The Best Movies of 2021 (a tad late, I know)

By Christian DiMartino

Typically when I make a 10 best list for movies, I like to wait until I’ve caught up with everything I deem necessary. In other words, I await the Oscar nominations, and if there is a major nomination that I have missed, I will wait until I’ve caught up with it. I do this same process every year. Mind you, it’s all kind of silly, because I know that my list may never be perfect as it’s published. I recall the year that I gave Martin Scorsese’s Silence my top prize. I love that film, and stand by it, but as years passed, it occurred to me that other films from that year resonated with me more, particularly Pablo Larrain’s Jackie (his name will be mentioned here, heads up).

It’s sort of hard to choose the best movies of a particular year because… well, maybe your opinion isn’t fully formed yet. For example, you’ll notice a particular omission from my top 10 list this year, and yeah I’ll just say it, it’s Jane Campion’s probable Best Picture winner The Power of the Dog. Here is a movie in which I like it deeply, and see the greatness… I just don’t personally feel the greatness. Perhaps with time, I will, and I hope I will. At the moment though, it’s a potential Best Picture winner that I won’t object to because it is beautifully made and rather compelling.

My list, as it stands, is the movies of 2021 that made something of an impact. Usually that impact is sadness, but honestly my top 3 or so brought me mostly joy. Otherwise, these were the 10 movies this year that stuck with me the most. Whether it be my fond memory of the theatre experience, or just the way that the movie lingered in the mind long after its credits. This was, of course, the year that we mostly returned to the movies. I find it kind of ironic that the potential Best Picture winner this year is a movie that mostly has a shelf life on Netflix… but honestly Netflix has been cranking them out for years. Maybe it’s time to let the old ways die. Some of my favorite movies of 2021 are streamers as well. But most of these films, if not all, are worthy of your conversation, but in particular, they’re worthy of your time. At least from where I’m sitting. I will be returning to my proper reviews soon, I just need to decompress. In the meantime, here are my personal favorite movies of 2021.

10. Spencer: As mentioned above, Pablo Larrain’s Jackie was perhaps my favorite movie of 2016. The hype for Larrain’s Spencer was rather high for me. The film, which follows the late Princess Diana Spencer (Kristen Stewart) over the course of three days as she mentally unravels, is kooky, bizarre, and rather audacious. It’s a film that, sitting in the theatre, I sensed would rub people the wrong way, and it will continue to do so. The first time I saw it, I knew it was good, but wasn’t sure of what degree. The second viewing, I swooned. The film is fascinating- a raw, daring portrait of a beloved figure that depends on the audience’s willingness to go with the interpretation. If you do or don’t, the Stewart performance deserved its Oscar nomination, and the production values (the score from Jonny Greenwood is the year’s best) of Larrain’s film are first rate. (Now Streaming on Hulu)

9. The Lost Daughter: Netflix championed The Power of the Dog and (sigh) Don’t Look Up as their champions this year… but nah, Maggie Gyllenhaal’s The Lost Daughter was the best of the bunch. Here is a film that I found exquisitely made and rather compelling, but also rather thought provoking. I was thrilled to see Jessie Buckley nab the Best Supporting Actress nomination, but perhaps the year’s best performance belongs to Olivia Colman’s work here in the same role. She’s been on fire for the last three years, and here she’s doing her best work yet. (Now Streaming on Netflix)

8. Pig: Three shocking tidbits about Pig: one, it’s a recent Nicolas Cage movie that I actually sat through; two, it’s a recent Nicolas Cage movie that’s actually good; three, it’s a recent Nicolas Cage movie in which he gives a tremendous performance. If the Academy had the guts, they would’ve given him his third nomination here for this weird but strangely beautiful film in which he gives one of the year’s best performances. Hopefully the raves he received for this film will be incentive for him to return to actual movies. (Now Streaming on Hulu)

7. Spider-Man: No Way Home: Maybe you’ve heard of it? This movie made a ba-jillion dollars and just about everyone saw it, and here’s the kicker: it was pretty great. As a longtime Spider-Man believer, I’d be lying if I told you that this film wasn’t a completely beautiful, satisfying ride. A funny, albeity tragic and moving but rollicking adventure that… I’ll be darned, gave us everything we wanted and asked for. Are there flaws? Sure, but it was such a wonderful time that I couldn’t care less. Personally, it’s my favorite film from the MCU, and that’s without hesitation.

6. C’mon C’mon: I’m from a very small hive of people who not only loved this movie, but saw this movie. The latest from director Mike Mills is the kind of movie we have seen a plethora of times… but it’s done so beautifully that it didn’t matter. The film is simple, but what it sets out to do, it does so in quite a lovely manner. At the center of it is two performances from two vastly different performers that couldn’t be better. Youngster Woody Norman- who is apparently English- holds his own against Joaquin Phoenix, fresh off his Oscar for Joker. Phoenix deserved another nomination here for this rather perfect performance, and not just because it’s vastly different than Joker, but because I’m not sure if it could’ve been done much better.

5. No Time to Die: The greatness of this movie is something I’ve had to sit with. I really liked it exiting the theatre, but my appreciation for it has only deepened since. Daniel Craig’s Bond outings include Casino Royale and Skyfall, and both of those are among the best. No Time to Die is as well, and frankly, it’s for reasons that I don’t fully feel at liberty discussing yet. What I’ll say is this: the film is as exciting and riveting as blockbuster entertainment should be, taking giant swings and major risks that more than push the envelope in terms of fandom. All of that aside though, the film is just a thrilling ride, but it’s a thrilling ride that will leave you pondering the experience… and with a lump in your throat. Craig’s imprint on this character is an undeniably major one, and whoever takes his spot has a lot to live up to.

4. Zola: Okay, um, I have been trying to preach the great word of Zola for many months, and if you haven’t listened, then you just must be ignant. PERIODT. All jokes aside, Zola, in my eyes, was the year’s most entertaining movie. That’s not to say it’s the best, but it’s definitely one of them, because this is a zippy, bouncy, hilarious, but also unsettling true story that takes you along for its nutty ride for under 90 minutes and doesn’t let up. The film is beautifully filmed, flawlessly written and impeccably acted, and God willing, Riley Keough and Taylour Paige will be the stars they deserve to be. I know that deep mediocrities like CODA received credit instead. Yawn, seek this gem out instead. (Now Streaming on Showtime)

3. Belfast: Kenneth Branagh’s Belfast, it seems, is the one Oscar contender that seems to be being discussed timidly. I’m not really sure why. Is it because it’s too nice? Because it has similarities to Alfonso Cuaron’s Roma? Regardless, I don’t care, because this movie is a complete delight. Serving as a semi-autobiography but also a slight history lesson, Branagh’s film is expertly well-crafted; it’s as charming of a crowd-pleaser as they come, featuring a slew of performances that all would’ve received Oscar recognition in another year. The movie is funny, but also sad, but ultimately moving. Considering these dark times, it’s the kind of old fashioned movie we could do with more of. It’s probably Branagh’s best.

2. Licorice Pizza: Can you believe Paul Thomas Anderson hasn’t won an Oscar yet? Yeah, me either, but that dry-spell might come to an end with Licorice Pizza, which admittedly isn’t my favorite of his… but good lord, is the bar high, and good lord, is this movie great still. Anderson has reached a phase in his career where he doesn’t mind cranking something out that’s laid back and warm, and that’s just what he’s done here, with his latest trip back in time that brings Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood to mind, but yet with maybe more controversy. I can’t say that I don’t get the controversies surrounding this film, but they also just don’t bother me. Because Anderson is telling these anecdotes the way that he’s heard of them, with a carefree spirit that was present in the 70s. The movie is also just pretty hilarious and charming, and he managed to get pretty terrific performances from Cooper Hoffman and Alana Haim- this being noteworthy because neither of them were professional actors before this film. But I expect that to change after.

  1. West Side Story: Steven Spielberg’s filmography in recent years has gone in a number of different ways. He makes some movies because he can (The BFG), some movies because he feels he should (The Post), and some because, quite simply, he wants to. He’s perhaps at his most special when he’s doing the latter, and that’s just the case with West Side Story. This is a great film, filled with heart and joy from the people who made it, but also made with the panache and passion from people who know, understand, and love musicals. This film made me fall in love with the source material, but also made me re-fall in love with filmmaking and filmgoing in general (I know most people are just now catching up to this, but Janusz Kaminski’s cinematography alone was worth the trip to the theatre). This was one of the year’s biggest question marks- why would Steven Spielberg want to not only direct a musical, but a remake of a beloved musical? Well, he transcended every expectation here, delivering his best film since 2005’s Munich. The film is culturally respectful and progressive; its acting (Ariana DeBose should and will win Best Supporting Actress) is as great as you could ask for; its production values (cinematography, costumes, production, choreography) is at times jaw dropping and exhilarating, all the while set to songs that are timeless (the “America” sequence in this film is perhaps the best filmmaking of the year). Perhaps I’m just really devoted to my boy Steven, but this is the first Spielberg outing in years that felt special, and while any Spielberg is worth the discussion, great Spielberg is more than worth it. (Now Streaming on HBO Max & Disney+)

2 responses to “The Best Movies of 2021 (a tad late, I know)”

  1. […] Win: Spielberg- as you may have detected in my list of the best movies of the year, I have a huge amount of support for West Side Story. Personally, this was the best piece of […]


  2. […] So I have sung the praises of Zola a lot over the last year, in both my original review and in my Best of the Year roundup. So I’m not going to say much else, besides that I absolutely adore this movie, just […]


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