by Hope Madden and George Wolf
Looking back, what will we remember about the 2021 year in film? Musicals, black and white palettes, smoking, ensembles and impressive debuts are the trends we’ll think of first. But more specifically, we’ll remember these 25 favorites:
1. Licorice Pizza
Paul Thomas Anderson’s latest is loose, forgiving, and along for the ride as 15-year-old entrepreneur Gary Valentine (Cooper Hoffman) woos life, Hollywood and, in particular, Alana Kane (Alana Haim), his much older paramour.
Danger edges but never fully punctures the sunshine of youth that brightens every scene of the movie. But that darkness is there, looming like the creepy guy staring at your office window, or the cops who arrest you mistakenly, or the volatile Hollywood producer who may or may not smash your window (or your head) in with a crowbar. (Thank you, Bradley Cooper, by the way, for that brief but unforgettable performance.)
It’s nostalgic. It’s uproarious, dangerous, just-this-side-of-innocent fun. It’s a near-masterpiece.
2. The Power of the Dog
Even if you haven’t read the celebrated source novel by Thomas Savage, director Jane Campion’s adaptation unfolds with enough subtle poetry to convince you that it must be a wonderful read. Onscreen, the Oscar-winning Campion (The Piano) contrasts the vast majesty of the American West (kudos to cinematographer Ari Wegner) with delicate details that shift the nature of love, trust and strength within a family.
Kodi Smit-McFee, Jesse Plemmons, Kirstin Dunst and a particularly brilliant Benedict Cumberbatch bring her story to life. The Power of the Dog finds its own power in what it shows but never truly tells. It’s a film that is hauntingly lyrical and masterfully assembled, with a beauty that lingers like an echo in the Montana wilderness.
3. The Tragedy of Macbeth
Coen brother Joel delivers a vision that’s both decidedly theatrical and profoundly cinematic with his solo directorial effort. Filmed in Bergman-esque black and white to glorious ends, Denzel Washington and Frances McDormand play the Lord and his Lady and this, friends, is a dream team. Two of the most celebrated and talented actors of modern cinema square off, and the veterans give an inconic relationship a depth that tinges the eventual madness with touching grief.
A uniformly brilliant ensemble (kudos in particular to Kathryn Hunter’s inspired turn as the witches) gives this dreamy take on the Bard its life.
Coen’s venture into Shakespeare, though it strips away the humor and quirk you may associate with Coen Brother filmmaking, stands as a strikingly Coen film. And that has never one time been a bad thing.
4. Summer of Soul
According to director Amir “Questlove” Thompson, the first time he saw some of the digitized footage from the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival concerts, he nearly wept.
You might, too.
From the gospel of Mahalia Jackson to the blues of B.B. King, from the 5th Dimension’s smooth pop to Sly Stone’s psychedelic funk, the musical styles blend gloriously in the summer sun and the goosebump moments mount. But even more impressive than Thompson’s musical direction is the way he frames the entire festival through a deeply effective context of time, place, and population.
5. West Side Story
Right from the opening minutes, Steven Spielberg’s camera seamlessly ebbs and flows along with the street-roaming Sharks and Jets. From one musical set-piece to the next, Spielberg’s touch is smoothly precise, starting wide to capture the breadth of Justin Peck’s homage to Jerome Robbins’s iconic choreography, zooming in for intimacy, and then above the dancers and rumblers for gorgeous aerials set with pristine light and shadow.
It just looks freaking fantastic.
And in bringing his own vision to a classic story, Spielberg gently adds a perspective that makes Tony and Maria’s quest soar with a renewed, more universal vitality.
Just like most everything else in this West Side Story.
Like so many other headlines of numbing enormity that we regularly scroll past, stories of the worldwide refugee crisis rarely come with an intimacy that makes the stakes feel palpable. Flee brings an animated face to the discussion, using one man’s incredible story to re-frame the issue with soul-stirring humanity.
Using that man’s actual voice in the conversations with director Jonas Poher Rasmussen adds startling depth to the reenacted memories, and as our childlike comfort with animated scenes clashes with the uncomfortable scenes depicted, Flee‘s bracing resonance only intensifies.
7. Nightmare Alley
What director Guillermo Del Toro brings to this remake of a 1947 noir classic, besides a breathtaking cast and an elegantly gruesome aesthetic, is his gift for humanizing the unseemly. As usual, Del Toro wears his feelings proudly on his sleeve, with unmistakable but organic foreshadowing that ups the ante on the stakes involved. Anchored by another sterling performance from Bradley Cooper as Stan, the journey rises to biblical proportions. An actor whose gifts are often deceptively subtle, Cooper makes sure Stan’s pride always arrives with a layer of charming sympathy, even as it blinds him to the pitfalls ahead.
For Del Toro fans, the most surprising aspect of Nightmare Alley might be the lack of hopeful wonder that has driven most of his films. As the title suggests, this is a trip to the dark corners of the soul, where hope is in damn short supply. As much as this looks like a Del Toro film, it feels like a flex just from taking his vision to the sordid part of town. But what a vision it turns out to be – one of the year’s best and one of his best.
8. Drive My Car
Adapting a short story into a three-hour class on screenwriting, writer/director Ryûsuke Hamaguchi turns a seemingly simple premise – a visiting theater director begrudgingly accepts a chauffer from festival organizers – into a sprawling study of the human soul.
As secrets are revealed and burdens lifted, Drive My Car becomes a soaring testament to grief, forgiveness, moving on and the unending lure of a fine automobile.
9. Riders of Justice
Men will single-handedly gun down an entire biker gang rather than go to therapy. That’s the premise from prolific writer-director Anders Thomas Jensen, as he reunites with Mads Mikkelsen in this dark comic revenge fantasy.
But Jensen isn’t nearly as interested in the physical mayhem as the emotional wreckage his oddball characters are all coping with. Riders of Justice treats its characters with such forgiving empathy that it’s easy to forget that the group is also almost certainly responsible for the most murders in Denmark since the Vikings.
10. Wild Indian
As angry a movie as you’re likely to see, Wild Indian pushes you to hope compassion and tenderness come to the most unlikeable man onscreen.
Writer/director Lyle Mitchell Corbine Jr. refuses to lean on stereotypes that would make the central performance more comfortable viewing. Makwa (a stunning Michael Greyeyes) is neither victim nor noble wiseman. Not entirely a villain, he’s nonetheless ill-suited as antihero or, God forbid, hero. He’s a survivor bound up in his own guilt and shame, taking advantage of whatever he can and hating himself and everyone around him because of it.
It’s a desolate world Corbine Jr. creates, but no less remarkable for its bleakness. A character study unlike anything else on screen this year, Wild Indian gives longtime character actor Greyeyes the opportunity to command the screen and he more than rises to the occasion.
This touching film—a tale of love, loss, authenticity and a good meal— is essentially the anti-John Wick. And we are better for it.
Nicolas Cage is almost always the center of attention in every film he’s in. It’s tough to look away from him because you’re afraid you’ll miss some insane grimace or wild gesture, but also because filmmakers love him and never pull away. Here, co-writer/director Michael Sarnoski asks you to wait for it. He gives Cage time to pause, breathe, and deliver his most authentic performance in ages.
Making her feature debut behind the camera, Rebecca Hall adapts Nella Larsen’s 1929 novel about women unable to find a place to truly belong. Hall mines Larsen’s insight and longing to produce a visually stunning, melancholy period piece.
The languid beauty and comment on class play like a more delicate take on Gatsby, Hall subtly drawing attention not only to the racial divide but to the socioeconomic divide within Irene’s (Tessa Thompson) home and life. Never showy, never heavy-handed, the film’s themes prick at the audience just as they slowly, cumulatively wound Irene.
Thompson delivers an introspective performance unlike anything thus far in her impressive career. Likewise, Ruth Negga is superb as Irene’s friend/nemesis Clare, just incandescent and haunting as a damaged, elegant survivor.
Belfast is a man’s reminiscence of his own childhood, informed by the movies and songs that bleed together with memory and saturated in the wonder of youth.
Director Kenneth Branagh has yet to make a film with such precise visual purpose or style. Every black and white frame, every movement or lack of movement from the camera carries the vision of the film.
It is sentimental. It is nostalgic. It is unapologetically sincere. But by taking the perspective of a 9-year-old boy (a magnificent Jude Hill) trying to make sense of a suddenly and profoundly confusing and frightening world, the film gets away with it.
14. The Green Knight
Lutes and mead, chainmail and sorcery—director David Lowery’s Camelot is just as rockin’ as ever in his trippy coming-of-age style The Green Knight. The story itself may be more than 700 years old, but credit Lowery, who adapted the old ballad for the screen, with finding fresh intrigue in the old bones. He’s slippery with symbolism and draws wonderful performances from the ensemble.
His visual storytelling has always been his greatest strength as a director and this tale encourages his most fanciful and hypnotic style to date. The Green Knight is gorgeous. The color and framing are pure visual poetry. Together with a never-better Dev Patel and an exceptional ensemble, Lowery’s created a magical realm where you believe anything could happen.
15. C’mon C’mon
A man’s changing relationship with his young nephew mirrors his deepening bond with his estranged sister. That man, Johnny, is played by Joaquin Phoenix, particularly endearing in this film. Nine-year-old Woody Norman soars as the nephew, his chemistry with Phoenix couldn’t be more charming or genuine. Gaby Hoffmann is wonderful as well as Norman’s mom, Johnny’s sister Viv.
C’mon C’mon wraps the messy, awkward, disappointing realities of being human in a blanket of hope. As cloying as that sounds, the film is so sincere it’s hard to deny its warmth.
16. The Lost Daughter
Unnerving intimacy marks Maggie Gyllenhaal’s debut as a feature director. Luckily for all of us, Gyllenhaal’s uniformly subline cast meets the challenge.
Adapting Elena Ferrante’s novel, Gyllenhaal challenges romantic preconceptions about motherhood (sometimes quite bitingly, thanks to lines delivered with acidic precision by the remarkable Olivia Colman). The film acknowledges what is given up, what is lost, when you essentially transfer ownership of yourself—your time, your attention, your future—to someone else, to your children. The theme is deeply and honestly felt, and that, too, is unnerving.
17. The Humans
Two of 2021’s most prominent film themes – impressive debuts and stellar ensembles – come together in rookie writer/director Stephen Karam’s The Humans.
Adapting his own stage play, Karam displays wonderful instincts for how his story of a family reunion could move from stage to screen with relevant new layers. Buoyed by a first-rate cast including Richard Jenkins, Steven Yeun, Amy Schumer, Beanie Feldstein and Jayne Houdyshell, The Humans slowly revels itself as a domestic horror show, with familiar tensions and deep-seeded fears becoming more frightful than anything going bump in the night.
18. The Worst Person in the World
Led by a revelatory performance from Renate Reinsve, the latest from Norwegian writer/director Joachim Trier effectively fuses coming-of-age sensibilities and romantic drama.
As one woman navigates what she wants in a career, in a relationship, and ultimately what she wants out of life, Trier crafts small, indelible moments that bind together for a refreshingly honest look at how, as John Lennon once said, life happens when you’re busy making other plans.
Is it surprising that movies are now born from Twitter threads? Maybe, for a minute. But you’ll find good stories on Twitter, and with Zola, director/co-writer Janicza Bravo tells a ferociously good story, even if some of it may not be exactly true.
Bravo, Taylor Paige and Riley Keough (with solid support from Colman Domingo, Nick Braun and Jason Mitchell) all bring indelible talent to Zola, and the sheer buzz of this wild ride becomes irresistible.
Is it truth? Fiction? A bit of both?
It matters only in that it doesn’t matter at all. Because whatever truth still exists in the digital age, Zola speaks it.
20. Spider-Man: No Way Home
This third installment of Jon Watts’s Spidey franchise showcases the naïve optimism and youthful sweetness that has made his first two episodes such a great time, that are so perfectly embodied by star Tom Holland.
Rather than feeling like those Marvel overreaches in defining their own universe, No Way Home uses the opportunity of pulling in other movies to celebrate the hero, his roots, and what he stands for as an icon of comics, heroes, and childhoods the ‘verse over.
Oh, sure, it’s nostalgic. It panders. It also spills over with joy.
The opening credits of Spencer include a declaration that the film is “a fable from a true tragedy.” Indeed, this look at the final weekend in the marriage of Princess Diana and Prince Charles is draped in sadness and longing, but it’s one that uses what you already know about its subject to its advantage, completely enveloping you in an otherworldly existence.
If you haven’t been keeping up with Kristin Stewart’s string of fine performances since the Twilight films, don’t be surprised when she starts collecting the award nominations this performance richly deserves.
Filmmaker Pablo Larrain chooses the word “fable” at the start for a reason. This film is no fairy tale, but Larraín’s committed vision and an achingly poetic turn from Stewart make Spencer a completely fascinating two hours of story time.
22. Saint Maud
Maud (an astonishing Morfydd Clark) has some undefined blood and shame in her recent past. But she survived it, and she knows God saved her for a reason. She’s still working out what that reason is when she meets Amanda (Jennifer Ehle), a former choreographer now crumbling beneath lymphoma. Maud cannot save Amanda’s body, but because of just the right signs from Amanda, she is determined to save her soul.
As a horror film, Saint Maud is a slow burn. First-time writer/director Rose Glass and crew repay you for your patience, though, with a smart film that believes in its audience. Her film treads the earth between mental illness and religious fervor, but its sights are on the horror of the broken-hearted and lonesome.
This new Candyman is the most delicious brand of horror sequel. Thanks to the startling vision of director/co-writer Nia DaCosta, it is a film that honors its roots but lives so vibrantly in the now that it makes you view the 1992 original from an urgent new angle.
DaCosta’s savvy storytelling is angry without being self-righteous. Great horror often holds a mirror to society, and DaCosta works mirrors into nearly every single scene in the film. Her grasp of the visual here is stunning—macabre, horrifying, and elegant. She takes cues from the art world her tale populates, unveiling truly artful bloodletting and framing sequences with grotesque but undeniable beauty. It’s hard to believe this is only her second feature.
By the time a brilliant coda of sadly familiar shadow puppet stories runs alongside the closing credits, there’s more than enough reason for horror fans to rejoice and…#telleveryone.
24. The Last Duel
This is a brooding, brutal, violent and sexually violent film, one that utilizes a Rashomon-style narrative to frame an often debated moment in history around a centuries-old struggle that continues today.
Director Ridley Scott presents the tale with exceptional craftsmanship and spectacle, getting big assists from Dariusz Wolski’s gritty, expansive cinematography and Michael Fentum’s detailed sound design. Scott’s remarkable cast — Jodie Comer, Adam Driver, Matt Damon and Ben Affleck — digs in to these old ideas to find startling relevance.
The Last Duel aims for more than just a gripping history lesson. It’s ultimately able to use that history to remind us that the way society treats women generally – and women’s sexuality specifically – has changed little since the freaking Middle Ages.
25. No Time to Die
Opening with a tense and expansive 26-minute prologue, Cary Joji Fukunaga unveils thrilling set-pieces and gorgeous visuals that beg for a big-screen experience. Aided mightily by a soaring, throwback score from Hans Zimmer, Fukunaga infuses Daniel Craig’s final Bond film with a respectful sense of history while it marches unafraid into the future.
The one-liners, callbacks and gags (like Q’s multi-piece tea set) are well-placed and restrained, never undercutting the nearly three-hour mission Fukunaga clearly approached with reverence.
Where does James Bond go from here? Hard to say, but this 007 doesn’t care. Five films in 15 years have changed the character and the franchise for the better, and No Time to Die closes this chapter with requisite spectacle and fitting emotion.
Almost Made It:
The Harder They Fall