Year in review: 25 best movies of 2021

Published 6:00 am Tuesday, December 21, 2021

20th Century Studios

Year in review: 25 best movies of 2021

As America and other nations around the world continue to grapple with the COVID-19 pandemic, Hollywood is likewise struggling to return to normalcy. What was supposed to be a year of comebacks for both the theatrical experience and society at large wasn’t that, exactly. Nevertheless, audiences were treated to a number of major tentpole releases, some of which arrived in theaters and on streaming platforms at the same time or within relatively close proximity.

Setbacks and delays notwithstanding, one could easily argue that 2021 was a much better year for movies than 2020. Mainstream blockbusters like “No Time to Die” and “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings” made their debuts in America, and so too did a broad host of acclaimed smaller films. Among them include Questlove’s inspiring documentary “Summer of Soul,” Jane Campion’s “The Power of the Dog,” and Paul Thomas Anderson’s “Licorice Pizza,” to name just a few.

Meanwhile, international titles such as Tsai Ming-liang’s “Days” and Roy Andersson’s “About Endlessness” explore themes of loneliness and existential dread, and feel very of the moment as a result. Yet a closer look at each respective director reveals a long-running fixation with these very same themes. Nevertheless, both works resonate with particular precision during these strange and alienating times. One will find them on the following list along with a number of other critical darlings.

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Stacker examined all 2021 films on Metacritic and ranked them according to their Metascores. Films that premiered in 2020 but weren’t available in the U.S. until 2021 were also considered. Only feature-length films were considered and each film had to have at least seven reviews to make the list.

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Sailor Bear

#25. The Green Knight

– Director: David Lowery
– Metascore: 85
– Runtime: 130 minutes

Director David Lowery puts a meditative spin on Arthurian legend in this medieval fantasy. Adapted from the 14th-century poem “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight,” this film follows the stubborn Sir Gawain (Dev Patel) on his quest to confront a mysterious knight. Critics were near-universal in their acclaim, while audiences were far more divided over the film’s glacial pacing.


#24. The Inheritance

– Director: Ephraim Asili
– Metascore: 86
– Runtime: 100 minutes

Ephraim Asili’s feature-length debut takes inspiration from the director’s personal experiences in a Black liberation group. Blending scripted drama with archival footage, “The Inheritance” merges the history of the MOVE organization with the tale of a modern-day couple. At the heart of the film are themes of culture and activism as they span from one generation to the next.

Lolav Media

#23. Sabaya

– Director: Hogir Hirori
– Metascore: 86
– Runtime: 90 minutes

This award-winning documentary follows a team of modern heroes as they try to free sex slaves from ISIS captivity. Their journey takes them deep into Syria’s Al-Hol, one of the most dangerous camps in all of the Middle East. It sparked a recent controversy when some participants claimed that they didn’t consent to their inclusion as subjects. Both the film’s director and producer have refuted these claims.

National Geographic Documentary Films

#22. The Rescue

– Directors: Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi, Jimmy Chin
– Metascore: 86
– Runtime: 107 minutes

From the team behind “Free Solo” comes this gripping documentary about the famous rescue of 12 Thai soccer players and their coach from a flooded cave. It goes well beyond the headlines to feature never-before-seen footage along with exclusive interviews. Viewers might know where the story ends, but that makes it no less absorbing or inspirational.

20th Century Studios

#21. West Side Story

– Director: Steven Spielberg
– Metascore: 86
– Runtime: 156 minutes

This remake of an iconic musical takes place in 1957 New York and reinterprets “Romeo and Juliet” through an urban lens. Bursting with energy and color, it marks the first time that director Steven Spielberg has tackled the musical genre. “Cynicism will wither on contact,” wrote critic Danny Leigh in his glowing review for the Financial Times.

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#20. Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy

– Director: Ryûsuke Hamaguchi
– Metascore: 87
– Runtime: 121 minutes

This Japanese anthology film examines modern life through three uniquely compelling stories. Each one centers on a female character and tackles a range of interpersonal themes. It debuted at the Berlin International Film Festival and took home the Silver Bear Grand Jury Prize.

Homegreen Films

#19. Days

– Director: Tsai Ming-liang
– Metascore: 87
– Runtime: 127 minutes

Malaysian director Tsai Ming-liang employs his signature understated style with no subtitles in this slow-paced drama. It tells the story of two lonely men who meet in a hotel room and find common ground through their shared sense of alienation. There was no working script during the shoot, which spanned five years and three countries.

Roy Andersson Filmproduktion AB

#18. About Endlessness

– Director: Roy Andersson
– Metascore: 87
– Runtime: 78 minutes

This kaleidoscopic Swedish drama imparts occasional comedy and an existential tone as it touches down on various aspects of the human condition. Guided by an unseen narrator, the action unfurls through a series of dreamlike vignettes. It won the Silver Lion for Best Direction at the Venice Film Festival.

Motto Pictures

#17. The Velvet Underground

– Director: Todd Haynes
– Metascore: 87
– Runtime: 121 minutes

Overlooked by the general public, the Velvet Underground was nevertheless one of the most influential acts in rock history. Director Todd Haynes traces through the band’s unique origins to their breakup and subsequent legacy. The documentary features interviews with key figures—including surviving members John Cale and Maureen Tucker—along with music and archival footage.

Showtime Documentary Films

#16. Attica

– Director: Stanley Nelson
– Metascore: 88
– Runtime: 118 minutes

Award-winning filmmaker Stanley Nelson revisits the 1971 Attica Uprising in this provocative documentary. It peels back the top layers of history to expose deeply rooted racism from within the prison system, the effects of which continue to this day. More than a work of genuine insight, the film is a call to action for much-needed prison reform.

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Alina Film

#15. Azor

– Director: Andreas Fontana
– Metascore: 88
– Runtime: 100 minutes

This debut feature from director Andreas Fontana takes place in the 1970s and follows a private banker (Fabrizio Rongione) from Geneva to Buenos Aires. He arrives to find a city under military rule, where surveillance is omnipresent and upstanding citizens can disappear overnight. “Pure evil is all around in this unnervingly subtle, sophisticated movie; an eerie oppression in the air,” wrote critic Peter Bradshaw for The Guardian.

See-Saw Films

#14. The Power of the Dog

– Director: Jane Campion
– Metascore: 88
– Runtime: 125 minutes

Director Jane Campion’s brooding Western moves at an unhurried pace toward its chilling finale. Benedict Cumberbatch plays wealthy rancher Phil Burbank, whose machismo temperament belies much deeper longings. Real-life married couple Jesse Plemons and Kirsten Dunst co-star. The Oscar buzz is strong on this one.

185 Films

#13. Memoria

– Director: Apichatpong Weerasethakul
– Metascore: 89
– Runtime: 136 minutes

The first English-language film by Thai director Apichatpong Weerasethakul retains his dreamy and contemplative style. It stars Tilda Swinton as a Scottish expatriate living in Colombia whose life is uprooted by the eruption of a loud sound. As part of a “never-ending theatrical tour,” the film will roll out in one theater at a time.


#12. The Tragedy of Macbeth

– Director: Joel Coen
– Metascore: 89
– Runtime: 105 minutes

Coen brother Joel is flying solo for this black-and-white adaptation of Shakespeare’s enduring tragedy. It retells the story of Macbeth (played by Denzel Washington), whose ruthless rise to the Scottish throne is foretold by three witches. Top-notch performances and gripping visuals lend the frequently adapted material a fresh coat of proverbial paint.

Bitters End

#11. Drive My Car

– Director: Ryûsuke Hamaguchi
– Metascore: 89
– Runtime: 179 minutes

An accomplished stage actor confronts his painful past in this sprawling Japanese drama. Adapted from a short story by Haruki Murakami, it took home Best Screenplay at the Cannes Film Festival. “I’ll be surprised if I see a more absorbing movie this year, or a better one,” wrote critic Justin Chang for NPR.

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BBC Films

#10. The Souvenir: Part II

– Director: Joanna Hogg
– Metascore: 89
– Runtime: 107 minutes

In the follow-up to 2019’s “The Souvenir,” this acclaimed sequel finds Honor Swinton Byrne reprising the role of Julie, who, reflecting upon a recent tragedy, undergoes the struggles of completing her thesis film project. The story takes place in the 1980s and culls from director Joanna Hogg’s personal experiences.

Hobo Camp Films

#9. Wojnarowicz

– Director: Chris McKim
– Metascore: 90
– Runtime: 105 minutes

This important documentary examines the life and times of revolutionary artist and activist David Wojnarowicz. At the height of the AIDS epidemic, Wojnarowicz used his creative work as a call to action against establishment indifference. It surveys his extensive output and features interviews with friends and family.


#8. Hope

– Director: Maria Sødahl
– Metascore: 90
– Runtime: 130 minutes

A talented performer (Andrea Bræin Hovig) is given just three months to live in this Norwegian drama from Maria Sødahl. As a result of the diagnosis, she and her husband (Stellan Skarsgård) are forced to confront the ailing state of their marriage. In his four-star review for Roger Ebert, critic Godfrey Cheshire called it “one of the year’s richest and most rewarding contemporary dramas.”

BRON Studios

#7. Licorice Pizza

– Director: Paul Thomas Anderson
– Metascore: 90
– Runtime: 133 minutes

Paul Thomas Anderson returns to the San Fernando Valley for this romantic dramedy with coming-of-age themes. Set in the 1970s, it follows a teen boy (Cooper Hoffman) and an older girl (Alana Haim) on a series of misadventures. The film’s nostalgic glow and looser structure represents a somewhat stark departure from Anderson’s most recent work. First-time leads Hoffman and Haim are drawing heaps of praise for their respective performances.

Biennale College – Cinema

#6. This Is Not a Burial, It’s a Resurrection

– Director: Lemohang Jeremiah Mosese
– Metascore: 91
– Runtime: 120 minutes

Self-taught filmmaker Lemohang Jeremiah Mosese tells the story of Mantoa (Mary Twala Mhlongo), an 80-year-old widow in the final stages of life. When her plans for a local burial are disrupted by a major construction project, it springs the elderly woman and her community into action. The subsequent conflict between spiritual ancestry and ceaseless development extends well beyond the boundaries of this single tale.

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4th Row Films

#5. Procession

– Director: Robert Greene
– Metascore: 91
– Runtime: 116 minutes

Over three years in the making, this harrowing documentary centers on a group of male sexual abuse survivors. Failed by the Catholic church and the legal system alike, the men attempt to reclaim their past by way of an experimental therapy treatment. The film “dares its audience to not look away,” wrote Alissa Wilkinson for Vox.

Final Cut for Real

#4. Flee

– Director: Jonas Poher Rasmussen
– Metascore: 91
– Runtime: 90 minutes

Unique in more ways than one, this largely animated documentary often feels too incredible to be true. Witness the story of 36-year-old Amin Nawabi, a former refugee who’s been harboring a devastating secret for 20 years. It premiered at the Sundance Film Festival and won the Grand Jury Prize.

Fable Pictures

#3. Rocks

– Director: Sarah Gavron
– Metascore: 96
– Runtime: 93 minutes

Bukky Bakray delivers a breakout performance as 15-year-old Olushola “Rocks” Omotoso in this British coming-of-age drama. Abandoned by her single mother, Olushola must quickly learn how to fend for herself and her younger brother. Writing for The Independent, critic Clarisse Loughrey called it “the most authentic film about British teens in years.”

Concordia Studio

#2. Summer of Soul

– Director: Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson
– Metascore: 96
– Runtime: 117 minutes

Music icon Questlove directs this uplifting documentary about the Harlem Cultural Festival of 1969, which spanned six weeks of summer. Largely ignored by the mainstream, the festival featured incredible performances from the likes of Stevie Wonder, Nina Simone, and other legends. Come for the music and stay for the story of spiritual reawakening in a time of massive social upheaval.

Deblokada Produkcija

#1. Quo Vadis, Aida?

– Director: Jasmila Žbanić
– Metascore: 97
– Runtime: 101 minutes

This Oscar-nominated Bosnian war drama takes place in 1995 and opens on the brink of a Serbian takeover. As a translator for the United Nations, teacher Aida Selmanagić (Jasna Đjuričić) is among the few locals whose life isn’t in sudden danger. Her struggle to protect the ones she loves dear won’t leave a dry eye in the room.

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