It feels good to be back making end of the year lists again after the dreadful gap of 2020! In celebration of a return to form for cinema, I have picked out 20 movies that I believe are the best of the year from what I have seen. Unlike 2019, however, I’ve decided I won’t be ranking my choices, besides my top 4 favorites of 2021. Each selection will feature a trailer for it, a quote from my original review of the film, and the link to that article. The picks are only shown in order of when I saw them, from oldest to latest viewing. Before we get onto the list though, here are eight honorable mentions I have that still deserve a shoutout regardless of not receiving a spot…
- Nomadland (Chloé Zhao)
- The Suicide Squad (James Gunn)
- Annette (Leos Carax)
- Mass (Fran Kranz)
- Lamb (Valdimar Jóhannsson)
- The Last Duel (Ridley Scott)
- West Side Story (Steven Spielberg)
- The Hand of God (Paolo Sorrentino)
- Flee (Jonas Poher Rasmussen)
…and now with that out of the way, here are THE BEST MOVIES OF 2021:
Judas and the Black Messiah
Assiduously directed, compositionally sound, and intimidating as hell, Judas and the Black Messiah almost articulates like a reverse BlacKkKlansman, setting the true-story straight regarding a young black man who’s used by the FBI to go undercover as a member of the Black Panther Party, and ultimately sabotage its chairman Fred Hampton and his revolution. What Shaka King has done here is quite formidable, stressing the guilt of a man who put his livelihood over everything else, and the agencies of vice (this notoriously fowl FBI organization) that pressured him into this greed.
Minari introduces us to a Korean American family arriving at their new home set a bit remote from the city-life society. In terms of how Lee Isaac Chung embodies culture shock in its pros and cons, the stereotype arc of family vs. work which arrives with the logical progression of the two’s mixture, and even an existentialist grime into what assimilation burdens yet eventually blesses its subjects with, he does it at least “above” the average of most filmmakers out there with his candidly poetic plot and emotionally comprehensible execution.
Zeller has taken the clichés of the elderly parent with dementia and the exhausted offspring dynamic, and reworked them into a more understanding, secondary outlook we don’t see too often through the eyes of the ill, making its familiar story beats seem less sappy than what they could’ve felt. As compensation, we are instead thrown directly into the eternal confusion of the victim, experiencing all his emotional agony but simultaneously interpreting the pain of others who witness his actions through our own conceptions rather than his.
Emma Seligman’s directorial debut has the After Hours dream-state of insane coincidences, the modern family claustrophobia of Krisha, and the industrious escalation of mother!. Most importantly though, it’s a total laugh-a-thon crowd-pleaser, and the bottleneck time restriction of 78 minutes saves it from possibly reaching into pretentious or repetitive territory.
All Light, Everywhere (My Favorite Movie of 2021)
…that’s the beauty, curse, and purpose of humanity’s yearn for technological experimentation: as we become more aware of our limitations to understand what we live in, we then become more doubtful of our actions, fostering ourselves to do something about it whether or not it services our experience of moral justice or perhaps simply over-bloats it. Director Theo Anthony has taken us from rich, variant points in history to very present human curiosities in order to reinforce his respectably neutral-minded investigation on the matter, honored by his execution’s appropriate and even occasionally anesthetic b-roll footage that either foreshadows or frustrates history’s trials and failures of discovery primarily through narrated scientific observations or by delving into modern police technology for which we find ourselves controversially dealing with today.
Somehow laid-back with a cynical tang of carelessness to a grave conundrum yet aggressive with its depictions of eerily hardheaded perpetrators and even more eerily dilapidated victims, Janicza Bravo has converted 148 tweets into 86 minutes of partially fun and hopefully sarcastic nudging that amounts to a somewhat operative commentary on covering-up complication through social media-like habits. The quirky style that’s always spacing out as if it’s on the verge of erupting and the loud, extravagant performance comedy seems to at least bring Zola to a sound place in mind anyhow.
Riders of Justice
Blatantly reeking of an intense obsession for the butterfly/chaos theory whether it’s between an almost fated dynamic of parent and spouse, tiny events to their rather catastrophic repercussions, and statistical inquiries made by characters faced then to a revealing yet fittingly sporadic plot structure, Riders of Justice is unique in concerns of how it reviews its subject matter to say the least. This is a film assembled under unusually adverse characters, ones for which we may not have full backstories of but certainly enough downcasted specter to suggest their need and desires for a union. Their journey of being hunted by notorious terrorists ironically becomes a hardy series of therapy sessions to them, divulging possibly the real internal reasons for why people band together to fight justice in the first place.
Surprisingly refined in execution, natural and comfortable in its relaxing 3 chapter structure — yeah, it’s just a fancy rewording of the model act structure — Michael Sarnoski smartly does enough with not too much of a reliance on exaggerated thrills but with modest revelations. As if the film didn’t feel any more relevant than it does today with characters who are secretly under the pressure of validation at the expectations of thousands of faces, we discover where the breaking point of burden and ambition usually is: when tragedy strikes, awakening rediscovery.
The Green Knight
In countless tales of legends often disclosed at campfires or bedsides of younglings inspired to become these fables’ leads, maybe the more truthful ones about those who grow into heroes for themselves are the stories most inspiring rather than the ones based on those gifted with innate righteousness for all others. Maybe an ego-change could be the true savior of a celebrated story. Knowing of a future destiny is one thing, but to be convinced by the self that that destiny is completed with honor seems to be one of the important lessons in The Green Knight, to not let just the view of others be the only thing that convinces you of your character but to respect the accuracy of said depicted character.
Titane (My 2nd Favorite Movie of 2021)
Titane is defined by its unusual beauty for using false premises, caused by our main characters’ discomforts for their modern isolations, to push these said artificial circumstances into dynamics of unconditional love that are so intentionally taboo and desperate, giving us the full effect of what the characters at hand are willing to face to heal the almost irredeemable tragedies that have paved the majority of their past lives.
The French Dispatch
No Wes Anderson film to this day throws as much quirky s**t at you (whether its paper shots, tiny subtitles, big actor appearances, timeline changes, filter changes, general… changes, holy f**k I can’t keep track, etc.) than his latest The French Dispatch does. Yet, it all just feels right to me, and as per usual, I don’t mind the mindlessness in his comedic attention to detail. If we can enjoy the same superhero formula flick every once in a while, we can sure as hell do the same with an Anderson.
Royalty not as a luxury, but as a prison. Spencer is (kind of?) Pablo Larraín’s Cleo from 5 to 7 led though by a more Kristen Stewart-esc character than we may have presumed who has enough goading manner to put you so outstandingly into the mentally ill mind of Princess Diana that it literally made the stakes of her being late for dinner seem as demanding as life or death itself; to make this easier to understand, it’s really f**king difficult to make Christmas (the days for which this movie takes place) seem like the very embodiment of Hell on Earth to me, and this movie did that as if it were nothing.
For every awfully painful to watch Minnie and Moskowitz or every aggressively despairing There Will Be Blood that can be found in the cinematic discussion of platonic yet competitive relationships, maybe we need something as sweet and sincere as Licorice Pizza to follow them up and even out the playing field. Paul Thomas Anderson has made once again another episodic rhythm of supposedly random moments and claimed it as a narrative, with each affair on screen however silently insinuating and revealing a wholesome or tragic reality in PTA’s classic two-on-two dynamical exploration.
Like the saying “no one is ever ready to have kids” augmented into a movie. Mike Mills’ C’mon C’mon is a commercially likable peer at adults learning to channel the childhood experience, and while it never seems to lead its protagonists towards a whole lot of answers, Mills assures you that that’s perfectly okay.
Red Rocket (My 3rd Favorite Movie of 2021)
Like the title suggests, Mikey is virtually all bodily pleasures, say for a little wit, but no heart. In no better way of describing my unforgettable experience with Red Rocket, it was really like watching Animal Planet, pertaining though to witnessing an exclusive two-hour-long episode of it that dials in on this human leech in his natural yet temporary habitat, sure to return to and plumage from it time and time again nonetheless as he always has and ends up continuing to do even by the credits. Cringe, harrow, but laugh hysterically at one of mankind’s most dangerous and pathetic influencers living in just a small town of Texas who barely walks the fine line between legal and illegal actions.
Drive My Car
Drive My Car is defined by so much that it’d probably take rewatches upon rewatches to jot it all down, but to at least my knowledge, it gripped me most whenever it proved how letting someone flawed pave the rest of our lives, even after they have left, requires an extensive journey ahead but one that uniquely states the longer it is, the better. It presents understanding as a manipulative sequence of regrets for not letting the mystery unravel slower so that you can ultimately allow yourself to be metaphysically stuck hand in hand back into the life with the one you dearly miss.
The Power of the Dog (My 4th Favorite Movie of 2021)
The Power of the Dog is one of those movies that really makes you appreciate how intellectually loving and twisted people are towards each other, the kind of subtle grime in all of us that can see manipulation as an expression of tending for others, silent backstabbing as a wholesome compromise, and slight yet mean-spirited actions as a right of self-justice. It’s a film where people get to live beautiful lies for catastrophic exterior reasons, but man oh man do they seem so damn truthful towards the reality of life never being paved from simply discovering objective answers, but rather from accepting our ideal hopes as surface-level truths then and again till the end.
Quo vadis, Aida?
Zeroing in on one family or person, fictional or not and even in the hell of a genocidal background, has always been the easiest method to get an audience to connect with a real life historical calamity on a deeper level, but one thing is for sure: usually it at least works like it does in Jasmila’s Žbanić’s Quo vadis, Aida? Witness 90 harrowing minutes of attempt after attempt to avoid the inevitable through innocent hope and admirable persistence as a mother begs at the toes of the UN, an organization that in this event continuously make clear of their submissive, cowardly indulgence in the lies of Bosnia’s enemy.
The Tragedy of Macbeth
The Tragedy of Macbeth is wickedly a near clear-cut emulation of its source material, literally using the same complex and difficult to understand language of Shakespeare in each phrase of its dialogue, mandatorily requiring its viewers to read subtitles. What may be the strongest point though of Joel’s cinematic telling of the acclaimed classic, is how he’s able to bring what essentially is an enhanced “play stage” to life with Stefan Dechant’s surreal production design and Bruno Delbonnel’s concentrated cinematography. Macbeth, in all it’s straightforward drama that’s otherwise heavied by Shakespeare’s classic use of dissecting every minute feeling felt in every minute character presumption, is breathed of new life in how Coen works the collaboration of cinematic range and freedom with the visual tropes of a theater show.
The Lost Daughter
One things for certain: Maggie Gyllenhaal understands the importance of unveiling characters that are inscribed like real people, bodies that can give up on a mood mid-sentence, or open themselves up for exposure even if it may lead them to the obvious consequences one would logically want to avoid, or better yet, are capable of feeling virtually nothing while watching others suffer at the fault of themselves even if it’s just to fill an almost programmed void in them that they don’t even know why it’s precisely there to begin with. Her directorial debut, The Lost Daughter, sees almost nihilistically, yet in such an honest and preferably confrontational way, the imperfect reality of motherhood as this nagging pushing pin to live a second life of pleasurable adulteries.