2021 ended up being a terrific year for movies. There were a lot of great films debuting on streamers, and it marked a bit of a return to seeing movies on the big screen (albeit masked, vaxxed, and hopefully distanced). While we’re already a month into 2022, in my opinion, if you don’t live in New York or L.A., then you are allowed to take the first month of the new year to catch up on movies you missed or are just being released wide. Nevertheless, I am still waiting on the releases of some films that I will probably love and could’ve made this list, mainly “Cyrano,” “Petite Maman,” and “The Worst Person in the World.” Additionally, due to the eligibility period of last year’s Oscars, some 2021 films were disqualified from my list, most notably “Barb & Star Go to Vista Del Mar,” a terrific and weird comedy that came out at the tail end of last year’s Oscar eligibility but otherwise would’ve been close to making this list. I’m also not including perhaps the best piece of media I saw in 2021, “Bo Burnham: Inside,” which I’ve consistently returned to and has stuck with me with both its humor and its profound relatability in regards to isolation and depression. I really loved a lot of films this year so narrowing it down to ten was a challenge, but I feel like I came up with a list that paints a complete picture of everything I love about movies.
My honorable mentions (in alphabetical order) are: “Bergman Island,” “C’mon C’mon,” “The Humans,” “The Last Duel,” “Memoria,” “The Souvenir Part II,” “The Sparks Brothers,” “The Velvet Underground,” “West Side Story,” and “Zola.”
“Titane” was easily the hardest film to place on this list. A film that got under my skin like a titanium plate in my skull, there are moments of this film and the slow mutilation of Alexia’s body throughout the second half of the film that had me sick to my stomach and my heart racing. I wanted to leave, this movie tapping into some primal feeling that I wanted no part of. In many ways, I wonder if I can ever watch it again. And yet, it is also so beautiful and moving that, at times, it moved me to tears. Julia Ducournau’s direction is incredible, with some of the year’s best cinematography. I absolutely loved the use of music throughout, and Agathe Rousselle and Vincent London give two of the most fearless and raw performances you’ll ever see. It is also quite funny at times, and the first act gorefest that caused some viewers to throw up or pass out left me mesmerized and thrilled. In some ways, this may be the best film of the year, but I placed it here because there are nine films I love more and will definitely rewatch more, but I had to include this and the effect it had on me.
Movies about chefs and the art of cooking are my weakness. I come from a family of foodies and restaurant and cooking fanatics. My dad is a chef and owned a restaurant for twenty years, making him a staple of the community, and a hometown legend, so many aspects of “Pig” rang true and hit a nerve that felt very personal to aspects of my own life. It features terrific direction from Michael Sarnoski (my favorite directorial debut of the year), with great cinematography that always features unique framing and camera choices. It is a tight story told in its 92 minutes that still manages to hold weight and have a lot of heart and emotion. I loved the performances by Nicolas Cage and Alex Wolff, playing very different types of men that ultimately come together quite beautifully. It is also just a film that features some of the best sequences and lines of the year. I didn’t catch this film until long after its release, but it became one of my most rewarding watches of 2021.
8. THE MATRIX RESURRECTIONS
2021 was the year I finally got into action movies, and December 2021 into January 2022 was the season I finally saw and fell in love with the “Matrix” franchise (yes, even the sequels). As much as I loved the action and sci-fi of the series, the thing that always stuck with me about these films and what always moved me about them was the love story between Neo and Trinity. This series was always a love story, and “The Matrix Resurrections” fulfills that spectacularly. I sobbed through a lot of this film and didn’t want it to end. Keanu Reeves and Carrie-Anne Moss are terrific at reprising these roles, notably Moss, as this film allows the character of Trinity to come into her own and be taken seriously as powerful in her own right. Outside of the love story, I was really taken with the bold chances this took with its unique storytelling and commentary on the legacy of “The Matrix.” I had no idea what to expect with this film, and yet it feels like the only way you could go back to this franchise (and move forward). Lana Wachowski rules, and I will not stand for any hate on this killer film. Oh, and Jonathan Groff is also great in his juicy supporting role.
7. RED ROCKET
I’m a big fan of director Sean Baker’s work; the empathy he has for his characters, the honest portrayals of genuine people and situations, their vibrant look. But with “Red Rocket,” it’s just a hilarious, entertaining ride. Maybe the most fun I had in a theater this year. Simon Rex is a bombastic charismatic car-crash of a man, giving perhaps the performance of the year. The film’s 16mm look and bright color palette really stand out, and the use of “Bye Bye Bye” by NSYNC as a musical motif is just perfection. In some films, there are intellectual or poignant reasons as to why I love them, but with this, I just had a really great time watching it and cannot wait to see it again and again.
6. THE POWER OF THE DOG
“The Power of the Dog” features masterful filmmaking and storytelling from Jane Campion. A deliberately paced look at masculinity, this film unfolds like a delicious puzzle with an ending that recontextualizes the whole film, making a second watch all the more fulfilling. The performances by Benedict Cumberbatch, Kirsten Dunst, and Kodi Smit-McPhee are all awards-worthy, and it features a powerful score by the always-fantastic Jonny Greenwood. It was a film that really stuck with me after my first viewing, with many moments, lines, and glances never leaving my mind. What else can be said about this film that hasn’t been already?
I love this big, weird movie. I’m a BIG fan of Denis Villeneuve’s films that I’ve seen so far, and “Dune” was no exception. I was shocked and awed by the spectacle of it all, thoroughly engaged and never bored. I enjoyed the killer action and the weirder, idiosyncratic elements. I thought the ensemble was great, as well as the various crafts (cinematography, score, costume design, production design, makeup, etc.). It’s somehow both quotable and entertaining while also being more experimental and subversive (likely a product of the source material)—a top-to-bottom great blockbuster production. I’m so happy it was a hit, and I’m really looking forward to Part 2!
Now, this is MY movie! I love Leos Carax, I love Sparks, I love Adam Driver, so I felt tailor-made for “Annette,” and I immediately fell in love with it. The opening with “So May We Start” is my favorite sequence in a movie this year and my favorite opening to a film since “La La Land.” And the film keeps building from there. I laughed, I cried; it is pure cinema and maximalist filmmaking at its finest, coming across like an homage to movie musicals like “Tommy” and “Phantom of the Paradise” (two films I adore). Driver gives one of his best performances, while Simon Helberg really surprised me in a supporting turn I did not expect. It is a weird movie and certainly not for everyone, but I couldn’t help but love it. It feels made for me.
3. DRIVE MY CAR
I was really taken aback by “Drive My Car.” I did not expect the three-hour Japanese film to be the one I didn’t want to end, but the runtime flew by, and I fell in love with these characters and was so invested in their lives (all giving great performances). I was moved to tears numerous times, sometimes seemingly for no reason at all. It is my favorite screenplay of the year, both for its terrific and compelling dialogue and for how it tackled the film’s numerous themes, particularly that of grief, guilt, and connection. It also features beautiful and striking cinematography. I saw this film because I felt like I had to and was a little worried that I would regret it as I was going out of my way to see it, but it ended up moving me so much and is easily one of the best films of the year.
I feel like I’m taking crazy pills when I see the lukewarm or negative reactions to this movie and its lack of award nominations because, for my money, “Spencer” is easily one of the best films of the year. It features my favorite cinematography, my favorite score (once again by Jonny Greenwood), and my favorite lead actress performance from Kristen Stewart. I loved the weirder, more subversive scenes (the pearls, the Anne Boleyn imagery, etc.) and enjoyed the film’s veering into horror at times with homages to films like “The Shining” and “Rosemary’s Baby.” The overall film also reminded me a lot of “Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me” at times, though unclear if that was necessarily planned or intentional. I thought the use of montage in the third act was really moving, and the pure cathartic joy of the ending totally wrecked me. However, the thing I gravitate to most about this film is its portrayal of Diana’s struggle with mental illness and self-harm, which I found incredibly relatable on a personal level. The genuine pain, hopelessness, and shame that go along with all that felt all too familiar, and I appreciate this film for highlighting that aspect of her life so honestly.
1. LICORICE PIZZA
From the moment I saw the trailer for this film (the “Life on Mars?” music cue, the editing, the imagery), I knew this would be my favorite film of the year. Paul Thomas Anderson is my favorite working filmmaker, and with “Licorice Pizza,” he has another winner and probably his funniest film yet. There are so many memorable scenes and moments that will continue to stick with me. You won’t find better characters in a movie this year than Gary and Alana, performed flawlessly by Cooper Hoffmann and Alana Haim in all-star debuts. The entire ensemble cast is terrific, with everyone fitting perfectly into this world. I loved the bright and classic-looking cinematography and the era-specific soundtrack. It felt like watching a 70s classic for the first time, something in the vein of Robert Altman or Hal Ashby. It felt like all my favorite elements and aesthetics put together and a joy to watch. Beyond that, I found Alana to be a really relatable character as someone also in their mid-twenties and feeling kind of lost and directionless. When I was a teenager, I wanted so badly to grow up, to be done with school and out of my hometown, and now, reaching my mid-twenties and still feeling like my life hasn’t really started, I find myself nostalgic about my teenage years and wonder how I could’ve done it differently. This film is entertaining and fun, but it also taps into something very relatable and personal, which is why it’s my favorite film of 2021.
What do you think of my list? Let us know what you think in the comments section below or on our Twitter account. Be on the lookout for more of our Top 10’s for 2021 and check out our Editor In Chief Matt Neglia’s Top 10 list here, along with Josh Parham, Daniel Howat, Tom O’Brien, and Eve O’Dea’s lists here, here, here, and here, respectively. The annual NBP Film Community Award nominations ballot went out yesterday and can be voted on here.
You can follow Casey and hear more of her thoughts on the Oscars and Film on Twitter at @CaseyLeeClark