“Movies are the most powerful empathy machine in all the arts.” — Roger Ebert
Empathy — the ability to understand and share the feelings of another.
There’s simply no art form quite like a movie. From playful children’s comedies to bracing meditations on death and dying, the format contains multitudes and can take us places few other mediums can. Giant sci-fi epics can make us feel like we’re journeying among the stars, and intimate dramas can force us to walk a mile in the shoes of people we may have absolutely nothing in common with on the surface. Sometimes we experience cinema communally, and the themes and ideas of those global films can often have sweeping societal impacts. Regularly we watch films alone in our homes, but those filmmakers are somehow able to reach through the television and penetrate our individual hearts. Movies engage almost all of our senses (I’ve even seen a smell-o-vision movie before, so at least once a movie has grabbed all 5 of mine) in a way little else can.
I write this piece in a time of profound divide. War rages in Ukraine, a pandemic has ravaged our world and shattered any sense of unity many of us once felt, racial reconciliation feels farther off than ever. It’s in these dark times that we often retreat into escapist fare at the multiplexes. But honestly, cinema also offers a way to engage with the world. We can explore darker thoughts, or be inspired by strangers, or gain insight into our own lives through the experiences of others. We can find hope and redemption enough to get us through to the next day. We can find strength to do the next right thing. We need cinema now more than ever, and 2021 gave us some powerful and dark and inspiring films to process and experience amidst the profound challenges we universally face.
10: The Lost Daughter
“Children are a crushing responsibility”
I’ll admit that I’m kicking this list off with an extremely odd entry in The Lost Daughter. More of a psychological thriller or existential mystery than a drama, this is actress Maggie Gyllenhaal’s directorial debut and an adaptation (by Gyllenhaal herself) of the novel of the same name by Elena Ferrante. Later in this list I’ll speak of inspiring kids and lovable kids. The Lost Daughter is more of a “fuck them kids” kind of movie, and it’s extremely brave in this regard. Exploring a taboo that I haven’t meditated much on in life, The Lost Daughter wrestles with the crushing and daily grind of parenthood. It highlights those times that film and culture so often brush past… the times when we’re at our wit’s end and it feels like our kids are relentlessly torturing us. It dwells in that dark place of “what if I just walked away?” Written, directed by, and starring some of our most incredible modern female filmmakers, The Lost Daughter is deeply uncomfortable and filled with characters who don’t behave in rational ways or conform to norms, and who we may have trouble rooting for. But I also felt a deep kinship with these human beings who are occasionally dominated and consumed by the struggles in their lives rather than the joys. It’s a brave film in every sense of the word and while it won’t necessarily inspire you, it will put you in the shoes of people who do things that society might consider repulsive and humanizes those things just enough to help you understand how some families collapse and what the fallout from that collapse might really look like.
Where to watch The Lost Daughter: Netflix
9: Lily Topples The World
“I feel like I’ve found myself because of dominoes”
Lily Topples The World charmed me and changed me. Lily Hevesh is a professional domino artist. You probably didn’t know that those existed. And in some ways, they kind of don’t. But Lily is changing the world so that they will. In this film you’ll see a remarkable and extremely gifted young woman simply follow her passion with skill, wisdom, and determination. She’ll go her own way, with the support of her family, and bypass the traditional life path of college and career in order to take her passion for building the most elaborate domino displays you’ve ever seen in your life and make that her career. Lily inspires me as someone who is so deeply passionate about something they just can’t see their life without that thing. For her it’s dominoes, and for me it’s movies. I felt right there with her as she agonized over pursuing her dreams versus pursuing what seems more sensible or practical. But Lily is also very young, of a totally different generation than me, and she changed me with this story. I came to see some of the beauty and exposure and acceptance that can be found in the YouTube community through this story. Lily was only able to channel her incredibly niche talent into a global phenomenon thanks to becoming a YouTube star and creator. Lily Topples The World is simply inspiring, visually arresting, and challenging for creative types. You’ll be amazed at her talent, impressed by her tenacity, and challenged by her resourcefulness.
Where to watch Lily Topples The World: Discovery+
8: C’Mon C’Mon
What if your uncle was basically This American Life’s Ira Glass? C’Mon C’Mon tell the story of a boy (Woody Norman as Jesse) whose mother (Gabby Hoffman as Viv) and father (Scoot McNairy as Paul) are struggling, and who, as a result, gets to spend a lot of time with his single/childless uncle (Joaquin Phoenix as Johnny). A bit of a hang out movie, we just go through a few weeks or so in the lives of Jesse and Johnny and the film just absolutely nails what it’s like to be a kid, and what it’s like to be a parent, and how massively challenging it is to navigate daily life, and how essential it is to have support and family and to be known and loved. The key to C’Mon C’Mon’s success is its mundanity. There’s no high concept here. It’s just a kind of glimpse into the lives of some upper middle class people and daringly takes us into the experience of being a kid. What would we do if our father was having mental health crises and our mother was forced to travel and we ended up with our kind and totally-untrained-to-handle-kids uncle? We’d probably have a lot of questions, and we’d struggle with loneliness, and we’d probably be really annoying at times. But there would also be some magic that only care and intimacy can bring about. That’s C’Mon C’Mon, the ultimate “best uncle ever” movie.
Where to watch C’Mon C’Mon: Digital rental or purchase
Perhaps the most audience friendly and uplifting/inspiring film on my list this year, Coda is a crowd pleaser that might almost flirt with being a melodrama if it weren’t for some of the components that make it truly unique and special. The titular “coda” (child of deaf adults) is Ruby (Emelia Jones in a breakout performance), who is the only hearing person in her family of fishermen, but she’s also a gifted vocalist who wants nothing more than to sing. One of the first widely released films ever made to feature multiple deaf cast members, Coda is a banner film for inclusion and representation of the deaf community on screen, but it’s also a moving look into what deafness means for this family, and how hard we must work as a family to fully love and accept one another for who we are. Ruby’s family relies on her to translate for them and they’re required to have a hearing crew member aboard their ship after an incident occurs which Ruby’s family simply did not hear. With that being the case, and with her family unable to hear Ruby’s incredible gifts for song, how can they ever truly support one another? It’s the stuff of memorable drama, and it’s captured with an authenticity that’s never been seen before in American cinema.
Where to watch Coda: AppleTV+
6: Riders Of Justice
One of 2021’s best overall films, best action films, and most overlooked films… I admit that the above trailer does not appear to indicate that is also one of the most profound empathy building films of the year. But this is a film whose tone is unlike most anything I’ve seen before, and which is nigh upon impossible to capture in a trailer. Mads Mikkelsen’s Markus is a man of war, acquainted with dealing death. But when his wife is killed in a subway bombing before the very eyes of his daughter Mathilde, it creates a new dynamic. Mathilde needs a father, and Markus needs revenge. And when a bunch of misfit, extremely online academics approach him with their theory about the bombing, all hell breaks loose. But unlike a typical revenge/action/thriller tale, the truth surrounding what consequences revenge-taking really has, and the desperate need we all have for community and a sense of belonging, all bubble up to the surface and this dark revenge comedy morphs into a meditation on the forged family and how essential being known and being loved is to our human experience. That Riders Of Justice can pull off ALL of this in a single film’s runtime is incredible and it must be seen to be believed.
Where to watch Riders Of Justice: Hulu + Digital Rental & Purchase
5: The Mitchells Vs. The Machines
“The Mitchells have always been weird. And that’s what makes us great!”
This film is… not like the others. Lighthearted, wacky, epic in scope, and family friendly, The Mitchells Vs. The Machines is nonetheless one of my very favorite film experiences of 2021, by far my favorite animated blockbuster of the year, and it tells a story that deeply touched me. Yes, it’s about a sci-fi robot apocalypse, but it’s also about the Mitchells, a struggling family who has to rise to the occasion and work out their relational issues if they’re going to get down to the business of saving the planet. Not merely window dressing, the reconciliation of Katie and her dad Rick’s relationship is truly the beating heart of this film, and it hits home. Katie and Rick used to be incredibly close, and as Katie leans into technology and filmmaking, Rick doubles down on woodwork, tools, and generally old school approaches. Their drift apart is pronounced, and Katie is about to head off to college when the whole world changes in the blink of an eye. The beauty and humanity with which this filmmaking team treats this relationship is incredible as it takes place against the backdrop of a comedic apocalypse, but it’s no less profound amidst all that chaos.
Where to watch The Mitchells Vs. The Machines: Netflix
Flee has triumphed already in ways few films have by being nominated for Oscars in a few very different categories: Best Animated Film, Best Documentary Feature, and Best Foreign Language Film. An animated documentary? Yes, very much so. Flee tells the story of Amin, who grew up in Afghanistan and was forced to become an immigrant when things got bad there. The story of a gay man, the story of a family separated, a story of home, a story of one man needing to come to terms with his own past so that he can surrender to the potential of a future with a husband whom he’s never told his story to. Most of us will never have a journey anything like Amin’s. But through Amin’s bravery in telling his story, and through filmmaker Jonas Poher Rasmussen’s creative approach of documenting and animating Amir’s story, we’re able to connect to the universal ideas of what physical safety and belonging and home really mean through the incredibly specific story of one extraordinary man.
Where to watch Flee: Hulu
“We don’t get a lot of things to really care about”
There’s a short story and Christ allegory called The Ragman by Walter Wangerin, Jr. that I couldn’t get out of my head whilst watching Pig. Mind you, I’m quite certain this story wasn’t a part of filmmaker Michael Sarnosky’s vision when crafting Pig. But in The Ragman you’ve got a luminary figure who finds the suffering of his city, gives them brand new linens to replace their old, and in turn he takes on their suffering whilst healing those he gave to. In time the Ragman is diminished unto death. Nicolas Cage’s character in Pig, Rob, lives out in the woods of Portland with only his truffle hunting Pig. Every once in a while a contact from the city comes to buy the truffles off of him. And someone gets greedy, taking from him his only asset left: his pig. So Rob sets out to get his pig back. And while marketing for Pig seemed to indicate a John Wick style revenge odyssey, we instead get somewhat of a suffering savior film quite akin to The Ragman. Cage’s portrayal of Rob is cutting, disheveled, and driven. Rob, it turns out, is so much more than he appears at first glance. And as the film progresses he takes on more of the wounds from his singular journey. He’s out to get back his pig, but in the process he’ll cut through every ounce of bullshit in the Portland high end restaurant scene and he’ll bring a bizarre sense of healing and hope to the world he left behind.
Where to watch Pig: Hulu
2: Station Eleven
“I was lucky. I had a grown up who cared about me.”
I’m breaking my own rules here by including this limited series in my list of movies, but it’s my list, and this piece of art got its hooks into me on a deep level that’s partially a result of its format. I remain entirely unfamiliar with the book on which this unique apocalyptic tale was based, but showrunner Patrick Somerville (The Leftovers, Maniac) has crafted something singular here: a contained, 10 episode, epic narrative about a great pandemic that brings an immediate end to the world as we’ve known it, and the 20-years-later rebirth of a new society out of the ashes of the old. So while no, you can’t escape feelings and thoughts around our current pandemic, Station Eleven straddles a virtually perfect balance between evoking our current situation and also offering up something new. In our zombie-saturated entertainment landscape, where the end of the world brings about our absolute basest instincts, Station Eleven undoubtedly gets dark, but it also relentlessly explores the ways that art and creation permeate our human existence and bring about inspiration, channel our desperation, and occasionally usher in liberation or damnation. An ensemble cast, to be sure, ultimately Station Eleven centers around Kirsten (played brilliantly by Matilda Lawler when she’s young, and equally powerfully by Mackenzie Davis when she’s grown) and Jeevan (Himesh Patel), total strangers who connect at precisely the time the world ends, and whose adoptive father/daughter dynamic provides some of the most moving character arcs of the year. Epic and intimate, relevant and prophetic, riveting and paced with room to breathe, Station Eleven truly excites with a grand, sweeping tale, and digs down deep into the creative processes and communal experiences of art and religion and how creation is intimately tied to our human experience.
Where to watch Station Eleven: HBOMax
Remove your sandals, for this is hallowed ground.
The most profoundly moving cinematic experience of 2021 isn’t represented at the Oscars in any category. But writer/director Fran Kranz seemingly embarked on a mission of pure hubris (why on earth would the “collapsible bong” guy from Cabin In The Woods think HE was the guy to tackle subject matter this profound, with his very first film no less?) and rather than collapsing under the pressure of telling the tale of a summit between the parents of a school shooter and the parents of a victim of that same school shooting, he instead digs deep down into our human marrow and tells an unflinching and brave story. Mind you at this time of writing I haven’t experienced a school shooting that has impacted my immediate family, but not a single note of this film rang inauthentic to me. Never have I been so riveted, so reduced to anguish, so moved by the human capacity to forgive, by a film that, on its face, is little more than 4 people talking around a folding table set up in a church parlor. But oh, the sheer power that is wrought from this summit, this church parlor meeting, this holy encounter. Kranz’ script goes deep into the lives of our living characters, and the “missing” ones, those whose lives have been ended by gun violence. Rising and falling with the ebbs and flows of human posturing and human desperation, the script is exquisite, and the actors (Jason Isaacs and Martha Plimpton as the parents of the victim and Reed Birney and Ann Dowd as the parents of the shooter) bring career best performances that had to have drawn on their deepest reservoirs as actors.
There’s almost no chance that I’ll ever watch Mass again. It’s just too raw. It’s just too harrowing. But I recommend every single American adult experience this for themselves in order to look upon the very best and the very worst of who we can be.
Where to watch Mass: Hulu
And I’m Out.