From Belfast to The Power of the Dog, Macbeth to West Side Story, this year’s best films were rich and diverse. As theaters reopened and moviegoers returned to the big screen, so did the quality of films.
Auteurs such as Joel Coen, Wes Anderson, Jane Campion, Paul Thomas Anderson, and Steven Spielberg waited to debut their masterful new films for a full theater audience, and critics were dazzled by films that packed houses and “saved the movies.”
Exploring dynamic themes and nostalgic reverence, the films of 2021 also featured amazing performances by Kristen Stewart, Denzel Washington, Ruth Negga and others ready to wow a post-lockdown crowd.
Here are our favorite films of 2021.
A semi-autobiographical work directed by Shakespearean actor Kenneth Branagh, Belfast explores Ireland’s history during a period known as “The Troubles.” Winning the People’s Choice Award at the Toronto International Film Festival, Belfast depicts the struggles between Northern Irish Protestants and Catholics, as well as a family torn in between.
The Irish drama received seven nominations at the Golden Globes and 11 Critics Choice nominations, including Best Director, Best Picture, Best Acting Ensemble, Best Cinematography, and two Best Supporting Actors nods for Jamie Dornan and Ciaran Hinds.
The darling winner of the Sundance Film Festival back in January, CODA follows the life of a hearing child of deaf adults (CODA, for short), and how her passion for singing conflicts with her family’s inability to hear her talents. Filmed in Gloucester, Mass., where her fictional family runs a fishing boat, the film received praise for its use of American Sign Language (ASL), as well as its cast of deaf actors.
Troy Kotsur, who plays the main character’s father, gives an exceptional performance, and was nominated for Best Supporting Actor at the Golden Globes and the Critics Choice Awards. Since its premiere, the film was bought for distribution by Apple in a record-setting $25 million deal for the festival and is now available to stream for Apple TV+ subscribers.
The French Dispatch
A star-studded affair, Wes Anderson’s latest, stylish film The French Dispatch, consisted of three short stories written by the titular newspaper (a parody on articles from the The New Yorker). Starring Bill Murray, Benicio del Toro, Frances McDormand, Timothee Chalamet, Owen Wilson, and a list of never-ending famous names, almost everyone you see in The French Dispatch‘s 40+ actor cast is a highly recognizable face.
Though snubbed by the Globes, save a nomination for composer Alexandre Desplat’s original score, the charming film is a joy for fans of Wes Anderson’s oeuvre, packed with stars and a delightfully witty script.
The Hand of God
Written and directed by Italian filmmaker Paolo Sorrentino, The Hand of God is a semi-autobiographical coming of age story about a young, emotionally troubled teenager living in Naples. Though he doesn’t have many friends or aims in life, he can connect with his crazy family through a near-religious love of soccer until an unforgiving tragedy strikes.
Premiering at the Venice International Film Festival, the Italian film took home the top honor and is now available to stream at home on Netflix accompanied by a short documentary of the director revisiting his childhood home in Naples. The Hand of God was also recently placed on the shortlist for Best International Feature Film at the 2022 Academy Awards.
Bathed in ’70s nostalgia, the San Fernando Valley comedy-drama written and directed by Paul Thomas Anderson shows the time at its best and its worst, as newcomers Alana Haim (from the band Haim) and Cooper Hoffman (Philip Seymour Hoffman’s son), absolutely steal the show. Part love story and part period piece, Licorice Pizza is the ninth film by Anderson, following his work on There Will Be Blood, Boogie Nights, and Phantom Thread, to name a few.
Licorice Pizza also features amazing performances from character actors Tom Waits, Benny Safdie, Mary Elizabeth Ellis, John Michael Higgins, and a great cameo by Bradley Cooper as Jon Peters, a former hairdresser and romantic partner of Barbra Streisand. The film received four nominations at the Golden Globes including Best Motion Picture – Musical or Comedy, Best Screenplay, Best Actress and Actor, and a whopping eight Critics Choice Awards nominations.
The directorial debut of Vicky Cristina Barcelona actress Rebecca Hall, Passing wowed film festival critics with its depiction of the dichotomy between the lives of two Black women living in Harlem in the 1920s. A story of old friends reuniting, Irene (Tessa Thompson) is shown to deal with everyday racism while Clare (Ruth Negga), has been living lavishly as she fools her prejudiced husband by pretending to “pass” as white due to her fairer complexion.
Now streaming on Netflix, Passing received a Golden Globe nomination in Ruth Negga’s Best Supporting Actress nod, but the black-and-white film was praised by critics for its delicate approach and exploration of the titular subject.
The Power of the Dog
In this meditative, “anti-Western,” director Jane Campion explores the relationship between two men in 1920s Montana – one, a cattle driver, and the other a troubled teen – through themes of masculinity, grief, and jealousy.
Hailed as a masterclass of directorial work, critics adored Campion’s subtle framing and gorgeous scenery, leading the Golden Globes with seven nominations. The Benedict Cumberbatch starring film is up for Best Motion Picture — Drama, Director, Screenplay, Actor, Actress (Kirsten Dunst), Supporting Actor (Kodi Smit-McPhee), and Original Score. The Power of the Dog is also available to stream at home for Netflix subscribes.
Just when you think you’ve seen it all from the British royal family, Hollywood pulls you right back in, and possibly no one has ever done it better than Kirsten Stewart in Spencer. Equal parts camp and psychological drama, the Princess Diana showcase directed by Jackie‘s Pablo Larrain stunned critics with its story of the late royal.
The Twilight and Happiest Season actress received a Best Actress nomination at the Golden Globes for her portrayal of Diana and is a heavy favorite as we approach the Oscar season as well. Radiohead’s Johnny Greenwood also came through with an amazing musical score, heightening the tension surrounding the historically troubled member of the royal family.
Summer of Soul (…Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised)
The lone documentary film on the list, Summer of Soul, directed by The Roots drummer Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson, unearthed 50-year-old footage thought to be lost to time of the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival. Restored and edited, the documentary showcases what would come to be known as the “Black Woodstock,” featuring performances by Stevie Wonder, Sly and the Family Stone, Gladys Knight & the Pips, Mahalia Jackson, Nina Simone, and more.
Presented alongside accounts from festival attendees who have not seen footage of the event since 1969, Questlove explores not only the great performances on display, but the legacy and importance of preserving Black art from a racially prejudiced time that would have let it simply go on forgotten. Summer of Soul recently received a placement on the Academy Award’s shortlist for Best Documentary Feature, and is currently available to stream on Hulu.
The Tragedy of Macbeth
Taking on the works of William Shakespeare is no small feat, but the No Country for Old Men and The Ballad of Buster Scruggs director Joel Coen took it on in strides and to massive critical acclaim. Opening in theaters on Christmas Day, The latest Macbeth adaptation features world class performances from Denzel Washington as Macbeth, Frances McDormand as Lady Macbeth, and Kathryn Hunter as all three witches.
Praised for its acting and its cinematography, The Tragedy of Macbeth received one lone Best Actor nomination from the Golden Globes for Denzel, but the late arrival is swirling in Oscar buzz, especially as more people make their way to the theater to catch the Shakespearean epic. For those waiting at home due to the Covid-19, Apple TV+ plans to stream the film starting on Jan. 14, 2022.
West Side Story
Steven Spielberg can seemingly do no wrong, even as he tackles his first musical in West Side Story‘s big return to the silver screen. With massive shoes to fill, Spielberg appears to have been the right man for the job, as critics praised the modern take on the classic musical as both a faithful adaptation and a fresh, cinematic addition.
Original cast member Rita Moreno makes an appearance as Valentina, a new role specially crafted as an homage to her iconic role as 1961’s Anita. The musical received four nominations at the Golden Globes, including Best Motion Picture – Musical or Comedy, Director, and Actress (Ariana DeBose as Maria), as well as 11 nominations at the Critics Choice Awards, leading the pack.
What do you think? Let us know your favorite movies of the year in the comments section below!