In the past, the films that typically end up on my “Best Of” list tend to be the ones that hit me like a gut punch. I am finding, however, that they are also the ones that quietly keep popping up in the back of my mind long after I have finished watching them. Whether happy or sad (or even disturbing), there’s something in them that I keep seeing over and over - a performance, a set-piece, a costume, maybe just one scene or interaction between characters in particular - but there’s always something. It is always difficult for me to whittle down the list of movies I saw in the past year but that’s what I decided to do. Sort of. Call me a cheater, but before we get down to the nitty-gritty of my top 20, let’s go through more than a few honorable mentions. Enjoy, friends.
Honorable Mentions for 2021:
The Harder They Fall (Available on Netflix)
Damnnnnnnnnnnn. Thank you, Jeymes Samuel! Samuel wrote, directed, and curated the soundtrack for this awesome western with an amazing cast. Samuel worked with Baz Luhrmann and Jay Z as the music director on the 2013 film adaptation of The Great Gatsby, and I think some of Luhrmann’s style rubbed off on him (in a great way).
The Paper Tigers (Available on Netflix)
What happens when martial arts prodigies grow up? They get lame jobs and start pulling hamstrings. But when their old master is murdered, they are called back to honor him and investigate what happened. This movie is really really fun. The stunts and fight sequences are super cool. The characters are endearing and hilarious. This is just an all-around good time to watch.
Together Together (Available on Hulu)
Patti Harrison and Ed Helms have such great chemistry in this film by Nikole Beckwith. I loved that it provided a story that really dealt with a relationship that was not romantic but still just as life-changing and important for both people involved.
Saint Maud and In the Earth (Available on Hulu & Amazon Prime)
Spooky time. In Saint Maud, Morfydd Clark is Maud, a pious hospice nurse who becomes obsessed with saving the soul of her patient, played by Jennifer Ehle. Written and directed by Rose Glass, this is her first full-length feature and it is a doozy. Maud might be talking to God. She might also be completely losing her mind. You be the judge. It’s terrifying either way. On the flip side, established director Ben Wheatley’s latest, In the Earth, is equally strange and terrifying. It follows a scientist and a park ranger as they search for another missing scientist DURING A PANDEMIC while the world searches for a cure to the virus. Too close to home? Um, yeah. This film takes sound editing to another level and will make you rethink taking that camping trip (at least for a little while).
MARVEL for the Win (FYI: CONTAINS SPOILERS) - (Just sign up for Disney+ already)
Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings
Spider-Man: No Way Home
It’s nuts how “normal” it has become to expect a Marvel movie every year at this point. While Black Widow should have been made BEFORE killing off its main character from the franchise (in my opinion), I still really really enjoyed it. It gave us a chance to see Natasha Romanoff have her own family, one that included Rachel Weisz, David Harbour, and the show-stealing Florence Pugh, as her “sister” Yelena. I knew almost nothing about the comic book character Shang-Chi, but watching that first fight scene on a bus in Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings while being back in a movie theater again was all it took to get me hooked. Simu Liu, Awkwafina and Benedict Wong doing karaoke together is a scene for the ages. But then there’s Spider-Man: No Way Home, a film that delivered on so many levels. If you haven’t seen it yet, WHERE HAVE YOU BEEN? No Way Home delivered as a cap to the Spider-Man “Home” trilogy, but it proved to also be a solid finale to the previous Spider-Man franchises as well. It went full force on the emotional nostalgia-fest in a way that I had no idea that I needed, but it managed to pull off performances and character arcs for almost all of its many cameos. I’ve already seen it a second time and I know it will be one of the Marvel films I will revisit most in the years to come.
Mandibles (Available for rent on Amazon Prime)
Jean-Gab and Manu are two friends who are not the brightest individuals. When they steal a car for a petty crime job they are flabbergasted when they find a larger-than-life-sized fly alive in the trunk. Manu convinces Jean-Gab that they should feed and train the giant fly. Ya know, so they can use it to help them rob banks and get rich. Quentin Dupieux cast comedians David Marsais and Grégoire Ludig (known in France for their sketch-comedy show “Palmashow”) as Jean-Gab and Manu in this buddy-comedy of errors. What surprised me was how the film ends up being incredibly moving as well. I know it sounds really weird. It is. Just trust me on this one. Watch it.
Mass (Available on Amazon Prime)
Mass is really a masterclass in acting. Fran Kranz makes his directorial debut in this film featuring two sets of parents meeting long after a horrible school incident. Ann Dowd alone is worth the watch, but Jason Isaacs and Martha Plimpton are fantastic too. Just when you think the film could end, it doesn’t, which seems much like the experience these parents are going through.
No Man of God (Available on Amazon Prime)
You would think all of these films with small casts set in mostly one location would be boring but this one is intense. Luke Kirby plays serial killer Ted Bundy, while Elijah Wood portrays Bill Hagmaier, the FBI analyst who spent years interviewing him during his time on death row.
Limbo (Available on HBOMax)
In another excellent feature-length debut, Ben Sharrock writes and directs a film about a group of refugees waiting to be granted asylum. While they wait, they are given temporary housing on a remote island off of Scotland. Amir El-Masry is Omar, a Syrian refugee who carries an oud (a Middle Eastern stringed instrument) with him wherever he goes but never seems to play it. His flatmates are two brothers, Wasef and Abedi (Ola Orebiyi and Kwabena Ansah), and the charismatic Farhad (Vikash Bhai). Omar spends a significant amount of time in the film essentially being shut off from those around him so when he finally reacts with full emotion in the latter part of the story it is quite jarring.
Minari and Nomadland (Minari is available on Amazon Prime; Nomadland available on Hulu)
Both Minari and Nomadland made the festival and award show circuits back in 2020, with Yuh-jung Youn winning the Best Supporting Actress Oscar for Minari and Nomadland director Chloé Zhao winning both Best Picture and Best Director (if you have not seen Zhao’s film The Rider yet, go watch that right now). Both films were not widely released, however, until 2021, and they were two of the films that got me through those especially bleak early winter months despite watching them at home vs. in a theater. Written and directed by Lee Isaac Chung, Minari, tells the tale of a Korean-American family that moves to Arkansas to follow the American dream. It stars (among several other excellent actors) the amazing Steven Yeun (The Walking Dead, Burning), and the aforementioned Yuh-jung Youn as a fiery grandma. My own grandma was a card player who liked to drive with a lead foot and yell frequently, so Minari definitely hits home for me. It's also got one of my favorite scores of all of the films I saw in 2020/2021. Bravo, Emile Mosseri.
In Nomadland, Fern (Frances McDormand) packs her van after the death of her husband and the financial collapse of the small Nevada town where she used to live. She takes to the road, working seasonal and temporary jobs as a modern-day nomad. While both films’ stories can be sad, they are also extremely cathartic. Each film deals with themes of loss and a struggle to find a home of one’s own - whether that be on a farm in Arkansas during the 80s, or in a suped-up van riding across America’s highways and byways. In both movies, it turns out that home is more who you are with than any actual specific place, and sometimes we have to experience tremendous loss before we are ready to truly open ourselves up to change. If you missed either of these films, I highly recommend watching them. And if you’ve seen them a while back, I definitely recommend a rewatch. They hold up, and then some.
The Father (Available on Starz, Vudu, Amazon Prime)
This film also got its wide release in the US in February of 2021, so despite Anthony Hopkins already winning an Oscar in a surprise upset, I am going to plug it again here. This film is GREAT. GREATTTTTTTTTTTTTTTTTTTTTTTTTTT. I mean how many more amazeballs performances does Hopkins have left in him? Who knows? But this performance is incredible. My sweet sweet Olivia Colman again truly delivers. She shines as brightly as she can as Anne, a daughter dealing with her father’s dementia while trying to rectify living her own life. The movie is as gripping and disorienting as any psychological thriller, but it is also heartbreaking. I can’t recommend this one enough. Oh yeah, Imogen Poots is pretty great in it too. For more on The Father and a review of a couple of other films in a similar vein, check out my article “Dealing with Dementia.”
I know I took my sweet time getting here. So, let's get on with my top twenty films of 2021:
20) Monday (Available on Vudu and Amazon Prime)
Monday is HOT. Starring Denise Gough and Sebastian Stan (in a decidedly non-superhero role), it centers around the relationship between two people who drunkenly meet one weekend and decide to use each other for a good time. The film could stop there but it doesn’t. It’s a leap of faith that they continue to stay together and take the next steps towards making a life together. Monday shows all of the joys and also all the messiness that comes with that decision. Sebastian Stan is beyond charming as Mickey in this film, but it is Denise Gough as Chloe who really steals the show. She struggles with her choices but she never gives up
19) Slalom / 18) The Novice (Available on Vudu and Amazon Prime)
While these are very different movies, they have a kinship in that their main characters are trying to push themselves to be the best at their respective sports, no matter what the personal tolls. In the French film Slalom, the main character Lyz (Noée Abita) is a 15-year-old competitive skier who has recently been accepted into an elite club headed by the trainer, Fred (Jérémie Renier). Director Charlène Favier herself was a former skier. As Lyz improves and gains recognition among the team, she also gains the recognition of her trainer. The story is not surprising; it’s a familiar one: sexual abuse under the guise of mentorship. The fact that Favier’s film still holds your rapt attention is a testament to her directing and the compelling performances of its lead actors. In particular, it is Abita as Lyz, a girl relishing in the first instance of someone believing in her, and just beginning her own sexual awakening that makes her so complex. It’s a tough watch but it’s worth it. The Novice, by writer, director, and co-editor, Lauren Hadaway, is a different kind of panic attack of a film. Its main character, Alex (Isabelle Fuhrman), pushes herself to her breaking point to make the Varsity crew team. She embodies all of the traits that are so often celebrated in other films about male athletes. She is singular in her drive to succeed as a freshman rower to the point that it isolates her from the few relationships she has.
Her counterpart on the team, Jamie (Amy Forsyth), is the more natural athlete, who actually needs an athletic scholarship to stay at their college. Jamie provides the moving target for which Alex is always aiming. While Fuhrman’s performance alone is enough to recommend this film, The Novice is special because of all of the other aspects that Hadaway combines to make this such a tense thriller about, well, rowing. Hadaway was the sound editor on Whiplash, another film about the extent someone is willing to push themselves. Her use of sound makes the film almost horror-like at times while giving the audience surreal sequences to bring us into its main character’s state of mind.
17) Passing (Available on Netflix)
I was pretty intrigued by Rebecca Hall’s foray into directing with Passing. Adapted from Nella Larson’s novel and shot in black and white, it stars Tessa Thompson (Irene) and Ruth Negga (Clare) as two old friends who reconnect after years apart. Both now lead very different lives. While Irene has become an activist and well-respected member of the Black community, Clare has been “passing” for White. This is a bit of a slow burn film, but when all of the pressure finally culminates, it explodes. This one definitely kicked around in my brain for a long while after watching it. I highly recommend it. (P.S. André Holland and Bill Camp are pretty awesome in their supporting roles as well).
16) I Carry You With Me (Available on Vudu and Amazon Prime)
Armando Espitia and Christian Vazquez portray the younger versions of the real-life, Iván and Gerardo, in this part narrative, part documentary film about two men who fall in love in Mexico shortly before one leaves to cross the border into the United States and pursue his dream of becoming a chef. There are so many Queer films that are sad and this story is not without loss. But I Carry You With Me does a beautiful job of weaving together memories of love, family, and home with real footage of its actual storytellers. It was unexpected and hopeful. Despite being a film about two Mexican men, it is clearly an American tale.
15) Ema (Available on Vudu and Amazon Prime)
Pablo Larraín’s film, Ema, is a wild ride. It’s full of amazing dance sequences, pyromania, a lot of arguing, and lots and lots of sex. Somewhere amidst all of that action is a story about a mother trying to get back her adoptive son after returning him to the orphanage. The captivating Ema is played by Mariana Di Girólamo. Gael García Bernal plays her much older choreographer husband and damn, he has never looked so awesome. At one point Ema tells one of her lovers, “When you know what I’m doing and why, you will be horrified.” She’s right.
14) Together (Available on Hulu)
James McAvoy and Sharon Horgan star in this film about a couple and their son coping during the COVID-19 lockdown in London. Directed by Stephen Daldry (Billy Elliott, The Hours), the film feels like real life while also maintaining the feeling of watching a story play out. It captures both the ridiculous and the legitimate struggles of being stuck at home with the ones we love, and all of the ways that we treat each other, for better or worse. McAvoy’s performance is incredible. Seeing the performers stripped down to normal clothes, gray hair, and one set, really let them shine.
13) Language Lessons (Available on Vudu and Amazon Prime)
Natalie Morales knocks it out of the park with Language Lessons. (She also directed the hilarious Plan B in 2021, available on Hulu). Language Lessons was shot during the pandemic, starring Morales and Mark Duplass as teacher and student. Despite the physical distance between them in the film, they still have such great chemistry. This movie is sincere and emotional. It deals with grief and loss and trust and friendship. Duplass is fantastic. I loved seeing him give such a sincere performance. I hope he takes on more roles like his character, Adam, in the future. Morales is an adept performer and is proving to be a great writer and director as well.
12) I’m Your Man (Available on Hulu and Amazon Prime)
Dan Stevens performs a role that could have been “lifeless,” and does the complete opposite with it. Maren Eggert plays Alma, a researcher participating in a 3-week study with Tom (Stevens), the humanoid robot, tailor-made to make her happy. I expected this German film (that’s right, Dan Stevens in German) to be quirky, funny even, but what I didn’t expect was for it to be so heartfelt and beautiful. Much of that is thanks to Stevens’ performance. Go watch it.
11) Pig (Available on Hulu and Amazon Prime)
Have you seen Pig? Did you expect it to be like John Wick, with Nicolas Cage going after the people that stole his beloved companion? Well, it’s not John Wick. But it is incredible. Cage’s performance is understated, a slow burn that envelopes the likes of Alex Wolff (this kid is making all the right role choices) and Adam Arkin, cooking them alive into a stew of emotions without them even noticing. Pig speaks to the restaurant industry, but also to grief and life as a whole. It is a lesson in how we often compromise our true passions to succeed, and how we celebrate those same individuals, but at what cost?
10) West Side Story (2021) - (In theaters)
I grew up watching the 1961 film West Side Story on a regular basis with my mom. It was a little while before I understood that Natalie Wood (Maria) was actually lip-singing. Nevertheless, it was the music of Leonard Bernstein and the lyrics of Stephen Sondheim, combined with the story of Shakespeare’s “Romeo & Juliet,” that kept me coming back for rewatch after rewatch. I never really loved Natalie Wood's Maria. I was ALWAYS more drawn to Anita (Rita Moreno). She was fiery, beautiful, sassy, and her dancing was AWESOME. I wanted to be her, not Maria. My mom’s family is half Puerto Rican, half Colombian. I have always felt sort of not quite Latina enough, but I have always been intrigued by that part of my culture. My mom loves musicals and grew up loving the ‘61 West Side Story despite its flaws. When I heard Stephen Spielberg was going to direct a reboot, I’ll admit, I had my doubts.
As soon as I finished watching Spielberg’s West Side Story, I wanted to watch it again. I fully admit I had no knowledge of the allegations of sexual misconduct against leading actor, Ansel Elgort (playing Tony) when I initially watched the film. That indeed sours the experience after the fact. I want to give validity to the gravity of those accusations, but I also want to express just HOW GOOD EVERYONE ELSE IS IN THE FILM. I hope that Rachel Zegler (Maria), David Alvarez (Bernardo), Mike Faist (Riff), and ESPECIALLY Ariana DeBose (Anita), will go on to have illustrious careers, either in film or on the stage. They were all fantastic. So was seeing a cast of Latinx performers. Tony Kushner wrote the screenplay for Spielberg’s adaptation and it really shows. And Rita Moreno comes back as both an executive producer and performer (Valentina, the replacement for the 1961 character, Doc). Rita Moreno is 90 years old and she still has a great voice! I hope despite the controversy of its lead actor that this film will still be celebrated for how fantastic it is.
9) The Worst Person in the World (Wide release in 2022)
Norwegian director Joachim Trier co-wrote a deeply empathetic script with his regular collaborator Eskil Vogt about Julie (Renate Reinsve), a woman on the verge of turning 30 in Oslo, Norway. We watch Julie migrate from medicine to psychology, psychology to photography, etc. each time embracing a new partner in the process. When she finally meets Aksel (Anders Danielsen Lie, who is also in 2021’s Bergman Island), a comic book artist in his mid-forties, he tries to end their relationship prematurely by warning her that they are at different points in their lives. This only entices Julie more. We follow Julie’s trajectory as her relationship with Aksel deepens, they fight, they make up, and they discuss having children. Aksel’s comics gain more notoriety and Julie, feeling lost, meets Eivind (Herbert Nordrum) by chance at a party she crashes. They spend one long fantastic night getting to know each other but “not cheating,” before they part ways and return to their committed partners. I won’t tell you anything more. Trier and Vogt’s script, as well as the performances by all three main actors, are excellent, in particular, Reinsve, as the messy, indecisive, hilarious Julie. The film is both funny and poignant and its main character is so relatable because of (not in spite of) her flaws.
8) The Green Knight (Available on Vudu and Amazon Prime)
Based on the 14th-century poem: “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight,” this movie is bonkers. David Lowery pulls from several genres to create an epic quest for a young brash man (Gawain played by the charismatic and hard to dislike Dev Patel). Gawain hopes to prove himself and be made one of King Arthur’s knights of the round table. Contrary to popular belief, this is not really an action tale. It’s a quest tale. There are strange mystical dream sequences, drug sequences, and animals speak (or do they?). Dev Patel does a much better job of getting the audience to like Gawain than most Arthurian legends do; normally, he’s kind of full of himself and not too bright. Visually this movie is stunning: the color palette is used again and again to great effect. This film isn’t resolved with a clear-cut ending. That may make some dislike it but I feel it’s all the better for being left open to interpretation.
7) Bo Burnham’s Inside (Available on Netflix)
I debated with myself on whether this was a “film,” but Burnham’s special hit me so hard that I knew I had to include it. Burnham has already directed the very excellent Eighth Grade. It came as no surprise that his own special, crafted at home but not quite as bare-bones as he would have us imagine, (he wrote, scored, directed, and edited it himself) really hit the nail on the head during this crazy time to be alive. My favorite films find ways to make us laugh and yet still have moments of genuine poignancy. Inside will remain a time capsule for the experience of living through the pandemic for years to come, and yet, it speaks to so much more.
6) C’Mon C’Mon (Available on Vudu and Amazon Prime)
“Over the years you will try to make sense of that happy, sad, full, empty, always-shifting life you are in.” -- Star Child by Claire A. Nivola
I love writer/director Mike Mills. His bittersweet film, Beginners, is one of my all-time faves. In C’Mon C’Mon Joaquin Phoenix plays Johnny, a radio journalist working on interviews of kids in various cities around the United States, asking them about their communities, their lives, and the future. It’s a great framework for the main plotline of the story: Johnny must help his sister, Viv (Gaby Hoffman) care for her 8-year-old son, Jesse, (newcomer Woody Norman) while she helps care for her mentally ill husband. Johnny is a bachelor who no doubt has been around a lot of kids, but never as a full-time primary caregiver. When he needs to proceed with his scheduled interviews he decides to take Jesse along for the ride - first to New York and later to New Orleans - all the while, navigating what it means to be a parent and reconnecting with his estranged sister. The film is shot in black and white which I think contributes to its sometimes dreamy contemplative quality. I think the thing I love most about Mike Mills’ work is that not a ton happens, but a ton happens. His work forces us to focus on the relationships in our lives and how they shape us.
5) Titane (Available on Vudu)
Titane is loco in the coco. It’s definitely not for everyone. It is awesome. If you haven’t seen director Julia Ducournau’s previous film, Raw, do yourself a favor and go watch it. Now. Titane starts out as one thing, and just as you start to think you know what is going on, it completely changes. Vincent Lindon is INSANELY GOOD. Agathe Rousselle is just plain insane as Alexia. It has a fantastic dance scene using the song, “Light House,” by Future Islands (one of the highlights of the film by far). I don’t want to go into any more details for fear of spoiling this film. You just need to see it.
4) Nine Days (Available on Vudu and Amazon Prime)
In Nine Days, Winston Duke plays Will, a man tasked with interviewing and screening souls for the chance to be born on Earth. If his candidates make it to the very end of the process it will take nine days. Edson Oda writes and directs this film with a stacked cast (Duke, Benedict Wong, Zazie Beetz, Tony Hale, Bill Skarsgård) and some lesser-known actors who absolutely steal the show at times (I’m looking at you, Arianna Ortiz).
3) The Hand of God (È stata la mano di Dio) - (Available on Netflix)
Paolo Sorrentino writes and directs a beautiful film that happens to also take place in very beautiful Italy. It stars Filippo Scotti as Fabietto, a high schooler in Naples who loves his family and is unsure of what he wants to do with his adult life until everything in his world changes. I loved watching the interactions between Toni Servillo and Teresa Saponangelo, who play Fabietto’s parents. Their love was so admirable and their relationship was very real. When Fabietto’s older brother (played by Marlon Joubert) divulges that he doesn’t want to think about the future, he just wants to enjoy his summer, truer words were never spoken. This film is devastating and beautiful, but also extremely hopeful.
2) Drive My Car (Doraibu mai kâ) - (In theaters)
Drive My Car is based on a short story by the author Haruki Murakami. Director
Ryûsuke Hamaguchi takes that short story and turns it into a film that’s almost three hours long. But in all honesty, I was so engrossed in the performances of Hidetoshi Nishijima (Yûsuke Kafuku) and Tôko Miura (Misaki Watari); I didn’t realize it was that long while I was watching it. Yûsuke learns that his wife is cheating on him but decides to ignore it. Shortly after, she dies. Rather than deal with his anger and grief, Yûsuke throws himself into his work, directing a performance of “Uncle Vanya,” in a remote part of Japan. The performance and the people he meets throughout the film slowly force him to deal with the death of his wife and her infidelity. There is real respect and appreciation between Yûsuke and Tôko, the young woman hired to be his driver during his theater residency. While she starts out the film practically silent, by the story’s end she has plenty to say.
1) The Souvenir Part II (Wide release in 2022)
*The Souvenir is available on Vudu and Amazon Prime
The Souvenir (Part I) was a rough watch. Joanna Hogg’s film centers around Julie, a young film student in the 80s played by Honor Swinton Byrne, who falls in love with Anthony (Tom Burke), an older, complicated, fairly untrustworthy guy. Turns out, he’s a heroin addict. The Souvenir Part II picks up directly where the events of the first film left off. It follows Julie, still reeling, from the events of The Souvenir. Now finishing up her time in film school, she must complete a final project before she graduates. In The Souvenir, Julie was full of promise, celebrated by her advisors and peers. In Part II, she is grieving, lost, and all over the place. She takes the direct events of her life story and funnels them into her graduation film project. Hogg takes us through the ups and downs of the filmmaking process as we go through the ups and downs of Julie’s emotional and mental health. In the process, Julie is trying to learn the truth about the man she loved, while also presenting her own truth of the experience itself. We are enveloped in the story just as much as we are in the process of making it. We watch as Julie literally makes herself sick with the filmmaking process. When we finally get a chance to view her film at the story’s climax, Hogg flips it on us so we can experience Julie’s own catharsis. We watch how film heals her, and us, through the process.
Besides watching TV and movies, Diana likes plants, the great outdoors, drawing and reading comics, and just generally rocking out. She has a BA in English Literature and is an art school dropout. You can follow her on Instagram @dldimuro and Twitter @DianaDiMuro