2021 was a weird year, perhaps even weirder than 2020, but it gave us a pretty solid slate of films. While the amount of “great” movies was less than in previous years, I think we were blessed with more than our fair share of very good films, as well as only a handful of titles I would deem “bad” (but more on those in another post).
It was a very good year for actors making their directorial debuts (with two appearing on this list and the likes of Maggie Gyllenhaal’s “The Lost Daughter” and Rebecca Hall’s “Passing” both being impressive first-time efforts), and theaters had a nice bounce-back with “Black Widow,” “Free Guy,” “Fast & Furious 9,” “Venom: Let There Be Carnage,” and “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings.”
There are quite a few films that I enjoyed and moved in-and-out of my Top 10 at various points throughout the year, including “Cruella,” “A Quiet Place Part II,” and “No Sudden Move” (this one really got slept on), and other films that deserve praise like “Barb and Star Go to Vista Del Mar,” “Luca,” “Annette,” and “The Boss Baby: Family Business” (quiet, haters!). I also want to give a shoutout to “Malignant,” one of the best so-bad-it’s-good films I’ve seen in years.
So, without further ado, here are my Top 10 Films of 2021.
Honorable Mention: Spider-Man: No Way Home
After Batman, my favorite superhero has always been Spider-Man. When the credits rolled on “Spider-Man 2” back in 2004, it was one of the first times I remember being physically wowed and moved by a movie. Seeing the bad guys of my childhood return was a blast, and I was shocked to have a silly Marvel superhero film make me get choked up not just once or twice, but on three occasions. It was an impressive feat that Sony was able to pull off, and it was the best theater experience I had had since “Avengers: Endgame” back in April 2019.
10. C’mon C’mon
Mike Mills’ simple but effect family dramedy has both tender moments and laugh out-loud-ones, with real, genuine performances from Joaquin Phoenix and youngster Woody Norman. Norman is a delightful little brat and the two share a warm chemistry. Seek this one out.
A very hard movie to sometimes sit through, Frank Kranz (making his directorial debut) keeps things simple in this drama about grieving parents. It features three of the best performances of the year in Jason Isaacs, Martha Plimpton, and Ann Dowd, and while it isn’t a film I would nominate to throw on casually on a Friday night, it asks some questions while still managing to offer a glimmer of hope amid dark situations.
8. Red Rocket
A simple, sun-soaked dramedy, Sean Baker’s film about a washed-up adult film star (played brilliantly by Simon Rex) being forced to return to his small Texas hometown is funny but also real.
A great and busy year for Andrew Garfield, he gives perhaps the second-best performance of his career (after “The Social Network”) here as Jonathan Larson, the real-life creator of the musical “Rent.” Lin-Manuel Miranda is impressive in is first time behind the camera, keeping things clicking along and staging engaging musical numbers. But at the end of the day, this is Garfield’s show.
6. The Mitchells vs. The Machines
Colorful, irrelevant, funny, and heart-warming, as we expect all Lord & Miller productions to be. The film is well-paced, well-voiced acted, and very creative; one of my favorite animated films in recent years.
It isn’t the last time I’ll use this word to describe a film on this list, but Joel Coen’s solo directing debut (without his brother Ethan) is a haunting experience. Wonderful black-and-white cinematography, a chilling score, and the small-scale sets that give off gothic, early German vibes all combine to make this a very effective take on the age-old tale.
4. Zack Snyder’s Justice League
Yes, this counts as a 2021 film. Some just call it a longer version of what we got in 2017, and on the surface that is the case. But the original “Justice League” was a condensed, tonally and color-confused mess that was 90% different footage than what Zack Snyder originally envisioned, and after years of fans *ahem* politely asking for Warner Bros. to #ReleaseTheSnyderCut, we finally got it. “Zack Snyder’s Justice League” is a vastly different film that builds up the mythos of its heroes and gives character development to each one. It may be a bit excessive (running four hours, although it moves fast for 242 minutes), but the fact it even exists is incredible, and I think it is the definitive Justice League film that fans can be proud of.
They just don’t make em like this anymore. This may have been the nail in the coffin of the theatrical adult blockbuster, because with a $100 million budget the film only grossed $30 million, and director Ridley Scott blamed millennials and “these [f’n] cellphones.” And it’s a shame that more people didn’t see this on the big screen, because it features some incredible battle sequences, including the titular duel. Adam Driver, Ben Affleck, and Matt Damon lead a great cast, while Jodie Comer turns in a star-making performance. Find this one when Disney drops it on streaming.
I didn’t love director Pablo Larraín’s last biopic about an influential wife, “Jackie” (though Natalie Portman was my top actress of that year), so going into “Spencer” I kind of expected to be impressed by Kristen Stewart’s Princess Diana but indifferent to everything else. I was very wrong, as the dizzying, hypnotic score by Jonny Greenwood (who killed it this year, also scoring “The Power of the Dog” and “Licorice Pizza”) and gorgeous cinematography by Claire Mathon, partnered with Stewart’s year-best performance in the titular role, create a haunting (there’s that word again!) experience that works as much as a historical drama as it does a phycological horror film. So long as you go into this film knowing it is more than a straight-up biopic about the doomed Princess, this one is full of rewards.
And the best film of 2021 is…
1. Judas and the Black Messiah
It isn’t too often that the number one film on a Top 10 list written in December will already be a two-time Academy Award winner, but that is the case here. Due to the Academy’s weird, knee-jerk reactions to 2020 and extended window last awards season, this 2021 film (rightfully) won Best Supporting Actor for Daniel Kaluuya and Best Original Song for “Fight For You.” Even before it won those awards, though, I had a feeling this would end up atop my 2021 list when I saw it way back in February. Kaluuya and Lakeith Stanfield turn in powerhouse performances and add stock to their already sky-high impressive resumes, the score blend of jazz and drums, and the cinematography featuring rain, shadows, and neon lights all combine for a film-going experience that is hard-hitting and gut-punching, but also fun and cool. Really impressed by this film, and at no point did any title really give it a scare to replace it atop my list. Check this one out if it’s eluded you all year, it is a film as relevant to today as it is to the 60s it depicts.
And there you have it, my Top 10 films of 2021. Some of them saw limited or no theatrical play, which is a but disheartening as a champion of cinemas, but it just means that hopefully they will be able to find bigger audiences moving forward. Hope you and yours had a safe 2021, and here’s to a more-normal 2022 at the movies!
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