Looking Back: Alex's Top 10 Favorite Films of 2021 - 'Dune' & 'Limbo'
by Alex Billington
January 17, 2022
"The mystery of life isn't a problem to solve, but a reality to experience." Another year, another Top 10. After watching over 460 films throughout 2021 (yes I was keeping track on Letterboxd!) it's time to share my final selection of My Top 10 Favorite Films of 2021. I try to watch as much as I can and give myself time to catch up with any extra films at the end of the year, but I also want to make sure I don't forget about some of my favorites from earlier in the year. 2021 was an invigorating and exciting year - with so many ups and downs. But as always, I'm lucky to have a chance to discover terrific films. This year in cinema took us on journeys to far away places, distant planets, as well as to mountaintops and valleys and deserts around this planet. I'm a sucker for visuals and style; the better a movie looks, the more I enjoy it. But I also need to feel the emotions, and when a good one really gets to me, that's the kind of film that sticks with me all year.
For the previous year's Top 10 of 2020 list, topped by Edson Oda's Nine Days, click here. You can also check out our selection of Favorite Movie Posters from 2021 featuring a look at some of the best artwork for films.
A few notes: this is a list of my favorite films, not the best films of the year, these are the ones that I love for my own reasons and I'll try to explain why with each one. As always, I wish I had so much more to time to watch/rewatch films, and see every last film that played in 2020, but that's impossible so this is just what I decided to run with. Also - my film selection is based on the date when I originally saw the film at a public event, including film festivals (Venice, Sundance) or public releases limited or otherwise. This is not based on only films released in 2021, but the ones I experienced in 2021, and is a good representation of the best cinema has given us, in my opinion. I'm always a bit shy to share these picks, but they really are films I love.
#1. Limbo directed by Ben Sharrock
There have been many good films made so far about the refugee experience in the western world, many of them heartbreaking dramas. Or stories about how hard it is to try and make a new home in a foreign land and survive. Many of them also remind us they take these perilous journeys to far away lands because it's even worse to stay home. Limbo is one of the first films I've seen that tries, with very dry black comedy, to make light of their situation. Limbo is one of the best refugee films ever made, it's a masterpiece. There's not a thing to change about it. It even sticks the landing - in a seriously exhilarating way. I love the style and the droll humor and the emotional core, but I also think Amir El-Masry deserves acclaim for his performance. It's not easy to handle this story, play this character, and make it all so memorable and moving. As cliche as it might be, I have to say how glad I am that this film exists, and was made, and can be seen by everyone. It's hard to convince anyone to watch - but if you're reading this, please take the time to give it a look and enjoy.
#2. Dune directed by Denis Villeneuve
Yep – this is the Lord of the Rings for the 2020s. It's as spectacular and as stunning as those movies. Dune surpassed all expectations and delivered on the impossible – adapting Frank Herbert's seminal sci-fi novel for the big screen in the best way possible. Denis Villeneuve nailed it – he got everything right. The scope, the scale, the storytelling, the cast, the score, the action, the sand, the visuals, the atmosphere, the mood, the intensity, the grandeur. Timothée Chalamet is near perfect as Paul Atreides, completely committed to the role, and captivating to watch as he struggles with his emotions and the call to lead the revolution with the Fremen of Arrakis. The rest of the cast – including Oscar Isaac, Rebecca Ferguson, Jason Momoa, Josh Brolin, Zendaya, Javier Bardem, and Babs Olusanmokun – are just as good, none of them overplaying their roles or overshadowing anyone else. Hans Zimmer's score rocked me to my core. This is the kind of movie I will pay to go watch again and again and again on the big screen, whenever it shows up. Take me to Arrakis.
#3. Spencer directed by Pablo Larraín
There is so much I can talk about with Spencer and how great the film is, how engaging it is as a work of art. It's a ravishing, exhilarating cinematic story about a woman who can't breathe, realizing she needs to break free. Director Pablo Larraín is a genius and has made one of his best films in a filmography of nothing but great films. Composer Jonny Greenwood also continues to prove he is one of the greatest composers of our time, producing another extraordinary score for this film. Most of all, it's Kristen Stewart at her best yet with a towering, intoxicating performance that will be remembered and talked about for years. It's also the intricate cinematography, the visual metaphors littered throughout, working in harmony with the wink-at-you screenplay filled delicious, witty dialogue. This film really is a work of art, something more than just another film, something that captivates in every way. "Fight them. Be beautiful. You are your own weapon."
#4. The Summit of the Gods directed by Patrick Imbert
One of the best mountain climbing movies I have EVER seen. No exaggeration, no hyperbole, this one goes on my "all-timer" list right away. It has everything I love, everything that amazes me about this world, all in one film: photography, mountains, Nepal, the Himalayas, Japan, Tokyo, the starry night sky. The Summit of the Gods (also known as Le Sommet des Dieux) is a French animated film made by the animation filmmaker Patrick Imbert (I also adore his other movie The Big Bad Fox and Other Tales), based on the Japanese manga by Jiro Taniguchi. Everything about this film - from the breathtaking score (by Amine Bouhafa) to the jaw-dropping backdrops to the technical details & climbing accuracy to the story about trying to figure out why people keep climbing. All of it blew me away… I was completely and totally lost watching the film and every single perfectly composed frame. I was caught up in the story and following Fukamachi and Habu. It reminds me why I love mountains so much, and why I love Nepal so much. A masterpiece. It is perfection.
#5. One Second directed by Zhang Yimou
Another surprise! As soon as this ended, I knew it would be on my Top 10. Zhang Yimou's One Second is his nostalgic love letter to cinema, which took years to finish due to issues with censors in China. Whatever it was they changed, it doesn't seem to have made a huge difference, because the film is still wonderful. The nostalgia is strong but it's also what gives it more depth. It's as if Zhang Yimou not only had a good story to tell, but wanted to work in layers upon layers of themes regarding propaganda, the power of cinema (it can work perfectly as unite-the-community propaganda and as life-changing mind-opening storytelling), the power of love, how so many lives are influenced by cinema – sometimes in unexpected ways (e.g. the orphan girl just wanted to make a new lampshade for her brother). I loved the Paper Moon nod in the first half, I loved the cinema scenes in the second half. I have nothing but love for this very special Zhang Yimou movie.
#6. Language Lessons directed by Natalie Morales
I never would've expected that a screen movie would end up on my Top 10 list, but here we are. Language Lessons is absolutely wonderful, an uplifting and wholesome film. Something that was so needed during the pandemic lockdowns over the last two years, as a rejuvenating example of the power of platonic love, but also as an example of the kind of heartfelt, authentic storytelling that can exist despite the limitations that come with a pandemic shutting down everything. I think this is the best of Natalie Morales filmmaking so far (though Plan B is also very good) and I have a feeling she's going to make even more wonderful films as her career goes on. it's like a big warm hug of goodness that we all so need right now. Just patient and lovely in its heartfelt reminder that friendship is vitally important and we need to stop being against anyone who cares about us and let love glow. This film is going to be a guide for so many people to find their way back when they need it. It doesn't matter if we're miles away, we can still connect deeply with another individual.
#7. Akilla's Escape directed by Charles Officer
I missed this in 2020 when it first premiered, but caught up with it last year and it won me over. This is so dope! It feels like the kind of robust, distinct indie filmmaking we don't see much of nowadays. The score is sooo good and adds to every single scene it plays in. Saul Williams kicks ass!! I didn't realize how much I enjoy his artistic vision? Between this and Neptune Frost (which he co-directed), his contribution to cinema is already impactful. One hell of a great film. It has a clear vision, it has style, the story is nice & neat and packs a punch. It's not ashamed to be exactly what it is and stand out from the crowd with the way certain scenes play out. So glad I watched. I think it'll end up earning a cult following in a few years, as not many people know about it or have seen it yet. Give it a look! You might end up with your own fresh, new favorite.
#8. Judas and the Black Messiah directed by Shaka King
Even though this was in contention for the 2020 Academy Awards, despite only premiering in early 2021, it didn't end up crashing the Oscars like I thought it would. But I still haven't forgotten about it! This one fine film. Loved just about everything about it. Even within the first few minutes, I knew it would be something special. Filmmaking firing on all cylinders, telling one eye-opening story about the truth and what happened to a revolutionary in America. It's seriously worth talking about. The music and the cinematography and the production design are all top notch. Daniel Kaluuya is at his very best, along with LaKeith Stanfield in one of his best performances, too. It's another of these outstanding films that I hope, with more time, finds a bigger audience as more people keep discovering it and talking about it. This should be shown in schools, so we can all learn the truth about America, not some watered down version of what they want you to believe.
#9. The Harder They Fall directed by Jeymes Samuel
How, what, why?! This film RULES!! The kind of Western reinvention that has been missing from cinema. Welcome to town, Jeymes Samuel. This film is utterly glowing with style, it's popping out of every frame (so much color! and flowers and vegetables! and shiny guns!) and it's so beautifully emphatic, made with an air of confidence that makes it instantly iconic. Crafted with intelligence and exuberance, while never letting go of what makes westerns so fun to watch. It only takes itself seriously when it needs to, and is light on its feet the rest of the time. I loved every second, even over two hours long. The cinematography is to die for. The opening titles are killer. I would honestly say this is one of the only films to seriously rival Tarantino in terms of style in a modern western. "Now that's some unscrupulous shit." Jonathan Majors is utterly sensational. Along with Danielle Deadwyler as Cuffee and RJ Cyler as Jim. The soundtrack for this film is unquestionably awesome. And most of it comes from the director Jeymes Samuel as well?! What a badass.
#10. C'mon C'mon directed by Mike Mills
This film is sublime. I watched it twice within the span of a few weeks, and enjoyed it even more the second time. Mike Mills makes films that are rewarding no matter how many times you watch them (20th Century Woman was in my Top 10 of 2016). What a lovely film about parenting and being a human being and what it's like growing up and so many other perspectives of life on planet Earth. The moments where he reads some book and it quotes the source on screen are so gratifying and I wish there we even more. I always love all the moments where Mills cuts away to some voiceover and montage of imagery about America or people or something. It's the kind of philosophical, thoughtful filmmaking that really connects with me and it adds so much extra depth to his films. Joaquin Phoenix and Woody Norman are both sensational. And best of all, now that I know exactly where the title comes from (and what it means), I think it couldn't be a more perfect title. It sounds strange… but yep, we all just need to keep on going through life: c'mon c'mon c'mon.
BONUS! 14 Peaks: Nothing is Impossible directed by Torquil Jones
I just HAVE to include this one on my Top 10, even though it's technically more than 10. I fell hard for this one. 14 Peaks: Nothing is Impossible is the remarkable story of a Nepalese mountain climber known as Nimsdai (real name: Nirmal Purja MBE), who pulled off the impossible challenge of climbing the 14 tallest mountains in the world in under 7 months. No one else has achieved this. This film sets a new bar in terms of mountain filmmaking, along with the unbelievable accomplishment of climbing all of these mountains. There are moments in this that are so jaw-dropping I couldn't even contain myself, I was up and cheering for him. By the end I was thinking I am so glad that they made this as-perfect-as-it-can-be film about what he did (with his friends), and had footage for every single part of it, so that the world can see with their own eyes what he pulls off. How he made the impossible possible. And that he deserves, and all Nepalis deserve, the utmost respect. This is an instant all-time favorite doc along with Sherpa (in my Top 10 of 2015), which changed my life, and I am so moved and humbled and inspired by everything in 14 Peaks. Nimsdai forever.
More Favorites - Runner Ups: Joachim Trier's The Worst Person in the World (exquisite), Sian Heder's CODA (so good!), Steven Spielberg's West Side Story (he pulled it off!), Julia Ducournau's Titane (hell yes it rules), James Gunn's The Suicide Squad (best action movie of the year), Bo Burnham: Inside (it's brilliant, he's brilliant), Jon Watts' Spider-Man: No Way Home (yeah I kinda loved this), Penny Lane's Listening to Kenny G (this doc rocks), Will Sharpe's The Electrical Life of Louis Wain (beautiful filmmaking), Antoneta Alamat Kusijanovic's Murina (breathtaking cinema made in Croatia), Eric Gravel's Full Time (heart-racing intensity from France), Maggie Gyllenhaal's The Lost Daughter (outstanding esp. with Olivia Colman), Jane Campion's The Power of the Dog (this is THE film of the year IMO), Nia DaCosta's Candyman (yeah I really dug this too), Enrico Casarosa / Pixar's Luca (delightful), Mia Hansen-Løve's Bergman Island (intellectual filmmaking), and also this - Robert Coe & Warwick Ross' Blind Ambition (the best doc no one has seen yet).
I could discuss all of my favorites endlessly, so if you ever want to chat about cinema, just ask me something about any of them. You can always find all of my ratings and additional thoughts on every film I watched in 2021 on my Letterboxd profile. There were a few important films I did not get the chance to watch last year due to time constraints, as usual, but I still try to catch as many films as possible that critics rave about. I am always watching new work throughout the year, craving unforgettable experiences - films that connect deeply. If you have extra questions or thoughts about my Top 10 picks, please get in touch: @firstshowing. Now let's continue onward into 2022 with high hopes of discovering and enjoying more phenomenal films.
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