The year 2021 found life dipping in and out of normalcy as the COVID-19 pandemic surged and declined ostensibly at the snap of a finger. But even in a pandemic stricken world that seemed more desolate as the days went on, movies remained. The theater may have struggled, but movies were still here. It was one of the better years for movies in recent memory. Perhaps it was the sheer volume of films. The previous year was rife with cancellations, date pushbacks and less being released. In hindsight, maybe the moviegoer will find 2021 was just an average year. Maybe we were yearning for movies so much, we liked everything. Only time will tell. But for now, here are 10 of the very best 2021 had to offer.
10. Red Rocket (dir. Sean Baker)
As one of our most humanist filmmakers, Sean Baker continues to put people and situations on screen outside of most of our own experiences. His previous film, The Florida Project, a tender look at an impoverished single mother living in the shadow of Disney World, explored the deeply human struggles capitalism brings upon the less fortunate. Using the “happiest place on earth”, a pillar of capitalist iconoclast, was very intentional to tell his story about a woman raising a child and selling knockoff perfume just to get by. In Red Rocket, Baker places us in small town Texas in the midst of the build up to the 2016 presidential election. In said small town, we see the return of washed up porn star Mikey Saber. Saber, played brilliantly by Scary Movie alumnus and former MTV VJ Simon Rex, is a narcissistic, manipulative man-child who uses his charm to get what he wants. It’s a subtle back drop, but an important story telling choice to place this character in this moment in history. The viewer can infer what they wish in terms of the movie’s political messages, but the choices in Red Rocket continue to establish Baker as a major talent in the industry. Baker’s ability to navigate these stories, and tell them in a naturalistic environment makes Red Rocket one of the years most poignant films. It’s reflective of the folks who live in-between the cracks of our society, trapped between neoliberal kitsch and conservative meme speak, a group of people sorely underrepresented in the cinema landscape.
9. Judas and the Black Messiah (dir. Shaka King)
A film that feels truly forgotten about in the landscape of 2021 movies. It’s rare that we talk about a movie on a year end list that has already earned one of its stars, Daniel Kaluuya an Oscar back in April. But alas, we are living in a pandemic inflicted world and nothing is normal. Enter Shaka King’s Judas and the Black Messiah, a powerfully acted portrait of Fred Hampton (Kaluuya) the Black Panther party deputy chairman who was murdered in his sleep at the age of 21. We all may have heard of Hampton at some point in school or elsewhere, but King’s biopic is a two hander which focuses not only on the Black Messiah, but you guessed it, his Judas as well. In this case, Judas is Bill O’Neal (Lakeith Stanfield), a Chicago hustler who is recruited by the FBI to help them take down Hampton who is considered a threat to national security. Judas is a stirring, effective and emotional drama about betrayal that plays said emotional moments perfectly and never in a heavy handed way. Kaluuya’s Oscar win was a warranted one as he gives a powerful, screen commanding turn. A truly masterful debut from Shaka King.
8. Dune (dir. Denis Villeneuve)
Christopher Nolan’s Tenet was billed as the savior of theaters in 2020. The same pressure was put on Denis Villeneuve shoulders with his excellent adaptation of the legendarily “un-filmable” novel, Dune. The hope placed on Tenet was shifted to Dune, perhaps unfairly so. Dune didn’t rescue movie theaters from the peril they still find themselves in due to the ongoing pandemic. However, it did raise the art form of the modern blockbuster. Villeneuve’s incredible vision elevates Dune among the so-called tentpole movies. There are some true “how did they do that” moments in this movies lengthy, but never sluggish runtime. Its stacked cast is firing on all cylinders here. There is so much visual mastery on display through Director of Photography Greig Fraser’s lens and Villeneuve’s ability to show off this world. So many moments in Dune feel so grounded that this world feels like it could exist. Though its visuals are masterful, the movie is a true triple threat in terms of its visuals, performances and storytelling. Dune feels like a rarity in this world in the way it favors small character moments to propel its plot forward and forsaking large scale CGI battles to drive plot. Villeneuve is going to get a chance to continue this story with another film, and that in and of itself is small victory for fans of cinema.
7. Bergman Island (dir. Mia Hansen-Løve)
Shifting from cinema in its most grandiose form to its smallest scale, Mia Hansen-Løve’s wonderful and intimate drama Bergman Island was certainly on the year’s best. Mostly a two-hander, the movie focuses on a couple played by Vicky Krieps and Tim Roth. Both characters are filmmakers, one (Roth) more successful than the other. Named for the island where legendary Swedish filmmaker Ingmar Bergman lived, wrote and shot some of his most well known work, the movie explores the couples trials and tribulations as filmmakers. Though the movie name drops some of Bergman’s films, it never hits you over the head to explain to you how important Bergman is. Hansen-Løve explores Bergman as a muse for these two characters and creates a rather moving investigation into relationships and artists’ relationship to the creative process. The movie never loses its momentum, even when it shifts towards a delightful, meta narrative halfway through. Works of meta-fiction can often steer the ship off course and feel pretentious. Hansen-Løve never loses control, and the tone transitions beautifully to the film’s story within the story. The performances are great and the direction is restrained and patient. Bergman Island is a quiet, but towering movie.
6. The Souvenir Part II (dir. Joanna Hogg)
Joanna Hogg’s deeply personal 2019 memoir The Souvenir was my number 2 movie of that year. So, I was delighted to find out she was going to continue the story in a second part. I was even more delighted watching this movie to find out, she crafted another profoundly brilliant movie. The story of Julie (Honor Swinton-Bryne) and her journey to become a filmmaker is continued here in a tremendously emotional follow-up. If you still have yet to see The Souvenir, I implore you to see it. In this follow up, Hogg deepens her self-reflection in ways that never make this feel like an unnecessary sequel. There is less to say about this movie than the others on my list. To understand Part II, a working knowledge of the first film is almost certainly required. Suffice to say, this movie is wonderful, and you should seek out the first one and double bill it with this one.
5. C’mon, C’mon (dir. Mike Mills)
Mike Mills’s sweet and touching latest came as a surprise to me. Mills’s work prior to this though solid, never quite gripped me. Here, Joaquin Phoenix is giving a reliably terrific performance as a filmmaker helping to take care of his nephew. His nephew is a somewhat precocious kid who’s father is suffering from bipolar disorder. Mills is working at his best here showcasing the grace and humanity with which he choose to portray his subjects. C’mon , C’mon explores the relationship between kids and adults what we each can learn. I found it to be a truly life affirming narrative built into a well shot, brilliantly acted film that feels like the type of movie that could lift even the darkest of spirits.
4. The Hand of God (dir. Paolo Sorrentino)
Alfonso Cuaron’s Roma has certainly sparked a movement of autobiographical films as of late. Kenneth Branagh’s crowd pleasing and often heartwarming movie Belfast has certainly been on the front of most minds as the awards races begin to heat up. But, it is The Great Beauty filmmaker Paolo Sorrentino’s new film that claims the crown of the years best auteur autobiography. The film is based on Sorrentino’s real life childhood. A beautifully shot and well acted drama that is all parts, sweet, tragic and funny. Sorrentino directs with such a specific point of view and affection for the movies central characters. Sorrentino uses the movie to remember the parts of his childhood that ostensibly made him who he is, a true act of catharsis playing out on screen.
3. The Power of the Dog (dir. Jane Campion)
Acclaimed filmmaker Jane Campion hasn’t graced the silver screen in 12 years. What a comeback it has been. Her dark western drama, The Power of the Dog was among 2021’s very best. Benedict Cumberbatch, Kirsten Dunst and Kodi Smit-McPhee all deliver career best work here against some wonderfully filmed western vistas. Campion’s restrained direction keeps the film suspenseful, and every shot has a purpose. Campions films always seem to focus with razor-sharp detail on its characters and The Power of the Dog has some of the most interesting and ambiguously motivated characters in recent memory. It’s shot beautifully by Ari Wegner capturing the isolation and dog eat dog world of the west with some of the years most striking images. To boot, Jonny Greenwood’s score is magnificent with every unnerving string pluck, only adding to films already tension filled atmosphere. Here’s to truly hoping Campion doesn’t wait another 12 years to make her next film. The Power of the Dog only leaves the viewer yearning for more of her characters and her distinct eye for great stories.
2. The Green Knight (dir. David Lowery)
David Lowery’s (A Ghost Story, The Old Man & The Gun) The Green Knight must be seen to be believed. Taking on a 14th century tale of honor and integrity, Lowery creates a pitch perfect coming-of-age tale. Casting Dev Patel was the first perfect choice that Lowery makes here. Patel is brilliant as Sir Gawain, a knight of Arthur’s round table and a man searching for his destiny. Boasting the absolute best visual effects of the year, The Green Knight is a surrealist, gorgeously shot picture that I didn’t want to end. It has to be pretty impossible to walk away from this movie and not think about its enthralling visuals and its gut punch ending which is one of the year’s best. All crafts come together here to make something truly unique and unheralded from this genre. From its sound design, visual effects, performances, direction and a well crafted script, The Green Knight is an astounding work form a filmmaker already making his mark quickly in this business, working at the absolute peak of his powers.
- Licorice Pizza (dir. Paul Thomas Anderson)
If Richard Linklater’s 2016 gem Everybody Wants Some!! was a spiritual sequel to his iconic 1993 hang out movie classic Dazed and Confused, then the same can certainly be said about Paul Thomas Anderson’s latest in relation to his 1997 hit Boogie Nights. Licorice Pizza once again finds him in the San Fernando Valley of the 1970’s. This time however, his eye is more affectionate, more tender and as a result, Licorice Pizza is another masterpiece from the guy who brought us There Will Be Blood, The Master and Phantom Thread. The nostalgia in Licorice Pizza is never saccharine. Conversely, it feels like a collection of fond memories from coming of age in a world that would seem like Mars to anyone who didn’t live it. PTA casts the late great Phillip Seymour Hoffman’s son, Cooper to play his lead role and he is wonderful. The elder Hoffman was a frequent collaborator of Anderson’s and he hits it out of the park casting his obviously talented son. In fact, the movie has not only one great performance from a first timer, but two. Alana Haim of the band Haim, is also tremendous in this movie. As a result, the movie really belongs to Haim.
To some, Licorice Pizza might feel like a movie they walk out wondering what the point is. A feeling mirrored growing up and getting deeper into one’s twenties. Haim’s performance captures that aimlessness of mid-twenties life for many. Unsure of what to do and not wanting to follow in someone’s footsteps just because. Is she a waterbed saleswoman? A political campaign worker? An actress? The beauty of the film is just that, she doesn’t really know. The same can be said for Hoffman, playing Gary, a child star in a show akin the film Yours, Mine and Ours. After all, the movie is in part based on the life of one of the actors in that film, Gary Goetzman, a child star himself and Tom Hanks’s producing partner. Gary seems to find the spotlight fading and is unsure what to do with his own life. So, he sells waterbeds, opens a pinball palace, and maybe more important to him, falls in love in with an older girl (Haim). Though the film wanders through moment to moment without too much apparent purpose, such is life.
Every needle drop is pitch perfect and wholly unique. It captures a feeling maybe better than any coming of age film set in an era I didn’t live through. That’s because of how specific it feels to someone’s experience. We buy that this kid would have run into the legendary Jon Peters by selling him a waterbed while he bragged about his girlfriend, Barbara Streisand. A moment in the film which it must be stated that Bradley Cooper is absolutely tremendous. It’s a credit to PTA’s uncanny ability to cast his movies perfectly. He uses Cooper like a great power arm in a baseball bullpen. He comes in throwing 100 miles per hour, painting the black, and striking out the side before simply disappearing. Licorice Pizza is the best movie 2021, and one of the best coming of age stories to come along in a very long time.
What’s a list without a few honorable mentions?
(In alphabetical order)
The Card Counter
The French Dispatch
The Last Duel
Summer of Soul (…or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised)
West Side Story
To see all 145 films I watched from 2021 ranked check out my list on Letterboxd: https://letterboxd.com/rileygrandson/list/2021-ranked/