Every year, without fail, someone comes along and proclaims this was a terrible year for movies. And every year they are, also without fail, completely and utterly wrong.
Mid-pandemic as we are (eventually we have to admit this is just normal now, as psychotic as that sounds) theaters aren’t as big an avenue as other times—I’ve watched more than 300 movies for the first time this year, 11 were in theaters. But there are always, always great movies lurking out there if you care to look. And with that fact in mind, I constructed this list.
Some years I have one obvious favorite that stands out above all the rest, while in others it’s not so clear cut. 2021 falls into the latter category. (Gun-to-head if I had to choose, I’d probably say Titane or Pig, but that might change in an hour, and I still have a few to see.) There are tons of movies I adore, so this is a fluid collection of favorites and could easily continue on far past the ten (eleven actually) I include here.
One housekeeping note: I’m not saying these are the objective “best” movies of 2021. I hate rating and ranking movies and prefer to take them on their own individual merits rather than trying, futilely in my opinion, to quantify their value.
These are simply my favorite movies of 2021. I have my own taste, you have yours; there may be some crossover, there may not be. For one reason or another, each of these moved me, kept me entertained, filled my life with joy, filled my eyes with tears, showed me something new, or filled some other place in my life. In some cases, they seem specifically tailored for me, my experience, and my cinematic predilections; in others, they’re just really, really damn good.
One more housekeeping note: There’s not really any coherent order here, this is how they came to me and how I wrote about each. Make of that what you will.
All of this said, here are my favorite movies of 2021. What are yours? What blew your hair back this year? If you’re so inclined, sound off in the comments below or hit us up on social media.
If Shape of Water is destined to be known for all time as the “fish-man-fucking movie” then Titane will probably do down as the “car fucking movie.” And not without reason. Julia Ducournau’s follow up to Raw is wild and audacious, and definitely not for the faint of heart. Tough to describe but a spectacle to behold, Ducournau toes the line between horror, mystery, and surreal nightmare about the nature of identity and self, about who we are versus who we say we are versus who we know we are. Thrilling and strange and messy, it leaves an impression that lingers long after the lights go up.
Nicolas Cage gave a couple of unhinged mega-Cage performances this year, with the likes of Prisoners of the Ghostland and Willy’s Wonderland. So, when we heard tell of a Nic Cage movie about a reclusive hermit searching for his kidnapped truffle pig, you expect certain things. And Pig is none of those things, constantly toying with expectations. Instead of manic lunacy, this is a deft, delicate tale of retribution, set in a strange, specific world, and anchored by one of those performances that reminds us Nicolas Cage has an Oscar for a very good reason. Honestly, this might be his best performance and the surrounding movie is lovely.
Not that I ever actually thought about it before, but it’s weird to know that Bob Odenkirk can kick my ass. That’s the main lesson I took away from Nobody and watching videos of Odenkirk training for his role. The Better Call Saul star plays a schlubby, milquetoast no-one who, when pushed to his limits to protect his family, turns out to be a secret badass and fucks everyone up. John Wick comparisons are obvious and appropriate for various reasons, though this allows for more comedy mixed in with the violence. (I compared it to John Wick’s oddball cousin visiting from out of town.) Is this destined to go down in the annals of action history as one of the greats? Probably not, but it’s exactly the movie I hoped it would be and a total blast.
You had me at Donnie Yen. You had me at Nicholas Tse. You had me at Benny Chan, a cop haunted by his past, and a plot that riffs on Heat. This sprawling cops-and-robbers opus is like action movie catnip, but it also delivers even beyond the lofty expectations. Chan, in what sadly turned out to be his final film, places two men, one cop, one criminal, at odds and lets them do their thing. Yen and Tse bring face-to-face confrontations that only build the tension and pressure destined to be released in the impending action. And choreographed by Yen and executed by some of the best in the business, the action is exactly as badass as one could hope for. When you see Donnie Yen in a room with a bunch of scaffolding, you know something awesome is about to happen. This is a must-watch for any action fan.
Movies staged to look like they play out in a single, unbroken take are nothing new, though the success of these projects varies. With One Shot, director James Nunn makes excellent use of the format, as well as star and general cinematic badass Scott Adkins, to deliver a quick, brutal DTV-style actioner. It’s a perfect mix of tactical action and staging that captures the immersive chaos of combat and top-tier choreography, and thanks to the real-time set up, there’s no space to dawdle or drag. Adkins also gives one of his best performances acting wise, not just with the face-kicking and knifing, though there is plenty of both, giving depth and nuance to what could easily have become a stock military operator character.
The Night House
Admittedly, The Night House doesn’t stick the landing. Which is a shame, because everything before that in David Buckner’s portrait of a woman dealing with sudden loss and the legacy death leaves behind is incredible. Rebecca Hall gives one of the best performances of the year in this haunted house horror, and the surrounding film is gorgeous, full of visual and thematic depth, and, key in genre movies, creepy, tense, and scary as hell.
Barb and Star Go to Vista Del Mar
I’m as surprised as anyone. When I first saw the trailer, this looked like the least funny, most insufferable thing I’d ever encountered, and I avoided it like the plague. (A phrase that hits a bit different these days.) But a friend who knows my tastes, and who I generally trust, recommended it, so I gave it a shot and hell yes. I’m glad he spoke up because the saga of two mousey, middle-aged women on the vacation of a lifetime is one of the most hilarious, ridiculous, and deeply strange bits of cinematic absurdity I’ve come across lately. It also features an all-timer of a supporting turn from Jamie Dornan taking the piss out of himself. This falls into a similar category as Eurovision Song Contest for me, it’s quickly become one of those movies I throw on when I want a giant, shit-eating grin.
In the Heights
It’s been a strong year for musicals, and I haven’t even seen Spielberg’s West Side Story yet. John M. Chu adapts Lin-Manuel Miranda’s pre-Hamilton stage show into a sweeping, vibrant movie musical. Overflowing with massive song and dance numbers that still play intimate and pack an emotional wallop, this is how you bring a stage show to the big screen, expanding the scope and scale while maintaining the tight connection with the audience. An exciting, energetic ode to a tight knit community clinging to each other to stake out their place in the world.
Lin-Manuel Miranda has a hell of a Broadway pedigree, but in 2021 he made his debut as a film director. Tick, Tick…Boom! adapts the semi-autobiographical musical by Jonathan Larson, the creator of Rent. It follows an aspiring, and difficult, composer. Perhaps not the most original setup—artists love nothing more than creating art about artists arting—it offers a powerful, heartbreaking story of chasing your dreams, the high cost of going so, a behind-the-scenes look at one man’s creative process, and a glimpse of a specific scene at a time of radical change. Also, the songs totally slap.
Don’t you hate it when you move to a small, isolated mountain town for work and it turns out there are werewolves afoot? Such is life in Josh Ruben’s Werewolves Within. Adapted from a video game I’d never heard of, this may be the best cinematic game adaptation I’ve encountered. I called it a “lycanthropic Clue” and compared it to “Agatha Christie with monsters,” and it’s exactly as fun as that sounds. Scary and hilarious in equal measures, this is one of the best times I had with a movie in 2021 and features what should be a star-making performance from Milana Vayntrub.
All the Streets are Silent
Sometimes a movie starts and you know immediately it is 100% your jam. That is precisely what happened with the documentary All the Streets are Silent: The Convergence of Hip Hop and Skateboarding (1987-1997). A love letter to both forms of expression, the film tracks their parallel evolutions, from underground phenomena to mainstream staples, and ways in which, particularly in New York City, they collided and crossed over at a key juncture. This also seems made specifically with me in mind. It chronicles skateboarding and hip hop right at the time where both impacted and utterly changed my worldview. In reality, this isn’t the best documentary of the year, or even the best music-centric one, it’s fairly formulaic as far as those things go, but it is the one that gave me all the joyful, nostalgic feels.
This list could, as it could every year, continue almost indefinitely. Like I said earlier, this was another banger year for movies, even if it was a weird one. So here are a bunch of other movies I loved quite a bit.
Denis Villeneuve’s stunning adaptation of Dune came close to making the final cut, and probably would have were it not just half a movie. Can’t wait for the second half. James Gunn’s The Suicide Squad is easily my favorite superhero movie, or TV show, or etc., of the year, wild, irreverent, and full or fantastic action. And though other people are higher on David Lowery’s The Green Knight than I am personally, it’s a breathtaking film to look at.
Nicolas Cage turned in one of his best, most delicate performances ever in Pig, but he also indulged his chaotic side with the likes of Sion Sono’s Prisoners of the Ghostland, which he described as the craziest movie he’s ever made; and Willy’s Wonderland, where he never says a word and battles demonic animatronics come to life. And there was the Netflix series he hosted exploring the history of swear words. He truly is a renaissance man who knows how to have a good time.
TV had a fantastic year, again. Mike Flanagan’s Black Mass was one that took over the public consciousness for a couple of weeks and more than lived up to the hype. One that flew under the radar a bit was Julien Leclercq’s Ganglands, which scratches a particular grim, tough-guy action itch typically fulfilled by DTV fare these days. Also, Riverdale continues to boggle my mind in the best possible way and, I shit you not, the new Saved By the Bell may be my favorite show on television. I watched a lot of TV this year. A lot.
Western’s had a big year, and three of my favorites put their own unique spin on the well-worn genre. The Harder They Fall looks at the lives and turf wars of the too-often-overlooked Black cowboys. Jane Campion’s The Power of the Dog tells an unexpected tale within genre framework. And in Old Henry, Tim Blake Nelson delivers one of my favorite performances of 2021 in a somber mediation on aging, violence, and leaving the past behind to create something new.
If I had time, I’d make a best-horror of 2021 list, or at least consider it. Netflix’s Fear Street trilogy delivered three fun, inventive, generation-spanning horror tales. James Wan’s Malignant isn’t for everyone, but I’m 1000% into the films it apes and the maniacal nonsense it’s laying down. Kimo Stamboel showed up with The Queen of Black Magic, the Barbara Crampton-fronted Jakob’s Wife is one of the most entertaining vampire yarns in recent years, and Brea Grant had a fantastic two-fer with Lucky and 12 Hour Shift. Psycho Goreman is like if a Troma movie was actually as fun and unhinged as they think they are; The Medium, from writer Na Hong-jin (The Wailing), drops a spooky possession/faux-documentary slice of horror; and Lamb is just pure esoteric strangeness, go in a cold as possible and prepare to be wowed. Also, In the Earthand Gaia make a powerful double feature of twisted, psychedelic eco horror. And finally, if you’ve ever wondered what a movie about a pair of murderous pants would look like, we now have Slaxx, and it is good.
Documentaries have been a bit of a blind spot this year; there are simply too many about Covid and I’m not ready to go there quite yet. But it was an especially strong run for music documentaries. Summer of Soul, The Velvet Underground, Billie Eilish: The World’s a Little Blurry, Woodstock 99, Tina, and Who Killed the KLF are all fantastic and worth tracking down. (Many others dig The Sparks Brothers more than I do; it’s fine, but a bit too long, overly reverent, and repetitive.) A non-music doc I also loved was Woodlands Dark and Days Bewitched, which, while a bit academic at times, does a deep, deep, deep dive into folk horror that’s fascinating and informative.
A few others to track down include Swan Song, the one with Udo Kier giving an all-timer of a performance; Kelsey Egan’s dreamy dystopia Glasshouse; Paul Verhoeven’s sexy nun (a gross oversimplification to be sure) tale Benedetta; Baby Assassins, which features some of the best film fights of 2021; and the inventive, meditative, single-take-staged Japanese sci-fi jaunt Beyond the Infinite Two Minutes.
God damn, movies are pretty great.