10 Best Films of 2021 w/ Honorable Mentions

2021 might not have been the best year for cinema but at least it was better than last year. While some major blockbusters and ambitious projects failed to differing degrees, it was micro-budgeted American movies and films from outside the U.S. that really shined. Has there ever been a more stacked line-up of foreign cinema to flood the American market than this year? We got double hits from France and Japan, as well as a new Asghar Farhadi morality tale from Iran, two really good movies from Denmark, a supposed crowd-pleaser from the Netherlands I have yet to see, and of course, the new Almodovar which is always an event.

It also gave us new works from celebrated auteurs like Jane Campion, Wes Anderson, Steven Spielberg, Denis Villeneuve, Steven Soderbergh, Joel Coen, Ridley Scott, Aaron Sorkin, Mike Mills, Paul Schrader, and of course, my favorite uncle, Paul Thomas Anderson. Not all were great, not even all were good, but it was nice to see so many heavy hitters back in the ring.

Last time I counted down my Top 25 Film Performances of 2021, and the days before that I counted down both the Top 10 Worst Films of 2021 and the Top 10 Most Disappointing Fims of 2021. Now, it’s time for the big one. The ten best films I saw year, complete with ten wonderful runner-ups. Let’s start with the honorable mentions…

Honorable Mentions

Bad Luck Banging or Loony Porn

Romania / written & directed by Radu Jude / 106 minutes

Absolutely insane Romanian sex comedy about an elementary school teacher whose sex tape leaks and subsequently, has to deal with an angry, dumb, misinformed, red-pilled brigade of parents. It’s far from perfect though. It moves too slow to pull off its gags in the first two-thirds, despite having a fascinating slideshow that taught me about Romanian history, but the third act is an absolute comedic masterpiece. There are two versions of the film – one with graphic unsimulated sex scenes and the other with censored graphics and added political humor. Guess which one Amazon has. ($16.99 rental on Amazon)

Benedetta

France / Netherlands / written by: David Birke and Paul Verhoeven; directed by: Paul Verhoeven / 131 minutes

From Paul Verhoeven, the controversial director of Robocop and Showgirls comes a wildly funny and surprisingly poignant historical drama about a lesbian nun who believes God is working through her. ($6.99 rental on Amazon)

Boiling Point

United Kingdom / written by: Philip Barantini and James Cummings; directed by: Philip Barantini / 92 minutes

A bracingly intense single-take 90-minute character drama taking place over the course of dinner service for a fancy-ass London restaurant. Stephen Graham and Vinette Robinson deliver fantastic performances as two chefs who are approaching a breakdown. ($4.99 rental on Amazon)

Dune

United States / written by: Joe Spaihts, Denis Villeneuve and Eric Roth; directed by: Denis Villenueve / 156 minutes

The incredible action/sci-fi blockbuster event of the year wasn’t Spider-Man, it was Denis Villenueve’s suave adaptation of Dune. This was the best fantasy worldbuilding of the year. (In Theaters; $5.99 rental on Amazon)

A Hero

Iran / written & directed by: Asghar Farhadi / 127 minutes

Not the best Farhadi but even low-level Farhadi is better than most films. Like pretty much all of his other films, this one is a morality tale as well, following a nice enough dude (Amir Jadidi) in debtor’s prison, who manages to perform a heroic act but then it gets called into question by his debt collector (Mohsen Tanabandeh). It’s one of those no-good-deed-goes-unpunished things. (Amazon Prime)

The Humans

United States / written & directed by: Stephen Karam / 108 minutes

My new go-to Thanksgiving movie. Stephen Karam‘s film adaptation of his Tony-winning stage play is an understated and slyly terrifying haunted house film with brilliant turns by Jayne Houdyshell and Richard Jenkins. (Showtime)

The Killing of Two Lovers

United States / written and directed by Robert Machoian / 84 minutes

A greatly affecting dramatic thriller made for only $32,000. To give you an idea, John Carpenter‘s ultra-low-budget slashic Halloween was made for $300,000 in 1978. ($3.99 rental on Amazon)

Riders of Justice

Denmark / written & directed by: Anders Thomas Jensen / 116 minutes

An uproariously funny and wonderfully moral tale about the toll revenge takes on human beings. Mads Mikkelsen is typically excellent but the whole ensemble is quite fantastic. ($4.99 rental on Amazon)

Titane

France / written & directed by: Julia Ducornau / 108 minutes

Julia Ducornau is really making a distinct name for herself in horror and filmmaking in general, giving us some of the most grotesque and effective body horror I’ve seen in ages. Her last film was about a rather sheltered vegan student who gets into cannibalism in college and this one is even more nuts. It’s about a serial killer, Alexia (Agathe Rouselle) who fucks a car and becomes impregnated with a human/machine hybrid baby. It’s wild and maybe the most disturbing film of the year, but the filmmaking craft is absolutely impeccable. ($4.99 rental on Amazon)

Zola

United States / written by: Janicza Bravo and Jeremy O. Harris; directed by: Janicza Bravo / 90 minutes

Polarizing because of its total lack of story structure or traditional comedic heightening, Janicza Bravo’s messy-ass comedy about messy-ass motherfuckers is a hilarious little kick-back of a movie with four sensational lead performances by Taylour Paige, Riley Keough, Nicholas “Cousin Greg” Braun, and the marvelous Colman Domingo. (Showtime)

The Top 10

10. Barb & Star Go to Vista Del Mar

United States / written by: Kristen Wiig and Annie Mumolo; directed by: Josh Greenbaum; 107 minutes

This is the feel-good, silly, irreverent beach musical/international spy thriller we needed right now. Playing like a funky update of the glorious 1960s Doris Day picture, The Glass Bottom Boat (of which there’s even a reference to within the film), Barb & Star follows two mild Southern spinsters (Kristen Wiig, Annie Mumolo) from Soft Rock, Arkansas who dream of bigger and brighter things. After being ousted from their friend clique as well as their Jennifer’s Convertibles retail jobs, they decide to journey to Vista Del Mar, Florida for a little R&R. While Barb & Star has that manic, goofy for goofy’s sake, David Wain-esque type of comedy, it also has some genuinely tender moments between Wiig and Mumolo. The supporting cast is filled out by a never-better Jamie Dornan, Waiting for Guffman/Best in Show player Michael Hitchcock, Vanessa Bayer, and Damon Wayans, Jr. This is light but never hollow entertainment, overflowing with hilarious little details. I loved it. (HULU)

9. Parallel Mothers

Spain / written & directed by: Pedro Almodovar / 120 minutes

Yet another great film from one of the most unique and sensual filmmakers working today, Pedro Almodovar, just two years after the also great Pain & Glory. Parallel Mothers is a fascinating and heartbreaking signature Almodovar telenovela riff with a performance from Penelope Cruz that I called the year’s best. It might struggle to tie the two narrative threads of Cruz’s baby mama drama and the Franco regime stuff, but it’s so powerful from an emotional standpoint, with such beautifully drawn characters that you end up not giving a fart about story structure. (In Theaters)

8. Red Rocket

United States / written by: Chris Bergoch and Sean Baker; directed by: Sean Baker / 128 minutes

said it best in my 1/3/21 review

Simon Rex is a phenomenon in Sean Baker‘s painfully hilarious and sometimes just painful A24 dramedy, Red Rocket. It’s a deceptively complex performance that balances real, palpable pain with expert comedic timing, in what ultimately feels like a Midland Texas spin on Mike Leigh‘s Naked. Rex plays Mikey Saber, a washed-up porn star who stumbles off a greyhound from LA back to his hometown in Texas with nothing but a silver tongue for manipulating everyone around him. He starts with his ex-wife and former porn colleague, Lexi (Bree Elrod), and manages to score a sleeping spot on her couch if he can get a job, pay his share of the rent, and doesn’t mind getting rousted out of bed the couch at 8am so Lexi’s mom (Brenda Deiss) can watch The People’s Court or Trump rallies. That’s another interesting aspect of this, it takes place during the 2016 presidential primaries and everyone in this very hopeless and destitute part of Texas is really interested in what The Donald has to say. Trump’s empty promises perfectly parallel Mikey’s, a character so obviously full shit, nobody should believe what he says but desperation and general gullibility allows you to lie to yourself. For these people, it’s easy to latch onto anything when you’ve never had no nothing. Mikey is a sociopath, completely incapable of entertaining anything that isn’t at least partially self-serving and not caring about the damage he inflicts on anyone in his orbit. The stories he tells about how successful he was in the porn industry feel like he’s trying to convince himself of his own self-worth more than the poor neighbor giving him a ride to Cinnabon. When he eventually meets an 18-in-three-weeks girl working at a Donut Hole named Strawberry (a fantastic Suzanna Son), he plots to seduce her and eventually mold her into an up-and-coming porn star he can ride the coattails of, back into the industry. Can he pull it off or will it all blow up in his face in the most outrageous way possible? The combination of darker societal implications in the background and awkward, raunchy, and all too real comedy in the foreground really gives the film its teeth, powering you through which could have felt like a slog if it had even a whiff of he’s-the-ultimate-victim attached to it. He’s not, the movie always points out that’s he’s the asshole. It’s almost like the most poignant and self-reflective episode of Maury Povich you’ve ever seen. “Red rocket” refers to a dog’s erection and while there isn’t an actual erect dog penis in the film, it’s a reference to Mikey, not a real dog but a human, wounded beyond repair, begging for scraps. You ultimately pity him, you never sympathize with him and you shudder to think of what kind of greater influences mold these types of people. (Available for $14.99 purchase on Amazon)

7. Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy

Japan / written & directed by: Ryusuke Hamaguchi / 121 minutes

The lesser of two excellent films this year by Ryusuke Hamaguchi is still an amazing piece of work. A romance/relationship-based anthology movie following three different stories all having to do with awkward dating shit. Anthologies are typically a mixed bag but Wheel of Fortune & Fantasy is an exception to the rule, delivering three wildly different, subtle tales with some of the best dialogue and performances (from a mostly female cast) you’ll see all year. ($4.99 rental on Amazon)

6. Shiva Baby

United States / written & directed by: Emma Seligman / 77 minutes

The real micro-budget American indie gem of the year was Emma Seligman‘s Shiva Baby, both a dark comedy and a pseudo-psychological horror film about social anxiety. Basically, it’s about a college student (Rachel Sennott) who goes to a funeral service with her parents (the always great Fred Melamed and Polly Draper) and ends up running into both her ex-girlfriend (Molly Gordon) and her current sugar daddy (Danny Deferrari). While most escalated tension movies eventually plateau, Shiva Baby‘s brisk 77-minute runtime allows it to sustain its glorious tension all the way through. It’s also marvelously Jewish. (HBOMax)

5. Pig

United States / written & directed by: Michael Sarnoski / 92 minutes

The very best of snubbed Oscar movies, Pig is a simple tale of loss, grief and redemption told impressively efficiently by first-time filmmaker Michael Sarnoski. It also features the best Nicolas Cage performance ever as Robin Feld, a former celebrated chef who has given up on life following his wife’s death. Living in the shackiest of shacks in the middle of the Oregon woods, he and his pet pig hunt for truffles and sell them to fancy-ass restaurants. One night, tweakers break into his shack and steal his pig, but who are they working for? The movie follows Robin on his quest to find his pig and ends up finding himself along the way. Those expecting wild Cage theatrics and cheap production value should look elsewhere, Pig is a serious fucking drama that somehow manages to reinvent Cage after all these years. (HULU)

4. Summer of Soul (…Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised)

United States / directed by: Questlove / 117 minutes

I’m sad to say I hardly saw any documentaries this year. Besides the Val Kimer one, I saw two music documentaries – Woodstock ’99 and Summer of Soul. While Woodstock ’99 is wild ride into one the biggest bad ideas ever, Summer of Soul is a wild ride into one of the biggest good ideas ever – The Harlem Culture Festival of 1969. Director Questlove uncovers concert performance footage never seen before from such music titans of the time as Sly and the Family Stone, Gladys Knight, Stevie Wonder, B.B. King, The 5th Dimension, Nina Simone and Mahalia Jackson and mixes it with the history of the time period from fashion choices, politics, all somewhat influenced by the evolution of music or influencing the evolution of music. The best part about this is the equal platform time Questlove gives both the live concert element and the history element of this documentary. More than anything it feels like this amazing blues, jazz, gospel and funk concert you somehow scored tickets to and in between the acts you get clued in on the context of everything. It also explores how this footage has never been seen before because no network would buy it cause of racism and expectations people wouldn’t watch or boycott cause of racism, and how this was all happening simultaneous with the moon landing. Watch with your best speakers. (HULU)

3. The Power of the Dog

Australia / New Zealand / United States / United Kingdom / Canada / written & directed by Jane Campion / 126 minutes

This is the one movie of the year I really wish I saw on the big screen. It never really played in theaters here in Arizona, so I had to watch it on Netflix., which does no favors for Jane Campion and cinematographer Ari Wegner‘s gorgeous vision of American frontier life (played by South Island, New Zealand). Even without a gigantic screen and booming Dolby Digital, it’s not hard to tell this is a beautiful film, really cold and severe with the treatment of its characters and its overall representation of early 20s frontier life, but extremely poignant and subtle in its presentation of fairly evident themes. It’s ambiguous without being obscure. This is a movie where the subtext is the text and nothing is definitively confirmed about what’s going on in the minds of its characters. While that is the recipe for a pretentious, disengaging snooze-fest, The Power of the Dog manages to keep on riveted and disturbed, on the edge of our seats for the entire runtime. It’s a masterful slow burn in a year of good slow burns. (Netflix)

2. Licorice Pizza

United States / written & directed by: Paul Thomas Anderson / 133 minutes

Licorice Pizza asks the question, what if an uproariously funny comedy with two incredibly flawed and complex central characters was put together with the skill, precision, and artistry of a Paul Thomas Anderson film? The answer is a wholly accessible masterpiece that manages to be a blast while somehow challenging you. Gary Valentine (lovingly rendered by Philip Seymour Hoffman‘s 18-year-old son, Cooper Hoffman) is a 15-year-old whiz kid genius who becomes obsessed with an aimless, 25-year-old coaster, Alana (Alana Haim from Haim). The film spans an unspecified stretch of time, presented as little snapshots of Gary and Alana’s wildly unhealthy, co-dependent relationship with each other – from film sets to bars, to waterbed start-ups, to pinball arcade start-ups, and even a brief stint in politics. Along the way, we’re treated to this seemingly never-ending conveyer belt of Oscar-worthy 5-10 minute bit parts, from Harriet Sansom Harris‘ looney tunes Hollywood agent to Bradley Cooper‘s even crazier hairdresser turned producer, all representing through satire, the shittiest and most predatory parts of the film industry (that still very much exist today), as Gary and Alana try to navigate their way through 1973 Los Angeles. It gave me the best feeling I had at the movies all year. (In Theaters)

1. Drive My Car

Japan / written & directed by: Ryusuke Hamaguchi / 179 minutes

It’s an accomplishment for any filmmaker to release two films in a single year, let alone two films at the level of quality of both Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy and Drive My Car. While Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy is an excellent relationship-focused romance anthology, Drive My Car is a downright masterpiece. Clocking in at nearly three hours, the most amazing thing about Drive My Car is that it never feels that long, and that’s not because it’s this fast-faced, Scorsese-esque epic where information is thrown to you by the bucket full. Drive My Car is a deeply cerebral slow-burn that piecemeals you information that isolated might feel underwhelming, but accumlatively begins to form some of the most complex and impossible to pin down characters of the year. It’s about a seasoned actor/director/playwright, Yusuke (Hidetoshi Nishijima, one of the best performances of the year) dealing with the loss of his wife and how that bleeds into his multilingual production of Uncle Vanya both beneficially and detrimentally. His theater company won’t allow him to drive his own car during the production, because of liability/legal reasons, so they hire a driver for him, an intensely shy 23-year-old woman “from the wrong side of the tracks”, Misaki (Toko Miura, in another best performance of the year). Through long commutes and awkward small talk, a bond is slowly formed between the two and the car becomes this information sharing safespace for both of them to work through their own traumas. It’s really hard to write about this movie without it seeming completely up its own ass, and for that I apologize. But Drive My Car bucks expectations at every turn and really illustrates the importance of how you tell a story versus what you tell. It’s so remarkably subtle in how it communicates information about its characters but it’s never obscure. I don’t think I saw a 2021 movie that cared this deeply for its characters and it shows. It’s a very delicate piece of filmmaking that flows like calm waves from one scene to the next, until it turns into a surprising emotional tsunami in the final minutes. (In Theaters)

Good But Not Great:

Passing (dir. Rebecca Hall) – Netflix

Flee (dir. Jonas Poher Rasmussen) – HULU

The Beta Test (dir. Jim Cummings) – HULU

The Matrix Resurrections (dir. Lana Wachowski) – In Theaters or $24.99 rental on Amazon

Spider-Man: No Way Home (dir. Jim Watts) – In Theaters

Mass (dir. Fran Kranz) – $5.99 rental on Amazon

Anything for Jackson (dir. Justin G. Dyck) – AMC+

The Lost Daughter (dir. Maggie Gyllenhaal) – Netflix

West Side Story (dir. Steven Spielberg) – In Theaters; Disney+ & HBOMax on 3/2

The Tragedy of Macbeth (dir. Joel Coen) – AppleTV

Val (dir. Leo Scott, Ting Poo) – Amazon Prime

Woodstock ’99: Peace, Love, and Rage (dir. Garret Price) – HBOMax

C’mon C’mon (dir. Mike Mills) – $14.99 rental on Amazon

The Last Duel (dir. Ridley Scott) – HBOMax

Candyman (dir. Nia DeCosta) – $5.99 rental on Amazon

The Card Counter (dir. Paul Schrader) – $5.99 rental on Amazon

The Eyes of Tammy Faye (dir. Michael Showalter) – HBOMax

Special Mention: Malignant

Malignant is maybe the biggest surprise of 2021 because, for the first two-thirds of the movie, you’re completely ready to write it off as generic, derivative, and underdeveloped. Then, an hour and fifteen minutes in, a sort of twisted miracle happens. The acting doesn’t get better (it’s pretty lackluster all around, with no actors I even recognize), the stakes don’t really get higher and the story absolutely does not get more coherent. In fact, it takes one of the hardest third-act left turns I’ve ever seen a movie attempt. Writer/director James Wan takes Malignant so far off the fucking rails, it will make your actual jaw drop. Personally, I found the insanity to not be particularly inspired but hilarious to witness all the same. It reminded me of the ridiculous 80s grindhouse horror films of Frank Holofcener (Basket Case Trilogy, Frankenhooker) and Larry Cohen (It’s Alive Trilogy, Q: The Winged Serpent), but with a way bigger budget and wider mainstream audience. I guess you can see this as James Wan bringing the bizarre charm and insane antics of those purely cult films to a wider and certainly more unsuspecting mainstream audience. My parents wandered into this on HBOMax last week and they still have no idea how to process it. I don’t even know if I do. (HBOMax)

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