Here’s the recap of moviegoing in 2021. Cinemas were open for a while before they were closed, only to be re-opened again a few months later. In-person film festivals were back, even though online festivals were still a thing, too. Streaming services and online rentals still carried the year.
All in all, cinema still prevails, and good films triumph. So, here are the highlights of the year, including the best films of 2021 curated by Sinekdoks.
Check this table of content first to navigate the post easily.
Table of Contents
Top 10 Best Films of 2021
Unlike previous editions of the ‘Best of’ series, I will only list the top 10 best films in 2021. From around 30 titles I shortlisted, I picked ten films that stick with me long enough to help me get by. Other films will be discussed later on Movie-by-Month Highlights. So, here we go.
Denis Villeneuve crafts a future classic out of Frank Herbert’s space opera. It’s a modern epic about honor and greed set in a constellation far, far away — where spices formed in deserts by the blessing of giant sandworm is an interstellar commodity.
The director ensures that all the gospel truths are pronounced eloquently. In other words, Dune fleshes out the lore thoroughly and transliterates the imagery fluently. Imagine a synthesis of spice-driven colonialism, medieval politics, and Abrahamic messianism masquerading as an exquisite met gala.
This is a true showcase of craftsmanship.
09. Language Lessons
On the brink of video-call fatigue, Language Lessons arrives with a reason that, after all, it’s not that bad. Even after a couple of turbulent years, some of us have not felt truly connected to our surroundings. Sometimes, intimacy often comes from remote sources.
This warm, little drama is a kind of film that makes you wanna feel again. Morales portrays a remote Spanish teacher for Mark Duplass’ delicate character. Subsequently, they bond over grief, vulnerability, and lonesome through small yet intimate conversations.
It’s gentle and comforting. Most importantly, it’s funny in a friendly, sympathetic way. Above all, Language Lessons‘ platonic affection makes us feel again — whether it’s love or everything in between.
Making sense of a tragedy is never a painless effort. Fran Kranz’s directorial debut, Mass, gives an intimate yet heart-wrenching look at it as parents of school-shooting victims & perpetrators meet face-to-face.
Kranz respectfully draws the tragedy in an intense conversation, mostly, over a small table. The solid interaction unravels their trials & tribulations in coping without rubbing salt in the wounds.
It’s a heavy ordeal for the characters. And, Mass makes sure that audiences feel the amount of sensitivity, the unimaginable suffering, and the sympathy.
07. The Worst Person in the World
The Worst Person in the World completes Joachim Trier’s Oslo Trilogy with a rare anti-romance.
Its intriguingly sinister title makes an elusive foreshadow to the narrative. Instead of witch-hunting who, among the characters, is the titular culprit, this drama ponders on several factors that can make someone the worst person in a relationship.
Split into numerous chapters, Tries ventures beyond meet-cute moments. Subsequently, this film explores elements that define any romance — from gender, sexual, and familial roles to other elements inspired by the #MeToo movement. In doing so, The Worst Person in the World might appear vulnerable and heartwarming at the same time.
Renate Reinsve adds extra depth to the story with a brilliant performance. She guides audiences through an ironically progressive yet commitment-phobic young love.
06. The Power of the Dog
In her eighth film, Jane Campion observes an emotionally restrained Western elegy from Thomas Savage’s novel, The Power of the Dog.
With a star-studded ensemble of cast, Campion crafts a majestic art of subtleties. She asserts her authority as a powerful storyteller by exploring the world of fragile masculinity with a bitter display of jealousy, secrecy, and muted sentiment.
Her characters fight demons inside the inner sanctum by projecting it through a moody yet sharp agitation. Benedict Cumberbatch takes the center stage as an ambitious rancher plagued by secret yearnings. Even so, he’s only the face of the film; because the voice has always been Campion’s delicateness.
I wrote a guest review for The Power of the Dog on CineCrib. Read it here.
05. The Tragedy of Macbeth
Steered by Denzel Washington’s commanding performance & Joel Coen’s complex craftsmanship, The Tragedy of Macbeth makes a solid Macbeth adaptation. In the same vein, it radiates the ancient peculiarity with sensitivity and flair altogether.
Joel, working alone, orchestrates a film and theater hybrid inspired by early cinema. Confined spaces with sharp angles, minimum lights, shadows, and ominous fog that look like a set from Dr. Caligari give a perfect setting for the corruption of Macbeth.
We all know that Washington’s Macbeth and Frances McDormand’s Lady Macbeth sound like Shakespearean characters by design. However, the clever transliteration and direction show us how those characters tick the boxes of Coenesque characters, too.
04. Summer of Soul (…or, When the Revolution Could Not be Televised)
Questlove’s Summer of Soul (…or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised) is a revelation. It’s a vintage antique — colorful paraphernalia of the Black revolution.
Juxtaposing footage from the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival with historical records and eye-opening interviews, this documentary almost feels like a concert movie. You’ll see, albeit short, Sly & the Family Stone (pictured above), Stevie Wonders, and Nina Simone’s captivating performances among others. It’s as if we’re looking at a culture festival — vibrant and soulful from start to finish.
Yet, you should not mistake the festivity with the substance within. It’s a bold revolution. Above all, the enchanting performers give the revolution loud voices and backstories — that have been betrayed by pop cultures for half of a century.
03. C’mon C’mon
Mike Mills’ C’mon C’mon is a reflective account of life as seen and felt by innocent souls. The narrative feels delicate, affecting, and emotionally vibrant in contrast to its monochromatic cinematography. In it, Joaquin Phoenix and Woody Norman bond earnestly.
Contrast views seem to be the film’s main theme. The narrative looks back on how children view the world along with the complexity. At the same time, it compares that power of innocence once more while reflecting back on how sophisticated the world is for grown-ups.
It’s as if the black-and-white palette projects how the world is perceived by adults. Through the children, we can feel the colors even though they are invisible. C’mon C’mon delivers it with sweet sensitivity and optimism.
02. Licorice Pizza
What Paul Thomas Anderson does in Licorice Pizza is unlike anything he has done before. Yet, it’s not unprecedented.
Anderson ties the fleeting teenage love on the ground with the weight of the mid-20s crisis. Narrative-wise, Licorice Pizza does not feature the writer/director’s ambitious penchant. Yet, with all the passion and the verve flow freely on-screen, we know for sure the signature craftsmanship prevails.
The camera loves Alana Haim’s raw charm and she returns the favor. To counter her instant allure, Anderson casts Copper Hoffman, who naturally fits his universe and brings balance to the palette. The final product is a beautiful, liberating nostalgia.
01. Woodlands Dark and Days Bewitched: A History of Folk Horror
For the first time ever, the top spot in Sinekdoks’ Best of series goes to a documentary feature. For all the details and amounts of dedication put on to it, Woodlands Dark and Days Bewitched: A History of Folk Horror deserves it.
Directed by horror film programmer and scholar, Kier-La Janisse, this documentary is a holistic study of the subject matter with meticulous detail. It offers thought-provoking perspectives that make its 3-hour duration worthwhile.
This documentary discusses hundreds of folk horror films while juxtaposing them with thorough interviews. It features more than a hundred movies with insights from fellow horror scholars, authors, and iconic directors like Robert Eggers and Robin Hardy.
The devils are in the detail & that’s quite literally. Split into 6 self-sustaining yet inter-connected chapters, this essay deconstructs folk horror. It doesn’t always see it as a mere genre, but as a discourse about fears in association with its historical, cultural, psychosocial, and psychogeographical elements.
Most importantly, Woodlands Dark and Days Bewitched argues that folk horrors reflect societal guilt that, then, creates anxiety. In most western folk horrors, the trigger is colonial guilts — including gospel, genocide, etc; in the rest of the world, male anxiety.
With all the substance, it’s not a mere treat for horror fans, it’s a real treasure.
Special Shoutouts: Best Performance of 2021
This kind of appreciation segment hasn’t been done in the Best of series in the past few years. However, given the sheer performance by actors and actresses in the best films of 2021, those performances are worth special shoutouts.
Here are some of the greatest performances in 2021 films.
Jodie Comer in The Last Duel
Comer delivers a heart-rending performance as a woman who fights for her honor in Ridley Scott’s classic. She brings knockout moments by moments as her character, Marguerite de Carrouges, refuses to be silent as a sexual-abuse victim. Her “I will not be silent” line remains timeless and iconic.
Andrew Garfield in Tick, Tick… BOOM!
The British-American actor had quite a year in terms of performance. With commanding acting in Mainstream and The Eyes of Tammy Faye as well as the appearance in Spider-Man: No Way Home, he gave us a joyride. Yet, it’s his portrayal of Jonathan Larson that really leaves a big mark and a comforting presence to the audiences.
Alana Haim in Licorice Pizza
She isn’t a strange figure for Paul Thomas Anderson. After directing at least a half dozen videos for HAIM, the director wrote Licorice Pizza with Alana in mind. It’s only her screen debut, but she nails it with a raw charm — which might not radiate had it not for her natural magnetism.
Benedict Cumberbatch in The Power of the Dog
Jane Campion’s storytelling prowess is the film’s voice; but, Cumberbatch becomes the face — the physical manifestation of Campion’s elegiac drama. His performance brings out the film’s major theme of jealousy, secrecy, and male vulnerability subtly.
Olivia Colman in The Lost Daughter
Colman’s character, Leda, is defined by her performance and partially by Jessie Buckley’s supporting effort in providing context. However, Colman brings the persona of an unnatural mother on-screen with intriguing ambiguity. That makes us either love or resent her.
Peter Dinklage in Cyrano
With his charming performance in Joe Wright’s Cyrano, it feels as if Dinklage is destined to portray the classic tragic hero. His eloquence not only brings out Cyrano’s infamous panache but also shifts the conflict from a scandalous tragedy to a rumination of fragile masculinity.
Renate Reinsve in The Worst Person in the World
She is the reason The Worst Person in the World is placed amongst the best films of 2021. Reinsve guides us through the turbulent romance to find what makes a modern relationship work or not. Her performance adds an extra depth to the already layered story.
Denzel Washington in The Tragedy of Macbeth
The curse of The Scottish Play doesn’t hinder Washington to provide a stellar, god-tier performance that makes his titular character tick all boxes for a Shakespearean and Coenesque character.
Kristen Stewart in Spencer
Stewart transforms completely into the disillusioned Lady Diana as she’s struggling against marital & mental problems. Her enchanting performance ushers us in tiptoeing into a pivotal moment in the subject’s life. After all, she’s the final girl of Pablo Larraín’s disconcerting, subtext-heavy thriller.
Throughout 2021 (until early 2022), I’ve seen hundreds of new films. Some of them left lasting impressions on me. However, when I compiled the ‘Best of’ list, it was impossible to include them all. Therefore, I put those films that stood out to me in the past year in these highlights.
Let’s call it ‘The Almost Made It’ list.
A wickedly dependent relationship with God is a provocative premise that Saint Maud introduces.
Rose Glass makes the experience more painful to watch. In doing so, she incorporates a parallel vision of psychological trauma with a rare deliverance of faith-possessed terror. It’s as if Saint Maud tells audiences to not look for divine intervention in the dark.
It sympathetically captures the mental illness in a healthy discourse about the stigma and how religious communities can help endorse more supportive, non-judgmental care. Delivered with an excruciating pace, striking visuals, and breakthrough performance by Morfydd Clark, the discourse leaves a bone-chilling after-taste.
One Night in Miami
One Night in Miami is barely a story. It’s more like a transformative, subtext-heavy discourse about being influential Black figures during the civil rights era in the US.
Regina King and Kemp Powers utilize this fictional account to talk over a series of issues amongst the Black community in the process. Most syntax of the dialogues might be imaginary but the depicted event has a factual root and the conversation has a real-world inspiration.
Read more about One Night in Miami here.
Judas & The Black Messiah
The biblical juxtaposition makes the powerful story of Judas and the Black Messiah more compelling.
It seems to position itself as one of the Passion stories within the Black communities. Shaka King and the writers take the political context of the Passion and aligned it with the turmoil during the civil rights movement. FBI takes the mantle of the High Priest, with Mitchell as Annas and Hoover as Caiaphas.
It’s a call to observe how the Black struggle in the US is often ridden by other interests or completely manipulated by the establishment. It’s also a reminder of how the establishment could go the extra mile to sabotage a revolution. That’s the reason this two-side biopic arrives: as a call to action and a reminder of an ongoing revolution.
Riders of Justice
Mads Mikkelsen leads a band of middle-aged misfits in a revenge black comedy that feels brutal and mercilessly chaotic.
Anders Thomas Jensen imbues the revenge thriller with a comedy of errors. The result feels like a pseudo-sci-fi Coen Brothers’ story with some extra garnish. Mikkelsen, as a versatile leading man with a peculiar set of emotions, is that much-needed garnish.
The Mitchells vs. The Machine
Animated road-trip stories usually lead to a melancholic, life-changing drama, Michael Rianda’s The Mitchells vs. The Machine does the otherwise.
This one leads to an exhilarating, non-stop laugh and incessant spectacles amidst machinapocaplyse. The protagonists are running rampant without brakes. Instead, the film brings a ton of quips and pop-culture references that serves as a plot device rather than some gimmicks.
It feels like another Lord & Miller’s pièce de résistance, even when they’re only serving as executive producers. However, the credit goes all to Rianda’s uplifting direction that kick-starts the whole fun.
Bo Burnham: Inside
The comedian becomes vulnerable and hilarious at the same time. This whole comedy special might seem suffocating and all over the place, but we get it. Inside hits at all the right spots.
Nicolas Cage’s career in the last two decades has been nothing but bizarre. His preferred characters have been either big hits or complete misses. In such turbulence, Pig proves to be one of his most iconic personas to date.
Michael Sarnoski’s film subverts the narrative of a vengeance film with raw emotion and a devastating portrayal of love loss. Strangely, the surrogate for the love ordeal is a real, mercurial pig. Through the squeals and the lack of it, the film transcends the convention of narrative.
Pig revolves around the dynamic of the restaurant industry using revenge-thriller tropes as a mode to contemplate.
The Green Knight
David Lowery is a true romantic. When he throws Dev Patel as Sir Gawain in a visually enchanting and timelessly engaging tale of a down-to-earth quest, we know there’s a shade of romanticism in it.
Subtly altering the story of “Sir Gawain and The Green Knight” (translated by JRR Tolkien), there stood Lowery’s take on the tale. His visually striking tale criticizes the old virtue where the burden of masculinity clouds one’s judgment.
The Green Knight awaits those burdened by honor, masculinity, and pride.
Evangelion: 3.0+1.0 — Thrice Upon A Time
The best term to describe it is an ‘anti-Evangelion.’ Hideaki Anno offers a psychedelic closure that provides more questions than straightforward answers to the EVA universe — be it the original or the rebuild. It’s a true experience, and if you’re into the Rebuild of Evangelion series, it’s an obligatory story.
Anchored by Emilia Jones’ scintillating performance, Sian Heder’s CODA puts up a string of heartwarming stories.
It’s not only adapting La Famille Bélier; but, it improves on the engineer of the narrative. The story of life, dream, and family through music and deafness might sound challenging; but, CODA makes it familiar. It has all the tenderness and positive representations to move even the coldest heart.
No Time to Die
Cary Joji Fukunaga concludes Daniel Craig’s 007 saga with a full heart.
No Time to Die is a perfect mishmash of the classic Bond and the grittier, modern Bond in an unrelenting spectacle. The formula of a globetrotting espionage thriller with a touch of opulence works with extra composure and maturity.
Mediterranean adversity, cutting-edge Bond car, show-stealing Bond girls, clever quips (to replace outdated sexual allusions), and a campy villain brings back the classic groove. Meanwhile, high-concept action set pieces and the eco-terrorism plot show what’s best from the modern 007.
Read my review of No Time to Die on CineCrib.
Banjong Pisanthanakun’s return to horror foray is never scary in the basic sense. Yet, when this mockumentary unravels its story of shamanistic & ancestral heritage, it feels suffocating. A sense of futility haunts with every layer of secret peeled off.
The plot holds ‘nightmares-exist-outside-of-logic’ credo dearly, but it never defies the narrative logic. The foreshadowing game is strong; so are the causality effects.
It takes a while before the plot really kicks off, but as soon as the chains of deceit and red herrings are revealed, everything goes beyond control. The true horror is not the frights, but the sense of helplessness.
Vengeance Is Mine, All Others Pay Cash
More than an ode to the 80s cinema and pop-culture retrospective, Vengeance Is Mine, All Others Pay Cash (a.k.a. Seperti Dendam, Rindu Harus Dibayar Tuntas) is an exorcism of toxic masculinity.
With a mash of rowdy action, unfulfilled sex, and man’s identity, Edwin anchors the narrative with a tender if not bizarre love story and self-criticism of Indonesia’s New Order regime. If anything, this film transliterated the novel’s sophisticated story full of subtexts and visceral details into an approachable piece.
There are two different cuts of Kamila Andini’s Yuni released in 2021. The festival cut was released in international festival circuits; meanwhile, the theatrical cut was exclusively out in Indonesian cinemas.
Trading the festival cut’s subtlety with a more explicit, in-your-face manifestation of the bitter truth and a more optimistic resolution, the theatrical version never loses its charm even a bit. Both cuts are as moving and powerful, without belittling the other.
The festival cut digs deeper into Yuni’s psyche with a more nuanced rendition; meanwhile, the theatrical offers a bleaker look of the external force that shapes her bearing. Either way, the titular character’s trials & tribulations to take back her freedom is a thought-provoking tale.
Yuni is the cliché that sets the truth free.
Spider-Man: No Way Home
There’s nothing quite like No Way Home, even though its landscape looks like the Avengers series. It can only work because there has been a number of different Spider-Man movies before that have never tied up some loose ends. Jon Watts provides them spectacularly with a clincher that works as an ultimate crowdpleaser.
Don’t Look Up
Adam McKay’s new comedy takes the ‘every-disaster-movie-starts-with-government-ignoring-science’ premise light-headedly, but, to a whole new level.
Don’t Look Up makes a close-yet-far fable of recent world-level threats into a tongue-to-cheek comedy. McKay has the whole, all-you-can-eat buffet on his plate, but his movie enjoys being playful with them. While the verbosity almost turns the cosmic disaster into a comic disaster, it’s still highly enjoyable — dumbfounding yet absurdly delightful.
Earlier in 2022
Kenneth Branagh professes his love for cinema, theatre & his tumultuous childhood in a city torn by sectarian issues, Belfast.
Jude Hill remarkably displays innocence and frustration as the director’s on-screen surrogate to convey how the trauma shapes him. The way Branagh reconstructs the story — and puts on some paraphernalia of what he might’ve been in the present (even, making an MCU reference there) — might look a little fabricated, but he’s got the point.
The insistence on the forked road parable shows just how deeply the event in the center of actions affects Branagh. This leads him to dedicate this to everyone with their choice made on that forked road.
The Last Duel
A kingdom, a friendship, and men’s pride are on the edge when a married woman made a sexual assault allegation against a squire in Ridley Scott’s The Last Duel.
This period drama reunites Ben Affleck and Matt Damon in writing departments aided by Nicole Holofcener in the process. The result is a thought-provoking, Rashomonesque historical epic that feels modern in a remotely ancient setting.
Now or centuries ago, sexual abuse victims’ ordeal’s barely changed. In the same vein, The Last Duel shows how little humanity has progressed, through a depiction of a misogynistic society.
The tale as old as time makes a leap into the metaverse with an admiringly moving twist in Mamoru Hosoda’s Belle. There’s something familiar in the narrative that borrows elements from Beauty and The Beast. Yet, Hosoda’s thorough & exquisite worldbuilding redefines it with plot-driven songs that sound and feel moving.
As in most of Asghar Farhadi’s sharpest films, A Hero unravels the conflict before the story starts and gets it resolved behind the curtain. His birds-eye perspective of morality among his society allows him to weave a web of deceits & questions.
In its bitter irony, Farhadi questions society’s view of heroism — whether it’s defined by good things to do or the right things to do; whether it’s a virtue or an abstract value that gets blurred under a series of manipulation. It’s tiring to follow but gets better when you’ve seen the bigger picture.