Here are my picks for the Ten Best Films of 2021:
10. CODA - I started raving about this year's big Sundance winner immediately after its world premiere, and yet I somehow still underrated it. (Why did I only give it 3.5 stars? It's clearly a 4-star film!) Emilia Jones gives a deeply touching performance as the only hearing member of a deaf family. The funny and poignant story looks at how her parents attempt to suppress her dream of becoming a singer because they don't understand how massively talented she is. If the finale doesn't choke you up, you probably don't have a soul.
9. Raya and the Last Dragon - Disney delivered another winner with this gorgeously animated tale about the quest for a long-missing dragon who might be the key to saving a civilization. Raya deals with a surprisingly substantive theme related to trust and how we sometimes have to give it to unlikely people. I didn't expect to be so moved.
8. Come True - Director Anthony Scott Burns solidifies his status as one of our most innovative genre directors with this spookier-than-spooky chiller that follows a young runaway who gets more than she bargained for after signing up for a mysterious sleep study. Visually unnerving and full of unanticipated plot twists, this nightmarish masterpiece makes the act of sleeping seem sinister.
7. In the Heights - 2021 was quite a year for musicals. Among them is Jon M. Chu's adaptation of the Lin-Manuel Miranda play. It's an exuberantly entertaining look at the lives and loves of Brooklyn Heights residents, packed with high-energy production numbers and winning performances. Here's a movie guaranteed to lift you up.
6. Licorice Pizza - Paul Thomas Anderson delivered his most down-to-earth film this year, looking at the weird, slightly dysfunctional – but still affectionate – friendship between an overly-ambitious 15-year-old boy and a directionless 25-year-old woman. Rock star Alana Haim establishes herself as a natural born star, Cooper Hoffman does late father Phillip Seymour Hoffman proud, and Bradley Cooper steals scenes as real-life Hollywood producer Jon Peters.
5. Nightmare Alley - In a career full of excellent movies, this might be Guillermo del Toro's best. It's an epic work about a shady guy (Bradley Cooper) who learns the art of mentalism while working at a low-rent carnival, then gets into serious trouble when he tries to use the techniques to scam a rich businessman. There is dark beauty to the picture, which fully absorbs you in its moody look and ambiance of danger. Cate Blanchett, Toni Collette, and Willem Dafoe give stellar supporting performances.
4. Spencer - Kristen Stewart is spectacular as Princess Diana in this film that avoids biopic conventions in favor of focusing on just a few days in its subject's life. In so doing, we get an impressionistic work that imagines what she might have been feeling as her marriage was ending, the paparazzi was swirling, and the royal family was sitting in judgement. A lot of what transpires is speculation, of course, yet it also gets to the heart of the matter, namely that Di was thrust into a crazy world that no one could ever prepare themselves for. Absolutely haunting.
3. The Worst Person in the World - Reneta Reinsve is nothing short of commanding in this Norwegian comedy/drama about a young woman trying to make sense of her chaotic love life and scattered career path. Director Joachim Trier smoothly glides his story from being funny and slightly raunchy in the first half to being poignant and heartbreaking in the second. I was blown away by the film's insights into aimlessness. After a brief awards-qualifying run in 2021, it goes into wider release this February.
2. The Power of the Dog - Jane Campion returned from a long absence with this adaptation of Thomas Savage's novel. Benedict Cumberbatch is riveting as a mean-spirited cattle rancher whose malice, we eventually learn, comes from profound heartache. Watching him negatively impact the lives of his brother (Jesse Plemons), his sister-in-law (Kirsten Dunst), and her son (Codi Smit-McPhee) provides the kind of emotion-based tension that we can never get enough of onscreen.
And my choice for the Best Film of 2021 is:
1. Annette - Director Leos Carax teamed with rock band Sparks (who, with their Edgar Wright-directed documentary The Sparks Brothers, had a big moment in 2021) on this stylish, imaginative, and alluring musical. Adam Driver and Marion Cotillard shine as a faltering stand-up comedian and a rising opera star whose marriage succumbs to the pressures of fame. Carax decided to use a doll to play their titular daughter, and that's just one of many intriguingly offbeat choices on display. Good songs and a brilliant supporting turn from Simon Helberg are other high points. Nothing is normal about Annette's execution, yet every single risky choice works magnificently.