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The Best Shots of 2021

Movies mostly returned to the big screen this year, and filmmakers like Paul Thomas Anderson, Leos Carax, and Denis Villeneuve filled them with scenes of longing, mystery, and stunning scale

Ringer illustration

“The movies are still big. It’s the screens that got small,” I wrote last year while inventorying 2020’s best shots. In 2021, the screens got big again, and the most powerful viewing experiences came courtesy of movies—and directors—who knew how to fill them, whether with rapturous close-ups, dazzling camera movement, or looming, lunar expanses of negative space. As usual, this list is anything but definitive, and the question of what makes for a great shot is deeply subjective. For me, it’s the feeling that comes when you’re looking at something for the first time but it already feels like an instant replay—like something that had always been there. Here are 10 frames from 2021 that were already living rent-free in my mind’s eye.

Annette

Directed by Leos Carax (Amazon Studios)

Amazon Studios

Time and again in Annette, Leos Carax catches his characters—human and marionette alike—gazing off toward some distant vanishing point. As befits a fable about the ravages of celebrity and fame, they’re blinded by the stars in their eyes. Washed up on a rock after a boating accident that claimed the life of his wife Ann, Adam Driver’s caustic stand-up comic Henry McHenry sees their daughter Annette looking at the moon. The distance between the pair is exaggerated by Carax’s ingenious use of blocking and focus; they’re survivors but still very much in danger. What Henry perceives in the distant enchanted figure of Annette—a wooden girl with an angelic voice—is an avatar of his failures as a husband and a protector, as well as a potential meal ticket. His back to the camera, motives unknowable, he’s made into a looming predatory presence; rather than sharing his point of view, we’re observing it.

What Annette sees in the moon, meanwhile, is even more ambiguous—a vision as shrouded in mystery as the fog rolling in off the water. Without putting too fine a point on its meanings, the shot sums up the aching, melancholy atmosphere of a rock musical attuned to sensations of yearning, filled with characters whose sight lines, like their desires, exceed their grasp.

Candyman

Directed by Nia DaCosta (Universal)

Universal

Nia DaCosta’s remake of Bernard Rose’s 1992 urban-legend classic was ultimately more interested in subverting its source material than being scary, for better and worse. The idea of filmmaking-as-film-criticism is really potent only if the filmmaking excels, and Candyman 2.0 jabs at its predecessor without landing any uppercuts. The one running motif that does pack a subtextual wallop is the way that up-and-coming painter Anthony (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) encounters the title character mostly through reflective surfaces; whether at home or at the gallery, he’s meeting the enemy as his own distorted mirror image. In this very suggestive visual context, the horror icon manifests as something latent and ephemeral; where Rose’s film saw him trying to break through to the other side, here he’s already lurking in the hearts and minds of his Windy City constituency. DaCosta’s sinister tableau juxtaposes Anthony’s damaged, bandaged hand with Candyman’s trusty, rusted hook, a dark parody of Michelangelo’s fresco on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. “Be my victim,” Tony Todd purred to his terrified, mesmerized prey once upon a time; in DaCosta’s modern update, victim and victor become mingled as dead ringers.

Dune

Directed by Denis Villeneuve (Warner Bros.)

Warner Bros.

Denis Villeneuve is a gifted director across the board, but he’s an absolute master of scale and dread. What that means for his adaptation of Frank Herbert’s Dune is that a lot of its finest moments embrace gigantism: massive spaceships touching down from cloudless skies; armies moving in formation; those unfathomable sandworms squirming seismically beneath desert sands. It’s been a while since a widescreen blockbuster felt so big, which is why despite being a bit of a niche intellectual property, Dune dwarfs 2021’s other Event Movies. But Villeneuve’s film also works in those microscopic moments when the director and his cinematographer, Greig Fraser, home in. While trying to educate himself about his adopted home planet of Arrakis’s harsh environment, Timothée Chalamet’s Paul Atreides takes in a holographic presentation that entrances him to the point that he doesn’t notice a bug-line drone closing in on him. The scene is engineered cleverly around variables of vision, with Paul shown to be at once an acute observer and blind to the dangers in his midst; he looks without seeing. It’s also an excuse for Villeneuve to indulge in the kind of grim, spindly beauty that defines the Dune-i-verse in every elaborately conceived frame. The holographic plant’s branches are gorgeous not in spite of their undulating strangeness but because of them. Chalamet’s Paul is compelling not in spite of being upstaged by this 3-D spectacle but because we know the character is still waiting to come more fully into focus.

The Beatles: Get Back

Directed by Peter Jackson (Disney+)

Disney+

Peter Jackson, you cheeky bugger. By placing the “Lennon/McCartney” song credit for “Get Back” over an image that speaks to the former’s absence—check out the empty chair, screen right—Jackson is making a point about the composition of one of the Beatles’ greatest hits. That Paul was the driving force behind “Get Back” was already clear from the rest of the remarkable sequence that shows him picking that irresistible riff out of thin air in between cups of tea—a magic trick that George and Ringo do their best to shrug off as business as usual. And yet as the rest of Jackson’s dangerously addictive eight-hour, fly-on-the-wall epic shows, credit is a tricky thing when it comes to the Beatles. As the fractiousness of the Let It Be sessions recedes, skeletal melodies get fleshed out into the pop masterpieces we know and love, and ownership seems beside the point. Also, beyond any intended kidding of John as the Man Who Wasn’t There, the shot takes on a moving, ghostly quality, playing on our knowledge that in just over a decade, the Fab Four would be permanently down a member, a loss that rendered all talk of reunions and reconciliations not only moot but morbid. If it’s possible to turn a relatively static and unremarkable archival image into a stanza of poetry, Jackson pulls it off beautifully.

The Inheritance

Directed by Ephraim Asili (Grasshopper Film)

Grasshopper Film

The homage to Boyz n the Hood’s opening “Stop” sign zoom-in might be incidental, but either way, the beginning of Ephraim Asili’s The Inheritance is testing our reading comprehension. The cognitive dissonance between the phrases “do not enter” and “what’s mine is yours” sets up the dialectic between exclusion and community that runs through The Inheritance’s funny and fact-based evocation of life inside a Black Marxist collective in West Philadelphia—the same neighborhood that once played host to the doomed members of MOVE and whose current residents bear the weight of that history. As the movie goes on, the group’s rituals and rhetoric prove simultaneously edifying and annoying. What does it mean to live communally, and when do you draw the line at letting more people in? No 2021 directorial debut displayed as much rigorous, formal humor as Asili’s debut, with its bold, striking use of color (plenty of deep reds), cluttered interior spaces, and omnipresent text, whether scribbled in pages or scrawled on walls. It’s not often that semiotics are laugh-out-loud hilarious, but The Inheritance and its multiple killer conceptual sight gags are in a league of their own.

Licorice Pizza

Directed by Paul Thomas Anderson (MGM/UA)

MGM/UA

It’s obvious that the two protagonists of Licorice Pizza shouldn’t be together. They know it, and so do we. But there’s plenty of wiggle room in the space between acknowledgement and longing, and Paul Thomas Anderson is a supple enough filmmaker to invite us inside to get (un)comfortable. Lying together in the hazy, early-morning state just before unconsciousness, 16-year-old Gary and his much-more-grown-up pal Alana are separated by a thin sliver of real estate on a bulging water bed; the illumination through the plastic makes it look like they’re bobbing on the ocean, or maybe even back in the womb. In a movie suffused by pangs of adolescent desire, Gary’s restraint is at once agonizing and admirable, and for all of its circa 1973 specifics—its evocation of the San Fernando Valley as old Hollywood crumbles and a decade of malaise sets in—Licorice Pizza briefly and indelibly touches on the universal. Whether or not you’ve actually been where Gary and Alana are in this moment of almost-but-not-quite, you’ve been there.


Malignant

Directed by James Wan (Warner Bros)

Warner Bros.

The nod here is to Alfred Hitchcock and Psycho’s legendary, predatory overhead shot of Mrs. Bates killing that nosy detective on the stairway of the Bates Motel. Except that James Wan—working with a low-ish budget and the priceless creative freedom paid for by doing Aquaman—keeps the bird’s-eye view going past the point of suspense until it turns into a kind of virtuoso directorial joke: “Hitchcock” in quotes, closer to the florid run-on sentences that make up Brian De Palma’s cinematic vocabulary. It takes skill to pull off a moving, carefully choreographed long take at this vertiginous distance, and the fun of Malignant is watching Wan apply his sophisticated technique to ridiculously dumb material. The difference between this top-down slasher slapstick and any number of so-called elevated horror movies is that the director is actually aiming low—he’s just out there having fun. Malignant is a ridiculous movie in all the best ways, less so-bad-it’s-good than so-silly-it’s-sublime, and this twisty, show-off set piece deserves to be entered as evidence in any case for the defense.

Passing

Directed by Rebecca Hall (Netflix)

Netflix

In Rebecca Hall’s impeccably executed debut, Passing, two light-skinned Black women living in New York in the late 1920s meet by chance and rekindle a high school friendship; the difference between them is that Irene (Tessa Thompson) lives openly as a Black woman while Clare (Ruth Negga) has convinced her social circle—and, crucially, her white, racist husband John (Alexander Skarsgard)—that she’s Caucasian. Irene is fascinated and horrified at once; the film proceeds as a cautionary tale through her eyes. What pressurizes Passing at all times is the possibility that Clare will be exposed—not that she’ll say the wrong thing, but that she’ll stand in the wrong light. The impressionistic sequence when Irene, licking her wounds after a fight with her husband Brian (André Holland), looks around her bedroom in a medicated fugue state conveys this anxiety about appearances failing without a word of dialogue. Staring up at a crack in the ceiling paint as time slows to a crawl around her, Irene might be meditating on the choices that kept her from the same kind of gilded upward mobility as her more moneyed friend, or on the fissures forming in her marriage—or on the chance that’s Clare’s masquerade could break wide open. In the space of one shot, the blank canvas becomes marred—it’s as if reality itself were suffering a hairline fracture. Hall’s formalism is impressive, and suggests that Passing won’t be a one-shot deal behind the camera.

The Power of the Dog

Directed by Jane Campion (Netflix)

Netflix

There are lots of strange creatures hiding in plain sight in The Power of the Dog, and the most dangerous and exotic specimen is Phil Burbank (Benedict Cumberbatch), a rough-hewn ranch-hand whose ruggedness belies an educated man’s sophistication. It also belies something else: Phil’s alpha-male act—never louder or more obnoxious than when in the company of his meek brother and business partner George (Jesse Plemons)—seems to be overcompensating for something. Thus, when Jane Campion’s camera catches him bathing in a secluded glade with a handkerchief belonging to his former (male) mentor, it’s like a dent in his armor (or maybe a closet door pried ajar). There’s something ineffably beautiful and sad about the choreography here, with the handkerchief being used as fetish object and a veil. Always a singularly tactile filmmaker, Campion renders touch and texture palpable here, capturing the lone un-self-conscious moment of a character who’s otherwise performing at all times. There are lots of stolen glances in The Power of the Dog, but none that makes us feel that we’re getting away with something quite like this.

The Tragedy of Macbeth

Directed by Joel Coen (A24)

A24

The casting of stage veteran Kathryn Hunter as the Weird Sisters in Joel Coen’s monochrome run-through of Macbeth is the film’s smartest stroke; not only is she at home with the language, but she has the physical dexterity to pull off the three-for-one conceit that finds her talking amongst herselves as well as to Denzel Washington’s title character. But even the most elastic actress can’t be be in three places at once without some help, and Coen and his cinematographer, Bruno Delbonnel, keep coming up with creepy, ingenious visual effects to juice her scenes—none better than this one, with the unholy trinity bridging the elements between land and water. In his recent films with brother Ethan, Coen has been crafting increasingly morbid mages, and in that context, The Tragedy of Macbeth’s funereal vibe feels like a culmination. The film’s beauty is almost entirely death-tinged, with head-on compositions that feel like staring at the abyss, as if waiting to encounter something wicked. Right this way, here it comes …

Adam Nayman is a film critic, teacher, and author based in Toronto; his book The Coen Brothers: This Book Really Ties the Films Together is available now from Abrams.

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