I guess there really is a light at the end of the tunnel. After the cinematic drought that was 2020, cinemas have begun to slowly reopen over the past year. While the ability to go to the theaters again is surely a propitious comfort, we now have to deal with the return of region-locked films and the continued lack of film accessibility now that the ‘streaming vs theater’ crisis seems to have come to a head. Another thing returning in 2021 is Marvel’s supreme reign just as nature was beginning to heal. With nothing in 2020, they more than made up their absence in 2021 with a multitude of movies and TV shows. I can’t complain too much, though, as there’s nothing I can do about it and this franchise will go on well after I am dead and buried anyway.
In either case, if 2020 was the year where indie filmmakers were given the time to shine, 2021 marked the return of the blockbusters, a reason to go to the theater again. Though, of course, there were some smaller and quieter movies that, ironically, stood out way more to me than the franchise member-berries and CGI porn aplenty. Overall, it’s been a great year for cinema and I look forward to what 2022 has cooking up. Despite what the naysayers may say, every year is a great year for cinema if you know where to look.
My last two lists were a pretty standard “Top 10” ranking, but for this year I want to try to shake things up a bit. Instead of a ‘Top X’, these are just 10 movies that stood out the most to me, in alphabetical order (save for the last film on this list, which will wind up being my favorite film of the year). Don’t ask me why I’m making this very specific, very trivial change; I’m just tired of doing these rankings. If you want to see a more informal ranking, check out my Letterboxd if you wanna see where Judas & the Black Messiah or Space Jam: A New Legacy ended up (and maybe follow me while you’re at it?). I still need to see some highly-acclaimed movies like Worst Person in the World and Tragedy of Macbeth, amongst others, so that list is subject to change and may contradict this “official” list.
But with all that being said, let’s get to it already.
Drive My Car
Drive My Car is a cathartic and peaceful experience that moved me in a way no other movie this year has. Steeped in overwhelming positivity, hope, and optimism, Drive My Car is based on a short story written by Haruki Murakami. Director Ryusuke Hamaguchi pristinely adapts Haruki’s work to create something that feels fresh, deliberate, and the best of the material he extracted from.
Drive My Car tells the story of theatre director and actor Yusuke Kafuku suffering the turmoil of losing his wife, Oto. After sex, Oto would tell Yusuke stories which he helps her remember and adapt into scripts, but after dealing with a loss of passion and creativity, a lonely Yusuke moves to Hiroshima to direct a stage version of Anton Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya where each part is played by someone of a different nationality, speaking their own language. It is then that he meets his driver, an introverted young woman who has some problems of her own.
Drive My Car is three hours long and doesn’t waste a single second of it. A story of love, loss, life, and everything in-between, the film does expect a certain amount of patience and attention from the viewer, but seeing the film unfold its themes with its sheer amount of lively characters is well worth the time. With the things I’ve gone through this past month, Drive My Car was the film I needed the most. To say it gave me a new outlook on life is an understatement.
If any big-budget movie felt like true cinematic magic this year, it was Denis Villeneuve’s Dune adaptation. The spectacle of seeing ships and civilizations beyond a desert landscape is a beauty to witness, with some of the most expertly woven world-building I haven’t seen since 2017’s Blade Runner 2049 (which just so happens to share the same director, how curious). Rather than being yet another cynical adaptation, Denis Villeneuve takes the best from Frank Herbert’s original sci-fi novel and David Lynch’s cult classic to create something entirely new and special. Stanley Kubrick said adaptations are better than original stories, after all.
As the first of a two-part epic, Dune tells the story of Paul, the son of a noble family who are entrusted with the most valuable, cherished resource in the galaxy. As the evil Harkonnens plot against his family, Paul must do whatever it takes to defend the desired element and protect the ones he’s closest to with his special abilities.
Dune is raw spectacle. On top of being such a beautiful film, its world is so captivating that even in the parts where the plot lingers and feels dull, you can bet on being sucked into the beauty of the world. Sometimes, the importance of a movie isn’t its plot or its characters, but to be fully immersed in a world. Dune more than excels at this, being of the most creative and intense sci-fi movies in years. I simply cannot wait for Part 2 to arrive.
Flee is a film resonating with care and sensitivity. An utterly moving and consistent documentary that combines several artistic visions to create a powerful story. This is a sad movie, one seeping with dread and loss. But it’s also ultimately a satisfying and happy film that swiftly overtakes the darkness and cynicism that takes up so much of the first half of the movie.
The animated documentary tells the true story of an Afghan refugee named Amin who lived alone in Denmark after escaping Afghanistan at a young age. Now 36, he is a successful academic who will soon be married to his long-time boyfriend. However, decades-old secrets are revealed and the life he kept to himself begins to be exposed and threaten everything he’s worked up for in his life.
The animation is fleeting and utterly creative, as beautiful as it is symbolic of Amin’s chaotic life. It’s beautiful but never feels like it replaces the story. Rather, the two wonderfully intertwine to create a rich and memorable cinematic experience like none other I’ve seen in recent years. Watching this will make anyone be thankful for the life they reside in. Cinema needs more stories like Amin’s.
The French Dispatch
Wes Anderson has the uncanny ability to transport all his viewers into an entire world. The French Dispatch offers no exception to that, being Wes Anderson’s most inventive and dynamic film in recent memories. Witness seamless moments of scenes transitioning to the next, as the sets are literally taken apart and moved before your eyes like an expressive theatre piece. It’s the most creative and expressive Wes has been since… well, since every movie.
The French Dispatch is about, stunningly, the French Dispatch, an American newspaper in the middle of a fictional 20th-century French city, covering whatever story comes their way. The film is an anthology of three shorts: a murderous convict on death row whose gifted art talents are exploited, a rocky revolution against corrupt military conscriptions, and the dangerous rescue mission of the kidnapped son of a police commissioner. Each segment has its own artistic and visual flair (even traditional animation at one point), and it’s all the more entertaining from the mind of Wes Anderson.
Wes Anderson has become a bit divisive as of late. The French Dispatch is his most “Wes Anderson” movie to date, flaunting with borderline overwhelming style. Bad news to Wes Anderson haters, but Wes is going all-out on this one, and I welcome every second of it. His breakneck pace and attention to detail might just make this his most entertaining film to date, though I wouldn’t say it’s his absolute best. Still, Wes’ wacky style has been sorely missed.
The Green Knight
The Green Knight was the first film I saw since we witnessed movie theaters close for the pandemic. Some theaters survived, some didn’t. It was certainly a weird and strenuous time for adamant moviegoers such as myself, but The Green Knight was a more-than-welcome return to the movies and reminded me why these trips are so special to me. A slow and methodical retelling of the Arthurian legend, The Green Knight begs its viewers to unravel the puzzle pieces within this movie’s surreal and epic tale.
An adaptation of the Arthurian tale of the same name, this film tells the epic story of Sir Gawain, King Arthur’s headstrong and arrogant nephew, who embarks on a quest to confront a threatening force called the Green Knight. On his adventure, Gawain encounters thieves, ghosts, beasts, and schemers that threaten his quest, while offering Gawain – a man dangerously persistent on being accepted by his family and kingdom – a bit of soul-searching as well.
I was enamored by this movie’s world and the characters within. The titular Green Knight is a mystifying being, brought to life by sublime makeup and the chilling, subtle performance by Ralph Ineson. The movie is wrought with plotless exploration and ambiguity that is as enigmatic as it is profoundly enticing. The Green Knight, for the most part, feels plotless and meandering but offers up such a breathtaking and epic world that the pure visual scale more than makes up for the lack of plot direction. Sometimes you just want to feel a movie’s emotion.
Paul Thomas Anderson does it again with a pure dazzling time machine to the 70s. PTA understands humanity like no other director I know. He makes the ability to write compelling, witty, and lifelike characters in such vibrant and diverse locations look effortless that he may as well put other screenwriters out of the job. His talent at performing such feats is why he currently stands as my favorite movie director, even ever since he made my all-time favorite film, Punch-Drunk Love. With his latest film, Licorice Pizza, I felt and tasted every color of the film, from the neon lights to the 70s’ sugary pop soda. With Licorice Pizza, I felt at peace.
Licorice Pizza is littered with lovely and vibrant characters. The film follows Alana Kane, a 25-year-old photographer, and 15-year-old Gary Valentine, a young actor and aspiring entrepreneur, as they pursue what begins as an ambiguous friendship to a romantic relationship. As they reside in the 1970s San Fernando Valley, their personal and financial endeavors begin to take a toll on their relationship.
Licorice Pizza is a colorful and nostalgic riot. Alana Haim is a godsend as Alana Kane, a natural movie star and I had a dorky smile whenever she was on the screen. Cooper Hoffman appears in his very first cinematic role as Gary, a seamlessly charming and funny presence. I can’t wait to see where these two brand-new actors take their careers next. This is a film I can’t wait to devour over and over again.
Nightmare Alley is a hypnotizing lucid dream from visionary Guillermo del Toro. Del Toro is an odd director in the sense that I feel he could never really quite capture the personality of Pan’s Labyrinth. His later endeavors such as Shape of Water, Pacific Rim, and Crimson Peak undoubtedly have their own visual identities, but there is a strong lack of character at the movie’s forefront. With Nightmare Alley, though, del Toro embraces his twisted mind to create a nightmarish movie that is nothing but character and personality. The carnival setpiece is awe-inspiring and produces a raw and strangling atmosphere. Where the film goes next, however, proves the movie has more up its sleeve than it would seem.
Nightmare Alley, a remake of the 1947 classic, is about Stanton Carlisle, an ambitious carny with a knack for manipulating people. He then hooks up with a fellow carny, Molly Cahill, and the two run a scheme of being a faux psychic couple to scam audiences and become world-famous. Things quickly turn deadly, however, when Stanton meets Dr. Lilith Ritter, a beautiful psychiatrist that reeks of danger and death.
Bradley Cooper plays a role I’ve never seen him play before. Tough and long periods of sheer silence, it’s a very noteworthy performance that makes me glad Cooper got the role, something I’ve never seen him do before. Nightmare Alley is an absolutely beautiful film, with gorgeous set-pieces and a tight atmosphere that kept me in a choke-hold. This one can’t be missed, and I especially can’t forgive Disney’s horrific treatment of this movie’s release.
A quiet exploration of forgiveness, faux class elitism, and the hidden corruption of the Portland restaurant industry, Pig is as much an anti-revenge movie as one can get; the visual art-form equivalent of a nice beer and a warm hug. Pig is deeply but poetically unsatisfying and anticlimactic, as it shows humanity at its most candid, gracious, and forgiving. Pig gradually builds up the tropes and cliches that come from the action-revenge genre then tears it down to introduce something beautiful, unique, and human.
Pig is about Robin Feld, a truffle hunter who lives alone in the Oregon wilderness with his foraging pig. When Robin is attacked and the pig is stolen, he ventures out into the city to find the people that took his beloved pig and get her back. This sounds like a typical revenge-movie affair where the eccentric Nicolas Cage plays a stoic badass who breaks bones and stomps his way through to get his pig ala John Wick. It’s okay if you felt fooled. Ultimately, Pig wound up being the complete opposite, opting in for poetic gentleness and kindness that offers up something way more. If John Wick decided that, instead of going on a ruthless killing spree, he found a way to make amends with the ones that hurt him.
Nicolas Cage has had a glacial filmography as of late. With such over-the-top expressiveness and irresistible charm, he gets picked for such bonkers and borderline unwatchable material that it’s easy to forget that he is a great actor underneath his uneventful roles. As Robin Feld, Nicolas Cage gives a sincere and quiet performance that is never flashy nor extravagant. It’s just a solid and emotional performance that has been greatly missed from him. With The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent coming out that stars Nic Cage playing an exaggerated, lampoonish version of himself, let’s hope we can give a warm welcome to Nic Cage taking more audacious roles. Pig is pure bliss.
Sean Baker is perhaps one of our finest and most underrated directors right now, someone who makes simple slice-of-life Americana that appeals to a wide audience. Though his films are often dirty and coy, there is a rich vibrancy on display that makes those nostalgic for old-timey America find his films hilarious and heartfelt. Red Rocket is Sean’s funniest film to date, but also likely his darkest to boot while also remaining quiet and modest.
Finding himself washed-up, former pornstar Mikey Saber returns to his Texas hometown to live with his estranged wife and nagging mother-in-law. As Mikey is finding work and rekindling relationships with people who seem to not want him in their lives, he finds a young woman named Strawberry – approximately half his age – at a local doughnut shop and they immediately hit it off. As both parties seem keen on continuing this tumultuous relationship, Mikey goes on a self-destructive ride to make the girl famous while keeping their relationship secret from his wife.
There is a certain realness that resonates from Red Rocket. From the dusty and worn-down shops, to the eccentric folks that Mikey interacts with, the film captures a truly beautiful and captivating look at pre-Trump America in all of our culture’s richness and glory. Hilarious and sincere, but also disturbing and stressful. If Licorice Pizza was more or less the same concept but with morally-good characters, then Red Rocket shows a toxic relationship at its most unendurable. But it’s just so fun to watch unfold. Rest in peace, Brenda Diess.
2021’s Best: Titane
Drive My Car might have had more impact on me as a fragile piece of storytelling, but Titane is a movie so off-the-wall, twisted, and delirious, that it’s just the most memorable and shocking thing I’ve seen in years. The closest movie that resembles this insanity is The Lighthouse, but even then that movie feels far tighter and grounded compared to this nightmare of a film. Almost every description, review, and trailer for this movie felt unsatisfactory to the point of it being my most anticipated movie of the year just for feeling so mysterious. Now that I’ve seen it, it was worth the wait and I’m not sure what to think about it. It intrigued me, though.
Every summary of Titane’s plot and events is begging to be a ruinously large spoiler. All I can talk about is my sheer adoration and shock as the ambiguous story reveals itself. This is a film I want everyone to see, but at the same time, it’s so hard to recommend. If you can stomach shocking and brutal imagery and ambiguous storytelling, then this is the film for you. For those that can’t, I can’t blame you but I also accuse you of missing out on such a weird piece of filmmaking.
French director Julia Ducournau had her first breakthrough with her first film Raw, one of the very first French films I’ve seen alongside Climax (the French sure love their horror). While Raw was considerably more subtle, Titane dares to be bolder, darker, and smarter in every department. Docournau has already declared a unique approach to filmmaking in style and direction. Her music guides the scenery in all its most revolting and shocking moments.
Titane is horrific, deranged, stylish, and surprisingly funny when it wants to be. This is one of the most memorable films I’ve seen and it’s begging for me to watch it again and again. What will stick out the most to you won’t be the violence or horror, but rather the spectacle and themes that are on display. Gender identity, finding family, and the female body are all expertly woven into the narrative. This is a film unlike any other. That can be a cliche thing to say, but take it from me: I mean it.