The jury is still out on if/when the movies are going to get back to pre-COVID days, since after nearly two years we’re still not post-COVID yet. Theaters reopened in 2021, but audiences understandably were skittish, or had developed new habits they were reluctant to abandon.
If the annum ended with Hollywood sighing in relief at the just-like-old-times ginormity of a latest Spider-Man entry’s box-office performance, there were plenty of other films whose variably disappointing-to-disastrous performance provided cause for all optimism to be cautious, to say the least. (Particularly dismaying was the flop of West Side Story, which did even worse than some widely panned musicals released earlier—despite being one of the year’s few great mainstream entertainments, alongside the likewise much-better-than-expected Dune.)
The good news was that the streaming floodgates continue to make room for a wider range of content than before, demand sweeping hitherto neglected older films off the shelf. Many of those are terrible, yet some (including a few titles below that officially go back as far as 2018, but weren’t released in the US until this year) are real discoveries.
As usual, it was a not-at-all-bad year if you knew where to look, and a pretty mediocre one if you were looking in the same exact places as 98% of viewers. Many are the folk who complain “Hollywood just makes the same movies over and over again,” but when offered something different, ignore it—while dutifully consuming every new issuance from every interchangeable comic-book-derived or action-flick franchise that comes off the assembly line.
The “best” lists below (I’d prefer to label ‘em personal favorites) are sizable enough but hardly exhaustive. If something you were expecting—say, Drive My Car, Macbeth, Lost Daughter, or too many documentaries to mention—isn’t there, it’s probably because I liked it too…just not quite as much as the titles on the list. Unless it’s something like Belfast, Coda, or Licorice Pizza—crowdpleasers that regrettably didn’t please me.
Honorable mention could be made of many titles, but I’ll note just the Canadian First Nations tale Kuessipan, deadpan Brit Days of the Bagnold Summer, recovery drama No Future, very psychological horror Antlers, and paranoid comedy The Beta Test. Among major-league flops that deserved better, there’s The Last Duel, a medieval-Europe Rashomon that was quite strong, and certainly better than the year’s other Ridley Scott joint (House of Gucci), but probably too antiheroically downbeat to find an audience even in a less challenging year.
Note: A few of these films were advanced for award consideration last year, but didn’t reach theaters (and/or Bay Area viewers in particular) until well into 2021. At least one, the animated Flee, is in awards consideration for this year, but won’t be released here until early ’22. Each list is in alphabetical rather than preferential order. In the case of complicated international co-productions, I just noted the primary country or countries involved. Virtually every film here (excepting Flee again) was reviewed in 48 Hills, with that prior coverage linked for your clicking pleasure.
English Language Features (US unless otherwise noted)
The Card Counter (Paul Schrader)
Caveat (Ireland, Damian McCarthy)
C’mon C’mon (Mike Mills)
The Green Knight (US/Canada, David Lowery)
High Ground (Australia, Stephen Johnson)
Judas and the Black Messiah (Shaka King)
The Killing of Two Lovers (Robert Machoian)
Old Henry (Potsy Ponciroli)
Passing (Rebecca Hall)
The Power of the Dog (Jane Campion)
West Side Story (Steven Spielberg)
Zola (Janicza Bravo)
Foreign Language Features
Angel (Belgium/Senegal, Koen Mortier)
Flee (Denmark, Jonas Poher Rasmussen)
Hive (Kosovo, Blerta Basholli)
Quo Vadis, Aida? (Bosnia and Herzegovina, Jasmila Zbanic)
Never Gonna Snow Again (Poland, Malagorzata Szumowska, Michal Englert)
New Order (Mexico, Michel Franco)
Les Notres (Canada, Jeanne Leblanc)
Sin (Russia/Italy, Andrey Konchalovsky)
The Strong Ones (Chile, Omar Zuniga Hidalgo)
What Do We See When We Look at the Sky? (Georgia, Aleksandre Koberidze)
499 (Mexico/US, Rodrigo Reyes)
The Big Scary “S” Word (Yael Bridge)
A Crime on the Bayou (Nancy Buirski)
Four Hours at the Capitol (Jamie Roberts)
Just Don’t Think I’ll Scream (France, Frank Beauvais)
Not Going Quietly (Nicholas Bruckman)
Revolution of Our Times (Hong Kong, Kiwi Chow)
Sisters with Transistors (Lisa Rovner)
’Til Kingdom Come (Israel, Maya Zinshtein)
The Velvet Underground (Todd Haynes)
Wojnarowicz: F**k You F*ggot F**ker (Chris McKim)