2021 was a year of major highs and lows for me, a year where past relationships and cherished loved ones disappeared from this mortal coil, and where new ones manifested and blossomed in their wake. In terms of cinematic releases, this was the year I saw the least new releases since 2013, itself the first year I properly got into seeing all the contemporary cinema I could. Life has been taking me in directions that are no longer encapsulated by my relationship to cinema; I’ve not always had the concentration or energy to lose myself in it completely. While this medium will always be one of the most fundamental aspects of my life, grief has taught me that my relationship to art cannot be the dominant way I perceive the world; no film is good enough to make up for the absence of a loved one’s voice. That said, I still managed to see a substantial number of new releases and those I loved helped me cope with pain, rejuvenated my passion for the medium, and allowed me to process my emotions in a beautiful way. These are my top 10 films of 2021.
Honorable Mentions: Stillwater, Petite Maman, To All The Boys: Always and Forever, Reminiscence, Zack Snyder’s Justice League
10. Dune (Denis Villeneuve)
Dune was a fascinating enigma for me upon first watch: it seemingly replaced the book’s introspective inner monologues with nothing but oppressive architecture and looks of quiet despair. It worked, though—I found the design of its world to be intoxicating in its bleakness. It took a rewatch to understand exactly what Villeneuve was doing with the characterization and how successful he actually was. Instead of leaning into aspects of the “chosen one” archetype before subverting it later, Villeneuve frames the journey of Paul Atreides as an inherently tragic one, ensuring there’s no joy or catharsis in his embrace of violence. Its biggest strength is a leading performance by Timothée Chalamet, who perfectly captures the heartbreak of being unable to avoid your own destiny, moving from petulance to repressed fragility with ease. It is a bold, immersive, deeply tragic film, and one I’ve been thinking about constantly, even after three separate watches.
9. Long Weekend (Stephen Basilone)
Long Weekend is a criminally underseen film, one that has fallen under the radar entirely for both critics and audiences. Which is a shame: there hasn’t been a better contemporary romance in a long time, boosted by the tremendous performances from its two leads, Finn Wittrock and Zoe Chao. It’s a film that is better knowing very little about before watching and one that only reveals just how powerful it is by the closing moments, making it a difficult work to discuss at length. Long Weekend uses the genre to explore thoughtful ideas on grief, depression, and impermanence, crafting a work that has been majorly beneficial to my own life over the last few months. It isn’t perfect, but there are only a couple of films from this year that engaged me on an emotional level more than this.
8. F9 (Justin Lin)
F9 felt special in a variety of ways. For one, it was my first visit to the cinema since the start of the pandemic, being the only film I felt comfortable returning to a theatre for before I was able to get vaccinated. Secondly, it feels like the rejuvenation of a very special franchise that had struggled with creative direction following the death of Paul Walker. The Fast and Furious series has always been built on melodramatic, wacky sentimentality; Justin Lin understands this better than anyone, ensuring that his return to the franchise prioritized the idea of family and the relationships between the characters above anything else. The stunts and set-pieces are all remarkably entertaining, but F9 succeeds primarily on a human level, providing substantial poignancy from Tokyo Drift reunions, familial flashbacks, genuinely funny banter, and Vin Diesel’s wonderful leading performance. The most fun I had with a film in 2021.
7. Wrath of Man (Guy Ritchie)
Instead of leaning into the dark humor or bold approaches to digital cinematography of Guy Ritchie’s previous films, Wrath of Man is a stark, serious crime thriller with one of the most mechanically proficient screenplays the genre’s seen in some time. It is a dark, violent film with few characters of redeeming quality, a body count within the dozens, and absolutely zero moral imperatives therein. It manages to balance its innate nastiness without coming across as unnecessarily provocative or cruel. Of benefit is Ritchie’s acute direction: it uses flashback and perspective switches to piece together its central puzzle with such confidence across the first hour before culminating in the most impressive heist sequence since Frankenheimer’s Ronin. And Jason Statham brings out an intensity and fear he hasn’t needed to express in years, truly coming across as the most terrifying, indestructible force in the universe.
6. The Matrix Resurrections (Lana Wachowski)
A profound work about grief, reconciliation, and making amends with the demons of your past, The Matrix Resurrections managed to be both a perfect continuation of the themes of the Matrix sequels and something entirely new. While the action scenes aren’t as excellent as previous entries, Resurrections more than makes up for it by continuing the dazzling conceptual ambition, transitioning between metatextual brilliance, introspective analysis of consciousness, and some of the most romantic moments in modern-day cinema. It is a rare contemporary big-budget film that cares more about narrative and visual ideas than anything else, fronted by an immaculate performance from Keanu Reeves, who manages to channel his own history with grief into a new version of his most iconic character. Few scenes of the 2020s so far are as remarkable as the reveal of the Analyst.
5. Zeros and Ones (Abel Ferrara)
Abel Ferrara is one of the most revolutionary filmmakers alive. At 70 years old he’s still managing to push aesthetic boundaries further, utilizing digital photography in such bleak and stark ways. Zeros and Ones is, narratively, borderline incomprehensible, a series of endless betrayals, screens within screens, and raving monologues by Ethan Hawke. Such lack of narrative clarity allows Ferrara and DP Sean Price Williams to shoot COVID-era Rome as an apocalyptic wasteland, a city that seems it’ll never again see rays of sunlight. It is visually unlike anything I’ve ever seen and culminates with one of the most beautiful sequences of Ferrara’s career, a moment that seems to make all the horrors of the prior 70 minutes worth it.
4. Old (Might N. Shyamalan)
M. Night Shyamalan’s recent work has been some of the most challenging, emotional, utterly engrossing filmmaking of the last few years, with Glass being my favorite film of 2019. Old is up there with the very best of his career, a genuinely unnerving high-concept thriller that addresses existential themes of grief and aging with thoughtfulness and ingenuity. There are many great performances—including Gael García Bernal and Vicky Krieps doing excellent work as a fractured couple learning how to love each other again—but Alex Wolff is remarkable in what should be an impossible role. He is asked to play a child in a teenager’s body, going through sudden puberty and unspeakable traumas and framing it as if it’s a 6-year-old experiencing this suffering. Wolff nails it perfectly, crafting a beautiful, heartbreaking presence that’s stuck with me in such a profound way.
3. Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy (Ryusuke Hamaguchi)
The first of two Ryusuke Hamaguchi films on this list, Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy is possibly the finest anthology film since Hou Hsiao-hsien’s Three Times. Devising three stories about four different women, Hamaguchi crafts each with masterful care, writing impeccable stories about infidelity, deception, and unexpected emotional connections. Each exquisite segment contains an utterly perfect element. The first has a rage-inducing argument between two exes that culminates in one of the best zooms ever captured by a camera. The second has a deeply unconventional, ultimately beautiful dynamic between two people finding a connection through literature, even as it’s destined to lead both their lives spiraling out of control. The third is a gorgeous, optimistic coda that shows two people able to achieve catharsis over past regrets through performance and compassion. All three offer a perfect encapsulation of Hamaguchi’s interests as a filmmaker, filled with incisive, emotional commentary on the ways we relate to other people. It’s astounding how it’s not even his best film of 2021.
2. Cry Macho (Clint Eastwood)
Cry Macho is a film about the frequent futility of language. It opens with admittedly poor exposition, bluntly delivered by Dwight Yoakam, establishing everything necessary about the past of Clint Eastwood’s protagonist. For a while it seems as if Cry Macho is just going over old ground, a hybrid of Honkytonk Man and The Mule. Yet there comes a point when the overall thesis becomes nakedly clear and all previous clunkiness seems justified. It limits the audience with oppressive exposition and bitter dialogue exchanges before contrasting with the loose, freeing joy of its second act. The conflict goes away and is replaced by a quiet, loving movie about a man who knows he’s coming to the end of his life. He chooses to spend it with a woman who doesn’t speak the same language as him but with whom he is able to find a meaningful connection anyway. It’s a film about loss and aging that understands the simple pleasures of the world: dancing with a beautiful woman, befriending a chicken, helping the next generation understand the power of riding a horse. Every time I rewatch it it goes up in my estimation; I truly believe it’s one of the best films Eastwood has ever made, even with its faults.
1. Drive My Car (Ryusuke Hamaguchi)
Drive My Car is the best film I’ve seen in the last 10 years, a staggering work of art that helped me process and cope with my grief more than any other piece of media. It has the best performance of the year from Hidetoshi Nishijima, who flawlessly conveys the stoicism, repression, and eventual breakdown that comes with bottling up grief as a coping mechanism. Drive My Car is difficult for me to talk about, as it reminds me of the pain I’ve experienced and it is impossible for me to think about certain sequences without being overwhelmed by emotion. But it is the closest thing to a perfect film I’ve possibly ever seen. It captures the endless conflict of wanting to hear your deceased partner’s voice as often as you can while knowing that the longer you stay fixated on the sounds of the dead the harder it is for you to live. If there is a better film than this released in the rest of the 2020s, we are blessed as filmgoers.