We’ve made our lists and checked them twice! Our top ten picks prove that 2021 was naughty, but the movies were nice.
With many studios and distributors bringing out the big guns they holstered amid the 2020 theatrical closures, going to the movies was, in some ways, a bigger and better experience in 2021 for those of us who could get to the theatre. (Or had variety at the local ‘plex.) Epic big-screen entertainment was back in fashion. Blockbuster adventures proved welcome escapes from lockdown blahs. Whether they transported us to knew worlds through extravagant special effects or grand musical sequences, the films of 2021 delivered the goods when the studios weren’t focused on merely printing money with rinse-and-repeat super-hero flicks.
The lists for the best films of 2021 also take stands for the little guys. Indie films and world cinema might be the future of theatrical movie-going as die-hard cinephiles don their masks (and maybe capes – no judgment!) to venture yonder into the theatres to see films as they were meant to be seen. The most frequently mentioned titles on these lists come from arthouse directors, like Jane Campion’s The Power of the Dog, which landed on six lists with extra citations among honourable mentions. Ditto docs as Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson’s rockumentary Summer of Soul tied Campion with six mentions. Fellow Sundance sensation Mass scored four top ten list citations, making its contained portrait of grief as popular among the top ten lists as Denis Villeneuve’s sci-fi extravaganza Dune. But the only film atop two lists is smarthouse fave Wes Anderson with The French Dispatch.
All contributors at That Shelf were invited to submit a ranked top ten list with a few words on their choices. Writers were free to interpret eligibility as they pleased given that 2020 and 2021 have been complicated as far as access goes. Most of the major titles screened in Toronto by now aside from Parallel Mothers, but several have yet to open commercially (Licorice Pizza, The Tragedy of Macbeth), while Canadian titles tend to be released January to March following their festival runs. Whatever works!
Without further ado, here are That Shelf’s picks for the best films of 2021:
“Masterpiece” is a label often used too liberally, or at the very least prematurely, but in the case of Jane Campion’s latest film, the descriptor truly fits the bill. The Power of the Dog features next-level craftsmanship on every level, all in service of a complex, layered and truly stunning western psycho-drama. Cinematographer Ari Wegner transforms each frame into art, switching from stark, imposing landscapes to uncomfortably tight and intimate close-ups. Then there’s composer Jonny Greenwood, letting his score speak sparingly, often ratcheting up the tension and atmosphere within the Burbank homestead to an uncomfortable degree. At its heart though, The Power of the Dog is a showcase for a cast at the top of its game. Benedict Cumberbatch puts in a career-best performance as the skillfully cruel and hardened Phil–a lonely man who strikes out at the world before it can wound him first. Kristen Dunst, Kodi Smit-McPhee, and Jesse Plemons inhabit each of their supporting roles with aplomb, proving Campion is just as adept at casting as she is at everything else. Welcome back, Jane. Dog is a shining, diamond-sharp example of why you’re one of the greatest working directors today and it’s certain to bring at least one, if not more, Oscar statuettes your way.
The great British director Terrence Davies delivers one of the year’s best–a sombre and touching cinematic elegy to the young men forever changed by the Great War. His portrait of love and loss, as seen through the eyes of poet and pacifist Siegfried Sassoon (Jack Lowden), will stay with you long after the credits have rolled.
What hasn’t already been said about Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson’s Summer of Soul, the must-see documentary of 2021? It’s a vivid cinematic and musical experience–one that captures both the feeling and context around a landmark moment that has been too-long overlooked and hidden. Interweaving archival performances (Stevie Wonder, Nina Simone, Gladys Knight and the Pips) with modern-day interviews, Questlove deftly ties the past to the chaotic present, proving that while the revolution couldn’t be televised, it was never silenced.
4. The Lost Daughter
In a corker of a directorial debut, Maggie Gyllenhaal takes on an ambitious adaptation of Elena Ferrante’s acclaimed novel and positively nails it. It doesn’t hurt that the eerie, layered look at choices and consequences, as well as motherhood and the intense and terrifying expectations it brings, features another Oscar-worthy performance from Olivia Colman and an excellent supporting turn from Dakota Johnson too. If this is what Gyllenhaal comes up with right out of the gate, there are certainly good things in store in future.
Director Will Sharpe brings us a colourful and witty look at the life of British illustrator Louis Wain, best known to contemporary audiences for his anthropomorphic cat sketches. It’s impossible not to form a connection with the hapless but loving Wain (Benedict Cumberbatch) and to feel equally devastated by his tragic life and struggles with mental health. The fact that the joy he brought to so many sprung from his own personal heartbreak makes his story, and the film, extra poignant.
Kenneth Branagh has directed everything from Shakespeare to Agatha Christie and Mary Shelley and, with a few exceptions, he’s never quite connected all the dots. However, in reaching back in his own life, to his childhood in Belfast amid the beginning of The Troubles, he struck gold. It’s a simple story of family, of belonging, and of discovering yourself. Jude Hill as Buddy, Branagh’s young stand-in, steals the show with his natural charm–and that’s saying something considering he was up against the talented Ciarán Hinds, Jamie Dornan, Caitriona Balfe, and Dame Judi Dench. A crowd-pleaser almost from minute one, it’s hard not to get on-board when a film is made with so much love.
Princess Diana was such a singular presence and personality, it seems unimaginable that anyone could truly capture her essence. Yet in the past two years, we’ve had both Emma Corrin (in The Crown) and Kristen Stewart manage just that. They’re not dead ringers, but they both capture a good portion of Diana’s certain, special something. In particular, Stewart perfectly conveys Diana’s loneliness and pain in Pablo Larraín often-unbalanced look at what might have happened at a pivotal weekend in the Princess’s life.
Director Mélanie Laurent follows the patriarchal and institutional abuses facing one group of women at a 19th century neurological clinic in Paris. Coming at a time when women’s bodily autonomy is once again at risk, the powerful French film proves that very little has changed even more than a century later. There are moments that don’t quite gel, but committed performances from Laurent herself and Lou de Laâge give Ball its memorable, powerful core.
In a year of stellar debut features, Rebecca Hall’s story of two friends whose lives intertwine in 1920s’ New York–both women are Black but one is passing as white–stands out from the crowd. The film is a complex examination of race, segregation, and sexuality with a cast (Tessa Thompson, Ruth Negga, André Holland, and Alexander Skarsgard) elevates the already stellar material. Hall proves herself a director worth watching, handling the film’s important themes with skill and empathy.
Fran Kranz’s impressive and promising directorial (and writing) debut is a heavy emotional journey, but one well worth undertaking. Concerning itself with just two couples, on either side of an unspeakable tragedy, Mass delves into the most powerful forms of grief, anger, and acceptance with memorably raw and honest performances from Ann Dowd, Reed Birney, Jason Isaacs and Martha Plimpton. A film unlikely to land on anyone’s re-watch list, it is well worth catching even if it’s just once.
Comparisons to Star Wars fall away as Paul Atreides reveals himself not to be a messianic figure like Luke Skywalker. He’s filled with dread about his designation as savior. Everyone in Dune follows their roles even to their end, what happens when someone breaks the system? Denis Villeneuve takes the myth of a chosen one and warps it into a tale that belies madness. Dune: Part One begins Paul’s rise, but it could very well end with Armageddon. Villeneuve excelled in the past with blending aesthetics and tone into brilliance (Sicario, Arrival), I guess we shouldn’t be surprised he pulled Dune off.
2. The Power of the Dog
Jane Campion’s awaited return to film couldn’t have been more worth it. Benedict Cumberbatch obliterates all assumptions of his range with this performance as a loathsome rancher with a cutting wit. As loathsome as he is, cutting down all in his path, you can’t look away.
Nicolas Cage’s recent filmography tricked viewers into thinking Pig was going to be like countless revenge thrillers. What we got instead was a considered approach to the way we cope with death. Loss never ends, we just learn to carry it differently.
Paul Schrader is deeply comfortable tackling the thorny, ugly issues of our time. Here, he strips the sexy veneer off gambling, replacing the stoic, cool of a poker face with the sad realization that we also wear them to live with our sins.
Pictures so rarely jump off the screen as they do in Steven Spielberg’s West Side Story adaptation. Everything is boldly imagined and beautifully realized with a dancer’s verve to kick. Ariana DeBose and Mike Faist are going to be stars.
6. No Sudden Move
Don Cheadle and Benicio Del Toro must save their skins while trying to make some change in the process of escaping a royally botched job. Steven Soderbergh’s latest is a throwback crime thriller that illustrates most racial/socio-economical concerns haven’t gone anywhere, only the labels and the price tags change.
Passing is Rebecca Hall’s directorial debut, but she already has an assured touch, using light and shadow to convey the internal/external forces that define Clare and Irene as soon as they step into a room.
Hypnotically beautiful. A comfort in these strenuous times that the sense of being spiritually lost isn’t new, even for a knight lauded by King Arthur.
Nia DaCosta’s film provided some of the most visually arresting footage and incendiary ideas to theatres under the guise of reviving a horror icon. Not all of it worked, but she has a lot to say about the commodification of trauma and how to reclaim what is taken from you.
In Peter Jackson’s Beatles documentary, director Michael Lindsay-Hogg complains there is no point to the dozens of hours of footage shot. The point is being given access to the world’s most famous band at their most intimate. Otherwise, we’d miss the magic of Paul McCartney complaining about John Lennon’s absence, then just as quickly, pulling “Get Back” out of thin air.
For my end of the year list, I decided to limit myself to 21 words for each “review.” Turning them into free verse made the most sense (clearly).
Even during a pandemic/I saw this in theatres/Twice/And it was definitive:
A kaleidoscopic feast/For all my lil’senses.
2. Fishing with John
As I mentioned/Six months ago/John Lurie/Is NOT/A curmudgeon: He’s just happy to be alive
(…and a pachyderm)
3. Summer of Soul (…Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised)
When someone loves something
Truly and unconditionally LOVES SOMETHING
It permeates every frame/Every moment/And vibrates through you.
4. End of the Line: The Women of Standing Rock
When’s the last time/You got
REALLY fucking angry?
Well here you go: Be furious. Be informed. Scream.
Some films/Don’t know what they want to be.
And some (the great ones)/Become EVERYTHING
The original/Is garbage.
THIS/Was the most fun/I had/At the movies/All year
(BOOM! PKEW PKEW! ALIENS! WOOOOO!)
Jonathan Richman/Said it best: How in the world/Were they making that sound?
Easy: They’re the Velvet Underground
Do YOU remember the last time/Sir Nicholas Cage/Seemed to be enjoying himself
On screen?///……No, me neither…
When you’re this dedicated/To making the best animated films
This side of Miyazaki (duh)/You’re bound to lift EVERYONE’S spirits.
10. A Quiet Place Part II
My brother and I/Waited a LONG time/To watch this together.
(Our end-nod of affirmation/Still chokes me up)
7. Red Rocket
8. West Side Story
1. Drive My Car
Drive My Car is one of those films that linger long after it’s over. With its poetic nuances resonating ever deeper, this film is a brilliant testament to human resilience. Hamaguchi’s vision is one of healing and connection and, in this tale of damaged souls, the walking wounded heal each other. In another director’s hands, this could prove mawkish and histrionic, but this director’s subtle manipulation of form masterfully avoids that pitfall. Add to that the incisive through line in which art informs life and Drive My Car unfolds into a marvellously profound and complex revelation.
2. Summer of Soul (…Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised)
A monumental film. It’s incredible how Amir “Questlove” Thompson uses footage of this already mind-blowing festival to reinvent the music doc genre. Summer of Soul provokes a vital revision of recent cultural, societal, and political history. Equal care was taken with the performances, which prove unforgettable –now that they’ve been rescued from the trash heap of history. Nina Simone’s performance alone is pure gold.
3. The Power of the Dog
Never mind mining the depths of the possibilities of the western – this film turns everything inside out. In Jane Campion’s hands, the consequences of the machismo entrenched in this genre have never been more tragic. Cumberbatch is iconic with his seething turn in the lead.
4. The Rescue
Not only did The Rescue make me wish I had never used the expression “edge of my seat” before, but this gut-wrenching account of this famous rescue transfixed me in such a way that I was experiencing every suspenseful moment as if I had never known the outcome. Let’s just say that I was profoundly moved in a way I’d forgotten could happen, even in the movies.
Shocking and original, I loved its boundary pushing nature. I especially appreciate when a film opens my eyes to the greater possibilities within cinema. I will always celebrate films that escape words and simply must be seen.
Not only has Villeneuve found a way to transform this unfilmable book into a purely cinematic and cohesive vision, but its necessarily simplified structure frees him up to add his brilliant visual touches. Maybe not as satisfying for die-hard fans but this film proves to me at least – once and for all – that a film can never be completely true to the book because they are of course completely different mediums. If that isn’t great cinema, I don’t know what is.
I confess some initial doubt at the idea of a film in which four characters stay in one room the entire time (that’s what works in theatre!) but damned if I wasn’t wrong about this completely shattering cinematic experience. Remarkable performances.
It’s alive and creative and fresh. With its star-studded cast, this is the most fun I’ve had with a western. I love the way that director Jeymes Samuel manipulates the form, subverting and playing with the conventions of the genre. Its self-conscious nature is so invigorating, and the use of music is absolutely electrifying.
A perfect fusion of documentary and animation, one that enables greater empathy and understanding for its subject, a man with a tragic past and a dark secret. It’s a profound experience.
10. The Worst Person in the World
A refreshing update for the romantic comedy, restoring some deeply relatable (and much needed) significance to the whole notion of a messy life and its entirely fallible heroine. For people like me who don’t care for that genre, this film finally provides an inspiring insight.
This groundbreaking personal odyssey helps redefine what docs can be. Flee is a moving and therapeutic portrait of “Amin,” a gay Afghan refugee living in Denmark. He shares his story of escaping the Mujahideen in Afghanistan to his long-time friend, filmmaker Rasmussen, and Amin’s tale of flight is one of a life spent running from shadows. As Rasmussen lets his friend unburden himself, Flee imaginatively transports audiences through Amin’s journey. Evocative animation takes a viewer to places that archive and verité footage ordinarily could not. In doing so, the animation evokes Amin’s personal and spiritual journey by conveying the road to self-love as the frames gradually restore the warmth of his joyous childhood years. Flee also underscores the ongoing threats to LGBTQ rights as Amin conceals himself from view. The protective cloak of animation stresses how much change still needs to come.
Denis Villeneuve delivered the most epic, thrilling adventure of the year. Movies like Dune are why we go to the movies. What a fun and exhilarating ride! It’s the only film on this list that I saw twice in theatres this year. Bring on Part II, baby!
Kristen Stewart gives the performance of the year in this dark and hypnotic fairy tale. Sally Hawkins deserves equal praise for her scene stealing turn as Maggie, Diana’s dresser and confidant. If The Crown is a peak behind the curtain, then Spencer is a deliciously liberal glimpse at the hallways the curtain hides. I look forward to saluting Spencer with KFC on Oscar night!
4. Drive My Car
Ryûsuke Hamaguchi’s expertly paced road movie through the soul is a powerful film about the shared intimacy of storytelling. Don’t let the three-hour running time deter you: it’s a beautiful ride!
I will vote for Meryl Streep for every acting award every year, but probably would never want Janie Orlean in public office. The end of the world hasn’t put such a big smile on my face since Melancholia.
6. Summer of Soul (…Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised)
The concert of the year and a valuable excavation of history. How many Rolling Stones documentaries have we endured while this footage was just sitting there unused?
7. The Power of the Dog
A bitchin’ Benedict Cumberbatch gives a career-best performance in Jane Campion’s masterful adaptation of Thomas Savage’s novel. This is a brooding study of internalised homophobia and shame.
From the sun-scorched roads of Mexico to the sun-kissed fields of Québec, Ivan Grbovic’s Drunken Birds intoxicates with its surreal study of the crazy things we’ll do for love. Shout out to the cinematography by Sara Mishara!
Apichatpong Weerasethakul summons the power of the aftershock as Tilda Swinton tries to catch a noise that eludes her. When slow cinema moves at the speed of sound, it’s a beautiful thing.
10. The Hand of God
Paolo Sorrentino’s personal exploration of the fateful summer that inspired him to become a filmmaker is a sumptuously composed study of personal and artistic awakening. My cat Fellini’s favourite film in the screener pile.
Honourable mentions: Belfast, The French Dispatch; Maria Chapdelaine; Moffie; Nightmare Alley; Quo Vadis, Aida?; Scarborough; tick, tick…BOOM; The Tragedy of Macbeth; The Velvet Underground; West Side Story; Wildhood, The Worst Person in the World; Zola
1. The French Dispatch
2. The Rescue
4. Billie Eilish: The World’s a Little Blurry
5. The Tragedy of Macbeth
6. The Worst Person in the World
9. The Green Knight
10. The Lost Daughter
Honorable Mentions: President, Summer of Soul, Passing, Citizen Ashe
Michael Sarnoski’s Pig is more than a simple tale of a truffle hunter on a quest to find his stolen truffle pig. In its brisk 92 minutes, and anchored by a brilliant performance by Nicolas Cage, the film evolves into a stirring examination of grief and identity in a world that has lost sight of what is truly important. Each viewing of Pig reveals a rich new layer that is just as delicious as the central meal that binds this wonderfully emotional journey together.
Still working its way through the festival circuit, this genre mashup was a truly exhilarating experience. Jumping from western to historical commentary to horror, Saloum is the type of film that reminds you that cinema is far from dead.
3. Petite Maman
Céline Sciamma’s Petite Maman masterfully uses childhood to explore grief, memory, regret, and the complicated bonds between mothers and daughters. A profound and uplifting work, Sciamma has made one of the year’s most beautiful works.
Jane Campion’s deconstruction of manhood and sexual repression is a mesmerizing work. One of three westerns, the other two being Saloum and The Harder They Fall, that brought interesting dimensions to the genre this year, Campion’s intricately crafted film festers in one’s mind.
5. Red Rocket
Much like former President Donald Trump, whose image lurks all over the television set in the Texas town where Red Rocket is set, the washed-up porn star, Mikey Saber (Simon Rex), at the heart of Sean Baker’s amusing comedy is deluded by his own visions of grandeur. Baker’s film takes great delight in showing that men like Saber, even when seemingly at their lowest point, will blissfully remain a grifter to the very end.
The most shocking thing about Julia Ducournau’s horror film Titane is the way it makes one feel compassion for a serial killer. This is a rare feat especially considering how Ducournau’s wild film effortlessly moves back and forth from chilling to amusing to unexpectedly touching.
Using animation to tell the harrowing tale of a migrant’s journey, Flee is a jaw-dropping tale of identity, politics, corruption, love and the ways past traumas impact one’s future. It is both a thrilling and emotionally layered documentary and an innovative animated film.
8. Shiva Baby
Filled with numerous cringe-worthy moments, Emma Seligman’s Shiva Baby is a hilarious look at one woman trying to navigate family and community while her personal life is in shambles. A comedic delight that is universally relatable, Seligman’s debut feature is an absolute treat from beginning to end.
A joyous concert film, Summer of Soul is a powerful reclaiming of a history lost. One instantly feels as if you are experiencing something magical and transcendent when watching.
Junta Yamaguchi’s DIY science fiction comedy takes a rather simple premise and turns it into a surprising inventive film. Never taking itself too seriously, while displaying plenty of creativity and technical prowess, Beyond the Infinite Two Minutes is a hidden comedic gem.
Honourable mentions: A Hero, Bergman Island, The Lost Daughter, The Mitchells vs. the Machine, Benedetta, Scarborough, Passing, Learn to Swim, The Worst Person in the World, In the Heights, C’mon C’mon, North by Current, The Rescue, Mass, Night Raiders.
Perfectly cast, everything about Fran Kranz’s debut feature is note perfect. The foursome of character actors – Martha Plimpton, Jason Isaacs, Ann Dowd, Reed Birney – bring so much grief, heartbreak, and compassion to their performances. It is not an easy movie to watch but it’s the one that’s stayed with me throughout the entire year since first seeing it at Sundance.
3. Riders of Justice
4. West Side Story
6. Bo Burnham Inside
7. The Worst Person in the World
There were a lot of terrible movies set during the pandemic in 2021, but Stephen Daldry’s Together wasn’t one of them. Inventive and interesting, it was actually quite refreshing to watch two characters deal with the highs and lows of marriage during lockdown.
9. I’m Your Man
10. The Power of the Dog
And for some additional salutes to the best films, performances, and movie moments of 2021
Best Performance in a Leading Role
Benedict Cumberbatch in The Power of the Dog – Barbara, Emma
Ann Dowd in Mass – Rachel, Shane
Nicholas Cage in Pig – Courtney
Jessica Chastain in The Eyes of Tammy Faye – Marko
Oscar Isaac in The Card Counter – Colin
Kristen Stewart in Spencer – Pat
Best Performance in a Supporting Role
Kodi Smit-McPhee in The Power of the Dog – Marko, Rachel
Cate Blanchett in Nightmare Alley and Kathryn Hunter in Macbeth (I can’t choose!) – Pat (sorry, Meryl)
Clifton Collins, Jr. in Jockey – Shane
Ariana DeBose in West Side Story – Colin
Ann Dowd in Mass – Barbara
Kirsten Dunst in The Power of the Dog – Emma
Ruth Negga in Passing – Courtney
Best Performance by a Four-Legged Friend
Brandy the Pig in Pig – Barbara, Marko
Clifford, obviously – Pat
Peter the Cat in The Electrical Life of Louis Wain – Emma
ALL the cats in The Electrical Life of Louis Wain – Rachel
The Beatles: Get Back – Colin
Flee – Courtney, Pat, Rachel
The Rescue – Shane
Summer of Soul – Barbara, Emma, Marko
Best Canadian Film
Drunken Birds – Pat
Learn to Swim – Barbara, Emma
Peace by Chocolate – Rachel
Scarborough – Courtney, Shane
Slaxx – Colin
Triumph: Rock n Roll Machine– Marko
The “You Gotta See this on the Big Screen” Award
Dune – Barbara, Colin, Courtney, Emma, Marko, Pat
Nightmare Alley – Rachel
No Time to Die – Shane
Best Musical Moment/Needle Drop
“Fantasia on a Theme” by Thomas Tallis in Benediction – Emma
“Both Sides Now” in CODA – Pat
“Whereever I Fall – Pt.1” in Cyrano – Courtney
“Bye Bye Bye” in Red Rocket – Rachel, Shane
Nina Simone in Summer of Soul – Barbara
The opening credits of The Velvet Underground rolling to the unsettled strains of “Venus in Furs” – Marko
End of the Line: Women of Standing Rock – Marko
Faya Dayi – Barbara
The Mad Women’s Ball – Emma
Moffie – Pat, Shane
Night Raiders – Rachel
North by Current – Courtney
Top TV Show
The Chair – Emma
Fishing with John – Marko, who also argues that it’s clearly “cinema”
Mare of Easttown – Pat
Sort Of – Barbara
Squid Game – Courtney, Rachel
Succession – Colin, Shane
Best Food on Film Moment
When Nic Cage goes to the bakery in Pig – Marko
The dinner scene in Pig –Courtney
The restaurant scene in Pig – Barbara
All the meals in Roadrunner: A Film About Anthony Bourdain – Rachel
Kristen Stewart eats soup in Spencer. (Honourable mention to the KFC) – Pat
Elf We Gotta Shelf
Alec Baldwin – Barbara
David Gordon Green, Halloween Kills, and its inevitable sequel(s) – Marko
Jared Leto – Colin, Courtney, Emma
Chris Pratt – Rachel
Whomever suggested geo-blocking movies to local audiences during festivals – Pat
Most Anticipated Film of 2022
After Yang – Rachel
The Batman – Colin
Blonde – Marko
Knives Out 2 – Barbara
Nope – Shane
Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse (Part One) – Courtney
TÁR – Pat
Thor: Love and Thunder – Emma