The Associated Press’ film writers picks for best movies of 2021:
1. “The Lost Daughter”: There’s an element of danger, real and theoretical, permeating every moment of Maggie Gyllenhaal’s electric adaptation of the Elena Ferrante novel. Despite the idyllic Greek seaside setting and the intoxicating premise of a solo vacation, the unease hovers oppressively as we follow the brilliant, passionate, selfish, cruel and inscrutable Leda Caruso (Olivia Colman) through some unorthodox choices, past and present. Not only is she one of the richest characters that has ever graced our screens, it’s the kind of film that will bury itself in your subconscious.
2. “Licorice Pizza”: It’s a rare film that makes you nostalgic for a time and place you never knew, but Paul Thomas Anderson’s breezy, sunny “Licorice Pizza” does just that for the San Fernando Valley of Gary Valentine (Cooper Hoffman) and Alana Kane’s (Alana Haim) youths. Awash in Southern California calm and optimism, this is a playful and joyous ode to the big personalities, embellished stories, endless possibilities and endearing Hollywood-adjacency of a place that barely exists anymore.
3. “Dune”: A bigger-than-IMAX vision that is as smart as it is spectacular, Denis Villeneuve’s “Dune” is far and away the best blockbuster of the past few years. There was so much baggage and failure and missed opportunities swirling around “Dune” that it’s kind of miraculous that they were able to make something this clear-eyed, thrilling and visually unique. The best part is it’s not even finished yet.
4. “The Souvenir Part II”: Art house films don’t typically get sequels with numerals on them for many reasons, most of them boring and money related, so it’s a bit of a miracle that “The Souvenir Part II” even exists. But perhaps more extraordinary is what a great film it is as director Joanna Hogg and her star/stand-in Honor Swinton Byrne unpack Julie’s tragic first love and her evolution as an artist.
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5. “Drive My Car”: There is a tranquility to the Japanese drama “Drive My Car,” which filmmaker Ryusuke Hamaguchi adapted from a Haruki Murakami short story about a widowed actor who develops a connection with his chauffeur, while putting together a multilingual production of Uncle Vanya. Don’t be scared off by the three-hour runtime, which lately has seemed to be the exclusive province of bloated epics: Here, it is sublime.
6. “Barb and Star go to Vista Del Mar”: Writing about the absurd joys of “Barb and Star Go to Vista Del Mar” is almost a disservice to something that just needs to be experienced, preferably in pastel culottes with curlers in your hair and a blended tropical drink in hand. It was a big swing that could have been a disaster. Instead, we got a new comedy classic. Let’s just hope it doesn’t take Annie Mumolo and Kristen Wiig another 10 years to dream up their next adventure.
7. “Luca”: This is the only film on the list that I’ve seen more than 10 times already. It’s not exactly by choice, there’s a 2-year-old in the equation, but it’s not a chore either. In fact, it’s a joy to be transported into the Cinque Terra-inspired town of Portorosso to watch a few adolescent sea monsters dream of Vespas and a better future. It also has a tremendous score and a lively soundtrack of mid-century Italian bops.
8. “The Power of the Dog”: A story about loneliness in the barren Montana frontier of 1925, Jane Campion’s stunning and sure-footed film is as rich and layered as a novel, playing out as a mystery, a Western, and a meditation on masculinity, femininity, class, love and hate. Benedict Cumberbatch’s, brilliant, unbathed, casually cruel rancher Phil Burbank is a villain for the ages.
9. “The Hand of God”: Paolo Sorrentino’s autobiographical film “The Hand of God” may deal with tragedy and fate and “coming-of-age” but it is hardly a maudlin or overly sentimental affair. This is a shimmering, ecstatic love letter to family that uses all of the colours in the box.
10. “El Planeta”: Director Amalia Ulman acts alongside her real mother in “El Planeta,” a ferociously pointed satire about two women with severely limited funds attempting to live out a glamorous farce in post-crisis Spain by scamming and shoplifting their way through high-end establishments and wearing their best while doing so.
Also of note: “The Rescue,” “Bergman Island,” “Flee,” “The World to Come,” “The Green Knight,” “Summer of Soul”
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1. “The Worst Person in the World”: Joachim Trier’s richly compassionate character study wasn’t my first movie back in theaters this year, but it was the first film that filled me with all the joy, delight and surprise of going to the movies. Trier’s film, which debuted at the Cannes Film Festival and properly opens in February, stars Renate Reinsve as an uncertain Oslo 30-something finding her way. I haven’t yet worked out whether it was the movie’s warm, exuberant humanity or the experience of seeing it on the big screen in a theater with other people that moved me to tears. But what’s the difference?
2. “The Beatles: Get Back”: It’s been an extraordinary year in music documentary thanks to revelations like Questlove’s “Summer of Soul” and Todd Haynes’ “The Velvet Underground.” But Peter Jackson’s eight-hour Beatles hang-out is an overwhelming cultural artifact not just because of how it reframes so much about what we know about Paul, John, George and Ringo, but for how it captures artistic creation and collaboration in real time. As much as “Get Back” is about the band’s dissolution, it’s how in sync they can be with one another that’s often astonishing and sweet.
3. “Licorice Pizza”: Paul Thomas Anderson’s shaggy-dog story of self-discovery in ’70s San Fernando Valley feels to me like a loose, easy-breathing culmination for Anderson, a virtuoso filmmaker here at his most tender and organic. “Licorice Pizza,” crammed with the comic chronicles of adolescence and young adulthood, is the most lived-in movie of the year.
4. “The Souvenir Part II”: Even better than part one, Joanna Hogg’s sequel to her deeply autobiographical drama is simply one of the most sublime portraits of an artist as a young filmmaker there is. If Anderson resurrects ’70s California in “Licorice Pizza,” Hogg’s film is just as detailed in its ’80s London. Filmmaking is rarely so acutely personal – and yet generously expansive — as this.
5. “The Truffle Hunters”: Michael Dweck and Gregory Kershaw’s exquisitely charming documentary is about old Italian men who scavenge truffles with faithful canine companions. Their tradition, though, is imperiled by the greed of those who would thwart or even kill the dogs so they can better compete for the high-priced delicacy. With lush, pointillist imagery (and dog cams!), the filmmakers unearth an enchanting, vanishing world. (For a truffle-hunting double feature, pair with “Pig,” starring a fabulous Nicholas Cage.)
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6. “Drive My Car”: Dogs are a clue to happiness, too, in Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s emotional epic, a staggering work of quiet, profound intimacy. There is much under the hood of “Drive My Car”– art, grief, friendship, Chekhov. A lot of movies are described as “a ride,” but Hamaguchi’s melancholy masterwork, where the opening credits arrive 40 minutes in, earns that label in its own uniquely winding way.
7. “The Mitchells vs the Machines”: A classic family road trip movie, with a robot apocalypse thrown in, along with a pug easily mistaken for a loaf of bread. An antic delight.
8. “Petite Maman”: Céline Sciamma’s “Portrait of a Lady on Fire” was my favourite film of 2019, but I was still unprepared for what a gentle gem her follow-up, “Petite Maman,” would be. In just 72 minutes, Sciamma composes a spare but enormously rich fairy tale about an 8-year-old girl who, in a time of grief, meets another girl mysteriously similar to her in the woods. There’s a magic here that Maurice Sendak would have adored.
9. “The Humans”: A family gathers in a rundown Chinatown apartment for Thanksgiving as darkness falls in Stephen Karam’s chilling adaptation of his own Tony-winning play. Like the apartment, they all have their own painted-over failings and faults, and the conversation throbs with existentialist reverberations. In a flawless cast, Richard Jenkins and Jayne Houdyshell are particular standouts.
10. “The Hand of God”: Autobiographical doesn’t feel like a natural mode for Paolo Sorrentino, but that’s part of what makes his most personal film so full of wonders. Sorrentino’s film, about a childhood in Naples that stretches from the divine to the profane, from bliss to tragedy, is best when he’s gazing not at himself as a young man but outward, at his seaside city and the family around him.
Also: “Red Rocket,” “The Power of the Dog,” “The Lost Daughter,” “A Hero,” “CODA,” “Titane,” “Flee,” “Dune,” “Annette,” “Riders of Justice”