The Top 25 Films of 2021

2021 would seem like the oddest year for moviegoing in about anyone’s respective lifetime if only 2020 didn’t already happen. Things didn’t exactly return to fully normal over the last twelve months, but thanks to the rollout of vaccines, movie theaters did scrape out some wins, welcoming audiences again with all the blockbusters delayed over the previous year. But movies never really left. 2020 still brought its share of accomplishments during a time when theaters were mostly dormant or sparsely occupied, and 2021 brought even more, regardless of fluctuating attendance numbers. And so while what’s ahead for the industry is filled with uncertainty, it’s still time to count down those pleasures that 2021 did bring; here are my top twenty-five of the 2021. But first, here are some good ones that just missed the cut:

Honorable Mentions: Drive My Car, Enemies of the State, Funny Face, The Hand of God, The Killing of Two Lovers, Nightmare Alley, Procession, Quo Adis, Vaida?, Some Kind of Heaven, & The Tragedy of Macbeth

25. No Sudden Move

Image via HBO Max

Steven Soderbergh is the modern maestro of ensemble crime films, and No Sudden Move is another feather in the director’s genre-filmmaking cap. Set in 1950s Detroit and featuring a stacked ensemble of Don Cheadle, Benicio Del Toro, David Harbour, Kieran Culkin, Jon Hamm, Ray Liotta, Julia Fox, Amy Seimetz, Brendan Fraser and more, No Sudden Move sees Soderbergh expertly handling the ins and outs of Ed Solomon’s tight script, which integrates numerous socio-economic concerns into its caper narrative with a deft touch. It’s a twisty-turn affair that thrillingly reaffirms that there’s no honor among thieves, that greed is the engine that makes the world go round, and that there’s no more well-oiled criminal machine than corporate America. (Full Review)

Where to Watch: HBO Max

24. Atlantis

Image via Grasshopper Film

To say there’s an overabundance of dystopian scenarios throughout pop culture would be one of the biggest of understatements. Yet it can seem odd, especially since there are plenty of situations and ordeals around the world, currently happening, that are just as vivid and worthy of attention — no escape or creation needed. And Valentyn Vasyanovych’s Atlantis is a movie that realizes that, as it sets itself in Ukraine in 2025, a time in which it imagines the current Russia-Ukraine conflict has come to an end. And writer-director-cinematographer Vasyanovych visualizes this as a film of rubbled, bleakly poetic landscapes, presenting everyone of his scenes within one fixed, unbroken shot. And it’s with that unblinking, almost hypnotized approach where he finds something beautiful, strange, comic, touching and eventually optimistic within all the economic and ecological degradation. (Full Review)

Where to Watch: N/A

23. Moffie

Image via IFC Films

A real potent cocktail of violence and repression that charts the brutalizing passage into corrosive masculinity, Oliver Hermanus’ Moffie tells its story of living closeted in the apartheid South African army with a pressurized sensitivity and artful dread. In numerous ways on a very personal interest/taste level, this checks some of my favorite boxes: it devotes most of its runtime to drawing out the details of its protagonist’s experience; has a jagged rhythm that’s more attuned to sensory feeling and memory than to any sort of conventional narrative progression; carries some coolly evocative aesthetics. All of which are based in ritualistic brutality and dehumanization; sequences of illicit drinking sit alongside training sequences set to classical music and opera; while scenes of abuse and violent bullying cut against the deadly mundanity of a VHS instructional session. With a script that is economical without being overdetermined and a plucked-strings score that groans like an upset stomach, Moffie has moments where it lands with a sort of thudding literality. But, befitting its harrowing subject of young men hammered into rigid conformity, the film leaves a lasting mark all the same.

Where to Watch: Hulu & VOD

22. Dune

Image via Warner Bros.

It’s easy to lament the blockbusterization of American cinema and the way big event films dominate both the multiplexes and the conversation. Plenty of 2021 films reinforced the wisdom of staying wary of a film world in which bigness exerts such a powerful gravitational pull. But some movies call for a massive scale and a director who understands how to make films that demand to be seen on the biggest screens in town. Dune finds Denis Villeneuve serving ably as both field marshal and storyteller with this second theatrical stab at Frank Herbert’s revered (but dense and tough-to-adapt) sci-fi classic; telling the story with immense scale and arresting specificity. Well half the story, at least: in a gamble announced by the title card, this is Dune: Part One, with a second part’s existence contingent on whether or not this one found an audience. Fortunately, the gamble worked. (Full Review)

Where to Watch: VOD

21. Limbo

Image via Focus Features

In Limbo, the Scottish Isles are a place where time seems to stand still, and one where writer-director Ben Sharrock operates in a deadpan register; telling his story of a group of immigrants patiently waiting to try and seek asylum in the U.K. through an alteration of dry fish-out-of-water gags and scenes of people staring forlornly into the barren middle distance. From the start, it’s a pretty insinuating, poetic and often wryly funny approach, one that announces Sharrock as a notable talent. His direction throughout is impressive; his balance of tone impeccable, jumping between laughs and pathos in the grim circumstances. And his writing is intricate, filing the crevices of his premise with intimate details, anecdotes, and instances of lyrical yearning, all of which configure the essence of his characters being adrift in an ocean of surrounding indifference. And so much of that comes from the visual language Sharrock and cinematographer Nick Cooke deliver; conveying the marked contrasts between a sense of community, found in shared hardship, and the soul-crushing isolation of individual experience through each of their spare, gravely beautiful compositions. But, in the end, it’s their finite concentration on the various striking faces of their actors — the most beautiful of all the landscapes here — that gives this film a very singular redemptive glow.

Where to Watch: HBO Max & VOD

20. Pig

Image via Neon

The blunt title, the John Wick-esque premise (middle-aged hermit hunts down the people who stole his beloved truffle pig), and the words “starring Nicolas Cage” primed expectations for a tongue-in-cheek, over-the-top revenge thriller when people first heard about Pig. But, in actuality, first-time director Michael Sarnoski serves up a disarmingly sincere and heartfelt portrait of curdled grief, while simultaneously exploring the ways in which food can do more than merely sustain us. That’s not to say that the film doesn’t have its enjoyably offbeat touches, like the protagonist’s visit to Portland’s secret high-class cuisine fight club, which sees restaurant workers bid to pummel tyrannical chefs. And Cage does suddenly yell into a little kid’s face at one point. But it’s his beautifully internalized embodiment of sorrow mixed with grim determination that sets the tone, and Pig’s ultimate catharsis arrives in forms — one culinary, the other musical — that are unexpected and genuinely moving. (Full Review)

Where to Watch: Hulu & VOD

19. Petite Maman

Image via Neon

Although it arrived in the wake of writer-director Celine Sciamma’s international breakthrough, the rapturous romance Portrait of a Lady On Fire, Petite Maman is more in line with the French filmmaker’s earlier work. That means it’s a tender, delicate coming-of-age story, bathed in a warm light — both literal and figurative — that evokes the feeling of basking in the warm sunlight peaking through the window on chilly Fall day. A magical realist ghost story about the transcendent bonds between mothers and their children, Petite Maman takes a premise straight out of an extremely popular ’80s comedy (to say which one might be a little spoiler-y) and reinvents it on both an aesthetic and an emotional level. It does so in only seventy-two minutes, but this little jewel of a film has a poetic impact that lingers far beyond its modest runtime. (Full Review)

Where to Watch: Neon will give the film a much wider theatrical release early 2022.

18. The World to Come

Image via Bleeker Street

In recent years we’ve seen a fair share of period lesbian romances, but The World to Come is quite different; it’s more jabbing and elliptical instead of lush and symphonic; classical where some of its predecessors have thrummed with a contemporary feel. It’s two central lovers (Katherine Waterson and Vanessa Kirby) are only seldomly onscreen together, and only in hindsight do you appreciate how charged the space between them is when they were. It’s a movie that takes what would conventionally be the most pivotal of moments and folds them into the margins, centering her film to be about the things we remember, and not the ones so easy to forget. It’s a movie written through faces unaccustomed to smiles; a textural swim of a kerosene ache searching for warmth; a lonesome, lyrical call for solace amongst the bleakness. (Full Review)

Where to Watch: Hulu & VOD

17. The Humans

Image via A24

Not many movies will likely make you begin to study the ceilings and walls of your home after viewing it, but The Humans, Stephen Karam’s intensely claustrophobic film adaptation of his Tony-winning play, does just that. For every minute of this taut but slow-roiling family drama, the movie sets itself in a dilapidated apartment in Manhattan’s Chinatown, with an extra emphasis on being really in it, packed alongside the film’s stellar ensemble. Part of the movie’s strength lies both in the way it scrambles the formula of the holiday-set dysfunctional-family drama and in the way that Karam hasn’t delivered a stagey play adaptation, but instead has concisely rethought the material for the screen. Husband cinematographer Lol Crawley’s visual language is sensational, as they use various kinds of fragmentation of the screen to their advantage; shooting the actors from an ominous distance, using walls and doorways to segment the frame and capture their sense of isolation. And in that Karam melds resilient togetherness with existential terror, making a film that encapsulates the intense compromises and intimate devastation of family; a movie about mundane despair and the weight of what’s left unsaid. (Full Review)

Where to Watch: Showtime

16. The French Dispatch

Image via Searchlight Pictures

A glorious nesting doll of a movie. Furthering his obsession with building frames around frames, Wes Anderson presents his first anthology film as the final issue of a revered magazine not-so-loosely modeled on The New Yorker — a sophisticated structural gimmick that allows him to tell stories within stories within more stories. The French Dispatch has been confused by some, as Anderson’s work so often is, for an empty exercise in meticulously dioramic style. As usual, though, the writer-director smuggles numerous bittersweet insights into the supposedly hollow center of his frames. Within it all, you’ll find affecting performances, affectionate splashes of animation, and a dizzyingly dense pastiche of the various artworks that have sparked Anderson’s imagination. Finally, at the center is also a winsome tribute to the half-remembered, half-imagined era when the owners of publications actually cared about their writers and the subjects they wrote about. Today, that’s a reality that seems as unreal as an isle of dogs, a moonrise kingdom, or a heist-making fox. (Full Review)

Where to Watch: VOD

15. The Card Counter

Image via Focus Features

Equally glorious in its mundane contemplation as in its heavy metal-induced frenzy, Paul Schrader’s follow-up to his masterful First Reformed is yet another masterfully constructed examination of morality and trauma. Executive produced by Martin Scorsese, The Card Counter is an unsettling revenge thriller that exacerbates all of Schrader’s best traits, from its tight-knit script to the way in which the sharp black and whites of good and evil violently blend into discordant greys. Throw in Oscar Isaac, who gives one of his best, most reserved performances to date as a tormented ex-military interrogator turned gambler who starts to mingle with the possibility of redemption and recovery. And throw in the film’s mesmerizingly bruising atmosphere and you get a disquieting look at the traumatized spirit and flesh of a lonely soul. (Full Review)

Where to Watch: VOD

14. C’mon C’mon

Image via A24

In Mike Mills’ films, the familiar becomes momentous and the ordinary turns almost passionate; it’s like he’s telling us, through each film, that the things we’re looking for are so often right in front of us, if we’d only pay them the right kind of attention. And C’mon C’mon is all about that kind of attention and the discoveries that can come from it, about others and about ourselves. And that might not be especially innovative or profound, perhaps, but each of the characters’ relationships and interactions crackle with an uncanny authenticity. As we witness a radio producer (Joaquin Phoenix) and his young nephew (Woody Norman) bond amid work trips and recorded interviews, family crises and reconciliations, Mills delivers the film to feeling both intensively intimate and expansively grand, tenderly introspective and absorbingly wandering. They’re striking, seemingly contradictory feelings that only a great filmmaker, like Mills, could convey simultaneously. (Full Review)

Where to Watch: VOD

13. Ema

Image via Music Box Films

The giant glowing sun-like orb on stage behind dancer Ema (Mariana Di Girolamo) at the start of Ema could be a symbol of creation or destruction, both of which are pressing undercurrents throughout Pablo Larraín’s scorching, hypnotically cryptic drama, which tracks the young title character as she copes with the fallout of relationships both romantic and parental. Fiery tensions are everywhere in this hypnotic film — be it between love and sex, passion and reason, sanity and madness, or modern art and reggaeton street culture — as Ema schemes her way through carnally devious means. Larraín stages his material like a sweaty, pulsating fever dream, all of it revolving around his alternately arresting protagonist, whose quest for motherhood takes on increasingly demented form. There’s palpable volatility to his study of Di Girolamo’s intriguing Ema, who proves to be a figurative and literal flamethrower. (Full Review)

Where to Watch: VOD

12. The Lost Daughter

Image via Netflix

Maggie Gyllenhaal as an actor has a filmography that’s a striking display of parental dissatisfaction; from her turns in Sherrybaby to The Kindergarten Teacher, and she again has tackled that topic with her directorial debut The Lost Daughter, an adaptation of Elene Ferrante’s novel of the same title. Tracking a mother (Olivia Coleman) as she goes on a solo Greek vacation and finds anything but psychological peace, The Lost Daughter is a rare film that dares to question the supposedly inviolable value of motherhood — a phenomenon typically held up as so sacred that any women who don’t feel attuned to it are encouraged to doubt themselves. It’s a film that contains no explicit violence or violations, but nonetheless feels quiveringly, exhilaratingly close to something taboo, because of its rough, possibly surprising honesty. At once aloof and imposing, tremulous and blunt, Coleman embodies her character as a complex mom whose affection for others is dwarfed by her irrepressible love for herself, and Gyllenhaal’s immediate, spiky direction breathes volatile life into everything around her, making this unpredictable drama of clashing instincts and maternal ambivalence into something all too haunting. (Full Review)

Where to Watch: Netflix

11. Undine

Image via IFC Films

A romance between a mysterious, possible water nymph city-worker (Paula Beer) and an industrial deep-sea diver (Franz Rogowski), Christian Petzold’s Undine is a beguiling fairy tale of fractured hearts and lives that maintains the filmmaker’s enduring love of classicism, especially with romantic cinema. From the start, he strikes a mood of lyrical melancholy that’s wrought from personal and political predicaments of disconnection and union. A lot of which arises from his precise visual sense — wide, isolated angles that capture his characters in uncertain landscapes, plus intricate closeups loaded with unspoken feeling. His film is awash with wonderful ambiguities, of which really strive to both challenge and enliven the conventions of stories of this kind. And it succeeds in finding those detailed nuances through being soaked in a dreamy sensual calm of captivating desires and perceptive textures. (Full Review)

Where to Watch: Hulu & VOD

10. Licorice Pizza

Image via MGM

The story of an unlikely pair (Cooper Hoffman and Alana Haim) who tool they’re way around the Valley, cooking up big business plans, falling in with colorful characters, and essentially deciding who they are going to be, Paul Thomas Anderson’s Licorice Pizza is the filmmaker’s third crack at chronicling Los Angeles in the 1970s. But, as he’s done before, this isn’t some mere nostalgia trip; With Licorice Pizza he has sifted through the past and made something that feels more concrete and tangibly real; A California daydream of woozy tall tales and half-forgotten memories that renders the beautifully wandering, hazy warmth of recollection into something achingly alive. (Full Review)

Where to Watch: It’s playing in theaters nationwide.

9. The Green Knight

Image via A24

A mystical and enthralling medieval coming-of-age story in which King Arthur’s overeager adult nephew, Gaiwan (Dev Petal) learns that the world is weirder and more complicated than he ever thought possible, The Green Knight is an intimate epic told with the self-conviction that its hero struggles to find at every turn. It’s also an Arthurian head-trip that unmakes one myth at its center while drawing its own smart, surprising conclusions about the roles nobility and self-sacrifice can play within lives that will end, regardless of such subjective moral codes. It’s ghostily contemplative and marked with a blend of singular sensitivity and enigmatic storytelling; a misty, melancholic dream of self-doubt and uncertainty told on a large scale. (Full Review)

Where to Watch: VOD

8. Titane

Following the cannibalistic Raw with another ravenous film that pushes her fascination with the hunger and malleability of human flesh to even further extremes, Julia Ducournau has made good on the promise of her debut and then some. Whatever you’re willing to take from it, there’s no denying that Titane is the work of a demented visionary in full command of her wild mind. Centered around the largely wordless performance of Agathe Rousselle in one of the most incredible acting debuts in recent memory, Titane breaks new ground in “body horror” by having skulls, wombs, and veins pullulating with grease, metal, and gasoline. For all the shock value of the film, which concerns the unlikely relationship that develops between Rousselle’s on-the-run criminal and a traumatized firefighter played by Vincent Lindon, it’s ultimately as moving as it is lurid and as sweet as it is grotesque: a tale of the old flesh being twisted and broken as it gives birth to anew; an enthrallingly odyssey etched in agitated and festering streams of blood and oil, but told with sensitivity. (Full Review)

Where to Watch: VOD

7. The Power of the Dog

Image via Netflix

With her first feature in eleven years, Jane Campion delivered The Power of the Dog, a film basked in the potent mysteries of the seen and unseen, a work of constant subversion. Whether it be the twisted relationship dynamics, the fact that the movie is set in (and passes as) Montana but was shot in New Zealand, or the against-type casting of Benedict Cumberbatch as a venomous rancher, nothing is as what it seems in this movie, as Campion weaponizes the trick of perception for piercingly sharp insight and enveloping psychological warfare. (Full Review)

Where to Watch: Netflix

6. Passing

Image via Netflix

Based on Nella Larsen’s exceptional novel of the same title, Rebecca Hall’s adaptation is mostly faithful to its source material, as it tells a story about identity within a 1920s African-American bourgeoisie context. The film centers on the experiences and relationship of two biracial women, Irene and Clare (Tessa Thompson & Ruth Negga), who were childhood friends, but one day, as adults, run into each other only for one to find out that the other is “passing” as white. It’s a premise that sets up countless moral quandaries, while also establishing that, like the previous Power of the Dog, nothing is exactly as it seems on first impression. There are countless questions with each relationship, as Hall forces implications to be plucked from between the lines of subtext. The movie may be quiet and restrained, but it’s in all the words left unsaid that the film’s narrative prowess resides. It’s a movie that, like its source material, rejects any easy answers, raising the drama without giving a sense of relief. Even when a definitive conclusion comes, the tension and questions don’t come close to stopping. And how can they not? Larsen never set out to deliver answers; just rich, searching stories wrapped in a lived-in world. Which is precisely what Hall has translated onto screen, announcing herself as a daunting talent. (Full Review)

Where to Watch: Netflix

5. Azor

Image via Mubi

When so many American movies about high finance just can’t help but overly and loudly explain themselves, it’s the minimalism of Andreas Fontana’s Azor that becomes such a pleasure; a film that teems with unseen threats, the horrors that lurk in the silence; a film where the smell of villainy wafts through it like the smoke of a costly cigar. Setting his film in pointedly secluded places of luxury during a time when Argentina was in the grip of a military-led terror campaign, Fontana crafts an atmosphere of grubbiness despite all the polished surfaces, where a veneer of normalcy sits overtop his masterclass in quiet tension. Fontana clearly wants the mood-conscious scenario he sets up to simmer: with no discernible increase in tension throughout, he lets only the magnetically watchful lead performance from Fabrizio Rongione to guide us through the rising temperatures of a dangerous time. And that makes for a queasy form of moral suspense. And in his debut feature, Fontana impressively and coolly avoids the temptation to put on a big show, preferring more delicate tactics. Some characters are overheard, or half heard, or glimpsed across rooms in sombre light. The camera fixated in the withheld gazes. His movie has no swaggering spies, no dashing heroes, no swoony villains and very little of what could pass for Hollywood-style action. There is instead a lot of seemingly innocuous small talk, the kind often tucked in amid places where many movie’s would leap their narrative forward. And in the small talk he finds cracks of eerie ambiguity, a milieu where there isn’t any oxygen and only the artful chill of Gabriel Sandru’s cinematography. In the end, Fontana doesn’t bludgeon you with explanations of finance, plot, Argentine history or otherwise. He instead asks the biggest question; for you to look and to listen, and to really grasp what it means to behave as if the world around you isn’t slowly burning to the ground.

Where to Watch: Mubi

4. West Side Story

Image via 20th Century Studios

What if the dream factory conjured a real dream again, and no one showed up? The box-office failure of West Side Story is bad news for those invested in Hollywood spectacles with more twinkling in their eyes than the promise of a franchise. Part of the magic of Steven Spielberg’s majestic adaptation is how it feels both classical and modern. The playwright Tony Kushner gracefully upgrades certain elements, teetering the eternal Romeo And Juliet clash of warring gangs towards a genuine balance of perspective and sympathies. Meanwhile, Spielberg brings the timeless story alive again through brilliant casting and the virtuosic verve of his staging, finally applied to a genre of pure song and dance. Still, in the end, what they’ve all emerged with is a stirringly, reverently faithful West Side Story: a new production that understands the mythic appeal of the material and the undimmed power of maybe the greatest songbook in the history of stage and screen musicals. Sometimes, they do make ’em like they used to. But for how much longer? (Full Review)

Where to Watch: it’s playing in some theaters nationwide.

3. Beginning

Image via Mubi

Beginning opens with a packed Jehovah’s Witness prayer house in Tbilisi, Georgia, it’s calmly quiet as the pastor delivers a sermon on the story of Abraham and his son, before a Molotov cocktail comes crashing through the window and chaos breaks out amongst the congregation. That incendiary incident is the catalyst for writer-director Déa Kulumbegashvili’s intensely ritualistic debut, as she tells her story with a precise, unwavering gaze, using prolonged, visually static compositions to consider the plight of her harried protagonist, Yana (Ia Sukhitashvili), as she becomes entangled with the fallout of that attack, as her husband (Rati Oneli) departs and a menacing local police officer (Kakha Kintsurashvili) arrives. Unfolding with spare deliberation, pausing every so often to exquisitely twist the knife into its audience, Beginning locks on Yana and never lets go, capturing her marginalized and despair-laden position in her community. It might at first seem like Kulumbegashvili is trapping her character into a meticulous trap with each of her static, fixated frames, but she soon makes it more clear that she isn’t really laying a trap, but more exploring a prison. There is unflinching cruelty in this film but also tenderness, and hellish images that are followed by glimpses of earthly paradise. It’s fierce in its stillness and bravura in its lingering. In the end, rendering itself into a boldly evocative work of punishing isolation and alienation packed with ravaging cuts of emotion and maybe the year’s most stunning final shot. (Full Review)

Where to Watch: Mubi

2. Spencer

Image via Neon

Introduced as “a fable from a true tragedy,” Spencer envisions Princess Diana’s life as a life of captivity, as she works her way through increasing isolation and depression on a Christmas weekend — through the rigid schedule, the designated however lavish gowns, the sewed-up curtains that isolate her from the world while her husband nonetheless hides an affair. It’s a portrait of a woman under attack; a woman pressing against the limits to her own agency, attempting to escape her gilded cage of politics, privilege, and intense media scrutiny. Wielding a stunning Kristen Stewart performance, an unforgettable Jonny Greenwood score, and Pablo Larraín’s poetically luxurious direction, it becomes maybe most notable that Spencer is anything but a biopic; living up to its fairy tale reading opening title card, the film is a historical fantasia, a claustrophobic thriller and a survivalist drama, morphing what might seem like tabloid trash into high art. (Full Review)

Where to Watch: VOD

1. The Worst Person in the World

Image via Neon

The Worst Person In the World has multiple hallmarks of being an overstuffed literary adaptation: narration that comes and goes, a narrative divided into episodic chapters, a large timespan to cover. But director and co-writer Joachim Trier isn’t actually wrestling a novel into submission; this is an original film that has a literary twelve-chapter structure, bookended by a prologue and epilogue, but all of it serves to helps reflect the episodic ebb and flow of various careers, hobbies, and relationships of twenty-nine-year-old protagonist, Julie (Renate Reinsve). She’s at the center of a movie seemingly made up of moments big and small, ones that capture that hovering indecision that comes with slowly entering adulthood. It’s a movie propelled through wayward impulses and pervasive feelings, as it perceptively captures young unrest with boundless empathy and dazzling directorial intelligence. Julie, played sensationally by Reinsve, remains to be always at the center of this film even as Trier cleverly positions her looking through windows into other people’s lives: the husband and wife loudly fighting in the next room; the cancer patient air-drumming with his headphones on; an anonymous couple on the street, frozen in a kiss during one reality-blurring best-scene-of-the-year sequence. Chapters come and go; but the book, Trier understands, is never finished. (Full Review)

Where to Watch: Neon will be giving the film a wider theatrical release on Feb. 4

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