Written by: Hannah Tran | December 23rd, 2021
This year warmly welcomed us back to the movies with a wealth of long-awaited releases from both before and during the pandemic. Whether these stories came to us on the big screen or at home, however, the vast perspectives within them were transportive. Often political, intricate, and challenging, many of these films managed to be equally relevant and timeless. Not only were we able to laugh at them, but we were able to laugh with them, cry with them, and, most excitingly, we were able to do so with each other.
I must note there are a handful of late releases I have yet to see which could alter this list, such as Paul Thomas Anderson’s Licorice Pizza, Sean Baker’s Red Rocket, and Maggie Gyllenhaal’s directorial debut, The Lost Daughter, an adaptation of a book by one of my favorite authors, Elena Ferrante. However, in a year filled with such abundance, each spot below remains well-earned.
For the one film here that I have reviewed, I have hyperlinked the title to that review. For the others, I provide a short summary of my thoughts and link to the movie’s website. Below is my list, in alphabetical order:
- • All Light, Everywhere (Theo Anthony): Documentarian Theo Anthony once again proves himself an important and exciting young voice in this mind-blowing examination of human bias and its relation to technology, modern policing, and the surveillance state. With staggering access to his multifaceted subjects, Anthony presents heady ideas with a clear vision.
- • Blue Bayou (Justin Chon): Writer/director Justin Chon delivers his best work to date with his unabashed sentimentality and proclivity for tearjerking tragedy. With wonderful performances across the board and some of the dreamiest, most stunning images ever put on screen, Blue Bayou is a moody and stylish reflection on identity and justice.
- • C’mon, C’mon (Mike Mills): Mike Mills has a talent for mixing funny, sweet, and heartbreaking moments, and this certainly rings true here. Joaquin Phoenix delivers one of his finest recent performances as he gives room for child actor Woody Norman to truly shine. Blending a documentary approach with its quiet narrative, C’mon, C’mon makes for touching, true-to-life conflicts and refreshingly personal characters.
- • Don’t Look Up (Adam McKay): Adam McKay’s latest is a wild ride that takes on imminent doom with brazen humor. With a wonderfully absurd premise and a bizarre mashup of the pitch-perfect cast, Don’t Look Up takes the average moviegoer to fun extremes that, unfortunately, feel just plausible enough to really work.
- • Dune (Denis Villeneuve): The ultimate “welcome back” to the theater, Villeneuve’s Dune is a perfectly cast, large-scale spectacle that breathes fresh energy into a crowded genre with its unique sense of patience and identity. A perfect introduction to the world of Frank Herbert, it is carefully simplified and crafted into an intelligent, compelling beginning.
- • The French Dispatch (Wes Anderson): In one of his most delightful films, Wes Anderson, via his uniquely intricate style and sentiment, reminds is, in the best way, of what a director with a fully formed vision looks like. Hilarious, gorgeous, and warm, it is perfectionism that comes pretty close to perfection.
- • In the Same Breath (Nanfu Wang)
- • The Power of the Dog (Jane Campion): With sweeping scenery and genuinely complex characters, The Power of the Dog manages to feel classical and contemporary all at once. With what is probably her greatest film, Jane Campion once again proves herself as one of the greatest directors working today.
- • Shiva Baby (Emma Seligman): A confident directorial debut, Shiva Baby is a comical chamber piece with all the stress and trappings of a thriller. As it explores generational divides, cultural shifts, and sexuality over the course of a few hours, it relentlessly holds its tension before it simmers to a surprisingly sweet end.
- • Stillwater (Tom McCarthy): This surprisingly nuanced entry is most striking thanks to its incredibly written, thematically rich screenplay that’s brought to life by one of Matt Damon’s career-best performances. Perfectly balancing subtlety and shock, Stillwater is a twisty story that deftly leads to what might just be the strongest conclusion of any 2021 movie.