This movie list is being published late. Later than my previous late list. But a few short years from now the difference between 2021 and 2022 and 2023 will effectively be null, as they’ll collectively be known as the “recent past”. So, if on a long enough timeline everything simply becomes historical, it’s more productive to focus on the if rather than the when; after all, the reason to watch a movie once is to determine whether it’s worth watching twice.
Now, onto the films! Overall, 2021 was a good but not great movie year. For that reason, I included a lot of films on my list, but I wouldn’t consider too many of them to be all-time favorites. That’s just how it goes some years. If I had to choose which genre was strongest, I would give the nod to documentaries and specials, which featured some amazing entries into the zeitgeist. I’m getting ahead of myself though, and in the spirit of movie-going, no more spoilers.
– This list is not comprehensive, as I have not seen every movie that came out in 2021. Assign proper expectations for the list’s depth and quality (and review length.)
– For information on where these movies are currently streaming, IMDb.com has the most up-to-date information listed near the top of each film’s individual page.
– The films on this list are presented in two tiers, but otherwise in no particular order.
Bo Burnham: Inside
“20,000 years of this, 7 more to go/It’ll be over soon, you wait.”
Comedian/musician Bo Burnham has a long history of writing songs with an eye toward cultural commentary, but his ambition and scope on this special reached that of full-on performance art. In my opinion, not only is this the best thing Burnham has ever made, but it was the best piece of content released in all of 2021, for the mere fact that he found a way to expertly capture what it felt like to be living through the uncertainty of the COVID-19 lockdowns. His reflecting back to us our own experience with crumbling mental states hit deep.
It’s clear that this special struck a chord with the culture at large because many of Bo’s songs became the basis for memes and sounds on platforms like Twitter and TikTok, which caused the obsession for his music to spread further. As a rule of thumb, when any younger generation (in this case Millennials and Gen Z) unironically love a piece of media, that tends to have a noticeable influence on the culture, becoming a reference point to so many. Personally, there’s no one I’d trust more in that position than Bo Burnham.
The end times are upon us. I hope we survive ‘em.
“Are you letting yourself be led by fear or by love?”
This movie demonstrates exactly how to convert a Broadway musical to the big screen, neatly mixing fun and dramatic moments with well-timed and catchy musical numbers that advance the characters’ emotional outlook while feeling grounded in the universe. This is Lin-Manuel Miranda’s first time in the director’s chair, though the polished finished product never betrays that fact; leave it to the guy who created two hit musicals — Hamilton and In The Heights – to nail what’s historically been a difficult genre adaptation.
The original musical is by Jonathan Larson, the creator of Rent, though it was finished and published posthumously as Larson died before its completion. This has some bleak irony to it, as the story was semi-autobiographical, starring a character named “Jon” who was engaging in a love/hate relationship with the creative process, and constantly worried about running out of time.
The film’s believability (a common struggle with musical adaptations) is assisted by the fact that it’s set within the world of musical theatre in New York City, making it realistic that people might break out into song at any moment.
The actors themselves are utterly terrific, with Andrew Garfield’s Oscar-nominated leading performance easily lifting the movie to its highs. In the supporting roles, Alexandra Shipp, Robin de Jesús and Vanessa Hudgens all feel perfectly of the world, which makes for engaging watching. The film is also filled with many fun cameos and bit acting roles performed by Broadway legends, but personally, as a massive Stephen Sondheim fan, I adored most of all Bradley Whitford’s portrayal of the king of the American musical.
“I feel as if I’m losing all my leaves.”
Adapting a stage play to the screen can be challenging, because a lot of the charm and energy from a play comes from the natural limit that the whole story is contained to one small stage. Everything is tight, and there’s no wasted space. When those constraints are tossed aside because of film’s limitless nature, a taut story can easily unravel and become a mess.
Thankfully, this was not an issue for The Father. This is probably true because the film’s writer/director, Florian Zeller, also created the play, so no one was better equipped to adapt the story into a film than him. Further, the story itself was also particularly primed for the screen, as it was about an old man in the throes of dementia, making for a psychological story that relied more on changing the actors than the setting.
In fact, this delicate tale was so deftly told that it earned an Oscar nomination for Best Picture, and a win for Best Adapted Screenplay for Zeller. It also garnered an Oscar for Best Actor, which was deservedly won by Sir Anthony Hopkins, who completely embodied the role of “the father” and reminded us all why he is still one of our finest living actors. The rest of the cast was amazing and filled with all-stars too, including Olivia Colman, Mark Gatiss, Imogen Poots, Rufus Sewell and Olivia Williams.
What really works about the film is the way the story is told, with the audience made to feel as confused about who is who as Hopkins’ character is, facilitating a visceral connection to his troubled mental state. This storytelling style is reminiscent of Memento (2000), and it works surprisingly well in a quiet drama.
Don’t Look Up
A satire so over the top that it actually feels grounded in reality.
This film is written and directed by the visionary, Adam McKay, who’s transitioned from making straight comedies with Will Ferrell (like Anchorman (2004) and Step Brothers (2008)) to focusing on more message-based films that spoof our broken reality (like The Big Short (2015) and Vice (2018)).
On its face, this entry into McKay’s filmography is a satire about a looming extinction-level event in the form of an asteroid hurtling toward Earth. Where McKay has fun with it is in humanity’s reaction to this devastating news, which manifests anywhere from choosing to ignore it, to scheming up ways to profit from it. Beyond that, the movie also turns its eye toward skewering fame and celebrity, by way of shining a light on who we choose to award power to, and how easily those people become corrupted by it; the path to hell is indeed paved with good intentions.
The satire genre isn’t to everyone’s taste – this movie garnered a lot of hatred from all over the political spectrum when it was released – but I find movies that can talk around a subject using metaphor and analogy instead of directly at it can be more all-encompassing and burrow deeper into people’s psyche, because it allows the audience to fill in the blanks with their own outlook.
Another fun aspect of McKay’s movies is how star-studded his casts are. This one features his best assemblage yet, with Leonardo DiCaprio and Jennifer Lawrence as the leads, and Meryl Streep, Cate Blanchett, Jonah Hill and many more filling out the rest of the roles. Everyone in the movie shines.
The French Dispatch
Wes Anderson’s issue of The New Yorker.
The thing about writer/director Wes Anderson’s movies is they consistently get better with subsequent viewings. It’s not that they aren’t appreciated and adored the first go round, but Anderson is so precise with how he constructs his stories and scenes that his films are filled with callbacks and foreshadowing, meaning there’s a deeper appreciation available with each watch. In his films, everything is exactly where it’s meant to be, and there’s comfort in that.
Wes Anderson is not for everyone, though. To some, his movies are overly complicated and, gasp, twee. I get that. But I think the way he writes adult material set against a dollhouse-like backdrop makes him arguably today’s most unique filmmaker working at the highest-levels of the industry. I mean, look no further for his greatness and originality than two of my all-time favorite movies: The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (2004), and The Darjeeling Limited (2007).
Though Anderson has an instantly recognizable style, he’s also known for finding opportunities to take risks, like his two stop-motion films: Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009) and Isle of Dogs (2018). With The French Dispatch, Anderson undertook another risk by eschewing a straightforward narrative in favor of making a movie made up of shorts, essentially transposing the structure of a magazine and the stories that combine to form it and using it as the basis for his film, which is about a magazine and the stories that combine to form it. Wes loves his meta commentary.
Overall, the movie showcases Anderson’s hilarious wit, and it feels uniquely fast-paced because of its structure. I was initially skeptical that the sum of these parts would equal more than the whole, but the format allowed Wes to take big story swings with each vignette, fleshing out ideas that wouldn’t have sustained well as full movies. My personal favorite section of the film was the first of the main stories, “The Concrete Masterpiece.”
Another trademark of Wes Anderson is his troupe of well-regarded actors whom he rotates in for his various movies. Given this film’s structure, it features his most extensive cast yet: Bill Murray, Owen Wilson, Tilda Swinton, Anjelica Huston, Adrien Brody, Bob Balaban, Liev Schreiber, Willem Dafoe, Edward Norton, Jason Schwartzman, Timothee Chalamet, Frances McDormand, Lea Seydoux, etc. etc. etc. PLUS the most interesting actor working today, Benicio Del Toro. Truly delightful.
The Suicide Squad
A movie unapologetic for its cackling over its own extreme violence, perfectly befitting the source material.
It’s fair to wonder how genuine of a recommendation this is, given the shaky quality of DC films (including the awful original Suicide Squad movie), but this entry into their expanded universe leaned impeccably into its darkly comedic sensibilities and became a much-needed highlight.
The credit for this lies with James Gunn, who wrote and directed the movie and who understands how to translate a comic book into an entertaining film, having previously guided the Guardians of the Galaxy mythology into a hugely successful big screen run at Marvel.
What this movie gets right is that its focus is squarely on having fun with its characters, and the plot they find themselves in is secondary to the character-building. Specifically, the back-and-forth between Idris Elba’s Bloodsport and John Cena’s Peacemaker makes for some of the best moments of the film. Margot Robbie also continues to be a stroke of casting genius as Harley Quinn. I do wish a few of the other main characters’ motivations had a bit more polish to them, and a couple of the supporting acting performances don’t quite work for me, but when the overall tone of a movie is coherent, these nit-picks can more easily be overlooked.
As a ripple effect due to the success of Gunn’s films, he was asked to become co-CEO of DC Studios, so there’s hope that future productions from their comic book universe ascend to a higher quality than the recent run of releases. Gunn already spun off Cena’s Peacemaker character into a hilarious series on HBO Max, so things are off to a good start.
Derek DelGaudio’s In & Of Itself
“I am the rouletista.”
This one-man stage show, written and performed by the magician Derek DelGaudio, was performed a total of 552 times in New York City alone, so by the time they got around to filming it, the product was razor-sharp. Directed by Frank Oz of The Muppets and Sesame Street fame, the show’s focus is on tying together close-up magic, large-scale wonder, and interpersonal growth to create a spectacle where the real magic is in transforming the audience into different people by the show’s end.
It’s a story-driven presentation, with each tale that DelGaudio tells building into a more mystifying illusion, with the show’s final moments leading to jaw dropping wizardly. We are each the master of our own fate, and exactly who we believe ourselves to be.
This special is best watched without knowing anything about it beforehand, but like all the best pieces of art, it’s eminently rewatchable.
“When you’re in the mountains, with a mission, it’s like all of the superficialities of life just sort of evaporate.”
The act of free soloing means to scale a sheer mountain face without the aid of ropes or any other fail-safe measures, so for nearly every human alive, it’s the stuff of nightmares. For the remaining few, free soloing is the only way they ever truly feel alive.
Like many climbers who spend their time summitting near-impossible peaks, the subject of the documentary, Canadian Marc Andre LeClerc, marches to the beat of his own drum. That’s where his charm comes from, living life in his own way, and in many respects spending all his time listening to his own thought process made him into as much of a philosopher as an outdoorsman. A true 1 of 1 human.
The doc follows LeClerc as he pushes the “sport” of free soloing forward by being the first to traverse specific mountain climbs, while at the same time giving him space to talk about why he climbs, which above all else is for his own peace of mind. I wrote about this documentary in more detail here, so head there for my extended thoughts.
One final note: Brace yourself for the film’s difficult ending.
Spider-Man: No Way Home
Making a good superhero movie is not easy, but this one accomplished the feat by cashing in all its nostalgia chips to bring back not just Tobey Maguire, not just Andrew Garfield, but also Willem Dafoe and Albert Molina. Cheap? Maybe. But Tom Holland continues to be a great choice for Peter Parker, and the scenes between the three Spider-Men are excellent.
Drive My Car
Nominated for Best Picture, this is an adaptation of a short story by one of my favorite authors, Haruki Murakami, a specialist in hilariously dry tales. It’s a treat to see adapted marvelously onto the silver screen. Its run time is a full three hours, but it’s fairly well-paced. The film is less about the plot or even the characters than it is about the themes.
A return to form here for Disney with this animated film featuring a large Colombian family who each have their own unique magical power. Despite their various strengths though, the family is far from perfect, and the film is about how they come closer together by sharing their secrets with one another and acting more as a family should. Beyond that solid premise, the movie is also filled with a plethora of original songs written by Lin-Manuel Miranda, who is as good as they come with writing and composing. The film is made for kids, so it’s not the most challenging piece of content ever created, but it’s immensely enjoyable, and the tunes will stick in your head long after the credits have rolled.
This is a prank movie with a heart of gold. Eric Andre makes me cackle harder than almost anyone else alive, so when he makes a full-length movie that ropes unsuspecting people into his absurd reality, I’m the audience for it. He also brings the movie in for an ethical ending by including a reel during the end credits that shows the production revealing everything was fake to the innocent civilians who were roped into the chaos.
Dune: Part One
As a mega fan of the Dune book series, I went into this film as a tough customer, with the picture having to compete with my imagination. Luckily, Warner Brothers had the sense to hire a visionary director like Denis Villeneuve to make the film, and his ability to construct imposing visuals is as good as anyone alive, evidenced by his previous films like Blade Runner 2049 (2017) and Arrival (2016). My nitpicks are few: though he’s not a bad Paul Atreides, I think there was better casting out there than Timothee Chalamet, and I would’ve preferred this to not be only half of a movie. Thankfully, Denis is back to close out the story, so all’s well that ends well I guess.
In The Heights
Adapted from the award-winning Broadway musical created by living legend Lin-Manuel Miranda, this is another successful example for how to translate a story from one medium to another. The music is very catchy and left largely untouched for the big screen, and the dance numbers and choreography are very well-crafted to fit the film’s reality. Word to the wise: taking a well-rounded story and only tweaking it enough to make logical adjustments for the filmed format is a fairly reliable way to make something good.
Mitchells vs The Machines
An immensely enjoyable animated flick about a family that’s drifting apart from each other in our device-forward world, but is forced to come together to save humanity. The movie is tailored perfectly for kids and adults, as there’s quite a few jokes aimed at each audience quadrant. The voice acting is also excellent and causes you to connect more deeply with the family. Finally, the plot is coherent easy to follow. All animated films should be like this one.
By and large, any piece of media focused on professional kitchens and professional chefs is what I’m a “foodie” for. Starring the terrific character actor Stephen Graham, the movie is filmed as one long take as his head chef character tries to keep his restaurant afloat during one of the worst nights of his life. The whole cast is terrific, with nearly everyone getting to play their own sad beat, and though there isn’t much in the way of happy resolution, that’s just how some nights go. Some good news is that a sequel TV series is in the works with much of the terrific cast reprising their roles.
I’m not actually recommending that anyone watch this movie because for the most part it’s incredibly odd and bordering on off-putting, but damnit if I’m not interested in weird. Also, Adam Driver is perhaps the best working actor when it comes to showcasing his top tier chops in the most bizarre yet captivating roles – in this film, keep an eye on when his character is performing onstage to see his most interesting work. Maybe the best way to experience this film is to simply watch the opening musical number, which is performed by The Sparks Brothers and fires on all cylinders.
This is a really thrilling documentary featuring one of the most impressive modern-day explorers and leaders: a Nepalese man named Nimsdai. The film follows him and his team as they set out to achieve the world record for the fasted summiting of all 14 8000m mountains on Earth, which includes Everest and K2. Nims is a total badass and a true commander, who operates with incredible charisma and important decisiveness on behalf of his team as they navigate the line between pushing boundaries and keeping people safe. I love sports docs, and that’s essentially what this is.
One of the most notable world events of the last five years was the Thailand cave rescue, where a soccer team of young boys and their coach got stuck deep in a cave system after sudden flooding blocked their escape route. The world then rallied together to find and save every single person in the cave, which was a true triumph of the human spirit. To watch the whole process laid out in this doc made me appreciate the rescue even more, because I came to understand how amazing the coordination and methods were to make it happen. This was directed by Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi, the husband and wife directing team who filmed Alex Honnold’s Free Solo (2018), so they knew how to approach this type of palm-sweating material.
Billie Eilish: The World’s A Little Blurry
I love learning about someone’s creative process because of how unique it is to each individual. In particular, anything music-related is especially mysterious to me, and therefore the most interesting. This fascinating documentary is an inside look at rising music superstar Billie Eilish’s life and career, and I became a bigger fan of her after getting a peak behind the curtain.
The Lost Leonardo
A tremendously interesting story about the recently unearthed artwork “Salvator Mundi”, a painting allegedly done by Leonardo da Vinci, but with uncertainty around its validity. The documentary focuses on the artwork’s chaotic and suspicious journey to becoming the most expensive painting ever sold, going for $450 million. The directors leave the door open just wide enough for the audience to make up its own mind about who’s lying and who’s telling the truth about the painting’s provenance.