While 2021 may be in the rearview mirror, the awards season is still waging on, with the March 27 Oscars ceremony still over a month away. Back in December, IndieWire revealed its annual poll of the best films of 2021. This year saw a boon in cinema offerings with the revival of the festival circuit — either shuttered or relegated to virtual affairs in 2020 — and the reopening of movie theaters. From grand, long-awaited tentpoles like “Dune” to Cannes favorites like “Annette,” “The Worst Person in the World,” “Titane,” and “Drive My Car,” and Netflix powerhouses like “The Power of the Dog,” this year’s varied list reflects the cinema and culture as it was in 2021.
With 187 critics and journalists voting on the best films and performances in this year’s survey, Jane Campion’s Western character study “The Power of the Dog” was the landslide victor by a considerable margin. It’s the second time in the history of this poll — and the second consecutive year after “Nomadland” — that a film directed by a woman topped this list. “The Power of the Dog” also topped IndieWire’s own staff list of The Best Movies of 2021.
While this list of 50 films may not match up exactly with the Oscars’ list of 37 feature nominees, there are a few telling narratives about how critics helped push certain contenders to the front of the fray. “Drive My Car,” a three-hour Japanese movie from an arthouse distributor (Janus Films), notched four Academy Award nominations, including surprise Best Picture and Best Director nominations. That film landed at No. 2 on IndieWire’s poll. Another film high on the list, “The Worst Person in the World” pulled in a surprise Best Original Screenplay nomination in addition to its expected International Feature nomination. Critics’ favorite “Flee” also made history with nominations for Documentary, International Feature, and Animated Feature, fueled by critics’ plaudits since its Sundance 2021 virtual premiere.
Still, one thing is clear: “The Power of the Dog” reigns. The film earned a whopping 12 Academy Award nominations, boosted not just by its high placement on critics’ lists across the board, but also its streaming availability on Netflix, grabbing surely more eyeballs than it would have had the challenging art film simply landed in theaters at a time like this.
Staffers from IndieWire, Variety, Rolling Stone, Vanity Fair, and Entertainment Weekly all voted, as well as freelance and staff writers for newspapers, websites, radio, and TV from across Europe, Latin America, Africa, Asia, the Middle East, and Australia — as well as all over the U.S. and Canada. However, all participants were required to vote only for films that received theatrical, streaming, or VOD releases in the U.S. over the past calendar year.
Check out the complete list of the IndieWire Critics Poll top 50 films of 2021 below.
Director: Christian Petzold
Cast: Paula Beer, Franz Rogowski
Accolades: Berlin FIPRESCI Prize and Silver Bear for Best Actress; European Film Award for Best Actress
Read IndieWire’s review: While “Undine” doesn’t epitomize the power of Petzold’s other recent German dramas, it certainly fits well within the context of his expanded universe (it even stars the same actors from “Transit,” again playing an ill-fated couple, which adds another dimension to the haunting atmosphere). The difference is that those other movies had such clarity to their intentions that their ideas were unassailable, while “Undine” stands on slippery ground, lost in murky waves not unlike its lovesick protagonists.
49. “King Richard”
Director: Reinaldo Marcus Green
Cast: Will Smith, Aunjanue Ellis, Jon Bernthal, Saniyya Sidney, Demi Singleton
Accolades: AFI Award; National Board of Review Awards for Best Actor, Best Supporting Actress
Read IndieWire’s review: To Smith’s credit, Richard himself offers some much-needed shading to a movie that’s happy to valorize him as a visionary while eliding some of the less-inspirational aspects of his life (a disowned son is mentioned in a throwaway line; other Wikipedia-worthy wrinkles are smoothed out entirely). If the screenplay is slow to recognize that Williams could sincerely love his daughters and be pathologically self-absorbed, Smith’s performance doesn’t allow for any such mutual exclusivity. From his waddle to his obstinance and angry outbursts, Smith renders Williams as a larger-than-life figure locked in an endless tiebreak with his own sense of worth. He’s a stubborn, controlling, and unfathomably tenacious man whose success left behind just enough friction to justify being the subject of his very own biopic.
Director: Franz Kranz
Cast: Ann Dowd, Reed Birney, Martha Plimpton, Jason Isaacs
Accolades: Film Independent Spirit Robert Altman Award
Read IndieWire’s review: A single-location drama about four people sitting in a sterile church anteroom and discussing — at length, and in real-time — the unequally shared tragedy that split their lives down the middle, “Mass” is so anti-cinematic at every turn that it almost comes as a surprise that it wasn’t adapted from a play or shot during COVID. And yet, at no point does this sobering and worthwhile feature debut from actor Fran Kranz (“The Cabin in the Woods”) feel like it shouldn’t have been a movie, or that it could’ve been anything else.
47. “Identifying Features”
Director: Fernanda Valadez
Cast: Mercedes Hernandez, David Illescas, Juan Jesus Varela, Ana Laura Rodriguez
Accolades: Gotham Award for Best International Feature; Sundance World Cinema Dramatic Audience Award and Best Screenplay
Read IndieWire’s review: Fernanda Valadez’s feature directorial debut “Identifying Features” takes a seemingly tear-jerking concept — one beset by knotty bureaucratic issues, painful language barriers, and the sense of further danger around every bend — and turns it into an artfully made and unflinching rumination of life on the margins. Valadez’s story (co-written with the film’s editor Astrid Rondero) could easily have inspired a familiar tale of shattered lives against the backdrop of immigration issues and Mexican cartel violence. Instead, “Identifying Features” eschews the usual tropes. The result is a drama rooted in liminal explorations and unanswerable questions, as confounding as it is satisfying.
46. “Nightmare Alley”
Director: Guillermo del Toro
Cast: Bradley Cooper, Cate Blanchett, Rooney Mara, Toni Collette, Richard Jenkins, David Strathairn, Willem Dafoe, Ron Perlman
Accolades: AFI Award
Read IndieWire’s review: Adapted from William Lindsay Gresham’s jet-black 1946 novel of the same name (but even more indebted to the 1947 Edmund Goulding adaptation starring Tyrone Power), “Nightmare Alley” is the first del Toro movie that features no supernatural elements whatsoever. That’s enough to indicate a major change of pace, but the most significant departure this glossy abscess of a noir makes from its director’s previous work is here, men are the only monsters (along with a woman or two).
45. “Parallel Mothers”
Director: Pedro Almodóvar
Cast: Penélope Cruz, Milena Smit, Israel Elejalde, Rossy de Palma
Accolades: Venice Film Festival Award for Best Actress
Read IndieWire’s review: Pedro Almodóvar has made some radical and transgressive films in his time, but it’s fair to say that “Parallel Mothers” isn’t one of them. Not that that’s a complaint. The opening film at this year’s Venice Film Festival, “Parallel Mothers” offers many delights, one of which is that it ushers Almodóvar fans back to his comfortingly familiar milieu.
Once again, we get to settle into those stylish apartments and pavement cafes in sunny Madrid (the film is set between 2016 and 2018, so there’s not a face mask in sight); we get to admire the to-die-for furniture and the snazzy clothes which just happen to have some vibrant reds, blues, greens, and yellows; we get to hear Alberto Iglesias’s palpitating orchestral music as the plot twists and tightens; and we get to see a tousled Penélope Cruz acting up a storm, while looking superhumanly gorgeous: her flicking false eyelashes deserve an award of their own.
Director: Joe Wright
Cast: Peter Dinklage, Haley Bennett, Kelvin Harrison Jr.
Accolades: Detroit Film Critics winner for Best Film and Best Actor
Read IndieWire’s review: Maybe it’s just the clown makeup and corsets talking, but there are moments during Wright’s “Cyrano” — such as the literal rap battle during which Cyrano trades rhymes with a foe while they fence to the death — that delude you into thinking this must be the most gonzo work of mainstream art that someone has made in defiance of a plague since “The Decameron.” Is it good? In parts! Is it intoxicated with the same demented bravado that its namesake embodies when he sneaks behind the enemy lines of the Franco-Spanish War, but tragically lacks whenever he’s alone with his true love Roxanne (a ravishing Haley Bennett, with whom Wright himself is besotted in real life)? Absolutely. And that’s plenty to sing about.
Director: Dea Kulumbegashvili
Cast: Ia Sukhitashvili, Rati Oneli, Kakha Kintsurashvili, Saba Gogichaishvili
Accolades: San Sebastián winner for Best Film, Screenplay, Director, and Actress; TIFF FIPRESCI Discovery prize
Read IndieWire’s review: In a modern world that wants to think of itself in widescreen, the squarish 1:33 aspect ratio and the similarly claustrophobic “Academy ratio” have been somewhat ostracized as outliers — relegated to the province of arthouse filmmakers who primarily use them to express confinement of some kind (“Fish Tank,” “First Reformed,” and “Mommy” represent just a small handful of recent examples). Dea Kulumbegashvili’s luminously powerful “Beginning” was shot in 1:33 to much the same effect, but this auspicious debut has a more violent and involved relationship with its framing than most of its contemporaries.
Director: Mamoru Hosoda
Cast: Kaho Nakamura, Takeru Satoh, Koji Yakusho, Lilas Ikuta
Read IndieWire’s review: “Beauty and the Beast” meets online bullying in a hyper-modern anime riff on the classic fairy tale (or at least the Disney version of it), as “Miraï” director Mamoru Hosoda pushes his boundless imagination to new extremes in a visually dazzling musical about how J-Pop can save the world. If that seems like too much ground for a cartoon to cover in the span of a two-hour coming-of-age story, keep in mind that Hosoda has a knack for reaching familiar places in rivetingly unexpected fashions. Case in point: The heroine of “Belle” enters the movie atop a flying humpback whale that’s barnacled with hundreds of stereo speakers.
41. “Test Pattern”
Director: Shatara Michelle Ford
Cast: Brittany S. Hall, Will Brill
Accolades: Film Independent Spirit nominations for Best First Feature and Best Female Lead
Read IndieWire’s review: First-time feature filmmaker Shatara Michelle Ford squeezes a lot out of 82 minutes. In “Test Pattern,” a perceptive and often quite painful examination of sexual assault, relationship dynamics, racial divides, and the corrosive power of violence, the writer and director mines a dizzying amount of topical issues, tying them all up as a compelling two-hander to boot. Despite the density of their subject, Ford avoids heavy-handed platitudes and dramatic tropes, instead relying on a strong script and a pair of sneakily powerful performances from stars Brittany S. Hall and Will Brill. The result is a showcase for the film’s central trio, one that resonates long after the film’s slim running time concludes.
Director: Clint Bentley
Cast: Clifton Collins Jr., Moises Arias, Molly Parker
Accolades: AFI FEST Audience Award, Sundance Special Jury Award for Best Actor
Read IndieWire’s review: Mickey Rourke’s worn-out griping in “The Wrestler” that he’s a “broken-down piece of meat” might put you somewhat in the headspace of the character that Clifton Collins, Jr. plays in “Jockey.” He’s a, as the title promises, jockey, but at the end of his tether, and grappling with the bodily consequences of years of injuries sustained from falling off the horse both proverbial and literal, and trying to get back up on it one more time. Director Clint Bentley’s immersive drama wants to evoke the kind of exhausted, world-weary atmosphere conjured by postmodern westerns like “Hud,” and the film mostly succeeds, even if it tends to veer closer toward the heartwarming in place of harder, grittier truths.
39. “Nine Days”
Director: Edson Oda
Cast: Winston Duke, Zazie Beetz, Benedict Wong, Tony Hale, Bill Skarsgård, David Rysdahl, and Arianna Ortiz
Accolades: Sundance Dramatic Screenwriting Award
Read IndieWire’s review: “Nine Days” takes a ludicrous premise and plays it straight. Writer-director Edson Oda’s innovative drama revolves around the tireless plight of Will (Winston Duke), a jaded middle-manager trapped in a purgatorial cycle of interviewing souls for the opportunity of life. Oda’s script is rich with bold ideas, beginning with the surreal notion of entire lives unfolding through VHS tapes and climaxes with a hyperbolic recitation of Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself.” It’s an enchanting fantasy bookended with genuine emotional beats. Somewhere in between them, however, it settles into a dreary slog bogged down by repetitive existential blather over the course of two hours, as if enmeshed in a soul-searching journey of its own.
38. “The Card Counter”
Director: Paul Schrader
Cast: Oscar Isaac, Tiffany Haddish, Tye Sheridan, and Willem Dafoe
Accolades: Venice Film Festival Golden Lion nominee
Read IndieWire’s review: What’s riveting about “The Card Counter” — what makes it a fresh riff on Schrader’s usual formula, and broadly absolves it from lacking the transcendent power of a “First Reformed” — is that William Tell (Oscar Isaac) is actually trying to work out a clean answer. He’s trying to take expiation into his own hands and live to enjoy it. The math is more absolute with blackjack than hold ‘em, but a good poker player can look right through the cards, and William is nothing if not a good poker player. If he can see into someone else’s soul, maybe he can see into his own. And if he can see into his own soul, odds are that he might even be able to fix it from within the purgatory of his own existence before heaven and hell have to get involved.
Director: Pablo Larraín
Cast: Kristen Stewart, Timothy Spall, Jack Farthing, Sean Harris, Sally Hawkins
Read IndieWire’s review: With “Spencer,” director Larraín and screenwriter Steven Knight have devised an often-unnerving portrait of a pop icon that works from the (almost certainly correct) assumption that in the hearts and minds of today’s public, those two facets of Diana’s story are inextricably linked. Without delving into the specifics of what happened one terrible night in Paris, Diana’s sad fate hangs over the film like a shroud, informing everything that follows.
Director: Janicza Bravo
Cast: Taylour Paige, Riley Keough, Colman Domingo, Nicholas Braun
Accolades: Film Independent Spirit Award nominations for Best Feature, Female Lead, Director, Best Screenplay, Best Supporting Male
Read IndieWire’s review: If the evolution of creativity in the 21st century means that Twitter feeds can fuel feature-length adaptations, “Zola” is a terrific place to start. Director Janicza Bravo’s zany road trip comedy about a pair of strippers on a rambunctious 48-hour Florida adventure embodies its ludicrous source while jazzing it up with relentless cinematic beats. Bravo, who co-wrote the movie with “Slave Play” breakout Jeremy O. Harris, applies the surreal and edgy sensibilities of her unsettling dark comic short “Gregory Go Boom” and the similarly outré “Lemon” to another jittery look at anxious people driven to self-destructive extremes. This time, their antics result in a rambunctious crowdpleaser made all the more compelling because it’s true.
35. “Preparations to Be Together for an Unknown Period of Time”
Director: Lili Horvát
Cast: Natasa Stork, Viktor Bodo
Accolades: Chicago Film Festival Gold Hugo Award in New Directors Competition
Read IndieWire’s review: Had Jesse and Celine actually met six months after the events of “Before Sunrise” as planned, had they gone horribly wrong to the point where one of the parties couldn’t even remember the other, and had they both been neurosurgeons, the scenario might look something like “Preparations to Be Together for an Unknown Period of Time.” Such a mouthful of a title, poetic and unwieldy, belies the starkness of Hungarian writer/director Lili Horvát’s haunting and mysterious second feature, a kind of amnesiac love story crossed with the gloomiest of Krzysztof Kieślowski movies, and bordering on existential science fiction. Even if the conceit winds up a little undercooked, and a loopy ending doesn’t quite stick the landing, the filmmaking is exacting and assured, pulling us in like a current into the heart of a most strange romantic mystery.
34. “In the Same Breath”
Director: Nanfu Wang
Accolades: SXSW Audience Award winner
Read IndieWire’s review: It’s no surprise that many of the COVID-themed documentaries rushed out since the pandemic started lead to where the damage lies — overflowing hospital corridors and rampant governmental dysfunction. Even as Nanfu Wang’s “In the Same Breath” visits those same sore points, it foregrounds one more crucial factor with infuriating detail: disinformation.
Wang’s absorbing first-person account of the coronavirus outbreak initially seems like it’s treading familiar ground, tracking the outbreak of the virus in Wuhan and government propaganda efforts to pretend it’s under control. With time, however, Wang turns the tables on her Western audience, illustrating how those same lies emanated from American airwaves months later.
The result is a sturdy and illuminating essay film that doesn’t exactly break news, but delivers a sobering message about the way the dangers of disinformation spread across the planet just in time to do serious damage.
33. “El Planeta”
Director: Amalia Ulman
Cast: Amalia Ulman, Ale Ulman, Nacho Vigalondo
Accolades: Gotham Awards Best Screenplay and Best Breakthrough Performer nominations
Read IndieWire’s review: Think “Tiny Furniture” by way of “Paper Moon”: In a tender and playful riff on the art-imitating-life conceit, Ulman acts opposite her real-life mother, Ale Ulman, an acting novice who nevertheless gives a fun and zany performance as a diva in denial. The pair apparently did endure a bout of homelessness in their time together, and Ulman truly went to London for school. No matter how much the movie departs from the specifics of their experiences — and the way things work out, it’s pretty clear that it does — the real-life bond between the women helps cement the movie in genuine chemistry even as it zigs and zags through a leisurely plot.
32. “Red Rocket”
Director: Sean Baker
Cast: Simon Rex, Suzanna Son, Bree Elrod
Accolades: Cannes Palme d’Or nominee
Read IndieWire’s review: Former porn star Mikey Saber (Simon Rex) might be “blessed” — at least according to the sore underage girl he’s grooming during a post-coital chat in the flatbed of her pickup truck — but the reality of the situation is that the guy is nothing less than a living curse. He’s a big-dicked, self-obsessed, hyper-opportunistic hex of a man whose puppy dog con artist schtick is so transparent that even naive teenagers can see right through it, which is exactly why people lower their guard and let him in. Into their houses; into their panties; into their dreams for the future that Mikey incepts into their heads for his own benefit. And he doesn’t stop trying to weasel his way deeper into any of those things for a single minute of Sean Baker’s utterly singular and weirdly lovable “Red Rocket,” a roman candle of a movie that wonders if America’s pathological narcissism will ever burn itself out.
31. “The Velvet Underground”
Director: Todd Haynes
Read IndieWire’s review: Hypnotically vibrating in the fuzzy black space between a very special episode of “Behind the Music” and the longest film that Stan Brakhage never made, Todd Haynes’ “The Velvet Underground” is a documentary (his first) by a man whose previous musical tributes include a glam-rock fantasia that gave David Bowie the “Citizen Kane” treatment, a “Mishima”-esque kaleidoscope that refracted Bob Dylan through the infinity mirror of his own myth, and an underground Karen Carpenter biopic that cast the late singer as a literal Barbie doll. It makes Haynes’ choice to make a comparatively straightforward non-fiction movie about his favorite band is a curious one, and it calls implicit attention to the kind of artistic intentionality that most womb-to-tomb music docs only highlight in their subjects.
Director: Leos Carax
Cast: Adam Driver, Marion Cotillard, Simon Helberg
Accolades: Cannes Best Director Award
Read IndieWire’s review: Combining the energizing compositions of Sparks with Carax’s ever-enigmatic creativity, “Annette” powers through its expressive rock opera conceit with a propulsive Adam Driver at its center. He sings through virtually every scene as if the world depended on it. And for the purposes of this movie, it does: Carax’s first directorial effort that he didn’t write, “Annette” turns on the peculiar balance of the Sparks’ compositions, Carax’s operatic style, and Driver’s deranged performance as a comedian doomed to fail. Sure, there’s also a wooden baby that sings and the occasional cutaway to a melancholic gorilla, but they all exist to support the larger cause.
Director: Julia Ducournau
Cast: Agathe Rousselle, Vincent Lindon, Garance Marillier, Bertrand Bonello
Read IndieWire’s review: Following the cannibalistic “Raw” with another ravenous film that pushes her fascination with the hunger and malleability of human flesh to even further extremes, Ducournau has made good on the promise of her debut and then some. Whatever you’re willing to take from it, there’s no denying that “Titane” is the work of a demented visionary in full command of her wild mind; a shimmering aria of fire and metal that introduces itself as the psychopathic lovechild of David Cronenberg’s “Crash” and Shinya Tsukamoto’s “Tetsuo: The Iron Man” before shapeshifting into a modern fable about how badly people just need someone to take care of them and vice-versa.
28. “What Do We See When We Look at the Sky?”
Director: Alexandre Koberidze
Cast: Ani Karseladze, Giorgi Bochorishvili
Accolades: Berlin Film Festival FIPRESCI Prize
Read IndieWire’s review: Movies can truly be anything, and the beauty of Alexandre Koberidze’s lyrical and ineffably romantic “What Do We See When We Look at the Sky?” is how it reminds us of that — time and again — during almost every one of its meandering 150 minutes.
Nevertheless, a crucial scene towards the beginning stands out for the way it epitomizes that magic. A soccer player named Giorgi (Giorgi Ambroladze) and a knowledgeable young pharmacist named Lisa (Ani Karseladze) have just enjoyed an extremely Lanthimos-esque meet-cute along the banks of the Rioni River in the ancient Georgian city of Kutaisi; we’ve only seen them interact from the knees down or through nighttime long shots lensed from so far away that these characters have been reduced to specks of light in the darkness, but the film’s affectless narrator (voiced by Koberidze himself) assures us of their shared affections. Alas, they are both about to be cursed as well, if only because true love should never be so easy to find.
Director: Sian Heder
Cast: Emilia Jones, Marlee Matlin, Troy Kotsur, Eugenio Derbez, Ferdia Walsh-Peelo, Daniel Durant
Accolades: Gotham Award for Outstanding Supporting Performance (Kotsur); Sundance Audience Award, Directing Award, Grand Jury Prize, and Special Jury Award
Read IndieWire’s review: There’s little surprising about the shape of director Sian Heder’s latest feature: It’s a family drama and a coming-of-age tale that combines familiar beats about finding yourself, breaking free of your family, and making plenty of mistakes along the way into one tear-jerking package. Yet what “CODA” lacks in storytelling originality, it more than makes up for with other touches of ingenuity. Chief among them is that it’s a film that focuses on a deaf family and treats their woes as being just as worthy — and relatable — as innumerable other stories that, at least, initially feel just like it.
26. “The Disciple”
Director: Chaitanya Tamhane
Cast: Aditya Modak, Sumitra Bhave, Arun Dravid
Read: Venice FIPRESCI Prize, TIFF Amplify Voices Award
Read IndieWire’s review: Northern Indian classical music sounds like nothing other than itself: The jangling of the sitar and the meditational warbling of the improvised vocals known as raga have a profound ancient quality that taps into the mystery of human existence. Ravi Shankar may be the name most closely associated with popularizing such melodies in the West, but the art form (known as Hindustani music) extends well beyond the accomplishments of one man. That’s the hard truth faced by Sharad (real-life musician and acting newcomer Aditya Modak) in Chaitanya Tamhane’s brilliant sophomore drama “The Disciple,” the story of an idealistic young performer who dreams of capturing the magic of a musical traditional that he may lack the talent to achieve himself. In Tamhane’s dreamy, transcendent character study, the undulating raga melodies serve as a transformative portal to self-discovery that places the audiences in the confines of its entrancing power.
Director: Paul Verhoeven
Cast: Virginie Efira, Charlotte Rampling, Daphne Patakia, Lambert Wilson
Accolades: Included in National Board of Review’s Top Five Foreign Language Films
Read IndieWire’s review: “Benedetta” is a movie in which the abbess of a convent gets fucked by a wooden statue of the Virgin Mary that someone has whittled into a dildo for her. The director of “Robocop,” “Showgirls,” and “Starship Troopers” has never had much use for subtlety or unspoken yearning, and his unholy adaptation of Judith C. Brown’s history book “Immodest Acts” feels closer in spirit to “The Devils” than “Portrait of a Lady on Fire” even before the film supplements its source material with a dick-less Christ, demonic omens, and a COVID-ready subplot about the efficacy of lockdown measures against the Plague.
24. “Bad Luck Banging or Loony Porn”
Director: Radu Jude
Cast: Katia Pascariu, Claudia Ieremia, Olimpia Mălai
Accolades: Berlin Film Festival Golden Bear
Read IndieWire’s review: The brilliance of “Bad Luck Banging or Loony Porn,” Romanian director Radu Jude’s astonishing Berlinale Golden Bear-winning satire, comes from a most unusual combination by jamming together two very different kind of movies that shouldn’t work in harmony, but end up making perfect sense. The filmmaker’s bold approach suggests what might happen if someone spliced a late-period Jean-Luc Godard essay film into the middle of “The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie,” with such mesmerizing results that you just have to roll with it. One of European cinema’s most unclassifiable auteurs has delivered the bitter pill we deserve.
23. “A Hero”
Director: Asghar Farhadi
Cast: Amir Jadidi , Mohsen Tanabandeh, and Alireza Jahandideh
Accolades: Cannes Film Festival Grand Jury Prize
Read IndieWire’s review: Farhadi plays to his strengths with “A Hero,” as he takes a classic premise and spins it around and around and around with enough centrifugal force to keep you rooted in place even as your sympathies fly in every conceivable direction. By the time this expertly constructed ethical clusterfuck finally slows to a stop, the simplest film that Farhadi has made since his international breakthrough 10 years ago has somehow become the most ambivalent, and also the best (although making such a pronouncement with certainty seems almost antithetical to the spirit of a movie that obliviates your judgement at every turn).
22. “Bergman Island”
Director: Mia Hansen-Love
Cast: Vicky Krieps, Tim Rother, Mia Wasikowska, Anders Danielsen Lie
Accolades: Cannes Palme d’Or nominee
Read IndieWire’s review: “Bergman Island” — a triple-layered meta-romance about a filmmaker who flies to Sweden with her partner and pitches him a screenplay about her first love — is such a rare and remarkable movie for the very same reason that you wouldn’t expect it to exist in the first place. Set on the remote skerry in the Baltic Sea that Bergman adopted as his home and began to terraform with his artistic persona after making “Through a Glass Darkly” there in 1961, Hansen-Løve’s zephyr-calm story of loss, love, and artistic reclamation draws such an extreme contrast to the scorched Earth films that have become synonymous with Fårö that even its nighttime scenes reveal the shadows that fiction has the power to cast across reality.
Director: Kenneth Branagh
Cast: Ciarán Hinds, Judi Dench, Caitriona Balfe, Jude Hill, Jamie Dornan
Accolades: AFI Special Award, National Board of Review winner for Best Supporting Actor (Hinds) and inclusion among top films of the year
Read IndieWire’s review: A black-and-white cine-memoir that’s remembered through rose-colored glasses, Kenneth Branagh’s cutesy and broadly unaffecting “Belfast” is every bit the contradiction in terms that it sounds like. Some of that seems by design: Inspired by the writer-director’s bittersweet impressions of being a nine-year-old boy in Northern Ireland as the Troubles first spread to his street (which was still integrated between Protestants and Catholics in the summer of 1969), Branagh’s film is the portrait of a fading Shangri-La.
Director: Tsai Ming-liang
Cast: Lee Kang-sheng, Anong Houngheuangsy
Accolades: Berlinale Teddy Award
Read IndieWire’s review: Shot piecemeal without a script across three countries and five years before it was reverse-engineered into a simple yet achingly tender story of ships passing in the night, “Days” represents something of a departure for Tsai even before it climaxes with the most piercingly sentimental moment he’s ever filmed (it also includes a climax of a different kind, but that’s par for the course from a filmmaker who’s long seen hand jobs and masturbation as signifiers of loneliness). There’s no mistaking the man behind the camera for someone else: “Days” opens with a long shot of Lee watching the rain from a chair inside the nice but fittingly minimalist home Tsai shares with his star and platonic life partner, as if watching the storm from the end of “Stray Dogs” as it whimpers away. And yet the catch-as-catch-can approach of a film that was captured without any clear sense of what it might eventually become endows this movie with an intractable nowness that prohibits the “fall of man” vibe of Tsai’s earlier work from creeping back in.
19. “The Tragedy of Macbeth”
Director: Joel Coen
Cast: Cast: Denzel Washington, Frances McDormand, Brendan Gleeson, Corey Hawkins, Alex Hassell, Harry Melling, Moses Ingram, Kathryn Hunter
Accolades: NYFCC award for Best Supporting Actress (Hunter), AFI Award
Read IndieWire’s review: The Scottish Play has been adapted into more than 25 different movies since J. Stuart Blackton first gave it a whirl in 1908, and yet Joel Coen’s “The Tragedy of Macbeth” is such a strange hybrid between cinema and theater that it seems to exist in a realm all its own. Shot in atemporal black-and-white on a Los Angeles soundstage made to resemble the half-empty guts of a leaky snow-globe, this dark lucid dream of a film might be the latest example of a grand tradition, but its hermetically sealed design makes it sound more like an echo chamber. There are mad whispers bleeding through the concrete walls — dark thoughts that curve around the fake night sky — but the voices seem to be coming from inside the castle.
18. “West Side Story”
Director: Steven Spielberg
Cast: Rachel Zegler, Ariana DeBose, Ansel Elgort, David Alvarez, Mike Faist, Rita Moreno
Accolades: AFI Award, NYFCC award for Best Cinematography. National Board of Review Best Actress award (Zegler)
Read IndieWire’s review: When this “West Side Story” is good, though, it can be staggeringly great. That greatness is on full display from the opening shot, which tweaks the inimitably wordless prologue of the 1961 film just enough to justify doing it all over again. The very first thing we see is something that would have been impossible for the previous version, and not only because it’s part of a computer-assisted aerial shot that zips around the rubble of the Upper West Side neighborhoods that Robert Moses created in order to build Lincoln Center, but rather because the camera leaps over a mock-up of the completed facility as it looked when it opened in 1962. The message is clear: This is the “West Side Story” you know and love, only revitalized by a distance that Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins never got to have from it.
17. “Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy”
Director: Ryusuke Hamaguchi
Cast: Kotone Furukawa, Katsuki Mori, and Fusako Urabe
Read IndieWire’s review: A playful triptych of self-contained vignettes (complete with their own credit blocks) that are bound together by a shared fascination with memory, coincidence, and the deep truths that shallow lies tend to uncover, Hamaguchi Ryūsuke’s wonderfully beguiling “Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy” is neither fish nor fowl. It feels more like a single film than it does a trio of smaller ones that have been stitched together into a makeshift anthology, but the finished product is only greater than the sum of its parts because Hamaguchi understands that the best short fiction isn’t just a travel-sized version of something bigger. On the contrary, the short stories he tells here are so delightful because they operate in a way that “long” ones don’t.
16. “The Lost Daughter”
Director: Maggie Gyllenhaal
Cast: Olivia Colman, Jessie Buckley, Dakota Johnson, Ed Harris
Accolades: NYFCC winner for Best First Film, Gotham awards for Best Feature, Breakthrough Director, Best Screenplay, and Best Lead Performance (Colman)
Read IndieWire’s review: When Olivia Colman’s Leda stumbles and collapses onto the pebbly sand of a twilit Greek beach in the very opening scene of Maggie Gyllenhaal’s uncannily accomplished, indefinably disturbing and deeply affecting directorial debut “The Lost Daughter,” she is wearing white. This is not unusual for Leda, nor heavily symbolic; it’s a blouse and skirt, not a wedding dress or a shroud. But as the title appears boldly over her prone form, and Dickon Hinchliffe’s melodic, throwback score first plinks out like the never-resolving piano intro to an old pop song, and if you know your Yeats, there’s a chance you might think of some lines of his which talk about a staggering girl and then go “And how can body, laid in that white rush/But feel the strange heart beating where it lies?”
15. “Summer of Soul”
Accolades: AFI Special Award; Critics Choice awards for Best Documentary, First Documentary, Editing, Archival Documentary, Music Documentary, and Director; Sundance Film Festival Documentary Grand Jury Prize and Audience Award winner
Read IndieWire’s review: A pulsating panorama of “Black, beautiful, proud” people, “Summer of Soul (Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised),” is a joyous and welcome addition to the documentary subgenre of rock festivals. But this one, which marks the directorial debut of The Roots drummer Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson, comes with a most unfortunate history: Its film reels were buried in a basement for 50 years, largely unseen, until now.
Director: Michael Sarnoski
Cast: Nicolas Cage, Alex Wolff
Accolades: National Board of Review award for Directorial Debut
Read IndieWire’s review: Given Nicolas Cage’s penchant for playing destructive, retribution-seeking lunatics, you wouldn’t be remiss for thinking “Pig” to be yet another vehicle for the actor to seek hell-raising vengeance. But alas, “Mandy” this is not, and in the case of Michael Sarnoski’s feature directorial debut about a more or less Buddhist truffle hunter, that’s a very good thing. This gentle, soulful drama (spiked with a few thriller elements and a couple of scenes of harrowing violence) is a gust of fresh wind in the long and recent lineup of Nicolas Cage films where the actor pushes himself to the brink of physical and emotional extremes. Instead, this is a patient, tender, and musing philosophical film about an isolated woodsman and his beloved pig.
Director: Denis Villeneuve
Cast: Timothée Chalamet, Josh Brolin, Rebecca Ferguson, Stellan Skarsgaard, Charlotte Rampling, Jason Momoa, Oscar Isaac, Dave Bautista, Javier Bardem, David Dastmalchian
Accolades: AFI Award and National Board of Review awards
Read IndieWire’s review: In the end, Denis Villeneuve was all too right: Your television isn’t big enough for the scope of his “Dune,” but that’s only because this lifeless spice opera is told on such a comically massive scale that a screen of any size would struggle to contain it. Likewise, no story — let alone the misshapen first half of one — could ever hope to support the enormity of what Villeneuve tries to build over the course of these interminable 155 minutes (someone mentions that time is measured differently on Arrakis), or the sheer weight of the self-serious portent that he pounds into every shot. For all of Villeneuve’s awe-inducing vision, he loses sight of why Frank Herbert’s foundational sci-fi opus is worthy of this epic spectacle in the first place. Such are the pitfalls of making a movie so large that not even its director can see around the sets.
12. “The Green Knight”
Director: David Lowery
Cast: Dev Patel, Alicia Vikander, Barry Keoghan, Joel Edgerton, Ralph Ineson, Sarita Choudhury, Kate Dickie
Read IndieWire’s review: A mystical and enthralling medieval coming-of-age story in which King Arthur’s overeager adult nephew learns that the world is weirder and more complicated than he ever thought possible, “The Green Knight” is an intimate epic told with the self-conviction that its hero struggles to find at every turn. Stoned out of its mind and shot with a genre-tweaking mastery that should make John Boorman proud, it’s also the rare movie that knows exactly what it is, which is an even rarer movie that’s perfectly comfortable not knowing exactly what it is.
11. “The Souvenir Part II”
Director: Joanna Hogg
Cast: Honor Swinton Byrne, David Ayoade, Joe Alwyn, Harris Dickinson, Ariana Labed, Tilda Swinton, Charlie Heaton
Accolades: National Board of Review Top 10 Independent Films mention
Read IndieWire’s review: We arrive at “The Souvenir Part II,” an extraordinary work of meta-fiction which continues where the previous film left off, and subverts the fastidiousness of its construction to illuminate why Hogg felt the need to make it in the first place. As vulnerable as its predecessor and textured with the same velvet sense of becoming, “Part II” adds new layers of depth and distance to the looking glass of Hogg’s self-reflection, as it follows Julie through the fraught process of making her graduation film… a short which just so happens to be the tragic story of a 25-year-old London girl’s relationship with an older heroic addict.
10. “C’mon C’mon”
Director: Mike Mills
Cast: Joaquin Phoenix, Gaby Hoffmann, Scoot McNairy, Jaboukie Young-White, Woody Norman
Accolades: National Board of Review Top 10 Independent Films
Read IndieWire’s review: Mike Mills makes sweet and ineffably gracious movies about how people don’t know what the future holds or how the fuck they’re supposed to get there, and “C’mon C’mon” is definitely one of them. A shaggy black-and-white mood piece about an unmarried radio journalist (Joaquin Phoenix) who unexpectedly finds himself on a cross-country assignment with his nine-year-old nephew (Woody Norman) in tow, Mills’ latest film might bop around from Los Angeles to New York and New Orleans, but it never strays far from an ethos best expressed by Greta Gerwig’s character in “20th Century Women”: “Whatever you imagine your life is going to be like, know your life is not going to be anything like that.”
Director: Rebecca Hall
Cast: Tessa Thompson, Ruth Negga, Alexander Skarsgard, Andre Holland
Accolades: Sundance Grand Jury Prize Award nominee
Read IndieWire’s review: In the mid-1920s, budding writer Nella Larsen set her eyes on joining the ranks of the rising “New Negro” writers spilling out of the Harlem Renaissance like Rudolph Fisher, Zora Neale Hurston, Langston Hughes, and their leader and mentor Alain Locke. The Chicago native even relocated from New Jersey to Harlem to better place herself — and her husband, trailblazing physicist Elmer Imes — in the heart of the cultural action. While Larsen has not yet enjoyed the full recognition of her contemporaries, she produced two remarkable novels that continue to enthrall readers. The best known of the pair is “Passing,” a complex examination of race and sexuality set against the backdrop of the same ’20s-era Harlem that Larsen was so keen to be part of.
8. “Petite Maman”
Director: Celine Sciamma
Cast: Joséphine Sanz, Gabrielle Sanz, Nina Meurisse
Accolades: Stockholm Film Festival Award for Best Film
Read IndieWire’s review: Eight-year-old Nelly (Joséphine Sanz) sits in the backseat of her mother’s car outside of the nursing home where her beloved grandmother has just died, and watches through the window as her young parents (Nina Meurisse and Stéphane Varupenne) share a tender embrace. The half-quizzical look on Nelly’s face suggests that she hasn’t seen them hug in a while — that perhaps this moment is doubly charged. She wonders what they mean to each other, and what it feels like to lose someone forever, and whether her mother ever sat alone in a car on a gray fall afternoon and watched as her mother was consoled over her mother’s death. Nelly understands that her mom didn’t become 31 without being eight along the way, but why is that so hard to imagine? It’s like looking at a bird and trying to picture when it was a dinosaur.
Director: Jonas Poher Rasmussen
Accolades: European Film Awards for Documentary and Animated Feature, Gotham Award for Best Documentary, NYFCC Award for Best Non-Fiction Film, Sundance Grand Jury Prize
Read IndieWire’s review: There have been countless movies about the immigration crisis, but none of them have the sheer ingenuity of “Flee.” In Danish filmmaker Jonas Poher Rasmussen’s poignant animated documentary, an Afghan refugee recounts his 20-year survival story, and the dazzling storytelling goes there with him. Yet the remarkable graphic stye works in tandem with a narrative that would stun in any format: As the man — identified only by a pseudonym, Amin Nawabi — gradually opens up about his experiences, “Flee” builds to a powerful secret buried in his past that reframes the global migrant crisis in intimate terms.
6. “The French Dispatch”
Director: Wes Anderson
Cast: Bill Murray, Tilda Swinton, Jeffrey Wright, Frances McDormand, Timothee Chalamet, Lea Seydoux, Benicio del Toro
Read IndieWire’s review: So much has been made about the precise frames, the vibrant colors, and the deadpan delivery of Anderson’s work, but less about the substance beneath it. Anderson’s movies may be pretty, whimsical flights of fancy, but they also express genuine curiosity about the strange nature of human relations. The people at the center of “The French Dispatch” do that, too: This charming sketchbook of stories about American expatriates in France delivers a welcome salute to storytelling as a way to make sense of the world. A freewheeling three-part salute to old-school journalism in general and The New Yorker in particular, the movie works in fits and starts, swapping narrative cohesion for charming small doses of wit and wonder about odd people and places worth your time.
Director: Apichatpong Weerasethakul
Cast: Tilda Swinton, Juan Pablo Urrego
Accolades: Cannes Jury Prize
Read IndieWire’s review: “Memoria” begins with the first jump scare in Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s career, but the sudden impact isn’t as relevant as the way it resonates in the silence that follows. Anyone familiar with the slow-burn lyricism at the center of the Thai director’s work knows how he adheres to a dreamlike logic that takes its time to settle in. The Colombia-set “Memoria,” his first movie made outside his native country, does that as well as anything in “Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives” or “Cemetery of Splendor.” But this time around, there’s a profound existential anxiety creeping in.
4. “The Worst Person in the World”
Director: Joachim Trier
Cast: Renate Reinsve, Anders Danielsen Lie
Accolades: Cannes Best Actress Award
Read IndieWire’s review: Julie (Renate Reinsve) is a smart Norwegian med school student in her late 20s who looks as much like Dakota Johnson as Dakota Johnson ever has. Director Joaquin Trier underscores her allure as we first meet her, poised on a balcony above downtown Oslo in a backless cocktail dress, so strongly that he even racks focus on the city behind her until it’s just a blur. She has the world at her feet, and the rat-a-tat narration can hardly keep up with her roiling sense of youthful possibility. But as anyone who’s ever wasted an hour aimlessly scrolling through Netflix knows all too well, having too many options can keep you from committing to any one of them; the bigger the menu, the harder it is to feel like you ordered the right meal.
3. “Licorice Pizza”
Director: Paul Thomas Anderson
Cast: Alana Haim, Cooper Hoffman, Bradley Cooper, Sean Penn, Benny Safdie
Accolades: National Board of Review awards for Best Film, Best Director, and Breakthrough Performance (Haim and Hoffman); AFI Award; NYFCC Award for Best Screenplay
Read IndieWire’s review: Paul Thomas Anderson’s holyfuckingshitIlovemovies-great “Licorice Pizza” is undeniably a coming-of-age movie — his first clear-cut contribution to a genre defined by the kind of pathological self-invention and animalistic need for acceptance that have also fueled each of his eight previous features — but it’s not really about growing up. For one thing, both of its leads have already grown up (or at least aggressively sideways) to a certain extent, and just need someone to recognize the people they’ve become in the process. For another, there’s always been a terminally childish quality to even Anderson’s oldest characters.
2. “Drive My Car”
Director: Ryusuke Hamaguchi
Cast: Hidetoshi Nishijima, Toko Miura
Accolades: Cannes Best Screenplay Award, NYFCC Best Film Award, Gotham Best International Feature Award
Read IndieWire’s review: Adapted by “Happy Hour” and “Asako I & II” auteur Ryûsuke Hamaguchi from a short story by Haruki Murakami, “Drive My Car” is a head-on collision between an emerging filmmaker fascinated by the interior lives of women, and a famous author who… is not (to say nothing of his other charms, Murakami is more into mysterious pixie dream girls). But these two wildly disparate storytellers aren’t the only people vying for control of the wheel in this beguiling three-hour gem, as a third major figure is soon introduced to help steer them in the same direction: legendary playwright Anton Chekhov.
1. “The Power of the Dog”
Director: Jane Campion
Cast: Benedict Cumberbatch, Kirsten Dunst, Kodi Smit-McPhee, Jesse Plemmons
Accolades: NYFCC Awards for Best Director, Best Actor (Cumberbatch), and Best Supporting Actor (Smit-McPhee); Venice Best Director Award; AFI Award
Read IndieWire’s review: Jane Campion has kept busy enough in the 12 years since her last feature-length film, but her ice-blooded “The Power of the Dog” leaves the distinct impression that she spent every minute of that time sitting in a dark room and sharpening the same knife. Now, the “In the Cut” auteur returns with a poison-tipped dagger of a Western drama wrapped in rawhide and old rope; a brilliant, murderous fable about masculine strength that’s so diamond-toothed its victims are already half dead by the time they see the first drop of their own blood.
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