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Best movies of 2021: Almodóvar just gets better, family films make a comeback

(Joanne Lee/The Washington Post; Alejandro Lopez Pineda/Sony Pictures Classics; Rob Youngson/Focus Features; iStock)
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It’s been another weird year in movieland. Some covid-delayed titles finally saw the light of day — or digital illumination — on the big screen, to audiences’ delight (“No Time to Die” — welcome back and so long, Daniel Craig), indifference (“The Last Duel” — Matt Damon in a mullet is a hard pass, who knew?) or something in between (“Dune,” discuss!).

Two years into a global pandemic that forced people to self-isolate, social distance and reexamine the minutiae of their lives, the films made during the period reflected the zeitgeist. Many of the year’s finest movies possessed a reflective quality, whether dealing with the vagaries of memory (“Belfast,” “Licorice Pizza”), irretrievable loss (“Pig,” “The Lost Daughter”) or simply what it means to be human (“C’mon C’mon”).

Any one of those films could have earned a place on the year’s best list. When it comes to my personal favorites, the titles are admittedly eclectic, a little bit eccentric and maybe even inexplicable: They’re just the movies I enjoyed watching the most, full stop. It’s been another weird year, after all. We needed as much unalloyed pleasure and beauty as we could find.

'Parallel Mothers'

Pedro Almodóvar has been so good for so long that viewers are in danger of taking him for granted. Please don’t. Working with Penélope Cruz at the top of her own game, Almodóvar has created another luscious Sirkian melodrama, this time about women who give birth on the same day and the confusion that ensues. With his characteristic attention to tone, detail, visual design and thematic depth, Almodóvar executes a cinematic hat trick, combining cinematic artistry, extravagant entertainment and emotional seriousness with finesse and seriousness of purpose.

'I Carry You With Me'

In documentary director Heidi Ewing’s narrative feature debut, two young men in Mexico nurture dreams of being together while pursuing their own creative and professional ambitions, none of which turns out to be possible without emigrating to the United States. Bringing her observational gifts to a real-life story, Ewing expanded the language of fact-based filmmaking, taking the audience inside her protagonists’ story through an exquisite blend of artifice and actuality.

'Zola'

It was inevitable that one day a full-length film would be adapted from a Twitter thread. It was not inevitable that it would be this smart, visually vibrant and courageously acted. Director Janicza Bravo pushed the wit and creeping unease of A’Ziah King’s original tweetstorm to the limit in a road movie that beckoned with seductive hedonism, only to curdle into something more malign almost immediately; Taylour Paige and Riley Keough play the conflicting emotions with surpassing skill and subtlety. “Zola” was the high-wire act of the year, never once putting a foot wrong.

'The Water Man'

David Oyelowo made an assured directorial debut with this appealing coming-of-age film that recalled classic family films like “Stand by Me” and “Holes,” as well as Steven Spielberg’s early oeuvre. Oyelowo managed to make a wholesome, multigenerational story that wasn’t gratingly saccharine or ickily sentimental. He also proved equal to the challenge of mashing up genres, conveying the realism of a young boy dealing with a distant father and ill mother, and building a convincing fantasy world that he escapes into. Hollywood doesn’t often make movies like this anymore; with “The Water Man” being a huge global hit in 2021, maybe they’ll start.

'CODA'

This charmer was a hit out of Sundance, where its attributes as a crowd-pleaser were evident even in the absence of crowds. Newcomer Emilia Jones played a high school senior experiencing the usual anxieties of separating from her parents and starting life on her own — made more complicated by her role as the only hearing member of the family. Funny, touching, full of sweet romance and some winning glee-club numbers, “CODA” also reintroduced viewers to Marlee Matlin, who delivered a spot-on portrayal of a proud and sometimes endearingly clueless mom.

'Candyman'

Even those suffering from “elevated horror” fatigue (hi!) perked up at director Nia DaCosta’s smart, sophisticated sequel to the classic 1992 film. Here, DaCosta returned the story to its Chicago roots, using it as scaffolding to create an intriguing, visually stunning meditation on gentrification, generational trauma and the hype and hypocrisies of the art world.

'Mass'

This shattering drama, about two couples confronting each other after a shared tragedy, took the subject of a school shooting out of the realm of opportunism and editorialization and put it squarely within the core of hearts that are trying desperately to heal. Reed Birney, Jason Isaacs, Ann Dowd and Martha Plimpton deliver brave, unflinching portrayals of characters who might best be described as walking wounded; under the superb writing and direction of Fran Kranz, they perform a chamber piece of grief, connection and catharsis in real time.

'Summer of Soul (... Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised)'

Part time capsule, part present-day commentary, this documentary about the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival revisits a historic series of concerts that were lost to history, despite a lineup that included Stevie Wonder, Sly and the Family Stone, Gladys Knight and the Pips and Nina Simone. Working with gorgeous archival performance footage and moving reminiscences from eye witnesses, first-time director Questlove takes the audience on an exhilarating journey of rediscovery, never neglecting to interrogate why these events were forgotten in the first place.

'The Power of the Dog'

In Jane Campion’s unsettling adaptation of Thomas Savage’s novel, Benedict Cumberbatch delivers a chilling portrayal of Phil Burbank, a sadistic rancher in 1920s Montana who meets his match when his brother (Jesse Plemons) opens their home to a new wife (Kirsten Dunst) and her son (Kodi Smit-McPhee). Campion films “The Power of the Dog” like a classic western, complete with cattle drives and wide open vistas, but it’s really a psychological thriller — a survival tale full of shocking twists, turns and moments of unexpected beauty.

'Cyrano'

Between “In the Heights,” “Annette,” “Tick, Tick … BOOM!” and Steven Spielberg’s glorious revival of “West Side Story,” it’s been a good year for musicals. Joe Wright’s adaptation of Erica Schmidt’s 2018 stage production might be the most transporting of them all. Reprising the role he originated, Peter Dinklage brings deep reserves of pathos — and more than a little edge — to the title character, whose unrequited love for Roxanne chafes against his own hair-trigger temper and bristling self-regard. Wright’s alternately lavish and spare production works in well-tempered harmony with songs written by the National’s Aaron and Bryce Dessner. Admittedly, those numbers begin to sound repetitive and lyrically blunt, but a climactic sequence, set amid soldiers writing letters home from the front, captures the heartbreak and waste of war with aching simplicity.

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