This article is part of our 2021 Rewind. Follow along as we explore the best and most interesting movies, shows, performances, and more from this very strange year. In this entry, our Chief Film Critic Rob Hunter presents his list of the 15 best films of 2021.
You can never see every film released in a year, at least not within a reasonable time of that year’s ending, and that’s especially the truth for 2021. Sure, there might have been more downtime for some of us, but the mood of everyday living didn’t always translate to a desire to sit down and watch a movie. For me, I tapped out at seeing just under two hundred new releases for 2021 — only counting films given an official release in the US — and happily, it was a fantastic film year.
I’ve already shared my lists of 2021’s Best Action and Best Horror, and now it’s time to drop my picks for the year’s best films. This year’s top fifteen come from France, Japan, Denmark, Norway, the UK, and the US, and they run the gamut in tone, style, and popularity. Your own favorites may vary, but all fifteen of the movies below are well worth seeking out even as we march steadily into 2022. Keep reading for the best films of the year!
15. Bloody Oranges (France)
If there’s one film on this list guaranteed to turn off most viewers, it’s Jean-Christophe Meurisse’s Bloody Oranges. The blackest of comedies, it starts off feeling like a very funny/strange collaboration between Christopher Guest and Armando Iannucci before Michael Haneke and Yorgos Lanthimos step in as guest directors, and suddenly you’re cringing, screaming, and wondering what the hell you’ve gotten yourself into. It’s an ensemble anthology of sorts delivering dark laughs, biting commentary, and some surprising turns. Give it a shot, but maybe keep the kids in the other room.
14. Rurouni Kenshin: The Beginning (Japan)
The movies that make my genre-specific lists, Best Action and Best Horror, don’t typically make it onto this one, but Keishi Ohtomo’s Rurouni Kenshin: The Beginning is this year’s exception. The action is spectacular, with sharp choreography and blistering execution. What elevates it into the “best film of the year” category is its success as an emotionally thrilling tale with memorable characters, a stirring narrative, and a powerful ending. Even more impressive, it’s the fifth and final film in Ohtomo’s Rurouni Kenshin franchise — and a prequel. Watching it after the previous films provides answers and closure; watching it first sets up everything that comes next, and watching it whenever is a guaranteed great time.
Does a musical comedy special that premiered on a streamer count as a movie? It does when I’m the one writing the list. Bo Burnham’s Inside hit Netflix in May, and it succeeds at capturing what so many of us were feeling at the time. Isolation, worry, confusion, and the realization that we’re slowly going a little bit mad all rear their head, and Burnham channels it into comedy, music, and an honest reveal of his own vulnerability. The songs are catchy, and the laughs are big, but the special’s staying power comes in that authentic snapshot of the pandemic. It doesn’t revel in the misery of it all, but Burnham does question how we got there (here?) and why we’re still in it.
12. Silent Night (UK)
Writer/director Camille Griffin’s feature debut has proven to be somewhat divisive with viewers, and as an enormous fan, I can easily see why. A group of friends and their families gather for the holidays, but as the minutes tick by, it comes clear that their seasonal joy is about to end — they’re all going to die. The specifics are best experienced first-hand, and the journey puts viewers in the capable hands of Keira Knightley, Matthew Goode, Roman Griffin Davis, Lucy Punch, Lily-Rose Depp, and more. It grows from warm to prickly, with humor and fear trading places, and builds to an ending that asks fascinating questions guaranteed to stir conversation.
11. Derek DelGaudio’s In & Of Itself
Like the Bo Burnham special above, this streaming special might not count as a “movie” to some people, but again — it’s my list. Derek DelGaudio is a magician, storyteller, and writer whose successful stage show comes to Hulu in a feature directed by Frank Oz. The show is an exploration of self-identity, how we see ourselves, and DelGaudio does so through words, sleight of hand, and pure emotion. The magic is brain-busting at times, and some of it still has me boggled, but the piece’s emotion takes hold and refuses to let go. Filmed over several performances, sharp eyes will note familiar faces in the audience, including Bill Gates, Mia Sara, David Blaine, Ronan Farrow, and more.
This list of our Chief Critic’s best films of 2021 continues on the next page…
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