No, that's not a typo. Here, at the end of 2022, I realized that I forgot to actually do a best films of 2021 post last year, in part because I didn't feel like I had seen enough of the major films back in December 2021 to put together a decent list. So I kept putting it off as I caught up until I just forgot to actually write a list at all. And because the completionist aspect of my personality won't let me write a 2022 list without a 2021 list, here is a belated run down of the best films of 2021.
Before we get to the good films, a rundown of the worst films I saw. Usually I only single out one for that honour, but since the worst film I saw last year was Space Jam: A New Legacy and it would be charitable to call that IP car crash a film, I'll skip over that and instead say that Being the Ricardos was the worst film I saw in 2021. A totally inert take on interesting people and a potentially compelling story that doesn't even have the usual Aaron Sorkin saving grace of having memorable lines well-delivered. Over the course of his three films as a director, it has become painfully obvious that he has no idea how to direct actors to deliver his dialogue well or edit them so they play well on-screen. Someone needs to wrest the director's chair out of his hands and sit him behind a typewriter only from now on. Dreadful from start to finish.
And now here's the (very, very late) list.
25. The Eyes of Tammy Faye (dir. Michael Showalter)
This is weighed down by a lot of the typical biopics cliches (in media res opening late in Tammy Faye Bakker's life that then flashes back; Wikipedia shallow run through of all the major events; photos of the real people at the end with text saying what happened to everyone) but I was won over by Showalter's unexpectedly straight-faced take on the material, which ends up accentuating the grotesqueness of the Bakkers' garish, hypocritical lifestyle. Jessica Chastain also conveys the sadness of Bakker as she becomes alienated from her fellow evangelicals, and I couldn't help but find the contrast between her inauthentic appearance and her authentic loneliness poignant.
24. Annette (dir. Leos Carax)
To use a possibly strained metaphor, Annette feels like three very different musicians trying to play together with very little overlap between them. You have Sparks' theatricality, Carax's surrealism, and Adam Driver's earthy intensity, none of which mesh particularly well. Yet I found watching the struggle between the three elements fascinating, even more so during the moments it didn't work than during the ones where it did.
23. Attica (dirs. Traci Curry and Stanley Nelson)
A pretty conventional documentary, but an exceptionally well-done one nonetheless. In retelling the story of the Attica prison riot, not merely in terms of the riot itself but the underlying issues that made some sort of confrontation tragically inevitable, Curry and Nelson hit every beat of the story with a bracing and unwavering clarity, resulting in a searing indictment of a system that brutalizes everyone involved in it.
22. Dune (dir. Denis Villeneuve)
Exactly what I hoped for from an adaptation of Frank Herbert's novel. I was particularly impressed by its starkness, and the way Villeneuve resists the typical big sci-fi desire to fill the frame with stuff, which can so often lead to mere clutter. Every image feels very considered and purposeful. Yet he also handles the spectacle and the crowd pleasing moments (like Duncan Idaho going sicko mode) very well, stopping it from being totally po-faced.
21. The Lost Daughter (dir. Maggie Gyllenhaal)
As good as the performances in this are, with Olivia Colman, Jessie Buckley and Ed Harris all typically great, what lingers the most for me is the tremendous sense of dislocation that Gyllenhaal creates. It's a film about the past and the present blurring, and of memory slipping in and out of focus as Colman's character contemplates what kind of mother she has been. A woozy, unsettling movie that I hope will lead to a long directorial career for Maggie Gyllenhaal.
20. The Power of the Dog (dir. Jane Campion)
Probably the best moment of revelation for me watching a film this year came from realizing that Benedict Cumberbatch feeling miscast as a cowboy was a feature, not a bug. A wonderfully tactile film.
19. Witches of the Orient (dir. Julien Faraut)
A wonderful documentary about the Japanese women’s volleyball team, which won Gold at the 1964 Olympics as part of a still-unbroken record 258 game winning streak. Utilizing archive footage, interviews with some of the surviving team members and scenes from Attack No. 1, an anime inspired by the team's success, the film blends together fact and legend in ways which are both conceptually intriguing and viscerally exciting.
18. The Hand of God (dir. Paolo Sorrentino)
While I prefer Sorrentino when he's being big and gaudy, I couldn't help but be won over by his roman a clef about his youth in Naples. It's authentically sweet in its exploration of loss and art, which felt like a nice change of pace from someone who revels in excess and artifice.
17. The Velvet Underground (dir. Todd Haynes)
A much richer and fuller appreciation of a great band than you get from most rock documentaries, in part because Haynes brings an immediacy to the filmmaking by never lingering on any interviews, instead using them to provide context to reams of incredible footage of The Velvet Underground, which he edits together with an intensity that places you in the grit and the grime of '60s New York. By establishing them as part of a much bigger wave of artists working in music, experimental cinema and the visual arts more broadly, the film also does a much better job of explaining why they were such an important group than just having a bunch of famous people talk about how influential they were or highlighting their favourite songs.
16. Luca (dir. Enrico Casarosa)
My favourite Studio Ghibli movie is Porco Rosso, a magical realist work that takes place in sun-drenched mid-century Italy, so I was predisposed to like Luca, Pixar's lovely story of sea monsters trying to blend in with humans. A nicely low-stakes movie that explores its ideas around identity very deftly, while also having plenty of fun hijinks.
15. Nightmare Alley (dir. Guillermo Del Toro)
A very handsomely staged movie that never lets its prestigious production values obscure the sinister pulpiness at its core. In adapting William Lindsay Gresham's novel, Del Toro brings all the A-list talent and budget that comes from winning a couple of Oscars to a story of con-men, carnies, and social climbing, and all the really good, nasty stuff that comes with that territory. Bradley Cooper gives one of his most wild-eyed and off-kilter performances in a while, while literally every other role is stacked with great actors getting to indulge in some well-judged hamminess.
14. Malignant (dir. James Wan)
I still can't believe James Wan made this movie. A schlocky and unrestrained horror romp with an unforgettable villain, performances so over the top they might as well be dead in Flanders Field, and a gleefully silly twist. A movie I wish I'd been able to see in a theatre because hearing an audience react to all of...that...would be such a joy.
13. The Card Counter (dir. Paul Schrader)
At this point in his career, Schrader is like the band Spoon to me; he keeps doing more or less the same thing, but damn if it doesn't work for me each and every time. The Card Counter is yet another story of damaged men operating in insular worlds, haunted by their past actions and grasping for redemption. Hell, he even steals the ending of Pickpocket for the third time! But for all its familiarity, setting part of the story in Abu Ghraib and framing the story through what Oscar Isaacs' character did to the Iraqis and what the US government did to him (and therefore what the US did to Iraq) offers a broader, more searing indictment of an entire way of doing business, and how no one can truly escape it. Also, Tiffany Haddish is fantastic in it, and brings a real vulnerability to her role that makes the ultimate moment of grace so affecting.
12. Zola (dir. Janicza Bravo)
"Based on a Twitter thread" obviously sounds like slim material for a movie, but when that thread is as wild and entertaining as the one that gave us Zola, it's silly to quibble about where it came from. There's a lot of movies I wish I'd been able to see with an audience over the last few years, but I really think it would have been something to hear a room full of people reaction to the full frontal montage. Colman Domingo, man, what a screen presence! Truly one of our most compelling actors.
11. Benedetta (dir. Paul Verhoeven)
Considering the logline "Paul Verhoeven made a lesbian nun movie", Benedetta ended up being pretty restrained. That's comparatively speaking, of course, since we're still talking about the man who gave us RoboCop, Showgirls and Starship Troopers, but between all the sacrilegious sex toys there is a fairly thoughtful and contemplative discussion of the tension between faith as practiced by individuals and proscribed by institutions, and how the corruption of the latter will lead them to crush genuine expressions of the former.
10. Wrath of Man (dir. Guy Ritchie)
Almost certainly the most surprising entry on this list since, while I don't hate Guy Ritchie by any means, I've rarely liked any of his movies as much as I did this taut, economical thriller that reveals itself with a measured, ominous pace that really ratchets up the tension for its bloody climax and operative denouement. Boasts quite possibly Jason Statham's best performance, too.
9. The Last Duel (dir. Ridley Scott)
Absolutely riveting from the word go, handles the nuance of its subject deftly while maintaining a sweeping scope, and full of great performances, with Jodie Comer, Matt Damon and Adam Driver being particularly brilliant at delivering similar yet distinct versions of their performances in each of the film's retelling of the same event. Special shout-out to Alex Lawther and Ben Affleck, who are both really fun as two men so powerful and distant from the concerns of normal people they seem constantly amused or befuddled by why anyone is making a fuss about the horrible things they do or enable.
8. The Matrix Resurrections (dir. Lana Wachowski)
7. The Beatles Get Back (dir. Peter Jackson)
While I was watching Jackson's assemblage of hours of footage of The Beatles during the abortive Get Back sessions, I initially thought that it would have benefited from being eight one-hour episodes instead of three two-plus-hour ones, since so much of it feels aimless and meandering in a way that can be draining over that length of time.
However, the structure of the whole thing - with George leaving as the big event of Part 1, them deciding to do the rooftop concert at the end of Part 2 and the concert itself taking up much of Part 3 - works so well in this format, and even if so much of it feels like the band going round in circles, the catharsis of that ending would be considerably lessened without the constant stop-start, and the frustration of the band members giving way to moments of genuine inspiration.
It’s also hard to overstate how fascinating the little details are, and how compelling it is to see them slowly crafting these extremely famous songs from embryonic ideas, or seeing them just shooting the shit about what they watched on TV the night before. It feels like the fullest possible portrait of the band as they were beginning to spiral apart, showing how they still found fun and joy in the work even as things were undeniably strained, and how they were ultimately, at the heart of it all, friends.
6. Drive My Car (dir. Ryusuke Hamaguchi)
Hamaguchi expands on Haruki Murakami's beautifully slight short story by making the supporting characters feel more vivid and alive, and also creating a third act that expands and explodes the themes of the story in interesting and unpredictable ways. A deeply engrossing work about loss, how hard it is to really know another person, and art as a way of processing trauma. The multi-lingual play being rehearsed throughout the film also provides one of the most complicated and hilarious jokes in any movie I saw last year.
5. Evangelion 3.0 + 1.0 Thrice Upon a Time (dir. Hideaki Anno)
A very sentimental inclusion, this one. I was late to the Neon Genesis Evangelion party, only watching the original anime series when it debuted on Netflix a few years ago, but its mix of mechs fighting monsters with an at times brutal depiction of depression really moved me, and the series and its extremely bleak cinematic spin-off The End of Evangelion are among some of my favourite works of art that I've encountered in the last few years. I caught up with the rebuilds of Evangelion, a series of feature film remakes/re-interpretations of the TV series and was pretty disappointed in them, so I went into the fourth and final film with a sense of obligation rather than excitement. Yet I was completely blown away by how well Anno and his team managed to resolve not only the story being told by the current run of films, but also the one that was told over the original run of the series and movie. Its final moments, in particular, granted closure to its characters, allowing them to escape the cycle they had been trapped in for 25 years, that felt like an incredibly generous and graceful end to the saga, and maybe a chance for Anno himself to find peace with a series that has bedeviled him for half his life. A startlingly sweet conclusion to a spiky, often disturbing saga.
4. Old (dir. M. Night Shyamalan)
A movie that somehow manages to triangulate between the works of Rod Serling and Michaelangelo Antonioni, this story of a beach which causes the people on it to age rapidly is a perfect high-concept idea for Shyamalan, whose unusual dialogue and rhythms fit so well within an absurd situation. He also manages to wring great moments of horror out of the premise, moments of extremely dark comedy, and touching moments as his characters find themselves contemplating a life that has truly flashed before their eyes.
3. The French Dispatch (dir. Wes Anderson)
Very mannered, as is perhaps unsurprising given how much Anderson has refined his approach and his style over the years, but a lovely collection of stories that are filled with the sort of deadpan wit that has become his stock in trade. The Jeffrey Wright segment may be the best thing he has ever directed, and it does somewhat overshadow the film when rewatching it because I find myself impatiently waiting for it to start, but every story has some performance or turn of phrase or startling composition to recommend it.
2. Licorice Pizza (dir. Paul Thomas Anderson)
A shaggy, hilarious, blissful wander through '70s L.A. that I wanted to bask in. Each digression is so delightful that every time someone like Tom Waits or Sean Penn showed up I realized that I had forgotten they were meant to be in the film, so caught up was I in the larks of Cooper Hoffman and Alana Haim. A charmingly aimless film full of unpredictability, and one I hope to revisit many more times in the years ahead so I can linger on every detail.
1. West Side Story (dir. Steven Spielberg) and Days (dir. Tsai Ming-liang)
Two extremely different movies get to share the top spot this year. One is a big-budget Hollywood musical full of the maximalism demanded by the genre, the other a quiet Taiwanese drama with barely any significant dialogue. Yet both movies are at their core about the need for connection and intimacy, and how the briefness of love (whether romantic or physical) makes it both tragic and beautiful.
More sentimentally, Spielberg is one of the first filmmakers I remember being truly aware of as a child, while I often credit watching Tsai's Stray Dogs as something that made me a more adventurous and curious cinephile. They're two of the most important filmmakers for me, personally, and that they both produced masterpieces this year makes it seem only appropriate that they both get to be number one.