At the end of last year I wondered whether the pandemic would irrevocably change the cinema or just interrupt it; whether the medium would soon be a public, collective experience again or remain predominantly a home event. After another year, I still don’t know exactly. In 2021 we saw the resumption of blockbusters in multiplexes, but as with so many aspects of life, a return to “normal” still feels a long way off, and many people don’t go to the movies regularly.
As such, this has been an odd year for movies. Some of my favorite 2021 works have yet to be published, while others had limited editions to qualify for the competition and will be widely distributed in the months to come. But cinema still has the power to inspire and surprise, regardless of the size of the screen. New films from all over the world are some of the most exciting viewing experiences I’ve had in my life. Even if we continue to rethink the idea of a film, this year has confirmed my belief that films are going nowhere.
10. The souvenir part II
Joanna Hogg’s first souvenir was one of the best films of 2019, an intimate reflection of her own life as a young film student drawn into an intense, harmful romance. In this unexpected sequel, the director turns herself back in the mirror and makes a film about … making a film. Recovering from the loss of their relationship, Julie tries to turn her heartache into creativity by writing a movie. Hogg’s film is sometimes incredibly funny and sometimes crushingly sad, in that it shows all the weird ups and downs of grief – but it’s also a great piece of how artists let these conflicting feelings flow into their art.
Yannis Drakoulidis / Netflix
9. The prodigal daughter
Maggie Gyllenhaal’s first feature film as a writer and director, due to appear on Netflix at the end of December, is based on a novel by Elena Ferrante. The story is a quasi-mystery that takes place in sunny climes that belies many a dark secret. But The Lost Daughter captivates with its ambiguity and the fearlessness with which it investigates the mistakes of its prickly protagonist Leda Caruso (Olivia Colman). While on vacation in Greece, Leda becomes possessed by a younger woman (Dakota Johnson) and her daughter and begins unraveling her own dirty memories of parenting. Gyllenhaal gives her stellar cast (including Jessie Buckley and Ed Harris) plenty of room to explore their characters’ shortcomings and suggest hidden depth in the most anodyne conversations. It’s an exciting debut.
8. Red missile
Sean Baker specializes in telling stories about life on the fringes that are intimate and non-condescending; his films Tangerine and The Florida Project have been some of my top picks in recent years. Red Rocket is a gritty job centered around a washed-up pornstar named Mikey Saber (Simon Rex) who is returning to his hometown of Texas City after a last favor. He’s a headstrong idiot that practically no one likes to see. But Rex’s live wire performance shows how bubbly his character can still be and how the severity of his personality draws people into plans to get rich quick and romantic mishaps. Red Rocket is set during the 2016 presidential election, and Baker is clearly intent on conjuring up the national sentiment of the time by telling the story of an American trader.
Warner Bros. Pictures
There’s a world this is my favorite movie of the year, but for sure I won’t know until I can see Denis Villeneuve’s full adaptation of Frank Herbert’s totemic science fiction book (Dune: Part 2 is luckily on the way) . Though Dune only tells half of the saga, it’s great and revels in the details of royal families waging intergalactic intrigues and wars on a mystical desert planet. The brilliance of Herbert’s Dune was that the myth of the “chosen one” around the protagonist Paul Atreides was weighed down with fear; Villeneuve’s film understands this idea, begins the narrative of the rise of a Messiah and at the same time hints at the darkness that lies ahead.
6. The card counter
This late phase in the career of the author and director Paul Schrader is elegiac in the darkest sense. His intriguing First Reformed revolved around a pastor driven insane by the apocalyptic horrors of climate change. His latest film, The Card Counter, is about a professional gamer and ex-military interrogator (Oscar Isaac) who tries to earn a glimmer of redemption for his war sins, even though he knows the odds are against him. Isaac’s appearance could be the best of the year, a portrait of a clock wound so tightly it can barely remember ticking. His character, William Tell, moves from casino to casino like a ghost until he gets the opportunity to help someone and uses it to his own surprise. What follows is a sad ballad, beautifully rendered by a master chronicler of American antiheroes.
5. The Green Knight
David Lowery has long had a knack for taking familiar movie aesthetics and grounding them with an earthy humanity, such as in the lonely, haunted A Ghost Story or the Disney remake Pete’s Dragon. The Green Knight, however, is the movie it was born for – a perfect combination of visual grandeur and the petty worries of personal honor. His adaptation of the poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight presents King Arthur’s nephew Gawain (Dev Patel) as a dashing and immature would-be hero eager to imitate the warriors of his uncle’s round table. But when he encounters a mystical challenge, he struggles with their strange chivalrous codes. Lowery turns his journey into a strange and wonderful coming-of-age story.
Kirsty Griffin / Netflix
4. The power of the dog
Jane Campion’s first film available to stream on Netflix in 12 years is well worth the wait. It is an adaptation of Thomas Savage’s novel about cruelty and bittersweet heartbreak in the American West, delivered with Campion’s inimitable majesty and attention to nuance. Kirsten Dunst plays Rose Gordon, a widow who marries the friendly rancher George Burbank (Jesse Plemons) and is therefore forced to live with his cruel brother Phil (Benedict Cumberbatch). Cumberbatch’s portrayal of the curled up, intelligent, angry cowboy out to destroy his brother’s happiness is transformative – I’ve never seen the actor look like it – and the film gains momentum as he delves deeper into the psyche of this one apparent monsters immersed.
Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s film begins with a noise – a strange dull noise that Jessica Holland (Tilda Swinton) hears when falling asleep and then cannot forget. Weerasethakul is a Thai filmmaker who specializes in colliding the unknown with the everyday. Memoria is one of his strongest works, an existential drama in the most captivating scene of which Jessica tries to describe what she has heard to a mystified sound engineer. I wouldn’t dream of spoiling Memoria any more, but I would also find it difficult to explain much of it – like all of Weerasethakul’s films, it is driven by a hazy, ethereal logic. Memoria opens in New York in December and then will tour cinemas across the country week after week in 2022. It’s a cinematic experience well worth doing.
Melinda Sue Gordon / MGM
2. Licorice pizza
Paul Thomas Anderson’s hymn of praise for life in the 1970s San Fernando Valley is a shaggy comic book marvel that will almost certainly be the movie I watch most on this list. That’s partly because it’s wonderfully fun to hop together with aimless 25-year-old Alana (Alana Haim) and boastful 15-year-old Gary (Cooper Hoffman), whom she often gets involved with. But it also deserves repeated credit as it depicts the blurry period between teenage and adulthood when true independence is unattainable and you are still invincible to the everyday life of adulthood. That’s the feeling Alana chases through Licorice Pizza as she sells waterbeds and parties with eager teenagers and Hollywood insiders – but it’s a bewitching feeling that you are by her side every silly decision you make.
1. The worst person in the world
The third entry in Joachim Trier’s “Oslo Trilogy”, a series of bittersweet, deeply human films set in Norway’s capital, is his masterpiece. Slated for February release, The Worst Person in the World is a caustic story about the dangers of turning 30 and not knowing exactly what to do with yourself. Renate Reinsve plays Julie, a young woman who is still thinking about her career, her romantic prospects and most of her other important decisions; Trier navigates you on every assignable trip and every stumble. It sounds familiar, but the writer and director (whose previous excellent films include Reprise and Oslo, Aug 31) focuses on the smallest details to make Julie’s life feel as extraordinary as we can imagine our own. Julie is a perfect millennial heroine, beset by the impossibility of doing anything original in the 21st century, and all the more charming for it.