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The Best Movies of 2021 (That We Were Allowed to See)

Despite COVID, theater closures, and too many Spider-Men, there were still plenty of movies worth seeing in 2021.


Zola, Red Rocket, Power of the Dog

First, the bad news.

The Edina Cinema is where, two years ago, I saw one of my favorite movies of the past decade, Joanna Hogg’s The Souvenir. That’s likely where I would have seen (doesn’t Hollywood have any new ideas?) The Souvenir – Part II a few months ago, if 2021 hadn’t been the year we became a one-Landmark metro. The Lagoon Cinema in Uptown is now the last surviving local outpost of that once thriving corporate arthouse chain.

While the closing of the Uptown Theater last year may have been the bigger emotional blow, the loss of the Edina, a place I’ve grumbled about for years (grandma, hush!), probably had more of an impact on what screens around here. If you were quick enough, you could catch films that otherwise would never make it to these parts, especially with the Lagoon keeping its lights on by saving a screen or two for the latest Star Wars or Marvel flick.

We can hope that when Mann Theatres reopen the Edina and the MSP Film Society overhauls St. Anthony Main Theatre our selection will improve, but flyover FOMO was worse than ever for Minnesota movie fans in 2021. Even in this time of digital abundance, there’s a cultural cost to not living on the coasts. Every January you wonder how many of what could turn out to be your favorite movies from the previous year you haven’t had a chance to see yet, how many would yet dribble into theaters in the upcoming months or eventually make their way to streaming.

Yes, the world has worse problems. Hell, I have much worse problems, and I'm doing relatively well these days, thanks for asking. You might not have have seen any movie in any theater, of course, if you understandably didn’t feel comfortable sitting in a room full of people during a pandemic. (You cannot wear a mask and eat popcorn at the same time, after all.) Still, not to get too Nicole Kidman on you all, but I’m one of those weirdos who likes leaving my house to see movies—if nothing else, it keeps me from glancing at my phone. (And the upside of having relatively unpopular tastes is that most of the theaters I sat in this year were populated sparsely enough that I felt relatively safe.)

Sorry to put all this bizzy prelude out there before you scroll down to look at the list of movies you really clicked this link to see. (Too late, I know). But it matters. You won’t find the Hogg film I mentioned above on my list because I haven’t seen it, and neither have you. Nor Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s acclaimed Drive My Car (unexpectedly coming to the Heights later this month). Only movies a Twin Cities local could watch in 2021, at home or in theaters, make this list. The top ten are ranked; the 15 following honorable mentions are alphabetical and include some movies I’m glad I saw even if they were as flawed as Malignant, which subjects you to about an excruciating hour of sub-porn acting before you get to the wonderfully ridiculous payoff.

You’re also not gonna see those supposedly “grown up” films like Kenneth Branagh’s cutely stylish Belfast and Pablo Lorrain’s claustrophobically stylish Spencer on that list. And even the classy big-budget stuff left me cold. The largely competent Dune failed to convince me that "Can this young man learn to use his superpowers responsibly?” is a question I need answered (again!) and wasn’t visually transporting enough to compensate. The Green Knight is undeniably the most spectacularly realized manifestation of David Lowery’s ambient, melancholy passivity yet. Its neurotically aestheticized fatalism is truly of its moment. And that’s one reason why this moment sucks.

OK, OK, OK! I did imply that good news was coming, right?

For all my big screen fetishism, I enjoyed watching small movies up there—movies that narrowed their narrative scope to tell intimate stories of interpersonal relationships. Since, let’s face it, emotionally stunted white men aren’t going anywhere, I’m glad we have Mike Mills trying to figure out what the hell to do with us. C’mon C’mon demanded growth of its male protagonist not so he could receive a romantic or sexual reward, or even so he could deserve a child’s love, but because accepting the responsibility that comes with emotional attachment is what makes you a human. Whoa. In Rebecca Hall’s stylized Passing, two Black women eye each other with envy and desire from either side of the color line, illuminating the complexity of racial identity as a lived experience. And I’m Your Man, Maria Schrader’s fairly deadpan woman-dates-love-robot upending of romcom convention, doesn’t settle for easy laffs or stale Philosophy 101 extemporizing. I don’t know if it’s “actually” the tenth “best” movie released last year, but Dan Stevens’s precisely calibrated portrayal of a droid-to-please has stuck with me after flashier performances have faded.

But if it’s flash you crave, Euro art sensationalism had a great year too. The premise of Titanecar knocks up woman—was so garishly high concept you might have expected midnight movie camp, but director Julia Ducournau plowed through absurdity and gore to (no joke) reimagine the bonds between parent and child. Similarly, when dummies dismissed Benedetta as “Showgirls with nuns,” they inaccurately raised and lowered expectations. Sure, as soon as that wooden statuette of the Blessed Virgin first appears you can predict where it will be inserted, but as usual Paul Verhoeven isn’t just interested in boobs—he’s interested in how women find ways to exercise power in limited circumstances. And also boobs.

Good ol’ American sleaze had its moment too. In Red Rocket, Simon Rex is a porn star who returns to his hometown, an irrepressible motormouth whose bluster remains entertaining even as he’s revealed to be a more hateful, conniving coward than he first appears. While Sean Baker’s script underlines the obvious political parallel without elbowing you too hard, the real commentary comes from cinematographer Drew Daniels, which captures the distinctively empty, lurid ugliness of dissipated small town America. Janicza Bravo’s Zola, featuring maybe the first Twitter-to-cinema screenplay, isn’t just smarter about integrating everyday tech into storytelling than most movies but offhandedly avant-garde in the way only a comedy can be. Both movies mix exploitation, violence, and hilarity in a way that would make decent people uncomfortable if we only lived in a decent world to begin with.

No less timely, though more subdued, was Tsai Ming-liang’s Days, the story of two men who drift into and (after a single fuck) out of each other’s lives. In simpler times you could bracket its mood as something mundane like “urban alienation,” but amid a pandemic that has left so many touch-deprived its lingering, often static shots felt like tactile caresses of a material world. Very much not for everyone, but if you’ve got the patience it demands and deserves you can catch it at the Walker.

This was also the year of the big music film. The footage in Summer of Soul is as incredible as you’ve heard—not just the performances, but the crowd shots are crucial history that absolutely must be seen. But the explanatory chatter that unforgivably drowns out the music honestly came close to ruining the whole experience for me. Todd Haynes’ The Velvet Underground is a brilliant film and a flawed history. Which brings me to Peter Jackson’s interminable The Beatles: Get Back, a chore and a treasure. It needed to be that long to show how the creative process we so often romanticize is often a quite dull experience of goofing till something sticks, how the dynamics of an intense friendship recalibrate over time, and how a band so committed to its myth crushed itself under its own expectations. (“Doesn’t count” because “it’s TV,” you say? Don’t forget who makes the rules around here, pal.)

And yes, our white male American arthouse+ auteurs acquitted themselves nicely if not brilliantly. Wes Anderson’s The French Dispatch was entertaining and moving in spite of his (poli)tics. Joel Coen knows something about idiots telling tales, and The Tragedy of Macbeth proved that even Shakespeare can be thoroughly Coenized. And Paul Thomas Anderson’s Licorice Pizza is a pretty fun movie about a woman who keeps trying and failing to find something better to do with her life than pal around quasi-platonically with a teenage boy. But I kept waiting for the movie to slap itself upside its own head the way Anderson does at his best, and it felt like a retreat from the adult understanding of romantic codependence he uncovered in Phantom Thread.

Another ambitious movie did remind me of Phantom Thread, in the shifting power dynamics between its characters and the canny misdirection with which it concealed what story it was really telling until its final scene. A neo-classic American Western that maybe only a non-American could have made (and with New Zealand standing in for Montana at that), Jane Campion’s Power of the Dog is a cruel hall of mirrors posing as a prestige picture; its great strength, in this age of Explainer Cinema, is how much is left unsaid, to be interpreted from the manifestations of squelched desires we witness. And since natural beauty has rarely seemed so placidly oppressive, I’m glad I saw it not on my TV but at the Lagoon, where it had much too short a stay. But that’s not such a big a deal, I guess. You can still watch it on Netflix.

The 10 Best Movies of 2021

    1. Power of the Dog
    2. Zola
    3. C’mon C’mon
    4. Titane
    5. Days
    6. Red Rocket
    7. The Beatles: Get Back
    8. Benedetta
    9. Passing
    10. I’m Your Man

Honorable Mentions

Bergman Island, The French Dispatch, Licorice Pizza, The Lost Daughter, Malignant, Nightmare Alley, Night of the Kings, Pig, Quo Vadis, Aida?, Rocks, Summer of Soul, The Tragedy of Macbeth, The Truffle Hunters, The Velvet Underground, West Side Story.

Special Screenings This Week

Thursday, Jan. 6

Soul (2020)
Capri Theatre
A middle school teacher dreams of being a jazz musician. Then something crazy happens. $5. 7 p.m. More info here.

Slap Shot (1977)
Parkway Theater
Paul Newman! Bloodthirsty hockey! Start 2022 off right. 8 p.m. $9-$12. More info here.

Friday, Jan. 7

Radio On (1979)
In black-and-white, with a Bowie-Kraftwerk-Devo soundtrack, this story of a British DJ investigating his brother's murder was a big influence on the indie films of the ’80s. $8. 7 p.m. Saturday 9 p.m. Sunday 3 p.m. More info here.

Walking the Edge (1985)
Robert Forster and Nancy Kwan in the film (or one of ’em, at least) that inspired Jackie Brown. $8. 9:15 p.m. Saturday 7 p.m. Sunday 5:15 p.m. More info here.

Saturday, Jan. 8

Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1982)
Alamo Drafthouse
Back when you could still have a teen character get an abortion in a mainstream movie. $10. 11 a.m. More info here.

Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009)
Parkway Theater
Love the sound the foxes make when they eat. $5-$10. 1 p.m. More info here.

Sunday, Jan. 9

American Graffiti (1973)
Alamo Drafthouse 
The movie that invented Boomer nostalgia. $10. 6:30 p.m. More info here.

Laura (1944)
Otto Preminger’s classic about a detective (Dana Andrews) who starts falling for the women (Gene Tierney) whose death he’s investigating. With a young, pre-creepy Vincent Price. $8. 7:15 p.m. Monday and Tuesday 7 & 9 p.m. More info here.

Monday, Jan. 10

Rocky IV: Rocky vs. Drago – Ultimate Director’s Cut (1985)
Alamo Drafthouse
Look, just bring back the damn robot. $10. 6:30 p.m. More info here.

Soylent Green (1973)
Alamo Drafthouse
Forget jetpacks—we were supposed to be eating people by now. $10. 8:30 p.m. More info here.

Tuesday, Jan. 11

The Fellowship of the Ring: Extended Edition (2001)
Alamo Drafthouse
Can these four squabbling friends pull off a surprise London rooftop concert? $10. 7 p.m. More info here.

Wednesday, Jan. 12

Car Wash (1976)
Alamo Drafthouse
It sure does beat diggin’ a ditch. $10. 6:30 p.m. More info here.

Learning to Live Together: The Return of Mad Dogs and Englishmen (2021)
A look at the reunion of Joe Cocker’s notorious touring ensemble, with archival footage of the original roadshow. $12. 7 p.m. More info here.

Opening This Week

A Hero
When an Iranian man returns a purse of gold coins to his owner instead of paying off the debts he was sent to jail for, he becomes a celebrity. As you might expect if you've ever seen an Asghar Farhadi film, that's when the real trouble starts. Recommended.

Poupelle of Chimney Town
Hm, if you say so!

The 355
But I still haven’t seen The 354!

Ongoing in Local Theaters

American Underdog: The Kurt Warner Story
Ghostbusters: Afterlife (read our review here)
House of Gucci (read our review here)
A Journal for Jordan
The King's Man
Licorice Pizza
The Lost Daughter
The Matrix Resurrections
Nightmare Alley (read our review here)
Red Rocket
Sing 2
Spider-Man: No Way Home
The Tragedy of Macbeth (read our review here)
West Side Story (read our review here)

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