• James Rutherford

10 for '21: My Favorite Films from the Year of the Ox


Movie poster for 10 for '21: My Favorite Films from the Year of the Ox

1. Red Rocket

Movie Poster for the 2021 film Red Rocket

Red Rocket is the serio-comic tale of a down-on-his-luck adult film actor named Mikey Saber (Simon Rex) forced to leave California and trudge back to his hometown on the Gulf Coast of Texas. Homeless and penniless, Mikey coerces estranged wife Lexi (Bree Elrod) and mother-in-law Lil (Brenda Deiss) into taking him in while he searches for employment—ultimately offering to sell marijuana for local dealer Leondria (Judy Hill) as his only means of subsistence. Despite his dire predicament, however, Mikey maintains enormous confidence and swagger every step of the way, as he regales all comers with tales of his pornographic grandeur before ultimately settling his sights on lithesome young Donut Shop employee Strawberry (Suzanna Son) as the target of his affection. Written and directed by emerging auteur Sean Baker (Tangerine, The Florida Project), Red Rocket is a vibrant and often hilarious depiction of a naïvely narcissistic hustler bent on reclamation of his own perverted glory, while unable to resist every opportunity to charm, deceive and exploit. Rex is an absolute revelation is his magnetic performance as the egomaniacal Mikey, a borderline sociopath and one of the greatest anti-heroes of recent cinematic memory.


Watch the trailer: Red Rocket



2. The Worst Person In The World

Movie Poster for the 2021 film The Worst Person in the World

The Worst Person In The World (Verdens Verste Menneske) is a spirited romantic drama from Norway that stars Renate Reinsve as Julie, a gifted young woman beset by indecision over the rightful path to pursue in life. Initially studying medicine in Oslo before changing her major to psychology and again to photography, Julie struggles to balance her intellectual and emotional needs while falling into a significant relationship with Aksel (Anders Danielsen Lie), a famed comic book artist. The storyline is crafted as sequential chapters in Julie's life, numbered 1-12, as well as a prologue and epilogue that book-end her exploits and varying transgressions. Each of the fourteen segments is dedicated to a specific development in Julie's life, much of it related to her burgeoning love affair with Aksel, before advancing further along the course of her twenties and into her early thirties. Co-written and directed by Norwegian filmmaker Joachim Trier and serving as the 3rd entry in his "Oslo Trilogy" (following Reprise and Oslo, 31 August), it's an absorbing and emotionally palpable viewing experience that dispels all contrivance and delivers a deeply humanistic treatise on modern relationships and identity.


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3. Dune

Movie Poster for the 2021 film Dune

Dune (aka Dune: Part One) is a monumental science-fiction epic starring Timothée Chalamet as Paul Atreides, young heir to House Atreides of the Galactic Padishah Empire. Set in the year 10,191, the storyline follows as Paul's father Duke Leto Atreides (Oscar Isaac) is granted control of desert planet Arrakis, source of the highly-valued psychedelic spice "melange". With Paul and his concubine Lady Jessica (mother to Paul) at his side, Leto and his forces promptly face opposition from House Harkonnen, the vicious outgoing rulers intent on maintaining control of the valued spice. The Harkonnens' furtive assault forces the retreat of Paul and Jessica into the barren desert in search of the indigenous Fremen people, all the while threatened by colossal sandworms that threaten to engulf any who breach their domain. Based on Frank Herbert's 1965 science fiction novel and directed by French Canadian filmmaker Denis Villeneuve (Sicario, Blade Runner 2049), Dune is an extraordinary display of megabudget filmmaking at the height of artistry—a grand, exhilarating adventure story imbued with intellect, visual spectacle and dramatic sentiment—its partial storyline to be concluded in 2023 with Dune: Part Two.


Watch the trailer: Dune



4. Licorice Pizza

Movie Poster for the 2021 film Licorice Pizza

Licorice Pizza is a radiant coming-of-age comedy-drama starring Cooper Hoffman as fifteen-year-old Gary Valentine, a loquacious young denizen of the San Fernando Valley circa 1973. After a chance encounter with twenty-five-year-old photographer's assistant Alana Kane (Alana Haim), Gary is convinced he has found the love of his life and dedicates himself to Alana's persual—quickly developing a complex friendship with the acerbic older woman. A part-time actor and burgeoning entrepreneur, Gary subsequently hatches a business idea as purveyor of waterbeds—Alana on board as his sales and installation assistant. Their subsequent venture provides great humor amidst their misadventures, as the two grow close despite Alana's reluctance due to their marked age difference. Dalliances with a variety of older men leave Alana disillusioned with her personal life, while the steadfast Gary remains intent on winning her over, whatever adversity he must overcome. Written and directed by Paul Thomas Anderson (Boogie Nights, There Will Be Blood), Licorice Pizza is a wonderfully digressive, loosely amalgamated series of vignettes and interludes—Anderson returning to his own roots to create a vibrant mosaic out of the complexities of young love in an era of modern antiquity.


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5. Bergman Island

Movie Poster for the 2021 film Bergman Island

Bergman Island is an enchanting English-language drama starring Tim Roth and Vicky Krieps as Chris and Tony Sanders, an American couple visiting Fårö Island off the coast of Sweden. Once the sanctuary for Swedish filmmaker Ingmar Bergman, Fårö provides Chris and Tony the space to pursue their individual writing work as part of a residency program sponsored by the Bergman Estate. A filmmaker and screenwriter, Tony takes the opportunity to deliver a private screening of his latest film to local cinephiles while Chris explores the island and struggles with her own screenplay—unable to determine a satisfactory fate for her female protagonist. Upon request, Chris describes her partial screenplay to Tony—the film delving into Chris' story as a film-within-a-film starring Mia Wasikowska and Anders Danielsen Lie as estranged lovers reuniting at the wedding of mutual friends. Written and directed by French filmmaker Mia Hansen-Løve (Eden, Things to Come), Bergman Island is a charming depiction of inspiration and creativity, highlighted by the remarkably naturalistic performances of all four leads. Understated yet warmly absorbing, it's a touching depiction of artistry within a uniquely historical and inspired setting.


Watch the trailer: Bergman Island



6. Help

Movie Poster for the 2021 film Help

Help is a hard-hitting British television drama depicting the COVID-19 pandemic in the United Kingdom, through the eyes of a young health care assistant named Sarah (Jodie Comer). The storyline begins in late 2019 as Sarah begins her new position at Bright Sky Homes, an assisted-living facility in Liverpool, tending to its elderly and infirmed patients with remarkable compassion. Closest to her heart is middle-aged resident Tony (Stephen Graham), beset by early-onset Alzheimer's disease and yearning to return home to his unknowingly deceased mother. With the arrival of COVID-19 in March of 2020, Sarah is quickly pushed to the brink of her physical and mental capabilities, as an outbreak within the facility creates a dire staffing shortage while patients increasingly succumb to the novel virus. Compounding her plight is a severe shortage of personal protective equipment, as the National Health Service unceremoniously prioritizes hospitals over care homes in the allocation of the life-saving accessories. Directed by British filmmaker Marc Munden (Utopia, The Third Day) with stunning acumen, "Help" is an unforgettable viewing experience—a galvanizing true-to-life horror story and an incendiary condemnation of the policies of Britain's Conservative Party.


Watch the trailer: Help



7. Don’t Look Up

Movie Poster for the 2021 film Don't Look Up

Don’t Look Up is a shrewd satire of modern society that imagines the sudden appearance of an interplanetary comet hurtling toward Earth, threatening global extinction, yet barely able to gain people's awareness. First discovered by astronomy Ph.D. candidate Kate Dibiasky (Jennifer Lawrence) and her supervisor Dr. Randall Mindy (Leonardo DiCaprio), the deadly celestial body remains just 6 months from impact yet is little concern to U.S. President Janie Orlean (Meryl Streep) or her son, Chief of Staff Jason Orlean (Jonah Hill)—prompting Dibiasky and Mindy to launch themselves on a fervent media tour to warn the world of the coming apocalypse. Their efforts are repeatedly stymied by an American populace far too distracted by social media and celebrity news to heed their warnings, however. Ultimately billionaire tech CEO Peter Isherwell (Mark Rylance) launches his own initiative to mine the comet for invaluable rare elements, with human survival taking a back seat to corporate profiteering altogether. Co-written and directed by Adam McKay (Anchorman, The Big Short) Don’t Look Up is a deceptively intelligent allegory for climate change and needless catastrophe—a loose, comical fusion of urgency and farce well-crafted for discerning viewers.


Watch the trailer: Don't Look Up



8. The Power of the Dog

Movie Poster for the 2021 film The Power of the Dog

The Power of the Dog is an exquisitely-crafted Western drama starring Benedict Cumberbatch and Jesse Plemons as Phil and George Burbank, wealthy Montana ranch owners. Set in 1925, the film follows as kind-hearted George courts and marries local inn owner Rose Gordon (Kirsten Dunst), much to the chagrin of the gruff and volatile Phil. Seething with jealousy and convinced that Rose has married George for his money, Phil openly taunts Rose and her son Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee), a brainy and effeminate young man regularly mocked by ranch hands. In a surprising turn, Phil develops a soft spot for Peter and takes him under his wing on the ranch, indoctrinating him into the ways of the saddle despite nebulous intentions and underlying sexual ambiguities. Structured with remarkable acuity, the film challenges the viewer to follow the clues to the intertwining fates of Phil and Peter—Peter's medical studies playing a major role in the young virtuoso's ultimate deeds. Adapted from the 1967 novel by Thomas Savage and directed by New Zealand filmmaker Jane Campion (The Piano, Top of the Lake), it's a unique cinematic escapade that deftly wields tension as a means to explore toxic masculinity and sexuality, fundamentally dismantling the western genre in the process.


Watch the trailer: The Power of the Dog



9. Mass

Movie Poster for the 2021 film Mass

Mass is a searing human drama about a pair of married couples who meet for an in-person sit-down to discuss a deadly mass shooting that has irrevocably altered their lives. Jay and Gail (Jason Isaacs and Martha Plimpton) are the parents of a teenage boy killed by the son of Richard and Linda (Reed Birney and Ann Dowd) six years earlier—one of ten teenagers killed in a school shooting that ultimately cost Richard and Linda their son as well. Sitting together in the basement of an Episcopalian church, the quartet initially struggles with pleasantries and words of condolence, before the darkest of their emotions spill over—the pain still reverberating on both sides of the table. Jay and Gail plead for clues to the killer's mindset and motivations while Richard and Linda initially deflect much of the blame, grandstanding about their extensive attempts to locate proper care for their socially withdrawn boy. Their arguments evolve with their fluctuating emotions as the story progresses, with all four leads shining in their aggrieved and dynamic roles. Written and directed by actor-turned-filmmaker Franz Kranz, Mass is a devastating yet powerful and ultimately rewarding depiction of grief, beset by the sheer power of human empathy.


Watch the trailer: Mass



10. Titane

Movie Poster for the 2021 film Titane

Titane is a wildly transgressive French drama-thriller starring Agathe Rousselle as Alexia, a showgirl living with a titanium plate in her skull—the result of a devastating car accident as a child. With a strange and overpowering attraction to automobiles as an adult, Alexia is impregnated by a Vintage Cadillac in a moment of supreme surrealism-and furthermore revealed to be a brutal serial killer on the run from the police. Shaving her head and masquerading her body, Alexia absorbs the identity of a missing boy named Adrien Legrand and relinquishes herself to the police as the long lost Adrien. She's quickly retrieved by Adrien's fire captain father Vincent (Vincent Lindon) and openly embraced as the missing boy—Vincent never questioning her bizarre appearance. Instead he immerses her into his firehouse lifestyle, making her an apprentice fireman amongst his men and desperately clinging to the illusion of his son's miraculous survival. Written and directed by French filmmaker Julia Ducournau (Raw), Titane is an outrageous premise made simply extraordinary via Ducournau's prowess as a storyteller and the absolutely otherworldly performances of both Rousselle and Lindon. Not for all tastes, it's a jaw-dropping and astonishing viewing experience.


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HONORABLE MENTION


C'mon C'mon

Movie Poster for the 2021 film C'mon C'mon

C'mon C'mon is the heartfelt tale of a radio journalist named Johnny (Joaquin Phoenix) who travels America interviewing children about their lives and hopes for the future. When Johnny's sister Viv (Gaby Hoffmann) contacts him from Los Angeles asking him to come to California to watch over her nine-year-old son Jesse (Woody Norman), Johnny accepts the opportunity to bond with his nephew. With Viv delayed while tending to her mentally ill ex-husband, Johnny is forced to take Jesse on the road with him, first to his home in New York City where he introduces Jesse to big city culture. Over time the two develop a unique camaraderie, though not without the complexities of a precocious child and an emotionally limited adult attempting to forge common ground. Directed by Mike Mills (Beginners, 20th Century Women) and shot in contemplative black-and-white by cinematographer Robbie Ryan, it's a remarkably touching tale of empathy and actualization that hits just the right chord every step of the way.


Watch the trailer: C'mon C'mon



Parallel Mothers

Movie poster for the 2021 film Parallel Mothers

Parallel Mothers (Madres Paralelas) is a deeply moving Spanish-language drama starring Penelope Cruz and Milena Smit as Janis and Ana, unwed mothers who share a hospital room as they both prepare to give birth. Janis is in her 40's and content with her decision to bear a child later in life, while teenage Ana is ill-prepared for motherhood and terrified by her ordeal. The two develop a close bond that carries forward over time, as they manage the myriad complexities of parenthood and modern life in the city of Madrid—ultimately choosing to live together as mutual caregivers. Written and directed by famed Spanish filmmaker Pedro Almodóvar (Talk to Her, The Skin I Live In), Parallel Mothers evolves in complexity as the relationship between the two women matures, while Janis maintains her own complicated relationship with her child's father Arturo (Israel Elejalde). Steeped in sentiment and profound intimacy, it's a bold depiction of hidden truths and the unassailable bonds of human affinity.


Watch the trailer: Parallel Mothers



Drive My Car

Movie poster for the 2021 film Drive My Car

Drive My Car (ドライブ・マイ・カー) is the thoroughly engrossing tale of a Japanese theater actor/director named Yusuke Kafuku (Hidetoshi Nishijima) who suffers the loss of his wife Oto (Reika Kirishima) and immerses himself in the production of a new play to distract himself from his pain. Relocating from Tokyo to Hiroshima, Kafuku takes the reins of a multi-lingual adaptation of Anton Chekhov's "Uncle Vanya", mysteriously casting his late wife's young lover Kōji Takatsuki (Masaki Okada) in a lead role. Kafuku is unable to drive due to deterioration of his sight, however, and is assigned a young woman named Misaki Watari (Tôko Miura) as his personal valet—a fateful pairing that serves as the basis for an evocative tale of self-reflection. Based on the short story by Haruki Murakami and directed by Ryusuke Hamaguchi (Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy), Drive My Car is a lengthy yet captivating rumination on love, loss and regret. Hamaguchi mines Murakami's work with grace and precision, delivering one of the most emotionally affecting cinematic experiences of the year.


Watch the trailer: Drive My Car



Prayers for the Stolen

Movie poster for the 2021 film Prayers for the Stolen

Prayers for the Stolen (Noche de Fuego) is a heart-wrenching depiction of life in rural Mexico for three young girls, raised in poverty amidst the flourishing trades of heroin and human trafficking. Ana Cristina Ordóñez González plays Ana, a young girl living in a dilapidated hut with her mother Rita (Mayra Batalla) while clinging to her closest friends Maria (Blanca Itzel Pérez) and Paula (Camila Gaal) for playful diversion. Drug cartels dominate the region and employ the village's adults in their poppy fields while enforcing ruthless control over their daily lives—the local school barely able to employ teachers who fear for their lives. The girls are forced to cut their hair short in order to hide their gender from unspeakable atrocities—their mothers desperate to safeguard them from offenders. Based on the novel by Jennifer Clement and directed by documentarian Tatiana Huezo, Prayers for the Stolen is a harrowing yet deeply touching depiction of life on the fringes, beautifully filmed and achingly all-too-true to life.


Watch the trailer: Prayers for the Stolen



Limbo

Movie poster for the 2021 film Limbo

Limbo is an offbeat and touching British comedy-drama about a group of international refugees detained on a secluded Scottish island, awaiting word of their individual asylum requests from the British government. The storyline revolves around a young Syrian musician named Omar (Amir El-Masry) as he arrives to the remote outpost, yearning for a peaceful life in Western Europe safely removed from his war-torn homeland. Omar carries his grandfather's large and burdensome oud (fretless stringed instrument), hoping to succeed as a musician in his new homeland, yet his time is spent endlessly awaiting word of his citizenship while toiling through mundane cultural awareness classes. With a deadpan style of comic delivery, it's the type of film that grows on you as it progresses—Omar and his eccentric housemates entangled in a variety of both humorous and poignant circumstances. Written and directed by Scottish filmmaker Ben Sharrock, it's simultaneously a light-hearted escapade and a profoundly moving depiction of the modern refugee experience.


Watch the trailer: Limbo

 

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