2021 Year in Review

Illustration by Ilya Milstein.
Illustration by Ilya Milstein.

As Spider-Man: No Way Home swings into the top spot in our tenth annual Year in Review, we examine what your 2021 film watching patterns say about humanity, art and the pandemic-stricken film industry.  

The Letterboxd Year in Review is presented by NEON.

As voted by you, Jon Watts’ Spider-Man: No Way Home, Hideaki Anno’s Evangelion 3.0+1.0: Thrice Upon a Time, and Kamila Andini’s Yuni are the three highest-rated films in our 2021 Year in Review, while Denis Villeneuve’s Dune is the year’s most popular film—and Villeneuve himself the most-watched director.

The 2021 Year in Review

This time last year, long lockdowns and a global vaccination effort gave us some hope about returning to cinemas and in-person festivals. Then the variants came, and here we still are—cinemas open for those who dare, festivals pivoting to virtual all over again. But throughout the chaotic mixed bag of 2021, no matter which screen we saw them on, we still had movies.

And those movies introduced us to bright new faces in faraway places, as filmmakers transported our locked-down imaginations to the Fårö Islands, to Portorosso, to the peak of Everest, to Harlem and Soho, and down Fear Street, in buses and cars, on bicycles and foot.

“Nothing comforts anxiety like a little nostalgia,” Morpheus told us in The Matrix Resurrections, and sure enough 2021 saw us leaning on past favorites for reassurance as we continued to navigate the many plot twists of the pandemic. Our passions were rewarded with deep fan service and thrilling revisitations; from The Beatles to Shinji Ikari, Mr Anderson to the Peters Parker, the Toretto clan to House Atreides, and, yes, the Snyder Cut, it has been good to see old friends (and foes) again.

Time for a relaxing soak in the Letterboxd Year in Review. (The Matrix Resurrections.)
Time for a relaxing soak in the Letterboxd Year in Review. (The Matrix Resurrections.)

We sought out deeply personal, morally complex, explicitly local tales, from the unbelievably real (Amin, a queer Afghan refugee, who tells his profoundly moving history through evocative animation), to the feels-too-true fictional (Emi, a Romanian educator, sees her personal life become suddenly, ridiculously public in a Covid-era parent-teacher showdown of looney levels). 

We found catharsis in stories of re/birth; we liked it when characters took us on their vacations; we were on board with people doing right by people (especially when they’d done wrong); and we plugged into stories of connection—with others, and with ourselves. 

In wild capers like Julia Ducournau’s Titane and Emma Seligman’s Shiva Baby, we experienced transformative representation. Theater kids got their moment, as we added a new category to acknowledge the abundance of musical feature films in 2021. Artists opened their creative souls in autobiographical cinematic treats like The Souvenir Part II and Belfast. We saw graceful magic in Petite Maman, giant magnets in F9, gruesome memories in Censor, gourmet mourning in Pig.

We also watched a perfectly nice, movie-loving, New Beverly-frequenting, shabby young street photographer being made over, as the latest in a long line of “am I a bet? am I a fucking bet?” films became your most loved-to-hate movie—because in 2021, we needed silly.

Okay but horseback is maybe not the best place to be scrolling your 2021 stats. (He’s All That.)
Okay but horseback is maybe not the best place to be scrolling your 2021 stats. (He’s All That.)

It’s rewarding to watch the collective power of Letterboxd voices bring deserving films to the attention of the powers-that-be. Indonesian Letterboxd helped to make Yuni the highest-rated drama, international, and woman-directed film; Argentine Letterboxd ensured History of the Occult became the highest-rated horror; and Filipino Letterboxd elevated Cleaners to the top of the directorial debut and comedy categories, and sixth-highest-rated overall. (Cleaners had already topped the highest-rated films at the 2021 midway point, whereupon the indie was picked up by local and international streaming sites.)

“It still feels like a system error, because we are way too small compared to other films,” Cleaners director Glenn Barit told us when we delivered the news. “At the same time, we are still extremely grateful because our film gets to be discovered by more and more people who love films around the world. We are very thankful for Letterboxd and its entire community.”

Let’s hope the same path lies ahead for Yuni, which is seeking US and other distribution as it travels the festival circuit. When we told writer and director Kamila Andini about her film’s multiple category placings in the Year in Review, she was honored that the story of an intelligent high schooler whose future is threatened by an arranged marriage has created such an impression.

Yuni was made for a woman’s voice. The connection from the community shows that this issue happens all over the world,” Andini told us, adding that the Letterboxd community’s reviews and ratings “give huge energy for me as a creator. I won’t take it for granted.”

Yuni, what do we need to do to beat Zendaya as Most Watched Actress? (Yuni.)
Yuni, what do we need to do to beat Zendaya as Most Watched Actress? (Yuni.)

While the Letterboxd membership is not a monoculture, we discerned some recognizable patterns in your reviews and activity over the past year, which the complicated, Covid-stricken, slowly changing film industry might like to take note of (props to those who already are):

  • Audiences really, really like seeing themselves reflected on screen. When we see ourselves, it has a tangible, celebrate-able impact on us.
  • We love it when filmmakers take artistic swings, big and small. When Joachim Trier brings a city to a standstill, when Jane Campion buries the devil in the detail, when Lady Gaga takes out the trash, and Paul Verhoeven doubles down on his naughty habits. Or when an indie filmmaking crew from the Philippines photocopy every frame of their debut feature and hand-color it with highlighter pens.
  • When it comes to fan service, it is basically impossible to over-deliver. It’s what we deserve—particularly right now.
  • We are good with metatextual weirdness, and metatextual weirdness is good for us—as long as it’s delivered with life-affirming love. Cynicism is over!
  • And stupidity is in! Don’t ever stop, even if we’re smashing that one-star-plus-heart combo. Especially when we’re smashing that one-star-plus-heart combo. (But if you want your favorite silly comfort rewatch to appear in the Year in Review, you need to rate it with all your Barbs-and-Stars next time.)
The nomination for best dance choreography of 2021 is a lock. (Barb & Star Go to Vista Del Mar.)
The nomination for best dance choreography of 2021 is a lock. (Barb & Star Go to Vista Del Mar.)

The Year in Review is based on the Letterboxd community’s combined ratings as at January 1, 2022, and films were eligible if they had any national release worldwide between January 1 and December 31, 2021. As you dive in, a pro tip: if you are reading on devices with keyboards, we recommend navigating via the up/down arrow keys for the most satisfying experience. 

While you scroll, you might like to listen to The Letterboxd Show’s Year in Review episode, in which hosts Gemma and Slim open up the Letterboxd Hotline to film experts Matt Singer, Juan Barquin and Bintang Lestada to contextualize the highest-rated films. Also in the same episode are senior editor Mitchell Beaupre and London correspondent Ella Kemp, two of the many excellent regular and guest writers you’ll find on Journal, our online magazine, which we launched on the occasion of our tenth birthday (and where you’re reading this update).

Journal is where you’ll find filmmakers chatting to us about their favorite movies. In 2021 we delighted in speaking with Julia Ducournau, Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Ryusuke Hamaguchi, David Lowery, Danis Goulet, Joanna Hogg, Mike Mills, Bassam Tariq, Siân Heder, Janicza Bravo, Prano Bailey-Bond, Kiyoshi Kurosawa, Melanie Lynskey, Emma Seligman and so many more.

He’s wall that. (Bo Burnham: Inside.) 
He’s wall that. (Bo Burnham: Inside.) 

Some important thank yous: to NEON for partnering with us to support this retrospective, to Ilya Milstein for 2021’s illustration, and to MUBI for supporting our personalized “wrapped” emails (coming your way in the next day or so, if you logged ten or more films in 2021 and are opted-in to emails from us).

To the Letterboxd crew: Jack Moulton for data deep-dives and list-making, David Maplesden for shaking down the numbers, Aaron Yap for driving our social car, Dominic Corry and Mitchell Beaupre for curatorial caretaking, Gemma Gracewood for her editorial eye, Slim and the rest of the crew for support from the sidelines. And to Matthew and Karl, for creating this friendly home of film nerdery ten short years ago.

To all the filmmakers for taking us beyond our four too-familiar walls (special shout-out to Bo Burnham’s four most obsessively rewatched walls). And to all of you, for bringing a collective sense of joy to the pursuit of watching, and loving, movies.

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