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The Best Movies of 2021

January 22, 2022

By John Corrado

I’m going to keep the preamble to this list short. As we all know, 2021 wasn’t exactly a great year, with the COVID-19 pandemic still with us and a return to “normal” (whatever the heck that word even means anymore) seeming like a goal that keeps getting pushed further down the road roughly two years after this all began. It was, quite simply, a frustrating year on every single level.

But I saw a lot of movies that I liked in 2021. And now, after catching up on several that I missed over the last little bit and doing some deliberating over the final order, I am finally ready to share my list of the best ones, three weeks into 2022. As a side note, I was also able to see seven of my top ten films in theatres (several them during TIFF), which I could only say about one of the films on my list last year, which I am pretty happy about.

So, without further ado, here’s my list of what were, in my opinion, the ten best movies of 2021. It’s followed by a selection of honourable mentions given to films that I liked quite a bit, but in some cases fell just outside the top ten (tick, tick…BOOM!). Oh, and my list of the best documentaries of 2021 will be up next week, so if you’re wondering why films like Flee don’t appear here, that’s why.

#10: Luca

Pixar’s Luca has been accused by some of being a “minor” effort from the studio, but it’s a film that captured my heart. Following two fish boys who find themselves on land in an Italian seaside town, the film uses a high concept premise to tell a charming story that functions as a stealth queer allegory, with the beauty of the film resting in the fact that it is only that if you choose to see it that way. Inspired by Enrico Casarosa’s own childhood in Italy, it’s an animated version of the type of movie I love; a coming of age hangout movie that lets us just exist in this world with these characters for ninety minutes as they go on a series of adventures. The warmth of the summer setting emanates off the screen, the ending is wonderfully bittersweet in true Pixar fashion, and it’s all set to a lovely Dan Romer score. (Review)

#9: Belfast

Like Luca, Belfast is also a film that is inspired by the director’s own childhood. Kenneth Branagh’s semi-autobiographical film could best be described as a child’s eye view of The Troubles in Northern Ireland in 1969, examining the religious conflict through the viewpoint of Buddy (promising newcomer Jude Hill), a boy trying to make sense of it all. The beautifully shot black-and-white film comes to life thanks to wonderful performances by Caitriona Balfe and Jamie Dornan as Buddy’s parents, Judi Dench and Ciarán Hinds as his grandparents, and a wonderful soundtrack of Van Morrison songs. I liked Belfast when I first saw it during TIFF, but it took a second viewing at the end of the festival for the film to fully click for me and to realize exactly what Branagh was going for with the film’s structure, which is meant to emulate a collection of childhood memories. It’s a film that has stuck with me. (Review)

#8: C’mon C’mon

Magical. That’s the word I used to describe Mike Mills’ C’mon C’mon after I first saw it, and it remains one of my favourite viewing experiences of the year. The film is carried by the wonderful performances of Joaquin Phoenix and Woody Norman as uncle and nephew, forming an onscreen bond that is simply enchanting to watch as they both teach each other to see the world in new ways. It’s just such a warm, wise and quietly perceptive film that I found enchanting to watch, elevated by Robbie Ryan’s lovely black-and-white cinematography. (Review)

#7: Pig

The premise for Pig, which follows a former chef played by Nicolas Cage as he tries to get back his stolen truffle pig, suggests a revenge movie akin to John Wick, and the reputation of its lead actor might cause you to assume it would be somewhat over the top. What we got instead was a stone-sober look at grief through the eyes of a man who has long given up on the outside world, venturing back into it against his will and rediscovering all the ways it is no longer for him. One of the most humbling, moving films of the year, with an incredible, subdued performance by Cage that reminds us just how good of an actor he can be. It might just be his finest work ever, with one of the most haunting final scenes of the year. This is simply an incredible feature debut for writer-director Michael Sarnosky. (Review)

#6: Licorice Pizza

Paul Thomas Anderson’s latest is a breezy coming of age hangout movie that transports us back to San Fernando Valley in 1973, and lets us tag along with a cocky teen boy (Cooper Hoffman) and an immature young woman (Alana Haim) who find friendship and get into mischief. And that’s basically the plot of Licorice Pizza, one of the most effervescent movies of last year. Right from the opening tracking shot, we know we are in the hands of a master with PTA, and he honestly just does such a good job of capturing a laid-back ’70s vibe, with free-flowing long takes and naturalistic performances that make it a joy to watch. I just liked living with this movie for a couple of hours. (Review)

#5: Red Rocket

The title of Sean Baker’s latest, Red Rocket, serves as both a cheeky double entendre and a perfect metaphor of the film’s propulsive energy. It’s built around a magnetic performance by Simon Rex as a cash-strapped porn star tearing through his Texas hometown. Yes, the film makes us uncomfortable, and that’s the point, showing how easy it is to fall under the sway of its con man protagonist. Baker’s The Florida Project was my favourite movie of 2017, and this is another slam-dunk portrait of America’s “forgotten people” and the working poor from the filmmaker, who has quickly established himself as one of our most empathetic purveyors of the underbelly of Americana. It’s also entertaining as hell, including the inspired use of NSYNC’s “Bye Bye Bye.” (Review)

#4: Drive My Car

Drive My Car, director Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s brilliant adaptation of a short story by Haruki Murakami, might be long at three hours (the title card only drops forty minutes in). But it’s the sort of film that uses its running time to take us on a complete emotional journey, slowly but surely revealing itself to be a profoundly moving study of grief, survivor’s guilt and emotional healing. The film follows Yusuke Kafuku (Hidetoshi Nishijima), a grieving theatre actor who has been hired to stage a production of Anton Chekov’s Uncle Vanya in Hiroshima, and the bond that he forms with Misaki Watari (Toko Miura), who has been hired to drive him to rehearsals.

Hamaguchi’s film flows beautifully between sequences and, in its best moments, features some of the finest writing and acting of the year, including several powerfully delivered monologues that will stop you in your tracks. One of the best things about Drive My Car is the feeling a few weeks after seeing it of having the film still playing out in your mind. I knew it was one of the best movies of the year when I left the theatre, but it was in the days and weeks that followed when it clicked for me just how high it deserved to be on this list. (No review at this time)

#3: The Power of the Dog

Jane Campion’s powerful Western The Power of the Dog is a simmering, brilliantly acted film about repression, shifting power dynamics and cycles of abuse. Benedict Cumberbatch does gripping work playing against type as a ranch hand who emotionally tortures his sister-in-law (Kirsten Dunst) and her young adult son. The son is played by Kodi Smitt-McPhee, in one of the most fascinating, multilayered and unforgettable supporting performances of the year. It builds to one of the best endings of the year, with a chilling climax that allows all the pieces of the film to click into place like a puzzle and will be discussed and dissected for years to come. (Review)

#2: Titane

Julia Ducournau’s shock Palme d’Or winner Titane is a visionary film that can’t really be described in words. Known colloquially as the “car sex movie,” it’s a thrilling piece that defies easy categorization, morphing between genres and offering sneaky commentary on gender roles, father figures, and the concept of found family. It’s carried by an incredible, physically demanding performance from Agathe Rousselle, matched by the surprisingly tender supporting work of Vincent Lindon, who together deliver two of the best performances of the year. Ducournau’s film so high on this list partially because of how singular and well crafted it is, and partially because I simply couldn’t stop thinking about it. A movie of insane style that, in its own deranged way, builds to something weirdly moving as well. (Review)

#1: Spencer

Pablo Larraín’s Jackie was one of my favourites of 2016, and his latest, Spencer, is a perfect companion piece that does for Princess Diana what that film did for Jackie Kennedy. More psychological portrait than traditional biopic, Spencer hones in on three crucial days in Diana’s life to offer a deep dive into her mental state, turning Sandringham Estate into the Overlook Hotel. Claire Mathon’s cinematography is gorgeous, and Jonny Greenwood’s jazzy score provides perfect accompaniment.

And at the centre of it all is Kristen Stewart, who transforms into the role of Diana, delivering a career-defining performance that blew me away. At one point, Titane could have been number one on this list, and you could certainly make a case for why The Power of the Dog or Drive My Car would deserve this spot as well. But no film in 2021 moved me to tears more than the final moments of Spencer, with Larraín offering a cathartic, symbolic release for both Diana and the audience, and that’s a big part of why it has stayed in my number one spot ever since I first saw it in September. (Review)

Honourable Mentions (Alphabetical Order): The Green KnightThe Killing of Two Lovers, Last Night in Soho, Mass, Nightmare Alley, Petite Maman, The Souvenir Part II, Spider-Man: No Way Home, tick, tick…BOOM!West Side Story, The Worst Person in the World, Zack Snyder’s Justice League.

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