The Best Movies Of 2021

Scenes from a weird year

Once again it’s been a weird year in movies, with the pandemic-delayed backlog of 2019 and 2020 titles continuing to trickle out. On the bright side, viewers who’d likely have chosen to shell out for just a few films on the big screen have been able to see a lot more of them at home, many for free with streaming memberships. And hey, even a $20 VOD charge is less than you’re going to drop at a cinema if there’s more than one of you. I can’t claim to have seen every last contender for greatness (I’m looking at you, the 3-hour Drive My Car), so I’ll simply say, here are ten pretty good films, from the chills of Candyman to the tropical paradise of Barb and Star.

Petite Maman

Celine Sciamma’s new movie is as small-scale as her last, Portrait of a Lady on Fire, was sweeping. In this gently Gothic tale, an eight-year-old girl (Josephine Sanz) goes with her parents to pack up her beloved, recently-deceased grandmother’s countryside house. While playing in the woods, she meets a neighbor girl (Gabrielle Sanz) who bears a striking resemblance to her and has her mother’s name, Marion. What’s going on? The minimalist plot spells out very little, which feels terrifically French. The girls (who are twins) seem largely unfazed by the supernatural happening, as only kids can be. At its spookiest, Petite Maman had me flashing to The Shining, but mostly its flavor runs to the sweetly eerie. Sciamma also gets major points for coming at under 80 minutes. Can we get an Oscar category for most humane running time?

Kurt Vonnegut: Unstuck in Time

Kurt Vonnegut photographed by Jill Krementz, in West Cornwall, Connecticut in 1973. (Photo: Jill Krementz)

Director Robert Weide may not have made the year’s most technically proficient doc – that honor goes to Edgar Wright’s The Sparks Brothers – but he definitely spent the longest time making it. The 62-year-old Weide, who became a diehard Vonnegut fan in high school, began shooting Vonnegut in 1988 and continued right up until close to the author’s death in 2007. Over the years Weide (an executive producer of Curb Your Enthusiasm’s first five years) dithered about how to knit it together into something resembling a cohesive narrative.

As the title acknowledges, it’s an amusing problem when your subject is the guy whose most famous work begins “Billy Pilgrim has come unstuck in time.” Weide delivers an intimate, bittersweet portrait of one of the world’s greatest authors, and, as we discover via his daughters, not-so-great fathers and husbands. It’s a loving, lovely tribute, though, and an incisive look at the darkness that often fuels the best humor.

Candyman

Director Nia DaCosta’s Candyman reclaims the narrative from Clive Barker’s 1992 original, shaping it into a topical nightmare that veers from harrowing to campy. The urban legend’s mantra, “Say his name,” couldn’t feel more directly tied to Black Lives Matter, and a recurring motif of shadow puppets used to depict the horrors of White violence against Black bodies is surprisingly visceral. At the same time, this Candyman winks at some of the stereotypes that dog the horror genre, with one protagonist peering briefly down darkened basement stairs and concluding, “Nope!”, and an art critic, who sneers at the gauche-ness of directly depicting violence, messily dispatched by the boogeyman. It feels like a knowing smack at the still-prevalent snobbery that often keeps horror from showing up on these end-of-year lists.

Dune

The movies may have died this year, but they went out with a bang. Or, in the case of Denis Villeneuve’s Dune, with a gut-rumbling BWWWOMP: Composer Hans Zimmer has never been more in his element. This long-awaited movie was one of the year’s best reasons to brave the theater, a gorgeous, violent epic full of gorgeous faces meant for a huge screen. That said, it’s not without flaws. Despite Villeneuve’s protests, his depiction of Timothee Chalamet’s Paul Atreides as the mystically anointed rescuer of a Bedouin-esque population has more than a whiff of Lawrence of Arabia-style White saviorism.

This, apparently, was far from author Frank Herbert’s intent. So bring a big grain of salt along with your popcorn. But man, what a feast for the eyes and ears. Villeneuve works in a similar palette to his boring, beautiful Blade Runner 2049, but brings plenty of action, and even a smattering of humor. I can’t wait for the sequel, though I’m sad Jason Momoa’s jovial, fearsome Duncan Idaho won’t be around for it.

The Power of the Dog

I’ve enjoyed Neal Pollack’s arguments against Jane Campion’s icy Western: It’s a movie only critics will love, it’s too goddamn bleak. I get that. And yet The Power of the Dog stayed with me in a way few other films did this year. On its face, it’s the story of Phil Burbank (Benedict Cumberbatch), surly repressed cowboy and secret Yale man, who fuels his own misery by being horrible to everyone around him. But Campion is stealthily, expertly building a delicious methodical thriller underneath all the abuse. At the end, you can’t help but marvel at the clues she’s laid down. Combine that with absolutely riveting performances from Cumberbatch and Kodi Smit-McPhee as Phil’s primary object of derision, and I just can’t deny how great this thing is, bleakness be damned.

Spencer

Kristen Stewart’s turn as Princess Di in this wholly unconventional, drawn-from-reality horror drama should finally convince any holdout doubters about her acting abilities. Nailing Diana’s posh accent in an impressively un-showy way, Stewart embodies a woman who felt as trapped as one of the poor foxes hunted by her imperious royal relatives. Director Pablo Larrain, and a tense, stringy soundtrack from Johnny Greenwood, spin Di’s story into an imploding nightmare, with many a whispery sequence you can’t quite decipher, but never veering too far into arty preciousness.

Pig

Pig

For every ten bonkers performances, Nicolas Cage usually gives one great one, and this is it. The plot sounds like a porcine riff on John Wick – Cage as an off-the-grid former star chef whose prize truffle hunter is abducted – but instead, this slow-burn drama served up a melancholy longing that resonated especially well in Our Pandemic Times. His journey through the back rooms–and one fight club–of Portland’s restaurant culture is a riveting, occasionally very funny travelogue, with a great Alex Wolff as Cage’s reluctant chauffeur Amir. Cage’s Robin Feld is mourning his lost wife, as well as what he sees as the loss of a cultural generosity of spirit. You can pin almost any metaphor you like onto this well-directed feature debut from Michael Sarnoski. It’s also just a nice shout-out to pigs, who are awesome.

West Side Story

You wouldn’t expect Steven Spielberg and Tony Kushner to fumble a West Side Story update, and they one hundred percent did not. This gorgeous, thoughtful musical holds on to all of the good stuff while making subtle changes to the cringier aspects of the original – here, for example, the Puerto Rican characters are played by Latinx actors rather than White people in brownface, while Anybodys, the vaguely tomboyish character of the original stage production and movie, is played by an actual trans actor.

And the gang violence here actually feels harsh and dangerous, even interspersed with Sharks and Jets leaping around in Jerome Robbins-esque choreography. Like Dune, it’s another reminder of everything we lose when we skip going to see movies on the big screen. The ensemble numbers, particularly the Ariana DeBose-led “America,” are meant to be experienced huge, in eye-popping Technicolor, surrounded by other people, in all their glorious, texting-in-the-dark imperfections.

The Lost Daughter

Like Sarnoski, Maggie Gyllenhaal gives a stunner of a directorial debut, with an adaptation of a pitch-black Elena Ferrante novel about the steep downsides of motherhood. The masterful Olivia Colman stars as Leda (as in “and the swan,” to give you an idea of the tone we’re working with), a Boston professor vacationing solo in a Greek town. A narrative that begins as a familiar reminder of how annoying vacations can actually be – a too-present AirBnB host (Ed Harris), a large family that crowds into Leda’s quiet beach spot – blossoms into a time-jumping meditation on just how unbelievably, existentially draining motherhood can be, and what happens if a mother dares say that out loud – or worse.

Barb and Star Go to Vista Del Mar

Kristen Wiig and Annie Mumolo’s pastel comic confection arrived in February, the month when it was most needed, and it’s become my cinematic happy place. Every detail of this love letter to cullotted fortysomething ladies is calibrated for maximum silliness; it’s so rare for a movie to get that tone right. It’s as if Wiig spun every daffy SNL character into her dual portrayals of Star and the film’s villainness, while Mumolo, Wiig’s co-writer on Bridesmaids, finally gets to shine in a leading role. Jamie Dornan plays the love interest, a painfully earnest spy, as hilariously as his serial killer in The Fall was disturbing. From the stylings of lounge singer Richard Cheese, who sings piano odes to dead high school friends and boobs, to Andy Garcia as Tommy Bahama, this is a little slice of delight in a year that desperately needed it.

 

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Sara Stewart

Sara Stewart is a film critic and a culture and entertainment writer whose work is featured in the New York Post, CNN.com, and more. A Rotten Tomatoes certified reviewer for both film and television, Sara's work can be fully appreciated at sarastewart.org. But not on Twitter, because she’s been troll-free since 2018.

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