If 2020 was the great closure of cinema, 2021 was the tentative re-opening. Delayed productions were finally released, film festivals resumed with a mix of in-person and online viewing options, and a rush of movies returned to the big screen. And if you weren’t comfortable (or willing) to return to the theater just yet, you benefitted from a hodgepodge of distribution strategies employed by the production studios. Whether it’s immediate availability on a streaming subscription service, access via Premium Video On Demand (PVOD) at a now-standard $19.99 price, or waiting 17 to 45 days instead of the pre-COVID 75 days for the exclusive theatrical window to run its course.

While many questions continue to linger over the future of cinema, 2021 offered some truly wonderful releases that made a compelling case for why cinema is alive and well, regardless of your screen size of choice. Below are just 10 films, big and small, that stimulated the senses, rewarded your attention, and offered an inspirational escape.

1) Bo Burnham: Inside

Directed by Bo Burnham

Photo: Courtesy of Netflix

One could argue this is a comedy/musical special, not a film, but its blending of visuals, music, voice, lighting, and editing is pure cinematic magic at work. Alone, in the confines of an incredibly small room for a period of 1 year during a pandemic, Burnham brilliantly captures the isolation and anguish of our lives today, told through the eyes of a millennial experiencing an existential breakdown. A feat of creative expression, Bo Burnham: Inside is a showcase of sensory delights allowing Burnham’s artistry to finally match his talent.


2) Bring Your Own Brigade

Directed by Lucy Walker

Photo: Courtesy of CBSN Films

At first glance, one could mistake Bring Your Own Brigade to be another entry in the growing collection of climate change docs, but far from it. Walker’s examination of the 2018 California wildfires focuses more on the bravery, generosity, and infuriating stubbornness humanity is capable of, often at the expense of our own best interests. While the film is capable of standing on its own merits any other year, it’s quite apropros coming at a time where failure to make seemingly inconsequential changes in our lives can have devastating impact.


3) C'mon C'mon

Directed by Mike Mills

Photo: Courtesy of A24

In C’mon C’mon Mills continues his study on family dynamics by focusing on childhood and memories. It’s a poignant story where a radio journalist who has no children, finds himself being the sole caretaker for his precocious nephew for a couple of weeks. But what Mills achieves is much more than a film about raising a child. It’s a profound examination of how the complexities of parenting take hold, how we are shaped by our experiences (both as children and as adults), and how precious the memories we make along the way are. Intimately filmed in black-and-white, with inventive use of sound recordings, and stellar performances from Joaquin Phoenix and Woody Norman, C’mon C’mon is layered with deep emotional textures that will feel familiar to all viewers.



Directed by Sian Heder

Photo: Courtesy of Apple Studios

For some viewers, CODA‘s narrative arc will feel a little formulaic – a coming-of-age story about a small-town teenager (Ruby in this instance) finding the courage to pursue her dreams. But what sets CODA apart, making it one of the best feel-good crowd pleasers of the year, is its respectful treatment of Ruby’s deaf family, making her the only hearing family member and the titular child of deaf adults. Funny and heartwarming, with several principal roles played by deaf actors, Heder makes a compelling case for more films like this, proving familiar storylines can rise to new heights when they focus on under-served characters and performers.


5) Drive My Car

Directed by Ryusuke Hamaguchi

Photo: Courtesy of Janus Films

Drive My Car is an absorbing and understated work of art. Its story focuses on a theater actor/director hired to adapt a play, and a personal driver assigned for his daily commute, each burdened by the pain of profound loss from their past and a lack of human connection in their present. From the 35-minute prologue that plays before the film’s opening credits setting the main story into motion, to the film’s meditative moments of silence – the extended hum of a moving car, water roaring past a moving ship, a deaf-mute woman signing intensely, the film’s sound fading into nothingness – Drive My Car is a deeply layered reflection on love, grief, art, and renewal.


6) Dune

Directed by Denis Villeneuve

Photo: Courtesy of Warner Bros.

I will confess, other than it being a famous book with sandworms, and Lynch and Sting having had some part, I knew very little about Dune before seeing Villeneuve’s version this year. But that may have been quite fortuitous for me, as I can only judge Villeneuve’s work for what it is – a cerebral sci-fi delight made with impeccable filmmaking expertise. It’s the kind of action film Hollywood rarely makes, offering a fantastically engrossing world with intriguing characters, an epic story, and big-screen spectacle. Dune is visually stunning and a feast for the senses that deserves to be seen on a big screen.


7) Mass

Directed by Fran Kranz

Photo: Courtesy of Bleeker Street Films

The premise alone may be too unnerving for some – two couples agree to meet for a difficult conversation in the aftermath of a school shooting. One couple are the parents of a teenage boy who was killed. The other couple are the parents of the shooter. The film at its core hinges on four emotionally raw performances that transcend acting and is amongst the best you will find this year. Unfolding mostly around a small table, Mass could have been performed as a stage play and would be worthy of comparisons to stage-to-screen classics such as 12 Angry Men and Glengarry Glen Ross. Working off a script that (thankfully) avoids politics and policy debates, Kranz’s feature directorial debut may go to some dark places making it a difficult watch at times, but it’s an honest and cathartic expression for an otherwise impossible topic.


8) The Power of the Dog

Directed by Jane Campion

Photo: Courtesy of Netflix

After a 12 year absence, Campion returns with a beautifully crafted western filled with rich textures and breathtaking landscapes. But unlike the John Wayne and Clint Eastwood films of the past, Campion subverts the western genre by laying bare its toxic masculinity and challenging the genre’s traditional tropes. Led by Benedict Cumberbatch’s menacing performance as a Montana rancher, and a scene-stealing performance by Kodi Smit-McPhee whose bookish and delicate mannerisms become a target for Cumberbatch’s ire, The Power of the Dog is a portrait of repression that ultimately unfolds like a classic David and Goliath story.


9) Street Gang: How We Got to Sesame Street

Directed by Marilyn Agrelo

Photo: Courtesy of Street Media

Before Sesame Street became the institution it is known as today, it was simply a collection of educators and artists looking to create something unique and experimental for the “idiot box” of the mid-1960s in order to educate young children (black and brown in particular). It is this underdog origin story that Street Gang delves into, going inside the hearts and minds of the show’s creators. A moving and inspiring tribute to the first 20 years of one of the best children shows ever – a show that ultimately became an answer to the civil rights and political movements of its time.


10) Summer of Soul (…Or, When The Revolution Could Not Be Televised)

Directed by Questlove

Photo: Courtesy of Distraction Media

Possibly the year’s best documentary, Summer of Soul revisits the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival. A six-week celebration featuring music’s biggest names, including B.B. King, Sly and the Family Stone, Gladys Knight and the Pips, Nina Simone, and a 20 year-old Stevie Wonder. Expertly directed by Questlove in his feature debut, and deftly edited by Joshua L. Pearson using 45 hours of unearthed archival footage, the film is a beautiful love letter to music, history, and black culture. Largely organized as a response to a time of political, social, and cultural upheaval in the U.S., Summer of Soul feels as relevant and timely today as it did 50+ years ago.