The Friendly Film Fan takes a look back at the absolute best films released over the past cinematic year.
Well, the time has finally arrived. Ladies and gentlemen, welcome back to The Friendly Film Fan for the penultimate piece of the 2021 movie season. It certainly has been a journey getting to this point, but I am so excited to finally bring you my picks for the absolute best films of the past year – or at least the ones that became my favorites. If you happened to read my Honorable Mentions piece, then you already know how tough a decision-making process putting this list together ultimately was, with several films I loved having to get cut from the top spots right at the last minute. I would certainly encourage you to check out all of those films as well, so I’ll leave a link to that piece here, as well as a link to my Recommended Movies of the past year that couldn’t quite make the cut for “Best Of” consideration. But now, it’s zero hour, so let’s get right down to it. Here are my picks for the Top 10 Movies of 2021.
10. Red Rocket
It’s difficult to describe just how thoroughly Sean Baker has become the most interesting indie darling in A24’s back pocket to watch, but what can I say? The guy just knows how to make movies. Chronicling the journey of a disgraced former pornstar as he arrives back in his Texas hometown, this tale of greed, ineptitude, and unbridled selfishness is one of the most incisive commentaries on the dangers of charismatic toxic people one can witness if it’s given a chance. Simon Rex turns in a truly Oscar-worthy lead performance here, with newcomer Suzanna Son nearly stealing the show as the redheaded Strawberry (the film makes a point about that being her name). What makes this odyssey so compelling is not that Rex’s Mikey is a real piece of shit, but that it’s still so fun to watch him work anyway; we know he’s a toxic personality, we know he’s not to be trusted, but Red Rocket sails on Rex’s charisma so much so that we can’t help but be pulled into his orbit anyway. The film’s careful balance of authenticity and storytelling inside a community seldom seen on the silver screen may be partly created, partly found, but it’s Sean Baker’s assured writing and direction that bring forth the rest of what makes this movie so damn great.
9. Licorice Pizza
Paul Thomas Anderson’s films have always had their lovers and their haters, and more than a few have shared problematic elements, but those elements aside, the guy still makes some of the most compulsively watchable films ever put to screen, and despite its own shortcomings, the rest of Licorice Pizza essentially coasts on that same level of quality. The more problematic aspects of the central romance and some of the movie’s weirdly-placed jokes are addressed in the writing, but they’re not really the point of the film. This isn’t so much a story about its central protagonists as it is about the world around them, and what it’s like to inhabit that world of 1973 Los Angeles, specifically Hollywood at that time. And boy, what a world it is to inhabit. Not only is Licorice Pizza a sweet, charming story about two people falling in love, it also features a whirlwind of memorable supporting characters, including Bradley Cooper’s show-stealing turn as producer Jon Peters in the film’s absolute best ten minutes of runtime. Alana Haim and Cooper Hoffman are brilliant in the film as well, with Haim herself having come dangerously close to an Oscar nomination for her acting debut (the film itself only garnered three nominations total), and Hoffman doing his late father the proudest he could ever be. This film may not be the top of PTA’s filmography, but if this is coasting for him, that tells you by itself just how strong the man’s filmography actually is.
My most anticipated movie of the year, and boy oh boy, did it ever not let me down one bit. Spider-Man may have made more money, but Denis Villeneuve’s adaptation of Part One of Frank Herbert’s iconic sci-fi novel is the defining epic of the 2021 movie season as far as craft is concerned. Massive in scope and towering in its worldbuilding, Dune is every bit the filmmaking-forward tentpole it needed to be in order to fulfill the promise of Villeneuve’s filmmaking potential. What was once thought unfilmable has been made tactile, and the performances of Dune’s massive ensemble cast set against its absolutely awe-inspiring production design, visual effects, sound, and perhaps Hans Zimmer’s best score since The Lion King cement even further that snubbing Villeneuve for a Best Director spot is one of the worst decisions the Academy has made in the 21st century. Maybe the biggest movie star under 35 in the world right now, Timothée Chalamet kills it as Paul Atreides, his performance as steely and reserved as it ever needed to be to pull off this character, which makes it a fantastic benefit to watch performances as strong as Oscar Isaac’s, Rebecca Ferguson’s, and MVP Jason Momoa’s work around him. There are so many things to say about the things Dune does well that noting its ending does feel like pure set-up for another film (which hadn’t yet been greenlit when it was released) and it’s not quite as emotionally involving as some of Villeneuve’s other works feels like a moot point. This is bid-budget, theatrical filmmaking as it should be, and if there is a chance to watch Part One and Part Two of Dune on a massive theater screen back-to-back, you can be damn sure I’m taking it.
7. The Worst Person in the World
This and my #6 spot have switched back and forth more times than I can count, and will probably switch again once I get a chance to watch them back-to-back, but placement really doesn’t matter where it concerns my #6 pick and The Worst Person in the World. Joachim Trier’s final film in his unofficial “Oslo trilogy” (which I still think the Criterion Collection should make available as a trilogy) is a beautiful, poignant ode to the time in everyone’s lives when they’re trying to figure out who they are and what that means for how they love. Featuring the best lead actress performance of the year by Renate Reinsve and a show-stopping supporting turn from Anders Danielsen Lie, the Nordic submission for Best International Feature is more than worthy of the award, regardless of whether we all know what it’s eventually going to Drive My Car anyway. Beautifully shot, wonderfully scored (when there is music), and chock-full of moments you’ll remember forever, this one is a real stunner and I would implore anyone who has a chance to see it in a theater to do so. Finding this film just before I made my Top 10 was extremely difficult, but I am so glad I finally did, because it’s just the most wonderfully cathartic experience to witness, and while it’s nearly impossible to describe why, it’s one of those films that best fits the old adage: you’ll know it when you see it.
Siân Heder’s CODA (which is an acronym for Child of Deaf Adults), a remake of the 2014 French film La Famille Belier, may not seem at first like one of the best movies of the year on its face, but the Sundance hit has a funny way of sticking with you all the way to the end, like a friend you’ve realized has just always been there. A landmark case in representation of deaf actors in mainstream American cinema, each and every moment of the film further emphasis the immense talents of its fantastic ensemble cast as its protagonist Ruby, the only hearing person in her family, simultaneously pursues her passion of music and acts as her families anchor for the hearing community that they live in. Emilia Jones is fantastic in this movie, as are Daniel Durant and Marlee Matlin, but the real show-stopper here is Troy Kotsur, whose tender and often hilarious father figure shares with Jones some of the film’s most emotional and moving moments (the truck bed scene is a real knockout for both). Truth be told, there is no grand revelation, no incisive commentary, no single big “a ha” thing that CODA brings to the table that other films haven’t also addressed, but when a film is this well balanced and watchable purely based on the strength of its cast telling a human story about human issues, that’s all it needs. The film is streaming on Apple TV+ right now, and I would encourage everyone to give it a shot.
5. West Side Story
Rounding out the Top 5 is Steven Spielberg’s definitive statement that everyone who ever doubts him needs to re-evaluate their appraisal of the legendary director (who’s now been nominated for Best Director for every decade in which he’s made movies). West Side Story isn’t just one of the best remakes ever made of a film that not only do movie fans already love, but that actually won 10 Oscars in 1962, it’s also Spielberg’s first musical ever. Factoring all that in, it’s frankly the biggest miracle in the world that this 2021 adaptation works at all, much less that it works at the level it does, which may cement Spielberg as the greatest filmmaker of all time. Every update to the story speaks to the modern world, everything that was cut doesn’t feel like it’s actually missing. Tony and Maria get updated characterizations that speak to the more nuanced conflicts of their central romance, Doc being Rita Moreno instead of someone we didn’t know adds so much weight to the part, actual Latinos and Latinas being cast as the Puerto Ricans takes care of the very obviously problematic brownface problem the original film had. Everything in the new West Side Story is working at the top of its game. There’s a marvelous debut from lead Rachel Zegler, show-stopping turns by Mike Faist and Ariana DeBose (the latter of which is in the lead to win an Oscar this year), a truly underrated David Alvarez, stellar production design, brilliant cinematography, phenomenal sound, immaculate costuming, and behind it all, masterful direction. This is the musical this year that most reminded me why I love movies and more specifically, why I’ve always loved musicals, and I couldn’t be more thrilled with the way it all turned out (okay, except for Ansel Elgort, but we don’t need to open that whole can of worms right now).
4. Nine Days
Nine Days going nomination-less at this year’s Oscars was a tragic inevitability from the beginning; it had already been delayed from the summer of 2020 into August of 2021, and by that point, so many delayed films were already releasing that the stellar debut of writer and director Edson Oda got so lost in the shuffle, even many of the critically-decided awards shows seem to have forgotten that it even released at all. Sony Pictures Classics is sneaky good at getting their films into the Oscar nominations list when they have something to push, but it seems that may have been in vein, which is a shame, since it needn’t have been. Edson Oda’s life-affirming odyssey about living is one of the most beautiful celebrations of all the joy and the sorrow that is human life that I’ve seen in a very long time. There isn’t really another way to describe just how thoroughly this film sticks to one’s soul after the credits roll; it’s just beautiful. The performances of the ensemble cast are essentially perfect, the violin-centered score by Antonio Pinto is stunning, and the way the film crafts moments to both celebrate and examine the various facets of living life in the modern world, and how wonderful but also difficult that can be, as well as reckoning with the parts of it we don’t understand, is seldom this poignant. Nine Days may have fallen off the radar for many pundits and awards ceremonies post-Sundance debut, but for me, it will always have a special place amongst the films of 2021.
To truly understand what makes Flee rank so high when The Worst Person in the World might be a better International Feature or when Summer of Soul might be more successful as a documentary, one has to understand first as an Animated Feature, and then as the other two things. The first film to be nominated in all three of these categories at the Oscars, Flee is an absolutely stunning example of what makes animation such an essential medium in the filmmaking space. This is not a story one could do in live-action or pure documentary format; it needed the medium of animation to be properly told, and my god, was it ever properly told. By far the best animated film of 2021, the story of Afghan refugee Rashid Aitouganov, who is on the verge of marrying his husband, recounting his perilous journey fleeing to Denmark is told and recounted with such respect and reverence by director Jonas Poher Rasmussen that it never feels as if he gets in the way of the story being told. This truly is a remarkable feat of filmmaking for all involved, and the best case yet for why animation is not just an added benefit, but entirely essential to filmmaking itself. It is currently streaming on Hulu in both subbed and dubbed versions (but c’mon, you know the subtitled version is better).
2. C’mon C’mon
The absolute best film to go entirely nomination-less at the Oscars this year, Mike Mills’ latest feature, C’mon C’mon, might well be his absolute best yet, an absolute stunner in black-and-white with a screenplay so perfectly calibrated, it’s frankly insane that the film didn’t get awards attention from almost anyone. Joaquin Phoenix and Woody Norman’s chemistry if off the charts in this film, the latter of whom turns in maybe the best supporting performance of the entire year. Gabby Hoffman is also great for how little she actually ends up being in the film, but it’s really the connection between Phoenix and the apparently British Norman that keeps it going. As much as it’s a film about pseudo-parenting, it’s also about just figuring life out, whether as a kid or an adult. Chock-full of philosophical wonder and a genuine sense of deeply human vulnerability, it wraps the viewer in a warm hug and fills them with meaningful contemplation they’ll keep with them for as long as they possibly can. This is not just one of A24’s most inspired productions, it might well be their second-best film ever (still behind Moonlight, but then again, what isn’t?).
1. The Power of the Dog
Yes, its first half is slow. Yes, it’s not exactly the most exciting or even all that arresting Western you’ll ever see; this is not an action movie, this is not a thriller or in any sense a traditional Western. In fact, it’s almost an anti-Western in practice. But Jane Campion’s latest movie for Netflix is not only one of the best the service has ever produced, it’s one of the most layered in the resurgent director’s entire filmography. How does one not make a movie for 12 years, and then come back and make one of the most stunningly-crafted, expertly-directed, methodically-told works ever set in this genre which reckons with – in all the most difficult ways – the very subjects that this genre has always had its most bad-faith enthusiasts try to avoid? Apparently, like this. The Power of the Dog is more than just a stunning work of art in terms of its craft and the skill therein, more than just an expertly performed examination of generation-permeating abuses and how they infect everything around them, more than just an unshakably discomforting study on queerness in the Western genre unlike any other that has come before: it is a reckoning with all of these things, which it demonstrates in a single sequence near the film’s end in the biggest filmmaking flex any filmmaker in 2021 ever made. Brilliant from top to bottom, there is not one film from the past year more ready for re-analysis, more ripe for re-contextualization, or more apt to be studied in film studies classes for how it weaves so many things together with not so much as a few lines of dialogue and a shared look or two. This is a film anyone who truly engages with it will mulling over for a long, long time, and the one I’m most eager to revisit from 2021. Jane Campion didn’t just make one of Netflix’s best movies ever; she made the best movie of 2021.
And those are my picks for the Top 10 Movies of 2021! What did you think of these films? What are your Top 10 Movies of the past year? Let me know in the comments section below, and thanks for reading all of our content over the past year! We understand that things ran a little dry for a while, but we are working hard to get right back to it over the next year. We’re so excited to continue this journey with you all in 2022 and beyond. Stick around for more 2022 content, coming soon!
- The Friendly Film Fan