2021 was a strange year for movies. In our not-quite-post-pandemic world (but probably as close as we’ll get for the time being), moviegoers have gradually been returning to theaters and getting the thrill of watching something on the big screen for the first time in almost two years.
A lot of pandemic-delayed blockbusters finally came out this summer and fall, like “Dune,” “No Time to Die,” and Marvel’s “Eternals” and “Shang-Chi.” Awards season is also in full swing, bringing an avalanche of Oscar contenders to theaters and streaming services.
Amid the endless array of viewing options, we wanted to highlight some of the year’s smaller movie gems that are worth seeking out this holiday season, either in theaters or at home — whatever is most comfortable.
Natalie Morales’ fantastic directorial debut manages to make the format of “two people talking on Zoom” fresh rather than formulaic. Co-written by and co-starring Morales and Mark Duplass, the two-hander follows the profound friendship that develops between Spanish immersion teacher Cariño (Morales) and her student Adam (Duplass), whose Zoom sessions become a much-needed source of connection for two lonely and broken people. While it’s clear the movie was made at the start of the pandemic, it’s also evergreen and unfolds in wonderfully unexpected directions. — Marina Fang
It used to be that romantic comedies followed a formula: Man and woman meet; hijinks ensue on their way to falling in love; man and woman fall out; man and woman then rekindle their romance hotter than ever. Some more recent offerings subvert these tropes, but too often, even they come across as methodical. But writer-director Nikole Beckwith’s “Together Together” is decidedly singular, challenging our cultural obsession with pairing people for the purpose of romance as it follows the relationship between a single man (Ed Helms) and his gestational surrogate (Patti Harrison). Beckwith gives her protagonists space to pursue their individual aspirations — for her, it’s using the money to go to college; for him, it’s fatherhood — as they enter a mutually beneficial nine-month relationship that will irrevocably shift their lives. Meaningful conversations and self-reflections abound, making it one of the healthiest relationships we’ve seen on screen. — Candice Frederick
In the spirit of transparency, writer-director Julia Ducournau’s “Titane” is about as bonkers as a film can be. Just consider the scene that viewers have been puzzling over for months: The heroine, automobile model Alexia (Agathe Rousselle), has passionate sex with a car — and is impregnated. She also has a titanium plate inside her head following a terrible car crash she was involved in as a child. Oh, and she moonlights as a serial killer. But that’s all madcap window dressing for a narrative that, like most in the horror genre, points to something much deeper and, subsequently, bleaker. Female sexuality, childhood trauma and intense familial longing burst to the fore of an uncomfortably riveting tale that might have fallen apart without Rousselle’s essential performance. She brings such humanity to the seemingly absurd that you can’t help but fall in love with it. — Candice Frederick
I made my return to the theaters to see the long-anticipated “Zola” amid the ongoing pandemic. It was worth the wait. Based on a viral 2015 Twitter thread by A’Ziah “Zola” Wells, a waitress from Detroit, the film follows Zola (played by Taylour Paige) as she travels with a new “friend,” along with the friend’s boyfriend and her “roommate,” to Tampa, Florida, to make some quick cash. Of course, the trip is a disaster, with wild moments at every turn. The casting is near flawless: Paige is amazing, Colman Domingo brings it as always, Nicholas Braun (aka Cousin Greg, for you “Succession” stans) is pitch perfect, and Riley Keough is the ideal foil to Zola. Directed by Janicza Bravo, the compelling dark comedy clocks in at just under 90 minutes, my favorite genre of film. — Erin E. Evans
There’s a remarkable sense of anonymity throughout writer-director Jonas Poher Rasmussen’s astounding documentary about an Afghani man, Amin Nawabi, recounting his harrowing experience immigrating to Denmark. Much of that comes from the fact that it is an animated rendering of Rasmussen’s interviews with Nawabi, visually distancing the audience from the film’s subject. Nawabi at one point even asks to turn his back to the camera in order to make it through his own story. And yet, there’s an intimacy that forms between the audience and Nawabi through his narration, describing everything from when he realized as a child that he was gay to the horrible conditions that forced him to separate from his family to finally finding love. A narrative as much about trauma as it is about triumph, “Flee” is a transcendent accomplishment. ― Candice Frederick
Starring Joaquin Phoenix as Johnny, a radio producer tasked with taking care of his nephew Jesse (Woody Norman) for a few weeks during a family crisis, writer-director Mike Mills’ lovely and tender dramedy is about how it’s OK to not know what you’re doing. We’re all just trying our best. It’s a wonderful change to see Phoenix playing a warm and pleasant person, and the relationships between Johnny, Jesse and Viv (Gaby Hoffmann), Johnny’s sister and Jesse’s mom, are real and lived-in. Like “Beginners” and “20th Century Women,” Mills’ other deeply observant movies about parents and children, “C’mon C’mon” is sweet without being cloying. Still, it’s hard not to get misty-eyed. — Marina Fang
Director Stanley Nelson proves once again why he is one of the foremost documentarians of his generation with his latest offering, which revisits the 1971 Attica prison uprising from multiple perspectives. Through interviews with former prisoners, politicians, mediators and families of hostages, this 50-year-old story about how more than 2,000 male prisoners, many of them Black and brown, seized control of the facility is retold through a compellingly clear lens. Chronicling the prisoners’ doomed ambitions, systems of oppression, and food and hygiene restrictions, as well as other dehumanizing practices that led to the men’s furor, “Attica” puts a sharper focus not just on what they were fighting against but also on the harsh repercussions. It’s an exhaustive and sobering reflection. — Candice Frederick
Premiering this Christmas, Pedro Almodóvar’s latest collaboration with Penélope Cruz features some of their best work in years. The intertwining stories of Janis (Cruz) and Ana (newcomer Milena Smit), who become friends after giving birth on the same day and sharing a hospital room, form the backbone of the movie. Almodóvar then connects their present-day story about motherhood and friendship to the past: Janis is trying to recover the remains of her great-grandfather, one of scores of victims of the Spanish Civil War whose bodies were buried in mass graves and never identified. The parallel storylines come together in beautiful and shattering ways. — Marina Fang
“Amy Tan: Unintended Memoir”
Some say the best stories are ones you stumble upon, while others say the best are the ones that are your own. For Amy Tan, it’s both. The celebrated author behind one of the all-time best novels inspired by her own family history, “The Joy Luck Club,” more directly details her personal narrative in this introspective documentary from the late director James Redford. While hard at work on her next story, Tan ― unexpectedly even to her ― begins excavating passages from her past as she embarks on a self-reflective journey. It results in an at times harrowing and ultimately cathartic experience unraveling family trauma and criticism of her own books and prominence as a political Chinese American voice. It’s tremendous to witness. — Candice Frederick
It took nearly a century for Nella Larsen’s seminal book “Passing” to make its way onto the screen, but it arguably couldn’t have come at a better time. That’s not to imply that the story of two Black women grappling with (and for one, masking) their Blackness and other aspects of their identities wouldn’t have been relevant throughout the Harlem Renaissance, when it was first published. Rather, the narrative, adapted and directed by Rebecca Hall and starring Ruth Negga and Tessa Thompson, says as much about the phenomenon of passing for white as it does about our inability to look at our own relationships with identity before passing judgment on someone else’s. Through gorgeous black-and-white cinematography, Hall sensitively peels back the layers of her heroines’ complex humanities. — Candice Frederick
Every year, amid the typically lauded male coming-of-age narratives, there’s often a small film that doesn’t fit inside those standards and gets relegated to the margins. But writer-director Sian Heder’s “CODA,” which centers on the only hearing person (Emilia Jones) in a deaf family ― the title is an acronym for “child of deaf adults” ― refuses to go down quietly. Heder follows Ruby (Jones) on her journey as the sole speaking voice for her angler family, a teenage girl on the brink of adulthood who feels a sense of push-pull between her commitment to her family and her dream to become a singer, one considered an affront to her parents. That conflict is compelling enough, but Seder — adapting director Éric Lartigau’s 2014 drama “The Bélier Family” — peers in a little further, to consider the plight of a family trembling under the weight of freedom and dependence. It’s both wrenching and exhilarating to witness each member wrestle with what that means for them, individually and as a loving unit. — Candice Frederick
“The Lost Daughter”
Throughout her three-decade career, Maggie Gyllenhaal has proven that she can embody the complexities of flawed female characters with empathetic ease as an actor. So it should come as no surprise that she beautifully handles the experiences of the imperfect protagonist in the screen adaptation of Elena Ferrante’s novel “The Lost Daughter.” In the movie, Gyllenhaal’s directorial debut, a mother (Olivia Colman) on a Grecian vacation contends with complicated feelings over not being able to love her two daughters when they were children, as she becomes friendly with a young mother (Dakota Johnson) on the beach experiencing her own maternal discontent. Wonderfully presented in two different timelines, “The Lost Daughter” captures not only the discomfort of motherhood but also what it’s like to wrangle with a lack of remorse about it. It is a deeply fascinating character study. — Candice Frederick
“Tick, Tick... BOOM!”
“Hamilton” and “In the Heights” creator Lin-Manuel Miranda makes an impressive directorial debut with this Netflix adaptation of a semi-autobiographical musical by “Rent” creator Jonathan Larson. At the movie’s center is a career-best performance from Andrew Garfield as Larson, capturing what it’s like to move to New York as an artist with big dreams — and wondering if it’s time to give it all up. The movie’s use of different framing devices and other visual and narrative innovations helps distinguish it from more standard stage-to-screen adaptations. For fans of musicals, there are a lot of fun cameos and clever Easter eggs. And it serves as an unexpectedly poignant homage to the late Stephen Sondheim (played here by Bradley Whitford), who died just a week after the movie’s release. — Marina Fang