I have been on record stating that 2020 was an embarrassment of riches compared to this year. You won’t find a Promising Young Woman, The Father, Babyteeth, Nomadland, or I’m Thinking About Ending Things within the group. However, this year has been a surging return of films from the studio system. A celebration of consistency, if you will. They saved their best movies for 2021 by anticipating the pandemic being a thing of the past (oops). That means they answered the call when subscription services moved in and told theatre chains to take a hike.
The 25 Best Films of 2021
Let’s celebrate the couch potatoes, and the theatre goers who brought back cinema to its former glory. Who may have found a way to save the medium for themselves. Please enjoy my 25 favorite films of 2021.
Honorable Mentions (in Alphabetical Order)
Bo Burnham: Inside
The closest thing we have to a comedic performance artist like Andy Kaufman is Bo Burnham. His newest creation, Bo Burnham: Inside, confirms it. A virtuoso comedic artist created a playlist of the manic highs and the depressive lows of the pandemic isolation experience. Bo Burnham: Inside is by far one of the riskiest and most original comedy specials to come out in years. It is a one-man show that will rub many the wrong way and spark a strong reaction with its supports and detractors.
Drive My Car
I walked away from Drive My Car feeling it wasn’t for me, but I found myself pondering it days and weeks later. It’s a deep dive into how fragile the ties that bind are by balancing heavy themes of control and free will that are battled over in toxic relationships.
Despite my slight criticism over the length and its story that can lean toward the south of sun-baked, Villeneuve’s film is well-crafted and has a maturity that we haven’t seen in an epic since The Lord of the Rings. It’s a heck of a ride. When all hell breaks loose, the invasion scenes that you see in the trailer are spectacular. I’ve never been one to set a moral high ground on how films should be watched, particularly with the rising costs of a theatrical experience, not to mention the current pandemic. Still, Dune demands to be seen on the big screen. A sophisticated sci-fi blockbuster, Villeneuve’s Dune has an epic scope, jaw-dropping action sequences, and stunning visuals.
The Green Knight
The Green Knight is a gripping fantasy adventure that’s a poetic head-scratcher by exploring a case of medieval existential dread. Writer and director David Lowery (The Old Man and the Gun) displays an impressive visual eye that almost acts as a beautiful distraction before offering profound revelations.
In the Heights
Jon M. Chu’s exultant adaptation of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s vibrant musical reaches levels of intoxicating enchantment once Corey Hawkins and Leslie Grace take those first steps off the fire escape. Still, beyond the jaw-dropping production numbers and numerous noteworthy turns, In The Heights is about one thing— community.
An actor who was never given the respect he deserved for his work in Capote, Clifton Collins Jr gives a titanic performance in Jockey. Brooding and dignified, Clint Bentley’s film is a character study of exceptional depth. Honest, thoughtful, and offers a plaintive cry.
King Richard is a film that Hollywood has in short supply these days, one that’s exciting entertainment and told with a refreshing earnestness. Rags to riches, against all odds, not
one-two in a million based on an actual story yarn about never giving up on your dreams to defy the odds to achieve honest-to-god greatness. It’s a genuine crowd-pleaser with an outstanding performance from Will Smith and Ellis. That rare film without the usual sports cliches puts a premium on raising a family with one thing — love.
The Last Duel
The thrilling and morally complex The Last Duel is an example of big-budget studio films guided by an experienced hand. The return to form for director Ridley Scott is a nuanced epic that illustrates how the winners don’t always decide history.
In Passing the most memorable scene is strangely cathartic as it leads to a moment we all know is the point of Rebecca Hall’s freshman effort. It’s genuinely shocking, and even the Greeks would say it is too tragic. What happens is subjective and open to interpretation, and those are the ways in which Rebecca Hall’s adaptation excels. The use of the intended consequence of debating cause and effect.
There’s no easy answer, and that’s where Passing finds that sweet spot— the grey areas.
What makes Sarnoski’s Pig so compelling is how the screenplay forgoes confrontation to move the story. Instead, Nicolas Cage’s Rob uses empathy and compassion to connect with people in a way that is always unexpected and creates a beautiful emotional resonance.
Produced by Ryan Murphy, Pray Away explores the rise of conversion camps across the country, from the deep south to California’s “liberal” state. What Kristine Stolakis’s documentary does so well, and powerfully so, is listening. Watch while she allows her subjects to fill the screen with their stories. Listen to their reaction that gives way to powerful emotions that can come over you — from both sides. Does Pray Away offer a one-sided agenda? Of course. However, because it’s on the right side of it, she allows opponents to have their voices heard. You’ll notice they are unvarnished, uncut, and unfiltered. Depending on what lens you use, you’ll end up on one side of the issue.
Spider-Man: No Way Home
Take the trip and ignore the social media discontent and the demise of the theatrical experience. (I mean, how do you think studios pay for those small, independent films we love during a pandemic?). The Spidey multiverse is just so much goddamn fun! Spider-Man: No Way Home is an ambitious piece of delightful popcorn movie gluttony that’s an all-encompassing gift to different generations of Marvel fans. A refreshing blast and the year’s best guilty pleasure.
tick tick… BOOM!
Andrew Garfield’s poignant exploration of Jonathan Larson’s personal and professional struggles is a sight to behold. Along with a cast full of Broadway royalty and the scene-stealing Robin de Jesús (give him an Oscar nomination) make tick tick… Boom! one of the year’s most enjoyable and moving films.
West Side Story
Steven Spielberg’s West Side Story is a powerhouse. A masterful big-budget remake with bold storytelling choices that spares absolutely no expense. The remake of West Side Story proves you don’t have to overhaul a classic. You need to make a conscious effort to correct its wrongs and preserve its soul.
Yakuza and a Family
Formerly known as Yakuza and a Family, but rebranded as A Family on Netflix, it is a killer gangster epic. Blood is spilled, guts are splattered, and some sentimental tears are shed. This is about honor, after all. Writer and director Michihito Fujii brings his trademark visual style, a multi-layered script, and the perfect balance of unnerving violence and criminal repentance. Fujii’s film is a superb example of narrative and visual storytelling when the shine of being a gangster loses its luster.
M.N. Miller’s Top Ten Films of 2021
10a. Power of the Dog
The Power of the Dog is a gorgeous-looking Western from famed director Jane Campion. She takes the 1967 source material of the same name from Thomas Savage, that’s a fascinating character study on societal oppression, and layers the film with the duality of intolerance, sexual orientation, and male toxicity. Very rarely is someone born cruel. Many times prejudice is born out of someone being oppressed. And sexual orientation has nothing to do with gender roles or abilities. While the ending is underplayed and possibly less effective considering the time it was written, The Power of the Dog explores this concept with striking results and a rousing visual narrative
They say you should write what you know. Kenneth Branagh’s Belfast is a joyous celebration and critical eye of the family and community. A film brimming with those wholly mindful moments that remind you what makes life worth living. And that’s where the film excels. Examining what is more important — the micro versus the macro — doing what is best for your family or being part of a community. It’s a double-edged sword. Examing both sides will lead to some oppression.
I loved every second of Belfast. It expertly blends genres like the light-hearted coming of age and sobering drama. Along with a phenomenal cast and being beautifully shot, it’s Branagh’s finest one to date.
9. Being the Ricardos
Idealistic? Are they even romanticized? Sure, it’s Aaron Sorkin. But the feeling I had coming out of the Being the Ricardos screening was that of goosebumps. Honest to God, goosebumps. Why? Because very few filmmakers can write dialogue the way Aaron Sorkin can. The playwright and television icon’s script is filled with incredibly witty, snappy dialogue perfectly timed by its talented cast. His words make the movie fly by. Combined with a beloved subject matter, Being the Ricardos is addictive movie magic.
Pablo Larraín’s character study examines the delicate effects of isolation, fame, individuality, and he is a master at finding the psychological space that tremors with haunting piquancy. And it helps when you have an actress in Kristen Stewart who finds greatness. Her performance in Spencer encompasses mind, body, and soul.
7. Don’t Look Up
Besides Leonardo DiCaprio giving his funniest and most unhinged performance, this is how I learned to stop worrying and love the Netflix film Don’t Look Up — it’s a savage American political satire and the best since Wag the Dog (and anyone who quotes Jack Handy in the first few minutes of their movie is a genius in my book). It’s all conjured up in a way that’s entertaining and genuinely terrifying because, even if satirical, the fact is the situation is still fresh and current.
In other words, to repeat Jason Orlean, Adam McKay times that s**t perfectly.
6. The Worst Person in the World
Joachim Trier’s film evolves into something achingly human and beautifully tragic that’s an endlessly creative look at the consequences of arrested development. Still, smoking a cigarette in front of a cancer patient does qualify you as the The Worst Person in theWorld, no?
There are very few movies with four performances as good as in this film. Mass is an acting tour-de-force that is hard to articulate because of its natural ineffability. Fran Kranz’s staggering debut is filled with compassionate empathy, volatile indignation, unrepentant confessions, and even magnanimous forgiveness.
4. Nine Days
Here is a film that debuted at Sundance, pre-pandemic in 2020, aged like fine wine, and reveals more with repeated viewing. In what may be the most underappreciated turn this year, Winston Duke leads a deep bench of actors in a film that has been forgotten about, yet everyone had been clamoring for. Nine Days looks through its own highly contemplative lens of love, hate, pride, and joy to view others’ autonomy.
Edison Oda’s long-awaited debut feature is a pensive meditation on the act of playing God and the randomness of choosing what makes a life worth living.
CODA is cathartic. A film that will put a giant lump in your throat while at the same time lifting your spirits. Emilia Jones is phenomenal. Troy Kotsur gives a funny and poignant performance. It’s one of the year’s best.
But let’s examine what makes Sian Heder’s film so meaningful. The title is an acronym that stands for a” Child of a Deaf Adult”, a term developed by Millie Brother because 90% of children born from deaf parents are not deaf or hearing impaired. The importance of this may not be evident to most. The children of two deaf parents parallel those children of first-generation immigrants who rely on their children to be their liaison, guide, and interpreters from the deaf to hearing worlds. This is why CODA works with deeper meanings than many realize. It placed white faces and used a nonimmigrant story to get that salient point across about acceptance and intolerance.
Director Jonas Rassmussen expands the boundaries of what a documentary can be. A powerful, heart-rending view of human desperation. A haunting family odyssey told in a completely fresh way. You’ve never experienced anything quite like the sorrow and elation of Flee.
1. Licorice Pizza
Today, only two directors can tackle almost any genre while giving you an experience uniquely their own. Paul Thomas Anderson is one of them. His new film, Licorice Pizza, is a notably light one on the surface. However, his view on growing up and finding yourself in the era when America began to evolve from communalism to individualism in 1970s Los Angeles reveals a surprising amount of depth that sneaks up on you. And powerfully so. You will find yourself laughing at the egomaniacs Alana (Alana Haim) and Gary (Cooper Hoffman) encounter. (Bradley Cooper gives one of his most fiercely funny performances in an extended cameo). All while they attempt to carve out something for themselves and find their place in life. Licorice Pizza is a refreshing comedy that takes you to another time and place.
It’s the year’s best film.