List: JD Duran’s Top 10 Movies of 2021
Each year we do a Top 10 list for our awards show, and each time it heightens my rivalry with math as it’s really challenging to fit more than ten excellent films into ten slots. However, this year wasn’t quite as cumbersome as in past years, at least not with my top ten. Those films seemed to come to me without much wrestling. My 11-20 though? That was an all out war. Without exaggeration, there was at least 25 films fighting for those slots on my list. From October through November, it was an avalanche of great films. Just one great movie after another. Not to mention the hidden gems that we caught up with as we were doing homework for our year-end wrap up festivities. The depth is so rich for me that I could do a hockey line change and flip out the ten I have below (in my 11-20) for another ten films and not lose an ounce of sleep. Which is all to say, it was another great year for movies. Obviously, it was the year of the musical and that may define 2021 most potently. However, we also got films from Jane Campion, Paul Thomas Anderson, Denis Villenueve, and Joel Coen, among other heavy hitters as well. It was a phenomenal year for foreign language films. Good luck trying to narrow down Flee, Petite Maman, The Worst Person in the World, A Hero, Parallel Mothers, Drive My Car, Lamb, Undine, Ema, Identifying Features and so many others. It’s not being talked about as much, although it should, we got another great script from Matt Damon and Ben Affleck in 2021. This time working with Nicole Holofcener, and the three of them knocked it out of the park. The year had so much to offer. It started off slow, but it ended up being really fun and rewarding.
We do encourage you to listen to Episode 465 to hear more about our picks, but as we do every year, listed here (after the jump) are my Top 10 Movies of 2021.
Denis Villeneuve is one of the most exciting directors working today and boy did he deliver with Dune. It’s one of the most transportive experiences I’ve had at the cinema in some time. The sound design is truly on another level. The fusing of practical and visual effects is remarkable. The cinematography and coloration is evocative. The costuming and make-up work is great. The technical proficiency of Dune is astounding. But more than that, it’s a fascinating take on the “chosen one” narrative with Paul and how he’s starting to revert against his destiny. Yes, it’s just a Part 1, but it’s still excellent on its own right and will (mostly) stand alone well despite what we see in Part 2. Click here to listen to our full review.
Michael Sarnoski’s Pig is my pick for the best directorial film of the year. As someone who wears their heart of their sleeve and has an affinity for methodical, thoughtful films, this had it all. Pig isn’t anything like the trailers made it out to be. It’s not typical to many of the Cage movies we’ve seen from him in the last decade, instead it’s a poignant examination of grief and succumbing to the reality that you must face it at some point. Rob did love his pig, but perhaps mostly because it was a symbolic mechanism that kept him from facing the truth in front of him. Which is what makes the film’s final scene absolutely devastating, yet gratifying, to see how Rob finds closure. And as much as I love Sarnoski’s direction, Nicolas Cage gives one of his best career performances to help solidify the film as one of the best of 2021. Click here to listen to our full review.
8. The Worst Person in the World
The Worst Person in the World is an exquisite look at this year’s theme (apparently) of turning 30 and feeling an overwhelming sense of dread. Which is of course what makes the film’s title and incredible use of irony because Julie isn’t a bad person at all. She’s just stuck. And once she meets Eivind while crashing a wedding party, she starts to see how things can change for her. To me that’s why the “Cheating” segment is maybe the best vignette of the film. The “time freeze” moment is spectacular (totally get why everyone, including me, loves it so much), but the sequence of Julie and Eivind flirting and trying to avoid the cheat line is just as lively. And it clearly sparks something for Julie that has huge ramifications. Don’t get me started on how beautiful and heartbreaking that bench scene is at the end of the film. Click here to listen to our full review.
7. C’mon C’mon
Mike Mills’ best film to date. And my pick for the best original screenplay of the year. Like Mills’ other films, C’mon C’mon is a deeply personal film that examines fatherhood and it’s challenges. But also its rewards. Perhaps what the film gets most right is the duality that defines being a parent. It’s often exhausting and hard, which comes through vividly in Johnny’s reactions to Jesse. Yet, there’s no doubt that Johnny loves Jesse and wants to connect with him in a true way. The way he reads poems to Jesse, or teaches him how to use his microphone, or just being there to bathe and take care of him. All of that matters deeply to Jesse at that age. And it’s so endearing and poignant to see how the two connect over the course of the film. This was without a doubt the #JDTears movie of the year. That and another you’ll see below. Click here to listen to our full review.
6. The Green Knight
The Green Knight is one of the best directed movies of the year. Like Villeneuve, David Lowery’s direction in this film is stunning. The production design, the sound, the cinematography, the costuming and make-up, it’s all ravishing. Perhaps my favorite thing about the film, however, is how Lowery takes an old tradition and makes it his own. In many ways this is a deconstruction of the poem, and for my money, a sublime look at honor and what it truly means to achieve it. The Green Knight is full of subverted contradictions, but it’s what makes it a uniquely singular take on this story. And I loved everything about it. Click here to listen to our full review.
5. Licorice Pizza
What can you say? Paul Thomas Anderson is the master (pun intended). Licorice Pizza was my most anticipated film of 2021 and it lived up to the bill in every way. It’s meandering and strange, but full of purpose and meaning as it explores a young woman navigating a mild existential crisis trying to figure out where to take her life. Alana Haim is excellent in every way. Cooper Hoffman is also terrific (his papa would have been proud). They have a chemistry that is endearing and rivals the best character dynamic we’ve seen from PTA yet. Licorice Pizza is maybe the most rewatchable film of the year. Like Inherent Vice, it’s silly and fun on the surface, but underneath is a saddening reality that many of us can relate with at our core. Click here to listen to our full review.
4. Drive My Car
Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s Drive My Car has arguably the best screenplay of the entire year, original or adapted. At 179 minutes, there’s a lot of story here and a vast amount of character exchanges, and it will leave you breathless by the end. The way it toys with what is real and what is art is especially intuitive. From scene to scene, we don’t know if what the characters are doing is true to their real lives or a function of their theater ethos. But that’s exactly the effect as the film examines art and how it intervenes with the coping process. It’s a profound experience that’s elevated as a result of these great performances and Hamaguchi’s stellar direction. Click here to listen to our full review.
Annette is by far the best narrative musical of the year. But look, I get it, it’s not going to be for everyone. This is a Leos Carax film after all, and it’s fervently weird at times. Featuring Annette as a wooden puppet baby is one thing, but to treat it with such sincerity without ever acknowledging that it’s a puppet is really something else. Then there’s Adam Driver’s Henry belting a tune into Marion Cotillard’s…uh…lady parts. Not to mentionthe meta qualities of the film or the obvious staginess in Carax’s direction. But I loved it. Immensely. The production value here is phenomenal, but it all works in amplifying this story of exploitation and parenthood. I’ve talked about it to death, but that last scene between Driver and newcomer Devyn McDowell is one for the ages. As poignant and riveting as one scene can get. An all-time ending in my book. Click here to listen to our full review.
Bo Burnham’s Inside is one of the more saddening, yet brilliant, movies of 2021. Particularly with how he explores irony. The first half of the film is a staggering and hilarious commentary on the way we spend our physical, real lives creating content that lives in the digital space. Which, in and of itself, is a compelling idea, but ironic since that’s where Burnham stems from himself. He was made famous by posting videos on YouTube. So he’s no stranger to creating content that lives online. Hell, this whole special lives on Netflix for crying out loud. Yet it’s fascinating to see him comment on the fakery that exudes from so much online content. It’s in that where Inside thrives given where it goes next as we see Burnham recoiling in his depression and anxiety. What we see in the backhalf is anything but fake. It’s real. It’s Burnham at his most raw. And it’s heartbreaking. Every song of Inside is great, but “All Eyes On Me” is profoundly special. Click here to listen to our full review.
1. The Power of the Dog
Jane Campion’s The Power of the Dog is a captivatingly methodical, yet intrinsically nuanced, movie that revels in revealing one secret at a time. First of all, by showing us how lonely they are, which in turn drives much of their actions. It’s the reason Phil torments Rose. Not because he’s some ruthless outlaw who has no regards for humanity, it’s because of societal exceptions and a forceful repression thrust upon him. All he had was this ranch and his brother’s company. When part of that is ripped away from him, he takes it out on Rose. It’s heartbreaking to see how that torment effects Rose, but also why Phil feels vulnerable and backed into a corner. There’s so much humanity to this film. And when you couple that with Campion’s rigorous direction, it makes for an unforgettable experience. Click here to listen to our full review.
To round out my Top 20, here is the rest of my list:
11) Petite Maman
13) Red Rocket
16) Nine Days
20) The Last Duel
Let us know what you think. Do you agree or disagree? We’d like to know why. Leave a comment in the comment section below or tweet us @InSessionFilm.