Another year, another pandemic. Well, technically we’re still in the same pandemic. COVID thankfully wasn’t the only constant, as the movies continued to see us through the hard times. Here are the best 2021 had to offer.
15. Parallel Mothers
If I told you the plot summary of Parallel Mothers, it might sound like a soap opera. Such is the case with many of Pedro Almodóvar’s films. In his invaluable hands, though, Parallel Mothers is one of the year’s most shocking, surprising, and deeply human stories. Penélope Cruz and Milena Smit play two mothers whose lives become intertwined by pure chance. Their emotional journey ranges from touching to devastating, subverting almost every expectation in satisfying ways.
14. Tick, Tick… Boom!
If you go into Tick, Tick… Boom! expecting a biopic about how Jonathan Larson developed Rent, that’s not exactly what you’re going to get. What you will get is a loving tribute to Larson’s tragically short life and his lesser-known works. Lin-Manuel Miranda’s ambitious approach will speak to any artist with an unquenchable thirst to create. Andrew Garfield deserves a Best Actor nomination for his spot-on portrayal, leading a strong cast that includes Alexandra Shipp, Robin de Jesus, and Bradley Whitford as the late Stephen Sondheim. Stream it like there’s no day but today.
13. Raya and the Last Dragon
Raya and the Last Dragon may be the closest Walt Disney Animation Studios has come to producing an all-out epic. Within the first twenty minutes, the film establishes a more engaging mythology than some franchises do over multiple entries. The vast universe the filmmakers have created shouldn’t be contained in a single story. There’s potential to expand upon the world of Kumandra in books, TV shows, video games, amusement park attractions, and, naturally, sequels. Even as a standalone movie, Raya and the Last Dragon ranks among Disney’s best modern efforts.
12. The Suicide Squad
Was Suicide Squad as bad as people say? In this critic’s humble opinion, not really, at least not compared to Batman v Superman. Even as someone who didn’t hate Suicide Squad, though, it’s hard to defend it as a competently made product. The film’s biggest problem was the studio and director both trying to mold it into polar opposite things. The Suicide Squad is 100% James Gunn, however. The film delivers everything one would expect from this director and source material, which were tailor-made for each other. Gunn’s offbeat sense of humor, unhinged imagination, and ability to make even the silliest characters sympathetic results in another bullseye for him.
11. The Harder They Fall
Few films released in 2021 defined sheer badassery quite like The Harder They Fall. Between Jonathan Majors, Idris Elba, Regina King, and several others, there isn’t a weak link in an ensemble that fires on all cylinders. It’s not surprising that director Jeymes Samuel comes from a music background, as the film is a flawless marriage of western action and a killer soundtrack that’s every bit as essential as the dialogue.
10. The Power of the Dog
Half-way through The Power of the Dog, you might be asking why so many have praised it as Jane Campion’s best film since The Piano. Once you see what this layered story has been building towards, you’ll want to rewatch the film to catch all the elusive details hidden beneath the surface. Benedict Cumberbatch gives an especially intricate performance as a tortured soul with a rough exterior. Kodi Smit-McPhee brings haunting subtly to his performance while Kirsten Dunst delivers the most heartbreaking work of her career.
9. Nightmare Alley
Guillermo del Toro is a master of blending dark fantasy with brutal reality. Pan’s Labyrinth had one foot in a little’s girl’s wild imagination and another in the horrors of war. The Shape of Water applied real-world prejudice to a classic Beauty and the Beast story. Nightmare Alley is among del Toro’s most grounded films, trading the supernatural for psychological thrills. Regardless, Nightmare Alley still oozes with the otherworldly atmosphere we associate with del Toro. He makes a psychologist’s office feel like Frankenstein’s lab and turns a carnival into Wonderland. Our protagonist wears many different hats, although we’re left guessing just how mad he’ll become by the end.
8. The Mitchells vs. The Machines
The Mitchells vs. The Machines is a family road trip comedy meets Mad Max: Fury Road with a dash of Terminator 2. You wouldn’t expect these elements to synchronize, but producers Phil Lord and Christopher Miller have a reputation for defying expectations. Of course, Lord and Miller can’t take all the credit. Director Mike Rianda and co-director Jeff Rowe served as writers on Disney’s Gravity Falls. The Mitchells vs. The Machines shares a similar sense of irreverent humor and energetic timing. The film’s rapid-fire wit and eye-popping animation are only matched by its enormous heart.
For such a dialogue-driven picture, Mass never feels like a filmed version of a play. Yang Hua Hu’s editing, Ryan Jackson-Healy’s cinematography, and several subtle yet powerful images make for a cinematic experience. The room where most of the film takes place also sets an uncomfortable, claustrophobic tone, despite the welcoming decor. While director Fran Kranz delivers a captivating feature directorial debut, his screenplay is where Mass shines the most. Kranz not only brings authenticity to how people talk, but also how they grieve. They say everyone grieves differently and the four main characters each provide a nuanced perspective.
6. West Side Story
Is Spielberg’s West Side Story better than the original? It may take several rewatches to make an informed decision. However, the fact that this West Side Story stacks up at all is a testament to Spielberg’s direction, Justin Peck’s choreography, and the ensemble. More importantly, Spielberg’s film stands on its own with a unique aesthetic, but a timeless romance set to unforgettable music underneath. Considering that gang violence and racial tensions are even more relevant now than they were in 1961, West Side Story has aged better than even its creators likely envisioned. In that sense, perhaps a remake of West Side Story was more essential than we initially thought.
There’s one word to describe CODA and it’s delightful. That might sound odd, seeing how the film addresses many serious issues, including the deaf experience, leaving the nest, and isolation. Yet, these themes are anchored by a robust heart and one of the year’s most lovable ensembles. Marlee Matlin fought for the film’s deaf characters to be portrayed by deaf actors, opening the door for strong supporting performances from Troy Kotsur and Daniel Durant. Emilia Jones is the real discovery as Ruby Rossi, the only hearing person in her family. Dedicating nine months to learning sign language and singing lessons, Jones’ commitment shines through in a passionate breakout performance.
Take an avant-garde director, a dense novel, a decade like the 80s, and you’re gonna get a film like 1984’s Dune. While David Lynch’s film has developed something of a cult following, few would call it a complete portrait of Frank Herbert’s classic sci-fi novel. Lynch’s adaptation only fed into the argument that the book can never be filmed. Of course, people said the same thing about The Lord of the Rings. Peter Jackson and Ralph Bakshi understood that Frodo’s story couldn’t be covered in one movie. Likewise, Denis Villeneuve wisely doesn’t condense Paul Atreides’ journey into 155 minutes.
3. Spider-Man: No Way Home
From game-changers like Spider-Man 2 to massive letdowns like The Amazing Spider-Man 2, the web-slinger hasn’t had the steadiest cinematic journey. The ongoing problems between Disney, Marvel, and Sony have only made matters rockier. The highs and even the lows have been worth it, as this has all paved the way for Spider-Man: No Way Home. No Way Home succeeds where a film like The Rise of Skywalker struggled. It successfully bridges three generations of movies in exciting and deeply fulfilling ways. It delivers the fan service that we craze, but it also takes several unexpected turns that mature Peter Parker.
Belfast is why we go to the movies. That description might sound cliched, but it works on two levels. On one level, it’s a movie that you want to cuddle up with and hug every moment of. On another level, it sums up why we seek out cinema. No matter how complicated the world becomes, the movies are always there to provide escapism. Belfast creates a cozy realm that we want to live in forever. Sooner or later, reality forces us out of that comfort zone. Even when the good times end, though, our memories last like a picture show playing in our heads.
1. Licorice Pizza
Some consider Boogie Nights to be Paul Thomas Anderson’s finest film. Others cite There Will Be Blood as his career-defining achievement. My favorite for the longest time remains one of his most underappreciated: Punch-Drunk Love. It’s hard to explain my admiration for the film, but few cinematic romances have been more unusual or honest. Licorice Pizza doesn’t merely recapture that unusual honesty. His latest film surpasses everything that’s come before. Given the strength of his filmography, calling Licorice Pizza Anderson’s best movie is a bold statement. Not everyone may agree, but Anderson has made a modern classic as strangely appetizing as its title.
Honorable Mentions (Alphabetically)
Being the Ricardos
Don’t Look Up
Drive My Car
In the Heights
The Last Duel
Last Night in Soho
No Time to Die