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Actress Marion Cotillard on stage in the movie Annette

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The best movies of 2021

Here’s what moved and thrilled us on the screen this year

Photo: Amazon Studios via Polygon

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2021 was another odd year for cinema. The line between a theatrical release and a streaming release has never been more porous, or more irrelevant to a movie’s quality. It used to be common for people to miss out on terrific releases just because they hit theaters at the same time as some massive blockbuster. Now, people are more likely to miss the year’s best movies because they slip onto streaming services on a busy week, or with little fanfare.

But we’ve done our best to keep up on the smaller films that don’t get as much buzz, along with the bigger offerings that get most of a given year’s attention. Here are the films that most impressed us with their ambition and innovation this year, the films that moved and excited us, and made us feel like we’d seen something new, different, and spectacular.

[Ed. note: Best documentaries of 2021 will be a separate list, coming soon.]

Annette

Adam Driver, in dim blue light with fog and tree shapes behind him, in Annette Photo: Amazon Studios

Adam Driver seems to be in every other movie that hits the screen these days, doing that weird, intense thing he loves to do. But he hit his most startling mark of the year in Annette, Leos Carax’s first film since 2012’s stunning Holy Motors. Typical for Carax, Annette is an incredible oddball project — in a year of many, many musicals, this musical stood out for its surrealism and vivid visual and emotional attacks on the senses. Driver plays a superstar comedian married to a superstar opera singer (Marion Cotillard), whose success pushes him to jealousy and resentment. When he’s left alone to raise their young daughter (played, in a chillingly symbolic decision, by a puppet), he turns her into a star too, and devotes himself to running her career.

The music, by Ron and Russell Mael of the band Sparks (subject of Edgar Wright’s first documentary, earlier this year) is circular and repetitive in a way that makes it viciously catchy, but that also drives home the themes, as the characters wallow in their emotions, getting caught up in destructive cycles they can’t break themselves. The ending sequence is one of the most startling and emotional scenes 2021 brought to the screen. —Tasha Robinson

Annette is streaming on Prime Video.


Barb and Star Go to Vista Del Mar

Barb and Star, at Vista Del Mar (specifically, in the pool, holding fancy laminated drinks and dessert menus) Photo: Lionsgate

Kristen Wiig and Annie Mumolo are using their powers for good. Instead of delivering sequels, spinoffs, or generic repeats in the 10 years since their 2011 mega-hit Bridesmaids, the writing-performing duo reunited for an original oddity about two middle-aged women who are fired from a Jennifer Convertibles in Soft Rock, Nebraska and take solace in the jubilation of a Florida beach resort. Like a pair of culotte-wearing Derek Zoolanders, Wiig and Mumolo’s Barb and Star are joyously ignorant to reality as they carry on in their sketch-character ways.

But after meeting beach hunk Edgar (Jamie Dornan), they’re also the only ones who can save Vista Del Mar from genetically enhanced mosquitos (unleashed by Wiig’s second character, a Dr. Evil version of Anna Wintour). Like MacGruber or Popstar, Barb & Star Go to Vista Del Mar’s colorful stupidity is an acquired taste, but like that of a fine wine. There’s a sense that the two Midwestern dames have existed in Wiig and Mumolo’s minds for years, and now they arrive fully formed, ready to cackle about Red Lobster, Don Cheadle, and shades of pastels. The pandemic meant Barb & Star Go to Vista Del Mar was unmercifully dumped on streaming platforms in 2021, but for a movie so personal and giggle-worthy, that destined-for-cult-status dumping may have been fit for it. —Matt Patches

Barb & Star Go to Vista Del Mar is streaming on Hulu.


Bo Burnham: Inside

Bo Burnham curls up with a blanket on the floor, surrounded by a mess of production equipment in Bo Burnham’s Inside Photo: Netflix

An open wound with a sense of humor and an arsenal of synthesizers, Bo Burnham: Inside is an odyssey of millennial angst springing forth from the Netflix algorithm. A darkly funny, vulnerable, and specific response to the first overwhelming year of the COVID-19 pandemic, Bo Burnham’s surprise one-man show blends deadpan monologues and an eclectic set of songs that use comedy to work through tragedy in real time.

It’s pandemic art that never explicitly mentions the pandemic, because Burnham doesn’t have to — instead, he contemplates the accelerated attention economy of the Internet and his relationship with it, the impulse of whiteness and celebrity to center itself in moments of tragedy, and his deep, overwhelming depression, stemming from being a part of a generation that could have helped save a dying world, but may have only just made it worse. Inside considers horrors without and within, using a time of isolation to contemplate the ways we’ve already been isolated, in a lockdown of our own design. —Joshua Rivera

Bo Burnham: Inside is streaming on Netflix.


CODA

Ruby makes the I love you sign in ASL in Coda Photo: Apple TV Plus

Cheap Hallmark movies have made us forget that “heartwarming” can be a flavor of great cinema. CODA, the latest feature from writer-director Siân Heder (Tallulah), earns the description, following Ruby (Emilia Jones) as she navigates her senior year in high school as the sole hearing member of her predominantly Deaf family. Set along the sea in Gloucester, Massachusetts, Heder constructs a coming-of-age story around a sliding-doors moment that everyone can see coming: If Ruby leaves for college, how will her parents’ fishing business survive? Who will do the talking? How will she afford school? How can she live out her dreams if she’s an essential crutch?

A stint on Orange Is the New Black made Heder a natural for matching stark reality with bursts of laughter, and she surrounds Jones with a cast — including Marlee Matlin, Troy Kotsur, and Daniel Durant — that brings lived-in dimension to an earnest family dynamic. CODA ebbs from broad oh-God-what-are-my-parents-doing-in-the-other-room sex comedy to shouting matches that cut deep, vérité scenes of fishing work on the rough seas to gorgeous musical numbers of Ruby performing with her school choir. And binding it all together is the language of ASL, rarely seen on screen, and performed with the ferocity of people who use it every day. It is a purely physical way to communicate, and in CODA’s longer stretches of dialogue, it becomes profoundly cinematic. —MP

CODA is streaming on Apple TV Plus.


Drive My Car

Hidetoshi Nishijima sits at his desk in a dark room in Drive My Car Photo: Janus Films

Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s Drive My Car runs 179 minutes long, but it earns every single minute. The opening preamble, nearly an hour before the opening credits plays, covers an outwardly happy marriage between stage actor Yūsuke Kafuku (Hidetoshi Nishijima) and his television producer wife Oto (Reika Kirishima). The pair enjoy a lively sex life, as Oto makes intercourse into writers-room sessions by crafting stories aloud for Kafuku’s arousal. But soon, the actor learns a devastating secret about his wife. Before he can confront her, tragedy strikes.

The rest of Drive My Car takes place during an acting workshop in Hiroshima, moderated by Kafuku. There, he becomes obsessed with a troubled actor (Masaki Okada) who knew his wife intimately. The linkage becomes a way to reconnect and interrogate the flawed woman he misses so much. Even so, the title’s inspiration, and the film’s real emotional pulse, lies in Kafuku’s red Saab, and the young woman who becomes his driver while he’s at the workshop. The platonic pair have experienced deep loss, and are processing even deeper regret. From there, Drive My Car unspools deliberately. Each revelation arrives in the space of a pregnant pause, barely noticeable, but its meaning grows in importance by the minute. In these revelations, Kafuku discovers a patch of peace beyond grief. —Robert Daniels

Drive My Car is in limited theatrical release, opening wider on Dec. 10 and extending around the country through 2022.


Encanto

the magical madrigal house with mirabel standing in front of it Image: Walt Disney Animation

It’s always a strange year when Walt Disney Animation Studios outdoes Pixar on color, emotion, and innovation, but that happened in 2021. Pixar’s film Luca is a low-key and generally low-stakes charmer about friendship and family, but Disney’s Encanto explores similar themes about belonging and connection, and ramps them up to a feverish pitch. The story, about a magical home, the magical family it houses, and the one family member who doesn’t have a special gift, draws heavily on Colombian art and design for its richly textured characters and setting. But Lin-Manuel Miranda’s dizzyingly dense songs are the centerpiece of the film — they’re authentic earworms that function as important parts of the story instead of tacked-on interludes.

And the movie’s big emotions are compelling and powerful. Mirabel (Stephanie Beatriz) accepts her place as the family’s powerless black sheep with grace and humility for a long time, but eventually, the unfairness of the world catches up with her, and the seething hurt she’s been holding back for so long is palpable. Encanto is visually sumptuous, but it also cuts to the same kind of dark inner demons that the best Pixar movies reach, and offers some catharsis for anyone who’s ever felt at odds with their family, or the world in general. —TR

Encanto is currently in theaters, and arrives on Disney Plus on Dec. 24.


Evangelion 3.0+1.0 Thrice Upon a Time

A figure floating upside-down in orange fluid in Evangelion 3.0 Image: Amazon Studios

For 26 years, Neon Genesis Evangelion has held viewers suspended at the end of all things. Hideaki Anno’s 1995 anime opus (and its 1997 follow-up film/alternate ending End of Evangelion) is a staggering work of psychological drama by way of post-apocalyptic giant-robot fiction. It’s also a claustrophobic work, centering on the debilitating self-loathing of protagonist Shinji Ikari, a boy wrestling with depression so deep, it literally threatens to end the world (and pretty much has — multiple times).

As the fourth and final installment of a cinematic retelling of Evangelion that began in 2007, Thrice Upon a Time imagines a new legacy for the franchise. The film posits a world that acknowledges depression and the devastation it leaves in its wake, via a beautifully rendered wasteland. But vitally, it also shows a community coming together to rebuild their world and each other with compassion. Thrice Upon a Time isn’t a saccharine work that replaces a downer ending with a happy one — instead, it acknowledges that while we may never get back what we lose in times of darkness, we can still work toward something better. —JR

Evangelion 3.0 is available to stream on Prime Video.


The French Dispatch

Timothée Chalamet and Lyna Khoudri lean on opposite sides of an outdoor jukebox (that’s a thing?), facing away from each other in Wes Anderson’s The French Dispatch. Photo: Searchlight Pictures

Wes Anderson’s latest film has also been derided as his weakest one, and there’s some truth to that — its separate micro-stories about the stories told at a New Yorker-style French magazine certainly lack the cohesion of Anderson standouts like The Grand Budapest Hotel or Moonrise Kingdom. But judging it on its overall arc is selling it short when the individual segments are so meticulously realized and creatively staged. As usual, Anderson pulls together a staggering cast of familiar faces and voices, all centered on Bill Murray as the editor of the magazine in question. The individual vignettes are strange little short stories about art and family, crime and creativity, all delivered with an impeccably straight face and a delight in elaborate production design and staging. As usual, Anderson’s moviemaking is hypnotic, both because the screen is so fantastically busy and because the script is so dense, and both blur by with blink-and-you’ll-miss-something speed. The French Dispatch rewards rewatches and full attention paid to every moment, a rare thing in the age of “eh, good enough” streaming movies designed more to pass the time than enchant the senses. —TR

The French Dispatch will be available for digital rental or purchase on Dec. 14.


The Green Knight

Ralph Ineson as the severed head of the Green Knight in David Lowery’s The Green Knight Photo: A24

At times, David Lowery’s take on Arthurian myth seems as much like a puzzle to be decoded as it is a story to watch. The colors onscreen are vitally important to unlocking the film’s meaning. So is the symbolism of everything from trees to moss to skulls to the characters’ ages and ethnicities. And so is the tension between reality and the dream sequences, hallucinations, and magically induced visions that haunt protagonist Gawain (Dev Patel) as he sets out on a legendary quest he didn’t ask for and doesn’t want. The Green Knight is one of the year’s most visually striking films, but also one of the films most likely to send people to the internet afterward, looking for explainers and discussion groups to help them unravel all the nuances of what they just saw.

And at the same time, Patel’s baffled, aching performance and Lowery’s swoony immersion makes The Green Knight more accessible and more immersive than that description makes it sound. As a feckless young man in the court of an aging and feeble King Arthur and Queen Guinevere, Gawain steps up to prove himself against a supernatural incursion when he thinks it looks safe to do so, and he immediately regrets it. The original version of the story is about nobility and honor, but this version is more about identity, as a young man slowly figures out who he is, and who he wants to be, within a disintegrating world. —TR

The Green Knight returns to theaters on Dec. 10, and is available for rental on Amazon, Vudu, and other digital platforms.


Identifying Features

Mercedes Hernández stands by water, silhouetted by the sun, in Identifying Features Photo: Kino Lorber

The devil roams through Fernanda Valadez’s staggering debut film, an unflinching look at Mexico’s continued drug-related violence, as seen through a mother’s plight. Magdalena (Mercedes Hernández) embarks on the search for her teenage son, a migrant who never reached his destination. She has no hope of finding him alive — she just wants to end her debilitating uncertainty. If her boy is dead, she must know without doubt. Hernández’s performance comes with minimal dialogue, because she communicates her unthinkable anguish through expressive gestures.

As Magdalena gets closer to the harrowing truth, she crosses paths with a young man freshly deported from the States, on his way to a home that might no longer exist. Together, they etch a picture of a country living in fear, where the most vulnerable, as usual, are the most affected. Valadez and co-writer Astrid Rondero materialize images so vivid in their heartbreaking intensity, it’s hard to shake them off after they’ve vanished from the screen. In the film’s shattering resolution, understanding the magnitude of the devastation becomes paralyzingly overwhelming. Calling this work unmissable feels like an understatement. —Carlos Aguilar

Identifying Features is available for rental on Amazon, Vudu, and other digital platforms.


In the Heights

Anthony Ramos as Usnavi de la Vega in In The Heights Photo: Warner Bros.

The infectious jubilance of In the Heights is impossible to shake. It buffets the audience from all sides: the barely contained hopes of dreamers who want to escape to a new neighborhood or an old island, or to gain citizenship in the country where they live; the noise and romance of a block that’s rapidly changing, but will hopefully stay the same in ways that matter; and the power of a joyous musical that makes it a challenge to stay in your seat, because it’s saying at every moment that you belong on your feet.

John M. Chu’s gorgeously shot adaptation of the stage musical by Quiara Alegria Hudes and Lin-Manuel Miranda is a thrilling reminder that a pitch-perfect combination of song, dance, and romance is as thrilling as any blockbuster action film. Stars Leslie Grace, Anthony Ramos, and Corey Hawkins seize the spotlight in a class of young performers we’ll hopefully see plenty more of for years to come, making the dream feel real, even as it threatens to vanish under their feet. —JR

In the Heights is streaming on HBO Max.


Judas and the Black Messiah

Lakeith Stanfield, Daniel Kaluuya, and a group of Black Panthers in a car at night in Judas and the Black Messiah Photo: Glen Wilson / Warner Bros.

Shaka King’s intense historical movie about the activism and government execution of Black Panther chapter leader Fred Hampton is in an odd position due to pandemic-related rules shifts for the 93rd Academy Awards. Released in February 2021, it qualified for the Oscars, and won Best Supporting Actor for Daniel Kaluuya. But it wasn’t out in time to be eligible for last year’s best-of-year awards, so it’s resurfacing now, after already being recognized by the Academy. Another oddity: It was presented to the Oscars as a film with no lead actor, when it really has two of them: Kaluuya as Hampton, and LaKeith Stanfield as FBI informant Bill O’Neal, who infiltrated the Black Panthers to spy on Hampton’s movements.

Awards irregularities aside, the movie is well worth revisiting. Kaluuya and Stanfield are both riveting, the former as a young firebrand who knows full well that his days are numbered and that he has to make the most of them in the cause of Black rights and Black pride, the latter as a reluctant patsy at odds with his own beliefs and loyalties as he tries to preserve his own skin. This is a searingly accusatory movie, vivid in its portrayal of an America that claims freedom of speech but doesn’t hesitate to trample on the rights and lives of people who successfully question the status quo. But it’s also intensely personal in its portrayal of two men grappling with vicious inner demons, fundamentally related to their identities, how the world sees them, and how they see the world. It’s history made breathless and gripping, one small betrayal at a time. —TR

Judas and the Black Messiah is streaming on HBO Max.


Nine Days

Black Panther’s Winston Duke stands in the barren blue desert, clutching his glasses, in Nine Days Photo: Sony Pictures Classics

One of 2021’s most audacious oddities, Edson Oda’s debut feature takes place in a space before life, where a bureaucrat named Will (Black Panther co-star Winston Duke) interviews and evaluates potential souls, deciding who deserves to be born. Living in a timeless, desolate place, alone except for the parade of possible souls and his co-worker Kyo (Doctor Strange’s Benedict Wong), Will tries to find poetry in his work, but he’s obsessed with the tragedy around one of his former graduates. As he gives into grief, his latest crop of potential people who might replace her on Earth (including Zazie Beetz, Tony Hale, and Bill Skarsgård) challenge him and question his parameters about how the world should operate, and what it should value.

Oda’s movie addresses the big questions — where we come from and whether it means anything — from a completely unexpected angle, but Duke’s measured, nuanced performance keeps it all grounded. He’s tremendous in the role, and Beetz is a strong foil as the two fence and jab at each other. The movie around them is surprisingly concrete and detail-oriented, given the fantasy premise, which lands somewhere between a Krzysztof Kieslowski drama and Hirokazu Kore-eda’s equally cosmic drama After Life. It’s a movie that requires an open mind and a receptive mood, but for the right viewers at the right time, the passion it raises for the things that make life worthwhile is unmatchable. —TR

Nine Days is available for rental on Amazon, Vudu, and other digital platforms.


No Sudden Move

Benecio del Toro and Don Cheadle in dark suits and terrible white felt masks in No Sudden Move Photo: Claudette Barius/Warner Bros.

What starts as a crime caper by one of the modern masters of the form eventually becomes a surprisingly timely work of social commentary. In Steven Soderbergh’s No Sudden Move, a holdup gone wrong is a rabbit hole for petty thieves to fall down, and on their way, they confront power brokers who rip people off in more respectable ways. It’s a world where, if you go high enough up the ladder, everything is a setup. A restrained period piece set in 1950s Detroit, No Sudden Move is a story about how no one broke the world, but someone did build it this way. —JR

No Sudden Move is streaming on HBO Max.


Parallel Mothers

Penelope Cruz in closeup with a camera in Parallel Mothers Photo: Sony Pictures Classics

In 2019, the Spanish king of melodrama, Pedro Almodóvar, stunned critics and audiences with the melancholic semi-autobiographical piece Pain and Glory. Now, this follow-up on motherhood at the intersection of personal dilemma and historical memory prolongs a streak of greatness. After giving birth to her first daughter and choosing not to involve the child’s father, photographer Janis (Penélope Cruz) establishes a relationship with Ana (Milena Smit), a younger woman who’s also just become a parent.

Soon, however, a major discovery sets off an entanglement with major emotional stakes that tests the limits of their mutual affection. While always a standout in every project she graces, Cruz, Almodóvar preferred muse, has rarely been as magnetic as she appears in this engrossing conundrum. Her vigorous passion as a woman on a double journey contrasts with moments of reluctant vulnerability. For the first time in his career, Almodóvar taps into the generational consequences of the Spanish Civil War, a ghost that remains pertinent to his country’s identity, with head-on determination in a film that still accommodates all his vibrant aesthetic trademarks. —CA

Parallel Mothers opens in theaters on Dec. 24.


Petite Maman

Two young girls with their arms around each other contemplate their stick fort in the forest in Petite Maman Photo: NEON

With this friendship fable, master director Céline Sciamma delivers counterprogramming to her previous movie, the grand-on-all-counts Portrait of a Lady on Fire. Nelly (Joséphine Sanz), who is staying for a few days at her grandmother’s home in a tranquil town, and Marion (Gabrielle Sanz), a local girl dedicated to building a fort made of wood sticks, bond quickly over playful, yet thoughtful exchanges. The superb turns by the endearing twin sisters in the lead roles testify to Sciamma’s aptitude for collaborating with actors—fresh-faced or seasoned. Much has been said already about the movie’s concise duration, precisely because the reduced framework doesn’t diminish the return in thematic depth. On the contrary, the artistry in the sublime writing and the economical execution both astound with their deceiving simplicity. Although it occurs mostly in a single home and the adjacent forest, one experiences it as if it were set in a magical realm where time and space operate by its own rules. Amid such unassuming whimsy, the essential observation here is on what we ignore about the people we love most. —CA

Petite Maman is in limited theatrical release now and will stream on Mubi in February 2022.


Pig

Nicolas Cage, lookin’ scruffy, and a pig, lookin’ fine, in Pig Photo: NEON

Nicolas Cage has such a reputation for outsized lunatic behavior onscreen that every now and then, we need a film like Pig as a reminder that he can be just as powerful a presence when he’s in his calmest, quietest mode. Director Michael Sarnoski starts with a setup that sounds like a very slight twist on John Wick: A man with a legendary reputation is living in quiet hermitude, until he loses his beloved pet to careless criminals, and he memorably leaves retirement in pursuit. In this case, though, the pet is a prized truffle-hunting pig rather than a puppy, and the hermit just wants the pig back.

The threat of violence hangs over nearly every moment of this movie, because of Cage’s own legendary reputation, because of those John Wick echoes, and because cinemagoers are so trained to expect a man who’s hurt by the world to eventually lash out with outsized cathartic violence. But Sarnoski and co-writer Vanessa Block have a different agenda here, and it peaks with one of the year’s most memorable scenes, as Cage’s character eviscerates a chef without ever breaking the skin. This movie winds up being a deeply felt drama about what people want out of life and how far off the track they end up when they forget about those desires, or start focusing more on their place in imaginary hierarchies than about what’s really fulfilling. The cinematography is striking and the performances are perfect, but it’s the overriding tension that really makes this movie, because it’s never clear where a scene is leading until it’s over. —TR

Pig is streaming on Hulu.


The Power of the Dog

Benedict Cumberbatch and Jesse Plemons on horses in The Power of the Dog Photo: TIFF

Jane Campion is the queen of sensual cinema. The Power of the Dog, a steamy, psychologically acute Western set in 1925 Montana, is the newest jewel in her crown. Ranching brothers Phil (Benedict Cumberbatch) and George Burbank (Jesse Plemons) aren’t particularly close anymore. Sure, they sleep in the same bed, but there’s a gap between them. It’s been years since their mentor Bronco Henry passed away, and Phil in particular hasn’t filled the void. George keeps the peace until he meets and marries Rose Gordon (Kirsten Dunst), leaving Phil to feel isolated. But Phil doesn’t aim his ire at George. Instead, he focuses on Rose and her effeminate son Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee). Phil terrorizes Rose into alcoholism, but things change when Peter learns a secret about Phil.

The events of The Power of the Dog are nestled in the shadow of mountains where a doubleness lurks. Cumberbatch’s slight but purposefully miscasting helps translate the way Phil’s conflicting outward machismo grapples with his internal cravings. Campion fashions the common images of everyday cattling — shirtless cowboys, rope twining, and so forth — to generate rapturous spaces of queer desire. She leverages Phil’s suppressed sexuality until a dangerous, erotic atmosphere arises, allowing The Power of the Dog to stand as Campion’s sensual masterstroke. —RD

The Power of the Dog is streaming on Netflix.


Preparations to be Together for an Unknown Period of Time

Natasa Stork, in scrubs at a hospital, extends a hand to a similarly dressed man in Preparations to be Together for an Unknown Period of Time Photo: Kino Lorber

Love can be wonderful or painful, and at its worst — feeling alone while in the grip of a particularly deep passion — love can feel like a horror story. Vizy Márta (Natasa Stork), the obsessed protagonist in Lili Horvát’s loquaciously titled Hungarian-language film Preparations to be Together for an Unknown Period of Time, is suffering from that kind of chilling, ardent longing.

Not long ago, Marta, an accomplished neurosurgeon with a thriving career in America, met and fell for another surgeon at a conference in Budapest. After their first furtive rendezvous, they agree to meet again on a bridge, on an appointed date, at an appointed time. But when that day arrives, Marta is on the bridge, alone, and her lover is nowhere to be found. When she finds him, he claims they’ve never met before.

In Horvát’s psychodrama, ambiguity finds a home: Is Márta imagining it all, or is her lover gaslighting her? Forlorn emotions swim in Stork’s fixed, determined eyes as she accepts a position at the man’s hospital and tracks his every move. She isn’t satisfied with any ensuing connection, just left with more questions and even greater anguish. Within Márta’s acute despair, Preparations upends the glib saying “It’s better to have loved and lost than to never have loved at all” by showing the ways too much love can point toward personal destruction. —RD

Preparations to be Together is streaming on Kanopy and The Criterion Channel, and can be rented on Amazon and other digital platforms.


Shiva Baby

Rachel Sennott as Danielle holding a bagel with lox in Shiva Baby Credit; Maria Rusche

Shiva Baby, the feature debut of writer-director Emma Seligman, is among the most gut-bustingly hilarious experiences you’ll have with a film this year — and at the same time, it’s immensely stressful, with the sensation of working against a ticking clock to defuse a bomb. Set almost entirely among people gathering for a shiva, the film follows Rachel Sennot as Danielle, a young Jewish woman attending the traditional post-funeral gathering with her family. Supporting herself with sex work and hiding that from parents who are relentlessly focused on networking her into a job, Danielle is already dealing with plenty of stress when her young, handsome sugar daddy unexpectedly shows up with the wife and baby she didn’t know he had.

The ensuing tightly wound 75 minutes are a masterful layer cake of shame, anxiety, and exasperation, as Danielle tries to navigate the evening with her dignity intact. Relatives, family, and friends fuss over her career path and present directionless state. Another of her prior entanglements, her ex-girlfriend Maya (an excellent Molly Gordon), also makes an appearance. Claustrophobic and anchored by Sennot’s tremendous lead performance, Shiva Baby is immediately one of the cringe-comedy greats, a story about the futures we imagine while trapped in the present, and a young woman struggling to exert agency in her own life while being met with nothing but shame. —JR

Shiva Baby is streaming on HBO Max.


Spencer

Princess Diana (Kristen Stewart) sits on the floor between two beds with her children William and Harry in Spencer Photo: Neon

Pablo Larraín’s biopic about Princess Diana is just as idiosyncratic as his work on the similarly unusual Jackie. Spencer takes place during a 1991 Christmas weekend, as Lady Di visits the Queen’s Sandringham Estate in Norfolk. Kristen Stewart plays the royal not in the public-facing manner familiar to fans, but as a woman struggling with an eating disorder, a mother fighting to care for her sons William and Harry, and as an aggrieved spouse. She’s also a daughter haunted by the allure of simpler times, when she lived just across the country grounds at her now boarded-up estate with her genial father.

In Spencer, seemingly simple tasks, like eating a meal or wearing an assigned stylish outfit (there are so many classic fashions to devour here), take on grave and graver importance, pushing Diana to feel controlled, as though she must perform to survive. Larraín hints that she might disintegrate into a million tiny pieces if no one offers her help. Stewart encapsulates the varying gradations of Diana: the public, the private, and the internal horrors that debilitate her. Set to Johnny Greenwood’s terraforming, regal score, which shifts between classical tonality and modern melancholy, Stewart delivers the best performance of her career. —RD

Spencer is currently in theaters and available for premium rental on Amazon, Vudu, and other digital platforms.


The Worst Person in the World

A mightily refreshing romantic tragicomedy, this saga of intimacy and disenchantment concludes Joachim Trier’s trilogy of thematically akin stories set in the Norwegian capital of Oslo (following Reprise and Oslo, August 31st). His latest film about relatively young adults struggling to figure life out ponders the millennial anxieties of Julie (Renate Reinsve). Still childless at 30, and with little intention to settle down into a traditional lifestyle, she navigates layered romances where no one behaves villainously, which makes separation even more hurtful.

Trier peppers in magical-realist touches that further enliven an already irresistible screenplay buoyed by nuanced, three-dimensional characters. Reinsve’s breakthrough performance gives the film its most striking element. She brings across her character’s conflicted state in captivating ways, with an alluring effervescence and genuine personality. The always-memorable actor Anders Danielsen Lie, a regular collaborator of Trier’s, complements her work in a heartrending, but still intellectually challenging role as one of her partners. —CA

The Worst Person in the World will arrive in theaters on Feb. 4.


This is Not a Burial, It’s a Resurrection

A Black woman in a black dress and hood cradles the head of a Black man also dressed in black in a dark room in This is Not a Burial, It’s a Resurrection Photo: Dekanalog

In Lemohang Jeremiah Mosese’s visually sumptuous, politically defiant Lesotho film This is Not a Burial, It’s a Resurrection, elderly widow Mantoa (Mary Twala Mlongo) knows tragedy. She’s already lost her daughter and granddaughter, and her last remaining loved one is her son, a miner. When Mantoa learns of her son’s death, the news breaks her. She wishes for death as well. But once the local government announces the forced relocation of her village to make way for a dam, which would require exhuming the dead, Mantoa discovers a newfound vigor. Through Mantoa’s plight, Mosese urgently weaves a spellbinding parable of grief and resilience, spoken in the language of Sesotho.

The cliché of great cinematography is the claim that you can pause a given movie at any point and discover a captivating image. Pierre de Villiers’ lush photography makes the truism genuine. He captures Lesotho with a reverent, lyrical gaze, with vibrant blues and compositions using a deep depth of field. Villagers occupying varying hills, intimating the deep connections between the people and their surroundings, are the tools of his trade. Amid the fight for progress, as the government tries to sell the locals on the dream of the ways the dam can help them, Mosese raises the question: What is progress, and for whose benefit? —RD

This is Not a Burial is streaming on The Criterion Channel, and is available for rental on Amazon, Vudu, and other digital platforms.


Tick, Tick… Boom!

Andrew Garfield flops down by his keyboard in Netflix’s Jonathan Larson musical Tick, Tick… Boom! Photo: Macall Polay/Netflix

Before writing the mega-hit musical Rent, Jonathan Larson spent years developing a sci-fi stage musical called Superbia, which never fully got off the ground. Lin-Manuel Miranda’s film-directing debut, Tick, Tick… Boom!, adapts the project Larson workshopped next, an evolving stage show full of songs and stories about his attempts to get Superbia finished while his relationships disintegrated, his side job at a diner started to look like his permanent job, and his angst about hitting 30 escalated. In Miranda’s hands, the show Larson performed in various forms over the course of years feels finished and polished, and like a perfect companion piece to Rent — another story about people trying to create while feeling the pressure of their own mortality, and taking out their anxiety on each other in unproductive ways.

That all sounds dire and grim, and Tick, Tick… Boom! does certainly have its somber side. Andrew Garfield plays Larson as a young man on the verge of collapse, losing his self-respect and the respect of the people who love him as he tries to balance his fantasies of being an important artist with the realities of the business. But the songs are often upbeat, mordantly funny, and self-aware, and there’s a sense of passion, longing, and love for creation in the project that’s immensely winning and sweet. Miranda gives the project enough visual flair to put a distinctive and memorable stamp on it, but not so much that it feels gaudy — except maybe in the number “Sunday,” a dreamy sequence that brings in a host of Broadway legends for a deliriously joyous flight of fantasy. The underdog-makes-good story is heartwarming, but the direction, performances, and especially the songs makes this bigger, brighter, and more deeply felt than such stories usually are.

Tick, Tick… Boom! is streaming on Netflix.


Titane

A young woman straddles atop a neon-painted car hood in Titane Photo: Neon

There aren’t many films that begin as psychosexual slashers and end as family dramas suffused with body horror, but Titane suggests that perhaps there should be more. Writer-director Julia Ducournau continues the boundary-pushing, genre-defying work of 2016’s Raw with a challenging story about love and transformation, as a young woman with a titanium plate in her head and an erotic fixation on metallic objects murderously struggles with her identity until she steals one that fits, to her surprise: Posing as a grieving man’s missing son.

Like its vagrant protagonist, Titane restlessly hops from one genre to another, disposing of anything that’s no longer useful in the interest of showing viewers something new. Every scene takes the story to a different strange place, challenging the audience to reconsider how it changes what they saw moments before. —JR

Available to rent on Vudu and Apple.


Zola

zola and another girl stand face to face Photo: Anna Kooris/Sundance Institute

As a wise person has probably never said, but should: When life is stranger than fiction, adapt life into a prismatic comedic thriller. When news broke that director Janicza Bravo (Lemon) and playwright Jeremy O. Harris (Slave Play) would team up to adapt a 2015 viral Twitter thread by stripper Aziah “Zola” Wells, the internet let out a collective eye-roll: “That is going to be a movie?” Yes it is — and a vivacious, voicey, cut-the-core-of-our-collective-online-experience movie at that.

Zola, played by Taylour Paige, embarks through the pastel-streaked haze of west Florida like a Cormac McCarthy lead, encountering salt-of-the-earth souls and tragedy. The film is conducted in the mode of Twitter, with tweets from the real Zola’s thread often quoted verbatim, which makes it easy to underestimate as an exercise. But Bravo gives each scene the artistic touch — see: a montage of penises flopping out of unbuttoned pants, lit like Renaissance paintings — and considers Zola and her new pal Stefani (Riley Keough) through a lens of modern racism. Origins be damned, Zola is a complex and funny film from a confident new voice we need right now. —MP

Zola is streaming on Showtime, and available to rent on Amazon, Apple, and Vudu.

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