Moving Pictures
Dec 17, 2021, 06:27AM

Let There Be Light

The 10 best films of 2021.

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1. Licorice Pizza. Paul Thomas Anderson's new comedy-drama is a rambling, multi-faceted exploration of the mid-1970s in the San Fernando Valley. It's funny and poignant, featuring two lead performers—Cooper Hoffman and Alana Haim—who are making their movie debuts. Bigger stars pop up, including Bradley Cooper, who plays '70s producer Jon Peters as a perverse coke fiend. But it's the two young stars who make the movie move.

2. Bad Luck Banging, Or Loony Porn. The first great movie to emerge from the pandemic—an exploration about how it made everyone lose their minds—is this wild provocation from Romanian director Radu Jude. It's ostensibly the story of a school teacher, whose sex tape with her husband leaks on the Internet, and her dealing with the fallout. But we see the sex tape. And then we see a collage of humorous glossary definitions. And the third act is the chaotic school meeting in which the woman's fate is decided. For anyone who's been to a school board meeting in the last two years, the last part will look very familiar.

3. Titane. It's a French film about a woman who has sex with (and gets pregnant by!) a car. I didn't think that could possibly work out, but one of the best things about movies is their capacity to surprise. Julia Ducournau's film stars Agathe Rousselle in a transcendent role as Alexia, the woman who gets that bizarre fixation after a youthful car accident. About halfway through, the movie takes an abrupt turn into something legitimately moving.

4. West Side Story. Directing his first musical more than 40 years into his career, Steven Spielberg created a visually stunning re-imaging of the stage musical. It featured great acting, especially from the female side of the cast, but the true highlight is the production design of this 1950s version of the Upper West Side.

5. In the Heights. Jon M. Chu's adaptation of Lin-Manuel Miranda's first Broadway musical was a beautiful, well-acted celebration of the Washington Heights neighborhood while featuring fine performances from all four leads (Anthony Ramos, Melissa Barrera, Corey Hawkins, and Leslie Grace).

6. Summer of Soul (Or… When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised). The year's best documentary came from Ahmir "Questlove" Thompson, who assembled long-buried footage of 1969's Harlem Cultural Festival into a joyful concert film. Summer of Soul is at once a celebration of that music and the people who made it, and a challenge to Boomer mythologies about Woodstock.

7. The Power of the Dog. Jane Campion returns from an 11-year hiatus with this revisionist Western. About 200 different projects this year explored the subject of toxic masculinity in some way, but The Power of the Dog did it better than most, especially through the great character of Phil Burbank (Benedict Cumberbatch), a Yale classics major-turned-Montana shitkicker. It also has the year's best score, from Jonny Greenwood.

8. CODA. Director Sian Heder's film, which Apple bought out of Sundance for a record $25 million, tells a compelling story about a young woman who's the lone hearing person in an otherwise deaf family. The film is also screamingly funny, including a winning turn from Troy Kotsar as the dirty joke-loving dad. 

9. Flee. It's animated, a documentary, and a foreign-language film, but Flee isn't just a triple-threat when it comes to awards. Danish director Jonas Poher Rasmussen's film tells the story of a man who fled Afghanistan as a refugee and landed in Denmark.

10. The French Dispatch. Wes Anderson's latest ensemble pastiche is an elaborate homage to The New Yorker, featuring a huge cast of the actor's longtime collaborators. One of the few movies this year that I would’ve watched a 10-hour miniseries of it if I could.

Honorable mention: The Worst Person in the World, Red Rocket, The Green Knight, Swan Song (Todd Stephens), Encanto, Listening to Kenny G, The Velvet Underground, The Card Counter, Dreamland: The Burning of Black Wall Street, Dating in New York, First Date, Where is Anne Frank, Sweet Thing, Shiva Baby, and Belfast.

The 10 worst: Me You Madness, Donny's Bar Mitzvah, Buck Breaking, How It Ends, When I'm a Moth, Karen, Space Jam: A New Legacy, America: The Motion Picture, Chaos Walking, and Al Davis vs. The NFL.

Best Documentaries: Summer of Soul, Flee, Listening to Kenny G, The Velvet Underground, Dreamland, We Are the Thousand, Whirlybird, Final Account, The Viewing Booth, The First Wave, The Rescue, Kevin Garnett: Anything is Possible, Framing Britney Spears, Procession, and Claydream.


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