It’s almost here: the time to talk about my top 10 favorite movies of 2021. This has been a long time coming and it’s been quite difficult in some cases to get here, what with film delays, lack of accessibility for many international features, and a wealth of content both theatrically and over streaming that was so large, it was a challenge just to know where to start. But get here we did, and we are so excited to finally put out that list and see what you all think of it. However, there is one bit of housekeeping left to do before finalizing our Top 10 – we have to talk about what barely missed the cut. The Honorable Mentions candidates this year are all excellent works deserving of praise both in their craft work and in their storytelling; some are better than others, but all have something innately valuable to them, and we would happily throw any one of them in with the rest of the best if the list could be that long. Unfortunately, rules are rules, and with a Top 10, you can’t include 11 movies unless you have a tie somewhere (this year, there isn’t one). It was a very difficult decision-making process having to cut these from the top spots, but we thought we’d give them one last look in the spotlight before the champions take the title. Here are The Friendly Film Fan’s Honorable Mentions for the Best Movies of 2021.
A phenomenally-directed documentary about the uprising at Attica prison in 1971, Traci Curry and Stanley Nelson’s Attica is more taught than a lot of big-budget thrillers that get released theatrically. With such chaos erupting so suddenly throughout the film’s thorough detailing of this historical event, putting it all together into a clear and concise narrative is a feat worth celebrating, and its ending still feels like a real bombshell in the moment, even if you already know how the story concludes. Nominated for Best Documentary Feature at this year’s Oscars, and free to watch on YouTube and Showtime, this is one harrowing documentary you don’t want to miss.
Compartment No. 6
The most recently viewed on this list, Compartment No. 6 may at first feel like a Finnish/Russian version of Richard Linklater’s Before Sunrise, and in structure it is a lot like that wonderful film: the two main characters meet on a train, they get off the train together (though this one also has them getting back on since they’re en route to the same place), and the pair form a bond the viewer can feel is unshakable by film’s end. The main difference here is that the bond these characters form – unlike in Before Sunrise – is not necessarily a romantic one, though there is very clearly love between the two. Their connection is more spiritual, tied closer to the soul than to the heart, and to see a bond like that form on screen without the help of any romantic subplot or implied sexuality between the characters is a feat not many films are able to pull off while still feeling balanced or real. Emotionally, the film isn’t as involving as it perhaps could have been, but through its writing, directing, craft work, and excellent lead performances, it remains a journey well worth taking.
It’s pretty incredible that after having seen The Disciple at NYFF in the summer of 2020, it stuck around in my “Best of” list for as long as it did. It wouldn’t receive distribution until Netflix picked it up, and after quietly dropping it in January on their streaming platform, the film just disappeared from the conversation, which is a shame, because it is genuinely remains one of 2021’s best films, and likely would have made a better candidate for India’s International Feature submission to the Oscars this year. Chaitanya Tamhane directs the hell out of it, and the lead performance by Aditya Modak is outstanding. Plus, it gives you a deeper appreciation for Indian classical music, and what a hard form of music it is to actually master. Any film that can do that, let alone this compellingly, deserves the highest recognition.
Drive My Car
Likely the Best International Feature winner at the Oscars this year (and nominee for Best Picture), Ryûsuke Hamaguchi’s Drive My Car will richly deserve the award. A three-hour epic meditation on grief and love as Hidetoshi Nishijima’s main character (who is a director himself) attempts to stage Chekov’s famous play Uncle Vanya, the film isn’t exactly a breeze to sit through, and that’s what makes it so compelling. It’s not that one doesn’t notice the passage of time while watching the film, but that the passage of time is so apparent one can’t help but stick with these characters all the way through their respective journeys. While not as immediately accessible as genre fair like Parasite, this is a film you have to let wash over you; you have to be willing to sit with it in order to reap its rewards, but oh how plentiful they are if one is patient enough to wait for them. Describing this to someone as a three-hour Japanese reflection on grief by way of Uncle Vanya may be the worst way to recommend it, but it’s practically impossible to describe how the film makes it all work, even when it shouldn’t. There’s a reason Hamaguchi is in that Best Director category, and if this film’s awards run is any indication, his chances for a second place finish have gone up significantly.
The Green Knight
In the eleventh hour of finalizing my Top 10, I ended up having to cut David Lowery’s towering achievement in fantasy, The Green Knight, from the tenth spot. Dev Patel’s performance in Lowery’s mystical, unique vision is fantastic. His Gawain is noticeably inept but eager to earn his place at Arthur’s table, and the nuance of that is not lost in Patel’s steely but shaken demeanor. However, it’s the filmmaking on display that truly takes the cake here (I already discussed the film’s ending montage in my Top 5 Scenes and Movie Moments piece). Lowery embodies and builds this world with a vision entirely suited to a story like this, so much so that not only could this story not be told any other way, no other story could be set within this world and fully work. We all remember that one…famous image...of course, but it’s the rest of the movie around it, paired with that particularly daring sequence, that makes The Green Knight such an excellent staple in fantasy filmmaking.
In the Heights
Perhaps the film that best defined the summer of 2021 in movies, In the Heights arrived with a heavy thud to almost none of the reception it deserved at the box office. Though an excellent musical adaptation and a critically acclaimed work, the film was an outright flop on opening weekend, which is a shame, since it was perhaps the movie best suited to reinvigorating audiences who chose to give it their time, to restore faith that not only were great movies back, great movie experiences were back. This film, while far from flawless, is as pure and joyous a celebration of Latino/Latina heritage, joy, dreams, and family as it ever could have been, buoyed by a breakout starring role for Anthony Ramos and a fantastic supporting cast, including the Oscar-worthy Olga Merediz. Musicals have always been tough to sell to modern audiences, but if there were any released in 2021 that deserved so much better than they got financially, In the Heights is at or near the top of that list.
An excellent sports film with an Oscar-worthy lead performance, King Richard is poised to win star Will Smith his first Best Actor trophy, and it’s not hard to see why after watching him in this. While it doesn’t do much different than many other inspirational sports movies of its kind, it does shine a much clearer light on Richard Williams as a tennis coach for his superstar daughters, and what a risk that ultimately was to take on. If don’t know about the Richard Williams story already, it’s a fascinating and supremely engaging introduction, but even if you do, the film finds ways to make you understand why people didn’t initially believe his plan for raising two tennis superstars would ultimately work and why it seemed destine to succeed. He made a lot of mistakes, he wasn’t always a great coach, but he also did a lot of good, and eventually, his plan worked out. The film is a full portrait of a man whose place in history – especially sports history – has always been a subject of fascination, and it doesn’t hurt that Aunjanue Ellis, Saniyya Sidney, and Jon Bernthal also turn in award-worthy work as Brandy, Venus, and Rick Macci respectively.
The Lost Daughter
Maggie Gyllenhaal’s directorial debut may not be the most perfect movie it could have been, but it is still an ambitious undertaking to make a movie about motherhood that does not ultimately come down on the positive side of things. An adaptation of the novel by Elena Ferrante, the film is decidedly cynical on the notion of parenting, asserting that the assumption that women will take on motherly instincts in the face of their need is not only false, but an unfair assumption for anyone to make. Olivia Colman’s work here is stellar, so much so that it’s frankly become underrated since everyone seems to be saying it’s “not her best” (not her best for Colman, though, is still leagues better than a lot of other actresses at their best), and Jessie Buckley’s now Oscar-nominated supporting turn as Colman’s younger self is some of the strongest work Buckley has ever turned in. This is not an easy film to love or connect with, but it is one of 2021’s finest debuts and best adaptations.
The fact that Mass of all things couldn’t quite make the cut for the Top 10 should be itself an indicator of just how contentious choosing those 10 was. Don’t be surprise if you see this on a lot of Top 10 lists for 2021, because it is more than richly deserved. Fran Kranz’s debut feature is a harrowing tale of heartbreak, grief, loss, trauma, and life-affirming forgiveness so strong and difficult to give, there is no possible way not to be moved by it. Putting four people in a room to talk for two hours may not seem like the ideal set-up for one of 2021’s most essential and powerful watches, but somehow Kranz manages to make every moment feel like the most important one in the film, and not in the obnoxious “where’s my Oscar” fashion. The conversation itself, between one set of parents who lost their child in a mass shooting and another set of parents whose son carried it out, is chock-full of nuance, with every aspect a conversation like it could have being explored. It’s a powerhouse debut script for Kranz and I sincerely hope it skyrockets his chances to get more things made.
The Mitchells vs. the Machines
Not quite the year’s best animated film but pretty damn close, The Mitchells vs. the Machines puts yet another win in the Lord & Miller producing belt. This movie is so full of creative energy, it’s practically impossible not to get swept up in it, regardless of whether some jokes don’t quite land as hard as other Lord & Miller-produced films have in the past. The film’s commentary on technological innovation and how it both alienates and unites very different people could have seemed far less nuanced in lesser hands, but the team behind this one really pulled through. The sequence with the giant Furby remains one of my favorite 2021 movie scenes. There’s not much else to say about what a joy this film is to experience except to tell you to go watch it on Netflix right now. You won’t regret it.
It is a real shame that NatGeo’s recounting of the harrowing rescue of a boys soccer team from a Thailand cave wasn’t given the same attention that Free Solo caught just a few years ago, especially since it may even be a better movie. There are whole sequences in The Rescue which are indistinguishable from documentary footage, having been re-created for the sake of detailing just how dangerous an operation the whole ordeal was. To pack as much detail into the initial crisis, to the planning of the mission itself, to how things went wrong and how things started going right, is an enormous feat but directors Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai are more than up to the task, even capturing some unexpectedly emotional moments along the way. If you ever get the chance to see this one in a theater, do not pass it up. I’m lucky I didn’t.
The surprise of the year award goes to the movie everyone thought we be Nicolas Cage’s John Wick, only for director Michael Sarnoski to ask: “why do you look for violence where tenderness breathes?” Cage is at his best in decades in this film about a former chef searching for his kidnapped truffle pig, and at every turn the film could get violent, it instead chooses to challenge why we want that so much. What is with our obsession with vengeance? Do we even like it, or are we simply following what the trends tell us to do? The restaurant interrogation scene is an all-timer for Cage’s career, demonstrating not only that he’s capable of great performances, but more than able to stare straight into your soul and deliver the best ones you may ever see. There’s a reason he has an Oscar on his mantle, and Pig – beyond its stellar writing, score, cinematography, and supporting performances – is the first movie in a very long time to not only show us why, but definitively say that it’s more than deserved.
There were a lot of documentaries this year that impressed me, moved me, and held my interest from the first minute to the last, but the one that pissed me off the most was Procession. It follows a group of lapsed Catholic men who were subjected to sexual abuse at the hands of priests, and having grown up in a religious household, the very idea of that has always made my blood boil. As these men come together, they decide to make short films based on their experiences, with young boys playing themselves, in order to take the power back from those who preyed on them by stealing it. But Procession’s greatest weapon isn’t rage or forgiveness, as lesser films would attempt to exploit – in fact, the film never once asks the subjects to forgive anyone involved in their trauma – it’s catharsis. Whatever closure these men are able to achieve is enough to move one to tears simply knowing that even though their pasts are tainted, they’re going to be okay. It's a very tough film to watch, especially if you grew up in any close proximity to this sort of idea that the church can’t be held responsible for their abuses because “God wants us to forgive,” but it is perhaps the least discussed amongst film circles post-Oscar nominations that deserves to stay in the conversation the most.
Great comedies are always a treat to watch. Great indie comedies usually feel like a genuine discovery. Great indie comedies that cost less than $500K to make that are this good are outright fucking miracles. There is no stopping Shiva Baby from being the little indie miracle that could once it gets the ball rolling, and boy is it a wild ride. Rachel Sennott is impeccable here as a college student whose sugar daddy arrives at a Jewish funeral service she’s attending (having apparently known the deceased) with her parents. If that sound like a recipe for anxiety and hilarity, just wait until Emma Seligman’s remarkable script, clocking in at just 1 hour and 17 minutes, really starts cooking by bringing in the incredible Molly Gordon. Beyond the stress-fest that is the central incident, however, the film is also about now knowing one’s place in the world, being uncertain about the future, and having to navigate the expectations of all the adults around you even as a new adult yourself. The film’s end may be a tad abrupt, but boy, there is seldom found a wilder ride to take from 2021.
Pablo Larraín’s chilly, pseudo-horror biopic about Princess Diana’s time in the royal family over a period of three days may seem stand-offish and pretentious at first, but it’s not long before the film envelops you in the world it creates, one where the house/manor/palace is a prison rather than a home and the royal family are the walls closing in all around Diana. They control what she wears to which meals at which times of day, constantly watching over her, attempting to control the life she was meant to live for herself. As she distances herself further from them and gains more freedom, so too does the film, with the frame becoming more welcoming, warmer, more full of joy. Spencer is a brilliant piece of claustrophobic filmmaking in the subtlest of fashions, and that’s before we get to Kristen Stewart’s Oscar-worthy and career-best performance as Diana herself, with each movement, each line delivery, each expression, each sigh of relief or exasperation perfectly tailored not just to reflect Diana but to fulfill her embodiment on screen. It won’t be for everyone, but for those interested in Diana or the royal family, or who are in the mood for a more formalistic approach to the story, Spencer is a real winner.
The Suicide Squad
Just after Disney fired James Gunn unceremoniously and at the behest of just the worst bad-faith critics online – who had coordinated a campaign to dig for problematic material from him (which he had already addressed) because they didn’t like how critical he was of former and disgraced U.S. President Donald Trump and wanted to get him “cancelled” – DC scooped him up to revamp their Suicide Squad property to phenomenal success…at least critically and audience-wise (Gunn eventually got re-hired to direct Guardians of the Galaxy: Vol. 3). Yet another of 2021’s least deserving box office flops, The Suicide Squad was so good and so successful at rebranding everyone’s favorite team of crass-mouthed villains that HBO Max greenlit a spinoff show for one of its best characters almost right away. That wouldn’t have been possible if not for the often blistering and unexpectedly emotional performances lining this movie’s halls up and down, from Margot Robbie’s return as Harley Quinn (a character I’m pretty sure no one else can play in live-action now), to Idris Elba’s badass Bloodsport, to Daniela Melchior’s scene-stealing Ratcatcher 2 to John Cena’s hilarious and now series-leading Peacemaker. Everyone in this film is clearly having a blast, and if the incredible gory action and fantastic jokes are any indication, so will any comic book movie fan willing to give it their time.
Summer of Soul (…Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised)
Questlove’s directorial debut also happens to be the frontrunner to win Best Documentary Feature at the Oscars, and while there is one film in that category that I do like better overall, I will have no qualms about it winning the gold on awards night. Summer of Soul is pure celebration in its rarest and most joyous form. Affectionately dubbed “the Black Woodstock,” this recounting of the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival is chock full of never-before-seen concert footage filled with performances so legendary, it would make any musician’s head spin. It truly is a rarity amongst documentaries to encounter something so seldom discussed which was so huge at the time of being that it was as big as Woodstock, if not bigger. There’s an obvious reason for this to anyone with a brain, but it nonetheless is an astounding achievement to have told this story in this definitive a way, and have it be your first movie you’ve ever made. Once again Questlove, we are in awe of your talents.
While it just barely missed the Best Picture nominations at the Oscars, Tick, Tick…Boom! is a fantastic movie musical worthy of all recognition and praise. The directorial debut of Lin Manuel-Miranda, it tells the story of Jonathan Larson (Andrew Garfield) – the eventual writer of Rent – as he attempts to finish his first Broadway musical, Superbia. The editing in the film (Oscar nominated along with Garfield for his immaculate performance) is top-notch, simultaneously telling the story theatrically with the story itself playing out cinematically, and the music is of course fantastic; “30/90” is a particular favorite of mine. Robin de Jesus is also one of the year’s most charming supporting turns, easy to watch and fall in love with almost instantly. But what sets this film apart for me where so many others have gone wrong and failed is in detailing how difficult it can often be to come up with the right idea under the wrong circumstances, whether those circumstances are external or internal (often they’re a combination of both). Creativity and writing is a taxing discipline on the mind, and it can oftentimes feel like if one doesn’t get this word or that phrase or that idea’s expression just right – no, if you don’t get it perfect – it will feel inauthentic and disingenuous. This causes stress, anxiety, eons of panic if you’re on a deadline, and completely envelopes you until you get it right. As a writer, I can’t express how many times I’ve gone through the same thing (though with much less on the line, to be fair). Tick, Tick…Boom! is very much a theater kid/writer-friendly sort of movie, so it may not hit everyone the same way, but I felt more understood by it than I have by a musical in a very long time.
The wildest ride any movie in 2021 could ever take anyone on belongs to Julia Ducournau’s impeccably bold Titane. Winner of the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival, this film is impossible to describe under the banner of one genre, unless that genre is “holy fucking shit, what the fuck is happening.” Audacious, unpredictable, occasionally vile, unhesitant, ludicrous, and always arresting, Titane is a force of nature one never forgets experiencing for the first time, with Agathe Rouselle and Vincent Lindon’s immaculate performances ringing in one’s ears forever. To say anything more might be to spoil one of the most spoilable great works of art ever created, so I won’t say anything more here, but just know, this stuck around in my Top 10 for a long time (and the Academy should have included it in the Best International Feature shortlist).
The Tragedy of Macbeth
Being a huge fan of William Shakespeare’s Macbeth myself, I’m always fascinated to see how each new adaptation brings a different flavor to the best of the Bard’s tragedies; Joel Coen’s happens to exist in a whole different stratosphere, simultaneously theatrical and cinematic to a degree that would make tick, tick…Boom! embarrassed to be in its company, brought to life immaculately by the stunning black-and-white photography of Bruno Delbonnel. It’s not doing anything different story-wise, per se, but for Shakespeare fans, it is as arresting a viewing experience as any you’ll ever have. Denzel Washington turns in phenomenal work as the title character, with Frances McDormand more than capable of sharing the screen with him, but it’s Kathryn Hunter’s deeply unsettling take on the witches that ultimately steals the show. The sound design and score are also brilliant, and while I’m not sure if I liked it quite as much as Justin Kurzel’s 2015 take on the same play, it gets pretty damn close. Look-wise, it might be the most uniquely stunning movie of the year.
And those are all of my Honorable Mentions for the best movies of 2021! What did you think of these films? Are there any you’re going to now check out? Let me know in the comments section below, and thanks for reading!
- The Friendly Film Fan
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Film critic in my free time. Film enthusiast in my down time.