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  • Saxon Whitehead

Top 10 Films of 2021

Updated: Jan 23



2021 was a surprisingly great year for movies, which was much needed after the less than stellar output that 2020 had to offer as a result of the pandemic. This year saw a return to cinemas, films slated for the previous year finally getting released, and a wide variety of stories being told. From big-budget blockbusters to intimate indies, this year had no shortage of excellent films. This made it extremely difficult to lock down my top 10 for the year, as there were so many films that I saw and liked quite a bit. As of the time of writing, I managed to watch 101 movies that were released in 2021. There were a handful that I haven't caught up with yet, but I will likely watch them as soon as I can. Out of the ones I did manage to see, I had a hard time figuring out just which ones would make my top 10. I did a lot of shuffling and went back and forth on a few of these films, but I feel confident about my final placement of them. Every film in my top 10 has managed to stick with me since I saw them, and I am happy to finally be able to share my list with you all.


Before I get into my official top 10, here are some of the year's most acclaimed films that I still haven't seen yet, and therefore will not be on my list:

Drive My Car, The Worst Person in the World, The Last Duel, Memoria, The Tragedy of Macbeth, Lamb, Flee, and Cyrano.


I also have some Honorable Mentions that just barely missed the cut, but I still wanted to spotlight here:

Mass, Zola, Red Rocket, Nightmare Alley, Little Fish, Judas and the Black Messiah, Spencer, The Card Counter, Petite Maman, Shiva Baby, and Last Night in Soho.


And now, my top 10 films of 2021:


10. The French Dispatch


I'm usually not one for anthology films, but Wes Anderson managed to make one that pleasantly surprised me. Anderson has long been one of my favorite filmmakers, and this didn't disappoint. The French Dispatch sees him somehow both going all-in on his distinct style, but also taking some risks, primarily in the film's narrative structure. While the film does fall into some of the pitfalls of most anthology films, Anderson uses the framing device of these stories being articles from a newspaper exceptionally well, and allows the stories being told to coalesce in a beautiful way. While some segments are stronger than others, the entire film is such a loving portrayal of what it means to create something, and results in one of Anderson's more insightful films to date. It is also another visual feast from him, as the cinematography and production design create a distinct world for each story, and makes for a gorgeous viewing experience. Some might be put off by the film's disjointed nature, but somehow, the pieces really clicked for me, and I am so glad that they did.


9. Dune


2021 was a fairly decent year for blockbusters, but none of them hit me like Dune did. It might have helped that I had read Frank Herbert's original novel before I saw it, as it allowed me to have a slightly better understanding of the film's narrative. I was also just satisfied that Dune was finally able to make the leap from the page to the screen with an adaptation that is as expansive and detailed as its source material. I can't help but be excited about the potential that the next installments in the franchise have, given how taken I was watching this in the theater. The sheer spectacle of it impressed me, and I felt that the cast did the characters justice, especially Rebecca Ferguson. Time will tell if Dune will have as lasting of an impact as other big-budget franchises, but it definitely left a mark on me. This is easily one of the best sci-fi films I've seen in recent years, and one of my favorite movie-going experiences of 2021.


8. C'mon, C'mon


C'mon, C'mon is one of those films that feels like a warm hug. It is a calm, inviting film that has lingered with me since I watched it. There is something so sweet and thoughtful about the way that Mike Mills explores human relationships, and this film in particular really focuses on this with Joaquin Phoenix and Woody Norman's characters. Phoenix gives a rather naturalistic performance, and really stunned me with the subtle, yet affecting choices he makes. Norman also gives one of the best performances of the year as Phoenix's precocious nephew, and just might be one of the best performances from a young actor I've ever seen. The two are fantastic together, and truly moved me several times throughout the film. On the surface, it seems like the film has a simple premise, but underneath that, it has so much emotional depth. I can't recall the last time a film moved me the way this one did. It's one of the most touching films I've seen in a long time, and one that I have been itching to revisit since I finished watching it.


7. Pig


What might appear to be a John Wick-esque revenge thriller is actually a meditation on loss and isolation that managed to be one of the year's biggest surprises for me. I would have never expected a Nicolas Cage-starring movie where he is searching for his kidnapped truffle-hunting pig would make me as emotional as this film did. Cage gives one of his best performances here as a reclusive truffle-hunter, and he is simply magnetic here. It's one of his quieter performances, but it is also one of his most engrossing. On top of that, the film is an incredible directorial debut from Michael Sarnoski, and is impeccably shot. It also features one of my favorite scenes of the year from any film, that being a scene in a diner where Nicolas Cage sees an old colleague. It's arguably the scene where all aspects of it, acting, writing, direction, cinematography, etc. come together immaculately. The film as a whole is such a beautiful exploration of grief, and is one I hope more people will catch up with soon. I never would have expected this film to be as resonant as it is, but I was pleasantly surprised. Pig is arguably the film that managed to defy my expectations the most in 2021, and I am so glad that it did.


6. West Side Story


Bringing a new version of a beloved musical like West Side Story to the big screen sounds like a fool's errand, yet Steven Spielberg managed to absolutely knock it out of the park. The changes it makes from both the original musical and the 1961 classic film adaptation help make it more timely, and allows certain elements to take on new meanings. In addition to that, the sheer craft on display is breathtaking. Janusz Kaminski's camerawork is stunning, and the production design is so detailed and captures 1950s New York so well. The musical numbers are also phenomenal, with excellent choreography and singing from its incredible cast. Specifically, Rachel Zegler, Ariana DeBose, David Alvarez, Mike Faist, and the legendary Rita Moreno all do fantastic work, and help take this film to the next level. There is so much talent involved with this film, and it shows all throughout it. This may be Spielberg's first musical, but he handles it masterfully. This version of West Side Story is one of the best movie musicals of the past several years, and one of Spielberg's best films in years.


5. The Green Knight


There was a time where I thought The Green Knight would end up being my favorite film of the year, which only speaks to how incredible the other four films ahead of it are. David Lowery's retelling of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is a visually stunning journey that explores cowardice and chivalry with such profundity. While Lowery's script and direction are partially to thank for this, it's Dev Patel's central performance that really drives it home. This is easily his best work to date, and he embodies Gawain with a mix of bravado and fear that gives him so much depth. While the film itself borrows a lot from Arthurian lore, it truly feels like a singular work from Lowery, as it allows him to dig into the weighty themes at the core of the original tale. Much like his other work, this is slower and more meditative, but there is so much intrigue woven throughout it that it kept me hooked from beginning to end. This is one of those films that reels you in slowly, and keeps you invested. It builds up so nicely, and features one of my favorite endings of any movie from 2021. This film is a true masterpiece for Lowery, and just might be one of my favorite medieval films I've ever seen.


4. The Power of the Dog


Jane Campion's first film in 12 years ended up being a welcome return for her, as The Power of the Dog sees her making a western in a way only she can. She explores masculinity and power dynamics through the lens of the waning years of the wild west, and gives the audience so much to chew on. This film impressed me when I watched it, but it has only grown on me even more since then. Campion's screenplay is one of her best ever, and has such great structure, clearly defined characters, and wrestles with some interesting concepts. It also features some of the best performances of the year from Benedict Cumberbatch, Kirsten Dunst, and Kodi Smit-McPhee, all of whom deserve to get Oscar nods for their work here. This film is rather understated, but it thrives because of it. Campion uses the slower, quieter nature of the film to build tension, and also to bring everything together in an incredible way. This is easily one of her best works, and one that I will likely continue to grow in appreciation for.


3. Annette


This may be a bit of a controversial pick given how high up on the list it is, but I am firmly in the camp that Annette is a pure triumph. It's definitely divisive, and admittedly not for everyone, but it is so perfectly up my alley. It's easily one of the weirder films I've seen all year, but it's also one that has stuck with me since I first saw it. I even went back and watched it again semi-recently, and I loved it even more. The music and lyrics from Sparks, the direction from Leos Carax, and a trio of great performances from Adam Driver, Marion Cotillard, and Simon Helberg make this truly something to behold. It takes an almost Brechtian approach to the movie musical, with portions of it purposely reminding the audience that this is a film. For example, the film's spectacular opening sequence sees the cast, Sparks, Carax, and others leaving a recording studio and singing as they walk down the streets of Los Angeles. In addition, the film is about Driver and Cotillard's characters having a baby, which is portrayed by a puppet. These elements may sound a little too off the wall for some, but they are in service of larger themes. The film comments on the entertainment industry, parenthood, and toxic masculinity, and while a lot of this comes across, it becomes even clearer on a second viewing. It wouldn't surprise me if this film becomes even clearer on a third watch, but I digress. This is one of the most wholly unique films I've seen in a long time, and one that I just can't stop thinking about.


2. Titane


Julia DuCornau made a big splash with her debut feature Raw, a film about a young woman who develops a taste for human flesh. With Titane, she continues to deal with difficult, shocking subject matter, but takes a slightly different approach. The first act of the film contains shocking imagery and violence, which is what most people were likely expecting to see going into this, but it quickly morphs into something else. The first act is almost an assault on the senses, but once we get past that, the film becomes a story of identity and found family. It's not like the film does a complete 180, as it has an unsettling, tense atmosphere that persists throughout, but it simply goes in a direction that I was not expecting. But the film is all the better for it. It shows that DuCornau is no one-trick pony, and that she is able to explore some interesting territory as a filmmaker. While the film is phenomenal in its spectacle, the performances from Agathe Rouselle and Vincent Lindon are what I was particularly drawn to. Rouselle is able to convey so much without saying much at all, while Lindon embodies his character's complexities and makes him feel like a real person. I would argue that this film gave me the most visceral reaction of any film I saw in 2021, as I felt so many different emotions over its runtime. I felt shocked, anxious, sick at my stomach, heartbroken, and even felt a little moved at times. It's an experience that I will never forget, and cements DuCornau's place as one of my favorite filmmakers working today.


1. Licorice Pizza


I went back and forth over what my number one film of the year would be, and the more I thought about it, I realized that no film made me feel such unbridled joy like Licorice Pizza. I may be a tad biased given that Paul Thomas Anderson is my favorite director, but even beyond that, this is such a lovely, breezy film that captures such a specific time and place (in this case, the 1970s in the San Fernando Valley), and sees Anderson at his most playful. The shaggy narrative might be off-putting to some, but I feel it is perfect for the film that PTA is making here. This is a film that is more concerned with exploring youth from the perspective of both a teenager desperately wanting to be an adult, and a 20-something feeling like she is stuck in between youth and adulthood. While the script may be a little freewheeling, it is held together by the excellent chemistry of Cooper Hoffman and Alana Haim, both of whom give fantastic performances. In addition to this, the film's stellar supporting cast helps add bursts of personality to the film. Bradley Cooper, Harriet Sansom Harris, Sean Penn, and Tom Waits especially give memorable performances, even if they all don't appear in too much of the film. The film is also beautifully shot, and has a spectacular soundtrack full of great songs of the 70s. This is arguably PTA's most tender film to date, and sees him trying new things, while still keeping elements of his signature style. The film does have some questionable aspects, but I feel that it might reveal itself more clearly on a rewatch. What I love about PTA is that he tends to let his films speak for themself, and I feel that this is especially true with Licorice Pizza. It's a film that has become more impactful for me as time has passed, and one that I simply can't get my mind off of. This is one of those films that remind me why I love movies so much, and it is easily my favorite film of 2021.


So there you have it! What films did you enjoy this year? Let me know in the comments or on Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter!

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