Hollywood Reporter Critics Pick the Best Films of 2021

A Japanese meditation on grief and art, a psychosexual Western chamber piece, a splashy movie-musical makeover from Steven Spielberg and striking directorial debuts from Maggie Gyllenhaal and Rebecca Hall were among this year’s standouts.

The stampede back to the multiplexes that was predicted for early 2021 didn’t quite happen, and the post-pandemic landscape for theatrical releases is still an uncertain blur, with the emergence of the Omicron variant unlikely to quicken the pace.

Still, getting away from our televisions and laptops and back to physical screenings provided an invigorating booster shot for lockdown-fatigued film critics, as did the return of Cannes, which bounced back from a year in limbo with one of its strongest editions in recent memory.

Likewise, the fall festival trail of Venice, Telluride, Toronto and New York, all of which delivered their share of jewels, suggesting that the pervasive anxiety in the ether over the past 18 months hasn’t hurt creativity. All but one of my Top 10 and one Honorable Mention came from those festivals, or from Sundance and Berlin earlier in the year.

There were several others I would love to have included that got narrowly inched out — among them Jonas Carpignano’s A Chiara, Paul Schrader’s The Card Counter, Robert Machoian’s The Killing of Two Lovers, Rose Glass’ Saint Maud, Edgar Wright’s The Sparks Brothers, Emma Seligman’s Shiva Baby, Oliver Hermanus’ Moffie, Sian Heder’s CODA and Michael Sarnoski’s haunting debut, Pig, led by Nicolas Cage giving his best performance in years.

I was mixed on one of the year’s most widely embraced critical darlings, Paul Thomas Anderson’s Licorice Pizza, which felt more like a meandering string of vignettes than a cohesive narrative. But its evocative sense of a place and a vibe — the San Fernando Valley in the early ‘70s — and the beguiling gift of Alana Haim, who holds the screen with effortless command in her first movie role, provided much to savor.

In terms of studio releases, a weak villain and a sluggish midsection prevented No Time to Die from being top-tier Bond, but the action thriller gathered steam in its emotional conclusion, ending Daniel Craig’s tenure as 007 with a powerful valedictory salute.

Although we all grumble about the world domination of the superhero flick, I found plenty to enjoy to my surprise in three distinctive MCU entries this year — Black Widow, Eternals and especially the exciting spectacle of Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings.

Read on for my picks for best of the year, followed by those of my brilliant colleagues Jon Frosch, Lovia Gyarkye and Sheri Linden. — DAVID ROONEY

1. Drive My Car
In Ryûsuke Hamaguchi’s quietly ravishing masterwork based on a sliver of a short story by Haruki Murakami, the death of his wife leaves an experimental theater director — played by Hidetoshi Nishijima with a stoicism that conceals complex depths — to process his grief through art with a multilingual staging of Uncle Vanya. But it’s in the deepening bond he forms with a guarded young woman assigned as his driver, and the shared sense of loss that emerges during their rhythmic daily journeys in his beloved red Saab, that this symphonic exploration of the mysteries of human connection reveals its shimmering truths about forgiveness.

2. The Power of the Dog
Jane Campion’s first feature in 12 years is a departure from her forensic studies of the female psyche, delving instead with equal perspicacity into corrosive masculinity and repressed sexuality. A Big Sky Western like no other, this adaptation of the 1967 Thomas Savage novel casts a transfixing Benedict Cumberbatch as rugged Montana cattle rancher Phil Burbank and Jesse Plemons as his gentlemanly brother George, who upsets the household’s equilibrium when he brings home his fragile wife Rose, played with aching delicacy by Kirsten Dunst. Rose becomes the prey in Phil’s cruel games, but her sensitive beanpole son Peter, in a knockout performance from Kodi Smit-McPhee, defies expectations by shifting the power balance, turning the chamber drama into a startling queer revenge thriller.

3. The Worst Person in the World
A key realization for me while watching Joachim Trier’s gorgeously melancholy account of the chaotic mess we make of our lives as we fumble our way to self-knowledge was how seldom we get a romantic comedy-drama in which the abrasive edges aren’t sanded off the protagonist. Played by the luminous Renate Reinsve with a flinty exterior and a churning inner restlessness, Julie is unapologetic in her mistakes as she pings between two men, Anders Danielsen Lie’s successful older underground comic book artist and Herbert Nordrum’s contentedly underachieving barista. The pressing nature of time chafes at Julie, but Trier deftly expands the lens as she confronts unresolved issues from her past and navigates shattering sorrow to glimpse a future in which she might finally own her choices.

4. Parallel Mothers
Pedro Almodóvar is among the most generous of contemporary directors, lovingly contouring roles for an unofficial repertory company of which Penélope Cruz, like Antonio Banderas, is a core member. And as he did with Banderas in Pain and Glory, he coaxes career-peak work from Cruz in this sumptuous melodrama about the tangled knots of past and present. She plays Janis, a photographer digging into painful family history when she conceives a child with an archeologist supervising her case; a friendship formed in the maternity ward with a young mother adds another layer of turbulent mystery.

5. The Lost Daughter
Maggie Gyllenhaal’s assured debut as writer-director relocates Elena Ferrante’s novel to a Greek island, where Olivia Colman’s divorced academic, Leda, seems to identify a fellow traveler in maternal ambivalence in Dakota Johnson’s visiting American. Bringing a probing, often caustic perspective to its reflections on female relationships, motherhood and women’s struggle to carve a professional space outside it, this dark dream of a film dives into Leda’s murky interiority via another astonishing performance from Colman, equaled in flashbacks by Jessie Buckley playing the character in her younger years.

6. The Souvenir: Part II
The rare sequel that reframes and expands upon the original in illuminating ways, Joanna Hogg’s autobiographical portrait of a young filmmaker trying to rebound from a toxic relationship that ended in tragedy is, like Drive My Car, a cathartic exploration of the healing power of art. Honor Swinton Byrne again brings emotional transparency and a rawness beneath the posh reserve of the director’s alter ego as she walks the tricky lines between artifice and authenticity, insecurity and creative vision.

7. West Side Story
Steven Spielberg and screenwriter Tony Kushner’s thrilling reimagining of the 1961 classic combines the Technicolor exhilaration of large-scale vintage movie musicals with a distinctly contemporary awareness of the complexities of racial intolerance and the importance of dignified representation. The Puerto Rican characters in this Manhattan gangland clash are given dimensions they previously lacked, but then again, everything about this spectacular remake surges with fresh vitality, including the tragic romance.

8. Petite Maman
Many films sailed beyond the two-hour mark this year, some less justifiably than others. Céline Sciamma followed her international breakthrough, Portrait of a Lady on Fire, with this perfectly compact curio, which packs more into a mere 73 minutes than many filmmakers can explore at any length. The time-matrix magic of a girl experiencing loss for the first time and meeting her own mother as a child in the woods would seem antithetical to Sciamma’s limpid naturalism. But the dream logic of childhood games is translated here in tangible everyday terms, finding wonder in simplicity.

9. Passing
Tessa Thompson and Ruth Negga provide the pulsing emotional center of first-time writer-director Rebecca Hall’s exquisite adaptation of Harlem Renaissance author Nella Larsen’s 1929 novel about two Black women on either side of the “color line.” The atmospheric evocation of Jazz Age New York — rendered in richly textured black-and-white — ripples with the constant threat of people being unmasked in a thoughtful and moving consideration of identity in relation to race, gender, class and sexuality.

10. The Tragedy of Macbeth
Joel Coen’s stripped-down take on the Scottish play is furious and fleet, anguished and elemental, instantly taking its place among the great screen adaptations of Shakespeare, with spellbinding chiaroscuro visuals that evoke Dreyer. As the murderous Scot who would be king and the manipulative wife fueling his thirst for power, Denzel Washington and Frances McDormand lead a superlative ensemble, embodying not just ruthless ambition but also the panicked race against time to secure their place in history. And what Kathryn Hunter, playing all three witches, achieves with her diminutive physicality and harsh croak of a voice is extraordinary.

Honorable mentions: Compartment Number 6, Flee, The Green Knight, The Hand of God, I Carry You With Me, Identifying Features, Spencer, Summer of Soul, The Velvet Underground, Zola

Jon Frosch’s Top 10

1. The Power of the Dog
2. Drive My Car
3. West Side Story
4. The Souvenir: Part II
5. CODA
6. Spencer
7. Annette
8. The Lost Daughter
9. Bergman Island
10. Summer of Soul

Honorable mentions: Barb and Star Go to Vista Del Mar, Compartment Number 6, The French Dispatch, Moffie, Parallel Mothers, Passing, Saint Maud, A Son (Un fils), Sublet, Summer of 85

Lovia Gyarkye’s Top 10

1. Drive My Car
2. The Power of the Dog
3. Faya Dayi
4. Passing
5. Summer of Soul
6. Parallel Mothers
7. Ailey
8. The Humans
9. Spencer
10. The Green Knight

Honorable mentions: The Inheritance, Jockey, The Lost Daughter, Plan B, Prayers for the Stolen, Procession, 7 Prisoners, Shiva Baby, Test Pattern, Zola

Sheri Linden’s Top 10

1. Summer of Soul
2. The Power of the Dog
3. Drive My Car
4. Passing
5. Compartment Number 6
6. The Lost Daughter
7. West Side Story
8. All Light, Everywhere
9. I’m Your Man
10. The Humans

Honorable mentions: Atlantis, Azor, Cyrano, Fever Dream, Jockey, The Killing of Two Lovers, Lamb, Petite Maman, Procession, What Do We See When We Look at the Sky?

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