What an odd year it’s been in general — and what an odd one for cinema in particular. With few narrative films being shot during the pandemic and theaters closed until quite recently, distributors spent much of 2021 releasing documentaries and older films left in the can for — in some cases — literally decades. Actor Alan Bates’ 1991 feature Shuttlecock saw its U.S. release postponed for 30 years (Bates himself died in 2003), while Grizzly II: The Predator — featuring a very, very young George Clooney — waited even longer: It was shot in 1983! Unsurprisingly, neither film was worth the wait — and neither ended up anywhere near my “favorite films of 2021” list.
A brief format reminder: My list is, of necessity, incomplete and may look different when I’ve had a chance to catch up on all the films I haven’t seen yet, including end-of-the-year award season releases such as Belfast, Licorice Pizza, and The Power of the Dog. It’s also not a list of “best” films — a pointless and hubristic endeavor, if I may be so bold and hubristic to claim — but a list of the films I most enjoyed over the past 12 months. And now, without further ado…
1. Labyrinth of Cinema: There could be no other film atop this year’s list. Late director Nobuhiko Ôbayashi has been one of my favorites for many years, and his final feature — a moving, philosophical, funny, and uplifting tribute to art’s ability to transcend the cant and deceit of everyday life — encapsulates everything I love about the art form in a whirlwind three hours.
2. Chess of the Wind: Speaking of films that had to wait decades to get shown in the United States, here’s one from 1976. Not that you’ll notice: Mohammad Reza Aslani’s incisive critique of 1920s Persian society has aged extremely well.
3. The Father: Despite my frequent misgivings about star Anthony Hopkins, The Father features his best performance in a very long time; the film’s jarring structure renders it perhaps the best cinematic representation yet of a character’s descent into dementia.
4. Get Back: Peter Jackson’s distillation of dozens of hours of raw Beatles footage was end-of-the-year manna from heaven for Fabaholics such as myself. Watching Paul McCartney conjure the song “Get Back” from the ether is like nothing else I’ve ever seen.
5. Minari: The feel-good movie of the year? Probably, even though it includes some moments that don’t feel all that good. Youn Yuh-Jung’s performance as a crusty Korean grandma deservedly earned her recognition at the Oscars, but the entire cast’s work bespeaks the overdue need for an ensemble acting Academy Award.
6. I’m An Electric Lampshade: For one brief shining moment, I pegged this as my favorite film of 2021, and I still love it, but better films ultimately pipped it at the post. Nonetheless, it’s an utterly riveting and inventive documentary about the world’s least likely pop star, a retired accountant.
7 (tie). Mandibles/Keep An Eye Out: Two for the price of one! Even if you don’t like it, you have to admit French auteur Quentin Dupieux has a style all his own. I love it, and in 2021 both his most recent film, Mandibles, and his previously-unreleased-in-the-U.S. Keep an Eye Out (2018) kept the Dupieux flag flying in spectacular fashion. Fans of Eugene Ionescu will approve.
8. Leda and the Swan: Lovely to look at if trickier to parse, this dialogue-free, black-and-white fever dream is pure big screen magic.
9. Dear Comrades: Andrei Konchalovsky’s recreation of a Soviet-era massacre is yet further proof — if any were needed! — that black and white remains the preferred option for historical dramas (see 2018’s The Captain for additional evidence).
10. How They Got Over: Aside from 1982’s Say Amen, Somebody!, gospel music has rarely been given the respectful documentary treatment it deserves. I was delighted by this salute to the African-American gospel quartets of the pre-rock ’n’ roll era.
11. The Velvet Underground: Velvet fans likely wanted more, but this is the first major documentary about this most influential of rock bands and is essential viewing for admirers of this chameleonic band’s still impossible-to-categorize music.
12. Some Kind of Heaven: Arriving very early in the year, this Frederick Wiseman-style examination of life at Florida’s massive retirement community The Villages may give you unpleasant flashbacks to The Prisoner or The Stepford Wives.
13. Dear Mr Brody: Free money? Lots of people signed up for it 1970, when the titular heir promised to give away his fortune to anyone who sent him a letter. As this excellent documentary details, things didn’t work out for most of them.
14. I’m Fine (Thanks For Asking): This first-rate indie drama from co-directors Kelley Kali and Angelique Molina was the first narrative feature I’d seen that incorporated the COVID-19 pandemic into its storyline, but that’s not the only reason it’s worth watching: Kali’s performance as a struggling-but-upbeat single mom is exemplary.
15. Wojnarowicz: New York provocateur David Wojnarowicz was one of the Big Apple’s angriest young artists during the 1980s, and this documentary perfectly captures his intense personality and unflinching commitment.