2021 was the year movies came back. After theatres reopened, long-delayed franchises shook off the dust and shared their stories. There was a desert epic, a final Bond film starring Daniel Craig and a host of fairy tales, real and imagined, to enjoy. Here are 21 excellent films to check out.
21 . Summer of Soul
The Guardian called Summer of Soul the best concert film ever, and it is certainly a contender. Captured in pristine quality, Questlove’s documentary about the Harlem Cultural Festival — which, like Woodstock, took place in 1969 — uncovers a powerful moment of healing for Black Americans, featuring funktastic performances by Stevie Wonder, Nina Simone and more.
20. Petite Maman
In the woods, an eight-year-old girl makes a new friend — her mother at a younger age. Existing somewhere between a ghost story and time travel, Petite Maman is a quiet rumination on youth and who we become from the director of Portrait of a Lady on Fire.
19. The Lost Daughter
Olivia Colman is an actor with an endless range and yet her unsettling performance in The Lost Daughter may surprise longtime fans. Maggie Gyllenhaal’s directoral debut starts slowly, with Colman as an author on vacation, but what develops is an unflinching look at motherhood.
18. No Time to Die
James Bond, family man? Daniel Craig’s final outing as 007 offered up the usual buffet of boffo action and exquisite scenery, but this capstone of Craig’s run was surprisingly sentimental, with a finale certain to leave fans shaken and stirred.
17. Drunken Birds
From drug cartels in Mexico to migrant workers in Quebec, director Ivan Grbovic explores the all-too-human cost of globalization in this lush look at the people caught in the middle.
The best animated movie of the year is a documentary about escaping Afghanistan. Putting a personal lens on the refugee experience, Flee finds Amin Nawabi recounting his harrowing journey from his homeland to Denmark. It’s about what you leave behind and the burdens you carry.
A bit of a cheat because this opens in Canada in January, but ever since I watched Jockey at TIFF, the film starring Clifton Collins Jr. has been rattling around in my head. This quiet character study about a rider afraid of being put out to pasture is the kind of independent film that’s becoming a rarity.
14. Night Raiders
Night Raiders does for the Indigenous sci-fi genre what Black Panther did for Afrofuturism, with a thrilling story that reframes Canada’s legacy of residential schools to powerful effect.
13. C’Mon C’Mon
All hail director Mike Mills who continues to delight with quiet cinematic miracles. Featuring the talents of Joaquin Phoenix as a radio journalist forced to become an instant parent, C’Mon C’Mon is a film about joy, sadness and learning to listen.
A thought experiment about motherhood using the world’s most famous woman as a starting point, Spencer is daring, beautiful and brave as Kristen Stewart flings herself into a heartbreaking version of the People’s Princess.
11. Shiva Baby
Danielle is having a very bad day, trapped at a mourning gathering with her parents, extended family and her sugar daddy. A hilarious setup from exciting new writer/director Emma Seligman.
10. No Ordinary Man
A documentary about trans cultural icon and jazz musician Billy Tipton, No Ordinary Man is remarkable not only for the life story it chronicles but its storytelling method — utilizing a range of musicians to reflect the spectrum of the trans experience.
9. West Side Story
First, it stuns you with beauty, the camera craning over a rapidly changing city. Then it surprises you with its relevance. Energized and inspired, director Steven Spielberg serves up a new vision of West Side Story with authenticity and attitude.
8. The Power of the Dog
Benedict Cumberbatch burrows deep into character in this film about a rough cowboy with a hidden life. From the looming landscape of Montana to the unspoken secrets hovering in the ether, director Jane Campion captivates as always.
A curious beast of a film, Pig finds Nicolas Cage playing a scruffy, almost feral ex-chef who lives in the woods with his loyal truffle-hunting pig. When his hog is pig-napped, he’s forced to confront the gastronomic world he abandoned. Cage does devastating damage with his words in this film about living a life of meaning.
Set in 1920s Harlem, the performance of Tessa Thompson’s career is just a click away on Netflix in this film about friendship, deception and desire.
5. Spider-Man: No Way Home
I went in skeptical and left satisfied. Yes, Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse did the idea of parallel Earths and characters crossing over better, but No Way Home is the best live-action Spider-Man film in years.
4. Tick Tick … Boom!
Andrew Garfield absolutely dazzles as Jonathan Larson, an aspiring musical composer fighting for his big break. Directed by Lin-Manuel Miranda, Tick Tick … Boom! bursts with Broadway love and nimble meta moments. Bravo.
3. Nightmare Alley
God bless weirdos like Guillermo del Toro who follow their passions. After giving us skyscraper-sized robot battles and twisted fables, del Toro delights remaking a film noir classic with art deco glamour and a peerless performance by Bradley Cooper as a con man seduced by his own abilities.
Mohawk director Tracey Deer lived through the Oka Crisis and took the pain and trauma she experienced and transmuted it into a stunning coming-of-age story about a young girl discovering her strength. A radical act of empathy.
Dune is the fulfilment of a journey that started many years ago with a young boy named Denis Villeneuve who fell in love with Frank Herbert’s novels. As a director, Dune had always been Villeneuve’s goal. Ask him about his dream project and his eyes would light up. But Villeneuve waited, levelling up with films like Arrival and Blade Runner 2049 until he was ready and could make Dune the way he wanted. The result is an uncompromising vision about feuding families, faith and sand worms. For science fiction fans starved for new vistas and worlds to visit, Dune is a feast filled with details and drama. It may require multiple viewings for Dune to reveal its secrets, but it’s clear Villeneuve is just getting started.