My list of 2021 movies that I want to see is almost as long as the list of movies I have seen, but at some point you just need to say, “Here is what I’ve seen and loved.” And there was a lot to love about movies in 2021.
So, as we’re now starting to experience a proper winter, here are 10 films (no ranking) that you should seek out and find. Let’s get to it.
First, a few qualifiers for making this list:
NO MOVIES I HAVEN’T SEEN- Obvious, right? But it means I’m leaving off a lot of films people are very high on. No Power Of The Dog, Spider-Man: Far From Home, Summer Of Soul, Petit Maman, Drive My Car, Licorice Pizza, Nightmare Alley, Memoria, Annette, Titanae, The Worst Person In The World and about a hundred other titles I haven’t gotten to yet.
NO MOVIES I HAVE REVIEWED BEFORE: There is no way The French Dispatch wouldn’t be on my list of the best movies of 2021. And I really enjoyed The Suicide Squad and F9. But I already talked about all of them, so we don’t need to rehash.
NO MOVIES THAT WERE NOMINATED FOR THE 2020-21 OSCARS: Films like Judas & The Black Messiah, Minari, Sound Of Metal and Nomadland have already been praised and fawned over enough.
With all that out there, here’s my list:
The Card Counter
WHY THIS MADE THE LIST: Paul Schrader, who wrote the screenplays for movies like Raging Bull and Taxi Driver gives us his second film, and it is intense. Focusing on a gambler with a past (Oscar Issac) and a young man out for revenge (Tye Sheridan), The Card Counter opens with us feeling uneasy and then just keeps cranking up the dial. Much like a gambler hoping their card comes up, we’re left following the action on the edge of our seat. Schrader is showing himself not just as a master writer, but a skillful director who uses the camera to get the most out of his words.
The Green Knight
WHY THIS MADE THE LIST: Until very recently, David Lowery’s The Green Knight wasn’t just one of the best movies I saw in 2021, it was at the top of the list (more on this later). Based on the 14th century poem about Sir Gawain and his quest to meet the monster he had fought earlier, this film is rich with atmosphere. There are so many atmospheric elements that Lowery gives us; we feel the dirt and fog and cold as Gawain (the excellent Dev Patel) does. But this is more than just a gorgeous hero’s tale. It’s an examination of what it takes inside all of us to be a hero.
Listening To Kenny G
WHY THIS MADE THE LIST: The last film I saw from documentarian Penny Lane was one of the best films of 2019. In Hail, Satan?, Lane shows us the caring and charming side of a group of political Satanists. So maybe it’s not surprise that choice of subjects for her contribution to HBO’s Music Box series was a look at one of the most polarizing figures in contemporary music history. Lane does an amazing job giving fair time to both the saxophonist’s praisers and detractors, but the film is no better than in the sit down interviews that Kenny G gives. We see a man who hears what everyone says about him and while he says he doesn’t care, it’s also clear he does. It’s a fascinating look at the work it takes to be an artist, even one whom is so aggressively hated by many.
The Lost Daughter
WHY THIS MADE THE LIST: To put it simply, it features two of the best performances of the year. In this study of motherhood, director Maggie Gyllenhaal shows us a side of parenting that, too often, women do not seem to be allowed to share. We see it through Leda, who is in Greece on vacation. She’s played brilliantly by Olivia Colman, who has just been crushing every role she has been in since The Favourite. And as good as Colman is, Jessie Buckley is just as brilliant playing Leda as a younger woman who wants to be a mother but also a respected professor. This film is emotionally jarring and none of it works if Colman and Buckley aren’t perfect. And this film works.
WHY THIS MADE THE LIST: Look, I love Pixar, but their films have gotten a little heavy. Their films always had deep meaning and real spiritual questions, but their last film’s premise is literally, “Hey, what happens when you die?” as Trent Reznor scored the shit out of it. This makes Luca, the light-hearted tale of two mermen who can appear human if they’re out of water long enough, a welcome respite. It’s light and breezy and just flows through you perfectly. It’s charm comes from just sitting back and being magically transported through Italy. Sometimes, especially in 2021, we just need to sit back and love a cute movie, and that is where Luca is a film for sore eyes and a bruised soul.
The Mitchells Vs. The Machines
WHY THIS MADE THE LIST: From producers Phil Lord and Chris Miller and director Michael Rianda comes a film I slept on most of the year, and I was so glad I caught up with it. This film just fucking goes for it while telling the story of a dysfunctional family attempting to survive to robot uprising all while bonding on a road trip. It’s funny. It’s weird. It’s touching. It’s everything a family film should be.
No Sudden Move
WHY THIS MADE THE LIST: A perfect cast (Don Cheadle, Benicio Del Toro, Kieran Culkan, Brendan Fraser, Ray Liotta, and so many more). A gripping score. A tense story that also has a lot of humor. This is where Steven Soderbergh eats. And he gives us a hell of a ride with this film. Never a dull moment or slow beat, No Sudden Move just rumbles through it’s run time keeping you entertained.
WHY THIS MADE THE LIST: Nicolas Cage, baby! It seems like once every few years, Cage gives a performance that just reminds us why he has an Oscar, and Pig does that in spades. Everything about this story is so weird and out there: Cage as a chef who isolated himself? Love it. His truffle-finding pig has gone missing? Sign me up. Oh, there’s also an underground fight club in Portland’s restaurant scene? HELL YES! Cage grounds the whole thing with a thrilling performance that shows so much of his range. Can someone please pay off his debts so he can only make movies like this for the rest of his career?
Shang-Chi And The Legend Of The Ten Rings
WHY THIS MADE THE LIST: Yes, I am a MCU fanboy. I won’t deny it. But with films this good, how can you not be? This film is a crazy rollercoaster ride with brilliant martial arts sequences that isn’t afraid to just open the throttle all the way and have a fun time. Even watching this on a small screen, there were so many times during the fight scenes that completely engrossed and captured me. If Shang-Chi is part of this new MCU, I am excited to see what his next adventure is.
West Side Story
WHY THIS MADE THE LIST: Quite simply, because it’s the best film of 2021. Steven Spielberg did what no one thought possible: he remade the 1961 classic and paid homage to it while also making it his own. This film is a goddamned masterclass in acting and editing and cinematography and choreography and, literally, every other aspect of filmmaking. This is a master at the top of his game and a cast going all out to show what they’ve got. It feels dangerous and beautiful. It gets you singing and tapping your foot. It’s the perfect movie experience of the year.