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The 10 Best Films of 2021

For as long as I have been breathing, there have been people complaining that it was not a good year for film.

In the wake of a global pandemic and with the methods that most people use to consume movies changing all the time, there feels like there has been more of that than usual. There is an awful lot of Chicken-littleing across the internet, especially on ‘Film Twitter.’

One thing is certain: COVID accelerated the ever-shortening theatrical window. Not only do we see a lot more ‘day and date’ releases available to rent on video on demand or streaming providers, but even moderately successful titles have foregone a staggered theatrical release in favor of premium VOD rental access after 17 days of release. It will be hard to put that genie back in the bottle and, one might argue, it doesn’t need to be.

If you are lucky enough to live near a non-profit theater (as I am with the Austin Film Society), the big screen experience is alive and well. The multiplexes have plenty to worry about, but that has been the case for some time now. Without well-curated programming, we all lose out. But, the ability for more people to easily see movies is not a bad thing. The evolution of VOD has allowed people outside of major metropolitan areas to have much easier access to independent films.

For myself, I managed to catch 141 new releases this year and nearly 250 films in total, mostly from the comfort of home. Unlike 2020, I did actually have 15 theatrical visits for 2021, although many of them were press screenings with very limited attendance. Here’s hoping that next year will find things continue to get back to some semblance of normalcy.

My Top 10 feature films for the year are as follows:

#1: “The French Dispatch

The 10th feature film from Wes Anderson is endlessly charming with a large ensemble cast, all of whom appear to be having the time of their lives. Yet again, Anderson works with cinematographer Robert Yeoman to mix aspect ratios and filmstocks for a radiantly comic masterpiece.

(Available now on Blu-ray, DVD, and VOD)

#2: “Summer of Soul (…or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised)

The directorial debut of Questlove has hovered at or near the top of my list since I caught it early this year during Sundance. Presenting rare footage of the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival and interviews with those who performed and attended, he’s created a vital document of a mostly forgotten musical landmark.

(Available now on Hulu)

#3; “The Worst Person in the World

Norway’s entry for Best International Feature Film at the upcoming 94th Academy Awards, this pitch black comedy from Joachim Trier (“Thelma”) tells the story of a young grad student trying to find her place in the world. Renate Reinsve won Best Actress at the Cannes Film Festival earlier this year for her fearless performance and it would be delightful to see her manage the same for the Oscars.

(This had an awards qualifying release for 2021. It will be screening in the Sundance lineup next month and is opening in select U.S. cities on February 4, 2022)

#4: “Parallel Mothers

A new film from Pedro Almodovar is always something to cherish. He reunites with frequent muse Penelope Cruz to tell the story of two women whose experiences overlap at a hospital while giving birth. His usual flair for a bold color pallette and melodrama are here, but so are elements of the aftermath from the Spanish Civil War. It’s imaginative, brave, and unforgettable in ways that only Almodovar can bring to life.

(Playing now in select theaters, expanding across the country throughout January 2022)

#5: “The Power of the Dog

It took twelve years for Jane Campion to return with a new film and the wait was worth every agonizing moment. In this powerhouse adaptation of Thomas Savage’s 1967 novel, she tells a menacing story of cruelty and revenge. If this isn’t one of the most nominated films at the Oscars next year, I’ll eat Bronco Henry’s hat.

(Available now on Netflix)

#6: “Spencer

Some were turned off by Pablo Larrain’s “what if” tale of the final days of the marriage between Princess Diana and Prince Charles, but Kristen Stewart is so committed to the task that I was blown away by every breath she takes. Just like “The Power of the Dog,” this is punctuated by a beautiful score from Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood, but only this film is brave enough to also deliver an 80s classic from Mike + The Mechanics on the soundtrack.

(Available now on VOD; hitting Blu-ray and DVD on January 11, 2022)

#7: “Dune

Subtitled on screen as “Part One,” the first portion of Denis Villeneuve’s epic retelling of the Frank Herbert novel is the only film on this list I saw twice on the big screen all year. After an initial viewing, the ability to go back and watch it in IMAX on the largest screen in Texas was too tempting to resist. It took an enjoyable movie to the next hemisphere as I felt immersed inside the story. Your mileage at home may vary, but I can’t wait for the next installment.

(Available now on VOD; hitting 4K UHD, Blu-ray and DVD on January 11, 2022)

#8: “Drive My Car

Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s second film to be released in America this year also happens to be Japan’s entry for Best International Feature Film at the upcoming 94th Academy Awards. Already sweeping the awards from multiple critics’ organizations, this drama covers a lot of territory over its 3-hour running time and never feels anything less than captivating.

(Playing now in select theaters)

#9: “Bergman Island

Chris (Vicky Krieps) and Tony (Tim Roth) are two American filmmakers who retreat to the Baltic island of Faro where Bergman shot multiple films, but we also get a movie-within-the-movie where Chris explains the ideas she has for her next screenplay to Tony. French director Mia Hansen-Løve explores the power of creativity, long term relationships, and the spirit of Ingmar Bergman to tell these two distinct and wonderful stories in her English-language debut.

(Available now on VOD; streaming on Hulu beginning January 14, 2022)

#10: “Censor

Nominated for eight British Independent Film Awards, this terrifying debut from Welsh director Prano Bailey-Bond is one I have been unable to shake for months. Fueled by a career-making performance from Niamh Algar, this story of a young film censor for the British Board of Film Classification at the height of the “video nasties” controversy is wildly original, bloody, and psychologically twisted.

(Available now on Blu-ray and DVD, also streaming on Hulu)

Just outside the Top 10:

CODA, Flee, No Sudden Move, Titane, Passing, Pig, Jockey, Nine Days, Barb & Star Go To Vista Del Mar