It’s that time again! There are few things a writer in this industry looks forward to more than doing their year end Top Ten list. Even with the sort of unusual year that was 2021, I still saw well over 300 films, making for a list that culls from nearly every corner of the cinematic world. So, I’m, as always, incredibly fond of the movies that make up my Top Ten list. I’m actually very excited to share it with you all today, continuing the Second Annual Awards Radar Awards! In prior years, my favorite film of a given cycle ranged from Blinded by the Light to Hell or High Water. The Disaster Artist to A Star is Born. Blue Valentine to her. Last year, we added Promising Young Woman to the mix. What will join them this time around? Time to find out!
For part two of this awards series (part one is here), we’re going to run down my ten favorite films of 2021. Basically, anything I saw this year, or that has an eligible release date, was in the running, aside from what I considered for my 2020 list. That created quite the list to pull from, though it pretty quickly narrowed down to 25 or 30 movies that were a cut above.
The moment is now at hand. Out of 313 eligible titles seen for me (which, insanely, is one of my lower counters), here are the ten best films of 2021:
10. The Tender Bar
Ben Affleck‘s incredibly endearing acting and George Clooney‘s heartfelt directing make this coming of age story stand out. Cynics need not apply, but those willing to let it into their hearts will be rewarded with something funny, moving, and subtly powerful in The Tender Bar. From my review: “The Tender Bar is about as charming and heartwarming as a movie like this gets. Leave your cynicism at the door and there’s a good chance that this one wins you over. It’s both exactly what you think it is and also something fairly different. Even just for Affleck’s work, this movie is worth seeing. However, for me, the whole package is among my favorite films of the year. Don’t miss it.”
One of the bigger surprises of the year was how much I loved Pig. I’ve been waiting for Nicolas Cage to approach what he did in Leaving Las Vegas for years, and out of nowhere, we have it. This is truly one of the more unique cinematic experiences out there, but as full a meal as it gets. From my review: “Nothing will prepare you for Nicolas Cage and Pig. The title, along with Cage’s presence, may suggest something grimy or weird, but while this film is a little offbeat, it’s also quite simple and emotional. As a showcase for the Academy Award winner, it’s his best in almost two decades. As a character study, it strikes a chord more will relate to than they initially realize. Plus, this is just a wonderful little movie. Once you realize where it’s going, you’ll be hooked. It all builds to an ending that’s magnificent in its simplicity. The range of emotions that you’ll feel here may well leave you stunned. This is, somehow, one of the best flicks that I’ve seen this year.”
The most modern movie of 2021, Zola is a raunchy blast. Outlandish and shocking for some, it’s also a biting satire of where we are currently in the world, unfortunately. My review included this bit: ‘Twitter is a dumpster fire. We’ve all more or less come to that agreement, right? It’s an awful place we still go to out of either a work obligation, morbid curiosity, or a straight up social media addiction. And yet, every so often, something amazing comes out of it. The series of tweets from A’Ziah King is one such example. Now, the film adaptation Zola is another. Using King’s tweets and the Rolling Stone article that followed, what we have here is a ridiculously entertaining road trip dramedy that still presents a scathing social (media) commentary. What we see in this movie isn’t always pretty. In fact, it’s often messy. Sometimes, it’s even downright insane. It’s also quite the statement on where we are in 2021. For all those reasons and more, it’s the class of the cinematic year, so far.”
7. The Suicide Squad
No blockbuster was as much fun as The Suicide Squad. High art, it’s not, but as I said in my review of James Gunn‘s DC epic, it accomplishes its mission as well as anything else this year: “The Suicide Squad, for what it’s doing, is perfect. For as much as Suicide Squad was a misfire, this hits the bullseye. Not only is it absurdly violent and absolutely hilarious, it beats with the heart of a work that truly cares about its characters. I loved every second of it. Gunn’s choices all pay off, even the ones that seem like long-shots (and especially some of them, even). Ambition, confidence, and just a bit of insanity come together to form a masterpiece. When a giant silly thing is phenomenal, as well as a sentient rat (not to mention a man-eating shark) capturing your imagination, you know you’re in for a one of a kind experience.”
Like being hugged for 90 minutes and change, Belfast is about as uplifting an experience as I’ve had this year. Regardless of Oscar praise, this is just a wonderful film. Just look at my Toronto International Film Festival review for more: “Belfast is a beautiful love letter from Kenneth Branagh. He makes the film incredibly singular in its relationship to him/his family, but presents it in a way that everyone can engage with. Branagh fills your heart for 90 minutes, never overstaying its welcome. This is the rare movie that you want to be longer. When it ends, moments after a lovely line about acceptance, you’ll be all smiles (and maybe tears).”
The hardest movie of 2021 to sit through is also one of the most essential. Mass absolutely wrecks you, but in service of a conversation that 100% needs to be had. My Sundance review breaks it down: “Mass may have the bleakest premise imaginable, but it’s not a completely moribund experience. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a serious drama, but it’s handled realistically, not melodramatically. Nothing that happens is beyond what we might have seen in a documentary about the parents of a school shooting situation. Of course, what makes this unique is that one of the two couples had their son commit the acts. That turn of the screw ultimately pays major dividends, too.”
CODA has made me laugh and cry for almost a year now. That kind of line can seem hacky and cliched, but in this case, it’s just apt and true. The very definition of how to make a movie for everyone, it’s brilliantly handled. My review out of Sundance includes the following bit: “CODA is phenomenal. Writer/director Sian Heder is able to mix comedy and drama with aplomb, never once tripping over the cliches of the genre. It’s supremely confident work, from start to finish. Even when the narrative goes to some familiar places, the jokes and the situations are unique. Of course, casting deaf actors and actresses lends an extra bit of honesty and realism to things, though it also makes for some even funnier moments than expected. Who knew that ASL could be used to such comedic benefits?”
3. The Worst Person in the World
One of the true discoveries of 2021 is Renate Reinsve, who just destroys you in The Worst Person in the World. The ultimate romantic comedy, it becomes something far beyond a traditional rom-com. Even just as a character study, it’s suburb. More from my TIFF review: “The Worst Person in the World instantly stands among the best romantic comedies of this recent age. At the same time, even referring to it as one is a disservice, as this is doing something very different. We haven’t seen this protagonist displayed in this manner on screen yet. Meeting her here, you’ll wonder how we went this long without it.”
Kristen Stewart gives the performance of the year in Spencer, absolutely disappearing into the title role. She deserves the Academy Award for Best Actress, but even that seems like too small a bit of praise. Pablo Larrain‘s challenging flick is perfect and perfectly stirring, down to the most earned ending of 2021. This is part of my rave review from TIFF: “Spencer is not your garden variety biopic. Instead, it’s a self-contained, somewhat fictionalized, and deeply impressionistic look at Diana, Princess of Wales. In some ways, it functions as a ghost story. Presented her as a fable about a real life tragedy, it very much plays that way. Those seeking traditional historical fiction will be disappointed (The Crown, this is not), but something unsettlingly perfect emerges instead.”
1. Red Rocket
The cream of the 2021 crop is Red Rocket, a cruise missile targeted at directly what makes cinema such an essential part of life. From Simon Rex‘s performance to the writing and direction, it is all literally pitch perfect for this wild ride. My NYFF rave review tries to sum it up: “I’m so delighted that storytellers like Sean Baker and Chris Bergoch exist. Truly, they’re cinematic savants, able to find brilliant tales set within society’s fringes. If there’s a person who no one else would think of making a film about, Baker and Bergoch are almost guaranteed to find the beauty and the heartbreak in their situation. Red Rocket is yet another example of this. In fact, they’ve found riotous comedy in a situation almost no one else would play for laughs, while retaining all of their trademark heart. Playing at the 59th New York Film Festival, Red Rocket is not just the best of the fest, but one of the crowning achievements of 2021. All hail these slightly demented geniuses.”
Stay tuned for Part Three tomorrow, where you’ll see my full awards for 2021!