Best of 2021 from film critic Harlan Jacobson

In a year that promised to be filled with much anticipated movie titles from 2020 –In the heights, West Side Story, The French dispatch – the air came out of 2021, as it seemed to leave the country. There was very little fresh air to circulate, even nearby in the cinema area, to try and breathe some life into the culture.

2021 may have been a frustrating year in cinema, but there is always something to see and say.

I’m not making a top 10 list per se, especially in ranking order, because the real question I’m asking myself isn’t what was best or even best, but what worked and what didn’t, what that I enjoyed and why.

I love Sean Baker’s work, loved everything he did, sketching the world of adult sex workers in human dramas such as The Incredibly Awesome Mandarin, Starlet, the Florida Project and now Red rocket, without taking on the posture of a liberal crusader. It just cuts through and takes you into a part of the American state of mind that you think is trash and finds human beings to be human despite their best efforts to blow it up. Red rocket is the story of a failed pornstar who returns like he’s the Music Man but without the band and wearing only his undershirt and jeans coming home to his shit Texas town and ex- wife until he stumbles upon his next big scam and what he thinks about it will be his ticket back to LA. I saw him in Cannes, I thought it was Aces, boss.

I loved Old Henry with Tim Blake Nelson in 1906 in Oklahoma with a son, a gun, and a past he’d rather forget.

I loved Joaquin Phoenix in go! Go on, as a middle-aged New York public radio reporter, called by his sister Gaby Hoffman to be the great-uncle of his 12-year-old son, 1000% too precocious. Phoenix takes on the kid, you’d never guess, is played by a Briton, Woody Norman, on the road through America in black and white. It took me twice, but I ended up loving it.

When Drive my car, a Japanese film by Ryusuke Hamaguchi started popping up in review groups as film of the year, I thought it was “Oh my god time”. I’m going to spend months explaining to my podiatrist and dentist friends why a Japanese movie about a Japanese actor playing Uncle Vanya in a workshop in Hiroshima and the relationship that develops with his driver is actually a good movie, worth their time, yes even with subtitles. And I thought, I’m just not up to this fight. But the Drive my car is, with its beating heart inspired by the American giant of independent cinema John Cassavetes, under the new elegant towers of Hiroshima. I liked it.

And of course there was God’s hand, The memories of Pablo Larrain on his childhood in Milan, much more complex and rich than the memories of Kenneth Branagh, Belfast, which was a bucket of hot Guinness.

No surprise in the sense that I liked Paul Schrader’s The card counter, in which Oscar Isaac plays a traveling player who makes one last shot of sense, crisscrossing America and carved out by PTSD from his time as a guardian in Abu Graib. Schrader wrote great movies, also of the masses, but in his 60s and 70s he began to tap into Carl Theodor Dryer’s territory of faith and sacrifice, and has never looked so good.

If there was one thing that drove me crazy last month, it was listening to the critics asking if we really needed to redo West Side Story? I don’t know, that means – unless I’m asking about the remakes – more like tributes – like Nightmare Alley, in which Bradley Cooper, Cate Blanchett and the crew have fun like kids dressing up in trench coat their parents saw Fred MacMurray wearing Dial M for murder. No one ever needs a remake of anything, but like Card counterPaul Schrader pointed out to me once in an alcohol-fueled conversation in Cannes, there really are only about 20 stories in the world, so everyone’s a remake: it all depends on how where you dress the characters and dress the sets, or maybe the other way around. If you see West Side Story, you’ll forget if Spielberg needed to do it again.

I also want to shout out Peter Jackson’s 9 Hours of Get Back, pulled from a million hours of old Beatles footage the year they broke up. It was absolutely fascinating. To recover is boring, four guys try to do 14 songs in two weeks for a gig they miss that ends up on the roof of their offices in London. It is a process like a sleeping pill. Unless you experienced the Beatles back then. You watch songs being born. You watch the Fab Four die. I was riveted. It made me rethink Paul, because he started to push others forward one last time. Its musical facility is brilliant. John looks more like a firefly than I uhh .. imagined. And no matter how Yoko helped John re-imagine herself, throughout the footage she’s a second screaming head sticking out from her side, never sitting more than 3 inches. It is simply tolerated by the rest of the room in the name of the dominant dogma of the day. George is angry in that super serious Zen face, and Ringo is a drummer watching all three of them, to see when and if they’ll let him go and he can start the engine. I felt privileged to be in this room.

Questlove, however, rocked the film world with its Summer of the soul doc which recalled the other rock concert of 1969, the Harlem Cultural Festival which took place in the shadow of Woodstock, the white hippie fest – where I was – which attracted the attention of the media is a truly extraordinary investigation of black rock musicians laying the foundations of modern music. In a year of good musical docs—The velvet metro and Alleluia: Leonard Cohen among them, and musicals like In the heights – none changed the cultural conversation Summer of the soul do.

Then there is the end of the year Do not seek—Adam McKay’s new meteor extinction fantasy with a huge cast, with Leonardo di Caprio and Jennifer Lawrence headlining. It seemed like a pretty benign critique of human stupidity in general and of Meryl Streep as the Trump-like president in particular. But it made some critics mad and some scientists happy. Scientists see Do not seek as a metaphor for global warming, but any threat will do – global infection, electoral fraud at home, geopolitics abroad – because it is a sad comedy about the start of our century. American failure. I even laughed at Timothée Chalamet, who wants to say something. It seems to be the film that has irritated critics the most. It’s not the end of the world, it’s a comedy like a stray bullet: we’ll see the meteor that kills us but we’ll make it a celebrity.

What about all those other great titles—King Richard, Macbeth, In the heights, Do not seek, Licorice Pizza, POWER OF THE DOG, No time to die, Dune? You can see a more complete list of what I thought worked and what didn’t online at

I hope that the cinema can if not save the world in 22, save its theaters and save itself.