It’s that time of year again. Ranking my favorite films of the year is one of my most treasured traditions on this site. I was even more excited than usual this time around, because 2020 was so shit. Much as I’d like to support cinemas during the pandemic, I simply didn’t feel safe. And even so, the few films that managed to come out last year didn’t tempt me at all. But in 2021, there were quite a few releases that intrigued me, and by the end of the summer I was fully vaccinated, so it was nice being able to enjoy the cinema experience again. I do like the convenience of streaming platforms, especially for TV shows, but returning to movie theaters in the autumn of this year really did make me appreciate how special the experience is. Going to watch a film on the big screen that I’ve been excited about for a while, followed by a meal at a nice restaurant, is my ideal evening out.
More than any other year I’ve done this post, 2021 was by far the most difficult when it came to deciding the order of the films. I feel like all the films on this year’s list would be top 5 worthy in any other year. In 2020 for example, the only film I felt strongly attached to was the number one film, which, whether you’ve read my post or not, I’m sure you can guess quite easily. I’d still take that film over any that came out this year, but every other film on the 2020 list I have little affection for whatsoever. 2021, by contrast, was full of some absolute bangers. So without further ado, here are my favorite movies for 2021, starting of course with some honorable mentions.
Preparations to be Together for an Unknown Period of Time
Director: Lili Horvát
Genre: Psychological Drama/Romance
Review: This was unique little drama about a Hungarian doctor, working in the U.S.A., who meets an falls in love with a Hungarian doctor at a medical conference. She then goes back to her native Hungary to be with him- only to find that once she gets there, he claims not to know who she is. While I liked the premise and some of the film’s more significant scenes, this was a little slow and I ultimately wasn’t sure what we were meant to take away from it, which is why it narrowly misses my top ten.
The Hand of God
Director: Paolo Sorrentino
Review: This is easily the quirkiest picture on this list. Sorrentino’s The Hand of God reminded me a lot of Alfonso Cuarón’s 2018 film Roma, being a semi-fictionalized account of his formative years that vividly captures a sense of time and place. While I didn’t love this film the way I loved Roma, I enjoyed it for a lot of the same reasons. This is a perfect example a “character film”, if ever there was one; most of the scenes are in service of showcasing either character development or pure atmosphere rather than any kind of plot. We get a strong impression of Fabietto’s Naples before a tragic accident changes his life forever; his parents’ flawed but loving marriage, his mother’s practical jokes, his brother’s dreams of acting, his voluptuous- yet mentally unstable- aunt that informs his early sexuality, the various eccentric characters of his neighborhood, and of course the religious fervor surrounding Maradona’s arrival to the city. I know it’s a cliché, but you really do get lost in Fabietto’s world, which is itself a recreation of the director’s own adolescence. Very unlucky not to make the top ten, and in another year it certainly would have.
10. True Mothers
Director: Naomi Kawase
Review: True Mothers is a subtle, slow-burning story of various forms of motherhood, with an interesting three-act structure. It’s not just a parallel between natural motherhood and adoptive motherhood, it’s also about young motherhood, flawed motherhood, and absent motherhood. It asks questions such as what it is that really makes a person, as in an early scene where a boy’s adoptive parents wonder if he could have inherited toxic or destructive personality traits via the genes of his natural parents. I loved this film- it’s well written, beautiful to look at, and powerful- but it did get a little too slow for me at certain points, which is the only reason it isn’t higher on this list.
9. Promising Young Woman
Director: Emerald Fennell
Genre: Black Comedy/Psychological Thriller
Country: United States
Review: I would recommend Promising Young Woman to anyone, because aside from being an edge-of-your-seat thriller, it also feels like the film this year that most deserves to be watched. I love the way it casted “friendly faces” known for their docile, amiable roles such as Bo Burnham, Adam Brody, and Christopher Mintz-Plasse to drive home the danger of “nice guys”. And that’s what this movie is all about, the “nice guys” that both typical Hollywood movies and society at large wants us to root for, whose promising futures they want to safeguard, and whose actions they want to excuse, all at the expense of women. This is a film you haven’t seen before- and that you owe it to yourself to check out. Carey Mulligan is unforgettable as Cassandra, a college dropout with a traumatic past. She’s what makes this film so compelling, because right up until the end you’re never sure what she’s going to do next or what she’s capable of.
Director: Lee Isaac Chung
Country: United States
Review: If you like domestic dramas, they don’t get much better than this. Minari follows a Korean family that start a new life as farmers in rural Oklahoma; their hardships, culture-shocks, changing fortunes, and epiphanies. Steven Yuen does a terrific job as the doggedly-determined father whose dream might not be shared with the same fervor as the rest of his family. By the end you really feel like you know these characters intimately, from the quirky grandma to the rascally little boy. I also thought that the subtle portrayal of rural Oklahoma and its unique challenges and oddities really added a distinctive flavor to the movie. The harsh weather, the evangelical Christianity, the poverty, the isolation, and the wildlife all play a huge role in the narrative, and I like it when a setting is given this kind of importance.
7. Moving On
Director: Yoon Dan-bi
Country: South Korea
Review: It’s the performances of the two kids that make this for me. Moving On is a touching, understated story of a summer in which two kids move in with their aging grandfather. That’s pretty much it, really. We follow these two children as they dance, fight, make noodles, and learn about life in a very humid Seoul. Their single father and their recently-divorced aunt, also living at the house, have had their respective struggles but are doing the best they can. Throughout the summer the family members take turns looking after each other, growing individually and together, and finding joy in small things such as sharing fresh watermelon or listening to an old record. I love the way this film captures the “push-pull” nature of domestic relationships, that unique mixture of friction and comfort that everyone can relate to.
6. The Green Knight
Director: David Lowery
Country: United States
Review: I’ve always liked the narrative device whereby a naïve protagonist makes a “deal with the devil”, a promise or pact with something far beyond their understanding, often for short term gain, that ultimately comes to bite them in the ass. Whether it’s Macbeth or Oedipus Rex, I can’t get enough of stories where this brash, flawed protagonist tries to escape a self-fulfilling prophecy. There’s something about the futility of man vs. nature that I find quite cynically appealing. The Green Knight represents nature in this case with, well, the Green Knight, who like some obnoxious, attention-seeking drunk, interrupts King Arthur’s Christmas dinner by riding his horse right into the throne room and challenging all the knights of the round table to a duel. What follows is bleak odyssey through a mysterious land, one that’s so beautifully shot and imaginatively put together. Dev Patel really impressed me with his performance, because I think there’s so much range to it. I’m not sure the film would work so well if not for his particularly captivating blend of charisma and fragility. There’s just something so fundamentally human about his flawed persona, and it’s this relatable humanity that juxtaposes so effectively against the fantastical setting. You could almost consider this a coming-of-age film in a lot of ways, and the utterly superb ending will live rent-free in your head for weeks after seeing it.
5. The Father
Director: Florian Zeller
Genre: Psychological Drama
Country: France/United Kingdom
Review: There are so many wonderful pictures on this list that are here for so many different reasons. The Father ranks highly on my list because of the stellar performance of its lead actor, Anthony Hopkins. Don’t get me wrong, the writing is very clever, and I love the way the narrative structure reflects the experience of dementia, but Hopkins’ performance is what made the difference between this film landing fifth place in my rankings or being an honorable mention. This was a beautiful, heart-wrenching portrait of a man who feels like he is slowly losing himself piece by piece.
4. Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy
Director: Ryûsuke Hamaguchi
Review: I had been impatiently waiting for my chance to see this film ever since the first reviews emerged in the wake of the Berlin Film Festival. I felt annoyed that full-length reviews were out and yet there was no release date announced. That’s not marketing, that’s just teasing. I kept checking for a release date every few weeks, and finally got to see it in November. There was a reason I was so impatient. The idea of a film divided into three separate stories appealed to me, because however separate those three stories might be on a superficial level, the decision to group them together and release them as a single piece of art intrigues me. To work, there can’t just be three stories, however well they might be told. There has to be the three stories and a greater, unseen story. There has to be an emotive or thematic through line. And there is. For me it’s about loneliness and the need for connection. All three of our protagonists feel lonely or incomplete in some way. And once the film ends, we feel like we’ve experienced a singular narrative of the search for- and need of- human connection.
3. The Power of the Dog
Director: Jane Campion
Country: New Zealand
Review: The Western remains one of my favorite genres in all of cinema, and it amazes me that after 100 years of its popularity on the big screen, there’s still such fertile ground for original, innovative stories of the Old West to be told. The Power of the Dog just feels like such a sharply-shot and tightly-crafted narrative, trimmed down to the barest essentials. I love how restrained it is. The omissions in the storytelling reflect the omissions of the characters themselves, repressed as they are, who are unable or unwilling to articulate how they truly feel. Not a second of this film feels wasted. Benedict Cumberbatch brings such a sense of presence to his portrayal of the domineering but tortured rancher Phil Burbank. In a way he reminds me of Paul Newman’s titular character in Hud. He’s a terrifying, magnetic, larger-than-life persona whose powerful exterior masks a vulnerable core. He might be my favorite character in cinema this year. There’s so much to unpack from this film, and it’s so much fun to do so!
2. Drive My Car
Director: Ryûsuke Hamaguchi
Review: I’ve never agonized so much over the order of the top two movies on my list, and dissected so thoroughly what it was I liked about them. In some ways, Drive My Car is my Film of the Year, and in other ways it’s not. It’s also, I believe, the first time a director has appeared twice in one of my annual lists. The reviews told me that this was an urgent priority, so I went to see this picture two days before I came home for Christmas break, at the BFI Southbank, which was my first time there. It looked more like a museum than a cinema. I got there early, and as I pottered about the atrium, I half expected a member of staff to tell me I wasn’t supposed to be here. And the way things operated reminded me of the theatre; the screen door opened 15 minutes before the film began, there was a program the staff handed out as you entered, there were no snacks, no trailers, and the film began exactly at the show time, with no latecomers being allowed inside once the doors closed. The film itself was every bit the masterpiece I expected from the review hype. Even though it was a mammoth three hours in length, it didn’t feel like three hours at all, which I think is one of the biggest compliments you can give a filmmaker. I was engrossed the whole way through. The film is an adaptation of the Haruki Murakami short story “Men Without Women”, and I really don’t want to spoil anything, so I will just say that it follows a theatre director in Hiroshima overseeing a multi-lingual production of Uncle Vanya. He’s there for a two-month residency to direct the play, and the theatre assigns him a driver for that period- an enigmatic woman with a scar on her face and many metaphorical scars beneath the surface. The narrative is about a lot more than that, but I think you should go into it with as little information as possible and trust me that it’s worth your time. There are so many layers to it, but at its core it’s about storytelling- the power of the stories we tell ourselves and others, the way we use stories to make sense of trauma, regret, and desire, and the potential of stories to either destroy us or serve our growth.
Director: Denis Villeneuve
Genre: Science Fiction
Country: United States
Review: As I said, it was very hard to separate the top two entries, but the 2021 TumbleweedWrites Film of the Year Award goes to Dune– or Dune Part One, I should say. Like many of the entries on this list, it’s an adaptation of a book, and what an adaptation it is. I read the novel when I was a teenager and fell in love with its universe. For my 14th birthday, my mom actually baked me a Dune-themed cake in which she made sandworms out of marzipan. Naturally, given how much Dune meant to me back in the day, I was quite excited when I found out that Denis Villeneuve was set to direct the adaptation. And yet despite my high expectations, this movie somehow exceeded them and completely reignited my passion for the franchise. It has been over two months and I’m still thinking about it.
The novel was for a long time considered unfilmable, with the 1984 screen adaptation somewhere on the scale between bad and fucking atrocious, but I think this one works for two reasons. The first is Denis Villeneuve. He’s proven with Blade Runner 2049 (the 2017 TumbleweedWrites Film of the Year, funnily enough!) that he can create science fiction movies that are high concept without compromising on their cinematic thrills. I saw a review in the summer that described Dune as an arthouse film with the budget of a blockbuster, which is exactly how I would describe it. Villeneuve started his creative process as a fan of the book first; trying to make the film he would want to watch rather than imposing his own ideas on it. It’s obvious how much reverence he has for the novel, and also that he understands how an effective adaptation works- which is to capture the spirit of the source material rather than try to copy it exactly. For example, in the novel there are a lot of interior monologues, which I think works well the way Frank Herbert did it in that format, but which I don’t think would work as well in a film. That’s part of what makes the novel so hard to adapt- it’s a complex universe that requires a lot of exposition, which you get via the thoughts of the characters and Irulan’s journal entries prior to each chapter. Villeneuve gives just enough exposition for the narrative to make sense, but ultimately trusts in the intelligence of the viewer and replaces the interior monologues with this visceral, moody, ambient soundscape. It’s subtle, unobtrusive, and it transports the viewer into the world of the film more than any dump of lore ever could. The books are there for anyone that wants to go deeper. The film, on the other hand, really takes you to Arrakis. The second reason this adaptation works so well is the cast. Timothée Chalamet could not be more perfect in the role of Paul Atreides, which I think requires a lot of emotional intelligence from a young actor. Rebecca Feguson is also fantastic as Lady Jessica. Javier Bardem couldn’t be more natural as Stilgar, and Stellen Skarsgard made the Baron terrifying in a way I never expected him to be.
I liked how the film showed restraint when it came to the sandworms, giving just enough to awe us but also teasing us that they’ll get their due in the sequel. Paul’s visions were really well done, and seeing the various possible futures added a unique kind of dramatic tension. Speaking of which, I absolutely love what Villeneuve did with the character of Jamis. It’s a small role, but it was one that was given such emotional weight, and it makes the whole ending sequence feel that much more textured and impactful. It’s things like that that make you think Villeneuve put a soul-crushing amount of work into every little detail of this film, that Dune really is a passion project that he’s trying to perfect to the best of his ability. I couldn’t be more excited for part two, because from what I remember from the book, it’s going to be crazy.