In the year 2021, films have been influenced by so many things, not least of which are a pandemic and a worldwide grief from loss of life, the climate change crisis, the continued erasure of Black history from American education, the demand for an acceptance of a wider diversity onscreen to reflect societal diversity, a leaning into joy at a time of great sorrow. Big studio films have been, to some degree, pushed to the sideline to await crowds returning to the theater. The exception, of course, is Spider-Man, which both came at what turned out to be a comma in the run-on sentence that is COVID, and happened to be a good flick. 

One major concern I’ve started having in 2021 is the widening gap between the box office success of movies that younger, less at-risk audiences are supporting, and the less successful independent films or those geared towards an older audience. Will that gap mean less and less financial support for intricate, nuanced movies that historically have swept the trophies during awards season? This also has an impact on female filmmakers, who still rarely get the chance to helm big, splashy studio releases. Only time will tell at this point. 

This 2021 top ten movies list is the result of my increased festival attendance, my work with the Motion Picture Association’s The Credits, and my luck in being part of the Alliance of Women Film Journalists Movie of the Week squad. I got to see a lot of movies that weren’t screened for most critics. I was going to the Middleburg Film Festival and interviewing Ari Wegner, cinematographer for The Power of the Dog, so Netflix scheduled a movie theater screening just for me! (Note: I don’t often have that kind of juice.) I also feel compelled to watch as many screeners as possible for the 4 awards for which I am a voting member, so there are a number of lesser-known titles that get a chance to wow me. 

Many of these films are available online, and I mention where to see them at the end of each blurb. I also include a link to any reviews or interviews relating to the film. Be advised, they aren’t for everyone. Grief figures prominently in this collection. Only four of them are in English (But please don’t let that stop you). There are, however, several that are truly joyful, so I hope you’ll pick what strikes you and seek them out. 

10. CODA

This movie is a crowdpleaser, and definitely sparks joy, if also a few tears. It’s also a record breaker at Sundance for its cast and filmmakers, including writer/director Sian Heder, and is historic in that most of the co-stars are deaf. It’s the story of Ruby Rossi, the only hearing member of her family, and her struggle to break from them by choosing to study music, something that fulfills her but that they can’t experience with her.

You can read my review HERE.

Now streaming on Apple TV.

And you can see Sian talk about CODA as part of my Women Rocking Hollywood panel at the virtual 2021 San Diego Comic-Con:

9. The Velvet Queen

This movie is so lovely and so magnetic, and what’s interesting is that both the humans and creatures are equally so, but in different ways. This French documentary follows a wildlife photographer and an adventurer/novelist on their quest to find and photograph the elusive snow leopard. There’s a lot of talk of philosophy and man’s place in nature. It feels like a meditation.

You can read my review HERE.

Currently in art house theaters around the country.

8. Writing with Fire

Writing with Fire is a documentary about women from the lowest caste in India who have built a newspaper that is read and seen by millions. They risk their lives to speak truth to power, no small feat given they are seen as being on the very bottom rung of society. The women profiled are inspiring, but they’re also real. They’re just women who want more for themselves, each other, and their society.

You can read my review HERE.

Not sure where you can see this, but here’s their official website, and it should be streaming at some point!

7. Hive

I love that Hive is based on a true story of a woman, Fahrije, that changed her own life and the lives of all the women in her village. The Kosovo war took many of the men in her village, but years later she still doesn’t know what actually happened to him. She and other women in the same situation are stuck in limbo, not knowing if their husbands are dead or alive. They have no money. Fahrije, determined not to let grief stand in her way of survival, decides to not only learn how to drive but also start a business making ajvar, a red pepper sauce that is a regional specialty. Another record-breaking award winner at Sundance, it is on the short list for this year’s International Feature Oscars nominations.

You can read the comments by the MOTW members on HERE.

I met Fahrije as well as the stars of the film and the President of Kosovo when they screened the film in DC, and wrote about it HERE.

You may be able to find this in theaters, but keep track of streaming possibilities on their official Hive website.

6. The Worst Person in the World

Norwegian writer/director Joachim Trier created an Oslo trilogy, which started in 2006 with Reprise, continued with Oslo, August 31st in 2011, and finishes with this film. The movie follows 4 years in the experiences of a young woman in Oslo named Julia, who has a hard time figuring out what she wants out of life. It’s sort of a messy love story about falling in, at least, like with yourself. It’s partly awkward, partly funny, and partly tragic, but it gets at the heart of what’s important without all the sentimentality you might expect from a coming of age story. Lead actress Renate Reinsve won Best Actress at the Cannes Film Festival.

Who knows when or how long it will be in theaters, but you can stalk the official website to find out.

5. West Side Story

This new version of West Side Story, directed by Steven Spielberg, is absolutely glorious, even with Ansel Elgort as leading man. He’s a bit cardboard, but at least he can sing. Still, see it for the brilliant performances by Ariana DeBose (Anita) and Rita Moreno (Valentina), as well as David Alvarez (Bernardo) and Mike Faist (Riff), the spectacular choreography, costuming, production design, cinematography, and editing. I realize for some this film is divisive, since the lead actress is Columbian, not Puerto Rican, and though I respect that concern, I can’t speak to that because I’m not Puerto Rican. I do know that, unlike the original film, this one uses Latinx performers, and singers who can actually sing. I loved it, and I know other fans of the musical will, too. It’s a shame it didn’t make more money, but in the future it will be seen as a classic.

I interviewed the arranger of all Leonard Bernstein’s music, composer David Newman. His enthusiasm was infectious, and you can read it on The Credits HERE.

West Side Story is still in theaters, but will be streaming at some point!

4. The Power of the Dog

Though Jane Campion has been busy, it’s been over 10 years since she released her last feature film, Bright Star, so I was anxious to see her interpretation of the 1967 novel by Thomas Savage. It stars the overexposed Benedict Cumberbatch in arguably his best performance as Phil, a bullying cattle rancher in 1920s Montana. Kirsten Dunst is also at her best as Rose, Phil’s new sister-in-law. One of my critic friends thinks it’s one-note, but I relish the nuance of each character and the slow burn that leads to an intense, yet satisfying ending. The film has already won a slew of awards, and I have both fingers crossed that Jane and her cinematographer Ari Wegner win Oscars.

You can read my interview with Ari Wegner HERE.

The Power of the Dog is now streaming on Netflix.

3. Summer of Soul (or When the Revolution Could Not be Televised)

The Harlem Cultural Festival happened over weeks during the summer of 1969, and someone was there filming the whole thing, but the footage was put away for over 50 years. First time director Questlove pulled together the footage in a labor of love that reveals some of the best career performances by musicians like Sly and the Family Stone, Nina Simone, Stevie Wonder, and many many more. It’s the counterpart to Woodstock, but with far less press and lots and lots of Black folks in the audience, so, basically, it’s amazing.

You can read my review for it HERE.

Streaming now on HULU.

2. Drive My Car

Yes, it’s 3 hours long. Get yourself a beverage and a comfy spot and settle in. The first time I watched Drive My Car, I took breaks and wound up watching it over about a day and a half. It still made quite an impression, but in rounding up my favorites of 2021, I committed to watching it all at once, and I’m glad I did. Writer/director Ryûsuke Hamaguchi’s film is centered on Yûsuke (Hidetoshi Nishijima), an actor/director grieving the loss of his wife, and dealing with complicated issues around their relationship. Film festival organizers relegate him to the passenger’s seat of his beloved red SAAB, leaving driver Misaki (Tôko Miura) to chauffeur him about. She is 23, the same age the child he and his dead wife lost years before would be, had she lived. A begrudging mutual connection is slowly forged, helping to heal the traumas haunting each of them.

There’s so much more to this very layered story, which, by virtue of some great cinematography, is also a visual gem. Many are calling it the best film of the year, and I can certainly understand why. It has won SOOO many awards already.

Find out where to see the film by going on the official website HERE.

1 Petite Maman

I make no secret of my appreciation for writer/director Céline Sciamma, who recently brought us Portrait of a Woman on Fire, which I loved. This new film is a love letter to every child and parent who has ever felt misunderstood, lost themselves to grief, or forgotten about the child inside them. After the death of her grandmother, 8-year-old Nelly goes to her childhood home with her wounded, depressed mother, Marion. There, while playing in the forest, she encounters a child her age, Marion. Yes, they are the same person. The kids figure this out pretty quickly, and it is how they interact and teach each other that makes the film so beautiful.

Sciamma is the quintessence of female filmmaking. In all her films, she values emotional intelligence, and uses the female lens to examine life and universal truths through stories about women’s experiences and relationships. Her female characters are multidimensional and exist on their own terms, often apart from, or with very little influence from, the men around them. 

You can read my review of Petite Maman HERE.

Where can you see it? Nowhere that I can find right now, but hopefully it will be streaming soon!

There are lots and lots of other great movies from 2021, and it was hard to pick just 10. So many others worthy of your attention, like documentaries Flee, The Rescue, Julia, Faya Dayi, and In the Same Breath, and narrative features like Belfast, The Lost Daughter, A Hero, Passing, Cyrano, MASS, In the Heights, and Language Lessons.

Many of my favorites, and the most highly regarded and acclaimed films of 2021 were directed or written by women. Here’s hoping that will also be true in 2022, that they get the recognition they deserve, and they get the offers to helm big budget studio films as a result. Until then, stay safe, and enjoy the movies!

Your friend and guide, Cinema Siren, aka Leslie.