KTEP - El Paso, Texas

Justin Chang

Compartment No. 6 largely unfolds aboard a passenger train rattling its way through Russia sometime during the late '90s. But it feels like a throwback to an older tradition of railway movies, with their promise of transcontinental intrigue and fateful connections. It isn't a thriller like Alfred Hitchcock's The Lady Vanishes, or Andrei Konchalovsky's Runaway Train. But there's a steady, thrumming tension to every scene, a sense that anything could go wrong at any moment. At times, Compartment No.

In Jean Renoir's 1939 masterpiece, The Rules of the Game, a character famously observes, "The awful thing about life is this: Everyone has their reasons."

In The Tragedy of Macbeth, director Joel Coen slashes away at Shakespeare's text, distilling every scene to its furious essence. At 105 minutes, this is a shorter Macbeth movie than most. The best-known lines are still there, of course — "Is this a dagger which I see before me" and all the rest. But the story of Macbeth's murderous rise to power is told with ruthless concentration.

2021 was the year that some of us returned to movie theaters, cautiously but gratefully. After a year spent watching screeners at home, it was wonderful to see great new movies on the big screen again. And there were great movies — so many that, as usual, I had trouble narrowing my year-end list down to 10. And so here are my 11 favorite movies of 2021, which, per my annual tradition, I've arranged as a series of grouped titles. I do this because it never ceases to amaze me how every year, so many of my favorite movies seem to be in conversation with each other.

A lot of us had our doubts when we heard that Steven Spielberg would be directing a new version of West Side Story, and not just because of Hollywood remake fatigue. In the decades since it first appeared on Broadway in 1957, the Romeo and Juliet-inspired story of two warring New York street gangs has generated more than its share of criticism, especially over the writing and the casting of its Puerto Rican characters.

Don't be scared off by the epic running time of Drive My Car; it may run just shy of three hours, but it flies by like a dream. The director Ryûsuke Hamaguchi has adapted and significantly expanded a 2014 short story by Haruki Murakami, but nothing about it feels belabored or drawn out. There's more going on in any five minutes of Drive My Car than in some movies in their entirety.

The words "Licorice Pizza" are never spoken in Paul Thomas Anderson's new movie, Licorice Pizza, and so you may wonder where the title comes from, especially if you weren't in Southern California in the '70s. It's the name of an old chain of record stores that were around when Anderson was growing up in the San Fernando Valley.

The great New Zealand writer-director Jane Campion has long been acclaimed for her films about the complex inner lives of women, notably in 19th-century dramas like The Portrait of a Lady, Bright Star and especially The Piano. Her tense and gripping new movie, The Power of the Dog, thus marks something of a departure. It stars a superb Benedict Cumberbatch as a 1920s Montana rancher named Phil Burbank who's the very picture of rugged American masculinity.

It was Federico Fellini who once said that "All art is autobiographical; the pearl is the oyster's autobiography." He knew of what he spoke, given his fondness for self-portraiture in films like 8 1/2 and especially Amarcord, his 1973 classic about his own childhood.

Copyright 2021 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST:

It's commonly assumed that film critics hate most sequels, though the truth is we try to keep an open mind. A few months back, I felt it was only fair to point out that the ninth Fast & Furious movie wasn't nearly as terrible as the eighth Fast & Furious movie. And while I'm mixed on the latest adaptation of Dune, I'm as excited as anyone for Dune: Part Two.

Dune may not be the best new movie you'll see this year, but it's easily the most new movie you'll see this year. I left the theater feeling overwhelmed and a little parched, as though I'd spent two hours and 35 minutes being pummeled by hot desert winds and blinding sandstorms. The world of Frank Herbert's novel feels big and immersive here in a way it never has on-screen, with its futuristic spacecraft, cavernous fortresses and, of course, terrifying sand worms.

The Last Duel is a sprawling, often ungainly movie — a talky, three-part Rashomon-style drama that mixes past and present-day politics — but there's a bracing intelligence to its messiness. It opens the way a lot of Ridley Scott period epics do, on a gloomy day with two sides preparing for battle.

It's been more than a year since No Time to Die was supposed to open in theaters, and while the pandemic is far from over, the movie's long-overdue release feels like a good omen for an industry that could use it.

Blue Bayou moved me a lot more than I expected or maybe even wanted it to. Scene by scene, this story of a Korean American adoptee facing deportation is frequently heavy-handed and overwrought. There were moments when I was certain I loathed it — only for it to reel me back in. By the end, I found myself wiping away furious tears, a little angry perhaps at the filmmakers for their sledgehammer tactics, but much angrier at the injustice of what they show us: an immigration system that can tear families apart.

The signature Paul Schrader image is of a lonely middle-aged man nursing a glass of booze and writing in his diary, pouring out all his dark thoughts and guilty secrets. In the 1992 film Light Sleeper, it was a drug dealer having a midlife crisis.

The best moments in Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings are the ones where you almost — almost — forget you're watching a Marvel movie. Some of the hallmarks are still there: the deft comic banter, the high-flying action, the passing references to other characters and events in the Marvel universe.

Copyright 2021 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

The average musical biopic — and most of them are pretty average — follows a predictable arc: the troubled childhood marked by flashes of genius; the record deals and hit album montages; the marriages torn apart by affairs, addiction and the ravages of fame. Even when these clichés are drawn from real life, it's disappointing to see great artists reduced to formulas.

2021 is shaping up to be a significant year for movie musicals: We've already seen In the Heights, and several more stage-to-screen adaptations are headed our way, including Dear Evan Hansen; Tick, Tick ... Boom!; and Steven Spielberg's remake of West Side Story.

As powerful a grip as King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table still exert on our imaginations, there haven't been enough great or even good movies made about them. There have been some, of course — I'm fond of the lush Wagnerian grandeur of John Boorman's Excalibur and will always love Monty Python and the Holy Grail — but they're more the exception than the rule.

The 60-year-old South Korean writer-director Hong Sang-soo is one of the most tirelessly productive filmmakers working today. He's made more than two dozen films over the past couple of decades, sometimes churning out one or even two a year. The consistency and quality of his work have earned him a significant following at film festivals and among arthouse audiences, who've come to love his wry and melancholy movies: slender, low-budget dramedies that are often focused on the fractious dynamics between women and men.

Having been fortunate enough to attend the Cannes Film Festival every year since 2006, skipping this year's event wasn't easy. Cannes is the most important event of its kind: a thrilling, maddening 10-day marathon of red-carpet glamor and behind-the-scenes deal-making as well as a showcase for some of the best new movies from all over the world.

Eight years ago, Steven Soderbergh announced his retirement from feature filmmaking. Happily for us, it turned out to be short-lived.

By curious coincidence, two of the lovelier movies I've seen so far this summer — the family-friendly animated fable Luca and the German art-house fairy tale Undine — tell stories about mythic sea creatures making contact with the human world.

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