Let’s face it: This year, like 2020, was a rough year for Hollywood. Theaters that closed during the Covid-19 lockdowns reopened, yes, but all the delays caused by the pandemic made it a rocky year for new releases. That said, there were still quite a few highlights—and a lot of surprises. From sci-fi epics to quiet period pieces from cinema legends, here are all of WIRED’s picks for the best movies of 2021.
As one of the most influential sci-fi texts ever written, Frank Herbert’s 1965 novel Dune has inspired some of the most iconic science fiction movies ever made, including the big guy: Star Wars. But attempts to turn Dune itself into a movie have not always gone according to plan. (See: Jodorowsky’s Dune, a documentary about director Alejandro Jodorowsky’s futile attempt to adapt Herbert’s text.) While David Lynch’s 1984 version has developed a cult following, it was largely considered a disaster upon its release. But Denis Villeneuve is a different kind of filmmaker, as has been seen in Enemy, Arrival, and Blade Runner 2049. His novelistic approach to moviemaking has enabled him to succeed where others have failed, and turn overly complex stories into easily digestible, and accomplished, sci-fi gems. All of that can be said for his rendition of Dune, an epic film that manages to be as smart as it is stunning—with more to come.
Just as he did with 2016’s Oscar-nominated Jackie, director Pablo Larraín has crafted yet another intimate portrait of an iconic woman who everybody knows of, but few people seemed to understand, with Spencer. Kristen Stewart is transformative in the role, as she attempts to straddle the line between doing what is expected of her (as the wife of Prince Charles and a member of the Royal Family) and maintaining her sense of agency—while knowing full well that Charles is having an affair … and even bought her the same string of pearls he bought his mistress. Though the film takes liberties with the truth, the overall sentiment of Diana feeling trapped and out-powered by the institution she married into seems to ring true with what we know of her personal struggles. The film is set in 1991, a year before Diana and Charles would formally separate—and six years before her untimely death.
The Card Counter
Oscar Isaac shines (no surprise there) as William Tell, a military veteran with a troubled past he has done his best to forget by immersing himself in the world of gambling, traveling around the country to play in blackjack and poker tournaments. Along the way he meets and befriends a young man named Cirk (Tye Sheridan), who asks for William’s help in exacting revenge on a military colonel (Willem Dafoe). As Cirk tells William more about his circumstances, and his plans, William can’t help but think that his relationship with Cirk might be a chance for redemption. The film is written and directed by Paul Schrader, and it largely plays by the same sin-and-redemption script that many of Schrader’s protagonists have faced. Though The Card Counter feels like one of the few times where a Schrader character genuinely seems interested in redemption.
Drive My Car
First things first: Yes, Drive My Car is three hours long—but trust us on this one. The film, which is written and directed by Ryusuke Hamaguchi, tells the story of Yusuke Kafuku, a widowed theater director (Hidetoshi Nishijima) who, two years after the death of his wife, accepts a two-month residency to direct a play in Hiroshima. Each day, he is driven an hour to and from the theater, and he slowly begins to build a friendship with the young woman tasked as his driver (Toko Miura), in whom he confides about the issues he’s having with his cast and crew and the betrayals of his wife that still haunt him. Ultimately, Drive My Car is a road movie—just one that doesn’t mind taking the more scenic route. It’s not yet available online.
Rebecca Hall (Godzilla vs. Kong) makes her directorial debut with this adaptation of Harlem Renaissance writer Nella Larsen’s 1929 novel about two childhood friends, Reeny (Tessa Thompson) and Clare (Ruth Negga), who lose touch but happen upon each other again as adults. Reeny, who is married to a doctor (André Holland), lives with her family in a posh home in Harlem. Clare’s husband, on the other hand, is a businessman (Alexander Skarsgård)—and a racist, who, because of her light skin, doesn’t realize his wife is Black. The film is gorgeously imagined, beautifully acted, and makes a powerful statement on race that still resonates today.
The Green Knight
Dev Patel gives us a new kind of Arthurian legend via writer-director David Lowery (Miss Juneteenth). Patel stars as Sir Gawain, the intractable nephew of King Arthur, who is punching above his weight when he risks his life by volunteering to set off on a journey to face the Green Knight. It’s a perilous task, but the privileged Gawain is determined to establish himself as a fearless fighter. While it sticks (mainly) to the script of an Arthurian legend, Lowery isn’t afraid to employ a bit of levity and turn the “returning hero” trope on its head.
The Lost Daughter
Oscar nominee Maggie Gyllenhaal is yet another actor who made a stunning directorial debut in 2021 with The Lost Daughter, an adaptation of the Elena Ferrante novel, which Gyllenhaal also wrote. Much of the film’s brilliance lies in its constant feeling of unease as Leda (Olivia Colman), a literature professor vacationing in Greece, befriends Nina (Dakota Johnson), a young mother who admits that she sometimes feels overwhelmed with parenthood. Without giving too much of her past away, Leda tells Nina she understands. But even though the women are sitting beachside in Greece, it constantly feels like the walls are closing in and that something terrible could happen at any minute. The film is a testament to Gyllenhaal’s understanding of how to get into an audience’s head—and stay there.
Paul Thomas Anderson might just have the most eclectic filmography of any director working today. Since arriving on the scene a quarter-century ago with 1996’s Hard Eight, he’s gone on to make movies about the pros and cons of the porn business (Boogie Nights); the duality of life, as often seen between the promise of childhood and the reality of adulthood (Magnolia); a cruel prospector who values money above all else (There Will Be Blood); a cult leader (The Master); and a haute couture designer with great taste in socks who enjoys being pushed to the brink of death by his wife (Phantom Thread).
While there’s a wonderful unpredictability to his work and what subject will interest him next, you can usually bet on two things with any Anderson movie: (1) It will be over two hours long, and (2) it will end up on most people’s Best Films of the Year list. In many ways, Licorice Pizza is a return to Anderson’s roots, in that it’s a California sun-soaked ode to childhood and first loves while growing up in the 1970s in San Fernando Valley. (All of which Anderson can relate to.) Casting Cooper Hoffman, son of the late Philip Seymour Hoffman, was a touching stroke of genius.
The Power of the Dog
After a 12-year absence from behind the camera on a feature film, Jane Campion came back with a vengeance for The Power of the Dog. Benedict Cumberbatch will undoubtedly be a frontrunner for playing against type as the villainous Phil Burbank, a wealthy rancher who likes to get his hands dirty with his fellow cowboys, even when that means castrating a cow. He’s a menacing figure, to be sure, which is in stark contrast to his brother George (Jesse Plemons), who often seems to be apologizing for Phil in his brother’s wake. When George marries the working-class widow Rose (Kirsten Dunst) and brings her home to live with them, Phil seems to relish tormenting her at every turn. But when her son Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee) comes to spend the summer with them, Phil slowly seems to take the young man under his wing. It’s impossible to summarize the film in a way that is both succinct and complete, considering its deeply layered plot lines, but suffice it to say that for all of Phil’s menacing characteristics, there is another—hidden, but much more vulnerable—side to his story.
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