My top 12 films of 2021

Published January 13, 2022, 7:42 PM

by Philip Cu Unjieng

Riders of Justice

It’s that time of the year when lists of this nature come out. So here’s my contribution to the deluge – and let’s first set the parameters, as I’ve done in the past.

This is a list of films from abroad, as I’ve always maintained that Filipino films should have their own list (when theatrical releases are back, and devoted streaming services have them ‘dropping’, with regularity… and quality).

And that the list reflects 2021-released films I’ve actually watched, and not those I’ve read about and had hoped to catch, or are exercises in wish-fulfillment – so, for example, while I rue not catching Drive My Car when it was shown during the QCinema International Film Festival 2021, or deadly wish I could watch West Side Story, they can’t be on this list.

So in no particular order, here goes:

The Lost Daughter

1. The Lost Daughter – This psychological drama about motherhood & women was one of those uncomfortable, but rewarding, watch of a film. While Olivia Colman as Leda, a college professor on solitary holiday, was excellent in the street market scene and for carrying the film, I was actually most impressed with Jessie Buckley as the young Leda. Based on a work of Elena Ferrante, and the complexities of being a mother.


2. Encanto – What I loved about this Disney film is how in a film populated with members of a family gifted with superpowers, the film’s central figure was precisely the one family member who was passed over, with no powers to speak of except sincerity and earnestness. But how Mirabel Madrigal becomes the hope and saving grace of the family is a wonderful lesson, with strong songs from Lin-Manuel M.

The Power of the Dog

3. The Power of the Dog – Jane Campion directs this, and it’s a triumphant return for her; even if on the surface, an early 20th century western seems like a strange choice. But you’ll love the subtle twists and turns of this psychological drama, and how Benedict Cumberbatch grows on you, as he inhabits his character with telling precision, gifting us with an arc that surprises. Kodi Smit-McPhee is also impressive.

The Green Knight

4. The Green Knight – Always like to have a director whose singular vision can be celebrated. I watched Annette (of Leos Carax) and Titane (Julia Ducournau); but this one of David Lowery best combined weirdness with watchability. Inspired casting of Dev Patel in a medieval tale of chivalry and quests as seen through the prism of a hallucinogen. This one takes your breath away with its cinematography and vision.

C’mon C’mon

5. C’mon C’mon – Joaquin Phoenix reminds us what a great actor he is in this film, while practically being challenged by child actor Woody Norman. Written and directed by Mike Mills, who’s well known for sensitive dramas, as he’s responsible for Beginners and 20th Century Women. It’s really about relationships, that between an uncle and his nephew, as they find a way to bond, and probe each other.

The Mitchells Vs. The Machines

6. The Mitchells Vs. the Machines – Coming early in the year, this is an inventive, fun animated feature that smartly had one young main character be an aspiring film director/content creator. From the team that gifted us with the Into the SpiderVerse and LEGO films, so one knew coming in that they’d be combining different types of animation in a single frame, and combine hip humor, with strong action sequences.

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7. No Time To Die – A fitting elegy to the Daniel Craig era, this wasn’t perfect, as it could have used some strong editing, and a more effective main villain. But as a film that looked back at the Craig era, while satisfyingly bringing it to a close, it was a joy to watch. And the Craig/Ana de Armas scene, brief as it was, was a great reminder of why we will forever love Bond films.

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8. CODA – On the surface, learning that the title refers to Children Of Deaf Adults, you’d expect some weepy, sentimental, tug your heartstrings affair. But what is the surprise is how you do get all that, but you also get risqué, bawdy, and earthy humor, and an enthralling narrative that knows how to charm without being cloying or soppy. If you haven’t watched this yet, I actually envy you, and how you’ll enjoy this.

Raya and the Last Dragon

9. Raya and the Last Dragon – This is the third animated feature on the list, and it comes as no surprise, as it celebrates the legends and mythical figures of our part of the world, Southeast Asia. What I loved about this, though, is the rich story-telling, the effective humor that’s displayed in so many of the set-up’s and sequences, and how the moral of the film about unity and working together is a potent one for the times.


10. Pig – From out of nowhere, a strong drama that explores the world of celebrity chefs and fine-dining, via a chef played by Nicholas Cage, who’s gone off the grid and is leading a quiet life with his truffle-hunting pig – and is forced to re-enter the world he turned his back to when his pig is kidnapped. It’s Cage showing he still has the stuff when the right project drops on his lap. A quiet, but intense film.

Riders of Justice

11. Riders of Justice – Mads Mikkelsen in a Danish action-drama revenge thriller that blends a quirky band of social misfits with Mads’ Markus, a soldier assigned to Afghanistan, who returns home to his troubled daughter, when his wife is killed in a Denmark train ‘accident’ that isn’t an accident. My black comedy of the year; and you’ll love the rich characterizations of the nerds and oddballs.


12. Spider-Man: No Way Home – Sure it’s fan service; but when fan service is elevated to this magnitude, and you can’t keep from smiling or grinning from ear to ear as the film unfolds, you know they did something right in the name of fan service. Plus how can you not adore a film from the USA that has someone speaking in Filipino, with no sub-titles. It’s like an Easter egg just for our corner of the world.

Of course there are other big and/or celebrated 2021 films, like House of Gucci, and The Worst Person in the World, but I haven’t watched them yet. I’m also not very partial to the film musical, so while I’m two thumbs up for Andrew Garfield’s performance in Tick, Tick…Boom, I wasn’t all that impressed with the film as a whole. So, for better or worse, these are my Top 12 of the year that was. How many of these have you watched? And loved?