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20 Best Movies of 2021

A soul-music time capsule, a funky 1970s rom-com, a sci-fi classic blockbuster and the only sequel we really needed — our highlights of a wild, weird moviegoing year

Photo Illustration by @photoeditorjoe. Images in Illustration: Searchlight Films, A24 Films; Warner Bros.; Utopia

2021 started out as the year that everything was supposed to go back to “normal” regarding the movies, with theatres reopening and the pandemic receding into the background and a deluge of delayed blockbusters filling the multiplexes. Let’s say we were… a little optimistic in terms of things going according to that plan. Yes, the art form is still in the midst of an existential crisis, with the theatrical experience in peril and the lines about what is or isn’t “cinema” becoming blurrier than streaming with a bad Wi-Fi connection. (Movies: now more [like watching TV] than ever!) But the following films — running the gamut from a three-hour epic to a 30-minute monologue, a throwback noir to next-gen animation, music documentaries to auteur memory pieces — reminded us why we keep obsessing over movies no matter what size the screen is.

From Rolling Stone US


‘Licorice Pizza’

Paul Thomas Anderson goes back in time — Los Angeles, San Fernando Valley, 1973 — and captures a beautiful, unlikely friendship blossoming between a high-school-age kid (Cooper Hoffman) and a twentysomething woman (Alan Haim). That’s the long and the short of Licorice Pizza, and when it comes to PTA making his memory-piece movie, that’s all you really need; it’s a rom-com (kinda) and a coming-of-age story (sorta) set in the Seventies that replicates the sort of amblin’, ramblin’, hang-out vibe of that era’s movies to a T. Vignettes collide into each other, but it’s more about the vibe here than anything else — that, and giving his young, first-time actors a showcase for their talents. (Memo to Hoffman and Haim: Please keep making movies.) Throw in a few priceless needle-drops and Bradley Cooper channeling a ripe vintage of showbiz narcissism as real-life movie producer Jon Peters, and you have the cinematic equivalent of a secondhand buzz.


‘Quo Vadis, Aida?’

A look back at a wartime tragedy recounted with breaking-news urgency, Jasmila Zbanic’s Oscar-nominated drama drops viewers into the town of Srebrenica, at the exact moment that the Bosnian Serb army’s tanks are rolling down its streets. Our tour guide for this nightmare is Aida (Izudin Bajrovic), a former teacher who now serves as an interpreter for the United Nations’ troops; she’s trying to ensure that her family is among the thousands of Muslim citizens who will be protected by peacekeepers in the safe zone’s shelter. When the U.N.’s officers are told that all residents must be transported to a new location, Aida fears the worst. History will prove her instincts are correct. Anchored by an absolutely stunning performance by Bajrovic — few actors have done more with a stressful scowl and a frozen mask of dread — this recreation of a real-life atrocity refuses to gin up a moral or a silver-lining message. It’s pitiless as a procedural yet somehow remarkably compassionate in its storytelling. And the film’s gut-punch of a coda reminds that even when things return to “normal,” time can only heal some wounds, not all.


‘The Velvet Underground’

Only Todd Haynes could have made a documentary about the Velvet Underground — iconoclastic art rockers, downtown-boho dark stars, the missing link between the Brill Building and Rimbaud — and turned it into something that you might have seen projected behind the band during one of Andy Warhol’s Exploding Plastic Inevitable shows. An absolute masterpiece of a music-group portrait, this chronicle of the rise and flame-out fall of the V.U. borrows the vocabulary of that era’s experimental filmmaking, complete with abstract montages and Chelsea Girls split screens; more importantly, it gives you a great sense of the avant-garde environments (music, cinema, literature) and pop-to-Pop Art intersections that made the initial combination of Lou Reed and John Cale so combustible. There are talking-heads interviews and archival clips galore, of course, but it’s all presented in a way that frames the good, the great and the ugly of the band beautifully. And visually, it’s a note from the underground that somehow ended up on Apple TV+ — talk about subversive.


‘Shiva Baby’

Seriously, is there anything more nerve-racking than running into your married sugar daddy at a shiva for a family friend? The answer, per writer-director Emma Seligman’s debut is: Yes, if both your noisy, overbearing parents and your ex-girlfriend are there as well. Danielle (Rachel Sennott) finds herself juggling a number of secrets and lies while stuck at a communal gathering, having to navigate paternal expectations, the ghosts of her past, and being publicly outed in regard to how she’s paying her bills. Viewers, meanwhile, may find themselves running out of nails to bite as things continually threaten to fall apart; a colleague referred to this as “Uncut Gems for Gen Z women,” and that description couldn’t feel more apt in terms of the stress levels experienced while watching it. And Seligman’s expert use of both the claustrophobic setting and Jewish cultural rituals to detail how her hero is suffocating under the burden of expectations is nothing short of genius.


‘Bad Luck Banging or Looney Porn’

Memo to schoolteachers who make sex tapes with their partners in their off hours: Make sure the clip doesn’t end up going viral on the internet, you may get hauled before a committee of “concerned citizens” ready to tar and feather you. The big winner at this year’s Berlin Film Festival, Romanian filmmaker Radu Jude’s raunchy comedy is partially about an educator (Katia Pascariu) who has the misfortune of watching a private matter become the center of an extremely hypocritical public debate. But it’s also a portrait of a Western world on the brink, in which civility is a casualty of war and the tenuous bonds that hold society together are fraying and tearing before our eyes. (The fact that the movie was shot on the streets of Bucharest during the pandemic only heightens the sensation that everything’s falling apart.) And then, in Bad Luck‘s glorious middle section, we’re treated to a litany of facts, anecdotes, rants, risqué asides, and less-than-stellar history lessons that blurs everything into a mélange of sex, death, and horror. The political is personal, and vice versa — every generation gets the W.R.: Mysteries of the Organism we deserve, and thanks to Jude, we now have ours.


‘The Souvenir: Part II’

Finally, a sequel we actually needed! Joanna Hogg’s semi-autobiographical 2019 movie rewound to her film-school days in early 1980s London and a relationship with a charismatic, troubled older man. Her follow-up picks up more or less where things left off (spoiler: tragically) and observes the director’s screen counterpart, Julie (Honor Swinton Byrne), working on her thesis project, which is…a film about the impact that relationship had on her. There’s a slightly meta-hall-of-mirrors feeling to Hogg making a movie about her younger self making a movie about what we’ve seen in the first Souvenir, but it’s the differences between the two that make you realize what a smart, emotionally satisfying long game she’s playing here. The original looked back — in anger, in sorrow, in wistfulness — at a transitional moment in one artist’s life. This second chapter dives into how we use art to process grief, to reckon with our past, and to hopefully achieve something close to catharsis, or at least acceptance. Two sides, same coin. And it’s not a coincidence that the last voice you hear is that of the filmmaker herself. Stunning.


‘The Viewing Booth’

Ra’anan Alexandrowicz had an idea: Put out an open call to Jewish-American university students, have them view a variety of news clips regarding interactions between Israeli soldiers and Palestinian citizens (a situation which he knew about firsthand) and interview them about their thoughts on what they see. He’d document the results on film. One participant in particular, a young woman named Maia Levy, fascinates him; their interactions range from conversational to combative. And as we watch him watch her watching these snippets on the Occupation, all of which range from highly partisan to outright propaganda, the entire notion of whether our belief systems can be changed, or are merely reinforced by the information we receive, is put through the proverbial ringer. What starts as a social experiment becomes something much deeper, and by the end of Alexandrowicz’s extraordinary buffet for thought, you realize this documentary is only partially about Israel. It’s about seeing freedom fighters versus insurrectionists, a leader versus a con man, a plague versus a hoax. It’s about arguing over whose lives matter. It’s about the culture divide and the reality gap that’s quickly turning into a collective abyss that we’re all staring down into. (You can check out the movie here.)



It opens with a nine-minute shot of a church service interrupted by a firebombing — still the most unsettling, violently shocking screen image we saw in 2021 — and ends with an elliptical act of retribution straight outta the Bible. In between those two jaw-dropping sequences is one of the most audacious debuts in eons, courtesy of Georgian filmmaker Dea Kulumbegashvili. Our heroine, Yana (Ia Sukhitashvili), is a preacher’s wife and part of a Jehovah’s Witness congregation that resides at the base of the Caucasus Mountains. A detective (Kakha Kintsurashvili) from the big city who’s arrived to investigate this act of religious persecution feels that he has the right to commit crimes of his own. And from there, Kulumbegashvili slowly, deceptively sets the stage for a thriller that hides its faith, hope, and desire to smite the wicked behind an austere, rigorously formalist style of filmmaking. Pat close attention to the parable delivered in the first scene. By the time you find yourself watching that final moment unfold, you’ll realize how the movie has brought everything full circle — and that you’ve just seen the work of an artist who’s only begun to show us what she can do.


‘The Human Voice’

Pedro Almodóvar released a feature this year, Parallel Mothers, that deftly combines a Sirkian maternal drama with a wallop of an indictment about Spain’s inability to reckon with its past. Yet it’s his short take on Jean Cocteau’s 1930 monologue, in which a woman goes from grief-stricken to revenge-seeking, that’s stuck with us ever since we saw this back in March, and what he and Tilda Swinton accomplish with a few sets, some showstopping gowns, an axe and a lighter is nothing short of miraculous. The Scottish actor’s anything-goes arthouse sensibility fits her auteur’s vision of glamor and madness like a hand in a Gucci glove, and the duo manage to cram more humor, tension, drama, camp and lushness into 30 minutes than most films do in 90. It’s like mainlining 10cc’s of pure, uncut cinematic bliss. We stand a legend x 2.


‘Drive My Car’

Japan’s Ryusuke Hamaguchi (Happy Hour) returns with yet another marathon-length masterpiece — a three-hour-plus adaptation of a Haruki Murakami short story about a theater director (Hidetoshi Nishijima) staging an international, multilingual production of Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya in Hiroshima. The gentleman has a storied history with the play as an actor, as well as a connection to one of the cast: a tempestuous, pretty-boy television star (Masaki Okada) who once worked with the director’s late wife. He’s also been reluctantly assigned a driver by his patrons, a young woman (Tôko Miura) with her own crosses to bear. (Between this and his exquisite anthology movie/Berlin Film Festival award-winner Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy, Hamaguchi has had one hell of a stellar year.) The long scenes of actors poring through a dramatic text, and how the dynamics of the work began to reflect on the dynamics of its interpreters, initially brings to mind a less paranoid version of a Jacques Rivette movie. But Hamaguchi’s take on art, life, loss, healing and forgiveness is its own beast, and one of the richest, most rewarding examples of how to turn simple human interactions into compelling cinema.