What a year it’s been. It started with movie theaters closed in many major markets, limited vaccines, and a much-delayed (and much-debated) Oscar ceremony throwing wrenches into the works. It is ending with a rush of hotly anticipated films that were delayed last year — some of which, like Dune, raked in healthy box office returns despite also being available on streaming services — alongside a huge crop of new stunners. Along the way, there’s been plenty of debate about the role of movie theaters in this brave new world, shortened windows between theatrical debuts and streaming premieres, and a host of questions about what makes a movie truly great.
Now, at the end of 2021, we’re ready to take a look back. Everyone’s choices for the year’s best movies are different, tied to evaluations of quality, technique, and panache along with personal preference. These films are the ones I hope will stand the test of time, even if they got overlooked for various (and often understandable) reasons. I’ve included a few extras at the end, plus some notable films that didn’t quite make the list. And, as always, I’ve told you where to watch them; most are available on digital services, or will be soon.
Mass is absolutely devastating, but don’t let that keep you from watching it. Directed and written by Fran Kranz, it’s a contemplative film that feels more like a play, and earns our attention. Jason Isaacs, Martha Plimpton, Ann Dowd, and Reed Birney play two couples who have agreed to meet at a church to have a conversation. The subject unfolds slowly — one couple’s son murdered the other’s in a school shooting years earlier, but that’s not exactly what they’ve gathered to discuss. Mass leaves plenty of breathing room for characters to have authentic moments of emotion and puts a gentle, grace-filled frame around an almost unspeakable tragedy. It’s a showcase for its performers, but it’s also a valuable experience for its audience.
How to watch it: Mass will premiere on digital platforms on December 28.
20. The Card Counter
The Card Counter feels, in many ways, like the companion piece to First Reformed, writer and director Paul Schrader’s 2018 film about a broken man searching for salvation. Oscar Isaac plays William, a veteran haunted by his past who now travels the country playing blackjack and poker, sometimes in tournaments. He meets La Linda (Tiffany Haddish), who suggests a business arrangement that might be to both their advantages. He also happens to meet Cirk (Tye Sheridan), who harbors a dark vendetta against a man named Major John Gordo (Willem Dafoe) — and who leads William to finally face his demons. The Card Counter is a stylish film, but also a disturbing one that ties the US military’s torture program to the twisting of individual souls. It raises a perennial question: Can a sinner be forgiven?
How to watch it: The Card Counter is available for purchase on digital platforms.
19. No Sudden Move
No Sudden Move — which Steven Soderbergh shot under pandemic conditions with an all-star cast — is a rippling story about trusting nobody, against the backdrop of real-life redlining and car-company conspiracies. Three small-time criminals in 1950s Detroit are hired by somebody to steal something. What is it? Who wants it? They have no idea, but they need the cash, so they don masks and head out to do the job. But things, as you might imagine, go awry. No Sudden Move is kind of a heist movie, but in typical Soderbergh fashion, it’s really more of an examination of the way social forces and the market shape, challenge, and break people’s lives.
How to watch it: No Sudden Move is streaming on HBO Max.
Rebecca Hall wrote and directed this adaptation of Nella Larsen’s 1929 novel, about two childhood friends who encounter one another again in adulthood. Irene (Tessa Thompson), who goes by Reeny, lives with her doctor husband (André Holland) and children in a stately Harlem house. Clare (Ruth Negga) is married to a racist businessman (Alexander Skarsgård), who has no idea that his wife is not white. The film feels almost dreamlike, evoking a world in which the lines that separate friendship from desire, love from hate, and white from Black are more permeable than you might expect — a world a lot like today’s.
How to watch it: Passing is streaming on Netflix.
17. Listening to Kenny G
Listening to Kenny G is a documentary about the smooth-jazz sax crooner that sets out to ask a few barely answerable questions: Why do people love Kenny G? Why do people hate him? And what do their responses to him say about taste, preference, and art? In films like Hail Satan? (about the Satanic Temple) and The Pain of Others (about women who believe they have Morgellons disease), director Penny Lane has consistently refused to take the easy route. There are no pat answers in her movies, and Listening to Kenny G is no exception. The sax player himself is the film’s main interviewee, but he’s flanked by music critics who point out all his shortcomings. What right do they have to tell someone who walked down the aisle to a Kenny G song that they’re wrong? That’s the question Listening to Kenny G raises and doesn’t try to answer outright. Instead, it focuses on a vital secondary question: Is there a dividing line between “I like this” and “This is good”? And should we care?
How to watch it: Listening to Kenny G is streaming on HBO Max.
16. The Green Knight
If the words “epic medieval fantasy film starring Dev Patel” fill your soul with glee, then you’re in luck. David Lowery (The Old Man and the Gun) wrote and directed this adaptation of the Arthurian legend “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.” Patel stars as Gawain, the nephew of King Arthur (Sean Harris), who takes off on a journey to confront a green-faced knight (Ralph Ineson). Alicia Vikander, Joel Edgerton, Sarita Choudhury, Kate Dickie, Barry Keoghan, and Erin Kellyman also star. The film messes with the Arthurian legend in some key ways, crafting a meditation on the way myths get spun and the true challenges of ever really being a hero.
How to watch it: The Green Knight is available to rent or purchase on digital platforms.
In this odd and always surprising dead-quiet drama, Nicolas Cage plays Rob, a gruff loner who lives in a cabin in the Oregon woods with his truffle-hunting pig. He spends his days in solitude, rarely venturing out of the trees, selling the precious truffles to a precocious reseller named Amir (Alex Wolff). But when thieves steal his pig, he’s forced to trek into Portland to find her, and the path he follows takes him back to a world he’d rather forget. It’s not exactly what you expect when you think of a “revenge thriller,” but it might be better as a result.
How to watch it: Pig is streaming on Hulu and available to rent or purchase on digital platforms.
It’s rare to see animation as the main medium in a documentary, but Flee uses it to great effect. Director Jonas Poher Rasmussen interviews his friend, Amin, who endured years of horror after fleeing Afghanistan with his family in the 1990s following the Taliban takeover. Flashbacks to Amin’s experiences are mixed in with his current uncertainties surrounding his relationship with his partner, Kasper, who desperately wants to buy a house, get married, and settle down. The effect of his past is a strong one, showing how even after finding safety and relative stability, Amin’s previous experiences will never stop reaching their long fingers into his present. Flee is heartbreaking and moving, and hard to forget.
How to watch it: Flee is playing in theaters.
Frank Herbert’s monumental 1965 science fiction novel Dune set the template for so many sci-fi stories that followed (including Star Wars). The book has been adapted for the screen before, including by auteur David Lynch, but none of those efforts were very good — until now. Director Denis Villeneuve proves to be an ideal match for the story, which is a sweeping tale of Duke Atreides (Oscar Isaac), Lady Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson), and their son Paul Atreides (a perfectly cast Timothée Chalamet), who move to the desert planet Arrakis at the command of the emperor. There they find hostility and danger at every turn. Villeneuve’s cinematic adaptation strips out some of the ponderousness of the novel while preserving its political intrigue, mythic weight, and expansive visual imagination. It’s an epic in every sense.
How to watch it: Dune is available to rent or purchase on digital platforms.
12. Summer of Soul
Summer of Soul (... Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised) has been one of the biggest crowdpleasers on the festival circuit since its Sundance debut in January, and that’s no surprise. Ahmir Thompson — better known as Questlove, the drummer and frontman for the Roots — directed the film about the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival, sometimes dubbed “Black Woodstock.” The staggering concert, held over a series of weekends in Harlem’s Mount Morris Park, featured everyone from Sly and the Family Stone to Nina Simone to Stevie Wonder to Mahalia Jackson. The events were filmed, but the footage sat in a basement for 50 years. Now it’s compiled into a documentary about a pivotal moment in Black cultural history, and the result is absolutely infectious to watch.
How to watch it: Summer of Soul is streaming on Hulu.
11. Saint Maud
Stories of demons, devils, and religious dread have long made for great horror films, and Saint Maud, from first-time director Rose Glass, follows in those well-trodden footsteps. It’s the tale of Maud (Morfydd Clark), a home health aide in a small British seaside town. Maud becomes obsessed with the spiritual state of her patient, a former dancer named Amanda (Jennifer Ehle) whose life seems degenerate to Maud. But of course, Maud is harboring demons of her own. Saint Maud is the kind of low-budget horror film that sneaks up on you, as much a character study as a portrait of twisted belief and obsession. For some, the comfort that faith brings can become something much, much darker.
10. West Side Story
At last, it’s here. Steven Spielberg’s remake of the movie-musical classic was delayed by the pandemic, but it’s arriving in movie theaters just in time to coincide with the original film’s 60th birthday. A new screenplay by the renowned playwright Tony Kushner reimagines the film while remaining faithful to the original, tugging at narrative threads that enrich the story’s themes without being too obvious.
The film stars Ansel Elgort and outstanding newcomer Rachel Zegler as Tony and Maria, the star-crossed lovers at the center of a tale of warring gangs and family loyalties; the whole cast is tremendous, but a standout performance by Ariana DeBose as Anita may be the best of all. (The original film’s Anita, Rita Moreno, serves as an executive producer and plays a key role in the film.) Every frame is beautifully composed and colorfully rendered, with key homages to the film’s roots in modernism. It’s an extraordinary offering that shows how vibrant and vital a remake can be.
How to watch it: West Side Story is playing in theaters.
9. Licorice Pizza
A fantastically shaggy comedy, Licorice Pizza is Paul Thomas Anderson’s most joyous film in years, though there’s a marked undercurrent of darkness running underneath. Alana Haim (of the band Haim) and Cooper Hoffman (son of the late frequent Anderson collaborator Philip Seymour Hoffman) play Alana Kane and Gary Valentine, two young people living in the San Fernando Valley in 1973.
Alana is 25 and miserable in her photo assistant job, unable or unwilling to finally embark on adulthood; Gary is just a teenager, but when he spots her he starts wooing her hard. She rejects his advances, but they become friends, and the film follows them through a wild set of adventures in the Valley against the backdrop of social unrest, gasoline shortages, and a rapidly changing Hollywood. It’s confident and funny and a true romp of a movie, a wistful reminder of how awful the world of adults can be and what it’s like to maneuver through the feelings of first love.
How to watch it: Licorice Pizza is playing in limited theaters and will open wide on Christmas Day.
8. Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy
A haunting, funny, tightly written meditation on loneliness and connection, Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy is set up as a triptych. In the first story, one woman (Hyunri) tells her friend (Kotone Furukawa) about a man one of them recently met on a date; she doesn’t realize her friend is hiding a secret. In the second story, a young woman (Katsuki Mori) agrees to set a trap for her professor (Kiyohiko Shibukawa) at the behest of her boyfriend, but it doesn’t go as planned. And in the third story, a woman (Fusako Urabe) returns to her hometown for her high school reunion and meets with an old love, only to discover all is not as it seems. Director Ryusuke Hamaguchi crafts each tale to be sensitive and surprising; together, the stories ask how luck and fantasy operate in the love we preserve and the love we throw away.
How to watch it: Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy is playing in limited theaters and virtual cinemas. Check the website for details.
7. The Souvenir Part II
The Souvenir Part II picks up right where 2019’s The Souvenir left off. Julie (Honor Swinton Byrne) is reeling from the overdose death of her boyfriend (Tom Burke), and she decides, somehow, to process what happened through her thesis film. Meanwhile, her mother (Tilda Swinton) tries to help her get through the grief. The Souvenir Part II (based on writer and director Joanna Hogg’s own memories) is kind of a movie about making The Souvenir. But it’s also about the sly and surprising ways that art can help us cope, understand, and heal from what life throws our way. The film is Hogg’s gentle tribute to her younger, sometimes more foolish self, and it’s very funny, too. (Be sure to watch The Souvenir before you see it; it’s currently streaming on Amazon Prime and available to digitally rent on other platforms.)
How to watch it: The Souvenir Part II is not currently available to watch, but keep an eye on digital platforms.
6. The Viewing Booth
Israeli director Ra’anan Alexandrowicz has focused his past films on questions about Israel’s occupation of Palestinian territories, but in The Viewing Booth, he confronts the act of viewing itself. Alexandrowicz set up a lab-like room in which he invited American students interested in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to view videos uploaded by activists and verbalize their thoughts. He centers the film on the reactions of one young woman, Maia Levy, whose views of videos originating in the West Bank city of Hebron stand in opposition to Alexandrowicz’s.
Through their conversations, the ways our preconceived ideas shape and dictate the way we view the same images are explored and exposed. The Viewing Booth forces the audience into confrontation with their viewing biases and probes not just how people think about a conflict in the Middle East, but the limits of nonfiction films regarding their ability to persuade and explore reality as it is — and whether such a thing is even possible.
How to watch it: The Viewing Booth is available via a 48-hour digital rental on the film’s website.
5. The Power of the Dog
Jane Campion’s first film since 2009’s Bright Star is The Power of the Dog, which is set, despite its New Zealand shooting location, in the American West. For most of its runtime, The Power of the Dog is confined to the big ranch that Phil and George (Benedict Cumberbatch and Jesse Plemons) own and operate. George marries Rose (Kirsten Dunst) and brings her there, along with her waifish teenage son Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee). Phil despises both of the ranch’s new residents. But exteriors rarely match what people are capable of inside. The film will keep you guessing as it morphs from a Western to a romance to something deliciously dark, a melodrama with an eerie bite and sweeping, craggy vistas.
How to watch it: The Power of the Dog is streaming on Netflix.
Indelible, gutting, and hopeful, Procession is a documentary unlike any you’ve seen before. The filmmakers, led by director Robert Greene, reached out to six men in the Kansas City, Missouri area who were abused as boys by Catholic priests and clergy. Rather than proceeding as an exposé, Procession is a collaborative project in healing, as each of the six men creates and films traumatic memories in a drama therapy-informed quest to find ... well, what, exactly? That’s what they’re exploring: the meaning of healing, the ways we perform to cope and to crack ourselves open, and the possibilities, such as they are, for redemption. It’s a must-see.
How to watch it: Procession is streaming on Netflix.
3. The Lost Daughter
Maggie Gyllenhaal directed and wrote The Lost Daughter, based on an Elena Ferrante novel, and it’s an extraordinary debut. Olivia Colman plays Leda, a middle-aged professor of comparative literature who’s on a working holiday in Greece. There, she meets Nina (Dakota Johnson), a young mother who dearly loves her daughter but finds the demands of parenthood are driving her to distraction.
As Nina and Leda spend time together, their story starts to twine with Leda’s past (in which she’s played by Jessie Buckley), a time when caring for her own young daughters pushed her to her limits. The Lost Daughter is a marvelously complex story, expertly crafted, with the freedom, loneliness, and claustrophobia of the main characters aptly evoked by the cinematography. The film’s splendid performances and keen sense of ambiguity are so true to life that you might feel your heart catch in your throat.
How to watch it: The Lost Daughter opens in limited theaters on December 17 and begins streaming on Netflix on December 31.
2. The Worst Person in the World
One of this year’s breakout festival favorites is The Worst Person in the World, about four years in the life of 20-something Julie (Renate Reinsve). Like many young people, she realizes in university that she doesn’t want to be a neuroscientist; she wants to be an artist. So she blows up her life and starts over, winding up in a relationship with Aksel (Anders Danielsen Lie). That’s just the beginning. The Worst Person in the World tells Julie’s story in 12 chapters with a prologue and an epilogue — she is the main character in her own story, one that she’s writing as she’s living it. It’s a film about navigating life as a millennial, trying to figure out what love is like, what work is for, and whether you’re following your heart or whether you’re just, well, the worst person in the world.
How to watch it: After a brief qualifying run in theaters, The Worst Person in the World will open in theaters on February 4.
1. Bergman Island
My pick for the year’s best movie is entirely a product of personal aesthetic taste and thematic obsession, but that’s just how it should be. Bergman Island is a layered and lovely film about the tension between making art and living real life, and how the two feed one another. Vicky Krieps stars as Chris, a filmmaker who travels with her partner Tony (Tim Roth), a more commercially successful filmmaker, to the island Fårö for a creative retreat. Fårö is where the great director Ingmar Bergman lived and made his later work.
As the pair spend time on the island, they drift apart; then, Chris’s new film starts to take shape, and we start to understand how life experience filters into her work. Written and directed by Mia Hansen-Løve — and presumably based, in part, on her own experiences with former partner Olivier Assayas — Bergman Island is like a diamond that you can turn over and over, seeing the light refract through each facet in new ways.
How to watch it: Bergman Island is available to rent or purchase on digital platforms.
Due to pandemic delays and general global chaos, last year’s Oscar eligibility window stretched from January 2020 until the end of February 2021. Normally, it would have ended on December 31, 2020. That means several films which were contenders in last year’s Oscars actually count as 2021 releases.
Given how many terrific films came out in the 2021 calendar year, it didn’t feel quite right to give slots in this list to films that were already nominated for or, in two cases, won Oscars. But I wanted to make sure to note them. So here are three additional films to watch if you haven’t seen them already.
The Father is equal parts hall of mirrors and treasure chest, a confounding and nearly perfect film. Florian Zeller directs the film adaptation of his celebrated play about a man named Anthony (played by Anthony Hopkins) who becomes confused and belligerent when he needs to move into his daughter Anne’s flat. Anne (Olivia Colman) has moved him there because his dementia is getting worse, and she can’t bear the thought of putting him in a nursing home. The film loops and doubles and plays tricks on the audience, in a way that draws us into Anthony’s mind. It is both fascinating and crushing, with some of the best writing I’ve ever seen, and Hopkins’s and Colman’s performances (both nominated for Oscars, and Hopkins won) are outstanding. The Father lingers long after it ends, questioning our perceptions of the world and, more fundamentally, of one another.
How to watch it: The Father is currently streaming on Starz and available to rent or purchase on digital platforms.
Judas and the Black Messiah
Judas and the Black Messiah is galvanizing, with an intoxicating energy that makes the story beats land with a jolt. Director and co-writer Shaka King tells the story of 21-year-old Fred Hampton (played by Daniel Kaluuya), the charismatic chair of the Illinois Black Panther Party, who was assassinated in a raid on his home by police and FBI in December 1969. That raid was partly enabled by William O’Neal (Lakeith Stanfield), an FBI informant who had worked his way up the Black Panther ladder to become the Illinois chapter’s head of security and a trusted member of the party.
The film landed Oscar nominations in six categories, including one each for Kaluuya and Stanfield; Kaluuya won. Judas and the Black Messiah brilliantly evokes the texture and emotional tenor of the time, the feeling of being part of something bigger than yourself — and of knowing that someone powerful is turning their crosshairs on you.
How to watch it: Judas and the Black Messiah is streaming on HBO Max and available to rent or purchase on digital platforms.
Quo Vadis, Aida
It can be difficult to translate some of humanity’s most horrifying moments onto the big screen without flattening what happened, either by trying too hard to convince the audience to care, or turning people into object lessons. But Quo Vadis, Aida? deftly does the job. The film tells the story of a massacre in July 1995, when Bosnian Serb forces murdered more than 7,000 civilians, mostly men, and raped women in the town of Srebrenica. Director Jasmila Zbanic grounds the tale in a strong perspective, centering his film on Aida (Jasna Djuricic), a translator working with the UN who struggles to find her own family and save them, if she can. Quo Vadis, Aida? is harrowing but absolutely vital — a study of intense evil in our time and a reminder that the past never leaves us, even when the violence fades.
How to watch it: Quo Vadis, Aida is streaming on Hulu and available to rent or purchase on digital platform.
Other notable mentions: All Light Everywhere, Ascension, Azor, Barb & Star Go to Vista Del Mar, Benedetta, C’mon C’mon, Cusp, Drive My Car, The Humans, In the Same Breath, The Matrix Resurrections, President, Shiva Baby, The World to Come, Together Together, The Velvet Underground