When it comes to film, 2021 is where the past and the present meet. Movies are mostly back in theaters, while some still opt for streaming services as a moneymaker. It’s an insight into the hybrid cinema experience that may continue for years to come (depending on how long the coronavirus hangs around). No matter where you watched new films, you have to agree: 2021 was another quality year of movies. From top-notch period pieces to bloody good thrillers, these 30 were my absolute favorite flicks.
30. The Eyes of Tammy Faye
A biopic on a televangelist would be the last thing I’d be eager to watch, if it wasn’t starring Jessica Chastain and Andrew Garfield. In The Eyes of Tammy Faye, both actors play Jim and Tammy Bakker admirably, with a redemptive view of Tammy’s inclusive beliefs amid a conservative Christianity that was anything but. Chastain leaves it all on the stage – literally.
29. The Card Counter
Fresh off my favorite film of 2018, First Reformed, Paul Schrader returned this year with a respectable follow-up. While The Card Counter doesn’t possess the artistic magic of Schrader’s preceding directorial effort, it’s once again a deep and complex character study – this time, starring Oscar Isaac. This isn’t a film about a poker player, it’s about a man struggling to stay alive.
I should’ve known what to expect from Nobody, given it was produced by David Leitch (the director of John Wick). This film is basically John Wick, but featuring Bob Odenkirk as a suburban dad with a secret history – so more A History of Violence, but really, really violent. The bloody affair is entertaining enough, but Christopher Lloyd takes it to over-the-top new heights.
27. Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings
The Marvel formula is getting fairly repetitive, but Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings broke up some of that monotony with an action flick heavy on the martial arts. Though its fantasy-scape gets a bit out of sync alongside its real-world fight sequences, it’s a noble edition to a weary superhero catalog, with likable characters I’m going to enjoy watching in future films.
26. The Mitchells vs. The Machines
The Mitchells vs. The Machines runs almost entirely on personality: an eccentric and idiosyncratic family, a dystopian technological environment, and goofy effects emblematic of the Instagram generation. Some of it is pure cringe, but there’s enough thought and heart put into this film that you can’t help but like it. Plus, everyone has a Rick Mitchell in their own lives.
25. No Time to Die
James Bond goes out in a blaze of glory – no, seriously, that’s what happens (it’s not a spoiler, if you knew that this would be Daniel Craig’s final Bond film). It’s a long and winding film that gets a little in-the-weeds with its plot, but there’s enough pure action to carry No Time to Die. On top of that, you have Craig at his best, and Rami Malek rivaling that in every way as Lyutsifer Safin.
24. Nightmare Alley
Nightmare Alley is Guillermo del Toro’s darkest offering to date, which is saying a lot considering his past monster-filled thrillers. But there’s no monster in this film except for the evils of man. Bradley Cooper steals the show as a corruptible lead, and del Toro always keeps you awaiting his next move. While lacking the beauty of his past works, Nightmare Alley is an excellent trip.
23. The Green Knight
David Lowery’s filmography is interesting enough before this Arthurian effort comes along. The Green Knight takes the director’s atmospheric style we saw with A Ghost Story and adds an adventurous fantasy twist to it. It’s not a casual watch by any means, but it’s rewarding for Dev Patel’s epic journey and confrontation with the Green Knight (or basically Groot’s grandpa).
Pig turns the revenge flick formula on its head — a simmering drama with tons of depth and a great performance by Nicolas Cage (seriously, this dude can be a great actor when he chooses to be). If you’re expecting lots of violence, you’re going to be disappointed. Yet, there’s nothing to be disappointed about in this directorial debut all about loss. Cage seriously loves his pig.
21. Red Rocket
I didn’t love The Florida Project as much as everyone else, perhaps because of its dry premise and script. But Red Rocket is as entertaining as they come. A slice of Texas-sized life from Sean Baker, this humorous look at modern Americana features a stupendous performance by Simon Rex and some laugh-out-loud moments. Mikey Saber is my new favorite movie character.
In Encanto, the characters say we don’t talk about Bruno, but I can’t stop talking about him, nor can I stop talking about this gorgeous animated film. It’s colorful, it’s fun, and it’s deep – whether or not it’s tailor-made for TikTok sing-alongs. Disney is now two-for-two with white men directing Latino-centric movies, following 2017’s Coco, but they’re done with tons of care and great tunes.
19. The Last Duel
The Last Duel didn’t need to be two-and-a-half hours. Heck, we could’ve just turned this into a 30-minute duel and that would’ve been entertaining enough. The wait for Matt Damon and Adam Driver’s face-to-face combat is worth it, though. Ridley Scott’s gripping and brutal #MeToo commentary brings 14th century France to life in all its brutality. Accents? Who needs them?
I can’t help but love a film that’s simple for simplicity’s sake, and that’s exactly what Belfast delivers. It’s a short, sweet, and to-the-point slice of life in ‘60s Northern Ireland, which is educational enough for those unaware of the conflicts of the time. But a script with heartfelt lines and sneaky good performances (I see you Ciaran Hinds) anchor this movie as a jewel of 2022.
17. Last Night in Soho
Don’t listen to the critics: Edgar Wright can do no wrong. I loved Baby Driver, and I also (mostly) loved Last Night in Soho. The England-set psychological thriller is unlike anything in his filmograph. As dueling worlds come together, there’s plenty of suspense and a very grisly payoff. Plus, there’s Anya Taylor Joy. Who thought fashion school could be so dangerous?
16. King Richard
The best sports biopic in recent years is about Serena and Venus Williams, but it’s got their father at the core of it all. Yes, that’s right, and we get peak Will Smith playing him too. King Richard is a gripping drama about the rise of two tennis superstars, with the kind of story that’s perfect for the big screen. It’s not about winning and losing, it’s about striving for greatness either way.
15. The Power of the Dog
You have to read between the lines to love The Power of the Dog, but that’s just what makes this film so rewarding. Director Jane Campion respects her audience’s intelligence, and it’s clear in her career-defining effort that actions speak louder than words. Benedict Cumberbatch is great, Kodi Smit-McPhee is great, and they could’ve made one great Western power couple.
It takes a certain level of care and thought to make a film about a tough topic, and mass shootings is about as tough a topic as it gets. Fran Kranz (yes, the stoner from The Cabin in the Woods) handles his directorial debut with expert finesse, with a tight script that’s the true driving force of the movie. A tearjerker by its very existence, Mass is the most important film of 2022.
13. tick, tick…BOOM!
Lin-Manuel Miranda gets behind the camera for a change, and it pays off in a big way – with a big boom. tick, tick…BOOM! is both a biopic and a tribute, exploring the struggles for Rent playwright Jonathan Larson before his tragic passing right before the play’s premiere. The musical numbers are refreshing, and the starving artist triumph is every theater kid’s dream.
12. The Worst Person in the World
The Worst Person in the World initially comes across as an endearing romantic comedy – that is, until things get real. This simmering drama from Norwegian director Joachim Trier was Letterboxd’s top film of 2022 for a reason, with chapters that spell out the story like a book. It’s existential, it’s heartbreaking, and it’ll make you take a good hard look at who you are.
Pixar just doesn’t miss, does it? The animation studio’s newest offering, Luca, takes us to the coast of Italy for an adventure both in and out of the water. If Call Me By Your Name’s romance and heartbreak made me appreciate European summers, then Luca’s irony and friendship made me adore it. Be right back, getting myself a Vespa and riding around like it’s Roman Holiday.
Spencer isn’t for everybody, but this artistic period piece is the right kind of different for those looking for something unique. It’s far from a documentary on Princess Diana, instead putting us in her fancy shoes and turning up the emotions to the max. You feel every bit of anxiety and paranoia she experienced on Christmas Day 1991 – until KFC brought her down from the ledge.
9. The Tragedy of Macbeth
Denzel yells. That about sums up The Tragedy of Macbeth. It’s the work of only one Coen brother (Ethan is taking a break from filmmaking), and it’s the product of a true auteur. The black-and-white rendition of the Shakespeare classic feels like an Ingmar Bergman film in the best way. You may not remember much of the dialogue, but you’ll remember those witches alright.
8. The French Dispatch
Wes Anderson is the quirkiest director alive, and somehow The French Dispatch finds him at his quirkiest. It’s several distinct stories that don’t necessarily align but are memorable nonetheless (especially Benicio del Toro’s murderer-turned-famous-painter). A bit of Midwestern charm in the heart of France is sometimes all you need, and Anderson delivers another timeless gem.
How can you not be head over heels for CODA? It’s the best kind of sappy family drama, and that’s because it plays out with pure passion and feeling. There have been plenty of films about the deaf community, but nothing with this much heart – and the endearing performances from Marlee Matlin and Troy Kotsur are a big part of that. We need more films as likable as CODA.
6. West Side Story
It’s crazy to think Steven Spielberg hadn’t directed a musical until now, because the genre seems so at home for Hollywood’s most renowned director. West Side Story does basically everything right, from its performances to its songs to its gritty urban New York City. We didn’t need a remake, but what we got is a firm reminder that the Sharks and the Jets are here to stay.
Worldbuilding has found its new visionary: Denis Villeneuve. He took on the Blade Runner sequel, and now he takes on Dune – a book many thought could never be made into a movie. Well, you don’t have to worry about that anymore, because Villeneuve’s planetary epic is immersive, gripping, and meticulously made. What’s even better is that we’re getting a part two.
4. Drive My Car
South Korea has been on such a roll lately with cinema (The Handmaiden, Parasite, and Squid Game), it’s about time Japan gets in on the action. Drive My Car is a slow-burning drama that approaches grief as a necessary component to life, bringing together characters from separate generations. It’s a rewarding watch and the quickest three hours I experienced this year.
3. Spider-Man: No Way Home
Haven’t we had enough Spider-Man already? Apparently not, as Marvel proved to us with the newest entry to the webslinger’s dense repertoire. No Way Home may just be the best we’ve seen of this superhero yet, and it took bringing back all the old Spider-Man heroes and villains (sorry if I’m spoiling it for you). The multiverse strikes again, and it’s never been this good.
2. C’mon C’mon
C’mon C’mon is all about feeling your feelings, no matter how icky they may be. It’s about as pro-therapy a film as I’ve seen, and it’s a moving effort from Mike Mills. Full of characters striving to love one another better, Joaquin Phoenix and Woody Norman have enough genuine interactions to make your heart burst. The only problem is that this movie had to eventually end.
1. Licorice Pizza
It’s official: I love hangout movies. Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood is as fun a buddy movie as I’ve ever seen, and Paul Thomas Anderson just had to one-up Quentin Tarantino. PTA’s edition, Licorice Pizza, is set in the ‘70s, with magical characters that weave in and out and an equally magical soundtrack. It’s hard to believe Cooper Hoffman and Alana Haim are new to the game. They’re masterful, and Licorice Pizza is another masterpiece from the master himself.