Cooper Hoffman and Alana Haim in Licorice Pizza. (Metro Goldwyn Mayer Pictures)

The year movies turned from pop myths to anti-myths

Movie culture reached a turning point in 2021 where the glut of content, streaming or in theaters, overwhelmed concerns about quality, craft, and the destructive messages being sold to us. Film artists competed with virtue-signaling, and political distraction was confused with emotional and visual satisfaction.

This year’s Better-Than List is, more than ever, a reminder of the standards we must hold to keep our sanity and to maintain culture that preserves our humanity and morality. Every Better-Than choice offers alternatives to deceit, ineptitude, and nihilism.

About Endlessness > Dune, The Green Knight

Roy Andersson’s series of comic-tragic tableaux depict the modern Christian quest for salvation that is abandoned by Denis Villeneuve’s inexpressive sci-fi and David Lowery’s fractured mythology. Most sci-fi movies, like pseudo-myths, are about meaninglessness.

Annette > West Side Story

Leos Carax’s ravishing existential opera addresses artistic crisis, that creative challenge that Steven Spielberg’s remake turns into no-hope social-justice platitudes.

Coming 2 America > Judas and the Black Messiah

Eddie Murphy and Craig Brewer’s superior sequel hilariously corrects Hollywood’s fashionable, insulting race hustle. The year’s best Hollywood movie is a welcoming diaspora comedy.

Shoplifters of the World > Licorice Pizza

Stephen Kijak’s tribute to The Smiths captures the inextinguishable flame of pop-culture fraternity, going deeper than Paul Thomas Anderson’s clever ’70s period piece.

France > Drive My Car

Bruno Dumont’s media heroine reveals contemporary psychic turmoil while Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s Chekhov imitation distracts from it. Dumont mixes genres to pungent effect while Hamaguchi tells the wrong story and lards it with “art.”

Summer of 85 > Belfast

François Ozon revisits ’80s AIDS-era innocence for a bold cultural confession, while Kenneth Branagh turns Irish ethnic conflict into totally inauthentic pop nostalgia.

Sin > Benedetta, House of Gucci

Andrei Mikhalkov-Konchalovsky’s awesome Michelangelo biopic explores the price and sacrifice of achieving greatness. Paul Verhoeven and Ridley Scott exploit the business of religion and fashion for shameless Euro-trash.

Zack Snyder’s Justice League, Army of the Dead, Army of Thieves > No Time to Die

Snyder finally got his chance to fulfill the visionary possibilities of pop myths, but the James Bond franchise-holders kill off the formerly fun, expressive brand.

Georgetown > The Card Counter

Christoph Waltz’s unsparing Beltway satire is more humane than Paul Schrader’s wallow in way-late recriminations about the Iraq War.

Love Is Love Is Love > Passing, The Lost Daughter

Eleanor Coppola’s wisdom about female experience is missing from Rebecca Hall’s and Maggie Gyllenhaal’s miserable tales about racial and gender identity. Coppola doesn’t fit the feminist model, she transcends it.

Saint-Narcisse > The Power of the Dog

Bruce LaBruce dares explore the mystique of sexual identity, creating his own, rich mythology, but Jane Campion demeans the Western genre as if to justify the misandry and homophobia of pseudo-feminism.

Sublet > Parallel Mothers

Eytan Fox forces a haughty New York Times journalist in Israel to rethink his place in the world, but Almodóvar’s bisexual melodrama turns his usual charm into a pretext for lamenting Spain’s Fascist past. Remarkable compassion vs. embarrassing guilt.

Licorice Pizza > The Worst Person in the World

Anderson’s wild, evocative anecdotes about freewheeling youth best Joachim Trier’s exploits that tirelessly defend self-obsessed Millennials. It’s the difference between romance and cynicism.

Dear Comrades! > The Tragedy of Macbeth

Konchalovsky’s view of recent Soviet history (featuring a powerful performance by Yuliya Vysotskaya) parallels the contemporary U.S. Communist threat, but Joel Coen traduces Shakespeare to flatter contemporary U.S. political trends. A vibrant history lesson vs. a lesson in thespian vanity.

Pig > King Richard

Nicolas Cage’s artisan-avenger makes Michael Sarnoski’s folktale a fable about personal conviction, but Will Smith misses the point in his latest egotistical biopic.

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