The Oscars don’t matter. Movies and the people who make them matter. It's fun to see those people rewarded, to see their dreams come true. And this year, it is nice to see the Academy embrace a broad array of deserving films and continue to reject the calls for mainstream, undeserving superhero films to be nominated for Best Picture.
Though the Oscars aren’t populist, they aren’t necessarily niche either. As always, there are deserving films nominated and nominated films that do not deserve recognition whatsoever. And there are films that transcend the Academy Awards, the films that are too good for any awards show. Their reward is simply existing as something beautifully and wonderfully made, appreciated by however many eyeballs see it (hopefully a lot).
In honor of the Oscars this Sunday (no matter how frustrating the Oscars and Academy voters can be and despite the jeopardy of its future, I will always watch Hollywood’s self-indulgence, enjoying the glitz and glamor, and appreciating the creators of the art form I love), here were my top favorite movies of 2021:
20. Red Rocket (Sean Baker)
An hilarious study of the great American asshole. Simon Rex is relentlessly good as Mikey, the typical Baker protagonist on the fringes of society, yet there’s not one redeemable quality about him. Set in 2016 just before the election, Trump lingers in the background literally and figuratively. Though the characters do not talk about politics, the curious framing of a Trump billboard and Trump on the television make it clear: the billboard and Trump’s head are cut off at the top of each shot as if to say 2016 was the last chance to keep away America’s official descent into worshiping narcissists and demagogues. Instead, we completed the frame and gave all the undeserving power to people like Mikey.
19. West Side Story (Steven Spielberg)
You can never count out Steven Spielberg. Though I still prefer the original, Spielberg more than justifies the existence of this remake. Ansel Elgort aside, this movie is near perfect. It’s the reason we go to the movies. Claims of showiness on Spielberg's part is to disregard his talent and what he does here. There was not one camera that moved better in 2021 than Spielberg’s in West Side Story, matching the musicality with cinematic magic. A star making performance by Ariana DeBose certainly helps too.
18. CODA (Siân Heder)
Maybe not completely deserving of a Best Picture nomination but CODA (Child of Deaf Adults) swept me into its sweet charm. A coming-of-age crowd-pleaser at its finest.
17. I’m Your Man (Maria Schrader)
A wonderful romantic-comedy from German director Maria Schrader. Set in a near future Berlin where humanoid robots are made to be your perfectly compatible significant other. Alma, a scientist looking for funds for her research, agrees to live with a humanoid made just for her for experimental purposes. Dan Stevens speaks German and is hilariously brilliant as the rigid humanoid Tom, catering to every one of Alma’s needs and teaching her a thing or two about life and love.
16. Nine Days (Edson Oda)
Winston Duke is gentle yet firm as a lonely man conducting interviews with human souls for nine days, testing to see if they should be born. Life-affirming and stunning, Nine Days examines what it really means to live, proving without a doubt that no matter how hard it can be, life is worth being born into.
15. Licorice Pizza (Paul Thomas Anderson)
Paul Thomas Anderson does not make bad movies. It took me a second viewing to really appreciate this film and man did I appreciate it. There’s passion and admiration not just for the characters, but for the world in every PTA film. Though most of his films are set in the Valley, his scope is broad and encompasses so much of the human struggle. His camera is never unsympathetic, always sunny about life no matter how dark the story.
14. Titane (Julia Ducournau)
Must be seen to be believed. A posthumanist lens on what makes us human. This film is unconditional love at its sharpest. The official synopsis of the film is quite deceiving: “Following a series of unexplained crimes, a former firefighter is reunited with his son who has been missing for 10 years.” Not nominated for an Oscar for various reasons; if I had it my way, it would be a major contender for not only a Best Picture nomination but for the win. Delightful discomfort, this film.
13. The Power of the Dog (Jane Campion)
Fellas, is it gay to not want to get sick from anthrax? Tense, enthralling, and relentless. This will be an interesting rewatch because the tension is wound tighter than the rope that Phil (Benedict Cumberbatch) binds for Peter (Kodi Smith-McPhee).
“There were real men in those days,” Phil says, referring to the Lewis and Clark expedition in 1805. “For what kind of man would I be if I did not help my mother? If I did not save her?” Peter asks in the very important voiceover that opens the film. Jane Campion’s not interested in dissecting which one is correct in believing what makes a man. Instead, she’d rather methodically expound upon machismo and its malignant design.
The dog inside of you will bark out of fear and indignation. You either let it out or you keep fighting it inside. But the more you keep it caged up, the more it’s gonna bark and embitter your soul. It will make you cut off the balls of a bull with no gloves. And when you think you’ve found a way to imitate the one person who had let the dog out of you in hopes of releasing it again, there’s someone else that would rather subdue it completely, leering it just a little towards an open wound and teasing it before shutting it up for good. Benedict Cumberbatch is spectacular and deserves both the Oscar nomination and a win.
12. C’mon C’mon (Mike Mills)
I think Mike Mills does a great job of telling sentimental stories with genuine sweetness. For this movie viewer at least, he doesn’t go an inch over the saccharine edge. Though C’mon C’mon doesn’t reach the heights of Beginners (2010) or 20th Century Women (2016), Mike Mills' story of an uncle and his nephew is a tearful, soulful endeavor.
11. Together Together (Nikole Beckwith)
Platonic love does exist. Friendship is such an underexplored area of film. Paddleton (2019) is the most recent film I can think of with such an indelible, thoughtful exploration of friendship. Together Together makes the same mark. You can long for the presence of someone, even love them and miss them, without feeling any romantic feelings. A delightful and endearing film. The final shot is a stunner and all-timer.
10. Riders of Justice (Anders Thomas Jenson)
Brilliant comedic examination of grief and masculinity. The search for causal connections in a world of coincidences and randomness, only to realize the only connections worth finding are the ones you have yet to lose. Mads Mikkelson does a great job of reaffirming men that it’s better to just talk than shoot each other.
9. Pig (Michael Sarnoski)
Another spectacular film about loss and forging connections with those who experience the same feelings, even if they happen to be someone that wants to kill you. Sarnoski in his directorial debut says, “Here’s a thought: instead of fighting them, how about you cook for them?” It pays off beautifully. A subversion of the revenge tale (this is no John Wick) and one of Nicolas Cage’s best performances in years.
8. The World to Come (Mona Fastvold)
A severely underrated and underseen epistolary love story. Cold but passionate, just like the women on the frontier who long for connection beyond their demanding husbands.
7. Drive My Car (Ryusuke Hamaguchi)
Though it’s not my number one, Drive My Car is truly unlike anything else that came out last year. Hamaguchi is one of our greatest living directors today. This film deserves every praise and accolade out there. A mesmerizing, cathartic experience.
6. Bergman Island (Mia Hansen-Løve)
One of the best French directors ever brings us to the famous island where legendary film director Ingmar Bergman resided. With great performances from Vicky Krieps and Mia Wasikowska, Bergman Island is a wonderful exploration of love through creating art.
5. Old Henry (Potsy Ponciroli)
“The world is changing… go see it.”
Finally a deserving lead role for the great Tim Blake Nelson, in a film set in his home state of Oklahoma. A traditional, simple, and understated Western that manages to be fresh on its own terms. Tim Blake Nelson is Henry, a farmer trying to move on from his past that contains both myth and truth. The inevitable reveal (incredible) still refuses to give any explanation cause it doesn’t matter.
Clint Eastwood once said in another great Western, “It’s a hell of a thing, killing a man,” and that reverberates here but it’s never made clear why the killing happened or why it needed to be done, if at all. It just did and as long as Old Henry’s alive there’s always be killing, no matter how many sons he raises or farms in the hills of Oklahoma Territory he has to hide away in. He’s a killer masquerading as a farmer and it’s a miracle he even got this far. No matter who you are, you always pass something on and you can escape your life, but you can’t escape your legend. Trace Adkins (basically in this movie just to say the coolest line of the movie) warns the men what’s about to happen and the big moment works so well-even if you aren’t a fan of Western folklore- as one of the best WHOA moments in cinema last year, maybe ever.
This looks amazing too, anamorphic lenses capturing the exterior natural lighting and interior scenes with oil lamps. Looks like Oklahoma, though it wasn’t shot there. Your move Scorsese.
4. What Do We See When We Look at the Sky? (Alexandre Koberidze)
Lionel Messi looks to the sky every time he scores a goal. I love sports, not as much as I love cinema but I love being entertained by athletic humans. Sports can be magic and like cinema, it is a communal thing. It’s easy to dismiss sports as “playing around with a ball” and count it meaningless but as I find meaning in the art of cinema, people find meaning in these games (Also sports are not cool in the traditional sense; grown men dressing up or wearing a rich man’s jersey? Yeah, they’re the dorks.), playing them or viewing them. Lionel Messi looks to the sky every time he scores a goal.
What Do We See When We Look at the Sky? is a mess of a film that is, in essence, the magic of viewing, whether it's sports, people, the quotidian, exchanges between strangers, lovers trying to find each other, kids playing, a ball, a river, animals, and of course, a film. There are so many devices of cinema used to capture our gaze, to frame the importance and beauty of the mundane. It perambulates like the citizens it captures. It’s heartwarming in the most idiosyncratic way. This is a romance film but not about the two main lovers who are struck with a curse that causes them to transform into different people the next day (they even lose their best skills, yet they aren’t too distraught, which isn’t the point anyway because what matters is that they go on and eventually they find new lives and each other through viewing). It’s a romantic film about many things, a love letter to many things in this life, but especially the power of the gaze. Looking up and feeling the wind and knowing you are alive and even if it just lasts for a second, you can really believe that it's enough. Viewing a film and being moved, and understanding that feeling even if you can’t understand the film. I love cinema so much, to a near-obsessive degree because only it allows one to view life literally through so many lenses, to see the world and people all around the world. Finding meaning through a moving image. Life is an audiovisual experience and cinema takes that experience even further, sometimes to places beyond this life but it’s even better when the magic surrounds the reality of this life. When I can’t find my thoughts or sometimes feel like my thoughts need to be elsewhere, I find them in the cinema. I always thought I was a deep thinker, certainly a deep feeler, but most of all I think I’m just a deep viewer. I like to look. I see the world (and films) and I can’t always understand it but I always know something is there. In the frame, in the words, in the smile, in the heart, in the sky. Check the gate, we got the shot.
3. Days (Tsai Ming-liang)
To watch a Tsai Ming-liang film is to find rest. Days is a massage for the mind. Seeing this in a theater would've been nice but headphones helped it to feel more immersive. I felt cleansed and clear-headed for a week after watching this therapeutic film.
There's water and rain like every Tsai Ming-liang film, then there's oil and one of the most satisfying, refreshing, and erotic scenes I've ever seen, and one that I lived vicariously through Lee Kang-Sheng. I didn't think Tsai would surpass The Hole (1998) or I Don’t Want to Sleep Alone (2006). It may even compete with his magnum opus, Goodbye, Dragon Inn (2003). Watching this made me so thankful Tsai didn't retire after the Stray Dogs and the Walker shorts. He even branches out from his brilliant compositions, featuring close-ups and handheld shots. Maybe because his characters in this film see instead of look. They search but they eventually find before searching again. Perceiving especially through touch.
We the viewer see as well. There's no better example of this than the decrepit modern building (ruin and deterioration are usually one of his motifs, yet Tsai mainly diverges from this too in Days) with broken windows, a jarringly silent and still shot except the cat that walks from one end to the other. It acts as a sort of intermission, yet instead of waiting, we observe. Then there's the cathartic massage, a release so intense and refreshing, to actually experience a massage like this would be nice, but it's almost just as remedying and pleasurable to watch. Again, the headphones helped me to be enthralled by Days, feeling both its ache and ecstasy, its isolation in modernity. Notice the endless city noises.
How did we let ourselves get to this? Even if you want to be alone in this world, you will feel alone. You can crank your music box, play the lullaby, sing your tune, but it will only be a faint sound in the midst of all the wheels and machines. This is modern life; pleasures, releases, and moments of tactile intimacy are scarce. Savor them (and this film) when you can because the rest of this life is just days passing by.
2. The Beatles: Get Back
The ultimate hangout that happens to include Paul, John, Ringo, and George. I soaked up every second of Peter Jackson’s three-part documentary that in fact, isn’t really a documentary. It’s 60 hours of restored footage previously unseen and edited, showing the musical genius and camaraderie of the world’s greatest band as they record new music for their last album (Let It Be) and plan their first live show in two years which would also be their last.
Answers many questions including: Did Yoko Ono break up the Beatles? Nope. She’s literally just there, even partaking in some screaming jam sessions and the guys are cool with it. Is George a baby? Absolutely not, I sympathize with the guy here, his sensibility just evolved and couldn’t mesh with Paul and John’s anymore. Is Ringo the chillest Beatle? Yes, but Paul’s whooping and strumming of his guitar even harder when the police arrive at their famous rooftop concert makes him an extremely close second. Does Michael Lindsay-Hogg look like a deceitful asshole? Yes, his presence is the only bad thing about this. Was there some drama towards the Beatles' end? Definitely, and it's entertaining. Throw in Billy Preston’s casual coolness, piano skills, and infectious smile and you have a masterpiece. Watching Paul strum his guitar and conjure Get Back out of thin air is one of the greatest things I have ever seen. His joy, charisma, and blithe spirit is something to behold as well. Also, Ringo farts. Though the iconic foursome were something else in their music making skills, this series proves that they were also just dudes.
1. The Worst Person in the World (Joachim Trier)
See my piece about this one here. A film that will be with me for the rest of my life. The one I needed now most of all. A final shot that will never leave my head and one I will always live by. There’s one big decision in life and there’s no need to worry whether it’s right or wrong, just choose it and live it.