Movie audiences, slowly and haltingly, started to return to the theaters in the second year of the COVID-19 pandemic — to see blockbusters, like “Spider-Man: No Way Home” and the latest James Bond movie, but not meatier fare like the “West Side Story” remake.
As much fun as it was to see big movies on the big screen, the best movies of 2021 tended to be smaller and more personal. Stories of migrants finding their home, artists finding their inspiration, and people exploring what it means to be human.
Here are my picks for the top 10 movies of 2021:
1. “Flee” • It begins with the story, and the voice, of Amin, describing his harrowing trek out of Afghanistan — and the lie that allowed him to settle in Denmark, but could mean deportation and losing his Danish boyfriend if it was ever revealed. Amin and director Jonas Power Rasmussen take viewers on an incredible journey, using animation to show what couldn’t be captured with a video camera. The film (which won multiple honors at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival) is the most moving, humane story of the year. (Utah theatrical release pending.)
2. “Drive My Car” • A recently widowed theater director (Hidetoshi Nishijima) leads a production of “Uncle Vanya” in Hiroshima, still dealing with the fact that his wife was having an affair before she died. He’s assigned a driver, a young woman (Tôko Miura) who’s experienced loss in her own life, and learns that the TV actor (Masaki Okada) who was sleeping with his wife has auditioned for the play. Director Ryûsuke Hamaguchi keeps the emotions in check, as his characters find their own way through their pain, using their art and Chekhov’s “Vanya” as their beacon. (Opening Jan. 7 at the Broadway Centre Cinemas.)
3. “Nine Days” • In a house in a sort of pre-existence (actually, on the Bonneville Salt Flats), Will (Winston Duke) has the job of interviewing “souls” — played by such actors as Zazie Beetz, Tony Hale and Bill Skarsgard — to determine which one gets the honor of being born and living a life on Earth. Will talks things over with the house’s caretaker (Benedict Wong), who may or may not be God, as he stews over why his last choice died by suicide. Writer-director Edson Oda’s debut feature is an adventurous puzzle box of a movie, examining what it means, and what it takes, to be alive. (Available on DVD and as a digital rental.)
4. “Inside” • Bo Burnham’s one-man musical — he wrote the songs, directed and shot the film, edited the video and sound, and is the sole performer — is more than a stunt. Created in the isolation we have all felt during the pandemic, Burnham’s raw and nervy song cycle is a scathing commentary of internet culture and a cry from the heart for genuine connection. (Streaming on Netflix.)
5. “Summer of Soul (… Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised)” • If all director Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson had done was string together the footage from the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival — a mostly forgotten concert series, the same summer as Woodstock — this documentary would have been a blast, with great performances by Sly and the Family Stone, Gladys Knight & the Pips, Stevie Wonder, the 5th Dimension, Mavis Staples and Mahalia Jackson, Hugh Masekela, B.B. King, Max Roach, Nina Simone, and others. Thompson also brings in interviews and archival footage to put the event in context, bringing alive a moment of Black identity and empowerment. (Streaming on Hulu.)
6. “Jockey” • What could have been a cliche-driven sports movie — about a broken-down jockey (Clifton Collins Jr.) trying for one last season — becomes a beautiful character study of age and regret, thanks to Collins’ soulful performance and director Clint Bentley’s use of “magic hour” natural lighting of a race track that, like the title character, has also seen better days. (Opens Feb. 11 at the Broadway Centre Cinemas.)
7. “Bergman Island” • A writer (Vicky Krieps) and her filmmaker husband (Tim Roth) travel to Fårö Island and rent a cabin once occupied by Ingmar Bergman, in hopes that the solitude and the master’s vibe will inspire their creativity — if they don’t get distracted by the many Bergman-heads also there on vacation. Director Mia-Hansen-Løve’s droll comedy-drama is as light as Bergman’s films are heavy, but they have a common theme: The compulsion to follow one’s muse, wherever it may lead. (Digital on demand.)
8. “Judas and the Black Messiah” • On one level, writer-director Shaka King’s historical drama captures the short life of Fred Hampton (Daniel Kaluuya, who won an Academy Award for it), the Illinois Black Panther Party leader, through his meteoric rise and horrific murder at the hands of the FBI. Dig deeper, and it becomes (as the title implies) a gripping parable of Gesthemane, with Hampton betrayed by Bill O’Neal (LaKeith Stanfield), his closest confidante and an FBI informant. (Streaming on HBO Max.)
9. “I Carry You With Me” • A fascinating hybrid of narrative film and documentary, director Heidi Ewing’s film focuses on Iván (Armando Espitia), an aspiring chef in Mexico who falls in love with Gerardo (Christian Vazquez) — but must cross the border, illegally, to find a better life in New York, free from homophobia and persecution. The early narrative scenes are heartbreakingly poetic, but the documentary footage in the final half hour is the real payoff. (Available on DVD and as a digital rental.)
10. “Candyman” • Director Nia DaCosta finds poetry and timely commentary in her reboot/remake/sequel of the 1992 horror classic — this time with an artist (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) becoming drawn to the legend of the hook-handed killer of Chicago’s Cabrini-Green projects, with horrifying consequences. DaCosta (working with “Get Out” director Jordan Peele as a producer) explores gentrification and the other ways Black history can be erased, with a visual sense that will take one’s breath away. (Available on DVD and as a digital rental.)
The second 10
This year’s honorable mentions: Jane Campion’s dark Western “The Power of the Dog”; director Maggie Gyllenhaal’s unsettling beachside drama “The Lost Daughter”; Joachim Trier’s Norwegian quarter-life drama “The Worst Person in the World”; Joe Wright’s swooning musical “Cyrano”; Michael Rianda and Jeff Rowe’s wickedly clever animated family tale “The Mitchells vs. the Machines”; Pablo Larrain’s exploration of royal dysfunction in “Spencer”; David Lowery’s visually arresting medieval tale “The Green Knight”; Emma Seligman’s hilariously uncomfortable comedy “Shiva Baby”; Rebecca Hall’s incisive depiction of 1920s’ racial divisions in “Passing”; and Siân Heder’s heartfelt family drama “CODA.”
The bottom 10
The great thing about doing this part of the list: Once I write them down, I never have to think about these movies ever again.
1. “Space Jam: A New Legacy” • An adaptation of Warner Bros.’ annual report to stockholders, this exercise in corporate branding was a misfire for all concerned, particularly LeBron James.
2. “Halloween Kills” • Whatever goodwill David Gordon Green had accumulated with his 2018 revisiting of John Carpenter’s horror classic, this sequel — somewhere between a chaotic bloodbath and a meta-commentary on crappy horror sequels — squandered it.
3. “Home Sweet Home Alone” • Making the stranded 10-year-old the villain was a choice. A terrible choice, but a choice.
4. “Silk Road” • The obnoxiously true story of how a young guy (Nick Robinson) amassed so much white privilege he thought he could intellectualize his way through creating an international dark-net website to sell everything evil under the sun.
5. “The Little Things” • Running through the “Seven” checklist — Old cop (Denzel Washington), young cop (Rami Malek), creepy potential killer (Jared Leto) — without the slightest understanding of how the earlier movie, or basic human behavior, work.
6. “American Traitor: The Trial of Axis Sally” • B-movie actress Meadow Williams is in over her blonde-wigged head in this vanity project, playing an American performer on trial for broadcasting propaganda for the Nazis during World War II.
7. “Queenpins” • A humorless caper comedy that squanders a usually funny cast, including Kristen Bell, Kirby Howell-Baptiste, Paul Walter Hauser and Vince Vaughn.
8. “Vanquish” • How can you tell Ruby Rose isn’t cut out to be an action star? When Morgan Freeman, sitting in a wheelchair and appearing onscreen for 10 minutes, is more watchable.
9. “Senior Moment” • This pathetically unwatchable romantic comedy — starring William Shatner and Jean Smart — sat on the shelf for four years, and that wasn’t long enough.
10. “Here Today” • Billy Crystal (who also directed and co-wrote) plays an old comedy pro in the middle stages of dementia, and it’s as overbearing and unfunny as you might be guessing.