By most standards, 2021 wasn’t a great year.
But it was rich in quality films. Usually around this time of year I’ll list my top 10 movies of the year, plus 10 to 15 receiving honorable mention.This year, because the offerings were so strong, I’ll go with a top 10, 15 for honorable mention, and then another 15 that would be next in line. Even then, I’ll probably feel guilty about not including something.
It’s become increasingly difficult, for instance, to separate movies from television offerings. Is Peter Jackson’s Beatles documentary, “Get Back,” a movie? If it were, I’d rank it in my top five. But, as it was presented as a three-part series on Disney+, I’d say it isn’t. So it’s not on my list.
Also, I’ve gone back and forth on whether to include “Judas and the Black Messiah,” because it qualified for last year’s Oscars (and won for best supporting actor and best original song) despite opening in February 2021. It seems, therefore, like old news … but I’ve decided to include it anyway.
One last note: My top three movies are foreign-language films. Why? It’s not that I’m trying to play the elitist film critic. They just happen to be my favorite movies of 2021, and I highly recommend you see them.
1. “The Worst Person in the World.” Renate Reinsve delivers a knockout performance as Julie, a young woman struggling to decide what she wants to do with her life, in this smart, moving dramedy from Norway. Director Joachim Trier (“Louder Than Bombs”) imaginatively captures the highs and lows one experiences through life’s tradeoffs.
2. “Drive My Car.” A noted theater director (Hidetoshi Nishijima) and his assigned chauffeur (Toko Miura) find common ground in their wounded pasts and regrets in this compelling three-hour drama from Japanese writer-director Ryusuke Hamaguchi.
3. “Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy.” Hamaguchi again (he had quite a year). This time he delivers three separate, dialogue-driven stories about (among many other things) life’s choices. Hamaguchi’s work here and in “Drive My Car” are the cinematic equivalent of fine literature.
4. “C’mon C’mon.” Joaquin Phoenix adds another to his growing list of exceptional performances in this heartfelt family drama from writer-director Mike Mills (“20th Century Women”). Phoenix plays a radio interviewer who agrees to watch the young son (Woody Norman) of his sister (Gaby Hoffmann) while she attends to her mentally ill husband.
5. “Licorice Pizza.” Paul Thomas Anderson’s episodic comedy, set in 1970s San Fernando Valley, depicts the relationship of confident 15-year-old child actor/entrepreneur Gary Valentine (Cooper Hoffman) and directionless 25-year-old photographer’s assistant Alana Kane (Alana Haim). The charm of the young stars and Anderson’s breezy portrait of enduring friendship make this film special.
6. “Final Account.” Arguably the most important film on this list. British director Luke Holland, who died in 2020, questions elderly Germans about what it was like living with Hitler in power. Some recall how much fun the songs and parades were, while downplaying the atrocities. It makes you sick, and furious, but helps you see how evil can flourish.
7. “Val.” Another documentary, this one essentially telling actor Val Kilmer’s life story through his personal home movies, other clips and new footage. Known for such roles as Doc Holliday in “Tombstone” and Jim Morrison in “The Doors,” Kilmer has more recently had throat cancer, and watching him struggle to speak as he goes on with his life is heartbreaking and inspiring.
8. “CODA.” Emilia Jones plays a hearing teenage girl torn between helping her deaf parents (Marlee Matlin, Troy Kotsur) and brother (Daniel Durant) with their fishing business and her desire to pursue an education in music. (CODA stands for Child of Deaf Adults.) A warm, funny celebration of family and music, this one will have you choked up before it’s over.
9. “Judas and the Black Messiah.” Daniel Kaluuya won the best-supporting-actor Oscar, and deserved it, for his portrayal of Black Panther leader Fred Hampton. Lakeith Stanfield, as the conflicted FBI informant who infiltrates the Panthers, also is outstanding. Set in late 1960s Chicago, its themes of racial oppression and resistance are as relevant today as ever.
10. “The Tragedy of Macbeth.” Denzel Washington delivers a powerhouse performance as the Shakespearean warrior whose ambition gets the better of him. Director Joel Coen (working for the first time without brother Ethan) presents a dark, moody, bare-bones version of the classic, shot in black and white, with Kathryn Walker standing out as the chillingly creepy witches.
Honorable mention: “The Hand of God,” “Werewolves Within,” “Nightmare Alley,” “West Side Story,” “Last Night in Soho,” “Roadrunner: a Film About Anthony Bourdain,” “A Chiara,” “Together Together,” “Language Lessons,” “The Dig,” “The Sparks Brothers,” “The Nowhere Inn,” “No Time to Die,” “Together,” “Jockey.”
Next up: “Red Rocket,” “Pig,” “The Most Beautiful Boy in the World,” “Quo Vadis, Ada?” “The Power of the Dog,” “Summer of Soul (… Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised),” “Wojnarowicz: F— You F—– F—–,” “The Killing of Two Lovers,” “Mass,” “Petite Maman,” “The Souvenir, Part 2,” “The French Dispatch,” “The Many Saints of Newark,” “The Card Counter,” “Only the Animals.”
Top 25 best performances
There were so many first-rate performances this year that I could go on and on. I stopped at 25.
1. Benedict Cumberbatch, “The Power of the Dog”
2. Renate Reinsve, “The Worst Person in the World”
3. Alana Haim, “Licorice Pizza”
4. Joaquin Phoenix, “C’mon C’mon”
5. Jessica Chastain, “The Eyes of Tammy Faye”
6. Nicole Kidman, “Being the Ricardos”
7. Hidetoshi Nishijima, “Drive My Car”
8. Daniel Kaluuya, “Judas and the Black Messiah”
9. Bradley Cooper, “Nightmare Alley”
10. Patti Harrison, “Together Together”
11. Ray Liotta, “The Many Saints of Newark”
12. Joanna Lumley, “Falling for Figaro”
13. Simon Rex, “Red Rocket”
14. Suzanna Son, “Red Rocket”
15. Troy Kotsur, “CODA”
16. Ruth Negga, “Passing”
17. Clifton Collins Jr., “Jockey”
18. Kathryn Walker, “The Tragedy of Macbeth”
19. Denzel Washington, “The Tragedy of Macbeth”
20. Milana Vayntrub, “Werewolves Within”
21. Michaela Watkins, “Werewolves Within”
22. Vera Farmiga, “The Many Saints of Newark”
23. Regina King, “The Harder They Fall”
24. Anya Taylor-Joy, “Last Night in Soho”
25. Diana Rigg, “Last Night in Soho”
** Click here for Tim Miller’s previous movie columns for Cape Cod Wave **
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Tim Miller is a Cape-based member of the Boston Society of Film Critics. He and Tony Raine host “Tim ’n’ Tony’s Rock ’n’ Pop Show” from midnight to 2 a.m. Sunday nights/Monday mornings on WOMR (92.1-FM), WFMR (91.3-FM) and womr.org (archived shows at https://womr.org/schedule/broadcast-archive/). He also teaches film at Cape Cod Community College in West Barnstable. You can contact Tim at [email protected] or follow him onTwitter @TimMillerCritic. Or you can ignore him completely.