The 10 Best Films of 2021

Movies that affirm the vitality of the medium, no matter the size of the screen

Maria Chimishkyan
Editor’s Note: Find all of The Atlantic’s “Best of 2021” coverage here.

At the end of last year, I pondered whether the pandemic was irrevocably changing cinema or merely interrupting it; whether the medium would soon return to being a public, collective experience or overwhelmingly remain an at-home event. With another year gone, I still don’t know for sure. In 2021, we’ve seen the resumption of blockbusters showing at multiplexes, but as with so many aspects of life, a return to “normal” still feels distant, and many people aren’t attending theaters regularly.

As such, this has been an odd year for films. Some of my favorite works of 2021 have yet to be released, while others have had limited runs to qualify for awards contention and will roll out widely in the coming months. But cinema still has the power to excite and amaze, no matter the size of the screen. New films from around the world have ranked among the most enthralling viewing experiences I’ve had in my life. Even as we continue to rethink the idea of what a movie is, this year has affirmed for me the conviction that movies aren’t going anywhere.

Scene from The Souvenir Part II.

10. The Souvenir Part II

Joanna Hogg’s first Souvenir was one of the best movies of 2019, an intimate reflection on her own life as a young film student drawn into an intense, damaging romance. In this unexpected sequel, the director turns another mirror on herself, making a film about … making a film. Recovering from the loss of her relationship, Julie (played by the fragile but flinty Honor Swinton Byrne) tries to transmute her sorrow into creativity by writing a movie. Hogg’s film is wickedly funny at times and crushingly sad at others, charting all the strange ups and downs of grief—but it’s also a terrific work about how artists funnel those discordant feelings into the art they make.

Scene from The Lost Daughter.
Yannis Drakoulidis / Netflix

9. The Lost Daughter

Due for release on Netflix at the end of December, Maggie Gyllenhaal’s first feature as a writer and director adapts a novel by Elena Ferrante. The narrative is a quasi-mystery set in sunny climes that belie many a dark secret. But The Lost Daughter is stunning for its ambiguity and the fearlessness with which it investigates the flaws of its prickly protagonist, Leda Caruso (Olivia Colman). On vacation in Greece, Leda grows obsessed with a younger woman (Dakota Johnson) and her daughter, and begins to untangle her own messy memories of parenthood. Gyllenhaal gives acres of room to her fine cast (including Jessie Buckley and Ed Harris) to explore the shortcomings of their characters, and to suggest hidden depth in the most anodyne conversation. It’s a thrilling debut.

Scene from Red Rocket.

8. Red Rocket

Sean Baker specializes in tales of life on the margins told intimately and without a patronizing gaze; his films Tangerine and The Florida Project were some of my top picks of prior years. Red Rocket is a scummier work, focused on a washed-up porn star named Mikey Saber (Simon Rex) who rolls back to his hometown of Texas City having used up every last favor. He is a self-involved jerk whom practically nobody is happy to see. But Rex’s live-wire performance sells how effervescent his character can be all the same, sucking people into get-rich-quick schemes and romantic misadventures through the gravity of his personality. Red Rocket is set during the 2016 presidential election, and Baker is clearly intent on evoking the national mood of the time by telling a story of an American huckster.

Scene from Dune.
Warner Bros. Pictures

7. Dune

There’s a world where this is my favorite movie of the year, but I’ll know for certain only once I can see Denis Villeneuve’s complete adaptation of Frank Herbert’s totemic sci-fi book (Dune: Part Two is thankfully on the way). Still, even though Dune tells just half the saga, it is magnificent, luxuriating in the details of royal families conducting intergalactic intrigue and warring on a mystical desert planet. The brilliance of Herbert’s Dune was that it took the “chosen one” myth surrounding the protagonist Paul Atreides and weighted it with dread; Villeneuve’s film understands that idea, beginning the narrative of a messiah’s rise while hinting at the darkness that lies ahead.

Scene from The Card Counter.
Focus Features

6. The Card Counter

This late phase of the writer and director Paul Schrader’s career is elegiac in the grimmest sense possible. His fascinating First Reformed centered on a pastor driven mad by the apocalyptic horrors of climate change. His latest film, The Card Counter, follows a professional gambler and former military interrogator (Oscar Isaac) who tries to earn a glimmer of redemption for his wartime sins, even though he knows that the odds are stacked against him. Isaac’s performance might be the best of the year, a portrait of a clock wound so tight, it can barely remember to tick. His character, William Tell, moves from casino to casino like a ghost, until he’s handed an opportunity to help someone and, to his own surprise, takes it. What follows is a sad ballad rendered beautifully by a master chronicler of American antiheroes.

Scene from The Green Knight.

5. The Green Knight

David Lowery has long had a talent for taking well-known film aesthetics and grounding them with an earthy humanity, such as in the lonely, haunting A Ghost Story or the Disney remake Pete’s Dragon. The Green Knight, however, is the movie he was born to make—a perfect match of visual splendor and the petty concerns of personal honor. His adaptation of the poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight presents King Arthur’s nephew Gawain (Dev Patel) as a dashing and immature would-be hero eager to imitate the warriors of his uncle’s Round Table. But when met with a mystical challenge, he struggles with their strange codes of chivalry. Lowery turns his journey into a weird and wonderful coming-of-age tale.

Scene from The Power of the Dog.
Kirsty Griffin / Netflix

4. The Power of the Dog

Jane Campion’s first film in 12 years, available to stream on Netflix, is worth the wait. It’s an adaptation of Thomas Savage’s novel of cruelty and bittersweet heartbreak in the American West, delivered with Campion’s inimitable majesty and attention to nuance. Kirsten Dunst, doing some of the best work of her rich career, plays Rose Gordon, a widow who marries the kindly rancher George Burbank (Jesse Plemons) and is thus forced to live alongside his cruel brother, Phil (Benedict Cumberbatch). Cumberbatch’s portrayal of the coiled, intelligent, raging cowboy out to destroy his brother’s happiness is transformative—I’ve never seen anything like it from the actor—and the film grows in momentum as it delves deeper into the psyche of this apparent monster.

Scene from Memoria.

3. Memoria

Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s film begins with a noise—a strange thudding sound that Jessica Holland (Tilda Swinton) hears while she tries to sleep, and then cannot forget. Weerasethakul is a Thai filmmaker who specializes in crashing the unknown against the mundane. Memoria is one of his strongest works, an existential drama whose most compelling scene sees Jessica trying to describe what she’s heard to a mystified sound engineer. I would not dream of spoiling any more of Memoria, but I’d also struggle to explain much of it—like all of Weerasethakul’s films, it’s propelled by a hazy, ethereal logic. Memoria opens in New York in December and will then tour cinemas around the country, week by week, in 2022. It’s a cinematic experience dearly worth having.

Scene from Licorice Pizza.
Melinda Sue Gordon / MGM

2. Licorice Pizza

Paul Thomas Anderson’s paean to life in the 1970s San Fernando Valley is a shaggy comic wonder that’s almost certain to be the film I rewatch the most on this list. That’s partly because it’s delightful fun, bouncing along with aimless 25-year-old Alana (Alana Haim) and the swaggering 15-year-old Gary (Cooper Hoffman), whom she finds herself frequently entangled with. But it also warrants repeated viewing because of its portrayal of the blurry period between teenagehood and adulthood, where true independence is out of reach and you’re still invincible to the mundanity of being a grown-up. That’s the feeling Alana chases throughout Licorice Pizza as she sells waterbeds and parties with eager teens and Hollywood has-beens—yet it’s a beguiling enough sensation that you’re with her for every foolish decision.

Scene from The Worst Person in the World.

1. The Worst Person in the World

The third entry in Joachim Trier’s “Oslo trilogy,” a series of bittersweet, deeply human films set in Norway’s capital, is his masterpiece. Due for wider release in February, The Worst Person in the World is an acidly self-aware story about the perils of turning 30 and not quite knowing what to do with yourself. Renate Reinsve plays Julie, a young woman still figuring out her career, her romantic prospects, and most of her other major decisions; Trier navigates her every relatable trip and stumble. It sounds familiar, but the writer-director (whose previous excellent films include Reprise and Oslo, August 31st) zeroes in on minute details to make Julie’s life feel as extraordinary as we might imagine our own to be. Julie is a perfect Millennial hero, besieged by the impossibility of doing something original in the 21st century, and all the more charming for it.