The Best Films at the 2021 New York Film Festival

The movies returned to Lincoln Center this year, and we watched dozens of 'em.

the power of the dog
'The Power of the Dog' | Netflix
'The Power of the Dog' | Netflix

New York's famed Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts is finally bustling with life again after pandemic had kept its houses dark. The opera is back and so is the ballet, but most excitingly for our purposes, the New York Film Festival returned in full force with an incredible selection of movies from around the world. The public screenings kicked off September 24 with the premiere of The Tragedy of Macbeth directed by Joel Coen, one half of the Coen brothers, and starring Denzel Washington and Frances McDormand; and the following two weeks New Yorkers were treated to Jane Campion's The Power of the Dog, Denis Villenueve's Dune, Pedro Almodóvar's Parallel Mothers, and so many more highly anticipated movies. Read on to discover our favorites.

belle movie 2021
GKids

Belle

Release date: Winter 2021
Director: Mamoru Hosoda
Cast: Kaho Nakamura, Takeru Satoh, Tina Tamashiro
Why it's worth seeing: Combining genres, fairytales, and multiple animation styles, Belle takes place inside a virtual social media network, where users log on and generate an avatar based on their own biometric makeup. Young schoolgirl Suzu hasn't been able to sing ever since tragedy struck her family, but in the digital world of U she exists as Belle, a pink-haired pop idol whose songs instantly make her a worldwide viral sensation. But when she meets the Dragon, a beastly resident of U who terrorizes public gatherings as he's hunted by the authorities, she's consumed by the mystery of his true identity, determined to help him escape from his pain-ridden prison. To say that the film is visually stunning would be an understatement, and the story will catch you off guard in the best way, a "Beauty and the Beast" riff full of surprises that deserves its 14-minute Cannes standing ovation. (Watch the trailer) —Emma Stefansky

benedetta
IFC Films

Benedetta

Release date: December 3
Director: Paul Verhoeven
Cast: Virginie Efira, Daphne Patakia, Charlotte Rampling, Lambert Wilson
Why it's worth seeing: "French lesbian nun historical drama" sounds like a joke, or like the typical sort of trashy European film festival offering that ultimately ends up being morbid and depressing, but Paul Verhoeven's Benedetta, based loosely on Judith C. Brown's book Immodest Acts: The Life of a Lesbian Nun in Renaissance Italy (which itself is based on actual facts), is none of those things, a shocking, sexy, hilarious film that is hysterical in every sense of the word. When novice Benedetta (Virginia Efira) joins a convent in 17th century Italy, she begins having visions of Jesus looking like something off the cover of a romance novel, striding towards her across golden fields and galloping on horseback to save her from ruffians. But the arrival of a new nun, Sister Bartolomea (Daphne Patakia), throws a wrench into Benedetta's relationship with the Lord, the two consummating their forbidden affection, igniting the ire of the Abbess (Charlotte Rampling), and devising a scheme to take over the convent itself. (Watch the trailer.) —ES

bergman island
IFC Films

Bergman Island

Release date: October 15
Director: Mia Hansen-Løve
Cast: Vicky Krieps, Tim Roth, Mia Wasikowska, Anders Danielsen Lie
Why it's worth seeing: The legendary Swedish auteur Ingmar Bergman hangs like a shadow over the latest from Mia Hansen-Løve's film which asks questions about inspiration in the story of a married filmmaker couple on a retreat. Vicky Krieps and Tim Roth play Chris and Tony, both directors and screenwriters themselves, who take a trip to Fårö, the spot where Bergman lived and made some of his most famous films. They are sleeping in the bed where parts ofScenes from a Marriage was filmed, if there weren't enough dread hanging over their coupling. But Bergman Island is not exactly about a marriage falling apart. Rather, it's about what we ask from art and artists and how we choose to utilize that in our own work. While Tony is diligently working on a screenplay, Chris is searching for what her next project will be, looking to establish herself independently of her influences, almost rejecting the darkness that has come to define Bergman's work. About midway through the narrative, a film within a film—Chris' idea—starts to take over, starring Mia Wasikowska as another woman who comes to this gorgeous and strange locale searching. (Watch the trailer.) —Esther Zuckerman

goats in il buco, il buco movie 2021
Lucky Red

Il Buco

Release date: TBA
Director: Michelangelo Frammartino
Cast: Paolo Cossi, Jacopa Elia, Denise Trombin
Why it's worth seeing: Michelangelo Frammartino's first film in a decade (after his strange, meditative 2010 film Le Quattro Volte, about a lonely farmer experiencing transmigration of the soul) is half based on fact, and half a sort of magical realist fable. In 1961, a team of speleologists (cavers) traveled to southern Italy to map the unseen caves in the Calabria region, and descended into the then-un-climbed Bifurto Abyss, at the time the third-deepest cave in the world, appearing on the surface as a long, thin gash in the earth carefully avoided by a local farmer's herd of cows. Frammartino spent a year and a half collecting a cast of real cavers, who used the same equipment as their 1960s counterparts, to descend and reenact the first expedition, lighting the walls of the cave with their headlamps while the rest is left in darkness. Most of the film is not subtitled and the dialogue is deliberately unintelligible, allowing the breathtaking landscapes and the claustrophobic yet beautiful cave chambers speak for themselves. —ES

c'mon c'mon
A24

C'mon C'mon

Release date: November
Director: Mike Mills
Cast: Joaquin Phoenix, Woody Norman, Gaby Hoffmann
Why it's worth seeing: Director Mike Mills follows up his wonderful 2016 film 20th Century Women with another tender, empathetic look at an unconventional family, featuring Joaquin Phoenix in one of his warmest performances to date. (Seriously: This Joaquin is miles away from Joker Joaquin, and for that we should be grateful.) Phoenix plays Johnny, a sort of Ira Glass radio host type, who reconnects with his sister Viv (Gaby Hoffmann) on the anniversary of their mom's death. Viv is dealing with her ex's mental health issues and asks Johnny to watch her odd, intelligent 9-year-old Jesse (Woody Norman), the kind of kid who pretends to be an orphan and asks his mother about her (nonexistent) dead children. Less a simple story about Johnny learning to parent, and more an exploration of childhood and memory, C'mon C'mon is lovely through and through. (Watch the trailer.) —EZ

drive my car
Janus Films

Drive My Car

Release date: November 24
Director: Ryûsuke Hamaguchi
Cast: Hidetoshi Nishijima, Tôko Miura, Masaki Okada, Reika Kirishima
Why it's worth seeing: The opening credits come 46 minutes into Ryûsuke Hamaguchi's 3-hour film about people grappling with their grief as they rehearse a production of Chekhov's Uncle Vanya. This prologue introduces the viewer to Yûsuke Kafuku (Hidetoshi Nishijima), a famed theater actor and director, and his wife, Oto, a screenwriter. Their relationship is bound by sex and storytelling: After they have intercourse, she weaves a tale. Without spoiling too much of what takes place: Their relationship is cut short, and the rest of the film tracks Mr. Kafuku as he ventures to Hiroshima to stage a multilingual version of the Russian classic. There, he is instructed that he must have a driver, which is how Misaki Watari (Tôko Miura), a stoic young woman, enters his life. What follows is a lengthy exploration of loss and love that uses Chekhov—as well as the Haruki Murakami story on which this project is based—as a reference point, but enters its own beguiling territory. (Watch the trailer.) —EZ

dune timothee chalamet rebecca ferguson
Warner Bros.

Release date: October 22
Director: Denis Villeneuve
Cast: Timothée Chalamet, Oscar Isaac, Rebecca Ferguson, Zendaya
Why it's worth seeing: The noble House Atreides has been gifted control and residency of the planet Arrakis, also known as Dune, the home of spice, the most precious substance in the universe. Whoever controls spice production on Arrakis will become very rich indeed. But the Atreides family and their vassals need to tread lightly: The gift of Arrakis is definitely a test, and likely a trap, overseen by the Atreides' powerful enemies, the brutish House Harkonnen. Duke Leto Atreides (Oscar Isaac) and his family, Bene Gesserit concubine Lady Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson) and their fey son Paul (Timothée Chalamet), arrive on the planet ready to ally themselves with the blue-eyed Fremen, the native human population who have developed ways of surviving in the wasteland. The first part of Denis Villeneuve's adaptation of Frank Herbert's groundbreaking novel is visually stunning and endlessly exciting, the sort of thing fans have been waiting decades to see. (Watch the trailer.) —ES

flee
NEON

Flee

Release date: December 3
Director: Jonas Poher Rasmussen
Why it's worth seeing: Flee, which was picked up out of Sundance bydistributor Neon, is truly unique. This largely animated documentary is a memoir come to life that is as much about the story it's telling as it is about what the act telling that story means to the subject. Director Jonas Poher Rasmussen allows Amin Nawabi to narrate his experiences at his own pace. At present, Nawabi is an Afghan refugee living in Copenhagen with his boyfriend and working with an academic, but Flee uses drawing and archival footage to describe the arduous process of escaping the Mujahideen. The documentary appears to be as revelatory for Nawabi as it is for the audience watching it. Flee is not just about what Nawabi endured, but about the psychological tolls of a childhood constantly on the run. (Watch the trailer.) —EZ

the french dispatch
Searchlight Pictures

The French Dispatch

Release date: October 22
Director: Wes Anderson
Cast: Bill Murray, Tilda Swinton, Jeffrey Wright, Frances McDormand, Timothée Chalamet
Why it's great: A bicycle tour of a whimsically named city. A profile of an imprisoned artist on the cusp of a new movement. A student protest with all the whirlwind emotion of a Shakespeare tragedy. A dinner party unexpectedly bearing witness to a kidnapping. One thing ties all of these vignettes together: The French Dispatch, a magazine that connects the French expat town of Ennui-sur-Blase with Liberty, Kansas, managed by a beloved editor and populated by a series of eccentric journalists. Wes Anderson’s newest film has all of his arch wit and fussily decorated settings, and perhaps his most eclectic cast of characters yet, in a delightful tour through his love of the New Yorker, of magazines in general, and of writers who consider blazers over turtlenecks their daily uniform. (Watch the trailer.) —ES

the lost daughter
Netflix

The Lost Daughter

Release date: December 17 in theaters; December 31 on Netflix
Director: Maggie Gyllenhaal
Cast: Olivia Colman, Dakota Johnson, Jessie Buckley, Ed Harris
Why it's worth seeing: Maggie Gyllenhaal's directorial debut, based on a novel by Elena Ferrante, is a story about motherhood that will crawl under your skin and stay there. It centers on Leda (Olivia Colman), a professor on a solo Greek vacation. From her perch on a beach chair she watches as a loud, aggressive family invades the beach, but her gaze centers on a quiet, beautiful mother named Nina (Dakota Johnson) and her crying child. Through watching this woman struggle with the toddler, Leda is flooded with memories of her own two daughters. As a young mother, Leda (played in flashbacks by the wonderful Jessie Buckley) was frustrated and frequently angry at her kids. She wasn't an abusive parent, but she was one that didn't fit naturally into the maternal stereotypes forced upon women. In the present, Leda is drawn closer and closer to Nina and her own doubts about her assigned role. It's a tricky piece that Gyllenhaal executes almost flawlessly, creating a vivid universe of women and their internal strife. —EZ 

memoria tilda swinton
Neon

Memoria

Release date: December 26
Director: Apichatpong Weerasethakul
Cast: Tilda Swinton, Juan Pablo Urrego, Elkin Diaz
Why it's worth seeing: The latest dreamlike fantasy from Thai director Apichatpong Weerasethakul (Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, Cemetery of Splendour) is perhaps his most straightforward movie to date, though that doesn't mean it's any less bizarre. A woman living in Colombia (Tilda Swinton) believes she is hallucinating a strange, loud noise she hears occasionally with no warning, and embarks on a mission to find out what it is, visiting a sound studio, a fossil storage facility, and traveling deep into the South American jungle looking for answers. Trust us when we say that the answer, when it finally comes, is mind-blowing. Right after its NYFF premiere, distributor Neon announced that the film would begin a nationwide tour starting this December, playing in one-week engagements city by city with no plan for a streaming or home release, so keep your eyes peeled for release dates near you. (Watch the trailer.) —ES

parallel mothers
Sony Pictures Classics

Parallel Mothers

Release date: December 24
Director: Pedro Almodóvar
Cast: Penélope Cruz, Milena Smit, Aitana Sánchez-Gijón
Why it's worth seeing: After the deeply personal Pain and Glory, Pedro Almodóvar is back in melodrama mode with Parallel Mothers. It's a tricky movie, with a fantastic Penélope Cruz performance at its center, that meshes melodrama with a corner of Spanish political history. Cruz plays Janis, a fashion photographer who begins an affair with a forensic anthropologist Arturo (Israel Elejalde). She also recruits Arturo for a project close to her heart: exhuming a mass grave of those who were executed during the Spanish Civil War, which she believes contains the remains of her great-grandfather. Janis becomes pregnant and decides to have the baby as a single mother. In the hospital she meets Ana (Milena Smit), a teen also giving birth, and they develop an instant rapport, which will come into play later when they meet again, after Janis suspects their children were accidentally swapped at birth. It's a soap opera plotline that Almodóvar brings new nuance to when he wraps it up a framework of generational trauma. (Watch the trailer.) —EZ

passing
Netflix

Passing

Release date: October 27 in theaters; November 10 on Netflix
Director: Rebecca Hall
Cast: Ruth Negga, Tessa Thompson, André Holland, Bill Camp
Why it's worth seeing: There's a delicacy to actress Rebecca Hall's directorial debut, Passing, an adaptation of Nella Larsen's 1929 novel about two childhood friends who reunite in adulthood and find their lives in a state of contradiction. Irene (Tessa Thompson) is living in Harlem as part of the upper echelon of Black society with her husband and two children; Clare (Ruth Negga) has been passing as a white woman and is married to a racist man. A chance meeting brings them together after years apart and ignites mutual insecurities, especially when Clare begins to infiltrate the life with which Irene previously thought herself content. Filmed in black and white and featuring a stunning jazz score by Dev Hynes, Hall keeps the tension between her protagonists at a simmer, the roiling frustrations and desires lingering just beneath the surface. Both Thompson and Negga are extraordinary, playing their characters' internal emotions through glances and subtle shifts in their tone of voice. Hall's film has style in spades, but it's all in service of the tricky feelings underneath the pretty people and parties. (Watch the trailer.) —EZ

petite maman
NEON

Petite Maman

Release date: TBA
Director: Céline Sciamma
Cast: Joséphine Sanz, Gabrielle Sanz, Nina Meurisse
Why it's worth seeing: Director Céline Sciamma, fresh off the success of Portrait of a Lady on Fire, brings us this gorgeous small-scale gem of a movie about the ways parents and children attempt to understand one another. Nelly (Gabrielle Sanz) is an 8 year old whose grandmother has just died. With her parents, she goes to her mother's childhood home in the woods to clear out the rest of the deceased's belongings. Nelly's mom abruptly leaves to process her grief, and the girl is left to her own devices while her father finishes the rest of the tasks. Playing in the woods, she encounters another child her age, who she quickly realizes is the younger version of her own mother Marion (Joséphine Sanz—yes, the actors are sisters). As Nelly and Marion bond, Nelly gains a new respect for her mother's dreams and sorrows. It's a short movie, but one that carries a deep weight. (Watch the trailer.) —EZ

the power of the dog
Netflix

Release date: November 17 in theaters; December 1 on Netflix
Director: Jane Campion
Cast: Benedict Cumberbatch, Kirsten Dunst, Jesse Plemons, Kodi Smit-McPhee
Why it's worth seeing: The Piano director Jane Campion's return to feature filmmaking after more than a decade away is an absolute triumph, a chilling exploration of a man driven to cruelty by the pursuit of a masculine ideal in the American West. Benedict Cumberbatch plays Phil Burbank, a rancher who prides himself on the dirt under his fingernails and his ability to live with as few amenities as possible. He worships a rider named Bronco Henry and calls his softer brother George (Jesse Plemons) "fatso." When George marries a widowed innkeeper Rose (Kirsten Dunst), Phil makes it his mission to mentally torture her. He is similarly inclined to do that to her son, Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee), who arrives at the ranch on summer holiday from college studies, but instead decides to take him under his wing, figuring he can mold him into the kind of man he thinks is worth being. Campion's direction is dangerously erotic, while Benedict Cumberbatch gives one of his all-time great performances as a man so uncomfortable in his own skin he inflicts his pain upon others. (Watch the trailer.) —EZ

red rocket
A24

Red Rocket

Release date: December 3
Director: Sean Baker
Cast: Simon Rex, Bree Elrod, Suzanna Son
Why it's worth seeing: Director Sean Baker follows up The Florida Project with another—almost more relentlessly uncomfortable—look at an unglamorous, unvarnished corner of America. Red Rocket stars Simon Rex (who you might know as a one-time MTV VJ) as Mikey Saber, a porn star who returns to his hometown of Texas City on the Gulf Coast in the summer of 2016. He's bruised and beaten and has some crazy story about MS-13, and asks his estranged wife, also a former porn star (Bree Elrod), if he can crash with her and her mother. While in town he starts dealing weed and pursuing a not-quite-18-year-old who goes by Strawberry (Suzanna Son) and works the register at a local donut shop. Mikey sees the savvy Strawberry as his ticket back into the porn industry. If that sounds gross, well, that's also the point. Mikey has a certain motor-mouthed charm, but he is also a vicious narcissist who cares about little but his own success. It's an entrancing performance by Rex, and another triumph for Baker, who is never afraid to turn away. (Watch the trailer.) —EZ 

the souvenir part ii
A24

The Souvenir Part II 

Release date: October 29
Director: Joanna Hogg
Cast: Honor Swinton-Byrne, Tilda Swinton, Charlie Heaton, Joe Alwyn
Why it's worth seeing: The Souvenir Part II will likely go down in history as one of the best and most unlikely sequels ever to grace the screen, perhaps competing with Before Sunset for that title. Joanna Hogg follows up her 2019 piece of autofiction, the story of a young filmmaker Julie (Honor Swinton-Byrne), who falls for a mysterious older man Anthony (Tom Burke), and battles her own naiveté as their romance grows more and more troubled. Part II is a direct continuation of Julie's story as she deals with the aftermath of Anthony's death and approaches her film school graduation. Hogg's screenplay is more straightforward this time, but no less incisive, a portrait of a young woman finding her identity as an artist and trying to understand her own ignorance. (Watch the trailer.) —EZ

Titane
Neon

Release date: October 1
Director: Julia Ducournau
Cast: Agathe Rousselle, Vincent Lindon
Why it's worth seeing: Let's just say this: Julia Ducournau's Palme d'Or winning film starts with a female serial killer having sex with a car that impregnates her. It gets even wilder from there, and also strangely sweet. Basically, it's the kind of movie you have to see to believe. Ducournau's debut feature was the gruesome cannibal tale Raw, and she once again does not hold back in this fable about Alexia (Rousselle), a woman with a metal plate in her head from a automotive accident as a child who has a taste for murder and an attraction to cars. With the police on her tail, she disguises herself as a long missing boy and is quasi-adopted by the boy's father (Lindon), who will do anything to fill the hole in his heart, even believing that this silent, pregnant woman excreting oil is his son. Titane is visceral and often disgusting, but ultimately a story about familial devotion and the kind of love parents and children seek from one another. (Watch the trailer.) —EZ

the tragedy of macbeth
A24

Release date: December 25 in theaters; January 14 on Apple TV+
Director: Joel Coen
Cast: Denzel Washington, Frances McDormand, Corey Hawkins, Harry Melling
Why it's worth seeing: From the very first frame of Joel Coen's The Tragedy of Macbeth, the A24 and Apple TV+ production, there is a sense that this film is deeply haunted. Macbeth has always been the most mystical of Shakespeare's tragedies, but Coen and his cast, led by Denzel Washington and Frances McDormand, capitalize on the eeriness in the text by mashing up theatrical and cinematic language. In this abridged but faithful interpretation, Coen combines experimental theater—one woman, Kathryn Hunter plays all the witches, contorting her body and plunging the audience into the uncanny valley—with the expressionistic. Washington is extraordinary as an especially weary Macbeth whose ambition is matched by his exhaustion. (Watch the trailer) —EZ

the velvet underground
Apple TV+

The Velvet Underground

Release date: October 15
Director: Todd Haynes
Why it's great: Todd Haynes’ documentary of the coolest band there ever was is a comprehensive overview of The Velvet Underground’s most, well, groundbreaking material, as well as an empathetic and unflinching portrait of the volatile personas and the experimental pressure cooker that made it all happen. From Lou Reed to Andy Warhol to Nico, Jonathan Richman, David Bowie, Amy Taubin, from 56 Ludlow St to the Cafe Bizarre, the film paints a picture of subversive artists obsessed with music, film, sex, counterculture, and the 60-cycle hum of their apartment fridge, incorporating it all into some of the best music ever written. (Watch the trailer.) —ES

the worst person in the world
Neon

The Worst Person in the World

Release date: TBA
Director: Joachim Trier
Cast: Renate Reinsve, Anders Danielsen Lie, Herbert Nordrum
Why it's worth seeing: Director Joachim Trier's The Worst Person in the World opens by announcing that it's a story told in 12 chapters with a prologue and an epilogue. That might initially sound intimidating, but this warm and inviting film about a young woman basically just trying to figure shit out is anything but. The revelatory Renate Reinsve plays Julie, who we learn in that opening section was a type-A student wanting to be a doctor until she got distracted and tried psychology, and then tried photography and then tried writing. She meets Aksel, an older comic book artist and they fall in love and move in together. Trier finds plenty to mine in Julie's uncertainty—about her future and her desire for children—and Reinsve is sensational playing all of her nerves and sensuality. It's a very funny film with jokes about farts and buttholes, but also an astoundingly creative one that will take your breath away as it moves through its structured narrative. (Watch the trailer.) —EZ

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