• Nate Adams

Column: TheOnlyCritic picks the top 25 movies of 2021


Barb and Star Go To Vista Del Mar, C'mon C'mon, Coda, Licorice Pizza and Nine Days are among TheOnlyCritic's top films of 2021.

It was a year of growth and rebuilding. With the wide availability of COVID-19 vaccines in the 2nd quarter of 2021 folks, slowly, started venturing back into movie theaters but they also had options at home. Warner Bros released their entire 2021 slate simultaneously in theaters and on HBO Max (a major distribution shake-up that was a first of its kind), Disney dabbled with “premier access” and threw select titles on its streaming service for a $30 fee. Really, the only movies that made money were either superhero films or superhero films. The highest grossing film (as of now) is “Shang-Chi: And The Legend of the Ten Rings” with $220 million and some change. Two years ago, “Avengers: Endgame” grossed $700 million domestic. Showing the uphill battle theatrical exhibition still has.


Despite the real concern of the over 35 crowd being hesitant at returning to movie theaters (some speculate 8% of the moviegoing population are just never coming back), it doesn’t completely spell doom and gloom for cinema. This year, it felt like the consumer was not short on entertainment offerings and streamers stepped up in a major way. Apple TV+, Netflix and HBO Max helped fill the gap theaters couldn’t as they slowly tried rebuilding back to pre pandemic standards.


Without further ado here are my Top 25 Films of 2021.


25. LAST NIGHT IN SOHO

Edgar Wright had a tremendous 2021. Not only did he helm one of the best docs this year (you’ll see later), but his “Last Night In Soho,” featuring grand slam performances from Thomasin McKenzie, Anya Taylor-Joy and the late Diana Rigg, was a sixties fever dream that blended several different genres including horror, supernatural thriller and drama for one intoxicating ride. (on VOD)


24. RIDERS OF JUSTICE

Any excuse to see Mads Mikkelsen anchor his own “Taken” vehicle is fine by me and “Riders of Justice” was a relentlessly fun, brutal and obnoxiously fun crusade. Oh, and it had an endearing father/daughter story at its center. Sign me up for more. (Streaming on Hulu)


23. THE SPARKS BROTHERS

50 years, 25 albums and 345 songs and I still had no idea who Sparks were heading into Edgar Wright's brilliant doc “The Sparks Brothers,” which puts the spotlight on Ron and Russell Mael, the duo who make up the band. Between this and “Annette” (they wrote the music) something tells me Sparks will leave 2021 with more fans than before. They at least got one. (Streaming on Netflix)


22. MOFFIE

I was stunned by Oliver Hermanus one-of-a-kind queer war drama “Moffie” as it found compassion in the toughest circumstances. Hermanus recontextualized the modern war pic by focusing on one man’s internal struggle with being gay in the South African army. It’s not an easy watch, but an essential and beautiful one. (On VOD)


21 TITANE

Julia Docournau’s “Titane” was the most provocative film I saw this year and featured an unforgettable sequence involving the seduction around an, uh, car. In any case, Agathe Rousselle and Vincent Lindon are *chefs kiss* and the less you know going in, the better. (On VOD)


20. LITTLE FISH

I was bummed more folks didn’t seek out Chad Hartigan’s somber “Little Fish,” which could have easily turned into a generation's version of “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.” Headlined by Jack O’Connell and Olivia Cooke playing a couple trying to hold their relationship afloat while an unseen memory loss virus infects society, “Little Fish” is a quiet, intimate drama that packs a major and timely punch. (Streaming on Hulu)


19. A HERO

Asghar Farhadi’s morality play about how no good deed goes unpunished, “A Hero” takes a classic premise and ingeniously twists it until your jaw hits the floor. Perfectly layered and constructed about a man imprisoned for his debts trying to boost his reputation, “A Hero” showcases Farhadi firing on all cylinders. (In theaters January 2022)


18. JUDAS AND THE BLACK MESSIAH

Yes, Shaka King’s electrifying “Judas and the Black Messiah” came out in 2021 despite the late calendar shift making it eligible for 2021 awards. Daniel Kaluuya rightfully took him an Oscar for playing Black Panther party chairman Fred Hampton and Lakeith Stanfield brought down the house playing Bill O’Neal, the informant who would turn him into the FBI. Movies seldomly get better than this. (Streaming on HBO Max)


17. SHIVA BABY

Emma Seligman’s directorial debut “Shiva Baby,” lead by a game-changing Rachel Sennott, gave me buckets of anxiety in the best way imaginable. A pressure cooker about a recent college graduate attending a shiva with family where, of all people, her sugar daddy arrives. It’s pure chaos. (Streaming on HBO Max)


16. STREET GANG: HOW WE GOT TO SESAME STREET

The cultural and educational impact Sesame Street had and continues to have is unprecedented and Marilyn Agrelo’s “Street Gang: How We Got to Sesame Street” perfectly encapsulated the program’s enduring legacy. Keep the tissues handy. (Streaming on HBO Max)


15. C'MON C'MON

Joaquin Phoenix shows a rare, vulnerable turn in Mike Mills' sweet and emotionally devastating “C’mon C’Mon.” The story about an estranged uncle taking care of his whimsical and inquisitive 9-year old nephew (Woody Norman in probably the year’s breakthrough performance), “C’Mon C’Mon” is a passionate black-and-white drama that has no problem showing how beautiful and colorful the world can be even in the harshest times. (Now Playing in Theaters)


14. SPENCER

Pablo Larrín created a mesmerizing haunted house thriller about Princess Diana’s internal struggles (and tension) with the Royal family in “Spencer.” Kristen Stewert delivers a masterclass performance worthy of an Academy Award and everything from the costume design and Johnny Greenwood’s incredible score help reshape the narrative and give new perspective to someone who was crying for help. (on VOD)


13. FLEE

The third documentary to make the cut, Jonas Poher Rasmussen’s “Flee” is a powerful piece on one refugee’s life with the constant fear of death and capture hanging over him. Unlike most documentaries, “Flee” is told via animation and adds a completely different layer of subtext and it’s nothing short of miraculous. (In theaters January 2022)


12. LICORICE PIZZA

Paul Thomas Anderson’s breezy coming-of-age comedy “Licorice Pizza” set in 1973 features two sensational performances from Alana Haim and Cooper Hoffman, son of the late Phillip Seymour Hoffman. “Licorice Pizza” boasts the filmmaker’s most joyous film to date and is magnetic from start to finish. (In theaters Christmas Day)


11. THE MITCHELL'S VS. THE MACHINES

The best animated movie of 2021 was about a Michigan family taking a cross-country road trip to California who inadvertently found themselves in the middle of a technological armageddon. (Streaming on Netflix)


10. BARB AND STAR GO TO VISTA DEL MAR

Released with minimal publicity in the early days of February, “Barb and Star Go To Vista Del Mar” remains the biggest surprise of 2021. One that slapped a giant, big, dumb and goofy smile on my face as Kristen Wiig and Annie Mumolo cooked up all kinds of rowdy, irrelevant shingagns, but its Jamie Dornan singing about seagulls and tires that stood above it all. You’re either on this movie's wavelength or eying the exit. (Streaming on Hulu)


9. THE GREEN KNIGHT

David Lowery’s grand “The Green Knight” was a keen reminder of what seeing a movie on the big screen can do for the senses. Based on the 14th century epic poem, “The Green Knight” saw Dev Patel shed it all for a slow-meditative quest that cleverly redefined the hero’s journey. (on VOD)


8. DON'T LOOK UP

Adam McKay’s hilarious satire “Don’t Look Up” tells us that humanity is going to be responsible for its own destruction. And you know what? He’s right! Featuring an A-list ensemble headlined by a perfectly unhinged Leonard DiCaprio and a sly Jennifer Lawerence, “Don’t Look Up” is a brilliant roast of the current political and climate divide transfixing the world. (In theaters/on Netflix Dec 24th)


7. NOBODY

Bob Odenkirk playing an action hero? Sign me up! The “Better Call Saul” actor brought his A-game to this macho slugfest about an average, ordinary Joe who didn’t want to be messed with. It resulted in a taunt, 90-minute actioner that might not be the “best” movie of 2021, but it’s easily the most rewatchable. (On VOD)


6. TICK, TICK…BOOM!

It was the year of movie musicals and standing among the top was Lin-Manuel Miranda’s moving tribute to Jonathan Larson in the adaptation of “Tick, Tick…Boom!” Andrew Garfield turns in career best work playing the famed “Rent” playwright who lost his life suddenly at the age of 36. “Tick, Tick…Boom!” is a celebration of theatre, life, and the relationships we make along the way. This being Miranda’s directorial debut, it further proves there’s no mountain he can’t overcome. (Streaming on Netflix)


5. KING RICHARD

Once upon a time, Will Smith was the biggest movie-star on the planet and over the years, he lost that luster but he’s back on top playing Venus and Serena Williams’ ornery father in the rousing “King Richard.” He’s surrounded by a hellacious supporting cast including Jon Bernthal and Aunjanue Ellis who help elevate this biopic into the echelon of exceptional sports dramas. (In theaters and streaming on HBO Max)


4. CYRANO

Rare to see two movie musicals make it into the top 10, but here we are! Joe Wright’s marvelous “Cyrano” doesn’t hold back. The romantic storyline, swooning score and enigmatic Peter Dinkalge/Haley Bennett/Kelvin Harrison Jr trifecta makes it easy to get swept up and lost in. You’ll have the soundtrack on repeat. (In theaters January 2022)


3. NINE DAYS

Winston Duke continues tackling engaging and thought provoking projects and Edson Oda’s “Nine Days” is no different. Enticing and never boring, “Nine Days” follows a man tasked with determining which soul is worthy of filling a vacancy that’s just opened on earth. It’s a beautiful film that trusts audiences to piece together a complex, heart wrenching story and scratches a rare creative itch where you’re ready to press play again the moment it’s over. (On VOD)


2. RED ROCKET

If you had Simon Rex delivering the best performance of 2021 on your bingo card, I would have called you crazy. Yes, former MTV VJ and “Scary Movie 3” actor Simon Rex finally gets the groundbreaking role he deserves in Sean Baker’s spitfire “Red Rocket,” a dark comedy about former porn star Mikey Saber returning to his po-dunk Texas town and trying to start fresh. Filmed in 16mm and on a guerilla style budget and filming schedule (no permits or agents), “Red Rocket” flies high and hopefully gives Rex leverage in finding his next project. (In theaters Christmas Day)


1. CODA

You won’t find a more wholesome movie this year than Sian Heder’s inspiring “Coda” which stands for Child of Deaf Adults. Most of the time, movies with formulaic plots or manipulative tendencies don’t get a pass, but I implore you to watch “Coda” and not be immediately taken aback by what this film means in terms of inclusivity on screen. Sometimes, it’s nice to let the emotions swell and appreciate the little things. 2021 was a rough year, but “Coda” made life a little bit smoother. (Streaming on Apple TV+)


Honorable Mentions:

THE LAST DUEL - Ridley Scott’s jousting epic didn’t disappoint.

PIG - Nicolas Cage was a powerhouse as a farmer on the hunt for his stolen truffle pig.

OLD - M Night Shyamalan’s horror/thriller made you not want to look in the mirror.

BENEDETTA - Virginie Efira and Paul Verhoeven. That’s it. That’s the tweet.

IN THE HEIGHTS - Give Lin-Manuel Miranda his Oscar already.


TheOnlyCritic’s Top Television of 2021 (a new addition!)

Succession - HBO MAX

Bo Burnham’s Inside - Netflix

Schmigadoon! - Apple TV+

The White Lotus - HBO MAX

Ted Lasso - Apple TV+

Mare of Easttown - HBO Max

Midnight Mass - Netflix

WandaVision - Disney+

Squid Game - Netflix

The Shrink Next Door - Apple TV+

Only Murders in the Building - Hulu


THE RECAP:


The Top 25 Movies of 2021

Coda

Red Rocket

Nine Days

Cyrano

King Richard

Tick, tick…Boom!

Nobody

Don’t Look Up

The Green Knight

Barb and Star Go To Vista Del Mar


The Mitchell’s Vs. The Machines

Licorice Pizza

Flee

Spencer

C’Mon C’Mon

Street Gang: How We Got To Sesame Street

Shiva Baby

Judas and the Black Messiah

A Hero

Little Fish


Titane

Moffie

The Sparks Brothers

Riders of Justice

Last Night In Soho