Best Films of 2021

What a weird year for movies 2021 has been!

Right off the bat, the obvious defining weirdness is that I have not set foot in a movie theater in almost two years at this point. A bit less obvious: I have not historically been much of a television watcher, but in early COVID days, Marcia and I generally made an active effort to sit together to watch something on television most nights, and that habit has endured through 2021. I have not done so in the past, but as I look at the things that pleased me this year, I think that I probably need to do a “Best Television of 2021” post as part of my year-end wrap-up, covering the “non-movie” portion of our viewing experiences.

I likely watched more feature films in 2021 than in most any other year of my adult life, but I did so from the comfort of our plush command center at home, in front of our big-screen wall-mounted television, and not in a cinema setting. I know a lot of folks might find that disappointing, but I have to say, it’s been pretty great to not have any movies ruined in 2021 by assholes on cellphones or by chatting audience members or by glitchy sound/projection, or by annoyingly bright “EXIT” signs above open doors that admit the sounds of a crowded lobby into my viewing space. I could get used to this. No, scratch that: I have gotten used to this. While I’ll be happy at some point to watch a big-budget film with a popcorn bucket bigger than my head oozing iridescent butter-flavored topping into my lap, for now, I’m all good with the privacy and focus that our home-based paradigm provides.

The other weird aspect in defining “Best Films of 2021” is defining exactly what counts. On a strictly calendar basis, I would certainly cite The Sound of Metal and Promising Young Woman among the very best things released in the past twelve months, but due to the shifts in award scheduling associated with the Anno Virum, both of those films were included in last year’s (belated) Oscar cycle, so it seems counter-productive to praise them now, since they’ve already gotten their award-season due. On the flip side of that, Nomadland also technically came out in 2021, winning a bucket-load of Oscars, and annoying me deeply, as I consider it to be one of the most over-rated films in recent memory, ugh. (I’d give that award for the latter part of calendar year 2021 to Dune.  Two-and-a-half hours to get halfway through the book? No thank you. And Timothée Chalamet as Paul Atreides? No, no, no, no, no, no, no, NO, NO!!! And NO!!!!! And did I mention NO!?)

Another weird factor to consider for 2021 movie lists: there were loads of films, mostly foreign ones, that debuted in the international festival circuits in 2019 or 2020, with their producers intending to release them in the United States shortly thereafter, only to have their plans duly and fully virused, like so many other plans, by so many other people. So the various American streaming services ended up offering we United Statesians with our first opportunities to see a lot of killer films from abroad, making them technically 2021 releases as far as domestic eyes are concerned, even though they may already have been a year or two old in terms of their own indigenous release dates. And then there’s the final weird factor with regard to streaming services like Netflix and Amazon Prime and Hulu and Disney+ and HBO Max, who released their own feature films on their own television platforms, raising the question (again) about what counts as a television show, and what counts as a cinematic film release.

In reviewing the (long) list of everything I watched (however it might be categorized) in 2021, I’ve decided that my basic premises for my Best Films of 2021 list will be to only include domestic films that did not make the deadline for consideration in the most recent Oscar cycle, and to include any non-domestic films that first saw release in any format since the end of that same Oscar cycle. As I originally posted this annual report before the end of both the 2021 calendar and award years, I do note that I have not yet seen several contending films, but I hope to do so before the Oscar broadcast, and I suspect that some of them may well be lifted into the “Best of 2021” list after I have a chance to see them. (Note: I will continue to update all of the lists below up until the Oscars are actually awarded). Please let me know if there are others that I need to prioritize in the weeks ahead.

  • The Dog Who Wouldn’t Be Quiet
  • Memoria

With all of that as a long preamble, here are my personal picks for the Best Films of 2021, in three broad categories:

Best New American Feature Films of 2021:

  • Annette
  • Being the Ricardos
  • Belfast
  • The Card Counter
  • Censor
  • C’mon C’mon
  • CODA
  • Concrete Cowboy
  • Cruella
  • Cryptozoo
  • The Dig
  • Don’t Look Up
  • Free Guy
  • The French Dispatch of the Liberty, Kansas Evening Sun
  • The Green Knight
  • The Harder They Fall
  • The Killing of Two Lovers
  • Language Lessons
  • Lapsis
  • Last Night in Soho
  • The Lost Daughter
  • The Mitchells vs the Machines
  • Old Henry
  • The Outside Story
  • Passing
  • Pig
  • Plan B
  • The Power of the Dog
  • Red Rocket
  • Saint Maud
  • Say Your Prayers
  • Together Together
  • The Tragedy of Macbeth

Best Documentary Feature Films of 2021:

  • 14 Peaks: Nothing Is Impossible
  • Kurt Vonnegut: Unstuck in Time
  • The Sparks Brothers
  • Summer of Soul ( . . . Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised)
  • The Velvet Underground

Best Foreign Language Films Receiving First Wide American Release in 2021:

  • About Endlessness
  • Bad Luck Banging or Loony Porn
  • Bergman Island
  • Dead Pigs
  • The Disciple
  • Drive My Car
  • Flee
  • The Hand of God
  • I’m Your Man
  • Keep An Eye Out
  • Mama Weed
  • Mandibles
  • Night of the Kings
  • Parallel Mothers
  • Titane
  • Undine
  • Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy
  • Who You Think I Am
  • The Worst Person in the World

As a bonus feature, because I’m a bonus feature-offering kind of guy, if I had to cast an Oscar Ballot today, here would be my picks among the major categories, or among the minor categories where something really stuck with me for one reason or another. (Note: This list has been edited in real time to reflect the actual nominations, with which I was most displeased, after they were announced in February 2022; I have not had the chance to see the various shorts categories, so do not include them below):

  • Best Feature Film: The Power of the Dog
  • Best Director: Jane Campion, The Power of the Dog
  • Best Actor: Benedict Cumberbatch, The Power of the Dog
  • Best Actress: Olivia Colman, The Lost Daughter
  • Best Supporting Actor: Troy Kotsur, CODA
  • Best Supporting Actress: Jessie Buckley, The Lost Daughter
  • Best Adapted Screenplay: Maggie Gyllenhaal, The Lost Daughter
  • Best Original Screenplay: Eskil Vogt and Joachim Trier, The Worst Person in the World
  • Best Cinematography: Bruno Delbonnel, The Tragedy of Macbeth
  • Best Film Editing: Peter Scibberas, The Power of the Dog
  • Best Production Design: Stefan Dechant and Nancy Haigh, The Tragedy of Macbeth
  • Best Costume Design: Jenny Beavan, Cruella
  • Best Make-Up and Hair Design: Nadia Stacey, Naomi Donne and Julia Vernon, Cruella
  • Best Animated Feature Film: The Mitchells vs The Machines
  • Best Documentary Feature Film: Summer of Soul (. . . Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised)
  • Best International Feature Film: The Worst Person in the World
  • Best Original Song: NO VOTE (protesting the exclusion of Ron and Russell Mael for contributing several brilliant songs to their Annette, and also protesting the inclusion of five pieces of musical crap, most especially a nomination for that herniated little over-rated right-wing anti-vaxxer gnome Van Morrison for his totally-distracting contributions to Belfast)
  • Best Original Score: Jonny Greenwood, The Power of the Dog
  • Any Other Best Big-Budget Boom-Boom Zip-Zap Pew-Pew Pretty-Pretty Technical Awards Given to Over-Long Films With No Heart: Dune

It’s not getting a lot of media attention, and it got no Oscar love when the nominations were announced, but this is truly a remarkable film, and I recommend it to you, most heartily.

2 thoughts on “Best Films of 2021

    • Yeah, I loved movies in theaters once upon a time, too . . . . though I will note that by the time that era came to a (temporary?) end, I often found myself annoyed more often than not by my fellow movie-goers, and their phones, and their talking, and their rustling about with the food they’d snuck in from outside . . . .


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