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Best Films of 2021

Drive My Car - Ryusuke Hamaguchi's three-hour film on grief and art could easily have been a tough watch. However, there is something hypnotic about the film and the payoff is sublime. The film has deep layers to it. Anchored by the wonderful performances of Hidetoshi Nishijima and Tōko Miura, Drive My Car floored me with its third act revelations as a theater director and his assigned driver connect in the most human way possible.

The French Dispatch - Wes Anderson continues to find ways to make his films dense, meticulous nesting doll-like creations. Here he combines nearly every trick in his playbook, with some new additions. You get French-influenced animation, striking black and white photography, explorations of art, of love, of food and travel, and you get humor and a ton of heart. This is Anderson's love letter to journalism, editorial integrity, and the printed word. He creates a world in which fascinating things happen all around and gifted writers who care deeply about their words, capture it all.

The Green Knight - David Lowery's take on Arthurian legend is visual singular. This epic myth becomes an entrancing riff on masculinity and chivalry. Dev Patel has never been better than he is here as the dense but relatable Gawain, who yearns for glory without knowing what it truly is. The film plays out in episodes of surreal imagery and poetic peril, leading to a powerful ending that I wasn't expecting.

Licorice Pizza - Alana Haim is a revelation here, creating a cinematic character that will be iconic to many. Paul Thomas Anderson has created a magical hangout film where you generally don't care where things meander to so long as you get to spend time with Gary (Cooper Hoffman) and Alana (Haim). This is a great filmmaker at his most accessible, creating a time capsule of L.A. in the 1970s that is universal.

Petite Maman - In just 72 minutes, director Celine Sciamma wrecked my heart and put it back together. Her generous follow-up to the intoxicating Portrait of a Lady on Fire is a tender coming-of-age story. The film looks like the warmth of a sun-soaked day and is quietly magical as it reveals itself to be a ghost story of sorts. The connections between mothers and their children are at the film's center. It is just remarkable how much is accomplished in such a small film.

Pig - The premise of Pig sounds like Nic Wick. A truffle hunter has his pig stolen and he goes after those who took it. First-time director Michael Sarnoski does not take the film down a revenge-driven descent but rather creates a sincere portrait of loss. He uses food as a vehicle for memory and grief. Nicolas Cage gives a late-career milestone performance. For anyone who thinks he just makes straight to video crap, seek this film out. He proves he is still one of the greatest actors around, embodying sadness in incredible ways.

The Power of the Dog - Jane Campion's return to film is a doozy, taking on the notions of masculinity in the American Western, the cowboy. By focusing on complex relationships between these characters, she dismantles the "West" with surgical precision. Benedict Cumberbatch is riveting as a mean, angry rancher who takes aim at his brother's new wife (Kirsten Dunst) and her son (the wonderful Kody Smit-McPhee). The film is a poisonous cocktail that goes down smooth.

Spencer - Pablo Larrain's take on Princess Diana is a study in atmosphere. Blending psychological horror with period drama suits the film so well, skewing the traditional of biopics by creating a searing psychological portrait. The film is oddly funny and disturbing all at once. However, nothing would click if it weren't all grounded by the spellbinding performance from Kristen Stewart.

Summer of Soul - Bless the cinematic gods for getting this footage of the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival into the hands of Ahmir "Questlove" Thompson. If all he had done was release the footage, it would have been enough. He goes a step further by providing an important cultural and historical context. Thompson uses the performances of Stevie Wonder, Nina Simone, Mahalia Jackson, and Sly and the Family Stone to examine Black culture at the time. By interspersing interviews with performers and attendees in between the incredible performances, the film takes on a deeply personal viewpoint of this forgotten event. It truly is one of the great concert films of all time.

Titane - Some movies are visceral experiences that cause your body to twist and turn while watching them. Julia Ducournau's follow-up to her amazing debut Raw defies any expectations you have, even if you know that the film features someone having sex with a car in it. The film is driven by the almost wordless and utterly singular performance by Agathe Rouselle. It is hard to believe this is her debut. Her body is a canvas used to tell a violent but oddly sweet tale of acceptance. Vincent Lindon gives a great counter-performance to Rouselle. Rarely are movies this lurid and moving at the same time.

Honorable Mentions:

Bad Trip, Barb & Star Go To Vista Del Mar, C'mon C'mon, Ema, Judas and the Black Messiah, The Killing of Two Lovers, Limbo, The Lost Daughter, The Mitchells vs The Machines, Passing, Red Rocket, Saint Maud, The Souvenir Part II, The Velvet Underground, Vortex, West Side Story, The Worst Person in the World, Zola.


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