The Best Movies Of 2021 With Podcast Episode Edition

I feel like I’m always saying, “It’s been a weird year in film,” but in this case I think we can all admit that this was a strange year when it comes to releases, release schedules, and the general shifts in attention. Films were pushed back, some losing the year altogether, and those that did get released in the first half of the year seem to have had that normal detriment to remaining in the minds of award season voters amplified.

But beyond that, this was a particularly strange year for me because there are so many films that are getting the lion’s share of attention in awards, and nominations, that just didn’t hit me the way they did others (or the way others pretend the films hit them). Movie fans are always complaining that “Oscar bait” films get attention they don’t deserve, and though I generally lean toward pushing back on that idea, I find the love for several films this year… confusing.

That said, I’m going to run through some films that aren’t on this list, and while I won’t give a lot of explanation for them, I feel like it’s worth mentioning their existence somehow.

Also, I’ll be adding the podcast episode below, where you can get more thoughts on the list and films, and I’ll be including my co-host’s (Shane Leonard) list here, and it must be mentioned that, as has been our theory for years, Shane’s list only has films we have covered on the podcast as possible contenders.

First off, the films that are getting awards, nominations, and lots of attention, that I really didn’t even like at all. In the Heights is probably the one I like best in this group, but it just didn’t work for me, despite strong performances. tick, tick… BOOM! on the other hand is just as pretentious and mind-numbing as its title. C’mon C’mon is what happens when everything I love about Mike Mills’ films (Beginners, 20th Century Women) goes just slightly wrong and is rendered all but unwatchable. A potentially interesting look at certain aspects of the human condition becomes boring and you’re left wondering who this is supposed to be for. The Green Knight is an absolute primer on putting certain things on film, and is a showcase for a lot of acting talent, but it’s also the product of taking a story that has endured for centuries and thinking that luckily you found it because you have a better idea. Finally, West Side Story is the latest film version of the Mona Lisa, called a masterpiece before it was ever seen and no one is going to dare say the emperor has no clothes. It’s a largely boring, borderline insulting, remake that has nothing noteworthy over the original. Fully half of the actors are laughable and the only real spotlight is on the fact that two people fall in love in 90 seconds, and dance fighting seems even more stupid now. Shakespeare, I think, isn’t amused.

The next group of films that need to be mentioned are those that are getting a lot of praise/awards and are actually quite good, but just weren’t really in serious contention for my list. The Power of the Dog and Nightmare Alley are probably the “biggest” films here and I had an oddly similar reaction to both of them. Loved both of them during the first half, but they both began to feel like they weren’t sure what else to do and so began just throwing things at the wall, and they both ultimately are merely jokes, or curious anecdotes, needlessly told for over two hours. When they end, they should both have some far more serious point given what they’ve laid out, and they don’t. Encanto had me in parts, but feels at times either adrift, or overly covering the notes of the eventual theme park ride. Passing, Last Night in Soho, and Annette are all rather brilliant in their own way, but for various reasons were not as effective as they should have been. They were, perhaps curiously for this group, either not quite daring enough, or daring just for the sake of doing something “daring,” and they were all left with “quite good” as the best they were going to get. Finally, I really loved The Mitchells vs the Machines (though not as much as a lot of people), but when putting together my list I just couldn’t make the argument that it was worth knocking anything out… even of the top 15.

And finally, the movies that were the closest to getting on the list and/or were on some version of the list. Considering I have a tie at number 10 you could call this a top 20 with these, but there’s no order at all here and it was trying enough to get this to 10 given the diversity of films. Besides, the number is just an accident.

Licorice Pizza had me for much of its run, but several long spans of its run don’t work at all and don’t seem to fit the film. It’s a meandering yarn that lends itself to letting such things go, but it kept it out of the top 10 for me.

Raya and the Last Dragon delivered better for me than almost any animated film of the year and I could hardly believe the speed with which people forgot about it. The characters are great and it’s loaded with fun, depth, action and a host of rewatchable moments.

I say “almost” there because easily the best animated movie of the year was Belle, an unqualified treasure that will soon manage the appreciation it deserves and will live on as a classic for years to come.

Drive My Car is perhaps the most critically-acclaimed film in this group and while I also really love it, there were simply better efforts, and it had some negatives for me. Call it 11.

Bergman Island may well be a film that works best among people who are overly interested in film and fantasy, but it is an absolutely elegant ride through the bittersweet exploration of more and more the longer you think about it.

Spencer is likewise perhaps a better film if you are a… “fan” of Diana, or the Royal Family… or whatever, and I am not. But, it is still a story marvelously told, and an acting effort that deserves whatever praise it gets. It’s stunning in its little moments and slight nuances, buoyed further by someone (Pablo Larrain) trying to truly do something a bit different and more meaningful with his directing.

The Card Counter is a similar dissection, but the one that even more should have managed to get in my top 10. There were moments that fell flat, struck just the wrong chord, and at times came close to negating a fair amount of what had come before. Still, it’s a brilliant film.

Titane, perhaps also a bit of a character dissection, is as good as everyone says, but there were too many things that seemed like flawed, misguided choices. This might have been my number one film of the year but the effort seems determined to fly off the rails for its own sake when it isn’t actually accomplishing anything or serving the larger purpose.

The Tragedy of Macbeth just wasn’t consequential enough for me, and I’m a Macbeth fan. It’s a wonderful treatment and plays with the material enough to be a meaningful pursuit (as opposed to say West Side Story), but it just didn’t hit me the way I expected and somehow wasn’t truly powerful.

Finally, Shiva Baby is probably the film I have most recommended when someone doesn’t just want the usual suspects. It’s jarring, hilarious, and makes being still seem almost more frantic than anything else. It lacked only a bit of polish that would have brought things together better and perhaps reworked a few scenes that were better on paper and didn’t overly fit.

All of that out of the way, here’s the list

10. (Tie) Dune

If it’s a good adaptation of Dune, it should be very high on my list, and this is a good adaptation. That’s simply my acknowledgment of bias. Despite this, the film had trouble making it on the list at all. It’s stunning. In most regards, it delivers on the book’s purposes, themes, etc., and despite a few scenes that I didn’t love, Timothée Chalamet proves yet again that he is the young (er, ish) actor to watch. Still, something just didn’t work. It lacked gravity in some sense that was difficult to pin down. There was so much attention to style that it just didn’t completely deliver. I should have loved it, and I didn’t quite, and that’s telling.

10. (Tie) The Last Duel

image courtesy Disney

Together with House of Gucci (which isn’t great, but is certainly directed marvelously), The Last Duel makes for a perfect argument for how infuriating it is that Ridley Scott won’t abandon everything that is in any way connected to Alien. It’s a daring film, because the delivery isn’t going to work for a lot of people, and others are going to find it a bloated 150-odd minutes. Worst of all, describing the premise in any way is sure to lead to eye-rolling and a lack of interest by many, and perhaps legitimately so. It sounds like a pretentious, “societal statement” piece, however you try to sell it.

Despite the oddity of a medieval he said/he said/she said revolving around a duel and the circumstances leading to same, the film manages to deliver in the best way that using “fiction” to make your point can. Mostly a result of great performances and an attention to the potential of every scene that feels Altman-esque, this is a film that, while still being an entertaining work, tears apart… just society generally really, in ways so unforgiving and relentless it might be someone’s doctoral thesis.


image courtesy Apple

In a different year, CODA might easily have ended up a film that virtually no one heard about and saw critics begging people to find a way to catch it. There’s too much to talk about with this one, including the stellar performances, but the real beauty of the effort is how it manages to deliver its “coming of age” (like all movies in the sub-genre that are actually good) both universally and specifically. The only hearing member of the family struggles with having her own life to lead, and doesn’t know how to balance priorities, responsibilities, and finding herself. It’s all absolutely this exact character specific and not at all unlike everyone else’s road. That’s harder than it seems, and something that films fail at dozens of times a year.

8. The Lost Daughter

image courtesy Netflix

There aren’t many actors who break out as writer/directors with the force of Maggie Gyllenhaal’s The Lost Daughter. It isn’t simply that it’s a strange examination of a person, people, and how people interact, but it is such an unnerving, unusual effort that somehow goes right despite the dangers of the premise. It’s difficult even to get behind… while you’re watching it, because it makes almost no effort to draw you in. There’s something voyeuristic about it that keeps an audience at a distance. Unlike something one might expect, it doesn’t even invite you in, though it perhaps relays a certain permission. This, nearly bizarre, construction gives over a character (and to some degree at least, characters) in ways you don’t see coming and is ultimately haunting.

7. The Souvenir: Part II

image courtesy A24

There is a sense in which I almost consider this one a cheat, because it’s hard for me to consider Part I and Part II as truly distinct films, perhaps in much the way I will likely think of Dune Part II when it eventually comes out. That said, we are clearly in a different moment with this film and it is maneuvering through a different space in a life laid bare. Together, the two are probably one of the best things to come along in a decade, but, for me at least, neither is quite at that level without the other. It’s hard to imagine, for example, what this movie provokes in a viewer who hasn’t seen the first, or ultimately how well it works.

However well it works on its own, or whatever other caveats one might attach to it, it is an amazing film (or part of one), with utterly devastating performances, that manages one of the most eloquent, spirited, and confident displays of life that will ever be seen.

Oddly, it reminds, in some very general way, of The Worst Person in the World.

6. Belfast

image courtesy Focus Features

Belfast blew me away, and it was a surprise. I’m not especially a Branagh fan, and when I lose touch with his efforts, it’s often because he seems a bit self-indulgent and self-important. Now we have a movie that is, sort of, autobiographical, which doesn’t seem the sort of effort that is going to avoid those pitfalls. Somehow, this connection to his own life turned into something confident to simply be what it is. It’s a wildly touching portrait, and even when a few moments spiral toward caricature there’s a background honesty of “the reality of things through a young boy’s eyes.” In the end, it’s a clever, humorous, and possibly syrupy tale of both the crushing decisions we make and the trauma of life just happening anyway.

5. Pig

image courtesy Neon

Pig is the sort of movie that you wouldn’t be at all surprised if someone you raved about it to stopped it after 30 minutes and said, “What the hell are you talking about?” Personally, it reminds me a great deal of About Time, which is to say that when you do find people who’ve seen it, they say, “Sure, cute, quirky bit of fun,” and you say, “Well, one of the best films of the decade, but ok.”

The real beauty of Pig is that its “hero” (brilliantly played by Nicolas Cage) is a character people don’t want to see or make films about and its point is that, much as it might seem otherwise, he doesn’t want, or need, to be fixed, and he isn’t. The plot is not for him to progress, but for our knowledge of him to, and the more he is teased out before us, the more amazingly he is both tortured and comfortable where he is. As a bonus, there probably is no one else who might have done the film’s end justice, and that is one of oddest and most surprising things I have ever said about a film.

4. Cyrano

Photo Credit: Peter Mountain © 2021 Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Anyone familiar with 2012’s Anna Karenina (easily one of the best of the year) won’t be surprised to learn that Joe Wright could put the marvel that is Cyrano together. Like that film, Wright here dazzles with a production that wraps “splendor” in curious, chaotic sets, but they serve the film’s purposes rather than distracting from them. If Dinklage doesn’t give one of the year’s best performances the turn of phrase has no meaning at all. This has always been a character more difficult than most can manage because “tragic charm” is a highwire act, but Dinklage delivers effortlessly. Most impressively, the unbearable humanity dances wildly with society and circumstance until the whole thing is just one musical number which just happens to have people singing at certain points.

3. Cruella

Cruella Movie Review
image credit: Laurie Sparham/Disney Enterprises Inc All Rights Reserved

Cruella has had a long time to fall off my list, but I’ve seen it three times since and I don’t rewatch things as a rule. For some, this is the most difficult selection to defend, and I’ve done so for a year now. I find myself returning to my own theory of rating films which is, in short – How well does the film manage to be what it sets out to be and how legitimate a thing to be is that? By that standard, this is fantastically difficult to beat, and I said as much when I first reviewed it. It’s a stylistic tour de force that layers in fun and heart in much the way Mary Poppins Returns did. Also like that film, it works in a sort of homage to the spirit behind some of Disney’s greatest treasures, rather than just cash-grabbing flights of nostalgia. It’s heart and visual wonder dazzle and while it is slightly peppered with schmaltz at times, it’s the perfect blend of pseudo-reality and pure bonkers to be at once a lovable, fun-filled ride and the prequel to a cartoon.

2. The Worst Person in the World

image courtesy Neon

Joachim Trier‘s The Worst Person in the World is a member of one of the smallest niches in film, and it is one that is rather difficult to explain. It’s a film that is engaging, odd, and surprisingly charming, and it pulls you into Julie’s (Renate Reinsve) life to a degree that is as challenging as it is uncomfortable. Through chapters, the audience is led along Julie’s life from an inability to choose a career, to a stable-ish though not entirely fulfilling relationship, to a chance encounter that quite meaningfully does not lead to an affair, and all the while Julie can’t seem to manage any clarity on what direction to point herself. It’s like coming-of-age for a different age. It’s whimsical, funny, a bit cringy, deceptively honest, and stuffed with the particular emotion that is “being uncertain what emotion you’re having.” Reinsve shines throughout and not so much because each scene delivers so precisely what it’s after (though that is true), but because the script asks the impossible of her at nearly every turn – conveying what you are trying not to convey.

The film enters that smallest of niches following what is one of the best endings ever put on film, because there becomes a very real sense in which what “the movie” actually is, is the thing that happens when it ends. In this case, the sudden disbelief that what just happened to you actually happened, and all the thoughts that follow.

1. The French Dispatch

People who aren’t hardcore cinephiles and/or aren’t fans of Wes Anderson might have a very different response to The French Dispatch, but for me it was a variety of perfections all rolled into one. Moreover, and this may be something of a bias admission as opposed to a true positive of the film, it showcased a progression of craft. Anderson here uses several techniques, or constructs scenes, or uses quirks of dialog, in ways that he has in previous films but now he clearly understands their use better and/or simply gets far more out of them.

The characters are wonderful, serving their own purposes but also a broader story, and it manages points for difficulty when it comes to the overall story, which is to try to give us something impossible while also being just a sort of celebration of writing.

That’s the list. Thanks for reading. Catch our podcast version below.

Shane’s List

  1. The Worst Person in the World
  2. The Tragedy of Macbeth
  3. Pig
  4. Cruella
  5. Nightmare Alley
  6. Belfast
  7. The French Dispatch
  8. Dune
  9. The Lost Daughter
  10. The Mitchells vs the Machines

Marc Eastman
Marc Eastman
Marc Eastman is the owner and operator of Are You Screening? and co-host of the Are You Screening? podcast with co-host Shane Leonard. He has been writing film reviews for over 20 years, and several branches of the internet's film review world have seen his name. He has been member of the Critics Choice Awards for well over a decade.

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