There seemed to be primarily two types of film fans in the world at the beginning of 2021. Some were completely pessimistic about the direction the film industry was heading. They were anxious about the impact the pandemic would have on the future of moviegoing and could not imagine a positive resolution down the road. While others were actually hopeful for the year in film that was about to commence. Not only were many of them optimistic that a return to movie theaters was right around the corner, they also believed 2021 had the chance to be one of the most monumental film years in recent memory. This hopefulness hinged on the belief that not only were we set to receive the films originally planned to be released in 2021, but also a hoard of potentially great films that had been delayed from 2020 as well. Looking back on the year with the privilege of hindsight, I would say both of these groups were actually partially correct. Often times this year did feel like a return. We re-entered a world where movie theaters were open to the public, and the films being released actually felt like they mattered. However, it also felt like the film world in 2021 was creeping closer than ever to some sort of end of an era.
There have been a lot of gradual changes taking place in the world of film over the past decade or so, but these last two years really accelerated those changes to the point where film fans were forced to reckon with them. Not only has there been a shift in the types of movies being made, but the way we watch those movies has changed as well. Obviously, the ever-growing rise of power and relevance that streaming services have within the film industry is the biggest catalyst behind most of these changes. The existence of these streaming services assure that there are probably more films being made now than ever, but it is much harder to discern which of those films are actually reaching audiences in meaningful ways. Whether or not you view this as an issue, it is undeniable that the movie world seems to be more spread out than ever before. This was incredibly evident in 2021. The opinions of critics and fans were further apart than maybe they ever have been; television shows dominated the cultural conversation more than films did; and outside the MCU, the DCEU, and the Fast franchise—it was nearly impossible for any movie to reach a vast majority of filmgoing audiences. I’m not sure we see any of those things changing anytime soon.
I really don’t mean to sound so cynical, even though that has been my preferred method of being when it comes to film, and pretty much everything else, over the last two years. Truth be told, there were a lot of great films worthy of being celebrated in 2021. And while larger questions about the future of moviegoing and the film industry as a whole may still persist, it is important to appreciate the people who are still committed to making great films because they gave us a lot to enjoy in 2021. I can’t even begin to pretend I know what the future of film will look like. One thing I do know is these ten films helped me forget about those concerns (as well as the actual important problems of the world) for a brief moment in 2021.
Here are my ten favorite films of 2021.
(Honorable Mentions: The French Dispatch, Zola, The Lost Daughter, Pig, Spider-Man: No Way Home, King Richard, The Green Knight, and The Power of the Dog)
10. Bergman Island
For me, there was perhaps no bigger pleasant surprise this year than Mia Hansen-Løve’s Bergman Island. What starts as a simple story of a husband and wife taking a trip to the Swedish island of Fårö, which is famed for being the place where Ingmar Bergman lived and worked, turns quickly into one of the most emotionally observant and unconventionally told films of 2021. I was incredibly impressed by the skill Hansen-Løve exhibited in the making of this film. Not only is she able to flow in and out of the story-within-a-story aspect of the script seamlessly, she is also able inject a level of emotion into this film that—while never feeling forced or overwhelming—effectively resonates with the audience. This film is about much more than just its emotions though, as it has a lot to say about the process of making art and the way in which the stories we tell and our own experiences can intertwine with one another. It is a quiet film, but finds its power in the accuracy and effectiveness in which Hansen-Løve explores these ideas. Anchored by strong performances from Vicky Krieps, Tim Roth, Mia Wasikowska, and Anders Danielsen Lie, Bergman Island is a film that remained with me long after I had finished watching it.
9. West Side Story
Not to sound as incredibly cheesy as I am certainly about to, but sometimes you just want to watch a film that reminds you of the wonders that cinema can possess. That is exactly what Tony Kushner and Steven Spielberg gave us with their 2021 reboot of West Side Story. This film was so brilliantly executed that all concerns about rebooting the 1961 classic were essentially put to rest by the end of the opening scene. Admittedly though, the questions about the necessity of this film were understandable—I even had some myself. When you watch the film though, you see that Spielberg and Kushner had a reason for wanting to tell this story. This was not just a reboot for reboot’s sake—it was a worthy, purposeful, and additive reimagining. Spielberg, as he often has in the past, got some incredible performances out of his cast. In particular, these seemed like star-making performances from both Rachel Zegler and Mike Faist. This film isn’t just about its performances though—nor is it about the brilliant direction, iconic songs, or classic story—it is about all of those things coming together to remind you of the power that movies can have, and have had throughout history. One of the most disappointing film-related storylines of 2021 was this movie’s severe struggles at the box office because, for me, there weren’t a lot of better in-theater experiences someone could have this year.
8. Shiva Baby
Each year, I usually like to reserve at least one spot on my top ten list for a comedy. And while Shiva Baby isn’t a traditional comedy like some films that have made my lists in the past—Booksmart and Palm Springs come to mind—it is sort of filling that role this year. I saw this film pretty early on in 2021, and as the year went by and I watched more and more movies, I just simply could never justify taking it out of the top ten. Shiva Baby is the first film written and directed by Emma Seligman, and it is one of the most impressive pieces of debut filmmaking that I’ve seen in a while. This film takes place at a Jewish funeral service that is, for many reasons, incredibly uncomfortable for the main character, Danielle, who is played exceptionally well by Rachel Sennot. As I said before, Shiva Baby is more so a comedy than anything else—but the claustrophobic, sweaty, and frantic filmmaking employed by Seligman to allow the audience to feel what Danielle is feeling makes it appear more like a horror movie at times. Not the type of horror that’s going to give you nightmares, but the type of horror that you might have found yourself feeling at a dysfunctional family function at one point in your life.
7. The Beatles: Get Back
Before I delve deeper into Peter Jackson’s Get Back, let me first acknowledge that yes, this is technically an eight hour documentary “series” split into three parts. If you think that disqualifies it from being categorized as a film.. I don’t care because this is my list, so deal with it.
There are always a few films released each year that you watch and are left amazed by how an actor or director did what they did, it’s much more rare to watch something and be amazed that it even exists though. That is the sensation I had while watching The Beatles: Get Back. I was sitting there for the majority of the eight hour viewing experience in absolute awe of what I was seeing. The fact that in 2021 we were actually able to kind of answer the question “what would it have been like to be in the studio with The Beatles?” is absolutely insane to me. I know this film lands at number seven on my list, but there were legitimately times when I was watching it and thinking to myself “this might be the greatest thing I’ve ever seen.” Now, admittedly if you don’t care about The Beatles, you definitely won’t have that reaction. This is not a film that is going to hit all audiences members the same. But if you do care about this band, and their music, there is no way that watching this film won’t be one of the most unforgettable viewing experiences you’ve ever had. One of the things I appreciated the most about this film is that it gave all four members of the band their own identity and perspective throughout the film. It was as much a documentary about John, Paul, George, and Ringo as it was about “The Beatles.” But seriously, I cannot stress enough how miraculous it is that this thing even exists. Thank you, Peter Jackson.
6. Red Rocket
Sean Baker established himself as one of my favorite filmmakers with 2017’s The Florida Project, so I was greatly anticipating this film. I was incredibly happy to find that it met all my expectations. In this story of a washed-up porn star who returns home to his small Texas town, the clear standout is the unbelievable performance given by Simon Rex. Rex plays Mikey Saber, the aforementioned washed-up porn star, and turns him into probably the most despicable yet charismatic on-screen character I’ve seen since Leonardo DiCaprio’s Jordan Belfort. The way Rex is able to be both repulsive and charming at the same time is truly an incredible feat. In fairness, a lot of that credit does have to go to the writing as well. I love how this movie doesn’t bother the audience with details or unneeded context to the story. This film knows that you don’t need to know everything because once you spend 5 minutes with this character, you’ll get it. As he has done in the past, Baker is able to pull off a difficult genre-bending tone in this film that can remind you only of real life. He makes you laugh throughout, but there’s clearly a darker underbelly to this story that you’re always aware of while watching it all unfold.
Like I said in the opening to this blog, it was nearly impossible for any film outside of the MCU, DCEU, and the Fast franchise to reach audiences on a grand scale this year. Denis Villeneuve’s Dune was the exception. Unlike some of the smaller films on my list, there isn’t much to be said about Dune that hasn’t already been said. It is the most visually impressive film of the year and a perhaps unneeded reminder that Villeneuve is able to operate on a scale that few other filmmakers can right now. While I think the cast all gave strong performances in this film, the majority of its success really does need to be attributed to Villeneuve. Not only for the spectacular visuals, but for taking on an oft-mishandled project that has long been deemed impossible to adapt to the big screen and actually pulling it off (well, at least half of it for now.) You can feel that Villeneuve has a real respect for the source material though. He truly cared about finding a way to finally make this work. And I’m incredibly glad that he was able to find a way because in a year that seemed to be missing big, bold blockbuster films that feel like they will actually be remembered—Dune stands alone.
4. Bo Burnham: Inside
The second and final entry on my list that some may have a problem with me categorizing as a film is Bo Burnham’s quarantine era masterpiece, Inside. It’s probably important to note that I’m a little biased with this selection because I have been a massive fan of Bo’s for a very long time. But even when putting myself in the shoes of someone who is unfamiliar with Bo’s previous work, or even a detractor of it, I can’t imagine not being impressed with what he did in Inside. Considering the limitations of the conditions Bo filmed this in—it was made entirely in one room during the pandemic—it is one of the most technically impressive films I watched all year. I was even lucky enough to see this film, which was released on Netflix, in a theater and it played just as well on a big screen as it did on my television at home. It isn’t just the technical aspects of Inside that make it a masterpiece though, the content of Bo’s comedy and songs throughout are both hilarious and poignant. This film reconfirmed my “No one should be allowed to publicly make insights about the internet except Bo Burnham” belief. I really do think he understands the world he’s talking about in Inside like few others do. As a longtime fan, what I enjoyed most about Inside is that Bo has been exploring most of the ideas presented in this special for a while now. If you’ve listened to him in interviews or watched his previous work over the years, you know he really cares about these things and puts a lot of thought into them. For that reason, it feels like Inside is the project Bo has been headed towards making for his whole career. I’m just glad he finally made it, and I’m certain that no one else could have.
3. Drive My Car
Ryûsuke Hamaguchi’s epic three hour story about lost love, grief, guilt, and attempting to move forward was one of the most haunting and engulfing film experiences I had all year long. In this film, Hamaguchi employs an incredibly reserved and mannered directing style that perfectly fits the story that is being told. He never attempts to overwhelm the viewer with any sort of flashy techniques, nor does he take time to try to inform the audience what the movie is about. Instead, he just lets the story speak for itself. The runtime of this film may scare some people away, but you quickly realize when watching it that—although this film is long—it is always building towards something. Each moment is purposeful and calculated. What the film eventually ends up building to is nothing less than the most emotionally explosive third act of the entire year. It is one of those films where audience members remain in their seat motionless as the credits roll because they need time to reflect upon and process all that they have just seen. But it is also a film that you’re glued to throughout the entirety of its runtime. Hamaguchi has your undivided attention from Drive My Car’s first moments, and he knows it.
2. C’mon C’mon
In a year that was frequently complicated and at times anxiety-inducing, it was nice to have Mike Mills’ endearing style of filmmaking return to movie screens. His found fatherhood story, C’mon C’mon, about the growing bond between an uncle and nephew remains one of the best times I had in a movie theater in 2021. Ironically enough, it can sometimes be rare for films that are branded as “feel-good movies” to actually make you feel good, but it’s hard to walk out of C’mon C’mon not feeling better than you did when you walked in. “Feel good” and “endearing” aren’t always words used to describe Joaquin Phoenix’s work, but his performance in this film was truly one of the best of the year. And his scene partner, 11-year-old Woody Norman, might have actually outshone him in some parts of this film. I love how Mills framed this story as a coming of age tale for both of the movie’s main characters. Despite one of them being an adult and one of them being a child, they really do learn an equal amount from one another throughout this film. If you’re looking for one film from 2021 to reassure you that things just might be okay after all, C’mon C’mon is the clear choice.
1. Licorice Pizza
What can I say? Paul Thomas Anderson just knows how to make movies that I will fall in love with. While Licorice Pizza doesn’t necessarily resemble the rest of PTA’s filmography—it is without a doubt the loosest and most tension-free film he’s ever made—you can still feel his energy, and his skilled filmmaking, in every scene. It’s hard to even write about this film because it has such an ineffable quality to it. Summarizing the plot is even a difficult task because, like a lot of my favorite films, a lot happens but also at the same time it’s kind of like nothing happens. Much like most of our day-to-day experiences, the characters in this film aren’t dealing with life or death scenarios, instead, things just happen to them sometimes (who can relate?). That doesn’t mean this film isn’t about anything though. It’s about friendship, first love, growing older, attraction—but not necessarily sexual attraction, being the object of someone else’s affection, romance, youth, jealousy, and how it feels to be lost in your own life. That may seem like a lot but PTA is able to effectively incorporate each of those ideas into the story, while still having time to include some of the best needle drops of the year. At the center of the screen in almost every scene are Alana Haim (Alana) and Cooper Hoofman (Gary), two first time actors giving performances that you would expect to come from seasoned vets. This movie does not work without their chemistry, which luckily they have in spades. While some people—perhaps rightfully so given the age difference—felt uncomfortable about their character’s relationship in the film, I see this Licorice Pizza as much more than that. To me, Alana and Gary’s relationship feels like more than a friendship but less than a romance. It honestly seemed like PTA was more interested in exploring what it is like to be someone else’s subject of interest, rather than the actual dynamic of this particular relationship. He’s also examining how you yearn to run backwards when you’re older and forwards when you’re younger. I think a lot of the “controversy” surrounding this film also depends on how you interpret the ending, which I feel is much more complex than some are giving it credit for. Honestly though, I have no interest in entering into that discussion except to say evaluating the quality of a film, or any art for that matter, on whether you think it conveys an appropriate moral message is a misguided exercise. For me personally, there was no movie I wanted to immerse myself into more this year than Licorice Pizza, and that is why it is my number one film of 2021.