When we look back, 2021 might be remembered as the year that U.S. cinemas re-opened and the theatrical box business returned. OK so perhaps it’s still a bit wounded, but the year really ended on a high. The fact that Spider-Man: No Way Home was able to earn $635+ million domestically so far gives optimistic hope for the future. Still, the young audience going to theaters is a very narrowly defined segment of the population. The box office doesn’t present a diversity of genres. One look at the Top 10 films will show that superheroes and sequels to established franchises drive the theatrical business even more than ever before.

I like superhero movies and sequels. A couple even get a mention on this recap. However, there are so many other unique and wonderful stories. My Top 10 highlights those I treasured the most. I prefer the theatrical experience but still enjoyed many movies on streaming as well. So without further ado. Here are the 10 greatest films I saw in 2021 followed by an additional 10 that didn’t quite make the list.

P.S. I’d love to hear your comments (positive and negative) and perhaps your own Top 10 at the bottom.

(Click on any entry to open my more detailed review.)

  1. West Side Story

Director: Steven Spielberg – Starring Ansel Elgort, Rachel Zegler, Ariana DeBose, David Alvarez

Wondrous music and eye-catching visuals on a big screen can be an almost religious experience. West Side Story was unquestionably the greatest joy I had in a theater all year. Why am I surprised? Marry the most successful director who ever lived with one of the most spectacular musicals of all time and you’re bound to get something great. The fact this musical had been famously adapted before tempered my recognition. I walked in arms folded with the attitude, “Why are we remaking this classic?” and I left the theater thinking, “Did that just top the original?” This bright, uplifting musical got my emotions going. When the women start twirling their dresses as the men leap and jump while the camera zooms in and out, I was enthralled. Each production number is a big rousing larger-than-life event. Looking back, I admit I was stingy in my star rating. I should’ve awarded 5 stars because it delivers. This. Is. Cinema.

  1. CODA

Director: Sian Heder – Starring Emilia Jones, Marlee Matlin, Troy Kotsur, Daniel Durant

Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication. CODA is a straightforward saga that is honest, wise, and unassuming. The chronicle concerns a girl who triumphs through different challenges by juggling her talents and interests with the demands of her family. It’s a formulaic account, but it gives the audience exactly what they want. A powerful reminder that the most enduring movies can be derivative. Formulas don’t negate an artistic work. It’s HOW these elements are creatively put together that matters. CODA poignantly captures the heart with sincerity — a human life artfully presented in a way with which anyone can identify. When Ruby sings the Joni Mitchell chestnut “Both Sides Now” I emotionally lost it.

  1. Licorice Pizza

Director: Paul Thomas Anderson – Starring Alana Haim, Cooper Hoffman, Sean Penn, Bradley Cooper

The portrait of two lives in 1973 is the subject of a truly immersive experience. I question whether Paul Thomas Anderson used a time machine to film this picture. This is his fifth feature to be set largely in California’s San Fernando Valley. He’s lived there most of his life so it’s a place the director knows well. Gary and Alana are an odd couple romance with a fascinating series of ups and downs. On the surface, it’s a meandering saga with a lackadaisical plot . Yet the journey back in time is perfectly realized . Cherry-picked songs are catchy tunes you haven’t heard a million times. They perfectly convey the laid-back ambiance. The music truly enhances the mood of this fully realized portrait featuring an ensemble cast that brilliantly energizes a captivating narrative. I was amazed at the detail.

  1. Nightmare Alley

Director: Guillermo del Toro – Starring Bradley Cooper, Cate Blanchett, Toni Collette, Willem Dafoe

Guillermo del Toro has built a solid reputation on stories about monsters . Although his latest chronicle doesn’t feature any mythical creatures, it still details monsters of humanity. The tale unfolds with the complexities of a carefully plotted saga helmed by a director who knows exactly what he is doing. Every filmmaking decision informs the account which features an extraordinary ensemble of actors, all of which give performances worthy of acclaim. Bradley Cooper is perfectly cast as Stan Carlisle, a charismatic man of questionable character. His mentalist act brings him into contact with Dr. Lilith Ritter, a psychiatrist played by Cate Blanchett. The character is a femme fatale in the most classic tradition. The second Lilith challenges Stan at one of his shows, I was enrapt. Ok so honestly, I was engaged right from the beginning. That is the barometer of an entertaining movie. This also happens to be a work of art.

  1. The Father

Director: Florian Zeller – Starring Anthony Hopkins, Olivia Colman, Mark Gatiss, Olivia Williams

The greatest performance of 2021 was already recognized by Oscar back on April 25. A change in rules allowed pictures released as late as February 28 to compete with 2020 releases. The Father just barely qualified. They made the right choice. Anthony Hopkins is simply one of the finest actors who ever lived and this movie is yet another example of that. Here he is playing a man coping with memory loss. There’s not a lot more to the narrative than that. The simplicity allows the actor to present one of the purest displays of acting I’ve seen in some time. The chronicle is an unsettling depiction of his reality. He’s a gifted actor and well known for his thespian skills. I shouldn’t be surprised, but honestly, this is among the best. In fact — and I don’t say this lightly — this just might be the greatest performance of his career.

  1. King Richard

Director: Reinaldo Marcus Green – Starring Will Smith, Aunjanue Ellis, Saniyya Sidney, Demi Singleton

Who knew you could make such a captivating movie about tennis phenoms Venus and Serena Williams by focusing on their father? That’s what makes King Richard so radical. But the surprises don’t stop there. This is an engaging portrait of a difficult, even irascible man. He can be downright aggravating. The drama features another career-defining performance from Will Smith. I haven’t seen him disappear into a role so convincingly since The Pursuit of Happyness. If anyone can stand up to his strong temperament, it’s his wife Oracene Price. Actress Aunjanue Ellis embodies a woman that radiates steely resolve. Together they elevate the story of two black girls from Compton, California who became legendary tennis icons.

  1. The Power of the Dog

Director: Jane Campion – Starring Benedict Cumberbatch, Kirsten Dunst, Jesse Plemons, Kodi Smit-McPhee

In my original review, I called Jane Campion’s latest a “western of sorts” but now I’d revise that to “not really a western.” It’s an unrelenting depiction of sadness that just so happens to take place on the American frontier. The saga can be difficult to embrace. Yet there is so much to appreciate here. The methodic pace of the gradually unfolding account builds. Admittedly, the narrative takes quite a while to get started but things get pretty intense in the final 30 minutes. I kept second-guessing the intentions of the characters at every turn until the very end. Our contempt and disdain are elicited throughout the picture. These flawed characters have genuine humanity. The unsettling portrait really gets under your skin.

  1. Summer of Soul

Director: Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson – Documentary – Interviews include festival attendees Dorinda Drake, Barbara Bland-Acosta, Darryl Lewis, Ethel Beatty

That there was another music celebration besides Woodstock of this magnitude held in New York in 1969 is one of the surprises of 2021. 100 miles away from Bethel, the Harlem Cultural Festival started earlier that summer. From June 29 to Aug. 24 on each Sunday at 3 PM in the afternoon, a concert took place in Mount Morris Park (renamed Marcus Garvey Park in 1973). A jaw-dropping assemblage of talent showed up. Gladys Knight and the Pips, The 5th Dimension, Sly, and the Family Stone. Stevie Wonder, The Staple Singers, Nina Simone, BB King, and Mahalia Jackson all took the stage at different points. Illuminating interviews from both attendees as well as the artists today are peppered throughout. Watching Billy Davis Jr. and Marilyn McCoo of the 5th Dimension witnessing themselves for what I assume is the first time since the event is a deeply emotional experience for them as well as the audience. This is a fascinating document of the long-forgotten event.

  1. The Green Knight

Director: David Lowery – Starring Dev Patel, Alicia Vikander, Joel Edgerton, Sarita Choudhury

Director David Lowery has never been in a hurry to tell a story. This is simply a leisurely-paced adventure of self-discovery as reimagined as a series of moving paintings. An atmosphere to revel and experience rather than comprehend. The Green Knight is a perfect fit for the director’s meticulous skill. Fans craving a feast for the senses will be in art house heaven. Yet it would be empty without a compelling focus. In a film all about the visual, it is a most clever and conspicuous decision to cast Dev Patel as an Arthurian knight. The colorblind casting emphasizes his smoldering emotion and physical presence as the lead. Patel is mesmerizing and elevates the visual display with his performance. He’s the emotional center.

  1. The Mitchells vs. the Machines

Directors: Michael Rianda & Jeff Rowe – Starring Abbi Jacobson, Danny McBride, Maya Rudolph, Michael Rianda

It was a great year for animated films and I struggled to include also Encanto and Luca in my Top 10. The fact they sit just outside my Top 10 is a bit arbitrary. I loved them too obviously but it’s the writing that gives this drama a slight edge. Like the people portrayed, The Mitchells vs. the Machines is a big loud, high-strung disarray that won me over through intelligence and wit. The chronicle of how a dysfunctional family learns to embrace each other’s differences is a cliché. However, it’s the way those predictable elements are manipulated and conveyed that makes the difference. The animation is an unconventional style that mimics 2D art by combining hand-painted textures over computer graphics and the dialogue is full of well-written exchanges. This is an absolute treat for children and adults alike.


Just Barely Missed the Top 10

  1. Encanto
  2. Luca
  3. Dream Horse
  4. Eternals
  5. Belfast
  6. A Quiet Place Part II
  7. Barb & Star Go to Vista Del Mar
  8. Lamb
  9. Last Night in Soho
  10. In the Heights


Worst of the Year

The purpose of this post is to celebrate the best. I considered omitting my least favorite movies. Their appearance can redirect the focus of my entire article. Nevertheless, it’s tradition and I’ll admit it’s kind of fun to “honor” what I hated the most. I decided to reverse number them this time. #1 is the absolute worst.

Click the link for a synopsis. Not all got a full review at the time. For those without, I offer a few words of explanation.

6. Things Heard & Seen

An uninteresting haunted house story that alludes to ghosts more as a metaphor than actual supernatural spirits. Then offers a complete nonentity of an ending to boot. Amanda Seyfried followed up her well-deserved Oscar nomination for Mank with this confused twaddle.

5. Coming 2 America

4. Malcolm & Marie

3. Tom & Jerry

2. The Matrix Resurrections

Yes, The Matrix (1999) was enjoyable but it should have ended there. That story didn’t demand a franchise. At least Keanu Reeves and Carrie-Anne Moss are back. That’s the only bright light to be found in this absolute bore of a story blighted by one interminable speech after another. This chronicle is so self-referential, it’s closer to a parody of the original than a necessary addition. When the account isn’t being completely incoherent it relies so heavily on callbacks and recycling the events of the previous films that it feels like a remake. Each film in this series has grown exponentially more convoluted and overwrought. I’d say this would have to be the nadir but I’m sure they’ll make yet another which will make this one seem better by comparison. This is why it isn’t the worst film I saw.

1. Zack Snyder’s Justice League

The 2017 Justice League was a disorganized mess but at least it was only two hours. This is Zack Snyder’s attempt to turn that indignity into something watchable by expanding it to over four hours (242 minutes to be exact). He doesn’t succeed. A dour slog — an ugly product so synthesized and artificial, it is an absolute affront to the concept of humanity. This isn’t a story about people. It’s an assemblage of computer graphics that attempts to unite three cubes to take over the world or something. These ersatz representations of shapes move about the screen without any regard for a compelling plot or an emotional connection.


5 Responses to “MY TOP 10 MOVIES FOR 2021”

  1. Awesome list. Here’s mine:
    1. West Side Story
    2. American Underdog
    3. Coda
    4. The Green Knight
    5. Nightmare Alley
    6. Power of the Dog
    7. Encanto
    8. Licorice Pizza
    9. Last Night in Soho
    10. Eternals

    11. King Richard
    12. Lamb
    13. Belfast
    14. Dream horse
    15. Michells vs the machines

    Bottom 3
    1. Tom & Jerry
    2. Maxtrix resurrection
    3. Tick tick boom


  2. Fantastic list! (Not focusing on the negatives here but we have a slightly different view of The Matrix Resurrections 😆 ). I’m looking forward to catching up with many of these, Cyrano, Licorice Pizza, Nightmare Alley, Belfast and C’Mon C’Mon among the highest priorities.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I did see Cyrano. Peter Dinklage is memorable but the songs are not.

      Always appreciate your comments. Thanks for your support. Here’s to another great year! 🍻

      P.S. Did you put together a Top 10?

      Liked by 1 person

      • If I had seen more films I probably would. But my viewing habits last year were pretty bad. I barely saw enough to even cover 10 titles lol

        Liked by 1 person

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