It’s the year that was…and it was a doozy.
In the midst of everything that opened and closed (and opened and closed)…and opened and closed in the calendar year that was 2021 we’ve had a hell of a year for cinema which has proven that a myriad of powerful stories can come to audiences by any means or medium necessary. Quite simply, the size of the screen doesn’t dictate the size and the importance of the film itself. This year we saw was old become new again as we regained an appreciation for both spectacle AND story.
While I’ll admit…these lists are pretty dumb (remember if you like it, it’s good…period) they are a fun tool and reminder that while we do tend to focus on the negative out there in the world, there’s plenty of positive out there as long as we going digging it for it.
In no specific order, here are the twenty-five best, the favorite, the superior, dare we say the proverbial “top” of the year in cinema that was 2021.
Labyrinth of Cinema
It only feels appropriate that we start this list with a film that I’m certain most of you haven’t seen. While it has been bouncing around since 2019, this last opus from director Nobuhiko Ôbayashi takes us to the Setouchi Kinema, the only movie theatre in the Onomichi seafront that is about to close its doors. On its last night during a marathon screening of Japanese War Films, lightening strikes the theatres and three young men and thrown back in time into the events of the screen, tasked with changing the course of destiny.
Not only is this film a love letter to cinema in general but it is a sensory overload in tribute to what cinema can actually be and it has to be experience in order to be truly appreciated.
In The Heights
It feels like 2021 was the year of the movie musical as the stage show of the same name was the first to light up our screens and get our feet moving again. The scent of the Cafecito Caliente hangs in the air and gives a real eclectic sense of community down by the 181st Subway stop. With a star making turn from Anthony Ramos, In The Heights just might have been the first movie this year that gave us hope in showing us how important a sense of community in all walks of life can truly be.
Judas and The Black Messiah
I know this feels like last year’s movie since it actually won some awards but this gripping story of the rise of Fred Hampton in the Black Panther movement and his subsequent demise is an intense master stroke of storytelling from writer/director Shaka King in a very impassioned debut. With stellar performances from Daniel Kaluuya and LaKeith Stainfield we get a firsthand look at how far race relations in America still need to come. It’s a film with heart, hope and genuine power from beginning to end.
There’s something about a dirty and indie little western story that has the potential for absolute magic.
Old Henry is a western about a widowed farmer and his son who warily take in a mysterious, injured man with a satchel of cash. When a posse of men claiming to be the law come for the money, the farmer must decide who to trust. Defending a siege of his homestead, the farmer reveals a talent for gun-slinging that surprises everyone calling his true identity into question.
Writer/Director Potsy Ponciroli has crafted something simple, gritty and effective making a western story that gets us down in the muck and the mire faster than you’d expect. In a rare leading man turn, Tim Blake Nelson gives us his own spin on the anti-hero of the Wild West and it’s hard to look away from the electricity he brings to the screen with the character.
Admittedly a piece of fiction, what director Pablo Larrain and star Kirsten Stewart do with this film could almost be called a celluloid miracle as they take us into the distance and the pain that seemingly come hand in hand with being a member of the Royal family and a public figure. Stewart elevates herself to the next level here with a performance that truly feels like she is inhabiting the very soul of her subject. It’s a comment on the trappings of power and how the grass isn’t always greener when you are expected to fill the shoes of the role of princess.
The Night House
Undoubtedly the most unnerving movie we’ve had on our screens this year. As Rebecca Hall’s “Beth” is reeling from the sudden death of her husband, the ghostly allure that her house is now presenting her is far too much to ignore.
Hall is simply fantastic as a woman on the brink of a nervous breakdown and Director David Bruckner really manages to externalize the array of emotions that can come to the surface during the grieving process in a pretty remarkable way.
The Card Counter
It’s the story of William Tell, but not quite how you think. Oscar Isaac gives an electric turn as a gambler and former serviceman who sets out to reform a young man (Tye Sheridan) who is seeking revenge on a mutual enemy (Willem Dafoe) from their past.
With an Executive Producer like Martin Scorsese and a writer/director like the enigmatic Paul Schrader you can’t help but get magic and when you throw in a surprisingly strong dramatic turn from Tiffany Haddish, it all makes for the kind of story that you just can’t look away from.
In what is ultimately a sweet yet earnest love letter to his youth; writer/director Kenneth Branagh forgoes the polish that we’ve grown to expect from his as a storyteller and allows the honest imperfections of life at that time a chance to shine. Featuring a stellar ensemble that is spearheaded by Jamie Dornan and Caitirona Balfe we get the most honest and probably relatable story of his entire career which just may earn him some gold by the time awards season rolls around.
Our loan Canadian entry of the year and also bouncing around since 2019, this powerhouse feature debut from writer/director Nicole Dorsey takes us to Newfoundland in the 1980’s. It follows the seemingly separate lives of a disillusioned teen girl and a troubled man on the brink in a unique convergence of womanhood, isolation and toxic masculinity.
Dorsey makes a powerful statement on so many issues here without ever taking sides and it plays out as one of the surprisingly smartest and intense experiences of cinema that you’d ever want to have.
West Side Story
Even with Steven Spielberg attached as director this sounded like one of the potentially worst ideas that we were going to get on the big screen. Who knew how wrong we’d all end up being because what could be best be described as a subtle ‘tweak’ from the source materials, this incarnation of West Side Story simply feels epic in a way that is hard to describe. It captures the old school Technicolor vibe of movie musicals while giving it all the feel of having genuine scope rather than just being on a soundstage.
In her film debut here, Rachel Zegler as Maria is an unequivocal star and with the iconic Rita Moreno returning here in the new role of Valentina, she may end up being the first person nominated for playing two different roles, in two different versions of the same movie. She could even win for this one, Moreno is that good and this West Side Story demands to be seen on as big of a screen as humanly possible.
The French Dispatch
Wes Anderson’s latest just might be the most beautiful (or at least prettiest) film that tackles the subject of death that we’ve ever seen.
The French Dispatch brings to life a collection of stories from the final issue of an American magazine published in a fictional 20th-century French city.
While it’s a love letter to journalism, it’s also a reminder of its epitaph and evolution into something we haven’t figured out how to recognize yet and it’s so inwardly focused on itself (or likely our storyteller Anderson) that you’ll either think it’s genius or you’ll be annoyed by it. Either way with his usual panache, Anderson demands that this film be seen.
Rose Plays Julie
Chalk this into the “Where did this come category?”
This is the story of a young woman (Ann Skelly) searching for her biological mother. Little did she know this would take her down a path filled with secrets and regret that might end up being more dangerous than she ever could have realized.
From writer/directors Christine Molloy and Joe Lawlor this is the gripping psychological thriller that you simply need to see. With stellar performances from Ann Skelly as Julie, the indomitable Orla Brady as her biological mother and the always underrated Aidan Gillen, this film will seep into your bones and simply not let you go.
This is another one that gets thrown in the shocker category.
In his directorial debut; Fran Kranz (the stoner from Cabin In The Woods) gives us the story of two sets of parents (Reed Birney and Ann Dowd, Jason Isaacs and Martha Plimpton), years after a tragedy had torn them apart agree to meet and talk privately in an attempt to move forward.
This is a film that has the core of humanity in the palm of its hand. A fantastic chamber piece that revels in the mess of grief and what it means to morn a loss of a family member as Kranz creates a pressure cooker of a scenario that allows his actors space to stretch their wings and really explore the piece.
It’s not always pretty, but neither is life…and you simply can’t look away from it.
Hard to believe that this is actually the SECOND craziest movie of the year but it’s still one of the boldest.
From writer/director Janzica Bravo this story follows Zola (Taylour Paige), a Detroit waitress, strikes up a new friendship with a customer, Stefani (Riley Keough), who seduces her to join a weekend of dancing and partying in Florida. What at first seems like a glamorous trip full of “hoeism” rapidly transforms into a 48-hour journey involving a nameless pimp, an idiot boyfriend, some Tampa gangsters and other unexpected adventures in this wild, see-it-to-believe-it tale based on a series of viral, uproarious tweets.
Having a film based on a Twitter thread is bound to make for a chaotic experience but it’s also a one of a kind film that keeps you on your toes and announces Janzica Bravo as an unmistakable talent. With an excellent ensemble and a breakout sinister performance from Colman Domingo, this film is kinetic insanity that is thrown against the screen and you’ll be enthralled by every second of it.
This film is just primal…
In Lamb, a childless couple in rural Iceland make an alarming discovery one day in their sheep barn. They soon face the consequences of defying the will of nature.
Writer/Director Valdimar Jóhannsson crafts a guttural examination of the perils of parenthood which is worn on the face of star Noomi Rapace in every single frame of the film taking us on one of the more unique rides of the entire year. This film is a prime example of how an actor can carry a film to the next level because we see that here.
Summer of Soul (…or when the Revolution Could Not Be Televised)
The music says more then we could have imagined even all these years later…
In 1969, during the same summer as Woodstock, a different music festival took place 100 miles away. More than 300,000 people attended the summer concert series known as the Harlem Cultural Festival. It was filmed, but after that summer, the footage sat in a basement for 50 years. It has never been seen. Until now.
Ahmir Khalib Thompson (otherwise known as Questlove) slides into the director’s chair on a film for the very first time and effortlessly intertwines the politics of the time with the power of the music to make what just might arguably be the best concert film…ever.
Cinema isn’t afraid to have bigger ideas…
Will (Winston Duke) spends his days in a remote outpost watching the live Point of View (POV) on TV’s of people going about their lives, until one subject perishes, leaving a vacancy for a new life on earth. Soon, several candidates — unborn souls — arrive at Will’s to undergo tests determining their fitness, facing oblivion when they are deemed unsuitable. But Will soon faces his own existential challenge in the form of free-spirited Emma (Zazie Beetz), a candidate who is not like the others, forcing him to turn within and reckon with his own tumultuous past. Fueled by unexpected power, he discovers a bold new path forward in his own life.
This is our favorite kind of science fiction, thoughtful, philosophical and life affirming, Anchored by Winston Duke this film is really an exploration of the human soul like we have rarely seen on screen. Writer/Director Edson Oda announces himself as a force to be reckoned with.
This is our OTHER favorite kind of science-fiction…
In this arguably inadaptable story from Frank Herbert, it’s a mythic and emotionally charged hero’s journey; Dune tells the story of Paul Atreides, a brilliant and gifted young man born into a great destiny beyond his understanding, who must travel to the most dangerous planet in the universe to ensure the future of his family and his people. As malevolent forces explode into conflict over the planet’s exclusive supply of the most precious resource in existence—a commodity capable of unlocking humanity’s greatest potential—only those who can conquer their fear will survive.
Canada’s own Denis Villeneuve shows here that he isn’t in the world building business…he’s in the UNIVERSE building business as he masterfully balances both the scope and scale that are necessary for stories like this, but the genuine emotion and character building that is necessary in order to get invested in the proceedings.
And yes, this is a Part One…but it’ll make you salivate for what’s in store with Part Two.
Masters of the craft never go away; they just do whatever the hell they please…
Based on the book “Immodest Acts: The Life of a Lesbian Nun in Renaissance Italy” the filthy master of cinema Paul Verhoeven gets into the emotional and practical disconnect between passion and piety during a time in the church when you just didn’t talk about such things.
Verhoeven infuses the film with passion but intellect as well as it makes some very salient statements on issues around faith, sex and love. With some raw performances from Virginie Efira in the title role and the indomitable Charlotte Rampling it’s rare for a film that plays a little sleazy to feel this poignant.
The Souvenir: Part II
It’s rare air when a sequel improves upon the original…
In the aftermath of her tumultuous relationship with a charismatic and manipulative older man, Julie begins to untangle her fraught love for him in making her graduation film, sorting fact from his elaborately constructed fiction.
Joanna Hogg is without a doubt one of the best filmmakers that most people simply haven’t heard of and this is yet another masterstroke in her canon as we’ve rarely seen such a lush and subtle look at how we not only deal with grief, but live with it and move on as well. Honor Swinton Byrne really gives gravitas to Julie as we feel separation from the events of the first one but understand how they’ve informed and forced this person to evolve.
Hogg is a storyteller of the first order and more people out there need to see her films.
The beauty of genuine cinema is when it rewrites the rules entirely…
Animation and documentary aren’t two words that necessarily go together, but this story of Amin Nawabi as he comes to grip with a secret that he has kept under wraps for years and threatens to cause a seismic shift in the life that he has built for himself couldn’t have been told any other way.
Director Jonas Poher Rasmussen has taken the documentary form and put it on a different level as use of animation allows us to get emotional invested in the subject of the film in ways that have never been seen before.
Rasmussen hasn’t just made the most emotionally engaging documentary of the year, but he’s changed the form in a way that will reverberate for decades in the film community.
There’s insane…and then there’s Titane.
The winner of the Palme D’Or at Cannes in 2021; Titane defies explanation as writer/director Julia Ducournau intersects family drama, abuse, steel and sex into an experience that has to be seen to be believed.
With performances from Agathe Rousselle and Vincent Lindon that allow for us to feel their pain but simultaneously be a little afraid of them at the same time. This is a gnarly and demented film that rewrites the rules for body horror and takes us somewhere special as it forces us to not only embrace but accept the chaos it is throwing at us.
The movie that 2021 needed…
Rarely has the “coming of age” love story felt so epic as we follow the adventures of Alana Kane (Alana Haim) and Gary Valentine (Cooper Hoffman) running around the San Fernando Valley in the 1970’s as they grow up and ultimately fall in love.
Alana Haim lights up the screen in a debut feature performance that is as captivating as it is effortless and Cooper Hoffman (in his own debut and carrying the legacy of his Dad; Philip Seymour Hoffman) matches her every step of the way.
With some fun supporting turns from Sean Penn and Bradley Cooper, writer/director Paul Thomas Anderson with his 35mm cinematography and fantastic production design takes this ensemble to such a beautiful place that we’re just in awe of it and reminded of how important it is to just tell a lovely story.
The cherry on top of the cinematic year for Lin-Manuel Miranda…
We follow Jon (Andrew Garfield) a young theater composer who’s waiting tables at a New York City diner in 1990 while writing what he hopes will be the next great American musical. Days before he’s due to showcase his work in a make-or-break performance, Jon is feeling the pressure from everywhere: from his girlfriend Susan, who dreams of an artistic life beyond New York City; from his friend Michael, who has moved on from his dream to a life of financial security; amidst an artistic community being ravaged by the AIDS epidemic. With the clock ticking, Jon is at a crossroads and faces the question everyone must reckon with: What are we meant to do with the time we have?
Based on the show by Jonathan Larsen BEFORE he gave us Rent; this autobiographical character study is a beautiful look down the rabbit hole of creativity vs. commerce that every artist and creative person struggles with on a daily basis.
Garfield is wonderfully manic as Larsen and commands the screen at every turn as he handles the task of singing with aplomb. Miranda infuses this story with a genuine ‘joie de vivre’ as we follow Larsen on his quest for success in hopes of making his mark.
Both Garfield and Miranda have done the legacy of Jonathan Larsen proud as even more of his genius outside of Rent will continue to live for eternity. It’s a film that makes us appreciate what we have and want to make the most of the moments that get placed in front of us.
The Tragedy of Macbeth
Sometimes you just need to take what is expected and turn it on its head.
Oddly enough, the most epic film of 2021 might actually be one of the simplest.
A Scottish lord becomes convinced by a trio of witches that he will become the next King of Scotland, and his ambitious wife supports him in his plans of seizing power.
From director Joel Coen and cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel come together to give us something compact but epic all at the same time. Shakespeare has never looked quite like this and with the indomitable Denzel Washington and Frances McDormand in the title roles we feel the gravitas of it all right in the close up. It makes for one of the unique, epic and memorable cinematic experiences of the year.
Ok 2022…what have you got?