Like many movie fans, I was glad to be back in a movie theater, but it was a process. After recovering from a Covid infection at the end of 2020 and helping out my family in early 2021, I was eager to my theatrical moviegoing habit again. Attending movie theaters was a slower process, starting by watching some of my favorite 2020 movies in theaters (like “Nomadland” and “Truffle Hunters”) with masks and physically distanced from other moviegoers. Things were different in May. Experiencing “A Quiet Place 2” in Dolby was surreal, like re-connecting with an old friend. But it wasn’t just a premium sound system that made me glad to be back. I remember watching in awe the climactic race of “Dream Horse” in Denver’s Esquire Theatre. It is an older venue, but even that over 90-year-old establishment has a kick to it. Both movies were supposed to be released in March and May of 2020, so it was fitting that those were the two movies I watched when theaters felt more re-opened. With a lot to process, here are my best movies of 2021:
10. Shiva Baby
While missing an audience’s reaction, I sometimes imagine the lost opportunity of experiencing how this would have played in theaters, especially at its planned SXSW 2020 premiere. So many moments, from the introduction of characters to the awkwardness of conversation to the comedic timing involving actress Rachel Sennott, are something to behold. The one movie I wished I saw in a theater just for the sheer uncomfortable factor would be the cringe queer comedy. Writer/director Emma Seligman should be an indie creative talent/showrunner on the rise.
For people who complain that movies aren’t made about real people or grounded in reality, I have a drama/comedy you will love. It grew more on me as I fondly recalled it months later. Sian Heder’s CODA is a sweet and sincere drama-comedy about pursuing your passion and loving devotion to the family who shaped and raised you. The ensemble is vital to it working so well, especially the parents played by Oscar winner Marlee Matlin and Troy Kotsur. A true crowdpleaser featuring many hilarious and heartwarming scenes would’ve rocked the Eccles and Grand Theatres during Sundance.
Kenneth Branagh’s scrappy “Belfast” was a lovely and touching handsomely mounted drama in what felt like a compilation of Kenneth Branagh’s work as a tender drama and epic in scope capturing the human spirit. Caitríona Balfe and Jamie Dornan delivered great performances, but Jude Hill shined in some of my favorite scenes. As much as I loved this movie after repeat viewings, it seems too perfect for the Academy Awards.
7. Licorice Pizza
I felt the magic of the movies again watching an auteur director expert at his craft. Sure Paul Thomas Anderson goes in a different direction in his breezy and amusing 70s coming-of-age film that comes nicely together. Alana Haim was the highlight in a breakout role who should film more movies between album recordings and concert tours. Nice to see Cooper Hoffman make his debut in this.
Featuring terrific performances from Thompson and Negga with scrumptious cinematography, Rebecca Hall’s directorial debut multi-layered melodrama felt like it was from its era and had a modern art house sensibility. The black and white palette might have been passe as the 2021 filmmaker trend as seen for numerous movies, but I can’t think of any other film that worked better for exploring the themes of colorism.
5. The Tragedy of Macbeth
Yes, I technically ranked another black and white movie higher than one where I said no movie utilized it perfectly. This one delivers on every level. Sometimes you know that a film “on paper” will hit all the right notes; a Macbeth adaptation from Joel Coen starring Denzel Washington and Frances McDormand fires on all cylinders. Kudos to Kathryn Hunter as the witches who provides one of the year’s best supporting performances. I am glad I caught this on a giant IMAX screen a few weeks ago. It has haunted me ever since.
4. Drive My Car
A character study about loss and connection, the 2021 Japanese drama film co-written and directed by Ryusuke Hamaguchi has become an art-house sleeper since its positive reception at Cannes. A meditative exploration about finding connection over the loss, the three-hour running time felt shorter than some of the star-studded 2.5-hour movies from bigger-name directors. It feels appropriate for a year where many people processed loss and hoping to find meaningful relational fulfillment that we have this one.
Riveting and powerful, “Flee” masterfully blends the documentary and animated genres into a captivating and heartbreaking refugee story. Jonas Poher Rasmussen’s accomplished a compelling story and crafted a completed work of art with a humanitarian message. Educators should show this movie to more mature students as a snapshot of a time with rather timely themes.
2. West Side Story
I never doubted Steven Spielberg and Tony Kushner couldn’t handle the source material. I had a huffy, “y tho” attitude with this movie in a market saturated with IP. A rarity in modern movie history, not a remake, but a revival and a proper contemporary update. A musical number on the boardwalk dock floored me, on par with any of the best blockbusters in the past years. It reminded me of The Pole Cat attack scene in “Mad Max: Fury Road,” a masterpiece of a moviemaking craft in a perfectly executed re-boot we didn’t need.
1. The Power of the Dog
Watching “The Power of the Dog” felt like movies were back. It reminded me of the epics I discovered for the first time watching classic films both rich in detail and epic in scope. The powerhouse ensemble features Benedict Cumberbatch, Kirsten Dunst, Jesse Plemons, Kodi Smit-McPhee. Many moments linger in my mind, especially Dunst playing the piano. What an ending, too! Jane Campion’s deliberately paced slow burn was the highlight of the year for me masterfully experienced on the big screen at the Telluride Film Festival. It checked all the right boxes to be my #1 of the year.
For my Honorable Mention, I usually like to do 11 for an 11. However, I liked many movies and didn’t want to leave them out. Here they are in alphabetical order:
Barb & Star Go to Vista Del Mar
I can’t believe how silly yet confident the funny and bonkers, kooky comedy is. Few films were fully committed and understood the assignment worthy of cult classic status.
Mike Mills understands the complicated dynamics of a family. Phoenix was excellent in an ode to breaking off isolation. I adored the children’s interviews and felt the anxious uncle energy with Phoenix’s character.
Derek DelGaudio’s In & of Itself
Mind-blowing and very unique, the performance demands your full attention. I admired how raw this documentary explored meaningful subjects about life. Think Brene Brown as a performance artist/magician/comedian who interacts with the audience.
Don’t Look Up
When Adam McKay’s nihilistic dark comedy hits the nail on the head, it unapologetically pounds it. As someone who wrote a satirical screenplay and then witnessed my ideas happen in real life, I feel the need to defend myself from the detractors and online discourse.
The Green Knight
Both multi-layered and ravishing, David Lowery’s low-key epic deserves a re-watch and dissection. I would love to see the SXSW director’s cut rumored to be a different movie one day.
Judas and The Black Messiah
People can debate what year a movie opens based on where they live or when they see it, but Shaka King’s Oscar-winning breakout directorial achievement is a 2022 release.
Reinaldo Marcus Green’s populist family drama about elite tennis players is filled with life lessons and inspirations. Will Smith might be the favorite, but Aunjanue Ellis was the real memorable performance.
A very poignant and offbeat reflection of the modern refugee struggle in the context of a coming-of-age story. This surprised me and some of the shots were fantastic.
The Lost Daughter
Maggie Gyllenhaal’s confident and impressive directorial debut has a European sensibility to it. Olivia Colman is one of our great actresses delivering a remarkably nuanced performance and a nice turn from Dakota Johnson.
The highlight of this strong ensemble was Martha Plimpton. The phenomenal performances aren’t confined to one room, even if we never leave it. This devastating drama has lingered in my mind since the beginning of the year.
The Mitchells Vs. The Machines
I had a smile on my face during the entire runtime of the best American animated movie of the year. A quirky, hilarious, and sentimental animated family film filled with wit, creativity, color, and heart that should become a classic.
No Time To Die
I’ve missed blockbusters like this refined and captivating one where people accomplish escapist perfection. I was with it the whole time, from the thrilling opening scene to the emotional conclusion— a perfect farewell to the Daniel Craig era of Bond.
A very poignant turn from a Cage we once knew and not his bat shit crazy schtick that has made him Internet famous for younger generations. It was deliberately paced, but I admired the two dinner table scenes and the end.
Sean Baker’s latest might be a step down from “Tangerine”’s greatness. Still, it is a moment in time revealing the underbelly of a grifter taking advantage of unsuspecting Middle America. Ain’t no lie…
Riders of Justice
Adding quirky character development and genuine emotion with the intense fighting to a revenge thriller genre infused with comedic elements, “Riders of Justice” was alternative movie making. More of this Danish film starring Mads Mikkelsen, and fewer franchises.
A gay cousin to John Carroll Lynch’s “Lucky,” a tender Udo Kier in one of the year’s best leading performances shines in this unconventional dark comedy character study about re-visiting the places that shaped your life.
Pablo Larraín’s “Spencer” does what he did with “Jackie” by subverting the nostalgia of an iconic woman, all in the context of a fable. Kristen Stewart is stunning in the lead role.
Very well done with a few twists. A moment of shattered glass was one of the most memorable and startling individual scenes of the year. Lead actress Paula Beer is captivating like a European Rachel McAdams.
The Worst Person in the World
Joachim Trier’s Norwegian romantic drama ponders life and relationships anchored by a spirited performance from Renate Reinsve.
A wild ride and an exceptional debut from Janicza Bravo are filled with online cultural insight, one-liners, and a few future memes.
Besides “Flee,” I wanted to briefly highlight the best docs on the year including, the fascinating “Ascension,” the breathtaking “Faya Dayi,” the meditative “Procession,” the vibrant “Summer Of Soul,” the thrilling “The Rescue,” the enraging “Attica,” the heartfelt “Val”, the haunting “Final Account,” and the revealing “Rebel Hearts.”
I don’t usually see bad movies because I have a discerning eye, but I can be disappointed by a few of them. Despite Guillermo del Toro’s “Nightmare Alley” lavish production design and Bradley Cooper’s final scene, it had a slog of a running time. I appreciated the noir elements to the re-imagining but it wasn’t for me.
Speaking of classic films, I am concluding with the best ones I discovered for the first time on TCM and Criterion:
The Best First Time Watch / New To Me Movies
1. The Best Year of Our Lives (1946)
2. Bad Day At Black Rock (1955)
3. Brute Force (1947)
4. Black Legion (1937)
5. The Big Country (1958)
6. (tie) The Defiant Ones (1958) & The Great Escape (1963)
7. Magic Boy (1959)
8. A Matter Of Life and Death (1946)
9. The Pumpkin Eater (1964)
10. Boys Night Out (1962)
11. Bullitt (1968)
12. Laura (1944)
13. Harper (1966)
14. Fallen Idol (1946)
15. To Have And Have Not (1944)
16. Odds Against Tomorrow (1959)
17. Lisztomania (1975)