7½ Essential American Films of 2021 

Having seen around 50 films this year, I think I can safely judge some of the films which were essential in this unusual year. These are not necessarily my favorite films, but each one projects some important message or philosophy with regard to representation in cinema. This particular list only includes American films as I’ve not had enough access to international films yet. I’ll be releasing a separate list in a couple months to cover the international cinema of 2021. And now, without further ado, the 7½ are:

CODA – A low budget indie film about a hearing girl who is a Child-Of-Deaf-Adults. Showcasing the isolation often felt by members of the deaf community and the divisive feelings of children born between two cultures, this film is one of the better examples about deaf culture. With a great breakthrough performance from Emilia Jones and fantastic chemistry with Marlee Matlin and Troy Kotsur, this coming-of-age film is more than just a story about deafness.

Licorice Pizza – The latest film from Paul Thomas Anderson and second coming-of-age film deserving of appreciation this year. Following a teenage actor who begins a friendship with a photographer’s assistant in her twenties. This film plays like a series of interconnected vignettes that cover the ups and downs of life in L.A. in the 70’s. Alana Haim and Cooper Hoffman are both electric on the screen and it’s hard to imagine that neither had prior acting experience under their belts considering how natural they are.

Passing – Race remains the most tenuous issue at play in the United States today and the fact that the films being made about it don’t feel like outdated, isolated segments of history speaks volumes about how little progress has truly been made. The directorial debut of Rebecca Hall, she demonstrates a natural technique that allows this film to highlight the differences in philosophy between its characters as one passes for white while the other doesn’t see the need as she’s become accustomed to her treatment by society. Tessa Thompson and Ruth Negga are mesmerizing in this melancholic black-and-white film.

The Power of the Dog – A revisionist western by master filmmaker Jane Campion, this quiet period piece flips the script on toxic masculinity in a way that only Campion could manage this well. It is Benedict Cumberbatch who helps sell this film as being essential in this bleak year as his powerful performance garners the attention of not only the audience but also every character he encounters in the film. Intimidation and repressed emotions are at the forefront of this film that easily ranks as Campion’s best since ‘The Piano’.

Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings – There are some who may discredit Marvel after 25 films, but one of their films this year features the first Asian superhero, which is better late than never. This film doesn’t need to be anything more than a film about a superhero, but it crafts some great action sequences and also taps into the rich history of Wuxia cinema to combine the old and new in a seamless way. Simu Liu and Tony Leung are the standouts of this film as their chemistry paints a new representation of the relationship between hero and villain.

West Side Story – There were a few musicals in 2021, but the best made one is undoubtedly Spielberg’s adaptation of Sondheim’s classic. Spielberg is a master director for a reason and this film proves why as he flawlessly conveys the scale and scope needed for this story through great cinematography and pulling the best out of the cast’s performances. Rachel Zegler is the biggest discovery of this film as she earns her place among the more established cast, even the likes of veteran Rita Moreno. Remakes are not always worthwhile, but this one is one of the few exceptions.

Zola – Twitter is not supposed to be a source of great narratives, it is an outlet for short messages that appeal to a specific audience or group of followers. Sometimes, however, a series of tweets paints a unique picture of the poster’s life. Zola is an allegedly true story about a stripper who is convinced to travel to Florida to make some money with a new friend, only to find that things are not what they seem. A shockingly accurate representation of life in Florida, both Taylour Paige and Riley Keough so perfectly embody two victims of circumstance, just like everyone who lives in Florida.

And now…the half:

Dune – Visually stunning and impossibly realized, this film was bold enough to declare itself “Part One” in its first moments and until the second part is released in 2023, this remains only half of a film. Even with a nearly three hour runtime, it remains incomplete, though it is an impressive work from Denis Villeneuve that feels every bit as meaningful as his previous works and will be well worth the wait for a second part. With its all-star cast, stunning score, and beautiful cinematography, this is a must watch now and again in 2023 as part of a whole.

And now, some superlatives for films of 2021.

Best: The Power of the Dog

My Favorite: Dune/CODA

Most Underrated: Passing

Honorable Mentions: Encanto, King Richard, Nightmare Alley, Spider-Man: No Way Home

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