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Top 10 films of the year

10 more to see

Clint Eastwood’s “Cry Macho”

Rose Glass’s “Saint Maud”

Rebecca Hall’s “Passing”

Lili Horvát’s “Preparations to Be Together for an Unknown Period of Time”

Shaka King’s “Judas and the Black Messiah”

Raoul Peck’s “Exterminate All the Brutes”

Christian Petzold’s “Undine”

Ridley Scott’s “The Last Duel”

Chaitanya Tamhane’s “The Disciple”

Amir “Questlove” Thompson’s “The Summer of Soul”

In spite of the unfortunate sense of déjà vu as another long pandemic year closes, 2021 offered many cinematic respites from the world outside. Many delayed films from 2020 and new releases offered an escape from the Marvel/Disney hegemony over the big screen. While many masters of the form offered fresh projects that were just as wonderful as you’d hoped, there was also an invigorating groundswell of documentaries that stretched old notions of what a non-fiction film must be. This year’s Top 10 celebrates those directors who explored new spaces and didn’t merely recycle old IP.

10. “The Green Knight

While some have quibbled with its free take on the Sir Gawain mythos, give credit where it’s due for a director taking a big swing and actually connecting. Even if the film doesn’t nail every element, at least David Lowery’s vibrant, vibe-saturated 14th Century tale never reminds you of a group brainstorm meeting. Lowery knows all the ingredients he needs for success: Dev Patel’s dashing knight clashing with very diseased-looking royalty, psycho-sexual tension with Alicia Vikander, a scary woodland creature voiced by Ralph Ineson, and a sly fox.

9. “Małni — Towards the Ocean, Towards the Shore”

This debut feature-length documentary from the Ho-Chunk artist and filmmaker Sky Hopinka, who has directed a remarkable series of shorts exploring indigenous life, centers on two Chinook people, Sweetwater Sahme and Jordan Mercier. They speak movingly about their lives against a lush Pacific Northwest backdrop, with ocean waves intermingling with green forests. Via associative editing carried forward by subtle narrative through lines, “Małni” alternates between breathtaking sequences of natural beauty and intimate, unglamorous handheld shots. Hopinka, who did the shooting, sound work, and editing, as well as the narration, generates rich visual poetry that melds perfectly profound lines from his subjects: “We’ll meet somewhere between now and nowhere.”

8. “The Voyeurs

Finally, we got a new film in a smutty, Hitchcockian vein. More so than her lauded HBO television roles, this movie best taps into the big-chested affectlessness that’s become Sydney Sweeney’s trademark. “The Voyeurs” shows how the supposed great love of her life just becomes less interesting than looking at hot people having sex in the apartment across the street. This film underlines what true voyeurs already know: even when your whole life has unraveled and your binocular lens shatters in a hugely symbolic way, you still have to look through them. Obsession never sleeps.

7. “Faya Dayi”

This documentary is a stunning collective portrait of a rural Ethiopian community whose lives are centered around the cultivation of the euphoria-inducing cash crop khat. Jessica Beshir’s narcoticized debut feature promises an incredible filmography to come. She depicts the highly laborious process of bringing khat from field to market in entrancing sequences of bird and human call-and-response song mixed under the hot sun. She punctuates consistently arresting black and white photography with some shots that are simply virtuosic, as when we see God’s eye emerge from twist of smoke. The overlapping portraiture gradually folds into socio-political commentary on struggles of people with little besides khat chewing in their lives. Pondering the long and dangerous journey to Europe, one harvester murmurs to another, “We shouldn’t have to perish in the deserts and the seas to change our lives.”

6. “The French Dispatch

While the appearance of a Wes Anderson film is always a happy occasion, the subject of this one felt quite on the nose—a story that captures the creation of one issue of a New Yorker-like weekly. But Anderson responds to the confines of print media with his most outrageous display of wall-to-wall pictorial play. Watch “The French Dispatch” carefully to capture all of the jokes, not only in dialogue but also in editing. The film also boasts one of the maestro’s finest ever directorial flourishes when Tony Revolori, the actor playing a painter in his youth, hands over the artist’s ID chain to Benicio del Toro, who takes over the role. All transitions should be this rich, instead of a rote fade out and in. Embrace filmmakers like Anderson who, with each new film, do one or two things you’ve never seen before.

5. “499”

Director Rodrigo Reyes executes an outstanding concept in this documentary. On the brink of the 500th anniversary of the Spanish conquest of the Aztec empire, he has an actor in conquistador costume retrace the steps of Hernán Cortés’ men from beachhead to capital. Along the way, he meets present day sufferers from the land’s unceasing cycles of violence. The conquistador (who resembles the haggard protagonist of Lucrecia Martel’s “Zama”) witnesses with us a powerfully varied cast of interviewees. And the journey from the shores of Veracruz to Tenochtitlan is surely one of the most beautiful in the world. We see why the Spaniards were constantly referring to this land as Eden, and how Reyes captures modern Mexico with invigorating effect.

10 more to see

Clint Eastwood’s “Cry Macho”

Rose Glass’s “Saint Maud”

Rebecca Hall’s “Passing”

Lili Horvát’s “Preparations to Be Together for an Unknown Period of Time”

Shaka King’s “Judas and the Black Messiah”

Raoul Peck’s “Exterminate All the Brutes”

Christian Petzold’s “Undine”

Ridley Scott’s “The Last Duel”

Chaitanya Tamhane’s “The Disciple”

Amir “Questlove” Thompson’s “The Summer of Soul”

4. “No Sudden Move

A smart studio would pay Steven Soderbergh a flat fee every year to deliver a new film in a different genre and time period. In “No Sudden Move,” he deploys his signature frictionless camerawork on a 1950s crime caper set in sleek Detroit. The typically stellar cast delivers a great deal of sweet pulpy dialogue like: “That money’s too expensive.” Just because Soderbergh makes it look effortless, that doesn’t mean his scripts lack biting commentary on American mores. Leave it to Matt Damon, cameoing as an eely titan of industry, to deliver the ultimate truth while handing over a briefcase full of cash to small time crooks: For a rich white guy like him, their crime is irrelevant because his money is like a lizard’s tail, always able to grow right back.

3. “The Power of the Dog

We all ought to have loads of respect for the Jane Campion filmmaking model: direct only one film per decade but make sure it’s awesome. Oscar nominations ought to arrive shortly for the director and each of her main actors. Jesse Plemons, Kirsten Dunst and Kodi Smit-McPhee are excellent as satellites around Benedict Cumberbatch’s lodestar of a cowboy hero. It’s wonderful to see that talented man cast aside the reflexive over-cleverness that’s worn into schtick elsewhere (most recently as Doctor Strange in “Spider-Man: No Way Home”) and tap a much deeper reserve. Add in incredible New Zealand-as-Montana scenery and pitch perfect costuming and you have all the ingredients for a great Western.

2. “The Souvenir Part II”

How fabulous it is when sequels aren’t a drag but rather a delight. Joanna Hogg adding a second part to the project begun with “The Souvenir” in 2019 is the only happy franchise news of the year. Starring turns from Honor Swinton Byrne and Tilda Swinton are again wonderful but even the tiny roles seem perfectly cast, with every character startlingly real. Hogg’s perfect ear for soundtracks returns, as does her unblinking portrayal of a young artist’s struggle to make work that means something. Of course we miss Tom Burke, whose rapturous performance centered the Part I, so it’s magic when he reappears for a climactic sequence that marvelously calls to mind bravura musicals like “The Red Shoes” from years gone by.

1. “Procession

2021 had so many pictures worth seeing, but “Procession” still stands out as the film of the year. A natural progression for director Robert Greene in his series of documentaries about actors acting, he reaches a profound high point here, collaborating with survivors of sexual abuse on a one-of-a-kind film that allows them to begin to take back the narratives of their own lives. Greene pulls off this tightrope walk with his stunning gifts as an editor, shifting from verité footage of the men to scenes of their creative projects together. He shows us once more art’s incredible power to open up new ways of thinking, to tap creative talents we never knew we had, and to give us a chance to heal our oldest and deepest wounds.

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