Top 10 Movies of 2021

After playing some catch-up in the month of January, I now, finally, feel comfortable to rank the best that 2021 had to offer.

It was definitely good to get back to the theaters more often in the last year, and I’m happy to say that six of my top 10 were seen the big screen.  The variety in 2021 was enjoyable, too, with a great mix of dramas, period pieces and more.

Like in most years, this means some good films didn’t make it in the top 10 slots. So before the rankings, here are my honorable mentions for 2021:

  • “Belfast”
  • “Candyman”
  • “C’mon C’mon”
  • “CODA”
  • “The Green Knight”
  • “In The Heights”
  • “The Lost Daughter”
  • “Nobody”
  • “Parallel Mothers”
  • “Spider-Man: No Way Home”
  • “Till Death”
  • “Together Together”

All of those films were quite good and some were really close to making my Top 10, but here was the list I settled on.

10. “Mass”

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Honestly, the 10th spot was tough to decide on. A lot of the honorable mentions were in the running for the spot. Ultimately, “Mass” won the spot for two reasons.

First, it boasted one of the best ensemble performances of 2021, with four lead actors doing tremendous work. Secondly, few films stuck with me after viewing like “Mass” did.

Touching on one of America’s major issues, mass shootings, “Mass” handles the subject matter well, with an amazing balance of emotion and commentary. The film hits hard and it left me in an emotional, thought-provoking state as the credits rolled. For it’s powerful impact, it gets on the top 10.

9. “The French Dispatch”

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Wes Anderson’s anthology film about a newspaper’s French outlet was another film that had to compete for a top 10 spot. Did it make it because of my bias from having a background in journalism? Maybe.

But it also made it here because it was legitimately a delightful work of art, mixing comedy and drama effectively. In the world of reporting, there are a plethora of interesting characters and stories that prove truth is stranger than fiction.

“French Dispatch” captures this well with a collection of creative stories, bolstered by strong writing and solid acting from award winning/nominated performers. Anderson’s distinct style also helps the film excel.

8. “The Power of the Dog”

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Released on Netflix, “The Power of the Dog” takes some time for it to fully get going, but as more is revealed about the characters, the drama ramps up and the intrigue increases. The result is a unique, thought-provoking drama.

Director and writer Jane Campion does impressive work peeling back the layers of the main character, who’s played phenomenally well by Benedict Cumberbatch. The character’s arc ultimately concludes in a powerful way, bringing everything together full circle.

The supporting cast assists in making the film a fulfilling experience. The ensemble including Jesse Plemons, Kirsten Dunst and Kodi Smit-McPhee are all on point.

7. “Luca”

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Pixar’s “Luca” features a rather familiar, simple story. A group of friends spend much of the movie preparing for a big competition where the story will conclude. “Luca” is elevated immensely, though, by how well the picture is executed.

It’s such a charming experience with a rich emotional impact, thanks to a wonderful cast of characters. Each of the main trio of characters are very likable and their relationships with one another add a ton of value to the picture.

The relationship between the two lead characters, Luca and Alberto, is especially heartwarming and plays well into the themes of acceptance and finding one’s place in the world. The movie is also helped by great supporting characters and beautiful animation.

6. “The Card Counter”

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“The Card Counter” wasn’t the easiest watch of 2021, but it was definitely one of the year’s best. The film’s exploration of redemption, as well as its commentary on the American justice system and actions by the armed forces are superbly woven into a compelling story.

Paul Schrader, who also directed, penned a razor sharp, biting script that hooks an audience in from start to finish. Along with the writing, the film also features wonderful style. One example is how cinematographer Alexander Dynan shot the intense flashback sequences with a wide-angle lens.

Then there’s the acting, with Oscar Isaac giving one of 2021’s best performances. The deep inner turmoil at play with the character, his rage and regret underneath a calm, mysterious demeanor, is brought to life incredibly well by Isaac. The film is also benefited by a solid supporting cast including Willem Dafoe and Tiffany Haddish.

5. “Licorice Pizza”

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“Licorice Pizza” is an exceptionally well made slice of life film with a double character study at play. While it’s fairly simple narrative basically about summer jobs, the film’s focus on its characters, with one in a race to maturity and the other being a young adult who’s aimless, makes it endlessly watchable.

There’s a great mix of humor and drama through “Pizza” from start to finish. The jealousy, love, tension, frustration and admiration in the main relationship makes for a rich cinematic experience.

The film also has subtext touching on capitalism, the shallowness of celebrity status and what the transition to being an adult is like. Of course the film also works thanks to the lead performers Cooper Hoffman and Alana Haim, the latter doing especially great acting.

4. “Nightmare Alley”

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Director Guillermo del Toro brought a noir slowburn with a bountiful amount of suspense, intrigue and drama to theaters in 2021. “Nightmare Alley” is a film with two halves, each complimenting each other, showcasing a compelling rise and fall type of story.

The film is paced well, allowing characters, and their actions, to fully develop, making the twists and turns be felt even more. All of this is done as the themes of greed and human desires constantly loom.

The film does all this with a wonderful aesthetic, full of sharp shadows and stylish lighting, as well as great costume and set design. Credit also has to go to the brilliant ensemble cast, featuring strong performances from Bradley Cooper, Cate Blanchett, Toni Collette, Willem Dafoe, Richard Jenkins and Rooney Mara.

3. “Drive My Car”

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“Drive My Car,” a Japanese picture, is a finely crafted work of art. For three hours, the movie captivates as it explores the human condition.

Loss, grief and resentment are all at play as the film plays out with a great deal of restraint. Both lead characters are reserved because of their past, and the film reflects this with a calm atmosphere.

The cinematography is also on point, with the camera capturing a tranquility which serves as a great backdrop to the evolving mental state of the characters. The movie also boasts top tier acting from its leads.

2. “Pig”

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“Pig” is a wonderfully engrossing film. Not only does it have a unique mystery to hold one’s interest tightly, the movie also features deeply emotional arcs for its characters.

As the main characters try to find out what happened to a truffle-finding pig, their pasts are highlighted, resulting in a touching exploration of grief. In addition to the film’s strong writing, the movie has a rugged grittiness visually, creating a gripping authenticity.

The film likely wouldn’t be this high on the list, though, without the stunning performance by Nicholas Cage. He gives an outstanding performance, one of the best he’s done in his career. His performance is amazingly fine tuned that it pushes the film to top tier status.

1. “Spencer”

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“Spencer is a deeply personal look at the Princess of Wales, putting a spotlight on her relationship with Prince Charles, her eating disorder, how she was as a mother and the anxiety she had in dealing with the royal family. The result is controlled chaos.

The film captures a tumultuous period of time for Diana and does so with incredible attention to detail. Director Pablo Larrain and writer Steven Knight craft an extraordinary picture, including the use of wonderful metaphorical moments, that capture how four walls seemed to be closing in on the princess.

Ultimately, it’s about Diana wanting to break away, and it builds up to a cathartic finale that not only serves as a beautiful way to end the film, but a moving tribute to the real life figure as well. It cannot be overstated how good Kristen Stewart is either, she is absolutely spectacular as Diana, giving a fabulously deep performance.

The greatness is across the board, too. The cinematography is hypnotic, the music is stirring, and the sets feel authentic, as do the costumes.

Author: Matthew Liedke

Journalist and film critic in Minnesota. Graduate of Rainy River College and Minnesota State University in Moorhead. Outside of movies I also enjoy sports, craft beers and the occasional video game.

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