Top 10 Films of 2021

I wouldn’t say 2021 was a stellar year at the movies, even as the backlog of pandemic-delayed Hollywood features piled up at the year’s end, but it did feature a number of quality independent and international films, as is reflected by the number of them on my list.

I hope this is useful to you, and if you have yet to see these movies I hope you make some time to catch up with them in 2022.

Click on the titles to read my original, full-length reviews, and scroll down to see a list of honourable mentions and a few pictures from 2021 maybe better forgotten.

10. Red Rocket | Coming Soon

Sean Baker’s follow-up to The Florida Project will arrive soon and it’s a picture very much worth seeing. What starts as a broad comedy about a porn star coming home to his Texas town and trying to get his life in order, charming everyone around him, but the film ends up feeling like nothing less than an observational portrait of America in 2016, much more ambitious, visceral, and grim than what first meets the eye.

9. West Side Story | In Cinemas 

What’s the collective noun for musicals? Maybe a chorus line of musicals? In a year that saw so many terrific musical adaptations — including a couple in my honourable mentions and one in my Under The Radar list — Steven Spielberg’s take on West Side Story ends up winning by a nose in my affections. Even as it’s built on the foundation of another slightly damp Romeo and Juliet adaptation the production around it is so vivid, so energized, it won me over. An explosion of music and dance, I was swept away.

8. Beans | VOD

It’s a bit of a bummer to recognize this important, moving feature film, which won Best Motion Picture at the Canadian Screen Awards, wasn’t a huge hit in Canadian cinemas. That’s where we still are in 2022 — Beans got a brief run in Halifax theatres before it vanished, and it deserves a lot more. Documentarian Tracy Deer’s autobiographical first feature tells the story of the Oka Crisis aka The Kanesatake Resistance through the eyes of a child, and brings an ugly moment of our collective history to life while also being a engaging coming-of-age picture. It should be screened in schools across the country.

7. Mothering Sunday | Coming Soon

While Olivia Colman enters the Oscar conversation for her role in The Lost Daughter, her smaller part in this festival gem — with a 2022 release expected soon — is a must see. Much of this film takes place in a single day shortly following the end of the First World War, where two families gather for lunch on Mother’s Day. The surviving son (The Crown‘s Josh O’Connor) in one family is having an affair with a woman who works in the other household, while his fiancé and family awaits his presence at lunch — all this is told through the eyes of his lover, played in a luminous, star-making performance by Odessa Young. Yes, it’s another British period picture about class, but it’s also a gorgeous (and sexy) character study, a meditation on grief and regret, delivered with a writerly touch.

6. Memoria

The new film from Apichatpong Weerasethakul may arrive in cinemas, or may not. Last I heard a single copy of the film was travelling through the United States for one-night-only screenings on art house screens, and wouldn’t be released on other platforms. Fingers crossed it arrives here, because it’s very much worth sitting through in the dark with a curious audience. It’s nothing less than an exercise in mindfulness, occupying a space between the metaphysical and the mundane. I don’t expect I’ll ever understand it, but was totally OK with that for what turned out to be a unique night at the movies.

5. Identifying Features | VOD

Fernanda Valadez and Astrid Ronder’s story of a mother searching for her son in the darkness of the Mexican drug war becomes a journey into hell, complete with satanic figures and the final corruption of innocence. As far as its commitment to that vision, it’s the most merciless film I’ve encountered in years.

4. Rose Plays Julie | Hoopla, VOD

Barely seen in North America — but thanks to Halifax’s Carbon Arc Cinema, was available virtually for months — this Irish/UK film from Joe Lawlor and Christine Molloy is actually from 2019 but took awhile to cross the pond. It’s a cracking, suspenseful picture, gorgeously shot and edited to bring the best from its small collection of performances, moving with complete precision from its set-up as an adoption drama to a female-led revenge thriller that doesn’t put a foot wrong.

3. Licorice Pizza | In Cinemas 

We don’t see Paul Thomas Anderson in this frame very often. I mean, a shaggy dog story, he’s done that before (Inherent Vice) and he’s done edgy romantic comedy (Punch Drunk Love) but nothing as nostalgically playful as this hang-out picture, one stuffed with pulled-from-real-life tales of Hollywood excess. It’s the never-gonna-happen awkward love story at the story’s centre that wins us over.

2. Zola | Netflix, VOD

I challenge the Academy to consider Zola for Best Adapted Screenplay,  as it was an infamous Tweet thread that inspired this bold, dark comedy about one woman’s difficult weekend in Florida — she joins a group of people she barely knows for what sounds like a good time before finding she’s being trafficked. It’s also an entirely droll deconstruction of the nuts and bolts — if you’ll pardon the possible puns — of sex work. Easily the biggest surprise of the year.

1. Petite Maman | Coming Soon 

I won’t pretend that the fact this film is 72 minutes long didn’t play a role in making it my pick for the year’s best film. So many features these days linger 10, 20, 30 minutes past the point of comfort or sense, so it’s a total joy to see one that tells its tale so well with concision. Céline Sciamma, director of Portrait Of A Lady On Fire, tells a story about a young girl, Nelly, whose grandmother has just passed away. Her mother leaves her with her father for a few days in the family home. Nelly goes out back into the woods and meets another girl, Marion, almost the same age, and they become fast friends.

Given the film’s title, it won’t take anyone long to figure out the other girl is a younger version of Nelly’s mother, but this isn’t a time travel yarn per say — more a gentle magic realist picture of inter-generational understanding and connection. Modest in many ways, it’s also as close to perfect as anything I’ve seen in a long time.

Honourable Mentions (in no particular order):

A lot of people spewed bile at  Don’t Look Up over the holidays. While friends and critics whose opinions I respect couldn’t stand it, I thought it was effective as a climate crisis allegory and, just as important for movie-watching, hilarious. One of the year’s biggest hits, Spider-Man: No Way Home, was criticized for offering reheated fan service. I thought it was an emotional, faithful adaptation of the many comics that inspired it, though I won’t deny it sure helped if you’ve been watching about 20 years of Spider-Man movies.

More great work from Olivia Colman and especially Anthony Hopkins, who won his second Best Actor Oscar, make dementia drama The Father very much worth seeing, while Supernova parallels it with another heartbreaking story of love in the face of the same disease, starring Colin Firth and Stanley Tucci.

His House takes the trauma of refugee migration and turns it into a gripping horror. Riders of Justice is a Danish anti-revenge, revenge thriller that also (weirdly) works as a broad comedy. Tove tells the story of a burgeoning, soon-to-find-fame artist in her wild years.

In The Heights takes Lin-Manuel Miranda’s pre-Hamilton stage hit and makes it a magic realist musical celebration, while Miranda’s debut as a feature director joyfully brought to the screen the work of his own musical theatre inspiration, Jonathan Larson, in tick, tick, BOOM!. Maggie Gyllenhaal’s first feature as a director is the engaging and harrowing Greek-set psychological mystery, The Lost Daughter.

The homegrown indigenous coming-of-age road movie, Wildhood, that wowed attendees at the FIN Atlantic International Film Festival in September should have a theatrical release this year — don’t miss it. Also expected in cinemas this year is another terrific FIN screener, The Worst Person In The World, a charming and sexy Norwegian romantic dramedy.

Dune is an extraordinary spectacle, especially impressive in IMAX. It’s high-end filmmaking through an art house prism epic in scope but intimate in character, and it only just missed making my Top 10 list. Seeing it more than twice, problems with the picture became more pronounced — the possibility of a white saviour protagonist, North African cultural appropriation, and a narrative that ends too abruptly as it only adapts the first part of the source novel. Hopefully the inevitable sequel will respond to some of this, and it’s still worth acknowledging what Dune does so well — luxuriating in universe building on the biggest scale.

Click here for my Top 10 Under-The-Radar films of 2021, an alternate list of lesser seen gems that deserve a look.

And here are three of the Worst Films of the year:

Our Friend is a maudlin cancer drama that would’ve been considered soppy back in the era where Love Story was a big movie. While the soft reboot The Suicide Squad  received much better reviews than its predecessor, I found it witless and cynical — but for the final 20 or so minutes where it sort of became a Godzilla movie. And the departure of Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson seems to have drained all the fun out of the Fast & Furious franchise: F9: The Fast Saga is very close to being the least essential of the series.

If you’ve made it this far, thanks for checking out this annual round-up. Thanks for reading Flaw In The Iris!

About the author


Carsten Knox is a massive, cheese-eating nerd. In the day he works as a journalist in Halifax, Nova Scotia. At night he stares out at the rain-slick streets, watches movies, and writes about what he's seeing.