Scott Menzel’s Top 10 Films of 2021

Hello everyone, and happy holidays to you all. It is that time of the year when all of us film critics sit down and make a list of our favorite films of the year. I found 2021 to be a rather interesting year in cinema because while we got some sense of normalcy as we returned to theaters, this year felt like a trial run for the future. We saw many films underperform while there was a constant conversation about theatrical windows and streaming vs. theaters. Big budget films like F9, Shang-Chi, Black Widow, Venom 2, and Spider-Man: No Way Home all did great at the box office, while most other films didn’t even break even. While I would say that 2021 was a better year for film overall, especially when compared to 2020, it still wasn’t up to par with the years prior. Please don’t get me wrong; I enjoyed a lot more films in 2021 than I did in 2020, given that there was a wider variety of movies and ones that didn’t make me feel sad or depressed. I remembered last year, I watched so many films, and while some of them were very good, the majority of them made me feel even sadder when I was already feeling down. 2021 offered more variety, and I found myself wanting to revisit films more than once. I should mention that I have watched every single movie on this list two or more times. This is probably the first time in recent memory that I have revisited my entire top 10 before releasing the list publicly. Now, without further delay, here are my personal top 10 films of 2021.

10. Ghostbusters: Afterlife

As a child of the 80s, I watched films like Back to the Future, Gremlins, and Ghostbusters on repeat. Ivan Reitman’s Ghostbusters was a personal favorite of mine and a film that sadly has not gotten the sequel treatment it deserved until this film. I don’t hate Ghostbusters 2 or Ghostbusters from 2016, but they didn’t feel as magical as the original did. Ghostbusters: Afterlife captures the true spirit of the original without entirely relying on it to tell this new story. This film somehow manages to walk that fine line between nostalgia and being its own thing. Yes, there are many throwbacks to the original, but the young cast, especially Mckenna Grace and Logan Kim, really make this movie their own and allow it to stand out on its own. Ghostbusters: Afterlife feels like Jason Reitman’s most personal film to date and one that feels like a love letter to his own family. While watching this film, it was evident that Jason wanted to honor his father while also making sure he was doing the right thing for fans and expanding the legacy of this franchise for future generations to enjoy. That is a massive task, and somehow I feel that Jason pulled that off seamlessly. I’m curious to see where this franchise will go next, and I hope the sequel is even better than this one.

9. Free Guy

After five different release dates, Free Guy was finally released in theaters in August and became one of the top-grossing and most talked-about summer films. Free Guy is one of those movies that I don’t think the studio realized how good it was until they screened it for a handful of critics. With so many video game-centric films such as Tron Legacy and Ready Player One, I went into Free Guy not expecting much from it but walked out shocked by how entertaining it was. Free Guy stands out even more because it is an original concept and not part of a licensed IP. While I was watching this movie, I saw hints of other popular films sprinkled throughout, but this film is not based on a book, tv show, or video game. It is refreshing to see a filmmaker like Shawn Levy continue to create original big-budget family-centric comedies like Night at the Museum, Real Steel, and Free Guy. While some could argue there is a varying degree of quality with his films, I think Free Guy is his best film yet because it manages to be wholly entertaining while also offering something that children and adults alike can watch and love for many different reasons. It should also be noted that Free Guy is the first film to introduce Jodie Comer to a mainstream theatrical audience, and she crushes it in a dual role.

8. Spider-Man: No Way Home 

After not having very nice things to say about Spider-Man: Homecoming and Spider-Man: Far From Home, I was utterly shocked by how much I enjoyed Spider-Man: No Way Home. I enjoyed it so much that unlike most superhero films, which I struggle to rewatch, I willingly went back and watched No Way Home again and enjoyed it even more on a second viewing. For me, what separates this film from other Marvel films is that it serves as a legacy to the character of Spider-Man. You can’t help but watch this film and not feel a sense of childlike wonder from it. I grew up watching Spider-Man movies, and I have enjoyed elements of all of them. Yes, some are better than others, but what No Way Home does perfectly is it combines the very best things about all those films into one film. Many people have said that No Way Home feels like something that shouldn’t exist, and I wholeheartedly agree with that statement. The whole movie feels surreal, especially since so many involved with this franchise came back to participate and didn’t phone it in. I feel bad for all of the upcoming Marvel movies because this is the one to beat, and I don’t know how long it will be until they release something that reaches the bar that this film set for the MCU.

7. tick, tick…BOOM!

Lin-Manuel Miranda is a dreamer. A dreamer who fought against the odds and became one of the most recognizable names, not only in theater but in entertainment. tick, tick…BOOM! is a film that was inspired by a play based on the life of Jonathan Larson. Just like Miranda, those who don’t know who Larson is were a dreamer who fought against the system and created Rent, one of the most iconic and beloved Broadway musicals of all time. When watching tick, tick…BOOM!, I couldn’t help but feel the passion and love in every frame. The film serves as a love letter to dreamers, musical theater, and all those who understand the magic that theater creates. The casting of Andrew Garfield as Jonathan Larson is nothing short of perfection. Garfield disappears into this role without any make-up or prosthetics. He legit puts his hair up and becomes Jonathan Larson. The fact that Garfield has never sung before this role makes the whole performance even more impressive as he comes across as someone who has had years of musical theater training and yet didn’t. When you combine Miranda’s love and passion for theater with Garfield’s tour-de-force performance as Jonathan Larson, you know that you are watching something exceptional unfold. However, when you add in a fantastic supporting cast, including Alexandra Shipp, Robin de Jesús, Vanessa Hudgens, and Bradley Whitford, you know that you are watching one of the very best films that 2021 has to offer.

6. Cyrano

I think most can agree that Joe Wright is at his best when he makes period dramas. Cyrano, which is based on a stage play of the same name, is not something that hasn’t been tackled before. There have been many different takes on Cyrano de Bergerac, from comedies to dramas. Joe Wright’s Cyrano is a musical that puts Peter Dinklage front and center. The film, which like a lot of movies this year, was shot during covid with limited resources available. Wright expertly brings this story to life with a wonderful soundtrack, gorgeous sets, elaborate costumes, and four terrific performances from Dinklage, Haley Bennett, Kelvin Harrison Jr., and Ben Mendelsohn. This is not your typical musical, so I can see people who don’t generally like musicals falling in love with this one. As a musical lover, I am pleased to report that Cyrano is my favorite musical of the year in a year that filled to the brim with many great movie musicals.

5. The Mitchells vs. The Machines

I watched The Mitchells vs. The Machines, not knowing what to expect from it. Based on what I learned from 2020, if a studio sold a movie to a streamer like Amazon or Netflix, it usually meant that the movie wasn’t good. That was proven several times throughout 2020 and 2021 with films like The Tomorrow War and Coming 2 America. However, The Mitchells vs. The Machines was a total surprise because not only was it good, but it was damn good. I would happily go on record and call it is the Best Animated Film of 2021. The Mitchells vs. The Machines combines a razor-sharp dialogue with excellent voice acting and stunning animation, which feels fresh and unlike anything we’ve seen before. The script written by Mike Rianda and Jeff Rowe is incredibly heartfelt, wildly funny, and timely. All of the characters are lovable and relatable. Mike Rianda, with the help of Phil Lord and Christopher Miller, has changed the game when it comes to animation, and I cannot wait to see what this trio does next.

4. Last Night in Soho 

The trailer for Last Night in Soho was so damn compelling that immediately after watching it, it became one of my most anticipated films to see in 2021. However, when the film premiered at Venice, the reviews were very mixed, which shocked me because most Edgar Wright films are loved by critics and audiences alike. Weirdly, this made me more excited to see the movie at the Toronto International Film Festival. Still, unfortunately, my wife ended up getting COVID while we were at Telluride, so we had to miss TIFF. Unfortunately, because of COVID, I didn’t end up seeing Last Night in Soho until several weeks later at a local press screening here in Los Angeles. I walked out of Last Night in Soho loving it and, truthfully, shocked by the mixed reactions. I would argue that Last Night in Soho is Wright’s crowning achievement as a filmmaker so far in his career. The film feels different from anything he has ever done before and feels like a love letter to classic cinema. In terms of performances, Thomasin McKenzie delivers such an incredible performance, and one that I think has been sadly overlooked during the current awards season. She is phenomenal as Eloise and carries so much of the weight on her shoulders. When you add in Anya Taylor-Joy, Matt Smith, and Diana Rigg, you have such a great ensemble who are entirely committed to the story that Edgar Wright and Krysty Wilson-Cairns are telling. Last Night in Soho is easily one of the most underrated and underappreciated films of 2021.

3. Spencer

Each year several films divide audiences, and in 2021, Spencer was one of those films. Hailed by many out of Telluride and Venice as a masterpiece, Spencer can be best described as a haunting fairytale centered around Princess Diana that combines elements of reality with fiction. Pablo Larraín’s work as a filmmaker generates a visceral reaction from audiences. While certain critics have called Spencer a masterpiece, I know many others who despise it. Indie films like Spencer tend to spark this reaction from viewers and often divide critics and audiences. I loved Spencer, and I saw the movie twice while at Telluride. I loved the movie, not only because Kristen Stewart delivers one of the best performances of her career, but the script and filmmaking spoke to me as someone who has a love/hate relationship with the media and being part of the industry. I love films that offer social commentary and pose questions to the audience about why we treat celebrities the way we do and how it impacts their daily lives. There is so much to digest and take away from a film like Spencer that repeat viewings are almost mandatory. Sure, this is labeled as a fairy tale of a true tragedy. Still, there are vital takeaways from this story, including lines of dialogue that make bold statements about how we as a society view others as currency. Spencer may not necessarily be an enjoyable experience, but it has stuck with me ever since I first saw it back in September.

2. Bo Burnham: Inside

Okay, so I know there is this ongoing debate about whether or not Bo Burnham: Inside is a movie, but this is my list, so as far as I am concerned, it’s a damn movie. I honestly lost count of how many times I watched Inside during 2021, but I have watched it at least ten times in its entirety. I really can’t put into words how Inside makes me feel and how deeply I connect to so many things that Bo discusses or pokes fun of within it. Inside makes me laugh, cry, and made me feel things that made me feel seen and understood. It is a cinematic experience and one that served as a form of therapy for many, including myself. Inside moved me in ways that no other film has in recent memory, and for that reason alone, it deserves to be on my list as one of the best films of the year.

1. CODA

I saw CODA for the first time during Sundance back in January. As the end credits started to roll, I found myself crying uncontrollably. These weren’t tears of sorrow but rather tears of joy. For the first time in a very long time, a film touched me in such a monumental way that I struggled to control my emotions. I loved spending almost 2 hours with the Rossi family and even felt like I learned a thing or two about deaf culture in the process. Almost immediately after watching CODA at Sundance, I wrote my review calling it one of the year’s best films – a bold statement to make in January as we are just getting started with a brand new year in film. Over the next 11 months, I watched hundreds of movies and went into each with an open mind and heart. While a few movies on this list came close to being my favorite film of the year, repeat viewings of CODA solidified that no other movie this year made me feel the level of joy and happiness I felt whenever I sat down and watched CODA.

A film like CODA is such a rarity to see from Hollywood nowadays. It features multiple award caliber performances paired with a touching and poignant script that makes you think, laugh, and cry. And when you add in the fact that this film is also shining a big bright spotlight on the deaf community in ways that no movie has ever done before, you truly begin to see how and why CODA has continued to grow in popularity over these past 11 months. As someone so heavily involved in the awards community, our industry has become so accustomed to pushing message-driven films and, frankly, ones that are often incredibly depressing. Seeing a movie like CODA being pushed for awards is a huge win for representation and a win for those who want to award movies that make us feel a sense of joy and hope. Over these past five years, the real world is often filled with anger and rage—one where people feel divided and not united. CODA brings people together and shows how people can connect and learn despite their differences. We need more films that celebrate life and make us feel alive when we watch them. I’m proud to say that CODA is the best film of 2021.

Honorary mention: 

If you don’t believe that Bo Burnham: Inside is a movie, you can shift all of the films on this list down by one, and my number ten would be Adam McKay’s Don’t Look Up.

Nowadays, Adam McKay has become a filmmaker that people seem to love or hate; however, that wasn’t always the case. From 2004 to 2014, MacKay was best known for raunchy comedies like Anchorman, Step Brothers, and The Other Guys, but after McKay took a more serious approach to filmmaking with The Big Short, his fanbase became divided. I prefer when MacKay makes serious films that have comedic elements in them. I loved The Big Short, and while I thought Vice was a little too heavy-handed and was preaching to the choir, I appreciated what he was doing with it. Don’t Look Up is more of a comedy than a drama, but when the dramatic moments hit, they hit big. I would say that Don’t Look Up is the funniest film of 2021 and, like most of the movies on my top 10 lists, features a terrific ensemble cast doing some of their best work to date. Don’t Look Up offers plenty of social satire, and while some of it can be a little too “on the nose” in spots, I found myself fully immersed in the story and these characters. I think it’s a real shame that Leonardo DiCaprio and Mark Rylance aren’t in the awards conversation more as they are each playing characters that we haven’t seen them play before. I couldn’t help but laugh almost every single time Rylance came on-screen. It is also a real treat to watch someone as highly regarded as Meryl Streep play a character that many have claimed to be a female version of Trump. The only downside to Don’t Look Up for me is that it runs a little longer than it should, but to be fair, most films nowadays do. If you are looking for an intelligent and whip-smart satire about America today, Don’t Look Up has plenty of laughs to offer.

Written by
Born in New Jersey, Scott D. Menzel has been a film fanatic since he was three years old. Growing up, he watched as many movies as he could and was highly influenced by Tim Burton, John Hughes, Robert Zemeckis, and Steven Spielberg. Scott has an Associates Degree in Marketing, a Bachelors in Mass Media, Communications and a Masters in Electronic Media. He has been writing film reviews under the alias of MovieManMenzel since 2003 and started his writing career as a contributing critic at IMDB.com and Joblo.com. In 2009, Scott launched MovieManMenzel.com where he posted several of his film reviews but in 2011 decided to shut down the site when he launched We Live Film.com, which he founded. In 2015, We Live Film became We Live Entertainment. The domain name changed occurred after months of debate but was done so that he and his fellow staff members could write about anything and everything in the world of entertainment.

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