2021 it’s finally over! And what’s the best way to start off the new year if not talking about our favorite movies of 2021? Last year, movies were my biggest companion. After almost two years locked up inside, I was finally able to return to the cinemas to watch 30 movies on the big screen – a number that was possible thanks to the São Paulo International Film Festival that returned as an in-person event. Besides that, most of the movies came out on an early VOD release, making it possible for me to create this list faster than in previous years.
Sure, there are still some titles left to see, like Licorice Pizza, The Tragedy of Macbeth, and The Souvenir Part II. But as I usually say every time I make this list, these are films that will keep shining through the upcoming months, and they will probably be mentioned in the blog soon. So let’s remember the best titles we’ve seen in this incredible year for cinema.
20. “Compartment No. 6” by Juho Kuosmanen
Winner of the Grand Prix at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, Compartment No. 6 can be seen as a somewhat Russian version of Before Sunrise. By focusing on the relationship between two strangers with completely different personalities that are forced to travel inside of the same train compartment, Juho Kuosmanen creates a beautiful movie about finding connections in the most unlikely of places and questioning ourselves what kind of life we think we want to live. With great performances by Yuriy Borisov and Seidi Haarla, Compartment No. 6 is probably the best road movie of the year.
19. “Great Freedom” by Sebastian Meise
Franz Rogowski delivers one of my favorite male performances of the year in Great Freedom, an outstanding film that focuses on the life of a man who spent years in prison for being caught in gay activities under the act of Paragraph 175. With that, Sebastian Meise gives us a closer look at not only how life was for homosexuals behind bars but also how the feeling of imprisonment served as a metaphor for being gay in Germany at that time. Probably one of the most important films of the year, and the best LGBTQ film of 2021.
18. “Annette” by Leos Carax
Funny, absurd, camp, and bizarre. Words can’t quite transcribe the feeling you have while you watch Annette, one of the most self-indulgent musicals of the year that criticizes the relevance of comedians in the modern world, the exploitation of fame, and the insecurity of men while it’s also a part noir-film with german expressionist homages. With an outstanding soundtrack composed by Sparks, Leos Carax’s film is one of the most different and unique things you’ll watch in 2021.
17. “Dune” by Dennis Villeneuve
It’s impossible to deny that Dune was one of the biggest movie events of the year. Even though many people didn’t like that this is only an introduction to what’s really to come, we can’t take for granted what Dennis Villeneuve did here. With one of the most impressive works of cinematography, direction, and production design of 2021, Dune is the Hollywood epic that we forgot it was possible to make. A story that embraces its time and grandeur to make you embark on a journey that has been carefully planned and executed to give the audience what cinema does best: provide us with an incredible experience. To think this is only the first part is exactly what makes it even more exciting!
16. “Titane” by Julia Ducournau
Without a doubt one of the most transgressive movies of the year, Titane has shocked audiences and caused a stir wherever it went. Winner of the Palm d’Or at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, Julia Ducournau’s film is an impressive and unique work of gender and identity, that navigates through the horror genre while it embraces elements of the new french extremity to talk about important subjects through a creative, interesting and challenging way. Love it or hate it, this is definitely a must-watch film of 2021.
15. “Raya and the Last Dragon” by Carlos López Estrada and Don Hall
2021 was a really special year for animations and the proof is that I’ve put two animated films on this list, being Raya and the Last Dragon the first. Having an extremely important and relevant message, this Disney Animation shows that we must find common ground among the different cultures of the world so we can live in peace and harmony. With impressive graphics and a beautiful screenplay, Raya and the Last Dragon stands out for its complex themes and beautiful moral, resulting in one of the most important animations I’ve seen in years.
14. “The Power of the Dog” by Jane Campion
A movie that is definitely worth a second watch is The Power of the Dog, a film so subtle and powerful that you might miss a detail or two when you first watch it. With an impeccable work of direction by Jane Campion and outstanding performances by Benedict Cumberbatch and Kristen Dunst, the film explores important and interesting themes such as toxic masculinity, sexuality, and the space we take through the sounds we make. This is also my biggest bet to win Best Picture at the upcoming Academy Awards, and I’d be pretty satisfied if that indeed happens.
13. “A Hero” by Asghar Farhadi
Being another winner of the Grand Prix at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, A Hero is probably Asghar Farhadi’s best film to date for telling the story of a man who decides to use the money her girlfriend found on the street to pay off his debt so he can leave prison. When the person he owes money doesn’t accept it, the man decides to return the lost bag and ends up becoming a national hero. With that, Farhadi creates an interesting and complex tale about what is ethical and unethical, and what is right and wrong. All of that while it’s also a study about community and pride, resulting in an important film that asks difficult questions.
12. “Nine Days” by Edson Oda
Having one of the most original screenplays of the year, Nine Days is one of the best movies that no one is talking about. Previously released in 2020, this Edson Oda’s debut follows the story of a man who must decide what soul will have the chance to be born on Earth. By having nine days to complete the task, Oda creates a complex, beautiful, and smart screenplay that tackles the complexities of the human soul, how our personality shapes us, and the importance of accepting and understanding our own feelings. Not to mention it’s a somewhat homage to Wings of Desire and Soul. A must-watch.
11. “The Worst Person in the World” by Joachim Trier
Another movie with an outstanding screenplay is The Worst Person in the World. I have never really been a massive fan of Joachim Trier, but what he accomplished here with Eskil Vogt is really something special. By following the indecisive and spontaneous life of Julie, we’re presented with 12 chapters that explore her life, relationships, insecurities, anger, and wishes, which could also represent the millennial generation’s mindset in an interesting, creative, and funny way. Renate Reinsve and Anders Danielsen Lie are amazing in it.
10. “West Side Story” by Steven Spielberg
A movie that impressed me more than I thought it was possible it’s Steven Spielberg’s remake of West Side Story, which could also be seen as a new version of the story than an actual remake, for it’s so rich and special that it almost feels like a brand new classic. Transforming the colorful first film into something more realistic, violent, and dark, Spielberg brings back the seriousness and importance of old musicals through a story that is still relevant, fresh, and important until today. All of this while he also brings new talented faces such as Mike Faist, Ariana DeBose, and Rachel Zegler to deliver one of the most impressive performances of the year. Even Ansel Elgort is amazing in this, making West Side Story a must-watch remake.
09. “Red Rocket” by Sean Baker
Another movie that I loved more than I thought I would is Red Rocket, Sean Baker’s third feature that focuses on the story of a shady porn star who returns to his hometown in Texas after his life turned upside down in Los Angeles. By having an unreliable character as the main protagonist, Baker creates a fascinating character study that is enriched with Simon Rex’s incredible performance, resulting in an energetic and jazzy film that feels like a Safdie brothers movie. It’s also a somewhat portrait of America, and the way the director uses the locations as a character in the film is so beautiful and unique that makes Red Rocket a 2021 classic.
08. “Drive My Car” by Ryusuke Hamaguchi
I’m not usually a big fan of Japanese cinema, but this Ryusuke Hamaguchi film is so soaked in Murakami’s magical elements that it was impossible for me not to love it. With three hours of duration, this modern epic feels way shorter for telling the strange story of a play writer who starts rehearsing a new play in a new town after her wife passes away. With that, Hamaguchi creates an extremely simple and subtle film about loss, communication, and identity in modern Japan, while it also flirts with magical realism through sex, strangers, and everyday coincidences. To think that the original story that this movie is based on is actually just a conversation between a man and a woman in a car is proof of how talented Ryusuke Hamaguchi is and how familiar he is with Haruki Murakami’s novels.
07. “The Card Counter” by Paul Schrader
A movie that also contains one of my favorite male performances of the year is The Card Counter, Paul Schrader’s neo-noir about an ex-soldier who has lost his hope in humanity and spends his time making money by counting cards in casinos. Oscar Isaac delivers an outstanding performance in bringing this strange character to life, navigating through a script that takes you to unexpected and dark places, resulting in an outstanding film that feels like Light Sleeper meets First Reformed. It also talks a lot about post-traumatic disorder and the current American way of life in interesting and important ways.
06. “The Lost Daughter” by Maggie Gylenhaal
The Lost Daughter might not deserve this place on this list because I literally watched it last night, but Maggie Gyllenhaal’s debut feature spoke to me in so many ways that it was impossible for me not to love it. By telling the story of a professor who goes to spend her vacation on a Greek island, this woman ends up tangled in a family drama that makes her remember about her daughters when they were little, and some difficult decisions she had to make along the way. The result is a suspense which its main theme is identity, and the battle we fight to be ourselves, and the pressure of the responsibility of having a family. All of that through Maggie Gyllenhaal’s beautiful mise en scene and an impeccable cast formed by Olivia Colman, Dakota Johnson, Jessie Buckley, Peter Sarsgaard, Paul Mescal, Ed Harris, and more!
05. “Memoria” by Apichatpong Weerasethakul
As I said at the coverage of the São Paulo International Film Festival, Memoria is a movie more to be felt than fully understood. By telling the story of a woman who starts hearing sudden loud bangs, Apichatpong Weerasethakul creates a beautiful, strange, and mystical journal through the sounds of our lives and the stories they tell. It’s a very spiritual film for it deals a lot with memory and how its waves permeate through time and space. The result is probably one of the most unique and haunting films of the year.
04. “Spencer” by Pablo Larraín
Better than Kristen Stewart’s performance in Spencer is how Pablo Larraín takes Steven Knight’s script and transforms it into an impeccable work of art. Being more of an auteur piece than an actual biography, Spencer is the requiem of a woman’s sense of place and identity, that uses the clothes and closed rooms to tell a horror story about a woman who is trying to escape. With an impeccable mise en scene by Larraín and a performance by Stewart that is more interesting for the fact that she is deconstructing herself than actually being similar to Diane, Spencer is by far one of my absolute favorite movies of 2021.
03. “Bergman Island” by Mia Hansen-Løve
I’ve waited for this movie so long to come out and when I’ve finally watched it, it was so much more than I expected that I’d probably consider this the best movie of 2021 if it weren’t for the upcoming titles. By telling the story of two filmmakers who decide to go to Faro Island for inspiration, Mia Hansen-Løve creates an extremely personal film that while it homages the work and life of Ingmar Bergman, it also talks a lot about family, creativity, and how our personal lives affect the work we do. It really hits many personal marks for me, making Bergman Island a very special film, especially for its outstanding cast and their remarkable performances.
02. “Luca” by Enrico Casarosa
It might surprise you to find Luca so high up on this list, but Pixar’s latest animation is so perfect for me that I couldn’t ignore it as simply the second-best film of 2021. Telling the story of two sea monsters who decide to infiltrate a city in Italy to participate in a competition in order to win a Vespa, Luca is a beautiful homage to friendship, summer, and Italy through a story that could be interpreted as a metaphor for immigrants, outcasts, and homosexuals in such a perfect, beautiful, and touching way that I must admit I’ve cried more in this than in Toy Story 3. Any resemblance with Call Me By Your Name is not a coincidence.
01. “The Killing of Two Lovers” by Robert Machoian
You are probably wondering “why?” or even “what movie is this?”, but even though Luca, Bergman Island, and Spencer were my favorite movies of 2021, it was very hard for me not to consider The Killing of Two Lovers as the best movie of 2021. First released in 2020 and mostly seen in 2021, Robert Machoian’s debut feature is so perfect in every single frame that you feel like you just watched a masterpiece when the credits start to roll. By telling the story of a father who is trying to reunite his family together, Robert Machoian builds such an incredibly tense work of fiction through a simple, subtle, and creative direction that this drama ends up feeling like a horror movie. Not only that, but the sound design and the powerful performances by Clayne Crawford and Sepideh Moafi make The Killing of Two Lovers a must-watch indie. All of that plus the fact that it’s only 84 minutes and not many people are talking about it, is the reason I consider this the best movie of the year.
Honorable mentions: Flee by Jonas Poher Rasmussen; Little Fish by Chad Hartigan; Ahed’s Knee by Nadav Lapid; The Hand of God by Paolo Sorrentino; and Small Body by Laura Samani.