TOP TEN FAVORITE FILMS OF 2021 (DAN’S LIST)

Written By: Daniel Kinsley

Let’s keep the preamble short this year, shall we? The roaring 20s didn’t exactly get off to their predicted start, but if you’re reading this, you’re still here, and it’s our sincere hope that you are entering the new year happy and healthy. We made it through another year.

It’s always been an ambition of this writer to watch 365 films in a calendar year (all first time watches, mind you! Why, you may be asking, to which this writer would pose the question: why not?) 2021 was the year it finally happened, and as of this writing the final tally is 371.

If nothing else, it was a really tremendous year for movies (even as theaters suffered, but that’s a conversation for another day) with a king’s ransom of new releases from some of our very best filmmakers. Look, this writer was excited to see Spider-Man enter the Multiverse, but if that’s all you sought out this year, you missed out on a whole lot of great stuff. As with every year, this is a personal list, and is not meant to be indicative of the Best or Most Important films of the year.

And now, without further ado, the top ten films of 2021.

Barb & Star go to Vista Del Mar

Comedy is a subjective genre, and doubly so when someone takes the kind of big, ridiculous swing that Kristen Wiig and long time writing partner Annie Mumolo have here. The pair pull double duty in front of the camera as Barb and Star, two best friends who venture out of their Midwestern hometown for their first ever vacation in sunny Florida. Get through the first 15 minutes while the film finds its footing and you will be amply rewarded by your patience, especially with the arrival of Jamie Dornan as the surprise MVP who’s show-stopping musical number makes for one of the most outlandish and hilarious moments of the year. If you can get on its wavelength, Barb and Star is a gleefully over-the-top, deliriously silly, non-stop delight.

(Available to stream on Hulu)

The Beta Test

The third full-length feature from writer-director Jim Cummings is both his most ambitious and his best work yet. In the past Cummings has excelled at playing deeply insecure men with delusions of grandeur and his performance as Jordan, a Hollywood agent who gets in way over his head after receiving a mysterious invitation is his most wonderfully go-for-broke role yet. Hilarious, unpredictable, and laced with acerbic pitch-black comedy, this twisty genre mashup is a bit like if Eyes Wide Shut (1999) had been helmed by Robert Altman.

(Available to rent/buy on VOD platforms)

The Card Counter

Paul Schrader is probably most well-known for his writing credits (penning several Scorsese classics including Taxi Driver [1976] and Raging Bull [1980]) so it’s fitting that his own directorial work has wrestled with many of the same thematic material; faith, guilt, violence, and redemption. Schrader’s slow-burn revenge film about an ex-military interrogator turned pro poker player (Oscar Isaac, stoic yet ferocious) is anything but light viewing; it’s very likely the angriest film of the year, but undoubtedly one of the most satisfying as well.

(Available to rent/buy on VOD platforms)

Dune

Denis Villeneuve is on a roll. After crafting two instant all-timers in Arrival (2016) and Blade Runner 2049 (2017), the son of a bitch beat the odds and somehow did it again! The world of Dune is one that feels instantly realized and insanely engrossing. At the risk of grandiosity, there isn’t a single weak link: from the world-building to the costume design to the score (oh man, that score!) all of it is capital letters E-P-I-C. All of this is to say nothing of the brilliant casting, a subject this writer could easily spend another 1,000 words talking about. Special shout-out needs to be given to Jason Momoa as Duncan Idaho, a revelatory effort of cool that definitively justifies his movie star appeal. Roger Ebert once said no good movie is too long, and it’s a testament to how incredible Dune the film is that when the credits rolled at three hours, this writer was sorry the adventure was ending so soon. If there was a film this year that proved the importance of the theatrical experience, it’s Dune, a film that begs to be seen on the biggest loudest screen you can find.

(Available to stream on HBO Max, TBD 2022)

Licorice Pizza

Paul Thomas Anderson’s ninth feature is his loosest, loveliest work yet. It’s a hang-out film the likes of which would make Cameron Crowe proud. At a time when that kind of high can be in short supply, the experience feels like something of a miracle. Led by Cooper Hoffman (son of the late great Phillip Seymour Hoffman, frequent PTA collaborator and friend) and Alana Haim (of the band, HAIM) it’s an exuberant ode to youth and love; every frame is bursting at the seams with warmth, joy, and laughter. Both of the leads are making their big screen debut, and while they each feel like naturals, it’s Alana who steals the show. From the moment she appears on screen, she is a star worthy of all kinds of hyperbole, with the kind of beautiful, expressive face that is meant for the silver screen. You can hardly blame Gary for falling in love at first sight. Call it recency bias, but Licorice Pizza feels like some of PTA’s best work yet, the kind of film that will paint a smile on your face from beginning to end. It’s the best movie of the year. This writer can’t wait to watch it again and again.

(Currently playing in theaters)

No Sudden Move

A 50s set heist picture helmed by Stephen Soderbergh (the man behind the Ocean’s trilogy and Logan Lucky [2017]) and populated with a murderer’s row of some or our finest characteractors more or less sounds as if it was created in a lab to tailor to this writer’s interests. When you’ve got a pedigree this good, there’s no need to reinvent the wheel, and from the top down, this movie plays all the hits with the kind of style and sly humor Soderbergh brings to the table, all while making it look easy. This is neo-noir at its finest from some of the best in the biz.

(Available to stream on HBO Max)

Pig

After his beloved pig is kidnapped, a reclusive truffle hunter must face his past and rescue his pig. On paper, it sounds like a John Wick riff, particularly with Nic Cage onboard to go full gonzo, a la Mandy [2018]. But every time you think it will zig, Michael Sarnoski’s brilliantly assured debut zags instead, consistently pulling the rug out from under your expectations. What sounds like a bloody revenge thriller is instead a thoughtful and meditative take on grief, grace, and the relationship between our food and our humanity. It’s also one of the greatest performances Cage has ever done, quietly devastating in a way people may have forgotten him capable of. There’s a scene near the middle of the film which might be the single most powerful moment in an American film all year. A must-see.

(Available to stream on Hulu)

Together Together

There’s about a million ways a story like this could have gone wrong; one misstep and it’s too mawkish, too cutesy, too unbelievable. Instead, this story of the relationship between a single man in his 40s (Ed Helms) and the surrogate helping him achieve his dream of having a child (Patti Harrison) is charming, hilarious, and hugely affecting. If you’ve seen a lot of rom-coms, you may think you know where it’s all going, but writer/director Nikole Beckwith has seen all the same movies, and she’s after something much smarter and ultimately more satisfying. Harrison, in particular, is a revelation, and a big part of what made this one of the most pleasant surprises of the year.

(Available to stream on Hulu)

Wrath of Man

While marketing may have led you to believe this is a generic actioner, let’s be clear from the get up that it’s a whole other animal. Statham doesn’t get a lot of opportunities to really stretch acting-wise, but he always rises to the occasion and Wrath marks the best role he’s had in some time. It doesn’t hurt that he’s surrounded by. A spectacular supporting cast which includes Holt McCallany, Jeffrey Donovan and Josh Hartnett, in a welcome return to the big screen. It’s a significant pivot from Ritchie’s typical material; this is one mean motherfucker of a movie and the result is his best film in 20 years and arguably one of his best films, full-stop.

(Available to rent/buy on VOD platforms)

Venom: Let There Be Carnage

Nobody could have been as surprised as this writer by how much fun this movie was. Tom Hardy is freakishly talented, but the first Venom movie was ultimately just fine; superhero fare with a slightly weird flare that still felt pretty disposable. This bonkers sequel, on the other hand, is the kind of big swing that will keep superhero weary audiences (waves) interested. Hardy seemed to have listened to what audiences enjoyed about the original and cranked the strangest bits up to 11, resulting in a genuinely weird and wonderful movie that felt like a real surprise (and a definite treat) from a mainstream studio film.

(Available to rent/buy on VOD platforms)

Before wrapping up, check out the rest of the year’s favorites with films that didn’t quite crack the top ten. Presenting #11-20 (in alphabetical order)

The Green Knight (Available to rent/buy on VOD platforms)

The Harder They Fall (Available to stream on Netflix)

I’m Your Man (Available to rent/buy on VOD platforms)

The Last Duel (Available to rent/buy on VOD platforms)

The Matrix Resurrections (Available to stream on HBO Max)

The Night House (Available to rent/buy on VOD platforms)

Nightmare Alley (Currently in theaters)

Spencer (Available to rent/buy on VOD platforms)

The Voyeurs (Available to stream on Amazon Prime)

West Side Story (Currently in theaters)

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