The film industry is in a state of massive change right now. The way we watch movies has never been in a more dubious state during my lifetime, certainly, and maybe yours.
This was the year movie theaters reopened in a much more serious, widespread way, with some of the biggest box office hits of the year opening in the spring while also streaming simultaneously (Tom and Jerry and Godzilla vs. Kong being among the most successful). The vaccine rollout in early summer paved the way for a possible return to “normalcy,” with F9 and A Quiet Place Part II (which happened to be the first film I saw in a theater since March 2020) helping ease audiences into a hopefully post-COVID world that never actually came to full fruition.
The Delta variant complicated Hollywood’s major comeback, to say the least. But it didn’t deter audiences from making Free Guy, Black Widow, Venom: Let there Be Carnage, and Shang-Chi some of the biggest hits of the year, with Spider-Man: No Way Home shaping up to do the same later this week. Moviegoers were certainly picky about which films they wanted to brave a pandemic for, which led to unexpectedly weak showings for In the Heights, The Suicide Squad, and Space Jam: A New Legacy (which opened strong and fizzled out fast). Not to mention films still coming out now to low numbers, such as West Side Story.
2021 was a year in which many of the most notable blockbuster releases didn’t really break through the pop culture noise. Not like they used to, anyway. Was there any theatrical release that captured the zeitgeist like Netflix’s Squid Game? Or HBO’s latest season of Succession? Perhaps we’ll find out once No Way Home opens in theaters this weekend.
But like in 2020, some of the buzziest, most talked about features were the smaller, more personal films that were easier to access for everyone. I’m happy to say these types of films make up a good portion of TYF’s best films of the year. And what an incredible year in film it was.
I took over as Film Section Editor at 2021’s midpoint, and in that time we’ve added many new voices to our always-incredible roster of contributors. For our best-of-the-year list, 13 writers turned in their 10 favorite movies of 2021, and the results speak for themselves. A few of these films also landed on our Best Movies of 2021 So Far list from all the way back in July. And there will be some surprise films you don’t see, here.
One of them is Licorice Pizza, which I had as my #3 film of 2021, and it’s certainly a favorite among many critics. But most of our writers haven’t even had a chance to see Paul Thomas Anderson’s latest, since it’s only screening in select theaters until the end of the month. Same goes for Sean Baker’s excellent Red Rocket (my personal favorite of the year) and plenty others. Chalk it up to the quirks of awards season, because the list must go on.
So here it is. These are the 13 best movies according to The Young Folks. Beginning with a film that probably needs more than a few words to explain its importance to this year’s slate of challenging, thought-provoking features. —Jon Negroni
Julia Ducournau follows up her award-winning debut, Raw, with a body horror film that commands the attention of its audience. It begs for both applicability and obscurity; hence its official description only contains that of the metal which plates the skull of the film’s main character, Alexia, played by Agathe Rousselle.
The film uses the shocking nature of its genre to drive audiences into a flurry of emotion while following Alexia, who faces trauma, lust, shame, fear, and anxiety. All while leaving the audience wondering where her psychology might break next and where she’s managing to piece a life for herself back together. If psychological terror wasn’t enough, there’s a heavy implication she’s pregnant with a car baby that may or may not be a commentary on gender norms through the visceral imagry of flesh and motor oil.—Evan Griffin
12. Drive My Car
Watching Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s 3-hour Japanese drama about an aging actor bonding with his driver, it’s easy to forget this film was actually based on a short story by the invaluable Haruki Murakami. Drive My Car treads so much profound, emotional ground, from the mysteries of pain and loss to the catharsis of love and acceptance, you’d be forgiven for thinking its long journey isn’t long enough.
Though it boasts a strong ensemble, the two main leads confidently steer Drive My Car toward its most tender, unforgettable moments. Yusuke, played by Hidetoshi Nishijima, is in almost every scene, redefining how a blank expression can have countless variations, from existentially tragic to winningly curious. His reluctant friendship with Misaki (Toko Miura) brings a surprising depth of empathy and compassion across generations, leading to a tearful finish that deserves every ounce of acclaim Drive My Car hopefully gets this awards season.—Jon Negroni
11. Shiva Baby
Everyone has different things they’re afraid of: heights, the dark, murderers, student loans, etc. But no movie has dared to make heart-clenching terror out of disappointing looks from family friends like Emma Seligman’s cringe-inducing dark comedy, Shiva Baby.
Led by the droll but disarming Rachel Sennott, Shiva Baby is like a haunted house ride for twenty-something art majors terrified of facing up to the expectations of their elders. Watching Sennott’s Danielle awkwardly eek her way through a funeral while facing passive-aggressive grown-ups, an old flame (Molly Gordon), her sugar daddy (Danny Deferrari), and said daddy’s baby momma (Dianna Agron with her Quinn Fabray bitchiness fully-evolved) is like hearing a handful of dentist drills slowly skating down a chalkboard.
All the close-ups and droned-out music put directly in the audience’s face make the 77-minute runtime feel like the longest endurance test ever taken. If nothing else, Shiva Baby is a cautionary tale on how to always have an escape plan at your next family function.—Jon Winkler
There are two escapes addressed in Jonas Poher Rasmussen’s animated Danish film, Flee, all of which are worth celebrating. The first is the journey of the immigrant Amin Nawabi (a pseudonym) from Afghanistan to Denmark, one reminding us that a person’s right to exist is valid and sacred, even when today’s influential forces in society love to go out of their way to say the opposite.
The second lies in the medium chosen to tell Amin’s story, as through drawn lines and heightened colors of animation that he finds where he is — and, more importantly, who he is — no longer burdens in the mind. One of the year’s most hopeful and humane filmic experiences, without a doubt.—Nguyen Le
9. The Suicide Squad
Superhero movies, especially these days, tend to be gargantuan epics where larger-than-life heroes try to save the universe from unspeakable evil. The Suicide Squad is one of the best movies of 2021 (and the best superhero movie of the year) because it’s not really that. James Gunn brings the hyper-violence, wittiness, and cool soundtracks he’s become so well-known for, and he crafts a movie that doesn’t run away from its goofier comic book roots, which makes it incredibly fun and hilarious as a result.
The Suicide Squad embraces the chaos, humor, and action-packed sequences that are bound to happen when a group of DC villains learns to work together and become antiheroes. But what makes it special is that, in the middle of the explosions and bloodshed, the movie introduces us to interesting characters like Polka Dot Man (David Dastmalchian) and Ratcatcher II (Daniela Melchior), who’ve stuck with me months after my first viewing.
And besides its critiques of U.S Foreign Policy mixed in with the bombastic action, the film conveys the wonderful and necessary message that everyone, no matter who they are, can eventually do something good in the world.—Pedro Luis Graterol
8. The French Dispatch
There’s an ongoing criticism — however senseless and unjustified — that The French Dispatch is Wes Anderson’s coldest, most detached effort. Perhaps the anthology-type narrative, filled with colorful vignettes, sensationalized characters, and sprinkled commentary, makes one assume that Anderson is playing with formal style more than dramatic purpose. But to suggest that his tenth feature is any lesser than his other, more streamlined efforts is a fool’s errand.
As stylistically accomplished as it is emotionally unsuspecting, The French Dispatch is a delicate, delectable treat through and through. But through such set dressings, Anderson makes one of his most unexpectedly personal and purposeful films ever, filled with tender remorse, playful buoyancy, and understated melancholy. It’s a love letter to The New Yorker, certainly. But it’s also a tribute to the restless creative spirit, that burning drive to speak your truth and find your harmonized voice — maybe even a publication to call your own. It’s a striking, gorgeous accomplishment, visually and thematically, and if it’s considered lesser than Anderson’s other films, it’s only because the others were already so great.—Will Ashton
The expansive nature of Dune could’ve been its downfall. Despite how talented Denis Villeneuve is as a filmmaker, trying to cram Frank Herbert’s imagination into a starry studio feature was going to be challenging for anyone. Even the smartest audiences won’t understand half the jargon, and the book isn’t exactly known for its accessibility.
So what Villeneuve brilliantly did was sand down the text and craft a film that’s fully dependent on its sensory awe. 2001: A Space Odyssey and the first Star Wars are obvious reference points, but Villeneuve charts his own path with one of the most exciting sci-fi adventures of the last 20 years.
Dune commands its audience with gusto. After a year or so of watching movies exclusively on the couch, Villeneuve’s film felt like the definitive “welcome back” to the movie theater – it demands a certain reverence, the same that comes when you encounter something that’s bigger than you are, that catches you so off-guard that you truly feel transported to another place. Complete with one of Hans Zimmer’s best scores, Hoyte van Hoytema’s stunning cinematography, and an ensemble for the ages, Dune feels like a generational theatrical experience.—Cory Woodroof
6. Bo Burnham: Inside
Bo Burnham didn’t just create a piece of art that will go down as the definitive film made during the COVID quarantine era, he also created something that stays true to the age we’re living in, pandemic or not.
As he demonstrated both in his previous standup specials along with his directorial debut Eighth Grade, Burnham is synced up with modern, millenial aimlessness. In Inside, he couples his ability to ellict painful laughs with harsh truths. And it isn’t just the esoteric jokes that stick the landing. It’s also the filmmaking, editing, and performative aspect that make it a defining work for a general space and time, while also a singular creation that defies the odds.
From the indie acoustic tune “That Funny Feeling” to genuinely one of the best post-pop songs of the year with “All Eyes On Me,” audiences are able to bear witness to the sheer level of craft that was poured into every aspect of this undertaking. This isn’t just a comedian in a room making jokes. It’s a creator on the edge of drowning who manages to weaponize his snark and creativity for something productive and, ultimately, profound.—Ally Johnson
Whenever I hear that a new Pixar film is coming out, I can’t help but get excited for some thoughtful and well-made material. Luca continues that feeling with a heartwarming and fun tale that the whole family can enjoy. It’s a story of friendship, family, and a sense of calling for something greater than yourself. Jacob Tremblay and Jack Dylan Grazer shine together and bring a level of emotion to their characters that will make you think back to the days of going on adventures with your best friend. For that reason and many more, Luca was definitely one of the best animated films this year and is definitely worth a watch (or rewatch).—Tyler Carlsen
4. The Mitchells vs. the Machines
Reminiscent of classic family road trip comedies, The Mitchells vs. The Machines is the perfect family movie, but with a modern twist. The Mitchells are taking one last road trip together before dropping off their daughter Katie (Abbi Jacobson) at film school in California. Through a twist of events, the Mitchells become the last humans on earth who must save the world from the robot apocalypse. The only problem is that they’re not the most functional family. With engaging animation, quirky characters, and a beautiful message about coming together as a family, this is one of, if not the best animated movies of the year.—Melissa Linares
3. The Power of the Dog
The Power of Dog begins with a timid narrator talking about his mother. “For what kind of man would I be if I did not help my mother?” he says as this brilliant film opens with two brothers on their cattle ranch in rural Montana during the 1920s.
One is George Burbank (Jesse Plemmons), the laid-back brother viewed as something of a joke. Then there’s Phil (Benedict Cumberbatch), a sadistic individual who strikes fear and awe in everyone he passes. He’s viewed as a true cowboy, the pinnacle of masculinity. But hidden in the nooks of his farmhouse are parts of himself that he has not expressed to others — until Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee) comes along.
In her first feature film in over a decade, Jane Campion deconstructs the western genre and lays out its flaws — particularly toxic masculinity. Phil is written with depth and nuance, and even though he’s portrayed as a villain, you can’t help but feel conflicted about him. Cumberbatch’s performance is captivating, always exuding a lingering sense of discomfort whenever onscreen.
The Power of the Dog may be a slow burn, perhaps too slow for some, but it earns every second of its two-hour runtime. Every scene is meticulously crafted and shows a masterclass of acting from the whole ensemble. Campion has always been great, but this film might be one of her best.—Yasmin Kleinbart
2. The Green Knight
The Green Knight isn’t exactly a happy tale, though it sort of starts that way, with King Arthur (yeah, that one) and his merry roundtable swapping wartime tales over some spiked eggnog. When Arthur’s nephew, Sir Gawain (Dev Patel), invokes the “all’s fair” nature of a mysterious green-clad visitor, his head is literally put on the line.
In true knightly fashion, Gawain goes on a dangerous journey to confront this green knight and accept his fate. Does he? Well, if you’ve yet to see director David Lowery’s visual adaptation of the Arthurian legend, I won’t spoil it. But like many things in life, it is the journey that matters here, not so much the destination. A journey that features incredibly trippy and awe-inducing visuals that could only mean A24 had a hand in this (they did), and a lovably flawed protagonist that will have you asking, “Okay, seriously, when is Dev Patel going to get his flowers?”
The Green Knight is chilling, thought-provoking, and though it doesn’t feature an appearance for jolly old St. Nick, it’s the perfect Christmas movie for that epic quest lover in the family. Maybe get them that matching DnD dice set, too.—Adonis Gonzalez
There’s something special about the way Pig captures the universality of food. Across differences and betrayals, there’s nothing more intimate than sharing a meal with someone. For a film that begins with the theft of a truffle pig, the way it manages to center the importance of culinary connection is really quite beautiful.
Warmth is seeped into every aspect of the film, from the soft colors of the composition to the nuanced performances from Nicholas Cage and Alex Wolff. Its stripped back moments allow for empathy to be the standard of our interactions. Not only is food the great unifier between acquaintances, but it also connects us back to our most treasured memories, reminding us of the love that once existed within ourselves. The gentle way the film leads us to its conclusion is like a comforting home-cooked meal. It heals and nourishes us, all in one go.—Katey Stoetzel