With only a scattering of hours left in 2021, now is as good a time as any to reflect on the past year’s best films. And so, coming in clutch with Ariana Grande’s memorable lyrics from Adam McKay’s “Don’t Look Up” swirling in my head

We really f–ked it up, f–ked it up this time
It’s so close, I can feel the heat big time

I present my ten favorite films of the year and a few honorable mentions while wishing you and yours a brighter, better, and more beneficial new year.

    Benedict Cumberbatch is the driving force behind Jane Campion’s powerful Western that resembles a rustic version of the director’s 1993 Palme d’Or and Oscar-winning “The Piano” with themes of repressed sexuality, oppressed female protagonists, and a challenged progeny. Beautifully shot by Ari Wegner and featuring the year’s best score by Jonny Greenwood, the salvation-themed drama is rounded out by exceptional performances from Kirsten Dunst, Jesse Plemons, and especially Kodi Smit-McPhee.
    After playing a charming high school teacher in 2020’s Oscar-nominated “Another Round,” Mads Mikkelsen marked his fifth collaboration with Danish director Anders Thomas Jensen to play a hardened military soldier seeking retribution in the revenge thriller filled with plenty of heart and humor. If you consider “Die Hard” a Christmas classic, you may want to add this action-packed yet tender film to your holiday viewing list.
    For three hours, the slow-burning drama from Japanese filmmaker Ryusuke Hamaguchi had me completely under its spell. The intricate and mesmerizing story involves an actor-turned-director (Hidetoshi Nishijima) living in the shadows of tragedy, who finds solace in the company of his assigned driver (Toko Miura) only to realize that she is chasing her own demons. Their conversations framed within the confines of a vintage Saab, prove to be therapeutic as revelations surface and closure becomes a reality.
    Paul Thomas Anderson’s hilarious romantic comedy features Alana Haim (from the band Haim) and Cooper Hoffman (Philip Seymour Hoffman’s son) delivering unforgettable performances in this year’s “Punch Drunk Love” as two unlikely friends (she’s 25 and he’s 15) navigating through 1973’s San Fernando Valley. It’s a reverse coming-of-age story with Hoffman in the mature role and Haim playing the adolescent. There are shades of the 80’s comedy “Porky’s” as teen escapades are thwarted by wacky adults (Bradley Cooper and Sean Penn) while romance lingers in the background and the sounds of David Bowie, Sony & Cher, Nina Simone, Paul McCartney & Wings, and Chuck Berry drive the soundtrack.
  5. DUNE
    The spice must flow. Denis Villeneuve’s interpretation of Frank Herbert’s science fiction classic tells only half the story (part two arrives in 2023) of the young and gifted Paul Atreides (Timothée Chalamet perfect in the role) whose destiny awaits on the desert planet Arrakis. Still, the visually impressive film that features a stellar cast (Rebecca Ferguson, Oscar Isaac, Josh Brolin, Zendaya, Jason Momoa, Stellan Skarsgård, Charlotte Rampling, Dave Bautista, and Javier Bardem) succeeds at taking the complex story and laying it out in a way that newcomers can follow along. The visual effects are astounding, the score by Hans Zimmer uses haunting vocals and whispers to compliment the majestic melodies in what can best be described as a masterpiece.
  6. CODA
    Siân Heder’s touching family drama which stands for Child of Deaf Adults (CODA) kicked off the year on a high note as the opening night film at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival. Emilia Jones plays a teenager named Ruby who is the only hearing member of a deaf family which includes parents Frank and Ruby (Troy Kotsur and Marlee Matlin), and brother Leo (Daniel Durant). Filled with heartwarming and very funny moments, the film explores the obstacles facing deaf people in a hearing world with a coming-of-age storyline that showcases Ruby’s struggle to follow her dreams at the advice of her high school choir teacher played by a scene-stealing Eugenio Derbez. The struggles are real and so are the feel-good vibes of this wonderful film.
    Writer-director Robert Machoian’s searing drama examines the disintegration of a marriage in rural Utah as David (Clayne Crawford) struggles to keep the family unit intact by giving his wife Nikki (Sepideh Moafi) the requested time to figure out her feelings. Matters get complicated when she becomes entangled with coworker Derek (Chris Coy) during the trial separation — both agreed to see other people — which agitates David who just wants to reconcile. The no-frills drama uses a boxed ratio to focus on its veritable cast of characters, and a unique soundscape to help drive the tension in this cinematic tinderbox.
  8. PIG
    You never know what to expect with a Nicolas Cage film. That’s part of his charm. One minute he’s battling mutant extraterrestrials, the next he’s taking on possessed animatronic robots. And then there’s Michael Sarnoski’s debut film “Pig,” which features a toned-down performance by Cage reminiscent of “Joe,” “Leaving Las Vegas,” and “Red Rock West.” It’s some of his finest work which is complimented by Alex Wolff’s masterful portrayal of an ambitious lost soul living in his father’s shadow. Pure, poetic, soul-nourishing cinema.
    An unexpected sequel to Joanna Hogg’s semi-autobiographical 2018 film which featured two of the year’s best performances by Honor Swinton Byrne as Julie a film student who falls in love with a debonair drug-addict named Anthony played by Tom Burke. The tragic love story continues in “Part II” as Julie tries to pick up the pieces while using loss as a mechanism to move forward. Byrne’s real-life mother Tilda Swinton returns as the supportive mom with Charlie Heaton and Joe Alwyn as part of the solid cast. Byrne is mesmerizing to watch as Julie regains control of her life. Never depressing. At times dazzling.
    Dallas filmmaker David Lowery’s adaptation of the 14th-century poem “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight” is a monumental achievement with a first-rate performance by Dev Patel as King Arthur’s nephew who steps up to the menacing title characters challenge which begins as a simple Christmas game. Not since John Boorman’s 1981 medieval epic “Excalibur” has there been such a visually stunning and enchanting tale based on King Arthur mythology. The solid supporting cast features Alicia Vikander, Joel Edgerton, Barry Keoghan, and Ralph Ineson whose distinctive and gravelly voice is perfect in the role of the Green Knight. A bewitching supernatural fantasy.

Belfast, Spencer, Don’t Look Up, The Tragedy of Macbeth, Zola, West Side Story, Parallel Mothers, Jockey, Nightmare Alley, Red Rocket

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Joe Friar

Member of the Critics Choice Association (CCA), Latino Entertainment Journalists Association (LEJA), the Houston Film Critics Society, and a Rotten Tomatoes approved critic.

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