What To Watch in 2021: 20 Movies That Are So Good That They're Almost Sacred to Me

January 6, 2021

Ever since I was a kid, I have been in love with film. Some of my earliest memories involve watching movies, and it was a way my family and I all bonded. We didn’t watch them to pass the time while playing on our phones or not paying attention to the plot. We actually sat down and watched them, savoring everything, because movies are art. They’ve always been a big part of my identity because of that, and they’ve shaped how I see the world, and how I tell stories as a writer. Since meeting my partner, that’s only intensified. He studied film in school, and has won film festival competitions for his more recent work. He has taught me so much about the process of making films, and has given me an even deeper appreciation for the industry. Every year now, I try to watch as many of them as possible, noting down each one I see to keep track of them. Last year I watched 330 new films. I have very versatile taste, but they all tend to be deep or extremely touching. Here are my top 20 of all time (Note: I am not including the Lord of the Rings Trilogy because there are three of them, but I consider them all to be the greatest film masterpieces of all time):

1. The Secret Life of Walter Mitty

This movie changed my life. I saw it when I was a teenager, and I cried through most of it—not because it’s sad, but because it’s so moving. It’s about finding yourself (in a non-cliché way), exploring the world, really seeing others deeply, and realizing that life is beautiful. It leaves me feeling wonderstruck every time, and it actually inspired me to spontaneously travel to Iceland last summer. It’s one of those movies where I’ve found myself making decisions based off of what that movie taught me. It also happens to be really funny, but between the jaw dropping scenery, dreamy music, and inspiring story line, it’s just my favorite movie of all time.

Available on: Hulu, Youtube ($), iTunes ($), Vudu ($), Amazon Prime ($), & Google Play ($)

2. About Time

This is another life-changing movie. Featuring some of my favorite actors of all time (Rachel McAdams, Domhnall Gleeson), the movie poster instantly convinced me to watch it. I was expecting a romantic comedy, to be honest. It turned out to be the deepest movie I had ever seen. It does have romance, but it’s really about enjoying life and paying attention to every little moment’s detail—from the way the light looks on your partner’s hair to the sound of rain on the glass. It’s a really funny movie as well, and the scenery of the U.K. is very beautiful, but at its core it’s a kindhearted love letter to what it means to be alive.

Available on: Netflix, Youtube ($), iTunes ($), Vudu ($), Amazon Prime ($), & Google Play ($)

3. Interstellar

As someone who has always been absolutely obsessed with outer space, quantum mechanics, and plot lines involving time, this film is among my favorites. Blighted by famine, droughts, and dust storms, Earth is no longer habitable, and an astronaut played by Matthew McConaughey must travel via a wormhole to a distant viable planet. With environmental messaging, the film has a sense of urgency, that pulls this deep and larger-than-life story along. The acting is fantastic, the visuals are mind-blowing, and the music and feelings have stayed with me for a long time. It’s an incredibly beautiful tribute to love, and the ending is a masterpiece in itself.

Available on: Hulu, Sling TV, Youtube ($), Vudu ($), Amazon Prime ($), & Google Play ($)

4. Soul

This one is newer, and I’m honestly shocked it took the place of the next film on this list, but it was so deep and contemplative. This animated film is beautiful, incredibly creative, and full of love. It is a tender homage to living, and to not taking anything for granted. It’s my new favorite Pixar film by far, and it gracefully tackled what I would argue to be the biggest question ever asked—what’s the purpose of life?

Available on: Disney+

5. Loving Vincent

Completely hand-painted in Van Gogh’s style by a team of artists, this film really spoke to me as a painter myself. It is an amazingly moving tribute to the artist himself, who saw the world so intimately, and with so much love. The world around us is worth noticing, and this film is a stunning reminder of that.

Available on: Hulu, Youtube ($), Vudu ($), Amazon Prime ($), & Google Play ($)

6. Moonrise Kingdom

I am a sucker for Wes Anderson films, but this one felt really special to me. The quirky color schemes and dry humor all speak to me, but the plot involving adventurous and unruly island children reminded me of my childhood, growing up on an island. I loved what the film had to say about friendship and love, and it felt like an intimate look at how wonderfully strange it is to care so much about each other.

Available on: Youtube ($), iTunes ($), Vudu ($), Amazon Prime ($), & Google Play ($)

7. We Bought A Zoo

While I ethically object to zoos, this is based on a beautiful, true story, and the message really transcends everything else. As the famous quote from this film goes, “Sometimes all you need is 20 seconds of insane courage.” The film explores one family’s passage through grief, landing on a profound truth: ask yourself, “Why not?” and just try everything. Follow your gut, and enjoy every second of it.

Available on: Hulu, HBO Max, Amazon Prime, Youtube ($), iTunes ($), & Google Play ($)

8. Before Sunrise

Almost all of this movie is unscripted, which lends it a sparkling authenticity. The entire film is an all-night conversation between strangers in Amsterdam as they wander the streets. This is a movie that restored my love for humankind during a really rough year for me, and between the acting and the thought-provoking insights, it feels like a meditative experience.

Available on: Hulu, HBO Max, Amazon Prime, Youtube ($), iTunes ($), & Google Play ($)

9. Dead Poets Society

I saw this movie for the first time as a kid, and it shaped my childhood. It was one of my dad’s favorite movies, and it we all quoted it often—especially, “Seize the day.” It would be notable for the scenery alone, taking place at a cozy boarding school, with Canadian geese and misty ponds scattered all around. The heart of the film is in the way the plot line drives one to a forceful conclusion—don’t waste a minute of life. Don’t let it go by. Just go for everything, and take everything in. This has built me into a motivated, passionate, driven person, and it’s a big reason why I believe in myself so much.

Available on: Hulu, Sling TV, Amazon Prime, Philo, iTunes ($), & Vudu ($)

10. Begin Again

This is a really touching movie about listening to yourself, fresh starts, and music. The cinematography of New York City is so lovely. There are many lens flares and dreamy morning shots of quiet neighborhoods. A scene that really stuck with me is one where the two main characters (Keira Knightley and Mark Ruffalo) walk all over the city at night using headphone splitters to listen to their favorite songs and get to know each other. It’s a really heartwarming tribute to what it means to be human, and it really deepened my love for other people.

Available on: Youtube ($), iTunes ($), Vudu ($), Amazon Prime ($), & Google Play ($)

11. Call Me By Your Name

This is a beautiful love story between Elio, an Italian teenager and Oliver, an American grad student. But it’s also just a really stunning film thanks to the setting of rolling hills, European villages, and summer fruit groves. The ambiance of this movie is extremely dreamy, and the ending is the most original I have ever seen. This movie makes me feel so many emotions.

Available on: Hulu, Sling TV, Starz, Philo, YouTube ($), & Vudu ($)

12. Inception

I love complicated plot lines, and it doesn’t get more complicated than this. Leonardo DiCaprio plays a thief who steals information by entering his victims’ subconscious in a shared dream world. This movie is also just really visually amazing, but the acting, depth, and emotional tug throughout have kept me rewatching this one for years.

Available on: Youtube ($), iTunes ($), Vudu ($), Amazon Prime ($), & Google Play ($)

13. Slumdog Millionaire

I saw this film when it came out, and it really inspired me in so many ways. The message of gratitude, the importance of relationships, and kindness just sweep this beautiful film. Set in India, this is also a movie that gives me a lot of wanderlust. While this is a deeply melancholic film, there is so much joy throughout it as well.

Available on: Cinemax, Youtube ($), iTunes ($), Vudu ($), Amazon Prime ($), & Google Play ($)

14. The Village

Filled with truths about ourselves as people and about society as a whole, this is another favorite from my childhood. It taught me a lot about curiosity, norms, and bravery. Some of my favorite actors (Bryce Dallas Howard, Joaquin Phoenix, Adrien Brody) are in it, the autumn scenery is beautifully moving, and the ending is absolutely life-changing.

Available on: Youtube ($), iTunes ($), Vudu ($), Amazon Prime ($), & Google Play ($)

15. Shutter Island

This is another mind-boggling movie, and it’s one that really moved me when I first saw it as a kid. It’s scary, but in a psychological rather than gory way, and the plot line is fantastic. Two U.S. marshals descend on a psychiatric ward for the criminally insane on the eponymous Shutter Island to investigate the disappearance of one of the inmates. Some of the best actors of our day (Leonardo DiCaprio, Michelle Williams, Mark Ruffalo) bring forward the underlying message—what does it mean to be “good”? Taking place on a stormy island in the Atlantic, this film also had a heavy undertow to it, which I felt really suited the themes presented.

Available on: Youtube ($), iTunes ($), Vudu ($), Amazon Prime ($), & Google Play ($)

16. The Dark Knight

I know it’s a part of the Batman series, but this movie felt different. Far more than a typical superhero film, it’s a commentary about what it means to be a part of society, and what a good person actually is. The music is incredible, the acting raw, and the strength of the characters highlighted. I saw it in theaters when it came out, and every time I have seen it since, I find more nuggets of wisdom to think about in regards to norms, good versus evil, and being flawed.

Available on: HBO Max, Youtube ($), iTunes ($), Vudu ($), Amazon Prime ($), & Google Play ($)

17. Late Spring

Shot in the 1940s, this Japanese film was one I watched blindly for class and fell in love with. In post-WWII Japan, a young woman named Noriko resists marrying and leaving behind her widower father. It deals with themes of independence and self-evolution, and brings home the question of the balance between loyalty to family and having your own identity.

Available on: HBO Max, iTunes ($), & Amazon Prime ($)

18. La La Land

I love musicals, and while a nostalgic favorite for me will always be Mamma Mia, La La Land is a more recent and colorful addition to my favorites. The music is stunning, and the California scenery felt very homey to me. The messages about valuing relationships and following your heart really got to me, and by the end, I was definitely in tears.

Available on: Hulu, Youtube ($), iTunes ($), Vudu ($), Amazon Prime ($), & Google Play ($)

19. Gladiator

Based on true stories from ancient Rome, this film somehow felt really relevant to today. The vulnerability of the main character, a former general turned into a slave gladiator (played by Russell Crowe) is so moving, and the music is nothing short of ethereal. Every time I see it I find myself wondering about what the true value of living is, as well as why it matters to live courageously. It’s so inspiring and while extremely sad, it makes me feel less alone.

Available on: fuboTV, Philo, Amazon Prime, Youtube ($), Vudu ($), & Google Play ($)



Photo: via Wikipedia; Unsplash

Emily Iris Degn
Emily Iris Degn is an environmental travel writer, editor, passionate eco-journalist, professional artist, and published eco-poet. She is from the San Juan Islands, but currently lives in the Blue Ridge Mountains with her incredible partner and beloved sea shell collection. You can find her in many spaces on Instagram: @emilyirisdegn @happyvegansfeed @emfallstoearth @emilydegnart OR at emilyirisdegn.com.


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