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. 

25. Minari (2021)

7.8

Country

United States of America

Director

Lee Isaac Chung

Actors

Chloe Lee, Darryl Cox, Ed Spinelli, Eric Starkey

Moods

Character-driven, Discussion-sparking, Dramatic

Minari is a film written and directed by Lee Isaac Chung, about a Korean-American family in search of the so-called American Dream. It is an intimate drama that is powerful yet quiet, and filled with moments of innocence. With dreamlike scoring, unique characters, and a captivating climax, this movie tugs on the heartstrings, and serves as a great reminder of the beauty of gratitude.

Thanks to these, plus winning performances across the board, Minari earned plenty of nominations at the 2021 Oscars, with Youn Yuh-jung eventually bagging the Best Supporting Actress award—a monumental first for South Korea.

24. Official Competition (2022)

7.8

Country

Argentina, Spain

Director

Gastón Duprat, Mariano Cohn

Actors

Ana Belén, Antonio Banderas, Daniel Chamorro, Irene Escolar

Moods

A-list actors, Character-driven, Grown-up Comedy

After receiving virtually unlimited funding from a wealthy businessman, Lola (played by the always excellent Penelope Cruz) sets out to mount an ambitious adaptation of a bestselling novel. To make her vision work, she employs renowned actors Ivan Torres (Oscar Martinez) and Felix Rivero (Antonio Banderas), knowing full well that their opposite philosophies in art and life will clash. What follows is a series of preps and rehearsals that play out like social experiments in their twistedness, which all in all speak to the outrageousness of film, art, and life itself.

In this Spanish dark comedy, no one is spared from satire—from the idiosyncratic auteur down to the sell-out actor, all are parodied in equal measure, each of their egos broken down in great and hilarious detail.

23. In the Heights (2021)

7.9

Country

United States of America

Director

Jon M. Chu

Actors

Anthony Ramos, Ariana Greenblatt, Christopher Jackson, Corey Hawkins

Moods

Dramatic, Emotional, Feel-Good

Even if you aren’t familiar with the original, Tony Award-winning Broadway production from Lin-Manuel Miranda, this adaptation of In the Heights is still infused with the same infectious energy and loaded with many of the same eclectic songs. This is musical theater at its most fundamental (cheesy, us-against-the-world romance; unstoppable optimism) and also at some of its most unique—with old-school Broadway numbers mixing seamlessly with hip hop, Latin dance, and cheery 2000s pop. But beyond its music, In the Heights offers a gorgeous tapestry of stories about life in a proud immigrant community and the challenges of staying rooted to home while reaching for the stars.

22. Limbo (2020)

7.9

Country

United Kingdom, United States

Director

Ben Sharrock

Actors

Amir El-Masry, Cameron Fulton, Grace Chilton, Kais Nashif

Moods

Character-driven, Funny, Lighthearted

This offbeat drama is about a Syrian refugee who gets sent to a remote island in northern Scotland. “There was a better signal in the middle of the Mediterranean,” another refugee tells him when he arrives. Omar is as the title suggests stuck: until his asylum request is processed he can’t work or continue his journey onwards. His situation is frustrating and difficult, but it’s also full of absurdities, as Omar is stuck around some very weird people.

Limbo perfectly portrays the duality between sad and nonsensical in the refugee experience. In the entrance to the isolated and rundown facility that houses Omar, a handmade sign said “refugees welcome”. The next day a “not” is added between “refugees” and “welcome”, in the exact same paint. 

If you like Finnish director Aki Kaurismäki’s work, this has a similar brand of dark humor to his also refugee-themed 2017 drama The Other Side of Hope.

21. Herself (2021)

best

8.0

Country

Ireland, United Kingdom

Director

Female director, Phyllida Lloyd

Actors

Cathy Belton, Clare Dunne, Conleth Hill, Ericka Roe

Moods

Character-driven, Depressing, Discussion-sparking

Herself tells the story of Sandra (Clare Dunne), a single mother who runs away from her abusive husband to start a new life with her children. When welfare and charity prove to be insufficient with their help, she takes things into her hands by building a house of her own.

This Irish movie, co-written by star Clare Dunne, may be small in scale and budget, but it is affecting in big and powerful ways. Despite what girlbosses might tell you, chasing full independence isn’t always as easy or even empowering as it looks, especially when you’re stuck in the lower rungs of society like Sandra; Herself takes the honest approach by showing us the unglamorous side of making it on your own. It also has meaningful things to say about marriage and divorce, so if you were moved by Marriage Story or Kramer vs Kramer, you may feel the same about Herself, which references the latter two’s iconic courtroom scenes.

20. The Falls (2021)

best

8.0

Country

Taiwan

Director

Chung Mong-hong

Actors

Alyssa Chia, Chen Yiwen, Gingle Wang, Guan-Ting Liu

Moods

Dramatic, Emotional, Slow

All the synopses going around the internet won’t fail to let you know that The Falls takes place at the height of the COVID-19 crisis. The film is certainly marketed that way, with commercial posters featuring the leads in ubiquitous face masks, socially distanced from the blurred crowd. 

But interestingly, The Falls is not just a situational, pandemic-era story. More than anything else, it tells the story of Pin-wen and Xiao Jing, mother and daughter who, despite previously living a life of comfort, are now dealt with unfavorable circumstances (exacerbated but not entirely caused by the pandemic). Now, they are forced to navigate life with only each other, and it’s in the isolation they instate from the rest of the world do they forge a genuine and heartwrenching bond any and all family members will immediately recognize and perhaps even sympathize with. 

19. The Father (2020)

best

8.0

Country

France, United Kingdom, United States of America

Director

Florian Zeller

Actors

Anthony Hopkins, Ayesha Dharker, Evie Wray, Imogen Poots

Moods

Depressing, Tear-jerker, Thought-provoking

The Father is a compelling inner look at the ways dementia distorts memories. By occupying the unstable headspace of 80-year-old Anthony (Anthony Hopkins), the film allows us to experience his frustration and confusion firsthand. We, too, are unsure about the ever-shifting details we’re presented with. Conversations are circular and time seems inexistent. The faces we know are swapped with names we don’t know. Even the tiniest elements, such as the wall tiles and door handles, are constantly changing in the background. We grasp for the slippery truth with Anthony but always come up empty and unsure.

In a thoughtful move by director Florian Zeller, we also get a glimpse of the lives surrounding Anthony. The daughter Anne (Olivia Colman), in particular, is often the victim of her father’s tirades, but she takes care of him still, conflicted as to where to draw the line between his needs and hers. 

With its fluid editing, subtle detail-swaps, and empathic portrayal of characters, The Father is just as technically impressive as it is movingly kind.

18. The Hand of God (2021)

8.0

Country

Italy

Director

Paolo Sorrentino

Actors

Alessandro Bressanello, Betti Pedrazzi, Birte Berg, Cristiana Dell'Anna

Moods

Grown-up Comedy, Lovely, Slice-of-Life

The Hand of God is the autobiographical movie from Paolo Sarrantino, the director of the 2013 masterpiece The Great Beauty. He recently also directed The Young Pope with Jude Law and Youth Paul Dano, both in English. He is back to his home Italy with this one. 

More precisely, he’s in his hometown Naples, in the 1980s, where awkward teenager Fabietto Schisa’s life is about to change: his city’s soccer team Napoli is buying the biggest footballer at the time, Diego Maradona.

Sarrantino, who is also from Naples, made this movie that is half a tribute to the city and half to what it meant growing up around the legend of Maradona.

The Hand of God is to Sarrantino what Roma was to Alfonso Cuarón, except it’s more vulgar, fun, and excessive. It is equally as personal though, and it goes from comedy to tragedy and back with unmatched ease.

17. The Man Who Sold His Skin (2020)

best

8.0

Country

Belgium, Cyprus, France

Director

Female director, Kaouther Ben Hania

Actors

Anissa Daoud, Christian Vadim, Darina Al Joundi, Husam Chadat

Moods

Discussion-sparking, Sunday, Thought-provoking

Tunisian director Kaouther Ben Hania’s new movie is about an arrogant European artist who tattoos a Syrian man’s back, essentially turning the man’s body into artwork. 

The man, as a commodity, is able to travel the world freely to be in art galleries, something as a simple human with a Syrian passport he couldn’t do. Seems unlikely? It’s based on a true story.

But Ben Hania is not really interested in the political statement aspect of this unlikely stunt. Instead, she looks at what this would do to a human-being, to the man’s self-esteem, his relationships, and the turns his life takes. It’s a fascinating movie.

16. Belfast (2021)

best

8.1

Country

United Kingdom

Director

Kenneth Branagh

Actors

Bríd Brennan, Caitriona Balfe, Ciarán Hinds, Colin Morgan

Moods

Emotional, Heart-warming, Slice-of-Life

Belfast stars Outlander’s Caitríona Balfe as the mother of a working-class Northern Irish family during The Troubles. Religious tension and the lack of opportunities put the family in a difficult position: they’re the first in many generations to think about leaving the city of Belfast. They all have to navigate so many difficult questions on belonging, religion, and identity.

The story,  based on the director’s own childhood, is packaged in a noise-canceling black and white format. Also stars Judi Dench.

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