|If the second season of I Think You Should Leave counted as a movie, it would've topped this list without question.
2021 turned out to be just as turbulent as 2020 for the world of feature films. The ever-shifting ground for this medium of artistic expression led to lots of debate regarding how to best exhibit these projects, the presence of streaming in the future of cinema, what kind of films get the most presence in the pop culture landscape, and all sorts of other topics. In the middle of all this debate was, of course, the films themselves. Having seen approximately 205 new releases in 2021 (finally fulfilling my dream goal of watching 200+ new releases in a single year), I can attest that there was plenty of great filmmaking to enjoy this year.
What made several of these features extra special was how they managed to get filmed and completed during the COVID-19 pandemic. Projects from some of the best directors working today managed to endure despite the countless complications stemming from an ongoing health crisis. Good movies, much like Christmas at the end of the original Grinch story, "came just the same" despite all the challenges facing films right now. It's a great notion to carry into 2022, a reminder that quality entries in this artform can endure no matter what the circumstances.
And now, let's break down the top 25 best movies of 2021. As in prior years, the list organized in alphabetical order save for one title I've deemed to be the very best of the bunch.
Honorable Mentions: Benedetta, Procession, The Rescue, Zola, Spencer, Gunda, The Last Duel, Shiva Baby, Dune, Dead Pigs
The documentary Attica, as the title implies, explores the hostage situation that broke out at the Attica Correctional Facility in September 1971. As a prison population of largely Black and Brown individuals tried to negotiate for humane living conditions (using trapped prison guards as leverage), the ensuing response from the U.S. government to the affair was grisly and ended in a vicious slaughter. Director Stanley Nelson Jr. doesn't shy away from the gruesomeness of these horrors, but his primary focus is on contemporary interviews with surviving prisoners, who lend a whole new level of insight into this disturbing event, including the cooperation between the prisoners in crusading for a better tomorrow. The result is a documentary that chills you to the bone with a reminder of how much the racial horrors of America's past are also its present, particualrly during a jar-dropping moment where a collection of cops, after killing many of the prisoners, engage in a chant of "WHITE POWER!"
Attica is now streaming on Showtime.
Bo Burnham: Inside
The COVID-19 pandemic sent Bo Burnham back to his roots with Bo Burnham: Inside, which saw the comedian once again sitting at a keyboard in his room belting out some funny tunes. This time, though, Burnham's got a much more lavish show to put on, with each new ditty incorporating unique pieces of lighting and staging that constantly make a single familiar space seem new. Even better, his songs are hysterical, insightful, and even touching, sometimes all at once, like in "White Woman Instagram." One of the most confined pieces of cinema unleashed during 2021, Bo Burnham: Inside is also one of the most creative as well one of the most vulnerable. All of these qualities swirl up to make something that's keeping in touch with Burnham's earlier work as an artist while also feeling like an exciting step forward. Creating art this good in times of turmoil, that truly is how the world works.
Bo Burnham: Inside is now streaming on Netflix.
The Card Counter
Many movies this year provided escapism from the horrors of reality and did so in a successful fashion, goodness knows there's nothing wrong with escapism. But it's also good to have cinema that not only acknowledges but confronts the darker parts of everyday life head-on. Case in point: The Card Counter, Paul Schrader's newest directorial effort. The filmmaker's fixation on obsession is put to fascinating use here in capturing a man (played by Oscar Isaac) who is rendered a gambling-fixated husk of his former self after torturing people for the U.S. government. Both this character and The Card Counter as a whole are conscious of the lasting effects of violence. That cognizance serves as the crux of a fascinating drama that's as unflinchingly dark as it is gripping. Much of that comes down to Isaac's quietly haunting performance, but it's also due to Schrader's willingness to grapple with the brutal parts of everyday reality.
The Card Counter is now available on physical and digital home media.
Writer/director Mike Mills has often made poignant pieces of cinema like 20th Century Women that are discernibly rooted in the past. For C'mon C'mon, he makes a movie that's defined by being rooted in the present, complete with a child wondering if he'll even remember the formative events he's shared with his uncle. Turns out, Mills is just as effective at wringing pathos out of the here-and-now as he is at revving up your tear ducts over yesteryear. Containing cinematography as thoughtful as its screenplay, C'mon C'mon offers no easy answers to how to navigate emotional hardships. However, it does suggest that the most we can do for other people is just being there and listening to them. These ideas are reflected in inventive ways all throughout the runtime (including interviews with real kids) and in the astonishing performances from the movie's professional actors, particularly a great turn from Gabby Hoffman. The only thing the quietly moving C'mon C'mon was missing was a certain Smash Mouth needle drop...
C'mon C'mon is now playing in theaters.
Translating stage plays to the big screen is a tricky process, but rarely has it paid off with such success as The Father. Writer/director Florian Zeller delivers a feature that ingeniously uses the cinematic language of horror cinema to place the viewer into the consciousness of an elderly man suffering from dementia. Uncertainty pervades the entire movie and Zeller constantly pulls the rug out from under the viewer not for exploitative purposes, but rather to delve us deeper and deeper into the psyche of The Father's protagonist. The richly human nature of this filmmaking is complemented by a stunning lead performance from Anthony Hopkins, who manages to deliver one of his greatest turns nearly 60 years into his career as an actor in motion pictures. The Father is the ideal version of any film adaptation of a play in how it captures the heart of its source material but presents it in a way only movies can.
The Father is now available on physical and digital home media.
The French Dispatch
While some walked away from Wes Anderson's The French Dispatch solely puzzled by the barrage of eccentric storylines, I found myself once again impressed with how this director can wring such vivid emotions out of a filmmaking style that constantly emphasizes a stylized aesthetic. How can worlds that look like pristine dollhouses conjure up moments drenched in feelings ripped from reality? Anderson does it time and time again, with this instance of that feat coming from an anthology feature whose individual parts are based on stories from the titular publication. Each of these tales delivers its fair share of giggles (I love Adrien Brody's character not understanding how a parole hearing works), but moments like Jeffrey Wright's journalist talking about how isolated he feels in a country that isn't his own, they just hit you with a major wallop. Ditto an ending that lends a whole new layer of humanity to the proceedings. Its general reception suggests The French Dispatch won't be for everyone, but I found it to be a microcosm of why Wes Anderson is one of my favorite directors.
The French Dispatch is now playing in theaters.
The Green Knight
Leave it to David Lowery, the man who made the rare modern Disney remake that isn't trash, to deliver one of the most remarkable fantasy movies of the modern era. A Christmastime game involving swords and a beheading leads to a lengthy quest that ruminates on mortality, the definition of a fulfilling life, and some irresistible vibes. Lowery wisely lets many of the best scenes in The Green Knight consist of just atmosphere and evocative imagery. The emphasis on memorable visuals results in impressive implementations of practical visual effects as well as dazzling bright colors like yellow and green that make The Green Knight look unlike so many other fantasy features. The Green Knight challenges viewers to question what it means to be a "legend" while delivering an entry in the world of fantasy cinema that can be appropriately described with that word.
The Green Knight is now available on physical and digital media.
In the Heights
It was a great year for movie musicals and part of why it was such a glorious 12 months for this genre was how this new crop of musicals showed no interest in adhering to reality. Just look at Jon M. Chu's In the Heights, which provided top-notch entertainment by turning the everyday locales of Washington Heights into lavish backdrops big enough not just for song-and-dance numbers, but the dreams of its lead characters. A community pool became the setting for one of the year's greatest scenes during the "96,000" showstopper while "Paciencia y Fe" turned a subway station into a place where the past and present poignantly combined. With In the Heights, Chu and a sublime cast (Anthony Ramos instantly becomes a classic leading man with his work here) delivered the kind of sweeping joy that has been the lifeblood of crowdpleaser musicals dating back to the days of Gene Kelly. In the Heights keeps your toes tapping, your heart full, and a smile on your face...what's not to love?
In the Heights is now available on physical and digital media as well as streaming on HBO Max.
Judas and the Black Messiah
While some biopics get caught up in trying to cram every detail of a famous person's life into one movie, Judas and the Black Messiah is more interested in emphasizing the humanity of Fred Hampton and his Black Panther brethren. The intimate scope of the production is masterfully combined with the intense suspenseful moments yanked right out of a 1970s political thriller. Director Shaka King demonstrates remarkable chops for only his second feature-length directorial effort while primary actor Daniel Kaluuya marvels with his turn as Hampton. The whole production leaves you with an appropriate sickening sensation in your stomach as Judas and the Black Messiah uses a film about the past to talk about systemically-ingrained horrors that still plague society today. Plus, Black Messiah gets bonus points for making me giggle over imagining Warner Bros. executives going "Wonder who that's for?" over a scene where Hampton talks about the evils of capitalism.
Judas and the Black Messiah is now available on physical and digital media as well as streaming on HBO Max.
Paul Thomas Anderson's works have often grappled with heady material but even grim movies like The Master and There Will be Blood featured moments that demonstrated that this filmmaker has a gift for comedy. Anderson gets to revel in his skills for light-hearted material like never before with Licorice Pizza, a wistful trip to the 1970s chronicling the exploits of teenage boy Gary Valentine (Cooper Hoffman) and Alana Kane (Alana Haim), a 25-year-old lady he persistently pursues. The duo's exploits are depicted in a relaxed hangout manner that lets small comic details, a soundtrack bursting with toe-taping tunes, and distinctive pieces of humorous dialogue take center-stage. Ironically, the eschewing of urgency only makes Licorice Pizza all the more compelling since Anderson lets us groove to and eventually grow attached to these characters. A different beast from prior Anderson works in several ways, Licorice Pizza nonetheless continues the filmmaker's stellar track record of delivering remarkable movies.
Licorice Pizza is now playing in theaters.
Four people in a church basement. That's it. That's all Mass offers. Turns out, that's all you need to frame a compelling drama on. Especially since these aren't just four strangers. One half of the quartet is the parents of a school shooter, the other half is the parents of one of the kids that shooter killed. What results is an acting exercise that gets so much of its power from both its restraint and its refusal to provide easy answers to traumatizing emotions. Oh, and then there are the performances, which are across the board phenomenal. Why Ann Dowd isn't being talked about every day as delivering one of the greatest turns of 2021 as the tormented mother of a school shooter, I'll never know. Like the movie she inhabits, Dowd's work in Mass is haunting and unforgettable.
Mass is now available on digital home media.
As Nine Days began, I could feel my trepidation rising. Would this movie be too cutesy for its own good? I needn't have worried. Director Edson Oda's rendering of a process of how and which souls are chosen to go out and become living beings proves to have a beating soul that's impossible to resist. Oda'as confidence as a director is similarly impressive as he tells this tale in sparse details that allow the three central characters, their differing personalities, and their dialogue to take center stage. This approach proves to be a Godsend for performers like Winston Duke and Benedict Wong, who thrive under these circumstances. The restraint also informs distinctive visuals, including a ramshackle recreation of a fun day at the beach. The underlying recognition of the finite nature of existence laces these ingredients with a melancholy aura so stirring it made my initial concerns seem foolhardy. Rather than being twee, Nine Days is moving and inspired.
Nine Days is now available on physical and digital media.
No Straight Lines: The Rise of Queer Comics
Since Maus and Watchmen in the 1980s, it's been clear that comics aren't just for kids. But what may still not be apparent to the general public is how often comics can be a haven for queer expression. The documentary No Straight Lines: The Rise of Queer Comics seeks to correct this by highlighting a series of queer comic writers. These artists have used this medium to express ideas and perspectives that American society has often erased entirely. Anecdotes from the likes of Alison Bechdel prove entertaining, but the stories from writer Rupert Kinnard (a man as inspirational as any fictional superhero!) are the highlight of the whole production. Equally as impactful are moments that show unity between the various queer comics writers. This is where director Vivian Kleiman quietly showcases the crux of No Straight Lines, the vibrant humanity of the queer community that helped to take the comics medium to new directions. Just try and keep your eyes dry during this wonderful and touching documentary.
No Straight Lines: the Rise of Queer comics is still without U.S. distribution or a release date.
"I'm not homeless, I'm just houseless," Frances McDormand's Fern remarks in Nomadland. Inspired to wander America after a one-two punch of personal tragedy and financial turmoil, Fern's experiences as a nomad are the centerpiece of Nomadland, Chloe Zhao's third motion picture that also serves as one of the greatest motion pictures in the 21st-century to win the Best Picture Oscar. Zhao's writing and directing show such consideration and care, captivating empathy emanating from each frame. Combining McDormand's lived-in performance with non-professional actors playing variations of themselves creates a sense of authenticity that's also impossible to turn away from. Nomadland challenges the definition of what a "home" or a fulfilling existence in a late capitalistic society is. In the process, it delivers a remarkable exercise in filmmaking.
Nomadland is now available on physical and digital media as well as on Hulu.
One of the most delightful surprises of 2021 cinema was discovering that, despite the pre-release hype, Pig is much more than just John Wick but with a swine. It's a rumination on the long-lasting effects of grief with an emphasis on quiet conversations and the ability of food to bring people together rather than gunfire. It's also a demonstration that, yes, Nicolas Cage remains an incredible performer. In a much more restrained mode than some of his most famous over-the-top roles, Cage hauntingly captures a man whose always wandering in the shadow of his partner's demise. No wonder he's so attached to the titular animal of Pig. Though it may have seemed, on paper, like it was derivative of other projects, Pig turned out to be a one-of-a-kind treasure.
Pig is now available on physical and digital media.
The Power of the Dog
Like Backstreet and Eminem, Jane Campion is back (tell a friend) and she's brought a twisted vision of a psychological thriller and a Western with her. The Power of the Dog is a unique take on both genres, particularly the latter, as well as an exploration of how suffocating and dangerous classical portraits of masculinity can be. Campion makes juggling all those balls at once look easy. Meanwhile, her affinity for erotically-charged close-ups of male characters running their fingers across the teeth of a comb or a flower made out of nowhere is emblematic of the distinctive visuals The Power of the Dog delivers regularly. Like a cross between Phantom Thread and Beau Travail, The Power of the Dog doesn't just leave one impressed, it'll also make you grateful Campion's back in the director's seat where she belongs.
The Power of the Dog is now streaming on Netflix.
Quo Vadis, Aida?
Lots of elements in Quo Vaids, Aida? stand out in my mind, but what's proved especially lasting about this production is director Jasmila Žbanić's use of space. Crowds of desperate people dominate the frame for so much of the movie that the viewer gets used to it. Once emptier and emptier spaces begin to become the default backdrops during the third-act, it inspires a pit in your stomach as one becomes conscious that this vacancy reflects all the people lost during the Srebrenica Massacre of 1995. It's one of many ways Žbanić's emphasizes the humans trying to survive during these unspeakable horrors. Lead actor Jasna Đuričić also accomplishes this feat with a performance dripping with harrowing desperation. Quo Vadis, Aida? isn't an easy watch, there's no question about that, but it's also one of 2021's most lastingly impactful motion pictures.
Quo Vadis, Aida? is now available on digital home media and to stream on Hulu.
The Souvenir: Part II
Joanna Hogg returns to the world of the 2019 film The Souvenir with this sequel, though this is no mere rehash of its predecessor. Hogg ramps up her filmmaking to a whole new level here through the incorporation of multiple aspect ratios, color schemes, and visual aesthetics that begin to blur the line between the characters and the movies they create. What a fitting achievement for a film chronicling a film school student processing a former tormented relationship through an autobiographical movie. Art and reality form a symbiotic relationship under the insightful eye of Hogg in The Souvenir: Part II. She reflects that dynamic in such constantly imaginative visual terms. The Souvenir: Part II is a direct continuation of the story of the original Souvenir, but it's also its own unique creation in countless unforgettable ways.
Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings
Marvel Studios delivered a lot of interesting movies this year, including one that united multiple generations of Spider-Man mythology, one that let Chloe Zhao go hog-wild on cosmic weirdness, and one that dared to employ a song from the marketing campaign from The Gallows. But my favorite of the bunch of was Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, a great adventure movie with crisp fight choreography and star-making turns from the likes of Simu Liu and Meng'er Zheng. Even better, it was a treat to watch writer/director Destin Daniel Cretton translate his fascination with people reeling from troubled upbringings from earlier works like Short Term 12 to the canvas of a summer blockbuster. All of that plus seeing Tony Leung remind the world why he's one of the best actors around, Shang-Chi, like the best titles from Marvel Studios, is a thrilling piece of entertainment on its own terms rather than because of any post-credits nuggets.
Summer of Soul
The 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival has faded into obscurity in the pages of history. The documentary Summer of Soul not only seeks to reclaim notoriety to the event, but also showcase why it was so special in the first place. Featuring musical performances from everyone from Sly and the Family Stone to The 5th Dimension, the restored footage of this six-week-long concert makes you feel like you're right there in the front row cheering along with everyone else. Just getting to watch these exhilarating performances alone is enough to make Summer of Soul essential viewing. However, director Ahmir "Questlove" Thompson's decision to frame this footage of the past with modern interviews (including some with the artists that sang here!) that lend greater context to the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival, that's what cements Summer of Soul as both a great feature and as successful in its mission to restore the importance to this musical event.
This is Not a Burial, It's a Resurrection
Lots of my favorite films this year were conscious of how life doesn't go on forever. Few of these dealt with that somber fact of life more interestingly than This is Not a Burial, It's a Resurrection, which begins its story with death and then contemplates how a person can make their life worthwhile. Writer/director Lemohang Jeremiah Mosese weaves a melancholy yet contemplative aura with this story. Proving even more engaging more than the atmosphere, though, the precise sense of blocking from him and cinematographer Pierre de Villiers. The everyday life of Resurrection's elderly protagonist is framed with such care and detail within a 4:3 aspect ratio, whose inherently narrow nature is to reflect how mortality traps us all. Everywhere you look in This is Not a Burial, It's a Resurrection, you're bound to find another way this movie grapples with heavy questions in an insightful manner.
This is Not a Burial, It's a Resurrection is now streaming on the Criterion Channel.
From the start of Tick...Tick...Boom!, it's clear that playwright Jonathan Larson will not live forever. He'll pass away the night before his musical, Rent, premieres on Broadway. His lifelong anxiety over having not enough time to do all that he wants takes on a whole new tragic air under this context. Keeping the finite nature of Larson's life hovering over Tick...Tick...Boom! lends extra gravitas to the proceedings while Andrew Garfield's performance similarly lends further layers of depth to this depiction of Larson. Who knew Garfield had a singing voice this good? And who knew Lin Manuel-Miranda would transition to film directing with such ease? On paper, Tick...Tick...Boom! sounds like an exercise that should crash under clashing tones, but in execution, it becomes a poignant reminder what matters most in the time we do have to be alive.
Tick...Tick...Boom! is now streaming on Netflix
I've never seen a movie like Titane. It's not even just that this film about a lady who loves cars a liiiitle too much is "weird", it's that it's so brazenly confident. Writer/director Julia Ducournau never once considers hiding her absurd storyline behind "gritty realism". Instead, she embraces all the strangeness to deliver imagery and plot turns you could never see coming. In a brilliant twist, her ability revel in the bizarre ends up tapping into very real emotions that lend poignant grounding to the proceedings. Anchored by bravura performances from Agathe Rousselle and Vincent Lindon, as well as a perfectly unnerving score from Jim Williams, Titane throws so many ingredients into one pot and ends up creating a mesmerizing whole. I've never seen anything quite like it, a tremendous testament to Ducournau's gifts as a filmmaker.
Titane is now available on digital media.
West Side Story
Even with his track record, Steven Spielberg doing a remake of one of the most acclaimed musicals of all-time sounds like a recipe for disaster. Leave it to this filmmaker to prove us all wrong by knocking his vision for West Side Story out of the park. Rather than do a shot-for-shot remake of the 1961 Best Picture winner of the same name, this take on West Side Story found ingenious new backdrops for beloved songs (love the fresh expansive settings for the "America" set piece) and delivered a cast stacked with towering performances. Rather than being reminded of a superior version of the same story from years before, the likes of Rachel Zegler and Ariana DeBose make this West Side Story something that works as a standalone property. Oh, and Spielberg continues to have a masterful visual eye, one perfectly suited for framing musical numbers. Sure, many remakes are hollow echoes of the past, but West Side Story is so brimming with creativity, energy, and life, it more than justifies its existence.
West Side Story is now playing in theaters.
And now, the best movie of 2021...
Drive my Car
Sometimes, I find myself struggles to decide just what is the best movie of any given year. For 2021, there was no question it'd be Drive my Car. That's not a reflection there not being any other great features this year, but rather a commentary on just how singualrly good Drive my Car is. This contemplation on navigating existence after a deep personal tragedy is just so innately insightful and compelling that it can turn mundane events, like an outdoor play rehearsal or a conversation in the backseat of a car, into utterly captivating circumstances.
Writer/director Ryusuke Hamaguchi's gift for seeing the value of chronicling everyday circumstances is polished and refined to a tee here as he makes a three-hour runtime fly right by thanks to what fascinating characters he carves and quietly brilliant filmmaking he delivers. By the end of Drive my Car, Hamaguchi hasn't offered easy answers as to how anyone can recover from losing a loved one or any other traumatic experience. There are no easy answers for such situations, after all. But Drive my Car does offer hope that we can still live on, if not for ourselves, than for the dead. It's a beautiful concept told through countless ingenious decisions, including how the screenplay recontextualizes lines of dialogue from classic plays by Samuel Beckett and Anton Chekhov. Considering all these qualities and so much more, it was a no-brainer to dub Drive my Car the best movie of 2021.
Drive my Car is now playing in select theaters and will expand to more locations in January 2022.