My Favorite Films of 2021

13. Procession (Robert Greene)

A documentary of immense empathy (which comes as nothing new for Greene), Procession looks at the abuse of 4 men at the hands of priests when they were young boys, then proceeds to give each victim the power to exorcise their haunted memories. As an act of cinematic reckoning, it’s incredible. As a film that pushes the boundaries of what a documentary can do, it’s invaluable.

12. Lily Topples the World (Jeremy Workman)

My favorite film at this year’s Dallas Videofest, Jeremy Workman’s endearing documentary about social media sensation Lily Hevesh and her world of domino building (and falling) is both heartwarming and inspiring. Attuned with the eye of a visual artist and the soul of a shrewd businesswoman, the film examines Lily’s life as she turns a passion into a small empire. But what’s most enthralling about the film- besides her elaborate designs that reveal just as much in their destruction than the construction- is the idea of nature versus nurture and the person Lily becomes in the process.

11. Shiva Baby (Emma Seligman)

Emma Seligman’s film is a frayed nerve comedy about a young woman (Rachel Sennott) enduring a Jewish wake where she not only has to put up with her parents, but the married man she’s having an affair with. And endure is an apt word. Also written by Seligman, Shiva Baby piles on so much stress and nervous energy that the film becomes a balancing act of uncomfortable humor and piercing self analysis. And all of this before warping into one of the sweetest finales of any film this year.

10. Quo vadis, Aida? (Jasmila Zbanic)

Taking a unique perspective on the Srebenica massacre of the Bosnian War, Zbanic’s tense film documents the atrocities through the eyes of a United Nations interpreter (Jasna Duricic) and her relentless struggle to secure safety for her family. Infuriating about the bureaucratic nature of the powers-that-be and immensely sad for the people cowering in the presence of warlords, Quo vadis, Aida? rarely shows the violence, instead leaving it to melt across the faces of those who are left behind years later.

9. The Card Counter (Paul Schrader)

Playing as mannered as one would expect from a Paul Schrader film about self-imposed loneliness and twisted redemption, The Card Counter hooked me from the beginning as it explains how card counting works, and then spends the rest of the film with a gambler named William Tell (Oscar Issac) who fails to accurately read all the cards being turned up in front of him. When Tell meets a young man (Tye Sheridan in a role equally as elusive) bent on vengeance, he takes him under his wing. Along with an entrepreneur (Tiffany Haddish) who bankrolls Tell’s entrance in the World Series of Poker, the trio form a kindred family against the nocturnal backdrop of casinos and gambling halls across the country. Rarely stepping into the real world where people have families, go to work, or simply enjoy themselves, Schrader has crafted a hermetic universe just as enthralling as that of New York’s Times Square in the 70’s or the cloistered, hushed reverences of upstate east coast churches that have dotted his previous masterworks. Everything about this film has a purpose- even the way Isaac tidies up his room with sheets or the way Haddish holds her various drinks- and it all builds to a quietly devastating finale that, in typical Schrader fashion, denies the audience flash and gore of a climactic standoff, choosing instead to hold on fingers as they touch glass. Always the Bresson devotee, The Card Counter does right by him.

8. No Sudden Move (Steven Sodrebergh)

An ironic title for a film that involves so many stunning little shifts in loyalty between its characters, Steven Soderbergh’s No Sudden Move is his best film in years. Beginning as a modest crime picture in which three men (Don Cheadle, Benecio Del Toro and Kieran Culkin) are assembled to conduct a straightforward kidnapping and extortion gig in 1950’s Detroit and ending as a (naturally) cynical exploration of criminals who think they’ve got it all figured out, Soderbergh and screenwriter Ed Solomon wring so much subtle electricity out of the genre that the film ends up feeling downright revelatory. Co-starring David Harbour, Amy Seimitz, Brendan Fraser, Jon Hamm, Ray Liotta and Julia Fox as people spinning on the edges of the mistrust and deceptively-lined noir frame, No Sudden Move is the perfect project for Soderergh, at once a puff-piece of big star entertainment before it lines up all the cool whiffs of genre and settles into a brilliantly choreographed example of the genre’s best.

7. Summer of Soul (Questlove)

 I was already entranced by Questlove’s sewing together of the long forgotten footage from the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival long before Sly and the Family Stone showed up. Built mostly from the crisp footage of soul, gospel and R&B acts that danced their way across the hearts and minds of those present and partly for the immense joy in discovering such an event lost in time- but the moment Sly and the Family Stone took the stage, “Summer of Soul” became a transformative film. And as one of the people interviewed recollects, it seems right to call that one performance the crash-through of barriers from the old-school doo-wop paradigm of entertainment to the modern age of funk ‘hippieness’. Beyond just a performance film, Questlove has surrounded this amazing documentary with reflective cultural significance. Yes, we get the music, but he also instills a deep sense of shifting history in the moment, from the sour celebration of the have-nots in America to the joyous walk on the moon to the overshadowing by Woodstock. “Summer of Soul” is a terrific document of a specific time and place.

6. Spencer (Pablo Larrain)

Larrain’s atmospheric triptych of pseudo biographies is complete with this swirling portrait of Princess Diana (Kristen Stewart) as she navigates the cloistered life of her royal family over the course of a Christmas weekend. As Diana, Stewart gives a crowning performance. She’s vibrating with angst through most of the film, except for a magical scene that grounds her while she plays with her children. With a score by Jonny Greenwood and a floating sense of psychological horror, Spencer goes to abstract lengths in presenting the discombobulated nature of what it means to be absolutely famous and exceptionally tired of said fame. It’s a mood piece that sinks beneath the skin and settles there brilliantly.

5. Titane (Julia Ducournau)

I’m a sucker for dance sequences in movies, where narrative stops and the only thing that exists is the inebriated will of a filmmaker to melt body and sound in a swirl of motion. Julia Ducournau’s Titane has 2 or 3 of them. But beyond the stop downs of muscular/shirtless firemen dancing to Future Islands or a woman throbbing to the techno beat on the hood of a hot rod, Titane is also immensely buried in the pathos of the people doing the dancing. Toggling between a slasher film, then a psychological thriller and ending on something akin to body horror, she never loses touch with any of the touch points as to why something is happening. As Alexia- the hugely troubled and on the run young woman who may be carrying the demon spawn of a car- Agathe Rouselle is tremendous, speaking with her eye and pummeled body as she forms a perverse but tender relationship with Vincent (Vincent Lindon), also reeling from recent trauma. Ducournau holds it all together with a clear vision, and although the film is described as extreme, Titane ultimately tackles some of the most simplest emotions of all- inclusion, forgiveness and acceptance- and in its own sublime way makes everything else the extreme.

4. The World To Come (Mona Fastvold)

As a screenwriter, Mona Fastvold has penned some of the most interesting films of the past few years, including Brady Corbet’s masterful The Childhood of a Leader (2015) and The Mustang (2019). Here in The World to Come, she carries over those complexities to tell a story that’s been done multiple times in the past decade but still manages to carve out her own delicate portrait of love in a time that has no descriptive identifier. Charting the hidden romance that develops between two women in the New York frontier of the mid nineteenth century, Katherine Waterston and Vanessa Kirby are exceptional. Alongside a swooning soundtrack and a narrative that whispers more than it shouts, The World To Come was released very early in the year and deserves to be rediscovered however one watches their movies nowadays.

3. Bergman Island (Mia Hansen-Love)

What begins as a film about the looming spectres of cinema soon turns heartbreaking and reflective as writer-director Mia Hansen-Love explores the relationship between a filmmaking couple (Vicky Krieps and Tim Roth) and their venture to a Swedish island. In what feels like her most autobiographical film to date in a career of achingly prescient explorations of first loves, family, and childbirth, Bergman Island also could be read like a rebuke to everything, charting instead how she overthrew her past and became her own person. It’s a film full of small moments (what exactly is so amusing to Krieps in the first half, giggling but never explaining) that shifts between layers of meta-fiction with astounding grace. This fiction is the second half where Krieps’ idealized script becomes real and embodied by Mia Wasikowska and Anders Danielsen Lie as their stories fold into reality with delicacy. How much of the film overlays Hansen-Love’s own entanglements is debatable, but the fact that Bergman Island dangles these threads with a keen sense of character and place is telling. It’s a film that feels personal and lived-in and all the more beguiling for the things it doesn’t say.

2. Wife of a Spy (Kiyoshi Kurosawa)

Elegant and shattering, Kurosawa’s period piece about a married couple and the machinations that ensue when a merchant husband (Issey Takahashi) is arrested for espionage during World War II at first seems like a quiet and radical departure from his oeuvre. But, over the past decade, Kurosawa has slowly evolved his efforts away from the moody horror that made his name internationally famous and shifted towards a diverse exploration of humanity. Wife of a Spy maintains some of his earliest touches (just look how certain bodies are placed in the shadows at the edge of the frame), but the emotional thrust lies in the steely resolve of the wife (Yu Aoi) as she’s forced to bear the consequences of a nation in all the film’s Hitchcock-like glory. And just like the wallop finales that typically give Kurosawa’s work a damning postscript, Wife of a Spy ends on a doozy.

1. Licorice Pizza (Paul Tomas Anderson)

One of my favorite moments in a P.T. Anderson picture occurs in his debut, Hard Eight (1996). During an especially deep two shot scene between gambler Philip Baker Hall and cocktail waitress Gwyneth Paltrow in a greasy spoon diner, their conversation is interrupted by a clash of dishes and a man storming away from a table behind them. The camera zags to catch it, then back to Paltrow’s shrug in reaction. It’s never explained or given any weight beyond that. But it’s a technique that crops up throughout so many of his later films, as if the obtrusive blips of numerous universes are constantly colliding with the narrative of his own characters. It makes his films feel alive, and Licorice Pizza is certainly that. From the scene stealing personas of a casting agent (Harriet Harris) to the dropping of dishes in a restaurant background, Anderson’s latest effort is a vibrant coming of age tale that, like the expression of Paltrow, zags and shrugs its way through the California Valley teetering on so many genres that it threatens to collapse upon itself several times. But it never does. And what it does provide in two wonderfully present performances from Alana Haim and Cooper Hoffman is a modern classic of screwball emotion that won’t be forgotten.

Honorable mentions: The Tragedy of MacBeth, Blue Bayou, Dune