2021 Young Critic Awards
Top 10 Films of 2021
2021 was the year that movie theaters finally opened their doors and let a few brave cinephiles return to experience the magic of the big screen. The first movie I went back to see was nothing out of this world (Guy Ritchie’s bland and dark The Wrath of Man (2021)) and yet I got emotional with the popcorn and Pepsi commercials just before the film began. The pandemic is as unpredictable as ever, but we had a small reprieve in 2021 where a barrage of delayed films was finally released. This caused for a packed year with the beginning of 2021 featuring many Oscar hopefuls for this year’s Oscars, and many of the latter half of the year campaigning for next year’s Academy Awards. This has caused for a glutted quality of riches for us viewers. Many critics with advance screenings last year were able to include many of the films you’ll see in this list in their top 10 lists of 2020. For the rest of us mere mortals we had to wait for the films to be made widely available, this meant that I did not consider them as part of the collection of 2020 films. I must warn viewers that I have not been able to see every released film, just as last year, if the film has not been made available for wide release before December 31st, I will not be able to review it either (ahem The Tragedy of Macbeth (2021) ahem). Here is my ranked list, which is completely subjective, and in the spirit of recommendation and striking up debate, not as anything to be imposed or definitive for anyone else. Happy new years to all, and here’s to another year of fulfilling and transporting stories.
The Green Knight
Promising Young Woman
10. The Hand of God
Paolo Sorrentino’s follow up to his take on the papacy with the two miniseries The Young Pope (2016) and The New Pope (2019) is a much more personal story than we are accustomed from him. Taken from his own upbringing in 1980s Naples, Sorrentino infuses both his beautiful sense of cinematography and silent immersion, with the quirky goings-on and eye-brow-raising events of his own past. Sorrentino perfectly couples this film with his Oscar-winning The Great Beauty (2013), which showed the superficiality within the beautiful Roman settings, with The Hand of God’s discovery of richness beneath the supposed ugly facades of southern Italy.
9. Summer of Soul
This documentary has been a true breakout since its premiere at Sundance. A look at a forgotten popular music festival in 1960s Harlem, Summer of Soul seeks to unearth the resilience, dignity, and power that black culture has perdured. Aided by a fascinating trove of footage and interviews with surviving attendees, first-time-director Questlove marinates a perfect blend of nostalgia and historical novelty to amaze and transport us to a criminally forgotten time.
Rebecca Hall’s adaptation of Nella Larsen’s 1920s novel is beautifully rendered in black and white, as it follows two light-skinned black women who navigate different sides of the color line. Just as its source novel, Passing prompts questions of race and identity that bring to light the true triviality of the associations society has given to skin pigmentation. In Hall’s hands, Passing is an intriguing character study into its two women, insuperably portrayed by Ruth Negga and Tessa Thompson.
This year’s Best Picture winner couldn’t miss out on the list. Chloe Zhao’s look into an ignored and forgotten America dons a dose of dignity that would have been missing in many other directors’ hands. Using her distinct documentary-style feel, while using largely unprofessional actors, the naturalism and cold realism of Zhao’s film reaches out from the screen with a breathtaking effectiveness.
6. The Power of the Dog
Jane Campion’s long-awaited return to the silver screen with this brutal and dark western was well worth the wait. Her take on masculinity, and how the toxicity of posturing can truly lead to psychological breakdowns in many forms is impressive. To simply witness the silent and tormenting battle that Campion’s characters undergo is worth the entrance fee, added to some of the most impressive performances of each actor’s individual careers, and The Power of Dog truly becomes and unforgettable film.
This Danish animated documentary is the most experimental film to have premiered in a while. While animated documentaries have been effectively produced in the past, Flee proves to be a culmination of sorts. With its extremely relevant tale of an Afghan refugee fleeing to Europe, Flee also never loses sight of its human characters, keeping them and their journey grounded to further exacerbate the pains and tribulations that the real subjects underwent.
Pablo Larrain’s latest biopic of a world-renowned female figure of the 20th century is a heart-breaking look at Princess Diana. Using a magical realistic style that helps immerse viewers in the psychological breakdown of its central figure, Spencer fabulously traces the silent battles and suffering of its tragic character. Kristen Stewart in the lead role delivers a career defining performance that leaves viewers breathless by the time the credits roll.
3. The Father
Florian Zeller’s adaptation of his own stage play is one of the most effective and original takes on Alzheimer’s from a victim’s own perspective. Using an ingenious bait-and-switching of cast players, settings, and structure, The Father is the kind of film and artistic form that slowly sinks its tragic fangs into your emotional core. By the end of the film, it is hard not to be in tears and admiration for the strength that Alzheimer’s patients already show day-to-day. Anthony Hopkins (who won an academy role for the role), already a screen legend, gives arguably the best role of his entire career, perfectly encapsulating the demand for dignity and the slow descent into confusion and desperation that his character feels.
2. The Lost Daughter
Maggie Gyllenhaal’s directorial debut paired with the unabashed look into motherhood by Elena Ferrante is one of the most refreshing and bold explorations of motherhood in recent memory. Using a slow and silent visual style that takes its queues more from looks and glances than verbal explanations. Gyllenhaal perfectly commandeers her cast, led by the “practically perfect in every way” Olivia Coleman, that helps deliver an equally heart-wrenching and comforting peek behind the curtain of the realities of parenting.
1. Licorice Pizza
Paul Thomas Anderson’s nostalgic take on 1970s California life of his own childhood is the most transporting and escapist film of the year. PTA’s masterful use of aesthetic, sound, performance, and editing makes for a film that is not really about anything except longing and joy. Licorice Pizza is an exercise of how memory works within us and how simple the core elements of life truly are. Led by two of the year’s breakouts, Alana Haim and Cooper Hoffman, Licorice Pizza was the only film this year that had me wanting to dive into the screen and join its alluring world.
Winner: The Lost Daughter
The Lost Daughter
The Power of the Dog
Winner: Nightmare Alley
The Card Counter
The Night House
Best Family Film
Winner: Jane Campion (The Power of the Dog)
Denis Villeneuve (Dune)
Paul Thomas Anderson (Licorice Pizza)
Maggie Gyllenhaal (The Lost Daughter)
Guillermo del Toro (Nightmare Alley)
Jane Campion (The Power of the Dog)
Best New Director
Winner: Maggie Gyllenhaal (The Lost Daughter)
Florian Zeller (The Father)
Maggie Gyllenhaal (The Lost Daughter)
Regina King (One Night in Miami)
Rebecca Hall (Passing)
Emerald Fennell (Promising Young Woman)
Winner: Licorice Pizza
The French Dispatch
I'm Your Man
Best Action/Adventure Film
Winner: The Green Knight
The Green Knight
The Last Duel
Spider-Man: No Way Home
The Velvet Underground
Winner: Anthony Hopkins (The Father)
Anthony Hopkins (The Father)
Olivia Coleman (The Lost Daughter)
Frances McDormand (Nomadland)
Benedict Cumberbatch (The Power of the Dog)
Kristen Stewart (Spencer)
Winner: Alana Haim (Licorice Pizza)
Anthony Ramos (In the Heights)
Alana Haim (Licorice Pizza)
Cooper Hoffman (Licorice Pizza)
Kingsley Ben Adir (One Night in Miami)
Ariana DeBose (West Side Story)