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The best movies of 2021 — and where to find them

Cutouts of two women and a man on a colorful background
Honor Swinton Byrne in “The Souvenir Part II,” left, Penélope Cruz in “Parallel Mothers” and Dev Patel in “The Green Knight.”
(Illustration by Martina Ibáñez-Baldor / Los Angeles Times; photos from A24 Films / Sony Pictures Classics)
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Sometime in July, as the first Cannes Film Festival of the pandemic era was playing out half a world away, I sat down in an empty screening room in Los Angeles and watched “Memoria,” the latest movie (and Cannes selection) from the Thai filmmaker Apichatpong Weerasethakul. “Sat down” doesn’t fully cover it. Because I was the only person there, and because Weerasethakul’s work calls for a particular kind of surrender, I did something I don’t think I’ve ever done in a theater before: I knelt before the screen. I abandoned my front-row seat and sank to my knees, supplicating myself before the cinematographer Sayombhu Mukdeeprom’s gorgeous, otherworldly images.

The best of the year’s TV shows, movies, music, games, theater, art, architecture and more.

Call it a gesture of gratitude. After months away from theaters, it felt appropriate; I didn’t make it to Cannes this year, and I was thankful beyond measure that one of the best films in the festival had come to me. But it was also a way to get closer to the movie itself, to assume the kind of quasi-religious posture that cinema at its most rapturous can inspire. Sometimes I stood up to take a quick stretch break, watching as my own shadow briefly fell across the projected image. Mostly I just knelt, looking up at the screen as Tilda Swinton’s character embarked on her strange, marvelous journey. I didn’t take off my mask. I also didn’t look at my phone.

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A woman stands looking through a glass wall at a building and a small patch of bare ground.
Tilda Swinton in a scene from “Memoria” directed by Thai filmmaker Apichatpong Weerasethakul.
(Kick the Machine Films, Burning, Anna Sanders Films, Match Factory Productions, ZDF/Arte, Piano)

That was just one of my many moviegoing experiences in 2021, most of which were a lot more ordinary. I spent as much time as ever watching movies at home, like Chaitanya Tamhane’s wondrous “The Disciple,” which Netflix unceremoniously dumped onto its platform, with none of the prestige-seeking theatrical attention that’s being lavished on its year-end awards contenders, whether good (“The Lost Daughter”) or not (“Don’t Look Up”). But like a lot of my colleagues, I also started attending press screenings again after sitting them out for most of 2020. I was relieved when publicists reassured me that the theaters would be at low capacity, and even more relieved when vaccination-card checks became standard practice.

In September I got an early look at terrific movies like “Spencer” and “C’mon C’mon” at the Telluride Film Festival — my first such event in more than a year — and felt both thrilled and anxious to find myself back in packed public houses again. And earlier this month, I was part of a large crowd knocked sideways by the new “West Side Story” — and as I drove home afterward, my post-cinematic high was tempered by the realization that, with another fast-spreading COVID variant on the horizon, it might be time to take a break from theaters again.

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Regardless of what happens: They’ll be back, I’m certain, and so will we. There will always be reasons to stay away from theaters; take away a deadly pandemic and you’re still left with inconsiderate texters, noisy popcorn chewers, the general hell that is other people. But there will always be reasons to return to them, “Memoria” included. Set to open Dec. 26 in New York, it won’t reach a Los Angeles theater until sometime in 2022. (Its distributor, Neon, has stirred excitement — and some controversy — with the news that the movie will play exclusively in theaters, with no plans for a DVD or streaming release.) Which makes it not only one of the best movies of this year but conceivably of the next one too.

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Here are my 11 favorite movies of 2021. As usual, I’ve listed them as a series of themed pairings, with the exception of the first three, which form a trio:

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1. ‘Drive My Car’ | 2. ‘The Souvenir Part II’ | 3. ‘Procession’

    "Drive My Car," left, "Procession" and "The Souvenir Part II."
    (Pacific Arts Movement | A24 | Netflix)

    How do you make art in the shadow of indescribable loss? It’s a question that haunts a lot of thoughtful artists these days, and all three of these movies approached it with piercing intelligence and deep, unaccountable grace. “Drive My Car,” Ryûsuke Hamaguchi’s intimate epic about plays, tragedies and automobiles, was the finest movie I saw in 2021. Close behind it were “The Souvenir Part II,” the somber yet joyous second chapter of Joanna Hogg’s 1980s-set cine-memoir, and “Procession,” Robert Greene’s haunting documentary about six survivors of sexual abuse in the Catholic Church — two very different films about the collaborative nature and restorative power of filmmaking.

    “Drive My Car” is now playing in theaters. “The Souvenir Part II” will be released on streaming platforms in 2022. “Procession” is available on Netflix.

    Thanks to deep-pocketed streamers with an insatiable need for content and subscribers, music fans enjoyed an unparalleled bounty of documentaries in 2021.

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    4. ‘Memoria’ | 5. ‘Days’

    Scenes from "Memoria" and "Days."
    (Sandro Kopp/Kick the Machine Films, Burning, Anna Sanders Films, Match Factory Productions, ZDF-Arte and Piano | Grasshopper Film)

    The power of a single, stationary long take — of an image that pulls you in so deeply you feel you’re in the same room (or jungle) as the characters — feels all the more radically rare in an age of distracted streaming and bingeing. Few pictures gave us more to look at or listen to than “Memoria,” Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s spookily entrancing mystery starring Tilda Swinton, or “Days,” Tsai Ming-liang’s achingly tender ode to his longtime star, Lee Kang-sheng.

    “Memoria,” which opens Dec. 26 in New York, will be released theatrically in Los Angeles in 2022. “Days” is available on MUBI.

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    6. ‘Parallel Mothers’ | 7. ‘Petite Maman’

    Scenes from "Parallel Mothers," left, and "Petite Maman."
    (Iglesias Mas/Sony Pictures Classics | Pyramide Films)

    Two stories about mothers and daughters that achieved their emotional payloads via radically different means. “Parallel Mothers,” Pedro Almodóvar’s ravishing melodrama of entwined fates and buried histories, is his grandest achievement in years, capped by what may be Penélope Cruz’s best performance ever. “Petite Maman,” Céline Sciamma’s wistful and beguiling portrait of a magical family connection, plays out in a quieter, gentler but no less affecting key.

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    “Parallel Mothers” will be released theatrically in Los Angeles on Dec. 24. “Petite Maman,” which played an awards-qualifying run this year, will be released theatrically in 2022.

    Between the Delta variant and the Astroworld tragedy, 2021 was a gut check for live music. Outdoor festivals may be a safe space, but Omicron looms over 2022.

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    8. ‘The Disciple’ | 9. ‘The Green Knight’

    Scenes from "The Disciple" and "Green Knight."
    (TIFF | A24)

    To hell with heroism: The year’s most gripping quest sagas each centered on a man being repeatedly confronted with his own crushing inadequacy. In “The Disciple,” Chaitanya Tamhane follows a young man (Aditya Modak) with a dream of becoming a great classical singer, a dream that envelops us with hypnotic beauty even as it slowly, sadly fades. In “The Green Knight,” David Lowery and his adventurous young star, Dev Patel, make a bold, inspired leap into Arthurian fantasy. Two of the most successful movies I’ve ever seen about failure.

    “The Disciple” is available on Netflix. “The Green Knight” is available on multiple platforms.

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    10. ‘The Power of the Dog’ | 11. ‘Passing’

    "The Power of the Dog," left, and "Passing."
    (Netflix)

    “We’re all of us passing for something or other, aren’t we?” Indeed we are, something not lost on either of the two Black women (the beautifully matched Tessa Thompson and Ruth Negga) at the heart of Rebecca Hall’s quietly piercing Harlem drama, “Passing.” Or on the seething, conflicted rancher (a never-better Benedict Cumberbatch) who gives Jane Campion’s magnificent Montana western, “The Power of the Dog,” its understated ferocity. Two very different visions of 1920s America, each one built around an illusion — and a relationship — that cannot be sustained.

    “The Power of the Dog” is now playing in theaters and is also available on Netflix. “Passing” is available on Netflix.)

    And here are 15 honorable mentions:

    “Annette” and “West Side Story”
    The movie musical at its most doomily romantic, in which both Leos Carax and Steven Spielberg prove themselves untested masters of the form. Both deserve larger audiences than they’ve received so far.

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    Denzel Washington in "Tragedy of Macbeth."
    (Alison Rosa/Courtesy of Apple)

    “Azor” and “The Tragedy of Macbeth”
    A husband and wife venture into a heart of darkness in both Andreas Fontana’s chilling portrait of Dirty War-era Argentina and Joel Coen’s deeply chiaroscuro rendition of the Scottish Play.

    “Bad Luck Banging or Loony Porn,” “The Last Duel” and “Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy”
    Another trio, which is fitting, since each of these movies is structured like a triptych. Each one also explicitly questions the mores of a time and place that subjugates the wills and desires of women, whether it’s medieval France or present-day Romania and Japan.

    “Dear Comrades!” and “Quo Vadis, Aida?”
    Two powerfully urgent dramas set against historical tragedies, in which our attention is focused not on the blood and the horror but on the desperation of a mother at her most fiercely protective.

    “The Killing of Two Lovers” and “Spencer”
    The end (or near-end) of a marriage, as experienced from one participant’s harrowingly subjective, intensely cinematic gaze.

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    Cooper Hoffman and Alana Haim in "Licorice Pizza."
    (Metro Goldwyn Mayer Pictures Inc.)

    “Licorice Pizza” and “The Worst Person in the World”
    Two zippy, episodic romantic comedies centered on heroines who heroically refuse to be hemmed in, brilliantly played, respectively, by Alana Haim and Renate Reinsve.

    “The Velvet Underground” and “Summer of Soul ( … Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised)”
    Hats off to Todd Haynes and Questlove for these spectacularly enveloping feats of ’60s musical-historical scholarship, each one a layered, deeply transporting collage of sound and image. You had to be there — and now, thanks to these movies, you can be.

    And 20 more close to my heart:

    “All Light, Everywhere,” “Bergman Island,” “The Card Counter,” “C’mon C’mon,” “Flee,” “In the Same Breath,” “The Lost Daughter,” “Mass,” “The Mitchells vs. the Machines,” “MLK/FBI,” “Nightmare Alley,” “Pig,” “Preparations to Be Together for an Unknown Period of Time,” “President,” “Raya and the Last Dragon,” “The Suicide Squad,” “Test Pattern,” “Tick, Tick … Boom!,” “Titane,” “Undine”

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