The McNeil Minute | The Very Best Films of 2021

A Bounce Back Year or a Course Correction?

Or is it perhaps neither? Of course, what I mean by this is: 2020 was an insane year, as we all know, but it was up in the air whether 2021 would be the year to resurrect movie theaters or to show us that they were a dying breed. Streaming essentially came in and bailed us out of complete and total boredom while we were relegated to our homes, and due to this, the return to theaters was mostly uncertain. 2021 was another strange year, to be sure. However, theaters mostly opened back up and it was a welcome return, for most. As a matter of fact, it felt like yet another year where it was long, but yet simultaneously incredibly fast somehow. It's strange to think back to April when the Oscars were, and now we're at the point when Oscar season is in full swing, and we're about to arrive at the ceremony yet again already. To add to the strangeness, the Oscar front runners have already been released (for awhile now) or are currently in theaters. And we're coming to the point when the Oscar films for this run will have passed us by and it'll be time for Dumpuary films already. Wild.

Anyway, enough of me blabbing. It's time to jump to what you came here for: my top 10 list. As always, we'll start with a few honorable mentions.

Honorable Mentions


Perhaps better known as Pigolas Cage, Pig was a low-key release that didn't garner much attention, certainly not as much as it deserved. It did, however, capture the hearts and minds of critics and cinephiles everywhere. It's highly regarded and acclaimed as it features a terrific Nicolas Cage performance, it's gorgeously shot and superbly written, while also boasting a beautiful pig performance. In all seriousness, the film is a slowburn drama which does not play out as one would expect. Many were led to believe (and hoped) that it would be a revenge thriller where Nicolas Cage hunted down those who would do his pig harm, but this couldn't be further from the case. Pig is a film that takes its time with plot and characterization, but if you're willing to take a chance on it, you'll be rewarded in the end with a satisfying payoff in a beautifully done story.

King Richard

King Richard was a film that wasn't particularly on my radar, but it absolutely had to be seen when I heard about the hype behind Will Smith's performance. The word on the street couldn't have be more right. Will Smith turns in the performance of his life as the proverbial King Richard, Richard Williams, father to tennis legends Venus and Serena Williams. The film follows some familiar territory where the sports biopic is concerned, but perhaps the tropes were overcome by heart and confident writing and direction. It also treads different paths from the typical sports biopic, which I loved. The structure is also different from what I expected and the pacing is tremendous. I was never bored for a minute, although it was just a tad long. Apart from that, it's a film that's well worth the watch, especially if you're unfamiliar with the story. The film humanizes Richard Williams in a way which corrects the past as it's possible we may have vilified him for no good reason, and while also not knowing his true story.

C'mon C'mon

Last, but certainly not least, I would have been remiss if I did not mention Mike Mills' very touching drama C'mon C'mon. The film stars the always brilliant Joaquin Phoenix and features a terrific child performance by Woody Norman. The film is also in black and white, which is of course always eye candy nowadays (it looks great here). The film is such a down to earth, heartwarming, and smile-inducing experience. The film's strength is that it's grounded in realism and honestly feels so genuine and authentic, constantly. The chemistry between Phoenix and Norman is palpable and carries the entire film. It's certainly one to see if dramas and even a bit of coming-of-age are your cup of tea.

10. Licorice Pizza

I've always had a strange relationship with Paul Thomas Anderson and his films. He is a superbly talented filmmaker and I respect him greatly. But, for some reason, I've never been able to connect with his films. They're always incredibly well made and meticulously crafted, but I just can never fall in love with them quite like most cinephiles and PTA purists can. With that being said, the fact that this made my top 10 is saying quite a lot. There's also very good reason for it. The film is impeccably made: wonderful performances, brilliant and hilarious writing, confident direction, and slickly shot. The whole nine yards. The only reason this isn't higher, is because of the lackluster ending. Every PTA film comes to a head with their conclusions, this one unfortunately goes the path most traveled within this particular genre. It's also very abrupt and feels rushed. Even with the film maybe not sticking the landing as well as I'd like, it still lands a place on this list which is very difficult to make.

9. Last Night in Soho

Much to my surprise, this film is widely debated amongst cinephiles, critics, and Edgar Wright purists. I honestly do not understand the backlash against it, but to hell with all the discourse. I loved the shit out of this film. Pure and simple. To find out exactly why I had a great time with it, check out my full review of the film here.

8. Belfast

This is another film which seems to have mostly divided cinephiles on Letterboxd but has captured the hearts and minds of critics. It's a festival darling which won the audience award at TIFF (Toronto International Film Festival) which, if you're unfamiliar, is one of the biggest in the world and sometimes has predicted best picture nominees/winners at the Oscars. Upon winning this coveted award, it shot its way into the Oscar race as an early frontrunner. The film was a wonderful experience for me as it was genuinely heartwarming and pleasantly surprising that it was also hilarious. It's also another film which is in beautiful black and white - also very nice to look at. Beyond just the window dressing, it's very well acted and the world feels real and lived in. It's no wonder that it's Kenneth Branagh's most personal film and you can feel that in every stitch. All in all, I had a very enjoyable experience with the film and I'll be on the lookout for it during all the debates leading up to the Oscar nominations.

7. No Time to Die

It should come as no surprise to anyone who knows me that the conclusion to the Daniel Craig Saga of James Bond would find a home on this list. The end of this era James Bond film No Time to Die is not only action packed, but it comes with a lot of heart, too. There's so much talent packed behind this project that there was almost no way it would fall flat. Much to my surprise, there are those who feel that it did, in fact, land with a thud. To that, I say, we all know the age-old saying about opinions and where to put them. All jokes aside, this is a conclusion that is not only satisfying, but a perfect send-off for an actor who truly gave his all to this re-imagining of a long beloved character. The action and cinematography sleek, the performances on point, the direction precise, as always, and the writing here is better than a fifth installment of a franchise has any right to be. Put all that together, and you arrive at an expectation-smashing, emotional swan song that excites just as much as it tugs at the heart strings, and even the tear ducts.


It's mostly surprising, but also not at all, that this film would still be on my top 10 list by this time. Considering the film saw an early 2021 premiere at Sundance Film Festival, it's been on my list for a long time and has amazingly stayed there. There were a great many films this year that threatened to take it down, but it held firm in its resolve. CODA was a beautiful, heartwarming, funny, and sincere film that demands and deserves to be seen. If you'd like to read even more on exactly why I feel this way about the film, you can find my full review of the film right here.

5. Red Rocket

This film is an absolute riot. It had been on my radar ever since I experienced Sean Baker's masterpiece The Florida Project roughly four years ago. I thoroughly enjoyed this film from start to finish. It's an absolutely hilarious script that's directed to excellence. Simon Rex wonderfully portrays our fun, funny, charming, charismatic, but certainly flawed protagonist. I'd advise you to go in as blind as you can, because the premise could potentially give the conceit away, which is great for some gags. The film is authentic, albeit trashy, but we've come to expect that from any Sean Baker film - so we expect no less. It's arguably my favorite cinema experience of the year, just from a pure enjoyment standpoint. That's exactly why it landed in the top 5 of a list which boasts great company.

4. Spencer

One word I would use to describe this film: pristine. Every shot, every scene, every glance, every line of dialogue: pristine and pitch perfect. Spencer chronicles three days leading up to and during a Christmas visit from Princess Diana to her in-laws estate, which coincidentally, also houses arguably the most powerful royalty in the world. It's a fascinating look at what is perhaps speculation and conjecture, but is intriguing and captivating all the same. The film is profound and biting - always sympathetic in the right ways, but also a deep dive into one of the most complex minds we've come to know through all types of media. Kristen Stewart turns in the performance of a lifetime, and is sure to garner Oscar attention (if not a win in the bag). In summary, go see this film. Seriously, run to it. Please.

3. The Green Knight

I knew this was going to be a tough one to top after I left the theater. Upon this amazing theater experience, it immediately landed in my top spot and I wasn't sure if anything would ever surpass it. Well, seeing as though you know math. You'll see that at least two did, right? Correct. If you'd like to read up on why I felt this deserved to be in my top 3, consider reading my full review of the film right here.

2. Dune

I struggle with where to put this on my list, between second, a tie for first, or first. Ultimately what I'm deciding is that it's my favorite film of the year, and what's above it is the best. I do believe that's an important distinction. In any case, those who know me and my taste well will know that Denis Villeneuve is my all-time favorite director. So, it was practically a foregone conclusion that Dune would, at the very least, make my list. I would say I tried to make the most unbiased decision that I possibly could here, but in truth, maybe I am super biased. Either way, I honestly don't care. Dune is a visual masterpiece. It absolutely had to be experienced in IMAX to have the true Dune experience. There's no other way to put it. The sound, cinematography, score, all of it had to be experienced in the cinema to capture the sheer scope, vision, grand scale, and ambition that was beautifully put to screen here. This film right here is, simply put, cinema at its finest. Denis said it best when he said that to experience it away from a movie theater was to "drive a speed boat in a bath tub." Everyone involved is at the height of their game and it's a sight to behold. I would see it a fourth time in IMAX if I could. I hope that's an effective endorsement alone.

1. Titane

This profoundly strange, possibly mean spirited, but oddly heartfelt film won over critics, festival goers, and judges at Cannes this summer. It also won over someone else: yours truly. This film is so unique, so impeccably crafted, so tremendously acted, and so insanely effective in nearly every conceivable way. My mind was truly blown, along with probably every single other person who has seen this film - whether they were captivated or confounded, their minds were certainly blown in some fashion. There will undoubtedly be vile, horrifying things that you will hear (or have heard) about this film, and they will mostly be true. One thing is certain: you just have to see it to believe it. This is yet another film that benefits you going in as blind as humanly possible. You, as a viewer, will be sincerely rewarded for it.

Speaking of sincerity, this film is quite possibly the most unexpectedly sincere film concerning its subject matter. There are quite a few heady themes at play, and Julia Ducournau explores them in creative, original ways yet untreaded. It bears repeating, this is quite possibly the single most unique storyline to a film I have ever seen. And once again, this also deserves to be reiterated, you will hear some unthinkable rumblings about certain plot points. Yes. Those will be true. And it's very...eccentric? Esoteric? Unbelievably strange? All of the above. But, you just have to give it a chance. The reasons why you wouldn't give this a chance?

  1. You are not a fan of arthouse films (even if you aren't, you still might like it. Just try it!)
  2. You are squeamish (cannot handle body horror)
  3. You hate reading subtitles (it's a French film) (if you're French, then congratulations)
  4. You aren't open to trying new things (Seriously, just give this a shot)

Well, that's all I've got. I hope that it simply being at the top of my list is reason enough to see it. If not, you won't break my heart. But you will be missing out on a tremendous film. Your loss!

I hope you enjoyed my list! Feel free to comment with your favorites! And/or what films I missed out on! (Comments about films being too high or too low will be ignored (just kidding!))

Rob McNeil

My name is Rob McNeil. I was born and raised in Normal, Illinois and I am a 28 year-old award winning screenwriter. I am very passionate about film, so much that I watch far too many films on a daily basis. I have written fifteen feature screenplays, a spec pilot thriller series, and several short scripts. I aim to make filmmaking a career, but for now, I will write about it.

Rob McNeil

My name is Rob McNeil. I was born and raised in Normal, Illinois and I am a 28 year-old award winning screenwriter. I am very passionate about film, so much that I watch far too many films on a daily basis. I have written fifteen feature screenplays, a spec pilot thriller series, and several short scripts. I aim to make filmmaking a career, but for now, I will write about it.

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