The Best Movies of 2021 — And the Worst!
Posted on December 30, 2021 at 10:03 am
I see no need to limit myself to a top ten or to try to rank the very different movies that I most loved (or hated) this year. So here is my list of the best and worst movies I saw in 2021. I did not expect to have four black and white movies on my list, but all were outstanding and gorgeously filmed. And as always I am especially happy to include a number of films from first-time writers, directors, and actors who made unforgettable debuts this year. The final item on my alphabetical list includes both newcomers and two of the most accomplished and lauded filmmakers in Hollywood.
Belfast — Sir Kenneth Branagh’s loving autobiographical film about his family when he was 8 and the Troubles were getting more intense in Northern Ireland.
The Card Counter — Oscar Isaac and Tiffany Haddish are brilliant in this story of a veteran struggling with PTSD and devastating guilt who makes a living at casinos.
C’mon C’mon — The best depiction of the constant terror, exhilaration, exhaustion, and overpowering love of being a parent, with a career-best performance by Joaquin Phoenix, matched by Woody Norman as the child he has to care for while his mother is away.
Coda — A heartwarming story of the hearing daughter of Deaf parents who wants to sing but feels obligated to help in her family’s business, with a luminous performances by Emilia Jones.
Come From Away — The heartwarming hit Broadway musical about the small Canadian town that took in the frightened international passengers from planes re-routed on 9/11 is filmed as a stage play.
Count Me In — Rock and roll drummers tell their stories in one of the most joyous documentaries of the year.
Cyrano — Peter Dinklage stars as the classic character who writes letters to the woman he loves on behalf of the handsome soldier she thinks she loves in this beautifully performed musical based the same classic play that inspired Steve Martin’s “Roxanne.”
Don’t Look Up — The most savage satire since “Dr. Strangelove” has an all-star cast: Meryl Streep, Leonardo DiCaprio, Jennifer Lawrence, Timothee Chalamet, Jonah Hill, Rob Morgan, Mark Rylance, Ariana Grande, Cate Blanchett, and Tyler Perry in a wild story about science vs. anti-science and our ability to recognize and solve problems. Stay through the credits for two extra scenes.
Encanto — A girl who thinks she is the only one without magical powers in her family learns that only she has what it takes to save the day in this animated Disney musical with songs by Lin-Manuel Miranda.
The Green Knight — Don’t expect to understand it all or know what it means, but do expect to be enthralled by this classic story of a callow nobleman (well-played by the ever-talented Dev Patel) on a mysterious quest.
In the Heights — Lin-Manuel Miranda’s award-winning musical before “Hamilton” about his neighborhood is brought to the screen with joyful and touching music and dance.
Mass — Two couples meet in a church basement to talk about the tragedy that connects them. One couple are the parents of a child killed in a school shooting. The other are the parents of the shooter, who also died that day. Four brilliant actors and first-time writer/director Fran Kranz’s outstanding work make this film deeply moving and even hopeful.
Nine Days — Winston Duke and Zazie Beetz head a superb cast in first-time writer/director Edson Oda’s stirring film about souls hoping for the infinite privilege of being born into lives on Earth. The most powerful ending scene of the year.
The Outside Story — I loved every minute of this film from another first-time writer/director, Casimir Nozkowski. A somewhat reclusive video editor who creates memorial tributes for Turner Classic Movies is locked out of his apartment. Brian Tyree Henry is perfect in the role, and each encounter he has — from the person he blames for his break-up to the girl who lends him a charger and the cop who is writing a ticket — is a perfectly constructed and performed gem. They may seem random but they all come together at the end.
Passing — Actor Rebecca Hall is also a first-time writer-director in this exquisitely filmed story of two Black women, once friends, who meet after a long separation as one learns that the other has been passing as white, married to a racist white man. Tessa Thompson, Ruth Negga, and Andre Holland give performances of quiet delicacy that enhance the emotional power of the story.
Raya and the Last Dragon — A brave girl goes in search of a dragon (Awkafina, in the best voice performance of the year) in this exciting and heartwarming animated adventure.
Schmigadoon — It’s a series, not a movie, but I could not leave out this hilarious love letter to classic Broadway musicals with an all-star cast led by Cecily Strong and Keegan-Michael Key, with Ariana DeBose (Anita in “West Side Story”), Kristin Chenoweth, Alan Cumming, Ariana DeBose, Ann Harada, Jane Krakowski, and Aaron Tveit.
Summer of Soul — Pure joy, and a powerful lesson in history and how it is told. Questlove assembled footage that had been sitting in a basement for half a century into the year’s best documentary, about a series of concerts in Harlem in 1969 featuring everyone from Stevie Wonder, Gladys Knight, the Staples Singers, the Fifth Dimension, to Mahalia Jackson.
The Tender Bar — An uneven film, based on the autobiography of a man whose lessons in masculinity came from the denizens of the local bar, is grounded in Ben Affleck’s best performance in years.
tick…tick…Boom! — Lin-Manuel Miranda directed Andrew Garfield in a story based on the early work of Jonathan Larson, who wrote “Rent” and died the day before it opened. Garfield was awarded the Best Actor prize from the Washington DC film critics for his outstanding performance.
The Tragedy of Macbeth — Denzel Washington and Frances McDormand play Shakespeare’s most murderous couple, directed by Joel Coen, with stunning black and white cinematography and an outstanding cast.
West Side Story — Screenwriter Tony Kushner and director Steven Spielberg have taken one of the best-known and most-awarded works and made it even more powerful. Ariana DeBose as Anita, Mike Feist as Riff, and Rita Moreno, who won an Oscar for her role as Anita in the original film, in a new role here, give performances that capture the most intimate details and the most powerful emotions.
The Little Things — I had to invoke my famous Gothika rule for this dumb serial killer story that works well for the first half and then goes completely bonkers.
Tom and Jerry — Why make a live action Tom and Jerry movie? And why make the non-animated part so boring?
Stillwater — Gothika rule again. The premise came from the true story of an American student imprisoned in Europe for murdering her roommate but the nonsensical storyline did not.
Lady of the Manor I gave a zero star review to this terrible film that combines wasting the talented cast with a disgusting white savior theme.
The King’s Man — The first two films were cheeky fun. This prequel is a dumb, dull, dud.
Shiva Baby — Yes, it turned up on a lot of “ten best” lists this year. But I hate cringe comedy and found this movie filled with appalling caricatures of its Jewish characters, with the exception of the always-terrific Molly Gordon.