Personal Favorite Films of 2021

In terms of change, it was an interesting year for the cinema as well; it demonstrated that we are maturing into diversity and its rightful representation on screen, but we still have a lot to learn. Nonetheless, the creators delivered positions that, I am confident, will become timeless as the years pass. Each is unique, and each had something that piqued my interest in some way.

Each year goes by, and each year I think to myself: hopefully, the next one will be better. However, this is not entirely correct because every year has its ups and downs. As the year 2021 is drawing to a close, and the year 2022 will soon welcome us in its embrace, I think it was quite special in terms of achieving personal goals and keeping healthy in these trying times.

In terms of change, it was an interesting year for the cinema as well; it demonstrated that we are growing into diversity and its rightful representation on screen, but we still have a lot to learn. Nonetheless, the creators delivered positions that, I am confident, will become timeless as the years pass. Each is unique, and each had something that piqued my interest in one way, or another.

When I watch a movie, my mind is drawn to the meaning behind the script and the lenses of the cameras first. Each of the films listed below captivated my attention and lingered in my mind long after the film séance. There is no specific order to the list. These are simply the films that have had the most impact on me this year. I also want to state that I have yet to watch films on my list that I’ve been meaning to watch. The list is ever-changing, so take it with a grain of salt–just some films to watch if you didn’t.

Petite Maman

Joséphine and Gabrielle Sanz in Petite Maman.

I’ve been a fan of Céline Sciamma for some time now. Petite Maman was one of my anticipated positions when covering the 2021 Toronto International Film Festival. What I didn’t expect is for this precious, illuminating film to become one of my ultimate favorites of this year.

The film tells the story of Nelly (Joséphine Sanz) who loses her grandmother. As the little girl assists her family in cleaning her mother’s childhood home, Nelly meets Marion (Gabrielle Sanz). The girls grow closer to each other over time, sharing many secrets that connect them in an unusual, beautiful way. 

Petite Maman tells an extraordinary story. The film’s imaginative viewpoint and truths hidden behind the lines of the script all resurface at the film’s emotional conclusion. Joséphine and Gabrielle Sanz are at the heart of the film, stealing the spotlight from every other supporting character.

The Matrix Resurrections

Keanu Reeves and Carrie-Anne Moss in The Matrix Resurrections / Warner Brothers

There is no secret that The Matrix trilogy is one of my ultimate favorite, dearest films. When I was in middle school and others were talking about how many cool things they got for the holidays, I’d proudly say that I got the original trilogy on DVD.

Finally, 21 years after we first met Thomas Anderson, aka, Neo (Keanu Reeves) —an IT by day and hacker by night, the beloved characters are back. Although the film feels more like a familiar, warm embrace and not a breath of fresh air, the new characters, new technology, and more elaborate fight scenes make up for it. It’s one hell of a comeback to Matrix. 

The excellence of the film lies within nostalgic script and dialogues that become an ode to the previous parts. Matrix Resurrections will undoubtedly divide the audience with its polarizing narrative. However, I’m sure that it’s excellent viewing for those who are just discovering the franchise and slowly following the white rabbit. At the same time, it becomes a great love story and nostalgic ode for the original trilogy fans. 

My full review here.

Mass

Jason Isaacs and Martha Plimpton in Mass by Fran Kranz, an official selection of the Premieres section at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by Ryan Jackson-Healy.

I still, to this day, think about Kranz’s debut at least once a day. Mass truly breaks any boundaries and is one of a few films that delve into another side of the story.

The film tells a story of two pairs of parents—one of them the parents of the school shooter, while the others are the parents of the victim.  When Gail and Jay (Martha Plimpton and Jason Issacs) arrive at the chapel, they meet Linda and Richard (Ann Dowd and Reed Birney). Momentarily, all bets are off. The anxiety and uncomfortable tension arise from the very moment both families meet. It’s an indescribable kind of stress, the one that only people who can relate on a personal level can truly feel.

Kranz’s film will stimulate many conversations about the mental health system in which the United States lacks much, the issue of easy gun access, and much more. Mass is not an easy film to watch, but we must view it and talk about it. The film is a very powerful depiction of loss, forgiveness, and the coming together of two sides. The names of Plimpton, Dowd, Issacs, and Birney are worth remembering.

My full review here.

CODA

Emilia Jones in CODA / Apple TV.

CODA was such a surprise during Sundance 2021 and I quickly realized that it will become one of my favorite films of the year.

The heartwarming film by Sian Heder tells the story of Ruby (Emilia Jones), who’s the only hearing member of her deaf family from Gloucester. At 17, she works mornings before school to help her parents and brother keep their fishing business afloat. Ruby soon dreams of changing it after joining her high school’s choir club. The young woman finds herself drawn to both her duet partner and her passion for singing.

CODA’s entire cast is beyond incredible. Marlee Matlin, Troy Kotsur, Daniel Durant, and Eugenio Derbez deliver an incredible performances with Emilia Jones shining the brightest.

Heder presents a story that is often dismissed or not talked at all. CODA is an incredibly important, empowering, witty, and amusing portrayal of the family—you don’t want to miss it.

Censor

In the Sundance premiere Censor, directed by Prano Bailey-Bond, Enid (played by Niamh Algar) has an unusual job. Depending on the amount of violence in each film, her assignment is to determine whether the horror film passes or is rejected. Her days are saturated with scenes of blood, gore, and oftentimes rape. But she believes thoroughly in her work. Enid prevents people from seeing too much, continuously thinking about their mental health and psyche. She is the titular censor, and she thrives on it.

Censor is set in the 1980s and Prano Bailey-Bond attempts to visualize the streets of Europe of that time period. Viewers have the chance to explore the subject of C-level horror movies and see the United Kingdom as it was forty-something years ago. ’80s Europe is much different than 80s America. In the film, it’s much more poignant. Gloomier. The director captures that gloom perfectly well. It manifests itself not only in the characters. We can see it in the phenomenal production design by Paulina Rzeszowska (also of Saint Maud) who uses every surface she can work with.

Censor is one of the films that shock you by what you see on the screen. The reality blends with a dream while we experience the spotlight on video nasties and how they thrived. Very worth watching.

My full review here.

Playing with Sharks

Valerie Taylor in Paying With Sharks

In the documentary, Playing with Sharks, which premiered at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival, Sally Aitken showcases Taylor’s remarkable life and ends this documentary with a touching finale. The film is now available to watch on Disney+.

Valerie Taylor, a remarkable scuba diver, started spearfishing in the ’60s. She was one of the few women who took part in this activity. One could always notice her. Taylor always wore a pink or a red suit; a color that was not accidental. It was to commemorate the legendary Jacques Cousteau and his ever-present red cap. She was a force of nature wherever she went. Even in the typically masculine field of work, Valerie quickly showed other divers that she was equal to them. Aitken ensures that we, as an audience, fully see Valerie’s adventurous life by presenting us the footage that has been collected over the decades of her and her husband’s journeys.

Sharks are one of the most magnificent and powerful creatures of ocean life. Their majestic beauty manifests in many of their species. People like Valerie Taylor uphold said beauty and showcase it to us everyday individuals to better understand them. Playing with Sharks is a must-watch for everybody. It’s a film that gives us an interesting insight into the life of one amazing woman who wasn’t afraid of playing with sharks. 

My full review here.

Barb and Star Go To Vista Del Mar

Kristen Wiig and Annie Mumolo in Barb And Star Go To Vista Del Mar.

The plot of Barb and Star Go to Vista Del Mar can be divided into two parts. First, we are introduced to two middle-aged best friends, Barb (Mumolo) and Star (Wiig), who lose their jobs at “the hottest place in town”, a furniture store, Jennifer Convertibles. After their mutual friend convinces them to try something new, Barb and Star travel to the mysterious, most gorgeous place on Earth—Vista Del Mar. However, before the audience even gets to know them, there is an opening scene that contains something else entirely.

Soon after, we discover that Sharon Gordon Fisherman (portrayed by Wiig also) seeks revenge on a small ocean town; surprise, surprise, it’s Vista Del Mar! As she was bullied because of her skin condition, Sharon, with Edgar’s help (Jamie Dornan)—the man who holds a massive crush on his boss, plans to send mutated killer mosquitoes to the vacation place. That, of course, is supposed to happen when Barb and Star are there.

As this love letter is being written, the words aren’t enough to fully articulate how much we needed this film right now. While it’s always worth it to watch a film that fills our hearts with emotions and lets our minds reflect long after, we are also in dire need of something light that will take us and surround us with as much confusing yet hilarious weirdness as possible. This is what Barb and Star Go to Vista Del Mar achieves. Please don’t wait and go see it because it’s just a so gosh darn great film. 

My full article here.

Nomadland

Frances McDormand in the film NOMADLAND. Photo Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures. © 2020 20th Century Studios.

Nomadland, directed by Chloé Zhao and based on Jessica Bruder’s book, is a captivating story of a woman’s journey across America and becoming a modern-day nomad in the post-Great Recession era. While the film explores the issues of poverty and the consequences of economic failure, its true magic lies within the amazing stories that Fern (Frances McDormand) hears throughout her voyage, and the strong relationships she builds. Nomadland, in its most prominent aspect, teaches us the value of living in the now.

Over the course of her travels, Fern re-learns how to live and experiences newfound happiness caused by seemingly insignificant events. Zhao infuses the simple task of Fern learning how to change a tire with unexpected import. Just dancing with her new friends, or going with Dave to the zoo and marveling at the animals she sees, we get to live in the joy of the mundane along with her.      

The story of Nomadland is a humbling experience to me and makes me think about my own past life experiences. It helps me appreciate seemingly inconsequential moments between me and my relatives or friends. In perspective, they are the ones that I come back to the most.

Nobody

Bob Odenkirk in Nobody.

The first scene that comes to mind when I think of Nobody is when Hutch Mansell (Bob Odenkirk) gracefully approaches the record player, inserts the vinyl, and slowly lowers the needle. Suddenly, everything bursts into flames. Hutch’s entire vinyl collection burns in front of our eyes. As an avid vinyl collector, I was deeply hurt by the scene. But, as a fan of Nobody and Ilya Naishuller’s thrilling direction, I was blown away by almost every scene and fight choreography in the film.

If you had to describe Odenkirk’s Hutch, it appears that “quiet” and “ordinary” are two of the best words to use. The lead, however, makes sure that we keep changing our minds and second-guessing the next move. When Hutch’s home is broken into, the man is driven to violent vengeance and an inevitable reckoning with his own past.

Nobody is a film that is worth seeing multiple times. It’s unlike anything we’ve seen before–it’s not your typical action film. Odenkirk wreaks havoc, and after watching this one, you’ll probably want a kitty cat bracelet. And there’s nothing wrong with that at all.

Don’t Look Up

Jonah Hill, Leonardo DiCaprio, Meryl Streep, Jennifer Lawrence in Don’t Look Up / Netflix.

Don’t Look Up is definitely amongst my favorite films of 2021. The dark, hilarious and extremely relatable satire by Adam McKay is off the chains. The entire cast ensemble brings something interesting, witty to the table. Each of them represents something else.

But who deserves the standing applause? It’s, without a doubt, Jennifer Lawrence and Leonardo DiCaprio. This talented duo of actors, as Kate and Randall, two geeky astrologists who discover the comet coming to the Earth really stood out and did an incredible job. It’s one of the films that will remain relatable for quite some time.

Another solid part of the film is the script. You know that moment in Don’t Look Up when Cate Blanchett’s Brie says “I’d rather get drunk and talk shit about people”? Similar witty one-liners fill the script, making it very relatable.

McKay and Sirota wrote brilliant characters and a great premise. One of my favorite part is Lawrence’s Kate trying to figure out why the guy charged them for free snacks the entire movie

The entire film is built around funny situations while delivering a rather sadder, depressing statement. Definitely worth visiting again in the future.

These are the films that, somehow, stayed with me even after watching them. The list is quite personal, with surprising positions. Just a little recommendation at the end of the 2021.

May your new year brings prosperity and happiness!

Author: Zofia Wijaszka

I am a Los-Angeles based film and television critic with bachelor's degree in Journalism and Social Communication with Creative Writing. I am a staff writer for First Showing, a contributing writer for AwardsWatch as well as a freelance writer for Nerdist, Film Inquiry, In Their Own League, and more. I was published at The Mary Sue, Film Threat, Reel Honey, and Polish film portals. I love the "Scream" movies, "Carol", "American Horror Story", "Schitt's Creek," and "The Haunting of Bly Manor" - pick one of these and I won't shut up about it for the next five hours. Twitter – @thefilmnerdette

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