Maybe it’s just because so many films ended up delayed to 2021, but this year felt almost too packed with great films. 2021 has seen everything from the quiet beauty of a simple drive in Drive My Car, to a woman getting impregnated by a car in Titane. We’ve seen the many faces people can wear in films like Red Rocket and I Care a Lot, and also that the human head can also wear many faces in Malignant. From towering blockbusters to brilliant indie gems, 2021 has been quite a year at the movies.
But especially as we round another year of a pandemic, the films of 2021 had messages that we needed to hear, messages of hope, love, finding joy in the little things in life, and appreciating those around you. The films of 2021 have been overflowing with music, absurd comedy – intentional or unintentional (Dear Evan Hansen) – and frequent reminders of just how fulfilling seeing a great movie for the first time can be. We got to fly with Neo and Trinity again in The Matrix Resurrections, watch Stephen Spielberg somehow make his first musical with West Side Story, and learn about the adventures of Bronco Henry in The Power of the Dog. In the immortal words of Vin Diesel: “The movies!”
Before we take a look at my personal favorite films of 2021, here are my runners-up in alphabetical order:
Drive My Car
The Last Duel
The Mitchells vs. the Machines
The Power of the Dog
West Side Story
And without further ado, here are my top 10 films of 2021.
10. The Souvenir Part II
Near the end of The Souvenir Part II, a character asks Julie (Honor Swinton Byrne), an aspiring filmmaker, about her debut film, and says, “Did you resist the urge to be obvious?” There’s nothing obvious about writer-director Joanna Hogg making a sequel to The Souvenir, an open-hearted tale of loving someone you know is wrong for you. The Souvenir was Hogg telling the story of such a love in her own life, while The Souvenir Part II becomes her retelling the making of The Souvenir. By doing this, Hogg through Julie investigates why both herself and her lead character acted the way they did, why they didn’t do more, and how the truth of our own stories can change in the retelling. The Souvenir Part II is a fascinating way to revisit this period in Hogg’s life, a nesting doll of a film that ends with one of the best final shots of a movie this year.
9. Barb & Star Go to Vista Del Mar
There is simply no good reason why it took a decade for Bridesmaids writers Kristen Wiig and Annie Mumolo to get a second film made, and there’s no way we could know that this film would be the great absurd comedy we all needed in 2021. Barb & Star Go to Vista Del Mar is akin to Hot Rod or Wet Hot American Summer in its ridiculousness, as this story of two best friends (played by Wiig and Mumolo) going on vacation includes everything from a Morgan Freeman crab, Jamie Dornan singing to a seagull on a tire, and of course, Trish. Barb & Star Go to Vista Del Mar was by far the funniest film of the year, a film that would’ve been perfect to see in a packed theater with a crowd losing their minds over this insanity.
8. Summer of Soul (…or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised)
It’s impossible to talk about the best films of 2021 without talking about music. Some of the finest 2021 films were either musicals (West Side Story, Cyrano, Annette), centered in the world of music (CODA, tick, tick…BOOM!), while some of the best documentaries of the year focused on music (Tina, The Sparks Brothers). But maybe the best of any of these was Questlove’s directorial debut Summer of Soul, chronicling 1969’s Harlem Cultural Festival, which featured artists like Stevie Wonder, Sly and the Family Stone, and Nina Simone. But what’s so impressive about Summer of Soul is how much Questlove is able to do at once, as he shows remarkable concert footage, explains why each of these artists was important, often getting the artist and festival goers reactions, and even finds time to explore the culture of America at that time. Questlove pulls all of this off without Summer of Soul ever getting too stuffed, which alone is a tremendous achievement. In a year where great movies about music were everywhere, Summer of Soul stands above the rest.
7. The French Dispatch
Wes Anderson’s films are frequently about storytellers and how those stories are passed on to others, whether through the book-within-a-book nature of The Grand Budapest Hotel or Royal Tenenbaum’s grave at the end of the film, claiming he rescued his family from a sinking battleship. But with his tenth film, The French Dispatch of the Liberty, Kansas Evening Sun, Anderson puts us directly in the pages of the title publication, presenting the stories of an artist in jail, a series of student riots, and a kidnapping. This anthology series allows Anderson to try out new techniques and ideas, but also praise the writers that he clearly loves so much. However, it’s the film’s “The Private Dining Room of the Police Commissioner” segment that is a surprising gut punch, as Jeffrey Wright’s wonderful Roebuck Wright explores the love of art and why writers do what they do. Anderson films always work thanks to their small, intimate, moving moments, and in this moment, The French Dispatch deserves to be put amongst Anderson’s best.
6. The Green Knight
With The Green Knight, David Lowery finds a beautiful medium between retelling this classic hero’s journey and his own penchant for slow-moving stories about our own legacies. Lowery makes every step of Gawain’s (Dev Patel) quest feel integral to this character’s growth, which becomes an enthralling and deliberately paced narrative that is continuously surprising, despite being based on a centuries-old poem. But Lowery’s brilliance in retelling this story comes in the final section of the film, a visualization of the choices we make and how they affect everything that comes after. It’s a powerful conclusion that is both shocking, while also being the only way this epic tale could’ve fittingly ended.
Pig writer/director Michael Sarnoski seems to know exactly what you think Pig is going to be, and does everything he can to subvert those expectations. On paper, Pig sounds like another wild Nicolas Cage film, as he goes on a quest to find his stolen truffle-hunting pig. It’s easy to see how Pig could’ve easily been Cage’s more preposterous John Wick. Yet thankfully, that’s not what Pig is at all. Instead, Sarnoski has crafted a simple and quiet film about the few things that truly matter in our lives, and the deep loves that never quite dissipate from our hearts and minds. This works because of Cage’s restraint, as he gives one of the best performances of his career, as Cage can tell us so much here without saying anything at all. Pig isn’t about revenge or insane Cage moments. It’s about appreciating what you have in the present and enjoying the small gifts that life brings your way.
4. Judas and the Black Messiah
For about ten months this year, Judas and the Black Messiah was the undisputed #1 film on this list, and despite a Best Picture nomination, and a win for Daniel Kaluuya, Shaka King’s powerful biopic is still somehow underrated. Every choice King makes in telling the story of Fred Hampton (Kaluuya), and the man who killed him, Bill O’Neal (Lakeith Stanfield) is perfectly made, a brilliant handling of a biopic that somehow doesn’t feel like a biopic. King makes Judas and the Black Messiah a carefully constructed, thrilling, and heartbreaking film that is always engaging, where every action has the weight of life-or-death choices being made. King has made The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford for the 2020s, a staggering achievement that makes him a truly exciting director to watch.
3. C’mon C’mon
At one point in C’mon C’mon, Joaquin Phoenix’s Johnny interviews a kid about what he thinks the future will be like. The kid says that he believes that most people are kind-hearted. The films of Mike Mills are often full of those types of kind-hearted people, whether through the family dynamics Mills loves to present, or the sacrifices we make for each other. With C’mon C’mon, Mills focuses on the bond between Johnny and his nephew Jesse (Woody Norman). There isn’t much in the way of plot in Mills latest, as we watch uncle and nephew go to different cities, interview different kids, and learn from each other, but it’s hard not to love every second spend with this pair. Even in the most mundane moments, C’mon C’mon is like watching a bond that will last a lifetime starting to form. C’mon C’mon is a big heart of a movie, and Mills knows just how to make this type of family relationship story sing.
2. The Worst Person in the World
Like The Souvenir Part II, Joachim Trier’s overwhelming third film in his Oslo Trilogy explores how the loves of our life completely evolve who we become. In the opening prologue of The Worst Person in the World, we see as the film’s main character Julie (the brilliant Renate Reinsve) reinvents herself multiple times, unsure that she’s making a decision in her youth that will affect the rest of her life. Trier tells Julie’s story in chapters, each one a new example of how Julie’s choices will define her – for better or for worse. Trier does this with some of the most inventive and captivating filmmaking this year, quirky, without ever being obnoxiously so. But Trier taps into the fear of growing up without entirely being sure who you want to become, or what path you want your life to take. Through The Worst Person in the World, Trier shows that life is all about these reinventions, these choices, these loves, and how beautiful and scary that can make life.
1. Licorice Pizza
Even though Licorice Pizza is the #1 film on this list, it’s absurd that it’s still probably only at the halfway point of my ranking of Paul Thomas Anderson’s best films. That’s not a comment on the quality of this year’s films – which has been quite good – but rather, just how impressive Anderson’s career has been. With just nine films in his filmography, Anderson has made classic after classic, but none of them has ever quite hit the same way that Licorice Pizza does.
Licorice Pizza is almost like the sensibilities of Anderson’s earlier films and his newer films meeting in the middle. There’s the sprawling cast thrown into Anderson’s beloved Los Angeles, as we saw in Boogie Nights or Magnolia, but there’s also Anderson’s latter appreciation for focusing on a smaller grouping of characters, and most importantly, the bond that grows between them, as we’ve seen in Phantom Thread, Inherent Vice, and The Master.
But even more impressive than this meeting of styles is the amount of heart and joy that Anderson brings to Licorice Pizza that makes this unlike any of his other films. This is a film that puts a smile on your face that never leaves until the end credits. This is almost pure bliss, as we watch Gary Valentine (Cooper Hoffman) attempt to woo Alana Kane (Alana Haim), while also trying to succeed as an actor/mattress salesman/pinball hall owner. Each new chapter of Licorice Pizza makes us fall in love with these two characters individually and as a team as they try to get ahead in Anderson’s L.A.
Licorice Pizza simply is everything one could want from a movie: endlessly fun, exciting, weird, full of love for its characters, and a cast that is having a ball. Anderson has made several masterpieces already, but Licorice Pizza is like Anderson is showing us an entirely new side of what he’s capable of yet again.