best of 2021

What Made a Movie Great in 2021?

Our critics break down what goes into naming the best of the year.

Photo-Illustration: Vulture; Photos Courtesy of the studios
Photo-Illustration: Vulture; Photos Courtesy of the studios

Year-end lists are fun and contentious pieces of writing, but most of the fun takes place outside the list itself. The process of list-making is a weird act of trying to balance personal responses with some imagined objective measurement, and while lists are about the year in culture, they’re also portraits of the people who wrote them. This year, we’re posting not just our lists but also a conversation among critics Alison Willmore, Bilge Ebiri, and Angelica Jade Bastién about how we made them, what this year in movies was like, and what we’re furious we had to leave off.

Alison Willmore: This was an overwhelming year in film. There have been so many movies—some held over from last year, some new—that I have never felt less like I’ve had a handle on things. I could have played catch-up forever and still not felt like I’d seen enough. But at some point, you have to call it. Top-ten lists are always a personal snapshot of someone’s moviegoing year, but this year it seemed especially personal.

Bilge Ebiri: I really think a top-20 list often makes more sense nowadays. Film critics tend to see more work than a lot of other folks. I saw 145 new-release films last year, and that was a slow year. (I saw 292 in 2015.) I don’t know if the average book critic reads that many new books in one year, or if the average theater critic sees that many shows. It’s just the nature of this specific beast. It feels sadistic to have to choose from such a massive crowd of titles.

Angelica Jade Bastién: Honestly, I just go with the Goddess, ride the wave, and choose a top ten based on my current mood. I already want to change my order because I’m not the biggest fan of ranked lists. This year I added a new criterion: Which films could only be films? Which films—in terms of craft (visual and sonic) and performance—are so stunning that they say something about the beauty of this specific medium? Those questions led me to choose the impressionistic tone poem of a documentary Faya Dayi as my No. 1.

AW: I knew as soon as I saw Maggie Gyllenhaal’s The Lost Daughter that it was my favorite film of the year. It knocked me off my feet. I go with my gut when it comes to picking a “best” of the year. What film did I emerge from feeling the most giddy, or shaken, or transported by? I’m usually pretty secure about my top three, then after that am always aware there are at least 20 other titles that could appear on my list and that the remaining choices feel pretty arbitrary. Could El Planeta have made it on my top ten? Easily. Same with Azor, Test Pattern, or The Suicide Squad, whose climax I adore and have rewatched at least a dozen times. I try to think about my list as a whole and about shedding light on unexpected picks and potentially -directing people to films they might not have seen or might not have thought of in the same way that I did.

BE: The biggest surprise (to me, at least) is my No. 1: Leos Carax’s Annette, which is a film I wasn’t even sure if I liked the first time I saw it. I did know, however, that parts of it (particularly the end) moved me enormously, and I immediately wanted to see it again. Seven rewatches later, it’s hard for me to pretend it wasn’t the film that enraptured me the most this year. I guess that’s one way of saying our opinions on these films are always changing, and it’s hard sometimes to make any grand pronouncements about either the individual films or the year in general.

One of the deep dark secrets of our profession is that our individual years in films are so often driven by the pictures we had to write about. Those of us who can to some extent pick and choose the titles we’re interested in, and who often do have the freedom to seek out interesting smaller movies, are lucky in that way. It can turn into a scramble in November and December as you try to catch up with the stuff you didn’t have to think about.

AW: And one unfortunate recent trend is that so many movies get dumped unceremoniously on Netflix now. The Disciple is one such film for me, a movie about one of my favorite downer topics: letting go of one’s dreams, or at least settling on a more realistic version of those grand goals. Audiences understandably love movies about characters who make it, against all odds, but the truth is most of us don’t become astronauts, or celebrities, or even our first round of choices for careers. Chaitanya Tamhane’s movie about a young man trying to make it as an Indian classical musician is beautifully observed, so smart and humane about the impossible pursuit of artistic purity and the indignities of trying to make a living doing what you love. I hope it has gradually accrued some kind of audience.

BE: We had a lot of musicals this year (In the Heights, West Side Story, Tick, Tick … Boom!), as well as a number of dance movies (both documentary and fiction), but I wish Tom Hurwitz and Rosalynde LeBlanc’s Can You Bring It: Bill T. Jones and D-Man in the Waters had broken out in a big way. (I am willing to allow that the cumbersome title probably didn’t help; I have to look it up on IMDB whenever I type it out.) The way it wove the story of Jones and the creation of his monumental 1989 dance piece while intercutting it with a modern production by a group of students—the whole thing left me a wreck. Of course, I didn’t exactly help matters by not reviewing it when it came out; I was sent a screener (an actual DVD! Hallelujah!) and was too busy with bigger titles (of course) to watch it in time.

AJB: When it comes to regrettable trends, for me it was the flattening of the Black experience in mainstream cinema, a by-product of both Hollywood studios commodifying Blackness and Black creators paying lip service to radical ideas while still making the kinds of mistakes we critique white creators for—particularly when it comes to colorism. It’s been frustrating to see people argue that we’re in a renaissance for Black artistry—in film and TV—when the politics still feel so ideologically muddled. (Judas and the Black Messiah, I’m looking at you.) There have been a few noteworthy exceptions, and one, Barry Jenkins’s The Gaze—an hourlong film connected to his masterwork The Underground Railroad—ended up on my list. Candyman, however, ranks as one of (if not the) worst films I’ve seen this year. It was such a disappointment after a banger trailer and more than a year of delays. I was stunned that a film with so much potential could misunderstand the allure of the original. And how do you render Yahya Abdul-Mateen II without a shred of his natural charisma?

BE: I saw lots of terrible movies this year, but there’s a difference between something you probably always knew was going to be terrible—like, say, Louise Linton’s Me You Madness—and something that felt like it might have once had a chance of being good—like, say, Guy Ritchie’s Wrath of Man.

AW: Maybe it’s recency bias, but I keep thinking about Red Notice, a movie featuring three of the alleged biggest stars working today (Dwayne Johnson, Gal Gadot, and Ryan Reynolds) that was so utterly devoid of charm, vitality, and glamour that it could have been a secret campaign to devalue movie stardom. I have also seen so many covid movies now, and only two have been good. Meanwhile, fears about covid have made people reluctant to go back to theaters, and that’s absolutely reasonable—and yet this year made it very clear to me how much better the viewing experience is when I’m seeing something in a theater.

BE: I saw more new releases in theaters this year, and in New York, it has felt fairly safe, thanks to vaccine checks and the fact that some studios have actually tested us as well. When I watched A Quiet Place II—which was my first press screening in theaters in about a year—that opening sequence felt, in that moment, like the greatest thing I’d ever seen. I never want to go back to watching anything on my couch, I remember thinking. I felt like Uncle Josh at the Moving Picture Show.

That said, most of the movies I’ve seen in theaters this year have actually been revival screenings of classics like Do the Right Thing, GoodFellas, North by Northwest, The Red Shoes, John Carpenter’s The Thing, etc.—all movies I’ve seen many times and that I own on Blu-ray and DVD. And yet I went out and paid to see them again in a -theater, on a big screen, with other people around me. I actually talked to some programmers and theater managers about this, and it’s definitely a trend. Bruce Goldstein of Film Forum calls them “audience pictures.” John Vanco of IFC Center calls them “art-house comfort food.” There’s been a notable uptick, in New York, of people going to see these familiar or older titles, even though so many of them are widely available via streaming or home video. There’s a Wong Kar-wai retro at IFC Center that’s been going on for over 20 weeks! Starting in the summer, Film Forum screened La Piscine, a sexy 1969 thriller starring Alain Delon and Romy Schneider, and the damn thing played for four months, often to sold-out houses.

AJB: There’s something sacred and communal about a theater experience—being in the dark, subsumed by craft and storytelling, connecting emotionally with the work and the audience. It forces me to pay attention with different care than at home. But due to covid, I am hypernervous in theaters, which can actually diminish the experience. It’s complicated.

AW: It’s also a balm for my poor, pandemic-shattered attention span. I am bad at home viewing. If moviegoing is a luxury, it’s one I’m willing to shell out for.

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What Made a Movie Great in 2021?