From festival darlings to big budget blockbusters, here are the twenty films that made my year.
By Sean Blanford
After 2020 threw the entire world into the unknown, the film slate of 2021 has been one of the best in recent memory. I suppose there’s something about odd-numbered years that bring out the best in cinema. Coming up with a list of twenty was a difficult task because out of the 122 films screened this year, 33 I rated at four stars or higher. Out of the top twenty, sixteen I rated above a 4.25. From festival darlings to high-budget blockbusters, films directed by some of the most revered filmmakers of this or any generation to extraordinary visions from first-time directors, this list has something for everyone. I hope that reading this, there may be something that flew under your radar that you will find and enjoy.
This list is 100% subjective, and while you agree or disagree on what I do or don’t have on my list, I always respect your opinions. I hope to have a discourse with many of you, whether in the comments section, Twitter, or the Mad About Movies Discord server. Before getting to the main list, here are some honorable mentions and special recognitions.
Two films I decided to keep off this films list simply because of how last year’s award season structure was affected by COVID-19 that could or should have been on either the 2020 or 2021 Favorites List are Judas and the Black Messiah (Shaka King, Director) and The Father (Florian Zeller, Director). I have rated both of these films as 4.5/5, thanks most part to their powerful storytelling and stellar performances from all of the Oscar-nominated top-line actors. Judas’ biggest strength lies in the performances of Daniel Kaluuya and LaKeith Stanfield as Fred Hampton and Bill O’Neill, respectively. Fire is brought to the screen when they are together. As the tension builds a crescendo during a rousing speech after Hampton is released from jail, you can see why both actors received the nominations (and in the case of Kaluuya, a win for Best Supporting Actor) that were so richly deserved. While The Father delivers two gripping performances from Olivia Colman and Anthony Hopkins, what I appreciated the most about the film was how it took the source material being a stage play and flawlessly brought it to the big screen without making it feel like a play. Every small, intricate detail from furniture placement to Anthony’s watch is as important as the screenplay and performances.
Here are the films I rated 3.75/5 or higher that just missed out on my top twenty:
Wild Indian (Lyle Mitchell Corbine, Jr., Writer/Director)
Cruella (Craig Gillespie, Director): My biggest surprise of 2021
Summer of Soul… (Questlove, Director)
Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy (Ryusuke Hamaguchi, Writer/Director)
Censor (Prano Bailey-Bond, Writer/Director)
The Stylist (Jill Gevargizian, Co-Writer/Director)
Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings (Destin Daniel Cretton, Co-Writer/Director)
The Feast (Lee Haven Jones, Director)
C’mon C’mon (Mike Mills, Writer/Director)
The Mitchells vs. The Machines (Michael Rianda and Jeff Rowe, Co-Writers/Co-Directors)
Spiderman: No Way Home (Jon Watts, Director)
Red Rocket (Sean Baker, Co-Writer/Director)
The Green Knight (David Lowry, Writer/Director)
Malignant (James Wan, Co-Writer/Director)
Dune (Denis Villeneuve, Co-Writer/Director)
Pig (Michael Saronski, Co-Writer/Director)
Top Twenty Part One: The A- Tier
Here are four films I rated 4/5 that were a cut above and made it into my top twenty favorites:
#20: Mass (Fran Kranz, Writer/Director): Take four unique talents, put them in a room for two hours, and let the magic begin. This is what actor Fran Kranz in his directorial debut, was able to get out of Jason Isaacs, Martha Plimpton, Ann Dowd, and Reid Barney. When two couples meet in a church meeting room to discuss the tragic event that fell upon both of their families, the tension is heightened, and the story becomes fuller as each layer is peeled back. If a film this year screams “Best Ensemble Cast SAG winner,” it very well might be Mass. Or it might be…
#19: The Power of the Dog (Jane Campion, Co-Writer/Director): The front-runner for multiple Oscar nominations and potential victories could be the first feature film directed by the renowned Jane Campion since 2009’s Bright Star. A film that tackles love and acceptance of not only yourself but those immediately close to you with a deft hand, The Power of the Dog may be the best performance of Benedict Cumberbatch’s career. Kodi Smit-McPhee, Kirsten Dunst, and Jesse Plemons round out an accomplished cast, and the score by Jonny Greenwood and lush cinematography from Ari Wegner makes a complete package. One of the best modern westerns in the last decade.
#18: Spencer (Pablo Larrian, Director): Where Mass and The Power of the Dog have great ensembles to elevate their films, Spencer either succeeds or fails on the performance of Kristen Stewart as Diana, Princess of Wales. Her portrayal is not only a massive success, but Stewart may be the front-runner for a Best Actress Oscar. Telling the fable of an early-nineties Christmas Weekend with the royal family during the scandalous times that spelled the downfall of Diana’s marriage to Prince Charles, Pablo Larrian took a similar approach with 2016’s Jackie and grew from it. It is a more complete story than its predecessor and boasts another haunting score from Jonny Greenwood, almost assuring a Best Score Oscar win for the composer.
#17: Last Night in Soho (Edgar Wright, Co-Writer/Director): Edgar Wright has never been shy about playing in multiple genre sandboxes, and with his most recent work, he combines comedy, horror, and his love of early sixties London to create yet another stellar film. The performances of Thomasin McKenzie as aspiring fashion designer Eloise and Anya Taylor-Joy as Sandie, the club-singing muse that Eloise sees in her dreams, are tremendous and show why they are two of the best young actresses working today. I understand the criticisms that some might have about the third act falling, but in my eyes, Last Night in Soho is a complete film and doesn’t disappoint.
Top Twenty Part Two: The Low-A Tier
Here are the next six films that I rated 4.25/5 that just missed out on the top ten.
#16: Benedetta (Paul Verhoeven, Co-Writer/Director): From the acclaimed director that brought us Showgirls, Basic Instinct, and most recently, 2016’s Elle, Benedetta is 100% the film you expect it to be when you know it is based on the story about two 17th Century lesbian nuns. In the hands of a less-skilled director, Benedetta could come off as trashy for the sake of being trashy. However, Verhoeven and the performances of Virginie Efira as the titular Benedetta and Daphne Patakia as her lover Bartolomea create a finished work that is much more than that. While it may have garnered attention for the protests being held outside its New York Film Festival premiere, it should also get attention for actually being an excellent movie as well.
#15: tick…tick…BOOM! (Lin-Manuel Miranda, Director): In a year that saw both a slew of movie musicals and multiple above-average performances from Andrew Garfield, tick…tick…BOOM! combines both in a wonderous look at the early writing career of playwright Jonathan Larson. Most know for bringing Rent to the world without ever seeing it due to his tragic death the day of its first performance, Larson’s stamp on the Broadway scene has had lasting effects on the new crop of stage writers and directors. Miranda is most certainly one of them, and he handles his story with the care it deserves. I am not shy to admit when I cry during a movie (and you’ll see another example later), one particular performance of the song Larson took ages to write had me welling up by the end.
#14: Lamb (Vladimir Johannsson, Co-Writer/Director): Great films in my eyes are the ones that leave me thinking about it days, weeks, and even months after I first screen them. Iceland’s Lamb most certainly falls in this category, as the story of a family raising a baby lamb as their child is shrouded in mystery, the acts they take unfold before your eyes, and the potential tragedy that may occur them due to their transgressions. The term “An A24 Production” has become almost a genre in and of itself as being the place where weird arthouse films find a home. That may be the case, whether right or wrong, but Lamb is a beautiful film that has been stuck in my brain for quite a while.
#13: Drive My Car (Ryusuke Hamaguchi, Co-Writer/Director): The second film of the year from Ryusuke Hamaguchi is my favorite of the two, and as of right now, it has been sweeping many top critics awards. While the 179-minute runtime may be a deterrent for some, the film flies by thanks to its compelling story, performances, and lush cinematography. Telling the story of a stage director and his interactions with his female driver after the death of his wife, the film is nothing short of captivating and would have been ranked higher if it ended two minutes earlier. Drive My Car is a film about the secrets we keep, the lies we tell ourselves, and the interactions we have with people along the way.
#12: Nine Days (Edson Oda, Writer/Director): Nine Days will more than likely be the great film this year that gets sadly forgotten about comes awards time. The feature directorial debut of Edson Oda gives the audience a unique look at what the value of life is through the eyes of five unborn souls and the man who has to determine which of them deserve to go on to become human. Nine Days boasts a top-notch cast of Winston Duke, Zazie Beets, Tony Hale, Benedict Wong, and Bill Skarsgard, many more known for their comedic work but have the opportunity to shine in this serious drama.
#11: Petite Maman (Celine Sciamma, Writer/Director): While the film has not yet been released in the United States theatrically, Petite Maman is too good to ignore. Making waves around the world at film festivals large and small, the follow-up to Scimma’s stellar Portrait of a Lady on Fire goes to the roots of what makes her one of the best filmmakers going today: A small cast telling an intimate story that is only as long as it needs to be. It was a tough race to decide who would be France’s representative for Best International Film and is an example of why a country should have more than one nomination if the film’s quality warrants it. Make sure to seek Petite Maman out as soon as it becomes available.
Top Twenty Part Three: The High-A Tier
Five films rated 4.5 stars or higher were on the cusp of making my top five of the year.
#10: Shiva Baby (Emma Seligman, Writer/Director): The quintessential definition of a micro-budget film, Shiva Baby is seventy-seven minutes of tension building, only allowing you to breathe when the end credits roll. When a college student (Rachel Sennott) without direction attends a traditional Jewish funeral with her family, everything hits the fan. Whether it be interactions with extended family about her future, her ex-girlfriend where the relationship ended awkwardly, or the fact that her “sugar daddy” is also attending the funeral with his wife and young child, you never know where this is going to lead. Shiva Baby is a sure-handed day-in-the-life look at the ways that the world can come crashing down on you all at once, and it is bitingly funny as it is intense.
#9: Licorice Pizza (Paul Thomas Anderson, Writer/Director): PTA’s love letter to growing up in the Valley of Southern California in the early 1970s, Licorice Pizza asks the audience to go along for the ride. Throwing you headlong into the two-person mutual admiration society of child actor Gary (Cooper Hoffman) and cohort Alana (Alana Haim), they get into many shenanigans that create the film’s atmosphere. At times, it feels like it may meander, but that’s because that’s what life is. Sometimes it is messy and without structure, but looking at the whole rather than just the parts, you are given an overall captivating story. It’s fun how Anderson included Haim’s really family into the film, and she is someone who could be a star in films in the future.
#8: Saint Maud (Rose Glass, Writer/Director): A film that dates back to its premiere at the 2019 Toronto Internation Film Festival but wasn’t released in the United States until February 2021, the feature directorial debut of British Writer and Director Rose Glass gives us a haunting look at the power of religion and the stranglehold it can have on those who believe maybe a bit too strongly. Star Morfydd Clark is genuinely haunting as the titular “Saint,” who is haunted by decisions made in her past and has to come to grips with reality when a similar situation comes to her present. The film’s final few minutes are some of the most shocking I have seen all year, creating a visual forever etched in my mind. Glass is a director that I will be intrigued to see what she does next.
#7: Zola (Janicza Bravo, Co-Writer/Director): A story based on the tweets of A’Zhia King, Zola is the film more than any other this year that the longer I got to sit with what I saw, the more I loved it. The chemistry between no-quite-frenemies Zola (Taylor Paige) and Stefani (Riley Keough) is as hilarious as it is biting, with Stefani’s version of Zola’s story being some of the funniest moments I have seen in cinema all year. Zola is as atypical of a road trip movie as you can get and is one of the more original films released this last year.
#6: Parallel Mothers (Pedro Almodovar, Writer/Director): Wes Anderson has Billy Murray, Martin Scorcese has Leonardo DiCaprio, and Pedro Almodovar has Penelope Cruz. In the eighth collaboration between the actress and the acclaimed Spanish director, Almodovar tells a story rich with history, all through the eyes of two new mothers (Penelope Cruz and Rossy de Palma) who give birth to children on the same day. If you saw Almodovar’s Pain and Glory a few years ago and thought that was a punch to the gut, Parallel Mothers hit just as deep, if not more so. Again, Cruz shines in these types of roles, and she doesn’t shy away from the spotlight.
Top Twenty Part Four: The Five Best
These final five films I rated 4.75/5 five or higher, and are the films that have stuck with me the most over the last year.
#5: Violet (Justine Bateman, Writer/Director): More than any directorial debut I screened this year, Justine Bateman’s Violet is bold, in-your-face, and unapologetic. Everyone has that bit in your mind that might tell you things you don’t want to hear, and for the case of the titular Violet (Olivia Munn), that voice in her head is voiced by Justin Theroux. Violet is the kind of film that rarely gets made anymore as it kind be seen as too big of a risk and not rewarding enough, but those risks paid off in spades. This was my favorite film coming out of South by Southwest, and it was so good I screened it again at TIFF.
#4: Flee (Jonas Poher Rasmussen, Co-Writer/Director): My favorite animated film, my favorite documentary, my favorite International Film, and my second-favorite coming out of Sundance, Flee could be a film that could make some real history come awards season. Telling the real-life story of a young man telling his story of escaping war-torn Afghanistan to live a free life in Denmark, it is heart-breaking to hear the struggles he had to go through and enriching to know the results. The decision to animate the film can be seen as too-niche, but I honestly couldn’t see it any other way. Flee is yet another movie I loved so much I screened it at multiple festivals.
#3: The Novice (Lauren Hadaway, Writer/Director): Where Violet showed the extreme version of mental struggles, The Novice is more chillingly realistic. Combining a performance from Isabelle Furhman that ranks as one of my favorites of the year for how far she is willing to go for this role with a brilliant sound design, you are immersed in this world of a college student pushing herself to the brink of madness. Hadaway’s extensive history in sound is the film’s biggest asset. The Novice has five Independent Spirit Award nominations under its belt and was my favorite film coming out of Tribeca this year.
#2: CODA (Sian Heder, Writer/Director): Sometimes, you need a feel-good movie to cut through the seriousness of awards season, and CODA is very much that film. My favorite film coming out of Sundance and a darkhorse candidate for several Oscar nominations, the story of a hearing daughter in a deaf family who wants the world to know how good a singer she is, brought a tear to my eyes and a smile to my face at the same time. Based on the 2014 French film The Belier Family, CODA is the perfect bridge of correctly adapting what could be seen as a lesser-known international film to a U.S. audience. Also, you will never be able to hear Joni Mitchell’s Both Sides Now the same way again.
#1: Titane (Julia Ducournau, Writer/Director): A film that, on its surface that fundamentally should not work that won the Palme d’Or at this year’s Cannes film festival, Titane proves the sentiment that what is on the surface is only skin deep. A film about struggling with identity, sexual acceptance, and toxic masculinity in an absurdly bat-crazy package, Ducournau’s best decision of the film is taking a less-is-more approach with star Agathe Rouselle, giving her the ability to sell with her screams and glares rather than giving her long dialogues. Everything else about the film is 100% more-is-more, which can be seen as over-the-top to the point of overindulgence, and I love it. Titane is a film that is not for everyone, and if you couldn’t handle Ducournau’s directorial debut Raw, then you’ll probably want to sit this one out as well. That being said, I love her approach of saying, “here I am, this is the filmmaker I want to be, take it or leave it.” I can not wait to see what she does next, but for now, Titane is my favorite film of 2021.