The past year in movies, like the last two years on the planet, unreeled in a bit of a blur. Shock-and-awe events alternated with routine amusements in real life and on the big screen — small screens, too. For this critic, the busiest cinema in town continued to be my living room, although, with the May release of A Quiet Place Part II, I returned to the movie theater for the first time in more than twelve months.
Subsequently, I’ve seen many of the year’s box office hits and critical darlings while masked up in a theater. Reveling in the dazzling scale and sonic splendor of Dune in IMAX, or riding the waves of euphoria at an uncharacteristically giddy critics’ screening of Spider-Man: No Way Home, some of my most memorable movie moments of 2021 wouldn’t have been the same without a packed auditorium.
Then again, alone on my sofa riveted by the brittle, nails-on-a-chalkboard tension of the haunting Saint Maud, no crowd was necessary. What moves you, moves you, regardless of where you’re sitting. And from where I’m sitting, these are the 2021 films that best accomplished what they set out to do — windows of clarity glimpsed through the fog of another hectic year.
10. Poppy Field
As tightly wound as the closeted gay cop at its center, the razor’s edge Romanian drama Poppy Field makes deft use of its 80-minute running time. Gendarmerie officer Cristi (Conrad Mericoffer) has hot houseguest Hadi (Radouan Leflahi) waiting for him at home, while his unit storms into a confrontation caused by anti-gay protesters trying to shut down the screening of a lesbian film. But rather than defusing the situation, Cristi’s impulsive actions only inflame the conflict.
Mericoffer is in the zone portraying this paranoid, potentially corrupt, yet somehow sympathetic protagonist. And director Eugen Jebeleanu keeps us close to the escalating crisis with brisk pacing and assured handheld camerawork, shrewdly navigating the broken logic of a secretly gay cop who’d resort to bitter homophobia in a desperate attempt to cover his ass.
9. Red Rocket
This is America — or, at least that colorful, twangy slice of circa-2016 Texas where oil refinery towers carve a grim skyline over strip malls, tract homes, and weed spots. The background details are so right and so vivid in Sean Baker’s seriocomic hustler valentine Red Rocket, but atmosphere never upstages the eccentric characters, or the anti-romance between in-over-her-head teen Strawberry (Suzanna Son) and ex-porn stud Mikey, aptly played by Simon Rex as the epitome of affable but untrustworthy. It’s a beauty and the beast tale as old as time, and perfectly of its time and place.
8. tick, tick…BOOM!
The LMMCU — that is, the Lin-Manuel Miranda cinematic universe — expanded by leaps and bounds this season with the release of Disney’s delightful animated musical-fantasy Encanto, featuring original songs by Miranda, and Netflix’s funny, Havana-flavored animated musical Vivo, with Miranda contributing both songs and an engaging lead vocal performance. The multi-talented powerhouse somehow also found time to direct tick, tick…BOOM!, a confident film adaptation of Jonathan Larson’s autobiographical stage musical.
Helming his first film as director, Miranda sketches an urgent portrait of creative ambition that manages to feel brand new while elucidating Larson’s very of-its-era, ’90s-set struggling artist tale. Via fluid editing and a solid cast, led by persuasive song-and-dance man Andrew Garfield, tick, tick…BOOM! strikes a clarion note of ingenuity, while clearly paying tribute to landmark influences from Fosse to Rent, to the late, beloved Stephen Sondheim.
7. The Last Duel
As busy as ever, Ridley Scott, now 84, directed two of the year’s most accomplished performances in two very different dramas, to varying degrees of success. For Scott’s true-crime campfest House of Gucci, Lady Gaga garnered headlines, and Jared Leto should earn his weight in Razzies, but Al Pacino deserves the glory for turning his thread of the film into a mini-masterpiece.
Watching Pacino as Uncle Aldo Gucci — who welcomes Gaga’s scheming Patrizia Reggiani into the family, only to be betrayed by her — is like seeing your team’s clutch player put up a record high-scoring game on a night the team still loses. But for Scott’s brash, bloody historical drama The Last Duel, the whole team, including Gucci star Adam Driver, delivers a winning, intricately plotted take on sex, class, law, and real estate.
The glory goes to Jodie Comer, whose intriguing turn rules the day. As noblewoman Marguerite de Carrouges, who accuses Driver’s knight Jacques Le Gris of a horrific assault, Comer gets three distinct threads to spin into mini-masterpieces.
The film offers contrasting perspectives on the alleged crime — the POV of Marguerite’s husband, Jean (Matt Damon), of the accused, and her own — with Comer’s craft and strength binding it all together, and the indefatigable Scott skillfully steering the story towards the accuser’s truth.
6. Last Night in Soho
Edgar Wright’s Last Night in Soho feels like the work of a filmmaker operating at the height of their powers, at ease playing every trick in the cinematic book to fashion a fantastical thriller entangling past and present. With one foot set in Swinging ’60s London, and the other slipping off the edge of her lonely modern-day existence, Soho‘s young fashion design student Ellie, well-played by Thomasin McKenzie, descends down a grave yet groovy rabbit hole emerging on the other side as Anya Taylor-Joy’s ill-fated heroine Sandy.
Cheeky enough to deploy ’60s British pop icons Terence Stamp, Rita Tushingham, and Dame Diana Rigg for the movie’s macabre benefit, Wright grounds the film in an honest portrayal of Ellie’s mental anguish. Yet terror gives way to clever twists that recast her struggles as a bold, unexpected expression of female empowerment.
5. Saint Maud
Writer-director Rose Glass’ stunning debut feature is the sort of psychological horror trip that reaches all your senses. A claustrophobic character study of a religious zealot, the film also plays on the creeping sense that increasingly unhinged nurse Maud (Morfydd Clark) reflects a real danger recognizable in the cultish ways of fanatics who walk among us.
Clark throws herself into the role with an intensity matched by Jennifer Ehle’s nuance as Amanda, the patient in Maud’s care whose “lifestyle” leads Maud to believe she’s in need of saving. Maud and the dire lengths she goes to in order to prove her piety will stick with you long after the credits roll, as will the film’s final horrific images of the saint ascending.
4. West Side Story
It’s the hopeful key change between “somewhere,” and “we’ll find,” or the exuberant whoosh of a chorus of dancers kicking up their heels and skirts in perfect sync. Musical performance executed with prowess just hits somewhere deep, beyond rational feeling, if and when you’re open to it.
The same can be said of all great movie musicals, or Steven Spielberg films at their most earnestly heartfelt: approach prepared to suspend disbelief, and with the capacity for wonder, so often called child-like but accessible at every age, and you might see and feel magic. With brilliant technical expertise, Spielberg and crew create a believably authentic New York City stage for this fantastic West Side Story cast to make the magic happen with every note, step, and turn of the classic tragic romance.
By some alchemy actress-turned-filmmaker Rebecca Hall conjures from the prickly, complex subject matter of race a subtle, delicately layered love story between friends. Based on Nella Larsen’s 1929 novel, Passing follows recently reunited pals Irene (Tessa Thompson) and Clare (Ruth Negga), two light-skinned Black women leading essentially incompatible lives in and around Renaissance Harlem, as Clare chooses to pass in society as white.
Employing lustrous black-and-white cinematography by Edu Grau, Hall presents Irene and Clare’s conflict as an emotional dance as meticulous and elegant as the ’20s-era wardrobe worn by the award-worthy pair of Thompson and Negga. Through a steamy combination of darting glances and concealed intentions, underscored by jazz, a story of racial passing reveals itself as a profound tale of passing in other forms — passing as straight, as faithful, or as a genuine friend, knowing well that the truth is far more complicated.
2. The Lost Daughter
More than half of the films on this top ten are by directors making the first feature film. But perhaps no first-timer here did so more impressively than esteemed actress and sibling, Maggie Gyllenhaal, who adapts Elena Ferrante’s 2006 novel into a precise, dark, introspective thriller, ripe with mystery and low-key sexual tension. What might have been a strange mess about a vacationing professor who inexplicably steals a child’s doll, Gyllenhaal finesses into a piquant, picturesque mood-piece about motherhood.
Of course, the filmmaker had the good sense to cast Olivia Colman — on a hot streak to rival ’40s-era Bette Davis — to portray enigmatic lead Leda. Jessie Buckley lends vital support as a younger, definitely not wiser Leda in flashbacks. And Dakota Johnson, who stares wordlessly through several scenes as Leda’s fellow tourist Nina, really only has to nail her final scene opposite Colman, which they both do, capping Gyllenhaal’s outstanding behind-the-camera debut.
1. Summer of Soul (…Or, When the Revolution Could Not be Televised)
A finger-snapping, soul-shaking labor of love for director Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson, a first-time feature filmmaker better known as drummer and co-founder of hip-hop pioneers The Roots, Summer of Soul is an astounding achievement of cultural excavation. Assembling hours upon days of film shot at the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival into a tight two hours, Soul serves as a gleeful, observant historic record and one fabulous all-star concert.
Beyond the vibrant, stirring live performance footage of some of the past century’s greatest soul, R&B, and gospel artists — including Stevie Wonder, Mahalia Jackson, and Nina Simone — Thompson’s gracefully edited documentary captures a beautifully diverse portrait of the people who showed up at the festival.
A fascinating time capsule of fashion, music, and politics then, filtered through the sharp eye and sensibility of right now, Summer of Soul refocuses our sights on a revolution that might otherwise have been lost to time and to executives’ fear of firebrands like Simone speaking their minds.
And 11 more that ingrained themselves in this ample and varied film year:
Barb and Star Go to Vista Del Mar
Boy Meets Boy
My Name Is Pauli Murray
The Power of the Dog
Spider-Man: No Way Home
The Worst Person in the World
André Hereford is Metro Weekly’s film and theater critic. Follow him on Twitter at @here4andre.
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