While the movie-going status quo has changed significantly, 2021 welcomed us back to movie theaters and saw the return of blockbusters in a big way. Many of the larger films were holdovers unreleased in 2020, while indie films from the festival circuit continued to get major platforms on streaming services. Of the record 85 films I saw this year, I’d say around 2/3rds of them were from home, but most of my favorite experiences of the year were still in theaters. Here are my picks for favorite movies of 2021:
The Pink Cloud
I’m not sure if this technically counts as a 2021 film, but I’m going to put it here while it’s most relevant. I experienced The Pink Cloud during the at-home Sundance Film Festival of 2021, and I would argue that it’s the ideal viewing experience for this film. The premise is that a mysterious pink cloud has suddenly appeared in Brazil, exposure to which will cause death within mere seconds. This forces all of its inhabitants to stay inside their apartments indefinitely, inevitably driving people to transition every aspect of their lives to a virtual experience – video calls with friends and family, virtual reality vacations, remote doctors visits, and drone delivery of basic essentials directly to their homes. Sound familiar? What makes this film more fascinating is that it was written and filmed entirely before the COVID-19 pandemic.
What I found so interesting about this film is that you can dissect how much it gets right (and wrong) about its fictional scenario based on how people reacted to similar circumstances in real life. It also extrapolates the lockdown experience that many of us felt for over a year into what that might feel like over many years. How do relationships handle that burden? How do children develop in that situation? And how much can isolation impact your mental health when there is no end in sight? (VOD)
Nightmare Alley is the type of movie we don’t get much of anymore: a pretty large budget, star-studded drama/thriller by a major director for the big screen. And it’s pretty clear why these films have all but disappeared: Nightmare Alley opened against Spider-Man: No Way Home and got crushed. It’s a shame though, because this film is just a really well-executed genre exercise about one man’s ambition leading directly to exactly what he’s running away from. Each individual scene is captivating on its own, building a sense of dread about Stan’s inevitable demise (and who he may take with him). This is the type of film that, were it ever on television, would be so easy to jump in at any point and be instantly captivated (HBO Max, Hulu, VOD)
The Harder They Fall
The Power of the Dog may be the Netflix western garnering the awards attention, but The Harder They Fall is equally worthy of attention. The feature film debut of Jeymes Samuel, this movie is filled to the brim with energy. Specifically, The Harder They Fall takes the trappings and cliches of a John Ford western (down to the technicolor palette) and merges it with pure 70s era blaxploitation. What’s more, the film pulls its characters from genuine Black cowboys and outlaws from the Old West that have largely been ignored by film and television. The film is pure fiction, but as the opening title card states, “these people existed.” Perhaps the film’s greatest flaw is that it packs so many ideas into its runtime, but it more than makes up for that with its audacious set pieces. More than anything, this movie is just a ton of fun to watch, and perfect for a fast-paced action-packed ride. (Netflix)
Dune is perhaps the most ambitious book adaptation since The Lord of the Rings films. The world of Arakis is expertly realized. Denis Villeneuve, Jon Spaihts, and Eric Roth all did an excellent job condensing an extremely complex story into a two-part film, wisely chopping it down to the bare bones to avoid the exposition bloat that plagued Lynch’s Dune from the 80s. In fact, that lack of exposition is one of the things I found most impressive; the film is far more willing to show elements of the world without explaining them than requiring a constant spout of inorganic dialogue. The only thing that keeps this film from my list proper is its lack of ending. There are a number of viable places to split the story, and I feel that the spot chosen is really more of a “petering out” than a true climax to a stand-alone film. Yes, the Lord of the Rings films had the benefit of three distinct novels, but they also twisted the story to suit the needs of the film series. That said, I’m definitely glad this is getting a Part 2, and hopefully the conclusion will prove Part 1 an excellent setup. (HBO Max, VOD)
10. Tick Tick… Boom!
2021 was the best year for musicals in decades, and in any other year, I would have found a way to get Tick Tick… Boom! into my top five. What stood out about Tick Tick… Boom! is just how much Lin-Manuel Miranda’s direction adds to this story. It would be easy to find a story about a neurotic artist having an existential crisis about turning 30 and creating great art insufferable. I’m pretty sure I would have been pretty unimpressed with the stage show were I to see it. And yet, Miranda layers the story with so much passion and emotion. Every directing decision broadens and brings life to what was originally a three-person show about the creation of that three-person show. Also I can’t overstate how good Andrew Garfield is in this film as a deeply neurotic Jonathan Larson. I particularly love his depiction of mental block and obsession as part of the creative process, and his complete inability to balance his work with any social or romantic life. The performance somehow walks the line between the audience wanting to shake him out of his trance, while also empathizing with him and rooting for him. (Netflix)
I listen to/read a lot of “top 10” lists every year, and frequently get exposed to movies that I never would have heard of otherwise (both good and bad). Not once have I heard Lucky mentioned, and that is a crying shame. On its surface, Lucky is a surreal slasher film inspired by Halloween, with a lot of similarities to It Follows. And like It Follows, Lucky‘s plot is in service of its larger themes of aggressions micro and macro perpetrated against women, in combination with gaslighting that pretends those aggressions aren’t happening or aren’t a big deal. I’ve already written deeper about my thoughts on Lucky – it’s not particularly subtle in the point it’s trying to make, and personally I think that’s to the movie’s benefit. This movie is a Shudder original (I assume that’s why it’s so underseen), but is now rentable as well. I would argue it’s accessible even if you’re not normally a fan of the horror genre. (Shudder, VOD)
French director Leos Carax’s collaboration with the Sparks Brothers is a musical tragedy starring Adam Driver and Marion Cotillard about jealousy, rage, abuse, art, and narcissism. Also they have a baby played by a literal marionette. You may think you have an idea what to expect based on that description, but those expectations will be completely dashed almost immediately. This movie is just so delightfully weird. While the plot itself is definitely deathly serious, I couldn’t get over just how much dark humor the Sparks Brothers entwine into every song. The lyrics really invoke classical Greek tragedy in how on-the-nose they are; everyone just sings exactly what they are thinking rather than couching feelings in expressions or metaphor. In 2021, taking this approach makes the whole experience farcical at times, and personally I think that’s exactly the authors’ intent. Annette certainly isn’t for everyone (in fact, many will likely hate it), but it’s perfect for anyone looking for a truly strange and unique experience with where you’re never quite sure what might happen next. Be warned, the “stand-up comedy” routines can be (intentionally) rough to sit through – it gets better after that. (Amazon Prime)
Flee is an extremely timely documentary about one family’s experience as Afghani refugees in the early 90s. The twist is that the entire film is animated. This serves two purposes: first of all, it protects the identities of its subjects. But, more importantly for the viewer, it allows the audience to visualize and experience its narrative in a way that would normally be impossible for a movie of this scope and budget. This story is extremely personal, one that its narrator has literally never told before for fear of deportation. Meanwhile the animation style subtly changes as the story unfolds to reflect lead character Amin’s emotional state, drawing a deeper connection and empathy with one family of thousands forced to leave their homes. Flee is an extremely special documentary that is made all the more relevant as the Ukrainian refugee crisis unfolds at present. (Hulu, VOD)
6. Red Rocket
I’m pretty sure any film Sean Baker makes is a must-watch at this point, and they just keep getting better. In Red Rocket, Simon Rex plays an aging, broke, homeless pornstar that uses his charisma to con anyone who crosses his path into whatever is most beneficial to him at that moment. It’s a character study of a not particularly complex character as he convinces everyone to go along with his schemes even though he is so obviously full of shit. Sprinkle in characters and settings of working-class Texas and some commentary about America in 2016, and you’ve got yourself a stew. What surprised me most is just how funny this film is. Baker’s previous entries (Tangerine and The Florida Project) both have a similar tone to Red Rocket and moments of levity, but this is the first of his films that I feel is truly aiming for comedy first and foremost. Yes, this is a story about a sexual predator con-man who preys on teenaged naivety, but somehow that very serious subject matter is genuinely hilarious in its moments of absurdity and cringe-worthiness. Also it has not one, not two, but three of the best uses of NSYNC’s “Bye Bye Bye” that I’ve seen in film. (VOD)
5. Bo Burnham: Inside
“Stunning 8K resolution meditation app / In honor of the revolution, it’s half-off at The Gap.” One of the few films better seen at home in your living room as opposed to in a theater, Bo Burnham puts together a comedy special that’s all about the isolation of social distancing. Or, at least that’s what it is on the surface… really, this is all about the pandemic enabling spirals of depression, anxiety, and hopelessness. When my girlfriend and I finished this, we both loved it but mostly worried whether or not Bo was doing okay or needed a hug.
This is truly a comedy special unlike any other, and really confronts head-on the selfish and unjust world that revealed itself in new ways in 2020. Everything is conceived and created by Burnham himself, a process which is occasionally revealed in timelapse montages. While very darkly funny, I will say that this film is not for the faint of heart. Much like the less-refined Don’t Look Up, Inside paints an extraordinarily bleak picture of the present and future – one that is unfortunately not inaccurate. If you can stomach all the mental-health triggers, Inside is a quite cathartic reflection for anyone who struggles with anxieties about the world’s trajectory in the 21st century. (Netflix)
4. The Power of the Dog
My final four films are pretty interchangeable in terms of positioning. Much like Parasite in 2019, Moonlight in 2016, and Mad Max in 2015, I can’t help but feel that The Power of the Dog is the movie of 2021. This movie is a masterpiece, and I have a feeling down the road, I’ll regret not having it as my number one. It is somehow all at once warm to its characters, cryptic to its plot and motivations, yet utterly fascinating and thrilling all the way through. Thematically, The Power of the Dog is a goldmine, touching on toxic masculinity, repressed sexuality, cycles of abuse, and the overwhelming force one petty man can have over an entire family. It can do all of that, AND make you sympathize with its villain, all while keeping you on the edge of your seat trying to decipher what is happening and about to happen. On top of all that, and this movie is absolutely gorgeous, with every scene memorable from both a visual and narrative perspective. This film really does have it all, and I’ll be extremely disappointed if it doesn’t take the big prize at the Academy Awards. (Netflix)
3. In The Heights
The best movie musical in 20 years, and critics just forgot about it at the end of the year because it didn’t make enough money. For the longest time, In The Heights was in my top slot, and it honestly could be there still. This was one of the first films I saw in theaters once vaccinated, and is easily the most emotional I’ve been during a movie this year. This musical adaptation just has so much heart and energy. In The Heights is the kind of film that takes a lot of big swings to bring its magic onto the screen, and while they don’t all work, most of them pay off big. Moments like the big swimming pool dance number, a subway dream sequence, and dancing on the side of a building… all of this magical realism brings exactly what I look for in a great movie musical. And that opening… the raw kinetic energy in the opening sequence can go toe to toe with any film out there. (HBO Max, VOD)
2. The Worst Person in the World
I like to think of The Worst Person in the World as the sequel to another favorite of mine, 2013’s Frances Ha. Where Frances Ha follows a listless twenty-something as she begins to figure out how to be a functioning adult, Worst Person instead follows a thirty-something who is similarly unsure about her life’s direction. I love that this film uses its 12 act structure to delineate important moments in Julie’s life. But, the important moments in her life can range from the genuine (sparking romance with Eivind, another loner at a party) to the more mundane (an essay that she wrote went viral online). And what’s more, the film will take a moment to put those moments into the context of similar points in Julie’s ancestors’ lives.
In addition to its humorous observations about modern Millennial life, The Worst Person in the World has a profound message about what really is important at the end of the day and which relationships have a lasting impact. Each person has more impact on the other than they’ll ever really know, and their decisions can have an enormous impact in ways that can’t be predicted. What’s more, it’s about how timing is everything; you can meet the right person at the wrong time, or your paths may diverge simply because you want different things in that moment. The Worst Person in the World is a great combination of thoughtful and hilarious, and it’s a film that everyone should see. (VOD)
1. The Green Knight
I am a sucker for David Lowery’s filmmaking style. A Ghost Story was one of my favorites of 2017, and so when I heard he was adapting The Green Knight (a story I have a dumb personal connection to, having made a version myself back in high school), my expectations were through the roof. What does a quiet, contemplative version of an Arthurian epic look like? Well, I got my answer, and it blew me away.
The Green Knight is, on its face, a simple tale: Sir Gawain, when challenged to a Christmas game, cuts off the Green Knight’s head knowing that the identical blow will be returned one year hence. Unfortunately for him, the beheading does not lead to the knight’s death, and thus begins the adventure. I love Lowery’s decision to make the story a coming of age tale, with Gawain (not yet Sir, played by Dev Patel) perhaps being the titular “green knight”. Gawain must learn the meaning of chivalry – a knight does not seek privilege, and he does what is right not for the accolades, but because it is right. Gawain makes a number of missteps in his quest to accomplish noble deeds, notches in his belt as it were. He’s frequently selfish, or chooses the wrong path out of cowardice. But each time, he takes something away from his mistakes, building character for his ultimate confrontation.
I know some don’t love the liberties that Lowery takes with the story (and Arthurian legend in general), and I understand that criticism. When stories I care about are adapted in ways that fundamentally change the source, it can frequently bother me. For this particular story, though, I found the twisting of the tale to a more contemporary telling to be a more interesting approach. Furthermore, I’d argue part of what Lowery is trying to say is that narratives get twisted to suit the audience, and that he considers this adaptation to be one of many, not definitive. I’m not even fully sure that Lowery has an exact symbolism in mind for some of the images he produces – rather, he knows what emotions they might evoke. It’s this dream-like approach to cinema that really drew me to this film, and that (combined with a spectacular ending) is why this is my film of the year. (Showtime, VOD)
Well that was 2021! This was a pretty excellent year for movies by my estimation. My most anticipated films (Dune, In The Heights, The Green Knight) all really delivered. I’m pretty pleased with the Academy Awards slate as well, to be honest. I’ll be rooting hard for Jane Campion to finally get her directing Oscar, and hoping that Tick Tick… Boom! ends up with a prize somewhere. For more on last year, check out my favorite non-2021 movies of 2021. Looking forward to a great 2022!