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Most years—at least most years before 2020—this introductory section at the top of a 10-best list used to be the trickiest part to write. Trying to characterize an arbitrary 12-month period of movie releases as having a specific theme or mood used to feel like an artificial imposition of meaning on what was ultimately a calendar created by industry executives to maximize their products’ visibility, prestige, and profits. But since COVID-19 came along, first to lock us indoors, then to radically and, it appears, permanently change everything about our social, professional, and personal lives, years no longer seem like anything but moods.
The shape of 2021 as a cinematic year was not defined by the usual orderly markers: Sundance in the winter, Cannes in the Spring, Toronto in the fall, then awards season swanning in like a starlet on the red carpet. All those festivals took place, albeit some virtually, and the Oscars for last year’s films were duly handed out, if on a delayed schedule and in a strangely masked and distanced environment. There were box-office blockbusters (No Time to Die, Dune, Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, Venom: Let There Be Carnage) and box-office disappointments (Eternals, The Last Duel, and so far, sadly, the below-listed West Side Story). But what most of the critics and filmgoers I know remember best about this cinematic year is which movie, if any, first brought them back into the theater.
For me it was In the Heights, which I saw alone in a near-empty press screening in the heady post-vaccine, pre–delta variant days of late May. My review probably graded this charming but flawed adaptation of the 2008 Lin-Manuel Miranda musical on a significant curve, because it was such a rush to feel again that enveloping sensation that a theatrically projected movie can create: the establishment of a time and space devoted entirely to seeing, hearing, and responding to what’s in front of you, without any competing stimuli or conflicting demands. For the remainder of the year, even after a resurgence of the virus made moviegoing feel much less liberatory, I kept seeking out that rush, going to more trouble than I usually do to pre-screen the films I was reviewing in the theater whenever possible. The list that follows, in alphabetical order, is of the 2021 movies that reminded me over and over again why going to the movies matters.
Barb and Star Go to Vista Del Mar
I love that, by alphabetical accident, this movie appears first on the list, because it was also one of the first 2021 films I saw, back in the pre-vaccine loneliness of that first COVID winter. Real-life best friends and co-screenwriters Kristen Wiig and Annie Mumolo star as a pair of nerdy Nebraska spinsters who decide to shake up their lives with a blowout trip to the eponymous Florida resort town. The result is an unapologetically weird celebration of middle-aged female friendship, complete with inflatable bananas, clouds of killer mosquitoes, a benevolent water spirit named Trish, and an all-in performance by a singing and dancing Jamie Dornan that, in a just world, would win him a supporting actor Oscar. Wiig’s dual turn as the culotte-sporting Star and the film’s deliciously malevolent villain seals the deal. Bring on the Barb and Star sequels.
Chaitanya Tamhane’s quietly anguished character study of an aspiring master of Indian classical music (played by the astonishingly gifted Aditya Modak) might be thought of as Inside Llewyn Davis with sitars. There aren’t many films about an artist’s obsessive dedication to his work that so precisely and unflinchingly pose the question that artists ask themselves almost every day: Is all this really worth it?
The Green Knight
David Lowery’s adaptation of a 14th-century Middle English poem is bewitchingly gorgeous, hauntingly eerie, and utterly itself. As the would-be Arthurian knight Gawain (Dev Patel) sets out on a quest to find and defeat the verdant monster of the title, Lowery takes the character and the audience on a trippy metaphysical journey that collapses the distance between life and death, heroism and cowardice, love and betrayal. What I loved most about The Green Knight was how true it remains to the mystical worldview of its medieval source material while also seeming ineluctably modern. (Read the review.)
The Iranian master Asghar Farhadi (About Elly, A Separation) works in a genre that might be called poetic social realism. This exquisitely written and acted film tells the story of a working-class father in Tehran who comes into possession of a lost purse full of cash during a two-day reprieve from debtor’s prison. A tender family drama that doubles as a condemnation of Iran’s theocratic legal system, A Hero is a many-layered moral fable that never lets either the audience or the “hero”—a word that, by the time the film ends, has taken on a multitude of conflicting meanings—come to a final understanding of what doing the right thing might mean.
Like the coward I am, I hesitated at first to place Paul Thomas Anderson’s lyrically written, radiantly acted, and thrillingly kinetic ninth feature on my list, despite the fact that watching it was among the most pleasurable movie experiences I had in a theater all year and one I can’t wait to repeat. I just didn’t want to get caught up in the Discourse that has dogged this movie in certain quarters of the internet: Is the central relationship, a romantically tinged if essentially chaste friendship between a 15-year-old boy (Cooper Hoffman, son of the late Philip Seymour) and a 25-year-old girl (musician and movie star in the making Alana Haim) an example of inappropriate age-gap exploitation? Does a recurring joke about a minor character’s racism land more gracelessly than it was intended to? Is it too flip to leave those questions open to debate, while continuing to encourage people to see the movie and decide for themselves? What’s unique about Licorice Pizza is how confidently and completely it establishes a full, coherent world: the San Fernando Valley of the early 1970s, a sun-drenched paradise with a sinister underside. The film’s structure is kaleidoscopic, with an ever-expanding cast of characters whose imperfections Anderson embraces just as he lets us see the blemishes on his teenage protagonist’s skin. (Read the review.)
In his late career especially, the Spanish filmmaker Pedro Almodóvar has turned into a kind of cinematic Stendhal. Like that 19th-century French novelist, Almodóvar weaves domestic melodrama into a sweeping vision of his country’s political history. Parallel Mothers follows two single women who give birth in the same maternity ward on the same day, one (Milena Smit) a teenage mother pregnant from a sexual assault, the other a middle-aged fashion photographer (Penélope Cruz in a career-best performance) having an unplanned but much-wanted first child. The way their lives intertwine afterward, as they cope with the demands of motherhood while Cruz’s character investigates her ancestors’ role in the Spanish Civil War, makes for a film as rich and satisfying as the leg of aged jamón that’s permanently installed on the counter in one of the film’s many gorgeously detailed sets, a delightfully Almodóvar-ian orange-and-sky-blue kitchen.
The Power of the Dog
Everything about Jane Campion’s long-awaited eighth film has a majestic rightness to it: the awe-inspiring mountain landscapes (with the director’s native New Zealand standing in for the Montana frontier); the preternaturally astute performances of the central quartet of actors (Benedict Cumberbatch, Kirsten Dunst, Kodi Smit-McPhee, and Jesse Plemons); the sinuous score by this year’s MVP film composer, Jonny Greenwood (who also wrote the music for Spencer and Licorice Pizza); and the domestic drama–turned–thriller plot, which is as tightly coiled and obscurely ominous as the film’s defining prop, a braided cowhide lasso. No movie released this year better rewards a second viewing, which gives you the chance to see how meticulously Campion’s script has been constructed to build up to that take-your-breath-away ending. (Read the review. Read a spoiler-y debate about the movie’s ending.)
Summer of Soul
There were many impressive filmmaking debuts this year, several from artists best known for their work in other fields. The actors Rebecca Hall and Maggie Gyllenhaal both directed beautifully imagined first films (Passing and The Lost Daughter, respectively) that made me eager to see what they get up to next. But it was this joyful music documentary, constructed by the Roots’ longtime drummer and co-founder Questlove from long-unseen footage of a series of public concerts in Harlem in the summer of 1969, that made me sit up and say, “Why hasn’t this person been making movies all along?” There are individual moments from this doc—19-year-old Stevie Wonder going to town behind a drum kit, emcee Tony Lawrence taking the stage in yet another impossibly natty getup, Mavis Staples and Mahalia Jackson’s transcendent improvised duet on the gospel classic “Take My Hand, Precious Lord”—that still come back to me with a wallop of emotion six months after watching it. (Read the review.)
The Velvet Underground
Todd Haynes’ first documentary combines the formal innovation of an auteur with the passion of a lifelong fan. Using ingeniously edited archival footage, clips from Andy Warhol’s avant-garde home movies, and interviews only with people who were present for the events described (not bloviating latter-day pundits), Haynes limits his focus to the short span of years in the late ’60s and early ’70s when two wildly different musicians, the proto-punk songwriting prodigy Lou Reed and the classically trained Welsh composer John Cale, came together to form an underground band that changed the history of pop music. Hearing the droning, swirling chords of “Venus in Furs” while the opening titles slowly scrolled past felt as luxuriant as being bathed in warm honey, and for the next two hours in the theater and many days afterward, I never emerged from that spell. (Read the review. Read an interview with director Todd Haynes.)
West Side Story
Steven Spielberg and Tony Kushner’s ravishing update of the 1957 Broadway musical–turned—Oscar-winning-if-now-racially-unsettling 1961 movie is a demonstration of the magic that can happen when a skillfully wielded camera meets a skillfully wielded pen. I’ve seen this movie twice now, and I still have trouble coming up with a single choice I would have made differently, from the casting (Rachel Zegler and Mike Faist in particular should have been movie stars yesterday) to the choreography (with Justin Peck updating and adapting the groundbreaking work of the show’s co-creator Jerome Robbins) to the impeccable costume and production design. Of course, some people have raised legitimate questions about an artistic choice that preceded all of these: the decision to remake West Side Story in the first place. I implore you to see it (on the big screen if possible) if you are still on the fence about whether this ground-up reimagining of a beloved and disputed American cultural property was “necessary.” Great art always is. (Read the review.)