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My Top Ten Films of 2021

It's time to think of streaming outlets as the new video stores.

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As I write this piece, “Spider-man: No Way Home” is making bank even for Marvel, crushing prestige fare such as Steven Spielberg’s “West Side Story” and Guillermo del Toro’s “Nightmare Alley” under its tires. This has led to the usual clucking from the usual hens about the death of adult films for the sake of stadium-sized pabulum.

But how about looking at said middle-tier films? Who are “West Side Story” and “Nightmare Alley” supposed to be for? The answer, given that the movies are both remakes by respected directors, would appear to be cinephiles, especially in the case of “Nightmare Alley.” But both of these productions are far too soft and cheesy for the pointy-headed set and broader audiences don’t, well … care.

What does any of this have to do with a ten-best list? My point, illustrated below, is that adult films are alive and well, you just need to know where to look, and that is almost never mainstream theaters. They are now almost entirely concerned with Disney IP, and the occasional nostalgia piece made by a name director who has lost touch with pop culture’s pulse. (“The Matrix Resurrections” is currently streaming on HBO Max.)

The riddle of modern cinema going is that there are more great films than ever, which are more easily available than ever, and that sheer abundance serves as a form of self-cancellation. To see these great films, to give them their due, one must look beyond multiple forms of noise, from Marvel fanboy masturbation to the whining of people who basically miss middle-brow tapioca. Think of streaming outlets as the new video stores, and those mines contain riches. Here’s a bit of help.

10./9. “Come True” (Anthony Scott Burns)/ “The Swarm” (Just Phillipot)

The two best horror films of the year come in starkly different flavors. “Come True” is an American ‘80s nostalgia piece invested with authentic soul and unnerving dreamscapes by a promising multi-hyphenate filmmaker, while “The Swarm” is a French creature feature with a highly accomplished sense of naturalism and political nuance. “Come True” can be rented on Amazon Prime, and “The Swarm” is available on Netflix.

8. “Procession” (Robert Greene)

One of the great developments in recent cinema is the mutation of the documentary, which has splintered off into multiple strands of free-associative, wall-breaking, reality-questioning poetry. Greene is one of the great modernist documentarians and “Procession,” in which victims of Catholic priests reenact their trauma, is among his most daring, moving, and freewheeling works to date. Available on Netflix.

7. “In the Same Breath” (Nanfu Wang)

Wang’s wrenchingly personal documentary compares China’s response to the outbreak of the coronavirus with that of the United States, underscoring the striking similarities between a clamped-down authoritarian regime and a land riddled with unbridled white noise. Wang doesn’t belong to any singular camp, as she mercilessly critiques rhetoric from all angles. Available on HBO Max.

6.“Zola” (Janicza Bravo)

Detailing a stripper’s road trip to Florida, Janicza Bravo fashions a wild, volatile, and truly modern crime film that parodies our evolving relationship with social media. Colman Domingo is a stand-out as a potentially dangerous associate. Available on Showtime.

5.“All Light, Everywhere” (Theo Anthony)

This playful, enraging, essential docu-cine-essay concerns the limitations of human vision, detailing the fallibilities of the eye itself and how they inform, in particular, the insidious subjectivity of surveillance technology in law enforcement. The body cameras that police officers wear distort angles, often rendering subjects sharper and more aggressive than they are in reality. Anthony details such nightmarish facts with the eye of a detective and an artist, implicating his own biases and evasions in the process. Available on Hulu.

4.“The Power of the Dog” (Jane Campion)

This despairing, lonely gothic western—think “There Will Be Blood” with a rewrite by Edith Wharton—is among the high points of Jane Campion’s career. Toggling between multiple points of view, Campion reveals the piercing difficulty of true empathy, especially for a group of deeply repressed characters out in the 1920s-era American west. As a cruel, erudite rancher with a secret reserve of sensitivity, Benedict Cumberbatch gives the performance of his career so far, and he’s ably supported by Jesse Plemons, Kirsten Dunst, and Kodi Smit-McPhee. Available on Netflix.

3.“Licorice Pizza” (Paul Thomas Anderson)

Paul Thomas Anderson’s first trip to ‘70s-era San Fernando Valley since 1997’s “Boogie Nights” is a freewheeling romance with sharp undercurrents of comic nastiness. Anderson both rues, and more than a little celebrates, the disreputable power coursing through a fading era of Hollywood. This one you will have to go to a theater for, and it’s currently playing at several including Movieland at Boulevard Square.

2./1.“Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy”/ “Drive My Car” (Ryûsuke Hamaguchi)

Ryûsuke Hamaguchi’s “Drive My Car” is a rapt, elegant, profoundly poignant rumination on grief and the intricate processes of mounting an unusual production of Chekov’s “Uncle Vanya.” No less sophisticated, and thornier, is Hamaguchi’s other film to be released this year, “Wheel of Fortune of Fantasy,” an anthology of stories of the way identities morph, evolve, and even disintegrate in the context of various relationships. These films, along with 2015’s “Happy Hour,” establish Hamaguchi as an artist of the highest register. Alas, they are still in the art houses only [the latter is available on Blu-ray/DVD in January], but look for them to expand.

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