I won’t waste any time cataloging the ways 2021 was even more of a bummer than 2020. That’s been done to death. Instead, I will confirm, here and now, that last year was a very good year in film. So good, in fact, that getting my personal list of favorites down to five was much harder than usual. 2021 was full of surprises and delights. More, honestly, than it had any right to have. Many of them will be honored appropriately in the coming awards shows and I hope my little list reflects the incredible breadth of talent in the industry.
First up is “Lamb,” the psychological horror fantasy from Icelandic director Valdimar Jóhannsson. I’ve said before how little I care about scary movies, but “Lamb” got my attention the same way the highly creative “Midsommer” did back in 2019. For its part, “Lamb” is an uncanny, wordless journey from unexplained miracle to tragic consequence. It is acted and directed with a focus on stillness that matches not only the austere landscape, but also the dark creep of nature’s vengeance.
Next is another movie you probably haven’t heard about, yet. “Pig” stars Nicolas Cage. Yes, that Nicolas Cage, and it tells one of the most heartfelt stories I’ve seen in a long time. Cage is amazing. He’s never bigger than a given moment, which is really saying something based on his campy, ultra-violent projects of late. His is one of those shocking, masterful performances that happens every once in a while with actors who have seemed lost to us. If nothing else, “Pig” has firmly re-established my affection for Nick Cage, even though he hasn’t seemed to want it for years.
Joaquin Phoenix is another actor who doesn’t seem to care what I think about him, which is a shame because I love almost everything he does. Starring Phoenix and the fantastic rising young star Woody Norman, “C’mon C’mon” is an interpersonal marvel. It’s a story of family and adjustment and of finding ways to be good to (and for) one another. It’s a simple tale, acted beautifully and directed with great care by Mike Mills. Don’t hold the fact that this is one of the 50 or so black and white films from 2021 against it.
“Flee” will likely be nominated in several categories in March. Animation. Foreign language. Documentary. Several others, I’m sure. I believe the novel approach of drawing rather than filming this interview is something that many filmmakers will copy going forward, especially when dealing with difficult themes like immigration and the violent, dehumanizing truths that define it. Because of the genius choice to disconnect words from realistic imagery, I was more deeply invested in Amin’s animated history than in any of the similar live-action recreations of this subject matter.
Last but nowhere close to least is David Lowery’s “The Green Knight.” This is a fantasy recreation of the legend of Sir Gawain, one of King Arthur’s round table knights. Like everything Lowery does, “The Green Knight” is strange and dream-bound and reflective of those common human weaknesses that occasionally turn out to be great strengths. The cast is fabulous. So is the cinematography and costuming. As with all the best cinematic world-building, this film was a feast that left me hungrier than it found me.
I said it last January. A depressing year in real life can still be a fantastic year in the fake life of film. I don’t know if the Academy will agree with any of my 2021 favorites, but I sincerely hope you will seek out these titles and decide for yourself. You won’t regret it.