A word on lists before I get to my top films of 2021. First, as is often the case wrestling these films down into a list was difficult. There is an argument to made that “lists” aren’t the best way to represent a year as these numbered spots are fluid and hardly static when set into conversation.
And yet it would be difficult to find a different system to effectively help shed light on these films. Numbers seem to catch our attention, and based on a long process of reflecting and engaging the titles that stood out for me for any number of reasons in 2021, it is at least fair to say that the titles represented on my list are ones I hope to draw attention to in this present space and time. Also, my personal paramaters consider any film that got a wide release in 2021 as eligible for conversation with the exception of those represented at the Oscars. So Nomadland, Judas and the Back Messiah, among a few others, although getting wide release in 2021 are not represetned. At the same time a number of notable 2021 releases that have made numerous top of lists are not included simpy on the basis that I haven’t bene able to see them. Those include Drive My Car, Red Rocket, Flee, Mass, and the Tragedy of Macbeth.
One last word as well. I wrote earlier about certain themes that emerged from this years slate of films for me personally. A big part of this year has been the reopening of theaters. Little more has tapped into the joy of cinema for me than this. It helped revive a challenging first quarter and reignite why film matters and why its such an important voice in my life. Most of my picks represented tap into that cinematic expression, representing both the narrative and form, and truth be told I’ve been soaking in a ridiculously packed theater slate due to carry overs fromt the pandemic that is bound to disipate. So I’m enjoying it while it lasts.
With that in mind, I’ll start with some of my outliers. Consider this a casual jaunt through the hallways of my year in film on the way as i made my way to my top of the year list. A couple notable films that I really wished could have made my list- House of Gucci, Swan Song, My Salinger Year, Joji, The Electrical Life of Louis Wain, No Sudden Move, Sweet Thing, and Say Your Prayers.
Wild Mountain Thyme
Speaking of outliers I know I am one when it comes to my love for this film. But if you are looking for a sentimental but also meaningful romantic comedy with a poetic edge and Irish flair, this hit the sweet spot for me.
Worth noting because it was filmed in Winnipeg, its ridiculously entertaining, and it has some nice, resonant themes as well. Definitely worthchecking out.
Shang Chi/Black Widow/Spiderman: No Way Home/Eternals/Zack Snyders Justice League//Suicide Squad
I’ve included these together simply to point out that not a single Mravel or D.C. film made my list this year, and that is not a statement on their strength. I loved all of these films equally for different reasons, be it the grand mythology and epic story of Zack Snyders Justice League, Eternals taking a similarly big and epic story and whittling it down to an intimate characterstudy, the way Spiderman, my favorite MCU character, managed to take his present space in the MCU and use that to create such a meaningful stand alone and introspective story, the sheer visual spectacle of Shang Chi as a cultural narrative, the absolute blast that was this years The Suicice Squad which for me redeemed what I didn’t like about the first, or the stength of story and character represented in Black Widow. In any other year any of thess could have cracked my list, and for me I remain as excited for and invested in their future as ever before.
Never Gonna Snow Again
Defies categories, takes some big risks, and the reward is a character drama revolving around a Ukranian immigrant that cuts through the visual flourishes resulting in something emotional and affecting.
I’m your Man
A gem of a film that fits that necessary high minded indie spot. Its a familiar premise with its examination of our relationship to the future, in this case exploring the quesiton of what it means to be human through the reltaionship between a woman and a clone built to meet her needs in a arner. But it tells is to in a fresh way.
Flag DayThis film started at the top of my list and just barely ended up getting sequeezed out. I haven’t seen The Tragedy of Macbeth yet (doesn’t release unitll mid January on Apple Tv+, so this remains the best Shakespeare adaptation of the year. I absolultely loved the tone and the creative ay it translates that into a modern context. Rich in themes of forgivness and restitution and pictures of justice, and reflects a deeply personal and family centered story as well.
Ghostbusters: After Life
This one wasn’t going to make my top list, but as a film this did evreything I could ask for in representing the franchise and establishing a fresh new story moving foward. Its suprisingly emotional, resfreshingly simple, and a whole lot of fun.
No Sudden Move
I still maintian having seen this early in the year and having had time to sit with it that this is Soderberghs best work to date. It fits right in his wheelhouse with its noirish, gangster type thriller vibe and structurally speaking its quite a marvel. Even thinking of it now brings up a slight pang knowing that its not on my top list
A richly textured and deeply moving story baout a 12 year old and his friends that mixes in a treasure hunt and some adventure.
My Salinger Year
A definte personal favorite that checks so many of my boxes. It inspired me to pick up the book which only underscored how much I love this film. The literary dynamic had me giddy and the performances are really great as well. Thematically it managed to hit on ideas that intertwine the literary theme with the story of our lives, which is an idea that alway resonates with ona big level.
A laugh out loud blast with a real emotional punch. if you have the chance (currently available on Prime), this one is absoltuely worth the investment. Even better if you go in blind so as to get the most out of the uncoventional premise.
Wanted to highlight these four films because all four are on Apple TV+ and all four are intriguing projects in their own way. Tom Holland is riveting in Cherry, a film directed by the Russo Brothers and carrying their penchant for marrying big vision with a clarity for story. i found it emotional and thriling. Swan Song is the latest of the four and represents a quiet sci fi story with big questions on its mind and a stellar performance by Ali at its core. Finch is an equally introspective apocaltypic drama that features the always reliable Tom Hanks and Palmer a suprisingly effective human drama with a nice turn by Justin Timberlake.
A reflective and meditative exercise that follows an aging woman on a literal and allegorical journey. Its got a lot on its mind about our sense o personhood and our place in this world, and its given a really simple story to express it.
The more I ruminate on this film the more I like it. Of course he is my favorite Director so its difficult for him to miss with me. I watched it not too long after I saw The Power of the Dog and I found Nightmare Alley to speak to my negative experience with that film given some overlapping themes regarding the cycles of human depravity. This underscores some of the reasons why he is my favorite Director, and while I wrote more about my thoughts in my favorite horror post in this space, which you cansee there if you want, I found this to be more immediately accessible than Shape of Water which translated to a positive and meaningful experience in the moment, but I’m still parsing through the intracicies of the film itself. Which is largely why it didn’t crack my top of the year list.
Not as strong as Sound of Metal, but Riz Ahmeds embodied performance still stands just as tall as the young British rapper strugglingtofind his way. Definitely a must see film from the 2021 slate.
No Man of God
A compelling psychological examination told from the perspective of the one man tasked with getting into the mind of Ted Bundy, part of a government sanctioned endeavor to learn what is behind the criminal action. Features a powerful performance by Elijah Wood and a strong emotional punch.
House of Gucci
The biggest reason this didn’t crack my list is that I felt it needed a rewatch before I could settle on it. Without a doubt the performances are strong, as the are in Being the Ricardos, another film that left me in a similar space. I felt like the film would have benefited from some changes in the script to tell this story more succinctlly from her perspective. The decision to tell a broader story left it slightly inconsistent in focus and motivation. Still though, its a film worth seeing and demonstrates much that works really well.
The Electrical Life of Louis Wain
Without a doubt this one of the most meaningful and moving theater going experiences in 2021. A messy and somewhat scatterbrained script adds to its charm as it works its way through such realites as death, loss and struggle with a keen eye towards life, beauty, joy and mystery. Visually stunning, richly imagined and wonderfully performed.
The Wanting Mare
An awe inspiring visual feat made with a miniminal budget by a promising indie Director that is all about the power of memor to hold us in dark times.
Come As You Are
Sex comedies aren’t normally my thing, but this one is smart in the waythat 40 Year Old Virgin was smart, only with a much more grounded story anchored in the realism of its premise.
Young, wild, and nearly free, this is a children’s story that stretches such categorical restraints to say something about what true freedom actually is. We are bound to circumstances and shaped by others, and all moves to resist or break free from these things inevitably sets us in greater relationship to them. These things form is, shape us, and reveal our need to share these spaces with one another.
Profoundly beautiful and at times sad, the glorious black and white transports us into this childlike grandeur encouraging us to experience the world and all of its complex emotions anew.
This is Not a Burial, Its a Resurrection
A film that explores the nature of progress and the devastating affects it can have on segments of society largely forgotten and sacrificed in its wake. Death and graves linger in the shadows of this films desperate portrait of an aging woman determined to being new life to her community in the face of suffering, danger and tragedy. This woman’s witness is powerful, and her journey says something about the nature of faith and how we hope.
The score is haunting, lending this a horror type vybe. The notes of horror only unveil however what is a deeply emotional, culturally formed heartfelt drama. There is as much beauty and joy here as there is tragedy, and it comes largely through the songs. The voices of the people and the resonant harmonies provide a contrast to the score, pulling beauty from the ashes as they say.
Say Your Prayers
This one scrapped and fought a good deal for a spot on my list and only recently got bumped off by some last minute additions. However, its worth pointing out just how strongly I resonated with this one when I first saw it. The true brilliance of this film is how it plays with preconceived perceptions regarding the never ending and ongoing debate in the West between modernism and science and religion. This becomes a template through which the film is able to dig underneath the wars and expose it for what it really is- doctrinal posiitioning that knows no boundaries and that bleeds out from either side of the figurative coin, be it the religious or the non-religious. Within this we also find intelligent discussion about why it is faith matters when it comes to wrestling through questions of morality, the nature of conviction, and discussions about the relationship between certainty and doubt.