It seems I say this too much, but I can’t believe another movie year has come and gone. 2021 was a strange yet hopeful year for cinema as we looked to make our way back from a global pandemic and (hopefully) closer to some semblance of normalcy. Movies still found themselves in a unusual place, with several big delays especially in the early part of the year. But some of the heavy hitters finally came to theaters while independent films continued to show their resiliency and importance.
That brings me to this annual ritual of looking back at the movie year that was. In the grand scheme of things, these lists are pretty silly. At the same time I always enjoy doing them and comparing them with others. Before I get to my Top 10 films from 2021 I always like to give some love to the great movies that just missed the cut. So without further ado, here is my #11-20….
- #20 – “Lamb”
- #19 – “Oxygen”
- #18 – “Old Henry”
- #17 – “The Lost Daughter”
- #16 – “The Dry”
- #15 – “Being the Ricardos”
- #14 – “The Card Counter”
- #13 – “Memoria”
- #12 – “Cyrano”
- #11 – “The Last Duel”
And now my Top 10 Films of 2021
#10 – “CODA” [REVIEW] One of the most talked about movies to come out of Sundance 2021 was Sian Heder’s joyously earnest and deeply affecting “CODA”. This heartwarming coming-of-age story followed a 17-year-old (played by a fantastic Emilia Jones) who is the lone hearing member of her culturally deaf family. It also features sublime supporting work by Troy Kotsur and Marlee Matlin. And while it has a pretty familiar exterior, underneath is a warmth and authenticity that’s hard to resist. It’s also genuinely funny with plenty of laughs that come naturally and frequently. What a treat.
#9 – “The Tragedy of MacBeth” [REVIEW] Adapting William Shakespeare’s classic tragedy “MacBeth” is nothing new. But leave it to one-half of the Coen brothers to give us a version unlike any we’ve been treated to before. Joel Coen’s visually arresting approach gives us scene after scene of striking imagery, creating a grim and forbidding atmosphere in the process. And then there’s the amazing cast led by Denzel Washington who (if there’s any justice in the world) should be in line for another Oscar nomination. I wasn’t sure if we needed another “MacBeth”, but I’m sure glad Joel Coen gave us one.
#8 – “No Time to Die” [REVIEW] Daniel Craig’s last hurrah as James Bond had potential to both sink or shine. It turned out to be everything I hoped it would – a sprawling blockbuster with eye-popping action and rich with characters that over the years I’ve grown to love. Director Cary Joji Fukunaga attempts to tie up most of the loose ends while also fully embracing the elements that made Craig’s run so memorable. Most importantly it makes for a fitting conclusion to a story arc that will be hard for the next Bond to match.
#7 – “Nightmare Alley” [REVIEW] More than any other movie on this list, “Nightmare Alley” is the one I wrestled with the most. But in wrestling with it I quickly realized just how much I loved it. Guillermo del Toro’s pulpy neo-noir thriller is a visually stunning throwback film with a captivating cast and a story that digs deep into the dark side of human nature. Del Toro’s world-building is unmatched and I found myself transported by what he creates here. This is top-notch cinema, bursting with style and grounded in the kind of grim and grimy atmosphere that left me giddy.
#6 – “Mass” [REVIEW] After first seeing “Mass” at Sundance I knew I had seen something special. After seeing it a second time later in the year, I knew it was one of the best movies of 2021. Not only is “Mass” powerful and moving, it’s also intensely timely as it attempts to tackle a difficult subject from a unique and distinctly personal point-of-view. Each of the four stars at the center are emotional forces and they’re key to making it all work. Jason Isaacs, Martha Plimpton, Ann Dowd, and Reed Birney give nomination worthy performances in a movie that cuts deeply and honestly.
#5 – “A Hero” [REVIEW] For my money, Iranian auteur Asghar Farhadi is among the handful of must-see filmmakers working today. He’s a consummate storyteller with a cinematic vision and voice so profound that I’m compelled to see every movie he puts out. “A Hero” embodies everything I love about a Farhadi film. It’s yet another deeply human story grounded in everyday life that uses its characters to pose a number of thought-provoking moral questions. With its seamless naturalistic dialogue and engaging story structure, this makes for a wonderful addition to Farhadi’s already impressive filmography.
#4 – “West Side Story” [REVIEW] Now here’s a movie that I went into with no expectations and left on an emotional high. Steven Spielberg’s adaptation of “West Side Story” swept me away with its incredible production design, rousing songs, high-energy dance numbers, and some performances that are easily among the year’s best. Spielberg captures all the style and verve of the classic movie musical and fuses it with a modern day sensibility. It all comes together in a joyous and at times heartbreaking big screen experience that has stuck with me in ways I never imagined.
#3 – “The Man in the Hat” [REVIEW] Sometimes it’s the gentlest movies that moves you the most. Such is the case in this delightful and warm little yarn from John-Paul Davidson and Stephen Warbeck. It’s a simple and savory road trip movie that is a feast for the senses and feels plucked out of a bygone era of cinema history. It’s driven by the wonderfully expressive Ciarán Hinds who conveys everything we need through his gentle manner, tender smiles, and melancholy gaze. This movie had me under its spell from its opening scene and it’s a movie more people need to see.
#2 – “Belfast” [REVIEW] Kenneth Branagh’s “Belfast” is a warm and tender reflection on his time in the city of his childhood. Set during the tumultuous late 1960s, Branagh’s story plays out to the backdrop of violence and unrest, yet it maintains a heartfelt focus on family and community. It features incredible performances top to bottom and is flavored with the deep personal touches of a filmmaker giving a full-hearted thank you to the neighborhood and the people who shaped and molded his life. “Belfast” may not be for everyone, but I found it to be one of the most beautiful movies of 2021.
#1 – “Dune” [REVIEW] While I’m a proud Denis Villeneuve fan, admittedly I didn’t really know what to expect from his incredibly ambitious “Dune”. I have no real history with the source material or with the past attempts at bringing it to the screen. What I got was an exhilarating and transporting blockbuster that sucked me into its world from its opening shot. Not only is “Dune” the best movie I saw in 2021, it was also the best theater experience I’ve had in a long time. It was truly made for the big screen. I loved everything about “Dune” and I can’t wait for the sequel to usher me back into Villeneuve’s breathtaking world.
And that wraps up another movie year. Please take time to share your thoughts on what I got right and what I got wrong with this year’s list.