I couldn’t just come up with a top ten. I came up with a top twenty. If you want to see that full list, go to my personal blog to see my favorites of 2021. However, I only included those that were on the top of my favorites.
10. THE WHITE TIGER by Ramin Bahrani – Nominated for Best Adapted Screenplay at the 93rd Academy Awards, it reminded me of several other films also nominated for Best Writing at previous Academy Awards, including Goodfellas, The Talented Mr. Ripley, Slumdog Millionaire and Parasite. However, it reminded of those films, not in a derivative way or a lazy way, but with vigor, innovation and insight that makes it very compelling. Great performance from Adarsh Gourav who was up for the BAFTA Award for Best Actor, alongside Chadwick Boseman and Anthony Hopkins, which is high praise in and of itself.
9. DRAMARAMA by Jonathan Wysocki – There were ten films nominated for Outstanding Film – Limited Release at the 33rd GLAAD Media Awards. This one should have been one of the ten. Unfortunately, it got overlooked. I saw it during the summer of 2020 at Outfest Los Angeles and it has remained on my mind through all of 2021 and even after 16 months, this film remains the best comedy I’ve seen since the summer of 2020. It’s akin to a John Hughes, teen romantic comedy, but more recently it’s Wysocki’s version of Lady Bird (2017).
8. CICADA by Matthew Fifer and Kieran Mulcare – Matthew Fifer & Kieran Mulcare – I also saw this film at 2020’s Outfest Los Angeles. It did manage to get nominated for an Independent Spirit Award for Best First Screenplay for Fifer and Sheldon D. Brown who also co-stars with Fifer in the film. That nomination is deserved because Fifer and Brown manage to take elements from real-life and weave it into this narrative, involving two men suffering from past trauma who connect romantically. It’s also one of the few films that depicts bisexuality without any shame or conflict.
7. TWO OF US by Filippo Meneghetti – This was the official submission from France to the 93rd Academy Awards for Best International Feature. It didn’t get the nomination, but it should have. It is by far the best LGBTQ film of the year. It focuses on two women, aging and elderly. The story reinforces why it’s important for same-sex couples to have the same rights as straight couples, particularly when health issues arise.
6. QUO VADIS, AIDA? by Jasmila Žbanić – This was the official submission from Bosnia and Herzegovina to the 93rd Academy Awards for Best International Feature. It did get nominated, but it didn’t win. Based on the others in the same category, I think this film was robbed. Jasmila Žbanić proves herself to be a knockout of a female director. A woman works as a UN translator for the Dutch army during the Bosnian War of the 1990’s when Serbian forces were engaging in ethnic cleansing. The woman is desperate to protect her fellow citizens and her family from the genocide. It’s more thrilling or terrifying than any horror film.
5. THE FATHER by Florian Zeller – Nominated for six Oscars at the 93rd Academy Awards, it won Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Actor for Anthony Hopkins, making him the oldest winner in a competitive acting category. He brilliantly plays a man suffering from dementia or Alzheimer’s disease. It’s Hopkins’ sixth nomination and his second win after winning for The Silence of the Lambs (1991). Even though I thought Chadwick Boseman should have won instead, I don’t begrudge Hopkins’ triumph here. His performance is superb and ultimately heartbreaking. However, Zeller’s direction is amazing and did more with less in creating a mysterious and puzzling film that anything Christopher Nolan or JJ Abrams have done in over a decade.
4. NOMADLAND by Chloé Zhao – Also nominated for six Oscars at the 93rd Academy Awards, it won Best Actress for Frances McDormand, Best Director for Zhao and Best Picture. It’s the first time I’ve agreed with a Best Picture winner in over a decade. The last time I agreed with the Academy in this category was back at the 82nd Academy Awards when The Hurt Locker (2009) won Best Picture. Ironically, that was a film that was also directed by a woman. Zhao is of course the second woman to win Best Director after Kathryn Bigelow. Zhao is the first woman of color to win that prize and the first Asian woman at that. Her style and her visual sense are simply incredible. How she blends nonfiction or documentary-style filmmaking into narrative storytelling is simply incredible. Zhao released her first, big-budget film in 2021 called Eternals, which also broke barriers in terms of representation, but this film soars even higher.
3. DUNE by Denis Villeneuve – I haven’t enjoyed the films of the French Canadian. He’s been making big-budget, Hollywood films for a decade now, but I haven’t enjoyed any of them. Much like Nolan, there have demonstrated great, technical skill and a great, visual sense, but, for some reason, I haven’t been able to connect emotionally to any of his works. This film changed all that. I find it odd and quite frankly incredible that he should finally make something that connected to me, when that something is based on source material that has had a difficult history in terms of its adaptation to the silver screen. He is likely to be nominated for Best Director for the second time for this space adventure after being previously nominated for another space adventure, that of Arrival (2016). He likely won’t win, but, for me, he should.
2. KING RICHARD by Reinaldo Marcus Green – Will Smith stars as Richard Williams, the father to Venus Williams and Serena Williams, the two greatest tennis players in the world. The film follows how Richard raised them as teenagers to become those great tennis players. Smith won the National Board of Review Award for Best Actor. He won the Golden Globe for Best Actor. He’s nominated for the Screen Actors Guild Award for their Best Actor. The film is also nominated for Outstanding Performance by a Cast. In my opinion, Smith should win for both, which includes a fantastic cast. Chief among them is Aunanue Ellis who plays Richard’s wife, Brandy, but she is more than just “the wife” character. She excels beyond and really packs a punch. Rounding the great cast is Tony Goldwyn, Jon Bernthal, Demi Singleton in her first major motion picture who plays Serena and of course Saniyya Sidney who plays Venus.
1. 7 PRISONERS by Alexandre Moratto – This film won an award at the 78th Venice International Film Festival last September where it premiered. Other than a nomination for Outstanding International Motion Picture at the 53rd NAACP Image Awards, this film will mostly go overlooked. It’s only Moratto’s sophomore feature. His debut, Socrates (2019), was a stunning exploration of inner-city poverty through the lens of a young Black boy suffering homophobia. The Brazilian filmmaker again explores inner-city poverty and the exploitation of impoverished youths and immigrants. Two of the producers of this film are Fernando Meirelles and Ramin Bahrani, and this film feels like a combination of Meirelles’ Oscar-nominated City of God (2003) and Bahrani’s Chop Shop (2008). Bahrani had the #10 film on my list, so it’s obvious I like his style. Moratto though takes that neorealist style and really excels at it. The young actor, Christian Malheiros who stars in both this and Moratto’s previous, gives my favorite performance of the year and makes me want to follow him no matter what project he’s in.