2021 [in film]

As the world (sort of) opened back up again this year, my film viewing responded accordingly; in January, I “attended” a virtual Sundance Film Festival, and by September I was logging a negative PCR test to make my way to Canada for an in-person Toronto Film Festival. Vaccinated and masked, I returned to movie theaters quite a bit over the summer and fall, enjoying amazing (and less so amazing) films back on the big screen—finally. And as the year came to an end this week and another bad wave of the virus wreaked its havoc on us all, I hunkered down at home and knocked out a bunch of films I’d been meaning to see for months. In between, there was work (so much work!), travel, a social life, all the normal things that used to keep me from seeing more films blissfully back on my calendary.

So, in 2021, my slightly scaled-back viewing count (from a record-making (for me) 268 films in 2020) landed at 233, including all those festivals, work screeners, the films I covered over at Third Coast Review and my own personal enjoyment, too. And though the number is a bit lower than before, the quality is nevertheless as remarkable as ever. As I reviewed my top films of the year (I track everything on Letterboxd, and you can follow me there), it was quite the challenge to narrow it down. From films I first discovered in the early weeks of the year that stuck with me to ones I only caught as I scrambled to fit in a few more titles before December 31, it’s a list I’m really happy with, and one I hope inspires you to catch a film you’ve not yet seen.

As for how my viewing broke down this year, here’s what I can tell you:

  • Of the 233 films I watched in 2021, 63 of them were documentaries, or roughly 27% – nearly one third! I love nonfiction filmmaking, and I’m excited to share some of the best I saw this year with you.
  • The oldest film I saw this year was 1941’s The Maltese Falcon, which I got to see on the big screen at Film Forum in New York, when I was in town for a week this summer. An amazing venue I was excited to finally return to, and a wonderful classic film to catch.
  • Approximately 53 films I saw this year were international titles; that is, films primarily from countries with a language other than English. Many films on my list are British or Irish or otherwise produced in English-speaking countries in conjunction with the US, and I’m not sure those really count as “foreign.”
  • I returned to cinemas in early April, for a screening of Riders of Justice, which I didn’t love. By year’s end, I’d seen 40 films in theaters (most of them small press screenings, all masked with only colleagues in attendance)
  • Not surprisingly, I saw the most films during the months I attended film festivals: Sundance in January (39) and TIFF in September (37); not sure what I was doing in April, but I only saw 11 films that month.

I could go on, but I’ll spare you more minutia and get to the fun stuff: my favorite films of the year. I honestly could not cut this down below the thirty films I’ve landed on, so I hope you don’t mind that I’ve gone a little long this year. It breaks down a bit unevenly, with 17 narrative films and 13 documentaries (and yes, a few of them are foreign films, too).

Narrative Films

The best film of 2021, in my humble opinion (and as the main image might’ve tipped you off to), is Steven Spielberg’s West Side Story. A triumph from the first frame to the last, Spielberg (and screenwriter Tony Kushner) has re-imagined a classic so well that, in many ways, it surpasses its predecessor from 1961. Every frame is a wonder, Spielberg showing off his masterful command of the art form as if we don’t already know how good he is at what he does. The entire cast (even weak link Ansel Elgort) is so charming you’ll be enchanted from start to finish; pay particular attention to Ariana Debose as Anita and Mike Faist as Riff. Leonard Bernstein’s memorable music and Stephen Sondheim’s witty lyrics remain as endearing (and indelible) as ever, with sweeping choreography filmed in a way that evokes the absolute best of the classic movie musical. Above all, West Side Story reminds us why movies exist, why they endure as an art form, and why we continue to find so much to appreciate in them.

There’s plenty more to say, but I’ll point you to my full review if you’d like to really get my take on this joyful celebration of cinema (yes, even though it’s ultimately a tragedy). If you can safely go, I highly recommend seeing this one in the theater before it’s gone.

The other sixteen titles on my Best of the Year list? Here goes:

  • Nightmare Alley – Guillermo del Toro’s moody, polished film noir features a stellar cast (Bradley Cooper, Toni Colette, Cate Blanchett, Rooney Mara, Richard Jenkins, on and on) in a remake of a story about greed, ambition, betrayal and grief. (Now in theaters; look for it soon to rent/buy online.)
  • The Lost Daughter – actress Maggie Gyllenhaal makes her filmmaking debut with a taut, piercing drama about motherhood, featuring affecting performances from Olivia Colman, Dakota Johnson and Jessie Buckley. (Now streaming on Netflix.)
  • Spencer – I’m a huge Pablo Larraín fan, and his fable on the tragedy of Princess Diana (her failed marriage, her treatment by the royal family) is arresting, not to mention Kristen Stewart’s eerily spot-on portrayal of the woman. (Now available to rent/purchase online; read my full review)
  • Titane – Julia Decournau’s first feature, Raw, is nearly impossible to watch it’s so good. She tops herself with the brutal, intense Titane, a film about a woman with a metal plate in her head and the effect it has on her, ahem, sex life. (Now available to rent/purchase online; read my full review)
  • Petite Maman – Celine Sciamma made one of the most beautiful features recently in Portrait of a Lady on Fire, a big, bold period piece. She proves her talent at the other end of the spectrum in this quiet, intimate and often whimsical drama about the bond between mothers and daughters. (Arrives on streaming soon)
  • The Power of the Dog – the great Jane Campion has been absent from screens for several years; she returns with a film so subtly powerful you might not feel its full impact at first pass. But trust that so much is happening in this deeply felt drama that it’s a wonder to behold. (Now streaming on Netflix; read my full review)
  • The French Dispatch – Wes Anderson goes full Wes Anderson in this madcap caricature of “The New Yorker” and it’s delightful. From Bill Murray as the curmudgeonly publisher who rallies his troops for one last issues to Timothee Chalamet as a comically serious teenage rebel, the star-studded film knows exactly what it is. (Now available to rent/buy online; read my full review)
  • The Tragedy of Macbeth – Joel Coen. Denzel Washington. Frances McDormand. Shakespeare. Need I say more? (Coming soon to AppleTV+)
  • The Worst Person in the World – Joachim Trier’s dramedy is a coming-of-age story for thirty-somethings featuring Renate Reinsve in a career-defining role as a woman who loves to be in love, wants to create a life with someone and has big dreams for her life yet has no idea how to really do any of it. (Coming soon to streaming)
  • Drive My Car – Ryusuke Hamaguchi crafts a three-hour epic about grief that never feels a moment too long. A theater director embarks on a new production where he meets actors and a community who help him process his loss in unexpected ways.
  • CODA – ultimately a paint-by-numbers coming-of-age story about a high schooler who just wants to sing, Sian Heder’s sophomore feature combines a unique family dynamic with a genuine heart of gold to winning ends. (Now streaming on AppleTV+)
  • Language Lessons – many filmmakers tried to make Zoom films during the pandemic, and many filmmakers failed. Natalie Morales’s small but charming drama cleverly connects two humans via video chat in ways that make the whole medium seem not so bad after all. (Now available to rent/purchase online)
  • Preparations to Be Together for an Unknown Period of Time – Lili Horvát’s moody, brooding drama follows a neurosurgeon who returns to Hungary to meet a man she met while in the US. The only problem is, now he says he’s never met her. The films sexual tension is palpable, as is its insistence on the power of unspoken connections. (Now streaming on Criterion Channel)
  • tick, tick…BOOM! – It’s yet to be seen if Lin-Manuel Miranda’s filmmaking skills translate to anything beyond musicals, but even if this gift is all he ever gives us, that’s enough. Andrew Garfield disappears into his role as Jonathan Larsen, creator of Rent, and it’s a joy to behold. (Now streaming on Netflix; read my full review)
  • Quo vadis, Aida? – There are some films you only ever need to see once, their impact so intense and unforgettable. Jasmila Žbanić‘s story of a woman in the thick of the Bosnia war of the 1990s and the impossible decisions she’s forced to make. Powerful filmmaking at its best. (Now streaming on Hulu; read my full review)
  • Bergman Island – Mia Hansen-Løve’s homage to filmmaking, storytelling and Ingmar Bergman, Bergman Island is a deceptively layered, sun-drenched story of creators and their process as well as the stories they tell and characters they create.

Documentary Films

  • The Rescue – from the Oscar-winning filmmakers behind Free Solo and Meru (Jimmy Chin and E. Chai Vasarhelyi), The Rescue doesn’t take place on a mountain, but it is an incredible story of challenge, survival and overcoming the seemingly impossible. The film recounts the very real drama that unfolded after a boy’s soccer team got stuck in a cave in Thailand. If you think you know this story, you have no idea. (Now streaming on Disney+; read my full review)
  • In the Same Breath – Filmmaker Nanfu Wang made one of the most personal documentaries of 2019, One Child Nation. She returns to China for this gripping exploration into the early days of COVID-19 and how it emerged (and spread like wildfire) in a wet market in Wuhan. (Now streaming on HBOMax; read my full review)
  • Julia – In what I think is a first for me, I’ve included two documentaries by the same filmmakers on my Best Of list; the first is this winning, joyful portrait of the iconic Julia Child, a woman who lived many lifetimes in her 91 years on Earth. What’s so exceptional about the film is the way directors Betsy West and Julie Cohen allow Child to be a full, even flawed, human being. Pay close attention to her advice for keeping your spouse happy. (Now available to rent/purchase online; read my full review)
  • Flee – Also a first, I believe: a mostly animated film that’s also a documentary—and a very good one at that. Jonas Poher Rasmussen uncovers the harrowing journey of a young boy escaping Afghanistan as a refugee, now looking back on his extraordinary experience as a man on the verge of getting married and starting a family of his own. (Coming soon to rent/purchase online)
  • Writing With Fire – I saw this film in January 2020 during a virtual Sundance Film Festival and fell so in love with it that I emailed the filmmakers to ask how I could work with them (as fate would have it, I got the chance this Fall, but I digress). Just try not to be inspired by this story of the only female-led independent news outlet in India and the women who put their journalism before everything, often their own safety. (Now in select theaters; on digital in March; read my full review)
  • Ascension – The second film on this list set in China, Ascension is a deceptively quiet, observational documentary about the pursuit of happiness in the largest country in the world, often through the lens of communism and country. Stuff that makes ya think. (Now streaming on Paramount+)
  • Rebel Hearts – Another that’s been a favorite since Sundance, Rebel Hearts documents a convent in Los Angeles where, in the thick of the 1960s and ’70s, nuns revolted against the patriarchal ways of the Catholic church and pushed for real, foundational change. (Now streaming on Discovery+)
  • My Name is Pauli Murray – The second film by Cohen and West on my list this year, I adore this one because I learned so much watching it. Namely, I learned who Pauli Murray was and why they should be as revered as other pioneering trailblazers like Ruth Bader Ginsberg, Sally Ride, Marie Curie, Maya Angelou, on and on. Know the name, know the work. (Now streaming on Amazon Prime; read my full review)
  • All Light, Everywhere – Every now and then a documentary comes along that is so seemingly out there it feels like it can’t possibly be true. Theo Anthony’s mind-bending documentary explores the intersection of technology, surveillance and power in an era when it’s possible to truly watch everyone, all the time. (Now streaming on Hulu; read my full review)
  • Summer of Soul – Musician, producer and now filmmaker Questlove discovered a wealth of unreleased footage from a summer music festival in Harlem, a celebration of Black culture, music and joy that took place (and was promptly forgotten) the same year as Woodstock. Plan to dancing by the end of it. (Now streaming on Hulu)
  • Val – If all you know of actor Val Kilmer are his iconic roles as Iceman (Top Gun) or Batman (Batman Forever), you’re in for a treat in this intimate deep dive into his life then (through hours of home video footage) and now (as Kilmer adjusts to life post-throat cancer). (Now streaming on Amazon Prime)
  • Gunda – A dialog-free documentary in black and white, all about a pig? Friends, it’s perhaps one of the most emotional films you’ll see all year. Simply let the film take you on its journey. (Now streaming on Hulu; read my full review)
  • The Lost Leonardo – I love a good caper, and this one is a doozie. Nothing gets stolen, exactly, except perhaps hundreds of millions of dollars, depending on what you think about a painting that may or may not be an uncredited Leonardo da Vinci masterpiece. The sheer silliness of it all (and how seriously everyone involved takes it) is perfect popcorn fare. (Now available to rent/purchase online; read my full review)

So there you have it – my favorite 30 films of 2021. That’s not to say these are categorically, emphatically, and the only possible answers to the best of the year; these are my best of the year. I’d love to hear what you loved this year!