I hate long intros, so let’s get right into this list. In a year packed with more film excellence than 2020 (for obvious reasons) the following are what I’d say were the ten best films of 2021.
10. Don’t Look Up:
A movie that warmed my anti-capitalist heart, “Don’t Look Up” reaffirms that nobody in power cares about you, social media is a distraction, and we are stuck in a patriarchal society that hates women and wouldn’t believe them even if a female scientist had evidence of a comet hurdling towards earth to kill us all. Moral of the story…welcome to earth (specifically the United States).
In what is an allegory for the climate crisis, this story sees a scientist (Jennifer Lawrence) discover that a comet is going to hit the earth in six months and fourteen days. This will be an apocalyptic level event. She and a colleague (played by Leonardo DiCaprio) alert the proper authorities and even the President, but nobody seems to take the scientists seriously until the comet suddenly becomes a capitalistic opportunity. This is a comedy.
Writer/director Adam McKay absolutely hits the mark here, creating a giant timely reference. In his “fictionalized” version of the United States billionaires run the world, the main stream media only cares about headlines and so do influencers and so does the President. And also, dumb people hate science. This is the most Terry Gilliam film I’ve seen in a while, with a sprinkle of Coen brothers realness.
This may be the strangest film on my list, not for any other reason than its damn formulaic and damn uplifting. I’m usually very much into downer films.
“CODA” stands for “Child of Deaf Adults”. It follows a high schooler named Ruby who is the only person in her family who isn’t deaf. One day she decides to join a music class, as she is a very talented singer but doesn’t seem to realize it yet. An eccentric teacher sees potential in her and spends the movie trying to challenge her to go off to music school. But as the only non-deaf person in her family, she feels that her destiny is to stay and take care of her parents. F-O-R-M-U-L-A-I-C! That said, the formula works quite well. Very Disney in tone, with every loose end tied up by the end, “CODA” is undeniably heartfelt, funny and contains real gravity and stakes.
The characters are all likeable and we root for them the entire time. The acting is quite effective (the mother is played by Marlee Matlin) and the director does a great job of spotlighting deaf dialogues, with scenes of real deaf actors communicating for entire scenes without vocal breaks; which sounds like an obvious move in a film with this subject matter, but it’s something that really isn’t seen in film today. Sure, there are plot holes. And yes, movies like this may not make a lot of people’s top ten, but it’s really not up for debate how well this gets you right in the feels and never let’s go.
“Spencer” portrays Princess Diana, trapped at the end of a loveless marriage, surrounded by the most powerful family in the world, hopelessly marching towards the gallows, accompanied by a Jonny Greenwood orchestral score which swings back and forth between avant-garde jazz and classical; a decision which wonderfully complements a woman who famously stood in between two worlds. Beginning with a screen text which reads “A fable from a true tragedy”, visionary director Pablo Larrain (Jackie) gives us a brief glimpse into the life of Diana, as she attempts to break free from a world that at first glance could be mistaken for a fairytale. His vision gives us something different, more surreal and far less narrative driven. The camera floats alongside Diana as she ventures outside on her own, almost getting lost amongst the seemingly never-ending world around her. And inside the estate Larrain creates a very claustrophobic feel, as the walls of opulence close in on the princess; establishing this as a fully immersive Diana experience. But also layered, because as much of a movie about Diana as “Spencer” is, it very much attempts to be a film about women trapped under the weight of the patriarchy. For as we root for Diana’s rejection of this life, Larrain quietly but consistently reminds us all about how these fairytales tend to end.
Also, Kristen Stewart plays Diana in the role that will win her an Academy Award, creating a character all her own, not so much doing an impression, but an interpretation, giving a very Meryl Streep level performance. And so it goes, a Kristen Stewart movie has finally made it onto one of my top ten lists. I totally get it. I’m late getting on this bandwagon.
7. Dune (part one):
Denis Villeneuve makes perfect sci-fi. I need this on a tee-shirt.
Writer/director Denis Villeneuve (Blade Runner 2024, Arrival) adapts Frank Herbert’s notoriously difficult to adapt “greatest science fiction novel of all time”. (Seriously, look up the history of attempts to adapt “Dune).
The film sees House Atreides gain power over the planet Arrakis aka Dune; a desert planet filled with many dangers, including massive Godzilla-sized worms (sandworms); calling them worms may be selling these visually grandiose creatures short. This planet is also the home to a native peoples called Fremen and a valuable mineral referred to as “spice”, which makes interstellar travel possible. The story soon finds Paul Atreides (the youngest member of this house) encountering conflict involving spice mining, double crossing, and the aforementioned big ass worms. But Paul is no ordinary duke. He may or may not be a messiah of sorts, whether he wants to be or not.
As expected, there is a ton of exposition which I saw and accepted as necessary in order to adapt a book like “Dune”; even again when you take into account that it’s a two hour and thirty-five-minute “part one”. Villeneuve handles the pre-action stuff by acknowledging the extensive exposition and (with the help of cinematographer Greg Fraser) establishes his brand of spectacular visual effects from minute one. This along with Han Zimmer’s score, carry the first hour of this movie until everyone is up to speed. While there are many reasons why this film works, it’s greatest achievement will not be the film’s adaptation integrity, but the fact that as a visual sci-fi experience it works for the masses. And with a world this complex, this is the best compliment I can give.
The hardest sell on this list. Even though “Titane” is an award-winning film, it’s not one for everyone and will definitely turn people off who aren’t into extreme visuals. Also, even though I saw this film months ago, I will admit that I still don’t fully understand everything the director was trying to say and am eager for a second viewing. So, why would a film that I’m not totally sure I understood, be on this list?
Allow me to explain: Written and directed by Jula Ducournau, this is a horror film which follows a woman who develops a sexual attraction to cars after a childhood car accident. This car accident has left her with a titanium plate in her head. As an adult she works as a dancer, dancing atop classic cars for men. She has become a celebrity to these men, who find her as irresistible as she finds them repulsive. One night, she kills an aggressive fan after he chases her to her car. After which, she has intercourse with a car. After that she goes on a killing spree. Mid-spree she discovers she is pregnant with what we can only assume is a car baby. As she attempts to evade the police, she hides disguising herself as the long-lost son of a local fire chief. And then things get weird.
How am I doing selling this movie?
On its face “Titane” can be shrugged off as a body horror, extreme cinema and nonsensical slasher. But like Ducournau’s previous picture “Raw” there is so much more going on with this movie than just surface and visuals (the visuals are beautifully shot by the way). At its core this movie challenges and addresses gender stereotypes, toxic masculinity, childhood trauma and transphobia in very profound ways.
It’s easy to say that this is simply a movie about a woman who kills. And I think that’s the point. This brilliantly chaotic piece of filmmaking seems to being saying that if all you see is the violence or the sex, and/or all you get out of this movie is “a woman dresses like a boy”, this may say something more negatively about you than you’d like to admit.
5. Shiva Baby:
An anxiety attack told in one hour and seventeen minutes, “Shiva Baby” is a dark comedy about a woman in her early twenties named Danielle who finds herself at a Jewish funeral with her overbearing parents, her ex-girlfriend and her “sugar daddy”, who turns out is married with an infant.
Written and directed by Emma Seligman, as much as “Shiva Baby” is a comedy of unfortunate events, it’s filmed at times like a zombie movie (frantic soundtrack and all) as Danielle, unable to leave this situation, is surrounded by a crowded room full of flippantly passive aggressive family conversation, random family friends touching her stomach and commenting on how she’s “too skinny” and the aforementioned crying infant.
The movie is sharp, hilarious and had me on the edge of my seat. It’s basically the party sequence from “The Graduate”, just cranked up to eleven.
The only documentary on my list and it’s the anti-meat one, shot in black and white. Sounds about right.
Directed by vegetarian Viktor Kosakovskiy and produced by vegan Joaquin Phoenix, “Gunda” is a nature documentary without narration and without any soundtrack (all sounds are diegetic). It’s about ninety minutes long and in it we follow a group of animals; some who are living on an animal sanctuary and others who are living on a farm. The animals prominently featured are a mother pig and her newborn piglets. The film opens with a scene of a mother pig feeding her newborn litter. And we follow the mom and her children as the newborns grow.
The point of this film is animal activism. As a vegan I have seen all the slaughterhouse videos. I have seen cruel and unspeakable acts by humans towards living sentient creatures. These videos are commonplace in the community and used as ways to open people’s eyes to the atrocities of animal agriculture. And it does work sometimes. “Gunda” gives an alternative to videos of brutality and throat slashing violence. And it does it majestically.
I believe there is a place for film like “Gunda” which makes the same case (if not stronger) for animal sentience. It shows that a piglet or calf, etc. will suckle from their mother’s teat, will play like puppies and will look to their mothers for guidance when navigating a large field, if you let them. Also, a mother pig or a cow, etc. will feed and raise their young, if you let it.
While there is no blood and no slaughterhouse shown in this film, there is a third act which will have audiences emotionally distraught as we begin to understand the fate which awaits these creatures.
“Luca” is the story of a young boy sea monster named Luca (voiced by Jacob Tremblay) who has become infatuated with seeing what lies above the surface and on the coastal Italian town of Portorosa. He is told by his parents that good kids (sea monsters) don’t venture to the surface. But when another boy sea monster his own age, Alberto (voiced by Jack Dylan Grazer) sparks his curiosity by showing him that he can venture onto land and change into human form once on the surface, Luca soon discovers that this place may be where he’s meant to be.
This is a whimsical Pixar Italian folktale for sure, with all that entails. High quality animation, entertaining story with lots of levity, but also themes of fear, loss and acceptance told in a way that a child can digest. That said, it’s not hard to see “Luca” for what it is, with a particularly tender relationship between these two boys at its forefront and telling a story where these boys must hide their identity for fear of being hurt; where on multiple occasions they are referred to as “kids who are different”. While the plot of “Luca” could be seen as more simplistic than others in the Pixar canon, it’s more than a little exciting to finally see a film like this. An animated film which carries the same Pixar award worthy standards, and also celebrates an LGBTQ+ story; even if the corporate machine behind it attempts to gaslight us all, denying this watershed moment.
This is one of the most important movies in the history of animated film.
2. West Side Story:
How do you make arguably the greatest musical in history even better? Let Steven Spielberg have a go. This remake of the 1961 film and/or the 1957 Broadway production, is a masterclass.
We all know this Romeo and Juliet inspired story. Boy (Ansel Elgort) and girl (Rachel Zegler) from different sides of the tracks (one white, the other Puerto Rican) fall in love despite their families wishes and fighting ensues. Anyway, expectations were high and expectations were exceeded.
Spielberg and writer Tony Kushner actually add elements to the source material, which in another director’s hands would be catastrophic. But every element added gives this version more life and context and allows the characters to become more three dimensional. It’s undeniable.
Spielberg continues, giving audiences camerawork which seems to dance and glide alongside choreography so breathtaking that it made the entire theater vibrate.
He also gives us Latino characters speaking Spanish without the addition of subtitles, a move which may not seem like much to some, but to those who never looked to the original for representation, this is one of the touches which reinforces that this is also a Latino story. Furthermore, this film contains far more Afro-Latino representation than Lin-Manuel Miranda’s “In the Heights” (big eyes emoji).
This acclaimed filmmaker is asked to remake a legendary film. And what he does is make it his own while also pausing at times to reenact iconic shots, paying homage by creating sequences which look visually as though we are back watching the 61’ version; giving us fans all the nostalgia feels.
Watching this movie reminded me why Steven Spielberg is the greatest director alive.
1. Last Night in Soho:
If anyone could fit this much movie into one experience it would be Edgar Wright.
In this female lead horror, with the best soundtrack of the year, writer/director Edgar Wright tells the story of Ellie (Thomasin McKenzie), a young woman from the country who gets a chance to go to London to pursue her dream of becoming a fashion designer. It’s alluded that she’s had some sort of breakdown in the past and that London might be overwhelming for her. Ellie rents a room in an old house and when she falls asleep, she begins to have dreams (or visions) where she is transported to 1960’s London, where she seems to become this other woman, an aspiring singer played by Anya Taylor-Joy. Ellie becomes enamored as each night she falls asleep and lives through this mysterious other woman. But theses dreams turn to nightmares, as she discovers that London has a darker side and the true monsters in this horror story are men.
Visually this film is delicious, with every stylized sequence popping and grabbing and pulling the audience into the film, just as the protagonist is pulled into 1960’s London. The script is perfect, fluidly sliding in, out and around the horror genre, building into a quite unexpected mystery.
“Last Night in Soho” is the culmination of every Wright movie. It is a masterpiece which gave me the same feeling I got the first time I watched Hitchcock.
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Here are 15 movies that didn’t make my top ten list, but I still enjoyed and would recommend.
13. Summer of Soul (…Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised)
15. A Quiet Place Part 2
16. Godzilla vs. Kong
20. The Mitchells vs. the Machines
21. C’mon C’mon
22. Judas and the Black Messiah
23. In the Heights
24. The Green Knight
25. Licorice Pizza