2021 started out as the year that everything was supposed to go back to “normal” regarding the movies, with theaters reopening and the pandemic receding into the background and a deluge of delayed blockbusters filling the multiplexes. Let’s say we were… a little optimistic in terms of things going according to that plan. Yes, the art form is still in the midst of an existential crisis, with the theatrical experience in peril and the lines about what is or isn’t “cinema” becoming blurrier than streaming with a bad Wi-Fi connection. (Movies: now more [like watching TV] than ever!) But the following films — running the gamut from a three-hour epic to a 30-minute monologue, a throwback noir to next-gen animation, music documentaries to auteur memory pieces — reminded us why we keep obsessing over movies no matter what size the screen is.
From the moment you hear that opening, guttural, rumbling din — possibly via your TV speakers, hopefully through a theater’s huge sound system — Denis Villeneuve’s long-awaited take on Frank Herbert’s sci-fi magnum opus announces itself as something epic, immersive, huge. No other movie arguably made better use of its big-screen canvas as Part One of his two-part adaptation, turning the author’s sprawling tale of warring royal houses, giant sand worms, corporate capitalism run amok, indigenous cultures, religious allegory, and hero’s-journey adventure into the sort of overwhelming, otherworldly experience that befits a saga. But for all of its size and scope, it also feels like an oddly personal movie — as if the French-Canadian filmmaker made a bespoke blockbuster that filtered his own obsessions and visual fetishes through both the source material and vintage Heavy Metal magazine covers. Everyone from Timothée Chalamet to Rebecca Ferguson, Oscar Isaac to Jason Momoa, and a sterner-than-thou Charlotte Rampling to a slimy, fat-suited Stellan Skarsgård add their shades and colors to the piece; yes, it could certainly use more Zendaya, but considering what Villeneuve has done with this initial outing, we’re willing to wait for Part Two to see her get her due.
‘The Mitchells vs. the Machines’
It is a truth universally acknowledged that a 21st-century Homo sapien in possession of good fortune must be in want of dependable Wi-Fi. Take that away, and chaos reigns. Both a satire of our social dependency on tech and a surprisingly funny, tender take on dysfunctional family dynamics, this animated comedy from writer-directors Mike Rianda and Jeff Rowe is not a Luddite manifesto: The internet is where Katie Mitchell (Broad City‘s Abbi Jacobson) puts up the goofy short movies that get her into film school out West. Dad (Danny McBride) suggests turning her college move into one last Mitchell road trip. Unfortunately, that’s the same moment the singularity happens, and few things ruin family traveling more than an unstoppable robot army. The mix of the sensitive and the ridiculous, of love and anarchy spread over the commentary, somehow syncs up to a T. Remember: There is no “we” in iPhone.
‘This Is Not a Burial, It’s a Resurrection’
An elderly widow (the late, great South African actor Mary Twala) is preparing to meet her maker. Before shuffling off this mortal coil, however, she must stand up to local priests, politicians and other patriarchal figures who are in the process of flooding her village in the name of “progress.” Writer-director Lemohang Jeremiah Mosese’s film makes you feel as you’re watching a fable or a myth unfold, deftly moving from Twala’s gnostic presence — she somehow keeps the film floating along while also giving it a sense of gravitas — to surreal moments of chaos, destruction and, yes, rebirth. You are never sure if the mysterious lesiba-playing narrator is God, the Devil or Death himself, or whether the juke joint where he’s telling his tale is heaven, hell, or purgatory. But you do know that this small, determined old woman’s final act of defiance is righteousness personified. A revelation, this movie.
In which Guillermo del Toro takes a break from stories about beautiful monsters and gives us a straight shot of monstrous human beings with no chaser. The Shape of Water director doesn’t sand the edges off of William Lindsay Gresham’s infamous 1946 novel about a carny (Bradley Cooper, all stubble and flop-sweat desperation) who turns a sideshow mentalist act into a nightclub sensation with his lady love (Rooney Mara). Enter a cosmopolitan psychiatrist (Cate Blanchett) who never met a scam she didn’t like, and that whistling sound you hear is someone’s already-in-progress moral descent gaining velocity. It’s a near-perfect throwback noir, complete with weak men and femme fatales and a bushel of bad apples, although the ecosphere of grifting and con artistry also make it one of the few films to capture the Trump era in all its flim-flam slipperiness.
Making good on the promise of his autopsy-of-a-judicial-system debut Court (2014), filmmaker Chaitanya Tamhane returns with a look at young man (Aditya Modak) dedicated to playing and studying Indian classical music. What starts as a creative pursuit inherited from his father turns into an all-consuming obsession, and as the years pass, the idea that his passion may be greater than his talent starts to tear him up. It’s an intriguing, beautifully composed character study that asks a number of questions: What happens to an artist’s soul when they are incapable of becoming a master? Can you be a righteous defender of an art form and also a complete asshole? And at what point does “protecting” a cultural tradition start to cut off its life supply? Netflix slid this on to their streaming service like it was a dirty secret back in April, with a few limited, little-publicized screenings in theaters. It just makes us want to shout that much louder: Attention must be paid.
A young boy growing up in Afghanistan in the 1980s watches as his older brother goes AWOL after being forcibly recruited by the Mujahideen to fight the Soviets. Thanks to the efforts of another sibling living abroad, the whole family is able to leave the country and eventually settle in Europe. Years later, this nameless, now-grown protagonist is a successful academic who’s settled down with a supportive boyfriend. When the Danish director Jonas Poher Rasmussen asks him to recount his story for the camera, however, you can see how being uprooted from his home has never quite been resolved. The result is both an intimate exploration of trauma as well as a chronicle of the universal 20th-century refugee experience, in which that word in the title is a constant way of life. The fact that Rasmussen animates this immigrant’s tale somehow makes it even more graceful and gutting; there’s a sequence near the end that earns the sobs it inspires precisely because of how it’s presented.
‘The Green Knight’
Go quest, young man: Eager to prove his potential as a knight in King Arthur’s court, a 14th-century gent named Gawain (Dev Patel) accepts a challenge from an ominous figure to strike him down with one blow. A sword is swung, a head is lopped off…and then Gawain is given a year before this mysteriously not-dead-yet stranger gets his chance to answer that strike. Our hero must then seek out his nemesis and rewrite his fate. Writer-director David Lowery (A Ghost Story, The Old Man and the Gun) is no stranger to seekers, spiritual searchers or rewiring sacred mythologies, and the way he both presents the Sir Gawain and the Green Knight poem as a boy’s adventure narrative and punctures the entire concept of honor and valor through violence is a woozy, wonderful thrill. Like all good medieval dramas, it has its share of hallucinogenic weirdness — talking foxes, loping giants, ghostly maidens — and ends not with a bang but with a magnificently mournful sigh.
‘The Power of the Dog’
Jane Campion’s first movie in 12 years is a Western that falls somewhere between revisionist and ragingly Freudian — a tale of brothers not characterized by anything resembling brotherly love. Set in a barely tamed Montana (even though the year is 1925), her adaptation of Thomas Savage’s novel introduces us to the Burbanks: George (Jesse Plemons) is the kind, quiet type who’s one polka-dotted tie away from being a dandy. Phil (Benedict Cumberbatch) is his rough-and-tumble cowboy of a brother, an earthy bully who once went to an Eastern college and returned to help run the family ranch. A woman (Kirsten Dunst, all vulnerability and silent-movie-star eyes) enters the picture and the household, causing conflict between the siblings; so, too, does her sensitive son (Kodi Smit-McPhee), who Phil takes a particular dislike to. The shots of dusty prairies and galloping herds give this an epic feel, but like so much of Campion’s greatest work, it’s the wild, wild interior frontiers she’s interested in exploring. And while the movie is an ensemble piece, it’s Cumberbatch who captures your attention as a toxic male characterized by rage and repression. His performance leaves scars.
A born-again Christian named Maud (Morfydd Clark) pines for a mission — and for her sins, she’s given one, in the form of a being a caretaker for a terminally ill choreographer (Jennifer Ehle). The longer she tends to her sick employer, the more she worries about saving this woman’s soul. But is Maud capable of offering salvation to the sick? Is she imagining these conversations with God, or does this pious heroine really have a direct line to divinity? Or perhaps that voice in her head belongs to some other, less heavenly messenger? Director Rose Glass’ feature debut can be savored as a welcome, disquieting new addition to that old time religious-horror canon. (There will be back-bending levitation shots.) Or you can look at it as a portrait of young woman finding a warped sense of empowerment in her madness… which makes this “possession” story twice as unnerving. No matter which way you look at it, the movie is a genuine revelation, and the sort of holy terror that restores your faith in a genre.
‘Summer of Soul’
If Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson’s look back at the series of shows that took place in Harlem’s Mount Morris Park in the summer of ’69 had been nothing but musical performances, the fruits of his labor-of-love would still make for a near-peerless concert film: A 19-year-old Stevie Wonder jumping in front of his keyboard before banging out a manic drum solo. Nina Simone turning “Backlash Blues” into the equivalent of a boxing match. Sly and the Family Stone at their peak, reminding you that funk is both a noun and a verb. Mahalia Jackson and Mavis Staples together, taking everyone to church. What he gives us instead, however, is far more vital. It’s a contextualized look at a specific moment — in Harlem’s history, in African-American history, in American history — that reminds you just how much the music acted as a salve for state-institutionalized violence, a catalyst for change, and a celebration. The mere fact that it’s taken decades for anyone to see this footage is a crime. Thompson’s film is a step towards righting that wrong. It’s a reclamation in more ways than one.
Paul Thomas Anderson goes back in time — Los Angeles, San Fernando Valley, 1973 — and captures a beautiful, unlikely friendship blossoming between a high-school-age kid (Cooper Hoffman) and a twentysomething woman (Alan Haim). That’s the long and the short of Licorice Pizza, and when it comes to PTA making his memory-piece movie, that’s all you really need; it’s a rom-com (kinda) and a coming-of-age story (sorta) set in the Seventies that replicates the sort of amblin’, ramblin’, hang-out vibe of that era’s movies to a T. Vignettes collide into each other, but it’s more about the vibe here than anything else — that, and giving his young, first-time actors a showcase for their talents. (Memo to Hoffman and Haim: Please keep making movies.) Throw in a few priceless needle-drops and Bradley Cooper channeling a ripe vintage of showbiz narcissism as real-life movie producer Jon Peters, and you have the cinematic equivalent of a secondhand buzz.
‘Quo Vadis, Aida?’
A look back at a wartime tragedy recounted with breaking-news urgency, Jasmila Zbanic’s Oscar-nominated drama drops viewers into the town of Srebrenica, at the exact moment that the Bosnian Serb army’s tanks are rolling down its streets. Our tour guide for this nightmare is Aida (Izudin Bajrovic), a former teacher who now serves as an interpreter for the United Nations’ troops; she’s trying to ensure that her family is among the thousands of Muslim citizens who will be protected by peacekeepers in the safe zone’s shelter. When the U.N.’s officers are told that all residents must be transported to a new location, Aida fears the worst. History will prove her instincts are correct. Anchored by an absolutely stunning performance by Bajrovic — few actors have done more with a stressful scowl and a frozen mask of dread — this recreation of a real-life atrocity refuses to gin up a moral or a silver-lining message. It’s pitiless as a procedural yet somehow remarkably compassionate in its storytelling. And the film’s gut-punch of a coda reminds that even when things return to “normal,” time can only heal some wounds, not all.
‘The Velvet Underground’
Only Todd Haynes could have made a documentary about the Velvet Underground — iconoclastic art rockers, downtown-boho dark stars, the missing link between the Brill Building and Rimbaud — and turned it into something that you might have seen projected behind the band during one of Andy Warhol’s Exploding Plastic Inevitable shows. An absolute masterpiece of a music-group portrait, this chronicle of the rise and flame-out fall of the V.U. borrows the vocabulary of that era’s experimental filmmaking, complete with abstract montages and Chelsea Girls split screens; more importantly, it gives you a great sense of the avant-garde environments (music, cinema, literature) and pop-to-Pop Art intersections that made the initial combination of Lou Reed and John Cale so combustible. There are talking-heads interviews and archival clips galore, of course, but it’s all presented in a way that frames the good, the great and the ugly of the band beautifully. And visually, it’s a note from the underground that somehow ended up on Apple TV+ — talk about subversive.
Seriously, is there anything more nerve-racking than running into your married sugar daddy at a shiva for a family friend? The answer, per writer-director Emma Seligman’s debut is: Yes, if both your noisy, overbearing parents and your ex-girlfriend are there as well. Danielle (Rachel Sennott) finds herself juggling a number of secrets and lies while stuck at a communal gathering, having to navigate paternal expectations, the ghosts of her past, and being publicly outed in regard to how she’s paying her bills. Viewers, meanwhile, may find themselves running out of nails to bite as things continually threaten to fall apart; a colleague referred to this as “Uncut Gems for Gen Z women,” and that description couldn’t feel more apt in terms of the stress levels experienced while watching it. And Seligman’s expert use of both the claustrophobic setting and Jewish cultural rituals to detail how her hero is suffocating under the burden of expectations is nothing short of genius.
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‘Bad Luck Banging or Loony Porn’
Memo to schoolteachers who make sex tapes with their partners in their off hours: Make sure the clip doesn’t end up going viral on the internet, you may get hauled before a committee of “concerned citizens” ready to tar and feather you. The big winner at this year’s Berlin Film Festival, Romanian filmmaker Radu Jude’s raunchy comedy is partially about an educator (Katia Pascariu) who has the misfortune of watching a private matter become the center of an extremely hypocritical public debate. But it’s also a portrait of a Western world on the brink, in which civility is a casualty of war and the tenuous bonds that hold society together are fraying and tearing before our eyes. (The fact that the movie was shot on the streets of Bucharest during the pandemic only heightens the sensation that everything’s falling apart.) And then, in Bad Luck‘s glorious middle section, we’re treated to a litany of facts, anecdotes, rants, risqué asides, and less-than-stellar history lessons that blurs everything into a mélange of sex, death, and horror. The political is personal, and vice versa — every generation gets the W.R.: Mysteries of the Organism we deserve, and thanks to Jude, we now have ours.
‘The Souvenir: Part II’
Finally, a sequel we actually needed! Joanna Hogg’s semi-autobiographical 2019 movie rewound to her film-school days in early 1980s London and a relationship with a charismatic, troubled older man. Her follow-up picks up more or less where things left off (spoiler: tragically) and observes the director’s screen counterpart, Julie (Honor Swinton Byrne), working on her thesis project, which is…a film about the impact that relationship had on her. There’s a slightly meta-hall-of-mirrors feeling to Hogg making a movie about her younger self making a movie about what we’ve seen in the first Souvenir, but it’s the differences between the two that make you realize what a smart, emotionally satisfying long game she’s playing here. The original looked back — in anger, in sorrow, in wistfulness — at a transitional moment in one artist’s life. This second chapter dives into how we use art to process grief, to reckon with our past, and to hopefully achieve something close to catharsis, or at least acceptance. Two sides, same coin. And it’s not a coincidence that the last voice you hear is that of the filmmaker herself. Stunning.
‘The Viewing Booth’
Ra’anan Alexandrowicz had an idea: Put out an open call to Jewish-American university students, have them view a variety of news clips regarding interactions between Israeli soldiers and Palestinian citizens (a situation which he knew about firsthand) and interview them about their thoughts on what they see. He’d document the results on film. One participant in particular, a young woman named Maia Levy, fascinated him; their interactions fall somewhere between conversational and combative. And as we watch him watch her watching these snippets on the Occupation, all of which range from highly partisan to outright propaganda, the entire notion of whether our belief systems can be changed, or are merely reinforced by the information we receive, is put through the proverbial ringer. What starts as a social experiment becomes something much deeper, and by the end of Alexandrowicz’s extraordinary buffet for thought, you realize this documentary is only partially about Israel. It’s about seeing freedom fighters versus insurrectionists, a leader versus a con man, a plague versus a hoax. It’s about arguing over whose lives matter. It’s about the culture divide and the reality gap that’s quickly turning into a collective abyss that we’re all staring down into. (You can check out the movie here.)
It opens with a nine-minute shot of a church service interrupted by a firebombing — still the most unsettling, violently shocking screen image we saw in 2021 — and ends with an elliptical act of retribution straight outta the Bible. In between those two jaw-dropping sequences is one of the most audacious debuts in eons, courtesy of Georgian filmmaker Dea Kulumbegashvili. Our heroine, Yana (Ia Sukhitashvili), is a preacher’s wife and part of a Jehovah’s Witness congregation that resides at the base of the Caucasus Mountains. A detective (Kakha Kintsurashvili) from the big city who’s arrived to investigate this act of religious persecution feels that he has the right to commit crimes of his own. And from there, Kulumbegashvili slowly, deceptively sets the stage for a thriller that hides its faith, hope, and desire to smite the wicked behind an austere, rigorously formalist style of filmmaking. Pay close attention to the parable delivered in the first scene. By the time you find yourself watching that final moment unfold, you’ll realize how the movie has brought everything full circle — and that you’ve just seen the work of an artist who’s only begun to show us what she can do.
‘The Human Voice’
Pedro Almodóvar released a feature this year, Parallel Mothers, that deftly combines a Sirkian maternal drama with a wallop of an indictment about Spain’s inability to reckon with its past. Yet it’s his short take on Jean Cocteau’s 1930 monologue, in which a woman goes from grief-stricken to revenge-seeking, that’s stuck with us ever since we saw this back in March, and what he and Tilda Swinton accomplish with a few sets, some showstopping gowns, an axe and a lighter is nothing short of miraculous. The Scottish actor’s anything-goes arthouse sensibility fits her auteur’s vision of glamor and madness like a hand in a Gucci glove, and the duo manage to cram more humor, tension, drama, camp and lushness into 30 minutes than most films do in 90. It’s like mainlining 10cc’s of pure, uncut cinematic bliss. We stand a legend x 2.
‘Drive My Car’
Japan’s Ryusuke Hamaguchi (Happy Hour) returns with yet another marathon-length masterpiece — a three-hour-plus adaptation of a Haruki Murakami short story about a theater director (Hidetoshi Nishijima) staging an international, multilingual production of Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya in Hiroshima. The gentleman has a storied history with the play as an actor, as well as a connection to one of the cast: a tempestuous, pretty-boy television star (Masaki Okada) who once worked with the director’s late wife. He’s also been reluctantly assigned a driver by his patrons, a young woman (Tôko Miura) with her own crosses to bear. (Between this and his exquisite anthology movie/Berlin Film Festival award-winner Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy, Hamaguchi has had one hell of a stellar year.) The long scenes of actors poring through a dramatic text, and how the dynamics of the work began to reflect on the dynamics of its interpreters, initially brings to mind a less paranoid version of a Jacques Rivette movie. But Hamaguchi’s take on art, life, loss, healing and forgiveness is its own beast, and one of the richest, most rewarding examples of how to turn simple human interactions into compelling cinema.