In reflection, 2021 was a bizarre year for the film world. Thanks to the rollout of vaccines, movie-going became a real thing again (a joyous return for cinephiles around the world), and it created a release calendar featuring a mishmash of long-delayed blockbusters and features that managed to successfully complete production amid the restrictions created by the pandemic. The end result is a 12-month slate that, if I’m being honest, isn’t one of my favorites since I started working for CinemaBlend over a decade ago – but all the same, there were some precious diamonds to excavate from the rough.
Including both theatrical and streaming releases, I watched over 100 new films that were released since January, and with a bunch of pruning and swapping I’ve culled together my list of the 10 best movies of 2021. A number of excellent films didn’t make the cut (you’ll find my honorable mentions at the bottom), but these, in my personal opinion, are the greatest of the great.
10. Swan Song
There is an extent to which fiction has taught us to fear technology. Stories about the future have certainly demonstrated the magic inherent in advancement, but simultaneously it is regularly held up to exemplify mankind’s arrogance and is depicted as a gateway to downfall. Because of this, I went into Benjamin Cleary’s Swan Song with specific expectations about how it would handle a plot centering on a terminally ill man being replaced with a clone, unbeknownst to his friends and family… but then I was delightfully surprised.
Cleary demonstrates an awareness of this kind of expectation, and he plays with it in incredible fashion – unfolding a science-fiction drama that is filled with both tension and emotion. It’s a challenging project for Mahershala Ali, playing two characters who have a fair amount of face-to-face time, but every moment of his turn is beautiful, awesome, and subtle.
9. Nightmare Alley
Any project made by a filmmaker coming off a Best Picture win at the Academy Awards earns inherent curiosity. The clout of winning the prestigious trophy often provides the opportunity to attempt something one is particularly passionate about. In the case of Guillermo del Toro, he has followed up the remarkable The Shape Of Water with Nightmare Alley, and it’s a phenomenal neo-noir venture from the exceptional writer/director.
Bradley Cooper is at the top of his game as the dangerously ambitious Stanton Carlisle, but the real show-stopper in the cast is Cate Blanchett, who was born to play a femme fatale of this caliber. The world depicted by del Toro is not at all one you want to live in, but it’s fascinating and compelling all the same.
8. The Night House
I had one of my stranger cinematic experiences of 2021 watching David Bruckner’s The Night House, in that I saw it in a screening room all by myself. Typically I prefer to watch horror movies with a crowd, as it’s fun to feel the energy of the room after a big scare – but in this case it felt like a personal 4D theater. Like Rebecca Hall’s Beth, I was all alone, and it perfectly enhanced the haunting themes of the story and the main character’s feelings of isolation. It wasn’t just how I watched it, though: the film is in and of itself outstanding, and the best example of its genre from 2021.
There are a couple of moments in The Night House that sufficiently freaked me out far more than horror movies typically can, and the same can be said for the conclusions that it reaches in its meditations on death, mourning, and the afterlife. Rebecca Hall is phenomenal – both capturing the dramatic complexity of a person dealing with loss, and expressing an amazing sardonic attitude that adds surprising moments of levity.
7. The Green Knight
From Ain’t Them Bodies Saints to A Ghost Story to Pete’s Dragon, writer/director David Lowery is a filmmaker who surprises every time out by always delivering something different, and that’s almost a shame because after The Green Knight I would be satisfied seeing him continue to make medieval dramas for the rest of his career. Remaining unflappably faithful to the era depicted, it’s one of the most gorgeous movies of the year as well as a rich approach to the classic hero’s journey navigated with an excellent performance by Dev Patel.
There is a great complexity to The Green Knight’s structure, as it plays out a series of vignettes while occasionally manipulating time, but it is ceaselessly fascinating and awe-inspiring. The movie also features one of my favorite endings of the year, as it sums up everything that the film is trying to stay, and successfully stuns you as the credits start to roll.
6. The French Dispatch
While it’s not exactly common, I always enjoy seeing a filmmaker I like take on an anthology project, as it generally provides them an opportunity to flex a number of different storytelling muscles in one go – and it’s always fun to see the range on display. Wes Anderson’s The French Dispatch is as wonderful an example as one can give of this, as it’s an end-to-end delight that feels like five movies in one.
The film hits a high point early, as the second article, “The Concrete Masterpiece” is equal parts clever and hilarious, but every chapter is weird and fascinating in its own way, and textbook Wes Anderson material. The writer/director’s entire filmography is worth celebrating, and The French Dispatch is one of his best.
5. Barb And Star Go To Vista Del Mar
Josh Greenbaum’s Barb And Star Go To Vista Del Mar is a comedy so phenomenal that I actually felt compelled to double-check it prior to writing to finalizing this ranking. When I first watched the film back in February, I became breathless from laughing so hard, and 10 months later I became curious to see if it the movie was really as really as funny as I remembered it. Not only did I confirm my original sentiments, but I bumped the movie up two places.
It’s hard to know what to make of Barb And Star Go To Vista Del Mar after its first few minutes, featuring a Barbara Streisand sing-a-long and the setup of a bizarre supervillain plot – but as soon as Kristen Wiig and Annie Mumolo’s titular characters arrive on screen the movie is unceasing hilarity that constantly surprises with its unrepentant weirdness. Not only am I excited to rewatch it over and over again in the years to come, but proselytize it at every opportunity.
Denis Villenueve’s Dune is admittedly not a complete movie. As advertised from the start of its development, it’s an adaptation of only the first half of the book on which it is based, and the full arcs of its narrative and characters won’t be completed until Dune: Part Two arrives in 2023. Even with that being said, however, it still exists as one of the great cinematic accomplishments of the year, and a stunning execution of a spectacular vision.
The original sci-fi epic by author Frank Herbert was long deemed unadaptable in its full scope and scale, but Denis Villeneuve has dismissed that notion by perfectly capturing every ounce of the book’s spirit and intention on the big screen. It’s both brutal and beautiful, and a gift for the senses, inviting your eyes to widen beyond physical capacity and melodiously rapping on your ear drums with Hans Zimmer’s genius score. It’s a remarkable work to behold, and a successful sequel will only enhance its greatness further.
3. Spider-Man: No Way Home
Up until this month, I can’t say I was all that impressed by the output of Marvel Studios in 2021. While I did very much enjoy the Disney+ series Loki, I was let down by various parts of WandaVision, The Falcon And The Winter Soldier and What If, and not particularly blown away by Black Widow, Shang-Chi, or Eternals. This month, however, delivered us Hawkeye (the best yet of the streaming shows), and Jon Watts’ Spider-Man: No Way Home: one of the best blockbusters that the franchise has produced.
As much as I love the way the movie opens up the multiverse and re-explores the big screen history of the wall-crawler, what I truly love about Spider-Man: No Way Home is its spectacular advancement of the Tom Holland incarnation of the eponymous hero – the movie serving as an amazing capstone to what turns out to be an unexpected origin trilogy for the character. It’s everything that you want it to be, and leaves the hero in a intriguing place for future stories.
2. I Care A Lot
In movies about bad people doing bad things to other bad people, there is typically at least one character with whom audiences can connect emotionally – recognizing them as a relative innocent caught up in a terrible world. J. Blakeson’s I Care A Lot doesn’t bother with that formality. Instead, it’s a film that is solely about soulless monsters and criminals who are only out for themselves and those that they personally care about… and while you might imagine it would be hard to connect with such a story, it’s a remarkable experience watching them bite and claw at each other for an hour and 58 minutes.
Rosamund Pike's Marla Grayson is so deliciously fucked up that she would send Gone Girl’s Amy Dunne running up a tree – but she is surrounded by a perfect ensemble who are all at the top of their game (appearing in only a couple of scenes, Chris Messina delivers one of my favorite performances of the year). As is the case with most con movies, it’s best to know as little as possible, but once you watch it, you immediately want to watch it again.
1. Licorice Pizza
Paul Thomas Anderson is clearly fascinated by 1970s Los Angeles. A third of his filmography now has used the setting as a backdrop for his storytelling – which makes a fair amount of sense when you consider that it was the world in which he grew up. Given what we’ve seen, hopefully it is something that he continues to do for the rest of his career as a filmmaker, because the three films represent some of the best work he has ever done. Boogie Nights and Inherent Vice are brilliant (the latter being previously ranked as my favorite film of 2014), and Licorice Pizza is another genius addition to the canon.
Unbound by structure, the movie drops the audience into the lives of Cooper Hoffman’s Gary Valentine and Alan Haim’s Alan Kane, and it’s a joyful experience watching their admittedly bizarre friendship grow and evolve through various enterprising ventures and ambitious undertakings. Licorice Pizza is gorgeous, passionate, honest, and enrapturing filmmaking, and the best movie of 2021.
Honorable Mentions: Edgar Wright’s The Sparks Brothers, Maggie Gyllenhaal’s The Lost Daughter, Morgan Neville’s Roadrunner: A Film About Anthony Bourdain, James Gunn’s The Suicide Squad, Steven Spielberg’s West Side Story, and Joe Wright’s Cyrano.
NJ native who calls LA home; lives in a Dreamatorium. A decade-plus CinemaBlend veteran; endlessly enthusiastic about the career he’s dreamt of since seventh grade.
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