Now that 2021 is over, we can safely say that the world is slightly more normal than it was last year. We still haven’t completely returned to normalcy, but for most people, things are looking up. There’s a lot to be thankful for, and even though cinema might be low on a lot of people’s lists, it was still great to return to the movie theater after so long.
Moviegoers had it great this year. Not only did most major theaters reopen, we also got to see so many of the movies that had their release dates pushed forward. Some of those movies made it onto this list, while others, like The Green Knight, No Time to Die, and Last Night in Soho, deserve a shoutout even though they didn’t make the cut.
This best-of-the-year list isn’t entirely composed of hand-me-downs though. You’ll find a wide array of feature films below. The only thing they have in common is their quality. Each of the twenty entries below have earned their place simply because they’re phenomenal experiences.
Since a documentary list is on the horizon, this list will only cover narrative films. That explains why you won’t be seeing acclaimed documentaries like Flee, Summer of Soul, and In the Same Breath. These films absolutely deserve to be included in any end-of-the-year discussions, but they don’t fit the criteria of this particular article.
The twenty films below, however, do fit the criteria, and just like the aforementioned documentaries, they practically beg viewers to analyze and discuss. That’s why they’ve earned a spot.
Kenneth Branagh has directed countless literary adaptations, ranging from Hamlet to Artemis Fowl. Dismissing some occasional misfires, Branagh tends to be a well-regarded director, but he also tends to be a relatively predictable director. Thankfully, the release of Belfast proves that he is more than capable of moving in new directions.
Nobody will mistake Belfast for arthouse cinema. It’s not like it’s a radical leap forward in cinematic storytelling. Rather, it’s a movie that pushes a well-regarded director into unfamiliar territory. We get to watch Branagh escape his comfort zone, and this ultimately results in his best film in over a decade.
It’s more than just a change of scenery that allows Belfast to stand out. Given the autobiographical nature of the script, it’s also Branagh’s most personal film to date. This is clearly a story that means the world to him, and you can see the passion that went into this project.
This passion is the driving force behind the film’s quality. Since the director is retelling events from his personal life, there seems to be noticeable sincerity and zeal. This all adds up to Branagh’s crowning achievement.
19. The Card Counter
Paul Schrader has never been interested in fast-paced action or propulsive drama. His films have always been slow, methodical character studies. Naturally, this has consistently alienated certain viewers. Even when he’s at his best, as was the case with First Reformed, people will find faults with his methodology.
This doesn’t change with The Card Counter. As usual, Schrader isn’t particularly interested in constructing an intricate narrative. His story is simple; it’s about a broken character on the hunt for meaning. William Tell, played by Oscar Isaac, has a lot to atone for when he’s released from military prison. This search for self-acceptance pushes the narrative forward.
Basically, your tolerance for this film largely depends on your ability to hone in on a character who’s hard to relate to and even harder to like. William Tell’s personal tragedies will not be enough to satiate some people, but there is an audience here. Schrader has crafted a weighty tale about a fascinating character who lacks the charisma of so many of our favorite heroes. Your mileage will vary, but if you can remain invested, you’ll likely find something that resonates.
18. Shiva Baby
Emma Seligman’s directorial debut is the anxiety-inducing Jewish comedy nobody knew they needed. In spite of a seemingly shallow premise, Shiva Baby sores thanks in large part to stylistic choices that feel completely innovative compared to so many other contemporary comedies. As such, it’s best to ignore any preconceived notions that might bubble up following a quick glance at the many humdrum plot synopses scattered throughout the internet.
Excuse the cliché, but Shiva Baby has to be seen to be believed. The basic set-up revolves around a Jewish woman who is forced to avoid her sugar daddy after an unfortunate encounter at a Jewish funeral service. It sounds like harmless fun, but it’s not that simple. Although the storytelling is rather predictable, nothing can prepare you for the idiosyncratic tone that permeates throughout this film.
Shiva Baby fits the blanket definition of comedy; it is entertainment intended to make people laugh. However, it also experiments with elements of horror because of its frantic editing and eerie score. It will almost certainly make you laugh, but the tense atmosphere is liable to make you bite your nails and cover your eyes. It’s hard to think of anything else like it, and that’s part of the reason why it remains so memorable months after its release.
Of course, films can’t get by on originality alone. They need standout craftsmanship as well, and luckily, Shiva Baby has that in abundance. No matter what you choose to scrutinize, everything comes together so well here. Seligman’s direction is second to none, and Rachel Sennott’s performance further elevates the material. This ultimately leaves us with something that’s both impeccably designed and wholly unique.
When CODA debuted at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival, it caused an absolute frenzy. Winning the U.S. Grand Jury Prize was just the beginning. It also broke festival records when it was picked up by Apple for $25 million. Now, almost a full year after its Sundance debut, people are still talking about it like it came out yesterday. It’s quietly picking up awards season steam, and honestly, a Best Picture nomination isn’t out of the question at this point. So what is it about this movie that appeals to so many people?
Honestly, it just makes people feel good. CODA isn’t a genre-defying arthouse drama or a psychological character study; it’s just a well-made coming-of-age story about a teenager trying to live her life the way she wants to.
Ruby Rossi, the protagonist, is a child of deaf adults. Her mother, father, and brother are all considered culturally deaf. Because of this, she has to make personal sacrifices in order to help her family function in the real world. Unfortunately, this means that she can’t grow up on her own terms. When she realizes this, she tries to prove to her family that she needs to live her own life.
Aside from the inclusion of deaf characters, CODA never attempts to reinvent the coming-of-age wheel. There are no jaw-dropping twists or profound revelations. Most viewers will know exactly where things are headed, but the execution does more than enough to keep this movie afloat. CODA is such a heart-warming story with such likable characters, it’s easy to forgive its formulaic nature. That’s precisely why it has resonated with so many people.
It all started with a series of tweets. Back in 2015, A’Ziah-Monae “Zola” King famously sent out 148 tweets describing her run-in with a “white bitch at Hooters.” It gained traction quickly, thanks in large part to a Rolling Stone article that outlined each and every juicy detail. While King admits to embellishing certain details, the overarching story remains true. One unfortunate encounter led to a life-threatening trip to Florida that involved violence, betrayal, and human trafficking.
The Twitter thread absolutely deserves to be seen, but the big-screen adaptation serves as a perfect companion piece. Zola, the darkly comedic retelling of King’s infamous story, takes all of the humor and soul from the tweets and translates it into a different medium. Thanks to a sharp script and superb cast, this movie justifies its existence and then some.
That’s particularly important because it’s hard to get on board with a movie based on social media posts. It shouldn’t work, but it’s hard not to be charmed by Taylour Paige’s charismatic performance. When this is paired with engrossing writing, you end up with something that defies expectations. Zola will burrow its way into your brain and stay there for days.
15. The Humans
The Humans is one of several movies on this list that takes something mundane and makes it compelling. On the surface, it’s a movie about a family gathering for Thanksgiving dinner. In reality, it’s a pseudo-horror movie about poverty and the struggles of the modern family. Director Stephen Karam takes his own one-act play and turns it into an unsettling nightmare that cleverly makes use of cinema as a storytelling device.
In the film, we’re immediately introduced to Brigid and Richard, a young couple who decide to host Thanksgiving dinner at their run-down NYC apartment. Brigid’s family, which includes her parents, sister, and grandmother, are the guests of honor. They intend to have an easy-going dinner, but it’s quickly made clear that will not happen. Tensions rise, conversations get awkward, and Thanksgiving dinner turns into an unmitigated disaster.
Karam’s direction helps push this film into uncharted territory. The family drama is certainly captivating, but that’s only one piece of the puzzle. The decision to create an atmosphere of outright horror really pushes the film forward. If you think the dialogue is stressful, wait until you encounter your first jump scare.
Although The Humans isn’t a horror film in the traditional sense, it often plays out like one. In an effort to keep tensions high, Karam and his crew make an active effort to catch viewers off guard whenever possible. This kind of unpredictability works in conjunction with an immensely talented cast, resulting in a movie that’s bound to keep the average viewer invested.
14. Little Fish
In Little Fish, viewers meet Emma and Jude, a couple who, like all of us, are living through a pandemic. However, this particular pandemic is a little different than our own. In their world, there is a widespread virus that wipes people’s memories regardless of age, gender, or geographic location. Little is known about the virus, and as such, there is no cure. It can happen gradually or all-at-once, and it can completely upend those who are affected by it.
As optimistic as the young couple tries to be, things go sour when Jude begins exhibiting symptoms. Is there room for love when you know your other half will soon forget everything about you? Little Fish seeks to answer those questions in a timely (albeit melancholic) sci-fi drama.
Although the relation to COVID-19 is strictly coincidental, Little Fish couldn’t have come out at a better time. It’s obvious that this fictional virus is deadlier than the coronavirus disease, but that doesn’t mean it’s incapable of helping viewers come to terms with what has been happening around the world for nearly two years. Although Little Fish tells a tragic story, it’s also therapeutic in its own way.
Even if we ignore the real world parallels, this remains a moving motion picture about love in times of tragedy. Chad Hartigan takes Mattson Tomlin’s compelling screenplay and weaves it into something special. Even with so many behemoth releases this year, Little Fish has earned its spot on this list without breaking a sweat.
13. Bergman Island
Mia Hansen-Løve isn’t exactly known for grandiose cinematic epics. Her films have always been quiet, contemplative, and modest in scale. This approach to filmmaking has allowed her to carve out a niche that has led to consistent critical acclaim. Her latest effort, Bergman Island, doesn’t make an effort to break free from this distinctive style. On the contrary, it feels like a natural evolution. She doubles down on the things that have worked throughout her career, and this allows her to deliver her greatest accomplishment to date.
It tells the story of two filmmakers who travel to Fårö, an island in the Baltic Sea that has become a popular tourist destination among cinephiles. Fårö was the home of Ingmar Bergman, one of the most prolific directors of any generation. Chris and Tony Sanders, the aforementioned filmmakers, are visiting as part of a residency program that would, in theory, help them with their upcoming projects.
Throughout the first third of the movie, the audience learns a few important things about the relationship between Chris and Tony. Tony is far and away the more successful filmmaker of the two. However, his success comes at a cost. Much like the titular director who once inhabited the island, Tony is far too concerned with his career to adequately care for the people around him. This results in a divide between the two protagonists, and this divide helps Chris develop a story of her own.
Basically, the drama between Chris and Tony functions as one half of Bergman Island. The other half revolves around a film-within-a-film that focuses on a very similar young filmmaker. Throughout the duration of Bergman Island, Chris crafts an ambitious screenplay about a young woman who struggles to find the right balance between the various aspects of her life.
Although the film doesn’t spell it out for you, it’s easy to understand why this metanarrative is featured. The two pieces meld together effortlessly, giving viewers a surprisingly cohesive drama that touches on a number of nuanced themes. A little bit of patience may be required in order to appreciate the many minute details, but that shouldn’t be a barrier to entry. This is a must-see for any film-lover.
12. The Last Duel
The Last Duel’s box office shortcomings are no secret. Ridley Scott’s $100 million historical drama managed to pull in a measly $30 million worldwide. This eventually led to poor word-of-mouth, especially after Scott tried to place the blame on millennials. Now, several months later, The Last Duel is mostly a punchline.
In reality, it’s so much more than a financial failure. It’s a visually impressive historical epic that feels particularly relevant in a post-MeToo era. You can rag on the questionable wigs and lengthy runtime, but these flaws are minor compared to the things that are done well.
The Rashomon-like framing device adds extra layers to an already dense story. Since every perspective is so different, the film avoids coming off as repetitive. In fact, it brings new life to a story we’ve seen before. On top of that, well-choreographed battles add a necessary sense of scale to an already ambitious movie. Box office failure be damned, The Last Duel rocks.
11. C’mon C’mon
If you’ve ever seen a Mike Mills movie, you know what to expect with C’mon C’mon. It’s a very simple, very human drama that flows naturally from one point to another. It never overcomplicates things because that would detract from the relationship between the characters.
This relationship is the heart and soul of the movie. Joaquin Phoenix and Woody Norman, who play an uncle and nephew respectively, form a bond over the course of one hour and forty-eight minutes. There are other things happening, but this bond is the glue that holds everything together.
Luckily, the connection between the two characters is sickeningly sweet in all the right ways. While C’mon C’mon isn’t exactly a crowd pleaser, it is an emotionally resonant drama with great writing and an even greater ensemble. It doesn’t break new ground, but it succeeds regardless.