The Best Of The Rest Of Film: 2021

Has it only been a year?

The Academy Awards were held on April 25 last year, reducing the eligibility window for 2021 movies to ten months. Many people stayed away from theaters for long stretches of 2021 — I didn’t make it back to cinemas until July — but that didn’t stop a barrage of intriguing, award-worthy films from hitting screens both big and small (almost entirely in the four months between September and December). I ended up seeing 37 films on the big screen between July and December. If that sounds like a lot… well, it also felt like a lot. But it was good to be back.

My Top Ten films included four Best Picture nominees; three were nominated for Best International Feature. (Drive My Car was nominated for both.) My favorites aligned with the critical and awards consensus more than they often do, which is great — but it also means a lot of smaller, stranger, or just less Oscar-y movies were not yet given their due (by me).

That’s what this list is for — to share the rest of the 2021 films that I loved, that I was moved or amused by, that made me think or feel deeply, that I think are well worth your time, that I want to make sure are seen.

Here are the best of the rest!

25. THE MAURITANIAN

Jodie Foster won a Golden Globe for her performance as real-life defense lawyer Nancy Hollander in The Mauritanian way back in February last year (when the Golden Globes were still a thing). The Mauritanian might feel like old news by now if it had been seen and discussed as widely as it should have been, but even with Foster’s win, the film has flown under the radar.

The Mauritanian is partially a legal drama based on the true injustices faced by Mohamedou Ould Slahi, held for fourteen years in the Guantanamo Bay prison without being charged on suspicion of terrorism. The film also spends time with Stuart Couch (Benedict Cumberbatch), the military lawyer tasked with prosecuting Slahi based on his past ties with al Qaeda in connection with the September 11 attacks. Both prosecution and defense face moral quandaries as they discover the “enhanced interrogation techniques” the U.S. government is using to induce “confessions” from their inmates.

As a legal drama, The Mauritanian is solid, with an especially captivating turn by Jodie Foster. (It’s always a thrill to see Foster playing a fiercely intelligent professional.) It’s the dramatization of Slahi’s imprisonment and torture, though, that elevate The Mauritanian to essential viewing. Director Kevin Macdonald depicts Slahi’s time in Guantanamo as a psychedelic horror show, the Bush administration as the sordid villains of the piece — just as it should be. Tahar Rahim’s heartbreaking performance grounds us amidst the unimaginable terror. All in all, it adds up to a damning account of America’s response to 9/11, when our government threw the Constitution out the window and decided the best way to fight terrorism was to become terrorists themselves. Slahi’s story deserves to be told, and Macdonald does it right.

24. BARB & STAR GO TO VISTA DEL MAR

I’m not typically one for escapism in difficult times. When things get tough, I tend to find catharsis through darkness rather than light. But even I was not immune to the charms of newly unemployed Nebraska denizens Barb and Star, who decide to cheer themselves up with a girls’ trip to Vista Del Mar, Florida — which is coincidentally about to be the target of a terrorist attack planned by the vengeful Sharon Gordon Fisherman.

Barb & Star Go To Vista Del Mar injected some much-needed levity into a dreary, disappointing year, the kind of smart-dumb movie that never feels like it’s actually insulting the audience’s intelligence. (Unlike dumb-dumb movies, which I’d call out if I could even remember them — but fortunately, most of them arrived and then vanished into the streaming ether.) Just hanging out with Kristen Wiig’s Star and Annie Mumolo’s Barb back home in their small-town lives is fun enough — we almost don’t even need the terrorist plot, or even the trip to Florida — but the film kicks the comedy up a notch once a hunky Jamie Dornan arrives to light a fire in both ladies’ loins. (Unfortunately, his heart belongs to Sharon Fisherman.)

There’s almost no point in summarizing the plot, or sing any particular praises. Barb & Star Go To Vista Del Mar is a barrage of smart-dumb jokes, most of which land, some of which don’t — but it’s all so rapid-fire and silly, if you don’t like one gag, we’re soon onto the next. The quick-witted screenplay is guaranteed to elicit a smile, a chuckle, or an outright guffaw approximately four times per minute. In other words, Barb & Star Go To Vista Del Mar is a real tit-flapper. Watch it with your favorite Trish.

23. ANNETTE

If Barb And Star‘s handful of wacky musical numbers don’t satisfy you, you’ll get your money’s worth in Annette.

Movies don’t get much more bizarre than Leos Carax’s Holy Motors, an offbeat favorite from my Top Ten of 2012. So I had a feeling I’d be in for something truly bizarre in his new musical, Annette, which certainly sounds like a more traditional narrative than the genre-defying vignettes that comprised Holy Motors… but isn’t.

Adam Driver plays Henry, a popular shock comic whose dark, confrontational humor is constantly on the verge of getting him cancelled. Marion Cotillard is Ann, a beloved opera singer. She’s highbrow; he’s very, very low, but the two are madly in love, eventually spawning a child — a child that is, inexplicably, played by a creepy-cute puppet. Eventually, tragedy strikes — but the plot isn’t the point. Annette is a musical, but the songs (written by Sparks) aren’t outright musical numbers, in the big, splashy, West Side Story sense. They’re short and often performed half-heartedly, almost like they’re part of the dialogue, and the lyrics are so banal and obvious, they’re bordering on parody. (One song is called “We Love Each Other So Much.”)

Annette turns the inherent artificiality of musicals into a weird kind of text, and also touches on such topical subjects as celebrity cancellation, toxic male comedians, tabloid murders, stage parenting, and sexual assault. It’s a send-up of musicals… and also maybe a spoof of parenthood itself? (Everyone thinks their baby is so cute and unique and special — turning this baby into freaky puppet child wunderkind is an exaggeration of the way all parents see their kids.) Annette is a love-it-or-hate-it dark comedy if there ever was one, but even if you end up hating it, you’ll have to agree you’ve never seen anything quite like it.

22. PASSING

Like two of my other favorite films of last year, Mass and Pleasure, I first saw Rebecca Hall’s Passing via Sundance back in January 2021. It has haunted me ever since.

With its stunning black-and-white cinematography and period setting, Passing feels like an unearthed classic from yesteryear — a film that history forgot. It’s adapted from Nella Larsen’s 1929 novel, but Hall goes beyond merely recreating the look of 1920s New York; psychologically, she puts us there, immediately evoking the apprehension of racial tensions at the time. Irene (Tessa Thompson) is reserved and cautious; she’s both intrigued and concerned when childhood friend Clare (Ruth Negga) reenters her life. Clare presents as white full-time, going so far as to marry a vicious racist (Alexander Skarsgård) who has no idea she’s biracial. Irene only attempts to pass as white for rare conveniences. Clare’s magnetic recklessness livens up Irene’s orderly existence, but suspicion and envy complicate the rekindled friendship. If Clare can’t be trusted to be forthright about her race, what other lines might she be willing to cross?

Languidly paced and novelistic, Passing explores the interiority of one woman’s experience but also richly and vividly places us back in Manhattan during the Roaring Twenties. Much is communicated in silence. The film’s finale is shocking and breathtaking and tragically beautiful; it forces a reexamination of everything that came before it. While certain elements of the film may feel overly mannered, stilted, even staid, others feel deep and expansive — Hall creates a rich world we’ve only begun to explore. Passing is a film of contradictions, much like the women at the center of this story — an incredibly promising debut from Rebecca Hall in a year of several actresses sitting in the director’s chair for the first time. (Others include Maggie Gyllenhaal and Halle Berry.)

Even now, when mainstream movies centered on black characters are made common than they used to be, making one about being both black and white feels transgressive. We’re used to characters that are either/or. We’re used to seeing and defining each other that way. Passing looks and sounds like a classic made in Hollywood’s golden age, but of course, it couldn’t have been. It’s merely passing as one.

21. BOILING POINT

As the tense title suggests, viewing Boiling Point feels like watching a pot that’s constantly on the verge of bubbling over. The film unfolds in real time, in one continuous take, dramatizing an especially eventful night at the highbrow London restaurant Jones & Sons.

Head chef Andy Jones (Stephen Graham) is under some serious stress. He’s going through a divorce. His restaurant just had its Health and Safety rating downgraded. He’s borrowed a hefty sum to finance this place. And tonight, he’s got a full house, including a celebrity chef and a notable food critic. Andy races between the kitchen and the dining room to schmooze with his guests. He barks orders at his capable kitchen staff, then has to make good. It’s clear from the outset that Andy is on his way toward a total meltdown, and that’s before the evening takes a drastic turn for the worse.

Graham is sensational as the high-strung chef. Following his ordeal in real time has us on the edge of our seat throughout. What truly makes Boiling Point riveting, however, are its digressions — glimpses into the lives of the rest of the staff, from a new waitress having to smile through her shift with rude racist customers to the young baker who is quietly battling some unknown personal demons. Little by little, we come to view everyone at Jones & Sons as a dysfunctional but lovable family. We care deeply about characters we meet for only a few moments, who we really only know from their work lives, presented to us in this one long take. Philip Barantini’s briskly paced drama manages to draw a fully realized portrait of a business in just 90 minutes, from the kitchen staff at the bottom, tasked with taking the trash out and washing dishes, to the financiers at the top.

Anyone who has ever worked in the service industry can attest that a single night on the job can feel like a breathless suspense thriller. Boiling Point illustrates that in highly entertaining fashion.

20. FRENCH EXIT

A dildo in the freezer. A cat with a secret identity. A one night stand with a cruise ship psychic thereafter known as “the fucked witch.” French Exit is not a film I’d recommend to everyone, and if I did, I’d expect at least some to truly hate it. You’re either on this film’s whimsical wavelength or you’re not. In the end, I very much was.

Michelle Pfeiffer plays the wealthy widow Frances Price, who has spent most of her life being boozy and careless with money, and intends to end her life that way, even though the money is now nearly gone. She takes her son Malcolm (Lucas Hedges) to a friend’s apartment in Paris where she can live without paying rent. Her ultimate motivations are a mystery to be (somewhat) solved by film’s end, but French Exit is more about the journey than the destination, as Frances and Malcolm accumulate a ragtag bunch of friends and acquaintances who end up staying in the apartment with them. The film hits its stride as more and more eccentric characters join in the hijinks. (Imogen Poots, Valerie Mahaffey, Danielle Macdonald, and Tracy Letts play some of them.)

French Exit runs on a melancholy mania reminiscent of some of Wes Anderson’s earlier films, though it’s not as tightly controlled or airless. It’s a wonderful showcase for Pfeiffer, who plays the role as if Catwoman got her just desserts years back and retired, and now spends her days swilling martinis and spouting bitchy bon mots. Most of the characters Frances and Malcolm meet on their adventures are outcasts; despite their privilege, Frances and Malcolm reveal themselves to be outcasts, too. And somehow, this crazy bunch manages to tug at our heart strings in the end. French Exit has a particular and peculiar sense of humor that may not land with everyone, but for those who enjoy an offbeat comedy, this one is a true original.

19. DUNE

Denis Villeneuve updated a sci-fi classic in 2017, and it was my favorite film of the year. This take on Frank Herbert’s revered novel (made into a not-so-classic film in 1984, by David Lynch of all people) isn’t as emotionally or intellectually satisfying as Villeneuve’s visionary Blade Runner 2049, but easily rivals it on a technical level. The sound, costumes, production design, cinematography, editing, and score are all serious contenders for Academy Awards. Dune is likely to walk away with more Oscar wins than any other film from last year.

Dune is also one of 2021’s few bright spots in the intersection between art and commerce. The year saw so many auspicious flops at the box office; HBO’s day-and-date release could easily have doomed Dune. Instead, the film raked in $400 million at the box office and almost certainly earned its keep on streaming, too, guaranteeing a second trip to Arrakis come October 2023. That’s no small feat, considering the complexity of the world-building here; in an era when almost every blockbuster recycles familiar faces and places, Dune asks audiences to learn about and invest in a vast new world. It’s like betting on the original Star Wars all over again. (In part, because Star Wars ripped a lot of elements straight out of Dune.)

Dune follows Timothée Chalamet’s moody Paul Atreides, heir apparent to his father Duke Leto (Oscar Isaac)’s rule over the planet Arrakis (the original Spice World). Paul’s mother is Lady Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson), part of the Bene Gesserit sisterhood, which gives her the power of mind control, amongst others. (More importantly, she’s a total badass.) But there’s a traitor in House Atreides, which soon sends Paul and Lady Jessica on an adventure into this dry and perilous sand world, where they contend with giant man-eating worms and other nefarious obstacles. And that only barely scratches the surface of plotting in Herbert’s intricate Dune-iverse. (Dune takes place in the year 10,191. If every Dune story ever published were adapted to film, it could be 10,191 before the franchise reached its conclusion.) It’s unlikely that first-time viewers unfamiliar with Herbert’s book will fully comprehend the plot, but the imaginative visuals and Hans Zimmer’s mesmerizing score go a long way in making that irrelevant.

If Dune: Part One had found a more fitting end point for this entrance into Arrakis, it would surely rank a bit higher on this list. As it is, this Dune totally leaves us hanging and isn’t a complete movie in its own right. That leaves a lot riding on Dune: Part Two — it’ll have to justify Part One‘s existence as more than just a warm-up. But whatever happens in the future, 2021’s Dune is masterful blockbuster filmmaking, delivering visionary spectacle on a large scale — a testament to keeping the theatrical experience alive until at least 10,191.

18. CYRANO

Cyrano de Bergerac is no stranger to the big screen. A two minute adaptation was exhibited in France in 1900. José Ferrer won the Best Actor Oscar for playing the title role in 1950. The Steve Martin-starring Roxanne (1987), Uma Thurman and Janeane Garofalo rom-com The Truth About Cats And Dogs (1996), and forgettable teen comedy Whatever It Takes (2000) all drew inspiration from the original French play, which premiered in 1897.

Cyrano is the latest spin on this trusty tale, adapted from a stage musical that also starred Peter Dinklage as Cyrano and Haley Bennett as the much-pined-for Roxanne. The music, written by Bryce Dessner, Aaron Dessner and Matt Berninger of The National, lends itself well to a an oft-told romance — these tunes wouldn’t be out of place in a 90s Disney musical. Director Joe Wright’s eclectic career has spawned such diverse offerings as the 2007 Best Picture contender Atonement and 2011’s underrated child assassin thriller Hanna; his Cyrano feels like the best live action remake Disney never made. Filmed on location in Sicily, featuring an anachronistically diverse cast, Cyrano never places us in a specific time or place, and never tries to. It’s the same indistinct old-timey world that Cinderella and Beauty And The Beast take place in, but the commitment from the actors raises the stakes and brings it to life.

Cyrano‘s musical moments were sung live on set, creating a rawness that is juxtaposed nicely with the anytime, anywhere vagueness of the setting. Most versions of the story center on an actor wearing a comically exagerrated prosthetic nose; in this Cyrano, Dinklage’s dwarfism is the supposed barrier that keeps Roxanne from recognizing him as her true love. This, of course, makes this romance feel less silly, and much more real. Wright’s film ends with a surprisingly dark twist, one that suggests Cyrano might adore his unrequited love more than he actually adores Roxanne. It’s a haunting ending to a film with an otherwise light touch. 2021 was a year of musicals that disappointed in their commercial appeal; it’s a shame that Cyrano was one of the quietest of them all.

17. THE EYES OF TAMMY FAYE

Jessica Chastain is one of the past decade’s most undersung actresses. In The Eyes Of Tammy Faye, she gets to sing plenty — and the Academy may finally be singing her praises, too, as she becomes the somewhat unlikely frontrunner in a rollercoaster Best Actress race, nearly a full decade after her last nomination (for 2012’s Zero Dark Thirty).

Fittingly, then, The Eyes Of Tammy Faye is also a belated tribute to a woman who didn’t get her due in her prime. Tammy Faye Bakker’s legacy is complicated, as she was certainly at least somewhat complicit in the fundraising fraud that sent her husband to prison for nearly five years. Michael Showalter’s chipper biopic is awfully kind to Tammy Faye, and pretty lenient on Jim Bakker, too. The true villain of this piece is Jerry Falwell, who was instrumental in intertwining Christianity with staunchly intolerant conservatism in the latter half of the 20th century, weaponizing the religion in order bring Republicans like Ronald Reagan to power. Tammy Faye and her husband may have committed fraud, but they did it kindly, preaching love and acceptance instead of cruelty and hate. They wanted their parishioners to feel good. The Eyes Of Tammy Faye is an awfully forgiving portrayal of these holy-rolling hucksters, but of course, forgiveness is the Christian thing.

Like recent projects centering on Tonya Harding, Monica Lewinsky, Marcia Clark, Princess Diana, and Pamela Anderson, The Eyes Of Tammy Faye allows a woman who was pulverized by the press to reclaim her dignity in a Hollywood narrative. It’s a potent reminder that the late 20th century was incredibly unkind to women who didn’t “behave.” Like many of these women, Tammy Faye had become a punchline by the end of her life; the 2000 documentary this film derives its name from tries to emphasize triumph over tragedy, but it’s competing with real life. This film’s final act also catches up with an older, more beaten down Tammy, who now has to force herself to look on the bright side.

Many who were disappointed in Showalter’s film would have probably preferred a version that savagely lampooned these crooked Christians. The Eyes Of Tammy Faye does not capitalize on outrage, as trendy as that is. It’s a tribute to a time when many Christians preferred televangelism from people like Tammy Faye Bakker instead of Tucker Carlson and Laura Ingraham, to a woman who stood up for gay fans when many were hoping the AIDS crisis would eliminate them. So many Americans who consider themselves Christians have abandoned the tenets of the faith entirely; The Eyes Of Tammy Faye is a loving reminder that, once upon a time in America, there was another way.

16. THE LAST DUEL

It’s currently trendy for movies like I, Tonya and The Eyes Of Tammy Faye and TV series like Impeachment and Pam & Tommy to rehabilitate the reputations of maligned women of the 20th century. But you know who could really use a reclamation of their honor and dignity? Women of the 14th century!

The Last Duel unfolds in three distinct chapters — the first favoring the blindly honorable knight Jean de Carrouges’ perspective, the second following the more hedonistic and less noble Jacques Le Gris’ point of view, and the final segment told through noblewoman Marguerite’s eyes. The plot concerns a sexual encounter between Margeurite and Le Gris which may or may not have been consensual, depending on who you believe. (Hint: you should believe the woman.)

The Rashomon-inspired tale shows us key plot points multiple times, each shaded by the biases of whichever character’s version of the story we’re currently viewing. Most crucial is the he said/she said dalliance that’s either a naughty extramarital tryst or a brutal rape — and then there’s the titular duel that is, according to custom, God’s way of revealing who is telling the truth, and handily punishing the liar with a vicious, violent death. (It really was the last officially recognized judicial duel fought in France, by the way.)

Filmmaker Ridley Scott and writers Nicole Holofcener, Ben Affleck, and Matt Damon are clear about which account they trust  — Marguerite’s — but it’s great fun to watch Damon, as Marguerite’s boastful but not-too-bright husband, and Driver, as the cocky and calculating Le Gris, take turns in revealing just how much the male ego skews a story in his own favor. They’re both swine, but that’s what you get from an era that still considers a wife to be her husband’s property, and her rape an affront to him. By the time these men are dueling in the spectacularly barbarous climax, we aren’t sorry to see either of them bleed.

The Last Duel serves as a correction to centuries of history skewed to favor the men who did the telling of it. Women have been sidelined in so many historical accounts, treated as prizes to be fought over and won. The Last Duel treats Marguerite’s perspective as the last word, a rare chance for a female to push the men aside in a large scale historical drama. In doing so, it reminds us that what we know of history truly is his story. The Last Duel purports to be hers, for a change.

15. PETITE MAMAN

Grief plays a major role in many of my favorite films from 2021 — Drive My Car, The Hand Of God, The Power Of The Dog, Mass, Parallel Mothers, West Side Story — which fits in a year that saw us still contending with COVID. No film managed to tackle this big subject so succinctly or so sweetly as Petite Maman. (Like Mass, it’s another 2021 film that could have been titled Parallel Mothers.)

To frame it in the most reductive way possible, Petite Maman is the Céline Sciamma remake of Back To The Future we didn’t know we needed. Clocking in at a scant 72 minutes, it feels much more like a short story than a novel, more like an appetizer than the main course. But the depth and scope this little morsel of a movie packs in is astounding.

Petite Maman opens on Nelly (Joséphine Sanz), as she bids several old ladies in a nursing home goodbye. Her grandmother has just died. Nelly accompanies her parents to her grandmother’s home, where her mother (Nina Meurisse) grew up. But her mother grows overwhelmed in trying to sort through the grandmother’s possessions, and leaves without explanation. Nelly, left to her own devices while her dad finishes packing up, soon meets a new friend in the woods.

Petite Maman uses magic realism to explore Nelly’s anxiety and confusion at both the death of her grandmother and the temporary loss of her mother. What unfolds could easily be turned into a more expansive fantasy story, but Sciamma’s film remains poker-faced about its Twilight Zone premise, as if it’s no less common than losing a tooth. This might be because young children don’t know how to wallow in despair. They’re resilient and naturally curious, finding imaginative ways to escape a gloomy day or two. They also accept the extraordinary the way they’d accept anything else, because when you’re young, there’s so much that’s extraordinary — and they make fast friends.

Petite Maman manages to melancholy and joyous at once, speaking volumes about family, friendship, and how children process grief in a deceptively simple story. It’s a downer that’s also a delight.

14. NO SUDDEN MOVE

Matt Damon’s second showing on this list occurs in No Sudden Move. Technically, that’s meant to be a surprise — he didn’t appear in any advertisements, cameoing in just a couple of scenes — but this is a Steven Soderbergh joint, so your odds on a Damon sighting are about 2:1.

Despite the title, No Sudden Move makes a lot of sudden moves, twisting and turning in unpredictable directions, involving more and more characters as it goes along. It doesn’t totally abandon anyone in its impressive cast, but it does take long detours away from characters we thought we’d follow consistently. Don Cheadle’s Curt Goynes is the closest we come to a protagonist, but there are several sequences that don’t involve him. It’s Detroit, it’s 1954, and the criminal-for-hire Goynes reluctantly accepts a job alongside the racist Ronald Russo (Benicio Del Toro) and a shady character named Charley (Kieran Culkin, in slimy Succession mode). The trio is going to take a family of four hostage — we don’t know why — but things go wrong, then wronger, then wrong again. Double crosses pile up, along with the bodies, and soon seemingly every crook in Detroit is in on the action.

By now, Soderbergh can deliver a cool crime caper effortlessly, and bring a super starry cast along for the ride. In addition to Cheadle, Culkin, and Del Toro, No Sudden Move finds juicy roles for Brendan Fraser, Jon Hamm, Ray Liotta, Julia Fox, Bill Duke, Noah Jupe, Amy Seimetz, and David Harbour, with Matt Damon as the cherry on top. The film is brisk and confident, even as it offers up a whole lot of plot to chew on, creating a crime world that is half Mad Men gone terribly wrong, and half a universe all on its own. And like most of Soderbergh’s oeuvre, it is ultimately about American economics and the perils of capitalism. No Sudden Move is dizzying, but ultimately also a very smooth ride.

While other filmmakers rail against the anti-cinema ethos of the streamers, new technologies have only made Soderbergh even more prolific. He’s already released another film — the highly entertaining Kimi, starring Zoe Kravitz — since No Sudden Move debuted last June. No Sudden Move was the first film I saw in theaters after more than a year away from the big screen; I got myself a pop corn and a great big soda, and it felt damn good to be back. Soderbergh’s brand of smart pop entertainment ended up being the perfect point of reentry — this film will always hold a special place in my heart for welcoming me back to the movies.

13. QUO VADIS, AIDA?

What can I say about Quo Vadis, Aida? that won’t make you hesitant to watch it?

Last year’s Best International Feature nominee is harrowing, devastating, and infuriating, the kind of film that renders faraway horrors of the recent past immediate and wrenching. Jasmila Žbanić’s nerve-jangling drama follows a United Nations translator trying to secure the safety of her husband and two sons in the events leading up to the Srebrenica massacre during the Bosnian War. She and her family are already ensconced in a “safe area” under UN protection, but that won’t necessarily save them. Bureaucracy is as much a villain here as the Serbian troops aiming to exterminate Bosniak Muslim men. Lives are at stake — but procedure must be followed!

Though it takes place almost entirely in one location, Quo Vadis, Aida? is, first and foremost, a thrill ride. It doesn’t need much in the way of action to keep the suspense sky high — real world stakes keep our hearts pounding throughout without any additive frills or gimmicks. (This is the anti-Argo.) Jasna Đuričić turns in an astonishingly taut lead performance as Aida, tasked with translating a whole lot of bad news to an anxious, imperiled crowd of refugees. Russia’s current invasion of Ukraine makes this film’s white knuckle tension hit that much closer to home.

Quo Vadis, Aida? is as much an experience as it is entertainment. As gripping and enthralling as it is, it certainly does not make for light viewing. Žbanić, a Bosnian herself, puts a human face on what most Americans would likely consider a distant conflict, making it impossible not to empathize with her plight. We’re right there with Aida, as much as we wish she could be anywhere else.

Films like Quo Vadis, Aida? are challenging, forcing a more privileged audience to reckon with global traumas. It’s tempting to turn away, but every once in a while, we need to be reminded of the horrors we’ll (hopefully) never face. Quo Vadis, Aida? will put a knot in your stomach that won’t go away until long after it’s over. But trust me — it’s worth it.

12. STILLWATER

“What’s wrong with us?”

And now, please welcome back to this list… Matt Damon!

(This is the last time. I promise.)

As a 14th century knight from France, Damon was righteous but clueless in The Last Duel, callously endangering his pregnant wife to settle a score with his rival. As a 21st century conservative from the United States, Damon is only slightly less righteous and clueless in Stillwater — which means we should probably pick up the pace at which the typical male is developing.

Damon’s Bill Baker isn’t a total boor, even though he’s a conservative Oklahoman who almost certainly voted for Trump. But he’s certainly out of his element when he befriends Virginie (Camille Cottin), a liberal French actress, during a fateful visit to Marseille. A guy like Bill would never dream of visiting France, unless he had no choice — but that’s where his daughter Allison (Abigail Breslin) is serving nine years in prison for the murder of her college roommate. New evidence sets Bill off on a mission to find the real killer and set his daughter free, even though she’s long since lost faith in him.

Stillwater was loosely inspired by the Amanda Knox case, though it departs wildly from the facts to become its own distinct story. While the central mystery is intriguing, Stillwater meanders like a French drama as often as it crackles like an American thriller. Much of the film is about Bill resisting French customs and culture, and gradually needing to accept a worldview that’s a little wider than what gets him by in the American Midwest. Conservative intolerance generally only survives with a lack of exposure to what it objects to — it’s easy to say “America first” when you’ve never left the country. A trip to a foreign country would do wonders for a lot of MAGA types (though I don’t imagine the favor would work in reverse). There’s a whole big, beautiful world out there — why is conservative America so determined to sit at home, admiring itself in the mirror?

At one point, Allison asks her father, “What’s wrong with us?” She’s probably speaking exclusively about the Baker clan, but the quote doubles as a commentary on Americans at large. Stillwater contrasts its American characters with its European ones, insinuating that a light-hearted French dramedy will easily become a preposterous Hollywood thriller as soon as a brash, temperamental Yankee with anger issues shows up. Allison knows there’s something inherently broken in her father, the all-American man — and that damage has been passed along to her, too.

From the time of Trump’s election to present day, our country did two very significant things — it changed unfathomably, and it stayed the same. To the rest of the world, we’re alluring but pitiable, mighty but also the butt of so many jokes. Tom McCarthy, whose Spotlight won the Best Picture Oscar for 2015, has made a film that contains a multitude of potent topics — it’s a tongue-in-cheek subversion of the macho ass-kicker action hero trope, a playful commentary on the differences between European arthouse cinema and the Hollywood blockbuster, a painful examination of how deeply ingrained violence is in American culture, and a faltering dirge playing us out of the Trump era. (We hope.) Like Bill and Allison, we’ll be dealing with the fallout for a long, long time, and we may or may not recognize our homeland once the dust has settled.

11. TICK, TICK… BOOM!

“Guess what? You’re not Stephen Sondheim. You’re going to have wait a little bit longer.”

Jonathan Larson wrote Tick, Tick… Boom! in response to a nagging inner voice that told him he was running out of time to get his work produced. Five years later, he died. This was just days before Rent opened Off-Broadway, catapulting him to posthumous stardom.

A lot of artists feel as desperate as Larson did to unleash their creativity upon the world as soon as possible. We all hear that ticking clock. Of course, Larson had no way of knowing just how grimly right he was, but the illusion of prescience surrounding Tick, Tick… Boom! gives it far more weight than most artists’ nascent attempts at penning musical theater. It would still be an entertaining show with catchy tunes were Larson still with us, but it wouldn’t have nearly so much emotional heft. It’s the story outside the story that lends Tick, Tick… Boom! its true gravity, making it one extra layer of meta than Larson even intended.

Andrew Garfield stars as Larson, a server in a Manhattan diner with big dreams and some big bills to pay. His best friend Michael (Robin de Jesús) has recently, for lack of a better term, “sold out” — taking a cushy job at an advertising company rather than continue to toil away as a penniless Broadway wannabe. His girlfriend Susan (Alexandra Shipp) is thinking of leaving the city, taking a teaching job out of state. Jonathan is nowhere near ready to abandon his creative passions; he has more drive and a more unique talent than his friends do, but for now he has to take that all on faith, because he hasn’t made it. For now, he’s laser-focused on a small workshop for his musical Superbia, which he is betting on providing him his big break.

So many movies about genius artists shortchange the creation of the art itself. (Cue montages of crumpling up paper and sudden inspiration in which major masterpieces are completed in about two minutes.) Tick, Tick… Boom! actually does peddle in some of these cliches, but not before really selling us on Larson’s artistic angst. It’s not Jonathan’s achievements that make Tick, Tick… Boom! one of the best portraits of creative struggle in recent years, however — it’s the way this musical speaks to sacrifice and endurance and failure. Tick, Tick… Boom! delves into the narcissism of an artist, as Jonathan alienates his best friend and girlfriend for his own selfish pursuit. He’s kind of an asshole sometimes. Lin Manuel Miranda, making an accomplished debut as a feature film director, is predictably enamored with Jonathan Larson — but less expectedly, this film is also a little exasperated with him. The film’s most emotional moment belongs to de Jesús as Michael; his own troubles dwarf Larson’s, but Jonathan has been too checked out to notice when his best friend needed him most. Given the choice between success and his loved ones, Jonathan chooses art.

Though most movie musicals are borne from Broadway (including the maligned movie adaptation of Larson’s own Rent), Tick, Tick… Boom! is the rare one that actually evokes the New York City theater scene, and accurately captures the life of a starving artist in a town where they’re a dime a dozen. The musical numbers cut between a stage performance of Tick, Tick… Boom! (a recreation of the real one he performed in 1990) and the anxious days leading up to Superbia‘s debut, which also feature singing and choreography. It’s all edited together superbly, blending reality and musicality better than most movie musicals manage to do. It actually feels like watching theater, while being fully cinematic at the same time, and Garfield’s central performance is one of the year’s best.

Tick, Tick… Boom! joins other strong films from 2021 (The Hand Of God, Drive My Car) that speak to how artists incorporate their demons into their work. Larson’s early demise adds a melancholy coda that speaks to the grief present in several other favorite films from the year. It’s also my second favorite in a stellar year for musicals (with Annette, Cyrano, and West Side Story also appearing among this crop of the 25 best). After so many middling-to-bad imports from Broadway to Hollywood (and vice versa), it’s a treat to get a handful that hit the mark — and fitting that Larson finally got his due in a movie musical.

Read about the Top Ten here.

Here’s every 2021 film I saw, ranked:

  1. The Worst Person In The World
  2. The Hand Of God
  3. The Power Of The Dog
  4. Pleasure
  5. Licorice Pizza
  6. Mass
  7. Parallel Mothers
  8. Red Rocket
  9. Drive My Car
  10. West Side Story
  11. Tick, Tick… Boom!
  12. Stillwater
  13. Quo Vadis, Aida?
  14. No Sudden Move
  15. Petite Maman
  16. The Last Duel
  17. The Eyes Of Tammy Faye
  18. Cyrano
  19. Dune
  20. French Exit
  21. Boiling Point
  22. Passing
  23. Annette
  24. Barb & Star Go To Vista Del Mar
  25. The Mauritanian
  26. The Dissident
  27. Judas And The Black Messiah
  28. Benedetta
  29. Spencer
  30. No Time To Die
  31. A Hero
  32. Nightmare Alley
  33. Who You Think I Am
  34. Zola
  35. The Matrix Resurrections
  36. Ascension
  37. Shiva Baby
  38. The Beta Test
  39. The Green Knight
  40. Wheel Of Fortune And Fantasy
  41. John And The Hole
  42. Summer Of Soul
  43. The Tragedy Of Macbeth
  44. The Humans
  45. Little Fish
  46. Wild Indian
  47. King Richard
  48. Test Pattern
  49. Bergman Island
  50. 7 Prisoners
  51. News Of The World
  52. C’mon C’mon
  53. The Lost Daughter
  54. Saint Maud
  55. No Man Of God
  56. Procession
  57. The Velvet Underground
  58. Titane
  59. Promising Young Woman
  60. I’m Your Man
  61. Flee
  62. Pig
  63. The Card Counter
  64. House Of Gucci
  65. The Many Saints Of Newark
  66. Prayers For The Stolen
  67. The Killing Of Kenneth Chamberlain
  68. Attica
  69. Belfast
  70. Val
  71. The White Tiger
  72. In The Same Breath
  73. Compartment No. 6
  74. The Dig
  75. Land
  76. Everybody’s Talking About Jamie
  77. MLK/FBI
  78. CODA
  79. Jockey
  80. Old
  81. Prime Time
  82. Last Night In Soho
  83. In The Heights
  84. Worth
  85. The Souvenir Part II
  86. The French Dispatch
  87. The Novice
  88. Me You Madness
  89. Mainstream
  90. Bo Burnham: Inside
  91. Bad Luck Banging Or Loony Porn
  92. Don’t Look Up
  93. Pieces Of A Woman
  94. Joe Bell
  95. Moffie
  96. The Guilty
  97. The Voyeurs
  98. I Care A Lot
  99. The Little Things
  100. Being The Ricardos
  101. Ghostbusters: Afterlife
  102. The United States vs. Billie Holiday
  103. Dear Evan Hansen
  104. Cherry
  105. Nine Days
  106. Zack Snyder’s Justice League
  107. Malcom & Marie
  108. The Woman In The Window
  109. Space Jam: A New Legacy
  110. Cruella
  111. Halloween Kills

*

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