Best films of 2021 annette titane the power of the dog

The best films of 2021, and where film criticism stands in 2022

“This is a moment where it is difficult to find hope, not only in cinema but in anything. How do we keep going? For me, the films (luckily) continue to justify my pursuit.”

When I first set out to put together this list of best films of 2021, the world felt like a much different place. It was early December. I’d eaten oysters with mezcal cocktails, been to the movie theatre and I was in the final stages of planning a Christmas Party. Looking back on the previous year, my memories flooded with images of dancing, laughter and opportunity in that hopeful mood. The anger, the frustration and the alienation were there too — but pushed to the background, inconvenient interlopers in my dreams.

You might be able to guess what happened next. 

Cinemas are closed, everyone is sick, the curfew is back. The Quebec government’s consistent inconsistency has helped set a general atmosphere of malaise and anger. The faint optimism that seemed to appear in late fall has been wasted. Even beyond the borders of la belle province, the atmosphere for film fans is grim. Spider-Man‘s dominance on the big screen, which initially seemed like a win, feels like a final blow on the theatrical model. If it wasn’t clear before, it is now: the corporations have won. Disney and Netflix are the de facto rulers of the cultural sphere, and its most ardent fans are also sore winners — unable to concede even the mildest criticism. Film critics, an all-around pathetic group of art lovers, have been reduced to villains. The situation has never felt grimmer.

Over the years, I’ve often reflected on the role of the film critic. Popularly, most of us are treated as consumer reviewers, evaluating whether a film is competent or worthwhile. Realistically, most films screened for critics and viewed by audiences are competent, in the vague sense that there are so many checks and balances in mainstream filmmaking that things like faulty sound don’t pass unnoticed. The critic may weigh in on creative decisions related to technicalities, such as the particular way that Christopher Nolan records sound, which some viewers find difficult to understand. It’s not a technical default in the same way a tech-reviewer may look at a new phone, and a core part of its software does not work. Even if we break it down in terms of aesthetics, the usability of a tool does not correspond to how someone understands or appreciates a work of art.

So then, what role does the critic have? Our parasitic nature makes it challenging to treat us as artists in our own right (though, I’d personally dispute this in some instances). We have overlapping roles with journalists, but our work is not wholly the same. Critics of critics like to point out that what we write is “only our opinion,” and they’re not wrong. So why does my opinion count for something? It doesn’t, really. I can write, and I choose to write about what I love. All my other qualifications are beside the point. I am writing about film because I love it deeply.

The best critics don’t speak for a generation; they speak for themselves. They write their “opinions,” as viewed through the lens of their personal experience and understanding. In a world where our attention seems so fractured and broken, the critic’s role can optimistically be seen as a “director of attention,” pushing audiences to see what’s out there beyond the pull of corporate interests. This may mean directing audiences to a film they’ve never heard of. It can also be a way of directing a viewer to see something they might have missed — a gesture, a colour, or an idea. 

When Disney films dominate, this directing of attention is so often bastardized as easter-eggs and cameos. It becomes a game of “spot the product placement,” and artistry is lost. That isn’t to say there’s anything wrong with enjoying a Marvel or Star Wars film, it’s just tiring to pretend that in treating them “seriously” as art that might win awards, we’re also not allowed to be critical of the fact that they are artistically vacuous. Even as someone who feels most awards are self-serving, reflecting more on how the voters want to be perceived than the inherent qualities of the art, it’s absurd to demand a place at the table and not be subject to the same scrutiny as your peers — particularly, when your company’s unhealthy entertainment monopoly assures the destruction of a diverse and healthy cinematic ecosystem. 

So, is film culture dying? Yes and no. Just as the novel or theatre has never died, cinema likely won’t either. Unsurprisingly, as most writers embrace “screen” studies rather than just film, our understanding of the audiovisual medium expands. Looking to the future, I imagine that the gap between mainstream and independent productions will continue to grow. More projects will be personal, self-financed and distributed through untraditional means. The death of the mid-tier project will continue, and Disney’s domination of the industry will only grow. 

This is a moment where it is difficult to find hope, not only in cinema but in anything. How do we keep going? For me, the films (luckily) continue to justify my pursuit. I’m struck at least a few times a week by the quality of light in a movie, or the inscrutable raised eyebrow of an actor in a scene. As angry as I feel sometimes, I can’t let go of the fact that beauty can still move me, and there’s beauty all around us. 

The Best Films of 2021

(This list follows the vague rule that films that screened for the first time in Montreal in 2021 count, including films from festivals and streaming services.)

10. ​​Petite Maman (Céline Sciamma)

With a running time of just 72 minutes, it’s easy to think of Céline Sciamma’s Petite Maman as slight. The story is simple: an eight-year-old meets a strange young girl in the woods one day. It’s a film about grief and forgiveness, the story of a young girl seeing her parents as people for the first time. As the friendship between the girls develops, we begin to see the parallels between them, as different timelines overlap. Petite Maman is a film of tremendous vulnerability that captures the magic and melancholy of childhood loneliness, adopting the frameworks of fairy tales and the aesthetics of naturalism. (Read our review from TIFF here.)

9. All Light Everywhere (Theo Anthony)

All Light Everywhere best films of 2021
All Light Everywhere, a documentary by Theo Anthony

In All Light Everywhere, director Theo Anthony explores optical technologies and surveillance culture in a meditative and often enigmatic essay form. Challenging the idea of non-violent development of surveillance technology, Anthony takes on multiple perspectives to examine how the technology of seeing intersects with violence. Drawing from theory, history and anecdote, he draws parallels between cameras and weapons (not a new idea, George Stevens, upon entering the recently liberated concentration camps with his camera, was horrified that he was viewed with the same fear and apprehension as the oppressors). This is a fascinating and challenging exploration of seeing and surveillance from one of our great documentarians. 

8. C’mon C’mon (Mike Mills)

Shot in black and white, Mike Mills’ latest follows a documentary filmmaker, Johnny (Joaquin Phoenix), as he tries to make a film while also watching over his nephew. Travelling across the United States for his film, he interviews children and asks them questions about the future. What are they worried about? What are their responsibilities? Where do they see themselves as adults? Examining the line between expectation and reality while zeroing in on the disappointments of growing older, the film is a tender examination of a strained family dynamic. It’s a movie without significant incidents that nonetheless feels large in scope and feeling. (Read our review of C’mon C’mon here.)

7. Bad Luck Banging or Loony Porn (Radu Jude)

One of the most shocking opening sequences of the year, Bad Luck Banging or Loony Porn, directed by Radu Jude starts with a hardcore sex video featuring our lead character, Emilia. The rest of the film follows her as she deals with the aftermath of her sex video being leaked on the internet and the possible impact on her role as a teacher in a private school. The film’s unconventional structure is broken up in punny chapter headings and is interrupted by a discursive and wicked glossary of terms relating to vulgarity, Romanian politics and the plague. One of the first great films from the pandemic, Bad Luck Banging supposes that the world and art may be past the point of redemption. (Read our review of Bad Luck Banging or Loony Porn here.) 

6. Nightmare Alley (Guillermo Del Toro)

A blistering and bitter adaptation of a novel by William Lindsay Gresham, Del Toro’s Nightmare Alley maintains the glistening grime of the era with more contemporary misanthropy. As soon as the film begins, we know where it is headed, as the over-ambitious Stan (Bradley Cooper) seems destined to rise the carnival ranks and seem equally destined to fall. It’s a film that refocuses the rot of the American dream, pinpointing that it’s rooted more deeply in conquering than it is in wealth acquisition. Incredible use of an all-star cast that harkens back to an earlier era, this film (much like Del Toro’s Crimson Peak) was unfairly slept on by audiences and critics alike. (Read our review of Nightmare Alley here.)

5. The Worst Person in the World (Joachim Trier)

The Worst Person in the World Joachim Trier best films of 2021
The Worst Person in the World, directed by Joachim Trier

Joachim Trier’s The Worst Person in the World examines a 30-something woman torn between dreams and reality. Starring a luminescent Renate Reinsve as Julie, the film follows her on a four-year journey of impulsive decision-making and avoidance. Flippantly ironic and deadly serious, the film asks the audience to reflect on what it means to have a life well-lived. If we try to be everything, do we become nothing? What does it mean to love? When do we stop being young and grow up? Do the measures of adulthood translate to confidence or happiness? Featuring at least two of the best cinema sequences of the year, it’s an imaginative and light film that captures the uncertainty of a generation.

4. Annette (Leos Carax)

Leos Carax’s baroque musical love story Annette tells the story of a doomed relationship between a comedian and an opera singer. They have a child and then a tragedy befalls their little family. When the Baby Annette, brought to life by a beautiful marionette, rises from the ground and ascends to the heavens singing… that’s why I go to the cinema. Sincerely absurd, the film’s on-the-nose score by Sparks will enrage as much as it inspires. If you’re able to fall into the storytelling, though, you will be rewarded with an incisive portrait of the strained relationship between art, love and ownership. (Read our review of Annette here.)

3. The Power of the Dog (Jane Campion)

In prepping for The Power of the Dog, Jane Campion had her two stars, Benedict Cumberbatch and Jesse Plemons, learn to waltz. As the authoritarian and rustic Phil, Benedict loses grip on his weaker-willed brother when he marries a widow, Rose (Kirsten Dunst), and she and her son move to their ranch. A film of simmering tensions and the nuances of power, the film’s shifting perspectives and dynamics mirror the push and pull of a dance. It’s a stunning and beguiling return for Jane Campion, who hasn’t made a feature film since 2009’s Bright Star (she co-directed two series of Top of the Lake, however). (Read our review from TIFF here.)

2. The Card Counter (Paul Schrader)

While in the twilight of a storied career, Paul Schrader has perhaps never been more incisive. With First Reformed, now The Card Counter, he’s stripped his sensibilities down to the bare essentials, channelling the ethos of film noir and Bresson to capture the introspective longings of men on the brink. The films are, by their nature, small — focused on the work and doubts of small men who refuse their symbolic roles within the American mythology. The Card Counter, about an Iraq war vet turned gambler, forces the audience to witness the unequivocal truth of current American policy: as William Tell (Oscar Isaac) explains, “Nothing could justify what we did.” (Read our review of The Card Counter here.)

  1. Titane (Julia Ducournau)

Monstrous and divine, Titane follows Alexia — a young woman with a titanium plate in her head — on a descent into carnage. Exploding the fragile lines of the body, melding them with machine and imagination, Ducournau continues her exploration of the limits of the sensation in this viscerally confrontational film. Alexia’s spiritual transformation is unexpected as an absence of grace is suddenly filled with an over-abundance. A film of limitless brutally transforms into an honest portrait of unconditional and transformative love. (Read our review of Titane here.)

Honourable mentions: Shiva Baby, West Side Story, The Tsuga Diaries, Ahed’s Knee, Passing

For the latest in film and TV, please visit our Film & TV section.