It’s that time of year again. Time to praise films I truly loved. Time to explain that I haven’t seen everything but saw a lot. Time to try not to dis movies that are just okay but not “award-worthy.” (Translation: Just because a movie isn’t on my list doesn’t mean I think it’s bad.)
Time to be fully aware that introductions like these are — or at least should be — skipped over because you want to get to the list anyway. Time to try to cut myself off at 10 films but failing and then rationalizing that it’s my article and I can do whatever the hell I want here.
So enough of that. Here we go: My most satisfying narrative films of 2021.
1. DRIVE MY CAR
Since I’m someone who has been immersed in the world of the arts for most of my life, you might assume I would lean into films that deal with artists and their creations. That’s actually not the case. I have little patience for tortured-artist stories and am perhaps too aware that most of any artistic process is slow and not terribly cinematic. Here, though, is a film that centers on an actor / director but is much more than a film about the creative process. It’s a character-rich story that, at its core, is about the attempt to deal not just with loss but with unanswered questions in the wake of loss. And how the requirements of love can be too narrowly defined. I’m so glad the filmmakers gave it the time it deserves.
2. THE HUMANS
A masterful adaptation of an appropriately claustrophobic play about a family gathering for a Thanksgiving meal. Not surprisingly, secrets are revealed. What is surprising is the deftness by which writer-director Stephan Karam and his flawless cast capture not just the individuals and their struggles — both self-imposed and inflicted by the world — but also how awkward, imperfect love is often the grappling hook that gets us through to the next minute / hour / day.
It was an unprecedented year — at least in this century — for movie musicals. None, though, has the rewatchability of this stunning, emotional adaptation of the surprise Broadway hit. One of the smartest moves was framing it as a story told to children, which helped justify the dancing-in-the-streets (and in the pool) fantasy of it all.
I didn’t think I needed another Cyrano de Bergerac. I love the play, but it seemed like been there, done that. Then I had the joy of watching this sparkling adaptation featuring, for me, the hands-down best leading actor performance of the year, courtesy of Peter Dinklage. Some actors can be flamboyant, heart-wrenching, funny, athletic, profound and self-deprecating. Some can even sing. In Cyrano, Dinklage excels at all of that and more. Plus, the supporting cast is outstanding and the production design gorgeous. And, what do you know, it’s a great story.
5. PETITE MAMAN
In a take on mother / daughter relationships that is beautifully original, the latest from Céline Sciamma (director of Portrait of Lady on Fire) is a delicate story of connectivity, told with grace and attention to small details. So glad I had no idea what I was in for when I began watching.
The film on my list least likely to be seen by many, Ninjababy concerns a slacker who finds out she’s pregnant too late for an abortion. Kristine Kujath Thorp is stellar in the lead and the film wisely never converts her into a conventional movie character. As funny and honest as it is, it could have fallen apart without being capped by the ending it deserves.
7. C’MON C’MON
Another film dealing with adult/child stuff for which I wasn’t quite emotionally prepared. The use of interviews with children could have come across as a gimmick but instead, it elevates the film.
8. JUDAS AND THE BLACK MESSIAH
So what if the Oscars realigned and considered this one last year? It wasn’t released until 2021 and earned a place here not just for the important piece of history it shines a light on, but also for the compelling way it tells it.
9. THE CARD COUNTER
With a Paul Schrader film, you just assume it’s going to be harrowing. And of course this is. It’s also one of his best. Side note: Can we finally acknowledge that Oscar Isaac is one of the consistently strongest actors out there?
10. EVERYBODY’S TALKING ABOUT JAMIE
No surprises here but instead an abundance of pleasures, including an awards-worthy supporting performance from Richard E. Grant. It’s the movie musical this year that seems to have gotten lost in all of the West Side Story (2021) / tick, tick… BOOM! / Dear Evan Trainwreck conversation. And that’s a shame. Just because a movie is smile-inducing fun doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be honored.
These were far from the only standouts. In no particular order:
King Richard partnered strong performances with a delightful, feel-good story. In spite of an overly busy opening. I was expecting a thrill ride with Riders of Justice but I wasn’t expecting it to be so laugh-out-loud funny. There was plenty of excitement, too, in The Harder They Fall, with a smart script and strong ensemble.
A third of the way through The Last Duel, I wasn’t sure how this historic drama would transcend — then chapters two and three happened. Mass proved an acting masterclass. Encanto left me in tears (and, in hindsight, proved the rare satisfying animated flick without a villain). CODA also generated its share of tears with a combination of fresh details and familiar story beats.
Charm is an underrated thing and The Worst Person in the World has charm to spare. The White Tiger had teeth and character. (It’s the movie I wish The Wolf of Wall Street had been.) Oslo didn’t get the attention it deserved for its thoughtful look at diplomacy.
For comedy, Plan B earned an A, as did Barb and Star Go to Vista Del Mar. And The Mitchells vs. the Machines brought fresh laughs.
And while I tend to resist artists-finding-their-muse stories, Bergman Island gave plenty of reasons to overcome my hesitancy.
There were films, too, that didn’t make my top list but had some terrific sequences. I’m looking at you, Disfluency, Pig, The Green Knight, tick, tick… BOOM! and West Side Story (2021).
And my disappointments? I’ll get to those later.