Best Original Screenplay)
This is the film I’ve struggled with most amongst the nominees, if not all of the 2021 films. It took a second viewing to realize this is an undeniably brilliant film, from Renate Reinsve and Anders Danielsen Lie’s performances, to the (rightfully nominated) screenplay, to the soundtrack, the cinematography, and its universal themes. And yet, it still hasn’t hit me on a personal level in the way that it has for those that really love it. Joachim Trier explores the uncertainties of early life in a unique, humanizing way that few films have. I can see myself revisiting the film at a later stage in life and, perhaps, having a different reaction to it, and when I do, I can only hope I’ll love it as much as I wish I do now.
8. Parallel Mothers (Best Actress, Best Original Score)
Though I may not be as familiar with the films of Pedro Almodóvar as I probably should be, I was entranced by the twisty drama of his newest film. Penelope Cruz gives one of my favorite performances overall of 2021, navigating her character’s sticky situations at every turn. It’s a credit to Cruz that she’s able to make a character that makes so many difficult decisions so likeable, but Almodóvar’s screenplay is written with a sensitive hand. I’m always drawn to films that revolve around characters that must make unimaginable choices, and this film is full of them, against a backdrop of Spanish history that could have felt tacked-on by anyone else. I’ve seen critics damn Parallel Mothers with faint praise by saying it’s one of Almodóvar’s less ambitious films, but I was transfixed from the beginning to the end.
7. West Side Story (Best Picture, Best Director, Best Supporting Actress, Best Cinematography, Best Costume Design, Best Production Design, Best Sound)
West Side Story wasn’t done any favors by Disney (who owns 20th Century Studios, the distributor) when it barely promoted the film and released it right up against Spider-Man: No Way Home. The film unsurprisingly tanked at the box office, but it remains one of Steven Spielberg’s best in recent years, and rightfully earned him a Best Director nomination in six different decades – no small feat in a stacked category this year. It’s a gutsy move to re-make a film that won a staggering 10 Oscars, including Best Picture, but Spielberg, along with Tony Kushner’s brilliant screenplay, proved once again that he’s one of our greatest living filmmakers by improving on the original version in some ways. It’s even gutsier to believe that the same film could win Best Picture twice, but watch the film and you’ll understand why the notion isn’t so far-fetched.
6. The Tragedy of Macbeth (Best Actor, Best Production Design, Best Cinematography)
Joel Coen’s first solo outing as a director is more than a straightforward Shakespeare adaptation. It’s an acting showcase, with fantastic performances from Best Actor nominee Denzel Washington, and Frances McDormand. It’s also a technical marvel, rightfully earning nominations for cinematography and production design. Sure, your mileage may vary on this one depending on your proficiency with Shakespeare (and I am far from an expert on the subject), but I was enthralled from beginning to end.
5. Summer of Soul (Best Documentary Feature)
Here’s a personal bias that I’ve discovered over the last year or two: I love concert documentaries. So when I first saw Questlove’s documentary debut, I loved seeing not only the amazing musical performances of the Harlem Music Festival, but the emotional testimonials of the subjects he chose to interview – many of whom attended the festival and had almost forgotten its existence. It may have been a coincidence that the festival on display happened simultaneously with the more famous Woodstock, but Summer of Soul stands out because it shows that what brought these people together was more than just music, it was an experience.
4. Dune (Best Picture, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Film Editing, Best Production Design, Best Visual Effects, Best Original Score, Best Costume Design, Best Makeup & Hairstyling, Best Cinematography, Best Sound)
Movies were back in theaters months before October of 2021, but Dune was the film that felt like the movie theater experience was truly back again. Denis Villenueve’s first part of his sci-fi epic adaptation exploded off the screen and was made all the better if seen on the biggest one possible. It’s no coincidence that the film cleaned up in the technical nominations, and is expected to win most of them. It’s easy now to forget that Frank Herbert’s seminal novel was long considered unadaptable, so whether Villenueve was snubbed for Best Director or not, he deserves as much credit as anyone for not only making the material work but for making it one of the most enthralling films of the year.
3. Drive My Car (Best Picture, Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best International Feature)
Sure, a three-hour Japanese melodrama sounds like a chore on paper. But Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s masterpiece about grief and longing is one of the most rewarding experiences on film in years. Whether you prefer the extended first act, the emotionally complex second act, or the third act that’s equally hopeful and gut-wrenching, Hamaguchi deftly shows human connection in a way that only the best filmmakers know how. Filled with soulful, nuanced performances from Hidetoshi Nishijima, Toko Miura, and Masaki Okada, Drive My Car provides more than enough to come back to a second or third time – a feat unto itself for a three-hour Japanese melodrama.
2. The Power of the Dog (Best Picture, Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Actor, Best Supporting Actor, Best Supporting Actress, Best Film Editing, Best Cinematography, Best Production Design, Best Sound, Best Original Score)
Regardless of whether Jane Campion’s film ends up winning Best Picture or not, it’s a complex, enrapturing portrait of a changing America and a changing view of masculinity. It’s also one of Campion’s best films, in a career that’s full of great work. Benedict Cumberbatch, Kirsten Dunst, Jesse Plemons, and Kodi Smit-McPhee all give career-best performances to anchor Campion’s haunting pseudo Western. If you look at the film through the limited lens of repressed sexuality, you likely won’t find much to like. But if you look at it as a tale of repressed happiness, and why we do it to ourselves and others, you’ll find one of the year’s best films.
- Licorice Pizza (Best Picture, Best Director, Best Original Screenplay)
It’s unfortunate that breakout star Alana Haim didn’t receive a Best Actress nomination but, for my money, she gives one of the best performances of the year. Licorice Pizza may not rank at or near the top of Paul Thomas Anderson’s formidable filmography, but most directors would kill to have a film as great as this and consider it a minor success. Funny, sweet, and insightful, Anderson takes a unique perspective when tackling a potentially sticky subject. The film is as much about growing up as it is about romance, with Haim and Cooper Hoffman stealing the show from the first minute to the end. I can easily see myself returning to Licorice Pizza over the years, a distinction I don’t often say with Anderson’s films, despite my affinity for most of them. No other filmmaker could have made Licorice Pizza, and no other film amongst this year’s nominees measures up to it.