Inside the L.A. Film Critics’ best of 2021 vote, from ‘Drive My Car’ to ‘Barb & Star’

Scenes from "Drive My Car," top, and "Barb and Star."
(Sideshow/Janus Films | Cate Cameron/Lionsgate)

“Drive My Car,” an elegant, multithreaded drama from Japanese director-co-writer Ryusuke Hamaguchi, won best picture from the Los Angeles Film Critics Assn. on Saturday. It was the latest of the many times that L.A. critics have chosen a non-English-language film as the year’s best, following such earlier winners as “Parasite” and “Roma.” “Drive My Car,” adapted from a Haruki Murakami short story, also won the organization’s screenplay prize.

Other honorees included the 1920s Montana western “The Power of the Dog,” which won awards for director Jane Campion, cinematographer Ari Wegner and supporting actor Kodi Smit-McPhee, who tied in that category with Vincent Lindon (“Titane”). Penélope Cruz won lead actress for “Parallel Mothers,” Ariana DeBose won supporting actress for “West Side Story” and Simon Rex won lead actor for “Red Rocket.” Céline Sciamma’s “Petite Maman” was named best film not in the English language, the documentary “Flee” won the animation prize and the Questlove-directed concert picture “Summer of Soul” won for documentary/nonfiction film and editing.

Times critic Justin Chang and reporter Jen Yamato, who are members of the L.A. organization (along with Times staffers Geoff Berkshire, Mark Olsen, Michael Ordoña and Glenn Whipp), sat down to discuss the results after the vote.

CHANG: Well, Jen, where to begin? Our L.A. Film Critics meeting began on a sunny Saturday morning and ended, nearly seven exhausting hours later, with some of us feeling like the characters at the end of M. Night Shyamalan’s “Old” (a movie that actually scored one vote, I believe).

Simon Rex in the movie "Red Rocket."

During those seven hours, we voted to give awards to, among other things, Steve Saklad’s gloriously kaleidoscopic production design for “Barb & Star Go to Vista Del Mar,” and to Rex for his fearlessly uninhibited lead performance in “Red Rocket.” Those were probably two of our more startling choices; a sublimely silly Hollywood comedy and a former adult-film actor (playing a former adult-film actor) aren’t your typical awards-season fodder. But then, that’s all to the good. I’ve always felt that our finest moments as an organization are those when we shake off whatever Oscar-narrative obligations people like to saddle us with and just … vote for what we love.

And we loved a lot, as evidenced by a couple of tie victories throughout the day. Our New Generation prize, given to a breakout filmmaker or performer, was awarded jointly to Shatara Mitchell Ford, who made one of the year’s sharpest debut features with “Test Pattern,” and Tatiana Huezo, who made a powerful swerve from nonfiction into fiction with the devastating “Prayers for the Stolen.” Seeing Smit-McPhee share the supporting actor prize with Lindon was especially thrilling. I’m delighted to think that our award might spur more people to seek out Lindon, one of France’s greatest actors, in a movie as wild as “Titane.”

Most of all, we loved “Drive My Car,” our best picture winner, and also “The Power of the Dog,” which won best director. With those two awards, we basically echoed the choices made by our fine colleagues over in the New York Film Critics Circle earlier this month. That doubtless surprised a few awards observer types who speculated that we might go our own way, so as to separate ourselves from the critical pack. But of all the things that were on our agenda Saturday, willful contrarianism was happily not one of them.

Annabelle Wallis in “Malignant.”
(Warner Bros. Pictures)

YAMATO: Now, I will confess that one vote for the “beach that turns you old” movie was mine, in the editing category, because sometimes you do have to go your own way — even when you know your faves have no chance of making it. James Wan’s “Malignant,” my No. 1 moviegoing experience of 2021, had the support of a passionate few of us in the directing category. These are symbolic gestures toward a more open-minded future, as nonprestige genre films are hardly ever considered this time of year, much like sublimely silly Hollywood comedies. Even Jamie Dornan is campaigning this season for the wrong film, in which he performs a heartwarming musical number.

The right answer is, of course, “Barb & Star Go to Vista Del Mar,” in which Dornan belts out “Edgar’s Prayer” and dances on sun-swept sandy beaches. It was in our second category, for best music — which came up so early in this year’s vote that I still had a hilariously wishful $5 bet going that we’d be done in under five hours — that “Barb & Star” first gathered surprising and vocal momentum in the (virtual) room. Although “Parallel Mothers”’ Alberto Iglesias deservingly took the top prize for his latest score for Pedro Almodóvar, with Jonny Greenwood’s scores for “Power of the Dog” and “Spencer” the close runner-up, that first surge for Kristen Wiig and Annie Mumolo’s underappreciated resort fantasia left an electrifying crackle in the air and a feeling of ... hope? Excitement? Faith that the L.A. critics can chart our own weird path through all the flashy campaigning and the punditry?

The music category not going to any of the actual movie musicals this year says something about tempering mainstream expectations against actual discovery. It also introduced another running theme of Saturday’s vote: how to dole out awards to double- and triple-dipping winners who contributed excellent work to multiple films this year?

Benedict Cumberbatch in Jane Campion’s "The Power of the Dog".
(Kirsty Griffin/ Netflix)

CHANG: That Dornan drew more votes for “Barb & Star Go to Vista Del Mar” — a much better performance in a much better movie than “Belfast” — is one of many reasons I’m proud to be a member of this group. But yes, every year without fail we run into this multiple-citation issue, and 2021 was no exception. In addition to Greenwood’s “Power of the Dog” and “Spencer” scores (we could have also cited him for “Licorice Pizza”), there was our eminently worthy cinematography winner, Ari Wegner (“The Power of the Dog”), who also did superb and very different work on “Zola.” When Hamaguchi won screenplay and placed runner-up for director, his hardcore fans (myself included) raised the possibility of citing his other great movie of 2021, “Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy” — but in the end, “Drive My Car” stood alone, like the mammoth achievement that it is.

One of the reasons I love our runner-up announcements is that it provides some sense of just how much love there was among our 50 or so voting members for such a wide range of movies. But even those runners-up don’t tell the whole story. You wouldn’t guess that “Passing,” “The Green Knight” and “The Lost Daughter” were three of the most fiercely loved movies of the day, in multiple categories. Or that, in a lead actress field dominated by non-English-language performances, Serbian actor Jasna Duricic was very much in the mix for her searing performance in “Quo Vadis, Aida?” (our runner-up for non-English-language film), alongside bigger Hollywood names like Olivia Colman (“The Lost Daughter”) and Kristen Stewart (“Spencer”).

Or that, if Nicolas Cage missed out on a lead actor placement for his splendid work in “Pig,” it wasn’t for lack of trying among passionate fans in the group. And while none of this year’s musicals might have placed in our music-score category, the abundance of love for Andrew Garfield (“Tick, Tick ... Boom!”), Mike Faist (“West Side Story”) and Olga Merediz (“In the Heights”), alongside the supporting actress victory for DeBose, showed that those achievements did not go unappreciated.

We all bring our individual cinephile passions with us into every association meeting. One of them for you, Jen, is nonprestige genre fare (and as a longtime James Wan admirer, I was very glad I heeded your advice and recently caught up with the deliriously unhinged “Malignant,” as I’d been meaning to do for ages.) Similarly unlikely to find itself in the awards-season conversation: a movie like the captivating and mysterious “Memoria,” which hasn’t even opened in an L.A. theater yet but outpaced some of the season’s more vaunted Oscar contenders in our best picture race.

That this group continues to propose vital alternatives to the standard movie-industry narratives — like, for example, C.W. Winter and Anders Edström’s “The Works and Days (of Tayoko Shiojiri in the Shiotani Basin),” the winner of our Douglas Edwards experimental film award this year — is one of the best reasons for it to exist.

Timothée Chalamet and Rebecca Ferguson in "Dune."
(Warner Bros.)

YAMATO: I think it’s a promising sign when so many different films inspire passion from critics during deliberations. This year, there was love in multiple categories for Janicza Bravo’s “Zola,” Denis Villeneuve’s “Dune,” Julia Ducornau’s “Titane,” Leos Carax’s “Annette” and Joachim Trier’s “The Worst Person in the World,” to name a few more (of many). “Petite Maman,” from fantastic French filmmaker Céline Sciamma — whose “Portrait of a Lady on Fire” was our cinematography co-winner and foreign language runner-up in 2019 — is another film that earned frequent mentions throughout the day. At the tail end of a marathon vote (with a relatively speedy lunch break), after we awarded best picture to Hamaguchi’s three-hour opus “Drive My Car,” that Sciamma support carried “Petite Maman” into the winner’s slot as our newly titled best film not in the English language.

Of course, awards voting is as subjective as movies themselves, and these systems of categorization can be imperfect. Jonas Poher Rasmussen’s hybrid documentary “Flee,” for example, which is rendered via animation, came up in both categories. It won the latter, with the well-loved Japanese film “Belle” earning runner-up, while over in the doc/nonfiction race, Questlove’s “Summer of Soul” triumphed for the win, followed by Robert Greene’s “Procession.”

Overall, I did wonder if the (mostly bigger) films that screened later in the season, or whose distributors took much longer to make physical and digital screeners available to critics, might have benefitted from prioritizing earlier access and more viewing options given the ongoing pandemic. This year, our group issued an open letter to studios calling for more consistent COVID-19 protocols at in-person screenings and greater screener access, not just during awards season but year round, particularly for disabled and at-risk members of our professional community. It’s not the films whose companies sent out fancy candles and coffee table books and paraded their A-list stars around that I voted for this year, but those I had time to sit with, whose magic (and shimmer) sank into my soul and stayed there.

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

CHANG: As the latest COVID-19 surge gets underway and begins impacting the film business again — and it will surely do so, no matter how many breathless “Spider-Man: No Way Home” box office reports get filed — I think the sentiments expressed in that open letter will continue to be more relevant, not less. And it’s worth remembering that this year’s bounty of superb movies, which might seem like a refreshing sign of normalcy, belies the fact that nothing about our situation at present is normal. And may not be for a while, if ever.

You can see this, of course, in the very art form that we gather to salute and congratulate. This has been a triumphant year for movies, some of the most triumphant of which — like “Drive My Car,” “Parallel Mothers” and “Petite Maman” — are explicitly about loss, about the acceptance and embrace of things we know we cannot change.

It feels fitting to note that our awards this year were dedicated, with great love and affection, to the memory of our former LAFCA members David Chute and James Rocchi, both of whom died last month. Both these men loved movies and wrote about them beautifully, with great wit, incisiveness and passion, and with a gift for challenging the usual critical orthodoxies and a palpable delight in drawing readers into a conversation. They are both deeply and dearly missed.

Los Angeles Times film critic Justin Chang’s best movies of 2021 include ‘Drive My Car,’ ‘The Power of the Dog’ and ‘The Green Knight.’

Dec. 17, 2021