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2021 Top 10

The Year's Best Films

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1. Memoria (in theatres TBD) Apichatpong Weerasethakul's films contain multitudes. With Memoria, Weerasethakul invites you "to feel and to be in a space" along with Tilda Swinton's befuddled protagonist. As she seeks to identify and explain a hallucinatory sound, Memoria parses dreams, curses, viruses, altered states, and unreliable memories, and maps many roads to transcendence: consciousnes and unconsciousness, sanity and insanity, the physical and the metaphysical, drugs versus religion. Woven through it all is the intertwined importance of art and investigation, as in a jazz improvisation and one line of dialogue implicitly linking cinema and detective work. Typically hypnotic, Weerasethakul's latest trails the ineffable, the mysteries of life always just out of reach despite the obsessive human quest for understanding.

2. The Power of the Dog (Netflix) Jane Campion tops her Oscar-winning The Piano with this adaptation of Thomas Savage’s 1967 novel. Himself a closeted gay man, Savage created the rage-filled rancher Phil Burbank (a fiery Benedict Cumberbatch, in a career-best turn) dealing poorly with his own repressed sexuality in 1925 Montana. In a year of exemplary ensembles, none beats this cast, with Kirsten Dunst, Jesse Plemons, and Kodi Smit McPhee all turning in award-worthy performances. Add the low-key menace of Ari Wegner’s cinematography and Jonny Greenwood’s score, and you get a gift from the cinema gods.

3. Drive My Car (in theatres now) Ryusuke Hamaguchi is having a moment. The Japanese director and screenwriter released two sublime films this year: Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy and Drive My Car, adapted from Haruki Murakami’s short story. Unfolding over three hours, the quietly moving drama patiently accumulates emotionally unsparing intimacy to explore the communion between people bonded by like-minded pain or by art: most notably, a stage production of Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya that lends Drive My Car the legendary playwright’s philosophic grandeur and template of achingly naturalistic characterization.

4. The Green Knight (4K Blu-ray, Blu-ray, DVD and Digital) With a sure hand, writer-director David Lowery adapts the 14th-century poetic fable of Sir Gawain (a never-better Dev Patel). Gorgeous, dreamy, painterly, sumptuous, with an exceptional score by Daniel Hart and pitch-perfect performances all around, The Green Knight investigates honor, the entropy of life, and the peripherally terrifying inevitability of death. As such, this exquisitely realized medieval period piece captures equally well the ways we’re living now, writing large the immutability of human nature and the elusive courage to live honorably in spite of existential fears.

5. A Hero (Amazon Prime Video starting Jan. 21) Two-time Oscar winner Asghar Farhadi (A Separation) contrives to keep you guessing with plot turns and onion-peeling layers of characterization with his latest drama. This Iranian morality play concerns a naïve protagonist (Amir Jadidi, terrific) whose impulsive poor choices overwhelm the good deed that puts him in the spotlight, taking him and us on a roller-coaster ride enabled by media and social media hungry to create and prolong an attention-getting narrative. Farhadi honors the complexity of his characters by allowing different vantage points on their behavior and motivations, thereby luring viewers into judgements they’ll be forced to reconsider.

6. In the Same Breath (HBO Max) In narrating her new documentary, Nanfu Wang (One Child Nation) personalizes the story of the global pandemic while incisively diagnosing the institutional rot that has allowed COVID-19 to run free. Most devastatingly, Chinese-American Wang compares and contrasts the responses of the Chinese and American governments and populaces, calling out the Chinese secrets-and-lies campaign that delayed an effective response, and the American misinformation crisis that’s overshadowed our presumptive advantage of free speech.

7. Red Rocket (in theatres now) Sometimes a film comes along that’s just plain note perfect. With Red Rocket, director/co-writer Sean Baker (The Florida Project, Tangerine) demonstrates that his docudramatic style and commitment to telling stories of the American underclass are the gifts that keep on giving. An ex-porn star (powerhouse Simon Rex) returns to his depressed Texas hometown and immediately sets to manipulating his ex-wife, her mother, and a teenage donut-shop worker. This wildly entertaining comedy is funny because it’s true in capturing the charm and poison of malignant narcissism.

8. Licorice Pizza (in theatres now) Paul Thomas Anderson again proves the master of his domain with this sophisticated, breezy comedy that keenly evokes the San Fernando Valley of the 1970s, when California briefly felt like the Wild West again. In a town full of hustlers, an irrepressible, self-possessed 15-year-old child actor/entrepreneur (Cooper Hoffman, son of the late, great Philip Seymour Hoffman) befriends and pitches woo at a 25-year-old woman (Alana Haim) still in search of herself. Patiently observing the unconventional central relationship, Anderson also tells tales out of school about the waning days of Old Hollywood.

9. The Lost Daughter (Netflix) Actor Maggie Gyllenhaal makes her directorial debut with this compelling adaptation of Elena Ferrante’s novella about the dark side of mothering. Olivia Colman (in another devastating and original performance) and Jessie Buckley (fiercely commanding in flashbacks) share the role of an anxious, mood-swinging woman haunted by the “crushing responsibility” of motherhood. Fine assists from Dakota Johnson, Peter Sarsgaard and Ed Harris bolster Gyllenhaal’s investigation of the shame of regretful parents and those thoughts you’re not allowed to say out loud.

10. Procession/Strip Down, Rise Up (both Netflix) Two of the most powerful films of the year documented alternative group therapy. Robert Greene’s Procession gathers six middle-aged American men, survivors of childhood rape within the Catholic church, and proposes that they work together to make short films that exorcise their experiences through art. Michèle Ohayon’s Strip Down, Rise Up shadows a group of American women in a pole dancing class geared toward banishing the demons of sexism, abuse, and body dysmorphia. During dark days of unprecedented trauma and mental illness, both films movingly focus on the healing process.

Honorable mention: Bo Burnham: Inside (Netflix), The Beatles: Get Back (Disney+).

Runners-up: Summer of Soul (…Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised) (Hulu); Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy (Digital); Bad Luck Banging or Loony Porn; Petite Maman; West Side Story; The Card Counter (Blu-ray, DVD, & Digital); Passing (Netflix); The Disciple (Netflix); The Tragedy of Macbeth (Apple TV+); C'mon, C'mon; Nightmare Alley; tick, tick...BOOM! (Netflix); Mass; Parallel Mothers; Together (Digital); Dune (HBO Max); The Souvenir Part II; The Worst Person in the World; Test Pattern (Digital); No Time to Die (4K Blu-ray, Blu-ray, DVD, & Digital).

More top docs: Ascension (Paramount+), Just Don't Think I'll Scream (MUBI), Faya Dayi (The Criterion Channel), FleeThe Velvet Underground (Apple TV+), Attica (Showtime), The Sparks Brothers (Netflix; Blu-ray, DVD, Digital), All Light, Everywhere (Hulu, Digital), The Most Beautiful Boy in the World.

Animated winners: Cryptozoo (Blu-ray, DVD, & Digital), The Summit of the Gods (Netflix), Flee, Encanto (Disney+)Belle.

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