It’s IndieWire’s now-familiar – and still very true – reframe: anyone who thinks this year (read: any year) has been bad for movies simply hasn’t seen enough of them. While the 2021 landscape looked a fair bit different than that of 2020 – for one thing, in-person festival attendance and theater-going returned, if cautiously and with plenty of new protocols – the ability to see films beyond the big screen has only continued apace. And while many might bemoan the degradation of the “movie-going experience,” no matter how you saw the best of this year’s beefy batch, it was worth it.
Look no further than our top two films, both new offerings from some of contemporary cinema’s most enduring and exciting auteurs, for proof that the delivery service is hardly as important as the art being, well, delivered. Jane Campion’s masterful, menacing “The Power of the Dog” premiered at Venice, enjoyed a limited theatrical release, and is now (right this very minute!) available to stream on Netflix. Paul Thomas Anderson’s “Licorice Pizza” skipped a festival premiere, heading straight into limited release (with a fittingly unique strategy), before rolling out in other cities in the coming weeks. And yet both of these films are the best of the year. Go figure!
In a year filled with new films from some of our favorite filmmakers, it’s no surprise that this list of 25 titles includes work from familiar names beyond Campion and PTA, including Steven Spielberg, Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Paul Schrader, Pedro Almodovar, Mia Hansen-Løve, Sean Baker, Robert Greene, Joanna Hogg, Pablo Larrain, and Joachim Trier. But what might be even more edifying than the reminder of why these people are some of our favorites, it’s the inclusion of a powerful pack of newbies, like Jonas Poher Rasmussen, Questlove, Rebecca Hall, Maggie Gyllenhaal, and Shatara Michelle Ford. Many of these films are already available for viewing – both at home and in theaters, of course – and we can encourage anyone and everyone to check them out post-haste. You will not be disappointed.
Ryan Lattanzio, Jude Dry, Tambay Obenson, Christian Blauvelt, and Kristen Lopez also contributed to this list.
“Test Pattern” (dir. Shatara Michelle Ford)
First-time feature filmmaker Shatara Michelle Ford squeezes a lot out of 82 minutes. In “Test Pattern” — already rightly nominated for a variety of Gothams, with more lauds to surely come — 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.
Weaving back and forth in time, “Test Pattern” opens on the incident that will drive the bulk of the drama’s action: a woozy Renesha (Hall), still somehow managing to sit upright on a bed, a glass of water threatening to tip out of her hand. She’s not alone, and when Mike (Drew Fuller) comes into frame, Renesha’s dulled senses might not instantly realize the threat, but Ford’s invasive lensing of the interaction instantly puts the audience on alert. The discomfort of that scene will stay with both Renesha and the audience, as “Test Pattern” takes us through the events that led to the encounter, and everything that came after.
There are many moments in “Test Pattern” that might inspire rage in its audience (“Promising Young Woman” and “I May Destroy You,” this is not, but these recent narratives about the fallout of sexual assault are worth exploring together), but none so affecting as the repeated lack of concern that follows a request for a rape kit. The person in need of it, who requires the minimum of care and compassion, rarely gets that. By its end, Ford has unfurled a story — and a burgeoning career — worth considering long after. —KE
“Bad Luck Banging or Loony Porn” (dir. Radu Jude)
“Bad Luck Banging or Loony Porn” begins as the story of a sex tape gone wrong, with circumstances unfolding on the restless streets of Bucharest as the frantic problems of a schoolteacher and the community divided against her take place against much larger concerns. Then, the movie zooms out to a cosmic degree, folding in a prolonged montage of terms for modern times that encapsulate virtually every phase of human history. Romanian director Radu Jude’s astonishing satire (which won the Golden Bear at Berlinale) 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 story is bookended by the plight of Emi (Katia Pascariu), a schoolteacher whose sex tape is leaked, leading parents in the community to arrange a tribunal about her future. Shot in the midst of the pandemic, these scenes of frantic masked characters bickering about family values take on a heightened absurdity all the way through the deranged finale, a final act of feminist empowerment too good to spoil here. Before that, Jude takes a break with an essay film featuring “a short dictionary of anecdotes, signs, and wonders” that encompasses fragments of Romania’s Socialist history alongside poetry, architecture, and eroticism. It’s a dizzying assemblage that puts the inanity of Emi’s conundrum in a remarkable big-picture context. —EK
“Spencer” (dir. Pablo Larraín)
“Spencer” is Pablo Larraín’s version of a Princess Diana biopic writ larger than large as a campy horror movie. Kristen Stewart plays the Royal as a kind of twitchy field mouse lost and suspended in the cold, a deer in the spotlight who trudges through the muck in heels and snips at herself with wire cutters purloined from the servants’ quarters — when she’s not vomiting up imaginary pearls into the toilet on Christmas Eve dinner. It’s a remarkable performance in a strange movie that pulls off a galling feat: twisting a pivotal weekend in the life of one of the world’s most revered public figures into a stylish psychological fantasy that almost completely ignores historical fact in service of digging a deeper tunnel into the woman’s inner life. It goes further than “The Crown” or any other serviceable biopic could.
From the opening frames, as the clattering horns and strings of Jonny Greenwood’s relentless score vault in, you know you’re in for it. There’s a Peter Greenaway level of obsessive reverence to sensuous and depraved period details: the plates of lobster floating by, the clamor of butlers and maids murmuring down below a lavish dinner party, the stilted and austere remove from cantankerous events, the ghost of Anne Boleyn gliding over it all. “Tell them I am not at all well,” Stewart barks as she jettisons another Christmas Day dinner from hell to fetch the wire cutters and return to building a scarecrow shrine to her dead father in the middle of a barren field. This is a sick movie, and a brilliant one too. —RL
“West Side Story” (dir. Steven Spielberg)
Even in our remake/reboot/requel-clogged world, it’s still fun to bemoan the “why” of any and all big screen “reimaginings,” even if they’re brought to life by a scrappy up-and-comer like, oh, Steven Spielberg. Pushed back for more than a year due to various pandemic-related days, the last few months have only further primed audiences to wonder, “Wait, just why exactly did Spielberg feel compelled to remake not just any musical, but one of our most beloved to boot?” There have been some early answers: Spielberg and his team strove to cast a variety of Latinx stars in the Shark parts (read: roles tailormade for Puerto Rican people), they wanted to lean into the sense of profound division between people in fraught times, and the arrangements of the musical numbers were shifted to better reflect the original musical stage production.
And that all sounds well and good, interesting freshenings and touchups, but something like “West Side Story” stands tall all on its own, does it really need those freshenings and touchups? Turns out, yes, as Spielberg’s (somehow?) first musical is a vibrant, emotional, colorful, rich, wild, and incredibly satisfying addition to the “WSS” canon. While fans might initially balk at how faithful it seems to its predecessor, Spielberg and screenwriter Tony Kushner use those familiar beats to find new dimension, pleasure, and pain in this well-loved story. First-time star Rachel Zegler is a massive revelation, but it’s straight-from-Broadway breakouts Mike Faist and Ariana deBose who make the whole thing feel nothing short than necessary and brand new. Original film star Rita Moreno appears in a retrofitted new role, and brings the house down with a new take on “Somewhere.” By the end, there’s not a dry eye in the house (nor is there any confusion as to why Spielberg felt compelled to craft this big, bursting gift to the cinema). —KE
“The Souvenir Part II” (dir. Joanna Hogg)
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.
Not only is the set in Julie’s film virtually identical to the apartment from “The Souvenir,” it is the apartment from “The Souvenir,” only this time the camera pulls back to reveal the airplane hanger that surrounds it. In essence, Hogg is making a movie about her younger self making a movie about her younger self’s worst heartbreak, which is effectively a remake of the previous movie that Hogg made (the press notes adroitly refer to “Part II” as “a deconstruction of a reconstruction”). And while the view through that infinity mirror of romantic dramas isn’t nearly as confusing as it might sound on paper, or at all, it also further complicates itself in dazzling fashion by the end, as slavish re-creation gives way to a richer synthesis of memory and imagination. —DE
“There Is No Evil” (dir. Mohammad Rasoulof)
“There Is No Evil” spends 30 minutes establishing its premise, and another two hours taking it in surprising new directions. Iranian director Mohammad Rasoulof’s brilliant anthology feature, which won the Golden Bear at the 2020 Berlinale before finally opening in North American this year, moves in so many unexpected directions that it remains impossible to pin down until the credits roll. The movie unfolds across four stories about military men tasked with executions as they grapple with their options, contend with the fallout, and witness the impact it has on the people closest to them.
Rasoulof, who has been barred from leaving his country since 2017, has made an absorbing ride defined by the paradoxes of its people. Nobody in “There Is No Evil” has it easy: There’s no simple moral code when every possible option leads to a point of no return. —EK
“Zola” (dir. Janicza Bravo)
One of the year’s most inventive and incisive films, “Zola” jumpstarted the theatrical experience after its quarantine hiatus, offering a triumphant return for cinephiles with a rousing assault on those dormant senses. Bursting with vivid color shot by rising star Ari Wegner, rushing with a dynamic score by Mica Levi, and edited to perfection by Bravo’s longtime collaborator Joi McMillon, “Zola” was the energizing tonic filmgoers needed for our pandemic-induced lethargy. Director Janicza Bravo assembled this fire team, uniting the talent under her unique sensibility and amplifying their own brilliance through her distinct voice. With the help of “Slave Play” writer Jeremy O. Harris, who wrote the script with Bravo, as well as bold performances by Taylour Paige, Riley Keough, and Colman Domingo, “Zola” became a kaleidoscopic fun house mirror held up to whiteness and toxic masculinity.
The opening seconds of “Zola” are emblematic of the sort of holistic filmmaking Bravo sets in motion: A harp cascades gently down and upscale, the camera slowly circles a sectional wall of green-lit mirrors, and two relaxed figures apply lipstick before popping their fingers out of their mouths in tandem. That pop, a universal soundtrack to femme routine, is elevated by Bravo’s attention to funky details. It’s funny, which she always is, but it’s also divine — a moment of unspoken connection across the vanity. Whether through an inspired cut or well-placed sound effect, comedy is infused into every corner of the film, cropping up in unexpected and uncomfortable places. Bravo doesn’t want her audience to laugh too hard, or for too long, without an awareness of something else in play. Based on the epic poem of a Twitter thread by A’ziah “Zola” King, the film is also careful not to denigrate the actual work of sex work. The inspired central montage feels neither salacious nor judgmental; broken down to their requisite parts, each client is simply another frame, another dollar. Making movies and making house calls are just two sides of the same coin. —JD
“Pig” (dir. Michael Sarnoski)
The most resonant films about loss represent a wide variety of genres and modes, and yet they’re all bound together by the shared understanding of a simple truth: Acceptance may be the last stage of grief, but it’s invariably the longest as well. The acceptance of death is neither a respite nor an exit ramp — it’s a purgatory as infinite and layered as the inferno itself, a maze so vast that most people eventually stop looking for a way out and instead start looking for ways to forget that they can’t escape. The story of a man so lost in the labyrinth that he thinks he’s managed to escape it, Michael Sarnoski’s remarkable “Pig” is nothing if not one of those films.
In a sharp pivot away from the maximalism of his usual performances, Nicolas Cage delivers a career-best turn as Robin Chef, a revered Portland chef until personal tragedy inspired him to trade clout for snout and spend the rest of his days as a reclusive truffle forager in the woods at the edge of the city, where he lives with his beloved pig. People who decide to “Walden” themselves away from modern society always appear as though they understand something that the rest of us don’t, and Robin seems to have found a way to rescue meaning from the clutches of loss. Then some meth addicts steal Robin’s pig, the man goes haywire, and it shifts into focus that he hasn’t accepted his wife’s death at all. On the contrary, we realize that Robin found life without her so hard to stomach that he just left it behind and refused to look back. It’s not denial so much as a slightly more extreme version of the way that most people learn to cope long-term. But that’s exactly why this surprisingly gentle and endearingly mythic tale makes for such an essential addition to the rich history of movies about grief: “Pig” doesn’t see acceptance as the end of one road, but rather the beginning of another — a road so long and winding that even its detours might lead you straight through hell and out the other side. —DE
“The Lost Daughter” (dir. Maggie Gyllenhaal)
Honeyed Grecian sunshine has nothing on the icy pragmatism of Leda Caruso, a steely careerist on a solo beach holiday in Maggie Gyllenhaal’s impressive directorial debut. Based on the novella by the mysterious Italian novelist Elena Ferrante, whose true identity is one of the literary world’s greatest mysteries, “The Lost Daughter” is as elusive as its author. As an actress, Gyllenhaal’s inspired casting choices were her first boon, and she doesn’t hem her actors in with time constraints. Like the days on vacation, time washes away as Gyllenhaal peppers the film with lingering shots of weighted pensive moments. Oliva Colman is engrossing and ferocious as the complicated Leda — as her interest in Dakota Johnson’s restless young mother simmers over into a scorched folly, Leda challenges even the most malleable allegiances. Though Gyllenhaal includes one too many flashback scenes, it’s hard to take your eyes off of Jessie Buckley as young Leda, whose failed juggling of motherhood and ambition explains — but can’t quite soften — the older woman’s motives. The sacrifices of womanhood, embodied wrenchingly in three very different performances, can never be fully forgotten, even in the most beautiful landscape. —JD
“The Worst Person in the World” (dir. Joachim Trier)
For any millennial who ever pratfell in the face of their own indecision-making, “The Worst Person in the World” holds up a grimacing double-sided mirror that flips between a hard-to-stomach, piercing reality check, and a warm, inviting embrace of relatability for the very same reason. Renate Reinsve gives a full-stop stunning breakout performance (that also won her the Best Actress prize at Cannes) as Julie, a tormented approaching-30-something who waffles between busted professional aspirations and ineffectual lovers, with ultimately no one to come home to at the end of the day but herself.
Joachim Trier’s formally daring latest is an ode to the romantic dramas of yesteryear, when big-hearted movies could encapsulate the crescendos of a love affair without a necessarily political agenda. But “Worst Person” ultimately does have smart things to say about how economic circumstances and being set up on the idea of “following your dreams” (a pipe dream whose consequences we are all now imbibing) dictate the millennial plights of today. Trier ecstatically darts between rom-com, grief drama, and, at one point, tripped-out psychedelic horror movie, meaning his camera is possessed by the same easily distracted and restless spirit as Julie herself.
While Reinsve is the obvious north star of this wonderful, touching, and wholly unpretentious feature, it must be said that Anders Danielsen Lie gives a heart-crushing performance whose inner core can’t fully be explicated without experiencing the movie for yourself. (There’s also a bitchin’ soundtrack to boot, culminating in a closing-credits Art Garfunkel ditty that’s still ringing in my head.) This is a movie people will return to again and again for comfort for the rest of their days — as itchy and discomfiting as its enveloping offerings can sometimes be. —RL
“Procession” (dir. Robert Greene)
The self-reflexive cinema of Robert Greene has covered a wide variety of different subjects and styles over the last decade, but his most resonant films — from the séance-like portraiture of “Kate Plays Christine” to the collective historical requiem of “Bisbee ’17” — are bound together by a shared understanding of the camera as a conduit to the past. “Bisbee,” in which an entire Arizona mining town is provoked to re-stage the darkest chapter in its history, offers a particularly harrowing example of how Greene’s lens often functions as a portal of sorts. It’s as if his filmmaking process itself collapses space-time through the re-enactments that it compels, transposing now onto then in a way that leaves the two feeling as inextricable as fact and fiction. It meshes them together into a two-way street, or reveals all the ways in which they already are. In “Procession,” that street is revamped into an escape route.
Here, Greene has made a(nother) sober, powerful, and even disarmingly playful film that hinges on performance as a kind of therapy. The difference is that the subjects of “Procession” — six middle-aged survivors of childhood sexual abuse at the hands of Catholic priests and clergy in the Midwestern United States — see the camera less as a way to commune with the past than a way to shake loose from the awful grip its held on them since they were children. Through the process of making short films out of their agony, these men are given the chance to dramatize (and even direct) their memories of abuse in a way that might allow them, independently and as a crew, to physically relocate where the trauma is stored in their brains.
The end result is a searingly cathartic experience that feels like a fraught real-life companion to Hirokazu Kore-eda’s “After Life,” in which the newly deceased re-enact a favorite memory from their time on Earth in order to live inside of it for all eternity. “Procession” is effectively the negative image of that process, as these men are choosing the most cursed memory from their childhood and re-enacting it in order to escape from it. As one of the survivors puts it, referencing another movie with which all of them are assuredly familiar: “‘Spotlight’ was about trying to get in from the outside. In our film, we’re trying to get out.” It’s not for us to say whether they do here, or will some day in the future, but cinema is a collaborative medium, and watching these men crew for each other is more than just a counterbalance to the Church’s unforgivable betrayal — it’s a beautiful work of art unto itself. —DE
“Red Rocket” (dir. Sean Baker)
Since making his semi-mainstream breakout with 2015’s “Tangerine,” humanist filmmaker Sean Baker has focused solely on the lives of women and children. That he waited so long to make another film about a man is hardly surprising, though it does sting a little that it’s one of his best. Starring the former adult film actor Simon Rex in a wildly charismatic debut, “Red Rocket,” like most of Baker’s films, borrows ideas from Rex’s life to weave a captivating and heartbreaking fiction. Broke and houseless, Mikey Saber returns to his hometown and knocks on his ex’s door hoping for a little compassion, or at least a place to stay. He sweet talks his way onto the couch and eventually back into her bed, all the while weaving a trail of beguiling chaos in his wake.
Through his seduction of local matriarchs who eye him wearily, courtship of an underage girl, and tragic friendship with a local kid who once idolized him, we slowly come to revile Mikey even as we can’t help but feel for the guy. Buoyed by Rex’s standout performance, as well as exciting turns by discoveries Bree Elrod, Brenda Deiss, and Judy Hill, “Red Rocket” doesn’t even need to be Baker’s finest to knock everyone else out of the water. But it just might be anyway. —JD
“CODA” (dir. Sian Heder)
What can be said about “CODA” that hasn’t already been said by a dozen critics since the movie’s debut on Apple TV+ earlier this year? The story of a teenager, Ruby (Emilia Jones), who is the lone hearing person in her deaf family continued to further the conversation on why Deaf and disabled stories need to be told. As a wheelchair user, I can’t tell you the last time I felt I saw my family on-screen and what director Sian Heder did was open that door a little. The Rossis are, in many ways, the average American family. Because they are. They also happen to be predominately Deaf. By telling this story, filled with compassion and humor (spoiler, people with disabilities can be funny at times), did a lot to further the woefully under discussed topic of disability representation. There are so many elements of this movie I love. Troy Kotsur’s embarrassing father, who talks about sex with a boy Ruby likes, yet is also her biggest supporter in learning why she loves music. Marlee Matlin, whose portrayal of Jackie brings up a lot of discussion on how disabled/Deaf parents relate to their children. The aforementioned Jones and Daniel Durant, as two siblings — one hearing, the other not — who yearn for responsibility and independence but are perceived in totally different ways. This movie captured the little things that I’ve yearned to see in disability narratives, and that I want to see more of. —KL
“Passing” (dir. Rebecca Hall)
Based on Harlem Renaissance author Nella Larsen’s novel of the same name, Rebecca Hall’s adaptation is mostly faithful to its source story about identity within a 1920s African-American bourgeoisie context. The film centers the experiences of two biracial women — Irene and Clare — as they navigate an America not far removed from the institute of slavery, with the privilege of being able to “pass” as white. As played by Tessa Thompson, Irene engages primarily with her identity as a Black woman, wrestling with her duality, while Ruth Negga as Clare chooses to live the privileged life of a White woman, occasionally engaging with her Black identity, typically when most convenient. A mutual obsession forms when the two old friends unexpectedly reunite.
It’s a delicate friction that occupies much of “Passing’s” runtime, and first-time director Hall understands that its key feature with respect to where Larsen’s story stands in the American literary canon, is an exploration of timeless, provocative themes — the performative nature of racial, gender and sexual identities, and intersectionalities that constitute the American experience. Filmed in glorious black and white by Eduard Grau, the adaptation is carried by crisp, convincing performances from Thompson and Negga, who lead a strong cast that, thanks to Larsen’s original story, as well as Hall’s deft writing and directing choices, handles tricky elements with skill and grace. —TO
“Bergman Island” (dir. Mia Hansen-Løve)
A young Parisian filmmaker whose delicately personal work (“Eden,” “Things to Come,” “Goodbye, First Love,” et al.) illuminates the unbearable lightness of being with the soft touch of a late summer breeze, Mia Hansen-Løve may not be the first 21st-century auteur who comes to mind when people consider the portentous legacy of Ingmar Bergman, a man whose cinema stared into the void in the hopes of seeing its own reflection, and shouted down God’s silence with such howling rage that even his comedies are probably still echoing in eternity. And yet, “Bergman Island” — a triple-layered meta-romance about a filmmaker (Vicky Krieps) who flies to Sweden with her partner (Tim Roth) 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. No simple homage to Bergman, Hansen-Løve’s film is simply enraptured by the immaterial yet utterly transformative effect that Bergman’s cinema has had on the quiet ocean rock where so much of it was made. Through the disconnect between the physical fact of Fårö’s existence and the imagined fog that has settled over it in her mind’s eye, she discovers a perfect nexus for the personal and creative universes that have long overlapped in her semi-autobiographical — or perhaps more than semi-autobiographical — fiction. The result is a heart-stoppingly poignant movie that beats from deep inside a body of work that has always been seasick with the bittersweet vertigo that comes from looking at the past through the smudged lens of memory and imagination. —DE
“Parallel Mothers” (dir. Pedro Almodóvar)
Pedro Almodóvar births his most politically charged film to date with “Parallel Mothers,” an indictment of the horrors of the Francisco Franco regime wrought in personal terms as a switched-at-birth melodrama that sweeps you off your feet and into its lunacy. While you can see where the plot is headed from space, Penélope Cruz and newcomer Milena Smit render the familiar beats as unexpected — their dynamic ever shifting from the maternal to the erotic and back again. (This film is also a reminder of how skilled Almodóvar is at shaping the interpersonal dynamics between women: See the underrated “Julieta” as an example.)
Together, the two women represent opposite ends of the spectrum of motherhood, but their identities are never fixed in place: At once, Janis (Cruz) is resolute in childless middle-age, and then suddenly welcoming to the possibility of an unexpected child, while Ana (Smit) is a scared teenager staring down the precipice of parenthood. This wildly entertaining movie is drenched in plenty of Almodóvar signatures: (yet again) a sumptuous score from Alberto Iglesias, (yet AGAIN) rich cinematography from José Luis Alcaine, and (YET AGAIN) a brief but potent Rossy de Palma as Janis’ fiery agent. All of the elements coalesce into a swoon-worthy whole, with Almodóvar mic-dropping with surely the most haunting final shot of his entire career to remind that the sins of the past are always inside the present, and that his filmmaking genius is far from done. —RL
“The Green Knight” (dir. David Lowery)
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.
The surreal genius of David Lowery’s “filmed adaptation of the chivalric romance by anonymous” (to quote the on-screen text) is that it fully embraces the unresolved nature of its 14th century source material, contradictory interpretations of which have coexisted in relative harmony for more than half a millennium. Is it a paganistic tale about the fall of man, or is it a Christ-like quest about the hope for salvation? Does it bow to chivalry as a noble bulwark against man’s true nature, or does it laugh at the idea that a knight’s code would ever be a sound defense against his deeper urges? Is it a misogynistic poem about manipulative witches, or a proto-feminist ode to women’s power over men?
To all these questions and more, Lowery rousingly answers “yes!” And yet what makes “The Green Knight” grow in your mind (like moss; like rot) for days after watching it is that Lowery never equivocates at any point along Sir Gawain’s journey from the Round Table to the forest citadel where his fate awaits. Instead, he pulls tight on the tangled knots that have bound this saga to our collective imagination for so many centuries, and braids them all into a timeless fantasy about the struggle to make sense of an irreconcilable world. Hypnotic from its fiery start to its gut-punch of a finale and polished with a hint of heavy metal that makes the whole thing shimmer in the darkness like a black light poster in the basement of your friend’s parents’ house. —DE
“The Card Counter” (dir. Paul Schrader)
This is a well-worn path for Paul Schrader: another film about a sensitive, guilt-tormented loner determined to expiate his sins through spiritual self-flagellation. But to paraphrase a quote often attributed to Chopin, if Schrader’s kingdom is rather small, within it he is truly king. Oscar Isaac plays an Iraq War vet guilty of an unspeakable crime — the kind of crime so infamous you wonder how there could be any life for him after it at all. So he lays low as a two-bit blackjack hustler, taking care that his winnings at each casino remain in the three figures, and studiously avoiding comfort in his wanderings. An ascetic at Motel 6. When the son (Tye Sheridan) of an Army buddy tries to recruit him for a mission of actual bloody satisfaction, Isaac’s gambler demurs, and takes the kid under wing as a kind of protégé for a spell.
Where the story goes from there is genuinely thrilling, proving that Schrader’s souls seeking redemption can still power gratifyingly unexpected stories. “The Card Counter” is one of the great “What happens next?!” yarns of 2021, and an enveloping mood piece conveyed with rigor. “Casinos are very ugly places. There are no exceptions,” Schrader told IndieWire’s Eric Kohn. Finding a path to redemption through chintzy greed palaces may seem very Schrader, but it’s a springboard for some unforgettable surprises too. Is forgiveness possible for the crimes Isaac’s character has carried out? If so, then the capacity for salvation is truly profound, and “The Card Counter” is one of the more Christ-like visions yet put on screen. —CB
“Memoria” (dir. Apichatpong Weerasethakul)
“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 Splendour.” But this time around, there’s a profound existential anxiety creeping in.
With Tilda Swinton’s puzzled gaze as its guide, “Memoria” amounts to a haunting, introspective look at one woman’s attempts to uncover the roots of a mysterious sound that only she can hear. More than that, it’s a masterful and engrossing response to the rush of modern times and the collective amnesia it creates — one that builds to a last-minute reveal for the ages. Anyone frustrated by its patience only serves to prove the point —EK
“Summer of Soul” (dir. Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson)
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.
Seething through the entire documentary, against the backdrop of a racially turbulent 1960s, is an insistence on a new kind of racial pride and unity across the diaspora, which infuses “Summer” with an honesty and realism. It’s explained that attendees distrusted the NYPD to the point of hiring the Black Panthers to safeguard the festival, anticipating Black Lives Matter events decades down the line.
Questlove and editor Joshua L. Pearson lace together footage of stage performances with history lessons (Motown, gospel music, the evolution of Black style, the concept of a common struggle among Black people worldwide), tying it all together with endearing recollections of the single day in 1969 by those who were there. The result fans the flames of Black consciousness. It’s a demonstrated feeling of pride that represents Black salvation, most movingly evident when Nina Simone, the “High Priestess of Soul,” takes the stage and performs “To Be Young, Gifted and Black” — a love letter to the next generation and a kind of how-to manual. —TO
“Titane” (dir. Julia Ducournau)
Following the cannibalistic “Raw” with another ravenous film that pushes her fascination with the hunger and malleability of human flesh to even further extremes, Julia 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.
During the first half of the film, it’s hard to tell if you’re watching the most fucked up movie ever made about the idea of found family, or the sweetest movie ever made about a serial killer who has sex with a car, poses as the adult version of a local boy who went missing a decade earlier, and then promptly moves in with the kid’s still-grieving father. During the second half, it becomes obvious that it’s both — that somehow it couldn’t be one without the other. —DE
“Flee” (dir. Jonas Poher Rasmussen)
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. From the moment Amin first appears, his bearded face rendered as a delicate 2D image, he’s wrestling with how to tell his story. With time, “Flee” becomes his cinematic catharsis, as Amin recounts his journey in fits and starts, while the animation turns his memories into a bracing adventure that couldn’t be timelier. A true category-busting filmmaking achievement (in the context of Oscars, its achievements stretch across Best Documentary, International, Animation…and perhaps even Best Picture), “Flee” is a crowdpleaser that works on many satisfying levels at once. —EK
“Drive My Car” (dir. Ryusuke Hamaguchi)
When’s the last time you saw a three-hour movie you wished could be longer? Drive My Car” not only inspires that wish, it grants it: even though the credits roll around the 180-minute mark, the world of Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s film, and its wayward characters, keeps unspooling in your head. That’s fitting because “Drive My Car” is filled with characters who can’t let things go in their own lives either: Hidetoshi Nishijima plays the acclaimed theater director Kafuku, who accepts a residency to direct a new, multilingual adaptation of “Uncle Vanya.” Recently widowed, he’s obsessed over why, before her death, his wife had an affair with a young matinee idol, whose intellectual capacity seemed, well, beneath her. Kafuku casts the scandal-ridden stud as the title character in his “Vanya,” which seems an ill portent. Keeping the director grounded, though, is his 23-year-old driver Misaki (Toko Miura), whose employment is a liability precondition of Kafuku accepting the residency. She’s stoic enough to suggest early on she’s haunted by something.
In “Drive My Car,” everyone else is too. And Hamaguchi’s approach isn’t so much to tell a story, but to let you find it in the midst of his trademark lengthy conversation scenes, in this case built around rehearsals of the play, long stints at the wheel, and energy-sapped bar visits. Based on a Haruki Murakami story, “Drive My Car” shows why more filmmakers should lean on the long-take — Hamaguchi lets his characters breathe, with enough quiet moments to allow you to fill in what isn’t said, just the way you’d put down a book to sit and think for a moment. As arresting a literary adaptation it is — and this is one of the young century’s finest literary adaptations to date — it’s the images that’ll stick with you just as much: two hands thrust through a Saab’s moon roof clutching cigarettes, two figures perched atop a cliff-like snowdrift, a young woman hanging back, rapt, as actors rehearse in a park. So many works of art emphasize our disconnection, but “Drive My Car,” its title a quiet invitation, suggests a path back to one another. —CB
“Licorice Pizza” (dir. Paul Thomas Anderson)
In a world gone mad with bloated running times — utmost apologies to anyone who has been caught in pre-screening chatter with me over the past few weeks, during which I will inevitably yell, “All movies are 150 minutes or 85 minutes these days!,” which is only broadly true, and even that might be a generous assessment — leave it to Paul Thomas Anderson to dole out the only film of 2021 that could easily, happily, and credibly double its running time. Bolstered by star-making turns from both Cooper Hoffman (son of Philip Seymour Hoffman, of course, and delightfully channeling both his dad and his very own vibe) and Alana Haim (of the Haim sisters, PTA’s contemporary musical obsession), “Licorice Pizza” is a sterling reminder of the power of two often-underestimated subgenres, the hang-out movie and the coming-of-age tale.
Broad strokes: set in the San Fernando Valley in the ‘70s (for those of you not necessarily hip to SoCal geography, the SFV is what people are talking about when they mention “the Valley”), Hoffman is Gary Valentine (a fast-talking kid actor destined for success, even if it’s not on the silver screen), who finds himself immediately taken by aloof photography assistant Alana Kane (Haim) on school picture day. Alana may be older than Gary — though both of them love to fudge their actual ages — but they instantly recognize a familiar soul in the other one. Soon, the unlikely pair are tooling around the Valley, cooking up big business plans, falling in with very weird people (including Bradley Cooper as super-producer Jon Peters, turning in another gonzo performance for the ages), and essentially deciding who they are going to be. And, of course, the central question: how does that involve the other one?
Anderson’s attention to period detail has always been profound, both lived-in and inherently cinematic, and he and his team conjure up a time and place that’s recognizable and wondrous. Who knew a pinball arcade or Barbra Streisand’s hideous bedroom could make for excellent set pieces? PTA, of course. Hoffman and Haim are the main attraction here, two shooting stars who conjure up extreme emotion, delightful humor, and maximum charm from the start (and, somehow, keep it up). It’s a hang-out movie with one essential element: you actually want to hang out with these people. I never wanted it to end. —KE
“The Power of the Dog” (dir. Jane Campion)
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. In 2021, the “In the Cut” auteur returned 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.
The shiv-like stealthiness of Campion’s approach may stem from the 1967 Thomas Savage novel on which “The Power of the Dog” is based, but it perfectly suits a filmmaker who’s long been fascinated by how weakness can be force’s most effective sheath. From “Sweetie” and “An Angel at My Table” to “Bright Star” and “Top of the Lake,” nearly all of Campion’s work is pitched along the nebulous border that runs between desire and self-denial, genius and insanity. The Wellington-born filmmaker is drawn to characters — artists, but not always — who make beautiful homes for themselves in the middle, even if the rest of the world simply assumes they must be lost. To that end, perhaps the most basic (and least harrowing) of her latest film’s razor-fanged pleasures is how “The Power of the Dog” proves that no one is better at finding these people, or at recognizing how their supposed defects often provide the perfect disguise for their unique potential.
Set on a Montana cattle ranch in 1925, Campion’s sinewy adaptation depicts a four-sided death waltz between a tortured cowboy (Benedict Cumberbatch), his softhearted brother (Jesse Plemons), the widow he marries (Kirsten Dunst), and the delicate-seeming teenage son who comes with her (Kodi Smit-McPhee). The story that unfolds from that scenario is equal parts wish fulfillment and cautionary tale, and since it’s told without a dominant point-of-view — in a way that feels almost anthropological — it’s able to be each of those things for different characters at the same time.
For all of the film’s biblical grandeur, “The Power of the Dog” never insists upon itself. There isn’t a moment in the movie that lacks vision, but the whole thing exudes a tremblingly quiet strength. Just as Savage’s plainspoken novel found the author flexing the invisible muscles he developed over a lifetime of fighting his own desire, Campion’s equally poignant film leverages repressed passion into an unexpected show of strength. “The Power of the Dog” sticks its teeth into you so fast and furtively that you may not feel the sting on your skin until after the credits roll, but the delayed bite of the film’s ending doesn’t stop it from leaving behind a well-earned scar. —DE
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