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The Top 20 Movies of 2021 (#10 – 1)

January 31, 2022 | Posted by Jeremy Thomas
Spider-Man: No Way Home, CinemaCon Image Credit: Sony PIctures

Top 20 Films of 2021 (#10 – 1)

Welcome, one and all, to the final part of my Movies Year in Review for 2020! I’m your host Jeremy Thomas, and today we’ll concluding our look at the best films of the past year at last. Keep in mind that this list is meant to be my personal opinion and not a definitive list. You’re free to disagree; you can even say my list is wrong but stating that an opinion is “wrong” is just silly. With that in mind, let’s get right into it!

Earlier this week I kicked off my Best Films of 2021 list with numbers 20 through 11. While there was some really great stuff on that part of the list, now we get to the true best of the best.

Caveat: My criteria for a film qualifying for this list is simple: if a narrative film had its domestic release this year, either theatrically or in a marketed release on VOD or a major streaming service, then it was eligible. The only other caveat is that I have tried but have not seen everything that was released in 2021, especially factoring in streaming services. The films that I missed that could have possibly qualified based on reputation are King Richard, C’mon C’mon, Passing, The French Dispatch, and Luca. Other than those, I feel reasonably confident I would have seen just about every movie that would have likely made the list. For those curious, I saw a total of 168 films that were released in 2021 (up significantly from last year’s 119).

Just Missing The Cut

Coming Home in the Dark
Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings
The Last Duel
The Spine of Night

The First Ten

20: West Side Story
19: Candyman
18: The Suicide Squad
17: A Quiet Place Part II
16: The Green Knight
15: Judas and the Black Messiah
14: Spencer
13: Pig
12: Last Night In Soho
11: Nobody

#10: The Mitchells vs. the Machines

Top 20 Films of 2021 - The Mitchells vs. the MachinesImage Credit: Sony Pictures Animation

You know, I have no idea how a Sony Pictures Animation family comedy released without much fanfare on Netflix became one of the funniest, most heartfelt and delightful movies of the year, but here we are. Mike Rianda’s The Mitchells vs. the Machines certainly wasn’t a film that was on my radar as the year began, which is what makes it such a pleasant surprise. We can thank writer-director Rianda and his co-writer Jeff Rowe for that, as they take many of the typical animated film tropes and put them together in such a way for a delightful little family road trip comedy with a ton of heart and some real emotional resonance.

The most striking thing about this movie is that it isn’t exactly reinventing the wheel. At its core, this sci-fi adventure pic’s elements are incredibly recognizable from the oddball lead character and the wacky dad and brother to the robot takeover plot. But Rianda assembles all the pieces in a way that hit differently than a lot of similar films, and his dialogue (given the proper emotional beats through strong voice acting from Abbi Jacobson and others) is grounded and relatable.

Phil Lord and Christopher Miller are producers here, and you can feel the same kind of connection that carried films like Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs to being surprisingly watchable. Lead character Katie (Jacobson) isn’t just an oddball because the plot requires it; it’s an honest and earned trait, and the way she and her dad Rick (Danny McBride) have difficulty relating carries the same way.

It helps that the movie supports its emotional charm with the fun adventure plot. Again, the idea of an AI uprising isn’t something we haven’t seen before by any measure, even in kid-friendly animated context. But the charm of the voice cast, and the inspired-yet-familiar animation keep it engaging, along with several fun gags throughout. I turned on this film expecting a lightweight and forgettably-enjoyable couple of hours; what I got was one of the funnier and more poignant films of the year.

#9: The Night House

Top 20 Films of 2021 - The Night HouseImage Credit: Searchlight Pictures

David Bruckner is a filmmaker that horror fans should be excited to see on the rise. After making waves with segments in horror anthology films like V/H/S and Southbound, Bruckner scored one of the better fright films of 2017 with the ensemble film The Ritual. That film showed how he was able to plumb the depths of emotional trauma for a good story and equally good scares, a tactic that he employs with even more success in The Night House.

With The Night House, Bruckner takes a sharp script by Ben Collins and Luke Piotrowski and creates a portrait of a how personal demons can carry over to those you love. Collins and Piotrowski’s screenplay is inspired by Welsh turf mazes, using the mysterious designs as a catalyst for a story about Beth, a woman (Rebecca Hall) grieving the loss of her husband and learning exactly how little she actually knew him. Hall has always been a superlative actor, but she’s at her peak here as Beth. She gives an intense performance, painting Beth as a woman driven to find out the truth about her husband’s secrets under a veneer of bitterness. It’s a brave piece of acting, punctuated by standout moments such as her frank takedown of the mother of one of her students who has the nerve to contest her son’s grade and gets a lesson in why you should get to know someone before you make assumptions about who they are.

Bruckner’s work behind the camera isn’t interested in cheap scares, easy answers, or shallow representations. He leans heavily into the uncanny mood, peeling back the layers of his story slowly and letting the audience follow along on Beth’s journey. That’s not to say there aren’t intense and frightening moments, though. Beth’s journey into her own personal hell has a lot of twists along the way and some gripping sequences involving a spectral entity. Horror of the last few years has been squarely focused on the concepts of grief and anxiety, both of which come to play in The Night House, but Bruckner’s approach and Hall’s performance makes it stand out from the pack for a lot of reasons. The ending has proved to be somewhat divisive but if you’re willing to pick up what it’s setting down, this is quite possibly the single-most frightening film of 2021 and certainly one of the best-made.

#8: Encanto

Top 20 Films of 2021 - EncantoImage Credit: Disney

There was a time not so long ago when Walt Disney Animation Studios was considered second-tier status, lagging well behind Pixar. While I still love Pixar films, I’m happy that’s no longer the case. Since Frozen, Disney Animation has been on quite the rise, giving a new spin to timeless themes, and it finds yet another success with Encanto. Jared Bush and Byron Howard’s multigenerational family adventure contains all the heart and humor of its sister studios’ successes with some bang-up musical numbers and a delightful set of characters to boot.

Encanto finds its Luisa-like strength in an accessible story of family conflict, rooted in a distinctly Columbian community. Centered around the magical multigenerational Madrigal family, the film’s story comes when the family starts to lose access to their gifts and young “ungifted” Mirabel (Stephanie Beatriz) takes it upon herself to figure out what is happening and save the day. At its core, the bones of this story are certainly familiar to anyone who’s seen more than a couple Disney films, but the particulars shift the film into its own unique spin, in part by its approach to the family. Populated by a cast of voice actors doing fine work, each of these characters stand out from superstrong Luisa and perfect Isabela to the ostracized uncle Bruno and abuela Alma. They’re the kind of characters who could have very easily been shallow one-note characters, but Bush and Charise Castro Smith’s script (based on a story by Bush, Howard, Smith and others) looks deeper and finds richer characterizations for the actors to dig into.

This film presents all the best hallmarks of a proper Disney animated film. It has some fun and colorful characters, fantastic and catchy songs, and a good message about family travails. It hits all the right notes and catches you in the heart and the proverbial feels. It’s a shining example of just how far Disney Animation has come from its mid-2000s low point and one of the most purely enjoyable moves of 2021.

#7: The Tragedy of Macbeth

Top 20 Films of 2021 - The Tragedy of MacbethImage Credit: A24

Shakespeare adaptations are almost a dime a dozen when it comes to filmmaking. Going back to the Bard is a time-honored tradition for celluloid, so much so that there have been no less than 410 film and TV versions of his works — and that’s only including the direct adaptations logged as such. It happens so frequently that oftentimes, it’s hard for them to break through to become mainstream successes unless there’s someone well known to the mainstream in front of or behind the camera, and even then only when the films truly excel.

It just so happens that The Tragedy of Macbeth fits both of those criteria. The oft-adapted Scottish play finds strong form here through a collection of standout high-profile performers and creatives like writer-director Joel Coen and cast members Denzel Washington, Frances McDormand, Casey Hawkins, Brendan Gleeson, Stephen Root and others. But what really sets it apart is its style. Cohen, cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel, and production designer Stefan Dechant adorn the story of Macbeth and his wife’s bloody plots in the dressings of German expressionism which lends an edge to what is already a ruthless story of ambition and moral failing. Macbeth is famously one of Shakespeare’s shortest tragedies and the brevity is a strength of Cohen’s film, allowing him to punctuate the actors’ dialogue with a breathless sort of urgency.

And then there are those actors. Washington and McDormand are at the top of their game here, going out of their usual comfort zones to deliver riveting work. They spark in their collisions as their murderous couple drives one another to deeper and deeper moral failings. And even as we the audience know exactly where this is headed, it’s a thrill to watch these two spiral into madness. The supporting cast is exquisite as well, led most notably by Hawkins’ Macduff, Bertie Carvel’s Banquo and a squirming turn from Kathryn Hunter as the Witches. It’s been a little while since we’ve had a Shakespeare adaptation singular enough to break through to the mainstream consciousness, and I’m ecstatic that this was the one to do it.

#6: tick, tick…BOOM!

Top 20 Films of 2021 - tick, tick...BOOM!Image Credit: Netflix

Ask any musical theater lover and they can tell you the legend of Jonathan Larson. Hell, a lot of non-theater nerds can even relate how Larson died the day before his musical Rent had its first preview performance en route to impacting the direction of musical theater and having one of the longest runs in Broadway history. But that’s Larson’s legacy and his death, not his life. And as his magnum opus can attest to, it’s more important to celebrating a person’s life than get stuck on how they died.

tick, tick…BOOM! is the piece that does the former. Originally a rock monologue performed by Larson and then turned into a three-person show after his passing, the stage piece is a semi-autobiographical story about Larson (or “Jon”) and his struggles with his creative process amidst a crisis about growing older while not having accomplished anything in his own eyes. It’s a powerful piece of theater that manages to be hit an incredibly niche sweet spot for creative people while hitting on some pretty universal anxieties about finding your way and what success even means in the modern era.

Lin-Manuel Miranda is a longtime Larson fanboy, and that shows in his adaptation of the musical into a full-fledged film. tick, tick…BOOM! expands the scope of the stage production to big musical film size yet maintains the highly intimate and personal emotions. Much of that is thanks to the wiry energy and absolute conviction captured by Andrew Garfield, who was having a hell of a 2021 even before this one. Garfield is captivating here as Larson, throwing his all into the role whether spoken or sung, and he provides an electric center around which Miranda can build his production.

Miranda film takes the original three-person material and develops it outward, incorporating their own research on Larson and framing it all as a workshop of the original tick, tick…BOOM!. It’s a canny move, as it feels more cinematic than the original production could have managed. It also allows Miranda to populate the film with strong performers including Alexandra Shipp as Jon’s girlfriend Susan, Robin de Jesús as best friend Michael, Vanessa Hudgens as performer Karessa, and Bradley Whitford as Stephen Sondheim. Everyone brings their A-game here – and then Miranda takes it a step further by adding a murderers’ row of Broadway heavyweights throughout the production.

I said it before, but it’s been a weird year for musical films, this 2021. They’ve been surprisingly prevalent this year, and for every West Side Story, we’ve had a Dear Evan Hansen. But any year that has an entry as strong as this one can’t be considered a bad one overall. It’s a film I that works for theater nerds and non-nerds alike, because even if you’re not dazzled by the many Easter eggs or cameos, you can probably appreciate what it means to feel like you’re hitting a certain stage in your life and things aren’t going how you want. tick, tick…BOOM! is a testament not only to a great creative mind, but to finding your voice in your passions and carrying on when everything seems to be saying to let it go.

#5: Spider-Man: No Way Home

Top 20 Films of 2021 - Spider-Man: No Way HomeImage Credit: Sony Pictures

I’ve been admittedly a bit wordy in these Best Of and Worst Of columns (I regret nothing!), but I’m going to be a bit briefer here. That’s because even with Spider-Man: No Way Home having been out for fully seven weeks, I’m loathe to include any real spoilers. And it’s hard to discuss the third of Tom Holland’s films as Peter Parker without getting too far into spoiler territory; there are too many twists and turns, too many delightful moments, and simply too many elements that fans should be able to discover for themselves, whether they’ve seen the film in the last several weeks or not.

All that said, I don’t think it should be counted as much of a surprise to anyone who knows me or my writing that I’m a big fan of the MCU. No, not every movie has been top-notch but this cinematic universe has had far more hits than misses. The franchise had a tall order to begin building anew after the climax of Avengers: Endgame, and I will say that I’ve enjoyed how willing Marvel Studios has been to take wild swings with stuff like Eternals or going back to a prequel with Black Widow. I get that for most they aren’t in the MCU’s top tier, but I enjoy them and am excited to see what’s coming next out of those.

Still, it’s No Way Home that feels like the MCU’s return in a big, big way. Marvel and Sony took arguably just as wild a swing here as Marvel did with Eternals, just in a different way. And they knock it right out of the park. Peter’s adventures to try and fix the world after a spell from Doctor Strange to make people forget him feels like a re-orienting of the character, but not a course correction. Rather, it grounds Peter in a new status quo while centering him in one of the wildest mainstream superhero films to date. Holland gives his best performance yet as Peter and director Jon Watts gives us some of the MCU’s most memorable moments, bar none. The supporting cast is all delivering work at the top of their game in a film that thrills and evokes sheer joy, even as it contains some deeply heart-breaking moments. If Endgame was the culmination of the MCU up to that point, No Way Home feels like the next stage really getting off to the races after some early build-up. And that has me ridiculously excited to see what’s coming next, because it seems like all bets are off now.

#4: The Power of the Dog

Top 20 Films of 2021 - The Power of the DogImage Credit: Netflix

Netflix had an incredibly successful year when it came to their original films in 2021. Most of that was commercial success with films like Red Notice, Army of the Dead, and Don’t Look Up setting high marks (with the first of those breaking records for the service). While I enjoyed each of those films in varying degrees, none of those films made my top 20 or even came particularly close.

The Power of the Dog, on the other hand, made it with ease. Jane Campion has always been a potent filmmaker; even her films that I haven’t loved have been incredibly interesting pieces of art. This one is perhaps her strongest effort to date. Based on the 1967 novel by Thomas Savage, the Western drama is a powerfully acted movie focusing on Phil and George Burbank, a pair of ranchers in 1920s Montana and their fractured relationship which is brought into focus through George’s marriage to a widowed inn owner. The film leans into themes of love, broken families and how the effects of caustic masculinity can complicate relationships.

This is all seen through Campion’s remarkable lens, shot beautifully by Ari Wegner. Wegner’s camera captures some absolutely gorgeous landscapes and puts the characters in a typically stark Western landscape but gives it a look all her own. That gives the cast full license to throw everything into their performances and there isn’t a bad acting choice in the 126 runtime. Benedict Cumberbatch adds another fascinating character to his resume; Phil is a loathsome person, but one who we can empathize (if not sympathize) with. Jesse Plemons does fine work as the kinder George, but it’s Kirsten Dunst and Kodi Smit-McPhee who provide the strongest counters to Phil as Rose and Peter Gordon. Add in a great supporting cast including Thomasin McKenzie, Keith Carradine, Frances Conroy and more, and you have a film that never feels as slow and careful as it is.

Campion is careful behind the camera, but she also knows the difference between a slow burn and meandering. She keeps to the former here and captures the psychological aspects quite well. With every technical aspect (including a stellar score from Jonny Greenwood) in play, she frames the interpersonal character tensions with consummate skill. It’s not a flashy kind of film, but it doesn’t need that. Instead, it relies on the basics: story, scene, characters. There’s a lot lurking under the surface of all those elements here, making for one of the better Westerns of recent memory.

#3: Titane

Top 20 Films of 2021 - TitaneImage Credit: Neon

Up next are what will almost certainly be the most divisive two picks in this list, and we start with one that had serious buzz after its premiere at Cannes last July. Titane is not a film that can be easily stripped down and examined; it largely defies categorization. On one hand, it’s a body horror film; on the other, it’s a drama about love, acceptance, and the rejection of assignation. That director Julia Ducournau (whose 2016 viscously potent debut film Raw was also great) is able to meld these two disparate halves into one is quite an accomplishment, though not one that everyone’s going to love. In truth, I was not prepared for the movie as I set down to watch it myself. Titane is distinctly and unabashedly a Ducournau film, capturing the spirit of the writer-director’s vision in a pretty clear progression of the motifs in Raw, right down to re-using some character names. But it’s also its own thing entirely, and that thing is utterly wild.

To reveal much of anything about Titane’s plot is to spoil it. Suffice it to say that it is about a killer who goes on the run and into disguise after getting pregnant after having sex with a car. Yes, with a car, not in a car. I know that sounds like the kind of plot that would come out of David Cronenberg’s fever dreams, and don’t get it twisted; this film is certainly that. But it’s also a remarkably affirming tale, touching on the importance of being accepted for who you are.

That’s not to say it’s all sunshine and inspiration, of course. Ducournau is at her most visceral here, particularly in the first act when Alexia (a fantastic Agathe Rousselle) is riding a car in multiple definitions of that word and jamming the chopsticks she uses to hold her hair up in people’s ears. But it continues well beyond that as the story becomes something else in the back half. Pregnancy-related body horror takes over the shocking content, balanced astoundingly well with the more personal and down to earth aspects of the film.

Everyone delivers top notch work in this one, from Rousselle and Vincent Lindon as a firefighter who Alexia finds refuge with to the production design from Laurie Colson and Lise Péault and Ruben Impens’ visual style as the director of photography. It’s a film you can’t help but be fascinated by, and I imagine it’s going to inspire some real hatred from as many people as love it (as most of the best art tends to). Either way this is one that will stay with you for a long-ass time, and one that I liked more and more as I’ve thought about it since seeing it.

#2: Saint Maud

Top 20 Films of 2021 - Saint MaudImage Credit: A24

2020 saw the release of The Lodge, which was one of my top films of 2020. That film was a bleak, often hopeless horror film that explored the line between religion and mental instability. It would serve as a depressing but hard-hitting double feature with Saint Maud. It’s stunning that this film is Rose Glass’ feature directorial debut, because it’s an incredibly assured movie that resists the temptation to go the easy route at every turn. It’s centered around a star-making performance by Morfydd Clark in an absolutely star-making role as Maud, a devoutly religious woman who is assigned to be a palliative care nurse to a terminally ill former dancer and choreographer.

Not everyone’s going to love Saint Maud. It hits many of the notes of the current trend of horror, some of which drive some people nuts. It’s a slow, measured film that favors mood over scares, and is more interested in unsettling audiences than making them jump. But it’s anything but boring, thanks to Clark’s devotion to the role of Maud and Jennifer Ehle’s fine work as the lymphoma-stricken Amanda. There is a strong dichotomy between these two characters, and yet they have moments where they have a real connection between them. That’s essential so that we can buy into the fact that Maud wants to save Amanda’s soul, which drives her further into her spiral. Glass uses the camera to sink Maud into her own mind, and Clark takes that opportunity to explore the issue of mental health.

It’s not just psychological, though. There are some cringe-worthy (in a good way) moments of horror, particularly body horror. This is a film where Maud is clearly spiraling into a religious zealotry, but crucially it isn’t about faith as a dangerous thing. There’s plenty of set-up to explain how Maud’s own headspace, not her faith, is the concern and that gives the film a more complex exploration of its themes. It must also be said that the ending is perhaps the one that has stayed with me more than any other movie of the year, which helped land it as high as it is. It’s funny at times, often touching, but always unsettling and creeping its way to what feels like an inevitable conclusion. That inescapable nature, and the way it makes us hope otherwise makes it one of my top two movies of the year.

#1: Dune

Top 20 Films of 2021 - DuneImage Credit: Warner Bros.

All right people, true confession time: I am very much not a fan of Frank Herbert’s Dune. Don’t get me wrong; I really like everything about the story, the characters, and such. I think Herbert was a great story creator, but not a good writer. I know how adored the Dune series is, but Herbert’s writing style has never clicked with me, and I find the books intolerable to read. That said, I do like the actual idea of Dune and I’ve enjoyed or at least appreciated every adaptation I’ve ever seen whether the SyFy miniseries, the Marvel Comics or even the (admittedly very flawed) David Lynch movie from 1984.

As such, I had very high hopes for Denis Villeneuve’s film based on the book. Villeneuve is a fantastic filmmaker who did great things with films like Sicario, Arrival, and Blade Runner 2049. Still, Dune is almost infamous for how difficult it has been to adapt, and it presented the director with his biggest challenge to date. While we’re technically only halfway through (with Dune: Part Two set to arrive in 2023), it’s safe to say that at least this first half saw him succeed with flying colors. Not constrained by the need to fit Herbert’s massive novel into one film, Villeneuve instead takes the time to set things up and introduces us to this amazing dystopic science fiction world where spice is King and political leaders plot to go to war over it.

That latter part is one of the reasons Dune has always been so hard to put to film. It’s a book that leans heavily into backstabbing politics, which is a surefire way to bring any momentum of your sci-fi action film to a grinding halt. Villeneuve is able to find the narrative line to keep things interesting by balancing the character pieces and subplots while relying on a formidable cast that includes Timothée Chalamet, Rebecca Ferguson, Oscar Isaac, Jason Momoa, Josh Brolin, and a fantastic scenery chewing Stellan Skarsgård the evil Baron Harkonen.

Villeneuve never forgets what his film is supposed to be, and he skillfully bounces between heady concepts of religion and politics along with the requisite (and thrilling) action sequences. The actors make us care about all the space and exposition because they make us care about the characters first. And the visuals of the film are beyond reproach. Arrakis looks like the deadly yet beautiful planet it should be, and the visual effects are second to none (especially the sand worm). It was a tough fight for the #1 spot of the year, but ultimately Dune won out and I’m beyond excited for Part Two, not to mention the upcoming spinoff series Dune: The Sisterhood when that eventually hits HBO Max.

And that will do it for this! Have a good one and don’t forget to read the many other great columns, news articles and more here at! JT out.