Hoai-Tran Bui's Top 10 Movies Of 2021

2021 — a good year for movies! Though everything else pretty much sucks, we can at least be grateful that we had a good time at the cinemas, or on our couches, in 2021. For me, this year's best movies were about guys being dudes, wounded souls connecting or misconnecting, and our best working male auteurs saying, "Hey, men aren't s**t." It was a year of ghosts and knights, princesses and pigs, lads from Liverpool and Cate Blanchett's cigarette. It was the year that we were blessed with "Dune" memes, and we would never be as happy again.

Of course, more than 10 movies moved me, and challenged me, and consoled me this year. I wish I could write for thousands of words more about the striking animation of the refugee documentary "Flee," Dakota Johnson's hat and Olivia Colman's stormy expressions in Maggie Gyllenhaal's "The Lost Daughter," the overwhelming visual delights of Wes Anderson's "The French Dispatch," the laidback love story of Paul Thomas Anderson's "Licorice Pizza," the frustrating morality tale at the center of Asghar Farhadi's "A Hero," and more. But alas, all I can do is list out the rest of my honorable mentions: "The Tragedy of Macbeth," "Parallel Mothers," "C'mon C'mon," "The Last Duel," "Benedetta," "West Side Story," "Red Rocket," "Belle," "Titane," "Encanto," "Tick Tick... BOOM!", "Shiva Baby," "The Hand of God," and "CODA." 

And with that, here are my top 10 movies of 2021. Read on.

10. Petite Maman

In the year of the troubled mother, Celine Sciamma's "Petite Maman" is the film that does the least to try to unpack the complicated, flawed ambiguity of motherhood, instead choosing to tell a slice-of-life story of a young girl who finds herself transported back in time, where she meets a younger version of her mom. But less sometimes is more, especially in the case of this lovely 72-minute fable. How can we possibly wrap our heads around death and grief and depression, let alone explain it to our children, for whom these concepts are alien? "Petite Maman" doesn't try to answer that, and instead suggests that perhaps these huge, all-consuming feelings aren't meant to be explained. Perhaps they can only be made a little sense of by embracing the little moments and fleeting memories. By telling the story through the eyes of babes — in this case eight-year-old Nelly (Joséphine Sanz) and her new friend Marion (Gabrielle Sanz), who turns out to be her mother when she was the same age as her — "Petite Maman" achieves a kind of pure wisdom that acknowledges that mothers are complicated, but are deserving of love all the same.

9. The Power of the Dog

"He's just a man ... only another man," Kirsten Dunst's Rose declares about Benedict Cumberbatch's charismatic rancher Phil Burbank, her new brother-in-law and the man who will terrorize her life for the next few years. But machismo, or at least the idea of it, is the real terror in Jane Campion's masterful Western drama "The Power of the Dog." Because Phil Burbank is actually a closeted gay man, who projects his deepest fears and insecurities onto Rose and her effeminate son Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee), a promising young medical student who may or may not be a sociopath. It's between these people that the complicated sexual and psychological power plays unfold in "The Power of the Dog," which is the rare slow-burning drama that doesn't try to hold your hand, instead relying on the immaculate, nuanced performances by Cumberbatch, Dunst, Smit-McPhee, and Jesse Plemons, who plays Rose's somewhat hapless husband and Phil's long-embattled brother. But more than a performance vehicle for its incredible cast (Cumberbatch especially, who weaponizes the kinds of roles he's been typecast in for a truly singular cinematic villain), "The Power of the Dog" is a film that plays out in subtext — in the optical illusions we can or can't see, and the illusions we put on for others.

8. The Beatles: Get Back

I might get blowback for having this on my list, as it's technically not a movie but a three-episode docuseries that recycles old footage of The Beatles shot by Michael Lindsay-Hogg, director of the divisive 1970 documentary "Let It Be." But where "Let It Be" is considered by many fans to be a black mark on the Fab Four's legacy for its fixation on the break-up of the greatest pop band of all time, "The Beatles: Get Back" is an earnest celebration of guys being dudes, and of the grueling and cathartic process of creating something as a team. Genius has long been documented on the big screen, but there's something about "Get Back's" willingness to show the slow, arduous process of turning those sparks of genius — like the famous clip of Paul McCartney pulling the melody of "Get Back" out of the ether while noodling around on his guitar — and making something tangible with it. And it's hard; like any collaboration, it's full of tears, anger, compromise and, in the Beatles' case, lots of booze and fart jokes. But more so than being a rarefied glimpse of the creative process in all its ups and downs, "Get Back" is a snapshot of complicated male friendship, and of how fame and a director obsessed with getting the band in front of "2,000 Arabs, surrounded by torch light" can all start to wear away at the lads from Liverpool.

7. Luca

One of the things that has irked me most this year has been people writing "Luca" off as "charming" or "cute," two words that diminish the kind of rich and rewarding storytelling this deceptively simple Pixar film is pulling off. Yes, you could describe "Luca" as a Ghibli-lite twist on "Call Me By Your Name" (right down to the subtle LGBTQ allegory of Luca and Alberto's dynamic), but that's also what makes it so great. The movie's hilariously low-stakes plot — the whole movie is about trying to win a race! — gives way to a deep and bittersweet story of fleeting friendships and little betrayals. There's a kind of casual cruelty and bittersweet realism that is rare to see in a Pixar movie, let alone in a western animated film, where big ideas and mile-a-minute capers are the order of the day. Instead, "Luca" goes small and intimate and personal, and in doing so, gives us the best character writing that Pixar has ever done.

6. Nightmare Alley

There's something dark and disturbing at the heart of Guillermo del Toro's "Nightmare Alley." But then again, isn't that the case for us all? But del Toro's adaptation of  William Lindsay Gresham's 1946 novel of the same name is not so much an ode to the inner freak as it is a morality play, a cautionary tale, a modern American tragedy, and a cogent class commentary all at one. But most importantly, and most delectably, it is a lush and lascivious film noir. And how could it not be with its morally grey protagonist (Bradley Cooper, perfectly cast as a handsome, morally dubious con man), its dim lamplit halls, its seedy office dealings, and its ultimate femme fatale in the form of Cate Blanchett, scorching up the screen with cigarette in hand and smirk on her face? It may be another del Toro pastiche, but "Nightmare Alley" leans into those film noir trappings with such twisted glee that you cannot help but cheer when Blanchett's Dr. Lillith Ritter destroys a man with barely a twitch of her finger, while Cooper's swooning bad-boy proves he's no better than the rest of the men? It's all part of the dark magic that's at play in "Nightmare Alley," a film that del Toro has proudly stated is his first film without the supernatural, but which feels as intoxicatingly bewitching as his best genre films. 

5. Pig

I've described "Pig" as a cross between Lynne Ramsay's "You Were Never Really Here" and the Anton Ego flashback in "Ratatouille," and I stand by it. All the comparisons to straightforward revenge flicks like "John Wick" completely miss the point of this haunting meditation on loneliness and grief, anchored by a tremendous Nicolas Cage. Cage gives a bruised and battered performance as Robin Feld, a former celebrated chef who retreats to a life of solitude hunting truffles after his wife dies, but is forced to return to the city he hates in order to find his stolen truffle pig. But rather than cutting a bloody swathe through Portland in a quest for vengeance, Robin silently trudges through memory lane, picking at the scabs of the life that he left and the people he left behind. There's something remarkable about the way that "Pig" doesn't care about the typical violent catharsis that comes from a revenge film, choosing instead to deconstruct the lone-wolf story and serve something much more interesting, much more empathetic, and much more bittersweet.

4. Drive My Car

I love the works of Haruki Murakami, in all his navel-gazing, frustratingly oblique glory. But the Japanese author has been notoriously difficult to adapt to the big screen, mostly because his stories are less plot than "a mood." But Ryusuke Hamaguchi's "Drive My Car," which is based on the Murakami short story of the same name, manages to capture the surreal textures of Murakami while conveying something much warmer and kinder. Director Ryusuke Hamaguchi — in direct contrast to Murakami — has a talent for writing character through dialogue, and in doing so, he gives us one of the most soulful character dynamics of 2021. Theatre actor and director Yusuke Kafuku (Hidetoshi Nishijima) is a widow hurting from the death of his cheating wife, while Misaki Watari is his stoic chaperone assigned to him by theatre program that has hired him. The two of them find kindred spirits in each other, both wounded by the traumas from their past — Yusuke by his wife's affairs, Misaki from her abusive mother — but rather than dwelling in the "misery loves company" of it all, Hamaguchi instead offers redemption. Perhaps in connecting with others, the regrets of the past can start to fade bit by bit.

3. Spencer

"Spencer" isn't a biopic at all in the traditional sense — like director Pablo Larraín's previous film "Jackie," "Spencer" chooses to follow a few days in the life of Diana Spencer, i.e. Princess Diana. And those days, the Christmas weekend in which Diana decides to divorce her husband Princes Charles, are mostly a fantasy. It's a ghostly impression of that pivotal weekend, that turning point in the life of a woman who has been simultaneously built up, torn down, and deified by the media. So it's fitting that "Spencer" plays out like a fairy tale writ as a ghost story, in which the beautiful castle comes crumbling down around the princess and all that's left is a ruined dress and bloody shoes. "Spencer" is essentially a horror movie, in which a mounting sense of dread leaves you feeling increasingly uneasy and trapped. And at the center of that trap is Kristen Stewart's Diana, a raw, visceral scream of a performance that can barely be stemmed by her stiff, trembling upper lip. It's a career-best performance from Stewart, and one that gives her a place among the annals of cinematic women on the edge.

2. Dune

"Dune" has been the 2021 film that I've had the most trouble speaking about, and also no trouble at all. It's the movie that I've described as a "vibe" that is scarily in tune with my own brain waves, a stupidly dense sci-fi movie that is made to appeal specifically to me. It's an imperfect movie, as it's only half a story and one that ends on a strangely anticlimactic note (not to mention the thorny MENA casting controversies). And yet, I can't stop thinking about "Dune," one of the strangest and nihilistic blockbusters we've been blessed with in recent years. Denis Villeneuve's film is aesthetically (all greys and blacks except for those bright shocks of desert) and thematically bleak — it's a film about a family doomed to fall from the start, and a savior brought up to be the bloody antithesis of the chosen one. It should be dour and stilted, and yet I found some curious joys (and yes, even humor) in "Dune," a film that gave us the all-timer casting of Jason Momoa as swaggering warrior Duncan Idaho, Timothée Chalamet as resigned hero Paul Atreides, a whispery Rebecca Ferguson in lots of headscarves and dresses, Oscar Isaac as the doomed noble lord, Javier Bardem spitting, and so much more. It may not be the next "Lord of the Rings" that many hoped it would be, but I can confidently say, this is my "Dune."

1. The Green Knight

Ah, but what could beat out "Dune" for the top spot on my list except for "The Green Knight," a perfect movie and David Lowery's haunting Arthurian masterpiece? I love its novel take on the coming-of-age story, in which the aspiring knight Gawain must kill his ego by accepting death. I love its bewildering and mesmerizing imagery — smoking battlefields strewn with bodies being scavenged by an unsettling Barry Keoghan, Gawain seeing his whole life flash before his eyes as he imagines his body becoming a skeleton left forgotten in the forest, a headless saint whose body lies rotting at the bottom of a lake, naked giants marching past the insignificant little humans, a Green Knight who seems like an Eldritch horror that has emerged from the deep. I love that it — like Lowery's meditative "A Ghost Story" — is actually about inevitability. The Green Knight is less an antagonist than a force of nature, one that — like nature and the passage of time itself — can't be changed or stopped. "Green is the only thing left when ardor fades," Alicia Vikander's Lady declares, and green is all that's left when Gawain and the rest of us are dead, moss growing over our bones and the dried blood.