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Despite the Ongoing Pandemic, Quality Movies Returned to Screens This Year. Here Are Our Favorites.

To close out 2021, we’re handing out some homemade film accolades.

Don’t call it a comeback…because that might be too optimistic for 2021 as a movie year. Theaters still teeter, and the highest-grossing domestic list largely ranges from unoriginal to anonymous.

Nevertheless, bright spots shone through. Top-flight directors—from Steven Spielberg to Jane Campion to Paul Thomas Anderson—roared back, and the best of midpandemic productions finally came to the fore. Even if it’s more confusing than ever as to where, how soon and at what cost you can watch new movies, quality projects returned to screens. So to close out the year, let’s hand out some homemade film accolades.

Best Animated

First nod goes to The Mitchells vs the Machines. This Lord and Miller-produced romp feels like it was written by an exploding joke machine yet tenderly captures family chaos before and during a robot uprising. (See also: Flee, Luca.)

Best Cinematography

Joel Coen’s first solo directorial outing, The Tragedy of Macbeth, owes everything to its astounding visual language. Cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel often shoots the Scottish Play from towering heights, as though Macbeth were unfolding in shadowy, limestone pits. (See also: The Power of the Dog, The Killing of Two Lovers.)

Best New Face

Let’s be literal and just talk about Mike Faist’s face in West Side Story. The 29-year-old theater star pops from moment one as Jets gang leader Riff, with an angular, vulpine visage that morphs fascinatingly from playful to dangerous. (See also: Ariana DeBose, Kodi Smit-McPhee.)

Best Actor Turned Filmmaker

It’s a Rebecca Hall-Maggie Gyllenhaal tie. The former directed Passing, a complex racial period piece featuring two of the year’s most effective yet difficult performances by Tessa Thompson and Ruth Negga. Then, the elder Gyllenhaal cleverly adapted The Lost Daughter, a split-timeline Elena Ferrante novel about the scars of parenthood.

Guiltiest Pleasure

There’s no good reason to like Jungle Cruise. It humanizes conquistadors, the Rock’s conception of movie stardom remains bafflingly lame, his romantic chemistry with Emily Blunt is laughable. But director Jaume Collet-Serra’s keen sense of pacing both through and between action set pieces, mixed with Jesse Plemons’ bugnuts turn as Kaiser Wilhelm’s son, makes this a million times more watchable than good.

God’s Loneliest Man of 2021

Forty-five years after Taxi Driver, Paul Schrader still searches the soul of his Travis Bickle archetype. In The Card Counter, Oscar Isaac crafts a new career highlight as the journaling, whiskey-slurping gambler amid a crisis of faith. The key to Schrader’s latest living hell? Just watch that light in Isaac’s eyes flicker off and on, off and on.

Best ‘60s Music Documentary Featuring Troves of Untold Footage

How soon before we can *get back* to talking about Todd Haynes’ The Velvet Underground? Though dwarfed in scope and discourse by Peter Jackson’s Beatles behemoth, Haynes’ latest is a masterful ode to the Velvets—formally matching their ambitious, elusive and singular impact. (See also: Summer of Soul.)

Best Ridley Scott Movie

Despite losing $70 million, The Last Duel boasts one of the year’s best scripts—a Rashomon-esque story of rape and revenge, with medieval brutality both damning and energizing. (See also: House of Gucci, if you prefer overacting to storytelling.)

Artist of the Year

No one was busier and more acclaimed than Ryusuke Hamaguchi, the Japanese auteur behind love-and-loss epic Drive My Car and the vignette triptych The Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy. And if that’s not enough, he also co-wrote Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s Wife of a Spy.

Best Car Sex (With Car, Not in Car)

It’s easy to write about Titane as shock cinema, but look past the insanity of its automobile erotica, and Julia Ducournau’s body horror extravaganza (like 2016′s Raw) offers deft execution of a perversely humane story.

Purest Adrenaline Hit

Measured only by octane, this one goes out to Janicaza Bravo’s Zola, a thrilling adaptation of a tweet thread into an unpredictable sex-work odyssey. Hang on.

Best Oregon Feature

May the livestock run be unbroken. Last year belonged to Kelly Reichardt’s First Cow. This year, it’s indisputably Nicolas Cage and Pig. How do we lure another genius to Oregon to make the preeminent alpaca picture? (See also: Luz.)

Your standard Top 10 list:

1. The Green Knight

2. Licorice Pizza

3. The Power of the Dog

4. The Last Duel

5. The French Dispatch

6. Bergman Island

7. The Worst Person in the World

8. Petite Maman

9. Zola

10. West Side Story