As I contemplate this year in film, I find it difficult to contextualize against previous years. Streaming options have expanded with Paramount+ and Peacock joining the fray in earnest and the result has been a race for content, revivals of long dead properties and some truly awful movies. Undoubtedly my average film from 2021 has been worse than previous years, but as with the product of any 365 day period, this year has given us a lot of really special filmmaking.
When I look back on this year, I will remember attending Sundance (virtually) for the first time. I’ll remember my first in person festival at AFI Fest and the whole slate of truly special films I saw there. Who knows if I will recall the trepidation with which I returned to a theater for the first time in over a year to see a special re-release of Scott Pilgrim vs The World, but without doubt I won’t ever take that experience for granted again.
Although streaming has given rise to an entire ecosystem of cookie cutter, quickly produced films to feed the ever grinding content mill, it has also provided a platform for filmmakers to make their movies free of traditional studio restraints. For all the Kissing Booths and Princess Switches, there are loads of awe inspiring films as well.
At the very top, this year has been as good as most any in recent memory. There was no transcendent film on the level of Parasite, but rather a deep well of very good movies that could find their way into a top 10 in any other year. So broad was the pool of excellent film in 2021 that I decided to expand this year’s list to a top 25 and even then a lot of exciting movies will be left out.
In an effort to make this year’s expanded list more digestible I’ll be breaking things up into 3 posts. Today will be some honorable mentions and entries 21-25 on the list. Wednesday I’ll post 11-20 and finally, coinciding with our Top Tens podcast, the top 10 films of 2021 will be posted Friday.
A final note before getting started: Even with 200 films under my belt this year, a few fall through the cracks. Some, like The Souvenir Part II and Bad Luck Banging, I couldn’t catch during limited releases. Others, like Cyrano and The Tragedy of MacBeth, have not become available to me as of this writing. I’ve done the best that I can to see a diverse bunch of movies, but if your favorite film isn’t included please do shout it out in the comments!
With that, the Top 25 of 2021:
Although a lot of my top 25 this year consists of international film (9/25 to be exact,) a lot of fantastic foreign pictures just missed the cut. One of the tragedies of the pandemic slowing theatrical releases was the inability of non-English films to find a distribution. Some of the superb works from around the world that I wish could have been highlighted here include the slippery and seductive German fantasy Undine, the subtly gutting Japanese romance anthology, Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy, that very nearly landed Ryusuke Hamaguchi on this list twice and even a harrowing tale of the perils faced by young women in a rural Mexican town, Prayers for the Stolen. So many great international features were released this year that they could be their own list, but really I’m just glad to have been able to see them again.
Responses to Trauma
Obviously we’ve endured another arduous twelve months in the world, no need to get into that again. Many films this year provided an escape from that and many more tackled it head on. A few of my top 25 could be included in this category but a few great examples of grief stricken film just missed the cut. Worth is a razor sharp drama detailing the effort to compensate the families of those lost in the 9/11 attacks. Procession, a documentary following survivors of sexual abuse in the Catholic Church, shows the power of cinema to heal. If all of that is too heavy, even the surprisingly excellent Matrix Resurrections has a subtle undercurrent of catharsis to it.
Always a sneakily excellent sub genre of film in any year, music films played a huge part of 2021. Some things that just missed the cut include: The World’s a Little Blurry, the truly excellent — and epic — Billie Eilish documentary on Apple TV+, The Nowhere Inn, a searing meditation on identity disguised as a St. Vincent mockumentary, even In the Heights was a great theatrical experience despite its faults. But none captured the thrill of music on film quite like Summer of Soul, the joyous celebration of music and Black culture during the Harlem Cultural Festival of 1969
Top 25 Films of 2021
25. Luzzu - Aleex Camilleri
If anything, art imitates reality, and the crushing inequality facing much of the globe has ushered with it a bevy of scathing indictments of the capital systems that have induced said inequality. Luzzu follows the plight of traditional Maltese fisherman Jesmark, played by a real life fisherman of the same name, as he struggles against industrial fishing outfits and punishing regulation to carve out a life for himself. Not as high minded conceptually as your typical anti-capitalist film, but incisive just the same looking at these systems from a ground level. Jes doesn’t have the time to deal with the structures holding him down, he just has to keep pressing to pressing for his family. One of the year’s most honest and punishing stories.
Luzzu is currently available in Virtual Cinemas like that offered by Leammle Theaters
24. The Rescue - Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi, Jimmy Chin
Whatever Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi did to follow up their Oscar winning Free Solo was bound to garner attention. They used that attention and cache to gather footage and interviews around the Thai cave rescue that captured the eyes of the world a few years ago. Cementing their place as some of the most inventive documentarians working today, the team behind The Rescue mixes archival footage of the rescue with dramatic reenactments done by the rescue divers themselves. Even for those that followed the story somewhat closely in realtime will find something here to enjoy.
The Rescue is available to stream on Disney+ right now.
23. Benedetta - Paul Verhoeven
It’s reputation precedes it. Though the perception of Benedetta as simply the lesbian nun movie is cutting it massively short. A piercing look at the way that religion and its symbols can be manipulated, either for liberation or repression. Paul Verhoeven has made a career sci-fi and erotic thrillers, Benedetta being an impressive manipulation of the latter. Sneakily, this also manages to be one of the most biting critiques of pandemic denialism put to film this year, something that very few films have managed well.
Benedetta is available on demand on most streaming platforms
22. Luca - Enrico Casarosa
Like most studios, Pixar has its formula. Almost everything they’ve made is a riff on the buddy road trip mold. An odd couple get mired in some conflict or lost somewhere strange and have to work together to find their way back. Toy Story, Cars, Finding Nemo, Inside Out, you name it. Luca throws out the playbook as much as any Pixar film can. The kids at the center of the movie aren’t running to anything, they’re barely running from something, its just too kids hanging out and finding where they belong in a world that doesn’t understand them. It’s an open hearted film with excellent voice work from Jacob Tremblay and especially Jack Dylan Grazer.
My full review from June of this year
Luca is available to stream on Disney+ right now
21. The Mitchells vs. The Machines - Michael Rianda
There is no medium of film that gets less respect than animation. Often disregarded as a genre solely for kids, animation has the ability to capture wonder in a way other films are unable, for children and adults alike. The Mitchells vs the Machines is simply the next step in the Lord/Miller takeover of the genre. A fun, quirky, uniquely animated romp with a higher joke hit rate than any film not named Barb and Star. Packed with references and meta-texture, it can get a little obsessed with its own gimmick at times, but The Mitchells vs the Machines is still a blast for kids and adults alike.
The Mitchells vs the Machines is available to stream on Netflix right now
20. CODA - Siân Heder
We use the term “crowd pleaser” a lot, often to demean some mediocre superhero movie, but sometimes we really need a well done, heartwarming story. CODA hit Sundance nearly a year after everything shut down, right when we really needed something bright to lift us up. When it released everywhere a few months later, we finally got the type of collective viewing experience that hadn’t happened in many months. Emilia Jones is fantastic as a high school senior pursuing her passion for music while juggling her responsibilities as the only hearing member of her family. Marlee Marlin and Troy Katsur are standouts as well. CODA is just a wholesome coming of age story about finding your own place in the world and the support we owe and expect from one another.
My review from Sundance back in January
CODA is available to stream on Apple TV+ right now
19. Barb and Star Go to Vista Del Mar - Josh Greenbaum
One of the best parts of my film year in 2021 was seeing Barb and Star with a rowdy crowd of Hawaiian shirt clad moviegoers in LA this summer. This film is a relentlessly funny romp that provided a whole lot of laughs at a time when things in the world were not all that bright. Comedy doesn’t always get its due on year end lists, but it’s not easy to pull off. Kristen Wiig and Annie Mumolo are hilarious, but the MVP goes to Jamie Dornan whose performance of Edgar’s Prayer is easily one of the funniest sequences of the last few years. No other film lifted my spirits and made me laugh as consistently as Barb and Star Go to Vista Del Mar, equal parts hilarious and endearing.
Barb and Star Go to Vista Del Mar is available to stream on Hulu right now.
18. Red Rocket - Sean Baker
The story of a “suitcase pimp” traveling back home to Texas on hard times, Red Rocket should not be as endearing as it is. Mikey Sabre (Simon Rex) is a pretty deplorable guy, taking advantage of everyone around him. Much of the credit for making Red Rocket as riotously entertaining as it is falls on the shoulders of Rex. He endows the well endowed Mikey with a puppy dog innocence to counterbalance all of his nefariousness and makes the film one of the most engaging of the year.
My Review from AFI Fest
Red Rocket is playing in theaters nationwide
17. Nightmare Alley - Guillermo del Toro
One of the great features of cinema, offered fleetingly by other mediums, is the ability for authors to imbue in it a sense of style. Nobody does style quite like Guillermo del Toro. Nightmare Alley is neo-noir that captures the spirit of its 1940s inspirations. Del Toro films his cantankerous bunch of slick rogues with the kind of care their sinister intentions don’t always deserve. With that charm he draws you into Stan’s (Bradley Cooper) parlor tricks until you feel like you’re in on the gimmick yourself. When the rug is inevitably pulled from underneath you might wonder how close Stan was to really pulling it off.
Nightmare Alley is playing in theaters nationwide
16. Parallel Mothers - Pedro Almodóvar
One of my most cherished movie experiences this year was seeing Parallel Mothers in the TCL Chinese Theater and hearing Almodovar discuss his film. The premise alone, a teenager and middle aged woman bonded over delivering their first children on the same day, is captivating. That’s just table stakes for Almodovar as he uses this hook to explore the wounds of generational trauma both through his characters and the political strife of their native country. Through all the genuinely surprising twists and turns, this film is pulled together by a vintage Penelope Cruz performance and the dynamism of Almodovar’s camera.
Parallel Mothers is playing theaters in limited release right now
15. The Lost Daughter - Maggie Gyllenhaal
During his AFI Fest Q&A for Parallel Mothers, Pedro Almodovar spoke about his desire to write a character with “no mothering instinct.” What came from that idea was a frustrating and challenging person in a broader, equally brilliant film that also made this list (see above.) Maggie Gyllenhaal’s feature debut, The Lost Daughter, digs into the idea of an unfit mother with surgical precision. Olivia Coleman and Jessie Buckley portray this woman buckling under the crushing weight of motherhood across time as if they were the same actor. Those performances, combined with an overbearing score and unstable camerawork make The Lost Daughter one of the most unsettling films of the year and among the best overall.
The Lost Daughter is playing theaters in limited release right now and will be on Netflix Friday 12/31
14. Flee - Jonas Poher Rasmussen
Told in unique form out of necessity, Flee is the harrowing real life story of Amin, an Afghan refugee, documented through kinetic animation in order to protect his family. Melding of the documentary and animated forms does more than just hide Amin’s real identity, it grants intimacy into his treacherous journey from Afghanistan to Denmark in a way not possible just by the words he uses to relay the tale. Sadly, Flee may be even more relevant now, in the wake of a resurgent Taliban, than when I saw it at Sundance nearly a year ago.
Flee is playing theaters in limited release right now
13. The Green Knight - David Lowery
Sometimes, a great film knocks you over the head, immediately revealing itself as one of the best of its moment. Other times a movie sits with you, seeping its imagery into your mind leaving an impression that you can’t seem to elude even months later. The Green Knight, like much of David Lowery’s work, falls into that latter camp. The adventures and exploits of Sir Gawain have stuck with me this year more so than any other film, only rising in my estimation. The Green Knight is brilliant in its depiction of self worth and discovering your value from within.
The Green Knight is available on demand on most streaming platforms
12. Spencer - Pablo Larraín
Pablo Larraín has found a niche in recent years, telling tales of women as symbols. With Jackie, his protagonist was reclaiming what she represented, in Ema she rebelled against society’s view and now with Spencer Larraín has painted the portrait of Lady Diana being crushed by the symbolism placed upon her. A two hour mental breakdown helmed by a sparkling Kristen Stewart, Spencer is every bit as intricate and delicate as the mind of its muse. Less a biography, Larraín’s latest is more a fable inspired by historical events, allowing for a more nuanced exploration of Diana as a human person trying to escaper her image in the public imagination.
Spencer is available to rent on most streaming platforms
11. Mass - Fran Kranz
Mass is the next in line for the “films that are undeniably incredible and moving but I probably will never watch again” spot on this list. Fran Kranz’s portrait of the lasting grief inflicted by school shootings is exasperatingly relevant and it unfortunately appears as if that will remain the case going forward. Both sets lead performances are all harrowing as the parents of a school shooter and the parents of a victim respectively. Mass got a very small US release this year but it is very much worth seeking out as a mirror to this country’s obsession with guns.
My review from Sundance earlier this year
Mass is available to rent on most streaming platforms
10. Licorice Pizza - Paul Thomas Anderson
One of this year’s projects for me was working my way through Paul Thomas Anderson’s filmography. He has a few tendencies, but one of the most notable ones is his exploration of the awkwardness and often inappropriateness of love and attraction. Licorice Pizza certainly fits that mold, but at it’s core, this is a film about figuring out who you are and who you can be in the world. Viewing it as a romance between Alana and Gary is to miss the point that Alana is attracted to the potential Gary can still achieve in a world that she feels has already broken her down. Theres a sweetness and delicacy to Anderson’s handling of these characters through a fast paced and often chaotic story. Alana Haim provides the most compelling music to acting transition since Gaga in A Star is Born.
Licorice Pizza is playing in wide release nationwide
9. The French Dispatch - Wes Anderson
By now we know what Wes Anderson is going to bring when we see his name on a release calendar. Visual splendor galore with characters whose emotional depth is lacking. The French Dispatch follows this formula with a crucial distinction: this time the characters exist as an extension of the visual style. Everyone and every intricately designed set come together to paint a vivid portrait of the fictitious city of Ennui, built up by Anderson’s imagination and the contributions of his characters. That’s not to say there aren’t good performances — Jeffrey Wright and Adrien Brody are especially memorable — but for once Anderson lets his unique style be the star.
My full review from October
The French Dispatch is available to rent or buy on most streaming platforms
8. About Endlessness - Roy Andersson
One of the hidden gems of 2021, About Endlessness dropped rather unceremoniously on VOD back in April. Just 80 minutes of loosely connected vignettes, Roy Andersson’s film examines the absurdity of human existence. Nothing much happens in these brief windows into anonymous lives, but so much can be gleaned about the folks we’ll never meet who inhabit this world with us. Especially at a time when it feels like people can only think about themselves, a film exploring the profundity of a stranger's struggle is extremely welcome. A piece of empathetic filmmaking unrivaled by anything else this year.
About Endlessness is streaming on Hulu right now
7. tick... tick... BOOM! -Lin Manuel Miranda
Lin-Manuel Miranda has had a prolific, if uneven year. While much of his film work in 2021 has not been able to match the massive expectation that he attracts, tick… tick… BOOM! manages to exceed it. A relentlessly joyous celebration of artistry and a luminous talent taken too soon, elevated by big cinematic performances of Jonathan Larson’s incredible songs. Andrew Garfield is as good as he’s ever been and should expect to hear his name when Oscar nominees are announced.
My full review from November
tick...tick...BOOM! is streaming on Netflix right now
6. Titane - Julia Ducournau
A gender bending story that refuses to conform to any one genre, Titane is unlike anything else you’ll see all year. Gruesome and poetic in equal parts, this tale of a young woman finding belonging and the broken man she helps piece back together is constantly upending expections in the very best way. Part of the beauty of cinema is the way it can open up the imagination and Titane is one of the best examples in recent years of a film that uses unbounded imagination to tell a deeply human story.
My full review from October
Titane is available to rent or buy on most streaming platforms
5. Judas and the Black Messiah - Shaka King
Because the Oscars expanded the eligibility window last year, Judas and the Black Messiah actually competed for Best Picture nearly a full year ago and has been overlooked on a lot of year end lists. That’s unfortunate because this February release absolutely sizzles from start to finish with brilliant performances turned in by Daniel Kaluuya and Lakeith Stanfield. No other film from 2021 can match the breakneck intensity Judas and the Black Messiah brings to its true life tale.
My full review from February
Judas and the Black Messiah is streaming on HBO Max right now
4. The Power of the Dog - Jane Campion
How can one even describe the virtues of something so subtly brilliant. Everything that makes The Power of the Dog excellent is meticulously baked into each individual frame. The story of Phil Burbank (dazzlingly portrayed by Benedict Cumberbatch), a harsh, gruff rancher working the equally desolate lands of 1920s Montana and tormenting the family of his brother George (Jesse Plemons). Jane Campion’s film uses its punishing environment to tease out the tenderness of her characters existing within it.
The Power of the Dog is streaming on Netflix right now
3. Drive My Car - Ryusuke Hamaguchi
Over 40 entrancing minutes pass before the title card appears in Drive My Car, Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s epic meditation on love, loss and grief. That opening sequence alone feels like a worthy inclusion on this list but what follows is borderline hypnotic. Over the course of a single production of Chekov’s Uncle Vanya, grieving widower Yusuke (Hidetoshi Nishijima) bonds with a hired chauffeur (Toko Miura) over their shared traumatic pasts. Drive My Car is the rare 3 hour epic that breezes by on its intimacy. Over that generous runtime so much is revealed about the lingering effects of loss and intimacy.
Drive My Car is currently playing theaters in limited release
2. Petite Maman - Celine Sciama
Celine Sciamma is back and she is not missing a beat. How could she possibly follow up the unflinching emotional hurricane that is Portrait of a Lady on Fire? By making a wistful 80 minute film about childhood and the bond between a kid and her mother. Petite Maman is light on it’s feet but packs a wallop of emotion nevertheless. Shout out to Claire Mathon (also Spencer) whose brilliant cinematography lends a touch of magic to this film and helped to elevate two of this year’s very best films.
My full review from AFI Fest in November
Petite Maman had a qualifying release in December but will release wide in February
1. The Worst Person In the World - Joachim Trier
One of the joys of doing lists like this is being able to recommend films to people that may not have been on their radar previously. The Worst Person in the World is about to be on a lot of radars. Joachim Trier’s hilarious and melancholic tale of a 30 year old navigating the highs and lows of adulthood is an absolute gem. Renate Reinsve gives the performance of the year in a film that is always poignant but never weighed down by self-importance.
My full review from AFI Fest in November
The Worst Person in the World got a qualifying run in December but will release wide in February
That does it for my list of the top movies of this year. It was another great year for film and this list can go toe to toe with any recent year's films. A big thank you for reading and to everyone who has followed along with this blog or the podcast throughout the year. 2021 has been another challenging year and we hope that we have been able to bring some pleasantness to it. Hopefully you'll stick around for another year of movies and Spinning the Reel! Happy New Year!