It’s been nearly two years since the COVID-19 pandemic transformed the way the world does everything, from washing one’s hands to watching movies. Before the outbreak, the aptly named No Time To Die was supposed to open on April 10, 2020. By the time it finally reached screens more than 18 months later, audiences were asking themselves whether it was worth it — whether the communal theatrical experience was a gamble they were willing to take.
What was the first movie you saw back in theatres? Was it In the Heights? Dune? Or maybe you’re still holding out for West Side Story. Remember the good old days, when the decision of whether to see a movie on the big screen was simply a factor of cost: paying the babysitter, plus the price of tickets and concessions, versus waiting a few months to rent it on-demand or buy the Blu-ray?
So much about the future of this creative, collective pastime remains in limbo. But it’s hard to be too pessimistic when one sees the movies themselves. They so are rich, so accomplished, so varied in what they have to say about our tumultuous times that it’s perhaps no great surprise that Variety’s two chief film critics have nary a single title in common on their respective top 10 lists. And the Academy, when it comes time to vote, may find still more titles to celebrate. But that’s a testament to the wealth of extraordinary work to choose from. Here are Variety’s picks for the best films of 2021.
READ MORE: The worst films of 2021 ranked
Owen Gleiberman’s Top 10
A movie, or at least a memorable one, tends to be about the inner lives of its characters. In too many films today, though, the characters have inner lives that are thin, scannable, mystery-free. But Pablo Larraín’s entrancing drama is a lightning rod that channels the inner life of Princess Diana — the jolt and sparks of anxiety and melancholy that have turned her, during a Christmas weekend with the Royal Family, into a Royal Nervous Wreck Without a Cause. Kristen Stewart, transforming herself, does a tremulously acerbic and precise recreation of the Di personality (the halting elegance, the shyness jostling with the coquettishness of fame). But that’s just the ground floor of her performance. She takes the audience on a flesh-and-blood journey in a movie that’s at once a diary, a soap opera, a horror film, and a rigorously speculative drawing-room biopic. It’s a much more close-up experience than The Crown. It is also, at moments, like The Shining rewritten by Edith Wharton. Di, for all her privilege, is trapped in a dead marriage that makes her feel like a caged bird, and since that marriage is part of England’s infrastructure she thinks there’s no key. She finds it on the hunting ground, in the most moving scene in any film this year. She frees herself and, in doing so, rocks the old world order. Spencer is a tale of despair and transcendence that celebrates the true meaning of being royal.
2. House of Gucci
If you think it’s a high-camp hoot, you may not have taken in what’s onscreen. Ridley Scott’s supremely entertaining and revealing drama about the Machiavellian machinations that brought down the Gucci fashion dynasty certainly has scenes where you chuckle at the audacity of what you’re seeing — the greed, the backstabbing, the revenge (and oh, in this movie, is it ever served cold). House of Gucci is a knowing high-trash Godfather Lite, and one should feel free to giggle at Jared Leto’s comically pathetic Paolo, the Fredo of the family, even as Leto makes him a weirdly layered buffoon. But Lady Gaga, as Patrizia, who marries into the Gucci clan and tries to take it over, is at once lusciously devious and earnestly exacting playing a conniver in over her head, who we root both for and against. And Adam Driver and Al Pacino give pinpoint performances as the Gucci entrepreneurs who see their empire cut out from under them. House of Gucci is a study in the cruelly shifting whims of power. It’s also something we don’t see nearly enough of anymore: a movie for adults that’s extravagantly serious fun.
3. The Beatles: Get Back
It’s not every documentary that allows you to hang out with the Beatles for eight hours. In Get Back, that fly-on-the-studio-wall feeling is a privilege we craved without knowing it. And what makes Peter Jackson’s long-form documentary a gift that keeps on giving it that it uses the Get Back sessions to tap into the enigma of who the Beatles were: four young men with majestically timeless souls, who became legends so singular that it got hard to fit them all into one room, which is one reason they had to break up. You feel the early stirrings of that dissolution here. But you also feel the pleasure they take in each other’s company. In Get Back, the Beatles bicker and make anxious reference to “divorce,” they joke around like Monty Python clowns, they sing ancient rock ‘n’ roll like it was yesterday, and through it all they Maxwell’s silver hammer their new material into songs that express, more than anything, the happiness they still have in being a band. Get Back is as richly detailed as a vérité novel, as truthful and as much of a pure film (as opposed to a series) as anything by D.A. Pennebaker or Frederick Wiseman, but it’s the opposite of a downer, because it captures the epic story of four geniuses who, for one of the last times, do the impossible. They come together.
4. Drive My Car
The central character in Ryûsuke Hamaguchi’s reverently touching and clear-eyed drama is a middle-aged actor-director, played with a serenely forlorn, bottled-up humanity by Hidetoshi Nishijima, who finds himself in a midlife predicament just idiosyncratic enough to seem utterly real. His name is Mr. Kafuku, and we meet his loving wife, witness her infidelity, and then see her depart in a most unexpected way. From that point on, Kafuku is shadowed by a cloud of loss, though when he accepts a fellowship to stage a production of “Uncle Vanya” in Hiroshima, his life opens up again. But only to the degree he’ll let it. And that tug-of-war inside him — to live again or to die slowly — creates the lyrical suspense that sustains Hamaguchi’s three-hour odyssey of hope and devastation and rebirth. Kafuku is assigned a driver (Tōko Miura), a young woman with a hidden war of her own, and as the connection between them zigs and zags, the movie is telling us: Don’t fear your tragedy — we all have one. The climactic performance of Uncle Vanya, featuring an actress speaking in sign language, is a catharsis that will leave you floored, spellbound, weeping with faith.
There have been some terrific musicals this year — West Side Story, tick, tick…Boom!, In the Heights. Yet on that score, Cruella may have them all beat, even though it isn’t technically a musical. It’s a live-action Disney prequel (in other words, a movie you probably assumed you would hate), all about how Cruella de Vil, the aristocratic villainess from One Hundred and One Dalmatians, started out as an orphan in ’70s London with two-toned hair and a fashionista flair that would take her far. Emma Stone plays this punk urchin with a commitment that will stun you, and the director, Craig Gillespie, orchestrates it all like a flowingly deranged rock opera of needle drops, as if Ken Russell had been handed the keys to the Disney kingdom. Emma Thompson plays Cruella’s monster of a mentor, and Thompson’s line readings are delivered with misanthropy so elegantly crisp you don’t know whether to run for cover or bow.
It became known as “the movie based on a tweetstorm,” but that makes it sound like a skip-stuttering cross between drama and social media instead of what it is: a wild ride into the sex-industry abyss. Janicza Bravo, in a directorial voice as searing as that of vintage Scorsese, tells the story of two women who head down to Florida for a weekend gig at a strip club. As Stefani, whose antic jabber is so “street” she’s a walking personality crisis, Riley Keough is outrageous enough to match the outer limits of Crispin Glover and James Franco, while Taylour Paige, as Zola, becomes our wary, amused heroine-survivor, surveying a violent, arrested, horndog America where everything is for sale. The riveting Colman Domingo gives the most complex performance as a pimp since Morgan Freeman in Street Smart. Elegant and savage, Zola is a movie that takes the male gaze and turns it in on itself.
7. King Richard
Will Smith has shown us his edge before, but never this brilliantly. In Reinaldo Marcus Green’s riveting sports biopic, he plays Richard Williams, the father of tennis superstars Venus and Serena Williams, and Smith makes this famously ornery man a tough-love coach, a stubbornly proud dad, an idealist, a hustler, a fanatic, a mentor, a media manipulator, a son-of-a-bitch, and a saint — all at the same time. The movie is about how Richard, working from a plan he drew up before Venus and Serena were born, taught them to be tennis wizards, but this wasn’t just a matter of devoted training. The Williams sisters grew up in Compton, and Richard, at every stage, had to break the colour line and convince the white-dominated world of tennis to take his daughters on. He rewrote the rules — and then kept breaking his own rules, because only he knew just how high his daughters could climb. The tennis matches are thrillingly shot, and Saniyya Sidney and Demi Singleton invest Venus and Serena with a sweet tough eagerness that makes you believe in their every killer backhand.
8. Zack Snyder’s Justice League
Twenty-two years into the 21st century, if you’re a movie fan chances are you spend more time than you bargained for watching lavishly scaled comic-book franchise action films: those CGI spectacles that are good, bad, or indifferent, and seldom very much more. But Zack Snyder, restoring his four-hour cut of the DC origin story that got bowdlerized (and Whedon-ised) by Warner Bros., creates a superhero movie with a difference. It’s a piece of ominous glittering Wagnerian comic-book pop, its superhero backstories unfolding with an imaginative fury, its battles spilling forth with a dark grandeur worthy of Tolkien (not the LOTR films, but the dream battles Tolkien wrote on the page), all rendered with an incendiary conviction that sweeps you up and won’t let go.
Sian Heder’s full-throttle emotional domestic saga is the kind of straight-down-the-middle naturalistic crowd-pleaser that the cinema would be a much paler place without. As Ruby, the only hearing person in her family (she’s a child of deaf adults, or CODA, with a deaf brother as well), Emilia Jones plays a girl of vibrant impulses, caught between Motown and the Shaggs — and between her mother and fisherman father (Marlee Matlin and Troy Kotsur) and the outside world she helps them communicate with. Then life beckons, in the form of her desire to leave the nest and pursue her dream of becoming a musician. And she can’t bear the sacrifice. CODA, with splendid performances by Matlin and Kotsur, succeeds in making the life of the deaf look no more exotic than it is, but where the film achieves a singular poignance is in showing us how the very love we feel for our families can tear our souls apart.
10. Parallel Mothers
It looks like a Pedro Almodóvar movie (the home décor from deep-purple heaven), and it’s got the plot of a Pedro Almodóvar movie: a tale of two women in Madrid, played with perky cross-generational resonance by Penélope Cruz and Milena Smit, whose babies are born at the same moment, and who come to share their lives in ways that are puckish and mystical and topsy-turvy. At times, you might even mistake it for an Almodóvar farce. Yet what the convolutions, in their shattering urgency, produce this time isn’t laughter so much as an enthralled descent into the depths of what motherhood really means. The movie is Almodóvar’s most stirringly political, as it goes back to recognise the unclaimed victims of the Spanish Civil War, and its extraordinary moving power comes from how the 72-year-old director sees the ache of the past fully alive in the present.
Peter Debruge’s Top 10
According to the Academy, which extended the cutoff to Oscar-qualifying 2020 titles on account of COVID, the year in moviegoing began on March 1, by which point, we’d already gotten such wonderful COVID-pushed releases as Pieces of a Woman, French Exit, Land and Malcolm and Marie — the latter being a divisive, lockdown-made two-hander whose merits may have been appreciated by me alone. One of the movies on my list already has a couple of Oscars to its name, and that’s OK. After the tornado that was 2020, this has been another freak year (there was a coup on the U.S. Capitol one week into January, for crying out loud). But art adapts and evolves, reminding us what really matters, or else offering some much-needed escapism. Here are my favourites in a year more cinematic than I could’ve ever foreseen, and one that, like the end of Dune: Part One, leaves me eager for what comes next.
Clint Bentley’s father was a jockey, which informs every frame of his soul-felt directorial debut. But is fictional jockey Jackson Silva (Clifton Collins Jr.) a father? That’s the question simmering throughout this behind-the-barns saga of a broken-down loner who’s on the verge of retiring when a younger rider (Moisés Arias) claiming to be his son arrives on the scene, offering him the potential of kin — and someone to carry on his legacy. A gifted character actor with more than 70 credits to his name, Collins has waited his entire career for an opportunity like this, but instead of overplaying such an emotional part, he reins it in for even greater impact. Together with inner-city family drama Concrete Cowboy (another 2021 treasure), this sensitive indie offers a window into a seldom-seen milieu in which professional actors and real-life horsemen appear side by side — both crucial experiments as our collective sense of authenticity evolves.
2. The French Dispatch
It takes a special kind of person to sever ties with America and embrace France as your new home, but Wes Anderson did it, as did I (for two years, Variety permitted me to work from Paris), and so did a bunch of my favourite writers: James Baldwin, Edmund White, William Saroyan, etc. The French Dispatch pays homage to such ex-pat authors, plus a handful of other street-level chroniclers whose books crowd my shelves (like Mavis Gallant, Joseph Mitchell and Luc Sante). I regret not having written more about my experience abroad. Fortunately, Anderson has shared his impressions of Paris, playfully reimagined in this endlessly inventive portmanteau film — meaning we get several movies for the price of one. Like a great issue of The New Yorker magazine, his dense zibaldone of character sketches and cross-cultural observations is nearly too much to devour in one sitting, yielding more on repeats visits.
I couldn’t agree more with Anakin Skywalker when he snivelled, “I don’t like sand. It’s coarse and rough and irritating.” But unlike such dust-filled sci-fi epics as John Carter and Star Wars, that’s kind of the point of Dune: It sucks to be stuck on a desert planet, and yet the Atreides family must make the most of their godforsaken assignment. In this visionary adaptation of Frank Herbert’s overcomplicated book, director Denis Villeneuve pares down all the politics and palace intrigues until what remains plays like a Greek tragedy, as audiences immerse themselves in a world at once futuristic and retro-fascist. Like Blade Runner 2049 before it, the story’s only partially told, but I’m hooked by the promise of what’s to come. Experience it on the biggest screen possible.
4. The Lost Daughter
From one of our most fearless actors, Maggie Gyllenhaal, comes an aptly daring directorial debut, less in style than in the statement it makes about motherhood in a society that puts enormous expectations on parents. For many, children are a blessing. For Leda (played by Olivia Colman in the present, Jessie Buckley at an earlier breaking point in her life), they are a life sentence, and she carries the guilt of her choices on a Greek vacation, where Leda recognises a kindred spirit in another restless young mum (Dakota Johnson). This liberating portrait expands upon the radical ending of Luca Guadagnino’s I Am Love, in which a woman walks out on her family, as Gyllenhaal spins a mystery with no clear answers, but a wealth of insights into human nature.
5. Nightmare Alley
For this gorgeous dark jewel of a movie, Pan’s Labyrinth director Guillermo del Toro ditches the supernatural touches that have become his trademark in favour of a full-on film noir. Instead of mesmerizing us with magic, he guides us through the shadows of a circus sideshow rife with illusions to reveal the tricks of the trade, which can only take quack mind-reader Stan Carlisle (a brilliantly sleazy Bradley Cooper) so far. Mistaking a high-society shrink (Cate Blanchett, who steals the show) for a fellow con artist, Stan learns a hard lesson on the big carnival. The cynical source material gives del Toro a rock-solid foundation from which to explore his obsessions, while the heightened design and a dream cast of grotesques leaves a searing impression in our memories.
6. The Worst Person in the World
The title’s meant to be ironic in Norwegian director Joachim Trier’s fifth and finest feature, and yet, the character it refers to — twentysomething Julie (radiant newcomer Renate Reinsve, who won Best Actress honours at Cannes) — is by far her own worst critic, beating herself up over trial-and-error mistakes that only she, the film’s narrator and the audience can know. Julie’s even tougher on the indecision she faces in her job, her studies, her relationship and so on. Structured like a novel in 12 chapters, but directed with the freeform cinematic virtuosity of the French New Wave, this roller-coaster romance speaks to those lacking somewhat in confidence and direction, as if knowing exactly what you want from life were the goal, when in fact, life is what happens when you’re figuring things out.
The movie musical made a comeback in 2021, featuring no fewer than four Lin-Manuel Miranda projects (In the Heights, Vivo, Tick, Tick… Boom! and Encanto), but my favourites were Carlos López Estrada’s sweet spoken-word Summertime and this dazzling adaptation of the Edmond Rostand play, in which Joe Wright and writer Erica Schmidt translate Rostand’s rhyming verse into irrepressible modern song. They also radically recast Cyrano de Bergerac — that master of rapier, pen and panache — not as a big-schnozzed show-off but a dapper little person (Peter Dinklage). One of the medium’s most innovative directors, Wright brings the whole affair to vibrant life in the way he frames, shoots, cuts and sound designs every scene, making this a sparkling, swoon-worthy reminder of the medium’s full potential.
8. Judas and the Black Messiah
There is a war raging today over American history: how it’s taught and who’s centred in the narrative of our nation’s past, especially when it comes to racial injustice. For more than a century, Hollywood has been corrupted by many of the same prejudices, which makes it almost miraculous that such a compelling piece of “counter-propaganda” (to use director Shaka King’s term) could be produced by a major studio, anticipating and amplifying last year’s Black Lives Matter protests. In 1969, the United States government murdered Black Panthers lightning rod Fred Hampton (Daniel Kaluuya). Rather than take the more conventional biopic approach of Malcolm X or Ali, this sharp, declassified crime drama examines the conscience of the Black man who betrayed him, yielding a career-best performance by LaKeith Stanfield. Essential viewing.
9. Licorice Pizza
The pandemic was still going strong when Paul Thomas Anderson committed to shooting this shaggy, 1973-set puppy-love story on 65mm — a decision that shows total confidence that COVID-19 wouldn’t crush the big-screen experience (and unlike Dune, the distributor backed him up by giving the film a platform theatrical release, instead of streaming it day-and-date). Set in Hollywood’s backyard and liberally inspired by the teenage exploits of film producer Gary Goetzman, the free-wheeling coming-of-age story follows an overconfident child actor (Cooper Hoffman) who crushes on a decade-or-so-older SoCal gal (Alana Haim), trying every trick he can think of to seduce her. More sweet than sleazy, the ensuing courtship is one of the most singularly entertaining in ages — age difference be damned. I can’t decide which tickled me more: that crazy reckless-driving set-piece or the pair of scenes in which these two care so much they sprint to one another’s rescue.
10. The Killing of Two Lovers
Nobody dies in Robert Machoian’s piercing relationship drama, not literally, although the movie concerns a marriage on life support, and sets audiences on edge with an opening scene in which a man looms over an unidentified couple’s bed, revolver drawn. David (Clayne Crawford) is desperate, trying to keep it together after agreeing to a trial separation from his wife Niki (Sepideh Moafi), while the movie’s long shots, rigid Academy ratio and atonal anti-score reinforce the surrealism of the arrangement, wherein a father of four becomes an outsider to his own family. Though Machoian’s icy neutrality can feel distancing at times, his characters are unusually candid when it comes to communicating. A major breakthrough played in a minor key, Killing wrestles with tough questions about when to call it quits.
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