Frank J. Avella's 13 Best Films of 2021

by Frank J. Avella

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Wednesday December 8, 2021

"West Side Story"
"West Side Story"  

I had a hard time figuring out my favorite film of 2021. In most years it's either a movie that I haven't been able to shake, or one that opens late and dazzles me. But this year, as good as many of the late entries were, none bowled me over enough to feel like the best. So, I rewatched most every film I considered close to the best. From there, I was able to truly gauge my enjoyment levels and figure out what really held up for me. It's been a year of excellent cinematic expression, but few real works of art. My number one is the exception. 

These are the 13 Honorable Mentions (alphabetically): 

"Dune," "Everybody's Talking about Jamie," "Hit the Road," "King Richard," "Licorice Pizza," "The Lost Daughter," "Mass," "No Time to Die," "Pig," "The Tender Bar," "Together," "Unclench Your Fists," and "The Worst Person in the World." 

Now, the Best of 2021:

13. "Cyrano" 

Joe Wright's charming and disturbing musical version of this too-often told tale is a wonder to watch. Adapted from the 2018 stage work by playwright Erica Schmidt and The National, this bold, ballsy concoction is a full cinematic feast with a ravishing turn by Peter Dinklage, sans nose but full of vim and vigor as the titular creature who can write the most poetic of letters, but cannot express face-to-face what is in his own heart. Haley Bennett and Kelvin Harrison Jr. are also grand, but this is Dinklage's shining hour.

12. "Parallel Mothers"

In Pedro Almodóvar's "Parallel Mothers," two women's fates are intertwined when they both give birth, almost simultaneously, in the same maternity ward. Both lives converge in hypnotic, intimate, and unpredictable ways. Penélope Cruz is mesmerizing, and newcomer Milena Smit is bewitching. In Spanish with English subtitles.

11. "Bad Luck Banging or Looney Porn" 

Romanian helmer Radu Jude is a provocateur and a brilliant satirist of our current culture. "Bad Luck Banging or Loony Porn" begins with a literal bang, the sexual kind, which is uploaded to the internet. This one action begets a series of events that will turn lives upside down. You are not likely to see anything as audacious, as exasperating, or as illuminating. And the final moments are a lunatic triumph of female empowerment. Romanian with English subtitles.

10. "West Side Story" 

Steven Spielberg's "West Side Story" captivates. While it does not improve on the original, Spielberg and screenwriter Tony Kushner look at the material from a fresh perspective. The musical numbers are mostly spectacular. Rachel Zegler and Ansel Elgort have terrific chemistry. David Alvarez is a walking sack of testosterone. Mike Faist sizzles. The ending should pack a better punch, but the film is still joyous.

9. "CODA"

Writer-director Sian Heder's "CODA" feels fresh and unique, since she is reworking an oft-told narrative and giving us characters that aren't necessarily who we expect them to be. The film centers on the only hearing member of a deaf New England fisherman's family, who dreams of pursuing a career in singing. The quartet of lead actors (Emilia Jones, Troy Kotsur, Marlee Matlin, and Daniel Durant) are all terrific, with Matlin indelibly poignant.

8. "The Hand of God" 

"The Hand of God," Paolo Sorrentino's most intimate film, is based on his own personal tragedy as a teen. Filippo Scotti excels as the young Fabietto, who must survive after a terrible family tragedy. Sorrentino's sublime film makes us aware of the fact that while cinema does distract us from our everyday muck, it can also help us cope with it better by relating to it onscreen. In Italian with English subtitles.

7. "Nightmare Alley"

A second viewing truly enhances this gem from Guillermo Del Toro, a master of style and a consummate lover of cinema. Del Toro, along with Kim Morgan, have taken the original novel by William Lindsay Gresham, as well as the Edmund Goulding film from 1947, and redrafted it into a glorious new work about the dangers of greed and hubris. Cate Blanchett gets down with her campy noir self as the whiskey-throated, enigmatic psychologist. This is also one of Bradley Cooper's finest performances.

6. "Bergman Island"

Mia Hansen-Løve's deeply affecting "Bergman Island" is a treat for cinephiles. Vicky Krieps and Tim Roth play two married filmmakers who journey to Fårö, the Swedish island where Ingmar Bergman created many of his iconic films, including "Scenes from a Marriage" — the film "that made millions of people divorce." It's an inspirational retreat that turns into an exploration of much more as the lines between art and life start to blur. Krieps is mesmerizing as the layers of her character slowly peel away.

5. "Belfast" 

Kenneth Branagh's elegiac "Belfast, is a deeply personal, superbly acted, exquisitely photographed, economically written, and dynamically directed cinematic memoir. Set in the titular city during the tumultuous summer of 1969, the film centers on nine-year-old Buddy (amazing newcomer Jude Hill), whose happy-go-lucky life is soon upended, and he must navigate the chaos around him. Jamie Dornan is a quiet force as Pa. Caitríona Balfe shines bright as Ma. Ciarán Hinds and Dame Judi Dench bring great gravitas as Buddy's grandparents. "Belfast" is a remarkably exuberant experience.

4. "Don't Look Up" 

For insane satire you can't beat Adam McKay's "Don't Look Up," which contains yet another brilliant performance by Leonardo DiCaprio, as well as a hilarious turn by Jennifer Lawrence. A stellar Cate Blanchett steals all her scenes as a superficial morning talk show host. And Meryl Streep nails her role as the egomaniacal, psychotic president. McKay has lots to say about our current national and world climate, and he does so in a manner that keeps us in stitches, but the message still stings.

 3. "tick...tick...BOOM!" 

Jonathan Larson died before the first public performance of "Rent," a crazy irony since he struggled for years to make a name for himself. Lin Manuel Miranda's sensational adaptation of his early musical, " tick...tick...BOOM!," perspicaciously brackets his life inside the autobiographical story to give it that extra, well, BOOM! The film boasts a fearless Andrew Garfield as Larson; he dives into the role and discovers countless layers. It's breathtaking to behold. "tick" is a celebration of the creative process and living life to the fullest.

2. "Being the Ricardos" 

Aaron Sorkin, a master of dialogue and structure, proves with "Being the Ricardos" that he is also a director with his own creative vision as he tells the tale of one week on the set of taping "I Love Lucy" in the 1950s — the week Lucy is accused of being a communist! Nicole Kidman delivers the year's best performance as the beloved redhead. This Lucille Ball is no clown. She's a force to be reckoned with on stage and off. Javier Bardem nails Desi Arnaz, and the wonderful J.K. Simmons leads a tremendous supporting cast. Sorkin's film draws parallels with today's potentially more dangerous McCarthyesque witch trials known as Twitter, making this film quite significant.

1. "The Power of the Dog"

After a second viewing, Jane Campion's truly transfixing western thriller, "The Power of the Dog," adapted from Thomas Savage's 1967 cult novel, solidified its place at the top of my list. The main reason is that the film is a pure cinematic joy. Campion manages to captivate and surprise with a story that examines sexual repression and notions of masculinity in Montana in the 1920s. This is filmic art on every level, beginning with Benedict Cumberbatch's immersive turn and Kodi Smit-McPhee's enigmatic and beguiling work. Toss in a remarkable Kirstin Dunst and the best tech credits of the year across the board, and you have a film that is a visceral and intellectual treat. Repeated viewings only enhance the depth of the material.

Frank J. Avella is a film journalist and is thrilled to be writing for EDGE. He also contributes to Awards Daily and is the GALECA East Coast Rep and a Member of the New York Film Critics Online. Frank is a recipient of the International Writers Residency in Assisi, Italy, a Bogliasco Foundation Fellowship, and a NJ State Arts Council Fellowship. His short film, FIG JAM, has shown in Festivals worldwide ( and won awards. His screenplays (CONSENT, LURED, SCREW THE COW) have also won numerous awards in 16 countries. He is a proud member of the Dramatists Guild.