The 25 Best Movies of 2021

The 25 Best Movies of 2021

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In 2020, the film industry proved it was unstoppable. Sure, there were some setbacks here and there, but quality productions pushed through, streaming gained newfound popularity (or notoriety, depending on who you’re speaking to), and though problems persisted well into the next year, that didn’t stop filmmakers from telling the world their stories. 

The movies, then, of 2021 are a mix of the familiar and the new: some are instant classics that exist on a world of their own, while others innovatively bring realities like the pandemic into the fold. We’ve gathered the best and most underrated of them below. 

5. Petite Maman (2022)

best

8.8

Country

France

Director

Céline Sciamma, Female director

Actors

Joséphine Sanz, Margot Abascal, Nina Meurisse

Many films have tried to decipher the indecipherable bond between mothers and daughters. Lady Bird, Everything Everywhere All at Once, and Turning Red, to name a few, center on this particular relationship, which to outsiders may seem strange at best and dysfunctional at worst. How can mothers yell at their daughters one second and coddle them the next? How can daughters treat mothers like their best friend and enemy all at once? 

One of the best films to explore this complexity is Petite Maman, a fantasy-like film that brings together mother and daughter in a unique situation, forcing them both to regard the other in otherwise impossible ways. It succeeds where others haven’t precisely because it accepts that this relationship is beyond dissecting, and the only way to honor it is in the poignant, poetic, and otherworldly way that it does. It’s a quiet film that manages to say a lot, not least of which is that it’s okay to feel and love and hurt as much as one does.

4. Marcel the Shell with Shoes On (2021)

best

8.9

Country

United States of America

Director

Dean Fleischer-Camp

Actors

Andy Richter, Dean Fleischer-Camp, Isabella Rossellini, Jenny Slate

Moods

Dramatic, Easy, Emotional

There’s a lot of good to be found in the charming, poignant, and endlessly quotable Marcel the Shell With Shoes On. It follows a documentarian named Dean, who has as his subject the one-inch talking shell that is Marcel. Marcel looks after an empty house along with his grandma Connie, and together they run a delightfully intricate system subsisting on electric mixers, tennis balls, and the occasional human hair.

Despite his small size, Marcel unwittingly makes big observations about life and the world around him, often moving Dean (and this writer) close to tears. It’s a simple film with a grand message, with lots to say about the importance of participating in life as opposed to merely observing it. But ultimately this is a movie with a precocious talking shell at the heart of it all, so really, what’s not to like?

3. Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy (2021)

best

8.9

Country

Japan

Director

Ryusuke Hamaguchi

Actors

Aoba Kawai, Ayumu Nakajima, Fusako Urabe, Hyunri

Moods

Character-driven, Emotional, Lovely

From Drive My Car director Ryusuke Hamaguchi comes another film featuring long drives, thoughtful talks, and unexpected twists. An anthology of three short stories, Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy ponders over ideas of love, fate, and the all-too-vexing question, “what if?” 

What if you didn’t run away from the one you love? What if you didn’t give in to lust that fateful day? What if, right then and there, you decide to finally forgive?

Big questions, but without sacrificing depth, Hamaguchi does the incredible task of making every single second feel light and meaningful. Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy will leave you with mixed emotions: excited, startled, dejected, hopeful. But one thing you won’t feel is regret over watching this instant classic of a film.

2. Drive My Car (2021)

best

8.9

Country

Japan

Director

Ryusuke Hamaguchi

Actors

Ahn Hwi-tae, Ahn Hwitae, Hidetoshi Nishijima, Jin Dae-yeon

Moods

Character-driven, Dramatic, Slow

In Drive My Car, a widowed artist travels to Hiroshima for his latest production. There he meets a young woman enlisted to drive him around the area. They forge an unexpected bond and soon share pithy observations and long-buried secrets, which culminate in a touching scene of catharsis and forgiveness.

Not a lot is said in this three-hour film, but when words (and signals) are shared, they are always underlaid with simple but transcendent truths. Drive My Car is a gripping film that explores love and loss in its own quiet way, at once intense and intimate.

1. The Worst Person in the World (2021)

best

9.5

Country

Denmark, France, Norway

Director

Joachim Trier

Actors

Anders Danielsen Lie, Anna Dworak, Hans Olav Brenner, Herbert Nordrum

Moods

Character-driven, Emotional, Heart-warming

The film opens with Julie in her early twenties, longing to pursue a career in medical school. But after briefly testing the waters, she switches over to psychology, only to drop completely out of school and transform her hobby of photography into a professional career. This indecisiveness carries over in most aspects of her life, including and especially in romance, where impulse and desire drive her to run after what she believes to be love. The movie follows Julie as she navigates adulthood in modern Oslo—at once a specific yet universally relatable story about the growing pains of growing up.

With The Worst Person in the World, Joachim Trier scores again with another life-changing Norwegian drama about longing, love, grief, and finding your place in the world. His films can be quite sad but amidst all the drama, moments of happiness and hope are scattered throughout, as it is in real life.

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