It was the best of films, it was the worst of times. 2021 was a terrible year for humanity, but — cold comfort though it may be — a wonderful year for cinema (perversely, alas, not for cinemas).
COVID-19 continued to play cat and mouse with the populace, the consequences of climate change intensified and U.S. institutions repeatedly failed. And so it was when Adam McKay’s apocalyptic tragicomedy “Don’t Look Up” (Netflix) entered the conversation and, incidentally, sparked a renewed conversation about whether film critics have any idea what they’re talking about. That, dear reader, remains for you to decide.
“Don’t Look Up” begged the question, “Once apocalypse is undeniable, how will our art reflect it?” Other films have gone there (mostly documentaries and sci-fi thrillers, but notably Paul Schrader’s searing 2017 drama “First Reformed”), but surprisingly few in 2021 even acknowledged a pandemic-transformed world, much less extinction-level climate disaster. McKay furiously validated, for many, their perception of the insanity we all experienced in recent years: His film cathartically gifted us the opposite of gaslighting.
When you pay millions for a movie-star face, you don’t mask it for long. Even superhero movies like the year’s top grosser, “Spider-Man: No Way Home,” know that. So it was up to the blistering Romanian comedy “Bad Luck Banging or Loony Porn” to reckon with the world we’re actually living in, complete with masked characters, corrupt national and local “leadership,” angry school board meetings, and a censorious culture with dangerously undefined boundaries.
For the most part, 2021 movies didn’t “look up” so much as they did left, right and down, focusing on domestic dynamics (Netflix’s “The Lost Daughter,” A24’s “C’mon C’mon”), fraught situations put through the escapist filter of the musical (20th Century Studios’ “West Side Story,” Netflix’s “tick, tick…BOOM!”, Warner Bros.’ “In the Heights”), and the customary crop of adrenaline-tapping genre films (Disney-Marvel continued to dominate with the well-made likes of “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings” and “Eternals”). Weirdly, in a year when laughs were necessary, they were hard to come by, so a shout-out to “Shiva Baby” and “Barb and Star Go to Vista Del Mar.”
It’s sad but true that “Spider-Man” arrived in theaters at the worst possible time, likely contributing (along with holiday travel) to the surging spread of omicron.
On the bright side, many of the best films of the year can be enjoyed from home now or in the near-future. 2021 truly offered something for everyone, excellent films for every niche. The curated list below strives for variety in amplifying what were, in my humble opinion, the most well-crafted, thoughtful, provocative and, in some cases, even wildly entertaining films of 2021.
10. ‘Procession’ & ‘Strip Down, Rise Up’ (both Netflix)
Two of the most powerful films of the year documented alternative group therapy. Robert Greene’s ‘Procession’ gathers six middle-aged American men, survivors of childhood rape within the Catholic church, and proposes that they work together to make short films that exorcise their experiences through art.
Michèle Ohayon’s ‘Strip Down, Rise Up’ shadows a group of American women in a pole-dancing class geared toward banishing the demons of sexism, abuse and body dysmorphia. During dark days of unprecedented trauma and mental illness, both films movingly focus on the healing process.
9. ‘The Lost Daughter’ (Netflix)
Actor Maggie Gyllenhaal makes her directorial debut with this compelling adaptation of Elena Ferrante’s novella about the dark side of mothering. Olivia Colman (in another devastating and original performance) and Jessie Buckley (fiercely commanding in flashbacks) share the role of an anxious, mood-swinging woman haunted by the “crushing responsibility” of motherhood. Fine assists from Dakota Johnson, Peter Sarsgaard and Ed Harris bolster Gyllenhaal’s investigation of the shame of regretful parents and those thoughts you’re not allowed to say out loud.
8. ‘Licorice Pizza’ (in theaters now)
Paul Thomas Anderson again proves the master of his domain with this sophisticated, breezy comedy that keenly evokes the San Fernando Valley of the 1970s, when California briefly felt like the Wild West again.
In a town full of hustlers, an irrepressible, self-possessed 15-year-old child actor/entrepreneur (Cooper Hoffman, son of the late, great Philip Seymour Hoffman) befriends and pitches woo at a 25-year-old woman (Alana Haim) still in search of herself. Patiently observing the unconventional central relationship, Anderson also tells tales out of school about the waning days of Old Hollywood.
7. ‘Red Rocket’ (in theaters now)
Sometimes a film comes along that’s just plain note perfect. With “Red Rocket,” director/co-writer Sean Baker (“The Florida Project,” “Tangerine”) demonstrates that his docudramatic style and commitment to telling stories of the American underclass are the gifts that keep on giving. An ex-porn star (powerhouse Simon Rex) returns to his depressed Texas hometown and immediately sets to manipulating his ex-wife, her mother and a teenage donut shop worker. This wildly entertaining comedy is funny because it’s true in capturing the charm and poison of malignant narcissism.
6. ‘In the Same Breath’ (HBO Max)
In narrating her new documentary, Nanfu Wang (“One Child Nation”) personalizes the story of the global pandemic while incisively diagnosing the institutional rot that has allowed COVID-19 to run free. Most devastatingly, Chinese-American Wang compares and contrasts the responses of the Chinese and U.S. governments and populaces, calling out the Chinese secrets-and-lies campaign that delayed an effective response, and the U.S. misinformation crisis that has overshadowed our presumptive advantage of free speech.
5. ‘A Hero’ (Amazon Prime Video starting Jan. 21)
Two-time Oscar winner Asghar Farhadi (“A Separation”) contrives to keep you guessing with plot turns and onion-peeling layers of characterization with his latest drama. This Iranian morality play concerns a naive protagonist (Amir Jadidi, terrific) whose impulsive poor choices overwhelm the good deed that puts him in the spotlight, taking him and us on a roller-coaster ride enabled by media and social media hungry to create and prolong an attention-getting narrative. Farhadi honors the complexity of his characters by allowing different vantage points on their behavior and motivations, thereby luring viewers into judgements they’ll be forced to reconsider.
4. ‘The Green Knight’ (4K Blu-ray, Blu-ray, DVD and video on demand)
With a sure hand, writer-director David Lowery adapts the 14th-century poetic fable of Sir Gawain (a never-better Dev Patel). Gorgeous, dreamy, painterly, sumptuous, with an exceptional score by Daniel Hart and pitch-perfect performances all around, “The Green Knight” investigates honor, the entropy of life and the peripherally terrifying inevitability of death. As such, this exquisitely realized medieval period piece captures equally well the ways we’re living now, writing large the immutability of human nature and the elusive courage to live honorably in spite of existential fears.
3. ‘Drive My Car’ (in theaters now)
Ryusuke Hamaguchi is having a moment. The Japanese director and screenwriter released two sublime films this year: “Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy” and “Drive My Car,” adapted from Haruki Murakami’s short story. Unfolding over three hours, the quietly moving drama patiently accumulates emotionally unsparing intimacy to explore the communion between people bonded by like-minded pain or by art: most notably, a stage production of Chekhov’s “Uncle Vanya” that lends “Drive My Car” the legendary playwright’s philosophic grandeur and template of achingly naturalistic characterization.
2. ‘The Power of the Dog’ (Netflix)
Jane Campion tops her Oscar-winning “The Piano” with this adaptation of Thomas Savage’s 1967 novel. Himself a closeted gay man, Savage created the rage-filled rancher Phil Burbank (a fiery Benedict Cumberbatch, in a career-best turn) dealing poorly with his own repressed sexuality in 1925 Montana. In a year of exemplary ensembles, none beats this cast, with Kirsten Dunst, Jesse Plemons and Kodi Smit-McPhee all turning in awards-worthy performances. Add the low-key menace of Ari Wegner’s cinematography and Jonny Greenwood’s score, and you get a gift from the cinema gods.
And the best film of 2020 goes to:
1. ‘Memoria’ (theatrical bookings TBD)
Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s films contain multitudes. With “Memoria,” Weerasethakul invites you “to feel and to be in a space” along with Tilda Swinton’s befuddled protagonist. As she seeks to identify and explain a hallucinatory sound, “Memoria” parses dreams, curses, viruses, altered states and unreliable memories, and maps many roads to transcendence: consciousness and unconsciousness, sanity and insanity, the physical and the metaphysical, drugs versus religion. Woven through it all is the intertwined importance of art and investigation, as in a jazz improvisation and one line of dialogue implicitly linking cinema and detective work. Typically hypnotic, Weerasethakul’s latest trails the ineffable, the mysteries of life always just out of reach despite the obsessive human quest for understanding.
Honorable mention: “Bo Burnham: Inside,” “The Beatles: Get Back.”
“Summer of Soul (…Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised)” (Hulu); “Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy” (video on demand); “Bad Luck Banging or Loony Porn”; “Petite Maman”; “West Side Story”; “The Card Counter” (Blu-ray, DVD, and video on demand); “Passing” (Netflix); “The Disciple” (Netflix); “The Tragedy of Macbeth” (Apple TV+); “C’mon, C’mon”; “Nightmare Alley”; “tick, tick…BOOM!” (Netflix); “Mass”; “Parallel Mothers”; “Together” (video on demand); “Dune” (HBO Max); “The Souvenir Part II”; “The Worst Person in the World”; “Test Pattern” (video on demand); “No Time to Die” (4K Blu-ray, Blu-ray, DVD and video on demand).
5. ‘Tom & Jerry’
This tin-eared attempt to revive the ol’ animated cat and mouse duo takes the “Who Framed Roger Rabbit” tack of integrating CGI versions of the characters with hapless live action in the hopes that something or someone will amuse. The effects impress. The acting, characters, story and jokes don’t.
4. ‘The Starling’
Even with the always-welcome Kevin Kline doing his level best as a psychiatrist-turned-veterinarian (don’t ask), this mawkish dramedy is out to give you an inspiration concussion. Just like Melissa McCarthy, you will feel uplifted on the wings of a starling. Or, well, probably not.
3. ‘Space Jam: A New Legacy’
In case the original “Space Jam” didn’t crush the Looney Tunes legacy enough, Warner Bros. drops another anvil on it with this quarter-century-later sequel that replaces Michael Jordan with the slightly more talented actor LeBron James. The result is an interminable ad for Warner Bros.’ properties.
2. ‘There Is No ‘I’ in Threesome’
As self-indulgent as documentaries get, this dumpster fire asks the not-so-burning questions “What would happen if my fiancée and I explored an open relationship before our wedding?” and “Would it help if I documented the whole situation on video?” Even the most sex-positive of viewers will be clawing their eyeballs out to make it stop.
And the worst film of 2020 goes to:
1. ‘Central Park Dark’
This execrable psychological thriller sports Hollywood outcast Tom Sizemore, who does the impenetrable script no favors. It’s a toss-up as to the film’s worst element: its narrative incoherence, bizarre and unlikeable characters, poor production value, terrible acting, or sleazy, exploitative tone. Trust me, you don’t want to find out.
Of course, there’s plenty more to remember beyond 2020’s highest highs and lowest lows. Read on for our take on the best good guys, the worst baddies, the top documentaries and the most magical animated movies.
5. Paul Atriedes (Timothée Chalamet) in “Dune”
4. The Spider-Men (Tom Holland, et al) in “Spider-Man: No Way Home”
3. Xu Shang-Chi (Simu Liu) in “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings”
2. Mirabel Madrigal (Stephanie Beatriz) in “Encanto”
1. Kate Dibiasky (Jennifer Lawrence) & Dr. Randall Mindy (Leonardo DiCaprio) in “Don’t Look Up”
5. Mikey Saber (Simon Rex) in “Red Rocket”
4. Major John Gordo (Willem Dafoe) in “The Card Counter”
3. Nicholas (Thomas Jay Ryan) in “Cryptozoo”
2. Lyutsifer Safin (Rami Malek) in “No Time to Die”
1. President Janie Orlean (Meryl Streep) in “Don’t Look Up”
5. “The Velvet Underground” (AppleTV+)
3. “Faya Dayi” (The Criterion Channel)
2. “Just Don’t Think I’ll Scream” (MUBI)
1. “Ascension” (Paramount+)
4. “Encanto” (Disney+)
2. “The Summit of the Gods” (Netflix)
1. “Cryptozoo” (Blu-ray, DVD and video on demand)
Editor’s note: The term “video on demand” has been used for films that are available for home viewing on multiple online platforms, such as iTunes, YouTube rental, etc.