My Favorite Films of 2021
After much deliberation, I have compiled my year-end list of the best movies I saw in 2021. These are by no means "the best," but rather just my personal favorites with a little blurb about each one (no spoilers). What was your favorite movie of the year?
#10 - TITANE
dir: Julia Ducournau
I think critics and movie-goers often use the term “fever dream” to describe a film. Not that they are always off the mark. However, THIS is the movie equivalent of said metaphor. Much like Ducournau did with her previous film, Raw (2016), she incorporates equal parts body horror, science fiction, dark comedy and dread-induced voyeurism to create a movie experience like no other…truly. Like, seriously I’ve never seen anything like this. The colors and sounds are extraordinary, vibrant and full of life. The performances, especially those of Vincent London, and newcomer Agathe Rouselle are profoundly exceptional. This is a heavy, off-the-wall movie. To say it’s unique is doing it a gross injustice. One movie poster I saw featured the tag line “The most fucked up movie ever made.” And, to be honest, I don’t think they’re too far off.
#9 - LAST NIGHT IN SOHO
dir: Edgar Wright
Edgar Wright returns to the horror genre, though with much less comedy along for the ride. Nonetheless, it’s a ride that I dug whole-heartedly. While reflecting on this film, I thought to myself; “what if Austin Powers was a horror movie?!” Wright created a somewhat ghost-ridden, zombie-esque movie, but centered it in 1960’s London. The whole movie a sight to behold, and the technical achievements, such as cinematography, music and production design, alone make it one of the best of the year. But, then add Anya Taylor-Joy to the mix and you’re teetering on masterpiece. She gives a nuanced performance that is full of beauty, charm and mystery. Thomasin McKenzie is also perfectly cast as the timid fish-out-of-water heroine. The whole film just clicks on many levels, and while the ending is an either love-it or hate-it one, it worked for me, and visually this may be the most striking film of the year.
#8 - THE NOVICE
dir: Lauren Hadaway
After my viewing of this film, I was in absolute disbelief that this was writer/director, Lauren Hadaway’s first feature. The movie is somewhat of a sports drama about overcoming the odds, which we’ve seen literally a million times. But, more so, it’s about the determination of one woman to prove something to herself. The motive of our lead character, Alex (portrayed to excruciating perfection by newcomer, Isabelle Fuhrman), is a selfish one, but it draws you in to root for her regardless. Alex’s quest to be the best on her university’s rowing team takes her (and us) on a journey of not only physical challenges, but mental ones as well. She takes such risks and leans so hard into her ultimate goal, that at times you will cringe in utter horror for her well-being. It is one of the best character studies I can recall in recent memory. Not only that, but Hadaway uses strong influences from filmmakers such as David Fincher in her manic and unorthodox approach to editing, lighting and musical choices. Think of films like The Social Network for style, and others like Black Swan and Whiplash for tone. This was one of the best surprises of the year for me.
#7 - A QUIET PLACE PART II
dir: John Krasinksi
Kransinski did something with Part II that few others in Hollywood have accomplished. He made a sequel that surpasses the original. Don’t get me wrong, I am an avid fan of the first A Quiet Place (2018). However, Krasinski took all of the things that I loved about that one, improved them and then on top of that he added new layers to this already engrossing world. For all intensive purposes, the two movies are the same in terms of plot and pacing. However, some of the technical aspects such as editing and sound design were improved upon. The cold opening sequence to this movie may be my favorite of the whole year. We also got the addition of some amazing veteran actors such as Cillian Murphy and Djimon Hounsou. The powerhouse female duo of Emily Blunt and Millicent Simmonds continue to carry this film just like they did the first one, and the endings are essentially mirror images of one another, but suffice it to say I could watch ten sequels in this franchise and probably never tire of it. This was the best horror film of the year, and easily one of the best overall too.
#6 - RIDERS OF JUSTICE
dir: Anders Thomas Jensen
Riders is a Danish action-revenge film that features Mads Mikkelson literally kicking ass and taking names. When a seemingly unfortunate accident occurs, it kills his wife and leaves him as a single Dad. But, once the plot begins to thicken, we learn that her death may not have been as accidental as originally thought. The action packed sequences in the movie are definitely a highlight. However, for me I more so enjoyed the tender moments that Mads’ character shares with his daughter, new found friends and fellow home-based investigators. Riders is also surprisingly funny despite the dark subject matter. At the end of the day, it was refreshing to see Mads give such a multi-layered performance, especially coming on the heels of his transcendent performance in Another Round last year. This movie also came along at the perfect time to stream when we were all still in the pandemic’s purgatory.
#5 - NINE DAYS
dir: Edson Oda
We’ve all seen movies about what happens to us when we die. But, what about before we are born? Nine Days is an existential experience that creates a profoundly mysterious world, helmed by an Earth shattering performance from Winston Duke. He portrays a kind of angel who judges souls on their way to Earth. But, only a select few make the cut, while the other souls are seemingly lost forever. Director, Edson Oda intensifies the plot as the movie goes along leading to a climax that rivaled any other in cinema this year. The film is full of surprising moments of joy, as well as the expected moments of sadness. There are also tremendous supporting performances to be found from Benedict Wong, Tony Hale, Bill Skarsgard, and perhaps most memorably Zazie Beetz. Somehow during my viewing, I found myself questioning my own life. I challenge you to watch Nine Days, and see how it makes you feel.
#4 - BENEDETTA
dir: Paul Verhoeven
Leave it to Verhoeven (Total Recall, Basic Instinct, Robocop) to cast all fucks aside when making a movie. This man is a fearless filmmaker, and I am in awe of him. Benedetta is based on a true story of a 17th century Catholic Nun who begins a lesbian affair with a novice at the convent, all while the Plague is ravaging the Italian countryside. Our lead, Benedetta, also has miraculous healing powers, which add a layer of religious allegory to the proceedings. Some of the imagery in the film is unsettling, sexy and down right shocking. In one sequence, Jesus Christ literally slays men with swords while riding horseback. Yep. This film is an absolute jaw dropper that hypnotized me from the first frame. Virgine Efira gives an inspiring and committed performance as the titular character (somewhat pun-intended). This movie is bonkers and if you’re in any way religious or devout, it’s not for you. But, if you like movies that blindside and nail you, then give it a go (yes, more pun intended).
#3 - PIG
dir: Michael Sarnoski
Few films surprise their target audience as much as Pig does. When hearing of the film, watching the trailer, and then learning Nicolas Cage was the lead, I quickly anticipated a John Wick style revenge film full of an angry Cage wreaking havoc on those that may have wronged him (or his pig). Instead what we got was a tender and thought-provoking film about loneliness, regret and being haunted by demons within. Not since Leaving Las Vegas has Cage been so resoundingly sure in his performance. It almost seemed personal to the actor. First time director, Michael Sarnoski crafted a beautiful and caring picture that features a desperate and woeful hero who just wants justice for what little he has left. It is truly a heartbreaking and memorable film that will stick with you for years. Alex Wolff also gives a phenomenal performance with a character arc that rivals any you can think of. His character, Amir, truly goes from A to Z in the course of the film and it’s something to behold. More than anything, I love how Pig reminds us that we shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, and you damn sure shouldn’t judge another Cage performance until you’ve seen this one…the best of his career.
#2 - MASS
dir: Fran Kranz
Mass is a cinematic experiment unlike anything I've ever seen. The film deals with the plague of gun violence in America, but it does it through the vehicle of a meeting between two sets of parents - those of the gunman, and those of one of his victims. The film takes place almost entirely in one room of a small church. There is only about 15 minutes of film dedicated to other characters or locations. All four performances turned in here by Ann Dowd, Martha Plimpton, Jason Isaacs and Reed Birney are the best of the respective careers. This is a movie about grief, regret and healing. This is very heavy stuff, and dare I say it is one of those films that will most likely have a low rewatchability rate. However, this film moved me emotionally like no other this year. It shined a light on guns in America, but opted to dismiss the political arguments in exchange for putting human faces to the recent epidemic, and for that it is also perhaps the most important film of the year.
#1 - SPENCER
dir: Paulo Larrain
Paulo Larrain won me over with Jackie (2016), which was a quaint look at the elegant Jacqueline Onassis, and how she dealt with the spotlight. In many ways, what Jackie was for Onassis is what Spencer is for Princess Diana. This film is gorgeous and a spectacle to behold from the costume and production design, to the flawless editing and camera work. It also has perhaps my favorite sound drop of the year (“All We Need is a Miracle”). Spencer tries to shine a light on how difficult it must have been for Diana to be stripped of all of her individuality and had it traded in to be a statue of sorts for the Royal family. In some sense, she was dead, only living as a symbol, and it was torture. The film deals with heavy themes, such as depression and body image. All of these are carried with a delicate lunacy by Kristen Stewart who gives not only the best acting performance of the year, but one of the best of the 21st century thus far. Stewart was perfection and portrayed this woman with a hybrid of innocence and mania. The film is methodical and slow-moving, but it rewards its audience with one of the best character dramas in recent memory.
Petite Maman (dir: Celine Sciamma)
C’mon C’mon (dir: Mike Mills)
The Power of the Dog (dir: Jane Campion)
Don’t Look Up (dir: Adam McKay)
Drive My Car (dir: Ryuske Hamaguchi)