Year Two of a global pandemic was, in many ways, more difficult than the first. As the urgency around the coronavirus died down and its novelty wore off, we each had to continue on with our lives as disease (and its repercussions) raged on about us. If 2020 was about exposing the fragility of our current systems, then 2021 was about having to live with the missteps we took to get here. It’s appropriate, then, that many of the best films of the year reckoned with the wrongdoings of the past, investigated the sins that embedded themselves in our present without our knowing, and searched for ways to extract the poison so that it could not harm our future. Some films were more optimistic than others; The Matrix Resurrections re-imagined its twenty-year-old universe as one in which true love could prevail over all malefactors, while Quo Vadis, Aida? was markedly less hopeful about the consequences of evil. What remains clear among all these varied titles, however, is cinema’s ability to capture our empathy and lay bare our most important truths. Many of my favorites this year displayed an unerring love for humanity that persisted despite the forgone cruelty of the world, and that—more than the griefs and traumas—was what left a lasting impression on me. Like Nobuhiko Obayashi’s heartfelt Labyrinth of Cinema argues, film can teach you how to dream up a better world for future generations—so let’s go out and dream it.
Honorable Mentions: Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy, The Lost Daughter, Benedetta, Petite Maman, About Endlessness
10. The Card Counter (Paul Schrader)
Paul Schrader returns with another male protagonist weighed by such emotional heaviness that it’s plainly obvious in the way he carries his shoulders. This time, he’s played by Oscar Isaac, who delivers a deeply affecting performance that is equal parts guilt, grief, anger, and tenderness. Not for the faint of heart, The Card Counter is a direct confrontation of America’s sins committed at the Abu Ghraib blacksite, and how those sins proliferate and claim those of us who were never even there. It’s not as polished as I would have liked for a Schrader film, but I was still profoundly moved by its story — how trauma robs us of ourselves, and how we can learn to forgive ourselves for even the worst of transgressions.
9. Days (Tsai Ming-Liang)
From one of the masters of slow cinema, Tsai Ming-Liang, comes his slowest and quietest yet. The film’s title in Mandarin, 日子, can be translated to “days”—but is more commonly used to mean “life, livelihood.” As in, the common activities you do that make up your days. This translation can be a more accurate descriptor of the film. Days seems to ask us, how does one fill a life? And what does it mean when your life is filled with emptiness? Tsai is unforgiving to his deuteragonists, Kang and Non, who both lead lives of abject loneliness, to the point that there is barely any dialogue in the movie. But through the vehicle of silence, Tsai is able to explore a kind of emotional and physical intimacy that is so touching that it surpasses the need for words. In a year where we’ve all lacked a little bit of both, this film feels like a salve.
8. Passing (Rebecca Hall)
Based on Nella Larsen’s novel of the same name, Passing is one of the strongest directorial debuts I’ve seen in years. Rebecca Hall pulls from her personal experiences of being a mixed Black woman and crafts an effective tale about race, gender, nuance, and ambiguity. The striking black-and-white cinematography either obfuscates or emphasizes Tessa Thompson’s and Ruth Negga’s skin tones depending on where they are, and the storytelling, too, plays with such back-and-forths. Clare (Negga) and Irene (Thompson) are near exact opposites of each other in every way, so when their lives intersect, they collide. What results is a fascinating drama about the true flimsiness of social identities and the dangerous consequences of their enforcement.
7. Wife of a Spy (Kiyoshi Kurosawa)
Though it’s billed as a political thriller, Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s Wife of a Spy feels closer in spirit to one of his horror films. The horror here, however, is injustice. Spy grapples with Japan’s war atrocities committed in Manchuria, and directly challenges the idea of patriotism — if you discovered that your country was participating in the highest crimes against humanity, how far would you go to stop it? Would you go so far as to be a traitor? Some, like Yūsaku Fukuhara, could: “I’m a cosmopolitan,” he says in the film, “my allegiance is not to a country but to universal justice.” As suggested by the film’s title, though, it is actually Yūsaku’s wife, Satoko, who is the focus, as she starts to suspect that her husband is not just a simple businessman. With remarkable precision, Kurosawa corners Satoko in a maze of hard truths and forces us to ask ourselves: would we be willing to give up a life of comfort to do the right thing?
6. Judas and the Black Messiah (Shaka King)
Shaka King unearths one of the United States’ most shameful sins in Judas and the Black Messiah, about the charismatic young Fred Hampton, a leader in the Black Panther Party who was successful in rousing various marginalized groups to a single cause, and William O’Neal, the FBI plant who was responsible for taking Hampton down. Daniel Kaluuya is powerful as Hampton in this film, and Lakeith Stanfield is just as memorable as the mendacious and hypocritical O’Neal. King, and the film’s co-writers, Will Berson and the Lucas Brothers, deserve credit here for skillfully splitting focus between the two main characters without stealing time away from the other. It’s a delicate act of tension and storytelling that will have you on the edge of your seat until the very end.
5. Labyrinth of Cinema (Nobuhiko Obayashi)
True to Nobuhiko Obayashi’s directorial trademarks, Labyrinth of Cinema is probably the most colorful, visually stimulating, and cinematically creative films to come out this past year. But it’s also one of the most important. Obayashi’s last work is a passionate anti-war film, at times funny and joyful, and at others brutal and unflinching in its depictions of violence. His protagonists are taken through a phantasmagorical journey through Japanese war films and history, and he is careful never to glorify war; neither the characters’ passive observation nor their active participation can ever protect them from the ongoing death and terror that surrounds them. However, this is not an endless slog of despair — rather, it is a celebration of art, cinema in particular, and its ability to sustain messages of love, peace, and hope. There is no better reflection of this than the film itself, which acts as Obayashi’s call to action for future generations to create a kinder, more equitable world that has eradicated war completely.
4. Drive My Car (Ryusuke Hamaguchi)
Chief among the gentle, healing films of the year is Drive My Car, which feels much like a three-hour warm bath that comes to slowly envelop you in its fog. Adapted from a Haruki Murakami short story of the same name, Ryusuke Hamaguchi is able to match the writer’s ability to push ordinary events and conversations into the boundaries of surreality, while also greatly expanding and enhancing upon the source material. Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya features prominently in the film and lends its meditations on grief and regret, but also acts as a multiplier—amplifying the emotions of each actor, and layering on complex questions about identity, communication, and performance. Hamaguchi is able to ground such high-minded abstraction with a wide and varied cast of characters. Not one of them feels minor or written-off, and you spend so much time with each that by the end, you feel that you really might know them. (But, as Drive My Car will attest, knowing someone is more complicated than it seems.)
3. Evangelion: 3.0+1.0 Thrice Upon a Time (Hideaki Anno)
Hideaki Anno’s last traverse (or so he says) into his most well-known franchise is more than just an end of an era for its deeply devoted fans. It’s difficult to include 3.0+1.0 on a top ten list of the year, because an enjoyment of its artistry is contingent upon having seen all preceding Evangelion installments (and I do mean all of them), but I believe it deserves the spot. Thrice Upon a Time is a culmination of Anno’s skills and experiences: he builds and builds upon the central theme about pain of human connection, a staple of the Evangelion series, and then funnels it through fantastically jaw-dropping animation sequences, resulting in one of the most heart-pounding climaxes I’ve seen in a long time. You’ll get the distinct feeling that Anno has not only lifted a weight off his own shoulders with this film, but yours as well. It’s a movie that will make you want to get out there and live.
2. Spencer (Pablo Larraín)
For anyone still under the false impression that Kristen Stewart can’t act, let Spencer dispel your illusions. You’ve probably never seen a Princess Diana quite like this—stripped of her public-facing image, reeling from the pressures of being a Royal, and trying to get back to the person she once was, Stewart’s Diana is at her breaking point as she attempts to survive a Christmas holiday at the Queen’s Sandringham Estate, where she cannot escape the constant surveillance and judgment of her behavior. Pablo Larraín elevates the biographical material by bringing us straight into Diana’s subjectivity, expertly suffusing reality with fantasy and dreams until we (nor she) can tell one from the other.
1. The Power of the Dog (Jane Campion)
Though The Power of the Dog clocks in at a little over two hours, it is primarily an exercise in restraint. Jane Campion is at the height of her powers here, having accumulated decades of skill in building subtext and tension, and crafts together an intricate, interlocking puzzle that doesn’t completely click together until the very last frame. It’s an incredible feat of filmmaking (and also happens to vindicate a personal belief of mine that every film is improved by a dash of homoeroticism). Campion doesn’t waste a single image, line of dialogue, or performance—especially not Benedict Cumberbatch’s, who plays Phil with a sneer so smarting you can feel it whip through the screen. It’s one of the few films I’ve wanted to immediately watch again upon finishing, and it is one that will linger, like a good brainworm, for days afterwards.