Rumors of the death of movies were greatly exaggerated in 2021, at least from a quality standpoint. While box office receipts stayed down after 2020's total turtle-shelling, theaters remain open and there's no shortage of new films for them to show. AMC was saved by stonks, Regal has partnered with Matt Damon to bully customers into buying cryptocurrency, and streaming services continue to blast out content from a high-pressure hose. No major delays as of yet have put a damper on 2022, and while this coming year might be the one that sees cinema return to a profitable normal, it will be very difficult for it top 2021's creative output. Helped out by plenty of delayed films that otherwise would've belonged to 2020, 2021 has emerged as at least as great a movie year as 2018, possibly even competing with 2016. While I'm no enemy of depressive, contemplative fare, the theme of the year kept coming back to joy. It marked the best moments of French Dispatch and revereberated throughout wistful works like Licorice Pizza, Luca, and The Hand of God. Big hearted comedies like Bad Trip and Barb and Star Go To Vista Del Mar reveled in it, musicals like West Side Story and Summer of Soul generated it, and even gonzo French extremities like Titane and Benedetta reached for it between transgression and blasphemy. Who knows what the future will look like as commercial trends get uglier? For now, movies continue to be great!
What is it: An adaptation of half of Frank Herbert's sci-fi epic, Dune expertly balances exposition with character and draws novices like me into a world dense with mythology and allegory.
MVP: Denis Villeneuve's still a frosty director in my book, but his giant spectacles reach their zenith here.
Why's it here: This is the theatrical experience of the year, one of the few films that justify the IMAX surcharge and not only for the visuals. Dune's sound is unmatched, from the spooky practitioners of the Voice to the throat singing rhythms of Sardaukar priests.
What is it: An intense psychodrama that drills deep into the mind of a hospice worker who imagines herself communing with heaven.
MVP: Lead actor Morfydd Clark starts the film in a fragile place but as her reality skews, she becomes more deranged and more serene in a counterintuitive performance.
Why's it here: With an ending that eschews the indie horror habit of leaving events undetermined and up for debate, Saint Maud seals its place as one of the best of the year with an editing masterstroke that leaves no doubt.
West Side Story
What is it: Steven Spielberg's remake of the 1961 musical, itself an adaptation of Romeo and Juliet, is the best musical in a year that had a lot of them.
MVP: Stephen Sondheim's lyrics, containing clever wordplay alongside social commentary, retain their relevance generations after he first wrote them
Why's it here: Musicals' inherent romanticism has to work extra hard on a resistant person like myself, and the sheer power of West Side Story's passion alongside Spielberg's clear love for the material topples any skepticism.
Summer of Soul
What is it: In what's becoming a trend after Amazing Grace, Get Back, and Apollo 11, amongst others, buried footage of an historic event is restored and shown the light of day. Summer of Soul provides a you-are-there experience of the 1969 Harlem Culture Festival that happened in the shadow of Woodstock and has largely fallen out of cultural consciousness.
MVP: Director QuestLove, pouring palpable passion into this project that comes out in the earnest reactions of his talking heads who attended the festival.
Why's it here: Summer of Soul locates the Harlem Culture Festival as a nexus point of political and cultural life for African Americans and brings it to life as the festival moves through gospel, Motown, and psychedelic acts. The music's pretty great, too.
What is it: A debt prisoner uses the return of a woman's purse to finagle his way out of jail and encounters entities more concerned with their public appearance than the truth.
MVP: Amir Jadidi's lead performance is a soft-eyed demonstration of practiced passivity, providing gray areas where decency might be for its own ends or a calculated strategy.
Why's it here: Asghar Farhadi's Iranian morality plays don't get thornier than A Hero, a film that starts with the injustice of debt imprisonment and builds out a world of individuals both victimized and subject to perpetuating that injustice.
What is it: So many things. A Cronenbergian body horror extravaganza. A delusional mistaken identity farce. A serial killer anti-hero journey. A breathtaking cinematic experience.
MVP: Julia Ducournau, following up her magnificent debut Raw with a film that cements her as a, uh, titan of French extremity.
Why's it here: Titane could completely collapse after a bravura tracking shot through a sex-addled car show, and the strength of that scene alone would guarantee it a spot on this top 20.
What is it: Pixar's latest heads to the Italian coast where two young sea monsters, who look human on the land, encounter all the glories of the above-water world and beyond.
MVP: Director Enrico Casarosa builds a warm and inviting world in his seaside paradise, and then suffers from one of 2021's greatest cinematic travesties by having his work restricted to Disney+.
Why's it here: The irritation of a streaming-only release notwithstanding, Luca's beautiful coming-of-age story is also the kind of LGBT allegory that can't be covered up in editing for regressive markets.
Barb and Star Go To Vista Del Mar
What is it: Two daffy soulmates find horniness, physical challenges, and Tommy Bahama himself in a tacky Florida resort town.
MVP: Jamie Dornan reorients his entire public persona when he sings a power ballad to a seagull.
Why's it here: The silliest and funniest comedy since Popstar, Barb and Star is a reminder that despite the waning status and prevalence of movies like it, one that works from start to finish is worth its weight in genetically-modified mosquitos.
What is it: Paul Thomas Anderson's ninth film goes back to his comfort zone of 70's era San Fernando Valley for a side-eyed flirtation between a teenage serial entrepreneur and an aimless 20-something in search of purpose.
MVP: Alana Haim's fury, righteous and otherwise, at the disappointing men in her orbit is by turns painfully and hilariously brought to life by an actor who is somehow performing her first major role.
Why's it here: A pleasurable hangout film that moves between anecdotes more than adheres to a single story, Licorice Pizza's big heart thumps between its two leads as they sell mattresses, taunt each other across restaurant tables, and run headlong into each other's arms.
What is it: An adult film star returns to his Texas gulf-side hometown, penniless and unemployable. He finds a teenage doughnut shop clerk who might bring him back to the big leagues.
MVP: Simon Rex as a barely contained ball of charismatic energy. There's only a few actors who could shorten the distance between disgust that he's celebrating a particularly repulsive outcome and glee at watching him celebrate.
Why's it here: Sean Baker's latest journey into the underclass repeats his usage of non-actors to its greatest effect yet in a film that defiantly refuses to soften its characters choices. Red Rocket constructs Baker's toughest empathy test in his filmography and challenges the viewer stay involved.
The French Dispatch
What is it: An anthology film in Wes Anderson's particular tone, featuring three stories reported for the final issue of the New Yorker-esque titular magazine.
MVP: Jeffrey Wright, performing as a James Baldwin type and the star in the final segment, deepens what was already working in the film and elevates it into one of Anderson's best.
Why's it here: The French Dispatch unites its disparate stories in the changing standards and morals of mid-20th century upheaval with the magazine serving as the vehicle bringing culture and revolution to isolated corners, tying journalism and cinema together as media that make possibility larger and the world smaller.
The Green Knight
What is it: A stylish and mysterious retelling of an Arthurian legend, Sir Gawain confronts the titular creature and his own ambitions.
MVP: Director David Lowery, hitting for the first time for me with his melancholic adventure through a world on the edge of feudal Christianity and tribal mystery.
Why's it here: Culminating in one of those delirious paths-not-taken endings that so often bowl me over, The Green Knight is the year's visionary achievement, piling up memorable scene after memorable scene until the viewer's gasping for breath at its brilliant finale.
The Tragedy of Macbeth
What is it: An austere adaptation of Shakespeare's Scottish play featuring all involved operating at the peak of their powers.
MVP: A titan amongst titans, Kathryn Hunter's disconcerting and unforgettable performance as the Weird Sisters steals the film from the likes of Denzel Washington and Frances McDormand.
Why's it here: Joel Coen has made the objective masterpiece of the year. Every frame is worthy of a painting, every line spoken is considered and meaningful, every tableau offers something new on a work that's 500 years old.
What is it: Nicolas Cage stars as a truffle hunter hermit who looks set to go on a John Wick rampage when his only friend/truffle pig is stolen.
MVP: Cage, turning in one of his annual reminders that his tendency to say yes to everything lives alongside the capacity of turning stellar work when the project is right. His character in Pig is just as capable of a soul-revealing monologue as a wild-eyed explosion, and Cage puts on the costume of a man who looks like he'd prefer the latter when it's the former still burbling underneath.
Why's it here: Michael Sarnovski's stunning debut surprises at every turn. The film Pig looks like it's going to be again and again would be perfectly fine, if unimaginative, but it keeps revealing deeper and more meaningful purpose, thus making it one of 2021's most surprising and effective experiences.