Top Ten Movies of 2021
This one is coming out only two months after 2021 instead of ten so, progress?
10. tick, tick…BOOM!
Andrew Garfield shines in Linn Manual Miranda’s adaptation of Jonathan Larson’s semi-autobiographical broadway musical documenting his journey to become a successful playwright. The work is gorgeous, compelling, heartbreaking, and clever and really makes the most of being a movie adaptation of a stage musical (“Sunday” in particular stands out).
9. In the Heights
I wouldn’t have expected two musicals to make the list this year (and for neither of them to be West Side Story — which I liked but didn’t love) but here we are. Jon M. Chu’s lavish adaptation of Linn Manuel Miranda’s (there’s that name again) loving ode to Washington Heights is full of fantastic musical numbers (“96,000” is one of my all time faves) and lovable characters. It’s also the only film to premiere simultaneously at home and in the cinema that I really wish I had seen in the cinema (minus, you know, all the COVID).
Speaking of movies that are must-see (if safe) in the cinema, Dune is up there. The sandworms alone demand a 50 foot screen. But more than just beautiful visuals, which we’ve come to expect from director Denis Villeneuve, we get great characters (which, frankly, we’ve also come to expect) and wonderful world-building which is important because, to be honest, part one is mostly world-building, which would be a knock against the film if that world-building weren’t so damn entertaining.
7. The Crime of the Century
Technically this could be classified as a TV show (or docuseries to be more precise) but since there’s already so much great TV this year (see my upcoming list) and it feels more like a 4-hour documentary in two parts, I’mma just call it a documentary (that will happen again later on this list). Alex Gibney’s stunning history of the opioid crisis and the family and companies that perpetuated it makes a compelling case for this malfeasance to earn the documentary’s title. The crimes depicted are so heinous that it even gets you to root for the DEA!
Sometimes a movie idea comes along that has so much potential that you fear it might be squandered but Nia DaCosta’s continuation of the 1992 problematic classic delivers on all fronts. In addition to being a compelling story about and artist and his partner going through some, uh, turbulent issues, it works as an insightful dissection of systemic racism and the narratives that support it, even updating some of the forms that takes by moving from the original’s academic appropriation of racial struggle to a more modern artistic appropriation. And it does so in a way that is more successful than the original, building to a chilling but grimly satisfying climax.
5. The Mitchells vs. the Machines
This is one of those movies I dismissed out of hand when it first came out as yet another animated film (really, that’s all I knew) until virtually everyone I respected told me I needed to watch it. And they were right. It’s funny, progressive, and gets the technology right in a way that more “sophisticated” critiques greatly oversimplify. Also, as an example of efficient storytelling, it gets more done in its first 35 minutes than most films accomplish in their entire runtimes.
4. Spider-Man: No Way Home
In a year where the MCU released a record four films (and a shitload of TV, more on that in my TV roundup) only one really stood out for me. Not only did I find Spider-Man: No Way Home to be the best Marvel movie of the year, I think it’s one of the best MCU films of all time.
Part of that is how well it ties into and integrates previous MCU and MCU-adjacent lore which, if you aren’t familiar with, may color your enjoyment of the film. But as objectively as I can remember my experience, I feel like someone who hasn’t even heard of Spider-Man would have a good time with this movie, they just wouldn’t understand why so many people started cheering at certain points.
Which is another thing, the last time I had an experience in a theater where emotions really got to the point where cheering felt right was Avengers: Endgame, and, theater-going being as risky as it got, was something I never really thought I’d get again. But Spider-Man: No Way Home, at least on the night I saw it with the crowd I saw it with, probably surpassed it.
And, not to get too spoilery, it doesn’t just settle for fan-service by revisiting things fans might be familiar with, it questions them, which I think is one of the most valuable services a franchise can do once it reaches a certain age, and it does so in a way that resonates with some important discussions we’re having today about the meaning of justice. Seriously.
3. Summer of Soul
There is a scarcity of films that really immerse themselves in Black Joy. I feel that part of the challenge is that there’s a belief that you can’t make a film that centers Blackness that doesn’t also center suffering and still be “authentic”. And while Blackness in America has had a lot of suffering, that belief is kind of bullshit. And even misses the point. Something that Questlove’s brilliant documusical understands deeply. It never shies away from the injustice surrounding and even helping inspire the 1969 Harlem Culture Festival it documents (or the injustice around the fact that this is probably the first time you’ve heard about it) but it focuses on just how amazing the event and the people involved were and the wonderful performances it produced. It is as if to say, what is the point of lamenting the suffering of folks if you know nothing about what makes them great? It’s a film that aims to make you celebrate Blackness, not pity it.
2. Plan B
It has been heartening to watch the evolution of the teen comedy from problematic but occasionally poignant perpetrator of harmful tropes around women and minorities to more progressive than most other genres in finding new ways for young people to be engaged, fun, and socially conscious, and Plan B is at the vanguard of that evolution.
Natalie Morales’ road-trip-to-get-a-morning-after-pill buddy comedy never stops being funny and almost effortlessly remains thoughtful (and often subversive) in its comedy which is tough because it is always easier to rely on stereotypes when trying to get people to laugh. It benefits from a host of great performances but non greater than the lead, Kuhoo Verma, the protagonist in search of the titular pill, whose comedic chops are only matched by her dramatic chops and I’m personally offended that she wasn’t even mentioned, much less nominated, in the Best Actress Oscar conversation.
1. Exterminate All the Brutes
This is, like The Crime of the Century, arguably a series (again, four hours, but this time split over 4 installments), but I don’t care. Raoul Peck, who made the incredible I Am Not Your Negro and in 90 minutes made me a James Baldwin fan for life, uses a mix of historical narrative, personal history, and re-enactment (you will never see Josh Hartnett the same way again) to create a lens through which we can understand the un-understandable. Namely, genocide and other horrific acts of imperialism.
He makes the point that in order commit such acts you need more than just the technology to do so, you need the will. And where does that will come from? Stories. Stories we tell ourselves to make us believe that what we are doing is right. Stories so convincing that remain with us and affect our behavior to this very day.
It is horrifying, but riveting (strangely, if you’re like me, you’ll find yourself at the end of each hour wanting to cue up the next episode immediately). It is also, in my humble opinion, necessary. You will understand the “unprecedented” world and time we live in so much better after watching it.
Honorable mentions: Nobody, CODA, The Matrix: Resurrections, The Power of the Dog, The Suicide Squad