Exclaim!'s 17 Best Films of 2021
Published Dec 07, 2021After a year of cancellations and theatre closures, filmgoers and studios hoped that 2021 would be a return to some form of normalcy. While the beginning of the year continued the trend of films being sent to streaming services, theatres eventually opened across the world and studios finally released some of the most-anticipated movies of the last couple years.
It seemed possible that this year's films would only be a selection of studio backlogs and mediocre films created under strict health and safety protocols. But thankfully, it seems filmmakers around the world used the lockdowns as a time to harness their burgeoning creativity. As a result, we were treated to personal heartfelt stories, creative and ethereal storytelling, and arthouse oddities.
Given the convoluted timetables of award shows and film festivals, some movies that came out in 2021 were left off our list (for instance, Nomadland was our top movie of 2020, despite not getting a wide release until February 2021). Regardless, there were a lot of beautiful, creative, and thought-provoking movies to choose from.
See Exclaim!'s full list of the best films of 2021 below.
Directed by Michael Sarnoski
In one of the more confounding films of the year, Nicolas Cage blesses us with potentially the best performance of his career. Michael Sarnoski's PIG isn't the violent John Wick-esque vehicle many assumed. Instead, it's a dark, meditative slow burn of a film about grief and trauma that gives Cage a chance to shine in a way we haven't seen in years. PIG will make you laugh and cry, and maybe even give you a newfound respect for Cage as an actor.
Directed by Janicza Bravo
The stranger-than-fiction strip trip that inspired Aziah "Zola" King's 148-tweet viral thread in 2015 is adapted in this suitably outrageous film about how a weekend in Florida gradually escalates to include sex work, human trafficking and gunfire. Frequently funny, sometimes deeply disturbing and always totally gripping, the pulpy story is presented as high art thanks in part to the fashionably grainy film quality, à la the Safdie brothers.
15. Kímmapiiyipitssini: The Meaning of Empathy
Directed by Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers
Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers brings us this tour de force of a documentary chronicling the onset and permutations of the opioid crisis within the Kainai Nation in Stand Off, AB. By focusing specifically on how healthcare workers are mobilizing to protect members of the community, Tailfeathers paints an at-once deeply personal and razing portrait of an ineffective federal government. The film shows a community moving through grief as it mends itself, calling viewers to action by teaching the workings of empathy and the importance of bearing witness.
14. The French Dispatch
Directed by Wes Anderson
Delivered in episodic chapters, Wes Anderson's most Wes Anderson-ish film to date captures the fictional French town of Ennui in charming, aesthetic-driven totality. Led by a roster of Anderson regulars — Bill Murray, Willem Dafoe, Adrien Brody, Owen Wilson, etc. — the director achieves a complete artistic vision, blending character nuances, colourways, decoration and quirk with a heavy, uninhibited hand. The universe-building in The French Dispatch is unparalleled in the auteur's catalogue, and he does this while doling out storylines at rapid-fire pace. Each segment could easily be fleshed out into its own feature-length film, which makes for an exhilarating viewing experience — a wholesome antidote to the attention-deficit Instagram age.
13. The Green Knight
Directed by David Lowery
Many viewers were expecting an action flick — as the name might imply — but what they got was an unpredictable medieval escapade with a lot of eerie twists. The ambient pacing perfectly suits the incredible scenery and bizarre plot. If you've ever wondered what it would be like if Terrence Malick and John Sayles teamed up for an Arthurian fantasy film, this is probably as close as we'll ever get.
12. The Tragedy of Macbeth
Directed by Joel Coen
Joel Coen's surrealist neo-noir adaptation of Shakespeare's tragedy is led by the powerhouse performances of Denzel Washington and Frances McDormand. Both command the language of the Bard in a manner befitting their reputations, as well as the legacies of Lord and Lady Macbeth. While the play is over 400 years old and countless versions have been made (and will continue to be made), Coen's distinctive style, Washington's physicality and swagger, and McDormand's haunting elegance all help to make the old new again.
11. Bo Burnham: Inside
Directed by Bo Burnham
Bo Burnham's comedy special might be the definitive piece of pandemic viewing, despite arriving admittedly late in the game, as its release coincided with soaring vaccination rates across the continent. Still, it offered intense catharsis, serving up an unpolished portrait of the ways mental illness manifests in isolation. Even considering the piece was filmed inside a pool house — not exactly relatable lockdown circumstances for most — Burham's special still feels honest; while delivering biting comedy and deadpan devastation in equal measure, he ponders the significance of aging, the insidiousness of the internet and the dystopia that is late-stage capitalism. With all its pervasiveness, genre-bending and focused production, it's not hard to imagine this work folded alongside the past two years' unprecedented events in history books to come.
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