Jonas Poher Rasmussen | 89 mins | Documentary/Animation Daniel Karimyar | Fardin Mijdzadeh | Milad Eskandari | Belal Faiz
Each year, there are standout documentaries and standout animated films, but this year, Flee was the best of both genres. In Flee, director Jonas Poher Rasmussen interviews a man named Amin – now in his forties – whose life has been shaped by the constant fear and insecurities that is the result of being born in a land with massive turmoil.
As a young child born in Afghanistan, Amin’s family flees the violence of the Taliban uprising to Russia, a place where constant police bribes prevent Amin’s family from getting sent back to Afghanistan, but also makes it financially challenging for them to escape to a safer country. Amin and his family spend their days locked in their tiny apartment watching soap operas until his brother can raise enough money to get them trafficked to a safer place.
For all the negative narratives that have brainwashed much of our population on immigration, Flee portrays a much more sympathetic and accurate account of why people go to such great heights to escape their current living situations. It’s also a very beautifully animated film, which was done to protect Amin and his family, but also makes it easier for viewers to stay engaged. It certainly feels like the days of interviewing old men in front of a stale of background are in the past. No documentary has ever been nominated for Best Picture, but Flee’s innovativeness and importance makes me believe that won’t hold true much longer.
9. The Last Duel
Ridley Scott | 152 mins | Action/Drama/Thriller Matt Damon | Adam Driver | Jodie Comer | Ben Affleck
When it comes to telling the story of gladiators and knights, nobody does it better than Ridley Scott, the 84-year-old master who brought us Gladiator two decades ago. In The Last Duel, Scott tells the story of a fearless knight who returns home from battle to discover that his wife has been raped by a former friend and person of political power.
Honor and an unjust judicial system result in the two men defending their names in a duel to the death in front of a packed arena, a territory that Scott is very comfortable in. He refuses to spare viewers of how violent and senseless these duals were, as well as how incredibly tense and high-stake they were. It was an era where men believed that the outcome of duels reflected the truth and that God took sides in such absurd battles.
But even more than that, The Last Duel takes us back to an era where women were reduced to a possession of their husbands, and their word was simply discounted for far less than it was worth. And if their husbands lost the dual, they too were punished to death. In that sense, we’ve made a lot of progress, even if the word of the Kavanaughs of the world sill outweighs that of their accusers.
8. Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy
Ryûsuke Hamaguchi | 121 mins | Drama/Romance Kotone Furukawa | Hyunri | Katsuki Mori | Aoba Kawai
All too often, it seems, the price of the movie ticket is not justified by the quality of the story on the big screen. Fortunately, that’s not the case with Ryûsuke Hamaguchi’s Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy, an engaging Japanese film that gives us three short films for the price of a single ticket.
In the best of the three stories, Hamaguchi tells the story of a young woman named Nao who attempts to seduce an older professor in hopes of blackmailing him. What follows is an engaging and honest story about respect, relationships and humanity. Hamaguchi only needs 40 minutes to portray more emotion than nearly every full-length feature of 2021.
Not to be completely overlooked, the other two short films in Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy also are very good. The first tells the story of a woman who begins to regret letting her ex-boyfriend go after she hears that he’s dating another woman. The last tells the story of two strangers who connect after mistakenly identifying each other, but their kindness towards each other builds a much-needed bond.
Hamaguchi also wrote and directed Drive My Car, which is widely considered one of the very best films of 2021. Because of that, Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy seems to have taken a bit of a backseat, which is unfortunate because it too is one of the best movies of the year. Or three of the best movies of the year, depending on how you look at it.
7. Licorice Pizza
Paul Thomas Anderson | 133 mins | Comedy/Drama/Romance Alana Haim | Cooper Hoffman | Sean Penn | Bradley Cooper
Paul Thomas Anderson became an instant sensation when he directed Boogie Nights at the young age of 27. By the time he released There Will Be Blood three masterpieces later, it was obvious that we hadn’t seen anyone with such skillful vision behind the camera since Steven Spielberg and Martin Scorsese redefined cinema in the ‘70s.
But then came The Master and – even worse – Inherent Vice, a movie where Joaquin Phoenix wanders aimlessly for an excruciating 150 minutes, and all hope was instantly lost in the director who was once appeared to be cinema’s messiah. Fortunately, he’s back to his best form in ages with Licorice Pizza, a film that also wanders with little story, but this time the wandering is actually fun.
Alana Haim, who makes up one-third of the most talented sister trio in indie rock history, plays a twenty-five-year-old woman who becomes the muse of a charming teenage movie star and business mogul, played by Phillip Seymour Hoffman’s son, Cooper. Together, they become successful business partners who sell water beds to Los Angeles’s elite, including one to Barbara Streisand’s controlling and very aggressive boyfriend.
Perhaps it’s because it feels like a return to form for Anderson, or perhaps it’s because Haim and Hoffman have an undeniable sparkle and chemistry between them, but there’s something that makes Licorice Pizza one of the most charming slices of cinema I saw all year.
6. Drive My Car
Ryûsuke Hamaguchi | 179 mins | Drama Hidetoshi Nishijima | Tôko Miura | Reika Kirishima | Yoo-rim Park
Reading subtitles in a dark room for three hours straight isn’t exactly anyone’s idea of a good time, yet Ryûsuke Hamaguchi’s slow-burn opus about loneliness and regret make the extra effort all well worthwhile. Along with his other film from 2021, Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy, Drive My Car makes 2021 one of the strongest years for foreign cinema in recent memory.
Drive My Car, the film that most consider Hamaguchi’s better 2021 film, tells the story of an acclaimed playwright who finds a common bond with a young female driver who is assigned to chauffer him during a three-month long residency. As they make the lengthy journey together from home to work and back again, it becomes obvious that he needs her far more for his healing process than he does as a driver. And, really, they both find healing in the journey together.
Drive My Car has been named the best movie of the year by various critics’ groups, and it’s easy to see why. It’s the type of film that no longer could be made in America, due to its time commitment and pace. However, it does feel like a film that could have been made here in the nineties – an era where audiences were much more patient and studios were more daring. And when it comes to making a great film, the nineties are a pretty good place to look for inspiration.
Sian Heder | 111 mins | Drama/Comedy Emilia Jones | Marlee Matlin | Troy Kotsur | Daniel Durant
How is one to rank a movie that has so many apparent flaws, but also reaches emotional peaks that soar above that of any other film in 2021? Well, if you’re me and the movie is Sian Heder’s Sundance smash CODA, the answer is pretty highly. After all, movies tend to be judged by their highlight reel as time passes on and for that reason, time should be very kind to CODA, a movie that is nearly brought down early by its cliches and a rather bad performance Eugenio Derbez, only to end victorious with a ninth inning grand slam that should remain in viewer’s minds for quite some time.
CODA, which stands for Child of Deaf Adults, tells the story of a teenage daughter whose parents and brother are unable to hear. Emilia Jones plays the teenage daughter who serves as the interpreter for the rest of her family, and at moments she seems like a star in the making – especially when she sings.
CODA does a great job at displaying the challenges and sacrifices of growing up in a deaf home. It’s a handicap that is far too misunderstood, but thanks to great movies like CODA and 2020’s Sound of Metal, we may just be progressing the right direction. But even more importantly, it’s one of the few great pictures in recent memory that shows the humanity and love of the world, which has become an increasingly rare site at the movies. In a rather bleak 2021 cinema year, CODA provided a sparkle of humanity that made me happier than anything else I saw on the big screen the past year.
4. West Side Story
Steven Spielberg | 156 mins | Musical/Drama/Romance Ansel Elgort | Rachel Zegler | Ariana DeBose | Rita Moreno
Steven Spielberg is arguably the greatest director of all time, but there’s no denying that he’s been on a downward slide since directing his last masterpiece, Minority Report, nearly twenty years ago. So, like many others, I thought he had finally lost all his marbles when he announced that he would be breaking the golden rule of cinema by remaking an absolute classic: West Side Story, a 1961 film that won ten Oscars and has been shown in every high school choir class of the last fifty years.
Yet, I stand corrected, because Spielberg’s West Side Story isn’t only the best musical since La La Land, but also a film that surpasses the original in every single way. Rachel Zegler is magical as starry-eyed Maria and Ariana DeBose could become the second actress to win an Oscar for playing Anita, the heartbroken girlfriend whose boyfriend leads a Puerto Rican gang named the Sharks.
In a post-COVID era where no blockbuster status is guaranteed, West Side Story flopped hard when it hit the theaters in December. Too bad, because unlike so many movies that made a lot more money, West Side Story is the most remarkable and surprising achievement of the year: a remake that we never knew we needed so badly.
Pablo Larraín | 117 mins | Drama Kristen Stewart | Timothy Spall | Jack Nielen | Sally Hawkins
Kristen Stewart may have won over the critics with her performances in slow indie hits like Personal Shopper and Clouds of Sils Maria, but I still wasn’t quite ready to put the former Twilight star alongside the Meryl Streep’s and Robert De Niro’s of the world. That is, until now.
That’s because Stewart’s performance as Princess Diana has the making of a true star. Pablo Larraín, who helped earn Natalie Portman an Oscar nod as Jackie Kennedy, directs Spencer with a command and vision that deserves Oscar recognition, and his certainly brings out the very best in Stewart.
Yet, the real treat of Spencer is how it seems to intertwine so many genres. At times, it feels like a psychological horror film. Other times, it’s an alternative history of everyone’s favorite non-Disney princess. But mostly, it’s a prison escape adventure, not all that different than the likes of The Great Escape or The Shawshank Redemption. The only difference is that Spencer portrays a woman who’s imprisoned by the rules of royalty, and surrounded by people who care about her image, window shades, and location far more than they care about her wellbeing. And for that, it may just be the most important prison escape drama since The Shawshank Redemption.
2. The Power of the Dog
Jane Campion | 126 mins | Drama/Romance/Western Benedict Cumberbatch | Kirsten Dunst | Jesse Plemons | Kodi Smit-McPhee
In 1993, Jane Campion became only the second woman ever nominated for a Best Director Oscar and for 28 years the film for which she was nominated for, The Piano, would remain her only true masterpiece. But now, it’s not even her best film.
That honor belongs to The Power of the Dog, an unpredictable thriller that boasts the slow burn suspense of There Will Be Blood, the beauty of Days of Heaven, and the strange western eroticism of Brokeback Mountain, except with far more twists and turns.
Benedict Cumberbatch stars as Phil Burbank in Campion’s masterpiece, a mean-spirited rancher who directs his cruelty towards his newly wed sister-in-law and her teenage son. To say he’s never been better is an understatement of magnificent portions. He deserves an Oscar for his performance, as does Kodi Smit-McPhee, who plays the teenage son who faces the brunt of many of Phil’s cruel jokes and actions.
Yet, despite how great all of the performances in The Power of the Dog are, the film’s success undoubtedly belongs to Campion. From her brilliant screenplay to her command behind the camera, The Power of the Dog feels like a movie that will be remembered for years to come, and one that could very well be Campion’s biggest masterpiece for the next 28 years.
1. The Worst Person in the World
Joachim Trier | 127 mins | Comedy/Drama/Romance Renate Reinsve | Anders Danielsen Lie | Maria Grazia Di Meo | Herbert Nordrum
Sure, she might gobble up psychedelic mushrooms as if they were a three-course meal, crash weddings instead of attending her boyfriend’s work party, and treat relationships like they’re a short-lived fad, but there’s no way that Julie is The Worst Person in the World, as the film’s title suggests. She’s simply a thirty-something, like so many of us, who is wandering through a big world with hopes of figuring things out as she goes.
The Worst Person in the World, the brilliant Norwegian romantic dramedy from Joachim Trier, focuses on a four-year period in Julie’s life where everything changes faster than what she’s prepared for. It’s simply no longer like her old college days where switching majors was a spontaneous and carefree decision – she’s beginning to realize the impact that her decisions have on herself and those around her. She’s learning about love and relationships, and she’s trying to find her calling in a world that sometimes feels completely overwhelming.
The Worst Person in the World is not a typical movie of the year selection for me: it’s a borderline romantic comedy with subtitles – and one that most American audiences will likely never hear of, let alone choose to see. Yet, it’s also the film that spoke to me the most in 2021, both about the relationships we keep and the ones that unfortunately slip away. But even more than that, it’s a film that says a lot about life – the delicacies, challenges and pleasures of it – and one that manages to say it all in a very unpredictable, funny and touching way.