In a pleasing albeit short turn, we did indeed see the re-emergence of the theatrical experience in 2021. And I’m particularly happy to say I managed to (safely) see many of the films below in front of a sizable screen. Yes, it may not be prudent right now to repeat that experience; and no, it’s not the only way to see any of these films. But after an absence for well over a year, it felt good to be in a theatre once again. That said, in whichever way these films may find you, here are my ten favourites (and some honourable mentions for good measure) from 2021.
10. Drive My Car
The central mystery in Ryûsuke Hamaguchi’s film isn’t really a mystery. Or to put it another way: every person is a mystery, shrouded in history we can only begin to piece together—and only if we pay close attention. There are so many layers to this film, centring on theatre director Kafuku (Hidetoshi Nishijima), that one lap around the track with it almost feels like a disservice.
As complicated as Frank Herbert’s novels and mythology are, there is something elemental about the story they tell. Say what you will of director Denis Villeneuve’s career arc, he understands how to translate that monolithic massiveness, while also generating the satisfaction—now awaiting a Part 2 pay-off—of the source material’s comeback narrative. I’m ready to ride on with this one to the end.
8. Get Back
Is it cheating to include a three-part “film” on here that is eight hours long? I say no—and I think director Peter Jackson would agree. As the most famous band of the 20th century, watching the minutia of the Beatles at work and revelling in their friendship is too extraordinary to miss. Yes, most bands do this whole thing, e.g. gather in a rehearsal space, noodle around for hours, etc. But those bands don’t tend to create, say, the timeless hit “Get Back” while under seemingly impossible pressure. That’s music—and, through Jackson’s efforts, movie—magic.
If you’re a prude or a rube (or worse), it’s blasphemy to tell this story at all, let alone in the way which director Paul Verhoeven has chosen. Of course, that’s why this film is so much delicious fun. Yes, it’s over-the-top (with Virginie Efira ripping and running) and, sure, perhaps it’s obscene too—but it is also rigorous. The lapsed Catholic in me enjoys any film that dares to really investigate what it means to be of the world and in love with Jesus Christ. Well, that’s where we are here.
6. Red Rocket
Like a down-south version of Good Time, director Sean Baker’s ode to bad man Mikey Saber, powered by an absolutely singular performance from Simon Rex, is a marvel. The energy of this film is just so well-attuned to that of its star, it’s difficult to resist its charms—even as it gets squirmier and uglier as it goes. The real world has versions of Saber, as Baker surely grasps, just hope this film version is as close as you ever get to one.
5. No Sudden Move
Sometimes what I enjoy most in a film is a room full of crooked characters trying to suss out the angles. That’s the supreme pleasure of director Steven Soderbergh’s latest crime tale. Thanks to the words of Ed Solomon, Soderbergh is able to set a suite of delightful actors (Don Cheadle, Benecio Del Toro, Brendan Fraser!, and more) loose into a series of rooms as they chisel each other out of some loot. A simple enough concept: and, to me, extremely effective.
4. I’m Your Man
On paper, the idea of I’m Your Man sounds tired. It’s a film about a woman (a luminous Maren Eggert) set up with her “ideal” romantic partner (Dan Stevens, of all people), who also happens to be a robot. In the hands of director Maria Schrader, however, the film exceeds the bounds of that framing (and even her modest aesthetic choices) to become something much more ineffable—which, wouldn’t you know it, just goes to prove its own point.
3. C’Mon C’Mon
Twee is too easy and reductive a word to describe another modest yet expansive work from writer-director Mike Mills. Setting his sights on child-rearing, family, and the future, C’Mon C’Mon has a casual grace that belies its well-constructed thoughtfulness. That it also has Joaquin Phoenix and a sweet (but not saccharine) performance from Woody Norman just makes it all the more enjoyable to watch.
The central struggle of Resurrections is essentially the same as the original film: our hero Neo (Keanu Reeves) must wake up to himself, embrace the love of his life Trinity (Carrie-Anne Moss), and fight back against the evil machines. Anticipating all that, director Lana Wachowski steers her film directly at the inevitable criticisms and asks: so what now? That this film manages to answer that question, while surprising and satisfying at this scale, is nothing short of a minor miracle.
I hit on this in my review, but I’ll repeat it here: the pleasure of Paul Thomas Anderson’s latest work is in both the journey and the destination. This is a full picture, one filled with all sorts of delightful and deranged details, that moves along via the confidence of its master craftsman. As always seems to be the case, the films that move me the most are the ones that scale the list of my top ten: and Licorice Pizza is no exception.
Bravo and best wishes for 2022.