As Hollywood continues its systemic eradication of the mid-budget movie, most of what remains is micro-budget indies and mega-budget blockbusters. Some incredibly talented filmmakers managed to make the best of an increasingly binary industry in 2021.
Before we get to the list, here are six runners-up (in no particular order): Dune; The Green Knight; Spider-Man: No Way Home; Summer of Soul; The Tragedy of Macbeth, The Worst Person in the World.
10. No Time To Die: Daniel Craig took the mantle of James Bond when the character was in dire need of resuscitation. With the property reeling from its own campiness and the legacy of Austin Powers, Craig delivered no less than three excellent Bond films. He leaves the franchise having made an indelible mark on the iconic spy.
9. Nightmare Alley: Few filmmakers can strike a balance between tender compassion and savage brutality within the same film. Guillermo del Toro has made a career of delicately exploring the complete spectrum of human experience.
8. Shiva Baby: Emma Seligman’s debut feature is 78 minutes of squirm-inducing cringe comedy. Where Mission: Impossible is given the inevitable task of topping its own set-pieces, Shiva Baby must ratchet up the discomfort until its viewers want to crawl into bed and hide.
7. Pig: Recently, Nomadland, Drive My Car, and After Yang have spotlighted the lonely, searing pain of grief. I can’t say I expected Nicolas Cage to join the fray in 2021, but Pig, somehow both extravagant and restrained, is just as poignant.
6. The Last Duel: Ridley Scott’s medieval #MeToo epic is an imperfect vessel. Right idea, flawed execution. Still, a Rashomon-style retelling of the last trial by combat in France is about as up-my-alley as a film can be.
5. The French Dispatch: As someone enamored with the personal essay, The French Dispatch feels like a love letter made specifically for me. Wes Anderson captures the distinct writing styles and story subjects that make a publication like The New Yorker so special.
4. The Lost Daughter: Maggie Gyllenhaal’s directorial debut spotlights the absent mom, a character endlessly villainized but never humanized. The Lost Daughter is a realistic examination of the give and take of motherhood.
3. The Power of the Dog: Filmmakers have been deconstructing the Western genre since John Ford and John Wayne’s The Searchers. Modern interpretations like No Country For Old Men and Brokeback Mountain have found even more success reinventing and reimagining tropes. Jane Campion unspools the thread further in The Power of the Dog, tracing the lineage of masculinity and challenging the definition of traditional strength.
2. Drive My Car: Ordinarily, only the visuals would stick with me in a film as gorgeous as Drive My Car. Here, Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s haunting characters, story, and themes will all be dog-eared in my mind for decades to come.
1. C’mon C’mon: Director Mike Mills’s work inspires personal reflection without resorting to nostalgia or maudlin. C’mon C’mon observes not just childlike wonder, but also the frustration, dependency, and confusion that accompany it. As with 20th Century Women, Mills paints the whole picture, not just the pretty parts.