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 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 am posting this annual report before the end of both the 2021 calendar and award years, I do note that I have not yet seen the following films, but I hope to do so before year end, 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. Please let me know if there are others that I need to prioritize in the weeks ahead.

  • C’mon C’mon
  • Licorice Pizza
  • Memoria
  • Nightmare Alley
  • Old Henry
  • Parallel Mothers
  • Red Rocket
  • Titane
  • The Worst Person in the World

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

Best New Feature Films of 2021:

  • 14 Peaks: Nothing Is Impossible
  • Annette
  • The Card Counter
  • Censor
  • Concrete Cowboy
  • Cruella
  • Cryptozoo
  • The Dig
  • Don’t Look Up
  • Free Guy
  • The French Dispatch
  • The Green Knight
  • The Harder They Fall
  • The Killing of Two Lovers
  • Kurt Vonnegut: Unstuck in Time
  • Lapsis
  • Last Night in Soho
  • The Lost Daughter
  • The Mitchells vs the Machines
  • The Outside Story
  • Passing
  • Pig
  • Plan B
  • The Power of the Dog
  • Saint Maud
  • Say Your Prayers
  • Summer of Soul (…Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised)
  • Together Together
  • The Velvet Underground

Best Foreign Language Films Receiving First Wide U.S. Release in 2021:

  • About Endlessness
  • Bergman Island
  • Dead Pigs
  • The Disciple
  • I’m Your Man
  • Keep An Eye Out
  • Mama Weed
  • Mandibles
  • Night of the Kings
  • Undine
  • Who You Think I Am

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. I suspect that some of the things I cite below might not actually qualify for the 2022 Oscar presentations, since I’m not quite sure what they’re including and what they’re not including, but within my own rubric for what’s a great 2021 film, here are my choices:

  • Best Feature Film: The Killing of Two Lovers
  • Best Director: Jane Campion, The Power of the Dog
  • Best Actor: Clayne Crawford, The Killing of Two Lovers
  • Best Actress: Olivia Colman, The Lost Daughter
  • Best Supporting Actor: Benecio del Toro, The French Dispatch
  • Best Supporting Actress: Regina King, The Harder They Fall
  • Best Cinematography: Eduard Grau, Passing
  • Best Costume Design: Cruella
  • Best Animated Feature Film: The Mitchells vs The Machines
  • Best Documentary Feature Film: Kurt Vonnegut: Unstuck in Time
  • Best International Feature Film: Night of the Kings
  • Best Production Design: Adam Stockhausen and Rena DeAngelo, The French Dispatch
  • Best Original Song: “So May We Start,” (from Annette)
  • Best Score: Annette
  • Best Adapted Screenplay: The Power of the Dog
  • Best Original Screenplay: The Killing of Two Lovers
  • Best Big-Budget Boom-Boom Zip-Zap Pew-Pew Style-Over-Substance Soul-Free Awards for Pretty Stuff Made on a Computer and Put on A Big Screen With Some Really Loud Noises: Dune

It’s not getting a lot of media attention, but this is truly a remarkable film for the ages, 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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