2021 was a mixed bag, to put it lightly, but it was a fantastic year for film. The theater experience may be changing, to again understate the obvious, but the result was a far more level playing field, with indies and blockbusters alike competing for attention and awards. Barriers to access were also removed by necessity, with films of all genres available from home like never before. The result was far more choices for my favorite films of the year, so I’ve expanded my list to include fifteen films, as well as some honorable mentions. Below are my top films of 2021.
15. Wild Indian
We all know the past never dies, and it returns with a vengeance in “Wild Indian,” where two boys on a reservation literally bury a terrible secret. Decades later, one has succumbed to prison and the ills of reservation life, while the other has left and found success. But neither has been able to fully move on, and both must confront it when it resurfaces. But the true horror is how far one of them will go to protect his newfound life, and how it forces us to reckon with the complexity and lack of representation for Native American experiences, both in cinema and elsewhere.
Rose-tinted glasses are a tough sell in a childhood brutally interrupted by The Troubles of Northern Ireland. But for this gorgeously shot, autobiographical black and white rendering of his own childhood, Kenneth Branagh gives us a time and place which was far more than the violence which tore it apart. Amid the vicious upheaval, families still love, argue, and plan, while a nine-year-old boy grapples with first love, violence, and a blooming fascination with movies. And that stellar supporting cast that includes Judi Dench, Ciarán Hinds, Caitriona Balfe, and Jamie Dornan make it just as enjoyable for audiences.
13. The Suicide Squad
Trust James Gunn to bring out all the genre delights in this not-quite-reboot-kinda-sorta-sequel. A genre film through and through, “The Suicide Squad” also doubles as a critique of it, and of American policies in general. Even if we know the drill, that of so-called bad guys being used as fodder for the most dangerous missions, there’s strangely enough surprises, dark humor, and shockingly emotional moments to lift this movie up in a market saturated with superhero fare.
Actress Rebecca Hall goes all in for her directorial debut in the 1920s period piece “Passing,” which boasts a dreamy black and white aesthetic, but has all the quiet forcefulness of a storm about to break. The tempest consists of two equally repressed Black women, Irene (Tessa Thompson), and Clare (Ruth Negga), the latter of whom has found status and wealth by passing as a white woman. As the two become increasingly involved and fascinated with each other’s lives, the precipice they’re both perched on becomes more and more precarious. In a system which so ruthlessly champions whiteness, that whiteness will reassert order by any means necessary.
11. The Card Counter
Paul Schrader is not only still going strong, he hasn’t lost his edge in the slightest. And he sure as hell pulls no punches, writing and directing this noirish crime drama that doubles as a meditation on moral responsibility, and America’s fetish for violence. Oscar Isaac is all tightly coiled intensity as William Tell, the card counter in question who attempts to find redemption and turn a young man named Cirk (Tye Sheridan) from the path of vengeance. As Tell’s past and the link between the two are revealed, we are also forced to witness a vicious history we seem determined to forget, one which nevertheless refuses to stay buried.
“Sabaya” is a film that will gut you…when you’re able to take a breath that is. Hogir Hirori’s harrowing documentary follows the tireless volunteers who work at Yazidi Home Center in Syria who are struggling to recover the girls and women who were stolen from them five years ago by the terrorist group Daesh. Each time they travel to the Al-Hol refugee camp where most of the girls are being held, it’s life and death, especially during the various nighttime rescue attempts, where they’re sometimes shot at as they depart. According to the film, the volunteers have rescued a total of 206 women and girls. It seems like a triumph until we’re informed that 2,000 are still missing.
9. Drive My Car
“Drive My Car” may clock in at three hours, but it’s never a drag thanks to its incredible cast, direction, and script, which culminates in the meticulous grace of a mournful symphony. Yusuke Kafuku (Hidetoshi Nishijima) is a widowed stage actor and director who is hired to helm a production of Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya, quickly discovering it may speak a bit too much to him in his current state. Further complicating things, he’s forced to break his self-imposed isolation and confront his past when he’s assigned a young woman named Misaki Watari (Toko Miura) as a chauffeur. As his complex, taciturn characters each confront the grief that they’re all grappling with in various ways, “Drive My Car” pays tribute to how art can allow us to process the pain we would rather numb ourselves to.
Proving once again that truth is stranger than fiction, “Zola,” which was born from a now infamous Twitter thread, is so damn funny you forget that it’s essentially about a woman being trafficked. When the titular Zola (Taylour Paige) meets Stefani (Riley Keough) while she’s waitressing, she could never have imagined that their road trip to Florida a few days later would involve pimps, moronic boyfriends, prostitution, and run-ins with armed gangsters. Comedy may be hard, but Janicza Bravo makes it look easy, spectacularly commanding the material as Zola uses her keen intelligence to survive and make it back home.
7. Summer of Soul
In this powerful doc, the revolution is finally being televised. Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson didn’t just make a remarkable directorial debut, he put the effort in when it would’ve been easy to rest on his laurels. In the summer of 1969, the same season Woodstock occurred, another music festival also took place. Despite more than 300,000 attendees and featuring some of the biggest performers not just of the time, but in music history, the Harlem Cultural Festival was quickly forgotten and discarded, with the very extensive footage remaining unseen for nearly 50 years. Until now of course. Questlove could’ve easily just selected some footage and let it roll, and audiences would’ve still been awestruck by the very palpable energy of Stevie Wonder, Sly and the Family Stone, B.B. King, David Ruffin, Nina Simone, and many others performing their hearts out. But the gaze is widened to include the great context, a period of seismic changes. That it took 50 years for this history to be acknowledged is a crime, but at last even casual music fans will salivate over a precious piece of history being unearthed.
6. I’m Your Man
In a time when loneliness almost seems like a permanent condition, “I’m Your Man” takes us to a distant future where a seductive solution is in the making, that of humanoid cyborgs whose sole purpose is to be the perfect partner to whichever human they’re paired with. Alma (Maren Eggert) is a scientist who is chosen to evaluate one of the first, Tom (Dan Stevens), and she quickly discovers that being fully informed of the programming process is still no defense. As Alma and Tom grow closer, Maria Schrader gives us a deceptively lightweight romantic comedy that forces us to question not only love, but what it means to be human in our modern world.
5. The Souvenir: Part II
If Joanna Hogg’s previous film was about the dissolution of a toxic relationship, “Part II” is about the aftermath. Hogg’s surrogate Julie (Honor Swinton Byrne) struggles to make sense of her deceased lover’s role in her life as she constructs her graduate film, trying to sort fact from fiction, even though she eventually discovers that few knew what made him tick, much less why he deconstructed. More important is witnessing Julie come into her own as an artist, finding transcendence through creation right up until the moment Hogg does the only thing left to do: yell cut.
Finding peace after trauma has been a major theme in 2021, and perhaps no other film embodies this more than “Procession.” Each of the six men in the documentary are still struggling to cope with abuse at the hands of Catholic priests during their childhoods, and they have all gathered for an unusual form of therapy – creating short films based on their experiences. By centering the survivors themselves and their process, it allows for not only a frank discussion of their experiences but how each finds healing, some for the first time. It’s a harrowing yet essential portrait of collaboration, and how art and imagination can bring light where there was only darkness.
Immigrant and refugee narratives are seldom told by those who actually lived it. But in the documentary “Flee,” Amin Nawabi is literally writing his own narrative for the first time, albeit with an assist from the director Jonas Poher Rasmussen. Told through evocative, stunning animation, Nawabi relates his long journey to find a place of safety after he and his family are forced to flee Afghanistan. After enduring brutality after brutality, Nawabi has found prosperity and success, but not necessarily peace, so haunted is he by his experiences. But on the verge of marriage, Nawabi finally opens up and reveals secrets he has kept for years in one of the most humanistic films of 2021.
2. Parallel Mothers
Two very different single mothers (Penélope Cruz and Milena Smit) meet in the hospital just as they’re about to give birth, only to find their lives increasingly intertwined due to quite a few tragic twists of fate. And since this is Pedro Almodóvar, there’s far more to the story than how two women cope with motherhood. As each struggles to find a way forward, their personal conflicts intersect with the political, as Almodóvar grimly reminds us all that history demands to be heard, acknowledged, and honored, whether it’s our own or that of a country.
1.The Power of the Dog
Jane Campion has always been a filmmaker who crafts her films with meticulous care, but she’s at the top of her game in bringing this tale of love and loss in 1925 Montana. Phil Burbank (Benedict Cumberbatch) is a charismatic rancher who inspires fear and awe in those around him. But he becomes outright vicious when his brother George (Jesse Plemons) marries widow Rose (Kirsten Dunst) and brings her and her young son Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee) to live on the ranch. After tormenting them both, Phil abruptly seems to warm up to Peter in what may be a sincere change of heart or a prelude to an even darker game. Campion keeps us questioning until the shocking reveal, which upends many of our assumptions and offers a grim reminder of how power can be an ever shifting thing.
And some honorable mentions: Rita Moreno: Just A Girl Who Decided To Go For It, The Novice, Rebel Hearts, Pig, Coda, Barb & Star Go to Vista Del Mar, The Harder They Fall, Holler, West Side Story, The Tragedy of Macbeth