Film

2021: Best Narrative Films of the Year

It’s the last day of the year, so naturally it’s time to unleash my Best of the Year list. As always, I was able to squeeze in about 10-12 additional films in the last couple weeks of December—mostly titles that others have told me are worth checking out, that I either missed when they came out in Chicago, or movies that were never released here at all. I also tend to do a great deal of rewatching in those last two weeks, primarily to solidify my top 10.

According to my count, I saw 475 films in 2021, either in a theater or via screening link—from the Audrey Hepburn documentary Audrey at the beginning of the year to an almost-forgotten (by me) doc Class Action Park (which just squeezed into my Top 20 Documentary Films list) at the end. This tally does include a few vintage titles, but only if I saw them in a theater (often as restored prints, but not always). If I simply watched an older film at home, that doesn’t make the count—so my actual count of movies watched in 2021 is much higher.

As I do every year, I’ve separated my Best Documentaries list from narratives because I want an excuse to call extra attention to a whole other group of worthy films (20 this year) that might go unnoticed on a combined list. Plus, it’s always seemed strange to me to mix docs and narratives, the same way you don’t usually see fiction and nonfiction books shelved together in a book store. I value them equally, however.

Unlike the previous year, I saw a great many more films in the theaters in 2021. It still didn’t feel entirely normal to be sitting in a theater full of masked humans in a communal setting, but it felt safe in almost every instance and I was happy every time I did it. Thankfully, in 2021, the blockbuster films that were actually released in theaters were a step up from the year before. My tendencies for favorite films of the year were a bit more optimistic and upbeat than 2020, but my dark streak remains loud and proud. Regardless of the tone, a great movie is always cause for celebration and recognition.

In previous years, my Narrative Features list has reached anywhere between 30 to 50 titles; this year, these were the 40 movies that stood out to me. I often feel that after the first 10 titles, the numbers don’t mean as much, and that’s certainly true this year. As always, if you think a list of 40 films is annoyingly excessive and self-indulgent, feel free to stop reading at 30, or 10. I have faith you’ll find ways of coping with my excessive means of expression.

I’ve included excerpts of my original reviews of my Top 10 films, if I wrote one; if not, I scribbled down some thoughts. Hope you dig the list and that it gives you some ideas for future viewings on some platform. Most, if not all, of these titles should be available somewhere in some format right now.

Licorice Pizza

Image from Licorice Pizza, courtesy of MGM.

10. Titane (Dir: Julia Ducournau)

Although most body horror films are considered movies about violence, Ducournau’s follow-up to her groundbreaking Raw adds a layer of erotica stretched out over its story of Alexia (Agathe Rousselle), who has had a titanium plate in her head since she was a child, and perhaps because of that is sexually aroused when inside primo muscle cars. She’s also a serial killer, and after a particularly brutal spree, she hides in the home of an equally body-focused firefighter (Vincent Lindon), posing as his missing son while also hiding a pregnancy. It sounds insane, and it is, but it’s also hypnotic, captivating, and will prompt as many discussion as it will walkouts. Winner of the Palme d’Or at this year’s Cannes Film Festival.

9. The Card Counter (Dir: Paul Schrader)

As card expert William Tell, Oscar Isaac gives a stunning and intense performance, and even beyond his steely good looks, your eyes refuse to look away from him here. Tiffany Haddish and Tye Sheridan are terrific as well, but something about their performances is elevated by working next to Isaac. Writer/director Paul Schrader juxtaposes two sequences near the end of the film—one involving Isaac at his most terrifying and one at his most gentle and sensual, and the transition is remarkable to watch. The film ends with a not-so-subtle reminder that history is bound to repeat itself and perhaps that’s how it needs to be. But it also offers some degree of hope that Will’s dangerous cycle might change if he dares to let someone in to make a connection. The Card Counter is a beautifully executed character study, set against a backdrop of games of chance, games that include friendship, love and confronting one’s past.

8. Bo Burnham: Inside (Dir: Bo Burnham)

Dropped both quietly and explosively, this special was written, directed, filmed, edited, and performed by comedian and Eighth Grade filmmaker Bo Burnham in the tiny guest house of his Los Angeles home during the COVID-19 pandemic without a crew or audience. Both hilariously funny and scarily on point about his crumbling mental health during isolation, he explores through music subjects such as climate change, social movements, his relationship to the internet, and people’s obsession with, well, themselves. Every song is dead-on, transcendent and masterfully crafted. As a snapshot of a moment in time, Inside is self-reflexive and forces its audience to consider their own behavior during the pandemic. Did we find ways to better each other’s lives, or did we just add to society’s destruction? “White Woman’s Instagram” was the song of the summer, as far as I’m concerned.

7. The Lost Daughter (Dir: Maggie Gyllenhaal)

A showcase for some of the finest female performances of the year, first-time feature director Maggie Gyllenhaal tackles the difficult novel by Elena Ferrante, which dares to ask the question: do parents have to like their kids all the time? Olivia Colman plays Leda, a woman on summer holiday in Italy who becomes obsessed with another woman (Dakota Fanning) and her young daughter, who goes missing briefly, prompting Leda to remember her own early motherhood (the younger Leda is played by the great Jessie Buckley) and how much she hated the role life had assigned her. It’s a daring and tough film to observe, but the acting is so note-perfect, it’s impossible to take your eyes off the piece. Perhaps the finest purely psychological drama of the year.

6. Passing (Dir: Rebecca Hall)

None of Rebecca Hall’s acting roles quite prepared her for her debut as writer/director/producer of Passing, which had its world premiere at Sundance this year. Based on the 1929 novel by Nella Larsen, Passing concerns two mixed-race childhood friends who run into each other as adults and become increasingly intermingled in each other’s lives. Tessa Thompson plays Reenie/Irene, who identifies as African-American and is married to a doctor (André Holland), while Ruth Negga plays Clare, who “passes” as white and is married to a racist white man (Alexander Skarsgård). Shot in black-and-white and using the deliberately claustrophobic 4:3 aspect ratio, the movie might seem like a strange choice for Hall to make, until you discover her journey into discovering her own heritage, which includes father and noted theater director Peter Hall, and opera singer mother Maria Ewing, who is American and of Dutch and African-American descent. In looking into her own family tree, it became clear that some of the family members on her mother’s side likely had passed as white as well, and it opened up for her a wellspring of curiosity about identity and the dangers of passing at a time when being discovered could have meant death. But it wasn’t until she discovered Larsen’s novel that she found the language she needed to discuss her family history with relatives and eventually dive into the years-long journey to writing this screenplay and making the film. All of this deeply personal history comes out through the pores of Passing and the results are stunning, melancholy, and unlike anything seen in modern cinema.

5. The Green Knight (Dir: David Lowery)

A different kind of Christmas movie, writer/director David Lowery’s epic medieval fantasy film, adapted from the 14th-century poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, stars Dev Patel as Gawain, a nephew of King Arthur, who is visited by the other-worldly title character on Christmas. Stating that any knight able to land a blow on him will win his green axe but must travel to the Green Chapel the following Christmas and receive an equal blow in return, the Knight is easily bested by Gawain, whose attempts to appear fearless in front of the king backfire when he must make good on the challenge and take the long journey to the Knight’s chapel. The film is a haunting, episodic quest story of the highest order, both visually and dramatically. It co-stars Alicia Vikander (in two vastly different roles), Joel Edgerton, Sarita Choudhury, Sean Harris, and Ralph Ineson as the dreaded knight.

4. The Power of the Dog (Dir: Jane Campion)

The complete package, as far as dramas are concerned. Adapted from the novel by Thomas Savage, The Power of the Dog covers grief, jealousy, resentment, love, repressed sexuality and more, all in a Western set in 1925 Montana. Wealthy ranch-owning brothers Phil and George Burbank (Benedict Cumberbatch and Jesse Plemons) meet widow and inn owner Rose Gordon (Kirsten Dunst) during a cattle drive. The kind-hearted George is quickly taken with Rose, while the volatile Phil, much influenced by his late mentor “Bronco” Henry, mocks Rose’s son Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee) for his lisp and effeminate manner. George and Rose soon marry, and soon Peter joins them after finishing his first year of medical school. His relationship with Phil changes, while Rose falls deeper in alcoholism, a result of hating her life in the same house with Phil. The film is layered in atmosphere (thanks to its stunning cinematography and eerie score) and subtext, and when you finally realize what’s really going on between Phil and Peter, it strips you of the air in your body. Campion is masterful at creating characters that get under your skin, whether you want them there or not, and you just begin to care about them all to varying degrees, until you realize that might not pay off the way you want. A true stunner.

3. Pig (Dir: Michael Sarnoski)

It’s almost impossible to fathom—and yet totally appropriate—that one of the most well-reviewed films of 2021 is about a man named Rob living alone in the Oregonian wilderness with his truffle-hunting pig. When said pig is kidnapped by underground black market truffle hunters, Rob (played in full hermit mode by Nicolas Cage) enlists the help of his truffle buyer Amir (Alex Wolff) to take him into Portland in search of his foraging friend. It turns out Rob used to be a world-renowned chef and must revisit some of his old haunts (and the dark past that led him to leave behind a successful career) in the hopes of finding his only companion. The scenario may sound insane or laughable—if for no other reason than Cage’s look is quite extreme—but in fact, the film provides the actor with one of his most substantial and heartbreaking roles in years, while finding ways to both honor and criticize a world where the search for delicacies like truffles can lead to the destruction of a person’s life and livelihood—a person who has already lost everything once before. The fascinating journey Rob and Amir have together in Pig takes them through reminders of loss and pain, family issues, and Rob’s previous life as one of the most highly regarded chefs in the nation.

2. Drive My Car (Dir: Ryusuke Hamaguchi)

With a running time of three hours, Drive My Car may sound like a slog, but it’s a rich, fulfilling, sprawling and ultimately highly satisfying meditation on the many definitions of love, the complex nature of relationships, and how to let go of grief and move on to whatever chapter comes next. The film doesn’t introduce artificial tension into its interactions, which is not to say tension doesn’t exist. The film placed me in a kind of trance, and I was swept away by what I was watching, even the long play rehearsal sequences and the snippets of the actual play we get to see, which often seem to be mirroring or responding to the events of the rest of the film.

1. Licorice Pizza (Dir: Paul Thomas Anderson)

Licorice Pizza becomes a series of small and important epiphanies for both lead characters. Some of these realizations are about each other and some are about themselves and the world they live in. Sometimes very funny, other times heartbreaking, the film isn’t about a time or place I know; it’s not about experiences I came remotely close to having when I was growing up. But Anderson gently put me in the shoes of these characters and gave me that rare gift of seeing the world as they do. That’s what the movies are to me. I identify with these people because the filmmaker and actor give me enough detail to become them briefly, and that’s the perfection I seek every day from the movies. I already miss these characters and want to know where they go once this part of their story is over, which is why I’m going to go back again and again (I’ve already seen it twice) to watch my favorite film of the year.

The Rest of the Best:

11. West Side Story (Dir: Steven Spielberg); 12. The French Dispatch (Dir: Wes Anderson); 13. A Hero (Dir: Asghar Farhadi); 14. The Killing of Two Lovers (Dir: Robert Machoian); 15. The Harder They Fall (Dir: Jeymes Samuel); 16. Riders of Justice (Dir: Anders Thomas Jensen); 17. Nightmare Alley (Dir: Guillermo del Toro); 18. The Worst Person in the World (Dir: Joachim Trier); 19. Spencer (Dir: Pablo Larrain); 20. Petite Maman (Dir: Céline Sciamma)

21. Benedetta (Dir: Paul Verhoeven); 22. Spider-Man: No Way Home (Dir: Jon Watts); 23. Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy (Dir: Ryusuke Hamaguchi); 24. Shang Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings (Dir: Destin Daniel Cretton); 25. CODA (Dir: Sian Heder); 26. Parallel Mothers (Dir: Pedro Almodovar); 27. C’mon C’mon (Dir: Mike Mills); 28. Shiva Baby (Dir: Emma Seligman); 29. Lamb (Dir: Valdimar Jóhannsson); 30. The Tragedy of Macbeth (Dir: Joel Coen)

31. Belfast (Dir: Kenneth Branagh); 32. I’m Your Man (Dir: Maria Schrader); 33. Red Rocket (Dir: Sean Baker); 34. Werewolves Within (Dir: Josh Ruben); 35. Plan B (Dir: Natalie Morales); 36. Annette (Dir: Leos Carax); 37. Small Engine Repair (Dir: John Pollono); 38. Bergman Island (Dir: Mia Hansen-Løve); 39. In the Heights (Dir: Jon M. Chu); 40. The Beta Test (Dir: Jim Cummings)

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