The Top 11 Films of 2021
Another year of movies has gone by, and if anything, it was weirder than the last one. As far as major awards were concerned, some of this year’s movies were last year’s movies, and as far release dates, many of 2019’s movies were this year’s movies, and all the while many of them were still sent to streaming because it just wasn’t worth risking your health (or the health of others) to go out to the theater. It’s not an acceptable risk to die for a movie, unless of course there’s a chance that all three Spider-Men are in it, in which case, by all means, run with scissors and then stick them in a light socket that has tested positive for Omicron.
As we prepare for a new year, the possible release of Top Gun Maverick (but probably not) and film festivals that will actually be held in-person again (at least until all of that changes in a couple of weeks), I present to you my picks for the Top 11 films of 2021.
Director: Kenneth Branagh
TKBC and Northern Ireland Screen
Kenneth Branagh hits a career high with this semi-autobiographical chronicle of childhood, family and the power of stage and screen as a means of escape and inspiration.
This darling of the 2021 Sundance Film Festival has been my personal favorite of the year since January 29th and is still going strong. Emilia Jones (Locke & Key) is dazzling as the title character, a Child of Deaf Adults (CODA) trying to balance her love for her family and duties to them with her own musical aspirations. Oscar winner Marlee Matlin leads the luminous cast of deaf actors as deaf characters in this touching, hilarious and life-affirming masterpiece that proves feel-good movies can be great.
Be Funny When You Can
Joaquin Phoenix gives the best performance of his career acting opposite a nine year-old (Woody Norman), who gives an even better performance in Writer-Director Mike Mills’ subtle and effective treatise on childhood angst and the child that still lives in all of us.
C&I Entertainment, Culture Entertainment, Bitters End
Yūsuke Kafuku (Hidetoshi Nishijima) is a stage actor and professor trying to come to terms with his wife’s death while directing a production of Chekhov‘s Uncle Vanya in Hiroshima, forming a unique bond with his personal driver, Misaki (Tōko Miura) along the way. This haunting and poetic character study from director Ryusuke Hamaguchi demonstrates the difference between length and runtime: It may take three hours to view, but it never wastes a single moment.
This game-changing animated documentary tells the spellbinding story of Amin, a refugee who fled Afghanistan for Denmark as a child, losing much along the way but finding a life where he could be open about his identity. Amin has come to terms with the truth of his sexuality, but he still longs for a sense of peace. Amin finds that, before he can marry the love of his life, he must unburden himself by sharing his tumultuous life story, though he wishes to do so anonymously—hence the animation.
The Harder They Fall
Director: Jeymes Samuel
An energizing, exuberant spin on the western genre featuring a cast made up almost entirely of Black actors and featuring a killer soundtrack, Jeymes Samuel‘s surprisingly deep and always entertaining cowboy picture is hard not to fall for in a big way.
Where in the name of Zuess’s butthole has classic Nicolas Cage been all these years? I don’t know, but his soft and tender, yet intense and ultimately heartbreaking performance isn’t the only reason to see Writer-Director Michael Sarnoski‘s mesmerizing and melancholy masterpiece exploring love, loss and finding meaning wherever you can—then doing everything in your power to hold onto it.
Actor Fran Kranz makes his unforgettable debut as a Writer-Director with this emotionally charged and timely story of two couples, Gail and Jay (Martha Plimpton and Jason Isaacs) and Richard and Linda (Reed Birney and Ann Dowd) meeting in a church to talk. They are drawn together by the fact that both couples had sons who were killed in a horrific school shooting—but divided by the fact Richard and Linda’s son was the shooter. Mass is a film that will stay with you forever.
BBC Film and See-Saw Films
This dark and transfixing tale set in Montana circa 1925 is moody and unnerving in all the right ways, and director Jane Campion skillfully tells the tale, bolstered by impeccable acting from Benedict Cumberbatch, Kirsten Dunst and Kodi Smit-McPhee.
The Tragedy of Macbeth
Director: Joel Coen
A24 IAC Films
Joel Coen’s breathtaking adaptation of Shakespeare’s infamous “Scottish Play” is brilliantly brought to life by a stellar cast, including a performance from Denzel Washington that shows that with all of his accomplishments he can still surprise us. The stunning cinematography and an Ingmar Bergman-like sensibility make The Tragedy of Macbeth a cinephile’s delight, and yet there is distinctly theatrical quality that would make Sir Laurence Olivier proud. This Macbeth is a tale told by a genius, full of atmosphere and art, signifying greatness.
Hollywood icon Steven Spielberg finally scratches “direct a musical” off his bucket list with this sumptuous and timely reworking of Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim‘s classic, not only living up to the original but improving on it. Where nearly any other filmmaker would have fallen flat, Spielberg played it cool, boy. Real cool.