When it comes to movies, 2021 marked a moment of major transition. With the year’s Oscars pushed back, some acclaimed films that qualified and won actually came out just before the awards early in ‘21. Nomadland and The United States vs. Billie Holiday, for example, were released this year, but feel much older, and somehow more connected to 2020’s struggle and isolation (they made many best lists last year since critics saw them early). But many of 2021’s best films were released later in the year, so it was easy to move on anyway. 

Due to COVID-19’s still-very-real presence, we didn’t get to move as far forward as we all would have liked, though. The movie experience is best shared in a dark room with strangers, munching popcorn and looking up at a giant screen – but for many, it still felt too risky. Streaming remained a lifeline for a lot of us, and we waited patiently for many anticipated films to get through short theater runs and then become available on Netflix, Amazon, Hulu or Disney+. We’re still waiting on some.

A slew of very strong, Oscar-buzzworthy titles just came out the past month (many only in theaters), so making a definitive list of the best of the entire year is next to impossible. And as anyone who enjoys reading movie reviews knows, the only thing you can really count on from any critic is a subjective opinion. 

Some of us wanted escapism this year, some wanted nostalgia, but others wanted to learn or be challenged. Consider these Top 10 lists from L.A. Weekly and Village Voice‘s film critics as heartfelt rankings that are also quite fluid, each reflecting fine filmmaking, but more so, connecting on a personal level with our writers for different reasons. As these varied lists make clear, 2021 provided a little bit of everything and despite the year’s hardships, we were nothing if not entertained.   

Click links below to read our full reviews and features.

THE POWER OF THE DOG (Courtesy Netflix)

Nathaniel Bell’s Top 10

Several of the year’s best films are linked by a shared theme of artistic inspiration springing from grief and loss (Drive My Car, Bergman Island, The Souvenir Part II). Let that be a lesson for us.

  1. The Tragedy of Macbeth
  2. Drive My Car
  3. Licorice Pizza
  4. The Power of the Dog 
  5. Bergman Island 
  6. The French Dispatch
  7. Undine 
  8. The Souvenir Part II 
  9. Cry Macho 
  10. Things Heard & Seen 

NIGHTMARE ALLEY (20th Century Studios)

Chad Byrnes’ Top 10

The best movies in 2021 seemed to have an artistry and vintage quality that’s been lacking for too long. Even the major studios took a break from their CGI noise-fests by releasing a couple of gems that spoke to the human condition, none of which starred Ryan Reynolds.

The subject of childhood loomed large in many of the year’s best films. In Paul Thomas Anderson’s Licorice Pizza, adolescence is seen as both liberating and innocent, even as a dark reality encroaches from the wings. In C’mon, C’mon, Joaquin Phoenix reluctantly learns about the intricacies of youth when tasked to care for his rambunctious nephew. Although the protagonist of Norway’s The Worst Person in the World is in her late twenties, her transformation into adulthood is every bit as painful as a teenager’s.

In 2021, we also got a one-two punch with The Power of the Dog and The Card Counter, two auteur-driven films which tackle subjects like guilt, repression and hidden secrets. Noir made a comeback with Nightmare Alley and No Sudden Move, two films that bask in the glow of the past even as they address contemporary issues. Documentaries also shined in 2021. The Velvet Underground is as psychedelic, dark, and engaging as the band it explores, while Roadrunner: A Film About Anthony Bourdain effortlessly dilineated a figure who was multifaceted as he was inspirational. This year, cinema got real again. Let’s hope it continues into 2022! Enjoy.

    1. Nightmare Alley
    2. The Card Counter
    3. The Power of the Dog
    4. Licorice Pizza
    5. The Velvet Underground
    6. C’mon C’mon
    7. No Sudden Move 
    8. Roadrunner: A Film About Anthony Bourdain
    9. Summer of Soul
    10. The Worst Person in the World 

IN THE HEIGHTS (HBO Max)

Asher Luberto’s Top 10

Great movies look great no matter the size of the screen, but they overwhelm the senses when projected large. You don’t just watch them; you feel them, fall into them, linger on every detail, texture and flake of snow. When I saw The Green Knight back in July, it was the first time I had been in a theater in eight months and my body literally froze. The Arthurian epic was magnificent, the images grand, lyrical, spellbinding, and the score was maybe the best piece of music released in 2021.

There were other spectacles, too. In the Heights was a reminder of what a big-screen musical can be, while The Power of the Dog was a reminder of what a big-screen western can do. On a smaller scale, Paul Thomas Anderson’s joyride through 1970’s Los Angeles (Licorice Pizza) was a golden haze of nostalgia that wafted off the screen and into our hearts. Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s road movie (Drive My Car) cast a unique spell, and Sian Heder’s ode to youth, music and family (CODA) made me cry more than any other movie… ever? Anyone who says the theatrical experience is dead clearly hasn’t been to the cinema in 2021. One look at Dune and they’d know theaters are in good hands.

      1. The Green Knight
      2. In the Heights
      3. The Mitchells Vs. The Machines
      4. This Is Not a Burial, It’s a Resurrection
      5. CODA
      6. Licorice Pizza
      7. Dune
      8. Drive My Car
      9. Quo Vadis, Aida? 
      10. The Power of the Dog

DRIVE MY CAR (Janus Films)

Michael Atkinson’s Top 10

In what could hardly be defined as a “year in movies,” it was even less possible than usual to glean satisfaction from whatever the mainstream “industry” managed to produce and get seen, and so my list goes where the mad doctors are. While a thorny Romanian is no surprise, a Bosnian one is, much less the first film ever from Lesotho. While in his roundabout way Hamaguchi schooled everyone with his Elvis year, young Georgian filmmakers dented the few filmgoers who bothered.

At home, one Anderson (PT) makes what’s for him an almost typical grab-bag of grace and invention, while the other Anderson (Wes) crafts a wonder cabinet so self-involved and opaque it qualifies as an experimental film. Forget trends and studios and franchise slavery; it’s every filmmaker for themself.                                   

      1. Drive My Car 
      2. Quo Vadis, Aida? 
      3. Licorice Pizza 
      4. Beginning 
      5. Brighton 4th 
      6. Bad Luck Banging or Loony Porn 
      7. The French Dispatch 
      8. Wheel of Fantasy and Fortune 
      9. This Is Not a Burial, It’s a Resurrection 
      10. The Power of the Dog 

THE LOST DAUGHTER (Courtesy Netflix)

Chuck Wilson’s Top 10

The 10 films listed below are in alphabetical order because I don’t love one much more than another. If I was voting for the Best Picture Oscar, I’d choose Passing, but otherwise, these are movies that grabbed my heart and squeezed it tight. One or two made me laugh out loud (an extra blessing this year).

It’s the performances that will stay with me, particularly Frankie Faison’s devastating work in The Killing of Kenneth Chamberlain or the gorgeous mid-film drunken conversation between Clifton Collins Jr. and Molly Parker in Jockey (in limited release until December 29). I think a lot about Ron Rikkin’s beautifully understated work in Minyan and when I flash on Jamie Dornan singing “seagull on the tire, can you hear my prayer?” in Barb and Star Go To Vista Del Mar, well, I’m just plain happy. I’d give him an Oscar, too.

      • Barb and Star Go To Vista Del Mar
      • Jockey
      • The Killing of Kenneth Chamberlain
      • The Last Duel 
      • Luca
      • Passing
      • Pig
      • Tick, Tick . . . Boom!

LICORICE PIZZA (United Artists)

Lina Lecaro’s Top 10

My top movies of 2021 list might be controversial, but I’ve never been one to fancy up my views so they jive with “serious critics.” Sometimes – often actually – I finish a “puff-picture” blockbuster feeling more satisfaction than I do an acclaimed indie or foreign title.

This year I wanted and needed the following from the films I viewed: music, nostalgia, escape, badass female leads, a few surprises/tears/laughs, and more music! If it wasn’t presented on TV in four parts as a docuseries, Peter Jackson’s Get Back would’ve topped this list… it still kinda does in my mind. That said, some incredible documentaries have stayed with me this year (look a full piece about my favorite docs next week on LAWeekly.com)

  1. TIE: Respect and The United States vs. Billie Holiday
  2. Summer of Soul
  3. Licorice Pizza
  4. TIE: The Sparks Brothers and The Velvet Underground
  5. Nomadland
  6. Zola
  7. The Power of the Dog
  8. Pig
  9. Swan Song
  10. TIE: Black Widow, Cruella and Shang-Chi & the Legend of the Ten Rings 

 

 

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