When we talk about this year in movies, like the last one, it will always come with a pandemic asterisk. But even as a disrupted industry dealt with continued delays and the wobbles of would-be blockbusters, a shocking amount of good stuff came out of it — actually too much to contain in one top 10, which is why we'll also be rolling out separate lists for 2021's Best Scenes and Best Performances.
In the meantime, the 10 films here include more than a few veteran auteurs, two (two!) Danish imports — one of them animated — an actress' stellar directing debut, and the glorious, unlikely return of an MTV VJ. Read on for our picks (and if you want to keep watching, also check out: Val, Zola, Titane, King Richard, CODA, Moffie, I'm Your Man, Lamb, The Hand of God, The Souvenir: Part II, Luca, The Last Duel, Summer of Soul, and No Sudden Move.)
Paul Thomas Anderson/MGM; Everett Collection; YANNIS DRAKOULIDIS/NETFLIX; KIRSTY GRIFFIN/NETFLIX; Neon (2) The best movies of 2021
The Year's Best Films
10. <em>Red Rocket</em>
Directed by Sean Baker
Never trust a man over 35 who calls himself Mikey. That's the first — if not the least — of many life lessons in Rocket, The Florida Project director Sean Baker's sunnily profane portrait of a washed-up porn star (a squirrelly, dazzling Simon Rex) returning to his Texas roots. Mikey's going nowhere fast and neither is the script, but it's a ramshackle pleasure just to ride along. (Full review)
9. <em>Parallel Mothers</em>
Directed by Pedro Almodóvar
At this point, coming into an Almodóvar film feels like reuniting with a favorite European friend. While the outlines of his latest — with its maternity-ward mix-ups and romantic roundelays — tilt toward melodrama, knockout turns from Penélope Cruz and newcomer Milena Smit anchor a story filled with tenderness, empathy, and Pedro's trademark Technicolor joy. (Full review)
8. <em>C'mon C'mon</em>
Directed by Mike Mills
A radio journalist (Joaquin Phoenix) trades bachelorhood for proxy parenting when his harried sister (Transparent's Gaby Hoffmann) asks him to care for her 8-year-old son (Woody Norman). Mills (Beginners) quietly shapes his shaggy tale — shot in intimate black and white — into a bittersweet beauty: a sort of minor-key Auntie Mame for melancholy uncles. (Full review)
7. <em>Riders of Justice</em>
Directed by Anders Thomas Jensen
Imagine a Suicide Squad without the bleary CG battles and sharks that inexplicably wear pants. Denmark export Riders, starring Mads Mikkelsen as a gruff marine out to avenge his murdered wife with a surly teenage daughter and assorted weirdos in tow, is a tiny masterpiece of absurdist action comedy, with a pure wellspring of loopy Scandinavian soul. (Full review)
Directed by Pablo Larraín
Casting California cool girl Kristen Stewart as Princess Diana sounded like a stunt; instead, it's a left-field stroke of genius in Larraín's woozy trip of a biopic. Though the Chilean director's dreamlike drama covers just a few short days in the life of Di, the movie manages to capture the whole imperfect essence of his elusive muse and breathe real, surreal life into an icon. (Full review)
5. <em>Drive My Car</em>
Directed by Ryusuke Hamaguchi
If you told us a three-hour Japanese arthouse drama would fly by, we'd call you a damn liar. And yet it's impossible not to fall under the spell of Drive. Spun from the Haruki Murakami story of the same name, the film follows a laconic Tokyo actor (Hidetoshi Nishijima) through a gauntlet of despair, desire, and control so hauntingly lovely and immersive it's almost spiritual.
4. <em>The Lost Daughter</em>
Directed by Maggie Gyllenhaal
Come on in, the water's fine: Olivia Colman stars as a fortysomething academic whose solo Greek-isle getaway becomes a reckoning with a fellow traveler (Dakota Johnson) and her own memories of young motherhood in Gyllenhaal's coolly unsettling debut — a sublime acting showcase that never shorts on substance or subtext.
Directed by Jonas Poher Rasmussen
Could an animated documentary ever win Best Picture? It might be a pipe dream, but Flee is the kind of movie that makes you think it should. Rasmussen's kaleidoscopic study of a high school friend's harrowing journey from Kabul to the Danish suburbs as a teenage refugee is as funny, sad, and intimate as any scripted drama.
2. <em>The Power of the Dog</em>
Directed by Jane Campion
Twelve years after her last film, Campion (The Piano) returns with a vengeance in Power, a Western noir so fraught it should come with its own Xanax. Benedict Cumberbatch is frankly terrifying as Phil, a Montana rancher whose toxic dance with his fragile new sister-in-law (Kirsten Dunst) and her teenage son (Kodi Smit-McPhee) shimmers with strange electricity. (Full review)
1. <em>Licorice Pizza</em>
Directed by Paul Thomas Anderson
Youth might be wasted on the young, but it is not lost on filmmakers. In a year that saw
various auteurs getting back to their roots via 1960s Ireland (Kenneth Branagh's Belfast), '80s Italy (Paolo Sorrentino's The Hand of God), and '90s London (Joanna Hogg's The Souvenir: Part II), Anderson's vision stood apart: a sunny, skewering Nixon-era dream of latchkey kids on the loose in the San Fernando Valley, starring Cooper Hoffman (son of late PTA regular Philip Seymour Hoffman) as Gary Valentine, a teen actor with an enduring crush on an older woman (Alana Haim). Gary's a hustler — he'll sell you on waterbeds or pinball, depending on the day — but a sweetheart, too. Anderson's tender, funny ramble captures all the hope and absurdity of adolescence, one wild polyblend rumpus at a time. (Full review)
...And The Year's Worst
Unfortunate "Teen": <em>Dear Evan Hansen</em>
Because nothing says "high school heart-warmer" like an uncanny-valley Ben Platt — already a decade past his choir-club sell date at 28 — playing a warbly, morally corrupt teenager.
Unfortunate Tom: <em>Cherry/Chaos Walking</em>
He's funny and charming and can soft-shoe like a tiny Gene Kelly. So why does Tom Holland keep spending his Spider-Man breaks on overbaked, self-serious bummers?
Silliest <em>Inception</em> Redux: <em>Reminiscence</em>
Just imagine if Leo was a postapocalypse Hugh Jackman, the spinning top was a holographic memory machine, and everything that happened on screen got explained to you seven more times in a voice-over.
Poorest Anger-Management Training Video: <em>Wrath of Man</em>
With Guy Ritchie, you can usually at least count on some jazzy, crime-y style. But Jason Statham looks so rightfully bored in this bone-tired heist thriller that even killing Post Malone can't cheer him up.
The Bad-Idea Bell That Can't Be Unrung: <em>Music</em>
Music does not make the people come together. But it does make the people wonder why Sia (yes, the pop singer) thought to herself, "Let me put Leslie Odom Jr. and Kate Hudson in a kicky little autism fandango and let them fly!"
A version of this story appears in Entertainment Weekly's January issue, on newsstands Dec. 17 and available to order here. Don't forget to subscribe for more exclusive interviews and photos, only in EW.
Check out more from EW's The Awardist, featuring Oscars analysis, exclusive interviews, and our podcast diving into all the highlights from the year's movies and performances.