My Favorite Movies of 2021
Let the spice flow!
About 16 months passed between my last trip to the theater in 2020 and first one in 2021, but that extended time at home lit the fuse to a frequent movie-watching habit. In 2020, I watched 203 movies for the first time. When 2021 began, I figured I could average about 20 new-to-me movies per month and did just about that. I started a movie-podcast with one of my best friends, and I created spreadsheets to keep tabs on different release dates.
The new year brought a little bit of hope mixed with trepidation. Vaccines made it possible to feel safe about going to movie theaters, and variants arrived to tilt everything off-axis again and again. For a while, I just assumed I’d return to theaters when Dune arrived in the fall, but I got my little jab and felt safe enough to make the trek over to my closest AMC theater.
The last movie I saw in theaters in 2020 was Birds of Prey, and the first one I saw in 2021 was Cruella. I enjoyed both about the same amount, but the latter was filled with a little more appreciation for that big ol’ screen lighting up a dark room. It’s easy to get a little melodramatic about movies and overblow the love and appreciation for movie theaters, but to steal a line from Jonah Hill’s character in Moneyball: How can you not be romantic about it?
In November, I went to a screening of the 1956 film High Society, a musical adaptation of The Philadelphia Story starring Grace Kelly, Frank Sinatra, Bing Crosby and Louis Armstrong. It’s a movie I watched for the first time in 2020 but have returned to many times since, but to watch it in a proper theater changed the viewing experience ever so slightly for the better. Certain, quick glances were magnified. The close-ups were more dramatic. The songs were more immersive. I couldn’t help but bop my head side-to-side in my seat while Crosby and Armstrong performed “Now You Has Jazz.”
What I’m saying is: Nicole Kidman really has a point!
Altogether, I watched 255 new-to-me movies in 2021. A little more than 40 of those were 2021 releases. I went to the theater 25 times, and I watched Timothee Chalamet get high in the desert about four times on HBO Max and in theaters. I bring none of this up to brag. It’s just how I’ve spent my time the last couple of years, and for as much as the world continues to open and close and reopen and reclose, I’d imagine much of the same looking ahead.
This is the third year I’ve ranked the year’s slate. 2021 brought plenty of movies I’d waited more than a year to watch as well as some nice surprises as well. On paper, the year looked like a classically good year for movies. The old guard came back with real force (Ridley Scott [twice!], Paul Schrader, Steven Spielberg). Wes Anderson and Paul Thomas Anderson offered up a pair of cinematic love letters. Jane Campion dropped her first feature film in 12 years. Will Smith is in the Oscar conversation. So many musicals came out this year.
According to the box office numbers, however, hardly anyone went to or got to see these movies (other than one friendly, neighborhood web-slinger) on that giant screen with those booming speakers. It’s easy to get caught up in the business-side of movies, especially when it all seems like doom and gloom, but strictly as a consumer of film, 2021 kind of ruled in an overwhelming sense. The quantity was such that I think some of the quality was not fully unpacked. As always, returning to some of these movies will unearth new shades to the art.
Anyway, that’s enough self-reflection. These are the movies I liked the best this year. I generally use the Oscars/awards-cycle as the arbitrary cutoffs, so movies like Judas and The Black Messiah and Minari went on last year’s chart. Until I find a plug for screeners, there’s a bunch of movies I won’t get to watch until they drop in the next couple of months. When I do, I’ll adjust the list accordingly.
Also, a pair of friends and I talked about a lot of these movies and movie-moments on the aforementioned podcast:
2021 Viewing Stats:
Total Movies Watched For The First Time: 255
In A Theater: 25
On a plane: 8
On a Streaming Service: 211
Apologies to: Petite Maman, Benedetta, Wheel of Fantasy and Fortune, and Parallel Mothers. I’ll get to you soon enough.
***(List updated on: March 26, 2022)***
1. The Worst Person in the World
An Oslo-based coming-of-age story about a woman entering her 30, The Worst Person in the World is at once hilarious, heartfelt and intelligent. Joachim Trier directed a rare, modern romantic comedy that doesn’t stumble around its contemporary elements. Renate Reinsve gives what is perhaps my favorite performance of the year, particularly in a literally movie-stopping scene.
I felt true joy and true, contemplative sorrow while watching this movie. I’ll think about a handful of the set-pieces for a long, long time. Also, it’s another example that you can make a movie as long as you want if you present it to me in chapters.
2. Licorice Pizza
Paul Thomas Anderson, man.
A love letter to summer crushes, the Valley in the 70s, and feeling aimless in your 20s, Licorice Pizza is a goofy, heartfelt movie with two winning performances at its center from Alana Haim and Cooper Hoffman. They have such solid chemistry and deliver PTA’s dialogue with enough warmth and skepticism to make the odd connection absolutely believable. This might not be the best PTA, but it does feel like the film in which he is most certain in what he wants to do and how he wants to do it.
3. The Souvenir: Part II
“Did you avoid the temptation to be obvious?”
Joanna Hogg wholly avoided the “obvious” in this sequel. A surprisingly stunning deconstruction and reconstruction of the first film that kept me on my toes and engaged through Julie’s catharsis. Hogg deftly spun the melodramatic romance story from the first film into a metatextual, artistic coming-of-age story in the second. True magic.
4. C’mon C’mon
Another entry in Mike Mills’ “it takes a village to raise a child” canon (after 20th Century Women), C’mon C’mon is a compassionate and grounded look at what it’s like to raise a child and what it’s like to raise one that’s not your own. I like this version of Joaquin Phoenix so much more than his turn as the Joker. Also, Woody Norman (who is British!) gives one of the best child-actor performances in recent memory considering the weight of the role.
Aaron and Bryce Dessner’s woodwind-heavy score do a lot in the way of adding a heady, emotional heft to the many quiet moments throughout the film. You will absolutely shed a few tears watching this movie, but not out of outright sorrow.
5. Drive My Car
Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s 3-hour film captures a holistic picture of grief, yes, but it also specifically illustrates the ways grief hides in every corner of every new room into which your life brings you. It nags at you like a dull pain whose source you should know but allow yourself to forget until you come around on that loop once again. It’s painful, yet you continue to walk through it and maybe even find a way, like art, to give back to those who may be feeling something similar.
6. The Power of the Dog
Jane Campion’s meditation on masculinity and mythmaking is intoxicating. Benedict Cumberbatch is domineering and charismatic in the lead role, and Kirsten Dunst does well to convey his intimidating presence as well. Somehow, Cumberbatch makes banjo-playing a menacing action.
The way Campion shows close, intimate moments juxtaposed with the vast Montana landscape is striking, and I hope she wins Best Director at the Oscars this year.
Denis Villenueve has a keen sense on filming giant flying objects landing and taking off, which is perfect for the first part of this adaptation of Frank Herbert’s Dune. “Stunning” should be saved for movies like this. Timothee Chalamet is my spice lord.
8. Nine Days
I was cold on Nine Days the first time I watched it, but after a few months, it stuck in my brain. On a second watch, it opened up to me. Edson Oda’s debut isn’t so much about answering questions about life so much as posing them openly. Winston Duke’s performance is the most underdiscussed of the year, and the film’s final scene is probably my favorite of the year.
9. Red Rocket
Sean Baker continues to flesh out the lives, simultaneously absurd and grounded, of different versions of sex workers, and Simon Rex portrayed the least likeable lead of 2021. I mean that in a mostly positive way. I did not expect the NSYNC needle-drops to come when they did.
Suzanna Son is an absolute revelation.
10. The Green Knight
A movie I feel like I admired more than I enjoyed on first watch, The Green Knight is one of those movies that has a point to make but doesn’t bother spelling it out much at all. Dev Patel turns in an engrossing leading performance in one of the most visually beautiful movies of the year.
11. Summer of Soul (…or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised)
I think my favorite documentaries are ones where it takes you where you never thought you could go, and the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival absolutely falls into that category. It’s a love letter to an era of music and a safe-space that was created to enjoy that music.
Within the formula of a classic coming-of-age high school movie, CODA centers on the lone hearing child in her family and how she balances responsibility and her own desires. It’s a movie where you know what’s probably going to happen, and yet it still legitimately yanks at your heartstrings. I’m definitely keeping tabs on Emilia Jones as she grows into her career.
My biggest surprise of 2021, Pig is a perfectly simple, meditative movie with a grounding performance from Nicolas Cage. I had no idea he still had this kind of acting in himself. It’s also the best Food Movie of the year.
14. The Harder They Fall
Of all the releases I watched on streaming this year, I don’t think I wanted to watch one in a theater more than The Harder They Fall. An absolute romp of a movie with an ensemble cast all throwing their fastball, Jeymes Samuel’s feature film debut is a style-bomb in the best way.
15. Spider-Man: No Way Home
This is really an origin story for Tom Holland’s rendition of Peter Parker. At movie’s end, he finally understands his responsibilities, he has to figure out adulthood on his own, and he’s broke.
A special accomplishment for the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and a lovely reclaiming of Andrew Garfield’s Peter Parker.
Superheroes, they’re just like us!
16. West Side Story (2021)
Although you never should doubt Steven Spielberg, I was still surprised by how moved I felt watching West Side Story. Mike Faist and Ariana DeBose are magnetic and winning as a Riff and Anita, respectively. Rachel Zegler is a Disney-star in the making. I particularly enjoyed how the camera movements were flashy without taking away from the beautiful dancing happening on-screen.
17. The Last Duel
Filing this movie under, “Oh wait, this has jokes?”
This might be the best Ben Affleck role in years. He is clearly having the most fun in a very serious movie. Jodie Comer is the movie’s glue, though. She morphs herself seamlessly throughout the different chapters and adds gravity to this roaring period film.
18. Bergman Island
Bergman Island joins Phantom Thread in the “Vicky Krieps gets into an argument with her artistic partner during a meal” canon. The structure, which I won’t spoil, elevates this drama into a creative, mind-bending storytelling exercise.
19. No Sudden Move
Stephen Soderbergh played the hits, and by god, they still slap. He conducted some sorcery in the last act, stretching time to wrap up all of the loose ends while keeping you on your toes. An all-time cameo at the end, too.
20. King Richard
We get so few rock-solid sports movies, but this is definitely one of them. The tennis rocks. Will Smith gets maybe his first older Movie Star performance as Richard Smith, but this movie excels because Saniyya Sidney and Demi Singleton kill it as Venus and Serena, respectively.
21. The Suicide Squad
This movie asks the hard questions, including, “Who ate all the fuckin’ empanadas?”
On a more real note, it’s wild how the most reliably entertaining part of the DCEU is when they clear out and let Margot Robbie kick ass as Harley Quinn for a few minutes.
22. French Dispatch
Wes Anderson has a way of hypnotizing you with all his dioramic style before hitting you with a gut punch of a line near the end. This movie is no exception.
I love seeing Bill Murray play a manic pixie dream editor.
23. Shiva Baby
A whip-smart movie about the horrors of family-adjacent friends, who are basically strangers, constantly asking you if you’ve eaten any food yet. Horror-style comedies aren’t always my favorite, but Shiva Baby is knowing and self-aware in the least pretentious ways. Bonus points for its sub-80-minute runtime.
24. Nightmare Alley
This is not a feel-good movie from Guillermo del Toro, but it sure looks good. I’m not sure how much works in this movie other than the cinematography and Bradley Cooper, but boy do they work at a highly successful clip.
25. The Mitchells vs. The Machines
Movies about the love of movies almost always work for me, especially when it also displays a winning awareness of the Internet.
Tessa Thompson and Ruth Negga are a magnetically paranoid duo as two sides of a tricky coin. The black-and-white and 1:1 aspect ratio add a preciseness to the focus as well.
27. The Lost Daughter
What a stressful movie. Maggie Gyllenhaal knows how to tease and direct attention with great control for a directorial debut. Olivia Colman turns in an all-time “smiling while shutting a conversation down” performance.
Jonny Greenwood’s score carries this suspenseful look at Princess Diana’s life that squeezes the most out of Kristen Stewart’s twitchy, fidgety mannerisms. I’ve mainly thought about the way the movie ends with Kentucky Fried Chicken. I wish I could’ve watched this one with subtitles.
29. Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings
Tony Leung did not have to give as much to his role as Shang’s father as he did, but this movie is elevated so much because of it. The bus fight sequence vaults Simu Liu into creditable action star territory.
“Silenceo, Bruno!” I tell myself as I wonder whether or not I should inhale another fat bowl of pasta a couple years into a pandemic.
Disney’s take on a Studio Ghibli movie is endearing.
Janicza Bravo absolutely understood this assignment, and Colman Domingo is the secret-MVP of this movie. When he turns, the movie flips accordingly. Taylour Paige is a master side-eye giver.
32. The Hand of God
Italy’s Best International Feature nominee is one-part family comedy, one-part coming-of-age and all-parts sad as hell. Filippo Scotti has big Timothee Chalamet energy.
33. House of Gucci
I love imagining Adam Driver internally laughing at Jared Leto and Lady Gaga ham it up while delivering another rock-solid (and hammy in its own right) performance. This movie is exactly what it says it’s going to be in its trailer: a fun, ridiculous romp.
34. The Humans
Stephen Karam’s rendition of this Tony-winning stageplay is sometimes a slog, sometimes melodramatic but by all means relatively engrossing. Amy Schumer generates a surprising amount of empathy in this role.
35. tick, tick…BOOM!
Andrew Garfield tried his darndest to get people to care more about this movie than they did about his speculated appearance in Spider-Man: No Way Home. He failed, but he succeeded in giving an endearing performance of an, at-times, insufferable main character.
36. The Tragedy of Macbeth
I can’t speak to how good of an adaptation this is, but it looks beautiful, and Denzel Washington brings all his titanic gravitas to Shakespearean dialogue with a true ease that’s musical.
37. No Time To Die
I can’t decide whether this movie needed more Ana de Armas or gave us the exact right amount. She probably benefited the most from the script-doctoring from Phoebe Waller-Bridge in a movie that took itself incredibly serious. Daniel Craig is my Bond.
Another Disney banger. The real antagonist in this movie without a clear one is the expectations that come with upholding a familial image, and while it’s far from my favorite Disney movie to come out in the last decade, I still teared up near the end.
Maybe I judged this harsher than necessary because of the Best Picture buzz around it, but I felt incredibly unaffected by Belfast. The harshest read I have is that it’s Roma without the seasoning, but it’s not without touching moments. Ciarán Hinds and Judi Dench are lovely as the grandparents. This movie also features the toughest beat for Turkish Delight since The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe.
40. Being the Ricardos
Aaron Sorkin, I’m begging you to let someone else direct. That said, I’m still a sucker for a good ol’ walk-and-talk.
41. Riders of Justice
Frankly, I’ll enjoy Mads Mikkelsen is anything he does. Riders attacks weighty issues with levity, but it jumps genres in a way that’s a little jarring.
42. Black Widow
At what point during production did Scarlett Johansson realize Florence Pugh was blowing everyone off the screen? My guess is their exchange at the gas station scene when Yelena calls Natasha a poser.
43. The Eyes of Tammy Faye
I’ve had Andrew Garfield saying, “God loves you. He really, really does,” stuck in my head for months now. Jessica Chastain is good, but the makeup is the real notable tidbit from this movie.
44. Last Night in Soho
Let’s get Thomasin Mackenzie and Anya Taylor Joy together again, but instead, make a better movie with less of a hacky, thrown together plot. Still stylish, though.
45. Godzilla vs. Kong
What a silly, stupid, spectacular piece of art this is. I’m thankful for this film if only for putting Brian Tyree Henry, Millie Bobby Brown and Julian Dennison on screen together even if their plot is mostly meaningless.
46. In The Heights
Lin-Manuel Miranda was active as all hell this year, and at the very least, he reminded everyone he can write some earworm-y songs.
The best part of the ninth Fast and Furious movie was the fact that one of my good friends drove up from Phoenix to watch the movie together.
48. Don’t Look Up
It was nice to see Jennifer Lawrence having comedic fun again. I enjoyed the running bit about her wondering why she was charged money for free snacks. Also, I like to imagine Timothee Chalamet’s character as a continuation of his (hella tight) role in Lady Bird.
49. The Card Counter
All I’m saying is if you’re a Paul Schrader fan, you don’t get to complain about the way superhero movies are all the same. My guy loves a pensive, middle-aged man meditatively journaling while drinking a glass of whiskey. That said, Oscar Isaac delivers a solid, restrained performance.
In many ways, The Card Counter feels like too much time spent on a random casino floor: buzzing with an aimless and constant feeling that most people would and should be elsewhere.
50. Free Guy
I don’t actually like this movie. However, on a summer road trip to San Diego, my partner and I got stuck in Yuma, Arizona, for about 13 hours. We were open to any late-night opportunity to kill time indoors, and so we settled on a 10 p.m. showing of Free Guy.
For that solace, I’m thankful this movie exists. That’s pretty much it. Jodie Comer is good though.
51. Venom: Let There Be Carnage
I laughed at this movie more than I laughed with it, but I laughed nonetheless.