The Best Films (I Saw) From 2021
On January 1st, 2021, all the movies theaters were closed here in New York City.
So on January 2nd, I took the train to Stamford, Connecticut, and saw two movies. In a theatre. For the first time in almost a year. All I can say about 2021 is that it’s so good to be back.
I watched a LOT this year. Between January 2nd and December 31st, I watched over 80 movies. And that doesn’t include any of the Oscar shorts that I watched before the ceremony.
I tried my best to watch all of Wes Anderson’s filmography.
My friends and I did the ENTIRE MCU, from top to bottom (they’d never seen all of them before). We’re now caught up as of the release of Spider-Man: No Way Home.
I watched movies I never thought I’d see. Indie horror movies. German experimental movies. Even weird, absurd, fantasy films. I took this year as an opportunity to expand my horizons.
And now, I’m ready to share that with you. I’m sorry this article is a week late.
In this article, I’ll talk about the year that was in film from my perspective. I’ve divided the movies into three categories: The weirdest movies I saw in 2021, the best movies I watched for the first time in 2021, and the best movies from this year, like I normally do.
In order to not seem like a loser, I have disregarded any films nominated for Oscars this year. As much as I LOVED Promising Young Woman and News of the World, they came out in 2020, and would not be eligible for the best lists of this year. I could have seen them last year but I didn’t. It is what it is.
I have a lot to get to, so let’s jump right in.
The Weirdest Films I Saw In 2021
Joe Wright, 2021
I guess I wouldn’t say this movie is weird, it’s just bad. When you can tell from the opening title that the movie’s gonna suck, it’s never a good sign.
I suppose I would say The Woman in the Window was weird in that it was laid out to be this star-studded psychological thriller about an insane woman who witnesses what she thinks is a murder across the street from her apartment. I mean, it IS that, but a bad script and poor direction plagues this sing from beginning to end.
4. Mr. Jones
Karl Mueller, 2013
Like most horror movies, the characters in Mr. Jones fall into the same problem- they continue to do dumb shit in the woods and just never have the wherewithal to leave and never come back.
The premise is simple: a couple goes into the woods for a full year in order to film a documentary (and I mean, they leave their JOBS to go do this), only to find that the boyfriend has absolutely no idea what he’s doing. One day the two stumble upon sculptures/scarecrows made by this mysterious figure, Mr. Jones, which have been distributed around the country and have made people’s lives hell. Eventually the movie descends into absurdity as the characters… become Mr. Jones? I honestly have no idea.
It’s like The Truman Show meets Blair Witch, but is astoundingly more confusing than it is scary.
3. The One I Love
Charlie McDowell, 2014
Contrary to the last two, The One I Love might be the one movie on this list I actually enjoyed. Like Mr. Jones, it involves a couple (Mark Duplass and Elisabeth Moss) who go to a couples retreat, only to find that things aren’t what they seem.
Let’s just say there’s a special “guest house” that requires the actors to double as themselves.
Despite the low budget, it’s really incredible what you can do with a good script and good actors (and a friend who has a really nice house you can rent out) to make a simple concept jump off the page of the script and past the screen of your TV. It’s a really good pandemic movie (two people going mad inside their home) with a very clever ending that leaves you wondering long after the movie is over.
Janzica Bravo, 2020
Never before has a UTI provided us with so much exposition.
Zola is a trip from beginning to end, adapted from a series of tweets by Aziah “Zola” King back in 2015, taking us through the misadventures of Zola (Taylour Paige) and Stefani (Riley Keough), as their journey to Florida to earn money from stripping avalanches into something way, way crazier. It’s… a lot. Trust me, it’s a lot.
I guess my biggest problem with Zola, though, is just how quickly it rumbles through all the events of the movie without the stakes being all that high. I kept anticipating something suuuuper crazy to happen, and it never really did. Overall though, the acting’s great, particularly by Paige, Keough, Ari’el Stachen and Colman Domingo, but I probably wouldn’t see this one again if given the opportunity.
1. Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas
Terry Gilliam, 1998
I tend to stay away from movies that I just know I’ll have no idea about what happens in them. But when the opportunity came about to watch Inception and Fear and Loathing on the same evening, I just couldn’t say no. I watched them back-to-back, with Inception first.
At least at first watch, you can sort of gauge what Inception is about. And having only seen it a handful of times, with this watch coming after nearly a decade, I definitely understood it way more than I had the first time.
Inception is just a mind fuck. Fear and Loathing is off the rails for literally no specific reason at all. I’m lost. I couldn’t tell you what happens after the first 20 minutes when Johnny Depp and Benicio del Toro go to a dune buggy race.
I guess, knowing what I know about Hunter S. Thompson and his absurd meal routines, I shouldn’t be surprised that this movie is both meticulous AND absurd, if you can believe that.
“We were somewhere around Barstow on the edge of the desert when the drugs began to take hold,” is the first line of Terry Gilliam’s film. Boy, is that the understatement of the century.
The Best Films I Saw (For the First Time) in 2021:
Christopher Landon, 2020
Vince Vaughn, playing a serial killer, switches bodies with a high schooler in this wacky horror comedy. Vaughn is amazing and why people continue to hate him for no reason is beyond me.
Honorable Mention: Run Lola Run
Tom Twyker, 1998
Bizarre and beautiful, Tom Twyker’s 1998 thriller film takes on an 80 minute thrill ride about a girl who needs to find 100,000 Marks to save her boyfriend from certain death.
This film is akin to a choose your own adventure book, in that we’re taken through some of the same moments over and over again, with different outcomes each time. It’s great, give it a watch.
Honorable Mention: Dead Poets Society
Peter Weir, 1989
This film is a testament to just how great Robin Williams is as a dramatic actor. Equal parts tender and dramatic, Dead Poets Society is as emotional as it is inspiring. All teachers should be more like Mr. Keating.
Wes Anderson, 1998
I was so close to finishing Wes Anderson’s filmography this year, which includes The French Dispatch, which I also saw this year. I was supposed to have finished it all in January before French Dispatch came out in October… but other stuff got in the way. But Rushmore was unlike anything I was used to when it came to one of my favorite directors.
Definitely way more focused on words and characters than it was on symmetry and aesthetic, Rushmore is a solid intro into Anderson’s array of quirky films and characters, particularly in the case of Jason Schwartzman’s Max Fischer, who gets in way over his head in courting one of his teachers. Of the Wes films I hadn’t seen before, this one was definitely my favorite.
4. Lake Mungo
Joel Anderson, 2008
A niche Australian horror movie that is framed like a documentary about a family coming to grips with the death of their daughter and the supernatural events that occur after her disappearance- you could say I’m opening up my palette when it comes to the movies I watch, I guess.
Lake Mungo is both creative and genuinely thrilling. And even though it has only one jump scare in it, it more than makes up for it. If you’re in the mood for something spooky, mysterious, and dare I say slightly existential (our biggest fear is confronting our own mortality), check out Joel Anderson’s 2008 psych thriller. It’s worth it.
Sergio Pablos, 2019
A Christmas movie!! I don’t really know how I missed this one. This heartwarming tale tells the story of Santa Claus framed from the perspective of the letters that we send to the big guy every year. Jason Schwartzman’s Jesper Johnson learns the importance of bringing joy to other people (and learning a little bit about responsibility in the process), and proves that Christmas can melt the icy chill of people with the coldest hearts.
Klaus features some excellent voice acting from the likes of JK Simmons, Rashida Jones. Joan Cusack, and Norm Macdonald. Highly recommend when Christmas comes down the road later this year.
Steven Spielberg, 1975
I know what you’re thinking- how have I not seen Jaws before?
Give me a break. Apparently I didn’t like horror movies before this year and now I’m learning, okay?
I’ll discuss Spielberg in a little bit, but I love the way this movie pivots from one man trying to get a frustrating town to act in the name of safety, to three equally strange men who find enough chemistry to take down the shark that is terrorizing the town. It’s a classic and it should be required viewing for every Fourth of July party from now until the end of time.
Other thoughts: Richard Dreyfuss is incredible, and I want the mayor’s ridiculous anchor suit.
1. The John Wick Franchise
Chad Stahelski, 2014-present
2021 proved more than ever that Keanu Reeves is a national treasure and must be protected at all costs.
This trio of films was probably the highlight of my film-viewing experience for 2021. What starts as a simple tale about a man getting revenge for someone killing his dog evolves into a web of espionage, Russian crime mobs, underground string pulling, and LOTS of Keanu Reeves shooting people in the face.
Seriously, there is SO much shooting in the face and I love every damn second of it. There should be an Oscar for stunt coordination, because these movies would win all of them.
I’m so excited for John Wick 4, although I am less excited that it was pushed back to 2023.
The 10 Best Films of 2021
Destin Daniel Cretton, 2021
After Endgame, I wasn’t sure where the MCU was going to go. To that point in 2021, there were a number of TV shows, all dealing with the aftermath of Endgame and setting up the Multiverse storyline.
And then came Shang-Chi¸ which was a breath of fresh air in regards to the typically formulaic Marvel movie. It’s nice to see a new Marvel hero introduced with an interesting backstory and a compelling, layered villain, and NOT be hit over the head with “this hero was created in the wake of damages or other things caused at the hands of the Avengers.” It does the right amount of work to introduce an interesting plot point from a previous film, (the Ten Rings Organization, for example), and keeps us engaged while also not killing off the true big bad. Or whatever the Ten Rings are going to be now that Meng’er Zhang’s character is in charge.
Plus, there are some KILLER lines from Ben Kingsley, who makes a return as Trevor Slattery from Iron Man 3. I would say they’re genuinely some of the funniest lines in the MCU. The whole bit about him (a character who is an actor) genuinely believing that The Planet of the Apes was REAL? Absolute gold.
Honorable Mention: CODA
Sian Heder, 2021
Plot: Ruby is a child of deaf adults (which is what CODA stands for), who can hear. She finds that she’s got some talent when it comes to singing and music… which, considering everyone in her family is deaf, poses an issue, particularly when her father’s fishing job encounters some trouble when she tries to strike a balance between pursuing her passion and helping her family.
What bodes well for Sian Heder’s film is its terrific cast, led by Emilia Jones, Troy Kotsur, Daniel Durant, Marlee Matlin, and Eugenio Derbez (Ruby’s music teacher), as well as its representation of the deaf community. The film portrays Ruby’s parents as incredibly self-sufficient- not to mention sexually-active (a portrayal rarely seen in a film with regards to deaf individuals). Matlin and Kotsur are just incredible in their respective roles, as we see them struggle in different ways to give their daughter the life she deserves, while coming to grips that she can’t always be there for them in ways she has been growing up.
It’s really a tearjerker, this one is. Perhaps what devalued it for me- nitpicky, I know- is Ruby’s audition at Berklee, where her “classical” singing piece is a Joni Mitchell song. To hell with realism, am I right?
Kidding aside, this is a great film. It has its moments of perhaps being a bit too light where it could be a little more dramatic, but overall, definitely recommend a watch of this one.
Honorable Mention: In the Heights
Jon M. Chu, 2021
The first of three musical films to come out this year, I was really looking forward to Jon M. Chu’s adaptation of Lin-Manuel’s musical of the same name.
There’s a lot to like about In the Heights. Great music, great dancing, and a well-written script- which, despite deviating slightly from the musical, makes reasonable adjustments to which makes everything work just fine. Plus, if you want the musical, they filmed it for PBS. Go watch the musical if you want the musical.
Plus, even though it takes place in Washington Heights (where I don’t live) a lot of it was shot by the elevated 1 train in Inwood (where I DO live). So that’s pretty cool!
Special thanks to Leslie Grace’s rendition of “Breathe,” which broke me. Emotional damage.
The one thing I will say about In the Heights is that some of the mediums by which the songs are song was not always consistent. It was usually one unique convention that occurred in only one particular song, and then we never saw it again. In the opening number, it was the spinning of the sewer head as if it were a record on a turntable. In “96,000,” there were comic book-style animations. In “When The Sun Goes Down,” it was walking on the side of a building. There’s setting musical numbers in a certain place for effect (“Paciencia y Fe” in the subway station and in flashback)- Chicago was really good at that. But this felt a little unchained to me. I wanted a little more consistency with the heightened reality of the musical numbers.
That said, it won the Tony and was nominated for the Pulitzer for a reason. And that’s its damn good source material. All in all, this was a faithful adaptation that was very well done.
Honorable Mention: C'mon C'mon
Mike Mills, 2021
This might be the most honest and stripped-down I’ve ever seen Joaquin Phoenix at. Go figure- a movie about a precocious and obnoxious nine-year old and his bottled-up uncle, and the emotional growth that occurs between the two of them will probably do that to you.
Johnny (Phoenix) is tasked with looking after his nephew Jesse (Woody Norman) after Jesse’s mother (Gaby Hoffman) goes to care for her ex-husband (Scoot McNairy) who is struggling with mental illness. A country-wide adventure ensues, taking Johnny and Jesse to Los Angeles, New York, and New Orleans, as Johnny interviews children about their lives, their fears, and the world around them.
Mike Mills’ brilliant screenplay encapsulates everything about growing up- and how growing up can even occur when you’re in middle age. It doesn’t just happen when you’re a kid.
Featuring some excellent work from Woody Norman (who is British, truly, fuck that kid, why is he so good at acting?), the two slowly breakdown each other’s emotional barriers one brick at a time, until Johnny is able to talk about his relationships to his sister, his late mother, and other women, all while keeping his head above water taking care of Jesse, and teaching him that there are constructive, healthy ways of dealing with your feelings.
I truly was not prepared for the amount of FEELINGS this movie gave me. C’mon C’mon cut deep.
10. Don't Look Up
Adam McKay, 2021
I really can’t tell where people stand on Don’t Look Up- I’ve never been able to get a good read on the vibe. It might not be as universally acclaimed (or as funny) as some of Adam McKay’s other films like Vice or The Big Short, but I’ll be damned if I didn’t have a good time while watching it.
The plot: Two scientists (Leonardo DiCaprio and Jennifer Lawrence) discover a comet hurtling towards earth and try to warn everybody about it… only for everybody to respond with a general “meh.”
McKay’s strengths are in his dry, biting comedy. That is not on display in Don’t Look Up. What is on display is a satire that, while perhaps a bit heavy handed at times, does the job of showing us what real danger can feel like, especially if you’re in the unfortunate position of being the person who knows (or worse, sees) the truth, and no one around you is doing anything.
With spoofs of figures like Donald Trump and his family, Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, and the idiots on most cable news sites, there’s some really good acting by some really good actors (namely, Meryl Streep, Jonah Hill, and Mark Rylance).
I’ve seen this movie get a lot of flak on TikTok. A lot of people hated this movie- and there are just as many people who will say “you just didn’t get it.”
From someone who liked the movie, there’s not really a lot to get about it. I just think it made you uncomfortable and probably called you out about being fine with something that really is happening now and is going to have a negative effect on our lives in the very near future.
Or maybe you just don’t like many moves. I hear Marry Me with Jennifer Lopez and Owen Wilson is set to come out in a few weeks. Maybe that’s more your speed. Anyway.
9. Spider-Man: No Way Home
Jon Watts, 2021
Spoilers will probably lie ahead. The movie’s been out for almost a month. Get your ass to a movie theatre.
Spider-Man: No Way Home is a bit like Avengers: Endgame Lite. There’s a LOT of fan service between all the villains such as Doctor Octopus (Alfred Molina), Green Goblin (Willem Dafoe) and Electro (Jamie Foxx) returning from previous Spider-Man franchises. It has an emotional but ultimately satisfying ending. I would say the biggest difference is the scope. It doesn’t surround the fate of humanity (per se, we’ll see what happens with Marvel’s Multiverse in later films), but more the world of Peter Parker, who is forced to make an incredibly difficult decision by the end of the film.
What else can I give away without giving away the biggest thing? Let’s just say that Marvel’s good at editing trailers.
And because they’re good at editing trailers, they hide some of the film’s biggest secrets- and that’s the emotion that plague’s Tom Holland’s Spider-Man and all other Spider-Mans before him. No Way Home unpacks a lot in its near 2:30 run time, but it’s all worth it.
I’m just curious to see what’s next for Spidey after this one.
Also, I guess I need to watch Venom and Morbius.
8. Licorice Pizza
Paul Thomas Anderson, 2021
I spent a long, long, long time agonizing over whether or not I really liked this movie. In fact, I agonized over writing this little blurb so much, that in my writing/editing/deleting/re-writing, I realized that Licorice Pizza is, in fact, a great film. It’s great because though I did not fall in love with it (and I really wanted to fall in love with it), I do appreciate that it consistently makes me think about it; the way it’s written, the way the two main characters circle the wagons with each other while being encapsulated in this sort of dream-like state that ends just the way you want it to.
Gary (Cooper Hoffman- who I didn’t realize was Philip Seymour Hoffman’s son until like 3 days after I saw the movie), a precocious and confident 15-year old, meets Alana (Alana Haim, whose entire family is also in the film). What follows is a coming of age film that explores falling in love in a rather unique way- the movie is basically split into vignettes of the ridiculous shenanigans Gary and his friends get into, from being arrested, to selling water beds, to somehow knowing everyone at a bar and getting to eat for free, to driving a truck backwards down a hill to escape the clutches of an insane Jon Peters, to getting involved in politics, to selling pinball machines, all while Gary chases the girl of his dreams. It’s basically how every teen summer vacation movie goes- complete with the fact that there are precisely zero parents to oversee the fact that these literal children are running a business selling fucking WATER BEDS.
What I love about this format is that though the vignettes are very much “kids on summer break running around with no supervision,” the through line of Gary and Alana and this “will-they-won’t-they” love story is so clear. Sure, the age difference between the two is… significant (he’s 15, she’s 25). And sure, the two have to get around the fact the other is constantly swarmed by people of the opposite sex (like it always is when you’re in love). But Paul Thomas Anderson’s script is crafted so carefully that it all somehow works.
In particular- during a fight between Gary and Alana, Alana attempts (unsuccessfully) to patronize Gary by saying “you’re selling pinball machines. I’m a politician.” which definitely levels the playing field and shows us that neither of them act their correct ages- Gary acting older than 15 and Alana acting younger than 25. That’s the beautiful, meticulous dance of Licorice Pizza.
7. The Tragedy of Macbeth
Joel Coen, 2021
One less Coen, still no less fantastical. I still don’t know why this got a Christmas release, because this movie is a Halloween movie if ever I saw one. In any case, Joel Coen’s adaptation of Macbeth is phenomenally spooky.
You know the story of Macbeth. Man meets witches who tell him he’ll be king. Man murders current king to become new king. Obviously, being told this by witches is cheating, so man is then slain by new person who becomes new new king. Something wicked this way comes, yada, yada, yada.
Joel Coen’s adaptation is astoundingly good. It’s hard enough to do Shakespeare on stage, but to do it in a film is another beast entirely. Denzel Washington and Frances McDormand are stellar lead actors. McDormand in particular is the highlight of the film, especially during her “unsex me here” speech, where it is genuinely difficult to tell by some of the camera angles whether she is man or woman. Shout out to Bruno Delbonnel, whose cinematography is also a high point of this film.
This is not to say Denzel isn’t a great Macbeth, because he is. He is somehow both refined and grizzled (probably due to his age on screen) which plays wonderfully. He walks a fine line between grounded and unhinged, dancing between the two in every scene he’s in.
Now, while the acting in Shakespearean pieces has to be good, it’s the production values of Macbeth that give it that x-factor of being awe-inspiring.
The whole thing is in black and white. The whole thing is filmed on sound stages, designed by Stefan Deschant, who designed sets for 2010’s Alice in Wonderland, to give the movie this look of being “untethered from reality.” Coen and his team play with ALL the lights and shadows, giving the movie some truly iconic shots. It’s almost as if the set is a character in the movie. Combine it all with Delbonnel’s camera work, and you get something that’s been picked clean out of the catalogue of someone like Fritz Lang, but played by 21st century actors. This movie is a feat of cinematic excellence.
And, though she’s technically an actor, I believe Kathryn Hunter deserves recognition for her role as all three witches. The way she contorts both her body and her voice are unlike anything I’ve ever seen on film, especially for Shakespeare, which can get pretty freaky on its own.
Don’t watch this on your TV. Go watch it in a movie theatre.
Denis Villeneuve, 2021
Man, I love Denis Villeneuve. Grand in scale and meticulous in execution, I am so looking forward to what the next part of Dune has in store for us after seeing Part 1 of Frank Herbert’s epic put on screen.
In as short of a synopsis as I can muster without being overwhelming to folks who aren’t into sci-fi outside of Star Wars: A boy (Timothée Chalamet) and his noble family are thrust into war over a deadly and inhospitable desert planet. There’s betrayal, lore, space drugs, and SAND WORMS. The movie just looks incredible and if you go just for the visuals, production designs, and world building, that’s more than worth the price of admission. Incredible set design, costume design, and sound design (especially sound design, considering “the voice” is a major plot point of the film) are the hallmarks of this movie. It’s clear they used every last dime of its $165 million budget to make this movie as incredible and immersive as possible. Also, the SCORE. Only Hans Zimmer can make bagpipes sound badass. Holy shit.
But on top of that- if it’s a Villeneuve sci-fi movie you want, you’ll also get incredible acting with it. Between Chalamet, Oscar Isaac, Rebecca Ferguson, and Stellan Skarsgard, there’s more than enough talent to go around. Thrown in names like Dave Bautista, Jason Momoa, Josh Brolin, and Charlotte Rampling, and you can see why Dune absolutely nails the “beefy fighting space boys and somewhat frail but intimidating women who can all act as well” aesthetic. Oh, and Zendaya’s in it, too. For like, eight minutes. She’ll get more time in part 2, don’t worry.
I didn’t expect to like Dune as much as I did. Now I can’t wait for October 2023.
Sidebar: Someone give the damn worm a hug, please.
Pablo Larraín, 2021
The last time I saw a biopic by Pablo Larraín, I was not impressed. I found Jackie to be dry and, honestly, boring. I can only see Natalie Portman get teary-eyed so many times. But Spencer is different. It’s weird, layered, funny, moving, and even scary at parts.
And whatever you think about Kristen Stewart- just go see this film and reassess your judgement of her, because she’s fantastic.
Described as “A fable from a true tragedy,” the movie revolves around Diana Spencer’s time at Windsor Castle during the holidays of 1991, wherein she decides to end her marriage to Prince Charles, amid the strain stemming from his affair with Camilla Parker Bowles. It’s technically fictional- and that’s evident by some of the fantastical sequences in the movie- particularly the first dinner scene where Diana literally eats the pearls from her necklace- but it perfectly exemplifies the struggles Princess Diana faced and how she truly hated being a member of the Royal Family. Various references to Anne Boleyn and Henry VIII punctuate the piece, which might be a bit too on the nose for Spencer, but you get the idea. She wasn’t beheaded but throughout the film you get the feeling she’s trying to escape some metaphorical gallows. This biography is actually part ghost story, oddly enough.
Spencer is a fantastic character study of a wife abandoned and a woman trapped, which is further exemplified by the many interactions Diana has around the castle. Tense encounters with head-of-staff Alistair Gregory (a chilling and imposing Timothy Spall), a frustrating push-pull relationship with Maggie, her dresser (Sally Hawkins), conversations with head chef Darren McGrady (Sean Harris), and apathetic receptions from both her husband and Queen Elizabeth, the People’s Princess is certainly put through the ringer. My favorite scenes include anything involving her young sons, William and Harry (Jack Nielen, Freddie Spry), which really show how great of a mother she was to her boys. Stewart’s portrayal is nuanced and relatable, even if the movie ventures into the absurd at points. If she doesn’t win an Oscar I’m going to eat a pearl necklace.
4. Tick, Tick... BOOM!
Lin-Manuel Miranda, 2021
When the pandemic hit, I decided to take a break from acting. Sure, I’ve done smaller projects here and there, but I haven’t been in any sort of production of any kind since well before 2020. And for the most part, I haven’t missed it. I’ve been telling myself that I need to find something that makes me feel that spark again.
And then, I saw Tick, Tick… BOOM! on Netflix. And it made me remember what I love about theatre and performing with my friends so much.
The film is an adaptation of the late Jonathan Larson’s show of the same title, a semi-autobiographical story about Larson’s (played by Andrew Garfield) struggle to make it as a musical theatre writer early in his career, while the AIDS crisis in New York takes its toll on many people around him.
Now, Jonathan Larson is an over-the-top, often frustrating individual, often sacrificing the people he loves- namely, his girlfriend Susan (Alexandra Shipp)- in the name of finding his “one great song” (Rent references lol) for his show Superbia. And it’s difficult to see what his selfishness really is for, until the very end, when he gets his just deserts about his workshop, and, in a way, when he is told to “find the next one” by his agent (Judith Light). But Garfield plays it perfectly, finding the soul of Larson both onstage and off. Plus, he’s not a bad singer either. His renditions of “30/90,” “Why” and “Louder than Words” are really, really great.
Special shout out to Joshua Henry and especially Vanessa Hudgens who star as Garfield’s friends/backup singers in the overarching musical monologue (the Tick, Tick… BOOM! in question, which started as a show itself) that is interspersed throughout the film. Both are fantastic additions vocally, and in the case of Hudgens, she’s adorable in her role as Karessa. Having performed the song “Therapy” before in concert, all versions of that song should be performed the way her and Garfield do it in the film.
I know we're all probably sick of yet another wave of Lin-Manuel Miranda, what with Encanto also out which features his music. But the guy continually makes great stuff, including this film, which is a touching tribute to both Jonathan Larson's life and his legacy.
Kenneth Branagh, 2021
It was the cover of “Everlasting Love” in the trailer that originally made me interested in this film.
And then, as I was watching it, I discovered that Van Morrison was responsible for the music.
And that’s when I fell in love with Belfast.
But music aside, Kenneth Branagh’s film is an excellent movie about finding the meaning of the word “home.”
Described as Branagh’s most personal film (I think it’s at least somewhat autobiographical), Belfast examines the childhood of a young boy whose street corner becomes caught up in The Troubles in the 1960s.
Though the film deals plenty with the violence, death and destruction The Troubles brought to Northern Ireland, it never delves too far into it. After all, the events of the movie are portrayed through the eyes of the effortlessly winsome Buddy- played brilliantly by newcomer Jude Hill- who navigates the uneasy world around him alongside his hard-nosed but loving family- helmed by his mother and father, known as just “Ma” and “Pa”- exceptionally portrayed by Caitríona Balfe and Jamie Dornan.
Additionally, Ciarán Hinds and Judi Dench, who play Buddy's grandparents, have an effortless chemistry that is borne out of lifetime of dedication to each other. Every actor in this film brings an unmatched subtlety to their roles, finding nuance and heartache in even the quietest of moments.
Despite being shot in a gentle black and white, the movie is brilliant in its ability to shift tones, and to have those shifts in tones shot from what almost look like hiding places- after all, we see and hear things the way Buddy does, as snippets and whispers. We watch in secret as Ma and Pa grapple with Pa’s new job opportunity in England, and Ma’s inability to accept the reality that Belfast is too dangerous for them to stay any longer- a heartbreaking reality felt by many of the residents of Belfast.
There is a constant push-pull that pervades the entire film, oscillating between poignancy and frustration. A scene of Buddy attempting to hilariously woo the smartest girl in his class (who turns out to be Catholic, a fun twist considering the circumstances) is contrasted with the looting of a grocery store by Protestant rioters, which is THEN contrasted by Buddy’s mother dragging him back by the ear to return a box of detergent that he stole during that same looting (as an unwitting participant, of course). I mean, as previously mentioned, Van Morrison’s music is there to provide montages that will somehow make you forget you’re watching a drama about a conflict full of sectarian terrorism.
Ultimately, the film’s honesty and sincerity wins out, and despite a bittersweet ending, you leave feeling satisfied and, in my experience, helpless to resist the smile that will creep onto your face.
The film feels true and real in that it’s very clearly Branagh’s memories about growing up and experiencing the joys, confusions, and hardships (for a young boy, anyway) of life, while also paying tribute to a once-lively community that was permanently changed. The film has a touching tribute at the end, dedicated to “the ones who stayed,” “the ones who left,” and “the ones who were lost.” You can practically see Branagh’s heart on his sleeve.
2. The Green Knight
David Lowery, 2021
The Summer of Dev Patel was in full swing in David Lowery’s adaptation of The Green Knight.
On Christmas Day, a knight, clad in green with a body like a humanoid tree, enters King Arthur’s Court and issues a challenge: he will engage in combat with a willing opponent. If that opponent can land a blow on him, in one year’s time, the Green Knight will return that blow.
And so begins the tale of Dev Patel… I mean, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, which is a bizarre adaptation of a bizarre story from the 14th century.
Director David Lowery leans into the weirdness HARD, as we’re not really sure what Gawain’s quest is or symbolizes until the very end of the story. I mean, sure, Gawain slices the Green Knight’s head off in the first 15 minutes of the film, and at that point, we are told “one year hence.” But what then? Does this mean Gawain is literally about to die? I guess David Lowery and Dev Patel will tell us.
For a film with a run time of 130 minutes, the movie moves along pretty quickly, even if you’re not into medieval fantasy films. I loved the use of chapter divisions in the film, making it feel really episodic- with each episode demonstrating a different challenge, virtue, or theme faced by Gawain during the course of his quest. Gawain is robbed and left to die by thieves in the forest, encounters a talking fox, meets the Lady of the Lake, and gets seduced by Alicia Vikander as he journeys toward his fate at the end of the film. And all of these encounters contribute to the overarching theme throughout the story: what does it mean to be a knight? What does it mean (for Gawain) to be a man? And, perhaps most critically- which is more important: integrity and goodness, or your legacy?
Despite its twisting, disorienting camera angles, its brilliant use of color (particularly red, green, and yellow) and imagery, The Green Knight is still grounded in some sense of reality, at least, enough so that it didn’t make me (and I don’t usually seek out “weird” films) feel dizzy or confused in any way. It’s as unusual as it is good- and man, it is very, very good.
As for the ending- I think leaving it as ambiguous as they did was the best possible option. Maybe being beheaded by the tree version of Santa Claus isn’t the worst thing in the world.
1. West Side Story
Steven Spielberg, 2021
I have a LOT to say about West Side Story so buckle up. It’s been almost a month since I saw this movie and I’m still crying about it.
No matter what you think about him, West Side Story is evidence that Steven Spielberg is a true master of his craft, and can put a brilliant shine on a modern classic with relative ease. If you can make me a like a show that I traditionally do not, that's just another notch in your cap.
I saw this film at the Lincoln Square AMC- which is, ironically, where the entire movie takes place: the vicinity of 68th and Broadway. That made it pretty special viewing.
Let’s start with the casting- which I thought could not have been more perfect. David Alvarez as Bernardo. Ariana deBose as Anita. Mike Faist as Riff. Rita Moreno as Valentina (a brilliant spinoff of the traditionally white male shop owner, Doc). And our star-crossed lovers: Ansel Elgort as Tony, and Rachel Zegler as Maria. Even the law enforcement, Officer Krupke (Brian D’Arcy James) and Lieutenant Schrank (Corey Stoll) could not have been better.
Some other general thoughts about this movie:
The COSTUMES, man. When I saw the Shark Girls yellow outfits in the trailer, I audibly gasped. I did the same when they sang through “America”.
Ansel Elgort is ridiculous. And I don’t mean that in a bad way. I think they made up for him being the weakest singer in the cast by making everything so incredibly ridiculous and silly around him. I mean, in his “Maria,” the entire world turns into something of a dream world, but still has New Yorkers sarcastically nodding at him as if to say “oh, that’s nice…” Even the Dance at the Gym scene, when Tony and Maria meet for the first time, that turns into a fantasy world of lights and balloons before we snap back to reality and see the dirty underside of the bleachers. Sure, Ansel’s singing voice leaves something to be desired (especially next to Rachel Zegler), but I think he’s a great Tony nonetheless.
Speaking of Maria- Rachel Zegler is also phenomenal. Usually, when I see a production of West Side, it’s the Maria who is always the less mature one. In this case, it’s definitely Tony. Zegler’s Maria, while young, is definitely not naïve to the world around her. She is constantly aware that she and Tony being together is not a good idea. And her reaction to Tony’s death at the end of the film is absolutely chilling, the way her emotions just melt away and there’s just nothing but despair on her face as she waves that gun around.
The dancing never felt out of place. Actually, from the first scene, I almost had to be reminded that it was a musical when they started dancing in the opening number. From then on, everything was on the table in terms of the moves those actors busted out. Truly incredible work by Justin Peck.
Officer Krupke gets literally zero respect in this movie and it’s so good. Poor Brian D’Arcy James and his ulcer.
Finally- I think I found out where all the budget went. It went to the best scene in the movie, “A Boy Like That/I Have a Love,” where Anita and Maria fight over Tony and Maria’s secret love for each other. The budget went to paying all the emotional damages to people who were absolutely ruined by that scene. Ariana deBose is a phenomenal performer and I will not be taking any questions on that.
Overall, this is far and away the best thing I saw this year. If you’re not crying by the end of this, you have no soul. The end.
Sondheim left us knowing this would movie would be as incredible as he was. What a guy he is. Thanks, Steve.
I know this is a long article, so if you've made it this far, thanks for sticking with it.
What were your favorite movies from 2021? Leave a comment down below.
If you're interested as well, here is the complete list of movies I saw from the last year:
Underlined- 2021 film
*- seen previous to 2021
Bold- Listed in Article Above
1/2- News of the World (Paul Greengrass, 2020)
1/2- Promising Young Woman (Emerald Fennell, 2020)
1/12- Rushmore (Wes Anderson, 1998)
1/17- Fantastic Mr. Fox (Wes Anderson, 2009)*
1/18- Isle of Dogs (Wes Anderson, 2018)*
1/18- The Grand Budapest Hotel (Wes Anderson, 2014)*
1/21- Iron Man (Jon Favreau, 2008)*
1/22- Iron Man 2 (Jon Favreau, 2010)*
1/23- The Darjeeling Limited (Wes Anderson, 2007)
1/25- Thor (Kenneth Branagh, 2011)*
1/25- Captain America: The First Avenger (Joe Johnston, 2011)*
1/25- The Avengers (Joss Whedon, 2012)*
2/3- Palm Springs (Max Barbakow, 2020)
2/4- Iron Man 3 (Shane Black, 2013)*
2/11- Thor: The Dark World (Alan Taylor, 2013)*
2/14- Captain America: The Winter Soldier (Joe and Anthony Russo, 2014)*
2/14- Guardians of the Galaxy (James Gunn, 2014)*
2/17- Another Round (Thomas Vinterberg, 2020)
2/20- Avengers: Age of Ultron (Joss Whedon, 2015)*
2/20- Ant-Man (Peyton Reed, 2015)*
2/20- Captain America: Civil War (Joe and Anthony Russo, 2016)*
2/22- Inception (Christopher Nolan, 2010)*
2/22- Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (Terry Gilliam, 1998)
2/28- Gravity (Alfonso Cuaròn, 2013)*
3/5- Nomadland (Chloé Zhao, 2020)
3/13- The One I Love (Charlie McDowell, 2014)
3/16- Minari (Lee Isaac Chung, 2020)
3/30- Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2 (James Gunn, 2017)*
4/13- Casino Royale (Martin Campbell, 2006)*
4/19- Freaky (Christopher Landon, 2020)
4/23- Judas and the Black Messiah (Shaka King, 2021)
4/23- The Father (Florian Zeller, 2020)
4/23- Oscar Nominated Live Action Shorts
5/9- Skyfall (Sam Mendes, 2012)*
5/10- Black Panther (Ryan Coogler, 2018)*
5/11- Avengers: Infinity War (Joe and Anthony Russo, 2018)*
5/16- The Woman in the Window (Joe Wright, 2021)
5/18- Those Who Wish Me Dead (Taylor Sheridan, 2021)
5/20- Almost Famous (Cameron Crowe, 2000)
5/23- Tropic Thunder (Ben Stiller, 2008)*
5/26- John Wick (Chad Stahelski, 2014)
6/1- Ant-Man and the Wasp (Peyton Reed, 2018)*
6/5- Captain Marvel (Anna Boden & Ryan Fleck, 2019)*
6/6- Avengers: Endgame (Joe and Anthony Russo, 2019)*
6/15- Spider-Man: Far From Home (Jon Watts, 2019)
6/19- Luca (Enrico Casarosa, 2021)
6/20- In the Heights (Jon M. Chu, 2021)
6/20- Long Shot (Jacob LaMendola, 2017)
6/27- Good on Paper (Kimmy Gatewood, 2021)
7/3- Jaws (Steven Spielberg, 1975)
7/6- John Wick: Chapter 2 (Chad Stahelski, 2017)
7/10- Dead Poets Society (Peter Weir, 1989)
7/13- Black Widow (Cate Shortland, 2021)
7/16- Run Lola Run (Tom Twyker, 1998)
7/17- Zola (Janicza Bravo, 2020)
7/20- John Wick: Chapter 3- Parabellum (Chad Stahelski, 2019)
8/7- The Wedding Singer (Frank Coraci, 1998)*
8/8- The Green Knight (David Lowery, 2021)
8/23- Atomic Blonde (David Leitch, 2017)
9/5- Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings (Dustin Daniel Cretton, 2021)
9/30- Saving Private Ryan (Steven Spielberg, 1998)*
10/16- The Royal Tenenbaums (Wes Anderson, 2001)
10/22- Spectre (Sam Mendes, 2015)*
10/23- No Time to Die (Cary Joji Fukunaga, 2021)
10/25- The French Dispatch (Wes Anderson, 2021)
10/29- Last Night in Soho (Edgar Wright, 2021)
11/5- CODA (Siân Heder, 2021)
11/5- Lake Mungo (Joel Anderson, 2008)
11/6- The Guilty (Antoine Fuqua, 2021)
11/12- Fury of the Demon (Fabian Delage, 2016)
11/19- Eternals (Chloé Zhao, 2021)
11/20- C’mon C’mon (Mike Mills, 2021)
11/20- Dune (Denis Villeneuve, 2021)
11/20- Spencer (Pablo Larrain, 2021)
11/22- Mr. Jones (Karl Mueller, 2013)
11/30- Tick, Tick… Boom! (Lin-Manuel Miranda, 2021)
12/3- Licorice Pizza (Paul Thomas Anderson, 2021)
12/11- West Side Story (Steven Spielberg, 2021)
12/14- Belfast (Kenneth Branagh, 2021)
12/18- Klaus (Sergio Pablos, 2019)
12/22- Spider-Man: No Way Home (Jon Watts, 2021)
12/26- Don’t Look Up (Adam McKay, 2021)
12/26- Being the Ricardos (Aaron Sorkin, 2021)
12/27- The Tragedy of Macbeth (Joel Coen, 2021)
12/31- The Phantom of the Paradise (Brian De Palma, 1974)