The best films of 2021


From an artistic standpoint, 2021 has been an excellent cinematic vintage, but the premium is overshadowed by an air of doom. The reopening of theaters brought many great movies – some of which were postponed from last year – to the big screen, but fewer people to see them. The biggest hits, as usual, have been the superhero and franchise movies. “The French Dispatch” has performed well in wide circulation, and “Licorice Pizza” is doing superbly on four screens in New York and Los Angeles, but few, if any, of the year’s best films are likely to hit. reach high on the box- office tables. The switch to streaming was already underway when the pandemic hit, and as the trend accelerated, it had a paradoxical effect on the movies. On the one hand, a streaming version is a large version, fortunately accessible to all (or to all subscribers). On the flip side, an online release is generally recorded as a non-event, and many of the big movies barely make a hit on the media landscape despite being more accessible than ever.

2021 in review

New York writers reflect on the ups and downs of the year.

When following the fortunes of ambitious films, it is important to keep an eye on circulation – not, as in sports betting, the handicap of numbers but the aesthetic diffusion that separates the most original films of the day from the norms. in force. The last two decades have been a time of peaceful revolution in the movies. Established writers, from Spike Lee to Martin Scorsese, have found their release thanks to the rise of independent producers and ultra-low budget independents, including Greta Gerwig, Barry Jenkins, the Safdie brothers, Joe Swanberg, the late Lynn Shelton and others. in their sockets – broke through the mainstream and shifted the very heart of commercial cinema. (Among the brands in the reduced circulation are the overwhelming success of films as distinctive as “Moonlight,” “Us,” and “Little Women,” and the stardom of the Adam Driver franchise.) But those changes have led to a comeback in rear of industry — a reconquest and occupation of workshop land. The Terence Nance recruiting directing “Space Jam 2” was a welcome sign of progress; his start of the project, in July 2019 (apparently due to creative differences), was a sign that the winds of Hollywood were pushing back to familiar shores. (The film, titled “Space Jam: A New Legacy,” released in July; that’s not good, but it does feature high in the box office of the year charts.) Overproduced mega-shows in theaters and AV snack bars at home is a sign that, even as theatrical viewing rebounds, the market place for films is likely to be even more tenuous.

In a way, this pattern is as old as the films themselves: with every breakthrough, there is a reaction. In Hollywood’s early years a century ago, a star-driven system gave way to a director-driven system, which studio executives then quickly cracked down on. What emerged was a top-down system which since has seemed absurdly like a natural and inescapable state of the art. More recently, in the 1970s, filmmakers such as Steven Spielberg and George Lucas came to imagine a new pop conservatism, rooted in television and nostalgia, which quickly pushed the more avant-garde of their New Hollywood peers to the industry margins. The lesson is that there is nothing natural, inevitable, or immutable about the way Hollywood does business, nor the production methods nor the stylistic and formal imperatives that result from it. (The lack of a unified, centralized documentary system is why non-fiction, as evidenced by this year’s list, has continued its unhindered aesthetic expansion.)

Even before the pandemic, it was becoming increasingly difficult for artistically ambitious, low-budget features to get a theatrical release, let alone commercial viability. (Several of the best independent films I’ve seen in recent years have yet to be released.) But the streaming service economy presents its own unique challenges. With theatrical releases, viewers don’t pay a ticket unless they want to see a movie. Streaming subscriptions, in effect, boil down to paying up front for movies before they’re available, meaning that platforms have an incentive to offer what is familiar, whether they are movies from star and genre in narrow format or branded author films, which can easily attract interest. And the widening of the gap between the highest grossing films and the most original filmmakers risks pushing directors to soften or suppress their most original inspirations, or to filter them into formats, genres or systems that suit them. resist or thwart them.

There is a danger worse than the studios and their overproduced and overbudged methods: a weakened Hollywood that would relinquish its dominance of cinema to an even smaller number of giant streaming services. Netflix and Amazon (and, to a lesser extent, Apple TV +) have done a respectable job of producing and releasing artistically worthy films, including some that are high on my list. They do this so that they can compete, as actors rather than disruptors, with studios and big independent producers for prestigious artists and projects. But if the theatrical audience continues to decline, taking with it the preeminence of studios and transforming independent producers and distributors into dependent hulls, the major streaming services will have much less incentive to finance films of any significant artistic ambition.

The economics of any individual film is irrelevant to the progress of the art form; the pantheon of classics has no connection with the treasury of the industry. Yet filmmakers’ careers are inseparable from their ability to access funding, and film history is a graveyard of unrealized projects that should serve as a warning against the waste of deserving talent. Young filmmakers working outside the system and with low expectations to enter are the future of filmmaking, which is an art form that doesn’t know what it needs until it gets it. Art is advancing through a generational takeover, which can only happen when films seem worth picking up. As an avid cinephile, wary of the threat of contagion, I go to the cinema with caution, paying particular attention to screenings where there are a large number of empty seats around me. Yet every empty seat bodes ill for the future of feature filmmaking. Cinema has gone through crises of all kinds, economic and political, but if the films themselves can be learned a lesson, a rebirth is as likely to resemble a zombie as it is a phoenix.

A note on this list: For last year’s picks, when releases were on the move due to the pandemic, I included movies that were available to stream through festivals and specials. Several of these films had official releases in 2021, and I’ve included them again, to keep (or restore) the traditional schedule.


Wes Anderson’s wildly comedic, but fiercely serious, adaptation of stories and personalities from the classic age of The New Yorker unleashes an unprecedented torrent of dramatic and decorative complexity, philosophical power and physical intensity. It is an extraordinary film of the life of the body-mind connection, from history to the present.


What Paul Thomas Anderson presents as a pugnacious coming-of-age story for a teenage actor and an eventful journey of self-discovery for a dreamer in his twenties, set in the early San Fernando Valley. 70s, turns wonderfully and happily into his version of “Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood” – and far superior to that, because of the vast scope of his tenderness, skepticism, humor and his insight.


Photograph by Anna Kooris / Courtesy A24