Top 20 Films of 2021

It has only been within the last few months that I began seeing movies in a theater again. Attending press screenings has felt akin to a family reunion, allowing me to connect with colleagues I haven’t seen in person since early 2020. Staying up to date on the latest releases has admittedly not been a top priority of mine since the pandemic again. Other writing projects have shifted my focus to such an extent that, with the exception of my interview with director Jacqueline Xerri and actor Sofia Popol about their remarkable short film, “Monkey Bars,” this past March, all of my own written content on the site this year has been delivered directly from the archives. Last month was the first ever since Indie Outlook began in July 2012 that I posted no new content on the site, in part due to the epic “Hook” retrospective I was preparing for publication at RogerEbert.com. 

Therefore, the following list featuring my picks for the Top 20 Films of 2021 (which was also published today on RogerEbert.com) is in alphabetical order, a more apt illustration of how I’ve recently gone about savoring the diverse array of greatness in modern cinema. Following that are four Special Honorable Mentions that are the equal of any film I’ve seen this year—despite not being features themselves—along with twenty more titles that are well worth seeking out. There are also more films than usual from this year I haven’t yet had the chance to see, but out of the ones I have, these are the ones I loved the most…

Adrienne

At age 40, filmmaker Adrienne Shelly’s dreams were coming true. She had given birth to a beautiful daughter and her latest directorial effort, the marvelous 2007 comedy, “Waitress,” starring Keri Russell, was poised to become a hit upon its premiere at Sundance. When her life came to an abrupt end on November 1st, 2006, her husband Andy Ostroy knew this could not have been an act of suicide. His deeply moving documentary serves as a worthy tribute to his late wife’s genius as well as a wrenching portrait of his efforts to discover the truth of what happened to her. 

“Adrienne” is streaming on HBO Max.

Boulevard! A Hollywood Story

If you, like me, consider Billy Wilder’s “Sunset Boulevard” to be one of the greatest and most deliciously meta achievements in cinema history, you simply cannot afford to miss director/editor Jeffrey Schwarz’s wildly entertaining documentary, which chronicles how two closeted songwriters, Dickson Hughes and Richard Stapley, came to aid screen icon Gloria Swanson in making her own musical adaptation of the celebrated film a near-reality. This story has so many jaw-dropping instances of life imitating art that it practically warrants the Ryan Murphy treatment.

A Choice of Weapons: Inspired by Gordon Parks

The great achievement of John Maggio’s perceptive documentary about the historic Life Magazine photographer Gordon Parks is the depth with which it delves into the nuance of his indelible images, which served as both vividly realized slices of life and artfully profound meditations on race. Maggio doesn’t simply gather a line-up of distinguished talking heads to inform us that Parks was important—he shows us why. It’s the vulnerability and humanity that Parks illuminated in his subjects that makes his work as spellbinding today as it was when it was originally lensed. 

“A Choice of Weapons: Inspired by Gordon Parks” is streaming on HBO Max.

Clara Sola

Costa Rica’s official submission for this year’s International Feature Oscar race is writer/director Nathalie Álvarez Mesén’s breathtaking feature debut, a deeply provocative meditation on organic spirituality and the religious strictures designed to suppress it. The uniformly excellent cast of first-time actors is headed by dancer Wendy Chinchilla Araya as Clara, a 40-year-old woman whose superhuman virginal traits she is required to sustain clash with the primal urges simmering within her, which are freely embodied by her 14-year-old niece (a revelatory Ana Julia Porras Espinoza). 

CODA

Few films in recent memory have delivered as much unbridled joy as writer/director Siân Heder’s remake of the French dramedy, “La Famille Bélier.” It showcases the extraordinary beauty of sign language in shots that enable us to see how a family communicates with their entire bodies, as well as their marvelously expressive faces. The acting is of such a high caliber that no audible dialogue is needed for us to understand the inner lives of characters such as the deaf father (Troy Kotsur) who observes the facial reactions of those listening to his daughter (Emilia Jones) sing onstage. 

“CODA” is streaming on Apple TV+.

Drive My Car

This spellbinding three-hour opus from Japanese filmmaker Ryûsuke Hamaguchi pulls off the neat trick of being both deliberately paced and not a second too long. Hidetoshi Nishijima plays a theater director who finds a transformative power in the words of Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya, articulating thoughts he wouldn’t dare utter in his own life. The entire script is a triumph, though two key monologues—one delivered in a car by Masaki Okada, the other gloriously articulated via sign language by newcomer Yoo-rim Park—are among the most powerful I have ever seen on film.

The Humans

Stephen Karam’s screen adaptation of his Tony Award-winning play wrings a staggering amount of visceral tension and suspense out of what appears to be, on the surface, a simple family gathering. Brigid (Beanie Feldstein) welcomes her family on Thanksgiving to her new Chinatown apartment, which is lensed in widescreen cinematography by Lol Crawley that heightens one’s paranoia of encroaching decay, while making characters appear isolated even when surrounded by family, such as Brigid’s ailing sister, Aimee, played in a marvelous dramatic performance by Amy Schumer.

“The Humans” is streaming on Showtime.

In & Of Itself

Just as director Frank Oz’s stage version of Derek DelGaudio’s astonishing one-man show transcended the traditional definition of a theatrical performance, their film adaptation cannot be simply labeled a documentary or recording. It is more than one thing, thrillingly so, and that is the precise truth it aims to illuminate in ourselves and those around us. This show was one of the most profound communal experiences of my life, and on film, it serves as an exhilarating ode to the communal experience itself, made all the more poignant and meaningful when viewed in quarantine.

“In & Of Itself” is streaming on Hulu. Read my interview with Frank Oz here.

In the Same Breath

Winner of the Audience Award at SXSW, master documentarian Nanfu Wang’s latest feature retraces every destructive step made by the governments in both China and the U.S. as the Coronavirus outbreak engulfed the world during the early months of 2020. Though the film is almost unbearably painful at times, it is Wang’s clear-eyed humanism that makes the experience of watching it as engaging as it is essential. On the heels of “One Child Nation,” this empathetic triumph reaffirms Wang’s status as one of the best and most important filmmakers working today.

“In the Same Breath” is streaming on HBO Max. Read my interview with Nanfu Wang here.

Licorice Pizza

I couldn’t watch Cooper Hoffman’s screen debut in Paul Thomas Anderson’s latest and most endearing film to date without thinking of his father Philip in Cameron Crowe’s equally glorious ode to adolescence, “Almost Famous.” There’s even a scene where Alana Haim, the acclaimed musician making a seemingly effortless transition to acting, informs him—as Philip did to Patrick Fugit—that he’s “not cool.” Though Anderson’s lovingly detailed, uproariously funny picture is filled with sublime supporting performances, it is Hoffman and Haim who make this film a real winner.

“Licorice Pizza” opens in 70mm on Christmas Eve at Chicago’s Music Box Theatre.

Mass

For the first twenty minutes of actor Fran Kranz’s phenomenal debut as a writer/director, we are uncertain who the main characters are. Eventually, two couples arrive, and what follows is one of the greatest master classes in acting you will ever see. Jason Isaacs, Martha Plimpton, Ann Dowd and Reed Birney all deliver the sort of Oscar-caliber work that would’ve felt right at home on “Playhouse 90.” The tension is so excruciatingly palpable, I found myself holding my breath until the characters allowed themselves to exhale, triggering a catharsis that brought tears to my eyes. 

North by Current

Filmmaker Angelo Madsen Minax’s documentary is an utterly mesmerizing sensory experience, providing us with a portal into the humanity of others. What initially seems to be a true crime thriller gradually unfolds into a much deeper meditation on the unspoken wounds that fester in a family to the point where they could prove fatal if kept indefinitely in the darkness. Minax’s use of narration is a masterstroke in how it allows him to have an inner dialogue with his younger self, voiced by Sigrid Harmon, whose words poetically set the tone for a film in which “time has no meaning.”

“North by Current” is streaming on PBS.

Pink Skies Ahead

Kelly Oxford’s stigma-busting debut feature flew under the radars of many critics when it premiered exclusively on MTV, which is a damned shame since it contains one of the year’s very best performances. Jessica Barden’s charismatic and gleefully unpredictable screen presence has bolstered every single project it has graced, and she delivers her career-best work as a frustrated young woman who drops out of college as a result of her undiagnosed anxiety disorder. Among the film’s first-rate ensemble is Melora Walters, chillingly good as a formidably judgmental mother. 

“Pink Skies Ahead” is streaming on Amazon.

The Power of the Dog

Based on Thomas Savage’s 1967 novel, Jane Campion’s first film in 12 years—following 2009’s exquisite romance, “Bright Star”—exemplifies her gift for delving into the uncomfortable dynamics between and unarticulated tension within repressed individuals. Benedict Cumberbatch’s ferocious performance as an embittered cowboy is well-matched by Kodi Smit-McPhee’s eerie channeling of Anthony Perkins and Kirsten Dunst’s haunting portrayal of anxiety-fueled alcoholism. There’s no doubt Rev. Henry Powell would’ve approved of Cumberbatch’s diabolical penchant for whistling.

“The Power of the Dog” is streaming on Netflix.

Procession

Catharsis is one of the most sacred gifts that cinema can provide both storytellers and their audience, and it serves as the primary subject of this latest marvel from filmmaker Robert Greene, who has rigorously explored the function of reenactments in such pictures as “Bisbee ’17” and “Kate Plays Christine.” Here they are utilized as a form of drama therapy, enabling six survivors of sexual abuse administered by Catholic priests to confront their demons, directing scenes with a compassionate young actor that portray their childhood trauma as a way of finding peace. 

“Procession” is streaming on Netflix.

Quo Vadis, Aida?

Thomas Vinterberg’s crowd-pleaser “Another Round” may have won the Oscar for Best International Feature Film at this year’s ceremony, yet there is no question that the greatest and most urgent film in its category, by far, was writer/director Jasmila Žbanić’s shattering war film from Bosnia, starring the magnificent Jasna Đuričić as a UN translator desperately trying to save the lives of her family during the 1995 Srebrenica massacre. The imagery here is unmistakably evocative of modern day Afghanistan, as the Taliban swiftly took over the country following our nation’s withdrawal this year.

“Quo Vadis, Aida?” is streaming on Hulu.

Saint Maud

Horror was the genre I avoided like the all-too-real plague in 2020. It wasn’t until I was fully vaccinated this year that I finally decided to brave Rose Glass’ impeccably crafted debut feature, starring a thoroughly unnerving Morfyyd Clark as a hospice nurse who believes herself to be a saver of souls. Glass’ portrayal of the titular character’s delusions is at once frightening and darkly comic, reflecting the unending strain of alternative facts that have caused roughly half the country to live in a parallel reality, a topic also satirized in Adam McKay’s upcoming film, “Don’t Look Up.”

“Saint Maud” is streaming on Hulu.

Shiva Baby

While spending socially distanced holidays at home, no film this year was more oddly comforting than Emma Seligman’s sensational first feature, with its marvelous star-making turn from comedian Rachel Sennott as a college student grappling with extreme social anxiety at a Jewish funeral service. The film is a cinematic triumph in every department, from Maria Rusche’s cinematography to Ariel Marx’s score, not to mention a masterfully uncomfortable comedy on par with “Punch-Drunk Love.” All Seligman has to do is hold the camera on Sennott’s face, and we are hooked.

“Shiva Baby” is streaming on HBO Max.

Street Gang: How We Got to Sesame Street

“Mad Hot Ballroom” director Marilyn Agrelo has made the definitive film about the most beloved children’s television show in history, chronicling the early years of the groundbreaking series while illuminating the invaluable work of various key people, many of whom lack the recognition they deserve. From Joe Raposo’s creation of the extraordinarily layered song, “Bein’ Green,” to the warmhearted community built by longtime co-stars such as Sonia Manzano, Bob McGrath and Roscoe Orman, Agrelo’s picture delves deeply into what made this program a game-changer.

“Street Gang: How We Got to Sesame Street” is streaming on HBO Max. Read my interview with Marilyn Agrelo here.

Torn

In light of National Geographic distributing this documentary, one naturally expects it to be loaded with breathtaking landscapes, and indeed it is, yet the most unforgettable sights witnessed here are the expressions that materialize on the faces of its director, Max Lowe, and his family members as they attempt to grapple with the loss of Alex—a father, husband and iconic mountain climber. By inviting viewers to share in this most private of transformative periods for his family, Max scaled the Mount Everest of the soul, creating a cinematic gift that cuts to the heart in ways few films ever do.

SPECIAL HONORABLE MENTIONS

One of the best films of any length I saw over the past twelve months was Elvira Lind’s Oscar-nominated short, “The Letter Room,” starring her husband Oscar Isaac in a mesmerizing turn as a corrections officer who becomes transfixed by the private letters penned by a woman (Alia Shawkat) to her lover on death row. As for miniseries that rank among the greatest cinematic achievements of 2021, three stand out from the crowd, starting with Molly Smith Metzler’s hugely popular drama, “Maid,” which provides Margaret Qualley with her finest and most richly layered showcase to date, pairing her with her real-life mother, Andie MacDowell (in a tour-de-force performance), and the adorable Rylea Whittet as the daughter who fuels her character’s quest for independence. 

Mike Flanagan’s 2016 thriller, “Hush,” had his frequent muse Kate Siegel playing an author who was writing a book entitled Midnight Mass, featuring characters named Father Paul and Erin. Now Flanagan has turned this concept into his most thoughtful and sneakily profound miniseries thus far, starring an electrifying Hamish Linklater as Father Paul and Siegel as Erin, a member of his flock. Yet few works proved to be as visually arresting as “Moonlight” director Barry Jenkins’ horrifying and exhilarating “The Underground Railroad,” headlined by a phenomenal Thuso Mbedu as an enslaved woman embarking on the hidden road toward freedom, while attempting to evade the eyes of a slave catcher (Joel Edgerton, whose performance reaches Daniel Plainview levels of operatic intensity). For those moviegoers who still aren’t ready to re-enter a theater, you won’t find greater film artistry readily available for viewing at home than these four must-see masterworks.

“The Letter Room” is streaming on Topic, “Maid” and “Midnight Mass” are streaming on Netflix and “The Underground Railroad” is streaming on Prime Video. Read my interview with Elvira Lind here.

Twenty More Honorable Mentions: “Annette,” “Bo Burnham: Inside,” “The Card Counter,” “The First Step,” “Flee,” “Judas and the Black Messiah,” “Jumbo,” “The Killing of Two Lovers,” “Last Night in Soho,” “The Novice,” “Passing,” “Petite Maman,” “Pig,” “Red Rocket,” “Rita Moreno: Just a Girl Who Decided to Go for It,” “The Souvenir: Part II,” “Summer of Soul (…Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised),” “Tina,” “Titane,” “The Tragedy of Macbeth”

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