Here they are: The best films of 2021


I’ve looked back over the past year, and here are the films your reviewer picks as the best of the best. The choices are idiosyncratic, and viewers may have their own picks, but these choices at least give viewers something to think about. They are based on a variety of cinematic issues, including the film’s cinematography, the power of its subject matter, or that of the characters themselves.

My favorite film of the year is “My Octopus Teacher.” Who could imagine that a film about the underwater adventures of a diver with a friendly octopus would be so wonderful? This pick combines a surprising marine animal with the beauty of the below-the-surface aquatic world and a human diver’s attachment to an animal who lives there. It’s a charmer.

My next favorite is ‘The Rescue.” This film tells the harrowing story of 12 boys from a soccer team trapped in a cave. Even though viewers know the outcome will be successful, the thrill of the story is enough to carry it. It combines the bravery of the rescuers with the claustrophobia of a cave that at nearly 10.5 kilometers is the fourth longest in Thailand.

“Nomadland” comes next, probably because of the powerful acting of Frances McDormand. She joins groups of wanderers conveying the poignancy of traveling in her van and landing in a variety of campgrounds where the people she meets are interesting.

Even though it’s a short film, “Gunda” is a winner for its exceptional cinematography. This film proceeds without human dialogue, depending instead on the animal’s voice to tell the story. The pig who is the central character looks for her offspring in a compelling story that conveys its theme entirely from a visual point of view. It reminds us of the richness and reality of nonhuman life.

“CODA” stands for Children of Deaf Adults, and this film tells a richly endowed story about life in a family where Ruby, the daughter, is the only member of the family who can hear. It depicts the challenges she faces serving as the go-between for her parents with the rest of the hearing world. She is gifted with a singing voice, and yearns to pursue a musical education.

Buried and forgotten, “Summer of Soul” deserves the kind of recognition given to “Woodstock,” which lasted only four days in 1969, while this celebration of a Black music festival went from June 24 to August 24 of the same year. Many of the songs performed went on to become pop classics. The music of this festival makes it a lively and uplifting film.

Focusing on a Korean American family who take up farming in the Midwest makes “Minari” a distinctive work. Jacob is more committed than his wife Monica, and the film describes the challenges of farming as an Asian American family in an all-white community.

In “Supernova,” Colin Firth plays Sam, whose partner Tusker, played by an equally important actor in Stanley Tucci, has developed early onset dementia. The viewer watches as they drive through the countryside and try to cope with the changes in their relationship, shown poignantly through views in their telescope.

A powerhouse of singing and cinematography, “Respect” narrates the story of Aretha Franklin from childhood through her successful singing career. Franklin is played by Jennifer Hudson and viewers go behind the scenes to understand what’s involved in becoming a superstar. Songs are melded into a visually effective film.

Last but not least, four films depict the painting of some of the most celebrated of artists: Rembrandt, Raphael, Cezanne, and Van Gogh. In this genre, effective cinematography makes the difference, and allows viewers to appreciate the painters’ work. While all four of these greats deserve viewers’ focus, it is Van Gogh’s “Sunflowers” that is most successful at conveying what makes the painter great, and allows viewers to understand as well as appreciate him.

Finally, viewers need to keep in mind the selection process provided by Film Center founder and director Richard Paradise. Thanks to him, all of the films come to the Film Center as outstanding choices.

If you as viewers haven’t seen any of these films, I encourage you to seek them out. They are not to be missed.