With lockdowns continuing throughout the year, filmmakers, distributors, and cinephiles had to keep finding creative ways to engage their love of the form. Despite fluctuating restrictions on festivals and theaters, some terrific movies released in 2021. A few frequent Hyperallergic contributors and staff members came together to pick their favorites. —Dan Schindel, Associate Editor for Documentary


From Memoria

1. Memoria

Some filmmakers have their work frequently compared to dreams. Apichatpong Weerasethakul makes films that feel like daytime reveries — those moments of lost time when you get so deep in your own head that the world around you seems to become heightened, even as nothing has changed. Appropriately for a story about a woman plagued by multiple possible sensory illusions, it is finely tuned to every facet of its soundscape, its images patient and indelible. Rarely have the real and unreal melded so seamlessly. —Dan Schindel

Opens in theaters December 27.

From Drive My Car (2021), dir. Ryūsuke Hamaguchi (image courtesy Film Forum)

2. Drive My Car / Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy

Ryūsuke Hamaguchi’s two features for this year are twinned in more ways than one, their materials mirroring each other. Hamaguchi’s films, such as Asako I & II, have often been about some type of recurrence, and his Haruki Murakami adaptation (Drive My Car) and anthology of shorts (Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy) engage with ghosts of the past in manners both amusing and sublime. The characters struggle with lingering regrets, all their inexplicable and too-human behavior captured with keen observation and mesmerizing ambiguity. —Kambole Campbell

Currently playing in select theaters. Read our piece on both films and Hamaguchi’s work.

From Annette (2021), dir. Leos Carax (image courtesy Ginsberg Libby)

3. Annette

Leos Carax made his English-language debut in unpredictable style when this musical masterwork opened Cannes this year. Written and scored by legendary genre-defying duo Sparks, the film fully commits to its promise as a sung-through epic, with Adam Driver giving the performance of a lifetime as a machiavellian comedian. Drawing from grand operatic tradition and the murky power struggles of Hollywood, the end result is singular, an irreverent and deeply melancholy performance about love, fatherhood, and the masculine urge to destroy everything in the pursuit of power. —Hannah Strong

Available to stream. Read our first and second reviews.

From Days (2020), dir. Tsai Ming-Liang (image courtesy Grasshopper Film)

4. Days

It is inexpressibly gratifying that Tsai Ming-liang has returned to feature fiction. Few can make quotidian gestures — the preparation of vegetables, or a lengthy acupuncture session — so mesmerizing. In a time marked by widespread loneliness, this movie arrived as a poignant look at solitude as embodied (“embodied” being a key term, given Tsai’s emphasis on physicality) in two very different men. When they come together for one searingly intimate encounter, it lands with full emotional force. —Dan Schindel

Available to stream. Read our review.

From Procession (2021), dir. Robert Greene (image courtesy Netflix)

5. Procession

Many of Robert Greene’s documentaries, such as Bisbee ’17 and Kate Plays Christine, have interrogated what it means to reenact. Here he elliptically traces the process of his own filmmaking, as he helps a group of six men who each use the same few actors and crew to stage very different scenes unpacking the circumstances of, and their responses to, their sexual abuse by Catholic priests. (In some cases, they even portray each other’s abusers.) With the film’s coda revealing the progress — or lack thereof — in their respective legal cases, it’s painfully honest about both the potential and limits of catharsis in art. —Kambole Campbell

Available to stream. Read our interview with director Robert Greene and three of the film’s leads.

From All Light, Everywhere (2021), dir. Theo Anthony (image courtesy MEMORY)

6. All Light, Everywhere

A disquieting essay on what it means to perceive and be perceived in the contemporary US, where questions around visibility are increasingly haunted by its omnipresent surveillance panopticon. Only through the oblique approach that Theo Anthony takes (avoiding direct depictions of police brutality, looking at everything but the images themselves) can we hope to really grapple with seemingly contradictory elements, like how body cameras have somehow reduced police accountability. It’s all in the eye of the beholder, but some beholders are more powerful than others. —Dan Schindel

Available to stream. Read our review and our interview with director Theo Anthony.

From Bergman Island (2021), dir. Mia Hansen-Løve (image courtesy IFC Films)

7. Bergman Island

Mia Hansen-Løve’s latest borrows its title from the nickname given to Fårö, the small community off the coast of Sweden where arthouse titan Ingmar Bergman lived and created some of his most influential films. Vicky Krieps and Tim Roth play a filmmaker couple, Chris and Tony, who travel to Fårö, and the narrative eschews convention by also incorporating Chris’s latest screenplay as a film within the film, blurring the lines between what’s “real” and “fiction.” It takes advantage of Fårö’s beguiling landscapes to create a lyrical portrait of the intersection between creativity and romance. —Hannah Strong

Available to stream.

From Licorice Pizza (2021), dir. Paul Thomas Anderson (image courtesy Brigade Marketing)

8. Licorice Pizza

Returning to the San Fernando Valley of Boogie Nights, Magnolia, and Punch-Drunk Love, Paul Thomas Anderson creates a romance for the ages. Here it’s the backdrop for a blossoming friendship between a directionless 20-something (Alana Haim in a luminescent debut performance for the records) and a charismatic entrepreneurial teen actor (Cooper Hoffman, ditto). They dine with superstars, volunteer for politicians, and hawk waterbeds in a loose, effortlessly charming evocation of 1970s Los Angeles. Sweet but never saccharine, it’s a testament to the heady but fleeting magic of youth. —Hannah Strong

Currently playing in select theaters. Read our review.

From Faya Dayi (2021), dir. Jessica Beshir (image courtesy New Directors/New Films)

9. Faya Dayi

Jessica Beshir returns to Harar, the city where she grew up, to survey how it’s changed since she and her family left. What she finds is a dark foreboding of the future for many parts of the Global South should climate change continue unabated, with farmers forced to adapt to changing conditions by replacing coffee crops with khat. Few movies to come out this year so precisely depict the relationship between people and their land. —Dan Schindel

Available to stream. Read our review.

From Summer of Soul (…Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised) (2021), dir. Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson (image courtesy Searchlight Pictures)

10. Summer of Soul (…or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised)

Perhaps the biggest populist documentary hit this year, but that palatability by no means suggests technical simplicity. Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson’s directorial debut is extraordinarily assured, often breathtaking in its arrangement, beginning with a sequence intercutting a wild Stevie Wonder drum solo with a newsreel montage encompassing the sociopolitical context of the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival. He cuts footage of that forgotten event with new recollections from attendees and even the booked performers. It emphasizes the far-reaching emotional effect of the festival, and how painful it is that it essentially disappeared. Told with an exciting and propulsive rhythm, the film is a galvanizing reclamation of history. —Kambole Campbell

Available to stream. Read our review.

Honorable Mentions

From Titane (image courtesy NEON)

Many of us also loved and highly recommend Titane, Bad Luck Banging or Loony Porn, What Do We See When We Look at the Sky?, The Power of the Dog, About Endlessness, The Worst Person in the World, Petite Maman, and C’mon C’mon.