After all the the scrambling, theater closures, delayed release dates, and clumsy last-minute online release strategies of 2020, 2021 was bound to an interesting year for new films. The first half of the year was very 2020-like, with theaters largely still closed as vaccinations slowly became more available. Then BAM – summertime hit and we got ALL the blockbusters, twice as many as we usually get, since studios finally released the tentpole films they had been sitting on. The level of excellence in new films available on streaming platforms really leveled up too, with many of the best films of the year prioritizing online release over theaters.
And yet, so much confusion remains. In this evolving landscape, it’s hard to keep track of how to see the new movies we know are coming – the small budget gems and documentaries and great new genre films are also out there, but you have to know what you’re looking for and the streamers’ algorithmic recommendations aren’t on your side as they push their own original content.
But good news! I am a curious type, and I’ve been on the case. I made a list of more than 500 films that came out last year, filtered them down to the films that were actually available to us normies in the flyover states to watch in 2021, and then went to work to figure out which films mattered most. I consulted a smattering of sources, gathered more than 11,000 datapoints, and set a custom curve and selection model to evaluate and rank each film in three dimensions:
- Popularity – 1) Viewership or, which films got watched the most, by looking at box office numbers or streaming data; 2) Buzz – How high a film was ranked on IMDB; and 3) Online Chatter – Number of Internet ratings on IMDB and Letterboxd
- Quality – 1) Critics: The film’s Metascore and 2) Fandom – % of 4 star or above ratings on Letterboxd and 3) General Consensus on Rotten Tomatoes
- Influence – 1) Awards; 2) Film Fest Selections; 3) Buzz Power: The strength of the film’s staying power on the IMDB charts; 4) Diversity: the extent to which a film represents women, BIPOC or LGBTQIA+ people, people with disabilities, or people speaking languages other than English; 5) Standout: mentions in “best of the year” lists
So here come the 50 most culturally significant films of 2021… And first, a few great films that didn’t quite make the cut. Get ready to update your watchlists, queue up some YouTube Trailers, and track down passwords for the streamers you don’t already subscribe to. This was another great year in film!
(but didn’t quite make the cut)
A big hit on the (virtual) 2020-2021 festival circuit, celebrated German filmmaker Christian Petzold’s Undine blends a modern love story, the mythology of ancient greek water nymphs, and a passion for Berlin architecture into a hypnotizing, heartbreaking film that unfolds with Petzold’s characteristic understated grace.
The White Tiger
Ramin Bahrani’s anti-Slumdug Millionaire, The White Tiger follows an Indian cabbie’s turbulent, dark, humorous journey from poor villager to wealthy entrepreneur. Based on the NYT bestseller of the same name, the film bristles with the nasty realities of the class divide and the desperate extremes capitalism drives its protagonist toward as he works to transcend a life of poverty.
Scottish filmmaker Ben Sharrock is racking up accolades for Limbo, his second feature film. Beautiful to look at, funny and melancholy, the film follows four refugees as they hang out on a remote Scottish island awaiting the results of their asylum claims. Despite the painful loneliness at the center of their journeys, the desperate hope they are clinging to, and the stark landscape that surrounds them, Limbo calls its characters into a reality more complicated – and possibly more beautiful – than any singular story.
The World To Come
In an interview, Director Mona Fastvold observed: “We’ve seen a lot of movies during this time period in America about what the husbands were out doing… but they had wives who are at home, living their completely separate lives. What were they up to?” And so she posits one answer in The World to Come, a restrained romance that centers on the physically grueling, socially isolated life of Abigail, a grieving mother in rural upstate New York in 1856, her sizzling connection with her neighbor, and the complication of their differently unhappy marriages.
The astounding feature film debut from commercial director Edson Oda, Nine Days follows an arbiter responsible for evaluating and selecting souls for the privilege of being born. Reminiscent in the best way of Koreeda’s transcendent masterpiece, After Life, Oda’s film was nominated for the Grand Jury prize when it debuted at Sundance last year – and is in the running for multiple Independent Spirit Awards, including Best First Feature. Top 5% best of the year according to the film nerds.
The Fear Street Trilogy
Leigh Janiak’s salty slasher trilogy doesn’t stray too far from the classic moves of the genre, but each installment is better than the last. Each film a throwback to a different classic slasher convention, together they become something much more modern and interesting, drawing blood-soaked focus on the tragic inevitability of cycles of violence and the danger of the powerful/power-hungry. Written and directed by a woman, and featuring BIPOC female protagonists and LGBT relationships – Fear Street is also top 5% of the year in its representation of marginalized voices and stories.
I’m Your Man
A thought-provoking sci-fi romantic comedy with fuzzy focus on big questions about freedom and the nature of human aliveness, starring Dan Stevens as a love-bot speaking beautiful German. There’s really nothing else to say here – this is SUCH a no-brainer.
Most movie-goers hadn’t yet returned to theaters when Mortal Kombat came out last April – but that didn’t slow this goofy juggernaut down one bit! Not only was it the #1 movie on IMDB for 2 full weeks, it was also one of the top 5% most streamed films of 2021. And I’m not surprised! This tightly choreographed, violent martial arts fantasy epic – a remake of a movie based on a video game based on an arcade game – gets fully weird with its generation-spanning rivalry between inter-dimensional good guys and monsters, a score obviously settled every now and then in mandatory tournament-style one-on-one combat to the death. It’s just the right bug juice for this surreal year.
Paul Verhoeven – director of Showgirls and Robocop – goes full out in this totally inappropriate, horny as f**k film about the infamously charismatic 17th century lesbian nun who was both venerated for her mystical connection to the almighty and arrested for perversion. Is it an erotic thriller? A historical drama? A comedy? Yes. I can’t wait to watch it, it sounds amazing.
How is it that this is Guillermo del Toro’s FIRST circus movie? GdT is so at home in this world that the whole endeavor almost feels obvious. It’s (unsurprisingly) Gorgeous with a capital “G” and Bradley Cooper is deliciously conniving as its con man mentalist protagonist. The film plays out like a cautionary fable – its characters more cultural construct than human being – and because of that the film feels a bit hollow despite its sparkle, like any great sideshow.
Eric Andre somehow made a narrative feature-length hidden camera prank film featuring tons of regular, everyday people in ridiculous situations and somehow it is the most hilarious, heartwarming movie of the year. I laughed out loud to the point of tears AND left with a renewed belief in the good in people… All that from a movie in which two guys get their penises stuck in a Chinese finger trap. Though it debuted on Netflix in March with relatively little fanfare, the power of the film’s buzz elevated it an impressive 100+ spots on the IMDB charts in its first two weeks.
Barb and Star Go To Vista Del Mar
The brightest, silliest, wildest, most fun comedy of the year! Also, it’s kind of a musical…? There are definitely musical numbers, anyway, as well as talking crabs, magical culottes, murderous mosquitos, shady secret agents, a dance club remix of “My Heart Will Go On,” and a banana boat that is “a real tit-flapper.” The fun that Kristen Wiig, Annie Mumolo, and Jamie Dornan are having with this is infectious. Cheer yourself up and go watch it!
The Velvet Underground
Todd Haynes, auteur visionary behind non-linear musicographies such as I’m Not There and Velvet Goldmine, made a straight-up documentary (his first!) about his favorite band, The Velvet Underground (their first!). Though not a revolution in form like his previous films, it overflows with the creative chaos of the revolutionary time and place in which the band was formed and is assembled with the deft touch of a master in love with the subject.
It’s not an overly complicated story. Mousy hospice nurse, Maud, believes she is communing directly with the Almighty, and does all sorts of wild things as a result. But debut filmmaker Rose Glass brings it with the dread, fear, stress, physical mutilation, and thrilling “what is real and what isn’t real” ambiguity. Delayed due to COVID and then released in an under-developed streaming distribution landscape, despite the accolades it received, it was tough to figure out how to watch this film until it finally became available via wide release online in February 2021. But it is certainly one of the best horror films of the year, so don’t miss it.
Bo Burnham’s 2021 Netflix “comedy special” is wildly good. Equal parts comedy, confessional, and virtuoso one-person filmmaking, it felt like stepping inside another human being’s surreal experience of living in forced isolation and realizing that I too, have now had this experience and I REALLY get this – the humor, the disbelief, the loneliness, the powerlessness, the desperation, the sense of responsibility, the waiting. The same walls, the same views, the same mind. And though “comedy special ” really doesn’t feel right to describe it, Inside is really funny. Top 5% best according to film nerds.
The Top 50
A less-serious Taken or a less-studly John Wick – however you put it, Bob Odenkirk as a middle-aged normal guy with a past life as a badass going on a spree of giddy revenge violence is more awesome that anyone expected. That is if anyone expected this movie, which is unlikely. Just an oddball delight! Top 5% most popular of the year on IMDB and in at-home viewership.
49. Riders of Justice
One reviewer wrote that this Danish action-comedy revenge thriller is so smart and unexpected and violent and fun that its stupid, hollow, totally-missing-the-point Hollywood remake little brother is most certainly already in pre-production. Mads Mikkelsen is a leading man for the ages – it’s nuts that he did this film and Another Round back to back. We don’t deserve him!
48. The Matrix Resurrections
What a delight – and I’d expect nothing less from a Lana Wachowski passion project. Thank goodness for filmmakers like her. Big ideas, tons to say, impeccable casting, and beautifully filmed, thrilling action all wrapped around the simple necessity of love and human connection. And it has a great sense of humor – even/especially about itself, which was such a relief! So many of these big movies are completely humorless. I’m already excited to watch it again.
Mass is a single-setting drama in which four parents meet to process the events and aftermath of a school shooting; two are parents to the perpetrator and two to one of the victims. It’s intense. It’s also outstanding – a commanding first film from writer/director Fran Katz and a masterclass from four experienced character actors. Mass is up for more awards than 95% of the other films released in 2021 and is one of the top 5% most fanatically loved by film nerds.
46. The Last Duel
It makes some sort of perverse sense that the final legal battle in which the verdict was determined by swordfight was a classic case of “his word against hers.” This big-budget, star-studded Ridley Scott medieval epic based on Eric Jager’s 2004 nonfiction account has all the funny costumes and uneven accents you expect – and its last act isn’t at all bad, even if its attempt to take on contemporary systemic misogyny through the lens of 14th century feudal politics is messy AF.
45. The Card Counter
Paul Schrader is in the zone with another character study of a complex man wrestling with the wrongs he can’t take back and the responsibilities he can’t quite get right, despite his willingness to go to extremes to do so. Oscar Isaac’s mysterious, haunted performance will stick with you. One of the most celebrated on critics’ best-of-the-year lists.
44. Free Guy
It’s important not to think too hard about this one or you may risk getting grumpy and worried about the world. But if you can avoid that, great! Enjoy a really fun, sweet movie. The Grand Theft Auto jokes are hilarious. The top movie on IMDB when it came out, Free Guy aced all the popularity categories but REALLY smashed the digital rental market – placing consistently in the top 20 for 4 1/2 months after its online release.
43. Identifying Features
The Sundance award-winning debut feature from Mexican filmmaker Fernanda Valadez is a harrowing story of missing sons and lost mothers at the U.S.-Mexico border. Although I haven’t seen it yet (a common experience, according to the data), Kino Lorber pretty much only releases films that are so good they have the power to change you in some fundamental way.
Undoubtedly the most “Florida” movie of 2021, Zola is a gnarly retelling of a wild weekend in Tampa for two girls who are new friends. Both are exotic dancers and one is also willing to do other stuff. And wild really means wild here – like pretty dangerous, often upsetting, totally unpredictable, spinning-out-of-control type activities. Based on a true story originally told in a Twitter thread containing nearly 150 tweets! Is this the first movie based on a Twitter thread? Possibly. Don’t quote me on that. By and about a BIPOC woman, Zola is one of the top 5% of the films highlighting marginalized voices/stories.
41. The Rescue
A masterfully shot documentary by Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin, The Rescue is the story of the 2018 Tham Luang cave rescue, in which thousands of people from around the world worked together to save a group of 12 teen boys and their soccer coach, stranded by floodwaters inside a cave in Thailand for nearly 3 weeks. A story of real-life heroism and ingenuity under unbelievably challenging circumstances, The Rescue will leave you gasping. Perfect scores in quality across the board, the film was a people’s favorite, receiving top 5% scores from both nerds and the general populace.
Digital Rental / Disney+
Marvel blasted back in 2021 with 4 films kicking off its Phase 4. The most controversial of these was Eternals, a history-rewriting epic that introduces an entire crew of shadowy ultra-powerful humanity-defending superbeings along with some wild intergalactic expository mythology. Chloe Zhao directed, bringing those gorgeous sunsets, and Marvel introduced its most racially diverse cast yet, along with its first LGBT heroes. The film stirred up international controversy (censored in China and banned in the Middle East), brought in those reliable MCU box office returns, and held the top spot on IMDB for 2 weeks. Along the way, it also demonstrated that this brand of weird isn’t for everyone. It’s out there, man!
39. Zack Snyder’s Justice League
Yup, this came out in 2021! It was a long year. This movie just won’t go away. A 4-hour-long, $80 million dollar redo of a mediocre $300 million dollar movie that came out 4 years ago. (Defeated sigh.) I stand by my original hot take that it’s just weird that this exists, and I kind of can’t believe I’m writing about it again.
38. Don’t Look Up
Adam McKay’s star-studded 2021 entry dares to ask: can smug be funny? You gotta give McKay some credit for trying to bring political discourse into the mainstream but there’s a strong “preaching to the choir” feeling underneath this film and – ugh – it’s hard to not just get crushed by its heavy handed scolding. That said, either Netflix nailed its marketing and release schedule or LOTS of people were up for getting chewed out – the film took top honors in nearly all popularity metrics.
37. I Care A Lot
An ice-cold black comedy thriller about a con artist who swindles the elderly out of their savings by exploiting loopholes in the legal system, I Care A Lot hit some sort of nerve when it came out last February. Like – still shaken by the capitol insurrection and the fraught post-Trump transfer of power with vaccines not yet available to the public and many of us reaching the end of our fraying ropes – we wanted to just wallow in the dark side of humanity a little more and this film was like: “OK! Yeah let’s go.”
Swinging to the other side of the emotional catharsis spectrum, 2021 was a great year for new movie musicals and for the band Sparks, who got their first documentary (The Sparks Brothers, directed by Edgar Wright – #85) and who created the music for this gorgeous arthouse musical directed by legendary French experimentalist, Leos Carax. Carax received the Best Director award at Cannes for Annette, an audacious explosion of aesthetic experience that Adam Driver fans will probably love but others may find ludicrous. The consensus of critics is that it is one of the best of the year – but audiences are divided to say the least. Decide for yourself!
35. The Harder They Fall
Seal’s younger brother, Jeymes Samuel (aka singer/songwriter/music producer The Bullitts), wrote and directed this western, and Jay-Z produced it. And though it treads the familiar ground of its genre, The Harder They Fall crackles with a fantastic cast and slick production style. The story is invented, but the principal characters are all based on real, infamous Black gunslingers who lived at different times throughout the 19th century that Samuel playfully assembled into one fantastic score-settling shootout.
Gosh I would’ve loved to see the film that Aline Brosh McKenna (Crazy Ex-Girlfriend) originally wrote. In the film we got – after the script had been rewritten/reworked by three different teams of writers – the storytelling challenges are there but it’s still pretty fun, largely due to Emma Stone’s delightfully unhinged performance, skilled direction from Craig Gillespie (I, Tonya), enough needle drops to make your head spin, and slam dunk production design.
33. Last Night in Soho
A psychological thriller partly inspired by Edgar Wright’s suspicion of rose-colored nostalgia, Last Night in Soho can’t quite keep up with its own momentum, but its genre-skipping pep and Anya Taylor-Joy’s unstoppable hair keep it mostly afloat.
32. Black Widow
Digital Rental / Disney+
I’m a big Natasha Romanoff fan. And I remember reading a review 10 years ago, when the first Avengers film came out, that was commenting on how well-written and interesting her character was – so much so that he could almost envision a universe in which she could have her own movie someday (gasp – the thought of it!). So it’s pretty rad that Natasha got her movie. And I generally liked it, but it’s not GREAT – I wanted more cool spy/assassin stuff and less “swordfighting while skydiving without a parachute from an exploding mid-air secret military compound” big-action filler stuff.
31. A Quiet Place Part 2
The most culturally significant horror movie of 2021, A Quiet Place Part II had actually JUST had its world premiere (March 8 2020) and was on the verge of wide release when the great shutdown began, so it’s satisfying that the film was the first tentpole to be released exclusively in theaters and that it had the biggest opening weekend of the pandemic to date when it was finally released in May. Though less quiet than its predecessor, John Krasinski’s visual storytelling keeps leveling up and the performances are fantastic.
30. No Time to Die
The most culturally significant straight-up action film of 2021, No Time To Die was another COVID-delayed film that finally got its theatrical release in October of this year, 18 months after its original release date. Wrapping up the Daniel Craig Bond serialized story arc – the first of its kind in nearly 60 years of Bond film history – the film is more concerned with emotional catharsis than sexy superspy hijinks, but there’s room for both in the film’s 2 hour 40-minute runtime.
29. Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy
Emerging Japanese superstar Ryûsuke Hamaguchi is having a moment – not only is he nominated for a Best Director Oscar this year for Drive My Car (which is spectacular… but didn’t have its wide release until 2022, so wasn’t eligible for this list), he also released Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy, a three-part romantic drama anthology film, which has been crushing the 2021 festival circuit and winning hearts the world over. Top 5% BEST of 2021 across all three quality metrics, Wheel had a limited theatrical/virtual cinema release last fall then transitioned quietly over to digital rental services – seek it out.
First-time filmmaker (and currently famous actress) Rebecca Hall began writing the script for this film 10 years ago, when she immersed herself in learning about her own family’s history – particularly her mother, Maria Ewing, an American opera singer who passed as white, but whose grandfather had been born into slavery in the U.S. just two generations earlier. Based on the 1929 novel by Nella Larsen (one of the most important literary voices of the Harlem Renaissance), Passing follows two childhood friends whose paths cross by chance in 1920s New York City; the unraveling that follows changes both their futures forever. Featuring extraordinary performances from both Tessa Thompson and Ruth Negga, as the awards and accolades stack up it is becoming evident that this is one of the most thought-provoking and resonant films of 2021. Not to be missed!
27. The Suicide Squad
In The Suicide Squad, James Gunn’s Troma roots are definitely showing – and that’s not at all a bad thing! Irreverent, dark, unrepentantly violent, often gross, and surprisingly heartwarming, Gunn’s take on DC’s antiheroes is a silly, glossy good time (plus Margo Robbie’s Harley Quinn has never been better). Smashing all the popularity metrics, The Suicide Squad was the #1 most popular film of 2021 for at-home streaming after it debuted simultaneously in theaters and on HBOMax in August.
26. In the Heights
Sweet and optimistic, the first half totally cooks – John M. Chu’s talent for spectacle is perfectly matched with Lin-Manuel Miranda’s earnest characters and soaring score. The second act drags, but I really didn’t care. At that point I was completely along for the ride and just happy to hang out with Anthony Ramos some more. I’m so glad movie musicals are fully BACK! We got so many good ones this year. About time.
25. Demon Slayer: Mugen Train
I am truly out of my element writing about this, but here goes! Demon Slayer: Mugen Train is an R-rated feature film sequel to the first season of a popular anime series that is based on a manga series of the same name. Top 5% of 2021 at the box office, with killer buzz (it jumped from #116 to #31 on IMDB’s page rankings in its first two weeks), and the adoration of the people – Demon Slayer is about a boy, his friend who wears a boar’s head, and his other friend who has superpowers but only in his dreams boarding the Infinity Train to – you got it! – slay a demon. Chances are if you know what I’m talking about you already love this movie… and if not, maybe now’s the time to get into anime! You may want to start with the series before jumping right into the film though – sounds like the context is important.
24. Quo Vadis, Aida?
The BEST film of 2021 according to Metacritic’s robust system, Jasmila Zbanic’s powerful dramatization of the 1995 Srebenica massacre in Eastern Bosnia in which more than 8,000 men and boys were murdered and tens of thousands of women were subjected to horrific abuse centers the story of the regular civilians caught in “a storm of evils — not only the massacre itself, but the broader evils of institutional failure and international indifference” (Jessica Kiang for Variety). The compassionate-yet-unflinching film follows titular protagonist, Aida, a schoolteacher and translator for the U.N., as she struggles to protect her family and community through the unfolding horrors and diplomatic inertia she witnesses first-hand.
A story of the simmering political and nationalistic conflict in Northern Ireland in the late 60s as seen through the misty eyes of a 9-year-old boy. Kenneth Branagh’s most personal film, Belfast compensates for the broad strokes of its narrative with heartfelt performances – particularly from Jamie Dornan and Caitriona Balfe – and mythic-love-letter storytelling from Branagh. Nominated for more awards (including 7 Oscars) than 95% of the other films released last year.
22. King Richard
A family drama/sports biopic with a strong script and Will Smith bringing the heat with his best performance in decades, King Richard is exactly what you think it is and will probably surprise you with its layers and presence.
21. Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings
Although the finale succumbs to the inevitable “cartoon gummy-bodies fight monsters with the magic lasers shooting out of wherever” MCU pattern and the film overall has some of the same hiccups as other origin stories in the franchise… it was fun! The fight choreography in the first half is GREAT and the centuries old magical family dynamics are rich, earnest, heart-activating stuff. Whether or not you’re into Awkwafina’s thing will definitely shape your experience too, so consider that. Hitting #1 on the IMDB charts in its first week, Shang-Chi was in the top 5% in all other popularity ratings as well.
20. Spider-Man: No Way Home
The first movie to break a billion at the box office since the pandemic began and by far the most popular movie of the year (taking the top spot in 3/4 popularity metrics!), Marvel has its first certified phase 4 banger with Spider-Man: No Way Home. Not even the surging Omicron variant could defeat this juggernaut! Turns out it’s quite good too. I haven’t seen it yet, but No Way Home was rated as one the top 5% best movies of the year by both the general populace and film nerds, which is a strong endorsement!
19. One Night in Miami
Based on a fictionalized account of the meeting of four titans of American Blackness in February 1964, Regina King’s feature film directorial debut is heavy on ideas and character and dialogue, light on action – but the writing and performances are spectacular, and King’s direction is deft and deliberate. And the film won all sorts of well-deserved awards! Its wide release was in January last year, so return to this one if it got buried on your watchlist.
There’s a reason for the coming-of-age tearjerker formula: when those ingredients combine in that way and it’s done well, with integrity and honesty and compassion, the experience is so moving and brimming with love for humanity that it borders on transcendent. CODA follows the formula, and is busting with such excellence in other ways (writing, performances, direction) that the story’s universal structure ceases to matter. For a small-scale family drama, the consensus on this is striking; CODA is up for awards all over the place and is one of the top 5% best of 2021 according to critics’ end-of-year roundups.
Pablo Larrain’s arthouse Princess Di biopic is the perfect way for emerging titan Kristen Stewart to definitively burst out of her blockbuster ingenue cocoon. She shoulders this swervy psychological drama with confidence and delicacy, while completely disappearing into the inner life of one of the most tragic and beloved cultural figures of the last 50 years. Smashing all the awards and “best-of” lists, Spencer is a landmark, not to be missed.
16. Summer of Soul (… Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised)
In 1969 – the year of Nixon’s impeachment, the Stonewall Riots, the moon landing, and Woodstock – hundreds of thousands of people attended the Harlem Cultural Festival, which lasted for 6 weeks and featured performances from many of the most important musicians of the last century. Despite the enormity of this cultural moment, the festival has been doomed to obscurity – until now! The best film of 2021, smashing all quality metrics, Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson’s documentary (his first!) both reclaims this pivotal celebration of Blackness and threads it powerfully to our current moment.
15. tick, tick…. BOOM!
A musical about a charismatic straight cis white guy struggling with life in the shadow of the AIDS epidemic in the early 90s is an unlikely candidate for most charming film of the year – but tick, tick… BOOM! is just… so lovable! The songs are great, the setting activates just enough 90s comfort nostalgia, and Andrew Garfield is wildly talented, freakishly energetic, and just a neurotic, eccentric delight through-and-through.
14. Licorice Pizza
Like Rushmore meets Dazed & Confused, with a dash of The Goonies, but set in California baby, Licorice Pizza plays out like a duel between two people who are too young to know anything about life daring one another over and over again: to show up, to make it big, to be important, to have a good time, to succeed, to matter. Neither of them knows what to do with the crackle at the center of their friendship so they just keep going – and the ride is surprising and sweet and so much fun. Cooper Hoffman and Alana Haim are both just perfect. Best of the year according to film critics and nerds!
13. Judas and the Black Messiah
The Chicago Police Department’s harassment and FBI’s assassination of Fred Hampton, socialist revolutionary and chairman of the Illinois Black Panthers, is confidently unraveled in this film by writer/director Shaka King. Lakeith Stanfield is particularly outstanding as informant Bill O’Neal, serving car thief-level jumpiness with the arrogance of a con man, without ever quite abandoning O’Neal’s heartbreaking yearning to be on the right side of things.
12. West Side Story
1961’s West Side Story is so fiery and tragic and beautiful – even with its deeply problematic casting, its revolutionary spirit and rebellious themes still kick. So it was hard to come around to the idea of a remake, even with a screenplay by Tony Kushner, choreography by Justin Peck (award-winning ballet choreographer), and master magician Steven Spielberg at the helm. As it turns out, this new West Side Story is such an effervescent, vivacious, dazzling marvel that it completely earns its own place. Although it didn’t smash the box office as it was expected to, the film is one of the best of the year according to critics’ end of year reflections and is a dominant competitor for this season’s most prestigious awards.
11. The Father
It is clear that writer/director Florian Zeller has had a deeply personal, life-changing experience loving someone with dementia. His acrobatic portrayal of that experience side by side with the experience of the beloved, as they lose trust in the world around them and their own mind, is frightening and insightful. With high marks in quality across all metrics, The Father was the most fanatically praised film of 2021 by film nerds.
Possibly the most surprising movie of the year, although Pig follows the general outline of John Wick and stars the king of spazzing out, the film is not the barn-burner you might expect. Instead, Pig is a moving, melancholy, often surprising drama about how special – and rare – it is to really care deeply about something. Nicolas Cage gives his most heartfelt and raw performance in years.
9. The Lost Daughter
Maggie Gyllenhaal’s directorial debut is an ambitious, unsettling knockout that faces the complexity of mothering with sobering intensity. Olivia Colman, MVP, has a mystery and presence that enlivens her every action with suspense. It’s an uncomfortable movie, so it makes sense that audiences are divided on this one, but critics are in awe and confidently assert that The Lost Daughter is one of the year’s best. Decide for yourself!
8. The Green Knight
It’s not hard to see Writer/Director/Editor David Lowery’s love for 1980s fantasy films like Willow and Excalibur in his extraordinary 2021 film, but The Green Knight is no homage. This film has its own things to do and say – and the experience of it (especially the last 20 minutes!) took my breath away. So skillfully and lovingly created – from the hand-painted sets and practical effects to the intriguing storytelling and design choices – The Green Knight is unique, thought-provoking, and mythic. One of my personal favorites of a very stacked year!
Definitely the most bombastic and shocking of 2021, possibly the most fucked up – and maybe also the sweetest? – Titane is a case study in contradictions. The allusions to David Cronenberg’s Crash buzz around this movie like fruitflies and yet, despite the clear connections between Director Julia Ducournau’s vision of the new flesh and Cronenberg’s, Ducournau is squarely in her own lane with her own, new things to say. Winner of more awards than 95% of the films released last year – including the Palme d’Or at Cannes-, champion of film festivals and femme/queer representation, and one of the most celebrated films of the year, Titane may have made the biggest, most colorful splash in 2021 cinema.
So, Minari was one of those “cusp” movies – it was celebrated a whole lot in 2020, but most people couldn’t actually see it until its wide release in February 2021… which makes it a 2021 movie to me, and it’s one of the top 5% best of the year according to critics and film nerds. The story of a young Korean family trying to make their own life on a rural Arkansas farm, Minari isn’t a complicated film stylistically or structurally, but it really sings. Steven Yeun is such a treasure, too rarely celebrated. He’s incredible in this film, as is Yuh-Jung Youn who won an Oscar for her performance… though 8-year-old Alan Kim just eclipses everyone in his baby cowboy boots.
5. The Mitchells vs. The Machines
The most popular film on Netflix in 2021, The Mitchells vs. The Machines is sneaky good – a genuinely funny, optimistic family road trip/robot apocalypse adventure about treasuring your own weirdness and appreciating one another. With an energetic visual style, crisp animation, sharp writing, and a fantastic cast of comedy greats, The Mitchells isn’t only one of the best comedies of the year, it’s one of the best films of 2021 overall. If this one skated by you when it was hot last spring, seek it out for a late-winter boost!
Another film that was part of the 2020 hype machine but not actually released until early 2021, Nomadland is an extraordinary film. Fern’s journey through rural America tracks with the slowly unfolding transformation in her identity, the softness of solitude and the grandeur of wide open vistas wrapping themselves around her grief. Frances McDormand inhabits the film completely, and something about this whole thing feels prescient – like we’re getting a glimpse of a country in the middle of a tectonic shift, changing, under our noses, into something completely different than the stories we tell about what America is.
3. The French Dispatch
Wes Anderson’s gleefully arthouse anthology film and loving tribute to writers and artists features an overwhelming pile-up of talent on all sides–the cra-mazing cast (of course), but also multi-Oscar-winning production design team Adam Stockhausen and Rena DeAngelo, multi-Oscar winning composer Alexandre Desplat, and veteran DP Robert Yeoman. Even the paintings featured in the film’s second segment, “The Concrete Masterpiece,” were custom-made on site over three months by German-Kiwi visual artist (and Tilda Swinton’s Partner of 15 years), Sandro Kopp. This wildly talented team was also drawing inspiration from some of the 20th century’s greatest cinema, art, and writing – and washing it all over with humor and melancholy, love and regret, struggle and joy. Winning awards and earning accolades all over the place, The French Dispatch is the most influential film of 2021!
The epic sci-fi classic finally got the film it deserves this year. In Dune, Denis Villeneuve matches his extraordinary gift for cinematic world-building with the superpowers of a perfect cast (including the strikingly talented just emerging next-gen movie star Timothee Chalamet), the most elegant and lifelike digital creations ever seen, and source material that is basically the space-future version of Lord of the Rings. Obviously, it cooks! Immensely popular and fanatically loved by film nerds, Dune is dominating awards and end-of-year “best of” lists. It’s the kind of awesome we only get once in a while. Enjoy it!
1. The Power of the Dog
The most celebrated film of 2021 takes the top spot in the Midnights’ analysis too. Jane Campion is back in giant mode with The Power of the Dog–a confident, simmering, meticulous film. Though the story is a small family drama, the immensity of the four leads’ unspoken desires, fears, and struggles are mirrored in the gargantuan landscape – all wild sky, spacious grasslands, and beckoning mountain vistas. Enticing and dangerous, the uncontrollable west is somehow fully unleashed through the 4-way tango of tension within this messed up family – and the experience is not at all a chore… on the contrary actually, it’s riveting! Best of the year according to critics and star of this award season, The Power of the Dog is the unmissable, most culturally significant film of the past year.
What other films from 2021 did you especially love? Share them in the comments and I’ll let you know how they stacked up in the rankings. Happy watching!