Top Ten Best Movies of 2021
Around the end of the year I start scrolling through my Letterboxd diary to reminisce and every year I’m stunned by just how long the year really is. This is the year that finally dared to ask questions like, “What if there was a Big Red Dog?,” and “What exactly is in The Book of Saw?”… All told, 2021 was particularly great. Whether they played in booming cineplexes or at home in your living room, there were a ton of incredible films to see that are really worth your time and your eyeballs, and below are ten picks (plus a few to grow on) and where to find them!
Nicolas Cage plays Chef Robin Feld, a man removed nearly entirely from the Portland society in which he’d loomed large. At the point we meet him, his only company is his beloved truffle pig and, on occasion, a young, hotshot rare ingredients distributor named Amir (Alex Wolff) who buys Chef Robin’s truffles. One night during a brutal home invasion, Robin’s pig is kidnapped, sending Robin and Amir on a journey of discovery to recover the lost pig.
The film lives somewhere on the (obvious) spectrum between John Wick and Paddington and blooms into something that left me leaving the theater completely electrified by the experience of having seen it. Cage is doing some of his finest work in years and plays Robin with a compelling, quiet yet forceful energy that you cannot take your eyes off of.
As an added bonus, one of just three special features on the Blu Ray is “Nicolas Cage Cooks” and it is as lovely as it sounds.
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Mike Mills’ newest feature is about Johnny (Joaquin Phoenix) a radio journalist whose current project is traveling from city to city, interviewing kids about themselves and what they think of the future. After a yearlong separation, Johnny reconnects over the phone with his sister Viv (Gaby Hoffman), who asks Johnny to come and stay with her young son Jesse (Woody Norman, in the best kid performance of the year) while she assists her estranged husband through a mental health crisis out of town.
After the initial setup, the film mostly becomes Jesse and Johnny talking to each other; Jesse without the social boundaries learned as we grow up and Johnny completely walled off. City to city, apartment to apartment, Johnny and Jesse learn how to work together, how to be there for each other, how to own their mistakes, and how to grapple with their feelings. It’s a film that made me want to pitch my phone into a river and only have in-person conversations forever. I loved every second.
(Only in Theaters)
Many people, much smarter than I have written beautiful, thoughtful pieces about Paul Thomas Anderson’s newest feature Licorice Pizza; a portrait of a couple of weirdos finding themselves and clumsily falling in love in the San Fernando Valley in the 70s. The surface plot here is pretty simple; Alana Kane (Alana Haim) is a reluctant 25-year-old yearbook photo assistant, propositioned by the confident, smooth-talking 15-year-old Gary Valentine (Gary Cooper-Hoffman).
Though she initially rejects him, Alana cannot help being intrigued by him, and from that grows a mutual infatuation and steadily, clumsily, love. Together, they open businesses, get into mischief, fight, reconcile, try on more age-appropriate romantic partners, and grapple with what it means to live in the space between adolescence and adulthood. The film’s heart is firmly on its sleeve and the magnetic push and pull of the relationship between Alana and Gary cannot help but entertain. I’m already aching to experience it again.
RELATED: Licorice Pizza Review (2021)
West Side Story
(Only in Theaters)
2021 inadvertently became the year for the return of the live-action movie musical: In The Heights, Tick, Tick… BOOM!, Annette, Dear Evan Hanson, Cinderella… Many of them I loved, but all of which pale in comparison to Steven Spielberg’s long-awaited adaptation of West Side Story. No director is quite as adept at knowing exactly how to capture enormous action on huge, blockbuster sets as Spielberg, and West Side Story was a challenge that he was more than prepared to meet.
The screenplay by Tony Kushner recontextualizes the turf war between The Sharks and The Jets, giving greater meaning to a piece of land that we know from the beginning is doomed by time and the city itself. Standout performances include Mike Faist as Riff, Ariana Debose as Anita, and one hell of an introduction for Rachel Zegler as Maria. It is a sumptuous visual feast and I’m unsure if I’ve eaten that well in ages.
The Green Knight
Earthy and epic, David Lowery’s newest film is an adaptation of the Arthurian legend of Gawain and The Green Knight. It is the rare coming-of-age film that centers itself on an adult, the headstrong and naive Sir Gawain (Dev Patel), nephew of King Arthur, who foolishly jumps into a Christmas game that will seemingly end in his own demise.
It is the film that David Lowery was born to make (I implore you to read his letter released on the day the film opened), intimate in tone and grand in scale, reaching its highest peaks in moments of quiet. It’s also very much about how we would all like to give Dev Patel a tender lil kiss.
Emma Seligman’s feature Shiva Baby is the most stressful I’ve felt in a theater since Uncut Gems. A caustic but affectionate film about a young, directionless, bisexual Jewish woman named Danielle (Rachel Sennot) trying (and failing) to keep her stories straight during a day of Shiva, the week-long period of mourning.
Every single performance in this film is laser locked in as family, friends, and exes that are trying to be a comfort but maybe asking too many questions. Danielle and her ex Maya (Molly Gordon) are the true heart of the film, but the on-screen return of Dianna Agron made me want to pop champagne in the theater. It’s a brisk watch at only 77 minutes, but I promise you’ll feel every one of them.
An unconventional road movie about Pat Pitsenbarger (Udo Kier); a revered Sandusky, Ohio hairdresser, retired, down on his luck, and shambling through his life in a nursing home. When an old frenemy dies and requests for Pat to do her hair one last time, he breaks out of his home and sets off on a journey to find just the right hair product and, if incidentally, the joy of his youth again.
It’s a Queer narrative about resilience, community, and marching on to the beat of one’s own drum and it’s got the best needle drop of Robyn’s seminal banger “Dancing On My Own” there’s been in years, with an ending truly worthy of an icon like Mr. Pat. Bring your tissues!
The Mitchells vs. The Machines
Who knew a quirky, dysfunctional family of weirdos taking on the robo-pocalypse! would be one of the best movies of 2021? Katie Mitchell is an offbeat, aspiring filmmaker, confident in her own weirdness, but often clashing with her Mountain Man, tech-averse father Rick Mitchell. Seeking reconnection, Rick cancels her flight to film school and decides instead to take the whole family on an ill-advised road trip to drop her off.
Mid-trip, the AI program running everyone’s devices stages a coup that aims to destroy humanity via virtual assistant robots. Now it is up to the Mitchells to learn how to work together and save the world. The film is filled to the brim with personality; watching it feels like a movie that was as much fun to make as it is to watch and the deep care and love that went into it is palpable.
Summer of Soul
In his debut feature, Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson presents a vibrant documentary about the 6 week long Harlem Cultural Festival, taking place in Mount Morris Park just 100 miles away from Woodstock. The film plays out partially as a music doc, partially as a historical record of Black History, and completely about the healing power of music and community gathering. It is Black Joy on a huge silver screen, a celebration of culture that will have you wishing you could attend yourself. Prepare your playlists, you’ll be loading them right up.
What was once dubbed as an unfilmable source, Dune ended up as the science fiction/fantasy epic that one could only hope from break-out director Denis Villeneuve. With its stunning color grading, cinematography, score, and emotional odyssey of a story – Dune will leave you inspired. Its slow-burn nature hooks you in before you know it.
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Together, Together (Hulu): I was truly, deeply charmed by this. Patti Harrison should be in everything, forever.
Barb and Star Go to Vista Del Mar (Hulu): Grab your best girlfriends and your best culottes, we’re going on vacation! A featured Titanic Megamix hasn’t left my playlist.
Those Who Wish Me Dead (HBO Max): A natural disaster movie BUT ALSO Angelina Jolie plays a smokejumper that has to keep a kid-safe from two assassins. It’s the best movie of 1997, I had a blast watching it.
CODA (Apple TV+): Also straight out of the 90s. Nothing you haven’t seen before in the many coming of age films before it, but done so expertly that it’s pretty amazing to behold. Troy Kotsur in particular, is outstanding.
Inside (Netflix): The cultural footprint of this special is undeniable. Bo Burnham’s artistic documentation of his quarantine; all alone in his shed and never alone in a Very Online sense. That Funny Feeling, try as I might, simply will not crawl out from the deepest recesses of my brain.
Spencer (VOD): Pablo Larrain’s film about the late Diana Spencer is closer in DNA to The Shining than that of The Crown. An eerie, suffocating piece that’s been understandably divisive, but I enjoyed it quite a lot.
In The Heights (HBO Max): The staging and execution of 96,000 is the first live-action Movie Musical number I’ve seen in ages that captured the full energy and bombast of a stage production. It’s an I Want song for an entire community and seeing it in a theater with other excited patrons was a completely dazzling experience.
Zola (Hulu): Based on the viral Twitter thread by Aziah “Zola” King, Janicza Bravo has created an exploitation film for the social media age. Colman Domingo had one hell of a year in 2021 and his role here was a shining piece of it.
Lorelei (Hulu): A film by first-time feature director Sabrina Doyle called “A Blue Collar Fable” about a young love paused and reignited 15 years later. It asks what the effect time and life have on us, and if we can ever actually go home again.
Old (VOD): Unfortunately for all of my friends, I’ve been on a soapbox screaming about how this movie is good since July. M. Night Shyamalan has rebranded himself as “mischievous” and I am fully in the bag. Aging and death are primal fears that Shyamalan explores in ways that are thrilling and shocking and deeply, truly sad. Old is the most visually interesting film he has ever made and more people ought to give it a chance.
RELATED: Old Review (2021)
What Do You Think Are The Best Films Of 2021?
We hope you enjoyed our list of the best movies of 2021. Did we miss any of your favorites? Let us know on social media!