The Best Films of 2021
2021 wasn’t exactly the complete return to normality we hoped for, but thankfully there were plenty of great movies to keep us busy— and depending on where you reside, movie theatres would finally reopen! Not only did we get exciting releases from American masters like Paul Thomas Anderson, but plenty of long-awaited (and long-delayed) international films and indie gems made their way to VOD. And among the movies that hit the big screen, there was something for everyone including blockbuster franchises, sprawling sci-fi epics, trashy cinema, dance musicals, intimate character dramas, nail-biting thrillers, and everything in between. Even against a pandemic, cinema proved to be more alive than ever.
Voted for by the entire staff here at Tilt Magazine as well as our sister site Goomba Stomp, here’s our list of the best movies of 2021— or rather, a list that reflects our twenty-one favourite films of the year.
21. (Tie) Benedetta
Cinema’s reigning champ of accessible arthouse sleaze proves, now in his 80s and well into his fifth decade of filmmaking, that he hasn’t lots a step – or his edge. Paul Verhoeven’s Benedetta is every bit as loaded with nudity, fantastical violence, scatological humor, and debased heroism as you’d come to expect from the old master. Especially in its rollicking first act, Benedetta is recklessly entertaining and wickedly funny, while never losing sight of Verhoeven’s pet themes (state or religious control, the power of myth, fascism, horny women). While it might lack a klller lead performance on par with Isabelle Huppert or Carice Van Houten in Verhoeven’s last two proper features, the ensemble is stacked with expert scenery-chewers, especially Charlotte Rampling and Lambert Wilson. Does Benedetta compete with Robocop or Black Book as top-shelf Verhoeven? Probably not, but there’s no sign of a slump here, either. (Simon Howell)
20. The Matrix Resurrections
Messy and ambitious, The Matrix Resurrections is the exact kind of blockbuster that makes watching movies far from merely a passive experience. It engages audiences and asks them similar questions to the 1999 original film, The Matrix, while delivering a spectacle in between the food for thought. Feeling like a new beginning and also a satisfying conclusion to the series, Lana Wachowski has created one of the defining texts on blockbuster filmmaking and meta-narratives.
Expanding on simulation theory and dissecting its own original philosophies that themselves have been dissected ad nauseum since 1999, The Matrix Resurrections feels like a recontextualization of its own ideas. At the core of it all though is the same throughline that punctuated each of the entries prior: love conquers all. The relationship between Neo (Keanu Reeves) and Trinity (Carrie-Anne Moss) feels more central than ever in Resurrections. Which is crucial as it’s one of the few elements that the film doesn’t try to subvert or re-examine. Instead, it’s the driving force underneath the film’s self-awareness.
It also doesn’t skimp on action featuring truly breathtaking moments including a climax that keeps going with some visceral beats mixed into the over-the-top setpieces. Even with Lana directing on her own, it still carries the same signature Wachowski visual flair to be expected and is consistently impressive in its stylistic flourishes. Combined with an expansion of its heady philosophy, The Matrix Resurrections represents an acknowledgment that the world since The Matrix has fundamentally changed. It’s one of the few franchises that can have that conversation and still feel like a continuation as opposed to a complete pivot or repurposing. It’s not just one of the best blockbusters of the year, it’s one of the best examples of self-reflexive storytelling in cinema. (Christopher Cross)
19. The Souvenir: Part II
Arthouse sequels don’t come along every day, which made it doubly surprising when Joanna Hogg not only delivered a direct sequel to her hit semiautobiographical quasi-memoir The Souvenir, she delivered it at a practically MCU-worthy pace. Despite the shared cast and direct continuation of the first film’s narrative, Part II deepens and complicates the emotional and aesthetic world of these characters in a way that feels very far from rushed. As Julie (Honor Swinton) attempts to turn her sense of mourning and remembrance into art via a medium she is still learning to work in, we relearn once-familiar beats in new ways, and in the dreamy last half-hour of the film, we see some of that potential unleashed, only to give way to a set party. On with Part III. (Simon Howell)
Like the noise that gets stuck in Jessica’s (Tilda Swinton) head, Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Memoria has yet to leave me since seeing it in cinemas. A gnawing fixation from both its audience and its central character takes a simple mystery and absorbs everything surrounding it. Memoria is a patient, rewarding film that needs its audience more than most other films in order to feel complete. Which explains why it is also one of the most unique theatrical experiences, being released in one cinema and one screening at a time – perpetually in a very limited roadshow format.
Fortunately, Memoria’s deliberately slower pacing and longer shots are paramount to the experience as well. It sucks you in, forcing the audience to engage with every image on screen and mine whatever importance you can get from it. Most of the time, the film feels reflective just as much as it is obscured. The collective unconscious plays a central role in the images on screen and it’s the observant Jessica that allows viewers to get just as lost in the world around her. Swinton forges an empathetic character that serves as a gateway for audiences at the beginning of the film and then her journey becomes equally as enrapturing as the experience of watching Memoria.
Apichatpong’s latest leaves an indelible impression thanks to its uniquely transformative qualities aided by an unparalleled audiovisual experience. It may be a difficult film to go out and watch thanks to its choice in exhibition methods, but Memoria justifies the decision every step of the way. Few films linger as effectively as Memoria and it’s one of the best examples of cinema as a collective experience and not something that can just be digested at home and run the risk of damaging the artistic intent. (Christopher Cross)
17. Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings
Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings makes for a fun watch any time of year, but it’s especially fun around the holidays with themes of the toxic family member and pressure to live up to parents’ expectations. These are fun things, right?
Well, Shang-Chi has got you covered if you need to escape your relatives with an action-comedy superhero tale from Marvel Studios. Starring Simu Liu as the titular protagonist (aka Shaun) and Awkwafina as his best friend, Katy, there’s a bit of a buddy comedy element to it that really works. Michelle Yeoh is brilliant as ever and Ben Kingsley provides some great comic relief.
But it is the action that is the most impressive. There are creative fight scenes like the one with Shaun and Katy on the bus that is a bit of an homage to Speed and the incredible sequence on the high-rise scaffolding. These kinetic action scenes are tempered with serene, balletic ones that are beautifully choreographed featuring Tai chi-like movements.
The intriguing mythology of the story captivates even those who haven’t read the comics or know how it all fits into the wider Marvel Cinematic Universe. And if you are a big fan of the MCU, there are tons of fun Easter eggs throughout. (Erin Allen)
Director Janicza Bravo brought A’Ziah King’s Twitter thread about an ill-fated weekend trip to Florida in 2015 to the big screen earlier this year. Partly based on a true story, King, also known as Zola (Taylour Paige), joins her new friend Stefani (Riley Keough) on a road trip to Florida to make money from stripping for the weekend. Keough’s role is louder than Paige’s, but Paige’s reserved facial expressions in a very intense hotel room scene are the perfect showcase for this actor on the rise. No road trip is complete without a lying, violent pimp (Colman Domingo as X) and a juvenile, obnoxious boyfriend (Nicholas Braun as Derrek) so they join the girls for the journey.
As soon as Zola gets in the jeep with Stefani, Derrek, and X, things start going downhill. X strikes the perfect balance between charismatic and terrifying and Derrek is pathetic and annoying. After arriving in Florida, Zola learns that stripping is not the only thing she’s expected to do that weekend. At times offputting in its stark and darkly funny portrayal of these characters and situations, the movie sticks with you long after the Florida highway fades to black. (Leah Wersebe)
15. The Worst Person in the World
The Worst Person in the World captures something truly heartbreaking in its depiction of romance in a modern world with a specific focus on time – as a barrier in a relationship moving forward regardless of the age gap, creating a difficulty to synchronize; as a bomb in one’s life, frequently counting down the years until suddenly it feels like nothing you have ever done has been of value. It sneaks up on characters, and it’s the value assigned to each decision that eats away at them from the moment they become adults.
Joachim Trier’s conclusion to his ‘Oslo trilogy’ is a romantic dramedy that likes to subvert the tropes associated with the genre by injecting realness into its scenarios (with the exception of the film’s best scene, a moment where time stops mattering for what feels like an eternity but is merely an instant). As Aksel (Anders Danielsen Lie) puts it when describing his own cartoons, characters need to do the same things that those in real life do: have sex, drink, smoke, vomit, etc… It’s not picturesque, but nothing in life truly is. Applied to the world of a romantic film, it makes for a fascinating cross-examination of what romance truly looks like when humans are involved and not just what the idyllic interpretation might be. At the center of it all is Julie (Renate Reinsve) whose spontaneity derives from her own anxiety as she struggles to find the path in life she’s expected to have already found. Trier’s film prods at gender and age expectations and Julie bears the weight of them both. Superbly structured and delicately handled, The Worst Person in the World remains one of the best movies of the year with a firm grasp on what it means to feel pressure in every decision you make in life. (Christopher Cross)
14. Judas and the Black Messiah
The film, directed by Shaka King, is set in Chicago in 1969, when Hampton – just 21 years old at the time – was the leader of the Chicago chapter of the Black Panther Party, and also a significant figure in the national organization. The film argues, as documents released over the years have begun to support more and more, that Hampton (Daniel Kaluuya) was essentially murdered on the direct orders of FBI director J. Edgar Hoover.
Judas and the Black Messiah tells the story of how it happened, mostly involving William O’Neal (Lakeith Stanfield), a low-level criminal who became an FBI informant and helped them “neutralize” Hampton and the Panthers.
Yes, it’s a film highly sympathetic to Black radical politics, the kind of thing that even liberal Hollywood had little interest in making films about until very recently. And it stars the leading men of Get Out (Kaluuya) and Sorry to Bother You (Stanfield), two other major members of the “this movie couldn’t have been made until now” club. The performances are so strong that I was willing to let slide that both actors are about a decade too old for the parts they’re playing. (Stephen Silver)
13. Red Rocket
Sean Baker continues his exploration into the lives of economically depressed sex workers with the captivating Red Rocket. Made on a shoestring budget, it’s a reminder of how strong a movie can be with a good screenplay and exciting performances; a counterpoint to today’s market of IP and CGI offerings. Simon Rex deserves any and all accolades he’ll receive this year for his charismatic performance of porn star Mikey Saber, who is ‘bad news’ incarnate. Fresh out of prison, Mikey sweet talks his way back into his oil rag hometown in Texas. While staying with his estranged wife and her mother, he meets a young girl who he sees as his ticket back into the spotlight. It’s bewitching, cringy and all-around delightful. (Kent M. Wilhelm)
12. Bad Luck Banging or Loony Porn
Romanian filmmaker Radu Jude has made not only the best foreign-language film of 2021, but the best film made to date about the pandemic, or more specifically about how it’s made everyone lose their minds.
It’s a film told in three movements. The first consists of… several minutes of hardcore pornography, leading into the female protagonist’s anxiety that the resulting sex tape had leaked publicly and could cost her her job as a teacher. The second is a humorous cinematic essay featuring a “glossary” of terms. And the third (and best) is the school meeting, at which increasingly unhinged parents debate the woman’s fate, with conspiracy theories and anti-Semitism popping up at random.
This may seem exaggerated, but if you’ve ever been to one of those meetings in the pandemic era, I assure you it’s not. In fact, Bad Luck Banging is the ultimate movie about how we live now. (Stephen Silver)
11. The French Dispatch
Savviness meets journalistic rigor in this Wes Anderson creation. The French Dispatch is a three-part story anthology about reporters working for a made-up magazine called, you guessed it, The French Dispatch. It’s based out of an equally fictional French town (Ennui-sur-Blasé) but is modelled after the very real New Yorker, to which the film is effectively a tribute. The magazine’s editor, Arthur Howitzer Jr. (Bill Murray), dies suddenly of a heart attack, and each segment of the movie follows the course of several of his staff as they go about their business and various pieces are republished for a final farewell issue. There’s an essayist, an art critic, and even a cycling reporter.
As much artist, as he is a filmmaker, and known for his distinct sense of style, Anderson uses a delightful array of shots and visual stimuli to deliver his piece, from black and white to technicolor and animation. This could well be his best work, his most stylish to date. Unfortunately, that same unique sense of style might also make The French Dispatch difficult to fully appreciate for non-Anderson fans, but really it’s hard not to be mesmerized, at least superficially. Covid may have put a temporary stopper on proceedings and delayed The French Dispatch for up to a year, but boy was it worth it in the end. (Michael Hugh McKean)
10 Best Movies of 2021
10. The Power of the Dog
Jane Campion gave us one of the best films of her career with The Power of the Dog, a potent wild west thriller that doubles as a homoerotic psychological study of masculinity gone awry. It’s the director’s first feature since 2009’s Bright Star and it is so well made it makes us wish she would make movies more often.
Adapted from the novel by Thomas Savage, The Power of the Dog carries the faint taste of Terrence Malick’s Days of Heaven with a nod to John Ford’s penchant for framing and shot compositions. Seriously, this is a masterclass in visual storytelling, driven by transfixing performances from Benedict Cumberbatch, Kirsten Dunst, Jesse Plemons and a young Australian actor Kodi Smit-McPhee, who delivered the breakout performance of the year.
The Power of the Dog is a beautifully crafted work of art by a filmmaker who is at the top of her game. It deserves your attention. Jane Campion, take a bow! (Ricky D)
9. Licorice Pizza
Paul Thomas Anderson’s newest movie is one of his best. Set, once again, in the San Fernando Valley of the 1970s, the film is a coming-of-age story in which the plot doesn’t much matter, but it’s all about character and atmosphere.
Cooper Hoffman and Alana Haim shine as the two leads, which is especially astonishing since both are making their big-screen debut, although the film also has some memorable turns by more recognizable actors like Sean Penn, Tom Waits, and Bradley Cooper.
Brilliantly styled, wonderfully soundtracked, and screamingly funny, Anderson has made his Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, and also his Almost Famous at the same time. Licorice Pizza is near the top of Anderson’s filmography, and one of the best films of the year. (Stephen Silver)
8. The Card Counter
What can we do about the sins that will never wash away? Paul Schrader asks this question in his outstanding dark thriller The Card Counter. Schrader’s cynical pen often sketches out the lives of troubled, lonely men who exist in the abscesses of society. He lanced gold in 2017 with First Reformed and continues his look at characters who solitarily bear the weight of collective atrocities. William Tell (Oscar Isaac) lives an echo of a life, subsisting on meager winnings from cheating at cards. He crosses paths with Circk (Tye Sheridan) on the road to ruin. The chance to absolve himself of his haunting past forces him to break free of his pallid routine in order to redirect the young man from the same sad path he’s taken. If you loved First Reformed, which you should, don’t miss this. (Kent M. Wilhelm)
7. Drive My Car
Haruki Murakami is an incredible writer, and there have been a handful of adaptations of his work over the years. However considering his legacy thus far, there haven’t been all that many. This is almost certainly due to his works being somewhat… unadaptable, or at least very difficult to really get the same feel on the screen as on the page.
A few years ago his short story Barn Burning was adapted into the Korean film Burning, and that absolutely blew me away. It was a slow burn, mind the pun, but it embodied the uncertainty and floating nature of Murakami’s short works, whilst also finding space to hit home on all the emotional levels it could.
Now we have another of his short stories brought to the screen, and Ryusuke Hamaguchi knocked it out of the park. Drawing on not just the story Drive My Car, but also taking inspiration from Scheherazade and Kino from the same collection (Men Without Women), Hamaguchi puts together a legitimately mind-blowing experience over the course of three hours.
Two years after the passing of his playwright wife a director finds himself invited to direct a play himself. As he goes through the motions of putting everything together, he likes to take drives around whilst listening to a tape of the play he is adapting. His chauffeur who takes him out on the long drives is a stoic woman, and during their drives communication opens up, and the secrets laying beneath the surface begin to be exchanged between them. The premise comes across quite simple, but the way things unfold and the depth of every character gives this film speculative layers.
The film finds a parallel to the play that Kafuku, our main character, is directing, and everything fits together so perfectly as Drive My Car goes on. Secrets are slowly unravelled, piece by piece, in this expertly crafted and carefully nuanced performance. Even with the slow-release nature of the film, you’re left hanging on every word, attached and immersed in every scene. The cast, the direction, the experience itself, is truly magic. (Shane Dover)
6. The Green Knight
Medieval romance turns to the twenty-first-century cinema in this inspired adaptation of an anonymous poet’s fourteenth-century work. Dev Patel stars as Sir Gawain (pronounced ‘gah-win’), a nephew of King Arthur who sets off on a grim quest to seek out the near-mythical Green Knight. Mysterious and seemingly immortal, the Green Knight stumbles into Arthur’s court one Christmas Day and challenges his bravest warrior (in this case, Gawain) to strike him a single blow – a blow which he’ll return in precisely a year’s time if only the warrior can keep his word and undertake the long and perilous journey to find him at his far-flung Green Chapel.
Dark and foreboding, with plenty of lovely countrysides and gloomy forests, it’s the ideal winter’s tale (apart from, you know, The Winter’s Tale …), all the while offering a thought-provoking social commentary on chivalric law and knightly honor, perfectly capturing the grandeur and stoic fatalism of the original poem. It helps bring that little-known work to a more modern audience, and even has many of the characters speak in Welsh or north-west English accents – apparently a nod to the supposed Cheshire origins of the anonymous Gawain poet, whose six-hundred-year-old skeleton must right now be smiling pretty broadly in some unremarkable grave. (Michael Hugh McKean)
Julia Ducournau left a scar on many film audiences with Raw – one of the most assured feature-length debuts in recent history and one that has left an indelible impact on the horror scene. Following that intense coming-of-age story comes Titane, a movie that defines Ducournau as one of the greatest directors working in genre film today. Louder than an engine and moving to its own delirious rhythm, Titane is an oil-soaked masterpiece that defies physical and cinematic boundaries to craft something so extreme and somehow maintaining pockets of compassion between every moment of insanity.
From the beginning, Titane establishes itself as a movie that will not let up on the gas pedal, but it eventually swerves into a lower gear, punctuating itself with moments of frenzy. The relationship that forms between Alexia (Agathe Rousselle) and Vincent (Vincent Lindon) – a single father whose son has been missing for over a decade – is a volatile one that is defined by the two characters being equally broken in their own ways. Out of it comes a strange, but no less emotional exploration of parenting, body positivity, and gender fluidity. Though their whole relationship is on the brink of disintegration, there’s a commitment between them and mutual empathy that powers some of the most intimate moments of Titane.
Titane refuses to feel known – working in its favor is both the feverish pacing and the violent transformation into the unknown. There is rarely a moment that feels predictable, making Ducournau’s latest an assault on the senses that can’t be pinned down. Instead, she’s created a ride like no other. From the ending shot of the opening scene to the narrative and physical journey Alexia goes on, Titane is a wild experience and one of the most human films of the year. (Christopher Cross)
4. No Time To Die
After serving 15 years on Her Majesty’s secret service, Daniel Craig’s tenure as James Bond finally has its explosive swan song. Rebounding off of the admittedly campy Pierce Brosnan films, 2006’s Casino Royale kicked off a new era of 007 with a suave bravado befitting the world-famous MI-6 agent. It’s been a (mostly) solid run for Craig, and 2021’s No Time to Die stands as a testament to that legacy.
Directed by True Detective‘s Cary Fukunaga, No Time to Die manages to balance thrilling action sequences with its slower character moments admirably in what is easily the most “epic” entry in the Craig-era Bond films. Clocking in at just under three hours, No Time to Die carries an unavoidable sense of grandiose finality that comes with sending off such a culturally significant icon like James Bond; it’s no mistake that legacy and what we leave behind are such prominent themes in the film.
While it may lack the freshness of Casino Royale or the tight focus of Skyfall, there’s no denying that No Time to Die harbors immense respect for its roots. Sure, it’s probably longer than it needs to be and the ending may very well border on the melodramatic, but the reverence for the Bond franchise has never been more apparent on-screen. No Time to Die is an open love letter to its 58-year legacy, and that kind of passion is irrefutably infectious. (Dylan MacDougall)
3. Spider-Man: No Way Home
Not even the pandemic can stop millions of people from flocking to theatres to watch the third installment of John Watt’s Spider-Man trilogy starring Tom Holland as everyone’s favourite neighborhood Spider-man! Spider-Man: No Way Home unwrapped the best Holiday gift of all, becoming the first pandemic-era movie to cross $1 billion at the global box office. The numbers that Spider-Man: No Way Home is pulling in are nothing short of incredible— but what’s more remarkable is how surprisingly emotional it is. No movie released this past year received such insane audience reactions like No Way Home, and deservedly so. Spider-Man: No Way Home earns its tears of joy and sorrow with thematic substance while proving that superhero movies can be more than just mindless action spectacles. This is a film that can be embraced by the entire family regardless of whether you have any knowledge of the Marvel cinematic universe or not, and opens new avenues for the Marvel Universe – or the Marvel Multiverse, to be more accurate. It’s a total blast from start to finish— a bombastic crowd-pleaser with stellar performances by Marisa Tomei, Willem Dafoe, Alfred Molina, and Tom Holland, to name a few. See it not once; not twice but three times— because three, is the magic number! (Ricky D)
2. The Suicide Squad
James Gunn’s take on the iconic Suicide Squad is so effortlessly good that it even manages to redeem David Ayer’s famously failed first adaptation. That feat alone ought to be admired and commended, being that it was the biggest black mark on the DCEU thus far.
Further, though, The Suicide Squad is a genuinely thrilling, ambitious, and original vision of superhero storytelling in 2021, one that bucks trends and actually does things with its story and characters that are surprising.
Every central character gets a natural emotional arc, and by the end of the story, they’ve all been changed or have grown in some way–well, those who survive, anyway. Still, to see such a bold, intense, and fun superhero movie in the most homogenized time that the genre has ever seen can’t help but offer a little hope that these stories are still worth telling. (Mike Worby)
There’s a lot to love about this new version of Dune. Director Denis Villeneuve is at the top of his game; the action sequences are well-choreographed, and Greig Fraser’s gorgeous cinematography is a sight to behold. Dune is not only one of the best-looking films of 2021, but it also features some of the best sound design and one of the best soundtracks to boot, courtesy of Hans Zimmer who spent months creating new instruments specifically used for the movie’s score. I would say the sound design is among the best in recent memory. Meanwhile, some of Villeneuve’s previous collaborators who worked on Arrival and Blade Runner 2049 returned for Dune, including the incredibly talented film editor Joe Walker, and visual effects supervisors Paul Lambert and Gerd Nefze who helped create more than two thousand top-notch visual effect shots to bring the world of Arrakis to life in a way that has never previously been possible. This is as much a big-budget, big-screen spectacle as any movie released today, but beyond the spectacle is a script that wisely chooses to explain less and show more. Dune quickly establishes the foundational elements of the story in an economical fashion; it’s a well-written film that informs viewers about important facts and details without ever talking down to the audience or offering overly long dumps of exposition. And with all this, its stars are given ample time to shine bright, most notably its lead Timothee Chalamet who proves why he’s one of the best young actors working today. Dune comes highly recommended for fans of smart science fiction and is easily one of the best movies of the year, even if it feels incomplete! (Ricky D)