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OPINION | REVIEW: Ten best films of 2021

by Piers Marchant | January 7, 2022 at 6:43 a.m.
Alex Dall (Isabelle Fuhrman) is a college freshman obsessed with making the top varsity boat on her university’s rowing team, no matter what the cost, in Lauren Hadaway’s stylish thriller “The Novice.”

The title of this piece isn't just hedging: In a peculiar year in which studios were able to finally exhaust some of their backed-up inventory from the lost year of 2020, so many films were released, in so many different formats, it made for an especially schizoid experience trying to keep up with everything.

At best, like facing a five-foot swell in the Pacific, one could keep their head above water -- barely -- by virtually attending film festivals, and diligently screening the bounty of viewing links sent out by anxious publicists, but, especially in the last few weeks, as studios have put out their high-prestige offerings in abundance, it has been chaos.

Thus, my list this year feels a bit more precarious than usual. I haven't seen one movie yet this year that made me think "I've just witnessed the best film I'll see in 2021," but, boy, have I seen a bunch that could be in the argument.

I'm throwing out a top-10, as required by the Film Critic Code, but, in truth, most of these picks are fluid -- you could just as easily switch my No. 2 with the No. 6, or No. 9 with No. 1 (or 13!) without much argument from me.

10. "Cryptozoo" -- The hand-drawn animation takes some getting used to (instead of smooth scrolling movements, there's a decided herky-jerk to the proceedings), but behind the scratchy animation and beguiling imagery, Dash Shaw's wonderfully creative ­project boasts one of the tightest and most satisfying narratives of the year. It helps to have such luminaries as Lake Bell, Michael Cera, Zoe Kazan and Peter Stormare to provide the vocal talent, but it is Shaw's delightfully loopy vision -- concerning a group of dedicated cryptozookeepers who rescue and preserve mythical creatures for their own protection -- that keeps it humming along.

9. "The Rescue" -- The best documentaries can take something you think you already know -- in this case, the outcome of what happened when a young Thai soccer team was trapped with their coach deep in a cavern that got flooded in the heavy rains of monsoon season -- and recontextualize it in a way that feels totally illuminating. Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin's riveting film follows the travails of the team of specialists -- mostly flown in from England -- who refuse to accept the fate of the boys, and plan a daring escape for them that pushes their craft to the absolute limit. Compact and concise (the filmmakers make excellent use of computer imagery to help define the tunnels themselves, and mix actual footage with carefully staged re-creations in order to bring viewers directly into the action), even if you know the eventual fate of the team, I guarantee your thudding heart will be stuffed in your throat.

8. "The Novice" -- There were several exceptional directorial debuts in 2021, including sublime efforts from Rose Glass ("Saint Maud"), Stephen Karam ("The Humans") and Maggie Gyllenhaal ("The Lost Daughter") -- for all of these, see below -- but Lauren Hadaway's powerful film, about a young coed (Isabelle Fuhrman) who becomes absolutely obsessed with her school's rowing team, stands just slightly higher. It's a furious portrait of personal obsession, and the high cost of achievement (not surprisingly, Hadaway worked as a crewmember on Damien Chazelle's "Whiplash," which focuses on a similar theme), which can handily serve as an equally searing metaphor for art, sport or business. It's a fantastic film, and, with Fuhrman's steely intensity, offers up one of the more memorable performances of the year.

7. "Drive My Car" -- Every awards season, there are a handful of films I shortlist as must-sees based on the soaring responses from other critics. At the top of my list this year was Ryusuke Hamaguchi's slow-burning drama about a lonely widower (Hidetoshi Nishijima) who slowly befriends a young woman (Toko Miura) tasked with driving him to and from rehearsals of a production of "Uncle Vanya" he's directing as a visiting artist in Hiroshima. The film is lush and vibrant despite the languid pace and somber material, and each victory, however small, feels earned and significant.

6. "Petite Maman" -- Celine Sciamma's film is a scant 72 minutes long (someone alert Christopher Nolan it's possible!), but the scenes within each of those minutes are so perfectly composed and executed, it still feels like a complete -- and exquisite -- experience. It concerns a young girl (Josephine Sanz), who having recently lost her grandmother, who goes to the late woman's house with her parents, and meets another young girl (Gabrielle Sanz) in the woods, with whom she seems to have a tremendous affinity. Equal parts moving and charming, Sciamma walks on cat-light feet, and never seems to take a wrong step.

5. "Licorice Pizza" -- I got the opportunity to re-watch Paul Thomas Anderson's loving, '70s-era mismatched love caper, and only found it more rich and rewarding upon the second viewing. Watching the goofy pair (played by Alana Haim, in a stand-out debut; and Cooper Hoffman following in his late father's thespian footsteps) of would-be partners play a sort of aggrieved cat-and-mouse with each other, against the backdrop of PTA's beloved San Fernando Valley, remains thoroughly irresistible. The May-August romance struck some as creepy, but I would say it's perfectly emblematic of the era, featuring, as one critic put it, a teen boy already taking on the responsibilities of adulthood, and a twenty-something woman who still lives like a kid.

4. "Users" -- Allow me to repeat myself: Natalia Almada's visual essay, about human greed, consumption, and its effect on the world around us, is so intoxicatingly alluring to look at, so mesmerizing in its imagery and visual symmetry, you can't help but become immersed in her concept. There is so much stuff, so many things, from shipping crates to solar panels, all slipping past the lens of DP Bennett Cerf's cameras, so as to become something akin to a sort of visual intervention: You can see it, the film is telling us, you know very well how this is going to end. Almada's film doesn't provide answers, or even firm conclusions, exactly. These are the things she is wrestling with in her own conscience, the horrific implications of otherwise deeply pleasing symmetric images. The film is a stunning ode to our demise.

3. "The Green Knight" -- David Lowery is an auteur of the highest order, even as his filmography successfully slips between arthouse ("A Ghost Story"), and accessible ("Pete's Dragon"). His interpretation of the 14th-century poem, about a knight of the Round Table who accepts a peculiar challenge from a mysterious figure, bewitches as it intrigues, producing a 21st-century art form that emulates one written in Middle English. Visually, it's an absolute stunner, a lyric treatment that's dark and foreboding as its ancient source material. Do not go expecting Excalibur (which is also excellent, albeit a bit more linear), or any other King Arthur tale: It very much is its own thing.

2. "Moffie" -- I got to see Oliver Hermanus' extraordinary film, which concerns a young gay man (Kai Luke Brummer) conscripted into the South African army in the early '80s, when the country was still under apartheid, relatively early in the year, but the power of it stayed with me lo these subsequent months. As I wrote back then, "It's quite the aesthetic package, with its gorgeous cinematography from DP Jamie Ramsay and a lyric, elliptical style ... that brings to mind Claire Denis' masterful "Beau Travail," also concerned with the conflation of military maneuvers and repressed homoeroticism, but Hermanus' protagonists are much more deeply plagued by their political environment. By the end, it's pretty clear that under a thuggish, brutal system like Apartheid, complicity might spare your body, but it will most certainly come at the expense of your soul."

1. "Bad Luck Banging or Loony Porn" -- I'm not sure if this is the actual best film of 2021, or the most audaciously stunning (there might be a difference?). Radu Jude's outrageously untoward polemic -- which begins with an extremely graphic sex recording between an older married couple, and ends with an open-air debate about pruriency, personal freedom, and societal rifts -- is perhaps a perfect time capsule for an era in which personal privacy has collided with the churning information age, and everyone has been pushed into a virus-backed corner.

And here are another wonderful 10 films, many of which could be interchangeable with the first batch:

11. "The Lost Daughter" 12. "Nightmare Alley" 13. "Judas & The Black Messiah" 14. "The Power of the Dog" 15. "The White Tiger" 16. "Saint Maud" 17. "The Killing of Two Lovers" 18. "The Humans" 19. "The French Dispatch" 20. "Red Rocket"

  photo  Emi (Katia Pascariu), a history teacher at a prominent Romanian secondary school, finds her life complicated when a sex tape she filmed with her husband is leaked onto public porn sites in the Romanian comedy-drama “Bad Luck Banging or Loony Porn,” the Romanian entry for the Best International Feature Film at the 94th Academy Awards and one of our critics’ favorite movies of 2021.

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