Thursday, February 10, 2022

Top 10 Films of 2021

We made it through another year of pandemic cinema. In general, I think the industry found its footing a little better following a disastrous 2020 movie year. Here are some of my favorites I saw in 2021. What were some of your favorite movies from last year? 

UPDATED to add a movie I missed in 2021.

Honorable Mention: Zola 
Directed by Janicza Bravo 
This has to be the best film ever made based on a viral Twitter thread. Zola is a hilarious, perverse, at-times shocking movie that relies heavily on the use of social media, without ever being distracting. Riley Keough proves yet again that she’s one of the best performances working right now. Available to stream on Showtime Anytime. 

10. Pig 
Directed by Michael Sarnoski 
I love when Nicholas Cage goes all in. A simple story about a seedy underworld, my favorite moments in Pig were watching Cage and Adam Arkin quietly battle it out with stares, choice words, and damn fine food. Available to stream on Hulu. 

9. Riders of Justice 
Directed by Anders Thomas Jensen 
This was released in its native Denmark in 2020 but hit the states in May 2021. I didn’t see it until a few weeks ago and holy shit, this movie is absolutely nuts. The trick of this film is that it fools you into thinking you’re watching a common revenge thriller. But Riders of Justice uses dark humor, advanced statistics (yep, really), and childhood trauma to color its characters. Certainly one of the biggest surprises of the year for me. Available to stream on Hulu. 

8. The Beta Test 
Directed by Jim Cummings & PJ McCabe
DIY filmmaker Jim Cummings follows up Thunder Road and The Wolf of Snow Hollow with this micro-budget thriller about love, sex, and office politics in 2021. Cummings and his team made The Beta Test for $250,000 and it looks and sounds better than most studio movies I saw last year. Available to stream on Hulu. 

7. Boiling Point 
Directed by Philip Barantini 
Stephen Graham plays the head chef at a fancy London restaurant on one of the busiest nights of the year. This movie is 92 minutes long and is captured in one single unbroken shot. No tricks, no edit stitching in post-production, Boiling Point keeps you right in the middle of the frenzy until its manic conclusion. Available to rent on-demand. 

6. Dune 
Directed by Denis Villeneuve 
Oh, Oscar. I’ll never understand how you watch one of the best, most thrilling, most technically proficient movies of the year and not acknowledge its director. Dune justly received 10 Oscar nominations this week, and despite Villeneuve’s exclusion as Best Director, this movie was far better than I anticipated. Can’t wait for Part 2. Available to rent on-demand. 

5. Spencer 
Directed by Pablo LarraĆ­n 
I’m thrilled Kristen Stewart was nominated for an Oscar for playing Princess Diana, but I’ll never understand the almost universal rejection of this movie. I don’t follow the Royal Family closely, and I so appreciated this fever dream, mind fuck depiction of a woman in chaos. I guess audiences wanted two more hours of The Crown. Damn shame. Available to stream on Hulu. 

4. No Sudden Move 
Directed by Steven Soderbergh 
Steven Soderbergh keeps making genre films for streaming services, and very few people seem to care. Every time I watch one of these movies, I’m in awe of how technically brilliant they are (even if they’re shot on an iPhone), and stunned that no one bothers to watch them. This movie had the best cast of the year and a twisty narrative structure that makes it great to revisit. Available to stream on HBO Max. 

3. The Last Duel 
Directed by Ridley Scott 
Ridley Scott’s House of Gucci is still playing in select theaters, while his 13th-century epic, The Last Duel, came and went from screens in a matter of weeks. Absolutely no one gave a shit about this movie, which is a very telling indication of how much the tastes of general movie audiences have changed. If The Last Duel came out in 2000, it would be a frontrunner for Best Picture. Poor Damon and Affleck; they took 24 years to write and act together again, and people completely slept on it. Available to stream on HBO Max. 

2. The Worst Person in the World
Directed by Joachim Trier
I missed this one when I first drafted this list, because the film wasn't made available in the US until a few months into 2022. At any rate, The Worst Person in the World was arguably the most original vision I saw in a 2021 film. Renate Reinsve gave one of the very best performances of the year. It's a shame when certain movies are given the fate of poor distribution. More people should've seen this and talked about it. Available on Hulu.

1. Licorice Pizza 
Directed by Paul Thomas Anderson 
I’ve listed some fine films here, but this is a no-brainer for me. Watching Paul Thomas Anderson bring his vision of 1973 San Fernando Valley to life was easily the best cinema experience I had in 2021. I have a profoundly personal relationship with the music of Haim, and watching Alana Haim completely own this character was such a pleasure. I loved everything about this movie, will it finally get PTA his Oscar? Let me roll it. Available in select cinemas. 

For more thoughts on these films, listen to my podcast episode on our favorite films of 2021!


  1. I've seen 2 films from your top 10 list though I'm glad there's a couple of them available on HBO/Showtime and others for rental. Here's my list so far as it's much better than the year before as I missed out on too many films as I'm sure that's a year we all want to forget although we're not out of the woods yet with this pandemic.

    1. That's a great list. No joke, when I saw Titane in the theater, I thought about you and how much you'd like it. The damn nose scene almost made me puke right there on my feet. What a ride.

  2. YES to Riders of Justice. That’s currently on my list as well, I absolutely loved it and I’m counting it as a Christmas movie I can put in rotation. We also share a pick in Dune. That one definitely isn’t going anywhere when I finally see everything I want to see. Spencers currently on my list too.

    1. Riders of Justice! I don't know how I completely missed that one in theaters but I'm glad people are finding it now. That thing really devastated me. The subtle, quick insights into each person's trauma (often while being funny) was so unusual to me, in the best possible way. Mads is such a motherfucker. I love him.

      Can't wait to hear what you think of Spencer aka The Anti-Crown.

  3. Great list. I love seeing Pig and Spencer get the love they deserve here. It's a damn shame Nic didn't get another Oscar nomination for Pig. It was his best performance in years, maybe decades. There is still a lot I need to check out on here as well. I have been meaning to watch Zola and Boiling Point ever since your best of the year episode of WAYW, and Licorice Pizza still hasn't opened here so at this point I bet I'll have to wait for digital to get to see it. But I still managed to get to 10 movies I loved from last year.

    10. Judas and the Black Messiah (The weird fucking Oscar rules last year made me wonder if this should even be considered a 2021 movie, but it didn't open anywhere until 2021 so I'm counting it.)
    9. Shiva Baby (A really small movie that wasn't even on my radar until I saw it pop up on a few best of 2021 lists near the end of the year. One of the most anxiety inducing movies I have ever seen. I loved it!)
    8. The Harder They Fall (A really stylish western with a mostly black cast that almost fell under my radar simply because it was a Netflix movie. I feel like 9/10 times Netflix originals are mediocre to bad, but this one really surprised me.)
    7. Red Rocket (Sean Baker is quickly becoming one of my favorite directors working today and this is another stellar movie from him. I never thought Simon Rex of all people would give one of my favorite performances of the year.)
    6. Ninjababy (This is one of the funniest movies I saw last year. It's a Norwegian indie comedy/drama about an unexpected pregnancy that really shouldn't work as well as it does.)

    5. The Last Duel (This is definitely one i'm kicking myself for not seeing in the theater. One of Ridley Scotts best movies in years. I still haven't seen House of Gucci, but I can't imagine it being better than this.)
    4. The French Dispatch (I just love Wes Anderson and his aesthetic. They are like comfort movies to me. The Benicio Del Toro storyline alone nabs this one a spot on my top 10.)
    3. Pig (Like I already said, Nicolas Cage as robbed of an Oscar Nomination here. And looking at what actually got nominated, she should have won as well! I, like most people, went into this expecting a cheesy John Wick style revenge movie, but what i got instead was so much better. I have not been able to stop thinking about it since i first watched it at the beginning of the year.)
    2. The Worst Person in the World (I have been following director Joachim Trier's career since it started and while i have liked all of his movies so far, this is definitely his best to date. I'm so happy he got two Oscar nominations for this. One of the very few times I think a Norwegian movie deserved to get nominated. I just wish Renate Reinsve had gotten a nomination as well.)
    1. Spencer (Now this has to be the biggest surprise of the year for me. I have zero interest in the British royal family so I never even intended to watch this, but after some positive feedback from friends and people I follow online, I decided to give it a go and was absolutely captivated from beginning to end. This feels almost more like a psychological thriller than a biopic. I was constantly on edge watching this. Kristen Stewart also probably gave my favorite performance of the year. I really hope she wins.)

    So that's my top 10 so far at least. Some honorable mentions would be Old Henry, No Sudden Move, The Card Counter, Lamb and Titane. I probably need to check out Dune again as well. It didn't really click for me the first time, but maybe going in to it again knowing what it is I will be able to appreciate it more. It was still a really good movie, but I didn't feel it live up to Denis Villeneuves previous work.

    1. Damn Henrik this is amazing, thank you so much. I'll start at the end... your thoughts on Dune were exactly my thoughts after my first viewing. During the final credits I was sitting there thinking, "Oh.... kay....?" That movie completely opened itself up to me the second time. I had the HBO subtitles on, I knew about the story, I was prepared. Noting that, I still wouldn't put it in my Top 5 Denis, but I do dig it.

      I'll see The Worst Person in the World this week, thank god. I loved every other movie you listed (need to see Ninjababy though). Shiva Baby was really close to making my list. That's a movie that should give every young filmmaker hope and inspiration, because that thing is small, tight, and absolutely hilarious.

      Would love to hear your thoughts on Boiling Point.

  4. As ever, you've given me a few films to track down - and fortunately all of them are already streaming. I didn't realize Jim Cummings put out a new film this year.

    We share a few favorites. (PT Anderson, natch!) I just posted my list, which of course led me to check to see if yours was up:

    Hope this third pandemic winter treated you well. Cheers!

    1. Hey Wallace, great to hear from you! Would love to hear what you think of The Beta Test. If you like Cummings' other movies, I think you'll like this a lot.

      And I'm going to comment on your post soon because I have an Oscar-related question about your top 3!

  5. Damn, I've been catching up with big films from this decade atm and have barely seen any of these- thanks so much for the reccomendations! And you're so right- people would think Soderbergh had dropped off the face of the earth for the complete lack of exposure his late, great iphone flicks have gotten.

    Totally agreed on Licorcie Pizza being a standout, though I still think its his weakest work since Sydney.

    As for films this year that have struck me so far, Drive My Car had a beautifully refreshing patience and commitment to building character- and daringly buried its actual conflict deep beneath the monotonous day-to-day of its scenes. Its really a movie that *aches* under its own skin and one particular scene about two hours in absolutely floored me.

    I also (eventually) loved The Green Knight. Its editing was distractingly behind beat and I felt Lowery could have trusted to hold on a lot of his shots for longer- but the final sequence was absolute magic- definitley worth seeing the film for its ending, particuarly in a time where cinema has lumped the weight of fantastical wonder meaning EVERYTHING to audiences.

    +If you've not already seen it, there was also a movie from 2020 called 'Nine Days' which (other than totally ripping off a WAY better movie called 'After Life') is absolutely worth seeing for the way it bucks off breakneck Hollywood pacing for a more contemplative, character-driven approach. The premise alone (although its nicked!) hooked me.

    Always love these lists, your podcast is great but never stop writing here! :D

    1. Goddamn man, you rock. So much gold here. Amen about Soderbergh... I just watched KIMI and that movie is fucking awesome. It's so good, and no one is talking about it.

      I did love Licorice Pizza, but wasn't that an incredibly tame R-rated PTA movie? That's not exactly a criticism, I guess that's just where these Gen X filmmakers are today, temperance wise.

      Really appreciated Drive My Car. Can't wait to sit with that one again. You also made me want to rewatch The Green Knight from the start, just to arrive at the ending.

      I looked up Nine Days and will watch it. Which After Life do you mean? IMDB has so many of them but I want to make sure I watch the right one.

    2. :D So happy you enjoyed (or at least endured) them too!

      Jesus, was LPizza R-rated?! PTA's 90s cinema dorm buddy Tarantino at least had the good grace to cave in a couple of hippie heads to earn that big red stamp.

      Reading this post again I'm particuarly excited to see The Last Duel, frankly I've never been a big Ridley fan so without your praise I probably would have skipped it completely! And you make an excellent point about its rejection- if we flashed back 20 years it would have sounded like a major awards magnet.

      Its Hirokazu Koreeda's After Life, from 98', will be on Criterion Channel. Its just got such a graceful calm about it, we dont get to know every character in detail but the whole atmosphere of the film glows with their intimacy. His debut film Maborosi from two years prior is also a vital voyage through grief that's well worth seeing if you're in the mood for a double-bill ;)