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Justin Chang pairs the 10 best movies of 2021 — plus 1 film that stands alone

(Clockwise from upper left) <em>Passing, </em><em><em>The Souvenir Part II, </em></em><em><em><em>Drive My Car, Parallel Mothers, Memoria </em></em></em>and <em><em><em>The Green Knight </em></em></em>are among Justin Chang's favorite films of 2021.
NPR
(Clockwise from upper left) <em>Passing, </em><em><em>The Souvenir Part II, </em></em><em><em><em>Drive My Car, Parallel Mothers, Memoria </em></em></em>and <em><em><em>The Green Knight </em></em></em>are among Justin Chang's favorite films of 2021.

2021 was the year that some of us returned to movie theaters, cautiously but gratefully. After a year spent watching screeners at home, it was wonderful to see great new movies on the big screen again. And there were great movies — so many that, as usual, I had trouble narrowing my year-end list down to 10. And so here are my 11 favorite movies of 2021, which, per my annual tradition, I've arranged as a series of grouped titles. I do this because it never ceases to amaze me how every year, so many of my favorite movies seem to be in conversation with each other.

Drive My Car

Misaki (Tôko Miura) is the personal driver to a grieving actor (Hidetoshi Nishijima) in <em>Drive My Car.</em>
/ Festival de Cannes
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Festival de Cannes
Misaki (Tôko Miura) is the personal driver to a grieving actor (Hidetoshi Nishijima) in <em>Drive My Car.</em>

The best movie I saw this year was Drive My Car, an extraordinarily moving drama from the Japanese writer and director Ryûsuke Hamaguchi. It's been winning critics' prizes left and right, and it deserves them: This adaptation of a Haruki Murakami short story, about a widowed theater actor and director and the relationship he forges with his personal driver, is a profound meditation on how art can and can't compensate for some of life's disappointments.


The Souvenir Part II and Procession

Honor Swinton Byrne is an up-and-coming filmmaker who's mourning the loss of her older lover in <em>The Souvenir Part II.</em>
Joss Barratt / A24
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A24
Honor Swinton Byrne is an up-and-coming filmmaker who's mourning the loss of her older lover in <em>The Souvenir Part II.</em>

My next two favorite movies are also about the challenge of making art in the aftermath of intense grief. The Souvenir Part II is the second chapter of Joanna Hogg's semi-autobiographical drama about her days as a film student in 1980s London. It opens in the wake of her boyfriend's untimely death and somehow evolves into one of the most joyous portraits of cinema as a collaborative medium that I've ever seen.

At No. 3 on my list is a haunting documentary called Procession, in which the director Robert Greene follows six men, all survivors of childhood sexual abuse in the Catholic Church, as they make a series of short films about the trauma they endured. It isn't easy to watch, but it's a powerful portrait of male friendship and solidarity in the face of unspeakable evil.


Memoria and Days

Tilda Swinton plays a botanist in <em>Memoria</em>.
/ Match Factory Productions
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Match Factory Productions
Tilda Swinton plays a botanist in <em>Memoria</em>.

My next two favorites are both gorgeous films that completely transported me when I saw them on the big screen. At No. 4 is Memoria, the latest from the critically beloved Thai director Apichatpong Weerasethakul. It stars Tilda Swinton as a botanist in Colombia, where she sets out to solve a mystery that builds to the strangest, most jaw-dropping movie moment I experienced this year.

At No. 5 is Days, a ravishing portrait of a fateful brief encounter between two lonely men. The story couldn't be simpler, but the Taiwanese-Malaysian director Tsai Ming-liang films it with such tenderness that it might just bring you to tears.


Parallel Mothers and Petite Maman

Milena Smit and Penélope Cruz co-star in <em>Parallel Mothers.</em>
Iglesias Más / Sony Pictures Classics
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Sony Pictures Classics
Milena Smit and Penélope Cruz co-star in <em>Parallel Mothers.</em>

And speaking of tears: At No. 6 on my list is Parallel Mothers, a multi-layered melodrama featuring a possibly career-best performance by Penélope Cruz. It's also the best movie in years from the great Spanish director Pedro Almodóvar, here working at a new level of mastery.

My No. 7 movie, Petite Maman, from the French director Céline Sciamma, is a much quieter, gentler story about mothers and daughters. It runs just 72 minutes, and does more in that compact running time than some movies manage in their entirety.


The Disciple and The Green Knight

At the beginning of the new movie <em>The Green Knight</em>, Dev Patel's Gawain is the young headstrong nephew of King Arthur. He isn't a knight yet and has a lot to prove.
/ A24
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A24
At the beginning of the new movie <em>The Green Knight</em>, Dev Patel's Gawain is the young headstrong nephew of King Arthur. He isn't a knight yet and has a lot to prove.

Up next on my list are two stories about men trying and failing to live up to the destinies they've envisioned for themselves. At No. 8 is The Disciple, in which the Indian director Chaitanya Tamhane follows a young man who aspires to be a great Hindustani classical singer but simply doesn't have greatness in him.

That makes it an ideal pairing with The Green Knight, David Lowery's bewitching Arthurian epic starring Dev Patel. It's a wonderful subversion of the usual heroic quest narrative and a reminder that we often learn more from our failures than we do from our triumphs.


The Power of the Dog and Passing

Tessa Thompson and Ruth Negga co-star as Irene and as Clare in <em>Passing</em>.
/ Netflix © 2021
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Netflix © 2021
Tessa Thompson and Ruth Negga co-star as Irene and as Clare in <em>Passing</em>.

The last two movies on my list are both tense, suspenseful dramas about the deceptiveness of appearances. At No. 10 is The Power of the Dog, Jane Campion's magnificent western psychodrama starring a fearsome Benedict Cumberbatch as a Montana rancher who isn't entirely what he seems.

And at No. 11 is Passing, Rebecca Hall's striking directing debut starring Tessa Thompson and Ruth Negga as two light-skinned Black women living on different sides of the color divide in 1920s New York. These are stories about what it means to live a lie, but like all my favorite movies this year, they're full of emotional truth.

Copyright 2021 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

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