LeavittLens’ Top 10 Films of 2021

While 2021 hardly provided the reprieve many of us hoped for following a tumultuous 2020, the return of movie theatres and theatrical releases proved a welcome gift for many, including myself. While the future of theatres is still very much unclear at this point, there remains some ecstasy in sitting down with a bag of popcorn, a drink, and some sweet candy to take in a sprawling story on the silver screen. Yet the streaming revolution is not slowing down, and thus seeing movies often mirrored the trends that were front and center in 2020: a vast majority of my movie-watching took place from my couch. This was helped by my grim fortune of obtaining COVID-19 not once, but twice this year; my quarantines were naturally filled with movie-watching, on the front and back ends of the year, though I attempted to get myself to the theatre as often as I could when healthy.

As a reminder, there are two parts to the recap list below:

  1. My top 10 films of the year are featured, based on their LeavittLens rating. More in-depth reviews may be coming in the near future. Keep in mind: the top 10 list only includes films that have been released in 2021 (and were not included in Oscar consideration for 2020 – hence Judas and The Black Messiah qualifies as a 2020 movie)
  2. My film journal for the year, which includes ratings for all of the 76 films I saw this year (released in 2021 or otherwise), is also listed below. This list features not only my reviews, but my wife Emily’s reviews of the films we watched (where applicable), which actually may interest the reader more than mine do.
  3. I also want to be sure to include a link to my Letterboxd profile, where I log and track my film watching. Be sure to follow me there to keep up in the new year.

If you haven’t yet caught the films from my top 10, be sure to add them to your own watchlist – you won’t want to miss these terrific works of art! Enjoy, dear reader, and happy movie watching in 2022!

10. Nine Days | Director: Edson Oda | LeavittLens Rating: 8.5/10

Nine Days is a philosophical and spiritual exploration into the significance of human life. With a terrific ensemble cast (Winston Duke, Zazie Beetz, Bill Skarsgard, Benedict Wong, and Tony Hale), Edson Oda’s latest work considers what the interview process might look like for souls applying to experience life on earth. Contemplative and rich with meaning, it resonates especially loudly in a year where death and life have been at the forefront of everyone’s minds with the pandemic raging forward. Give it a watch, and be sure to have a friend with you – you’ll want someone to process with!

9. No Sudden Move | Director: Steven Soderbergh | LeavittLens Rating: 8.5/10

Perhaps no director has more fully embraced the years-long industry shift to streaming-centric platforms than Steven Soderbergh; the prolific director (10 feature films in the last 12 years, along with numerous TV show and short film credits) has four straight-to-streaming movie releases since 2019. Yet it is not simply Soderbergh’s capacity that is impressive: it is his consistent quality, producing thought-provoking movies centering major stars and thematically compelling tales. No Sudden Move is his latest work, a noir throwback reminiscent of an array of Hollywood classics. For as worn as the noir genre has become, Soderbergh manages to capture the precise spirit of dread and mystery needed to pull this sort of film off, all the while providing a wealth of his patented dry humor to balance things along the way. Cheadle and Del Toro are genius in their parts, playing two professional criminals caught in a net that never seems to fully unravel, and the supplementary performances from Julia Fox, David Harbour, Ray Liota, and Kieran Culkin make this a well-rounded, classic thriller. In a filmic world increasingly segmented into big-ticket blockbusters, low-budget indie films, and prestige dramas, it is rare to find a film like this, an adult action-drama filled with stars that isn’t obviously fighting to win awards or filled with quips and built from pre-existing intellectual property. They don’t make them like this anymore – except for Steven Soderbergh, who seems hellbent on only making them like this anymore. Keep it coming Steve – you’ll always have my attention.

8. Pig | Director: Michael Sarnoski | LeavittLens Rating: 8.5/10

There is no need to spend more time on the odd, eclectic, confounding career of Nicolas Cage here – there is literally a decade’s worth of content devoted to joking, inquiring, and pontificating about his acting ability and choices. Cage, to his credit, even seems aware of this himself. Which is a major reason Pig is so compelling as a project: simply by starring Cage, it carries a subtext that adds to the richness of an already brilliantly crafted film. That subtext pervaded even the marketing for the movie, which was ambiguous enough to cause genuine confusion about its plot and purpose yet reflective enough to spark interest. Cage’s delivery of lines like, “You live your life for them, and they don’t even see you” in the trailer says as much about Cage’s acting career as it does the character he embodies. A chef forgotten by the world forced to return, against his will, simply to maintain his life of absence from the industry he was so centrally a part of – can a performance be anymore self-referential than that for an actor who seems bent on choosing roles that keep him out of the public eye? Beyond this subtextual richness, though, Pig is a movie about redemption and restoration, a much needed sentiment in a world largely bent towards despair and cynicism (Adam McKay, anyone?). In many ways, Pig is precisely the sort of home-cooked meal we need today, and is ultimately a brilliant return to form for Cage.

7. King Richard | Director: Reinaldo Marcus Green | LeavittLens Rating: 8.5/10

Given the tropes of the well-worn sports drama, King Richard had much to overcome. Running the risk of feeling Oscar-baity with Will Smith’s central performance and self-serving as it was produced by one of the central characters of the film itself, there were a multitude of mines this one had to avoid to feel at once genuine and still broadly appealing. Yet it does: the movie does not overly glorify nor villainize Richard Williams, the peak version of the “sports parent,” but instead provides a heartwarming and honest glimpse into the challenges and joys of the Williams family story. Smith–for the first time in years–disappears into the role, and the performances of Saniyya Sidney and Demi Singleton keep the engine of this one churning, and the sports action throughout feels authentic and adrenaline pumping. For all of its potential faults, this one is an absolute ace.

6. The French Dispatch | Director: Wes Anderson | LeavittLens Rating: 9/10

It’s been seven years since we’ve been graced by a live action Wes Anderson film, and the anticipation for his latest work was only prolonged by a delayed release due to the pandemic. The result, however, did not disappoint: The French Dispatch is another terrific installment in his unique and quirky canon. It was about forty minutes into this anthological romp that I was struck by a singular thought: “This is just so much fun.” It is often difficult to put forth language to describe Anderson that doesn’t feel cliche or overwrought, but as I laughed out loud at the constant wittiness of his latest work, I was simply reminded that his movies, before it is anything else, are just fun. You can feel it in the brightness of his colors, in the performances he elicits, and in the odd eccentricities of his sets and locales – Wes Anderson, and all of the other component parts of his movie, are having fun. This is why so many actors are drawn to work with him, and why he was able to compile perhaps the greatest cast of a film in decades here. This one won’t really break new ground, but that isn’t working against it: rather, it is simply another invitation to spend time with a bunch of performers who are, perhaps more than anything, having fun.

5. The Green Knight | Director: David Lowery | LeavittLens Rating: 9/10

Another film whose release was delayed by the pandemic, David Lowery’s The Green Knight was another highly anticipated A24 release in 2021. An adaptation of the classic Arthurian legend you were likely forced to read but have now entirely forgotten, this retelling centers Dev Patel as the protagonist Sir Gawain, who embarks on a quest following a challenge from a mysterious figure known as the Green Knight (played expertly here by Ralph Ineson). Putting a postmodern spin on the classical progression of Arthurian tales, the film explores–through stunning visuals and cinematography–timeless themes of masculinity, honor, hope, and mortality. The world Lowery creates is one that compels the audience to enter, and serves as a refreshing break from the action-adventure eye candy that often fills our screens in 2021. Contemplative and patient, this one has far more in mind than visceral thrills, inviting an exploration of the reasons we chase after glory, violence, and power in the first place.

4. The Power of the Dog | Director: Jane Campion | LeavittLens Rating: 9/10

While Westerns are often remembered for their visceral thrills, from damsels in distress to horse stunts to climactic shootouts, the genre itself remains ripe with new thematic and storytelling possibilities to be explored, as some more celebrated recent Westerns have shown (see Hell or High Water, Brokeback Mountain, Django Unchained, etc.). In The Power of the Dog, we find another new take: while still filled with the sweeping landscapes and classic costumes of the wrangling West, Jane Campion‘s latest turn sends us deeply inward, psychologically exploring her characters in a slow-burn thriller that requires uninterrupted attention. Regularly investigating the tropes of masculinity that have brazenly defined the genre in the past, Campion’s work is beautifully rendered, with a terrific central performance from Benedict Cumberbatch and meditative moments throughout. Her ability to hold on specific images for longer than anticipated allows for deeper audience meditation, inviting them into an almost Freudian level of psychological intrigue. Another straight to streaming project, it seems prestige film is increasingly content with remaining on such platforms.

3. Dune | Director: Denis Villeneuve | LeavittLens Rating: 9/10

Denis Villeneueve can’t miss. Since his first major wide release in 2013 with Prisoners, he has shown himself time and again to be the master of balancing overwhelming scale with intimate performances. When it was announced he would be taking on the sprawling world of Frank Herbert’s classic novel, Dune, it made sense: given his work on Arrival and Blade Runner 2049 in recent years, it’s almost as if he had been practicing for this sort of project. His work here does not disappoint: epic in scope, dripping with dread, aesthetically gorgeous, and compelling in its storytelling, Dune grabs the audience from the opening scene and doesn’t let go. It creates a world that feels real, a place the audience would want to explore and live into, even after the conclusion of its 2.5 hour runtime. Accompanied by a brilliant and haunting score from the brilliant Hans Zimmer, this film is not simply a movie, but an atmosphere. This is why we go to the theatres.

2. Belfast | Director: Kenneth Branagh | LeavittLens Rating: 9/10

Given the recent political divisions that have plagued the U.S., I was excited when I heard of this tale recounting the life of a family navigating the political and social unrest of the Protestant-Catholic divides in the mid-20th century; perhaps a heartfelt examination of our history might provide a hopeful way forward in our present. Belfast does just that, while simultaneously working on multiple other levels. As a story of a beloved city, it pays an excellent tribute to the delightful capital of Northern Ireland; as a family drama, it captures perfectly the challenges and joys of multi-generational living; as an examination of faith, mortality, and humanity, it leaves us worthily considering the weight of the stories we tell ourselves about one another. This one is a prescription for our modern wrath, a salve for souls that have forgotten that we have far more in common than we realize.

  1. The Tragedy of Macbeth | Director: Joel Coen | LeavittLens Rating: 9.5/10

In high school, an aspiring filmmaker friend of mine would often rally people together to create comedic adaptations of the classic works we’d read in our English courses. I had the privilege of starring in a few of these, including his work on Macbeth, and thus the story has always stuck with me in the years since; I still recall specific lines and moments that we comedically spun for laughs in that short film. While we likely didn’t realize it at the time, we were actually exposing one of the primary reasons Shakespeare’s works are so incredibly timeless: they are a seemingly endless well of interpretive potential because of their clever prose, poetic richness, and deeply human themes. I was reminded of this as I watched Joel Coen‘s latest take on the classic play; his work throughout his career, often alongside his brother, Ethan, is constantly exploring the vaporous nature of human life, very much serving as a modern representation of some of the classic works of ancient wisdom literature (if you want to better understand the Coen brothers’ canon, simply read the book of Ecclesiastes). The Tragedy of Macbeth continues in the Coen tradition, centering aging greats Denzel Washington and Frances McDormand as the titular characters and focusing in on their aspirations for the crown as a way of exploring the futility of human ambition. To aptly capture the richness of the film would require pages upon pages (there’s a reason we’re still reading and watching the Bard today), and even then it would be far more effective for you to simply watch it. Aesthetically brilliant and compellingly performed, it is the gold standard for cinematic Shakespearean adaptation, and a worth conclusion to another excellent year in film.

While I was able to catch many of the best releases from 2021, a few slipped my ability to watch, and thus cannot be included in contention for Top 10 consideration. These include: Licorice Pizza, West Side Story, The Card Counter, Nightmare Alley, C’mon C’mon, The Humans, Summer of Soul

LeavittLens’ Film Journal | 2021

  1. Soul
  1. Clint’s Rating: 9.5/10
  2. Emily’s Rating: 9.5/10

      2. News of the World

  1. Clint’s Rating: 7.5/10
  2. Emily’s Rating: 6/10

      3. Goodfellas

  1. Clint’s Rating: 9/10
  2. Emily’s Rating: N/A

      4. The King

  1. Clint’s Rating: 8.5/10
  2. Emily’s Rating: 8.5/10

      5. The Assistant

  1. Clint’s Rating: 8.5/10
  2. Emily’s Rating: 7/10

      6. Between Two Ferns: The Movie

  1. Clint’s Rating: 7.5/10
  2. Emily’s Rating: 3/10

      7. Taxi Driver

  1. Clint’s Rating: 9/10
  2. Emily’s Rating: 9/10

      8. MLK/FBI

  1. Clint’s Rating: 9.5/10
  2. Emily’s Rating: 9/10

9. The Founder

  1. Clint’s Rating: 8/10
  2. Emily’s Rating: 9/10

10. Ford v. Ferrari

  1. Clint’s Rating: 9/10
  2. Emily’s Rating: N/A

11. A Ghost Story:

  1. Clint’s Rating: 9/10
  2. Emily’s Rating: N/A

12. The Little Things

  1. Clint’s Rating: 5/10
  2. Emily’s Rating: 7/10

13. Perks of Being A Wallflower

  1. Clint’s Rating: 8/10
  2. Emily’s Rating: 8/10

14. The White Tiger

  1. Clint’s Rating: 8/10
  2. Emily’s Rating: 9/10

15. Pieces of a Woman

  1. Clint’s Rating: 8.5/10
  2. Emily’s Rating: 9/10

16. Yes, God, Yes

  1. Clint’s Rating: 8/10
  2. Emily’s Rating: 7/10

17. Judas and the Black Messiah

  1. Clint’s Rating: 8.5/10
  2. Emily’s Rating: N/A

18. Game Night

  1. Clint’s Rating: 8/10
  2. Emily’s Rating: 9/10

19. Up In The Air

  1. Clint’s Rating: 8/10
  2. Emily’s Rating: N/A

20. Ted Lasso (TV)

  1. Clint’s Rating: 9/10
  2. Emily’s Rating: 8.5/10

The Queen’s Gambit (TV)

  1. Clint’s Rating: 7.5/10
  2. Emily’s Rating: 8/10

22. Barry (TV)

  1. Clint’s Rating: 9/10
  2. Emily’s Rating: 9/10

23. Training Day

  1. Clint’s Rating: 8/10
  2. Emily’s Rating: N/A

24. Nomadland

  1. Clint’s Rating: 8.5/10
  2. Emily’s Rating: N/A

25. His House

  1. Clint’s Rating: 9.5/10
  2. Emily’s Rating: 7/10

26. The Peanut Butter Falcon

  1. Clint’s Rating: 8/10
  2. Emily’s Rating: 8/10

27. Seven Psychopaths

  1. Clint’s Rating: 8.5/10
  2. Emily’s Rating: 6/10

28. A Beautiful Day In The Neighborhood

  1. Clint’s Rating: 9/10
  2. Emily’s Rating: 9/10

29. Joe Vs. The Volcano

  1. Clint’s Rating: 6/10
  2. Emily’s Rating: 7.5/10

30. My Octopus Teacher

  1. Clint’s Rating: 7.5/10
  2. Emily’s Rating: 9.5/10

31. If Anything Happens I Love You

  1. Clint’s Rating: 9/10
  2. Emily’s Rating: 9/10

32. Two Distant Strangers:

  1. Clint’s Rating: 9/10
  2. Emily’s Rating: 7/10

33. Goodfellas:

  1. Clint’s Rating: 9/10
  2. Emily’s Rating: N/A

34. Malcolm X: 

  1. Clint’s Rating: 8.5/10
  2. Emily’s Rating: N/A

35. Mystic River

  1. Clint’s Rating: 78%
  2. Emily’s Rating: Watched this but can’t remember it

36. Sound of Metal

  1. Clint’s Rating: 9.5/10
  2. Emily’s Rating: 8.5/10

37. Godzilla vs. Kong

  1. Clint’s Rating: 3/10
  2. Emily’s Rating: 5/10

38. Zack Snyder’s Justice League

  1. Clint’s Rating: 3/10
  2. Emily’s Rating: N/A

39. Mitchell’s Vs. The Machines

  1. Clint’s Rating: 7.5/10
  2. Emily’s Rating: 8.5/10

40. Bo Burnham: Inside

  1. Clint’s Rating: 7.5/10
  2. Emily’s Rating: 7/10

41. Chinatown

  1. Clint’s Rating: 8.5/10
  2. Emily’s Rating: 7.5/10

42. In The Heights

  1. Clint’s Rating: 7.5/10
  2. Emily’s Rating: 9/10

43. The Underground Railroad

  1. Clint’s Rating: 8/10
  2. Emily’s Rating: 8.5/10

44. Pig

  1. Clint’s Rating: 8.5/10
  2. Emily’s Rating: N/A

45. The Green Knight

  1. Clint’s Rating: 9/10
  2. Emily’s Rating: N/A

46. The Suicide Squad

  1. Clint’s Rating: 6/10
  2. Emily’s Rating: 8/10

47. War Dogs

  1. Clint’s Rating: 7/10
  2. Emily’s Rating: 7.5/10

48. She’s Out Of My League

  1. Clint’s Rating: 4/10
  2. Emily’s Rating: 8/10

49. The Nice Guys

  1. Clint’s Rating: 8/10
  2. Emily’s Rating: 6.5/10

50. Mystic Pizza

  1. Clint’s Rating: 5/10
  2. Emily’s Rating: 5/10

51. Jurassic Park

  1. Clint’s Rating: 9/10
  2. Emily’s Rating: 9/10

52. Ghostbusters

  1. Clint’s Rating: 8/10
  2. Emily’s Rating: 6/10

53. The Guilty

  1. Clint’s Rating: 7/10
  2. Emily’s Rating: 8/10

54. King Richard

  1. Clints Rating: 8.5/10
  2. Emily’s Rating: 8/10

55. The French Dispatch

  1. Clints Rating: 9/10
  2. Emily’s Rating: 7/10

56. Die Hard

  1. Clints Rating: 8.5/10
  2. Emily’s Rating: 9.5/10

57. Last Night In Soho

  1. Clints Rating: 8/10
  2. Emily’s Rating: 7.5/10

58. The Harder They Fall

  1. Clints Rating: 7/10
  2. Emily’s Rating: N/A

59. Hocus Pocus

  1. Clints Rating: 1/10
  2. Emily’s Rating 2/10

60. Blade Runner

  1. Clints Rating: 9/10
  2. Emily’s Rating: N/A

61. Dune

  1. Clints Rating: 9/10
  2. Emily’s Rating: 9/10

62. No Time To Die

  1. Clints Rating: 8/10
  2. Emily’s Rating: N/A

63. Logan Lucky

  1. Clints Rating: 7.5/10
  2. Emily’s Rating: N.A

64. At Eternity’s Gate

  1. Clints Rating: 8/10
  2. Emily’s Rating: 5/10

65. Skyfall

  1. Clint’s Rating: 9.5/10
  2. Emily’s Rating: N/A

66. Nine Days

  1. Clints Rating: 8.5/10
  2. Emily’s Rating: N/A

67. Layer Cake

  1. Clints Rating: 7/10
  2. Emily’s Rating: N/A

68. National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation 

  1. Clint’s Rating: 7/10
  2. Emily’s Rating: 6/10

69. Worth

  1. Clints Rating: 8/10
  2. Emily’s Rating: Watched but does not remember it

70. Spider-Man: No Way Home

  1. Clints Rating: 7.5/10
  2. Emily’s Rating: N/A

71. Belfast

  1. Clints Rating: 9/10
  2. Emily’s Rating: 9/10

72. Don’t Look Up

  1. Clints Rating: 7.5/10
  2. Emily’s Rating: 6.5/10

73. The Power of the Dog

  1. Clints Rating: 9/10
  2. Emily’s Rating: 6.5/10

74. Tick, Tick, Boom

  1. Clints Rating: 7.5/10
  2. Emily’s Rating: 7/10

75. No Sudden Move

  1. Clints Rating: 8.5/10
  2. Emily’s Rating: 8.5/10

76. The Tragedy of Macbeth

  1. Clint’s Rating: 9.5/10
  2. Emily’s Rating: N/A

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