The best of 2021: Our top 10 films

Since the locks lasted all year round, filmmakers, distributors and cineastes had to find creative ways to arouse their love of form. Despite fluctuating restrictions on festivals and theater, some great films were released in 2021. Some common hyperallergy sufferers and employees got together to choose their favorites. —Dan Schindel, Associate Editor, Documentaries


From Memoria

1. Storage

Some filmmakers have often compared their work to dreams. Apichatpong Weerasethakul makes films that feel like daydreams – those moments of lost time when you penetrate so deeply into your own head that the world around you seems to expand even though nothing has changed. In keeping with a story about a woman plagued by several possible hallucinations, she is attuned to every facet of her soundscape, her images patient and indelible. Seldom have the real and the unreal merged so seamlessly. —Dan clapboard

Theatrical release on December 27th.

From Drive My Car (2021), dir. Ryūsuke Hamaguchi (Image courtesy of the Filmforum)

2. Driving a car / wheel of fortune and imagination

This year’s two features by Ryūsuke Hamaguchi are linked in more ways than one, their materials reflect each other. Hamaguchi’s films, like Asako I & II, are often about some sort of repetition, and his Haruki Murakami adaptation (Drive My Car) and anthology of shorts (Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy) deal with ghosts of the past and sublime in amusing ways . The characters struggle with lingering regret, all of their inexplicable and overly human behavior captured with keen observation and mesmerizing ambiguity. —Cambole Campbell

Currently playing in select cinemas. Read our article on both films and Hamaguchi’s work.

By Annette (2021), Dir. Leos Carax (Image courtesy of Ginsberg Libby)

3. Annette

Leos Carax made his English-speaking debut in unpredictable style as this musical masterpiece opened Cannes this year. Written and directed by the legendary, genre-defying duo Sparks, the film fully delivers what it promises as a sung epic, with Adam Driver delivering the performance of his life as a Machiavellian comedian. Based on the great operatic tradition and the dark power struggles of Hollywood, the end result is unique, a disrespectful and deeply melancholy performance about love, fatherhood and the male urge to destroy everything in the pursuit of power. —Hannah Strong

Available for streaming. Read our first and second reviews.

Of days (2020), you. Tsai Ming-Liang (Image courtesy Grasshopper Film)

4 days

It is incredibly gratifying that Tsai Ming-liang has returned to the feature film. Few can make everyday gestures – preparing vegetables or a long acupuncture session – so fascinating. At a time of widespread loneliness, this film was made as a poignant look at the embodiment of loneliness (“embodied” is a key term because Tsai emphasizes physicality) in two very different men. When they get together for a burning intimate encounter, she ends up with full emotional power. —Dan clapboard

Available for streaming. Read our review.

From procession (2021), you. Robert Greene (Image courtesy Netflix)

5th procession

Many of Robert Greene’s documentaries, such as Bisbee ’17 and Kate Plays Christine, have questioned what it means to act out. Here he elliptically traces the process of his own filmmaking by helping a group of six men with the same few actors and the same crew to stage very different scenes that illustrate the circumstances and their reactions to their sexual abuse by Catholic priests. (In some cases, they even portray each other’s perpetrators.) Since the movie’s coda exposes the progress – or lack of it – in their respective legal cases, he is painfully honest about the potential and limits of catharsis in art. —Cambole Campbell

Available for streaming. Read our interview with director Robert Greene and three of the movie’s main characters.

From All Light, Everywhere (2021), dir. Theo Anthony (Image courtesy MEMORY)

6. All light, everywhere

A troubling essay on what it means to be perceived and perceived in today’s United States, where issues of visibility are increasingly haunted by their ubiquitous surveillance panoptic. Only through Theo Anthony’s weird approach (avoiding direct portrayal of police brutality, looking at everything but the pictures themselves) can we hope to really deal with seemingly contradicting elements, such as how body cameras have somehow reduced the accountability of the police. It’s all in the eye of the beholder, but some viewers are more powerful than others. —Dan clapboard

Available for streaming. Read our review and interview with director Theo Anthony.

From Bergman Island (2021), dir. Mia Hansen-Løve (Image courtesy IFC Films)

7. Bergman Island

Mia Hansen-Løve’s latest film takes its title from the nickname Fårö, the small community off the Swedish coast where arthouse titan Ingmar Bergman lived and made some of his most influential films. Vicky Krieps and Tim Roth play a filmmaker couple, Chris and Tony, who travel to Fårö, and the narrative avoids convention by including Chris’ latest script as a film and the boundaries between “real” and “fiction” blurred. It uses Fårö’s beguiling landscapes to create a lyrical portrait of the interface between creativity and romance. —Hannah Strong

Available for streaming.

From licorice pizza (2021), you. Paul Thomas Anderson (Image courtesy Brigade Marketing)

8. Licorice pizza

Paul Thomas Anderson returns to the San Fernando Valley of Boogie Nights, Magnolia and Punch-Drunk Love and creates a romance for the ages. Here it is the backdrop to a flourishing friendship between a directionless 20-year-old (Alana Haim in a glowing debut performance for the records) and a charismatic, entrepreneurial teenage actor (Cooper Hoffman, ditto). They dine with superstars, volunteer for politicians and offer waterbeds in a relaxed, effortlessly charming reminiscence of 1970s Los Angeles. Sweet but never sugary, it testifies to the intoxicating but fleeting magic of youth. —Hannah Strong

Currently playing in select cinemas. Read our review.

By Faya Dayi (2021), dir. Jessica Beshir (Image courtesy New Directors / New Films)

9. Faya Dayi

Jessica Beshir returns to Harar, the city she grew up in, to see how the city has changed since she left. For many parts of the Global South, what it finds is a foreboding of the future, should climate change continue undiminished and farmers are forced to adapt to changing conditions by replacing coffee plants with khat. Few films out this year show the relationship between people and their country so precisely. —Dan clapboard

Available for streaming. Read our review.

From Summer of Soul (… Or, if the revolution couldn’t be televised) (2021), you. Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson (Image courtesy of Searchlight Pictures)

10. Summer of Soul (… or when the revolution couldn’t be televised)

Perhaps the biggest populist documentary hit of the year, but that palatability in no way suggests technical simplicity. Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson’s directorial debut is exceptionally secure, often breathtaking in its arrangement, beginning with a sequence that intersects a wild Stevie Wonder drum solo with a newsreel montage that encompasses the socio-political context of the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival. He cuts footage from this forgotten event with new memories from attendees and even the cast members booked. It underscores the far-reaching emotional impact of the festival and how painful it is that it has all but disappeared. Narrated in an exciting and driving rhythm, the film is a galvanic processing of the story. —Cambole Campbell

Available for streaming. Read our review.


By Titane (Image courtesy NEON)

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