Almost every year when I assemble my list of the best films of the past 12 months I end up with a slate of lesser-known gems that don’t quite fit among the ones I most want to highlight. These alternates strike me as important to mention for those looking for something a little off the beaten path, films that may have made my Top 10 on a different day.
My Top 10 list’s publishing date is still a couple weeks off as I catch up with a few more late-2021 releases, but in the meantime I’m happy to suggest people check out these other 10 from 2021, provided alphabetically. (Click on the titles to read my original, longer form reviews.)
About Endlessness | Amazon Prime, VOD
Roy Andersson’s a Swedish filmmaker more influenced by painters than by life or other filmmakers — he loves a good tableau. This collection of vignettes is the apparent conclusion of his cinematic career, and serves as both a fine capper and entryway into his work. The short stories herein provide philosophical, melancholy, and frequently droll observations on life. Strange and compelling stuff.
Annette | Amazon Prime
Despite the presence of Adam Driver and Academy Award-winner Marion Cotillard, this Netflix musical came and went pretty quickly, probably because it’s so damn weird. Anyone who gave it a try found a jittery, bizarre combination of pop music celebration and cautionary tales on the perils of Hollywood stardom from writer-composers Ron and Russell Mael of Sparks, directed by French iconoclast Leos Carax. I didn’t pretend to understand it all, but I was swept along by its bonkers joy.
Barb And Star Go To Vista Del Mar | Crave, VOD
On the surface this looked like a throwback to the Hollywood comedy era of 20 or so years ago when material from Saturday Night Live would be mined for a feature that often failed to find a way to expand on a five-minute concept. But Barb And Star is a whole lot more engaging than you might expect — and major props to Bridesmaids creatives Kristin Wiig and Annie Mumolo. It’s actually a science-fiction spoof, with added James Bond-related gags. I will ask once again: Are you ready for your soul douche?
Bergman Island | VOD
Mia Hansen-Løve’s personal missive from a summery isle off the coast of Sweden is a must-see for cineastes and anyone with an interest in Ingmar Bergman, but I think you might enjoy it even if you don’t count yourself in that number. The story of a pair of filmmakers figuring out their relationship as one of them (Vicky Krieps) produces new work, it’s a melancholy but gentle story about the creative process and how fiction informs fact. And vice versa.
The Card Counter | VOD
Paul Schrader’s First Reformed was widely seen as a return to form for the veteran screenwriter and director, but his follow-up didn’t get the same critical affection, which it deserves. It tells the story of an Iraq War veteran (the brilliant Oscar Isaac in his best role since Inside Llewyn Davis) and a professional gambler who spends his days in a kind of penance for sins/crimes past, moving from casino to casino. A chance encounter with a former commander and the son of a former brother in arms changes his fate and the choices he makes. A pitch black noir with dread notes of horror, the film speaks to the long term broad, psychological damage of a dirty war. It’ll stay with you.
Copshop | VOD
A small-scale action thriller so well made by Joe Carnahan it put a broad smile on my face. If you have any affection for 1970s low budget urban thrillers like The Taking of Pelham 123 or Assault On Precinct 13, give Copshop a try. Lots to enjoy here.
I Care A Lot | Amazon Prime, VOD
Briefly in the Awards conversation when Rosamund Pike won a Best Actress in a Musical or Comedy award at the Golden Globes, the film, released early in 2021, didn’t get a lot of attention otherwise. Too bad because it’s terrific, a delightfully grim, very sweary satire of capitalism while also having a few things to say about the way we treat senior citizens. If you enjoy your comedies brittle and cynical, full of repulsive characters, this is for you.
Pig | Crave, VOD
One of those occasions when Nicolas Cage steps away from roles as a b-movie action star to do something special with the unbearable weight of his massive talent. (See also, Mandy.) Here he stars in Michael Sarnoski’s film about a former chef on the hunt for his stolen truffle pig, and what starts out as a John Wick-esque tale of revenge, or a satire on such, ends up being about fathers and sons and how men manage grief and lost love. A genuine surprise.
Preparations To Be Together for an Unknown Period of Time | Amazon Prime, Criterion Channel, and VOD
This is probably the one I’m the most hesitant to mention here if only because my fellow programmers at Carbon Arc Cinema and I couldn’t come to a consensus on it. Put simply, it deconstructs the first flush of romantic love, suggesting that even the most learned and rational amongst us might cast caution to the wind in the quest for that romantic ideal, with possibly disastrous results. I dug the concept and the execution, a clear-eyed mystery from filmmaker Lili Horvát.
Saint Maud | Netflix, VOD
Speaking of possible delusion, here’s an exploration of the same that’s also one of the year’s best horror movies. Filmmaker Rose Glass tells the story of a young, God-fearing caregiver looking for a direction in her life, a direction from above, someone who’s also struggling with a mental health crisis. Seeing the world through her eyes it’s never entirely clear what’s happening, and the film balances on that edge between religious epiphany and breakdown until, and through, the film’s final moments.