The Top 10 Films of 2021
Unless you are a Spider-Man fanatic, you likely didn’t venture into a movie theater in 2021. However, thanks to the backlog from so many delayed 2020 films, the past 12 months have been a movie lover’s delight with a bevy of excellent films and memorable performances, plus a smorgasbord of independents and documentaries. I went another year without attending an in-person film festival, yet my 2021 total was 269 movies watched and reviewed. Toss in second viewings, classic films, and Christmas traditions, and it translates to a lot of hours in my darkened home theater room.
Spider-Man: No Way Home, now one of the ten highest-grossing films of all-time, was the only box office winner for the year. Five of the top 6 in box office revenue were comic book films – the exception being F9: The Fast Saga, which might as well be. In a “normal” (non-pandemic) year, movies like No Time to Die, West Side Story, Dune, and any of the slew of kids’ and other comic book/superhero movies would have performed significantly better. This has led many to (once again) predict the demise of movie theaters. It’s an easy prediction to throw out there when grown-ups and young kids have mostly avoided theaters for two years. Only time and the virus will tell us if the record year of 2019 ($42.5 billion worldwide) was the industry’s last gasp, or if the pandemic years are merely a blip.
My “exceptions” this year (films that I haven’t seen yet) include: Flee (multiple countries and multiple languages), Red Rocket, Parallel Mothers (Spain), Titane (France/Belgium), The Card Counter, Cruella, The Last Duel, Pig, The Worst Person in the World (Norway), Petite Maman (France). I’ll get around to these in the next couple of months, so maybe some will appear on the 2022 list this time next year.
Annual reminder: As always, this list has nothing to do with predictions for Academy Awards or any other awards. It’s simply my list of favorite movies of the year, and I hope you find at least a few that interest you.
The Power of the Dog
Oscar-winning filmmaker Jane Campion returns with an incredibly nuanced story that takes place on the frontier and features career-best performances from Benedict Cumberbatch, Kirsten Dunst, and Kodi Smit-McPhee. Filled with uncomfortable moments, it may be the quietest movie of the year, and one of the most difficult to label.
8-time Oscar nominee Paul Thomas Anderson proves yet again what a cinematic craftsman he is in perfectly capturing his 1970s childhood in California’s San Fernando Valley. The film works on so many levels: coming-of-age, period comedy, friendships, and a display of old-fashioned inappropriate happenings (some of which have caused backlash). For anyone growing up in the 1970s, this one will likely strike a familiar and emotional chord.
5-time Oscar nominee Kenneth Branagh revisits his childhood in the tumultuous and dangerous late 1960s. Breakout child actor Jude Hill is so engaging that we immediately hope for the best for him and his family. Caitriona Balfe serves up a terrific performance as his mom, and the entire cast delivers: Judi Dench, Ciaran Hinds, and Jamie Dornan. This one will likely tug on your emotions for some good laughs, and probably even a bit of crying.
West Side Story
3-time Oscar winner Steven Spielberg has long been devoted to preserving the history of cinema, and who better to direct a re-make/re-imagining of a classic film and classic musical? The love and respect he shows is evident in every scene, including the role for Rita Moreno, who nabbed her historic Oscar 50 years ago. The music and dance scenes are extraordinarily entertaining, and the film features four outstanding performances from Ariana DeBose, David Alvarez, Mike Faist, and luminescent newcomer Rachel Zegler.
Sometimes treated as an outcast in her own family, Ruby (Emilia Jones) is a CODA (child of deaf adults). She struggles to find her place, and future, as a talented singer, despite her mother and father being able to relate. The frustrations and emotions of all involved are laid bare, and Troy Kotsur (as the father) could be the first deaf actor nominated for an Oscar since Marlee Matlin (who plays his wife here).
Drive My Car
A three-hour slow-moving drama from Japan certainly isn’t going to be everyone’s cup of movie tea, but some of us find it mesmerizing. It’s about the creative process, but then it’s not. It’s a love story, but then it’s not. It’s an intellectual battle of foes, but then it’s not. It’s the bonding of two people, separated by a generation, who have more in common than they originally realized.
The Lost Daughter
The trials and tribulations of motherhood follow one forever. It seeps into the soul, rearing up at sometimes unexpected or unwelcome moments. This is Maggie Gyllenhaal’s directorial debut and it’s a hefty one, featuring a gut-wrenching performance from the always great (and Oscar-winning) Olivia Colman, and some of the best supporting work of the year from rising star Jessie Buckley, Dakota Johnson, and Dagmara Dominiczyk. The connective emotional tissue here is one mother looking back, while another looks forward. Neither like what they see and how they react reveals all.
Filmmaker Mike Mills edifies and regales us yet again with his insight into human nature – all four of his feature films have a personal touch. This time, a self-centered uncle agrees to take care of his young nephew. Their journey crisscrossing the country leaves us wondering which of the two has grown the most. Joaquin Phoenix gives us his most accessible performance, though it’s newcomer Woody Norman who leaps off the screen.
The French Dispatch
In what is the most Wes Anderson-y of all Wes Anderson movies, we are treated to a whirlwind story and a slew of familiar faces playing characters who are each slightly ‘off.’ Billed as a love letter to journalists, the quirky filmmaker pays tribute to those eloquent writers who find the stories that appeal to the most curious of us – somehow tying 5 seemingly unrelated episodes together in a most entertaining manner. Working with many of his regular actors and his always present visual flair, Anderson’s style is one to behold.
The Souvenir: Part II (Honorable mention)
Welcome to the continuation of filmmaker Joanna Hogg’s semi-autobiographical journey. The funny part is that we know how the story ends…she makes amazing movies! The story picks up immediately where Part I left off, and Honor Swinton Byrne builds on her sensitive portrayal as a stand-in for Ms. Hogg. The challenge here is whether this works best as a woman trudging through grief, or as an artist finding her voice. Either way, it’s exceptional, and I highly recommend combining the two parts into a single 4-hour sitting.
The Green Knight (Honorable mention)
Trust me when I say that these two movies are not tied on the list because they are similar. In fact, they couldn’t be more different. After intriguing us with the mystery of existence in A Ghost Story (2017), visionary director David Lowery shifts to the re-imagining of the medieval tale of King Arthur’s headstrong nephew Sir Gawain, played here by Dev Patel. The creatures and adventures help Gawain prove his mettle and define his character.
Hope to see you at the movies in 2022!