TOP 10 MOVIES OF 2021: MAINSTREAM EDITION

Here is my obligatory/traditional annual top 10 list of movies, ranked according to mainstream standards. In other words, weird movies are allowed on this list, but I attempt to rank the 2021 releases according to their general cinematic merit, intended for people who don’t specialize in the surrealer genres. Something like ‘s surrealist policier Keep an Eye Out can (and did!) make this list, but they will not automatically be catapulted to the top. Don’t worry, weird movies fared fine in this general list, as you’ll soon see—but stay tuned for the top 10 weird movies of 2021 tomorrow, where, when adjusted for weirdness, some of the same movies may show up in a different order.

I’ve been prioritizing the smaller/rarer/weirder movies in my screenings, so there are a fair number of contenders that might have made this list but for the fact that I didn’t have time to get to them in 2021:  Belfast, Cyrano, Dune, Encanto, Licorice Pizza, Nightmare Alley, Power of the DogThe Tragedy of Macbeth, and West Side Story, among others. I expect to see all or most of these before awards voting season concludes.

Before the official top ten starts, here are 2021’s honorable mentions: About Endlessness, The Alpinist, Annette, The Beta Test, Cruella, Drive My Car, In the Earth, In the Heights, Last Night in Soho, The Nowhere Inn, Pig, Saint Maud, The Suicide Squad, and The Summit of the Gods.

10. Raya and the Last Dragon: Set in a mythical kingdom loosely based on Chinese mythology, this brightly animated Disney tale follows a girl on a quest to collect five pieces of a shattered gem to bring back dragons and stop a plague. The latest stop on modern Disney’s multicultural, female-empowered tour proves the formula still works, and the art direction is superlative as always. Raya seems likely to be overshadowed by Disney’s other big 2021 release, howver, Encanto (which I have yet to see).

Promotional image from Raya and the Last Dragon

9. Keep an Eye Out [Au Poste!]: Read our review. A long interrogation of an innocent man accused of murder is complicated by another accidental death. Beginning with the arrest of a man for conducting a symphony orchestra in his underwear, this strange and funny, dialogue heavy 75-minute surrealist goof with absurd deaths and time-travel paradoxes inside of flashbacks is ‘s most ian movie to date. This technically came out in 2018 in France but was not theatrically distributed in the U.S. until this year, so we’re counting it now.

8. Agnes: Read our festival review. A demon possesses a sister at a conservative Carmelite nunnery, causing a crisis of faith for one of the nuns. Well-made on a low budget and totally unexpected; it begins as a black exorcist comedy and satire of the Catholic Church, then lurches into melodrama and ends on a surprisingly sincere note. The whiplash tone change will alienate many, but it is justified by faith. It has its share of critical defenders, but you won’t see it on many other year-end lists.

7. Spencer: Princess Diana struggles with her mental health, bulimia, and marital problems during Christmas celebrations with the royal family. Pablo Larraín’s stately but highly speculative biopic effectively exploits Diana’s paradoxical public image as both the embodiment of royal glamour and its tragic victim. Stewart deserves the praise she receives for her perf—she’s the odds-on choice for “Best Actress”—and it’s a dark horse for “Best Costuming” and “Best Original Score” Oscars as well.

6. Memoria: Read our review. A Scottish woman (Tilda Swinton) traveling in Columbia thinks she’s losing her mind when she intermittently hears a mysterious thumping sound. Apichatpong “Uncle Boonme” Weerasethakul makes another slow, inexplicable and beautiful piece of art. Current distribution plans insist that the film will only be shown theatrically for full audiovisual impact, although we’ll see if they will relent on that restriction after a while.

5. Titane: Read our review. After a car accident, a girl receives a titanium plate in her head; she grows up to be a sexy car-show dancer obsessed with automobiles, and things get strange after she deals with a stalker. The plot goes in at least two crazy directions you’d never expect, and the trip is extremely squirm-inducing with its body horror; the hints of weirdness conceived in ‘s debut Raw are given birth here. Excellent performances by the two leads. A surprise (shock?) winner of the at Cannes this year.

4. The Card Counter: An ex-con (Oscar Isaac) is a card-playing genius; he takes a young man with a connection to his dark past under his wing, trying to steer him in the right direction. The film’s stoic hero and its moral fatalism are right out of Paul Schaeder’s regular playbook. By changing the details (and omitting the fascinating nightmare scene) you could make this into a classic Western.

The Card Counter promo image

3. The Worst Person in the World [Verdens verste menneske]: Julie, smart but unfocused, falls in love first with a controversial underground comics artist, then a charming but humble barista. Extremely smart and sharply written, with sexual banter and psychological insight delivered in 14 polished episodes (there’s even a mushroom trip), this is a fantastic character study of a woman who may not be the worst person in the world, but may very well be her own worst enemy.

2. The Summer of Soul: Never before seen performances from 1969’s six-weekend free concert series, the Harlem Cultural Festival (aka “the black Woodstock”). The lineup was actually better than Woodstock: young Stevie Wonder, old Mahalia Jackson, B.B. King, Gladys Knight and the Pips, Sly and the Family Stone, Nina Simone… and that’s just a small taste of the onstage talent. In between acts, director Questlove does an excellent job of providing historical context of 1969 Harlem,explaining  where each performer sits on their career arc, and, most meaningfully, exploring what it meant to the attendees to celebrate black culture on an epic scale. How this material disappeared from public consciousness for decades is a mystery, and a sin; the movie is a momentous work of cultural restoration, and surely the best documentary of 2021.

1. The Green Knight: Read our review.  King Arthur’s nephew Gawain accepts a challenge from the mysterious Green Knight to deliver a blow that will be returned in exactly one year. Digs deeply into the strangeness of Arthurian legend with its mix of Christian and pagan magics, reforging them with a dire existential edge. The Academy will completely overlook this outside-the-awards-corridor gem, but cinephiles lost their heads over it back in July.

Still from The Green Knight

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