It’s a strange thought to remember there were many a discussion questioning if we would be blessed with a year’s worth of film discourse in 2021. But in fact, this year’s list (for me, personally) was the most difficult one to write thus far. Some of the chosen films were so good that they chose me, while others ran up and down the rankings multiple times before landing in their final spot. And that tenth spot? That tenth spot almost could have been 20 other movies. (And perhaps in a revisit in a year, the order will have changed once again.)
What struck me most while choosing these specific films, however, was their distinct connection in their relationship with communication. I suppose you could say all films, all stories, all…well, art is about communication at its very foundation. But I feel these films in particular shine a light on a wide array of different types of communication among characters, emotions, and audiences. Instead of elaborating further, let me just tell ya…
10) Stephen Karam’s The Humans
I am a New York transplant, so I can never claim to understand the true pain of what it was like to live within the physical realm of 9/11. Living in the midwest, the reality of the Twin Towers falling was a tragic story we followed in the news more than anything else. But since moving to NY, I’ve come in direct contact with people who had lost someone, some many, on that day. The tragedy is grounded here, just as it is in The Humans. Set in a Chinatown apartment, The Humans’ humans (the Blake family + 1) join together for a Thanksgiving dinner in daughter Brigid Blake and her boyfriend’s new place. The pipes ding, the floors creak, and there’s just generally not a good aura about the place; but is that the residence or is that the people? I was pleased to read many other critics were categorizing this as a horror instead of family drama (or at least a hyphenation of the two), because the reason this movie works is, in part, due to the Blakes’ fears, and the more frightened they become, the more frightening the film is. Coupling religion with family baggage and terrifying tales of nightmares, The Humans is a meditation on loss and fear of change. It also happens to be about trauma (generational, religious, societal, psychological), but I felt it most to be a love letter to the people of New York who have been suffering since 2001, urging them to seek communion and conversation to help shed their collective trauma. Originally performed as a play in 2015, Stephen Karam adapts his stage play for the screen in brilliant fashion, all the while crafting perhaps the best horror film of 2021.
9) David Lowery’s The Green Knight
Of these top 10 films, my enjoyment of The Green Knight suffered the most from the dreaded Covid release delay. Because the hype train ran for SO LONG prior to its release, the buzz surrounding the film almost eclipsed the film itself: the operative word being almost. Not to say I didn’t enjoy the film as I was watching it, but I had been saddened to feel the film leave my mind so quickly.
That being said, The Green Knight is a feat of adaptation and design, and as I returned to the film for the purpose of this list, my enjoyment of the film was rebirthed. The Arthurian legend of Sir Gawain and The Green Knight is a fairly well-known Arthurian tale, as well as fiercely beloved, that has now found itself magicked for the screen by the wizard, David Lowery, himself. Colored in rich hues of green and medieval brown, The Green Knight tells the tale of King Arthur’s nephew, Gawain, accepting a quest to, upon delivering a blow upon The Green Knight, receive the same blow one year hence. Throughout the year, his trepidation grows, despite his enjoyment of the fame the quest has brought him. As the film progresses, the realism wanes more and more until a fever dream of a conclusion brings this tale of “will he, won’t he” to a satisfying close, all the while stoking the fires of the question: who is The Green Knight? And who’s telling the tale?
8) Edson Oda’s Nine Days
I walked out of my solo Nine Days viewing thinking I may have just watched the best movie of the year. If I had to attribute a reason as to why it fell slowly towards this end of the ten, I’d have to confess that its rewatch value gave me pause. Nine Days is a heavy film. Heavy, but devastatingly beautiful and wholly original. Superstar Winston Duke stars as Will, a former human who now exists in the realm in which souls are chosen from pools of candidates vying for a spot on planet Earth. Will is one of the conveyors whose job is to host a nine-day interview process where one lucky soul will be picked to make the transition into human life. The souls who don’t make the cut will then fade into non-existence. Will, however, dedicates his non-life to nurturing these wandering souls into their eventual obsolescence by providing them each with a favorite “memory” to experience before they go. The scenes in which the souls depart this world are some of the most hauntingly heartfelt moments I’ve ever experienced in a cinema. If I were a soul in the realm of Nine Days, and Will were to concoct a favorite memory for me to experience before I passed, getting to watch Edson Oda’s portrayal of souls experiencing bliss wouldn’t be too far off.
7) Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s Drive My Car
(screenplay by Hamaguchi and Takamasa Oe)
You simply can’t talk about communication in film without talking about Drive My Car. Not only is Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s film an international feature film and an adaptation of a Haruki Murakami short story, but within the film itself, protagonist Yūsuke is adapting Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya in a production where the actors on stage speak different languages (with some of the actors not understanding the languages their fellow actors are speaking). At face value, Drive My Car follows Yūsuke as he navigates sequential tragedies throughout his life, but at its core, Drive My Car is about learning to overcome your failures of communication, and to tear down the barriers we put up to protect ourselves. Unfamiliar with the source material, I was able to watch Drive My Car with very little foreknowledge, so I was able to take in what the film offered to me without any preconceived notions of intent or direction. It was like a Sunday drive through unfamiliar countryside. At nearly three hours, the pacing is perfect, and I found its style to be the most intriguing of the year (many a time throughout the course of the film I found my mind wandering to other pieces of art and beauty, and the film not only allows for this but actively encourages it in its shot design and structure). I’m a sucker for a story that seems as if it continues long after the credits roll, and Hamaguchi painted a picture so vivid I’m inclined to believe that the storied bright red Saab is still cruising around the streets of Hiroshima and beyond.
6) Wes Anderson’s The French Dispatch
In another wonderful 2021 film, The Worst Person in the World, a character laments the period in his life where he reached a point when art (films, music, comics, etc.) didn’t, couldn’t, imprint on him in the same way that works such as these had once imprinted on him in his youth and early adulthood, but that transition didn’t stop him from chasing that spark of connection time and time again. This is how I had been feeling with Anderson’s recent work; while I still enjoyed his films in the era of Moonrise Kingdom and beyond, I worried I’d never feel that connection I had felt with films like The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou or Rushmore ever again. That was until The French Dispatch dropped on my doorstep. The French Dispatch (of the Liberty, Kansas Evening Sun) is a love letter to a great many things: journalism, storytelling, legacy, but most of all, people. People are infinitely fascinating (for the most part), and we all just want to connect and be a part of each other’s stories. The act of reporting on said stories is an exaltation of the human condition. We all strive to retain a nugget of our own personal truth (am I really here, and what proves I am?) while allowing ourselves to be weathered and refined by our fellow man. The French Dispatch contains all of the Andersonisms Wes-heads have come to know and love (note to self: trademark “Wes-head”), with Anderson’s style becoming even more polished in its exponential growth. I laughed, I cried, I mourned with the staff of The French Dispatch. Wes Anderson’s done it again.
5) Julia Ducournau’s Titane
Save for my favorite film of the year, I don’t think I felt more excitement during a viewing than when I watched Titane. Similar to the other car film previously mentioned, Drive My Car, I went into Titane with limited knowledge, not knowing the scope of the film’s story. Obviously, I knew the lead, Agathe Rousselle’s Alexia, has sex with a car. That was as far as I got in the car owner’s manual, and I’m pleased I hadn’t read any further. Julia Ducournau made waves with 2016’s Raw, which is nearly perfect except for dropping the ball, in my opinion, in its exploration of university hazing culture. But here, Ducorunau’s skills are even sharper in weaving Titane’s A story of Alexia’s complex relationship with bodies and homicidal tendencies, and its B story of Adrien’s coming-of-age connection to his pseudo-father. If all of this sounds like assorted car parts, good; you should keep it that way until you watch the film. Out of my top ten films this year, Titane was my favorite one to discuss, constantly unearthing differing, and still-could-be-correct, opinions, theories, and conclusions. The film looks, sounds, and breathes great: because if a car can have sex, a film can breathe, right? Titane lives up to its name: pure strength.
4) Leos Carax’s Annette
(music by Sparks: lyrics by Ron and Russell Mael, and Leos Carax)
If there’s any film on this list that is a 100%, bonafide “Bern Movie,” it’s gotta be Annette. Also featured in Edgar Wright’s 2021 documentary, The Sparks Brothers, Ron and Russell Mael, have been having an electric year (already coming hot off of their critically acclaimed 2020 album, A Steady Drip, Drip, Drip). Annette tells the tragic story of Henry and Ann, a provocative stand-up comedian (my favorite Adam Driver performance this year) and a heralded opera singer (Marion Cotillard), and their daughter (the titular Annette), throughout the many tragedies their familial structure attempts to withstand. To further delve into their story would be to rob the uninformed reader of this wild ride, but I can’t stress enough how much I think this is mandatory viewing for fans of Sparks, fans of Leos Carax, but, mostly, fans of Adam Driver. Clearly, Driver’s star has been rising for a good many years now (“Outer…Space!”), but this is a top-five performance in his career so far (and that’s with three performances under his belt in this year alone). I so badly wish to divulge more of this fantastic story to you, dear reader, to entice your viewership, but I also want you to go in as blind as possible. Stare into the abyss with Annette; you won’t regret it.
3) Sean Baker’s Red Rocket
(screenplay by Sean Baker and Chris Bergoch)
Sean Baker’s at it again. This special director films people, especially working class (and, in this case, working ass) people, in such a genuine and sincere way that, if it weren’t for how well-structured the fictional story is, would fool you into believing you were watching a documentary. Rarely do films resonate with me on such a familiar level as his works do. I recently traveled back home to southeastern Indiana for the holidays, and while I didn’t go out much (hello, we’re still in a pandemic), several non-masked individuals managed to strike up brief conversations with Heath and me, and nearly all of these reckless individuals could have been characters in Red Rocket. It reminded me that when you’re out in the midwest, people do tend to be overwhelmingly friendly…at least to your face. Behind closed doors, you know you probably wouldn’t agree on most topics of government or politics, but they’ll kindly wish a happy holiday and thank you for helping them find the seltzer in the grocery store (because we were targeted as people who would probably know where the seltzer was…and they were right).
Red Rocket stars ex-porn star, Simon Rex, as…an ex-porn star. Rex’s Mikey Davies (aka Mikey Saber) returns home, from LA to Texas, down on his luck and hoping to stay with his wife and mother in law, Lexi (Bree Elrod) and Lil (Brenda Deiss). But, they don’t really have a choice, and Mikey just does what he always does, lies and schemes until he gets what he wants. And sadly, this behavior begins to bleed over to his new, teenage girlfriend (Strawberry, played by a captivating Suzanna Son) as he begins to groom her too. But, by the time you get to the end of the story, you start to wonder if Mikey wasn’t groomed at some point himself. Red Rocket may sound like a downer of a movie, but it’s got so much humor (laugh-out-loud-multiple-times kinda humor) and charm that you instantly wanna rewatch it as soon as it’s over. And the cycle of abuse continues…
2) Denis Villeneuve’s Dune: Part One
(screenplay by Denis Villeneuve, Jon Spaihts, and Eric Roth)
I know that Dune: Part One is in second place on my list, which implies I should have a lot to say about it, right? Well, I do, and for one, I think it’s an amazing film. Just like with other Denis Villeneuve projects in the past, he has managed to adapt an unthinkable project into a phenomenal film. There are only a handful of filmmakers right now who are true masters of the craft of blockbusters: who completely understand the tenuous and important bond between scope and story, and Villeneuve absolutely gets it. Just as he had done with Arrival and Blade Runner 2049, he has proven, yet again, that he is THE preeminent sci-fi director at the moment. The only thing I didn’t enjoy about Dune: Part One was the immediate, irrational fear I developed, after finishing the film, that Dune: Part Two won’t live up to the perfection of the first. Other than that, I am still in awe of its beauty and the carefully crafted characters that graced the screen (although, if I’m honest, this is the worst of the three Timothée Chalamet performances of the year…but that’s not saying much, because Chalamet had an excellent year). I could go on about how much I loved Dune: Part One, but I have a sneaking suspicion that this one will be discussed on the Story Screen Presents Best of 2021 podcast. So, I’ll save my voice for now.
1) Janicza Bravo’s @zola
(screenplay by Janicza Bravo and Jeremy O. Harris, based on tweets by Aziah “Zola” King, @_zolarmoon)
“Y’all wanna hear a story about why me & this bitch here fell out???????? It’s kinda long but full of suspense.” It was the tweet heard ‘round the world, and now it’s landed a spot as my favorite film of the year. I had known of the infamous tweet thread back when it had gone viral, so when I learned of Janicza Bravo taking the story to the screen (thank you, dear GOD, that James Franco had this taken away from him), I was instantly intrigued. And this film does. not. disappoint.
Told over the course of one sadistic weekend, the Zola story is the infamous tale of an on-and-off-again dancer, Zola (played with aplomb by Taylour Paige), agreeing to join fellow dancer, Stefani (a plucky Riley Keough), on a trip to Tampa to score some major coin. The plan is to dance, rinse, repeat, and go home. But the trip turns into a pimp-induced, messy sexcapade that Zola just did not sign up for. Colman Domingo (as X, the pimp) and Nicholas Braun (Stefani’s boyfriend, Derrek - all hail Cousin Greg!) round out the main cast. This, especially if you’re familiar with the tweet thread, should be all the pitch you need to like, rt, comment, and follow.
What Bravo achieves in @zola’s speedy, 90-minute runtime is the most fun I had in a theater all year long (and that was with watching both Spider-Man: No Way Home and The Green Knight with the expressive, rowdy Story Screen fam as well). Bravo uses a barrage of tweet notification dings, repetition, fourth-wall breaks, and swiping transitions to immerse you in the social media world of @zola, and while this style of editing isn’t necessarily new, it certainly is one of the most cognizant mergers between the two medium.
@zola is an absolute blast, and in the ever-blending worlds of life, social media, and filmic representations, it is a masterclass in moving forward in cinema. It also manages to tell a story about the world of sex work while never passing judgment onto the work itself, just onto the “messy” and dangerous people who deal in sex trafficking. Similarly to Red Rocket, @zola paints a picture of real people and real life that rarely gets a cinematic spotlight. Bravo’s keen eye and ear take a series of 140-character tweets and give Aziah King’s embellished weekend out the true coin it deserves.
So, here’s to 2021 and the stories it told. They keep speculating that the theater experience may die, but just as people have, cinemas have tapped into a resilience all their own to weather those speculations. But please, don’t forget, it’s up to us to show our support for our local indie cinemas. In 2022, go out, watch a movie, and buy some concessions while you’re at it; we gotta keep these stories coming.
Bernadette graduated from DePauw University in 2011 with a Film Studies degree she’s not currently using. She constantly consumes television, film, and all things pop culture and will never be full. She doesn’t tweet much, but give her a follow @BeaGorman and see if that changes.