Best Movies of 2021 Feature Photo

The best movies of 2021 include singing and dancing in the sand with Jamie Dornan, youth poets sharing their truths, and a Texas suitcase pimp running around and stirring up trouble.

It’s the last day of 2021, and it’s time to list the absolute best (or at least my 15 favorite) movies of the year. 

All year long, critics (like myself) obsess over these top films lists. I log everything I see (thanks, Letterboxd), rank them as I watch them and often make some terrible decisions in retrospect. Next year, I will likely be looking at this list in disgust. “Where’s [this film] or [that film]?!” Hey, it happens. But I did my best to collect my thoughts amid a wave of For Your Consideration screeners to feel proud about these picks, and I do.

So, enjoy this celebration of the movies that made the most of a changing film landscape!

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A young woman (Rachel Sennot) struggles to keep up different versions of herself when she runs into her sugar daddy and ex-girlfriend at a shiva with her parents. Pictured: Booksmart's Molly Gordon, left, and Sennott.

15. Shiva Baby

There was a funny quote going around about Shiva Baby (an anxiety-filled comedy about a young bisexual Jewish woman trying to navigate the chaos at a shiva) where someone said, “it’s like Uncut Gems on steroids.” For anyone who’s seen that two-hour panic attack, you know your heart is going to be put through the wringer here. You may even grind your teeth down to the gums. However, through all its hilariously uncomfortable situations is a raw and sweet love story. (Ah, the last moment!) Rachel Sennott is a knock-out.

14. Barb and Star Go to Vista Del Mar

Oh, my gosh! If an award for the most quotable movie of 2021 existed, Barb and Star would totally get it. It’s so bonkers and deliciously entertaining. Jamie Dornan ripping open his shirt and singing about how seagulls should hear his prayer will be that image/song that the guys in Inside Out will send back up into my brain like they did the chewing gum jingle. So funny, stupid and amazing!

13. The Mitchells vs. the Machines

Filmmakers Chris Miller and Phil Lord can punch up any story with life and energy that’s unmatchable. No matter how familiar or predictable the journey may seem, they dodge expectations with heart and style. Netlflix’s animated robopocalypse feature hits all the feels.  Read my full review here>>

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The year is 1981, and South Africa’s white minority government is embroiled in a conflict on the southern Angolan border. Like all white boys over the age of 16, Nicholas Van der Swart must complete two years of compulsory military service to defend the apartheid regime. The threat of communism and “die swart gevaar” (the so-called black danger) is at an all-time high. But that’s not the only danger Nicholas faces. He must survive the brutality of the army – something that becomes even more difficult when a connection is sparked between him and a fellow recruit. Pictured: Kai Luke Brummer as Nicholas.

12. Moffie

War films most certainly acknowledge the horrors and heartbreaks of going into combat. But great ones allow the conflict against nations (or humankind) to serve in the background. In Oliver Hermanus’ Moffie, we witness an incredibly harrowing amalgamation of themes (such as white male toxicity, homophobia, racism, institutionalization and trauma). Yet, as brutal and uncomfortable as it sounds, there’s a particular tenderness to the film that finds beauty in seeing men being destroyed psychologically.  Read my full review here>>

11. The Souvenir: Part II

This quiet sequel is a gift. It doesn’t offer more of the same but rather looks at what we’ve learned through a different lens, much like going from Before Sunrise to Before Sunset. Brilliant storyteller Joanna Hogg captures life as it is experienced, avoids the “temptation to be obvious” and breaks down narrative barriers with her semi-autobiographical emotional odyssey. Wonderful. Read my full review here>>

10. Pig

It’s difficult not to think of John Wick when it involves a character looking for the people who wrong their animal. Instead of it being a dog, it’s obviously a pig here. However, what’s not so apparent with this Nicolas Cage-starring vehicle is how it’s not a revenge tale. It’s an anti-revenge film that uses reason and an emotional force to throw its punches. There’s no other way to describe it other than “beautiful.”

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DON'T LOOK UP (L to R) CATE BLANCHETT as BRIE EVANTEE, TYLER PERRY as JACK BREMMER, LEONARDO DICAPRIO as DR. RANDALL MINDY, JENNIFER LAWRENCE as KATE DIBIASKY, Cr. NIKO TAVERNISE/NETFLIX © 2021

9. Don’t Look Up

The Twittersphere seems to be bringing out the big-red pen for Adam McKay’s latest satire, but this critic loved it. It’s so intelligent, scary and laugh-out-loud funny. Don’t Look Up casts a wide net, tackling nearly every social and political concern, and doing so with aplomb. It clearly has a lot on its mind, and it’s up to the viewer if you think McKay juggles it all with ease. I think he does. Watch: We’re going to be looking back on this one and loving it later. Read my full review here>>

8. Bo Burnham: Inside

In the future, if someone were to ask me what it was like to go through COVID when it started, I will point them in this direction. Comedian and storyteller Bo Burnham has articulation skills and imagination that many dream of having. Burnham’s pandemic-era musical fantasy crackles with an electric fever through catchy songs, truth jabs and technical wizardry.

7. Spider-Man: No Way Home

The third installment in Tom Holland's Spider-Man series swung in late this year, but it sent us out of 2021 cinema with a bang! Spider-Man: No Way Home managed to unspool a tangled web of characters, backstories and motivations, and it had us all cheering, laughing and crying in a way that hasn't been experienced since Avengers: Endgame. In this case, three truly is the magic number. Read my full review here>>

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Johnny (Joaquin Phoenix) and his young nephew (Woody Norman) forge a tenuous but transformational relationship when they are unexpectedly thrown together in this delicate and deeply moving story about the connections between adults and children, the past and the future, from writer-director Mike Mills. Pictured: Phoenix, left, and Norman.

6. C’mon C’mon

Director Mike Mills is a master of his craft. He creates these profound and sincere cinematic visual essays about family. A24’s C’mon C’mon triggers a sensory flood and opens a case full of reflective material about our ever-shifting emotional and mental landscapes. It understands and celebrates life’s complexities and connections. Quaint and endearing. Read my full review here>>

5. Dune

If this was a complete experience, Dune very well could have been at the top of this list. That said, it still generates so much excitement and intrigue in the first part of its two-movie narrative. The first hour of this sci-fi epic was near perfection in my eyes. Nobody can build up tension and drop you into a world quite like filmmaker Denis Villeneuve. We all need Part Two, pronto! Read my full review here>>

4. Spencer

Many are just recognizing Kristen Stewart’s award-worthy performance as Princess Diana, but I also invite you to drink in the rest of Spencer’s genius. It’s such a deep dive into the psychology of someone who feels stuck and is suffocating. Backed by a dazzling color palette, Jonny Greenwood’s hauntingly beautiful musical score and touching moments of vulnerability and humanity, Pablo Larraín’s film is a sublimely surreal and immersive picture. Read my full review here>>

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A spoken word poetry musical set in Los Angeles, following the intersecting stories of 27 young Angelinos over the course of a single day. The film was developed over a Summer workshop with these 27 youth poets, all of whom served as co-writers and stars.

3. Summertime

 

It was a bummer to see this incredible spoken word project hardly make a blip on the radar. Blindspotting and Raya and the Last Dragon director Carlos López Estrada collaborated with an immensely talented roster of youth poets (who served as co-writers and stars). Set during a single summer’s day and night (Do the Right Thing style), we explore what makes the City of Angels such a unique place for some people to call home. Simply magical. Read my full review here>>

2. Licorice Pizza

On another day, Paul Thomas Anderson’s Licorice Pizza could have been my No. 1 movie pick of the year. I’m a sucker for movies where there’s no clear A-to-B plot structure – when they’re as loose as life is while tossing in plenty of fun characters and words of wisdom to chew on. Licorice Pizza could rub some people the wrong way, but I found the central relationship to be a complex ride of warm and fuzzy feelings. Read my full review here>>

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(L-r) WILL SMITH as Richard Williams, DEMI SINGLETON as Serena Williams and SANIYYA SIDNEY as Venus Williams in Warner Bros. Pictures’ inspiring drama “KING RICHARD,” a Warner Bros. Pictures release.

1. King Richard

If you were to look up my top films of any year within the past five, you would notice a commonality. I flock towards works about fatherhood and parenting. King Richard, starring Will Smith, is about that, but it’s also about so much more. It’s truly an inspiring work that features some of the year’s best performances, direction, writing, cinematography – the whole shebang. This one tugged at my heartstrings like no other, had me on the edge of my seat and delivered the best message about being humble. Read my full review here>>

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The audacious new film from writer-director Sean Baker (The Florida ProjectTangerine), starring Simon Rex in a magnetic, live-wire performance, Red Rocket is a darkly funny and humane portrait of a uniquely American hustler and a hometown that barely tolerates him.

Honorable mentions: 16. Mass, 17. Drive My Car, 18. Swan Song, 19. The Green Knight, 20. The French Dispatch, 21. Red Rocket, 22. Titane, 23. The Lost Daughter, 24. Playing with Sharks and 25. The Loneliest Whale

Bottom of the barrel: Coming 2 AmericaThe Addams Family 2Halloween KillsCherry and Mortal Kombat

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'The Loneliest Whale’ is a cinematic quest to find the “52 Hertz Whale,” which scientists believe has spent its entire life in solitude calling out at a frequency that is different from any other whale.

Best documentaries: Introducing Selma BlairPlaying with SharksThe Loneliest WhaleWoodlands Dark and Days Bewitched: A History of Folk Horror and Val

Best international feature: Drive My CarTitaneThe Worst Person in the WorldPetite Maman and Flee

Best horror flicks: MalignantFear Street: Part One - 1994SeanceThere’s Someone Inside Your House and Old

Jungle Cruise

Jungle Cruise follows the adventures of down-on-his-luck riverboat captain Frank Wolff (Dwayne Johnson) and intrepid explorer Lily Houghton (Emily Blunt).

Best comedies: Barb and Star Go to Vista Del MarDon’t Look UpBad TripJungle Cruise and Copshop

Best musicals: Bo Burnham: InsideEncantotick, tick…Boom!West Side Story and Cyrano.

Most rewatchable films: Jungle CruiseBarb and Star Go to Vista Del MarThe Mitchells vs. the MachinesCopshop and Malignant

Movies I didn’t get: The Power of the DogBelfastNo Time to DieLast Night in Soho and In the Earth

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Monday follows the story of Mickey (Sebastian Stan, left) and Chloe (Denis Gough), two Americans in their mid-thirties living in Athens, who meet in the heat of summer one whirlwind weekend. When Chloe’s time in Greece is drawing to a close, she decides to give up her high-flying job back home and explore whether one weekend’s passion can stand the reality of the inevitable Monday.

Movies they didn’t get: Don’t Look UpMondayThe Tomorrow WarThe Forever Purge and Old

Best movie scenes:

  • The Worst Person in the World - when the world stops so the central character can spend the day with her lover
  • Malignant - when “the backwards man” fights a whole jail cell of people
  • Licorice Pizza - when Alana Haim backs a truck down a hill
  • Don’t Look Up - when Leonardo DiCaprio lets his true feelings be known about the world’s idiocy
  • Dune - when the spice harvester breaks down and Oscar Isaac decides to save the workers

PRESTON BARTA is a member of the Critics Choice Association and the Dallas-Fort Worth Film Critics Association. Read his work here, on FreshFiction.tv and on RottenTomatoes.com. Follow him on Twitter at @PrestonBarta.

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