While delays from the pandemic almost certainly had a hand in it, 2021 has been one of those years for film where it consistently felt like we were being spoiled. If I mention that three of the era’s most important filmmakers put out long-anticipated and much-hyped projects that delivered on the promises built by consistently impressive filmographies over the past two or three decades, you would almost certainly know exactly who I’m referring to, while seemingly every film festival lineup reveal over the past 12 months promised incoming theater experiences (fingers crossed—looking at you, Omicron) from most of the rest of our faves over the next 12.
Meanwhile, new voices and those steadily gaining traction over the past few years have put their hats in the ring as contenders for the best film of 2021, with fresh perspectives completely shaking up the medium, proving that, say, there are always unexplored stories from untapped (and unconventional) mediums worthy of a cinematic adaptation.
Here are our picks for the most captivating movies of the year.
10. Last Night in Soho
From what little I know about Edgar Wright through watching his movies, the man clearly loves a good needle drop. In my recollection that’s mostly what Baby Driver was comprised of, with that movie’s soundtrack almost entirely sourced from decades-old deep cuts—from Focus’ manic prog of the ’70s to Beck’s late-’90s electro-funk era—which effectively transport the listener to the time periods they were written in (in spite of the circa-2006 Apple technology the diegetic music is playing through). It came as a surprise to me, then, when Last Night in Soho made the dramatic flip an hour or so into its run time from another era-hopping nostalgia fest of this ilk into a cautionary tale of blind reverence for bygone cultural eras which, yes, brought us great music and inspiring fashion, but also a nightmarish amount of sexual violence—not to mention rampant usage of sexist language that’s still commonly employed by our parents’ generation today.
As a coming-of-age story, Soho severely dramatizes the familiar revelations of, say, budding film buffs learning for the time that the guys who made Rosemary’s Baby and Annie Hall, uh, did some other stuff that gets talked about less than their movies (the film at first even feels like the oblivious fetishization of bygone eras of the latter director’s Midnight in Paris, only injecting a sobering realism which that movie conveniently omitted). By the end of the movie it even feels like Wright is celebrating the modern-day freedom from gender binaries that caused such violence in the first place, not to mention a new generation of compassionate individuals on either end of that spectrum. — Mike LeSuer
9. Judas and the Black Messiah
How do you tell the story of a man like Fred Hampton, deputy chairman of the national Black Panther Party, in a way that captures his complex tangle of humanity and revolutionary politics? Blessedly, the answer Shaka King’s Judas and the Black Messiah arrives at is to eschew standard biopic beats altogether, instead adopting the Salieri-like vantage point of Bill O’Neal, whose treachery ultimately leads to Hampton’s assassination. It’s a choice that allows the film to capture both Hampton’s lionizing leadership and his limitations, providing just enough sense of O’Neil’s internal conflict to make his ambivalence plausible.
It’s also an electrifying piece of filmmaking, where everything from the performances to the pacing to the soundtrack feel utterly kinetic. Its style is in service of nuanced and empathetic storytelling that manages to be timely without it seeming forced. Nobody in the movie ends up looking completely good, and only the FBI ends up looking completely bad. — Josh Hurst
8. Bergman Island
Mia Hansen-Løve is one of our great humanists, a warm-hearted yet unsentimental filmmaker concerned with the fantasies we tell ourselves to make it through the day, with the obsessions that keep us going, with the beauty of art and all the pain it brings. Think of the ever-aspiring DJ who never seems to age in Eden, who’s always on the verge of making it, but ultimately ends up just another ambitious amateur watching his peers find success. In the meta-romance Bergman Island, two directors arrive on the Swedish island of Fårö, where Ingmar Bergman lived and shot his films. They’re searching for something more than inspiration—something deeper, something maybe more painful. Purpose, perhaps.
It’s a pleasant, idyllic little place, with flaxen fields undulating in the breeze, and 35mm prints of the miserablist master’s films, and a windmill like one of Cervantes’ giants, and bicycles to ride. Why didn’t Bergman make films about happiness?, Chris (Vicky Krieps) asks her husband Anthony (Tim Roth). Bergman’s cinema is one great long gaze into a void; Scenes of a Marriage, as the island’s keeper says, inspired innumerable couples to break up. Hansen-Løve isn’t exactly an upbeat director, but she never deprives her characters of hope, of the things they love. Bergman Island slowly—very slowly—reveals itself to be a film about the artistic process, and with the way art and life mingle and morph into one inextricable whole. Chris says she loves Bergman’s films, but she doesn’t know why. I would say something similar about Mia Hansen-Løve’s film. Isn’t that the deal with all great art? That ineffable rapture? — Greg Cwik
7. Licorice Pizza
From its name (a bygone SoCal record store chain), to its inspiration (the San Diego–set Fast Times at Ridgemont High), to its coming-of-age storyline featuring real and almost-real Hollywood characters (a William Holden–like actor, a Lucille Ball–esque comedian, hairdresser-turned-producer Jon Peters, the guy who played Herman Munster), everything about Paul Thomas Anderson’s Licorice Pizza is more Californian than a Beach Boys box set. Anderson doesn’t usually traffic in screenplays so warmly funny as this story, one based on his friend Gary Goetzman’s absurd true-life tale of growing up as a child actor in old Hollywood (he starred in a family comedy alongside Ball) and his teenage exploits (falling in love, delivering a waterbed to a high-energy Peters).
Anderson’s usual topics involve the violence in the heart of men (There Will Be Blood), leaders and followers (Magnolia, The Master, Boogie Nights), and lonely desperation (Punch-Drunk Love), always filmed in long, languid takes and intense closeups with Philip Seymour Hoffman and John C. Reilly stalking the background. Reilly is featured here as Herman Munster’s Fred Gwynne. So is the late Hoffman in the guise of his shaggy-dog, startlingly look-a-like son, Cooper Hoffman, whose burgeoning teen romance with an older woman (a lean, mean 25-year-old photographer’s assistant played by HAIM’s Alana Haim) is the meat of Licorice Pizza. Boy meets girl, girl accepts the boy’s advances, and Sean Penn (as Holden) and Bradley Cooper (a wild performance as the volatile Peters) make pit stops during Anderson’s fast-racing, surprisingly funny, and genuinely winsome story. — A.D. Amorosi
6. C’mon C’mon
It feels like there’s been a certain cloud hanging over our heads as a film-going public ever since Facebook user and occasional director Paul Schrader put forth some hard truths in 2017 with his evangelical bummer First Reformed. A global pandemic and a handful of other national and global crises have really only bolstered the moral question of bringing new life into our dying world that that movie circles like a vulture, making C’mon C’mon all the more welcome as a temporary antidote to such brooding existentialism. Regardless of its fairly neutral take on that question, it’s a wholesome celebration of that life, not to mention those of the mothers who choose to bring a third generation of individuals to look after into the world.
But I think I’m burying the lede here, which, of course, is Mike Mills’ editing style that made Beginners and 20th Century Women so difficult to ignore (it’s hard to believe no other filmmaker looked at what Eisenstein accomplished a literal decade ago without thinking, “OK, but how can I take this further?”). Despite being significantly confined to the pasts of his two main characters instead of, you know, the entire history of the world, the montages here compiling visceral memories are what define the film. Which makes sense when you consider the movie’s underlying idea: What familial memories will stick with us, and how idyllically will we remember them? — Mike LeSuer
Many of us spent 2021 mourning what we’ve lost, both individually and as a culture. Perhaps that sense of shared loss makes us uniquely receptive to the gift of Pig, a strange and arresting movie that features Nic Cage as a grizzled recluse on a mission to find his kidnapped truffle pig. While the movie might have settled for Babe-like sentiment or John Wick–style avenging, it instead provides a twisty, dream-state narrative that allows for some raw meditations on grief.
Along the way we get some surprisingly persuasive arguments about the nature of art and commerce, plus a quiet Cage performance that’s miles away from his typical oddball schtick. In the film’s most memorable scene, he laments that “we don’t get a lot to care about,” a perfect encapsulation of the movie’s bruised and battered heart. — Josh Hurst
From the stunning cinematography to the fact that there isn’t an ounce of bad acting during its 115 minute runtime, Minari stands to be one of the most affecting films of the last decade. It’s not only a movie about an immigrant Korean family adjusting after a move from California to the sparse plains of Arkansas to pursue the American dream—through various perspectives, including the dedicated father Jacob (Steven Yeun), his playful and good-hearted son David (Alan S. Kim), and an eccentric grandmother Soon-ja (Youn Yuh-jung), this story snowballs with detailed throughlines about how generational differences fracture the understanding of family, culture, and growth.
Minari is a film rooted in resilience. Its title is the Korean name for water celery, with Soon-ja teaching young David about the plant’s tenacity before planting it together in a creek near their new home. It’s a subtle moment of connection for the two characters who have struggled to understand one another. As we see this family clash with each other as their success within their new community dwindles, they’re confronted with reacting to reality or chasing after expectations—how a person might fill a role in another’s life or one’s vision of American success. By film’s end, suspenseful tides of adversity find them retreating back to strengthened relationships, each widening their capacity for empathy. — Margaret Farrell
Dune isn’t an easy story to remake: It’s based on a celebrated 1965 science-fiction novel by Frank Herbert and was made into a famously uncumbersome film in 1984 by David Lynch. Although Lynch’s version was a commercial failure, it obviously serves as a pop-culture counterpoint for this year’s version, directed by Denis Villeneuve and starring Timothée Chalamet in the role that first introduced us Special Agent Dale Cooper. Stray too far from the original and the purists will revolt, but get too deep into the physiology of Shai-Hulud and you’ll lose those who just want to see a blockbuster film.
We’re happy to report that Villeneuve is able to strike a healthy balance with his version of Dune, which stays true to the original narrative without oversimplifying it for the audience. The result is a film that has lots of action, adventure, and sandworms, but which also has much-needed breathing room that allows for character development and backstory. Dune was clearly made with sequels in mind, but it doesn’t seem to be in any rush to get there—and that attention to pacing is ultimately just as important as the special effects. — Jonah Bayer
2. The French Dispatch
The knolling feng shui, the flat and spare color palette, the symmetrically composed cinematography, the crackling, stilted language, the overall vibe of the baroque and nearly arcane—see one film by director, stager, and screenwriter Wes Anderson and you’ve seen them all. And that’s the point. What Anderson offers, always, is elegant, soft-quirk filmmaking that’s whimsical, piquant, and willing to reminisce—even luxuriate—in the past without relying on a heartstrings’ tug. The past of The French Dispatch is Anderson’s self-titled “love letter to journalists,” a tale of editors and freelancers smoking cigarette after cigarette, cracking wise and writing on per diem as part of the foreign bureau of the fictional Liberty, Kansas Evening Sun newspaper as its final issue is prepping for print.
With Bill Murray as the paper’s craggy, generous head, The French Dispatch follows its brave writers (a bicycling Owen Wilson, a couture-wearing Tilda Swinton, a rabble-rousing Frances McDormand, a James Baldwin–esque Jeffrey Wright) through any number of gloriously antiquated insurrections. Coming up against an imprisoned murderer-turned-painter and his goofy demands (Benicio del Toro), a wild-eyed (and -haired) student protester (Timothée Chalamet) and his stiff manifesto, kidnappers, accountants, and omelette-tossers, The French Dispatch is dedicated to any writer with an expense account and the readers who benefitted from such allowances. — A.D. Amorosi
It’s a life goal for one of the lead characters in Zola to make “movies,” which is what he calls brief, looping FailArmy-type viral internet clips. It’s funny to see how seriously Derek (played by Nicholas Braun, whose Cousin Greg–tier performance somehow nearly gets buried under the higher-octane turns from his three co-stars) takes this medium which we recognize as something that provides little more than a disposable laugh—and it feels like writer/director Janicza Bravo is more than aware that this is her audience’s perception of a new medium we’re quick to write off as low culture, especially within the often-priggish world of cinema.
Zola, as you may know, is the first feature film adapted from a series of tweets. And while it’s always been a temptation in the film industry to gussy up any non-fictional subject matter to make it more appealing to a wider audience, I think it could be argued that this movie’s strict adherence to its source material both emphasizes the chaos of this real-life tale and provides Braun, Taylor Paige, Coleman Domingo, and Riley Keough—not to mention composer Mica Levi and DP Ari Wegner—plenty of space to build their characters and the bizarre universe they inhabit (which, again, is occasionally familiar as the very same one we live in).
If Sean Baker and Steven Soderbergh can be credited with opening doors by shooting features on their iPhones, Bravo proves here that worthwhile narratives can be written on them and even told through 280-character voiceovers and post-produced visuals and sound effects familiar to Apple customers. In doing so, Zola feels like a Dogme-minded return to the idea that compelling art and real life can be nearly interchangeable. Or I guess Derek would say life can imitate the exact genre of low-culture art we dream of making. — Mike LeSuer