To write a year-in-review list immediately after the year ends is always a fascinating experiment. What ends up sticking in your brain five, ten, twenty years after the New Year’s Eve confetti has settled is hardly ever what you expect it to be, and more often than not you find yourself stumbling, after much time has passed, into a little regarded work from that year that ends up being your new favorite. No doubt I will.
I think about 2016, where films like The Nice Guys and Raw weren’t even on my radar until years later, and how fondly I think of them now (I’d like to think I’m more aware of the film landscape now than I was six years ago, but I’m sure I missed some small movie that will eventually grow into among my all-time favorites).
So before I delve into my top 10 itself, I’d love to take the space to touch on a few things that happened this year that I think deserve some recognition.
Jonathan Majors’ bonafide movie-star turn.
What a heat check for Hollywood’s newest movie star! When Jonathan Majors burst onto the scene with his performance in The Last Black Man in San Francisco, he established himself as an actor to follow. Over the last 18 months, he starred across Chadwick Boseman in a Spike Lee film, established himself as Marvel’s next big bad through strength of dialogue delivery alone, and delivered a show-stopping performance in the horribly underrated The Harder They Fall. History will be kind to that film, mark my words, and the future will be just as good to Majors. Can’t wait to see what 2022 and beyond has in store for him.
The Kill of the Year
One word. Bread-slicer.
Wait, should I explain that more?
When the bread-slicer kill happens in Fear Street: 1994, you’ve been sort of…lulled into a sense of security. These characters, they have plot armor. This is a Netflix horror movie starring teens, no way would a main character die!
And then Kate’s head gets shoved through the bread slicer.
Not only was it the most gruesome on-screen kill I’ve seen this year, it shifted the tone of the film, and the series, completely. It changed what the movies were going to do. All of a sudden, the stakes tripled, and while 1994 was far and away the weakest of the three movies, this was the moment where I knew we were in for something fun and interesting with this trilogy.
Idris Elba skulking around menacingly
Huge year for Idris Elba to go around quietly killing weirdos across genres. Truly, good for him, he seems to be having a blast.
Your Favorite Director Made a Movie!
What a year for [insert your favorite director here]!! S/He certainly did put out that movie! Some people loved it, some people hated it, but man did they have some crazy production value in that film!
In all seriousness, nearly every director you’ve ever heard of put out something interesting this year. A shortlist of them would include Paul Thomas Anderson, Edgar Wright (twice), Steve Spielberg, Jane Campion, Wes Anderson, Barry Jenkins, Ridley Scott (twice), Julia Ducournau, Steven Soderbergh, Paul Schrader, Kenneth Branagh, Denis Villeneuve, M. Night Shyamalan, and Guillermo del Toro. And that’s just off the top of my head.
What with 2020 doing what 2020 did, most of these filmmakers had to move their releases to 2021 or to streaming (often both). What resulted is an absolute glut of high-profile directors releasing some of their more interesting films all at the same time. I guess we call that a silver lining?
Huge year for mainstream black-and-white films. Belfast, The Tragedy of Macbeth, (parts of) The French Dispatch, Passing, (the first episode of) WandaVision, etc, etc. all featured extensive use of black-and-white in massive, mainstream projects. Thought that was rad as hell. Give me more of it.
As much as I hate to admit it…wow did Lin-Manuel have a banner year. In the Heights was wild fun. Encanto was a fine, if not mind-blowing, Disney release but at least it had “We Don’t Talk About Bruno.” He was involved in writing the music for Vivo, a Netflix film that mostly just came and went. And he directed Tick, Tick…Boom! which was legitimately incredible (see below). Huge year for Miranda.
Also, the “Paciencia y Fe” scene was amazing.
It was a great year for movies, just straight up. For a lot of us, it was the first time we got to sit in a theater in over a year. It brought tears to my eyes when the lights dimmed that first time. I love movies. Odds are, if you’re reading this, you do too. It’s so nice to have the movies back.
Fear Street: 1666
Absolutely loved this conclusion. The series truly got better with each film, I can’t wait to see what Leigh Janiak makes next.
I’m embarrassed to admit this is the first film by Russian legend Andrei Konchalovsky that I’ve ever seen. It won’t be the last.
West Side Story
Rachel Zegler was astonishing from the first note. It more than lives up to the original.
Barb and Star Go to Vista del Mar
Legitimately one of the weirdest movies I’ve ever seen in my entire life. I loved it. Some people won’t get it. Don’t trust them.
The Mitchells vs. The Machines
Spider-Verse is already shaping the next-generation animation medium. I could not be happier about that. Heartfelt, hilarious, and just a beautiful film.
Barry Jenkins’s documentary legitimately nearly made my top 10. It’s that powerful in just 50 minutes. Give it a watch.
I did not know Nicolas Cage could do that.
The Summit of the Gods
If you haven’t seen this French film about obsession, failure, loss, and flawed people trying to climb the tallest mountains in the world, do yourself a favor and watch it.
The Harder They Fall
Stylized as hell with a killer cast. Regina King is a genius. See above for Jonathan Majors and Idris Elba.
And now, the Top 10!!!!
#10: Judas and the Black Messiah
Lakeith Stanfield may actually be the best actor working today. At any rate, he’s probably my favorite one. His performance here, of a man so beaten down by circumstance that, when confronted with true hope, he instinctively distrusts it, is so devastating that I’ve found myself just sitting and thinking about him over the course of the last few months. I don’t expect that to change. Devastating is really the best word for this film. To watch Daniel Kaluuya embody the power and hope that Fred Hampton emanated, while knowing what happened to him, is a chilling experience.
Chairman Fred Hampton was 21 years old when he was murdered in his sleep by the FBI.
21 years old.
Shaka King does a phenomenal job here with a minimalistic touch behind the camera. In lesser hands, this could easily have faltered into a toothless, unserious bio-pic. The love, the anger, and the passion all come through, however, resulting in the most powerful film about the Civil Rights Movement to have come out in decades, maybe ever.
#9: Plan B
What a ridiculously funny, simple film. A road trip/buddy/teen/coming-of-age comedy that I didn’t know I needed. Natalie Morales debuts as a director here and clearly know how to make intimate character portraits. Booksmart meets Fargo as these two warmhearted friends stumble their way across the Dakotas. That in itself is an elevator pitch to get me on board! Then throw in the genuinely hilarious side characters and surprising twists in the third act and it all leads to a heart-warming experience that I really didn’t expect going into it.
#8: Tick, Tick…Boom!
I didn’t know Andrew Garfield could do that.
I didn’t know Lin-Manuel Miranda could do that.
Lin-Manuel understands, deeply, what makes musicals special, but I did not know until now that he also knows what makes films special. Shockingly moving story. In a year that is really starting to look like the revival of the Hollywood musical, Tick, Tick…Boom! stands apart as the best.
The moment Andrew Garfield started singing “Boho Days”, I knew this was going to be a special film. Also maybe Andrew Garfield is just the most charismatic man alive, but he had remarkable chemistry with Vanessa Hudgens, right? Like, give me three or four more movies with them starring across from each other! Make them the new Ryan Gosling/Emma Stone! Sign me up!!
Damn man, all vibes in this movie! Pixar finally took a look over Ghibli’s shoulder and decided to take a page from their book. The stakes in this film are nearly nonexistent. My guys want a Vespa. Some nerd wants to beat them in a race so he gets to have the Vespa. That’s awesome. Those are the stakes I want from a Pixar film. Also, the setting is gorgeous, the animation is spectacular, and the small throw-away jokes are rib-achingly funny. If this is the type of movie Pixar can make when they’re not focused on reboots and sequels, I think it’s officially time to leave the IP behind and start telling more stories like this.
Between this and Encanto, I’m starting to think that there’s a Disney middle manager named Bruno who has done a really good job of pissing everyone off.
#6: The Lost Daughter
At this point, it’s almost cliché to fawn over an Olivia Colman performance. And yet…my God was she incredible. May we all be so bold as to tell a large, wealthy, annoyingly touristy family to shove off when they ask us for our favorite chair at the beach. I’ve seldom respected a character more than I did in that moment. It took more courage than anything the Avengers have ever done, hands down.
Seriously though, what a rare and bold film to so honestly portray a human being in all her faults and reality. When the reveal finally comes that she left for three years, you understand why because of how they depicted her life at home, and it forces you to question whether it’s truly all that wrong for her to have done. Whenever a film can impose a new challenge of morality onto you, it’s an achievement. To do so in your debut feature, as Maggie Gyllenhaal does here, is astonishing.
This movie also includes one of two plot-critical dolls (shout out, Annette).
I look forward to seeing what Gyllenhaal puts forward next.
#5: Shiva Baby
Dear GOD what a stressful film. For my money, the best horror movie of the year. And make no mistake, this is a horror movie.
The amount of anxiety that is jam-packed into the 77-minute runtime is astonishing. Not a frame is wasted, and the sound design does so much to contribute to the spiraling levels of dread.
I’ve seen complaints that the building of climactic actions sort of fizzles out at the end, but I’d like to argue that that’s the point. The stress and anxiety we experience are insights into the perspective of Danielle (played masterfully by Rachel Sennott). That the end of the film doesn’t bring the entire fabric of the social order to a crashing halt, but rather is just a small, personal moment of affection and support, is an honest representation of how the end of an anxiety attack feels; the world wasn’t really ending, it just felt like it was. To somehow build that emotion on screen so faithfully is an achievement.
What an astounding theater experience. I saw this on the largest screen I could find, and I don’t think I blinked for a full three hours. Denis Villeneuve is unmatched in designing the tactile aspects of sci-fi worlds. Every single aspect of this film is firing on all cylinders. The score. The production design. The editing. And my God, the acting.
Rebecca Ferguson’s performance is getting the recognition it deserves; her Lady Jessica is the emotional core of the film. But wow, it takes every single actor here giving it their all to keep Dune from slipping into camp. No one so much as blinks. Stellan Skarsgard’s performance is as captivating as it is disgusting. Oscar Isaac delivers believable the care and gentleness of a benevolent ruler. Jason Momoa, Josh Brolin, and Stephen Henderson deliver top-tier supporting roles. And Timothée Chalamet carries the lead of the franchise. Truly, top to bottom, a pure cinematic experience.
#3: The French Dispatch
I cannot express how hilarious I find it that Wes Anderson, the director whose most vocal critics scream about his films being more style over substance, turned around and made a film that is designed exclusively with style in mind first. Unbelievably funny move.
That alone would have made this an impressive feature, but he takes it a step further and somehow manages to deliver on the premise in unexpected ways. The idea of a visual issue of a literary magazine in the vein of The New Yorker is such a fun idea.
Each vignette has its highlights, but Jeffrey Wright’s not-James-Baldwin story is the absolute heart of the whole film. Another success for one of the great masters of the form.
#2: Derek DelGaudio’s In & Of Itself
What a surprise this turned out to be. I reviewed this special nearly a year ago the time this article comes out, but I still find myself thinking about different parts of this delivery. The book of endings. The rouletista. It’s pure magic. It hit me harder than any other thing I watched this year. I gasped. I cried. I can’t imagine how powerful it would have been to see in person in a room full of strangers. Do yourself a favor; turn off your phone, turn off your lights, and let yourself experience this masterpiece.
#1: Midnight Mass
As soon as I watched the “you reached through time, Joe Collie,” speech, I knew nothing else could possibly take this spot. I’ve already written 1400 words about this unbelievably beautiful piece of cinema, so I will direct most of my attention there.
I do want to take this chance, though, to reiterate how impressive the performances are. Hamish Linklater and Rahul Kohli deliver star-making performances. I can’t believe they’re not already being cast in every new auteur-driven character drama, but they deserve to be household names. I certainly expect they will be before too long. Until then, however, thank God Mike Flanagan keeps stepping up his game with these Netflix series.
Also, F*** Bev Keane, all my homies hate Bev Keane.
Welp, there it is! Of course, I was not able to see all the movies I wanted to see this year. I’m sure if I have to make this list again a year from now it would look radically different. But I do love each film on the list, and I hope you give them all a chance! Thanks for reading and Happy New Year!
Thanks for reading! What are your favorite films of 2021? Comment down below!
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