Top 20 Films of 2021

It’s a few days later than I would usually put this out, but it’s been such a great year for films I’ve found that I wanted a little more time to reflect and shuffle things around and…fine okay yes, you caught me, I’m breaking my own rules by waiting specifically so I can potentially include two highly-anticipated potential favourites that I think have a really good shot at cracking the list. But whatever, this is my list and in the immortal written words of television’s Ron Swanson: “I can do what I want.”

As for the usual spiel, yes the list is subjective, and no I haven’t seen everything I wanted to before making this list. We have quite a bit of ground to cover, so I’m just going to get started!

Just because of how many excellent films I saw, I’m going to give my 5 honourable mentions that didn’t quite make the cut. This year they were:

  • Black Widow (dir. Cate Shortland)
  • Blue Bayou (dir. Justin Chon)
  • Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings (dir. Destin Daniel Cretton)
  • Petite Maman (dir. Céline Sciamma)
  • Drive My Car (dir. Ryusuke Hamaguchi)

Out of the 94 feature films from this year, these are the 20 that made the biggest impressions on me.

20. Passing (dir. Rebecca Hall)

PASSING – (PICTURED) RUTH NEGGA as CLARE. Netflix © 2021

It has been a stellar year for women in front of and especially behind the camera as they continue to tell complex stories and gain more opportunities to use their distinct voices. Passing is a shining example of a compelling story told with such beauty and compassion that it’s hard to not fall in love with it. Boasting two of the best performances you’ll see anywhere by Tessa Thompson and Ruth Negga, Passing utilises its black-and-white cinematography to amplify its themes. In a year with several black-and-white stylised films (more to come later), Passing is likely the film that uses it best, not just as an artistic gimmick, but a real chance to combine theme with form and enhance what it’s trying to say. Passing has been one of those films that I’ve thought about a lot since first watching it and I’ll probably dive into its beauty once again quite soon.

19. The Mitchells vs the Machines (dir. Michael Rianda)

The Mitchells vs the Machines could have easily been another silly Netflix animated film that succumbs to its clichés and misses the mark, but the sheer attention to detail and technical prowess with which this film is made sets it above most other animated features this year, even most of the live-action ones too. Led by an impressive voice cast who embody a set of quirky, yet authentic characters throughout a deeply heartfelt script about the magic of believing in the ones you love, The Mitchells vs the Machines stands out in a year packed with great stories about family due to its sharp writing and entertaining action. A personal classic for sure.

18. Malcolm & Marie (dir. Sam Levinson)

The longest-lasting entry in this list and absolutely the most controversial given the reception to it upon its release in February. I managed to see this in January, so it’s stayed in the upper tier of my ranking for almost twelve months which is quite an impressive feat. It just goes to show how much I loved this film. It might be a little unfair considering Levinson and co basically made a film that appeals to all of my exact tastes: a dialogue-driven two-hander shot in black-and-white centred around filmmaking and the industry. Oh yeah, and it also stars two of my favourite actors working today: Zenday and John David Washington, who are both phenomenal in this. It’s not an easy feat to perform countless monologues with such intensity, but they both make it look easy as they tear up the screen and explore their fraying relationship. Zendaya in particular had an excellent 2021 and this was the start of it all with perhaps her best on-screen performance so far. I fully understand the complaints about this one and they’re justified, I just happened to love what it was doing.

17. Judas and the Black Messiah (dir. Shaka King)

Another film that has stood tall at the top of my list since February 2021, Judas and the Black Messiah is an incredible accomplishment. A now multi-Oscar winning film and Best Picture nominee from last year, King’s exceptional film features every aspect working at optimum levels. From the smart, nuanced screenplays to the momentous performances from Lakeith Stanfield, Daniel Kaluuya, and Dominique Fishback, Judas and the Black Messiah is a film that chooses a concept and absolutely nails it. Kaluuya’s Oscar-winning performance will rightly go down in history.

16. CODA (dir. Sian Heder)

Along with honourable mention Petite Maman, CODA is the perfect example that less is more. You don’t need impossibly complex plots and concepts with multiple twists and turns to make a great story. You just need a strong set of characters with a strong emotional core. CODA has these in spades in the Rossi family and their surrounding friends and acquaintances. The cast is absolutely faultless in every respect. Emilia Jones gives a star-making performance, Daniel Durant has plenty of electric moments that I haven’t gotten out of my head in months, while Marlee Matlin and Troy Kotsur steal the show with their comedic and dramatic work here. With these actors performing a brilliant, layered script, Heder managed to craft a piece of work that’s as emotional as it is downright hilarious.

15. Red Rocket (dir. Sean Baker)

Full transparency here: I had just about written this one off. I wasn’t the biggest fan of The Florida Project, Baker’s last film, and was prepared to feel similarly about this one. But it took about three minutes to realise that I was in for something really special. Red Rocket is the sort of grimy, unfiltered look at American life that will absolutely prove divisive, but it’s an absolutely exceptional character study of one of the worst people I’ve seen on screen this year. Mikey is abhorrent and does plenty of things that will make you screw up your face and hiss things at the screen. This is all counteracted by the perfect performance from Simon Rex, who is so utterly charming and skilled in his portrayal that you find yourself forgetting about how awful Mikey is sometimes, which is the point of the performance. Rex never puts a foot wrong and his scenes with the brilliant breakout Suzanna Son as Strawberry are nothing less than expertly done. I can’t praise them highly enough and Baker’s script is hilarious and complex enough to give you something to think about once the credits roll. An absolute masterclass.

14. Flee (dir. Jonas Poher Rasmussen)

Ah Flee, the best animated film of the year. And it’s also so much more than that. The decision to make this Danish documentary into an animated film is an inspired one and takes the film from its already dizzying heights of excellence to an even higher one. Rasmussen crafts the film with such detail and care that almost everything becomes an emotional experience. The story at play lends itself to that naturally, but Flee does something that should feel obvious but isn’t always the case: it doesn’t make Amin a ‘subject’, he just tells the story and that proves absolutely vital for connecting to the film. By creating everything you see, Rasmussen enables the idea of the whole frame being a vessel of expression and adds many layers to the already electrifying storytelling. Flee is an essential piece of cinema.

13. The Humans (dir. Stephen Karam)

The Humans sees Karam adapt his own Tony-winning stage play and assemble an absolutely top-notch in his efforts. Everyone is absolutely stunning. Richard Jenkins, in particular, gives a gorgeous, haunting performance that sees a dynamic character actor at the very height of his powers. Jayne Houdyshell won a Tony for the stage play and she expertly reprises her role on the screen and proves exactly why she garnered awards for the performance. Feldstein, Yeun, and Schumer are also absolutely wonderful and it’s absolutely one of the best ensembles of the year. Not to mention the pitch-perfect production design of the apartment, which is a space that proves crucial to providing the claustrophobic horror-esque vibe that runs through the piece and builds until that brutally unsettling ending that uses Jenkins’ prowess along with the previous 100 minutes of biting dialogue to hit home a gut-punch of an ending.

12. Licorice Pizza (dir. Paul Thomas Anderson)

The first of my “Actually saw this in 2022 but knew I’d likely want to include it here” entries. As a huge PTA fan, I knew this would be to my liking, but I wasn’t sure to what degree. It felt like it could’ve been 20th, 1st, or anywhere in between. I’ll settle, at the moment, for close to the Top 10. PTA’s filmmaking it reliably off the charts excellent, weaving in and out of various moments in the lives of Gary and Alana, who are expertly played by two debut performances that have no business being as good as they are. Cooper Hoffman, the son of the late and legendary Philip Seymour Hoffman does his father proud with a charming and confident portrayal of a child actor. Alana Haim absolutely blew me away with her on-screen presence and how much she dug into every moment. Reading her facial expressions at any given moment was just an absolute blessing. Cannot wait to see where she goes from here. Anyway, Licorice Pizza is fun and exceptionally made and up there with some of PTA’s best.

11. The Power of the Dog (dir. Jane Campion)

This was so difficult to cut from the Top 10, but something had to come 11th. That comes in the shape of an exquisite return to form after 12 years from one of our greatest directors, the indomitable Jane Campion? The Power of the Dog was quickly established as an Oscar frontrunner and rightly so. It’s a tender, complicated slow-burn that rewards your patience in the first half with a second-half unravelling that hits all of its themes right on the head and shows off some of the most intricate directing I’ve seen all year. The cast is also some of our best actors at the top of their games: Benedict Cumberbatch deserves what is easily a career-best, Kirsten Dunst is absolutely showstopping, Jesse Plemons is truly one of the most versatile performers working today, and Kodi Smit-McPhee surprised the hell out of me with a deeply complex performance that stole the entire film. Campion explores masculinity in a way I’ve seldom seen before, with an inherent tenderness that doesn’t downplay any of the characters, but with a strength and surety that proves vital in the third act. A masterclass in filmmaking, I would not be averse to this winning several Oscars come March.

10. The Novice (dir. Lauren Hadaway)

Ah, the top 10, my holy grail of the last 12 months of obsessive film-watching. Having heard quite little about this film, The Novice came out of nowhere and blew me away. Even just thinking about it makes me want to watch it again, just to experience masters of craft achieving incredible things in tandem. Hadaway’s dynamic yet emotional direction (her debut, I was astonished to learn) adds nuance to a challenging story centred around the world of college athletics. Alex Weston’s intense, chilling score accompanies some gorgeously filmed rowing sequences, and the story of a woman rising to the top of her game and sacrificing a great deal in order to do so is highly captivating. It also highlights a tour de force performance from Isabelle Fuhrman; she slams into the movie and gives a physically demanding and emotionally complex performance that is masterful in every respect. I could watch this three times a day every day and be content. Extraordinary work from everyone involved.

9. West Side Story (dir. Steven Spielberg)

What do I even say about West Side Story? The first movie musical from legendary director Steven Spielberg, it attempts to adapt the musical to the screen in the shadow of the 1961 titan from Jerome Robbins & Robert Wise. While not a straight remake of that film and more an adaptation of the stage show, Spielberg still had huge shoes to fill. But that’s something you can easily ask of someone like Spielberg, who has a special talent for gathering a cast and crew that will take a production like this to new heights. I obviously adored this iteration of West Side Story, which is already one of my favourite musicals. My entire viewing experience was filled with awe and so many gasps I couldn’t even count them. From the gorgeous, colourful costuming to Kamiński predictably inspired cinematography, to the exceptionally assembled cast. Oh, the cast. I could talk about them for hours. Rachel Zegler…my oh my what an absolutely fearless breakout performance. She put everything into this role and shattered all expectations. The range from the pure joy of her “I Feel Pretty” to the emotional collapse of the ending…she’s absolutely extraordinary. Where would any of us be right now without David Alvarez, maybe the world’s prettiest man, who also delivers my favourite version of Bernardo? Ariana DeBose is flawless opposite him as Anita, nailing her vocal work, dancing, and the complex acting moments with ease. She is perfect. And then there’s Mike Faist, who brings so much to Riff that (Spoilers?) it’s actually painful to see him go what feels like so early into the film. His sheer presence is something to behold and it’s one of my favourite performances of the year. Right. I’ve rambled on for so long about this. Spielberg good, West Side Story good, everything good.

8. Spider-Man: No Way Home (dir. Jon Watts)

If you’re wondering why this is here, you must be new to this site. This wouldn’t really be a list without some time of Marvel movie on it and I’m perfectly happy to include the best one of the year. No Way Home is the Spider-Man movie I’ve been wanting the MCU to make since Homecoming, probably since Civil War actually. Spider-Man movies have always been about identity and becoming who you are, but No Way Home does something bold and actually unmasks Spider-Man and lets everybody see Peter Parker for who they think he is. It’s a crazy ride of a film due to the inclusion of the multi-verse (I still maintain that I’d like to see a version of this story without it but it goes without saying that I still adore it) and pulls very few punches with how it wants to tell its story. I’m not going to be giving any more spoilers in case you haven’t gotten to it yet, but the third act…yeah. No notes. Tom Holland’s best performance I’ve seen from him. One of my favourites MCU films.

7. The Green Knight (dir. David Lowery)

Thank god for David Lowery. The excellence of his filmmaking is only accentuated even further by the boldness of his vision and The Green Knight is no exception to that. An impossibly beautiful Arthurian fable, the film follows Sir Gawain as he travels to confront the titular knight as a test of his courage and skill. A very particular type of hero’s journey, The Green Knight sees Dev Patel in his best role yet looking very hot in a series of amazing landscapes tied with surrealistic undertones that make for one hell of a movie. Lowery does an incredible job as does every department. The editing of the final section is masterful and I wouldn’t be me if I didn’t highlight Alicia Vikander’s “Green” monologue which has not left my mind like she physically will not leave. It’s gorgeously written and performed. I need to revisit this one soon and am excited for the opportunity to do so.

6. C’mon C’mon (dir. Mike Mills)

Just missing out on the Top 5 is Mike Mills’ latest personal voyage through the idea of what it meant to be a parent in C’mon C’mon, which tells the story of Johnny, a documentarian who is nudged into forming a bond with his precocious nephew, Jesse. Their new relationship takes them on a personal journey like no other as Mills explores the boundaries of a family and what it means to be a part of something as big as the world around us. No small feat then, right? Luckily, Mills is more than up to the task. With a gorgeous script that tackles the heaviness of existence with a comedic touch to counterbalance the aching drama, both deftly performed by the three main players. Joaquin Phoenix steps away from the caricature of Joker and gets back to work akin to what he did in Her, the soft delivery of dialogue, the patience with which he approaches his scene partners, it’s skilled work from one of our best. Gaby Hoffmann is quietly one of the strongest parts of the film as she dials in for a lot of telephone conversations yet performs her parts with ease in what is quite a challenging role. One of the most underappreciated performances of the year, I think. But let’s talk about the real star of the show, shall we? Woody Norman as young Jesse, who comes out of nowhere and absolutely steals the film. It’s one of the best child performances I’ve seen, up there with the maturity of Jacob Tremblay in Room. Norman is astute in his observations as an actor and matches the tone of the film with such a wondrous grace it’s hard to believe he hasn’t been acting for several decades. Very excited for wherever his career may take him. C’mon C’mon utilises its black-and-white cinematography with a serenity that provides a calming aura to the film which makes it something truly, truly special.

5. Mass (dir. Fran Kranz)

Okay, the Top 5. Things are getting really serious now. These next 5 films are films that I consider absolutely masterworks and that is not me mincing words, I would die for all of these films. Too dramatic? Perhaps. Anyway, the upper, upper tier begins with Mass. My review linked above will go into a lot more depth, but I’m also just happy to talk about this film at every opportunity. Mass is a dramatic triumph in every sense, featuring an insanely good script that handles sensitive topics with a lot of texture, and an all-timer cast who must always be spoken about. Birney, Dowd, Isaacs, and Plimpton are all absolutely perfect. I don’t want to beat a dead horse though, so make sure you read my review if you want to hear my extended thoughts about this masterpiece.

4. Spencer (dir. Pablo Larraín)

It looks like I’ve done this on purpose, doesn’t it? Picked the films I’ve written reviews about at the top to plug my other work. And while that’s not a genius plan, you should all just read them anyway. Spencer is a film I knew I would love, but that didn’t make it any less captivating when it unravelled. Kristen Stewart gives a legendary performance that should hopefully see her scoop an Oscar in a few months (believe me, if that happens I will not be shutting up about it) and her depiction of a fable of Diana is something so idiosyncratic it could only have come from the man who birthed Jackie. I just love everything that Spencer accomplished and the boldness of its narrative moments will never fail to stun me. One for the ages.

3. Dune (dir. Denis Villeneuve)

Bet this is a surprise, isn’t it? Not Dune being here because duh, but it not being first. I’ve put a lot of effort into letting it be known that Dune is a flat out masterpiece because it is and it not being first on my list doesn’t change that. As another plug, I’m actually really proud of my review for this movie and it’s probably my favourite that I’ve written here on WTCR. I put a lot of work into it and I’m glad I could try to do this movie justice with my words. Again, I won’t ramble too much about things I’ve already said, but WOW. Villeneuve achieved the impossible with this one, from the groundbreaking visual look of the film to the exemplary cast and crew he put together. Ferguson’s performance. Isaac’s beard. Zimmer’s rattling score. It’s all going to be considered iconic down the line and that will only be accentuated when Part 2 is released. And I have a feeling that one is going to be even better.

2. Titane (dir. Julia Ducournau)

The second of the two “Actually I want to hang on and see this before I make any final decisions” films. And wow was I correct to do this. No list of mine would be complete without Julia Ducournau’s shattering and surprisingly emotional sophomore feature, Titane. I’m not going to say a single thing about the plot or anything else because it’s really best to go in knowing as little as possible. Just be ready for one of the most beautiful, intensely fascinating pieces of cinema you’ll probably ever see. Ugh, I know I’m overhyping but I can’t do anything but praise it, the film has shaken me up a bit. Vincent Lindon and Agathe Rousselle deliver two of the year’s best performances and deserve much more recognition than I’ve seen them get. Titane is a stone-cold masterpiece and with a bit more time to sit on it and another viewing, it could probably take the top spot. That’s how good it is. Films like this and my champion are why I love cinema.

1. The Worst Person in the World (dir. Joachim Trier)

Oh wow wow wow. This is cinema. I was already looking forward to this one just because of the glowing reviews out of the film festivals it premiered at, but I was not ready to have a profound personal experience. It wasn’t as though I related to Julie in that straightforward sense of the word, but Trier made me feel everything he depicted on the screen. It’s sensitive writing and filmmaking at its best, and the twelve-chapter structure really gives it a vitality that helps you to see the character arc progress as it’s happening. Every decision Julie made, I felt for her, even when she was actively making a bad decision that she knew full well to be a bad decision. This is partly due to Eskil Vogt and Trier’s exceptional script, but honestly mostly down to Renate Reinsve’s perfect performance. Yes, a perfect performance. The range she displays is nothing short of masterful and I really just want to scream from the rooftops until I’m blue in the face about how good she is. She brought me along for the ride and captivated me. This is not a difficult decision for me to put this first, but it’s difficult to explain why in so many words because I’m not even fully sure I understand what makes it my favourite film of the year over Dune. It just hit the spot in such a way that toppled me after it finished. Not to sound like that Gwyneth Paltrow video, but I laughed, I cried, I cheered, and I had an existential crisis, something all the best films should elicit. Instead of regaling you with 100 reasons why it’s best, I just recommend you check it out when you can. It’s just a really, really special film experience and I adore it.

So this list probably won’t come as any great surprise to anyone who’s seen it in its full form over on Letterboxd. There were a lot of great films in 2021 and I’m hoping the same holds true for 2022. It’s got some pretty big shoes to fill.

Wishing everyone a very Happy New Year and I’ll hopefully be able to post more regularly, although I do say this every year so take that with a minuscule pinch of salt.

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