Our 2021 Annual Report continues with our Top 25 Films list. As the year winds down, stay tuned for more awards, lists, and articles about the best music, film, and TV of 2021. You can find it all in one place here.
This year, much like last year, will always be remembered with the cloud of COVID hanging over it. However, while 2020 brought us a deadly virus, 2021 delivered a vaccine, making it possible for people to feel safer going to the movies. Nicole Kidman’s not wrong about how meaningful and powerful it is to sit in a theater when the lights go down, but many of this year’s best viewing experiences were just as impactful at home.
It was a wild year when it came to film: Much of what we watched was either produced under pandemic conditions or held over from a pre-pandemic time. The long-dormant musical genre lurched forth with both reimaginings of the classics as well as original works. There was Bo Burnham: Inside, which bridged the gap between film, television, music, and comedy to be one of the defining pieces of entertainment of the year. But it was also just one of many personal stories told by filmmakers now ready to look at their lives and find resonance for today.
The films selected by the Consequence staff for this list encompass the full range of the year’s offerings, from tiny Zoom-based dramas to epic-scale sci-fi and fantasy. Even aesthetically, these picks include gaudy Floridian neon, a 1920s Harlem rendered in stark black-and-white, and the echoing expanse of the American West. From the past, to the present, to the future, from the most remote parts of the world to the most bustling cities, it’s incredible how much one year in film can contain.
In 2021, we were blessed by that true sort of diversity, and the escapes offered by it.
— Liz Shannon Miller
Senior Entertainment Editor
Director: Ilya Naishuller
Writer: Derek Kolstad
Stars: Bob Odenkirk, Connie Nielsen, RZA, Christopher Lloyd, Aleksey Serebryakov
At some point, every 50-plus actor in Hollywood will have his own John Wick. Nobody was Bob Odenkirk’s turn to lead the way with this pulpy, half-comic thriller about a harassed family man pushed back to a life of violence. If only every Death Wish riff was this well-crafted and engaging. — Jesse Hassenger
24. The Harder They Fall
Director: Jeymes Samuel
Writers: Jeymes Samuel, Boaz Yakin
Stars: Jonathan Majors, Idris Elba, Zazie Beetz, Regina King, Delroy Lindo, Lakeith Stanfield, RJ Cyler, Danielle Deadwyler, Edi Gathegi, Deon Cole
The Harder They Fall takes on the untold history of Black cowboys that thrived during the times of the Old West, while also musing on the nature of redemption. Based around true historical figures, Jeymes Samuel’s feature debut stands out for its extraordinary all-Black cast, some memorable dialogue, a compelling lead performance from Jonathan Majors, and of course some gripping and action-packed shootouts. — Okla Jones
23. Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings
Director: Destin Daniel Cretton
Writers: Dave Callaham, Destin Daniel Cretton, Andrew Lanham
Stars: Simu Liu, Awkwafina, Meng’er Zhang, Fala Chen, Florian Munteanu, Michelle Yeoh, Ben Kingsley, Tony Leung
Marvel’s diversity push was in full force in 2021, and Shang-Chi was a punch above the rest. It succeeded not simply because it put an Asian hero at the forefront, but because its cast of incredible actors were playing interesting, well-rounded characters. Despite being one of the most fantastical entries in the MCU, it’s also one of the most grounded in human drama. — Ben Kaye
Director: Julia Ducournau
Writer: Julia Ducournau
Stars: Agathe Rousselle, Vincent Lindon, Garance Marillier, Laïs Salameh
The year’s wildest and eventually most tender provocation comes from Julia Ducournau, who sends her heroine Alexia (Agathe Rousselle) on a riveting journey from horror to empathy (and back again). Alexia and her unlikely caretaker Vincent (Vincent London) spend the movie seemingly itching to transcend their bodies — and audiences might nearly jump out of their own skin watching. — J.H.
21. In the Heights
Director: Jon M. Chu
Writer: Quiara Alegría Hudes
Stars: Anthony Ramos, Corey Hawkins, Leslie Grace, Melissa Barrera, Olga Merediz, Daphne Rubin-Vega, Gregory Diaz IV, Jimmy Smits
Long before Hamilton, a very young Lin-Manuel Miranda won the Tony Award for a small, slightly unorthodox, hip-hop-infused musical about his Washington Heights neighborhood. The film adaptation was over a decade in the making. Miranda’s work tends to center around rich themes of family, community, and legacy, and this semi-autobiographical musical became a colorful, joyful explosion for 2021 theaters this summer. It’s safe to assume that Hamilton will always be Miranda’s masterwork, but In the Heights is where the heart is. — Mary Siroky
20. Drive My Car
Director: Ryusuke Hamaguchi
Writers: Ryusuke Hamaguchi, Takamasa Oe
Stars: Hidetoshi Nishijima, Tōko Miura, Masaki Okada
Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s intimate, haunting adaptation of a Haruki Murakami short story about a widowed theater director is unassuming and matter-of-fact in its presentation. But don’t confuse that for tedium: Hamaguchi proves himself one of our finest dramatists, unspooling a patient narrative about loss, guilt, and understanding that stays with you long after the credits roll. — Clint Worthington
19. The Mitchells vs. the Machines
Director: Mike Rianda
Writers: Mike Rianda, Jeff Rowe
Stars: Abbi Jacobson, Danny McBride, Maya Rudolph, Mike Rianda, Eric André, Olivia Colman, Fred Armisen, Beck Bennett, Chrissy Teigen, John Legend, Charlyne Yi, Blake Griffin, Conan O’Brien, Doug the Pug
There were other animated films about families this year, and other animated films about madcap technology, but there was a true spark to The Mitchells vs. the Machines. From some hilarious gags (“Dog?” “Pig?” “Loaf of Bread?”) to crafting an unconventional central family (including an openly gay teen character) to a thrilling final battle that beats anything the MCU turned out this year in terms of stakes as well as visual daring, the Netflix original film deserves to be remembered as a future classic. — L.S.M.
18. The Sparks Brothers
Director: Edgar Wright
Last Night in Soho wasn’t the only film Edgar Wright put out this year; there was also this exhaustive, two-and-a-half-hour ode to Ron and Russell Mael, two brothers who would revolutionize pop music for decades while seemingly never getting the credit they were due. Watch before you see Annette as a giddy primer of their idiosyncratic style. — C.W.
Director: Rebecca Hall
Writer: Rebecca Hall
Stars: Tessa Thompson, Ruth Negga, André Holland, Bill Camp, Gbenga Akinnagbe, Antoinette Crowe-Legacy, Alexander Skarsgård
Set during the late 1920s in Harlem, New York, Passing tells the story of two women on opposite sides of the color line and explores the internal struggle of identity that many face. The film’s black-and-white cinematography and jazz-inspired score makes Rebecca Hall’s directorial debut a nostalgic period piece that also has the power to connect with today’s audiences, as the childhood friendship between Reenie (Tessa Thompson) and Clare (Ruth Negga) twists into a more complicated bond. — O.J.
16. Tick, Tick… Boom!
Director: Lin-Manuel Miranda
Writer: Steven Levenson
Stars: Andrew Garfield, Alexandra Shipp, Robin de Jesús, Joshua Henry, Judith Light, Vanessa Hudgens
It’s time to stop bugging Andrew Garfield about whether or not he’s in the new Spider-Man movie and high time to start focusing on his incredible performance in this musical. Exploring the life of Jonathan Larson (the writer responsible for Rent), Tick, Tick…Boom! is sort of The Avengers for theater kids. Don’t blink during the Moondance Diner scene, or you’ll miss one of the many Broadway legends making an appearance. — M.S.
15. Summer of Soul
Director: Amir “Questlove” Thompson
Amir “Questlove” Thompson made his directorial debut with this pulse-pounding burst of Black joy, recounting the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival in vivid 16mm detail. It’s a cinematic testament to Afrocentrism and one of the best concert docs in recent memory. Just try not to move your feet when Mavis Staples and Mahalia Jackson take the mic together for “Take My Hand, Precious Lord.” — C.W.
Director: Joe Wright
Writer: Erica Schmidt
Stars: Peter Dinklage, Haley Bennett, Kelvin Harrison Jr., Bashir Salahuddin, Ben Mendelsohn
Over two decades into his career, Peter Dinklage is still a revelation every time he takes the screen. As Cyrano, he sings, swoons, swashbuckles, and sonnets for one of the most compelling and lovely performances of the year. Joe Wright delivers another one of his peaks working with Erica Schmidt’s script and music that’s essentially The National’s latest record. A lot of love went into this retelling of the classic romance, and it’s felt in every sweeping beat. — B.K.
13. Language Lessons
Director: Natalie Morales
Writers: Natalie Morales, Mark Duplass
Stars: Mark Duplass, Natalie Morales, Desean Terry
What does it take to connect with a stranger, even across a great distance? And what makes those connections real? Natalie Morales’s quasi-directorial debut (the development and production overlaps with her other excellent 2021 film, the teen comedy Plan B) took on that question with this intimate look at the relationship which builds between Adam (Mark Duplass) and his remote Spanish language instructor Cariño (Morales). The scale is tiny but the emotions are huge, and while deeply sad at points, it’s an unforgettable experience. — L.S.M.
12. Red Rocket
Director: Sean Baker
Writer: Chris Bergoch, Sean Baker
Stars: Simon Rex, Bree Elrod, Suzanna Son
The kitchen-sink recovery drama gets a riotous early-2000s-nostalgia makeover in Red Rocket, wherein former porn star Mikey Saber (Simon Rex) returns to his hometown, downtrodden but hilariously, idiotically unwilling to admit defeat. With a terrific performance from Rex and still-surprising empathy, director Sean Baker zeroes in on what makes Mikey, and the culture that birthed him, both loathsome and fascinating. — J.H.
Director: Pablo Larraín
Writer: Steven Knight
Stars: Kristen Stewart, Timothy Spall, Jack Farthing, Sean Harris, Sally Hawkins
Pablo Larraín again eschews straight biography, using the star power of Kristen Stewart to suggest the uncomfortable levels of performance involved in Being Princess Diana. Spencer is dreamier and more Malick-ian than its spiritual predecessor Jackie, but similarly effective at imagining and visualizing a headspace for its famous subject. Larraín should find a way to complete the trilogy. — J.H.
10. Barb and Star Go to Vista Del Mar
Director: Josh Greenbaum
Writers: Kristen Wiig, Annie Mumolo
Stars: Kristen Wiig, Annie Mumolo, Jamie Dornan, Damon Wayans Jr.
There are so many sad things associated with one of the most cheerful and winning comedies of 2021. For example, due to issues with its release window, the film’s original songs, including “Edgar’s Prayer” and “I Love Boobies,” are not eligible for this year’s Oscars. Also, this was a pre-vaccine release that the vast majority of people watched at home on VOD or eventually Hulu, and Barb and Star Go to Vista Del Mar deserved a chance to be seen with a huge and lively crowd.
Despite all of that, though, this reunion of Bridesmaids writers Kristen Wiig and Annie Mumolo still stands out as a true high point for the year in film, mostly by virtue of being deeply strange and funny on entirely its own terms. While Wiig gets a lot of the spotlight in a dual role as both the titular Star and the mad scientist determined to bring ruin to the beach town of Vista Del Mar, Florida, Mumolo also shines as best friend Barb, who unlocks her inner hunger for adventure in unexpected ways.
And then there’s Jamie Dornan, who just steals the whole damn movie at points with his infectious, goofy energy. 2021 had no shortage of horrors, but it also gave us the gift of Dornan performing pirouettes for a seagull on a tire. For that, at least, let’s give thanks. — L.S.M.
Director: Michael Sarnoski
Writers: Michael Sarnoski, Vanessa Block (story by)
Stars: Nicolas Cage, Alex Wolff, Adam Arkin
“We don’t get many things to care about.” What NEON sneakily marketed as “John Wick with a stolen hog” turns out to be a staggering meditation on grief and the agonies of creativity. As a once-famous chef who’s withdrawn from the world after an incredible loss, Nicolas Cage (endlessly clawing his way back from the Redbox pipeline) hems in his notorious Cage Rage for a performance of arresting vulnerability, reminding us why he remains one of the world’s greatest actors.
First-time writer/director Michael Sarnoski soaks his devastating drama in a kind of rotting gloom, priming you for an amped-up revenge film before pulling the rug out from under you and feeding you something more unexpectedly mournful. It’s a tragedy about the emotions we attach to people, things, and food, and the ways their absence can break us into so many brittle pieces. And it’s maybe Cage’s greatest performance of the 21st century. — C.W.
08. The Power of the Dog
Director: Jane Campion
Writer: Jane Campion
Stars: Benedict Cumberbatch, Kirsten Dunst, Jesse Plemons, Kodi Smit-McPhee, Thomasin McKenzie, Genevieve Lemon, Keith Carradine, Frances Conroy
Here we find a quartet of talented actors who aren’t always well-served by Hollywood: Benedict Cumberbatch appears in a lot of stodgy biopics, Kodi Smit-McPhee is navigating the transition from kid to adult roles, Jesse Plemons sometimes gets lost in the background, and Kirsten Dunst is simply one of our best yet least-awarded performers.
In The Power of the Dog, Jane Campion braids together their work with such care that, upon first viewing, it’s pleasingly difficult to tell where the movie is going: Is this a domestic drama about a cruel cowboy (Cumberbatch) needling his brother (Plemons) and sister-in-law (Dunst)? An elegiac Western as that same cowboy tries to teach a young man (Smit-McPhee) about the disappearing West? Some kind of undetermined psychosexual conflict? Yes to all; Campion’s adaptation of the 1967 novel accommodates all of this and more over the course of its hauntingly slow burn. — J.H.
07. Licorice Pizza
Director: Paul Thomas Anderson
Writer: Paul Thomas Anderson
Stars: Alana Haim, Cooper Hoffman, Sean Penn, Tom Waits, Bradley Cooper, Benny Safdie
It wouldn’t be an awards season without at least one film in contention that served as a direct tribute to the filmmaker’s youth. But it’s hardly a surprise that Paul Thomas Anderson, whose gift for both extreme emotion and nuanced heartbreak, would deliver the best of the bunch.
Set in the San Fernando Valley during a hazy 1973 that feels like a never-ending summer, Licorice Pizza is ostensibly about the awkward friendship between ambitious 15-year-old Gary Valentine (Cooper Hoffman) and the drifting 25-year-old Alana (Alana Hain), but beyond that never-really-sexual bond the film shines more as a series of vignettes featuring the strangeness of Los Angeles at this time, Anderson capturing these moments as dizzying memories that linger like legends.
Hoffman (an uncanny echo of his father Philip Seymour Hoffman, but also undeniably his own screen presence with a lot of future potential) stands out from other protagonists in projects like this thanks to the character’s burning self-determination: Gary is a young man who’s going to get what he wants out of life, because he knows that the most important thing is to go after it. There are multiple scenes in the film which just feature Gary and/or Alana running, because they think they’ve got someplace better to be.
But, of course, what matters is that momentum, the feeling of rushing forward towards something unknown but certainly bright. — L.S.M.
06. The Last Duel
Director: Ridley Scott
Writers: Nicole Holofcener, Ben Affleck, Matt Damon
Stars: Matt Damon, Adam Driver, Jodie Comer, Ben Affleck
While House of Gucci has all the opulence and silly Eye-talian accents you could ask for (and yet still not enough), Ridley Scott’s true triumph this year was the criminally-underseen The Last Duel. Working from a script from stars Matt Damon and Ben Affleck (alongside Nicole Holofcener, whose contributions are often ignored in criticisms of this film as a “bro picture about rape”), Scott crafts a mud-soaked, lurid, yet clear-eyed picture of the historical dismissal of women’s agency in male-dominated society.
This tale of a 14th-century duel among French knights (Damon and Adam Driver) over the accused rape of Damon’s wife (a staggering Jodie Comer) is keenly split into three acts, flitting from historical drama to medieval dark comedy to issue picture with ease. Everyone turns in great work underneath ridiculous hair, especially Affleck’s foppish, perversely contemporary count, who mutters, “He’s no fucking fun” while wearing pantaloons. — C.W.
05. The French Dispatch
Director: Wes Anderson
Writer: Wes Anderson
Stars: Benicio del Toro, Adrien Brody, Tilda Swinton, Léa Seydoux, Frances McDormand, Timothée Chalamet, Lyna Khoudri, Jeffrey Wright, Mathieu Amalric, Edward Norton, Willem Dafoe, Henry Winkler, Stephen Park, Bill Murray, Owen Wilson
If you’re the kind of person who’s sick of Wes Anderson’s symmetrically framed, artfully-decorated dollhouses, The French Dispatch isn’t like to change your mind. If anything, his trifurcated anthology of stories (loosely based around the final issue of a New Yorker-like periodical) doubles down on the man’s love of expertly-crafted, brightly lit artifice.
But where some see impersonal style masquerading as substance, others may see an incredibly heartfelt, deadpan ode to a dying mode of storytelling. As a filmmaker, Anderson finds new modes of creativity within his existing confines, including animated sequences, tableaux vivant, and some of the most ambitious tracking shots of his career. And yet, all his tricks serve a broader story about our yearning for connection and understanding, and the ways that telling stories can achieve that goal. It’s Tati and Truffaut and Tintin all in one big, sentimental package. — C.W.
Director: Denis Villeneuve
Writers: Jon Spaihts, Denis Villeneuve, Eric Roth
Stars: Timothée Chalamet, Rebecca Ferguson, Oscar Isaac, Josh Brolin, Stellan Skarsgård, Dave Bautista, Stephen McKinley Henderson, Zendaya, Chang Chen, Sharon Duncan-Brewster, Charlotte Rampling, Jason Momoa, Javier Bardem
If there’s anyone who would’ve been able to stick the landing on this famously difficult-to-adapt story, it’s Denis Villeneuve. Dune swings big, and it’s a wonder to behold both in filmmaking and storytelling: The film covers an enormous amount of ground and manages to remain artful in the process. (Hans Zimmer’s score is one of the best studio film scores in recent years.) There’s a point about halfway through the movie when the story kicks into high gear, and it doesn’t stop for the rest of the run time.
Leaving Dune was like emerging from a dream. It’s all the more exciting that many people chose to see the action unfold on as big of a screen as possible. Beyond the lore, sci-fi terms, and Game of Thrones familial lines, the big takeaways are really that Timothee Chalamet is a star, Zendaya is a vision, and it’s wonderful to know that Part 2 is now confirmed. — M.S.
Director: Leos Carax
Writers: Ron Mael, Russell Mael, Leos Carax
Stars: Adam Driver, Marion Cotillard, Simon Helberg, Devyn McDowell, Angèle
In a year bursting with big-budget studio musicals — In the Heights, West Side Story, Tick, Tick…. Boom! — the year’s best is also the weirdest of the bunch. Working from a story and songs by Ron and Russell Mael, aka Sparks, director Leos Carax turns their twisty rock opera about a temperamental standup (a volatile Adam Driver) and his romance with a saintly opera singer (Marion Cotillard) into something so strange and divisive you just can’t look away.
The Maels’ songs defy typical musical logic; apart from the opening number “So May We Start,” the tracks are more repetition of ideas across playful musical motifs. But there’s method to the madness, including Carax’s choice to depict Baby Annette as an inanimate puppet until her jaw-dropping final duet: It’s a film about control, what we owe our children, and the sins of the past coming back to haunt us. (And it just so happens to also show Driver singing while performing cunnilingus; if that’s not range, what is?) — C.W.
02. The Green Knight
Director: David Lowery
Writer: David Lowery
Stars: Dev Patel, Alicia Vikander, Joel Edgerton, Sarita Choudhury, Sean Harris, Ralph Ineson
“Now, then… off with your head.” David Lowery’s dark medieval fantasy is as much a muddy, horrific spin on the classic, anonymously-written epic poem as it is a deconstruction of chivalry itself. Dev Patel, smoldering even in his character’s cowardice, imbues young Gawain with a headstrong desire to be admired and adored as a knight, even as he fails time and again. Faced with a Christmas rematch against an immortal, tree-like knight, Gawain’s quest drags him through all manner of grandiose, mythical quests.
And yet, like John Boorman’s Excalibur and even Darren Aronofsky’s Noah, Lowery’s version is a world of rot and decay, courtly virtues crumbling amid the blood and violence of a slowly-dying England. It’s more than a grand, unexpected fantasy epic; it’s a bewitching tale about growing up and facing your death. (Just wait for it to be reclaimed in later years as “actually a Christmas movie.”) — C.W.
Director: Janicza Bravo
Writer: Janicza Bravo, Jeremy O. Harris
Stars: Taylour Paige, Riley Keough, Nicholas Braun, Ari’el Stachel, Colman Domingo
From an outside perspective, Zola might read as some classic A24-core. It’s aesthetically driven, it’s young, and it’s famously based on a viral Twitter thread. Nicholas Braun is in it, for crying out loud — this movie was primed for the Internet Age, as so many movies from the trendy distributor tend to be. Zola is more than that, though: It’s sinister, funny, deeply depressing, dreamy, and somehow still cohesive, thanks to phenomenal performances from Colman Domingo, Riley Keough, and a wonderful Taylour Paige in the titular role.
The witty and tightly-wound script from Tony winner Jeremy O. Harris and director Janicza Bravo almost renders the story as a period piece, and strong editing and directing choices serve the story from start to finish. Zola is anxiety-inducing in a way that recalls the theatrical experience of 2019’s Uncut Gems. Through it all, Paige is the beating heart of the story, three-dimensional and sympathetic at every point in the wild ride, a feat difficult to pull off in a movie peppered with painstakingly realistic characters and events. The fact that the story within the film is an (allegedly) true one makes it all the more unforgettable. — M.S.