Movies

The Best Movies Of 2021

This was a tough one. It was weird. It wasn’t like 2020 when there were, like, no movies. But it was still weird. Some movies were released on streaming services but not theaters; some were released in theaters and on streaming services at the same time; some have only been released in theaters so far. There are movies on this list that only some of us have seen. Our number one wasn’t number one on many individual lists, but was a movie that all of us watched and had ranked anywhere between two and seven. Again, weird.

And then there were the other complicating factors. Two of the biggest blockbusters of the year — Spider-man: No Way Home and Matrix: Resurrection — didn’t come out in time to make the list. Same with Stephen Spielberg’s critically beloved West Side Story remake. Licorice Pizza has been out in theaters in select markets for weeks now but the majority of our crew here live in cities where it’s not available yet. So that’s not ideal, either.

The point here is that we tried. It’s still a good list. All of these movies are triumphs, especially considering all the obstacles they had to navigate just to exist. That’s not nothing. Here, just look.

10. (tie) F9

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Universal

Here’s the thing: Ludacris and Tyrese went to space. Other stuff happened, too. Tons of it. Vin Diesel’s character discovered he had an evil half-brother and that evil half-brother was played by John Cena. Han came back despite having his dramatic death depicted in two of the first eight films in the franchise, which was honestly kind of incredible. Charlize Theron somehow had a stylish bowl cut despite being arrested with braids in the previous film. Again, a lot.

But… come on. Ludacris and Tyrese went to space. In a souped-up Pontiac with NoS-powered rocket boosters. In a franchise that opened with a movie about Vin Diesel stealing DVD players. That neither of them were even in. Please take a few minutes tonight and think about how far this franchise has come from those humble beginnings. Ludacris and Tyrese went to space. It was ambitious and audacious and a little bonkers in the way more massive blockbusters should try to be. Send your characters to space. Who cares? It’s a movie. It’s supposed to be fun. I hope they go to the future in the next movie. — Brian Grubb

10. (tie) Pig

pig
neon

What if John Wick, but his power isn’t shooting people in the face so much as cooking with such care and brilliance that he makes people weep openly? Also, it’s a pig instead of a puppy. An adorable damn pig whose abduction sets Nicolas Cage’s reformed master chef on a quest away from his isolated mountain home to the city he long ago left behind. The result is captivating and it’s all on Cage who turns the volume way down to deliver yet another seemingly out of nowhere stunner, proving once again that we should always follow him to whatever role he thinks is interesting. – Jason Tabrys

10. (tie) A Quiet Place 2

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Via Paramount Pictures on YouTube

That magnificent bastard (John Krasinski, who I’m assuming would love that description) did it again. He managed to sequelize what could have been a one-and-done sleeper hit and an honest-to-god original story that put him on the map as a filmmaker. And let’s get real about the dilemma that Krasinski faced. He needed lightning to strike twice. He needed to get butts into theater seats during a pandemic. And he had previously killed off his own character and managed to pull off a non-intrusive cameo in this second installment. At all three of these tasks, he succeeded, and he kept Emily Blunt in badass mama mode. Ultimately though, Krasinski made this into Millicent Simmonds’ sequel while still making good on representative casting (in this case, regarding the deaf community) in the process. A spooked Cillian Murphy never hurts matters, and god only knows how Part 3 will work out without Krasinski or Blunt on board, but at least we have two near-perfect suspense movies to enjoy forever. — Kimberly Ricci

9. Barb and Star Go to Vista Del Mar

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lionsgate

Sure, the plot of Barb and Star sounds like the premise of a parody of a movie, not an actual movie itself. Two single, middle-aged women embark on a Florida vacay, enjoy a threesome with an incredibly attractive secret assassin, and must then prevent an eccentric villain from unleashing a plague of lethal mosquitos on the beachside resort town — this probably isn’t the kind of high-brow fare you’d normally expect on a “Best Of” list. But broaden your damn horizons people because not only are Kristen Wiig and writing partner Annie Mumolo delightfully funny as the titular best friends airing out their culottes for the first time in sunny Vista Del Mar, but the rest of the cast, particularly Jamie Dornan, are game to get just as ridiculous. He’ll probably earn some awards recognition for his turn in Kenneth Branagh’s Belfast, but it’d be a shame if Dornan’s powerhouse pop ballad in which his character both prays to seagulls while frolicking on sandy beaches and deftly climbs up a palm tree while pretending to be a cat, didn’t also get the appreciation it deserves. – Jessica Toomer

8. The Worst Person in the World

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OSLO

The Worst Person in the World is the third installment in Joachim Trier’s “Oslo Trilogy.” It’s also the best. The vibrant and charming film follows Julie (played by Renate Reinsve in an Oscar-worthy performance), a millennial hero of mine who goes from job to job, passion to passion, forever determined to figure out what she wants to do in life. Along the way, she meets an older graphic novelist and a barista with an environmental activist girlfriend; goes on a drug trip; and crashes a wedding. The Worst Person in the World takes place over the course of many years, but it’s grounded by small moments that take on profound meaning to the person going through them. In this case, it’s Julie, but Julie is a stand-in for anyone who feels overwhelmed by [points in every direction at once].

The Worst Person in the World wants you to know there’s nothing wrong with that. It just means you’re human. The Worst Person? More like The Best Movie. – Josh Kurp

7. Titane

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NEON

Titane is not only a great movie. It’s also a great movie to recap to your friends. “OK, so it’s about this woman, Alexia, who has sex with a car after killing a dude with her hairpin. Alexia later becomes pregnant with the car’s baby. Also, the murder wasn’t a one-off; she’s a serial killer who goes on the run and pretends to be Adrien, the missing son of a firefighter. She does this by breaking her nose and wrapping her body — which is now leaking oil — in tape to conceal the car baby inside her.”

This is only the first half of the movie.

Titane is the second feature from French filmmaker Julia Ducournau, and her second masterpiece after Raw. One movie is about car sex, the other cannibals, but they’re both heartfelt films about family, gender, and trauma that also happen to be sexy, wild, and funny as hell. If the description of Titane makes it sound bizarre, well, it is. And that’s beautiful. – Josh Kurp

6. The Beatles: Get Back

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Disney+

There’s a kind of mythos surrounding The Beatles, their meteoric rise, and their complicated break-up. Much of that is fueled by the untimely death of their founding member, John Lennon, but more still stems from the group’s prolific lyrical output — something that’s on full display in Peter Jackson’s biographical epic, Get Back. The three-part, six-hour long documentary is a musical odyssey, one that peels back the veneer of nostalgia and gives us a raw, moving, and at times unbearably intimate look at the four lads whose influence is still being felt, decades after their initial peak of stardom. It’s long and meandering, but never dull; subdued and unstructured but made with purpose. We get a glimpse of these figures who’ve become so famous we refer to them by first name only — John, Paul, Ringo, George — as the men they once were, struggling to keep collaborating and creating despite aging out of their respective sounds and friendships. There are episodes of genius on display — like when Paul riffs on his bass and produces one of the band’s biggest hits in just a few minutes — but the better moments come when Jackson simply lets the camera roll, giving us an unedited look at the strife and suffocating tension and profound connection these musical icons shared. It’s one of the best Beatles documentaries in a long while, and one of the more interesting and memorable films of the year. – Jessica Toomer

5. Red Rocket

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A24

Simon Rex, who had his own history with starring in porn (he doesn’t want to talk about it) turns in one of the performances of the year as Mikey Saber, a down-on-his-luck ex-porn star returning to his Texas hometown in Red Rocket, from Florida Project director Sean Baker. What begins as a sort of The Wrestler for porn gradually evolves into a kind of slow-motion, satirically cheerful car crash. It’s hard to remember a character this simultaneously watchable and awful outside of The Sopranos, and as he always seems to do, Sean Baker gets unforgettable performances out of a handful of first-timers and non-actors in supporting roles. It’s rare to find a movie about porn that neither smears nor sugarcoats, but Baker clearly did his homework. It might be his best film. It’s certainly Simon Rex’s greatest performance. – Vince Mancini

4. The Power of the Dog

Power Of The Dog Benedict Cumberbatch
Netflix

I’ve run into a lot of people who have a similar take on Jane Campion’s The Power of the Dog. Namely, being: well, okay, that was not what I was expecting. Through a series of early screening scheduling conflicts I watched The Power of the Dog pretty late in this awards season (i.e. “the first day it actually went up on Netflix”), but, I do wonder if, subconsciously, I just really wasn’t in a hurry to watch it? In that it looked like the kind of movie that always comes out this time of year. Yes, it will be “good,” but from the marketing I thought it would be about a brave man, played by Benedict Cumberbatch, standing up to the societal norms of 1925 Montana. (And, somehow, a dog will be involved.) Perhaps it’s this misconception that makes the actual plot of The Power of the Dog so shocking – watching Cumberbatch’s ornery cuss of a man (in what might be his finest performance), making everyone miserable, and having literally no idea where any of this is going until the rug is pulled out in the film’s final scene. I wish there were a way to convey what this movie actually is without ruining the experience of finding out for yourself. Anyway, that was my best attempt. – Mike Ryan

3. Licorice Pizza

Licorice Pizza
United Artists

Someday, there will no doubt be double features of Licorice Pizza and Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. It’s almost like Paul Thomas Anderson watched Tarantino’s film and decided, oh, yeah, I could also do something like this. They are by no means the same movie, but both kind of skimp on actual plot to, instead, give us characters we just want to hang out with for two-plus hours and, now and then, a famous person from that era will show up and do something exciting and weird. The relationship between the two protagonists in this movie is, well, a little strange. Gary (Cooper Hoffman) is a high school student. Alana (Alana Haim) is a photographer’s assistant and is about 10 years older than Gary. Alana is not interested in Gary, at least not in that kind of way. But she finds him interesting enough to keep hanging out with him. And what forms is one of those strange relationships that can only happen around that age where one person is madly in love with the other, and the other is amused enough to keep hanging out because there’s nothing better to do anyway. This will be one of those kinds of movies I will watch anytime it’s on. This is PTA’s most emotionally welcoming movie since Punch Drunk Love, and for the crowd out there who hasn’t liked one of his movies since Boogie Nights, well, here you go. – Mike Ryan

2. The Green Knight

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A24

I’m not usually one for abstract, spooky head trips, but Green Knight was the kind of movie that could change that. Dev Patel plays Sir Gawain, on his quest to fulfill a bargain with the mysterious The Green Knight, represented here as a sort of magical tree man, in director David Lowery’s adaptation of a mysterious 14th-century poem whose true meaning scholars have debated for centuries. In Lowery’s telling, the Green Knight seems to represent mortality in some way. Don’t go in expecting a sword and maidens swashbuckler, but for me Green Knight was near perfect, with the best cinematography of the year and perhaps the best performance: Alicia Vikander, doing double duty as Gawain’s earnest peasant concubine and a flirtatious noblewoman. – Vince Mancini

1. Dune

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Warner Bros./HBO Max

Maybe if you’re a giant Dune nerd it might be possible to quibble with some choices in Denis Villeneuve’s Dune adaptation, but for this Dune virgin it was just about perfect. Experiencing this world for the first time, it became immediately apparent that Dune must’ve been what George Lucas was going for in Star Wars — only he took out all the interesting subtext about commodities and colonialism and made it a slightly corny cowboy story about the “light” and the “dark” sides. Denis Villeneuve did a brilliant job adding that nuance back in and giving the whole thing scale and spectacle. And all without losing some of the delightful silliness, like the special dance one has to do to avoid getting eaten by giant sand worms. Come with me! We shall do the worm dance of our people! – Vince Mancini

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