Whenever I find myself compiling an end of the year best-of list, it’s always the prologue I dread writing the most. Is there anything more tedious than writing or reading a post-mortem eulogy of a calendar year? What do you want me to say about 2021, the second full calendar year of COVID-19? I suppose it was better than 2020, if only because it wasn’t an election year. But otherwise I don’t have any unique or pithy postgnostic wisdom. There were some damn good movies released this year, helped in no small part by a flurry of 2020 films studios only let see the light of day now that theaters have opened back up. Tragically, though, I wasn’t able to see many of them since I spent most of the year in suburban Florida far from any first-run arthouse theater. Fear of the Delta and Omicron variants also prevented me from seeing some of the biggest theatrical blockbusters of year. I guess this is all a roundabout way of explaining why certain films like West Side Story, Parallel Mothers, and Drive My Car didn’t make this list—I literally haven’t been able to see them yet. But still, I think I’ve managed to scramble together a decent enough list. A final note: readers might notice two YouTube videos have made this year’s cut. This might enrage some film purists, but I don’t care. It’s my sincere belief that given the current state of franchise-dominated Hollywood filmmaking with its disinterest in anything that can’t be merchandized, marketed to China, or cross-pollinated into the MCU, YouTube has become the new Wild West for independent filmmakers seeking both artistic freedom and mass exposure. As of this writing, YouTube hosts some of my favorite living filmmakers, artists unafraid to tackle unconventional subject matter in new and exciting ways. I easily could’ve included YouTube videos on several past best-of lists, but 2021 was the year I finally stopped caring about other peoples’ opinions enough to remember that this is my list and I don’t give a damn what film purists might think. Let them pop their monocles in shock—I’ve got good movies to watch.
16) Zola – Dir. Janicza Bravo
I was not expecting a film based on a fictionalized tweet thread to be one of the most nuanced and compassionate examinations of sex work in recent American cinema. I also wasn't expecting it to be fantastic, but there you go. Zola is a movie that's going to pop up in future film textbooks about the depiction of social media in film—it nails an eerie feeling of disembodiment that makes the story seem both hyper-real and hyper-surreal at the same time, much like social media itself. Also, that strip club prayer sequence is one of my 3-4 favorite film moments of 2021.
15) Playground – Dir. Laura Wandel
Yup, that's childhood for you. Maya Vanderbeque and Günter Duret give two of the best onscreen child performances in years in a film that's honest to the point of squirming discomfort about how scary, disorienting, and ultimately mercenary childhood can be. For a film that feels so loose in structure, Laura Wandel directs it with the skill of a surgeon; nary a moment or glance is wasted and every scene perfectly captures some emotional nuance or fluctuation.
14) TIE: In the Heights/tick, tick…BOOM! – Dir. Jon M. Chu/Lin-Manuel Miranda
Love him or hate him, it’s hard to argue that Lin-Manuel Miranda wasn’t the MVP of American movies in 2021. Three of his films are on this list, the first two of which are adaptations of pre-existing musicals which served as critical breakthroughs for their respective playwrights. The first is Jon M. Chu’s adaptation of Miranda’s In the Heights, a dazzling ode to Nuyorican culture and the Caribbean diaspora. In fairness, I’m somewhat biased towards this film seeing how a) it was the first I saw in a movie theater after over a year of COVID quarantining, and b) I lived in its setting of Washington Heights and recognized almost all of its shooting locations. But biases aside, In the Heights is still a bona fide crowd-pleaser. The second film, tick, tick…BOOM!, was Miranda’s directorial debut. A loving adaptation of fellow Stephen Sondheim disciple Jonathan Larson’s autobiographical not-quite-midlife crisis, it expands the original rock monologue to a full-fledged (and fully casted) barnstormer. Does Miranda occasionally let his heart get the better of him and lean on the side of unnecessary excess? Most definitely, especially in the cameo-bloated “Sunday” number. But that’s honestly part of the appeal of both the film and Miranda himself. He doesn’t make art for stoics.
13) Last Film Show – Dir. Pan Nalin
[Excerpt from UnseenFilms review]
“Though its English title is winkingly similar to a certain Peter Bogdanovich classic, [Last Film Show] is more closely modeled on Giuseppe Tornatore’s Cinema Paradiso (1988). Both draw on autobiographical details to tell stories of young boys who become enraptured with movies, adopt a theater as a home-away-from-home, start friendships with kindly movie projectionists, and eventually escape from their small towns to become directors. But the two films are very consciously different in tone and execution. Whereas Tornatore’s film is a heavily melancholic meditation on memory, Nalin’s is a joyous expressionistic ode to artistic self-discovery.”
12) Pebbles – Dir. P.S. Vinothraj
Friends and colleagues who really know me and my personal taste in movies might be surprised by this film’s inclusion on this list. Pebbles is, quite plainly, representative of what many people—myself included—resent much arthouse cinema for: intense stillness, relentless quiet, esoteric storytelling. But what can I say? It clicked for me almost immediately. An anti-road trip movie about generational misogynist violence, Pebbles is both unapologetically bleak yet beautiful. The "pebbles" of the title can, I think, refer to two things. The first are the literal pebbles collected by children strewn across the barren Indian landscape the characters navigate. The second are the metaphorical pebbles: the humans who traverse it as small parts of a very big world. It's hypnotic to watch this film dance from one human being to the next, letting us into not just their lives but their headspaces as well. I'm struggling to think of another film (other than the aforementioned Playground) that more accurately captures what it's like to see the world as a child, to experience time and empty spaces the way they do. This one requires patience, but if you click with it like I did, you'll love it.
11) The Harder They Fall – Dir. Jeymes Samuel
Now here’s a Movie with a capital "M." 139 minutes of pure uncut celluloid. The Harder They Fall does more to emulate the visual panache of Spaghetti Westerns than any other modern imitator, including Django Unchained. Not a wasted moment, shot, or cut. Every performance a gem. It's somehow a broad, sprawling epic without an ounce of fat. That's a next-level magic trick.
10) Annette – Dir. Leos Carax
A cunnilingual duet, a marionette libretto, and child abuse on world tour. There have been many "operatic" films before, but Leos Carax's Annette feels like an attempt to make a wholly original cinematic opera instead of just a musical with the emotions and volume turned all the way up. Death, doom, desperation; love, sex, betrayal—this film has all the disparate bits and pieces of the human experience at their most bombastic vying for our attention. And what filmmaking! This is one of those rare films that comes along and reminds us that, oh yeah, you CAN do anything in a movie.
9) Sabaya – Dir. Hogir Hirori
The kind of documentary that leaves you feeling awe.
Awe that there is such evil in the world.
Awe that there is also such good.
Awe that this film managed to get made in a literal warzone.
Awe that one can watch it in relative comfort and safety a whole world away.
8) Encanto – Dir. Jared Bush et al
Because they were such a formative part of my childhood, I'm very nitpicky when it comes to Disney animated movies. I fully admit that I hold them to unfairly high standards. That's why I'm delighted to say that Encanto is my favorite animated Disney musical since Tarzan. I’ve had issues one way or another with every non-Pixar animated Disney film since the end of the Disney Renaissance, but Encanto is the first one in over two decades where at the end I say back and thought to myself “I have no notes.” By nixing the traditional hero's quest narrative (which Disney honestly hasn't really nailed in a while―sorry Raya and the Last Dragon, you were fun but overstretched) in favor of a multi-faceted psychological study of a family facing intergenerational trauma, the filmmakers created something akin to Gabriel García Márquez by way of Menken/Rice. Lin-Manuel Miranda has his fingerprints all over this film, not just in its infectious lyrics and unrepentant emotionality, but because it feels like it originated in his head as a Broadway musical first and a film second: almost the whole thing takes place in one giant “set” with minor detours in two others. If you told me this was a stage musical first and a movie second, I'd believe you. In any case, it feels good to be so jazzed about a Disney movie again after all this time.
7) The Velvet Underground – Dir. Todd Haynes
Far from a traditional talking head documentary, Todd Haynes’ The Velvet Underground makes you feel like you've been lowered by crane into a sensory deprivation tank where the only stimuli are Velvet Underground records. The film is a revelatory look through the looking glass at the 1960s NYC avant-garde.
6) What the Internet Did to Garfield – Dir. John Walsh (YouTube: Super Eyepatch Wolf)
For me, one of the marks of a truly great filmmaker is the ability to make me interested in things I’d otherwise have no interest in. By this metric alone, Irish YouTuber John Walsh—AKA Super Eyepatch Wolf—might be the greatest filmmaker alive. I could just point out that his trilogy of videos on professional wrestling are what got me interested in the sport, but it goes much deeper than that. His videos on obscure manga, video games, and martial arts are uniformly fascinating and always send me down bizarre rabbit holes I never otherwise would’ve known existed. One of the keys to his talents is that he’s one of the most organically gifted storytellers on YouTube, capable of transforming something as mundane as buying a new computer into one of the funniest, most nail-biting videos of 2021 (Buying a PC With Dell: My Journey Into Hell - YouTube). But his masterpiece this year was his feature-length deep-dive into the online Garfield fandom. Part of a series of videos exploring some of the rowdiest and strangest online fandoms around (his two videos on The Simpsons are required viewing), his look at the sometimes hilarious, sometimes heart-breaking, sometimes horrific fandom surrounding America’s favorite orange cat was nothing short of revelatory. I’m honestly struggling to think of a notable documentarian I can compare him to. Errol Morris? Werner Herzog? Morgan Neville? None of them fit the bill. The way Walsh approaches and presents his material is singularly unique. None of those other guys ever made me burst into tears watching someone in a cheap Garfield costume review Jon Arbuckle fanart.
5) The French Dispatch – Dir. Wes Anderson
It’s amazing that it took Wes Anderson this long to make a Jacques Tati film, not just in its meticulous style but in its gentle, smirking weariness. The French Dispatch is his most emotionally delicate film since Moonrise Kingdom and arguably the most visually baroque of his live action films. I don't think Anderson quite stuck the landing with "Revisions to a Manifesto" despite McDormand's best efforts, but the other segments were perfectly crystalized miniatures of humanity struggling to know, understand, and express itself. Despite it being one of Anderson's most emotionally mature films, it also feels like the work of a young man eager and breathless to play with everything in the cinema's toolbox for the first time: animation, live tableaux, stage performance, etc.
4) ACTION BUTTON REVIEWS: Tokimeki Memorial – Dir. Tim Rogers (YouTube: Action Button)
I’ve heard it said that Tim Rogers is the Lester Bangs of video game criticism. While that might not not be true—heaven knows he has the Patron Saint of Rock Journalism’s logorrhea—this past year has confirmed that he just might be video game criticism’s Ross McElwee, too. Ever since he transitioned away from writing about video games to making YouTube videos about them, his autobiographical tendencies have amplified considerably. Case in point: his herculean, jaw-dropping six-hour review of the obscure (in the West, at least) 90s Japanese dating simulator Tokimeki Memorial. What begins as a traditional diagnostic about why this innocuous little game might very well be one of the most influential ever made—no seriously, Rogers’ years of work in the Japanese video game industry provided him with plenty of compelling evidence—gradually morphs into a heart-breaking confessional about his own romantic life growing up and an examination of why so many people use video games as both emotional balm and psychological escape. Some might balk at the idea of watching a six-hour review of a video game scarcely anyone in this country has heard of. But if film buffs can watch seven hours of Hungarian peasants being miserable in Béla Tarr’s Sátántangó (1994) or thirteen hours of French actors rehearsing in Jacques Rivette and Suzanne Schiffman’s Out 1 (1971), they can quit their bitchin’ long enough to set aside an afternoon for one of the most engrossing, intriguing, and unexpectedly compassionate films of 2021.
3) Pig – Dir. Michael Sarnoski
I don’t get outsmarted by movies much anymore. That’s not a brag that I’m particularly smarter than the average moviegoer, merely an acknowledgement that after being a film critic for several years and seeing several thousand movies, I generally know how most of them will go. That’s why when I do find the rare film that outsmarts me, I’m left feeling overjoyed and exhilarated. Michael Sarnoski’s Pig didn’t just outsmart me once, it outsmarted me every 10-15 minutes, tricking me into thinking it would go in one direction before veering into another entirely. In the first act alone the film evolves from a pseudo-Kelly Reichardt riff to a kidnapping thriller to an almost Lynchian exploration of a criminal culinary underground. The last fifteen minutes balance tragedy and tenderness in a way that would have made early Fellini jealous. As a sidenote, Pig feels like a film Anthony Bourdain would've worshipped, and not just because it's about a down-and-out chef. The whole thing captures his unique brand of rough-and-tumble sadness and camaraderie with outsiders. Also, this film just GETS the unique brand of wacko that populates the world of restaurant kitchens.
2) Bo Burnham: Inside – Dir. Bo Burnham
[Excerpt from UnseenFilms review]
“I can’t (and shouldn’t) try to claim I understand [Bo Burnham’s] circumstances or personal pain, but I identify with how he expresses it in Inside. What makes it so transcendent is that it’s an emotional and psychological time capsule of the worst year of many peoples’ lives. It captures everything I’ve mentally associated with the pandemic and the quarantine: the fear, the anxiety, the sheer boredom; the unexpected mood swings; bursts of hyperactivity followed by bouts of lethargy; the snarling contempt towards society for allowing things to get this out of hand; the agony in knowing you truly aren’t any better or more significant than anyone else. If I’m alive in sixty years and my great-grandchildren ask me what 2020 was like, I’ll tell them to watch this film. And maybe, also, to say a prayer for Bo Burnham. I think the man can use it.”
1) Procession – Dir. Robert Greene
[Excerpt from UnseenFilms review]
“What kind of saintly compassion does a child abuse survivor need to willingly play the role of someone else’s rapist? I’m not sure, but these six survivors have it. Their strength and bravery are nothing short of literal miraculousness. So is this film.”