Best Motion Picture
Winner: “Shiva Baby”
At the beginning of “Shiva Baby,” Danielle (Rachel Sennott) wraps up business with her sugar daddy. He gives her money, thinking he’s paying her way to law school. And then she’s off to a shiva, where everyone and their mother — including her family and high school ex Maya (Molly Gordon) — are waiting to bug her about her accomplishments and plans (she’s making her own major, with no post-grad plans). It’s a master class in setting the table. Then Danielle’s sugar daddy shows up, his unmentioned wife and baby in tow — and everything blows up.
“Shiva Baby” is not a film particularly interested in pushing cinematic boundaries. Instead, it’s a work of micro-budget brilliance, developed with hints of writer-director Emma Seligman’s own background. While it deserves its comedy billing, it also hews to psychological thriller — queue the plucks of Ariel Marx’s score, the incessant questions and a wailing baby.
By the time Danielle’s mother, Debbie (Polly Draper) blows, crying “Who brings a baby to a shiva?!”, Seligman’s film is ready to burst at the seams. Yet, “Shiva Baby” is never one to lose control. Rather, it naturalizes Danielle’s horrors with flairless filmmaking; how we see Danielle is never warped or undignified. It’s a fabulous car crash of a film.
— Dominic Marziali
Runner-up: “The Green Knight”
Christmas draws near; for those searching for the perfect movie to watch this holiday season, it arrived more than half a year ago, amid the July heat. “The Green Knight,” one of the great Arthurian tales of Sir Gawain (Dev Patel), is a journey into the dark night of the soul unlike any other film out this year.
In his quest to exchange blows with the titular Green Knight (Ralph Ineson), as per their “friendly Christmas game,” Gawain’s quest becomes one of the interior. The film explores and challenges conceptions of honor, courage and masculinity through the young knight’s path to manhood on his way to the chopping block.
A career-highlight performance from Patel and a combination of stellar direction, mind-bending cinematography and an otherworldly musical score work together to allow David Lowery’s film to transform the famed chivalric romance into a compelling, soul-searching fantasy epic for the ages.
— Vincent Tran
Best Animated Feature
Disney’s “Luca” opens on the water. Gentle moonbeams and kerosene lamplight glint as the midnight ocean melts into undulating suede. Atop the tides, a small fishing boat wobbles while two graying tradesmen dwell on folktales about neighboring sea creatures — malicious undersea monsters, they insist, from stories that can’t possibly be true. Naturally, the fishermen are earless to the nearby splash and initially oblivious to the flickering tail swimming just below their hull.
After a dangerously close call, the camera dives into the undersea world of its titular protagonist: a young sea creature Luca, voiced by Jacob Tremblay, who can transform into a human on dry land. Luca — cut from the same cloth as a certain red-headed mermaid — dreams of exploring life beyond his mundane oceanic existence. Galvanized by his wild, new best friend Alberto (Jack Dylan Grazer), Luca defies his parents and becomes “part of that world” in the lush Italian Riviera, embarking on a journey that brings gelato, pasta and dreams of a Vespa.
“Luca” glows with starry-eyed imagination, flashing and flourishing like phosphenes. As the young boys chase adventure, the distinction between love and friendship fades like watercolor running over inked lines. Wholesome and self-contained, the film is a work of charm and honeyed softness. The dangers that lie in hurt feelings, harpoons and heart-pounding mistakes become lulled by seaside ease and summery bliss. “Luca” baits its hook with heart, and it’s impossible not to bite.
— Maya Thompson
Runner-up: “Raya and the Last Dragon”
“Raya and the Last Dragon” follows Raya, the daughter of Chief Benja of the Heart Tribe, on her journey to find Sisu, a dragon with the ability to craft a gem that fights off evil spirits. The animation is both wholesome and humorous without being overtly cheesy; it balances its comedy with surprising emotional depth.
While fictional, the film takes inspiration from the cultures of Southeast Asia to craft the five distinct tribes of Kumandra — an admirable feat that aids the film’s heartwarming narrative. Both the light-hearted humor and emotional poignancy within “Raya and the Last Dragon” will stay with audiences long after they have left the theater, making it one of the best animated films of the year.
— Erica Jean
Winner: “Summer of Soul (…Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised)”
It’s a tragedy that “Summer of Soul” didn’t reach us sooner, but we’re so lucky that we got to see it at all. Questlove’s documentary on the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival provides a breathtaking glimpse into a weekend of Black celebration and joy amid one of the nation’s most turbulent and painful eras. Composed of previously unseen footage, “Summer of Soul” documents some of America’s most iconic musicians sharing a space with thousands of Harlem residents.
Questlove should be credited for his seamless presentation of breathtaking archival footage, but his documentary isn’t just a collection — it’s a resurrection. This becomes clear in the five-minute sequence when The 5th Dimension performs at the festival. Questlove weaves together a symphony of perspectives, introducing their act with a monologue from a man who attended the festival as a child, then interspersing his memories with talking-head footage of band members Marilyn McCoo and Billy Davis Jr. watching their performance. They reminisce through tears, talking about what playing the festival meant to them and recalling memories of the “Aquarius” days.
The scene knocks the wind out of you. It’s not just the beauty of their song, but also the realization that just as the festival was mostly lost to history, so too was it kept from the memories of those who were there to witness and create it. The documentary is perfectly crafted and a joy to behold, but it’s Questlove’s act of bringing the festival back to life that makes the film an essential work.
— Matthew DuMont
Runner-up: “The Sparks Brothers”
Director Edgar Wright’s first documentary film — which is about the criminally underlooked synth-pop duo Sparks — is a sensation. “The Sparks Brothers” covers everything from the Mael brothers’ roots to how they became known as “the best British group to come out of America.” Featuring a star-studded ensemble of commenters, including Mike Myers, Jack Antonoff, Fred Armisen and Beck, the documentary leads viewers through each song, moment and performance that catapulted the eccentric group to international fame.
“The Sparks Brothers” is not your average documentary, however. Wright brings a quirkiness to the screen that livens the spirit of a traditional chronicling. It’s playful, reflecting the wit and avant-garde style of its titular subjects.
Some of the people who were interviewed commented on how they almost didn’t want to watch the documentary for fear that Sparks’ mystique would get lost in explanation. The film, however, does just the opposite: A new generation of listeners and old fans looking for even more oddities surrounding the Mael brothers are sure to come prepared with more questions than ever after viewing.
— Skylar De Paul
Winner: Dev Patel, “The Green Knight”
Surrounded by brave knights at the round table of King Arthur, one young man — not yet a knight — is thirsty for honor and eager to prove himself. Dev Patel plays the young Sir Gawain in “The Green Knight,” a medieval legend of epic proportions. However, Patel’s portrayal of the classic hero is rather quiet and stripped down, bringing the fantasy down to earth and exposing Gawain’s flaws.
Some of his best acting comes in silent moments of contemplation, with gritted teeth and a piercing gaze. Rather than following the well-worn path of the stereotypical hero’s journey, Gawain is reborn many times over the course of the film. At times, he becomes one with nature. With every obstacle he faces along the quest, Patel peels back another layer of his character, eventually exposing the fear that lurks behind every courageous warrior.
Though he spends much of the voyage alone, Patel’s performance complements that of Alicia Vikander, who plays both his lover Essel and the peculiar Lady. From start to finish, he casts a spell over the audience, binding them to his journey just as the Green Knight holds him to their Christmas day bargain. With the help of Patel’s emotional and timeless portrayal, the chivalrous epic becomes an eerie folk tale approaching horror.
— Asha Pruitt
Runner-up: Adam Driver, “Annette”
Leos Carax’s “Annette” is undoubtedly the wackiest musical of the year. And at the forefront of this chaotic “Star is Born”-esque tale? An expressive performance from none other than Adam Driver. Opposite Marion Cotillard, Driver shines as controversial comedian Henry McHenry, “The Ape of God,” filling every scene he’s in with enough bravado and physicality to exist somewhere between what feels like either a live broadway performance or extremely meta, hyper self-aware filmmaking.
Driver’s McHenry is brash, forceful and — at points — violent as the audience observes his downfall while he and Cotillard’s character Ann Defrasnoux navigate their relationship and the birth of their wooden, marionette-like daughter Annette. It’s Driver’s performance that allows the film’s ending to really land as a cautionary tale of fame and pride.
Driver’s performance is memorable in a whirlwind of a movie filled with even wilder moments; if nothing else, he’ll absolutely be remembered for taking part in perhaps the only instance of musical cunnilingus you’re likely to see all year.
— Vincent Tran
Winner: Kristen Stewart, “Spencer”
In “Spencer,” Kristen Stewart delivers undeniably the most talked about performance of the year, and it’s not difficult to see why. Stewart’s Diana is dynamic, at times a near photorealistic rendering of the people’s princess, and at other points she’s slightly off-kilter. This slight incongruity is not a detriment to her performance, but rather one of its many compelling facets. K-Stew is Diana laid bare: unobscured by the press and disentangled from her own performance, a version infrequently glanced by the public during her lifetime.
Director Pablo Larraín veers sharply off the road with his figuration of a quasi-horror mise en scene that despoils Diana in a way not unlike the monarchy’s plunder of resources. As her psyche erodes, she is reduced to a mere relic of the Diana of the popular imagination, standing in stark opposition to the resplendent Chanel garb that adorns her.
Accordingly, Stewart’s delivery is incisive and terse, emblematic of her resolute resistance to the royal family. “Beauty is useless, beauty is clothing,” she spits in protest of her heavily regimented outfit plan. Her performance is also corporeal, punctuated by sprints across dewy fields, gasps burdened by the weight of a strand of pearls (the same ones Charles also gifted Camilla) and gags — also the pearl’s doing.
Casting Stewart as Diana is certainly a bold move, but one that is in many ways the perfect choice for a 2021 resuscitation of a familiar tale — Stewart’s languid malleability the ideal vessel for contemporary discussions of celebrity, public performance and power.
— Emma Murphree
Runner-up: Agathe Rousselle, “Titane”
When Agathe Rousselle’s Alexia gives birth to a baby with a titanium skeleton, her acting is quite bad. The scene is too busy for her style, and Rousselle’s performance in “Titane” rarely invokes a thespian’s realism. What counts, however, is how she inhabits writer-director Julia Ducournau’s ideas as both sculptor and stone — the vicissitudes of her contortions and her nose-breaking, her brief stares and her violent outbursts. She rarely speaks.
When the camera is really, truly on her, her performance is as reminiscent of modeling as it is acting, in that Rousselle resists grand gestures and that her role rests on her capacity to convey with fragmentary facial expressions and body language. She’s disfigured by masculinity and eventually short-circuits it.
— Dominic Marziali
Best Supporting Actor
Winner: Benicio Del Toro, “The French Dispatch”
With awards ranging from Oscars to Golden Globes to Screen Actors Guild wins, this Daily Californian Arts award is just another feather in Benicio Del Toro’s cap. Each time the Puerto Rican actor graces the big screen, he brings with him a striking blend of authenticity, depth and charm. Del Toro’s performance in “The French Dispatch” is no different.
In the (arguably) most intriguing plotline of Wes Anderson’s anthology, Del Toro plays a prisoner-turned-painter named Moses Rosenthaler who — like the actor himself — is a passionate creative. We watch as Rosenthaler falls both in love with a prison guard (Léa Seydoux) and into a business partnership with a white-collar criminal (Adrien Brody). With each plot-related twist and turn, Del Toro’s performance adds new emotive layers that serve to enrich the “Moses” character on his artistic, romantic and climactic journey.
Some stand-out Del Toro moments include a scene in which he delivers a speech regarding his passion for painting, as well as a romantic scene where he and his muse lay together in bed. Del Toro emotes with an understated type of magic: He plays his acting cards wisely and methodically, leaving watchers yearning for a deeper understanding of Moses’ complex inner world.
Delivering lines that are just as short as they are sweet, Benicio Toro Del Toro’s performance as Moses Rosenthaler in “The French Dispatch” is lovable and compelling, exploring this unique, struggling artist with equal parts vulnerability and stoicism.
— Piper Samuels
Runner-up: Woody Norman, “C’mon C’mon”
It’s not often that a child actor would be considered for best supporting performance of the year, but it’s even more uncommon that the world is introduced to a child actor as talented, likable and wise as Woody Norman. Playing 9-year-old Jesse in Mike Mills’ “C’mon C’mon” alongside Joaquin Phoenix, Norman certainly stands his own.
“C’mon C’mon” captures characters’ emotions subtly throughout. The film doesn’t use expository writing as a crutch to convey these nuances; instead, much of the responsibility falls on acting. Eleven-year-old Norman can match — and even surpass — Phoenix in portraying vulnerability, frustration and joy in their scenes together. Norman seems to possess some sort of knowledge about the human condition that the rest of us don’t have access to, and he is able to effortlessly instill this magic into his acting.
Simply, Norman’s performance makes this film. Keep an eye on this kid: He’s one to watch.
— Joy Diamond
Best Supporting Actress
Winner: Tilda Swinton, “The French Dispatch”
If there’s a centerpiece to Wes Anderson’s “The French Dispatch,” it surely is not Tilda Swinton. That title would go to Frances McDormand’s character, in the spirit of Anderson’s subject, and upon whom the film rests.
Yet Swinton, as newspaper staffer J.K.L. Berensen, is involved in one of the film’s most moving chapters. Swinton doesn’t have the largest role in it, but she’s potent. When she slides off screen, you’ll be wanting more. She’s the narrator over a love story between a tortured artist and the prison guard he falls for, our guide through a convoluted maze.
Her performance is a statement piece of range. In what time she has, she sways in and out of authority, veers into slapstick and riffs on one of the film’s unsung heroes, Lois Smith’s fast-talking Maw. Swinton’s job is to establish the film and get the audience in the mood. It’s her performance that roots us as Anderson presses the pedal and floors it. The impact of McDormand’s final stare at the camera has as much to do with the memory of Swinton’s act as the pain McDormand communicates.
— Dominic Marziali
Runner-up: Anya Taylor-Joy, “Last Night in Soho”
In “Last Night in Soho,” Anya Taylor-Joy is a hypnotic vision from the past. She perfectly embodies the spirit of 1960s London through Sandie, a blossoming young singer driven mad by the dark underbelly of city nightlife and the slimy men who inhabit it. Though their only interactions are in dreamlike sequences outside the bounds of time and space, her deep connection with present-day fashion student Eloise (Thomasin McKenzie) is clear in every stolen mirror glance and desperate cry for help.
With a script that is somewhat lacking in depth and character development, Taylor-Joy dazzles audiences not because of Edgar Wright’s screenplay and direction, but in spite of it. As Sandie’s dizzying pop star dream devolves into a nightmare, her terror is palpable through Taylor-Joy’s wide-eyed, disturbed portrayal.
— Asha Pruitt
Best Ensemble Cast
Winner: “The French Dispatch”
Second only to his construction of elaborate, delightfully kitschy aesthetics, one of auteur Wes Anderson’s most notable qualities is his ability to put together a cast. His long-awaited 10th feature, “The French Dispatch” dials up the chintz, zaniness and star power to an acme approaching self-parody. More so than perhaps any of Anderson’s other ventures, the film’s success hinges on its cast, which fortunately, does not disappoint.
An ambitious triptych of pastels and typewriter trills, “The French Dispatch” lifts from page the observations and misadventures of journalists at the outpost of the Kansas Evening Sun newspaper, helmed by editor in chief Arthur Howitzer Jr. (Bill Murray), in Ennui, France. In the first vignette, Benicio Del Toro and Tilda Swinton gleam as the incarcerated painter Moses Rosenthaler and eccentric art lecturer J.K.L. Berensen, respectively. The antics that ensue rival those of an action flick, but are buoyed by a ubiquitous blend of shrewd, punchy dialogue and delivery.
It plunges further into insanity in the second chapter. Timothée Chalamet — as revolutionary-minded, egocentric Zeffirelli — expertly foils Frances McDormand’s journalist Lucinda Krementz, who becomes Zeferelli’s unlikely lover — a dynamic that occasions some of the film’s most comedic tidbits.
But if forced to identify a character that inhabits the heart of the film most closely, it would be Roebuck Wright, an amalgamation of New Yorker journalist A. J. Liebling and writer James Bladwin, portrayed brilliantly by Jeffrey Wright. The cherry on top of an already star-studded layer cake, Wright imbues the character with a melancholy that transcends Andersonian absurdity, lingering long after the credits roll.
— Emma Murphree
Adapting a beloved science-fiction novel into film is certainly no simple feat, especially when this narrative consists of loaded sci-fi jargon, complex worldbuilding and advanced, fantastical technologies. Yet, Denis Villeneuve’s adaptation of Frank Herbert’s seminal sci-fi text, “Dune” illustriously captivates audiences largely due to its dynamic, star-studded ensemble.
Timothée Chalamet bravely transforms into the complex Paul Atreides — a young hero who must come of age with the expectation to change humanity for the better. Alongside his mother Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson), as well as his mentors Duncan Idaho (Jason Momoa) and Gurney Halleck (Josh Brolin), Paul’s character practically comes to life off of the pages of Herbert’s novel.
Other notable castmates such as Zendaya and Oscar Isaac provide outstanding performances that invite audiences to partake in the grandeur of Herbert’s fantastical world. If giant sandworms weren’t already compelling, this exuberant ensemble of actors is reason enough to embark on a journey into the fictional world of Arrakis in Villeneuve’s “Dune.”
— Sarah Runyan
Winner: David Lowery, “The Green Knight”
Though adapted from a 14th century chivalric romance, David Lowery’s “The Green Knight” retains only the basic elements of the original poem. Like its source material, it begins with the titular monster’s proposition of a violent Christmas game, a test of valor which propels Sir Gawain (Dev Patel) on a quest to prove his mettle. Lowery’s deviations, however, allow him to invoke medieval values in order to more comprehensively expose the delusions of contemporary notions of masculinity.
One of Lowery’s most effective changes is his deconstruction of the central character. His film instead imagines a Gawain who is far more debaucherous and juvenile, who must undergo momentous inner development in order to become good, transforming an affirmation of the archaic codes of knighthood into an extensive critique of a society which measures manhood by one’s capacity for violence. Lowery’s King Arthur is also adapted to fit this goal — gone is the mythic figure of fairy tales, replaced by a broken old man tormented by the atrocities committed to make his name great.
As director, Lowery leverages the power of the cinematic apparatus to translate the literary tale into one driven by captivating imagery. In one of the film’s most brilliant scenes, Gawain is left hogtied by bandits. As the camera pans 360 degrees, it slips through time, landing on Gawain’s skeletal remains. Then, panning in the opposite direction, it finally returns to the living Gawain, who makes his escape. Here, Lowery manages to merge what happens and what might happen — if one’s bravery fails — into a single powerful image.
— Neil Haeems
Runner-up: Pablo Larraín, “Spencer”
While much of the praise for “Spencer” focuses on Kristen Stewart’s committed lead performance, director Pablo Larraín is equally responsible for crafting the absurd, anxious and wonderfully melodramatic canvas upon which Stewart works her magic. Rather than approach a film about Princess Diana as a straight, stuffy biopic, Larraín opts for the freedom of a more surreal, expressionistic form.
Described at its opening as a “fable from a true tragedy,” ”Spencer” has the sensibilities of a horror film, slipping into frightful fantasies and wallowing in paranoia as Diana falls deep into isolation. Though Larraín avoids directly portraying Diana’s death, instead focusing exclusively on a tense Christmas weekend several years prior, her tragic demise haunts each scene.
Refreshingly uninterested in the stifling attempts at authenticity seen in such royal family dramas as “The Crown,” ”Spencer” succeeds largely because Larraín never departs from Diana’s perspective, allowing viewers to inhabit her various identities — the persecuted outcast, the misunderstood pop icon and the loving mother.
— Neil Haeems
Pablo Larraín’s film “Spencer” puts the people’s princess (Kristen Stewart) in a cage, which leaves screenwriter Steven Knight to wonder: What does the caged bird sing? Set during the three days of Christmas festivities at the Queen’s Sandringham Estate, Princess Diana navigates regimented royal rules, and the air of discipline and repressed anguish charges this script with intensity. This isn’t dialogue that aims for realism, the kind of speech that sputters or blunders; instead, the prose is direct and controlled, only purple enough to leave a bruise.
“Spencer” succeeds because the distinct elements conjuring the milieu of austerity and authority work cohesively to bleed together—the direction, score, set design, costumes. By the same token, the actors deliver performances that elevate the script to its best. Where Knight rushes in a little too strong, Stewart is there to soften—whether it’s taut-restrained joy with her children or flagrant dodging of the Queen’s surveilling servants.
Knight endows “Spencer” with a refreshing perspective by, ironically, making the royals uninteresting, uniform and unfun. To Diana, they are the soul-zapping forces of archaic order that watch her every move and plunge the film into gripping psychological horror.
— Maya Thompson
Runner-up: “Petite Maman”
It’s impossible to get “Petite Maman” out of your head — writer-director Céline Sciamma’s film is too full of memories. The story of a girl’s stay in the French country, it moves with a universally distinct melody, like a daydream and a catchy whistle folded onto one another. Nelly (Joséphine Sanz) spends her sunny days exploring the forest behind her home and the wintry ones flipping pancakes with Marion (Gabrielle Sanz), a fellow young girl whose appearance defies logic and realism.
Giving Marion’s side of the story away would be a spoiler for the irresistible charm of Sciamma’s magical script. The film is a brief 72 minutes, and when it leaves you, it’s as if you’ve just said goodnight to your childhood friend. Sciamma has a transporting grasp of what we, as children, loved and how we came to love it.
— Dominic Marziali
Winner: Robert Yeoman, “The French Dispatch”
Wes Anderson’s decision to collaborate with Robert Yeoman for his newest feature, “The French Dispatch,” was anything but surprising. Having already worked with Anderson on seven different feature films, Yeoman’s cinematographic intricacy has grown harmoniously alongside Anderson’s unique, unconventional directorial style.Yeoman’s camerawork is nostalgic — from dolly shots to black-and-white film, his methodology is reminiscent of the good ‘ol days of showbusiness. In an interview with Variety, Yeoman described using golf carts and holes in the set’s floors and ceilings in order to achieve the film’s classic aesthetic. Combining these retro techniques with an eye for modernity takes talent and skill — two qualities that shine through each shot in “The French Dispatch.”
Beyond that, Yeoman frames each shot with acute attention to detail, symmetry and balance. From the warmth of the writers’ room to the dark divide representing the age gap between Zeffirelli (Timothée Chalamet) and his love interest, Lucinda Krementz (Frances McDormand), Yeoman’s camerawork continuously produces feelings of mathematical harmony.
He captures colors with an eye for aestheticism and effectively balances comforting color palettes with black-and-white shots throughout the film, seldom overwhelming the viewer with inconsistencies. Whether he’s shooting a pleasant bike ride or a jarring a murder scene, Yeoman’s cinematography encourages audiences not to worry: Everything is in its right place.
— Piper Samuels
Runner-up: Claire Mathon, “Spencer”
Director Pablo Larrain’s assemblage of talent on “Spencer” is incomparable, and French cinematographer Claire Mathon is no exception. Mathon’s camera work is at its best telling stories of fated young women and their labyrinthine inner worlds — her most notable feature being Celine Sciamma’s 2019 film “Portrait of a Lady on Fire.” In “Spencer,” her work is similarly piercing and panoptic — the scene at Christmas Eve dinner emphasizing both the candlelit opulence of the amuse bouche and the physical and metaphorical strictures imposed by the crown.
Mathon’s lens melds with that of the paparazzo, unwaveringly attached to Diana’s person as she flits around Kensington, a blur of Chanel and garish pearls. Diana teeters at the top of a flight of stairs before locking eyes with Anne Boleyln. Then, being thrust backward in time as figments of her past shift kaleidoscopically, the bright patches vanquish all the sludge. If only the paparazzi was as forgiving.
— Emma Murphree