It’s that time. Time to look at the best movies of 2021. Crazy that the year is officially over, but here we are. 2021 as a whole was an interesting one, but as a movie year, I thought it was rather great. Though the COVID-19 pandemic still lingered around the entire year, we saw movie theaters open back up and audiences head back to the cineplex. Film festivals had an interesting year, with some being fully virtual, some being fully in-person, and some being hybrids. I covered eight film festivals in 2021, six virtual, two in person, and as much as I love the convenience of a virtual film festival, being back in person was incredible.
My Best Movies of 2021 list was not easy to make. 2021 offered up a number of great movies that I loved. We got films from legendary directors like Steven Spielberg, Paul Thomas Anderson, Ridley Scott, and Pedro Almodovar, as well as up-and-comers like Julia Ducournau, Jim Cummings, and Sian Heder take the cinematic world by storm. I saw 228 movies in 2021, and these here were the best. Here are my picks for the best movies of 2021.
(In alphabetical order)
THE CARD COUNTER (Paul Schrader)
- Oscar Isaac is hauntingly great in Paul Schrader’s look at gambling and violence.
CODA (Sian Heder)
- A heartwarming family drama led by a terrific cast.
DRIVE MY CAR (Ryûsuke Hamaguchi)
- A layered, haunting look at moving on from tragedy from Ryûsuke Hamaguchi.
THE GREEN KNIGHT (David Lowery)
- David Lowery’s take on the classic tale is immaculately made.
THE HARDER THEY FALL (Jeymes Samuel)
- A stylish and energetic western with the best ensemble of the year.
THE LAST DUEL (Ridley Scott)
- The final duel is a masterclass from Ridley Scott, but it’s the triple-perspective-narrative that makes The Last Duel Scott’s best in years.
THE MATRIX RESURRECTIONS (Lana Wachowski)
- Lana Wachowski took us back into the matrix and gave us a smart, exciting, action-packed meta-sequel.
NIGHTMARE ALLEY (Guillermo del Toro)
- Stunning sets and cinematography and a stellar Bradley Cooper performance highlight Guillermo del Toro’s dark look at ego and greed.
RED ROCKET (Sean Baker)
- Simon Rex gives the performance of a lifetime in Sean Baker’s darkly hilarious slice of Americana.
WEST SIDE STORY (Steven Spielberg)
- Steven Spielberg took the classic Hollywood musical and made it his own, yet kept the spirit of the original.
TOP TEN MOVIES OF 2021
10. THE BETA TEST
Director: Jim Cummings, PJ McGabe
Jim Cummings is quickly rising up the ranks as one of the most exciting indie filmmakers and actors working today. His latest film, The Beta Test, in which Cummings co-wrote, co-directed, and starred, is his best effort to date on all fronts. This is a biting, darkly hilarious satire about Hollywood and talent agents, featuring a fun, twisty mystery plot and tons of laughs. The Best Test solidified Cummings as one of the most interesting talents working today.
Director: James Wan
Malignant marks director James Wan’s first original horror movie since 2013’s The Conjuring and he did not disappoint. Malignant is a wild, bloody, campy body-horror movie. A horror movie that would be best served with a raucous crowd at a midnight screening where everyone can smile in glee at the madness of Wan’s mind. It is loaded with so many twists and turns, you’ll be on the edge of your seat yelling “holy shit!” at the screen. Wan is arguably the best horror director working today and this him working at the height of his powers.
8. PARALLEL MOTHERS
Director: Pedro Almodovar
Parallel Mothers would not have worked in the hands of another filmmaker. It is a maternal melodrama and historical drama with tons of suspense, humor, and love, yet master Pedro Almodovar blends all of this and makes it into a near-masterpiece. A sublime Penelope Cruz leads this gorgeous look at the importance of legacy, past ghosts, and uncovering the past in order to correct the future. This is one of Almodovar’s best and most personal efforts.
Director: M. Night Shyamalan
M. Night Shyamalan’s Old brought back feelings I had not felt in a Shyamalan movie in nearly twenty years. While watching Old, a movie about a group of vacationers who are stuck on an island that ages you at a rapid pace, I was watching a master at work again. Adapted from the graphic novel of the same name, Shyamalan crafted a dizzying, endlessly intense thriller that tackles the feeling of life passing you and not being able to appreciate it. The camera movements, the performances, the horror and violence, the plot, and the twists all felt like the Shyamalan we knew following his monster hit The Sixth Sense. This new era of Shyamalan is daring, refreshing, and brilliant.
Director: Julia Ducournau
Titane is the second feature film by director Julia Ducournau, and with only two films she has established herself as a new and exciting voice that is unlike anything else in cinema today. Titane is a product of Ducournau’s genius and a movie only she could have made. It is as original and inventive of a movie as I have seen in a long time and meticulously made. It mixes shock horror, body horror, and familial drama into a movie about the want and need for family. There was no movie like Titane in 2021 and we should all be grateful that an artist like Ducournau is making movies during this cinematic climate.
5. A HERO
Director: Asghar Farhadi
A Hero marks writer/director Asghar Farhadi’s best film since his 2011 masterpiece, A Separation. Much like other Farhadi movies, A Hero has a simple idea at its core, but Farhadi brilliantly builds around it to make something thought-provoking and powerful. A Hero looks at a prison inmate (Amir Jadidi, in an unsung great performance) who finds a way to possibly get out of jail and straighten his life out, only for things to spiral out of control and not go as planned. Farhadi shows the effects rumors, miscommunication, word-spinning, and even social media have on us and the people around us, as well as showing us the importance of communication and honesty. Though a dialog-heavy, relatively quiet, low-key drama, A Hero is as tense and thrilling as any movie in 2021.
Director: Michael Snaroski
Nicolas Cage gives the best performance of the year in Pig, Michael Snaroski’s impressive debut. Cage plays Rob, a former big-city chef who retreated to the woods following the death of his wife. His only friend is his trusty truffle pig, who gets stolen one night, which forces him back into the big city to find his pig. This is a beautiful and sad film about loneliness and grief while also doubling as an interesting revenge movie.
There is also a meta-narrative about a once-great artist coming back to the place he made his name, much like Cage as an actor. The Oscar-winning Cage was one of the biggest stars in the 90s and 2000s but has since seen his star dim with making some less-than-stellar movies that usually go straight to video-on-demand. But Pig shows that Cage is still the great actor we saw in Moonstruck, Leaving Las Vegas, and Adaptation and that his talent never left. Pig is one of the best performances of Cage’s career and one of the great directorial debuts of 2021.
3. THE POWER OF THE DOG
Director: Jane Campion
Though she had not directed a feature film in over a decade, director Jane Campion did not miss a beat with The Power of the Dog. This is one of the great director’s finest films and shows that Campion is a master when it comes to subtle details and subtext. This is a movie that only gets better the more you watch it. Every viewing you see the meticulous filmmaking of Campion and notice more of the subtle details she’s layered into every shot, scene, and character. Led by a chilling, career-best performance by Benedict Cumberbatch, stunning cinematography, and the best score of the year from Jonny Greenwood, The Power of the Dog looks at toxic masculinity, hidden secrets, and forbidden love as only Campion could tell it.
Director: Jonas Poher Rasmussen
It has been nearly a year since the first time I was able to experience Jonas Poher Rasmussen’s Flee and it is a movie I have not stopped talking about or stopped thinking about ever since. This is an astonishing look at the experience of an Afghanistan immigrant trying to flee to Denmark while struggling with his sexuality as he grows up. Rasmussen uses beautiful animation to hide the identity of his subject, but that doesn’t take away from the overall power of the film. It’s tense, harrowing, heartfelt, and inspiring. This is the best movie about the immigrant experience I have ever seen and one of the best documentaries I have seen this millennium.
1. LICORICE PIZZA
Director: Paul Thomas Anderson
Licorice Pizza lands at number one on my list for the best movie of 2021 because it is the only movie in 2021 I never wanted to end. Writer/director Paul Thomas Anderson is one of our finest directors working today and he proves that once again here. Though his lightest film in terms of tone, Anderson’s understanding of cinematic language and ability to make a fun, invigorating atmosphere helps create a vibe-heavy, plot-light movie about two lost souls roaming the streets of San Fernando Valley in 1973. Anderson uses authentic costume and set design, great cinematography, and perfectly timed needle-drops to effortlessly put us in the time period.
Licorice Pizza is a movie I will revisit countless times. It is a movie that I can put on in the background or catch in the middle and just vibe to its mood and atmosphere. It is also a movie that I can focus on and marvel and Anderson’s filmmaking and the performances from Alana Haim (the breakout performance of the year), Cooper Hoffman, and a scene-stealing Bradley Cooper. It is a world I loved being a part of and a world I didn’t want to leave. Licorice Pizza is the best movie of 2021.
So long, 2021. It’s been real.
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