Rounding out our 2021 top 10s is Chris! Be sure to check out all of our previously published lists and give our podcast a listen to hear us discuss what was another tumultuous year.
10. The Matrix Resurrections – Dir. Lana Wachowski
As someone who never personally held the Matrix franchise in any high esteem, I was pleasantly surprised by how much I found myself moved by Lana Wachowski’s meta sequel/self-critique to the series she co-created decades ago. While playing in part like a cynical prognosis for our present abysmal blockbuster era while also operating as a tried and true sequel carrying the hopefulness of the original trilogy, Wachowski returns to the series in a strange but assured vision for the dormant series. Considering the spectacle-centric action is as slick as ever, its themes and concepts are wildly inventive, and the cast (both returning and new) envelop you back into the world effortlessly, Resurrections proves there is still something for the Wachowskis to say with their signature franchise in a way only they could. It is truly a “having your cake and eating it too” type sequel.
9. Red Rocket – Dir. Sean Baker
Sean Baker’s ongoing fascination with the constraints of economic disparity on marginalized communities and sexual morality has bore fruit once again with Red Rocket. Centering on a down on his luck porn star in the despicable yet charming Mikey Saber (in a masterful turn by Simon Rex), Baker’s film feels like yet another death knell for the fanciful possibility of achieving some slice of the American Dream. Employing non-professional actors yet again to great effect in his thorough dissection of financial anxieties in the industrial city of Texas City, Texas, Red Rocket might be Baker’s most entertaining film despite its uncomfortable subject matter. (BTW It can not be overstated, by the way, that all the tiring discourse concerning ethical depictions and age-gap romance from 2021 really spared this film).
8. Pig – Dir. Michael Sarnoski
An anti-revenge thriller that charts one man’s journey to reclaim his broken sense of solitude, Michael Sarnoski’s debut feature is a tender portrait of the challenges we encounter when we disconnect from our past. After the theft of his truffle-hunting pig sends former haute cuisine chef turned forest recluse Rob (a career highlight for Nicolas Cage) into the underbelly of Portland’s cookery district, Sarnoski’s film proceeds to continually defy your expectations for where his simple yet effective story takes you. Where a similar premise handled differently would tend to trade in all-consuming vengeance, Pig confronts its audience with a keen sense of empathy and a subdued reflection on one’s past life to become the most unassuming yet shattering films of the year.
7. Zola – Dir. Janicza Bravo
Possibly the only film we would ever need to be culled specifically from a post on social media, Janicza Bravo’s Zola takes a legendary thread concerning a saga of an infamous “falling out” and realizes it fully with humour, tension and a critical eye towards whiteness and storytelling. While indulging in the absurdity of Aziah “Zola” King’s odyssey with the airheaded and crass Stefani (made tactile by the fantastic performances of Taylour Paige and Riley Keough respectively) and carrying an ostentatious look steeped in poppy aesthetics by cinematographer Ari Wegner, the heart of the film lies in how it builds a point of view out of King’s vigorous storytelling. Translating the revolutionary thread into a succinct story which adds context and appreciation for the original author’s agency results in a film that is a blast from end to end.
6. The Power of the Dog – Dir. Jane Campion
Grappling with the mythic American west and its supposed glorifying of of masculine bravado, Campion’s The Power of the Dog takes the Thomas Savage novel of the same name and breathes life into its psychosexual tale of incompatible brothers and their fraught relationship. As Campion and cinematographer Ari Wegner elegantly capture the daunting expanse of rural Montana (doubled beautifully by Otago, New Zealand), a cast of career defining performances by Cumberbatch, Plemons, Dunst, and Smit-McPhee provide tangible cerebral depth into their characters as they work out the uneasy dynamics of their life out on their shared farmstead. While not quite as revisionist as most Westerns that are in fashion nowadays, Campion’s quietly invigorating film proves there still remains areas as of yet unexplored within the genre.
5. Titane – Dir. Julia Ducournau
Much like her previous effort Raw, Julia Ducournau’s latest feels genuinely transgressive not for the visual excesses it occasionally indulges in but for the uncomfortable depths of human nature it plunges into. What begins with an audacious, sensorial flourish of sex and violence in the life of mechaphiliac Alexa (a powerful feature debut by Agathe Rousselle) transmutes itself into a forcibly touching story of found families and shifting identities. Masterfully realized by Ducournau’s slick direction and supported by a spectacular performance by Vincent Lindon as the fatherly, aging fire chief who takes her in, Titane breaks through the grotesqueness of its overexposed reputation to become one of the most shocking feel-good movies of the year.
4. Drive My Car – Dir. Ryusuke Hamaguchi
A grief-stricken theater director (Hidetoshi Nishijima) works on a multilingual adaptation of Chekov’s Uncle Vanya for a theater program in Hiroshima and is shepherded to and from rehearsals by his reticent driver (Tōko Miura) where they gradually grow to lean on one another for support. These base elements may not seem like the ingredients for one of the most emotionally devastating films of the year, but Hamaguchi’s sedate, meditative Murakami adaptation proves to be a complex exploration of trauma and the laborious tasks of forgiveness and pressing forward. Hamaguchi’s signature hushed style which allows sentiment between characters to burn with quiet intensities stands out as a highlight among a cast of unforgettable performances and a captivating story which allows the staggering runtime fly by.
3. Evangelion 3.0 + 1.0: Thrice Upon a Time – Dir. Hideaki Anno, Mahiro Maeda, Katsuichi Nakayama, Kazuya Tsurumaki
The high placement on this list of Hideaki Anno’s concluding film for his ongoing Rebuild series over other year end wrap-ups should not come as any kind of surprise to those who have listened to me wax poetic about my admiration for this series for years. A tour-de-force showcase for the writer-directors noted eccentricities of plotting and theme when it comes to his signature franchise, the film is a monumental farewell to the flagship anime franchise which feels as grandiose as it is derisive for something decades in the works. Wrapping up the sprawling, convoluted saga of Shinji Ikari and humanity’s against Instrumentality with gorgeous animation, tender reflections on the series’ progression, and incoherent but emotionally loaded narrative threads, Thrice upon a Time is the kind of frustrating statement I have come to accept and admire from Anno’s ongoing experiments with Evangelion. The farewell is bittersweet, but all things must come to an end.
2. The Card Counter – Dir. Paul Schrader
The ever incendiary Paul Schrader took his Bressonian inspired style to new levels of ascetic and dour with The Card Counter, a hypnotically bleak film which sees the writer-director expand even more on his fascination with the male loner archetype. A prickly portrait of a fundamentally broken man (played to hardened perfection by Oscar Isaac) who lives a reclusive existence meagerly patronizing casinos while harboring horrors from his past he still struggles to make peace with, the film’s domineering stillness slowly, deliberately absorbs you into William Tell’s monotonous routines while giving slight glimpses at the raging storm of outrage lurking beneath. While a deeply somber film, what helps Schrader’s latest break through the misery are the poignant and frank understandings of redemption and healing the film grapples with among William Tell and his compatriots on the professional poker circuit (Tye Sheridan and a fantastic turn by Tiffany Haddish).
1. The Mitchells vs. The Machines – Dir. Mike Rianda
Like an uplifting ray of concentrated, unfiltered joy breaking through the oppressing dreariness of a rather morose year, Mike Rianda’s The Mitchells vs. The Machines was the cinematic balm I needed in 2021. Bursting from the seems with unbridled inventiveness and pushing the medium of animation to levels not seen since the previous Lord-Miller production of Into the Spider-Verse, Rianda’s hilarious send-up of our ongoing tech-billionaire dystopia operates as a timely reappraisal of our overreliance on technology to keep us all connected. While telling an ever relevant and heartwarming story of a family attempting to understand one another, The Mitchells overwhelms the senses with unending animated flourishes and humor which almost always hit the mark. And to date, this is one of the few films to ‘get’ what form cinephilia has taken in the social media age.