Top 15 Films of 2021 – Allen’s Picks
2021 felt like a year that was in a constant state of limbo. The Covid-19 pandemic has gripped the world for nearly two full years, and while some parts of society have started adjusting to a new way of living, it always felt like a “two steps forward, one step back” situation. In the world of movies, we saw theaters finally start reopening for public viewing. However, with each new variant that pops up the question of when we’ll get back to a relative state of “normal” hangs in the air. Regardless of what your feelings are about the issue, I think we can all agree that we can’t wait for the day we don’t have to think about the pandemic ever again – whenever that will be.
But the films endure. Whether seen in a theater or at home, there was a good number of terrific movies that came out in 2021. Many that were delayed were finally released, causing a traffic jam of films that all deserve to be seen, whether they were big blockbuster spectacles or smaller indie productions. The cynic may argue that “Cinema is dying,” but how many years have we heard that? Just like everything else, the movies must adjust to an ever-changing landscape. Many of the ones I list here should be remembered and talked about for a long time. Those that say there aren’t enough good movies out there simply aren’t looking.
Following the usual tradition of these year-end recaps, I will start off with my Honorable Mentions list. These films all have something to offer, and I would recommend you seek out as many of them as you can:
Bad Trip, Godzilla vs. Kong, Concrete Cowboy, Shiva Baby, Nobody, Jakob’s Wife, The Mitchells vs. The Machines, Bo Burnham: Inside, In the Heights, False Positive, The Fear Street Trilogy, Summer of Soul, Roadrunner – A Film About Anthony Bourdain, Annette, The Suicide Squad, CODA, Wrath of Man, Malignant, The Card Counter, Lamb, Bergman Island, The Rescue, Werewolves Within, The Harder They Fall, Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, Riders of Justice, Last Night in Soho, Tick, Tick…Boom!, Petite Maman, The First Wave, The Last Duel, The Worst Person in the World, The French Dispatch, The Hand of God, The Summit of the Gods, Raging Fire, Nightmare Alley, Swan Song, The Humans, The Lost Daughter, Red Rocket, Encanto, Found, The Souvenir Part 2.
The Honorable Mentions list gets bigger every time. One of these years I’ll need to push this out to a Top 25 or even 30.
With that said, let’s go over my favorite films of 2021.
Nicolas Cage delivers one of the best performances of his career as a reclusive truffle hunter living deep in the forests of Oregon. When his beloved truffle pig is kidnapped, he – along with his seller (Alex Wolff) – dive into an underground world of cooks, junkies, and backdoor fight clubs all in hopes of retrieving the pig. Along the way, the two form a bond based on mutual understanding. Writer/director Michael Sarnoski creates an entire universe where chefs and restaurant owners all operate within an enclosed system, with Cage’s character in the center of it all. It’s a story of loss, grief, and redemption. Yes, this is a tale about man and his pig, but it’s also about so much more than that.
14) Drive My Car
Based on Haruki Murakami’s short story, Drive My Car is a subtle, beautiful story of how art can help us manage our feelings in the face of tremendous heartache. Writer/director Ryûsuke Hamaguchi plays the narrative quietly, to the point where we’re not sure what the characters think or how they feel. It’s not until the final, devastating act do the pent-up emotions come spilling out in all their brutal honesty. Hidetoshi Nishijima plays the main character with such precision that the smallest gesture and phrase can tell us so much about him. He is a person trying to find an answer despite not knowing the question. He lives with the weight of unresolved issues, and it’s not until the end do we see him come to terms with it. Do not let the long running time dissuade you, this is one of the most engrossing films of the year.
13) No Sudden Move
Steven Soderbergh is one of our finest filmmakers, able to operate in just about any genre or style and make it feel effortless. In No Sudden Move, he successfully tackles film noir with a story of sketchy characters all chasing after the big score. But it’s the intelligence of Ed Solomon’s writing that makes this all the richer, filling the labyrinthine narrative with themes of racism, red-lining, and how corruption can bleed up and down the social ladder. Don Cheadle and Benicio Del Toro star as two hoods that get in way over their heads – having to allude the mob trying to kill them, authorities trying to arrest them, and a system structured against them. The two must use their wits to outsmart their pursuers. This was one of the most entertaining films of the year – the fact that it’s also smart is an added bonus.
Writer/director Fran Kranz’s feature length debut – Mass – is a tough watch. But it is also an important one, tackling a problem that has plagued America for far too long. Jason Isaacs and Martha Plimpton play the parents of a child who was a victim of a school shooting. Ann Dowd and Reed Birney are the parents of the deceased shooter. Meeting in a church hall, the four try to untangle the confusion and pain of not only losing their children, but the fact that one of them was the perpetrator. It’s a conversation no one wants to have. Kranz’s writing and direction, along with the incredible performances of the actors, create an atmosphere that is intense, sad, and enlightening. Somehow, amidst the lingering questions, the film finds a smidge of reconciliation, and with that a sense of hope.