20 Best Movies of 2021

What were the best movies of 2021? Which titles, actors and filmmakers will enter the Awards season in full swing? Here’s an overview of the top movies of the last several months.

The end of the year is closing in, so it’s about time to take a look at the movies that came to light in 2021. Following up on the bumpy road that 2020 was, many films of 2021 were the long-awaited premieres – such as Denis Villeneuve’s sci-fi epic Dune (2021) and Daniel Craig’s farewell as James Bond in No Time To Die (2021).

The new COVID-19 reality has transformed the landscape of the industry too. Accumulation of titles from the last year – combined with the new 2021 titles – guaranteed a plethora of memorable movies to watch. And if there’s anything to complain about, it’d be the shortened cinema distribution times that, in many cases, meant a ridiculously short window to watch a given film in a theatre.

Streaming services dropped in feature film quality

In comparison with 2019 and 2020, the hunger for awards impeded in the case of leading streaming platforms. Most importantly, it is Netflix that lacks a strong contender in the Awards season – as strong as Marriage Story (2019), The Irishman (2019) or Mank (2020). This year’s a comeback for films released traditionally, although the online-only competition might checked-in later.

Honorable mentions

Before we get to the top 20 best movies of 2020, there were a few films that deserve to be noticed. Take a look below.

Suicide Squad (2021) whole ensemble movie poster

Suicide Squad – for proving that DC villains have souls too

Director: James Gunn

Watched: cinema distribution

Having to wash off the bad taste that David Ayer’s 2016 flick has left, James Gunn went full-on bonkers with his take on the notorious team of villains saving the world. Any effort to look for wisdom in Suicide Squad (2021) would be futile, however, Gunn’s no-holds-barred approach works wonders here. Experienced in the field of comic book movies, Gunn focuses on giving each character a likable trait that we’ll grow fond of. It’s ridiculously violent, foul-mouthed, and edgy, but man – isn’t it the razzmatazz we hoped for the first time!

Daniel Craig in No Time To Die (2021)

No Time To Die – for concluding the Craig era in style

Director: Cary Joji Fukunaga

Watched: cinema distribution

No Time To Die (2021) is the home stretch for Daniel Craig after fifteen years-long tenure as James Bond. This is, in many ways, an unexpected conclusion, however, also the most obvious one too. On the one hand, No Time To Die (2021) further broke with tradition – the last traces of Ian Fleming’s sexist macho agent are gone and are replaced by the most human take on 007. Craig’s sentimental, closer at heart to the fed-up version of Wolverine in Logan (2017). We see the cracks in his facade, the result of years of breakneck espionage. We see him open up about love. That’s not up everyone’s alley, but Cary Joji Fukunaga’s take on James Bond has more ambition than your regular blockbuster.

Best Movies of 2021

Without further ado, let’s get to it – the creme de la creme of the last 12 months.

The Green Knight (2021) still with giants

#20 The Green Knight

Director: David Lowery

Watched: cinema distribution

Oh, isn’t it common for films that look gorgeous to grapple with their narrative layer? Well, the struggle’s real for The Green Knight (2021), which is a bonafide piece of work on the technical side, but also a storytelling slog. In the center of attention is Dev Patel’s role as Gawain – King Arthur’s nephew who partakes in a haunting game of beheading of a strange Green Knight on one fine evening in Camelot. One year after, Gawain is obliged to let the Green Knight return the favor, which means getting his head chopped off. David Lowery conjures up an array of phantasmagorical images of unwelcoming highlands, and dusky woods domiciled by giants, talking foxes, and shrewd cutthroats. The Green Knight (2021) has that magical charm of a softly simmering cautionary tale, but where it lacks is the adventure and excitement that usually precedes the great finale. Notwithstanding its narrative flaws, this film deserves a shoutout for being an impeccably designed visual experience.

Ultrasound (2021) sci-fi poster

#19 Ultrasound

Director: Rob Schroeder

Watched: Tribeca Film Festival

Mind-bending is the best word to describe Rob Schroeder’s indie darling that debuted during this year’s Tribeca. The plot finds a regular dude Glenn driving over an intentionally placed spiked plank. Looking for a place to stay, Glenn finds a house of an overly welcoming couple, where things go south – to say the least. Shroeder’s debut is packed to the brim with subplots, threads, and facts that overlap in a dreamlike world that brings to mind Christopher Nolan’s Inception (2010). Ultrasound (2021) heralds the arrival of a new voice in the sci-fi genre and constitutes a sweet treat for those who like their films slightly confounding, very complex, and with a handful of humor too.

#18 Lamb

Director: Valdimar Jóhannsson

Watched: Splat! Film Fest

Partly a close kin of Ali Abbasi’s ingenious Border (2018), and a more distant relative to M. Night Shyamalan’s Servant (2019-), Lamb (2021) devises an unconventional plot. A couple of sheep farmers, who mourn after losing their only child, find a bizarre hybrid of human and sheep born in their farmstead. What essentially sounds like a film that’s odd for the sake of being odd, grows into a metaphor of how people tend to patch grief with grotesquely ill-fitting pieces of a mismatched puzzle. Valdimar Jóhannsson’s interests lay in the way something abnormal violates the safe space of the couple, forcing them to accept the new normal, which – as seen through the eyes of a brother who comes to the farm – can be a lot to take in for outsiders. While I can’t that Jóhannsson succeeded entirely, for its over-the-top ending contorts the final echo that the film leaves you with, it’s still a highly imaginative film that stands out among other best movies of 2021.

Akelarre (2020) -  women dancing around the fire - film still

#17 Akelarre (Coven)

Director: Pablo Agüero

Watched: Netflix

I’m a big fan of folk horror, with its primeval stories that explore ancient spirits, long-forgotten deities, and so on. But here comes a genre film unlike the vast majority. Set in the early 17th century in the Basque Country, Coven (2020) finds a group of young village girls who go out at night to dance in the woods. Yes, it does sound sketchy, and obviously doesn’t bode well for them, given the backward-thinking countrymen who immediately accuse them of witchcraft. To settle whether a crime was indeed committed, a Judge, nominated by the Spanish Inquisition, arrives at the scene. Coven (2020) hypnotizes with the shroud of mystery – the thin ice that the girls are stepping on when daringly drawing the judge into their alluring charade. Director Pablo Agüero owes his entire ensemble too, and the film earned my support by its roaring finale – a born-in-the-fire, luscious and riveting dans macabre that deliver the finest conclusion out of all the possible options.

Brighton 4th Tribeca FIlm Festival

#16 Brighton 4th

Director: Levan Koguashvili

Review: Brighton 4th,

Watched: Tribeca Film Festival.

This powerful Georgian drama directed by Levan Koguashvili tells a simple story of a father who rescues his son from hitting rock-bottom. Parallel to the main theme of the film is director’s Levan Koguashvili exploration of the chase after the American Dream as seen from the perspective of Eastern immigrants. This is a man’s world, and Brighton 4th (2021) depicts a world of men who falter, crushed by the weight of expectations and longing for home. The narrative style of Koguashvili flows in an undisturbed manner, focused and gentle. This is a film fueled by naturalism; the kind of arthouse effort that offers kicks in the well-written characters arcs and consonantly developed story rather than cinematic gimmicks or action bits.

More from Tribeca Film Festival 2021

Mandibles (2020) film still - a giant fly by the pool

#15 Mandibles

Director: Quentin Dupieux

Watched: Splat! Film Fest

A freakishly no-holds-barred trip – packed to the brim into its 77 minutes of runtime – Mandibles (2020) embraces the zaniness of director Quentin Dupieux in its entirety. Drawing from Dumb and Dumber (1994), but endlessly more stylish and absurd, it’s a story about two dumb-dumbs who accidentally steal a car with a gargantuan fly stored in the trunk. Due to their adverse socio-economic status, the two gentlemen decided to, well, train the fly to become their “real-life drone” that will rob banks and bring them a fortune. As you imagine, in more shaky hands, Mandibles (2020) would either fall apart halfway through or starve at the bottom of the B-quality ocean. Thankfully, when helmed by Quentin Dupieux, the ridiculous idea keeps the nonsense refreshing, and brisk, with gorgeous wrapping painted with pastel colors. On top of that comes the energetic ensemble comprising of bonkers comedic performances, among which Adèle Exarchopoulos earns her screen time with every yelled-out word and grimace she delivers. Mandibles (2020) can be read in many ways – as praise of friendship, a mix-up comedy, or even as an exercise in pushing the envelope for fun – and the film works on all of these levels. Such is the power of a story about two idiots training a giant fly.

Anastasia Davidson as Ariadna in Bebia, à mon seul désir

#14 Bebia, à mon seul désir

Director: Juja Dobrachkous

Review: Bebia, à mon seul désir (2021)

Watched: New Horizons International Film Festival

One of the films that grew on me over time in 2021 is Juja Dobrachkous’ directorial debut, Bebia, à mon seul désir (2021). The protagonist of this black-and-white movie is Ariadna, an aspiring model who learns about the death of her grandma back in Georgia. Returning to the countryside, even for a couple of days, equals going into the lion’s den. In comparison with her modern, London-based life, the Georgian customs – such as the task to connect grandma’s deathbed with her house by using a 30 kilometers-long thread – are silly, and pointless. But Dobrachkous reaches for this allegory to Ariadne’s thread for a reason. Ghosts of the past won’t dissolve themselves without Ariadna’s facing them, and although there are no horrors included, Bebia, à mon seul désir (2021) circles around myths, legends, and spirituality in an often esoteric manner. It’s arthouse at its most profound.

Poster of Swan Song (2021)

#13 Swan Song

Director: Benjamin Cleary

Watched: streaming (Apple)

Luckily for all genre fans, 2021 has disenchanted the dry spell of science fiction from last year. In the shadows of the wildly expected Dune (2021), Matrix Resurrections (2021), and a handful of Marvel productions, it’s easy to let small-scale films slip through under the radar. Benjamin Cleary’s feature film debut Swan Song (2021) is one of them. Crafted like a Black Mirror episode, Swan Song (2021) finds a dying designer making a bold decision to replicate his DNA in order to create an exact lookalike of his. Mahershala Ali stars as both the protagonist and the doppelgänger, delivering two sides of the same man that differ in minute gestures, reactions, and behavioral patterns. Cleary’s strikes me as a child of Barry Jenkins and Alex Garland, for Swan Song (2021) has a deeply moving spine embellished by technology that’s embedded in the DNA of the world we get to see. 

Anthony Oseyemi starring in Gaia (2021)

#12 Gaia

Director: Jaco Bouwer

Review: Gaia (2021)

Watched: SXSW world premiere

2021 started off surprisingly well in the horror section, all thanks to the South African eco-conscious scare-fest Gaia (2021), directed by Jaco Bouwer. Following its SXSW premiere, the film received favorable reviews and landed international distribution that – let’s be honest – isn’t an easy challenge for most indies. Where the film gets its initial poll position is a neat concept of nature striking back at us. Plants and fungi get deadly in Gaia (2021), and Jaco Bouwer offers plenty of scares to keep the most demanding viewers grasping for the edge of their seats. Aside from the graphic body horror at display, Gaia (2021) also explores the destructive human impact on the environment, and makes use of the extreme measures that some environmentalists are so vocal about. Finally, there’s also the timely COVID-19 aspect to its meaning, which only completes the list of reasons to give this film a shot.

More from SXSW 2021

#11 The Hand of God

Director: Paolo Sorrentino

Watched: streaming (Netflix)

Perhaps the best coming-of-age movie of 2021 has been the stroll down memory lane by Paolo Sorrentino. A story of growing up in Naples meanders between the many sculptors of the figure that the director ended up being today. Sorrentino’s protagonist Fabietto begins his journey as a teenager who exists in a bubble created by his loving family. As we peak into the summer spent with the most bizarre (and colorful) collection of aunts, uncles, and cousins, Sorrentino embellishes this story with sprinkles of magic realism. Such an oneiric aura captures the soul of Naples too, a city of thousand stories which the writer-director sets against a historical moment when Diego Maradona became the player of the local football team. The Hand of God (2021) consists of beautifully painted nuances that will make you laugh, smile, and weep, and leave you with the pressing need to venture into your own memories of good ol’ times. 

Shot from Titane (2021) Cannes film

#10 Titane

Director: Julia Ducournau

Watched: cinema preview screening

After shocking audiences back in 2016 with Raw (2016), French auteur Julia Ducournau pushed the envelope more than an inch in Titane (2021). We meet Alexia (Agathe Rousselle), a dancer with a particularly bizarre affection for cars, as well as some wildly sadistic instincts that the director likes to put in front of our eyes. After a series of gruesome crimes, Alexia’s on the run. Julia Ducournau then introduces Vincent (Vincent Lindon), a fire brigade captain who reunites with his for-years estranged son. The paths of the two – Vincent and Alexia – will cross and entwine in a story that deploys extreme measures of violence, likely to ran ragged some of the less prepared viewers. But Ducournau’s shocks aren’t cheap gimmicks, because they build a necessary contrast to what both Rousselle and Lindon have in store – a crushing story about belonging, and healing the open wounds that seem incurable at first sight. 

Fisherman Jesmark Scicluna in Luzzu 2021 - an Alex Camillieri film

#9 Luzzu

Director: Alex Camillieri

Review: Luzzu (2021)

Watched: New Horizons International Film Festival

Luzzu (2021) is a rare gem directed in the local language of Malta. The word refers to the traditional colorful fishing boats, the cultural heritage of the tiny Mediterranean island. One of such boats belongs to Jesmark, a fisherman who refuses to scrap his father’s legacy despite huge financial problems that put his family’s wellbeing in jeopardy. Writer-director Alex Camillieri puts his protagonist between multiple layers of a Scilla-and-Charybdis kind of problem. For Jesmark, it’s a matter of honor and tribute to his bloodline put against the changing world and the grey area of the fish market where his colleagues strike gold. He’s torn apart, ripped in half by forces he cannot control. Furthermore, much of the narrative’s power resides in the non-professional actors who make Luzzu (2021) radiate with the timely message about various parties that impact the way we live – such as the impersonal European Union that imposes new laws that punch the traditional fishermen in the gut. Knowing that Jesmark Scicluna, who plays the protagonist, is a fisherman himself highlights the film’s importance too. Sometimes something as trivial as choosing the right fish during your vacations makes a somberly huge difference to the locals economy.

More from the New Horizons International Film Festival

Kristen Stewart as Princess Diana in Spencer (2021)

#8 Spencer

Director: Pablo Larraín

Review: Spencer (2021)

Watched: cinema distribution

Kristen Stewart will for sure join the Awards race this year, but that’s not the only reason to watch Pablo Larraín’s Spencer (2021). Documenting Princess Diana’s most strenuous efforts to remain sane in the royal family, the film has a very exquisite and uncanny way of portraying the disturbed individual. Larraín has an impeccable style that brings to mind Danny Boyle’s Steve Jobs (2015), and he puts the royal entourage to good use. In Spencer (2021), everything around Diana seems hostile – people gossiping around, her own husband, and the press that screams for another update on her deteriorating mental health. Stewart’s in her elements, catching the glimpse of a person at wit’s end, gasping for the last breath of freedom before losing herself completely. There is also an eerie quality to the narrative’s pacing, as well as ideas of interlacing Diana with the fate of Ann Boleyn, that together imbue Spencer (2021) with an unexpectedly ghastly atmosphere.

Rebecca Hall in the poster of The Night House (2020)

#7 The Night House

Director: David Bruckner

Watched: cinema distribution

David Bruckner’s second feature after The Ritual (2017) replenishes some of the shortcomings of his debut. Both films relied on their exploration of grief viewed as a gateway for all kinds of horrors to step in and torment vulnerable individuals. In The Night House (2020), that suffering person is Beth (a brilliant, dedicated performance of Rebecca Hall), recently widowed woman who begins to suspect her husband took some disturbing mysteries to the grave. It might sound like a horror you’ve seen dozens of times before, however, the screenplay by Ben Collins and Luke Piotrowski reveals layers of depth to the initial premise. Bruckner understands that underneath every good horror film lies a drama story, and that’s precisely the area where The Night House (2020) earns its best-of status. By the end of the film, you’ll feel all kinds of emotions, and its devastating conclusion remains one of the most brilliant ones of the year.

Andrew Garfield in Tick, Tick... BOOM! (2021)

#6 Tick, Tick… BOOM!

Director: Lin-Manuel Miranda

Watched: streaming (Netflix)

If you didn’t know what New York is, Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Tick, Tick… BOOM! (2021) provides a blatantly honest answer – it’s a place for unhappy people. But to deem this musical, which beams with such jovial energy, as a tale of unhappiness would be an act of criminal understatement. Tick, Tick… BOOM! (2021) sets out to understand the hardship of being an artist, as well as all the planets that suffer from collateral damage as an effect. Looking back at the life of Jonathan Larson, the enfant prodige of the NY playwright scene, Lin-Manuel Miranda pays tribute to all the struggling, suppressed and depressed voices who craft their masterpieces by night and live grey lives by day. The film’s also anchored by the go-for-broke performance of one and only Andrew Garfield, who proves he belongs to the Mount Olympus of actors working today. However, Garfield operates alongside equally dedicated performers – Vanessa Hudgens, Alexandra Shipp and Robin de Jesus. You’re guaranteed to have at least one song stuck in your head.

Sharon Duncan-Brewster in Dune (2021)

#5 Dune

Director: Denis Villeneuve

Review: Dune (2021),

Watched: cinema distribution

Such a monumental piece of cinema could either become the major let-down of the year or take audiences by storm. Dune (2021) leans towards the latter. It encompasses an overwhelmingly substantial part of Frank Herbert’s novel, while setting up grounds for an even more riveting part two (already confirmed). There’s a lot to cherish in Denis Villeneuve’s grand vision. The entire ensemble fits in perfectly, with standout performances of Timotheé Chalamet and Rebecca Ferguson. Arrakis, the sand-covered planet storing the secret space fuel called spice, benefits from Villeneuve’s steady, patient world-building. The director also keeps the film’s pacing in full control, with much of the politics, symbols and allegories reverberating over the nearly 3 hours of runtime. While the film doesn’t fully live up to the bubble of expectations that’s been growing for months now, nonetheless, Villeneuve’s prowess remains unparalleled.

Anya Taylor-Joy as Sandie in Last Night In Soho (2021)

4 Last Night In Soho

Director: Edgar Wright

Review: Last Night in Soho (2021)

Watched: cinema distribution

Coming across a genuine gem such as Last Night in Soho (2021) rarely happens. And when it does, you remain under its spell long after the credits roll. That’s how I felt after the first screening of Edgar Wright’s beguiling commixture of ghost story, thriller, musical and whodunnit crime drama. The story follows an aspiring fashion designer Eloise who ravels out the mystery of a murdered girl Sandie. The twist, however, relies on the fact that Eloise travels in time each night and – from a point of view of a specter – observes Sandie’s rise-and-fall situation. Wright offers a mouth-watering feast of London in the 60s, swathed in neon lights, and ornamented with the finest collection of lively jams. Two hours fly by without a single out-of-sync moment thanks to the work of Thomasin McKenzie and Anya Taylor-Joy. Their time-bending connection strikes the right chords and helps the film’s more serious tones reverberate without a shade of false.

#3 Red Rocket

Director: Sean Baker

Review: Red Rocket (2021)

Watched: Transtlantyk Festival 2021

Sean Baker might have achieved the first buzz by shooting a film on an iPhone, but he has risen to prominence thanks to The Florida Project (2016), a film through which the director established himself as a keen observer of those who exist on the margins of the American society. Baker’s narrative, however, never settles on gloominess – his stories are packed to the brim with sensational energy, sunny frames and unbreakable individuals who overcome all of the roadblocks thrown at them. In the case of Red Rocket (2021), it’s the superbly crafted performance of Simon Rex that breathes life into the story. As Mikey – a washed-up adult films star, who returns to his hometown in Texas with tail between his legs – Rex impeccably balances his comedic background with some serious dramatic chops. He’s the beating heart of the film, and a star that makes the entire world gravitate around him. While Rex flexes his undiscovered talents, it’s also Baker’s famous eye for non-professionals and first-timers that remains surefire. All of the supporting actors are revelations on their own terms, who imbue Red Rocket (2021) with a soul of a true American indie darling. On top of that, it’s an honest, sympathizing image of how hard it is to shoot for the stars when you’re born in the wrong place. Bringing all these pieces together, Sean Baker topped his previous movies and made one of the most endearing, and funniest movies of the year.

still from Mass (2021) by Fran Kranz

#2 Mass

Director: Fran Kranz

Watched: American Film Festival 2021

One of the most stunning debuts in recent years, Fran Kranz’s Mass (2021) scrutinizes the process of how repressed pain and guilt beget the need for forgiveness. The writer-director works with a stunning ensemble – Jason Isaacs, Ann Dowd, Martha Plimpton and Reed Birney – that confidently delivers a riveting exploration of how a school shooting impacts the lives of two couples. Confined to just one stuffy room in a suburban church, we sit together with people who desperately need their wounds to heal, but aren’t sure how to get there. It’s a storm of emotions, of hurtful words and moments of heartfelt silence, which sum up to a deeply cathartic journey for anyone who – at some point in their life – struggled with an incomprehensible situation that they couldn’t resolve on their own. The entire effort is minimal in form, but grand in the payoff. It’s not an easy watch, but it’s worth every minute of its runtime.

#1 Minari

Director: Lee Isaac Chung

Watched: cinema distribution

Gentle like a summer breeze, patient, grounded, and yet also transcendental, Minari (2020) tells a very intimate story of a Korean family that moves to Arkansas in the 1980s. Director Lee Isaac Chung, on whose memoirs this film is based, lets the story flow in the most organic manner. Nothing’s forced nor artificial, and no decision or reaction feels out of the pattern. The assimilation of the Korean family, as well as how they slowly come undone and redefine their hope for better days, has a universal meaning to it. Then it’s all dressed in such a delicate wrapping – an elegant score of Emile Mosseri, phenomenal performances across the entire ensemble, genuinely breathtaking cinematography from Lachlan Milne – that I only wish I could rewatch this gem for the first time. 

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