The start of this decade saw a lot of hardship, loss, and anxiety to all due to the pandemic. With this, we all spent most of our time at home in 2020, not being able to go to the movies and become as one to enjoy something that brings so many emotions to everyone who buys a ticket. And while things aren’t one hundred percent the way anyone would want them to be, but movies came back to the theaters in a big way and brought one of the strongest years in recent memories. With giant blockbusters, moving dramas, gut-busting comedies, and tons of musicals, 2021 got us back into the cinematic swing of things and brought a small sense of normalcy back into my life.
10. In the Heights
In the musical of the year, Jon M. Chu’s adaptation of the Tony award winning musical by Lin-Manuel Miranda is an electric, special experience in which dreams taken center stage and come true before our eyes. Led by an excellent Latinx ensemble, we take a look at a community of individuals Hollywood normally doesn’t shine a light on and for me, as a Latino critic, this gave me a glimmer of hope that more projects like this can be greenlit. The musical numbers are collectively the best from any movie in 2021, the year of the musical, with songs like “96,000” and “Carnaval Del Barrio” show the fire and vigor within the soul of this community, while “Paciencia Y Fe” is the emotional core of this entire effort, displaying the sacrifices of our elders in order for future generations to thrive. Overall, this is a beautiful, vibrant time at the movies.
9. A Hero
There is no other director on this planet that builds tension like Asghar Farhadi. He can take a simple premise of a man trying to repay his debt and make it a thrilling examination on how our society listens and acts upon hearing a story. When I saw this movie back at the Middleburg Film Festival, my knuckles were clenched as every conversation took place, thus making me want to rush into the screen and help everyone in here make the right decisions for Rahim (Amir Jadidi) going forward. By the end, you are exhausted and broken by how this story concludes. A decade ago, Farhadi made a tense, complex masterwork with A Separation, and with A Hero, he’s made his best film since.
In the directorial debut of the year from Michael Sarnoski, Pig displays the performance of the year for veteran actor Nicolas Cage, who plays a reclusive chef who comes out of hiding to find his stolen pig. As I stated in my piece at AwardsWatch, “Pig is a grounded meditation of an artist trying to gain back the love they lost in the craft they are strongly passionate about, and in doing so, gain back a piece of themselves that has been missing for such a long time.” Part meta-commentary on Cage’s career, part meditation on grief and how someone copes with it, this is a deviously superb film that demands to be seen so you can feel everything it’s presenting.
7. The Power of the Dog
When I first saw Jane Campion’s powerful (no pun intended) film, I sat in my seat floored and puzzled at what I had just seen. Though over the next two weeks, it lingered, sticking in my mind until a rewatch, and from the opening line, it solidified itself as one of the best films of the year. In this thrilling drama, Campion and company explore the effects of toxic masculinity on all parties involved, and makes us think about not just the actions that happen on screen, but how we got here by the actions of the absent Bronco Henry. Mix in Cumberbatch, Dunst, Plemons, and Smit-McPhee’s electric performances, and you have yourself a new classic in the western genre.
2021 confirmed a lot of things, but the big one that stuck out for me is that writer, director Julia Ducournau is a goddamn genius. Case in point, in her new horror drama, she takes what could be a simple serial killer movie and turns it into the most complex, tender LGBTQ allegory we’ve seen in quite some time. As well as this, it’s also a film about not wanting to be alone, and accepting someone into your life so that anxiety of loneliness doesn’t dominate your life. Many wanted to call this movie the craziest, wildest film they have ever seen, and while it is that at times, overall, it’s just a moving movie on the back of this strong, bad ass filmmaker.
Director passion projects are something that I call to, and with Dune (Part 1), director Denis Villeneuve delivered a new standard for modern sci-fi with this space epic that is the birth of his very own franchise vehicle. This is the best blockbuster to be released since Mad Max: Fury Road, and shares a bond with that masterpiece, in that I still can’t believe this movie was made.
In my review for AwardsWatch, I spoke about the moment that I knew this was something special and made me a believer in Villeneuve and his version of Dune.
“Near the beginning of Dune, House Atreides arrives on the planet Arrakis, a desert world this noble family takes dominion over after an over 80-year rule by the tyrannical Harkonnen. As Duke Leto Atreides (Oscar Isaac), Lady Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson), and their son Paul (Timothée Chalamet) walk off their ship and onto their new home for the first time, the immaculate Han Zimmer score blasts bagpipes to signal their arrival. But for the audience, this instrument, along dozens of lingering shots, memorable lines of dialogue and engaging characters, are indicators that Denis Villeneuve’s grand sci-fi spectacle is more than just one of the best films released this year, but the beginning of the next big franchise we’ve been waiting for.”
4. C’mon C’mon
With the most honest film of the year, director Mike Mills uses his real life relationship with his child to mold another stellar film about family and the future of our world and the generation who will inherit this planet. With two fantastic performances from the veteran Joaquin Phoenix and newcomer Woody Norman, we explore this beautiful bond and feel every detail and emotion on screen.
As stated in my review at AwardsWatch, “By making this centered around Jesse, Mills makes it clear that the emotions we face as adults are not so dissimilar to that of a child. Most kids can be brutally honest and sharp, yet not know how to handle everything going on around them, thus anxiety builds within them. As Johnny is asking questions to either Jesse or his interviewees, this is Mills pondering the same quandaries to the future of our country and trying to see if they are just like his generation, scared or opportunistic about change.”
3. Licorice Pizza
Call me a fanboy, or a shill, but Paul Thomas Anderson movies are just my thing. In what is being called his lightest film to date, I walked out of it twice thinking the same two things, how terrible it is to grow up in a world full of terrible people, and how sad it is to pick between poor directions the path of life gives you. Of any film this year grappling with the personal crisis of growing up, I related the most with Alana (Alana Haim), as she seems stuck in choosing to hang with the immature hustlers or people her age or older that use and abuse her. It’s one of the most tragic films and falls in line with PTA’s calling card of focusing on broken people and letting the audience decide if they are going to be fixed or not. With the best duo of the year in Haim and Copper Hoffman, alongside tons of wonderful smaller performances, Licorice Pizza will go down as another marvelous, delicious entry into the bountiful filmography of PTA.
2. Drive My Car
Ryusuke Hamaguchi was my biggest discovery of the year from behind the camera. With the release of two films, we learned he is a new master in the arts of emotional, character based dramas with layered themes of grief and love mixed together. While Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy is a very good flick, it is his three hour, methodical opus about a renowned actor who directs his rendition of the classic play Uncle Vanya, and over the course of this production, while at the same time, he is still learning to live after the passing of his wife. Within this film, we get so many moments of art intersecting with pain and growth and it leads to the most soul enriching, therapeutic film I’ve seen it some time. Sure three hours seems like a long time, but with Hamaguchi behind the wheel, it’s a smooth ride.
1. The Green Knight
When I came back to the movie theaters, I was looking for that feeling I missed being locked at home for over a year; the feeling of being amazed, of seeing something so awe-inspiring that my cinematic viewing period changed forever. It took a little while, but once I saw David Lowery’s The Green Knight, that feeling and more ran through my eyeballs and into my heart and soul. In this medieval masterpiece, Lowery explores what it internally takes to become the hero of your own story, and face your fears head on, even when you know the ending to your journey. Lowery has been one of my favorite up and coming directors working but with this picture, he, alongside his crew who have made most of his movies together, have proven to be the best of their craft within their generation and working today.
My honorable mentions for the best of 2021 are:
12. The French Dispatch
14. The Matrix Resurrections
15. No Time to Die
16. The Tragedy of Macbeth
17. Petite Maman
18. West Side Story</strong
19. The Last Duel
20. Barb and Star Go To Vista Del Mar