The movie industry, much like the rest of society, found itself at an uncomfortable and crucial crossroads in 2021. Due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, traditional theatrical releases had to succumb to the whims of virus variants and picky moviegoers: risking severe illness and/or death to go see a movie is unsurprisingly not a good bargain for most movie fans. Thus, many of the year’s standout releases were once again streaming titles: from award-winning prestige dramas like The Power of the Dog on Netflix to hybrid releases like Denis Villeneuve’s sci-fi epic Dune, many of the year’s most talked-about releases were enjoyed almost exclusively from the comfort and safety of home.
Those films that did brave the theatrical waters fought an uphill battle. For every success (like Disney and Marvel’s smash hit Spider-Man: No Way Home) there was an equally calamitous disaster (West Side Story’s paltry $31 million total to date has signaled an inauspicious return for the traditional movie musical).
But, from a creative standpoint, the year that was 2021 came out swinging. Many of cinema’s greatest auteurs, including Guillermo Del Toro, Paul Thomas Anderson, Wes Anderson and Jane Campion debuted highly anticipated new releases. Meanwhile, actors continued to make the successful transition to the director’s chair, including standout efforts from Maggie Gyllenhaal, Rebecca Ferguson, and Lin-Manuel Miranda, to name a few.
But what cinema ultimately represented this year is a powerful theme: that identity can only be found in the context of a loving and caring community. Almost every movie of note dealt with this theme, from the family bonds of Encanto to the unlikely brotherhood presented in Riders of Justice, countless films this year helped audiences ruminate on the importance of embracing our true individual identity by leaning on the people around us. And, for many exhausted, quarantined movie fans, such messages brought hope and healing. As art so often does, the cinema brought us together even when we seemed so impossibly far apart. And we should all be so thankful for that.
So, without further ado, here are my picks for the best films of 2021!
*Side note: with the extension of awards-season submissions, you will see several films represented here that are technically 2020 releases, including a prestigious Oscar winner. However, because no one in the general public was able to see these films until mid-February at the earliest, I went ahead and counted them as 2021 movies for my purposes, since this was the year most people outside of critics’ circles were able to experience them. *
Actor Kenneth Branaugh has had a spotty career as a director, but few would deny that the heartfelt, semi-autobiographical masterwork Belfast ranks among his best efforts. His unabashed crowd-pleaser about three generations of a family in Northern Ireland caught in the crossfires of the tumultuous late 1960s is a harrowing tale that nonetheless manages to uplift and inspire. Shot in stunning black-and-white, the film is told from the perspective of Buddy, played by Jude Hill, who gives one of the best child performances in years. He is a revelation, but the supporting cast is absolutely stacked: Caitriona Balfe, Judi Dench, Ciaran Hinds and Jamie Dornan all do some career-best work. It’s no surprise that Branaugh would be a keen director of actors, but what is more surprising is the beauty and sensitivity of his script. It recounts a tragic history with a light, nostalgic touch that conveys both the innocence and the startling perceptiveness of childhood. The result is an absolute delight from start to finish.
9. Encanto/The Mitchells vs. the Machines (tie)
The past year was a great one for fans of sophisticated, boundary-pushing animation. It was so good, in fact, that two movies I loved equally are sharing a spot here. Encanto is Disney’s Animation’s best effort in years, featuring vibrant visuals, brilliant songs written by Lin-Manuel Miranda, and a challenging and complex moral that proves equally impactful for kids and adults. For those who haven’t seen it, the less you know going in the better. It’s now available to stream on Disney+.
The Mitchells vs. the Machines doesn’t have the same heartfelt story as Encanto, but it’s easily the funniest and most creative movie I saw this year. Producers Phil Lord and Chris Miller continue their hot streak of top-tier animation (these are the guys that brought us Spider-Man: Into the Spider verse and The Lego Movie) with a wonderful adventure about a family learning to accept each other, flaws and all, while trying to save the world from a robot apocalypse.
The story and writing often feel influenced by classic Simpsons (very high praise), but the animation is boundary-pushing in true Lord-Miller fashion, with creative use of 2-D drawing, shading and stylistic changes that give this film a look unlike any animated movie before it. And trust me when I say you will be in tears of laughter throughout. With an inspiring message, stunning animation and a stellar voice cast, The Mitchells vs. the Machines absolutely slays. It’s available to stream on Netflix.
If you had told me at the beginning of 2021 that a movie starring Nicholas Cage as a truffle hunter who goes on a journey of self-discovery as he searches relentlessly for his beloved stolen truffle pig would wind up as one of the best films of the year, I would have sincerely questioned your sanity. And yet, Michael Sarnoski’s directorial debut is one of the most moving portraits of grief and loneliness I’ve seen in recent years.
The film is also a showcase for just what a gift we have in Nicholas Cage. This is easily some of the best work of his career, a reminder that, when given the right material, the veteran actor can move us to tears. Yes, he’s known more for his camp and over-the-top performances these days, but the range he displays here is nothing short of breathtaking. There is a lengthy conversation scene between Cage’s character and a chef in a restaurant that is such an acting tour-de-force I had to pick my jaw off the floor when it was over. This is not your traditional renegade revenge thriller and thank God for that. The world needs more movies like Pig.
This British import was quietly released on Netflix way back in February and received a rapturous response from the few critics and audience members who saw it. It’s a shame that this masterful coming-of-age story seems to have gotten lost in the embarrassment of riches that was 2021 cinema, because it’s one of the most raw and honest portraits of girlhood ever put to screen. Bukky Barkay is absolutely brilliant as Shola ‘Rocks’ Omotoso, a teenage girl navigating the trials of adolescence while also taking care of her sweet but challenging younger brother. After the two are abandoned by their mother, they are forced to fend for themselves while avoiding the specter of separation that would likely come from being taken in by Social Services.
Director Sarah Gavron’s decision to hire mostly non-professional actors from in and around East London results in a realistic and pitch-perfect portrait of adolescent crisis. The movie is funny and uplifting, but also heartbreaking. The acting, writing and directing all work together to make us care for Rocks and wish the best for her, even as she understandably gets frustrated and makes mistakes. A young girl having to suddenly take on the responsibilities of an adult is something that happens in the real world far too often, and the film shines a harsh light on girls throughout the world who are dealt a similar unfair hand by life. And yet, hope remains, once again found in the context of lasting friendships and a faithful and loving community. Bring tissues for this one.
6. West Side Story/In the Heights (tie)
I sincerely hope that the meager box office returns of 2021 don’t scare Hollywood away from a musical renaissance. We need these stories, now more than ever, because musicals give us a feeling of joy and celebration that’s hard to replicate in other film genres. From Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Tick…Tick…Boom and Vivo to Dear Evan Hansen (not nearly as terrible as its reputation suggests), fans of musicals had no shortage of movies to get excited about. But two films stood out above the rest, and they are sharing a spot because they are both examples of top-tier artistry and what this genre can do when given the creative freedom to fly.
Believe it or not, Lin-Manuel Miranda had yet another critically acclaimed project this year (if this guy isn’t entertainer of the year, I can’t think of anyone else who could take that crown). Based on Miranda’s award-winning musical, In the Heights is a truly terrific film, combining toe-tapping tunes, endlessly creative dance numbers (seriously, that pool scene!) and an enviable amount of rising young acting talent that you will be hearing more from soon. Director Jon M. Chu (of Crazy Rich Asians fame) once again shows his knack for conveying the beauty and bonds of minority life in America as the immigrant community of Washington Heights grapples with the dissonance between the persistence of their dreams and the disappointments and missed opportunities of their daily lives. Chu wisely used lots of relatively unknown actors, which may have hurt the film’s box office receipts but lent a charming and lived-in vibe to the project. If you’re looking for a technically complex and engaging movie that will keep a smile on your face from beginning to end, this is the definition of a must-see.
West Side Story, for the few people who may not know, is another classic musical about immigrant life in America that also happens to be a modernized song-and-dance interpretation of Romeo and Juliet. This story of the ethnic conflict between rival gangs the Jets and the Sharks, and the doomed lovers on both sides of the division, received a classic, Oscar-winning adaptation from Robert Wise back in 1961. That film, while undeniably a landmark, hasn’t aged particularly well; it has that glossy, manufactured quality that many stage-to-screen adaptations struggled with at the time. Steven Spielberg’s remake, however, is an improvement over the original film in almost every way. The choreography is stunning, the camerawork is consistently clever, and the performances are almost all outstanding. I especially loved Rachel Zegler as Maria, Ariana DeBose as Anita, Mike Faist as Rift, and original “Anita” Rita Moreno in a new role that will absolutely melt your heart. I had the pleasure of seeing this film in the theater, and what a joyous experience to be completely lost in a world and a story for 2.5 hours! This remake obviously had big shoes to fill, but Spielberg proves that he can still do what he does best—enchant us, transport us, and move us in a way no other living filmmaker can.
5. The Green Knight
Of any film on this list, this one comes with the most caveats. By which I mean that The Green Knight is a challenging film from a challenging filmmaker (David Lowery, whose previous credits include A Ghost Story, which I absolutely hated). And yet, I had high hopes for this idiosyncratic storyteller’s interpretation of an Arthurian legend. And man, was my hype ever justified. Let me repeat: this movie is not for everyone. I don’t even know if it’s for most people. But I was utterly transfixed from start to finish, lost in some of the most immersive cinematography and production design I’ve seen in years.
The story, as much as there is one, follows Sir Gawain, King Arthur’s nephew, as he attempts to live up to his bloodline by embarking on a mythic quest to confront the Green Knight, an ominous and mysterious challenger. Gawain’s desire to prove himself in the eyes of his community is brought to life by actor Dev Patel, who was a bold casting choice and gives what is easily the best performance of his career. Patel plays Gawain as believable and relatable every step of the way, even as the character acts increasingly despicably to get the so-called “honor” he feels he deserves.
The Green Knight is a psychologically intense and disturbing character study, and the film’s ending is likely the most cryptic of any film released this year. And yet, even when we can’t quite piece together everything that is going on, we trust the journey to the hands of an undeniably brilliant filmmaker. I could tell from beginning to end that every choice Lowery made was deliberate and purposeful. It’s a rare storyteller that can earn your trust while giving you so little to hold on to in terms of moment-to-moment plot and character development. You must have confidence in the journey. And, while you may love or hate the result, you’ll have a hard time denying that The Green Knight is quite unlike any film you’ve seen before.
4. The Power of the Dog
Jane Campion’s highly anticipated return to the director’s chair for the first time since 2009’s Bright Star did not disappoint, as the Kiwi auteur crafts a brilliant and emotionally brutal portrait of life lived on the margins. Her period piece tackles such potent themes as toxic masculinity, homophobia, and sexual repression through the landscape of the American west, where the very idea of what it means to be a man holds a very narrow definition. Benedict Cumberbatch is cast in a career-best role as Phil Burbank, a charismatic cattle rancher who simultaneously plays both victim and perpetrator of these societal restrictions and stereotypes. Cumberbatch plays Phil as a simmering kettle, all seething rage and cruelty, yet the film’s nuanced script reveals layers that almost make the man seem sympathetic, or at least human. And yet, the campaign of wounded terror he exerts over his family, including his brother (Jesse Plemmons), his brother’s wife (Kirsten Dunst) and her teenage son (Kodi Smit-McPhee), is anything but sympathetic.
The Power of the Dog is the kind of film that reveals itself in layers, slowly peeling back the revelations and character motivations the way a master carver gradually changes common wood into something recognizable, a work of art. It took me basically the entire length of the film to realize I hadn’t taken a true breath, so enthralled and terrified I was by the brutal artistry unfolding before me. Make no mistake, the film is Campion’s masterpiece, surpassing the already excellent The Piano and establishing herself as one of the most accomplished writer-directors in the world. The Power of the Dog is a true masterpiece in every sense of the word—all aspects from performance to writing to music, cinematography, and editing work together to weave an unforgettable tapestry that cuts deep. From its opening shot to its devastating and haunting climax, it’s truly a film that is not to be missed.
3. The Father
Legendary actor Anthony Hopkins deservedly won his second Best Actor Oscar last year for this astonishing portrait of a brilliant mind diminished by the ravages of dementia. Although the film made it to last year’s Oscars due to an extended eligibility deadline, it reached U.S. audiences at the end of February, making it truly a 2021 release. The film also took home an Oscar for best adapted screenplay, which director Florian Zeller adapted from his stage play. It’s astonishing that this accomplished playwright has never written or directed a film before, because this film is as close to perfect as movies get.
The Father puts audiences in the shoes of someone dealing with memory loss like no film before it. It’s nothing short of breathtaking that a movie can so thoroughly and convincingly mess with your head. Told from Hopkins’ character’s perspective (who is also named Anthony), the film establishes the rules for how we think the events are going to play out, then pulls the rug out from under us. Characters we have been introduced to may suddenly reappear but played by a completely different actor. Entire conversations will be repeated, but suddenly take on a very different tone. The result is disorienting and profoundly upsetting. I remember shouting at the screen, “No, that’s not right. This person is an imposter!” Maybe they are, and maybe they’re not. Nothing is really answered until the film’s haunting final moments, where Hopkins can release the emotions that his character and the audience have been frustratingly unable to articulate for the previous 90 minutes. It’s a remarkably cathartic moment from an actor who is firing on all cylinders, and a potent reminder that film is an incredible tool for generating empathy for those whose experience we can’t directly relate to. What a gift this movie is, to the world of cinema but also to the world of those silently suffering, hoping for someone to understand their pain.
Here’s the big one, the film that had every critic singing its praises when the end-of-year lists were tallied at the end of 2020. I knew for a fact that this was not going to be on my list last year, because the first available opportunity I had to see it was when it released on Hulu in February. But man, was it ever worth the wait. Nomadland is a salve for a wounded society, a reminder that kindness, gentleness, courage, and compassion are what will bring us together in these trying times.
Chloe Zhao’s Best Picture Oscar winner follows the life of Fern (played by Frances McDormand, who also won for her portrayal here), a woman in her sixties who loses everything during the Great Recession and embraces her new life as modern-day nomad, traveling across the American landscape as she takes on odd jobs and finds an incredible community of free people across the nation. The film also won a trophy for Zhao’s direction, which, in her trademark style, is both epic and intimate, imbued with tremendous compassion for the outcasts and forgotten members of society. I am so thankful that her work has been recognized and praised so highly (so much so that she took the helm of a big-budget Marvel film in The Eternals, which was also released in 2021).
Zhao’s most brilliant choice was to cast mostly non-actors as those Fern meets across her travels. This gives the film a documentary-like authenticity, much like she did in The Rider when she cast Brady Jandreau to star in a fictionalized version of his own story suffering from a rodeo-induced skull fracture. Here, that technique works particularly well, as it allows us to get to know and love these people who all have a story and a reason for becoming “homeless,” although most nomads would shudder at that word. Once again, Zhao has crafted a masterpiece of empathy, one that results not in pity or sadness for so-called “outcasts” but, rather, respect and admiration. This life takes courage, grit, and a sense of self that isn’t tied to material possessions or earthly ideas of success. Truly, it feels like many of these folks are closer to God’s Kingdom than the rest of us, so distracted as we are by our politics and our romances and our egos and our stuff. One gets a sense that these folks are living the true American dream, rightly defined: a life of freedom, of purity, of gratitude. We should all be so lucky to hope for such a life, even as we recognize that we wouldn’t wish it upon ourselves or anyone we love. This movie left me feeling convicted, yes, but also uplifted. It truly is a masterpiece that will stand the test of time as an emotional and flawless ode to the lasting impact of the families we make in this life, not just the ones we are given.
1. Summer of Soul/Procession (tie)
For my top film of the year, I present to you a two-fer. Documentaries have a sneaky habit of topping my best films of the year list (Time and Won’t You Be My Neighbor being the examples in recent years), and despite the wide variety of films released in 2021, this year continues the trend. These films are very different, but they moved me in equally profound ways, and stand as two of the best documentaries I have ever seen.
Summer of Soul (Or…When the Revolution Could Not be Televised), is a joyful celebration of the power of music to unite people around an identity rooted in a time and place. Legendary musician Questlove makes his directorial debut here, drawing upon reams of extraordinary footage taken during the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival (also known as black Woodstock) but rendered unused and unseen for 50 years. Questlove takes the time to set the stage, telling us through contemporary talking heads why this festival was so culturally impactful for African Americans and why its themes and revelations echo through to today. But what truly makes this film perhaps the greatest music documentary of all time is the performances, which are given room to play out in their entirety. From the joyous early-career performances of Gladys Knight and the Pips and Stevie Wonder to the socially conscious and controversial musings of Nina Simone, the Harlem Cultural Festival created a perfect storm of black pride and social consciousness. The rage and fear African Americans felt exist hand-in-hand with the hope, pride and redemptive messages that black America embraced despite their hardships. Nowhere is this more pronounced than in the film’s emotional high point, a moving performance of “Precious Lord, Take My Hand” by Mahalia Jackson and Mavis Staples that will have even the hardest cynic in tears. The word “transcendent” is not a word that should be used lightly or regularly when describing a work of art, but it’s the most appropriate word here. If you haven’t experienced it, stop whatever you’re doing and catch in on Hulu right now.
An equally profound, but far more emotionally brutal, documentary premiered on Netflix at the tail end of November 2021. Procession is an unforgettable testament to the therapeutic power of art, as a group of men connected by the worst possible thread come together to confront the demons of their past and find healing and hope in the power of a brotherhood none of them ever expected or asked for.
Veteran documentary filmmaker Robert Greene took a big risk in asking for these men to come together, as they all suffered boyhood sexual abuse at the hands of Catholic priests connected to the Kansas City, Missouri diocese. Greene gathered them along with their dedicated attorney and an art therapist to direct a series of short films about how the abuse has affected their lives to this day. In the wrong hands, such material can feel gross or exploitative, and yet, using a similar conceit as that in The Act of Killing, performance brings about revelation and the hope of a way forward. Seeing these men confront their abuse head-on and willingly confront long-buried demons is about the most inspiring thing you could possibly imagine witnessing. They are true heroes in every sense of the word; they have been bent but never broken, wounded, but refusing to be crushed.
Procession is a remarkably clear-eyed and profound portrait, one that cuts deep by once again showing the healing that art can bring to long-festering wounds. The film balances an appropriate mix of rage and kindness, as the pure evil of what these men experienced is given the full weight it deserves. And yet, the emotional arc of their journey is one that rises out of the darkness into light, where all evil is exposed, and true reconciliation can occur. All the men who participated seem to realize that, while anger is an appropriate and useful emotion, it is not a place in which to make your home. Only by living a life of significance and purpose can we defeat those who have caused so much harm. This documentary is beautiful, haunting, and essential, and for those reasons it is the best film of 2021.
And here are my 11-20 picks, all great movies that I wish I could have left room for above.
12. King Richard
14. Spider-Man: No Way Home
15. Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings
16. Last Night in Soho
17. Derek Delgaudio’s In & Of Itself
18. Judas and the Black Messiah
Blind spots: I saw a heck of a lot of movies this year, but not everything. Some major misses as of this writing include: Quo Vadis, Aida?, Drive My Car, Flee, Days, The Rescue, The Disciple, Limbo, Bergman Island, Mass, C’mon C’mon, Red Rocket, The Hand of God, The French Dispatch, Nine Days, Saint Frances, Pieces of a Woman, Annette, House of Gucci, and The Tragedy of MacBeth. Please let me know if any of these films are worth checking out, or if they rank as some of your favorites of the year!