best film: The Card Counter from Paul Schrader tops the list for 2021.

  • Schrader has always been an intellectual- he wrote “Transcendental Style in Film” on Dreyer, Ozu and his main source of inspiration- Bresson. But Schrader has also always leaned into sensationalism as well and he seems to have found the right balance at this point in his career. The Card Player is largely minimalistic—but there are this ripe little opportunities for sweeps of style and visual flourishes. Isaac’s character is rich with depth and complexity. He is a savant at card playing- but he is also an ex-con and ex-soldier. Like Schrader’s Taxi Driver (Schrader wrote the script for it – and Travis Bickle is a cab driver and ex-soldier), Light Sleeper (drug dealer) and First Reformed (preacher) — The Card Counter slowly unveils the scarred mind of his protagonist through voice over narration and sort of journal writing catharsis/confession (certainly this is Diary of a Country Priest). This is a story of sacrifice (Tye Sheridan is our Jodie Foster here), paying for your sins (even a sort of flagellation), and redemption.
  • In the flashbacks of the prisons sequences in Abu Ghraib, Schrader and his cinematographer Alexander Dynanuse this superwide distinctly vulgar virtual reality lens to highlight the extremeness of this world- the heightening of the senses. This is a perfect marriage of style and content.

Tell is driven by monomaniacal focus on routine and detail- same with Schrader’s clean painting of a mise-en-scene here

Another stunning example of visual bravado is Schrader’s use of the Missouri Botanical Gardens exterior when La Linda (Tiffany Haddish) and William have a date together.

  • Schrader deftly pulls the camera back through the interiors of Gordo’s (Willem Dafoe- a smaller role together but this is fourth archiveable film with Schrader) home as the audio of the climax carries on. This is such a better choice than showing the gruesome detail of the events.
  • The final frame is a hold on two fingers of glass- hope for Isaac’s character- still a shot at redemption.


most underrated: With no TSPDT consensus list yet for 2021 the underrated and overrated categories will use the composite critics top ten lists from Metacritic as their barometer. A Hero from Asghar Farhadi and Nightmare Alley from Guillermo del Toro are two of the best films of the year and both are left off the top 30 from the metacritic consensus completely. Woman in the Window is not on the level of Farhadi’s film by any stretch- but it is much better than the ridiculously low 41 on Metacritic as well if one wants to look outside of the top ten of the year for this category. Farhadi’s A Hero is a sublime companion to 2011’s Separation– both with absolutely dazzling final sequences. Farhadi’s 2021 entry deepens and enrichens his 2011 film.

Nightmare Alley has del Toro’s eye for décor and imagery- and it has two of the best in the business:- Cate Blanchett and Bradley Cooper- battling it out.


most overrated:  The Power of the Dog, Drive My Car, Licorice Pizza are number one, two and three on the Metacritic consensus list. All three films are worthy films but are much quieter stylistically than the best films of 2021.  All three fail to land as one of the best ten films of the year (at least upon first viewing).  It is Drive My Car that is the the least cinematic of the three. 


trends and notables:

  • The pandemic still feels like a pervading story in 2021 even if the world  of cinema returned to at least some semblance of normalcy (or the new normal). Long-awaited titles like No Time to Die and Dune finally arrived (and both are just awesome) after what seems like years of wait and anticipation.
  • The theatrical experience is still in jeopardy and seems to have continued to shift towards the streaming trend. HBO/Warner Brothers had a simultaneous release for 2021 and other companies flirted with similar models and manipulated the (ever-shrinking) theatrical release window.
  • 2021 overall is a superior year to 2020- without a doubt- but 2019, the last full year before the pandemic, it is not.
  • The Paul Schrader renaissance (or should I say “resurrection”) is real. With 2017’s First Reformed and now 2021’s The Card Counter, Schrader is riding a career peak in his 70s. Few auteurs have shifted the titanic plates of their legacy such as Schrader. George Miller with Fury Road comes to mind– Eastwood maybe.
  • Denis Villeneuve’s dream project came true and Dune was a rousing artistic success. This marks Villeneuve’s fourth top ten film of the year. 

Denis Villeneuve’s Dune is yet another feather in the cap for the director who amassed one of the strongest resumes of the 2010s (works include Enemy, Sicario, and Blade Runner 2049). The sheer size of the project impresses. But, Villeneuve’s ability to tell this story may even surpass the visual ambition. It is difficult to be awed by storytelling—and after David Lynch’s troubled 1984 version and the sheer complexities of Frank Herbert’s novel, I guess I just assumed this material was unadaptable—but with this effort Denis would provide one heck of a laser show. Neither of these expectations really came true. The film is not as painterly as Villeneuve’s previous effort (few films are), but Dune draws comparisons to such titans of narrative as The Godfather and Star Wars. If there are any reservations about the genius of Villeneuve’s Dune – it may be because there are a few longer cinematically quiet stretches while Villeneuve just has us in the grip of such an engaging narrative with terrific acting. Perhaps this is because of Villeneuve’s great reverence for the source material (it does feel like he gets to “play jazz” a little more in Blade Runner 2049).

  • By 2022 we are now nearly a decade into the trend of shifting aspect ratios and this is not slowing down. Ida was 2013, The Grand Budapest Hotel and Mommy were 2014. But now in 2022 it feels like every film has a blank slate at which to choose from. Historically, this is just now how cinema was delivered. For the longest time there was the standard aspect ratio (also known as 1.33:1 or fullscreen) and then it went wider- but really here starting in the 2010s and beyond is the first time the vast vast majority of these choices were not dictated by the time in which the film was made, or how much budget the film had.
  • Spider-Man: No Way Home was an unbridled box office success- it more than doubled the next closest film at the theater. But again, 2022 is an era where the streaming numbers tell a big part of the story now as well.
  • The French Dispatch makes for the seventh (7th) top ten film of the year for Wes Anderson with no sign of slowing down or stopping.

Wes Anderson’s The French Dispatch is a massive triumph of visual design- and a bounce back from from 2018’s Isle of Dogs.

  • The influence of Alfonso Cuaron’s Roma continues to be felt years later. In 2019 Tarantino described Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood as his Roma. Here in 2021 Paolo Sorrentino claims Cuaron’s film influenced him and undoubtedly Belfast falls into the same category. 
  • 2021 marks the breakout year for auteur David Lowry. The best films of the year were made by familiar faces at this point: Paul Schrader, Denis Villeneuve, Wes Anderson and Barry Jenkins. Each director has multiple top ten of the year films prior to 201- the one outlier is David Lowry. 

Lowry cited influences as varied as The Passion of Joan of Arc, both Sofia and Francis Ford Coppola, Willow and Jim Henson – lowery/#:~:text=As%20reported%20by%20CinemaBlend%2C%20Lowery,where%20Lowery%20drew%20his%20inspiration.

  • The Underground Railroad makes three straight films for Barry Jenkins going back to Moonlight in 2016 to make the top ten of their respective year. 

Barry Jenkins’ The Underground Railroad is one of the great cinematic events of the young 2020s decade. It is Jenkins’ fourth film, and since his breakthrough with Moonlight in 2016, he is one of cinema’s great auteurs during this past six year stretch The Underground Railroad is the largely the story of Cora (played by Thuso Mbedu) and her harrowing exodus from slavery, state by state (with a few asides, the chapters are broken out by state). The entire running time is a whopping 9 hours and 53 minutes- an epic, an opus.

  • Chilean auteur Pablo Larraín doubles down on his passion- making films about the wives of royalty (2016’s Jackie– about Jacqueline Kennedy Onassi) with 2021’s Spencer.  

Larraín marvelously eschews the trappings of the traditional biopic (just like Jackie– even more so actually). He captures (with the aid of a game Stewart and Jonny Greenwood’s masterful jazzy score) Diana’s desperation and infinite sadness. one of the strongest sequences is the back and forth between Diana (a very able Kristen Stewart) and Charles (Jack Farthing) with the red billiards table creating a gulf between them.

Diana is running through the halls as Larraín captures her in wide shots in a closely manicured and intimidating world. The end result is a film that deservers artistic and thematic comparisons to Todd Haynes’ Safe (1995).


gems I want to spotlight:  There are a pair of 2021 director debuts that did not quite land in the top ten that are worth making a special point to seek out. Azor is the debut film from Andreas Fontana. A private banker from Switzerland travels to Argentina to replace his partner (who is never shown during the film) during a period of political unrest. This plays out like a sort of wonderful, apocalyptic detective film.  Passing marks the directorial debut for Rebecca Hall. Hall is a proven actor (Vicky Christina Barcelona, The PrestigeThe Town) as well as apparently being a talented director. The film features fabulous period costume work (especially beautiful hats- BlacKkKlansman and No Sudden Move costume designer Marci Rodgers) and production detail. Bill Camp plays a sort of friend of Thompson’s character. Both Negga and Thompson lead the way as far as acting (both superb here)- but I also admire the work ethic of Bill Camp. He is good in every film he is in, and this is his tenth (10th) archiveable film in the last ten years dating back to Lincoln in 2012. Like many actors turned directors there is a generous focus on the performances here- but do not mistake Hall’s work for something as ordinary as say George Clooney’s work as a director. There is more to Hall’s ability here.


Passing plays out like old black and white photographs, living and moving, set to jazz music—crisply monochrome and handsomely curated.



best performance male:  There are three worthy mentions here in 2021 but only two actors really vying for the top slot. The top slot here is either Oscar Isaac or Timothée Chalamet. Dev Patel is the third slot- and he is tremendous in The Green Knight– but Patel does not have a second film like Isaac and Chalamet. The two single best performances of the year here in this category is Chalamet in Dune and Isaac in The Card Counter and both of them are very strong in support in two of the best films of the year as well (Chalamet in The French Dispatch and Isaac in Dune). If forced to pick just one, Isaac is the choice.  Isaac plays William Tell. Isaac is magnificent in The Card Counter and after this, when you take into account Ethan Hawke’s achievement in First Reformed, I would have to imagine actors are lining up to play the protagonist in Schrader’s next work—whatever that may be. Isaac is in nearly every scene and never makes a false move. He is exacting–intense. Chalamet plays Paul Atreides’  in Dune. Chalamet proves himself a young actor more than up for the challenge of leading the way in a work as ambitious as Dune. The scene where Chalamet is getting tortured by Charlotte Ramplings’ character is just phenomenal acting.


Oscar Isaac in The Card Counter– the diner scene with Tye Sheridan’s Cirk where Isaac’s character talks about his torturing experience –describing the noise of it all—is the best acting of 2021


best performance female:    Spencer is also another feather in the cap for Kristen Stewart. Stewart, just over the age of thirty now, has put together a very decent resume that includes 2014’s Clouds of Sils Maria and Certain Women in 2016.  Stewart has the best year for this category- but Rebecca Ferguson may give the best performance in this category on a per-minute basis in Dune and Thuso Mbedu needs some special recognition for the marathon of a performance in Jenkins’ The Underground Railroad.

Stewart in Spencer – one of the strongest compositions is the shot of Diana on the bathroom floor with her dress flowered out on the ground


top 10

  1. The Card Counter
  2. Dune
  3. The French Dispatch
  4. The Green Knight
  5. The Underground Railroad
  6. Spencer
  7. A Hero 
  8. Nightmare Alley
  9. Belfast
  10. The Hand of God


The Power of the Dog– Jane Campion’s return to the archives (twelve years since 2009’s Bright Star) centers on two brothers (Phil and George Burbank played by Benedict Cumberbatch and Jesse Plemons) and a mother and son (Kirsten Dunst as Rose Gordon and Kodi Smit-McPhee as Peter Gordon). The fifth and sixth characters in the film are the breathtaking vistas of New Zealand (as a stand in for early twentieth century Montana) and Jonny Greenwood’s grand score (what a year for Greenwood with Spencer arriving just a few weeks earlier).


The Tragedy of Macbeth is an artistic success for Joel Coen, Denzel Washington, and cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel. If I extended the top ten of the year this film probably falls at #11.


Archives, Directors, and Grades

A Hero – Farhadi HR
Azor – Fontana R
Barb and Star Go to Vista Del Mar – Greenbaum R
Belfast – Branagh HR
Cruella – Gillespie R
Don’t Look Up – McKay R
Drive My Car – Hamaguchi R
Dune -Villeneuve MS
Judas and the Black Messiah – S. King R
Licorice Pizza – P.T. Anderson R/HR
Nightmare Alley – del Toro HR
No Sudden Move – Soderbergh R
No Time to Die- Fukunaga R
Passing – Hall R/HR
Pig – Sarnoski R
Spencer – Larraín HR/MS
The Card Counter – Schrader MS
The Dig – S. Stone R
The Fallout – M. Park R
The French Dispatch – W. Anderson MS
The Green Knight – Lowery MS
The Hand of God – Sorrentino HR
The Harder They Fall – Samuel R
The Last Duel – R. Scott R
The Lost Daughter – Gyllenhaal R
The Power of the Dog – Campion R/HR
The Suicide Squad – Gunn R
The Tragedy of Macbeth – Coen HR
The Underground Railroad – Jenkins MS
The White Tiger – Bahrani R
The Woman in the Window – J. Wright R
tick, tick… BOOM! – Miranda R
Titane – Ducournau R
What Do We See When We Look at the Sky? – Koberidze R
Wild Indian – Corbine Jr. R


*MP is Masterpiece- top 1-3 quality of the year film

MS is Must-See- top 5-6 quality of the year film

HR is Highly Recommend- top 10 quality of the year film

R is Recommend- outside the top 10 of the year quality film but still in the archives