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Top Ten Films of 2021

January 17, 2022


What did film enthusiasts have to hold on to, to look forward to, during such tumultuous times? Cinema. Movies. Films. Whatever moniker you’re compelled to give a motion picture. Experiencing new films remained a constant in 2021, to hold on to when so many other things in life are uncertain. As the pandemic continued, theaters slowly opened back up, while many have turned to films they’ve watched hundreds of time for comfort; as they remain home, trying to stay safe and careful for themselves and others. Still, there’s nothing like walking into a dark theater and waiting to lose yourself in a story told on the big screen. I definitely was able to do that more this year, feeling better about it all after getting vaxxed and boosted.

Yes, as a critic, I do get the perks of having screener links sent to me, but if possible, I’d much prefer to get out, unplug, and immerse myself in a movie theater. That being said, about 40% of what I have on this year’s list was viewed on an iPad with noise-cancelling headphones (lifesavers!) and I don’t feel bad about that at all.

You may have noticed that last year I didn’t post a Top Ten Films of 2020 list this time last year. There were many factors that led to that and much of it had to do with what transpired in other aspects of my life. Yes, 2020 was rough, but 2021 really put me through the ringer, but don’t worry, I did experience some incredible highs as well. That being said, maybe I will post a 2020 list at some point, just to be a completist and fill that gaping hole.

What was the year in film like in 2021? Well, there were plenty of release dates moved forward and pushed back, that’s for sure. Like any other year, there were plenty of sequels and big-budget Marvel movies (four quite different ones, in fact!), and like the year before, Pixar movies were released exclusively on Disney+. There were also a handful of impressive directorial debuts and some of them are either mentioned here in Honorable Mentions or in the actual Top Ten list below. It’s impressive that there were three directors, Ridley Scott, “Pablo Larraín, and Ryusuke Hamaguchi, who each released two great films each. There were also actresses making their directorial debuts this year, Maggie Gyllenhaal’s “The Lost Daughter” and Rebecca Hall’s “Passing” (both on Netflix) and Franka Potente (“Run Lola Run” and “The Bourne Supremacy”) helmed a wonderfully touching independent film called “Home”, which I encourage you to seek out when it’s available, so be on the lookout for it. I also saw three great films at the Chicago International Film Festival, so be on the lookout for them. 

Although I don’t technically consider them films (since they were exclusive to streaming or television), I found Peter Jackson’s “The Beatles: Get Back” and Craig Zobel’s “Mare of Easttown” to be some of the best viewing from last year. “Get Back”is a Disney+ documentary that covers the making of the Beatles’ 1970 album Let It Be and draws largely from hours and hours of unused footage and audio material originally captured for Michael Lindsay-Hogg’s film “Let It Be”. With a total runtime of nearly eight hours and consisting of three episodes between two and three hours, each covering roughly weekly periods of 21 days of studio time, what Jackson and his talented crew have done here is take viewers back on time to witness four artists struggle to create and navigate where their lives and careers are going. It certainly got me emotional more than once. In its seven episodes, Kate Winslet leads a stellar ensemble cast as the title character, a detective investigating a murder in a small town near Philadelphia. Filled with rich and real characters and weaving a story with an ending I truly didn’t see coming, the award-winning HBO limited series is something that is definitely worth checking out, if you haven’t already. Both of these shows were GREAT (to be honest, “Get Back” felt less like a show and more like an experience) –  they had to be mentioned here.




This year I teamed up with friend & fellow film enthusiast and prolific reviewer Mark Lester, whose work you can find over at Nothing Else to Say , and you can actually find his Top 20 list right here, so check out his 11-20 listings over there. Below you will find our combined Top Ten Films of 2021, which include links to Mark’s full reviews as well as mine (in bold). It’s cool to see where we overlap and how we differ. These lists are always daunting and never easy to compile and compose. That being said, I’m glad I was able to get one out this year and I appreciate the company – thanks, Mark!

Like every year, there are plenty of films I still have to catch up with, such as: “Coda”, “The Worst Person in the World”, “No Sudden Move”, “Hollers”, “I Carry You With Me”, “Memoria”, “Petite Maman”, “France”, and “The Card Counter”

Honorable Mentions: “Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy”, “West Side Story”, “The Tragedy of Macbeth”, “Shiva Baby”, “Riders of Justice”, “Cry Macho”, “The French Dispatch”, “Procession”, “Mass” “The Sparks Brothers”, “Annette”, “Last Night in Soho”, “Nobody”, “The Mitchells vs. the Machines”, “The Killing of Two Lovers”, “Spider-Man: No Way Home”,  “Benedetta”, “Barb and Star Go to Vista del Mar”, and “The Green Knight”







Undoubtably the most underrated gem of 2021, The Map of Tiny Perfect Things is basically a young teen romance mixed with Groundhog Day. Streaming still on Amazon Prime, it is smart enough to know what it is, and still melts the heart.

David J. Fowlie –  THE LAST DUEL

Veteran English director Ridley Scott turned 84 during the autumn of 2021, at a time when he released two great movies, proving his is far from the twilight of his artistic achievements. The award-winning prolific filmmaker can’t stop and won’t stop, nor could he care how he comes across in his press for “The Last Duel” and “House of Gucci” and I am here for it. Of the two movies, “The Last Duel” (pictured above) stands out as yet another one of example of Scott’s knack for impressive world-building, but also as a hard indictment of toxic masculinity and the perspectives these men have. Set in medieval France, the story follows a knight Jean de Carrouges (Matt Damon), who challenges his former friend, squire Jacques Le Gris (Adam Driver), to a duel after his Jean’s wife Marguerite (Jodie Comer), accuses Jacques of raping her. Both Jean and Jacques have a longstanding competition for the approval of Count Pierre d’Alençon (Ben Affleck), who prefers not to be bothered by any of it. Damon and Affleck co-wrote the screenplay (their first since winning an Oscar for “Good Will Hunting”) with Nicole Holofcener (“Enough Said”), which is based on the Eric Jager’s 2004 book The Last Duel: A True Story of Trial by Combat in Medieval France about the actual last officially recognized judicial duel fought in France. With a Rashomon-esque approach, the trio of writers explore challenging subject matter (along with rejection, jealousy, and trauma) that winds up feeling timeless. Driver is great (as usual) here and both he and Damon have this animalistic quality about them that is displayed in emotional behavior that is both aggressive and suppressed. Some may have found it comical to see Damon and Affleck in these roles, with their recognizable stardom possibly overshadowing their roles, but I didn’t feel any of that – I bought what they were going after, from Damon’s ugly mullet and facial scars to the dyed-blonde thing Affleck was sporting. However, the heart and soul of the film is Comer (who was also great in last summer’s “Free Guy”), who plays a strong woman who must fight for her side to be told, regardless of the outcome. And the titular event? Probably the most intense action sequence I’ve seen all year, executed in grimy, bloody and realistic sloppiness that we’d expect from Scott, leaving us to acknowledge how pointless masculinity and pride is. (avail. on Blu-ray & DVD and for rent, streaming on HBO Max)





There were a lot of great animated films of 2021, but the one that stuck with me the longest was Raya and the Last Dragon. Indeed, a solid amount of that was the stellar animation and action, but the characters and lesson for kids to not be afraid to trust is one we as humans need nowadays more than ever.

David J. Fowlie – EMA

Another director who released two films this year is Pablo Larraín, who earned much attention for “Spencer”, but I prefer his lesser-seen drama “Ema”, (pictured above) which is his first modern-day story filmed in his native Chile. The hypnotic film begins with a giant glowing sun-like orb which spotlights dancer Ema (Mariana Di Girolamo) as she performs on stage as part of a troupe. We’re introduced to her at the point in life as her marriage to Gastón (Gael Garcia Bernal), the dance studio director, has deteriorated after their decision to return their adopted son Polo back after the boy permanently scarred Ema’s sister in fit of pyromania. Larraín shows his range here as a striking visual storyteller (thanks to entrancing cinematography by Sergio Armstrong) and a deliberate observer of human behavior, the latter of which can be seen in the scathing arguments Ema (pronounced Ee-muh) and Gastón engage in, as well as the sexual exploits and pyromania Ema pursues in an effort to free herself from any perceived constraints. Once can definitely work up an uncomfortable sweat while watching “Ema”, but that’s life – messy and uncomfortable, while at times joyous. As Ema, Mariana Di Girolamo is a revelation, losing herself in this firebrand character and utterly transfixing in her reggaetón dance numbers, playing a character displaying morally questionable and horrific behavior, especially considering how much she desires motherhood.  “Ema” earns multiple viewings for a variety of reasons, but primarily for Di Girolamo’s performance and what Larraín does her with this story. Larraín’s creative endeavor was one of the most intoxicating, provocative, and thought-provoking viewing experiences I had last year, and I would love to see Larraín take such an approach again in the future.  (avail. on Blu-ray & DVD and for rent)





Mark Lester  – MASS

Easily the hardest film I saw in 2021, Mass is almost literally gut wrenching. Every actor is in peak form in this simple, brutal tale of acceptance and forgiveness after unbearable tragedy. Prepare yourself if you wish to watch.

David J. Fowlie – DUNE

It’s gotten to the point where anything Canadian filmmaker Denis Villeneuve makes is something to behold, either due to his film’s sublime visuals or their arthouse mood, no matter the size or budget. After successfully delivering a sequel no one wanted with 2017’s “Blade Runner 2049”, Villeneuve focused on adapting Frank Herbert’s masterpiece novel Dune, a multilayered and dense examination of politics, religion, ecology, and humanity – something that fans of the novel haven’t truly seen yet, despite previous attempts. So, the question would be whether or not Villeneuve could pull it off. The answer to that is subjective, but what the director (who co-wrote the screenplay with John Spaihts and Eric Roth) has done here is big-budget sci-fi spectacle with substance, something that’s rarely done anymore, at least in a manner as engaging and breathtaking as this. Yes, we’ve seen sci-fi movies set on sand planets before, but there’s an engrossingly cold and mysterious tone to this far-future universe that makes this “Dune” (pictured above) a standout. Cinematographer Greig  Fraser manages a vibrancy while balancing earth tones and rich oranges, while incorporating economic lighting, resulting in an artful otherworldly albeit functional environment. Veteran composer Hans Zimmer combines eclectic instruments (bagpipes!) which feels both ancient and futuristic. Considering the material and Villeneuve’s previous sci-fi work, there’s no doubt why such a stellar cast signed up for this, but it’s cool to see actors like Jason Mamoa and Rebecca Ferguson delivering strong and memorable work in a supporting role and a pivotal one, respectively. Images and sequences linger long after viewing, as if recalling fragments of a dreamscape, which is quite fitting considering what young Paul Atreides experiences. While this is called “Part One” and another film has been greenlit, let’s hope it does indeed happen, since it definitely feels like the heart of the story is just getting started as this part ends. (avail. now on Blu-ray & DVD and for rent) 






Mark Lester – BELFAST

Now for a much more upbeat film (and one sure to be nominated for some Oscars), Belfast is a ode to the childhood of it’s director, Kenneth Brannagh. Even with all the chaos going on around him, Buddy (charming newcomer Jude Hill) still manages to learn about life, love, and the horrors of long division.


Hungary’s entry for the Best International Feature category at last year’s Oscars is a clever and unique love story from Hungarian writer/director Lili Horvát that evokes Hitchcock and reminiscent of early Polanski. “Preparations to be Together for an Unknown Length of Time (pictured above) follows Vizy Márta (a luminous Natasha Stork, “White God”), a forty-year-old neurosurgeon, who leaves her successful career in America to pursue love in Budapest. When she gets there and tracks the man down at their agreed upon meeting place, the Liberty Bridge, fellow brain specialist and author János Drexler (Viktor Bodó) is nowhere to be found. Once she does track him down, Márta is told that he has never met her before. What is going on? Has she manifested their relationship in her mind? Is she being gastlit? Is this guy an uncanny doppelganger? Horvát weaves an engrossing tale that finds Márta staying in Budapest despite the unexpected response she received, in hopes of getting to the bottom of this mystery and hopefully answering lingering questions. Shot in 35 millimeter by cinematographer Robert Maly, “Preparations” conveys the protagonist’s uncertainty through blurry reflections and shadowy images, in much the way our mind tends to either play tricks on us or creates its own reality (especially in a scene where Márta has a tryst in her apartment). As the story unfolds, Horvát’s screenplay keeps viewers guessing, especially when János follows Márta later on. There’s an ethereal sense of longing and desire throughout “Preparations” in a story which would typically find a man pursuing a woman with noir conventions intact. This intoxicating and mysterious gender swap offers a complex and rich female character to effortlessly follow. (avail. to rent on Amazon & AppleTV+)






Mark Lester – IN THE HEIGHTS

With two exceptions, the musicals of 2021 were nothing short of pleasing in every way. For me, I was moved most by In the Heights, both emotionally and by tapping my feet for nearly the whole movie.

David J. Fowlie – PIG

We’re so used to seeing Nicolas Cage play a wild man that we kind of expect him to bring a certain Cage-iness to all of his roles lately, but “Pig” (pictured above) is a reminder that the guy is an Oscar winner and can portray complex characters with a subdued level of measured nuance. Cage plays Robin “Rob” Field here, a reclusive truffle hunter residing in the Oregan wilderness. When his truffle pig is kidnapped, Rob returns to civilization to scour the streets of Portland with the hope of retrieving his beloved companion. The trailer for Michael Sarnoski’s confident directorial debut, makes “Pig” seem like a John Wick-style revenge thriller – and while there is violence here (Cage goes throughout most of the film bloodied and bruised), this is predominately a tender lamentation on loss, as well as a powerful ode to the transcendent power (and art) of food. Rob’s journey, often with his smarmy buyer Amir (Alex Wolff), take him into polar opposites of the city’s restaurant scene – from an underground fight club for service workers in the industry to the dining room of a big-shot of the business (a brief albeit great turn from Adam Arkin) – where we see the protagonist subject himself to physical brutality while also proving he still has an artistic culinary touch. This a film that delivers many riches, most of them quite surprising, and winds up delivering one of the most emotionally raw third acts of the year thanks to a tremendous performance from Cage. When it ended, I wanted to hose the guy down, hug him and give him a warm meal. NOTE: If you haven’t already checked out this 20-minute Cooking with Cage video, do yourself a favor! (avail. on Blu-ray & DVD and for rent; streaming on Hulu) 






Mark Lester – DUNE

The MCU may have been able to bring some people back to theaters, but no movie was a better example of a “made to watch on a big screen” than Dune. Director Denis Villenueve took the classic sci-fi story (well, part one) off the page and made this screen version on par with the likes of the original Star Wars and Lord of the Rings trilogies. A masterful epic.


Tibetan/Bhutanese lama, Khyentse Norbu, has been in involved in films as a consultant since 1993’s “Little Buddha” and has written a handful of films since then, yet I wasn’t aware of him until last year, when his latest, “Looking for a Lady with Fangs and a Mustache” (pictured above) saw a limited release in the states. The title was an obvious draw and some of the images associated with it made me think this would be a horror film, but it’s far from it. The film is more like a surrealistic journey, one that follows skeptical Tenzin (Tsering Tashi Gyalthang) a ponytailed Kathmandu man who has ambitious plans to open “the best coffee shop in all of Nepal”. For this goal, he’s raised funds from various sources, including the mother who encouraged him toward music studies and as he scouts potential locations, he wanders around an old temple abandoned since it suffered earthquake damage. That trespass appalls best friend Jachung (Tulku Kungzang), a fellow Tibetan exile, who frets that the place is “the womb of the goddess” and should not be disturbed. Tenzin shrugs off the warning as superstitious nonsense. Tenzin starts seeing strange visions, spying a young girl singing in the street, then a young woman cleaning his kitchen in the middle of the night — of course, only he can see them. Jachung urges him to meet with a local hipster prophet monk (Ngawang Tenzin), who in infuriatingly blasé fashion informs Tenzin he’s doomed to perish for his offense. This too gets laughed off, until Tenzen is so plagued by additional specters that his pressing business obligations take low priority suddently, and he reluctantly visits an elderly Buddhist master (Orgen Tobgyal Rinpoche). The grumpy sage advises Tenzen his sole hope is to find and win the allegiance of a “dakini,” a mercurial female spirit associated with transformation and wisdom. But that search becomes difficult, since she can take any form. Working with nonprofessional actors, Nobu takes Tenzen (and viewers) on an existential spiritual  journey, emulates for viewers what Tenzen is experiencing as visuals are blurred between what is real and what is a dream, creating a curious experience that is left to the interpretation of the audience. (viewing options presently unavail.)








There were a good amount of music documentaries in 2021: The Sparks BrothersThe Velvet Underground, and the aforementioned mini-series The Beatles: Get Back. Yet the film that got me thinking on a deeper level the most was director Questlove’s “jawn” Summer of Soul: (…or, when the Revolution could not be televised), which is available on Hulu. The line up of artists during those few days (happening at the same time as Woodstock) make up a soundtrack that is unparalleled.

David J. Fowlie – 499

While it premiered at the 2020 Tribeca Film Festival, the Mexican-American documentary hybrid, “499” (pictured above) did not get released until last year, which is when I saw it as part of its run at the Facets here in Chicago. Directed by Rodrigo Reyes, who co-wrote the screenplay with Lorena Padilla, the film imagines what if a 16th century Spanish conquistador (Eduardo San Juan Breña) emerged on the coast of Veracruz and made his way on foot to the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan (which is now contemporary Mexico City). What would he see and how would he be seen? As the anachronistic fictional character interacts with real-life victims of Mexico’s failed drug wars and indigenous communities in resistance, Reyes portrays the country’s current humanitarian crisis as part of a vicious and unfinished colonial project, still in motion, that started 500 years after the Spanish conquest. Told with provocative and striking visuals from cinematographer Alejandro Mejía, “499” unfolds at a gradual pace, conveying the fatigue of this ghostly traveler and the people who encounters, and asks us to imagine what it would be like if we emerged 499 years later at our current location and what are we doing to take care of ourselves and build up those around us. (viewing options presently unavail.)






Mark Lester – C’MON C’MON

I am going out on a limb here: As great as Joaquin Phoenix was in his Oscar winning role as the titular Joker, I found him to be more moving in C’mon, C’mon. Even so, no performance this year impressed me more than that of Gaby Hoffman. He is almost like a miniature Dustin Hoffman (no relation). He has a big career ahead of him, mark my words. (now in select theaters or avail. to rent)

David J. Fowlie – LICORICE PIZZA

A new Paul Thomas Anderson is always something to look forward to and last year the writer/director released his most accessible film to date. So, if someone you know has never seen a PTA film, suggest “Licorice Pizza” (pictured above) and let them know the title has more to do about the time period of the story as opposed to what any of the characters consume. Taking place in the San Fernando Valley of 1973, the story follows high schooler Gary (Cooper Hoffman, son of Anderson favorite Philip Seymour, making his acting debut) and twentysomething Alana (musician-turned-actress Alana Haim) as they strike up an unlikely quasi-romance partly due to their desire for something more in life and their shared quick wit, but mainly because of Gary’s tenacious pursuit of Alana and their shared tinseltown geography. The on-again, off-again relationship that develops is less about love or sex, and more about connection and shared experiences, as the two embark on a number of entrepreneurial pursuits (usually sparked by Gary) such as selling waterbeds, running a pinball arcade, and occasionally working as actors, which leads to hilarious situations and encounters with the likes of Hollywood luminaries (some waning) of the day like Jack Holden (Sean Penn), director Rex Blau (Tom Waits), and producer Jon Peters (Bradley Cooper). You would be hard-pressed not to take note of the performances of Haim and Hoffman, which heralds the arrival of two wonderful new actors. “Licorice Pizza” feels like a personal and universal experience that feels like shared memories of youth. Gary and Alana are often found running or laying down together looking up at the sky, laughing and imagining, while Anderson spins rock and pop vinyl tunes of the era. If someone were to say they don’t make rom-coms anymore, I would point them to this off-kilter entry form one of best American directors alive, considering it includes love, laughs, and a unique take on the coming-of-age genre. (now in theaters)








A fair amount of these films deal a lot with coming of age, but that is not all that is in Paul Thomas Anderson’s Licorice Pizza. It is about two people who, despite a decade age difference, still match in a sense when it comes to their maturity. Also, while Cooper Hoffman (the late Phillip Seymour’s son) and Alana Haim give great debut performances, no one in 2021 stole the show (at least in the supporting department) like Bradley Cooper.

David J. Fowlie – DRIVE MY CAR 

It was hard to choose just one film from Japanese writer/director Ryusuke Hamaguchi, another auteur who released two films this past year. It was a tough call, but I’m going with “Drive My Car” (pictured above) over “Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy” – I like them both almost equally, but this superb three-hour drama had my gears spinning long after viewing. Hamaguchi introduces us to Tokyo actor and theater director Kafuku (Hidetoshi Nishijima), who grieves the loss of his wife Oto (Reika Kirishima) despite their difficult relationship, often finding him trying to learn more about her. Two years after this death, he finds himself embarking on a multilingual stage production of Uncle Vanya (a classic play by Chekov which shares similarities to his own situation) which requires him to travel to Hiroshima to rehearse with his cast and crew. Due to his developing glaucoma, the theater company assigns him a hired driver Misaki (Toko Miura) who takes Kafuku to the location and anywhere else he needs to go, during which he often rehearses lines with a cassette recording made by his spouse. Through a series of auditions, Kafuku winds up casting Oto’s lover, Kōji Takatsuki (Masaki Okada) in the lead role, despite being too young for the role. Throughout this time, Kafuku unexpectedly learns more about himself and his marriage to Oto as he interacts with Misaki and the other cast members. The acting is a masterclass in subtleties, with Nishijima having fantastic chemistry with Miura, and Okada bringing confusion and frustration to what becomes a surprising role. Hamaguchi co-wrote the screenplay with Takamasa Oe and neither of then offer any answers to the questions raised here in their brilliantly weaved narrative that touches on just the right emotional notes of love, loss, grief, and guilt. I thought I had to prepare myself to watch this stunner due to its runtime, but at no point did I check the time nor was my attention pulled elsewhere. I’ll definitely revisit “Drive My Car” to glean more out of its themes and spend more time with these empathetic characters. (now in theaters)






Mark Lester – CODA 

In another universe, I feel like CODA would not be my favorite of the year. When I first saw it, I thought it was intended that the sign language between characters were not supposed to be with subtitles. Turns out, the second time I watched it, they did have subtitles. It was, as Bob Ross might say, “a happy accident”. I could still follow along without knowing what was actually being said, because I could see how the characters were still feeling what they felt. Either way, the movie is the only film this year that guaranteed tears from my eyes. (avail. on AppleTV+)

David J. Fowlie – THE RESCUE

It blows my mind that “The Rescue” (pictured above) isn’t on more year-end best-of lists! It has it all – drama, thrills, an amazing true story, and an education in cave diving, but most of all it’s an incredible tribute to generosity. The documentary reteams National Geographic with Oscar-winning directors, Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin, (the married couple who brought us another nail-biter, “Free Solo”) and primarily follows the journey of the cave divers recruited to save the children in 2018 during the Tham Luang rescue, like Brits John Volanthen and Rick Stanton, whose lifetime hobby suddenly became the X-factor that could save thirteen lives. Vasarhelyi and Chin seamlessly mix in handheld footage from the nerve-wracking two-and-a-half week period with their own incredibly filmed recreations of the rescue, making for a harrowing journey that will have you on the edge of your seat. You may recall the 24/7 news coverage, the reported how twelve boys on a soccer team and their coach were stranding in a sprawling cave when it suddenly flooded, spurring a 17-day-long effort to save their lives. A variety of specialists, navy seals and cave-diving volunteers from Thailand and all over the world, arrived to assist, but it was truly Volanthen, Stanton, and a select few others with the same qualifications, who risked their lives to save those who were trapped. Lives were lost in the process, and “The Rescue” touches on how impacting their sacrifice was when one widow shared, “Generosity is the beginning of everything. Without generosity, you cannot be a volunteer.” Indeed that becomes a thread that weaves throughout this amazing film. As a strong believer in volunteerism, I see what is chronicled here as the ultimate example of putting others first and coming together to save those who cannot save themselves. It’s something we greatly need to be reminded of. NOTE: I will be hosting a discussing the film with a live audience for the After Hours Film Society next Monday, details here. (streaming on Disney+)



2 Comments leave one →
  1. MatthewG permalink
    January 21, 2022 9:40 pm

    Great list! Our family of five, ranging from ages 8-56, watched Mark’s #10 – The Map of Tiny Perfect Things tonight, and all really enjoyed it! None of us had even heard of it before today, so thanks!


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