The Top 10 Movies of 2021

There were plenty of gems to be found inside reopened cinemas this year — and, of course, plenty more available via streaming.


No matter the circumstances, the movies are still great.

Fortunately, I was able to watch most of my favorite movies of 2021 on movie screens, a luxury I missed for the bulk of 2020. Last year, nearly everything I saw, I watched at home (or, in the activity that got me through a cinema-free year, at the drive-in). Tentatively and sporadically, though, the cinema really and truly came back in 2021.

Even as, in many cases, crowds didn’t. While major event pictures such as “Spider-Man: No Way Home” — which, for its sheer fan-service audacity, came awfully close to my Top 10 — drew giant audiences, movies that skewed toward older demographics faltered as audiences continued to weigh the need to see superhero-free content on the big screen.

Without getting into a diatribe: Everything is better on the big screen, large or small.

But as the studios and stars grapple with the ways viewership will change in coming years, the fact remains: The movies themselves are very, very good, no matter where you watch them.

10) Shiva Baby
Speaking of the return to theaters, I’m not sure I’ll ever be able to look at “Shiva Baby” objectively; it was the first movie I saw in a theater after more than a year’s absence. I’m pretty sure anything I saw that night would’ve dazzled me. Striving to remain as impartial as possible, though, “Shiva Baby” is a remarkable film, depicting a rolling quarterlife crisis as its rudderless heroine navigates the questions and expectations of family and friends after a death in the family. It’s a comedy that feels like a horror movie led by a captivating performance from Rachel Sennott.
How to See It: Streaming on HBO Max.

9) Titane
This one’s not for the faint of heart, but I was floored by its audaciousness. A body horror film more visceral than anything David Cronenberg ever made, “Titane” follows a traumatized young woman — who, incidentally, is also a serial killer — through a series of increasingly bizarre and, eventually, moving events. Also, she’s slowly either becoming a car, giving birth to a car or both. You’ll need your own chrome stomach to get through “Titane,” but for the hardy, it’s a knockout punch from director Julia Ducournau. By rights, she should get an Oscar nomination — but she won’t, because this movie is just too much for the Academy.
How to See It: Available for rent via digital on-demand services.



8) The Last Duel
Ridley Scott’s medieval take on a “Rashomon” narrative became more of a news item than a film, as the director bemoaned the theatrical circumstances that limited its box office. No matter; while this sweeping, captivating epic certainly benefits from the big screen, you’ll be just as entranced watching at home. Three screenwriters — Nicole Holofcener, Matt Damon and Ben Affleck — each take a turn at a disputed story of assault and justice in 14th-century France. The story is fascinating, and it ends with the year’s best action sequence.
How to See It: Available for rent via digital on-demand services.

7) The Green Knight
It’s been a big year for the early part of the prior millennium; this won’t even be the final appearance of swords and castles on the list. While “The Last Duel” is based on historical fact, “The Green Knight” is a work of genre-forwarding fantasy — a bold attempt to wrest this style of narrative out of “Game of Thrones” greys and into vivid technicolor. Dev Patel stars as early-literature hero Sir Gawain, whose yuletide conflict with the titular creature leads to a strange, ill-fated journey. I love the imagery and off-kilter tone, but “The Green Knight” sticks with me for its protagonist: A guy getting nothing at all right, yet plodding along toward his fate.
How to See It: Available for rent via digital on-demand services.

6) The Lost Daughter
Okay, let’s briefly leave the past behind. “The Lost Daughter,” the debut directorial effort from Maggie Gyllenhaal, is a modern story of reluctant parenthood, middle-aged recriminations and a generally disappointing vacation. Olivia Colman proves her recent Oscar win (for “The Favourite”) was no fluke with a pained, complex portrayal; Jessie Buckley keeps up her end as the younger version of Colman’s character, and continually ascendant star Dakota Johnson stands out among the supporting cast. It’s a quiet, grown-up movie, and a great one.
How to See It: Debuting on Netflix on Dec. 31.



5) West Side Story
Shelve the tired “why remake a classic” argument, please: This “West Side Story” is the answer. Steven Spielberg and screenwriter Tony Kushner prove that some films deserve to be occasionally remounted, just as the great works of theater are, to show how indelible stories reflect each passing generation. This “West Side Story” is a master class in cinematography, design and craft, as well as a showcase for a generation of striking new talents — Rachel Zegler chief among them as a captivating Maria. The most stirring film moment of the year comes late in “West Side Story,” when Rita Moreno — returning from the original, in a new role — delivers a pained and lovely rendition of “Somewhere.”
How to See It: In theaters now.

4) The Tragedy of Macbeth
While we’re on the subject of Shakespearean adaptations, this new take on “Macbeth” from Joel Coen is a thoughtful and uncanny study of the bard’s best tragedy — with the energy of a Hollywood blockbuster. The central pairing of Denzel Washington and Frances McDormand is dynamite; I’d easily give Washington this year’s Oscar. The supporting cast contains a staggering number of memorable turns, including great work from Corey Hawkins, Brendan Gleeson, Harry Melling, Alex Hassell and Kathryn Hunter, who portrays all three of the witches in a series of scenes I could easily watch every day.
How to See It: Debuting in select local theaters on Dec. 31, then on Apple TV+ on Jan. 14.

3) Spencer
It’s a new Christmas classic — one that captures how utterly unbearable it is to shack up with your extended family for days on end if you happen to be in the midst of a mental-health crisis. “Spencer” is worlds away from a drab Princess Diana biopic, with Kristen Stewart depicting the doomed royal over the course of a disastrous holiday — one featuring ghosts, hallucinations and one scathing yet supportive encounter with the Queen. Stewart has grown from a teen star into a dazzling performer, and this is her best work. Every other film about a true-life figure should take notes.
How to See It: Available for rent via digital on-demand services.

2) In the Heights
That’s two New York musicals in the Top 10, if you’re keeping score. As much as “West Side Story” brings old-school filmmaking precision, though, “In the Heights” offers exuberant, modern energy. Director Jon M. Chu created the year’s most joyous cinematic experience — the sequence around the song “96,000” is an all-timer — in adapting Lin-Manuel Miranda and Quiara Alegría Hudes’ modern fable. It’s funny, it’s heartbreaking, it’s romantic, it sounds amazing — “In the Heights” is everything you want from a movie.
How to See It: Streaming on HBO Max.



1) The Power of the Dog
Is there a line to be drawn between the sad, largely hopeless frontier dwellers in Jane Campion’s masterpiece and our own, very modern, ongoing uncertainty? Maybe; that could be why “Power of the Dog” resonated with me so soundly. But I’m pretty sure that, in any year, the achievement here would be stunning. I left this film feeling like I would and could never truly comprehend the rich lives of its characters; that’s a remarkable reaction in an era where complex characterization has largely been left behind. Every modern western aims to capture the beauty and solitude of its setting; Campion does so in every single (beautiful) shot. This is a movie that should be watched and re-watched for years to come.
How to See It: Streaming on Netflix.

Categories: Sean Collier’s Popcorn for Dinner