If 2020 was a long, dark winter for movie lovers—a season of some terrific pictures, sure, but also a long slog of having no choice but to stream everything at home—2021 has been the exuberant, celebratory spring. Not even just your regular, garden-variety spring, but a full-on Stravinsky-style spring, with crocuses bursting from the earth in symphonic unison, rain showers copiously blessing the fields and trees blossoming from every twig. The reason for this is partly practical, and somewhat predictable: A number of this year’s best movies were completed in 2020 but were held back until they could be released—properly—in theaters. But it’s hard not to think of this bounty as a kind of spiritual reward as well, a celebratory season of light after months of darkness. To that end, please consider this list of 10 of the year’s greatest movies—plus a handful of honorable mentions—to be a roadmap for your viewing pleasure. We’ve all earned it.
10. Drive My Car
In Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s swimmingly gorgeous three-hour drama—adapted from a Haruki Murakami short story—a widowed actor and theater director from Tokyo (Hidetoshi Nishijima) accepts a gig in Hiroshima, mounting a production of Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya. A young woman from the country (Toko Miura) has been hired to drive him; their slow-building friendship helps illuminate how lost he really is. Hamaguchi weaves a lustrous story of loss and forgiveness—a gentle nudge of encouragement suggesting that no matter how tired you feel, you can move on in the world.
9. The Tragedy of Macbeth
You may have seen this material a hundred times before. But Joel Coen’s shivery black-and-white rendering—starring Frances McDormand and Denzel Washington as the treacherous, scheming Scots, compelling as a demon’s spell—pulls off that rare feat: it puts you in the shoes of the play’s first audience, as if this 400-year-old play were unfolding anew. Now, as then, it chills to the bone.
8. C’mon C’mon
Joaquin Phoenix gives a funny, finely wrought performance as a childless New York City radio journalist who takes charge of his precocious 9-year-old Los Angeles nephew (Woody Norman) for a few weeks. How does that even sound like a whole movie? But in the hands of writer-director Mike Mills, it’s everything. No one is better at chronicling late 20th and early 21st century family affection, in all its thorny, shimmery beauty.
7. The Disciple
A singer with great drive and discipline (played, with searching openness, by Aditya Modak) strives to make a life for himself in the rarefied and decidedly unlucrative world of Indian classical music—only to be forced to recognize he’s missing the essential spark of genius. Director Chaitanya Tamhane’s luminous, quietly affecting film examines what it means to pursue a dream of art so feverishly that living in the real world takes a backseat.
In this beautifully rendered adaptation of Nella Larsen’s compact, potent 1929 novel, two girlhood friends (played, superbly, by Tessa Thompson and Ruth Negga) reconnect as adults, their lives not just intersecting but colliding: both women are Black, but one has chosen to live as white. First-time director Rebecca Hall gives us a deeply thoughtful spin on what we commonly call the American Dream, the ability to make something of ourselves, or to remake ourselves as we wish—a so-called freedom that comes, sometimes, at perilous cost.
5. Parallel Mothers
Penélope Cruz gives a smashing performance as a Madrid woman who becomes a mother in middle age—even as she’s striving to win justice for her great-grandfather, murdered during the Spanish Civil War, his body tossed into a mass grave. Director Pedro Almodóvar uses melodrama to reckon with the painful history of his country, but also to reaffirm an essential truth about motherhood: history is the work of mothers—civilization can’t move on without them.
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4. The Souvenir Part II
In English filmmaker Joanna Hogg’s piercingly wistful semiautobiographical film, a young student in 1980s London (Honor Swinton Byrne, in a subtle, captivating performance) tries to make sense of a heartbreaking personal tragedy as she completes her graduate film. With that seemingly simple story, Hogg captures a thousand facets of what it’s like to be a young person eager to make a mark on the world—while also needing desperately to make sense of it all.
3. Summer of Soul
Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson’s radiant documentary chronicles a star-studded free concert series that took place in a Harlem park during the summer of Woodstock but received far less attention. The Harlem Cultural Festival drew huge crowds, but in the years since, this civil rights–era celebration of pride and music had been largely forgotten—or, perhaps more accurately, simply neglected. Like jewels hidden in plain sight, the film showcases glorious performances from Mahalia Jackson, Stevie Wonder and Nina Simone. At last, the world is ready to take notice.
2. The Worst Person in the World
Danish-Norwegian director Joachim Trier’s staggeringly tender comedy-drama feels like a gift from the gods. On the road to figuring out who she is, Julie (Renate Reinsve, in a performance of marvelous, sturdy delicacy) falls in love first with one man and then another, only to realize she’s more lost than ever. Trier guides this story to a joyous, bittersweet landing—a reminder that we’re all works in progress, unfinished beings whose only imperative is to turn toward the light.
1. The Power of the Dog
In 1920s Montana, a misanthropic rancher (Benedict Cumberbatch) meets a reedy, dreamy teenager (Kodi Smit-McPhee) who arouses his contempt—and more. Jane Campion’s gorgeous, sinewy western, based on Thomas Savage’s 1967 novel, is a movie as big as the open sky—but also one where human emotions are distinctly visible, as fine and sharp as a blade of grass.
Honorable mentions: West Side Story, The Card Counter, The Velvet Underground, The Lost Daughter, The Electrical Life of Louis Wain, I’m Your Man, King Richard, The Green Knight, The Truffle Hunters
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