Aaron’s Top Ten Favorite Films of 2021

From sandworms to knights to machines, Aaron Neuwirth dives into all of his favorite films of 2021, including honorable mentions, and more.

However different the last couple of years may feel, forming a list like this is still fun. Thanks to bountiful streaming options, I had plenty to consider for 2020’s top ten list. This year brought back more theater-going opportunities, along with plenty of streaming choices, allowing me to once again watch 200+ new films. It’s actually led to the shortest list of movies I’ve missed in a while. Given the way things are going, 2022 is looking to be pretty similar as far as audience viewing choices. Still, I can’t complain when narrowing down a lot of good-to-great films to 50. So, here is my complete list of favorites for the year 2021, with plenty of runner-ups and honorable mentions, followed by the top ten. Reviews are linked when available AND, as per usual, I’ve also linked some fun Easter Eggs in every picture you see. Enjoy!

Movies I Missed:

About Endlessness, All Light Everywhere, Azor, Identifying Features, I’m Your Man, France, Swan Song, Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy

Special Mention:

The Amusement ParkA lost George A. Romero film from 1973 was restored and released this year. It truly delivered something unique and wild, combining a documentary-like approach to nightmarish imagery while serving as a commentary on elder abuse.

The Beatles: Get Back – Originally intended as a 3D theatrical event, Peter Jackson and his team took an extra year to deliver an excellent 3-part streaming event, allowing viewers to be a fly on the wall with The Beatles during some of their more tumultuous times as a band.

Keep An Eye OutA bit at odds, as this was a 2018 French release that only just hit America this year. That said, this Quentin Dupieux movie is one of the funniest films I’ve seen in a long time, and I couldn’t not make mention of that.

NYC Epicenters: 9/11 –> 2021 – Spike Lee’s riveting HBO 4-part documentary miniseries is not only further proof of Lee being as strong at making docs as he is at making features but a lively, expansive look at what New York (and America) has gone through for the past 20 years.

One Second – Another film I’m at odds with, as director Zhang Yimou’s loving tribute to cinema also dealt with delays and politically motivated censorship, leaving it somewhat compromised.

Saloum – With no set release date in place, Saloum will just have to stand as a terrific Senegalese thriller and the best yet-to-be-released film I saw through a film festival in 2021.

Zack Snyder’s Justice LeagueDespite all of the baggage around it, credit where credit is due to a purer form of 2017’s Justice League seeing the light of day, sparing no expense to be something far more representative of what it should be like to put these superheroes together in one epic saga.

Runner-Ups (Ranked 50-21):

50. Psycho Goreman 45. Army of the Dead
49. The Tomorrow War 44. Coda
48. Saint Maud 43. Space Sweepers
47. Together Together 42. Nobody
46. Old Henry 41. Stealing School

40. The Paper Tigers 35. Mandibles
39. Luca 34. Undine
38. Shang-Chi: The Legend of the Ten Rings 33. Malignant
37. Parallel Mothers 32. Cyrano
36. Raya and The Last Dragon 31. Titane

30. The Matrix Resurrections 25. Riders of Justice
29. The Last Duel 24. The Killing of Two Lovers
28. The Beta Test 23. The Worst Person in the World
27. Annette 22. Drive My Car
26. The Lost Daughter 21. The Suicide Squad

Honorable Mentions (Ranked 20-11):

20. The French Dispatch 15. Shiva Baby
19. Pig 14. Bad Trip
18. No Sudden Move 13. The Harder They Fall
17. The Tragedy of Macbeth 12. Quo Vadis, Aida?
16. Godzilla vs. Kong 11. West Side Story

The Top Ten

10. The Power of the Dog

“Bronco Henry told me that a man was made by patience in the odds against him.”

It’s no wonder praise came instantly for The Power of the Dog, which is on its way to being a major awards player. Admittedly, it wasn’t until the second time viewing the film that I truly recognized all it had to offer. With that in mind, the movie stuck in my mind after an initial watch for good reason. The towering performance by Benedict Cumberbatch is matched well by those around him. Jane Campion’s superb direction is supported by terrific visuals and a superb Johnny Greenwood score that enhances the tension. As a revisionist western tackling the idea of the very masculine rancher, the way this story unfolds leaves plenty to consider and more rewards when prompted to reconsider.

9. Last Night In Soho

“Has a woman ever died in my room?”

Having dabbled in horror before, director Edgar Wright took a big swing right into psychological thriller/ghost story territory with this to London’s swinging 60s mod scene. A tale relying on clever visual trickery to immerse Thomasin McKenzie’s Eloise in her favorite time period, in the form of Anya Taylor-Joy’s Sandie, there’s an ambitious attempt to do something different in this gem of a film. Pushing certain cinematic limits is not new for Wright, but his efforts to tell a more mature story focused on trauma (with help from co-writer Krysty Wilson-Cairns to add a solid additional perspective) allows this hip horror flick to have a level of edge and messiness well-suited for a time in need of stories that don’t always have clear answers.

8. In The Heights

“A dream isn’t some sparkly diamond we get. Sometimes, it’s rough. And it’s not so pretty.”

2021 was a big year for Lin-Manuel Miranda. Between tick, tick…Boom!, Vivo, and Encanto, he’s had plenty to push him closer to at least a Best Original Song Oscar. However, it’s the adaptation of the Broadway musical he created with Quiara Alegria Hudes that best struck a chord for me. Jon M. Chu’s years as a director of Step Up films and smaller dance-related efforts paid off well in this vibrant look at a struggling community. Anthony Ramos’s excellent work helped steer a movie full of strong performances. The well-staged song and dance numbers that recall past musicals while serving as something fresh were also a delight. Or, perhaps it all comes down to Jimmy Smit’s booming voice, as he wishes “good morning” to Usnavi.

7. Licorice Pizza

“I’m a showman. It’s what I’m meant to do.”

Paul Thomas Anderson once again pays tribute to the San Fernando Valley, this time focusing on growing up, ambition versus aimlessness, and young love. It turned into Anderson’s most wholesome film, with his expert filmmaking doing a number on the period detail found throughout. The amount of comedy laced throughout this picture is not hurting at all, with tremendous lead performances from Alana Haim and Cooper Hoffman guiding the film along its affecting path. Licorice Pizza can be very funny at times (Bradley Cooper steals the movie briefly in his small but hysterical role as Jon Peters). At the same time, however, it’s not without a heart and a sense of cunning when addressing the times and allowing the viewer to take away what they can from this oddball romance.

6. A Hero

“It’s the talk of the neighborhood.”

When it comes to making contemporary dramas, I’m not sure there’s a better filmmaker currently out there than Asghar Farhadi. Whether or not A Hero is his best film since A Separation (one of the best films of the past decade)¸ it’s another fantastic example of what Farhadi can do when he’s at his strongest – pull a wide array of emotions out of everyday circumstances. Amir Jadidi’s Rahim is a wonderfully tragic figure, as he finds himself in one predicament after another, after attempting to do the right thing following certain excusable choices he could not have imagined would have led to such extreme repercussions. Once again, Farhadi lets his writing and the actors do so much of the heavy lifting. His subtle, non-showy filmmaking style allows for precision when considering the variety of choices made to never feel intrusive but always keep the situation compelling.

5. Dune

“The mystery of life isn’t a problem to solve, but a reality to experience.”

Having grown up with no real connection to Dune, the prospect of turning it into another blockbuster event film gave me more excitement as the latest science fiction film from director Denis Villeneuve than seeing this particular novel come back to life. Armed with all the talented filmmakers available and a more-than-qualified ensemble cast, the prospects of something worthwhile were strong. I was not prepared for how much I would genuinely embrace what merely amounts to the first part of a longer story. The scope of Dune is incredibly from a visual level for sure, though I was equally impressed with how involved I felt with the machinations in place to create this universe and envelope me in the Shakespearean-level drama taking place. While I’m far more prepared to enjoy what a follow-up will offer, Part I of this story was an extraordinary accomplishment.

4. The Mitchells vs. The Machines

“It took 28 minutes and a lot of tears. But I can now almost use a computer.”

Discovering more about yourself while accepting your family for who they are, and bonding over it, is a pretty familiar angle for family-friendly animated films. This was largely seen throughout the various Disney and Pixar efforts in 2021. With that in mind, I once again saw myself siding more with the blending of heart, rapid-fire jokes, and visual wonder from another Phil Lord and Christopher Miller production. Directors Mike Rianda and Jeff Rowe found plenty of ways to make me smile with this dysfunctional family road trip movie packed with so many laughs and ideas that I know I’ll still be discovering more gags as time goes on. Sony’s animation department is no slouch either, opting for some unique designs and an overall aesthetic that (much like the Mitchells) feels entirely of its own.

3. The Green Knight

“Honor. That is why a knight does what he does.”

Is honor truly the reason? In A24’s medieval arthouse epic, David Lowery finds an assured direction for his adaptation of the famous Arthurian tale and sticks with it. The result is a visually ambitious work of art centered around Dev Patel’s Gawain, as he seeks any sort of experience to finally prove his worth. Patel brings all the screen charisma he can (which is to say, a lot), as he deals with various trials and tribulations in a film that puts him through the wringer. This movie is packed with double meanings and effective uses of practical and visual effects allowing for an eerie atmosphere that is somehow otherworldly and earthly. The Green Knight is an adventure film with far less emphasis on action and a lot more concern for all of the weight of establishing one’s legacy.

2. Judas and the Black Messiah

“I don’t know what I’d tell him, other than I was part of the struggle.”

The Oscars (6 nominations, 2 wins) only helped solidify what I already knew – Judas and the Black Messiah is one of the best and most important films of the year. It’s one thing to enlighten people about who Fred Hampton (brilliantly portrayed by Daniel Kaluuya) was, but it’s another thing to turn the story into a well-produced studio thriller. Yes, the film has a perspective and an understanding of what it wants to say about the Black Panther Party and those looking to destroy it for being a perceived threat (it wasn’t), but director Shaka King made a smart move in positioning the main point of view behind LaKeith Stanfield’s Bill O’Neal. The result is an electrifying feature full of great performances, excellent cinematography to truly capture the time and the mood, and a level of tension that does well to match up to what was in the air at that time, thanks to the aptitude and authority of a revolutionary mind.

1. Summer of Soul (…Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised)

“This was the first time I had seen so many of us … It was the ultimate Black barbecue.”

After considering the vast array of films I have seen throughout the year, it says something that there was not one I found myself appreciating more than director Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson’s brilliantly assembled documentary covering the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival. Emotional, sentimental, and insightful, this incredibly well-edited work not only clued me into an event I had never even known about but did so with so much style and confidence.

Summer of Soul already works as a terrific look at a music festival featuring performances from Stevie Wonder, Nina Simone, Sly and the Family Stone, The 5th Dimension, Mahlia Jackson, Gladys Knight and the Pips, B.B. King, and others. Even better is realizing how innovative Questlove is to use these performances as segments to push into the different things going on with black culture during that time. Covering everything from Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination from a year earlier to the moon landing with attitudes far different than what one typically hears, there’s a lot to admire about having the opportunity to see this unearthed footage.

It’s astounding that this entire event was filmed (six free shows over six weeks), and no outlet wanted to do anything with the footage, only for Woodstock to be seen as one true music festival of 1969. As Questlove has stated, “The fact that 40 hours of this footage was kept from the public is living proof that revisionist history exists,” and as I continue enjoying the fact that his footage was discovered and shown back to surviving band members and attendees alike, it’s something I’ll continue to appreciate when it comes to what cinema can provide.

***

And that concludes my favorite films of 2021. It’s been another rocky year as far as the world is concerned. Still, theatrical moviegoing became more of an experience to have again. Whether I saw films in the theater or at home, I once again enjoy the variety of new releases that made their way to my list and hope more can discover what they can as well. Please be sure to enjoy some of the other recent lists I’ve put together, including my picks for the best 4K & Blu-ray releases of the year and my upcoming favorite movie scenes of 2021. Feel free to hear more of my thoughts on the year’s releases, along with others, via the podcast I’ve co-hosted for over a decade. Soon enough, there will also be a list of my most anticipated films of 2022. There’s always plenty of movies on the horizon, and I look forward to seeing what will be topping my list next year.

Written by
Aaron Neuwirth is a movie fanatic and Rotten Tomatometer-approved film critic from Orange County, California. He’s a member of the Hollywood Critics Association, the Online Film Critics Society, and the Black Film Critics Circle. As an outgoing person who is always thrilled to discuss movies, he’s also a podcaster who has put far too many hours into published audio content associated with film and television. His work has been published at We Live Entertainment, Why So Blu, The Young Folks, Screen Rant, and Hi-Def Ninja.

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