This past year couldn’t be expiring soon enough as far as most of the world is concerned, and we can only hope that the next one will at least provide small measures of relief in one regard or another. May this be true for the planet first and foremost, but also for the world of films. I’ve experienced 2021 as the worst year for movies in quite a few decades. Perhaps if I seriously combed through the 1980s I might find some that were worse, but I nonetheless felt seriously unrewarded for all the hours I put in watching films that simply didn’t rise to the occasion, including some that found significant critical favor with others.
There were, perhaps, a couple of dozen films that ventured into excellence, but just four of these came from what we’re accustomed to calling the big studios — the rest were indies or foreign. This is not the moment to dwell on the possible death throes of the major studios as we’ve always known them and motion picture theaters, but these factors certainly added to the gloomy mood hanging over what is still trying to call itself the film industry.
Sometimes, adverse conditions create the stimulus for artistic daring and excitement, and we’re seeing some of that on television. But this is an industry in which great financial investments are required, and with all the company name changes and corporate strategies now being undertaken, it’s impossible to know where things will end up.
As always, talent will out, with new and very different venues for it budding all the time. But there is no business as usual these days, just more eyes looking for something new and fresh. Who could have predicted something like Squid Game even a year ago?
Following are the year’s top 10 films, works that felt some combination of fresh, original, different, stimulating, provocative and, for one reason or another, very much worth seeing.
Sean Baker’s funniest, edgiest film yet examines another group of societal fringe-dwellers, Texas oil country down-and-outers the likes of whom you’ve never seen before. Porn world denizen Simon Rex displays all the dissolute but irresistible charm needed to carry this trip on the wild side of a place best visited onscreen rather than in person.
On the other side of the world from Red Rocket, not just physically but in aesthetics and aspiration, is Celine Sciamma’s short feature that provides a privileged look into a special bond between two eight-year-old French girls. As they walk in the forest while one’s father clears out the country cabin of his later mother, the girls achieve a remarkably mature and deep connection that one feels they will always remember even if they never chance to meet again.
QUO VADIS, AIDA?
The Bosnian Serbs’ genocidal assault on the Muslim town of Srebrenica in July, 1995 is devastatingly dramatized in Jamila Zbanic’s black-and-white film. It’s a difficult film to recommend or watch, but the director’s you-are-there style rivets the attention and clarifies a tragic conflict that is generally misunderstood or ignored by most of the world.
THE WORST PERSON IN THE WORLD
It’s far from perfect, but Norwegian director Joachim Trier still delivered the most amusing and acutely observed romantic comedy-drama of the year. Renate Reinsve excels as a lively thirtysomething surrounded by interested men but incapable of fashioning a life gameplan. It’s brimming with lovely moments and is acutely attentive to the quick passing of time and the realization that, suddenly, one isn’t young anymore.
WEST SIDE STORY
I loved the original film as a kid, have probably seen it six or seven times (and only in theaters!), played a Jet in a high school production (very convincingly I’m sure), have listened to the score forever and was leery even of Steven Spielberg attempting a remake. I was won over within five minutes. Tony Kushner’s new script represents a smart upgrade (except for not really figuring out what to do with the Anybodys character), the actors are very good, the orchestrations terrific. Still, I’ll never watch it six or seven times.
Very few films have concentrated on jockeys, so Clint Bentley and Greg Kwedar’s film has a fresh and welcome feel as it examines the waning days of a veteran rider’s career. This is a modest, intimate film about men who live in stables or their trucks, are up at dawn, move from track to track and could see their careers end at any moment. It’s a film the Sam Peckinpah of Junior Bonner would have appreciated. And Clifton Collins Jr., in quiet, introspective mode, gives one of the performances of the year in the title role.
THE VELVET UNDERGROUND
The storied New York avant-garde band found its ideal chronicler in Todd Haynes, a downtown guy himself some of whose previous films provided looks at Dylan and Sonic Youth. Even though only three members of the Velvets survive, Haynes tells their stories with just the right style and mood. This is the deep dive fans and interested parties wanted.
Compared with some of his weightier outings, this one’s a lark by Paul Thomas Anderson, a goofy, free-wheeling spin through his youthful days in the San Fernando Valley with two non-eye-candy leads like you’ve rarely seen topping a big Hollywood movie before. It’s a film to relax into, only to be gently jolted by its idiosyncratic characters and unanticipated events.
The original 1947 film starring Tyrone Power was a box-office disappointment and the same fate has befallen this elaborate and beautifully made new version from Benicio Del Toro. With Bradley Cooper excelling as a carny worker who rises in society as a celebrity clairvoyant, this is a gorgeous work immaculate in every detail, with a last half-hour that’s utter perfection.
I couldn’t get past page 50 of the book and the 1984 David Lynch film is an embarrassment, so I was a very unlikely candidate to embrace Denis Villeneuve’s new version. But very early on it put me in the zone and I remained there the whole time, even if at a few points I expected to see Peter O’Toole and Omar Sharif heading through the Arabian desert on camels. I’m very glad the second installment has been greenlighted.
Here are a few honorable mentions, in no particular order: The Power of the Dog (I admire Jane Campion’s success in wrestling the material to the ground even if it remains off-putting), Parallel Mothers, The Rescue, The Man Who Sold His Skin, King Richard, Summer of Soul (a precious document of a great event but hardly great filmmaking), The Green Knight, The Tragedy of Macbeth, The Card Counter, CODA, Pig, The Humans (a film version that’s superior to the play due to its extraordinary production design), The Hand of God and, if you insist, Titane, only because it’s so confidently and organically weird.
So there were a couple of dozen films from 2021 that were well worth seeing. All the same, at least an equal number of releases received significant and even great praise that I felt didn’t deserve it at all, films that were pretentious, unconvincing or, even if artful in some ways, still failed to win me over.
The film most ardently embraced by critics this year is Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s Drive My Car from Japan, but I sat there stone-faced, untouched and unmoved; afterwards, I had one of the worst feelings you can have in a cinema, of knowing that you’ll never get those three hours back. I was even more disengaged from Cannes luvvy Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Memoria, the director’s English-language debut, a madly pretentious film that dared me to snort at it disrespectfully, an indulgence I only just managed to resist.
Another Cannes entry that felt deeply insufficient was Mia Hansen-Løve’s Bergman’s Island, which particularly falls short in the scripting. This is ironic given that the central character goes to Ingmar Bergman’s home in great measure to be inspired to write.
Wes Anderson’s The French Dispatch is fabulously designed and boasts a non-pareil cast but never really engages due to the utter lack of the human factor; there’s no heart in sight. Rebecca Hall’s Passing similarly embraces earlier 20th century issues in intelligent ways while also not fully convincing or coming alive.
I didn’t buy Kristen Stewart’s Princess Diana in Pablo Lorrain’s Spencer for a second and was similarly disenchanted by the ferocious let’s-put-on-a-show antics by Andrew Garfield as Jonathan Larsen in Lin-Manuel Miranda’s screen directorial debut Tick, Tick…Boom!
Kenneth’s Branagh’s autobiographical Belfast came across very mildly, without much emotional heft, and Mike Mills’ C’mon C’mon only fully engaged when the boy played by Woody Norman was onscreen. Joe Wright’s take on Cyrano with Peter Dinklage in the title role was diverting and different enough for a while without hitting it out of the park.
I was all set to love Jeymes Samuel’s Black Western The Harder They Fall, but once the novelty wore off, the film’s lame and derivative script, along with the endless Leone borrowings, grew quite tiresome. Another case of a little bit going a long way, and becoming annoyingly twee in the process, was Will Sharpe’s film about a portrait painter of cats, The Electrical Life of Louis Wain, with the busy Benedict Cumberbatch.
And then there was my least favorite much-acclaimed film of the year, Maggie Gyllenhaal’s directorial debut with her adaptation of Elena Ferrante’s novel The Lost Daughter. It’s a difficult, off-putting piece of work to begin with, and the film’s inelegant visual style provided even more barriers to embracing it. Only the imperishable Olivia Colman kept me with it.