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The 10 Best Movies of 2021
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It’s the beginning of 2022, which means it’s the time of year when movie lovers look back on the best movies of 2021. After all, there will be very few exciting new releases until the Spring. And the Oscars aren’t until March this year. So since we’re going to be caught up in Awards Season chatter and gossip for the next few months anyway, we might as well lean into things with our Best Movies of 2021.
A few years ago, M. Night Shyamalan was down and out. His career had suffered a series of critical and commercial failures, culminating with the genuinely horrible After Earth. Just ten years after Newsweek had called Shyamalan “The Next Spielberg,” his prospects in Hollywood were over.
Faced with this reality, Shyamalan did what any reasonable person1 would do, he mortgaged his house and started self-financing. And the results have been transformative. Practically overnight, Shyamalan went from desperate grasps at potential relevance to making some of the most exciting and provocative art of his career. He explained how the new financing helped his career in a fascinating interview with Collider.
“I paid for Visit, Split, Glass and Old. All four of those. And I pay for Servant as well. The reason that I do it is to do it at the smallest number where I can be free and I can do something provocative and different and unusual and I’m not putting my partners at risk. I’m taking the risk. In most scenarios, because we’re doing it at such a small price, we’re going to be okay no matter what. So we can make the most interesting art. I don’t have to think about some equation of safety. I don’t have to think about that. I believe the flip happens where the audience can feel that it’s different. That there is no safety valves on it. There is no safety guard rails on it. They can feel that there is no supervision and it’s this kind of free-spirited thing. I believe audiences can feel that and that’s why they’ve been coming to these movies.”
The only other horror movies in 2021 that were in the same budget neighborhood as Old were The Forever Purge and Spiral: From the Book of Saw. So there’s no arguing with the fact that financing his own movies gives him more creative independence.
When it comes to Old, the results are divine. Old feels like a movie made without safety rails or supervision. The premise is basically an extended Twilight Zone episode. And while some will detract from that, let’s hit it one more time.
Old is what would happen if Shyamalan got total creative freedom to make a 108-minute episode of The Twilight Zone. If you’re not going to enjoy that, then there’s nothing I can do to help you.
The Mitchells vs. the Machines
First-time director Mike Rianda made an impressive debut this year on Netflix. The Mitchells vs. the Machines is both beautifully animated and touchingly sincere. It tells the story of a family separated by emotional distance and the journey they all have to go on to bridge that gap. But also, they have to defend humanity from a robot revolution2.
The Mitchells vs. the Machines is a rare beast in the modern age of digital animation. It’s an animated movie that isn’t interested in looking like a live-action film. Following in the success of Spider-Man: Into the Spider-verse, producers Phil Lord and Chris Miller have grown even more confident in their stylistic animation chops. The Mitchell family pulls whacky faces and strikes absurd poses like they’re gosh darn toons!
If you were waiting for confirmation, the movie is about The Mitchell family fighting to save humanity from a robotic takeover. And there’s something to be said for that being the plot of the only animated movie this year whose human characters didn’t seem bound by the laws of biology, chemistry, or physics. While, of course, their opponents, the Machines, aren’t nearly as prone to signs of animated—dare I even say, artistic—flare. The Mitchells vs. the Machines is a movie that remembers that film can be fun, and it projects that joy out into the audience in its purest form.
The Mitchells vs. the Machines has been garnering critical praise for everything from its queer representation, to the beauty of its artistic style, to its celebration of film culture. It is a pure celebration of humanity and human connections. Indeed, the sheer amount of joy radiation from The Mitchels vs. the Machines is central to the film’s appeal. In case that’s something you might need for some reason in 2022.
Saint Maud is another directorial debut from English director and screenwriter Rose Glass. The movie is a psychological horror film that follows a devoutly religious Catholic hospice nurse, Maud, who cares for a terminally ill dancer. Maud becomes convinced God has called her to save her patient’s soul, and questions about illusion and reality quickly become matters of life and death.
Saint Maud is a horror masterpiece that’s sure to be re-discovered by genre fans at specialty screenings for years to come. It’s a tour de force for first-time director Rose Glass, whose attention to detail and camera position are just as successful to the movie’s success as the script.
With this success, Glass is poised to become one of the great influential voices in the horror scene. There’s no question that movies like Get Out, Hereditary, and A Quiet Place have caused people to rethink the limits of what “horror” movies are. And Glass seems poised to capitalize on the success of Saint Maud by continuing to probe those liminal genre spaces.
Yeah, I have a couple of things. One I’m co-writing with a friend I went to film school with, and one I’m writing at myself, and I’m in fact right now in my room staring at a serial-killer-esque map of the whole thing on my wall. I’ve worked out that I’m interested in bodies and brains, and they’re both continuing in this direction, the emphasis on body stuff. One is sort of body horror, I guess? Even with Saint Maud, I’m like, “Is this a horror film?”
The way that Saint Maud represents Maud’s interiority and slowly unwind her backstory reminded me a lot of Denis Villeneuve’s Prisoner’s (2013). Glass is just as interested in “What makes a person drawn to an extreme point of view?” as she is anything that could be considered “traditional horror.” There’s very little of what I’d call “traditional horror” in Saint Maud. But that strong foundation in character and an incredible ability for storytelling make it among the year’s best.
The Card Counter
Paul Schrader started writing movies like Taxi Driver, Rolling Thunder, and Raging Bull. And over the last 50 years, he hasn’t lost his keen interest in the defining problems of our times. Most recently, Schrader’s First Reformed (2017) forced audiences to ask whether God can forgive America’s destruction of the environment in exchange for personal financial gain. This year, Schrader’s once again proven that he hasn’t lost his touch by merging the style of his ’70s masterpieces with his concern for contemporary issues.
In First Reformed, Schrader asked, “Will God forgive us?” In The Card Counter, he asks whether or not we can forgive ourselves. The disconnected loner at the heart of the movie is William Tell (Oscar Isaac), a former resident of the United States Penitentiary at Leavenworth who travels the road winning enough money at Black Jack to pay the bills. Tell’s prime directive “bet small, win small” may seem at odds with the lavishes of Schrader’s New Hollywood roots. But it’s just one of the many oddities that place Tell into his time and place with such elegant specificity.
Without diving too far into the details,3, the character of William Tell, as written on the page, has some serious serial-killer-ish vibes. But Isaac can sell him as just a dude with a past who’s doing his best day-to-day. Isaac’s natural charisma lends Tell all the credibility he needs to sell Schrader’s screenplay. Once we see Tell trade witty barbs with his backer La Linda (Tiffany Haddish), we’re instantly charmed beyond all doubt.
Tell lives by a moral code that stands between him and any chance of personal success. His past has taught him that those at the bottom will always pay for the crimes of those at the top. So he has made his peace with life as a bottom feeder. But when his rigidly structured life takes on unforeseen responsibility, Tell feels compelled to push back on the rules that have kept him in his place his entire life.
The Green Knight
Fundamentally, the story of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is a straightforward one. The story is a chivalric quest, a classic style of an ancient tale that birthed everything from The Lord of the Rings to The Seven Samurai to 1917. When Sir Gawain accepts The Green Knight’s challenge on Christmas Day, he is forced to go on a journey that will test whether or not he has what it takes to be a Knight in King Arthur’s Court.
And maybe that’s why director David Lowery was so attracted to the project. His previous work on projects like A Ghost Story and The Old Man and the Gun has centered on men’s physical and emotional journeys of self-discovery. But in nearly every other regard, The Green Knight is anything but similar to the low-key indie budgeted western-influenced arthouse of Lowery’s past pictures.
The Green Knight is fundamentally a big movie. It’s a movie containing looming giants, decapitated saints, and blood-soaked battlefields. And it’s all achieved through a spectacle of filmmaking, including some beautiful matte paintings, gorgeous time-lapse footage, and an awe-inspiring work of makeup design on the film’s titular Green Knight (Ralph Ineson).
To ground this larger-than-life movie requires an actor who can shoulder the weight. And David Lowery has his own personal Atlas in Dev Patel. Patel’s Gawain is a squire with a failure-to-launch syndrome, drinking away his evenings and waiting for somebody else to hand him a knighthood. He portrays a Gawain who lacks confidence in himself and is unsure how to act throughout his quest. And Lowery places him in a Court that Arthur is watching slowly fall to pieces. The lack of confidence in institutions is palpable, and the payoff is a third-act monologue from Alicia Vikander that deserves its special award at this year’s Oscars.
The Green Knight is a deliberate movie about the hard work to change as a person fundamentally. It’s far from what audiences might expect from an Arthurian Quest film. But The Green Knight solidifies Lowery as one of the newest Hollywood auteur voices4.
In the opening scene of Licorice Pizza, Gary Valentine (Cooper Hoffman) explains that he’s always been naturally inclined toward being an entertainer. “I’m a showman. It’s my calling,” Valentine explains. “I don’t know how to do anything else. It’s what I’m meant to do. I mean, ever since I was a kid, I’ve been a song and dance man.” While watching that scene, or indeed all of Licorice Pizza, one imagines the same must be true about the film’s visionary director.
Licorice Pizza takes place in the San Fernando Valley in 1973. Director Paul Thomas Anderson (Punch Drunk Love, Boogie Nights, Phantom Thread) grew up in the San Fernando Valley in the 1970s, and his pride in his home is well documented. And while Gary Valentine is far from a stand-in for Anderson, PTA’s inherent ability for film making brings to mind a young Paul walking around the Valley in the ’70s thinking, “one day I’m going to do a big crazy water bed thing in a movie.”
Anderson shares his pride as a Valley native with the sister rock band HAIM. The unlikely friendship between HAIM and Paul Thomas Anderson has resulted in a beautiful creative partnership. Anderson got his start directing music videos and has directed seven for HAIM since 2017. And during that collaborative work, Anderson developed Licorice Pizza for Alana Haim to star in as the 25-going-on-15 Alana Kane. Opposite her is Cooper Hoffman, the son of Anderson’s late frequent collaborator Philip Seymour Hoffman. The alchemy that Hoffman, Haim, and Anderson results in one of the most thoroughly enjoyable movies of the year.
Too much hey has been made about the fictional relationship between Alana Kane (25) and Gary Valentine (15). For one thing, Alana auditions for the 1973 film Breezy, so it seems the May-December romance might be more substance than style for Anderson. But more importantly, the film has zero interest in anything sexual between Alana and Gary. Their relationship is romantic. But the movie is about them trying to figure out that romance. It’s an exploration that creates far more tension than any sexual encounter between those two could have produced.
The Power of the Dog
Jane Campion is probably one of our finest living filmmakers. But over the twelve years since her previous feature film, it seemed less and less likely she’d ever return to the director’s chair. The Power of the Dog’s masterpiece declares that Campion is definitively back, likely with even more movies to come.
The magnitude of The Power of the Dog’s artistic perfection is genuinely hard to overstate. I don’t mean to sound like I’m lavishing on the praise, but every frame of this movie is a reminder of Campion’s unparalleled skill as a director. A hand on a table or a pan around a room can suddenly change the entiShe’saning of a scene. She’s a master storyteller demonstrating supreme mastery of her craft.
Campion manages to remove her camera from the narrative, resulting in an almost anthropological view of 1925 Montana. George (Jesse Plemons) and Phil Burbank (Benedict Cumberbatch) are brothers and ranching business partners whose lives are forever changed when they have dinner at the Red Mill restaurant one day. Campion manages to remove her camera from the narrative, resulting in an almost anthropological view of 1925 Montana. Her focus flits so seamlessly between the brother George and Phil Burbank, restaurant proprietor Rose Gordon (Kirstin Dunst), and her son Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee) that it is hard to pin down for most of the movie the main character is.
That narrative tension is essential to the movie’s success. Just as we never feel entirely comfortable with our main character, we never seem altogether sure who we should be cheering for. The characters seem to almost jockey for our favor throughout the film’s runtime. Of course, by the time we get to the end, it’s evident that we’ve only had one main character the entire time. But the fact that we’ve gone so long without realizing it is a testament to Campion’s storytelling ability.
Frank Herbert’s Dune was famously held up as one of the most un-film-able stories of all time. David Lynch’s infamous attempt in 1984 deserves a very, very long essay on this website. And maybe one day, this sentence will link to that essay. But for now, let’s say that Dune (1984) was pretty unpopular. There had never been a widely successful attempt at a Dune movie. And popular wisdom held that there never would be.
This is why it was so exciting for a particular cross-section of nerd when Warner Bros. hired Dennis Villeneuve to direct a Dune movie. Early reports were that Warners was utilizing the same strategy they’d used in 2017 and 2019 on It. Villeneuve would be allowed to make Part One, and if it were successful enough, then maybe he’d be allowed to finish out the novel with Part Two. By the time he was doing press to promote the movie, Villeneuve was already talking about how “excited he was to” make “The Dune Trilogy,” which would include a third film covering the sequel novel Dune Messiah. For anyone familiar with the politics of filmmaking, the signal Villeneuve was sending was clear:
Dune was a hit.
From top to bottom, Dune is pure spectacle. The unabashed arrogance of opening with a garbled alien “language proclaiming “Dreams are” messages from the deep” before the Warner Bros. logo has even appeared? It’s the exact kind of filmmaking that I want more of. Early on in Dune, we’re introduced to multiple planets that establish continuity to Villeneuve’s universe. All the while, Hans Zimmer’s pounding score (that deserves to win the Oscar) accompanies the visual spender perfectly. The world Villeneuve creates is made out of giant ships, political disputes, and trader negotiations. And it’s a world so beautiful to look at that it’s impossible to resist the invitation to dive in and explore.
The prospect of three movies at this scale and quality has me thinking for the first time that Star Wars may not always be my favorite science fiction trilogy. That thought alone is high praise. Timothée Chalamet is perfectly on-target as a compelling long-term hero. The idea of a God Emperor of Dune movie featuring a Chalamet whose closer in age to Oscar Isaac in this movie is so cool it’s bone-chilling. But even as one movie, Dune is easily one of the best science fiction movies ever made. And it will be remembered as such for a long time.
The Tragedy of Macbeth
In retrospect, the beauty of The Tragedy of Macbeth is how nicely William Shakespeare’s script fits into Joel Coen’s directorial oeuvre. Coen has built his career on the backs of out-of-touch weirdos who overestimate their potential. This is why Shakespeare’s most infamous tragedy is a perfect match for a director known for delivering on just desserts. Of course, it’s only evident in retrospect. Upon hearing that Joel Coen had directed a Macbeth movie for Apple, many were likely skeptical, to say the least. That is until they saw the results.
The Tragedy of Macbeth is as close to perfect a film as we’re ever likely to see. Coen’s directorial vision is so effectively translated to film that one suspects The Weird Sisters themselves had a hand in it. Coen’s vision is clearly to deliver on the stakes of the narrative while maintaining a visual spectacle that could’ve been staged on the boards of Shakespeare’s Globe. Thus, all the stylistic panache is saved for the cinematography and editing of the film. We’re transported through the film on the wings of ravens, gracefully soaring from one masterful piece of stagecraft to the next.
And at the heart of it all is Denzel Washington, as fine as we’ve ever seen him. Halfway through his first major monologue, I found myself realizing how much fun he was having. And that’s the signature of every truly great Denzel performance. Whether he’s playing a diabolical villain, a lovable hero, or anything in between, Denzel’s at his best when he’s having fun—and watching Macbeth, you can feel how excited Denzel is to be doing Shakespeare on screen again for the first time since 1993.
The reason we remember William Shakespeare above his contemporaries is that his plays were so well-loved by their audiences. His plays, be they comedy, tragedy, or history, left an unmistakable mark on their audience. The same can be said of Joel Coen and Denzel Washington. The result is a definitive screen version of The Tragedy of Macbeth that will go unchallenged for decades to come.
Pig is probably most easily sold as John Wick crossed with First Cow. But it is so much more than that. First-time director Michael Sarnoski crafts a beautiful film about grief that will leave audiences stunned. And he builds that film around Nicholas Cage, who delivers one of the best performances of his career by delivering a disquieting calm that feels like it is ready to break into anarchy at a moment’s notice.
Cage stars in Pig as Robin Feld, a former Portland area celebrity chef who retreated to life as a hermit in the Forests of the Northwest after his wife died. Along with his truffle pig, Rob forages for truffles and sells them to local restaurant supplier Amir. Rob seems to have carved out a good life for himself until his truffle pig is pig-napped one night, forcing him to return to the world he thought he’d left behind for good.
The most critical element of Pig’s success has to be Cage, whose approach to the movie is hauntingly sad. This side of Cage may be troublesome to the audience used to seeing him in the nouveau shamanic mode that has dominated most of his recent performances. But what’s brilliant about Cage’s performance as Robin Feld is that the determined calm he portrays on screen feels like it is obviously stretched over a crunchy chaotic core. And one false move could tear the cover off and unleash the volcano we know every Cage character contains within.
Pig is at its most unforgettable when dealing with the most inexplicable aspect of grief: how it connects to food. Great movies mistreat great food so often that breaking into the Pantheon of Great Food Movies is a feat unto itself. Not only does Pig earn admittance into that noble club. It does so by an intense interrogation of how food can speak to us on an emotional level. And as someone who loves food, it’s something I can say I’ve never seen depicted on film so beautifully.
“One of these things has got to be a” hit eventually, right?”
You know, something for everybody!