First and foremost HAPPY NEW YEAR! 2021 brought films back in a major way. Even though there were many more blockbuster level films than in 2020, Indies still held their own. This year my breakdown went:
*2020 total in parenthesis
108 films (70)
- A+ – 4 (3)
- A – 14 (10)
- A-/B+ – 22 (17)
- B – 30 (14)
- B-/C+ – 12 (8)
- C – 6 (6)
- C-/D+ – 13 (7)
- D – 2 (0)
- D- – 4 (3)
- F – 1 (2)
Special Shout Out: Bo Burnham: Inside
Bo Burnham: Inside wasn’t technically a movie, but it was still one of the best pieces of art of the entire year. I logged 13 watches of this film (which honestly still feels low) and put countless hours into the soundtrack on Spotify. Bo Burnham crafted a visual and artistic masterpiece that should go down as one of the best pandemic related pieces of content.
- Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings
- The Mitchells vs the Machines
- Prisoners of the Ghostland
- Old Henry
15. The Green Knight
David Lowery’s epic is as visually stunning as anything I have seen this year; only rivaled by another film I will talk about later. The Green Knight is an incredibly powerful movie about figuring out your own place. David Lowery took on this tall task and made a fantasy epic that is as moving emotionally as it is grandiose in style and flair. Dev Patel gives one of the best performances of the year, proving he is one of the best actors working.
14. King Richard
Sports films have become pretty by the numbers over the years, and when one attempts to be something more, they really stand out. In King Richard we are given the story of the upbringing of Venus and Serena Williams, but not through their POV, through that of their father Richard Williams.Richard Williams has a plan for all of his kids, and he never forces them into anything, instead allowing it to happen naturally. Will Smith gives the best performance of his life, and the entire cast is an ACE.
13. Red Rocket
Simon Rex plays the worst person you will ever know in Mikey Saber, who isn’t a good guy, doesn’t do good things, and has no redeemable quality. Similar to Uncut Gems, watching Saber continuously mess up is sort of mesmerizing. He barely scathes by and you almost root for his demise. It’s a fine line that has to be played with in order to make sure the point is getting across, and I think the film does a great job at showing this screw up of a character be a vortex in which only bad things come from. It’s chaotic as hell.
12. The Humans
The Humans is a very meticulous movie in one of the most haunting of ways. Richard Jenkins, Jayne Houdyshell, and the rest of the cast all give phenomenal performances, and Stephen Karam’s directorial and film writing debut is a masterclass in visual storytelling. Karam manages to use sound and atmosphere in a truly horrifying way that makes a Thanksgiving afternoon feel like a ticking time bomb. It’s the masterful way of both doing so little while saying so much, and I can’t wait to see what Karam does next.
11. Dear Evan Hansen
I’m not gonna talk too much on Dear Evan Hansen, for obvious reasons, but I just loved the movie. I really, truly did. I think Ben Platt is as wonderful here as he is on stage, I think the changes made helped highlight some of the issues with the stage show, and I think it tells a very important message if you manage to look past the surface. It moved me, and that’s the most I can ask a film to do.
10. Don’t Look Up
I loved The Big Short: I thought it was a near masterpiece level film. I liked Vice: it was fine, but could have been much better. For most of Don’t Look Up, McKay is somewhere in the middle when it comes to his more recent films, but the emotionally charged third act is what pushes this film into my top 10. Adam McKay political parody/satire is funny and emotional, showing McKay’s ability to blend both slapstick comedy and stirring drama. The ensemble cast is magnetic, with Mark Rylance’s preposterously funny and frightening character being the standout, and the score and editing of the film creates “chaos with a point.” This film shows the maturation of McKay into a director with enough style to pull off some insane moments in a wonderful way.
9. C’mon C’mon
I have always enjoyed Mike Mills’ previous two films, Beginners and 20th Century Women, but it was C’mon C’mon that truly had me enamored with his vision. Joaquin Phoenix and Woody Norman might be the duo of the year as each of them play off each other with such a high level of acting prowess. Phoenix never had to act down for Norman, but instead it felt like Norman was leading a scene while Phoenix was catching up. It’s gorgeously shot and painstakingly poignant by including a myriad of real interviews with todays youth talking about the future.
Denis Villeneuve did the impossible. I don’t mean this metaphorically, he LITERALLY did the impossible. Dune has been labeled for decades as an unadaptable book, but that didn’t stop one of the most visionary filmmakers of our generation. Dune gets it all right: the emotion, the characters, and the story. It’s gorgeously shot and captures, and it earns the reputations as this generations epic. I can’t wait to see what’s next.
7. The Tragedy of Macbeth
I will be the first to say I am not the most adept Shakesperian. I know a little bit here and there, but in the vast world of him and his stories, I am a little behind. That being said, I have to give Joel Coen an immense amount of praise for making a film that was as engaging and incendiary as The Tragedy of Macbeth. Just about everything in this film worked on all cylinders. There isn’t much background into the story, but it still works. The exposition is traded for action, and there wasn’t a poor performance anywhere throughout. Denzel Washington has made a wonderful career for himself, but this might be my favorite performance of his. Also, this film has some of the absolute best cinematography of the entire year, it should win the Oscar no doubt.
6. The Hand of God
The Hand of God is an exploration into life, loss, and love. Paolo Sorrentino creates a film that is as horny as it is heartbreaking, and everything in-between. It does get weird, and if you go in looking for a straightforward coming-of-age story, you will be lost, but the message of this movie is abundantly clear. It’s a film, ultimately, about pain, and using your pain to your advantage. The direction is absolutely fantastic, and the performances are so strong. Sometimes an act, one that might seem so insignificant to your personal life, can be just the thing that saves it.
CODA is the first of two Sundance films that appear on my list. I remember first seeing this movie during 2021’s virtual festival and being completely blown away. Sian Heder’s light-hearted script didn’t hold back when it came to the more emotional moments of the film, and was able to find a quality balance between drama and comedy. Emilia Jones is one of the breakout stars of the year giving one of my favorite actress performances of the entire year. Her role as Ruby, the only hearing girl in a deaf family, was beautiful. Couple her performance with Troy Kotsur’s gut wrenching turn as her father, I still haven’t watched this film without tearing up. The film might be a little too nice, and it wraps itself up pretty neatly in the end, but what’s the harm in that. Sometimes feel good movies can be some of the best of the year as well.
In a year of musicals, one I had never heard of came out on top. It should be of no surprise, however, as Lin-Manuel Miranda proves he’s not just a creator of some of the greatest Broadway musicals of all-time, but can create one of the greatest musical movies of all time. Miranda has an eye for musicals and for the theater that most directors can’t see, and because of that he was able to create such an awe inspiring musical masterpiece. Not to mention, Andrew Garfield gives maybe the best musical performance of all-time.
Mass is the second Sundance film on this list, and up until a couple weeks ago, was my #1 since Sundance 2021. When you really think about Mass, you think a lot about how it shouldn’t work. 4 people, in a room, having a conversation about the worst day of their lives. In real time, we are there with these two sets of grieving parents in a way that makes it feel almost wrong to be listening in. The quartet of Jason Isaacs, Ann Dowd, Martha Plimpton and Reed Birney all give some of the greatest performances ever put to film. Fran Kranz’s impeccable script doesn’t alienate either of the parents, and it doesn’t try to solve anything either. You don’t leave this room with any answers, but you leave with an understanding and a peace of mind that truly resonates.
2. Licorice Pizza
I personally believe Paul Thomas Anderson is at his best when he is making small scale and intimate films. With Licorice Pizza, PTA goes as small scale as he ever has, but is also as meaningful as any of his films. This beautiful film is about actors, and not just the people that perform in front of a camera, but the people who go through life every single day without knowing who they are or what they’re doing. Alana Haim is naturally funny in this, and Cooper Hoffman’s debut would make his late father proud.
If me having Spider-Man: No Way Home as my number one of the year invalidates my reputation as a critic to anyone, so be it. This movie is… unbelievable. Jon Watts, Kevin Feige, and the writers of this film all came together to create not just one of the best Spider-Man movies ever, but one of the best Comic Book Movies I have ever seen. Tom Holland gives his best performance as an actor in this film that ultimately serves as his origin story. For 5 films we have seen the MCU’s Peter Parker grow from a kid into an adult, and No Way Home served as the rite of passage this character needed to fully become the Spider-Man many, including myself, knew he could be. The story worked, and not just on a shock factor level, I mean it REALLY worked. The emotional beats worked as well as any MCU movie to date, and the action was engaging and exciting. What also worked in this film was the risks it took, as this was the first non-Avengers MCU film that felt like the stakes were real, and when you factor in the SHOCKING ending, maybe the stakes are permanent. The expectations for this film were astronomical, but Jon Watts did it. I don’t know how, but he did, and truly exceeded them as well. I think the MCU Fantastic Four is in really good hands.
Jacob is a Graduate of Western Kentucky University where he earned a History/Film Studies Degree. He is a film critic and co-founder of the Music City Drive-In. He is also a member of the North American Film Critics Association and the Music City Film Critics’ Association. You can find him on Twitter @Tberry57.