Cinema Fanatic’s Favorite Fifteen Films of 2021

I saw a little over 200 films that I’m counting as “2021” films this year. You can see the whole list here. I also had the privilege to attend a few film festivals (online and in person) and saw several wonderful films that won’t be more widely available until next year, so any of those films will count towards next year’s list. I’m not sure there is as strong a theme connecting the films that resonated with me this year as there was last year, but I will say three movies in my top five I saw in the first three months of the calendar year. I love a year when films linger that long. Please remember this is a subjective list. This is what spoke to me. Hopefully something on here speaks to you too!

15. This Is Not a Burial, It’s a Resurrection (dir. Lemohang Jeremiah Mosese)

Written and directed by Lemohang Jeremiah Mosese, this drama from Lesotho stars legendary South African actress Mary Twala Mhlongo in a powerhouse lead role as Mantoa, an 80-year old widow who decides to plan her own funeral after her adult son dies unexpectedly in a mine accident. These plans get interrupted as officials are converting her homeland into a dam and relocating the residents. Mhlongo has one of those faces that are rare in Hollywood, expressing every memory and every regret through well-earned creases, a roadmap as intricate as the history of the terrain of her people. Lushly shot by cinematographer Pierre de Villiers in verdant greens and rich blues, the film is a meditation on the importance of land, community, and ancestry. What is progress if it forsakes everything that came before it?

14. Swan Song (dir. Todd Stephens)

Inspired by a true story, Udo Kier plays retired hairdresser Pat Pitsenbarger who learns his former best client – and the richest woman in town – has died and requested he do her hair for her funeral. As Pat makes his way across the rural landscape from his retirement home to her house we learn how much has changed in the area during the recession, as well as what caused the fissure in his relationship with his client. As someone who grew up in a small town that will likely never recover from the recession, there were small moments in this film that resonated deeply with me. Kier has made a career as a character actor in a slew of far out genre films, so it was a real treat to see him play this same kind of juicy character, but have a whole film built around him for once. He shares a scene with Michael Urie, who plays his client’s nephew, that straight up made me cry. Just a beautiful film.

13. Summer of Soul (…or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised) (dir. Questlove)

I thought this was going to be a straight forward concert doc like Jazz On A Summer’s Day, and boy was I wrong. Taking footage from the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival, Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson uses a major cultural touchstone for Black Americans to interrogate how Black American culture continues to remain neglected in our collective cultural consciousness. The doc pairs stunning footage of performances from massive musical acts like Nina Simone, Stevie Wonder, Mahalia Jackson, The Staple Singers, Sly and the Family Stone and more with footage placing the concert in the broader cultural context of the summer of 1969. One moment that stuck with me occurred after the July landing on the moon, where many concert goes were asked what it meant to them, with one replying, “The cash they waste as far as I’m concerned getting to the moon could have fed poor, Black people in Harlem and all over this country. Never mind the moon, let’s get some of that cash in Harlem.” Basically, come for a great music doc with historic performances, and stay for a much-needed reconsideration of what exactly counts as collective “American” cultural history.

12. È stata la mano di Dio (The Hand of God) (dir. Paolo Sorrentino)

A deeply personal film based on Sorrentino’s own youth growing up in Naples in the 1980s, the Italian director brings his usual visual flair as he and Daria D’Antonio capture the luxurious waters of the coastal city. Tapping into the Italian grotesque style of Ettore Scola, Sorrentino makes moments in his life feel at once intensely personal, while also larger than life. Featuring a sensitive performance from relative newcomer Filippo Scotti and two mischievous turns from Toni Servillo and Teresa Saponangelo as his parents who leave him too soon, Sorrentino uses the coming-of-age genre to turn his own personal tragedy into a beguiling fable of family and creativity lost and found.

11. Babardeala cu bucluc sau porno balamuc (Bad Luck Banging or Loony Porn) (dir. Radu Jude)

Hands down the best film to integrate the on-going pandemic into its plot, this Romanian comedy was not at all what I expected it to be. It’s told in roughly four sections. For those faint of heart: be warned the film does open with a couple recording a sex tape and the sequence – largely unsimulated – lasts about seven or eight minutes. After the tape is accidentally uploaded to a private, adults only website and then gets leaked to the rest of the internet, history teacher Emi (Katia Pascariu) spends the day walking around town preparing for a meeting with the parents of her students at the prestigious school where she works. The film shifts gears for a satirical segment in which the director shares his thoughts and definitions of various concepts, many of which criticize the Romanian government for its history of violence (and collusion in the Holocaust), while at the same time society morally condemns normal sexual activity. The final sequence of the film is the finest tuned satire I’ve seen in years, culminating in quite possibly the greatest final image of a film you’ll ever see.

10. Pig (dir. Michael Sarnoski)

Growing up in the 80s and 90s Nicolas Cage was for the longest time my favorite actor. My relationship with his filmography has waned a bit since the mid-00s, but every once in awhile he gets a project that reminds us all of who he used to be as an actor. Bless writer-director Michael Sarnoski for giving us exactly that in this bittersweet drama. Cage plays Rob, a former gourmet chef turned reclusive truffle forager who lives off the grid, deep in an Oregon forest with his beloved pig. When it goes missing one day in a violent robbery gone awry, he teams up with Amir (Alex Wolff), a very green restaurant supplier to whom he solely sells his truffles, to locate her. What could have been a simple John Wick-esque revenge thriller, slowly becomes a deeply felt love story, allowing Cage his best, most fully realized performance in decades. I guarantee you will cry while watching this, maybe more than once.

9. Titane (dir. Julia Ducournau)

I truly don’t know how to write about this film’s plot without spoiling everything. What you need to know is that when Alexia (Agathe Rousselle) was a child she got into a car accident involving her father that left her with a titanium plate in her head. Now she is a car show girl with a severe case of objectophilia who is also a brutal serial killer. After being seduced by a Cadillac, Alexia finds herself pregnant?! and on the run after committing a series of brutal murders. The film then changes gears radically as she hides from the police by changing her physical appearance and pretending to be the long-lost son Adrien of a soulful fire chief named Vincent (Vincent Lindon). Believe it or not, there are more twists and turns waiting for you, as well as some truly killer needle drops. Through a clinical curiosity for the mechanics of the body, Ducournau uses the body horror genre to interrogate our complicated relationships with bodies – ours and others. The way they confine us and define us; the power we wield in them, but also the way others can take the power with their gaze; how sex and pregnancy can change us without our consent. While accomplishing all that, she also crafts an ode to the power of chosen families, as Alexia/Adrien finds a love and connection with Vincent that she never found with her biological family. The wildest and most gruesome horror film is also the most tender love story of the year.

8. True Mothers (Asa ga Kuru) (dir. Naomi Kawase)

I saw this film very early in the year and its radical empathy stuck with me through so many months’ distance. Unfairly written off as a slight melodrama, Naomi Kawase’s adaptation of a novel by Mizuki Tsujimura follows Satoko (Hiromi Nagasaku) and Kiyokazu (Arata Iura) as they adopt a son and raise him through kindergarten, while simultaneously showing us the story of his birth mother, Hikari (Aju Makita), a fourteen-year-old student who through circumstances beyond her control has to give her son up for adoption. We see the couple’s immense desire for a child, while also seeing the impossible situation Hikari finds herself in. There’s a really wonderful section where we follow Hikari at a home for expectant mothers called Baby Baton, where she finds love and empathy from the home’s founder. Unfortunately this connection does not last long, and Hikari’s life spirals, while her son finds a comfortable life with his new parents. More happens of course, families collide, emotions swell, and I found myself completely enraptured by the plight of each character; their hopes, their fears, their love for each other. Kawase films with a gauzy haze, which heightens the moments of hopefulness, and shows the empathetic light with which she paints their world.

7. Spencer (dir. Pablo Larraín)

Anyone who has been following me for any number of years knows my love for the Twilight franchise goes hard, and with that goes my love for Kristen Stewart. In the years since the franchise’s denouement, Stewart has proven herself to be one of the most beguiling actresses of her generation, often partnering with directors who have a distinct visual language. Like his earlier biopic Jackie, Pablo Larraín takes an outsider’s view of an iconic public figure and gracefully shatters any illusion of what the public thinks of them. In this case, Stewart and Larraín bring us a Princess Diana on the verge of a nervous breakdown. Battling to keep a piece of her true self under the strain of the Royal Family, Stewart’s Diana is mannered to the point of complete façade, a front ready to crack at a moment’s notice. Shot like horror film by cinematographer Claire Mathon, we follow Diana over one fateful, if somewhat fictionalized, Christmas weekend just as her marriage is about to crumble. Stewart is playing both Diana the cover model, all false poses and designer duds, and Diana the perpetual outsider, awkward and wrong no matter what she does. But she’s also playing Diana the mother, warm and real and painfully aware that the life she traded in for Royalty is one she can not only never regain, but one she cannot even offer her own children. I hope Stewart is able to ride this awards season all the way to Oscars podium. She deserves.

6. Venom: Let There Be Carnage (dir. Andy Serkis)

What is there to say about Venom other than I’m glad I saw this one in theaters (missing the first film in its theatrical run is still a major regret) and that seeing an actor of Tom Hardy’s calibre just go full gonzo as both Eddie Brock and Venom is the most pleasure I had in cinemas all year long. Add in two great performances from Naomie Harris and Woody Harrelson as a pair of star-crossed mutants whose chemistry is h-o-t and a film that realizes the one true villain most of the time are the cops, and what you’ve got is just a great time at the movies.

5. Passing (dir. Rebecca Hall)

I saw this as part of Sundance very early in the year and it has been lingered on my mind this whole time. Based on the novel of the same name by Nella Larsen, Passing was a passion project for writer-director Rebecca Hall, who found in its pages some answers she had about her own family’s history of racial passing. Anchored by two astounding performances, the film follows Irene (Tessa Thompson) as she reconnects with her childhood friend Clare (Ruth Negga) while the two are both taking a break inside a fancy hotel by passing for white. Clare, Irene learns, has chosen to live her life as white and even married a virulent racist (Alexander Skarsgård). As Clare spends more time in Harlem with Irene and her husband Brian (André Holland), she begins longing for the freedom of her old life. Meanwhile spending time with Clare causes Irene to confront long repressed feelings, sending her into an emotional spiral. By shooting in monochrome cinematographer Eduard Grau and Hall play with deep, dark blacks and vibrantly bright whites that at any given moment help to underscore the complex emotions both women feel at their core. Thompson in particular gives what may be my favorite performance of the year. You can feel her Irene nearly bursting out of her skin as she holds back more and more, barreling towards the film’s explosive conclusion.

4. Madres paralelas (Parallel Mothers) (dir. Pedro Almodóvar)

I spent a few weeks leading up to this film’s release catching up on the earlier films of Almodóvar’s that I hadn’t seen and I am so glad that I did because you can feel the political undercurrents of this film as a culmination of themes he’s been working through since his debut film Pepi, Luci, Bom (1980). At the beginning of his career his films were a reaction to Spain’s changing political and culture atmosphere after the death of Franco in 1975, but it feels like with this film he finally tackles the need to actually interrogate Spain’s violent past under Franco and the way that history builds on itself. Somehow Almodóvar does all that, while also giving us another flavorful helping of melodrama. The film follows middle-aged photographer Janis (Penélope Cruz) and adolescent Teresa (Aitana Sánchez-Gijón) who meet while giving birth in the same hospital and whose lives are turned upside down by one tiny mistake. This marks the 7th film Cruz and Almodóvar have made together, and you can see how well they understand each other as artists. Best Actress this year is a stacked playing field, but I’m gonna keep holding out some hope for Cruz.

3. Shiva Baby (dir. Emma Seligman)

My favorite debut film of the year and truly one of the most accomplished debuts I’ve seen in ages, is adapted from Seligman’s own short film. A comedy of manners shot like a horror film, Rachel Sennott plays Danielle a college senior and sugar baby who runs into her sugar daddy, his wife, and her ex-girlfriend while attending a shiva with her parents. Featuring claustrophobic cinematography from Maria Rusche and an exquisitely grating score by Ariel Marx, if you aren’t sweating as much as Danielle is by the end of this movie I don’t know what to tell you. Usually I am not a fan of cringe comedy, but this film somehow transcends that sub-genre into something much more surreal, tapping into the absurdity of life with deft insight and empathy. I can’t wait to see what Seligman does next.

2. The Power of the Dog (dir. Jane Campion)

There is just too much to say about Jane Campion. She literally never disappoints. Never. A true master of the art of cinema. One aspect of Campion that always delights me is her skill at exposing the brutality of emotional violence. It courses through all of her films, and here we see its ravages in full. Much has been written about Benedict Cumberbatch’s performance, which I will say is quite stunning, but for me the standout is Kirsten Dunst as Rose. She has dominated since her breakout in Interview With The Vampire, but rarely does her artistry get the recognition it deserves. Here she’s given a role that allows her to tap into a deep well of emotions, all of which find themselves on display on her body – whether its in her face or in the way she holds her body. Campion brings the bleak insularity of the American West to life through Ari Wegner’s rich cinematography and Jonny Greenwood’s stirring score. It’s in this milieu that Campion took the novel of the same name by Thomas Savage and its themes, then expanded the role of Rose in order to truly deconstruct everything we think we know about a western – or even a deconstructed western. Rose defies us all with her fragile strength.

1. Felkészülés meghatározatlan ideig tartó együttlétre (Preparations to Be Together for an Unknown Period of Time) (dir. Lili Horvát)

I saw this movie in late January last year and I knew no movie all year was ever going to come close. This is one of those times where a movie just ~gets~ you on a molecular level. Natasa Stork plays Márta, accomplished neurosurgeon from Hungary who meets a fellow Hungarian neurosurgeon named János at a conference in New Jersey. A month later she journeys to Budapest for the first time in two decades to meet him, however he never shows up at their designated place. When she searches for him at the hospital where he works, he claims he’s never met her. Heartbroken, at first Márta plans to return to New Jersey, but she cannot shake the feeling that their connection was real, so she decides to stay and take a job at the hospital. The rest of the film unfolds like a noir, with sultry encounters between the two and Márta meeting with a psychologist as she attempts to discover if maybe there *is* something wrong with her mind. Starkly moody and deeply romantic, this is the best film I’ve ever seen about the horror of falling in love and the uncertainty and doubt that can haunt you, because even when you are certain about your own feelings you truly can never know what someone else is thinking, what their reality is. Falling in love is the attempt to meld two lives and two minds, even when we know that is never really possible; Love is accepting that you’ll never really know, but decide to take the leap anyways.

As we head into the new year, I’ve already seen a little over 30 films that are waiting for a proper release and I’m pretty sure at least one of them will be making my end of the year list next year. 2022 already looking up! Also, if you’re interested in receiving weekly theatrical, streaming, VOD, and rep picks from me + more delivered directly to your inbox, please subscribe to my newsletter!

About Marya E. Gates

Cinephile to the max.

Posted on January 4, 2022, in 2021 in Films and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

  1. We aways enjoy your insights; putting all of these not scene on our list. Except for the Venoms, no matter how worthy you find them lol. We really enjoyed Passing, Power, Preparations, and Shiva. Wasn’t Preparations to Be Together extraordinary.

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