Our favorite movies of 2021

1. Drive My Car- Ryûsuke Hamaguchi’s epic is one of the most perceptive and affecting portraits of grief I’ve ever seen. Ostensibly about Yusuke (Hidetoshi Nishijima), a stage actor and director struggling to stay afloat after the sudden death of a loved one, Hamaguchi makes space for a sprawling study of nearly everyone in his orbit. That includes other actors in Yusuke’s new production of Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya as well as his driver Misaki (Tôko Miura).

At first, Yusuke’s resentment over being driven around (the organization putting on the play insists on it) makes for awkward drives to and from rehearsals. He runs lines from the back seat using a recording of the play on a casette, while Misaki minds her own business. As Drive My Car wears on, though, the connection between the two characters grows into a shatteringly moving climax. There’s much more going on here than that central relationship, but to dive into the story would be to miss the point. So I’ll just say that moments from Drive My Car have stayed with me since I left the theater- of a hug shared in the snow, of two hands holding cigarettes out a sun roof. I could have watched it for at least 3 more hours.

2. The French Dispatch– Wes Anderson’s singular filmmaking style meets a new level of liberating spontaneity in his latest film. Inspired by The New Yorker, The French Dispatch tells three distinct tales about the relationship between writers (Tilda Swinton, Frances McDormand, and Jeffrey Wright) and their various subjects as they craft articles for the fictional magazine’s final edition. One subject is a convicted killer (Benecio Del Toro) who just so happens to be an artistic genius. The next is the leader of a student movement (Timothee Chalamet) that starts with demands for access to a girls’ dormitory but grows violent thanks to a ruthless police force. And the final, and perhaps most moving, segment is about a world-class chef who cooks for a police chief. All of these pieces are nurtured by the magazine’s editor (Bill Murray), a stubborn beacon of creativity intent on drawing out his writers’ singular visions.

Much like Drive My Car, there’s more going on here than can be captured in any year-end blurb, and that’s a good thing. The French Dispatch is so overflowing with ideas and freewheeling formal shifts that, when combined with its intricate yet rapid structure, is overwhelming. Yet even on first viewing I felt I was watching a major work, a beautiful treatise on the importance of artistic subjectivity.

3. The Power of the Dog– “What kind of man would I be if I did not help my mother? If I did not save her?” These are the first lines in Jane Campion’s first feature film in over a decade, spoken in voiceover by a young man (Kodi Smit-McPhee) who later becomes tangled in a battle of wills with a troubled, tyrannical rancher (Benedict Cumberbatch) in mid-20s Montana. Less a straight-up Western than an immaculate, slow-burning frontier thriller, The Power of the Dog dissects the dual prisons of repression and masculinity with claustrophobic precision. Campion and her superb cast, which also features Kirsten Dunst and Jesse Plemmons, have crafted a chamber piece where nearly every gesture resonates. Its conclusion, while maybe a surprise on first viewing, was deviously out in the open the entire time.

4. Benedetta– Virginie Efira gives the year’s best performance in Paul Verhoevan’s film about religious and carnal passion. Set in plague-ridden Italy in the 17th century, Efira plays Sister Benedetta, a nun who receives powerful, often lurid visions from Jesus. Or does she? Efira sells the visions so well that it’s impossible not to buy in, regardless of the truth. She and Verhoevan create a gleeful melodrama that hinges on her rising to power at her convent while simultaneously falling in forbidden love with another nun (Daphne Patakia).

5. There Is No Evil– This superb film from Mohammad Rasoulof tells four stories about the impact of the death penalty on Iranian society. Rasoulof and his superb cast work in a variety of emotional registers, from a quiet chronicle of family life to a prison breakout to hiding in the Iranian countryside. The characters of There Is No Evil are either plagued by guilt or desperation, forced to participate in a practice that haunts them and has a ripple effect on everyone they know.

6. All Light, Everywhere- “From what history does the future dream?” Theo Anthony poses this incisive question in his new documentary, an expansive look at the evolution of surveillance. Focusing largely on the use of police body cameras, Anthony ingeniously explores the inherent biases in all image creation, even and especially his own.

7. Wife of a Spy– The latest from master director Kiyoshi Kurosawa is a taut, Hitchcockian thriller about World War II spy games in Japan. At its center is Satoko (the superb Yû Aoi), an actress swept up in the intrigue and unsure of who to trust. With relentless narrative economy and glossy yet claustrophobic interiors, Kurosawa renders a classic tale of espionage that looks and feels decidedly modern.

8. Annette– This unhinged musical is the first film in 9 years from the great Leos Carax. Featuring music from the band Sparks, Annette follows the stand-up comedian Henry McHenry (Adam Driver), who falls in love with an opera singer named Ann (Marion Cotillard) before finding himself woefully unprepared for marriage and fatherhood. When their daughter Annette (who is, yes, a puppet) becomes a successful singer in her own right, Henry’s string of failures and misdeeds accumulate until he and the movie reach a breaking point. I’m being deliberately vague here, because the unpredictability of Annette is half the fun. The other half is seeing a master filmmaker pull sublime images out of this absurd abyss.

9. The Velvet Underground– It would be enough to simply have a straightforward Todd Haynes documentary about The Velvet Underground. And while his film does progress with a standard “rise and fall” (if you can call it that) band narrative, Haynes relishes in the opportunity to not just chronicle the legendary group but to render the ’60s New York scene where they met Andy Warhol in all its glitzy, grimy perfection.

10. Slow MachineSlow Machine is the year’s most assured debut feature, a beguiling and frantic tale of performance that is suffused with uneasiness. At the center is an actress (Stephanie Hayes) who finds herself in a sinister dance of wills with a man claiming to be a policeman. Whether she’s practicing an audition with him, going into hiding outside New York City, or having lunch with Chloe Sevigny (playing herself), directors Joe Denardo and Paul Felten create transfixing, unsettling narrative rabbit hole that surprises at every turn.

Runner-ups:

Pleasure

The Matrix Resurrections

West Side Story

El Planeta

The Pink Cloud

Dune

The Last Duel

Summer of ’85

No Time to Die

C’mon C’mon

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