This is Part 2 of our top 50 films of 2021. Here we showcase the top 25. To read more about what motivated our list and part 1, see link.
#25 “Adrienne” – a documentary about filmmaker Adrienne Shelly
“Adrienne” is a loving portrait of the filmmaker Adrienne Shelly, who was on her way to being one of the most influential filmmakers of our time, but was robbed of it when she was murdered in 2006, right before the Sundance premiere of her film, “Waitress”. A single quote that stayed with me after viewing the film was, “Find what’s funny in what’s painful.” This was something that Adrienne pursued in her work, and I was fortunate to speak with “Waitress” film editor Annette Davey about Adrienne: Film Editor Annette Davey reflects on her work with “Waitress” filmmaker Adrienne Shelly and on the Netflix series “Maid”
“Adrienne” is streaming now on HBO Max.
#24 “Holler” – directed by Nicole Riegel
I was fortunate to speak with “Holler” director Nicole Riegel and star Jessica Barden (“The End of the F***ing World”, “Pink Skies Ahead”) about their film, “Holler”. There is a lot of beauty and grit in the film, not to mention numerous bad a** women, including Barden, Becky Ann Baker and Pamela Adlon. Riegel loves to bring rebellious and strong women to both the page and screen, and I’m so glad she did. “Holler” director Nicole Riegel and star Jessica Barden talk about the beauty and the grit of Middle America
“Holler” is now streaming on most major platforms.
#23 “Language Lessons” – directed by Natalie Morales
Before “Language Lessons,” I knew Natalie Morales as the best part of the series Parks and Recreation. In 2021, she made her directorial debuts with “Language Lessons” and “Plan B”. The Duplass Brothers produced a few pandemic-related films that came out this year, “Language Lessons” being one of them, along with “As of Yet” and “7 Days”. This one in particular is a beautiful take on a budding friendship during a difficult time.
“Language Lessons” is streaming on most major platforms.
#22 “Jumbo” – directed by Zoé Wittock
I love this love story between Jumbo and Noémie Merlant’s character Jeanne. It’s as real as any person to person relationship and as heartbreaking and heartwarming. Beautiful and stunning visuals breathe life into the screen. Also, a shout-out to Emmanuelle Bercot, who plays Jeanne’s mother Margarette, her character is full of life and passion, and adds character to the film. Thank you Zoé for this film and Noémie for this vulnerable and heartfelt performance.
“Jumbo” is streaming on most major platforms.
#21 “Rocks” – directed by Sarah Gavron
Growing up can be hard, and it can be harder when you have to survive on your own without the guidance of a parent, and on top of that, you have to care for a younger sibling. “Rocks” shows this reality through a teenager in London, without shying away from humor. A powerhouse performance by Bukky Bakray who plays Rocks led her to receive the BAFTA Rising Star Award.
“Rocks” is streaming now on Netflix.
#20 “Beans” – directed by Tracey Deer
Exploring a time in history of which I was unaware, Tracey Deer’s debut feature chronicles the 78-day standoff between two Mohawk communities and government forces in 1990 in Quebec. The story brings a unique perspective to the screen through the eyes of an indigenous teenage girl of the Mohawk descent in Quebec.
“Beans” is streaming on most major platforms.
#19 “The Lost Daughter”- directed by Maggie Gyllenhaal
I read the book and watched the film, and both are the best representation of the complexity of motherhood I’ve ever seen. Maggie Gyllenhaal channeled the book in the best way, eliciting outstanding performances from Olivia Colman as Leda and Jessie Buckley as young Leda.
“The Lost Daughter” is streaming on Netflix.
#18 “Petite Maman” – directed by Céline Sciamma
Here is another film that looks at motherhood, but in the sweetest way, two girls as equals, one as mother, one as daughter, spread beyond two periods of time. The film made me think about what it would be like if I met my mom as a child. Would we be friends? The idea of it really moved me.
“Petite Maman” is coming soon to streaming.
#17 “Rita Moreno: Just A Girl Who Decided to Go For It” – directed by Mariem Pérez Riera
Cinema Femme contributor Dawn Borchardt had this to say about “Rita Moreno: Just A Girl Who Decided to Go For It”: “The film uses clips from Rita Moreno’s acting career, combined with intimate interviews and stop-motion animation to tell the story of the first Latina EGOT winner and all of the immense hardships she has gone through. From poverty, discrimination and sexual harassment, Rita Moreno has been able to rise above it and remain a positive, radiant figure in the entertainment world. I found this film to be incredibly inspiring, especially for women and women of color.” Mariem Pérez Riera on her inspiring documentary about the first Latina EGOT winner, “Rita Moreno: Just a Girl Who Decided to Go for It”
“Rita Moreno: A Girl Who Decided to Go For It” is streaming now on most major platforms.
#16 “CODA” – directed by Sian Heder
This film about a child of deaf adults (a.k.a. CODA) beautifully portrays how we hear each other and see each other. It’s not what the story is, it’s how it’s told. (paraphrased from Roger Ebert)
“CODA” is now streaming on AppleTV.
#15 “The Souvenir: Part II” – directed by Joanna Hogg
Tilda Swinton’s daughter Honor Swinton Byrne continues her role as Julie in “The Souvenir: Part II,” which begins in the aftermath of her partner’s suicide. We get to watch the beauty of Julie finding herself in this process as an artist and a filmmaker. The film made me miss the creative collaboration you get from film school. I love how director Joanna Hogg enabled us to see this onscreen.
“The Souvenir: Part II” is now streaming on most major platforms.
#14 “Titane” – directed by Julia Ducournau
“There is so much beauty, emotion and freedom to be found in what cannot be put in a box. And in what remains to be discovered about us. I want to thank the Jury very much for recognizing with this prize the greedy and visceral need that we have for a more inclusive and more fluid world. Thank you to the Jury for calling for more diversity in our experiences in cinema and in our lives. And thank you to the Jury for letting the monsters in. Thank you for helping me to be free.”
An excerpt of Julia Ducournau’s acceptance speech of the Palme d’Or this year, the top prize for a filmmaker at Cannes. She was the first woman to win since Jane Campion in 1993 for “The Piano”. Her speech shows the importance of this film and why it exists.
“Titane” is now streaming on most major platforms.
#13 “Lorelei” – directed by Sabrina Doyle
Before we got into speaking about her film “Lorelei”, director Sabrina Doyle and I couldn’t help talking about the trying times we are in, and how difficult it is for everyone, regardless of their situation. After viewing “Lorelei”, I realized that this film is exactly what we need right now. Its message encourages us to stay true to ourselves, and embrace the change. The film is beautifully shot, and embedded throughout it are motifs of oceans and waters and mermaids. Sabrina Doyle shows the beauty of embracing change through ‘Lorelei’
“Lorelei” is streaming on Hulu.
#12 “The Hottest August” – directed by Brett Story
Documentarian Brett Story shows the beauty in the destruction of our planet and makes it poetic. What I love is that she brings everyday people in concentrated areas into the discussions about the planet and its future. To most, it’s dismal. The film is hard to watch and beautiful to watch at the same time.
“The Hottest August” is now streaming on Grasshopper.
#11 “Pink Skies Ahead” – directed by Kelly Oxford
“Pink Skies Ahead” has the best depiction I’ve seen onscreen of an anxiety attack. I know this because I also get anxiety attacks, and I felt my heart go out to Jessica Barden as Winona because when I was in my early twenties, I also didn’t know what I was dealing with. I couldn’t understand why I was so capable of doing so much in my life, but when my anxiety attacks occurred, I was crippled. I appreciated how Winona chose therapy and a balance of medication to show you can live a normal(ish) life when you get the right help. Barden makes this all believable, and along with “Holler,” she is becoming one of my favorite actors.
“Pink Skies Ahead” is now streaming on most major platforms.
#10 “Saint Maud” – directed by Rose Glass
Nothing is more terrifying than a woman possessed and on a mission. The performances of Morfydd Clark as Maud and Jennifer Ehle as Amanda are masterful. Like last year, with my discovery of Natalie Erika James, the director of “Relic”, Rose Glass should also be celebrated for her debut feature, “Saint Maud”. I can’t wait to see what she makes next.
“Saint Maud” is streaming on most major platforms.
#9 “Catch the Fair One” – produced by Mollye Asher and Kimberly Park
“Catch the Fair One” is about former pro boxer Kaylee, who infiltrates a sex trafficking ring to try and find her missing younger sister. That one-liner should be enough to get you enticed. Sex-trafficking is a real thing, and is often ignored by society. On reservations, sex trafficking is a huge problem. Through my interviews with indigenous filmmakers, they talk about this being something they want to bring to the screen. I’m so glad “Catch the Fair One” does. This narrative feature is directed by Josef Kubota Wladyka (“Manos Sucias”), and written by Wladyka in collaboration with breakout star Kali Reis. Co-producers Mollye Asher (“Nomadland”) and Kimberly Parker on their Tribeca thriller “Catch the Fair One”
“Catch the Fair One” comes to theaters and streaming in 2022.
#8 “In the Same Breath” – directed by Nanfu Wang
If you want an education on China, watch “In the Same Breath” and “One Child Nation”. Nanfu Wang is on the inside as she grew up there and her family lives there. It’s enlightening to see that China can sometimes be not that much different than America in terms of politics and the people too. In this film, like her others, you see the humanity through the hypocrisy.
“In the Same Breath” is now streaming on HBO Max.
#7 “The Novice” – directed by Lauren Hadaway
“The Novice” is the feature directorial debut from accomplished sound artist Lauren Hadaway. Isabelle Fuhrman (“Orphan”, “TAPE”) stars, and her physical and emotional range blew me away. If Isabelle doesn’t get a nomination for an Oscar, it will be a shame. So happy about the accolades the film has received already.
Lauren Hadaway, master of cinematic sound, on her directorial debut “The Novice” starring Isabelle Fuhrman
Cinema Femme interview with “The Novice” star Isabelle Fuhrman and director Lauren Hadaway
“The Novice” is playing in theaters and on digital.
#6 “Passing” – directed by Rebecca Hall
Tessa Thompson’s performance is so beautifully restrained and plays like a jazz duet with Ruth Negga’s euphoric spirit and energy. This is Rebecca Hall’s directorial debut, based on a book. The film deserves more than one watch.
“Passing” is streaming now on Netflix.
#5 “CUSP” – directed by Isabel Bethencourt, Parker Hill
This vérité style documentary is also a strikingly universal coming-of-age tale — and true-to-life, by turns funny, tragic, complicated and stirring. Our interview with the CUSP team.
“CUSP” is streaming now on Showtime.
#4 “Ma Belle, My Beauty” – directed by Marion Hill
I am in love. I’m in love with Marion Hill’s “Ma Belle, My Beauty.” This is the type of film that you will carry with you afterward, and your soul will be richer after watching it. I was fortunate to talk about this deeply moving gem with the director Marion Hill, along with actors Idella Johnson and Hannah Pepper. The film had its world premiere at Sundance last month and won the NEXT Audience award. Marion Hill puts her own spin on a cinematic romance in the Sundance hit “Ma Belle, My Beauty”
“Ma Belle, My Beauty” is streaming now on major platforms.
#3 “Shiva Baby” – directed by Emma Seligman
I could relate to the main character, especially looking back to my early twenties. I know that feeling of not being able to show your true self because your current life circumstances don’t look good on paper, and are more complicated than checking all the life boxes (school, job, relationship). Stunning performance by Rachel Sennott. Our interview with director Emma Seligman.
“Shiva Baby” is streaming on HBO Max.
#2 “Quo Vadis, Aida?” – directed by Jasmila Žbanić
Thank you for this film, Jasmila. The filmmaker has won countless well-deserved awards for this film, which is about Aida, a translator for the UN in the small town of Srebrenica. When the Serbian army takes over the town, her family is among the thousands of citizens looking for shelter in the UN camp. As an insider to the negotiations, Aida has access to crucial information that she needs to interpret. What I saw in this film was shocking, but based on a real story in our history that I was unaware existed. I’m thankful for this film, and appalled about the tiny worlds we keep ourselves in.
“Quo Vadis, Aida?” is streaming now on Hulu.
#1 “The Power of the Dog” – directed by Jane Campion
I’ll be honest, Jane Campion’s previous films, as amazing as they are, have always rubbed me the wrong way. The rub is in that unsettling, visceral feeling that attracts most people to her films. “The Power of the Dog” brought the same sense of unease, but this time, it worked for me. I think it did because it made sense in the landscape of the story, development of the character, and what actors like Kirsten Dunst and Benedict Cumberbatch brought to the film made me patient amidst the discomfort. This film is my favorite of the year because of the epic impact it had on me.
“The Power of the Dog” is steaming now on Netflix.
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This list is so comprehensive! Thank you for putting this together, Rebecca!