Another year is in the books, and folks, it was a Weird One™.
Sure, 2021 saw the widespread reopening of theaters across the globe, but I don’t feel like I can confidently pull a Vin Deisel and declare “THE MOVIES ARE BACK.” Things aren’t dire like they were last winter, but there’s no cohesive narrative among the 2021 releases that hints at recovery, or even forward progress for the film industry.
Do you know what I love about movies, though? Even if the whole industry fell apart tomorrow, there is absolutely nothing that could prevent someone from picking up a camera, pointing it at something they found interesting, and filming a great movie. There will always be great movies, and these were, in my opinion, some of the best movies of 2021.
10. The Tragedy of Macbeth – Directed by Joel Cohen
Sometimes, you really just can’t beat the classics. Joel Cohen adapts Shakespear’s age-old tale of ambition and downfall into a dream-like, black and white production that’s faithful to the source material while still feeling fresh. Everything about the Macbeth story has been stripped down to be as minimal as it could possibly be in a movie, with deft camera work and a few key practical effects being the only things that really separate it from a stage play. With such sparse trappings, The Tragedy of Macbeth allows the brilliant performances of Denzel Washington and Frances McDormand to serve as the centerpieces of the film, and what great centerpieces they are. It’s a solid adaptation that, in a world filled with violent action blockbusters, brings the weight and emotional toll of violence back into cinema.
The Tragedy of Macbeth is now playing in theaters and will premiere on Apple TV+ on January 14.
9. Licorice Pizza – Directed by Paul Thomas Anderson
I’ll be upfront and say that many of Paul Thomas Anderson’s movies are not made for me, but I enjoyed this coming-of-age tale a lot. Alana Haim and Cooper Hoffman are superb as two people who latch onto each other when they know they shouldn’t, and their relationship in the movie is fascinating. On its surface, it’s a weird one, but Licorice Pizza takes advantage of that, and watching it grow helps you see exactly what makes these two people want to be around one another. Unlike some of PTA’s other films, this one has a more comedic edge, and for me, most of it worked. There were a few jokes that fell flat, but it’s definitely worth checking out if you’re into funny/awkward tales about growing up.
Licorice Pizza is now playing in theaters.
8. The Card Counter – Directed by Paul Schrader
If Paul Schrader’s first directorial effort, First Reformed, was a bit too depressing for you, I highly recommend checking out his fantastic new film, The Card Counter. It’s a timely drama about a man who can’t let himself out of a prison of his own making for the things he’s done, and who’s wrestling with whether there can be anything more to life than that prison. Oscar Isaac is great as the film’s lead, and while the movie does wrestle with some dark material, it’s far less existential and arguably more hopeful than First Reformed. Even though there are some technical aspects of the film that are a bit rough around the edges, The Card Counter is a worthy addition to Schrader’s body of work that will stick with you long after the credits roll.
The Card Counter is now available for rent and purchase across most major retailers.
7. C’mon C’mon – Directed by Mike Mills
When we’re young, we look to the adults in our lives thinking they have all the answers. But as we get older, we slowly learn that no one ever has a firm grip over what they’re doing or where they’re headed. We’re imperfect, but we’re doing our best. In this film, Joaquin Phoenix plays a traveling journalist who must look after his sister’s young son, doing his best to teach him about the world and people around them as they embark on an unconventional assignment across the country. I don’t feel like it’s too dramatic to say that watching C’mon C’mon is like being wrapped in a warm hug. Sometimes, a movie defined by its sense of hopefulness can feel disingenuous if it doesn’t fully address why hope is a legitimate option in our fallen world, but this is not one of those movies. All we can do is our best, and when we’re honest about our failings, great things can happen.
C’mon C’mon is now available for premium VOD rental.
6. The Mitchells vs. the Machines – Directed by Michael Rianda
Sometimes, Sony Pictures Animation puts out nonsense like The Emoji Movie. Other times, we get masterclasses in how to make an original family film, like with Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse in 2018 and now The Mitchells vs. the Machines in 2021. Directed by newcomer Michael Rianda, The Mitchells vs. the Machines is fast-paced, heart-warming, and has a gorgeous visual style that sets it apart from every other piece of animation out there today. You can’t get much better when it comes to “fun for the whole family” than this movie, and its unique style has me eager to see what Michael Rianda does next.
The Mitchells vs. the Machines is streaming on Netflix and available on Blu-ray.
5. The Power of the Dog – Directed by Jane Campion
We’re now entering the part of my list where any one of these contenders could have nabbed the top spot, and even if these films aren’t everyone’s cup of tea, I’d still recommend them to just about anyone…even this weird movie. I can’t remember the last time I could describe a film as “poisonous,” much less in a positive way, but The Power of the Dog operates in such a stealthy manner that you’re not likely to fully understand what you’ve been hit with until the very last shot. My only complaint is that the story is so slow and tragic that it makes a rewatch a daunting task, even if it does feature one of the most thematically layered storylines I saw this year. It’s not quite a western, but it’s also not quite a thriller. If you’re willing to sit with an intentionally-paced character drama where Benedict Cumberbatch plays the meanest cowboy you ever saw, The Power of the Dog might be for you.
The Power of the Dog is now streaming on Netflix.
4. Dune – Directed by Denis Villeneuve
This summary is going to be a bit tough because Dune is one of those movies that begs to be analyzed in full detail, and friends, that’s exactly what I’ve done. Here’s the bottom line:
The best sci-fi tends to center on what it means to be human, and to director Denis Villeneuve, the concept of taking action and choosing to do something – destiny, duty, honor, and even nature be damned – is inseparable from the human experience. Playing out like a science fiction Lawrence of Arabia, Dune is an exciting and sometimes unsettling epic that explores that idea of choice further, making a subtle commentary on the impact human ambition can have on the vastness of creation. You may have already guessed from that description, but there’s A LOT going on in Dune – sometimes too much. It hits you with a lot of information right off the bat, but instead of alienating you, Dune does a good job immersing you in a world that feels like it existed long before these characters stepped into it and will persist long after they’re gone. I can’t wait for Part Two.
Dune is now available for rent and purchase across most major retailers.
3. West Side Story – Directed by Steven Spielberg
West Side Story is both an incredible musical blockbuster and one of Spielberg’s best movies in years. It was one of those movie-going experiences where I knew within the first 10 minutes that, regardless of how the next 2+ hours shook out, I was gonna revisit this one. This West Side Story is nothing short of magical. With its Shakespearean roots, the story remains tragically timeless, every shot is a feast for the eyes, and the performances are insanely good. It’s still astounding to me that this is the first musical blockbuster that Spielberg, the inventor of the blockbuster, has ever made. It certainly doesn’t play like it. Color, lighting, stage direction, it all just flows so dang well and is easily one of the most captivating films of the year.
West Side Story is now playing in theaters.
2. Inside – Directed by Bo Burnham
Does this count as a movie? Maybe not, but whatever, it’s my list.
Bo Burnam’s comedy special, Inside, is pretty much the only movie/show/special/whatever about quarantine that ever needs to exist. The year 2020 was, to put it lightly, not a fun year for so many reasons. We experienced a pandemic on top of societal upheaval on top of political turmoil and much more. While there will surely be more pieces of art that play off the collective experience of being quarantined inside our homes for months on end, Bo Burnham expertly and honestly captures the specific cynicism, tragedy, dread, and desperate search for relief that came to define much of 2020 in a way that no other movie could. It’s funny, smart, catchy, and it made my own existential dread feel a little less dreadful. Inside is a great special that perfectly encompasses the comically bizarre space we’ve been living in since the emergence of COVID-19.
Inside is now streaming on Netflix.
1. The Green Knight – Directed by David Lowery
When I walked in to see The Green Knight the first time, I was expecting an epic story of honor and nobility, and what I got was the trippiest coming-of-age tale ever put to screen. In a way, that’s an expectation that the movie toys with brilliantly. “Tell me a tale of yourself, so that I may know thee,” King Arthur says to his nephew, Gawain. When he responds that he has none to tell, the Queen puts voice to their expectations for him by saying, “Yet. You have none to tell YET.” It sounds like encouragement, but coming from the King and Queen who are figures of great renown, Gawain hears this as a challenge and sets off on a quest to prove himself worthy.
The Green Knight is truly the best movie I saw this year. Mysterious, subversive, and endlessly engaging, it was an experience that had me thinking about its themes and characters for months on end. It’s not a movie about a man gaining honor and becoming a hero like its marketing would suggest. Instead, it shows us a young adult growing into a man, learning about who he is and who he can become in a broken world that he may never fully understand. It’s a character-driven fantasy film that succeeds in telling a tale of human frailty that still turns out to be rather hopeful. We’d all like to think we can be the superhero – young, resilient, walking towards danger with a brave heart. To Gawain, these are attributes he is expected to embody, but he fails not because he falls short in his efforts to do good, but because he doesn’t always understand what good is. He wants to be better, but he can’t help but wear his weakness on his sleeve or around his waist. Gawain is not a hero, nor could he call himself good. But in spite of all of that, there is grace.
The Green Knight is now available for rent and purchase across most major retailers.
What was your favorite movie from 2021? Let me know in the comments below, and keep an eye out for my next article: Most Anticipated Films of 2022. As always, if you like what you’re reading, feel free to follow me on Letterboxd, where I review just about every single movie I watch.