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Best Films of 2021

My counterpoint to the Oscars

Hidetoshi Nishijima (left) and Toko Miura in “Drive My Car,” directed by Ryusuke Hamaguchi. (Photo courtesy Sideshow/Janus Films)

My list of the best 10 films of this or any year will have only slight overlap with the Academy Awards—so in keeping with my tradition, I like to release it just before the Sunday Oscars awards ceremony as a counterpoint. I’ll produce longer reviews of the “bottom” eight films over the coming weeks—but for now, here is my list and a bit about each of the films, along with a few notes about performances that you won’t be hearing about at the Oscars.

  • 1. Drive My Car

  • 2. Summer of Soul

  • 3. The Power of the Dog

  • 4. I Carry You With Me

  • 5. C’mon C’mon

  • 6. Attica

  • 7. Encanto

  • 8. West Side Story

  • 9. The Velvet Queen

  • 10. Flee

1.Drive My Car” has earned universal acclaim, and deserves absolutely all of it. I can’t remember when I have spent three hours more deeply engaged. Japanese director Ryūsuke Hamaguchi, working from a short story by acclaimed writer Haruki Murakami, has somehow managed to make a very meditative story about grief and sorrow and the complexity of human connection into a moving and even riveting piece of art.

It's hard to imagine that my words will do the film justice, but I will try. The story is about an acclaimed theater actor and director, Kafuku (Hidetoshi Nishijima, opaque and yet deeply sympathetic), and the loving and very complicated relationship he shares with his wife Oto (a marvelous Reika Kirishima), a television writer. Most of the film focuses on his life after Oto’s unexpected death, but not before we are offered a 45 minute window into their relationship. The two have a way of collaborating in the act of creation that feels very intimate and connected to life, even while they share the deep sorrow of losing a child and their intimacy also includes betrayal.

The rest of the film occurs two years after Oto’s death, when Kafuku is invited to direct a multilingual production of Chekhov’s play, “Uncle Vanya” in Hiroshima. He has a method of presenting the play that involves casting actors from various cultures and having each speak in their native language, which the audience follows with subtitles. Kafuku’s approach exacts quite a lift from the cast members, who often don’t actually understand the language of their scene partners; they must listen and hold the communication differently, which somehow moves the words and action deeper, for them and for the audience. It struck me as a sort of spiritual practice, shifting how they, and we, listen.

The production of “Uncle Vanya” figures mainly as part of the plot in the original short story, but in adapting the story for the screen, director Hamaguchi saw the parallels between the struggles of that play’s title character, battling regret and longing, and Kafuku mourning his unfinished business with Oto, regretting his own mistakes and missing the love they shared, for all its complexity. The film lingers over the casting of the production and the lengthy rehearsal process, involving actors speaking in Japanese, Mandarin, Tagalog, and Korean sign language. Kafuku casts a disgraced television actor, Takatsuki (a riveting Masaki Okada), who Kufuku knows was romantically involved with Oto and who is himself struggling in ways that resonate with Chekhov’s play and that overlap with Kafuku’s own grieving. He also casts a young mute woman, Yoon-A (the luminous Park Yoo-rim), who communicates using sign language, as Vanya’s niece Sonia, the spiritual center of the play and, in moments, the film. Sonia listens better and communicates more clearly than anyone else in the play and so, at times, does Yoon-A.

The director found another parallel with Uncle Vanya. Kafuku prizes his well-kept red Saab and doesn’t trust anyone to drive it as carefully as he can; there is clearly a metaphor there, impacted by the fact that he is suffering from cataracts whose impact on his vision can only be slowed, not stopped. Upon arriving in Hiroshima, he learns that the theater company’s contract requires him to engage the use of a driver, a young woman named Misaki (Tôko Miura). Distrustful at first, Kafuku comes to respect and even admire the silent young woman, whose driving is so careful and smooth that he sometimes forgets that he is moving. (Another metaphor.) They spend hours in the car because of his request for an hour-long commute to his lodgings, which allows him to engage a ritual of rehearsing the lines of the play with a cassette recprdomg that Oto made for him in which she reads for all the characters except for Vanya. Misaki comes to know Oto’s voice, and the play itself, and she also sees and hears what others do not. Over time, the trust between them deepens enough for Misaki (who is about the age of the daughter that Kafuku and Oto lost when she was four-years-old) to disclose to Kafuku her own experiences of grief and guilt. She becomes Sonia to his Vanya.

Though one can follow all this without knowing much about Chekhov’s play, a review of even a plot summary will aid in grounding the resonance of the film. In the play, the struggles are overwrought and sometimes violent. In the film, except for Oto’s former lover Takatsuki, who is flailing more dramatically, the parallel struggles of Kafuku and Misaki are subdued and pensive. Yet both are hobbled by deep pain. The journey of the film takes us by car through harsh internal and external landscapes to a place where the two find a way to recover the will to move forward in the face of profound loss and regret.

The film operates at a level of mastery I have rarely seen, capturing layers of spiritual complexity even in wordless exchanges. Watching it put me deeply in touch with my own experiences of grief, even as I empathized profoundly with the struggles of these characters. Driving, listening, holding all of what is true even when it is painful—the work of doing these things is practiced by Kafuku, and Misaki, and Yoon-A. The director has expressed a wish to treat people with disabilities as bringing culture to the rest of us, new says of knowing, and that in particular is what Yoon-A brings. When she communicates the lines of hope and faith that Sonia speaks to Vanya at the end of Chekhov’s play, I wept from the beauty of it. This film changed me and, if you let it, it will change you too.

[Primarily in Japanese; not rated; received and deserved Oscar nominations for Best Picture (my pick), Best Director (Ryūsuke Hamaguchi, my pick), Best Adapted Screenplay (my pick), Best International Feature Film (my pick); deserved nominations for Best Actor (Hidetoshi Nishijima) and Best Supporting Actress (Reika Kirishima and Park Yoo-rim); on at least 135 other critics’ top 10 lists; available in theaters and streaming.]

2. My favorite film for most of this year was “Summer of Soul (… Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised),” Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson’s brilliant presentation of long-buried footage of a summer-long cultural festival in Harlem in 1969, the same year that Woodstock boosted the careers of the musicians who appeared there. Stevie Wonder, Gladys Knight and the Pips, Nina Simone and the many other incredible acts that appeared in Harlem that summer got no similar boost; indeed, the Black-organized, Black-run festival was officially not news for 50 years, a devastating example of how Black culture is so regularly marginalized even while it is being constantly ripped off. This film rights that story in the ways that are possible 50 years later, and is unmissable. You can read my original piece about it here.

[In English; rated PG-13 for some disturbing images, smoking and brief drug material; received an Oscar nomination for Best Documentary Feature (my pick); on at least 75 other critics’ top ten lists; available streaming.]

3. I white-knuckled my way through “The Power of the Dog” on first viewing; it is such a disturbing depiction of a toxic man who torments his brother’s new wife on the ranch the two men run in 1925 Montana. But the great Jane Campion makes the journey worth sticking to and, by the end, I was ready to watch the entire film again, because it is so packed with subtle insight about how power works and the reverberations of the unsolvable impasses that we humans create and cannot see our way through. The performances here are all excellent, especially from Kodi Smit-McPhee, and this film will stay with me for a long time.

[In English; rated R for brief sexual content, full nudity; received and deserved Oscar nominations for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Actor (Benedict Cumberbatch, my pick), Best Supporting Actor (Jesse Plemons and Kodi Smit-McPhee, my pick), Best Supporting Actress (Kirsten Dunst), Best Production Design, Best Cinematography, Best Film Editing (my pick), Best Production Design, and Best Original Score; on at least 162 other critics’ top 10 lists; available in theaters and streaming.]

4. I’m disappointed that more people did not see “I Carry You With Me” during its brief theatrical run; it is one of the most moving films I have seen depicting a deeply felt immigration story. Its director, Heidi Ewing, originally set out to make a documentary about the film’s two protagonists, New York restauranteurs who arrived undocumented more than 20 years ago from Puebla, Mexico. Eventually she realized that the story could not be told as well without dramatizing their lives in Mexico, the beginnings of their love story, and the pressures that led them to immigrate and leave behind people and places they still love and long for. She turned it into a tender feature film that also features footage of the protagonists, helping us see them then and now. Armando Espitia and Christian Vazquez as the two young lovers will break your heart. This film is intimate and sweet and much more emotionally awake and respectful than most films about immigrants, and deserves much more attention than it has gotten.

[In Spanish and English; rated R for language and brief nudity; deserved Oscar nominations for Best Director (Heidi Ewing), Best Picture, Best Actor (Armando Espitia), and Best Supporting Actor (Christian Vazquez); on at least one other critic’s top 10 list; available streaming.)

5.C’mon C’mon” is a sustained look at just how exasperating and wonderful it is to love a child. Joaquin Phoenix does his best work as a public radio reporter who ends up taking care of his young nephew Jesse during a family crisis and gets a crash course on how much being close to a child can change you and open you up to be a better version of yourself. Abby Hoffman is fantastic as the boy’s mother and Woody Norman as Jesse will break your heart. Mike Mills’ original screenplay is significantly better than any of the Oscar nominees.

[In English; rated R for language; deserved Oscar nominations for Best Director (Mike Mills), Best Actor (Joaquin Phoenix), Best Supporting Actor (Woody Norman), Best Supporting Actress (Gaby Hoffman), and Best Original Screenplay (Mike Mills); on at least 43 other critics’ top 10 lists; available streaming.]

6.Attica” is essential viewing for anyone who cares about American prisons and American racism (both of which everyone should care about). Directors Traci Curry and Stanley Nelson have assembled a painstaking examination of what led to the worst uprising in American history, a story that has been begging to be told for 50 years. It’s an excruciating watch, but an essential one.

[In English; not rated; received and deserved an Oscar nomination for Best Documentary Feature; on at least two other critics’ top 10 lists; available streaming.]

7. I have now seen “Encanto” many times, because my two grandsons (like so many children) love it so much. That’s an important hurdle for a film like this to clear, and impressive here because this story of a Colombian family struggling to hold the trauma they have managed to survive is actually emotionally complex and insightful. Stephanie Beatriz brilliantly voices the film’s young protagonist, Mirabel, whose prophetic gifts make her a family outsider, but who persists to help them help the family to grapple more honestly with all of what is true, including about her outcast uncle Bruno. And the songs by Lin-Manuel Miranda are superb, especially the Oscar-nominated “Dos Oruguitas.” A delight from start to finish.

[In English and Spanish; rated PG for some thematic elements and mild peril; received and deserved Oscar nominations for Best Animated Feature (my pick), Best Original Score (my pick), and Best Original Song (Lin-Manuel Miranda for “Dos Oruguitas,” my pick); inexplicably on only one other critics’ top 10 list that I could find; available streaming.]

8. I went into “West Side Story” with lots of skepticism and really appreciate what Puerto Rican artists have expressed about how problematic it is for this story to be most people’s only window into Puerto Rican experience. I do want to see the stories that Puerto Ricans want to tell about themselves, rather than just what white directors and writers want to say about them. That said, this remake of the classic musical won me over in a big way; the changes Tony Kushner made to the book humanize the conflicts among the wretched and marginalized, and damn if director Steven Spielberg and choreographer Justin Peck don’t hit it all the way out of the park in terms of reimagining the films iconic music and choreography. Let’s not stop here, but this deserves to be seen and savored.

[In English and Spanish; rated PG-13 for some strong violence, strong language, thematic content, suggestive material and brief smoking; received and deserved Oscar nominations for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Supporting Actress (Ariana De Bose, my pick), Best Production Design (my pick), Best Sound (my pick), Best Costume Design (my pick), Best Cinematography (my pick); on at least 83 other critics’ top 10 lists; available streaming.]

9. I saw “The Velvet Queen” almost by accident; it had only a limited theatrical run and the one person in the theater with me left partway through, which blew my mind. Its title is opaque and its not yet available streaming—but put it on your list of things to watch because it is a revelation. This gorgeous documentary follows two French adventurers into the Tibetan Highlands in search of an elusive snow leopard along with various other animals. The journey is transformative, as they reflect on how differently animals live than we do. By the time one of them notes that humans are “nature’s numbskulls,” I had come to realize in a new way how out of harmony most human life is, and how much we could learn from our animal siblings. This unforgettable film changed me forever.

[In French; not rated; not rated; deserved an Oscar nomination for Best Documentary; not on any other critics’ top 10 lists; will soon be available streaming.]

10.Flee” offers an important and visionary window into the little-understood experience of refugees. Its director, Jonas Poher Rasmussen, and its protagonist, here called Amin, have been friends since they met as teenagers after Amin’s journey out of Taliban-ruled Afghanistan finally took him to Denmark. It was only in making the film all these years later that Amin (depicted here only in animation) revealed things he had never told anyone about his journey as a refugee. The film captures a sense of the loneliness of carrying stories of such trauma that it is possible and even dangerous to talk about them, and how that impacts identity formation and so many other things. Using animation makes it possible for Amin to open up about experiences that are nearly impossible to talk about, and also helps us to visualize pieces of his past that would be hard to imagine otherwise.

[In Danish, English, Dari, Russian, and Swedish; rated PG-13 for thematic content, disturbing images, and strong language; received and deserved Oscar nominations for Best Documentary Feature, Best Animated Film, and Best International Feature Film; on at least 37 other critics’ top 10 lists; available streaming.]

Darleen Ortega is a judge on the Oregon Court of Appeals and the first woman of color to serve in that capacity. Her movie and theater review column Opinionated Judge appears regularly in The Portland Observer. Find her review blog at

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