2021 was another odd year for cinema. The line between a theatrical release and a streaming release has never been more porous, or more irrelevant to a movie’s quality. It used to be common for people to miss out on terrific releases just because they hit theaters at the same time as some massive blockbuster. Now, people are more likely to miss the year’s best movies because they slip onto streaming services on a busy week, or with little fanfare.
But we’ve done our best to keep up on the smaller films that don’t get as much buzz, along with the bigger offerings that get most of a given year’s attention. Here are the films that most impressed us with their ambition and innovation this year, the films that moved and excited us, and made us feel like we’d seen something new, different, and spectacular.
Cheap Hallmark movies have made us forget that “heartwarming” can be a flavor of great cinema. CODA, the latest feature from writer-director Siân Heder (Tallulah), earns the description, following Ruby (Emilia Jones) as she navigates her senior year in high school as the sole hearing member of her predominantly Deaf family. Set along the sea in Gloucester, Massachusetts, Heder constructs a coming-of-age story around a sliding-doors moment that everyone can see coming: If Ruby leaves for college, how will her parents’ fishing business survive? Who will do the talking? How will she afford school? How can she live out her dreams if she’s an essential crutch?
A stint on Orange Is the New Black made Heder a natural for matching stark reality with bursts of laughter, and she surrounds Jones with a cast — including Marlee Matlin, Troy Kotsur, and Daniel Durant — that brings lived-in dimension to an earnest family dynamic. CODA ebbs from broad oh-God-what-are-my-parents-doing-in-the-other-room sex comedy to shouting matches that cut deep, vérité scenes of fishing work on the rough seas to gorgeous musical numbers of Ruby performing with her school choir. And binding it all together is the language of ASL, rarely seen on screen, and performed with the ferocity of people who use it every day. It is a purely physical way to communicate, and in CODA’s longer stretches of dialogue, it becomes profoundly cinematic. —MP
DRIVE MY CAR
Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s Drive My Car runs 179 minutes long, but it earns every single minute. The opening preamble, nearly an hour before the opening credits plays, covers an outwardly happy marriage between stage actor Yūsuke Kafuku (Hidetoshi Nishijima) and his television producer wife Oto (Reika Kirishima). The pair enjoy a lively sex life, as Oto makes intercourse into writers-room sessions by crafting stories aloud for Kafuku’s arousal. But soon, the actor learns a devastating secret about his wife. Before he can confront her, tragedy strikes.
The rest of Drive My Car takes place during an acting workshop in Hiroshima, moderated by Kafuku. There, he becomes obsessed with a troubled actor (Masaki Okada) who knew his wife intimately. The linkage becomes a way to reconnect and interrogate the flawed woman he misses so much. Even so, the title’s inspiration, and the film’s real emotional pulse, lies in Kafuku’s red Saab, and the young woman who becomes his driver while he’s at the workshop. The platonic pair have experienced deep loss, and are processing even deeper regret. From there, Drive My Car unspools deliberately. Each revelation arrives in the space of a pregnant pause, barely noticeable, but its meaning grows in importance by the minute. In these revelations, Kafuku discovers a patch of peace beyond grief. —Robert Daniels
It’s always a strange year when Walt Disney Animation Studios outdoes Pixar on color, emotion, and innovation, but that happened in 2021. Pixar’s film Luca is a low-key and generally low-stakes charmer about friendship and family, but Disney’s Encanto explores similar themes about belonging and connection, and ramps them up to a feverish pitch. The story, about a magical home, the magical family it houses, and the one family member who doesn’t have a special gift, draws heavily on Colombian art and design for its richly textured characters and setting. But Lin-Manuel Miranda’s dizzyingly dense songs are the centerpiece of the film — they’re authentic earworms that function as important parts of the story instead of tacked-on interludes.
And the movie’s big emotions are compelling and powerful. Mirabel (Stephanie Beatriz) accepts her place as the family’s powerless black sheep with grace and humility for a long time, but eventually, the unfairness of the world catches up with her, and the seething hurt she’s been holding back for so long is palpable. Encanto is visually sumptuous, but it also cuts to the same kind of dark inner demons that the best Pixar movies reach, and offers some catharsis for anyone who’s ever felt at odds with their family, or the world in general. —TR
EVANGELION 3.0+1.0 THRICE UPON A TIME
For 26 years, Neon Genesis Evangelion has held viewers suspended at the end of all things. Hideaki Anno’s 1995 anime opus (and its 1997 follow-up film/alternate ending End of Evangelion) is a staggering work of psychological drama by way of post-apocalyptic giant-robot fiction. It’s also a claustrophobic work, centering on the debilitating self-loathing of protagonist Shinji Ikari, a boy wrestling with depression so deep, it literally threatens to end the world (and pretty much has — multiple times).
As the fourth and final installment of a cinematic retelling of Evangelion that began in 2007, Thrice Upon a Time imagines a new legacy for the franchise. The film posits a world that acknowledges depression and the devastation it leaves in its wake, via a beautifully rendered wasteland. But vitally, it also shows a community coming together to rebuild their world and each other with compassion. Thrice Upon a Time isn’t a saccharine work that replaces a downer ending with a happy one — instead, it acknowledges that while we may never get back what we lose in times of darkness, we can still work toward something better. —JR
THE FRENCH DISPATCH
Wes Anderson’s latest film has also been derided as his weakest one, and there’s some truth to that — its separate micro-stories about the stories told at a New Yorker-style French magazine certainly lack the cohesion of Anderson standouts like The Grand Budapest Hotel or Moonrise Kingdom. But judging it on its overall arc is selling it short when the individual segments are so meticulously realized and creatively staged. As usual, Anderson pulls together a staggering cast of familiar faces and voices, all centered on Bill Murray as the editor of the magazine in question. The individual vignettes are strange little short stories about art and family, crime and creativity, all delivered with an impeccably straight face and a delight in elaborate production design and staging. As usual, Anderson’s moviemaking is hypnotic, both because the screen is so fantastically busy and because the script is so dense, and both blur by with blink-and-you’ll-miss-something speed. The French Dispatch rewards rewatches and full attention paid to every moment, a rare thing in the age of “eh, good enough” streaming movies designed more to pass the time than enchant the senses. —TR