I said this at the end of 2020 but I feel the same way: 2021 was certainly...a year. If anything we entered a "new normal" in which most of us were used to masking up, flashing vaccine cards and maintaining our distance. And that's just for those that didn't succumb to the virus or were too terrified to leave their houses.
But 2021 did represent a return to movie theaters, and the future looks bright. With a slew of films from 2020 held over and released into 2021 and beyond, there definitely was no shortage of content in 2021 at the box office or on the ever-increasing streaming platforms at our disposal.
I understand that there might be some films on my "Best of" list that you haven't heard of...and that's OK. I don't add them to be pretentious or to say "hey look at all of the smaller films I have access to!" But believe it or not, movies both big and small are actually way more accessible to mainstream audiences than ever before. There isn't a single movie on this list that you won't be able to find on a streaming platform or in theaters (I take that back...there is one), so I urge you to seek out the films you haven't seen on this list, and to share your feedback as to your top films of 2021.
There are two documentaries and two animated films on my list...including one that is actually an animated documentary, go figure.
There are some films that I share love for with other critics and many (too many, some might say) where I go my own way. I loathed the critical darling "The Green Knight," was only slightly warmer on P.T. Anderson's "Licorice Pizza" and only thought "C'mon C'mon" and "West Side Story" were just OK...I stand by the pure scientific fact that Jared Leto's performance in "House of Gucci" is among the worst cinematic performances and casting decisions in the history of cinema, despite his name (barf!) showing up on some "year-end" best lists...but I digress.
Having those debates is part of what I love about what I get to do for a living...so let some more of the debates begin! Here for you, is a list of my 21 Favorite Films of 2021, with the small privilege of being able to change/adjust this list as I finish out my list of "must-see" 2021 films ("Drive My Car," "Matrix: Resurrections," "The King's Man" and "The Tender Bar" are the few films I've yet to see).
One other small admission: My absolute favorite film of 2021 was "Come From Away" (Apple TV+), but since that is technically a filmed stage-play, I don't believe it qualifies for this list...but definitely seek it out.
So with that, my favorite 21 movies of 2021:
#21 - "Spider-Man: No Way Home" (Sony/Marvel)
What I had said about it: No spoilers here! But if you'd like you can Read our SPOILER-FREE Review.
#20 - "The Courier" (Lionsgate/Roadside Attractions)
What I had said about it: "The film works incredibly well as a spy thriller, with Cumberbatch really showing new range in going from an unsuspecting rube to a crafty secret agent over the course of the movie. But the relationship/friendship that develops between Wynne and Penkovsky really gives the film an emotional heart. Russian actor Merab Ninidze is stunningly effective as Penkovsky, and if this film had actually been released during awards season, I could see both Ninidze and Cumberbatch creating some waves. Speaking of award recognition, "The Courier" has one of the best, most catchy scores you'll ever hear (by Abel Korzeniowski). It's unlikely that people will remember this film for next year's awards season, but really they should." (Read Full Review).
#19 - "Nightmare Alley" (Searchlight Pictures)
What I had said about it: "There is a full-circle story here that makes "Nightmare Alley" resonate as one of the better films of 2021, even if there is a feeling that a better, tighter film exists somewhere within its bloat...In lesser hands, this high-wire act of trickery might have been a full-on disaster, but in del Toro's capable hands, it becomes quite a spectacle that most will stand and applaud." (Read Full Review).
#18 - "Snake Eyes: G.I. Joe Origins" (Paramount Pictures)
What I had said about it: "If you don't know your Flints from your Dukes, your Scarletts from your Lady Jayes, or your Snow Jobs from your Beach Heads, then you might overlook "Snake Eyes: G.I. Joe Origins" as just another throw-away action-franchise wanna-be. But for fans of the original "G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero" cartoon series, this new film is packed full of content that will have you brimming with nostalgia-fueled joy...The movie takes its characters seriously, and I think purposely tries not to feel like a Marvel movie. That to me, is a fresh take...I'm not sure what other critics were expecting or if they have the slightest understanding of the beloved G.I. Joe franchise, but knowing a little more about the context of these characters, the nostalgia, the backstory, the history and their immense popularity would definitely help. And knowing of course, is half the battle." (Read Full Review).
#17 - "King Richard" (Warner Bros. Pictures)
What I had said about it: "King Richard" is funny, touching and inspiring. It has the make-up of a traditional underdog sports film (an over-saturated genre to be sure), yet it doesn't feel like any of the others that have come before it. It's all held together with what will surely be an award-worthy turn by Will Smith, who after a few misfires ("Bad Boys For Life," "Gemini Man," "Bright") fires on all cylinders as the man behind-the-scenes in the life of two iconic Americans." (Read Full Review).
#16 - "The Mitchells vs. The Machines" (Netflix)
What I had said about it: "The Mitchells vs. The Machines" is an absolute blast, and you're sure to love it whether you're a kid, an adult or even a robot. (Read Full Review).
#15 - "Nine Days" (Sony Pictures Classics)
What I had said about it: "It's a film that for me holds deep meaning, and the rare cinematic experience where I wasn't quite sure what I was watching, but never once felt compelled to look away...less I miss one of the many important little moments in this terrific film." (Read Full Review).
#14 - "Swan Song" (Apple TV+)
What I had said about it: "Swan Song" takes some clichéd sci-fi tropes (cloning, secret scientists messing with genetics, etc.) and approaches it from a fresh angle, full of humanity, heart and true curiosity. It sticks in your head, with its introspective melodies lingering far beyond the film's final credits." (Read Full Review).
#13 - "Flee" (Neon)
The most original entry of all 2021 movies, "Flee" is an animated, foreign documentary (yep all three) about an incredible journey a man takes fleeing his country, and his self-discovery along the way. It's a sure "must-see" for 2021. (No Full Review - Screened as part of TIFF 2021).
#12 - "Blue Bayou" (Focus Features)
What I had said about it: "Blue Bayou" walks the line and occasionally stumbles into at best, melodrama and at worst, manipulation, but it has a pure heart. It features characters we don't often see on screen, and includes some tremendous performances. As it drives towards its unpredictable conclusion, there is a scene that will either bring you to tears, or will make your eyes roll so far into the back of your skull that you may just pass out.
For me, "Blue Bayou" worked tremendously (put me in the "brought tears to your eyes" category)...This is a story that needs to be seen, about how the American Dream can - for many - be realized as an absolute nightmare...But even without the bigger picture in frame, "Blue Bayou" excels in the details...taking a wonderfully colorful, nuanced snapshot of how difficult it is to make it in America, despite being an American, in every sense of the word." (Read Full Review).
#11 - "Spencer" (Neon)
What I had said about it: "It's a moody, dreamy film with a beautiful score and cinematography. Stewart absolutely captivates us, in the same way that Diana did. "Spencer" may not work for everyone, but it gives Diana her due. We know how the story ends, but "Spencer" allows us to imagine a world where Diana wins, rising above and riding into the sunset to the beat of her own drum. Dare to dream." (Read Full Review).
#10 - "Parallel Mothers" (Sony Pictures Releasing)
From filmmaker Pedro Almodovar ("Pain & Glory," "Talk to Her," "All About My Mother," "Volver") his latest film "Parallel Mothers" has one of the most compelling screenplays of the year, matched with some terrific performances led by Penelope Cruz and Melena Smit. It twists and turns in so many believable directions but is never predictable or less than riveting. (Read Full Review).
#9 - "A Quiet Place Part II" (Paramount Pictures)
What I had said about it: "That's when you know a movie is firing on all cylinders: On a surface-level, it's a well-done horror/thriller/monster movie that will make audiences cheer, scream and laugh...and perhaps even cry, that they're back in a theater and that this is what they've been missing. But it's also about so much more, for those that wish to peer into it in such a way. Finally, it's a confidently-made sequel that gives people who loved the first film exactly what they want, but it expands its universe just enough to keep it thoroughly interesting moving forward. And oh, this was definitely made with more Parts in mind...done in a way that feels expertly thought-out. I'm not afraid to shout it from the rooftops: "A Quiet Place Part II" rocks." (Read Full Review).
#8 - "The Power of the Dog" (Netflix)
What I had said about it: "A beautifully composed, intimate story of a man, a boy and a couple in the open ranges of Montana set the mid 1920s, "The Power of the Dog" is one of the most stellar achievements in story-telling you'll ever witness, a film that is challenging and compelling all the same, that wraps itself around the viewers, twisting our perceptions, and almost assuredly forces deep, intellectual post-viewing discussions." (Read Full Review).
#7 - "Respect" (MGM/United Artists Releasing)
What I had said about it: "Like the icon in which it is based, "Respect" takes what would normally be thought of as traditional, run-of-the-mill material and breathes an absolute fire of life into it, transforming it into something completely original and, quite often, soul-inspiring...It doesn't reinvent the wheel or overwhelm you with stylish choices because it doesn't have to...it has the greatest recording artist of all-time at its heart. The music is phenomenal, the acting superb and at the end of the day it's a loving tribute and remembrance. What more can a biopic do?" (Read Full Review).
#6 - "Red Rocket" (A24)
"Red Rocket" is the latest from filmmaker Sean Baker, who brought us "The Florida Project" and the IPhone-shot "Tangerine." It stars Simon Rex in an absolutely uninhibited role as a former porn star who tries to return to his hometown and roots. Baker impressively knows how to populate his films with actors who don't seem like actors, creating a reality uncommon to many films. The gorgeous but stripped-down cinematography - and the laugh-out-loud situations the characters find themselves in - makes this one of the most memorable films of the year. Newcomer Suzanna Son is a stand-out.
(Full Review coming soon).
#5 - "Test Pattern" (Kino Lorber)
What I had said about it: "From top to the bottom, "Test Pattern" is a revelation. Brittany S. Hall is mesmerizing, with real chemistry shown on-screen with Will Brill. The movie feels organic and real at all times, and situations are shown as they happen, with no added manipulation from writer/director Ford, who showcases strong storytelling ability, and who confidently allows silence to live and breathe within her characters, to great effect." (Read Full Review).
#4 - "tick, tick...BOOM!" (Netflix)
What I had said about it: "If Hamilton creator Lin-Manuel Miranda is capable of doing anything wrong, he's yet to prove it. His directorial debut, "tick, tick...BOOM!" is a gloriously energetic ode to the theater, and one of its greatest creative minds, Jonathan Larson, the one-of-a-kind talent who gave us "Rent."...Andrew Garfield leaves it all on the screen, embodying Larson to the point where we truly believe his inner-genius. Garfield is one of the finest actors of his generation, and it's hard to imagine that this performance wont always be mentioned when referring to his increasingly stellar career." (Read Full Review).
#3 - "CODA" (Apple TV+)
What I had said about it: "...[CODA] is a great reminder that even when a movie seems to tread on familiar ground, if done well, it can still achieve greatness." (Read Full Review).
#2 - "Street Gang: How We Got to Sesame Street" (Screen Media Films)
What I had said about it: "The only negative thing I could say about the new documentary, "Street Gang: How We Got to Sesame Street," is that i didn't like the end...in that I wish it could have gone on forever...This incredibly insightful, hilarious and heart-warming documentary is one-part origin story, describing how a group of tremendously talented and motivated people all got together at just the right time and place in history to create something timeless. It's also a celebration of what was created, and what was achieved, in a television landscape that was like the Wild West, unexplored and primed for pioneering. Then it's an inspirational trip down memory lane...nostalgia served up in delicious spoonfuls...that made me long for simpler times." (Read Full Review).
#1 - "Mass" (Bleecker Street)
What I had said about it: "The film and its subject will stick with you long after viewing, but it's in re-thinking about the movie where I've discovered much of its subtle genius..."Mass" is so straight-forward in its execution, but so much more complex than nearly most every other drama, especially those that attempt to tackle such important, often forbidden or taboo subjects. It's not an easy film to watch, but is that a requirement?" (Read Full Review).
Why it's the best film of 2021: It's brilliance is in its simplistic approach to such a complex and timely topic. There is simply no better ensemble cast this year, and anyone not in agreement simply hasn't seen "Mass." No movie stuck with me more, or has been on my mind more than "Mass" and despite how difficult it is to swallow, it is necessary medicine, and the best film of 2021.
HONORABLE MENTION FILMS: "Shiva Baby," "Spider-Man: No Way Home," "Summer of Soul," "The Eyes of Tammy Faye," "Together Together," "The Tragedy of Macbeth," "Belfast" and "Don't Look Up."
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