Best Movies of 2021: The Top 15 Films of the Year

Caitriona Balfe stars as “Ma” and Jamie Dornan stars as “Pa” in director Sir Kenneth Branagh’s ‘Belfast’ (Photo Credit: Rob Youngson / Focus Features)

Thanks to Covid-19, 2021 – or 2020 Part 2 as I call it – was another bizarre year at the movies. Theaters eventually opened but the general public remained, justifiably, leery of sitting in a room with strangers. Studios shifted release dates, sent films straight to streaming, and altered their plans to accommodate public safety concerns. Yet even with the delays and changes in release plans, 2021 turned out to be an interesting year for feature films.

My list of 2021’s best movies expanded from the planned 10 to 15, and even with the five extra spots it was difficult to narrow down the field. Two gorgeous black and white dramas – Belfast and C’mon C’mon – made the cut along with Mass, an intimate drama about the impact of school shootings. Dune surpassed all expectations by making the iconic sci-fi novel accessible to all audiences, and Marvel’s Spider-Man: No Way Home proved comic book-inspired films should not be looked down upon as lesser entertainment.

Nicolas Cage demonstrated why he’s an Oscar winner with his stunning performance in Pig. And speaking of farm animals, Lamb focused on one of the most bizarre families to grace the screen in 2021.

Natalie Morales and Mark Duplass delivered an uplifting two-hander with Language Lessons, while the large ensemble cast of Nightmare Alley brought Guillermo del Toro’s brilliant neo-noir psychological thriller alive on the screen.

Adam McKay’s Don’t Look Up skewered climate change deniers and politicians who put their careers over the lives of their constituents. Limbo gave us an unusual take on immigrants that was hysterical, emotionally engaging, and heart-wrenching. Also making the cut is CODA, a boundary-breaking drama that delivered an original take on the standard coming-of-age story.

Penelope Cruz reunited with writer/director Pedro Almodóvar for Parallel Mothers, a powerful and moving exploration of motherhood. Andrew Garfield’s fascinating portrayal of Jonathan Larson in tick, tick…Boom! made Lin-Manuel Miranda’s directorial debut a compelling, must-see biopic. And Jane Campion returned to filmmaking after a 12-year absence with the powerful and unsettling The Power of the Dog, a Western that demands repeat viewing.

My annual disclaimer: This ‘Best Of’ list, with main cast lists and official plot descriptions, represents my personal favorite films of the year. Since it’s a matter of personal taste, your list will most likely be very different from mine. Each of the movies on my Top 15 list sparked conversations or debates, and many introduced a new talent either in front of or behind the camera.

Parallel Mothers
Penelope Cruz stars in ‘Parallel Mothers’ (Photo Credit: Sony Pictures Classics)

15. PARALLEL MOTHERS starring Penélope Cruz, Aitana Sánchez-Gijón, Milena Smit, Israel Elejalde, Julieta Serrano, and Rossy de Palma

The Plot: Two women, Janis and Ana, coincide in a hospital room where they are going to give birth. Both are single and became pregnant by accident. Janis, middle-aged, doesn’t regret it and she is exultant. The other, Ana, an adolescent, is scared, repentant and traumatized. Janis tries to encourage her while they move like sleepwalkers along the hospital corridors. The few words they exchange in these hours will create a very close link between the two, which by chance develops and complicates, and changes their lives in a decisive way.

Tick Tick Boom Andrew Garfield
Andrew Garfield as Jonathan Larson in ‘tick, tick…Boom!’ (Photo Credit: Macall Polay © 2021 Netflix)

14. tick, tick…Boom! starring Andrew Garfield, Alexandra Shipp, Robin de Jesús, Joshua Henry, Mj Rodriguez, Bradley Whitford, Tariq Trotter, Judith Light, and Vanessa Hudgens

The Plot: Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award winner Lin-Manuel Miranda makes his feature directorial debut with tick, tick…BOOM!, an adaptation of the autobiographical musical by Jonathan Larson, who revolutionized theater as the creator of Rent. The film follows Jon, a young theater composer who’s waiting tables at a New York City diner in 1990 while writing what he hopes will be the next great American musical.

Days before he’s due to showcase his work in a make-or-break performance, Jon is feeling the pressure from everywhere: from his girlfriend Susan, who dreams of an artistic life beyond New York City; from his friend Michael, who has moved on from his dream to a life of financial security; amidst an artistic community being ravaged by the AIDS epidemic. With the clock ticking, Jon is at a crossroads and faces the question everyone must reckon with: What are we meant to do with the time we have?

Nicolas Cage stars in ‘Pig’ (Photo Credit: Neon)

13. PIG starring Nicolas Cage and Alex Wolff

The Plot: A truffle hunter who lives alone in the Oregonian wilderness must return to his past in Portland in search of his beloved foraging pig after she is kidnapped.

Language Lessons
Mark Duplass and Natalie Morales in ‘Language Lessons’ (Photo Credit: Shout! Studios)

12. LANGUAGE LESSONS starring Mark Duplass and Natalie Morales

The Plot: When Adam’s husband surprises him with weekly Spanish lessons, he’s unsure about where or how this new element will fit into his already structured life. But when tragedy strikes, his Spanish teacher, Cariño, becomes a lifeline he didn’t know he needed. Adam develops an unexpected and complicated emotional bond with Cariño — but do you really know someone just because you’ve experienced a traumatic moment with them?

Noomi Rapace and Hilmir Snær Guðnason star in A24’s ‘Lamb’

11. LAMB starring Noomi Rapace, Hilmir Snær Guðnason, Björn Hlynur Haraldsson, and Ingvar E. Sigurðsson

The Plot: A childless couple in rural Iceland make an alarming discovery one day in their sheep barn. They soon face the consequences of defying the will of nature, in this dark and atmospheric folktale.

Emilia Jones and Marlee Matlin in ‘CODA’ (Photo Courtesy of Apple)

10. CODA starring Emilia Jones, Marlee Matlin, Eugenio Derbez, Troy Kotsur, Ferdia Walsh-Peelo, Daniel Durant, Amy Forsyth, and Kevin Chapman

The Plot: Seventeen-year-old Ruby is the sole hearing member of a deaf family – a CODA, child of deaf adults. Her life revolves around acting as interpreter for her parents and working on the family’s struggling fishing boat every day before school with her father and older brother. But when Ruby joins her high school’s choir club, she discovers a gift for singing and soon finds herself drawn to her duet partner Miles.

Encouraged by her enthusiastic, tough-love choirmaster to apply to a prestigious music school, Ruby finds herself torn between the obligations she feels to her family and the pursuit of her own dreams.

Limbo Movie Review
Amir El-Masry, Ola Orebiyi, Kwabena Owuso-Ansah, and Vikash Bhai in ‘Limbo’ (Photo Courtesy of Focus Features)

9. LIMBO starring Amir El-Masry, Ola Orebiyi, Kwabena Ansah, and Vikash Bhai

The Plot: An offbeat observation of the refugee experience. On a fictional remote Scottish island, a group of new arrivals await the results of their asylum claims. Among them is Omar, a young Syrian musician burdened by the weight of his grandfather’s oud, which he has carried all the way from his homeland.

Don't Look Up
Jennifer Lawrence as Kate Dibiasky, Leonardo DiCaprio as Dr. Randall Mindy, and Timothée Chalamet as Yule in ‘Don’t Look Up’ (Photo Credit: Niko Tavernise / Netflix © 2021)

8. DON’T LOOK UP starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Jennifer Lawrence, Cate Blanchett, Meryl Streep, Timothée Chalamet, Michael Chiklis, Jonah Hill, Mark Rylance, Rob Morgan, Tyler Perry, Ron Perlman, Ariana Grande, Scott Mescudi, Himesh Patel, Melanie Lynskey, and Tomer Sisley

The Plot: Kate Dibiasky, an astronomy grad student, and her professor Dr. Randall Mindy make an astounding discovery of a comet orbiting within the solar system. The problem — it’s on a direct collision course with Earth. The other problem? No one really seems to care. Turns out warning mankind about a planet-killer the size of Mount Everest is an inconvenient fact to navigate.

With the help of Dr. Oglethorpe, Kate and Randall embark on a media tour that takes them from the office of an indifferent President Orlean and her sycophantic son and Chief of Staff, Jason, to the airwaves of The Daily Rip, an upbeat morning show hosted by Brie and Jack. With only six months until the comet makes impact, managing the 24-hour news cycle and gaining the attention of the social media-obsessed public before it’s too late proves shockingly comical — what will it take to get the world to just look up?!

C'mon C'mon Star Joaquin Phoenix
Joaquin Phoenix and Woody Norman in ‘C’mon C’mon’ (Photo Courtesy of A24)

7. C’MON C’MON starring Joaquin Phoenix, Woody Norman, Gaby Hoffmann, Scoot McNairy, Molly Webster, and Jaboukie Young-White

The Plot: Johnny and his young nephew forge a tenuous but transformational relationship when they are unexpectedly thrown together in this delicate and deeply moving story about the connections between adults and children, the past and the future, from writer-director Mike Mills.

Nightmare Alley
Cate Blanchett and Bradley Cooper in ‘Nightmare Alley’ (Photo by Kerry Hayes © 2021 20th Century Studios)

6. NIGHTMARE ALLEY starring Bradley Cooper, Cate Blanchett, Rooney Mara, Toni Collette, Willem Dafoe, Ron Perlman, Richard Jenkins, and David Strathairn

The Plot: In Nightmare Alley, an ambitious carny with a talent for manipulating people with a few well-chosen words hooks up with a female psychiatrist who is even more dangerous than he is.

Spider-Man No Way Home
Zendaya and Tom Holland in ‘Spider-Man: No Way Home’ (Photo © Marvel Studios and Sony Pictures)

5. SPIDER-MAN: NO WAY HOME starring Tom Holland, Zendaya, Benedict Cumberbatch, Jacob Batalon, Jon Favreau, and Marisa Tomei

The Plot: For the first time in the cinematic history of Spider-Man, our friendly neighborhood hero’s identity is revealed, bringing his Super Hero responsibilities into conflict with his normal life and putting those he cares about most at risk. When he enlists Doctor Strange’s help to restore his secret, the spell tears a hole in their world, releasing the most powerful villains who’ve ever fought a Spider-Man in any universe. Now, Peter will have to overcome his greatest challenge yet, which will not only forever alter his own future but the future of the Multiverse.

The Power of the Dog
Benedict Cumberbatch in ‘The Power of the Dog’ (Photo Credit: Kirsty Griffin © 2021 Netflix)

4. THE POWER OF THE DOG starring Benedict Cumberbatch, Kirsten Dunst, Jesse Plemons, Kodi Smit-McPhee, Thomasin McKenzie, Frances Conroy, Keith Carradine, Peter Carroll, and Adam Beach

The Plot: Severe, pale-eyed, handsome, Phil Burbank is brutally beguiling. All of Phil’s romance, power and fragility is trapped in the past and in the land: He can castrate a bull calf with two swift slashes of his knife; he swims naked in the river, smearing his body with mud. He is a cowboy as raw as his hides.

The year is 1925. The Burbank brothers are wealthy ranchers in Montana. At the Red Mill restaurant on their way to market, the brothers meet Rose, the widowed proprietress, and her impressionable son Peter. Phil behaves so cruelly he drives them both to tears, reveling in their hurt and rousing his fellow cowhands to laughter – all except his brother George, who comforts Rose then returns to marry her.

As Phil swings between fury and cunning, his taunting of Rose takes an eerie form – he hovers at the edges of her vision, whistling a tune she can no longer play. His mockery of her son is more overt, amplified by the cheering of Phil’s cowhand disciples. Then Phil appears to take the boy under his wing. Is this latest gesture a softening that leaves Phil exposed, or a plot twisting further into menace?

Dune Cast Photo
Rebecca Ferguson, Zendaya, Javier Bardem, and Timothee Chalamet in ‘Dune’ (Photo Credit: Chiabella James © 2020 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc)

3. DUNE starring Timothée Chalamet, Rebecca Ferguson, Zendaya, Oscar Isaac, Josh Brolin, Stellan Skarsgård, Dave Bautista, Stephen McKinley Henderson, Chang Chen, David Dastmalchian, Sharon Duncan-Brewster, Charlotte Rampling, Jason Momoa, and Javier Bardem

The Plot: A mythic and emotionally charged hero’s journey, Dune tells the story of Paul Atreides, a brilliant and gifted young man born into a great destiny beyond his understanding, who must travel to the most dangerous planet in the universe to ensure the future of his family and his people. As malevolent forces explode into conflict over the planet’s exclusive supply of the most precious resource in existence — a commodity capable of unlocking humanity’s greatest potential — only those who can conquer their fear will survive.

Jason Isaacs, Martha Plimpton, Reed Birney, and Ann Dowd in ‘Mass’ (Photo Credit: Bleecker Street)

2. MASS starring Jason Isaacs, Martha Plimpton, Reed Birney, and Ann Dowd

The Plot: Years after an unspeakable tragedy tore their lives apart, two sets of parents agree to talk privately in an attempt to move forward. In Fran Kranz’s writing and directing debut, he thoughtfully examines their journey of grief, anger and acceptance by coming face-to-face with the ones who have been left behind.

Caitriona Balfe stars as “Ma” and Jamie Dornan stars as “Pa” in director Sir Kenneth Branagh’s ‘Belfast’ (Photo Credit: Rob Youngson / Focus Features)

1. BELFAST starring Jamie Dornan, Caitriona Balfe, Jude Hill, Ciaran Hinds, and Judi Dench

The Plot: Belfast is a poignant story of love, laughter and loss in one boy’s childhood, amid the music and social tumult of the late 1960s.

Honorable Mentions: Saint Maud, I’m Your Man, Drive My Car, Flee, and King Richard.