The 10 Best Movies of 2021

This was the year we returned to theaters (after nearly a year away), traveled to film festivals (if we were really, really lucky), and were happily shown a dazzling array of the world’s best cinematic offerings. While by no means the only great films of 2021, these were my ten favorites. They’re invigorating reminders of how transformative, transporting, and enlightening the art form can be—especially when viewed in the dark, finally away from the couch.

Photograph from IFC Films / Everett Collection.

This year saw many films about the aches and fires of creation, but few were as delicately, persuasively wrought as Mia Hansen-Løve’s graceful mood piece. Vicky Krieps, watchful and glowing, plays Chris, a filmmaker struggling towards an idea for a new film. She might be Hansen-Løve herself, or she might just be another in this sterling filmmaker’s cast of carefully drawn lead characters. 

Just how many meta layers comprise Bergman Island is a question the film begins to ask of itself when Chris’s idea becomes manifest, a story within the story. Mia Wasikowska sensitively embodies Chris’s fictional construction, wandering the same windy Swedish paradise where Chris has found herself. Bergman Island whispers with melancholy, rustles with gentle humor. At first glance, the film seems like a slight little reverie. But there is a sneaky depth here, a murmur of hidden significance creeping out of every old floorboard. Bergman Island will make you want to make something; to hug a loved one like you haven’t seen them in ages (maybe you haven’t); and to hop on a boat bound for the Baltic, notebook in hand.

Photograph by Eric Zachanowich /  A24 /  Everett Collection.

David Lowery is a filmmaker who thinks about death a lot. As we all do, probably. Rather than run away from those enormous frettings about finality, Lowery has, in his fascinating patchwork collection of films, headed straight for them, crafting awesome and frightening visions of life and its end. With The Green Knight, Lowery takes the ancient legend of Sir Gawain and digs into its starkest implications. As Dev Patel’s brash young knight marches toward his likely doom, Lowery’s film conjures up a heady air of dread and wonderment. 

Despite its brutal, desolate fantasy—or maybe, somehow, because of it—The Green Knight maintains a steadfast humanism, reflecting our own messy, irrational selves. To ponder death is boggling; its inevitability can make most of our mortal concerns seem terribly petty. But there is, as Lowery finds it, something rather grand and noble in our smallness. There’s maybe even meaning, should we let ourselves stop and take stock of the varied and miraculous strangeness—all that earthly magic—we’ve encountered on our own journeys toward the imminent unknown.

Photograph from Bleecker Street Media / Everett Collection.

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