By Cody Dericks
2021 is the year we finally went back to the movies! Kind of! And while it remained a strange and challenging year that’s sure to be noted with a huge asterisk in cinematic history, 2021 offered up a hearty array of brilliant films. Unlike 2020, one didn’t have to look far and deep to find films that offered wild entertainment and profound examinations, often at the same time. There were plenty of movies I adored from 2021 that I’ll surely look back on with affection, but these ten represent the best of the best.
The most attention-grabbing aspect of Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s newest film is undoubtedly its unorthodox release strategy that harkens back to the old days of strict theatrical exclusivity. I was fortunate to be able to huddle in the dark with a contingent of fellow film dorks to watch “Memoria” blossom before me. And upon viewing, it became clear why the mysterious way it can only be seen was chosen. This is a captivating, patient film that requires the utmost attention from its audience. To do anything but stare at the film unfolding before oneself would be as disrespectful as snoring in church. This slow and winding look into the very nature of time and chronological existence is something closer to a meditative mantra than a movie. It simply must be seen to be believed, and even then, you may not fully believe it.
Simply one of the wackiest studio releases of 2021, “Old” has everything you’d expect from an M. Night Shyamalan movie – a bizarre concept, otherworldly dialogue, and odd moments of seemingly-accidental humor. But at the core of this shockingly nasty little movie is a strangely profound and upsetting metaphor for human mortality. It explores the existential terror of watching yourself and, even worse, your parents’ age before your eyes, all while never quite feeling like a full-fledged adult yourself. Even more pointed is the subtle way it shows how ridiculous it is to define oneself by profession – characters are constantly mentioning their jobs, which feels more and more silly and pointless as the clock’s ticking becomes louder and louder. Plus, it is a fun time with some gnarly moments of upsetting body horror. Life’s a beach, and then you die.
I caught this charming little movie at last year’s Sundance, and I would never have imagined it would be able to maintain its buzz for as long as it has. The fact that such a small, humane film is being talked about over a year later as a serious awards contender is a testament to its inherently impactful nature. Of all the films I saw in 2021, “CODA” is easily the most emotionally affecting – I revisit the climactic audition scene anytime I need a good cry. An expertly attuned cast full of total pros, both veterans and fresh faces, effectively sells the different bonds that can be found between family members, students and teachers, and young lovers. It is a story of specificity centered around one particular household told in a beautifully universal fashion.
7. WEST SIDE STORY
I’ve made no secret of the fact that the original “West Side Story” is my favorite film of all time. However, I hold very little sacred, so I, for one, couldn’t wait to see what Steven Spielberg and, perhaps even more intriguingly, Tony Kushner could do with the stellar material. In a brilliant move, this new adaptation of the stage show doesn’t at all attempt to recreate most of the choices made in the legendary 1961 film. This is a complete restructuring of the classic story at its core. Coupled with Spielberg’s trademark eye for impressive blocking and character motivation, audiences have been gifted with a “West Side Story” for 2021 that respects the source without considering it untouchable. Plus, it’s packed with unbeatable performances from blazingly talented actors who all find new angles and approaches to archetypes that have been around since Shakespeare. It’s vibrant, alive, and completely entertaining.
6. LICORICE PIZZA
Sure, it is funny as hell and full of enjoyable set pieces, but under the carefree surface of “Licorice Pizza” lies the dark yet real truths about growing up in America. Specifically, the ways in which men and women are burdened with different expectations as they enter their adult years. So often, boys are pushed toward maturity by societal pressure well before they’re ready, and, conversely, girls are expected to stay as youthful as possible while being preyed upon from an inappropriately young age. Gary (Cooper Hoffman) feels the need to establish himself as a businessman before he’s even celebrated his sweet sixteen, whereas Alana (Alana Haim) is compelled to present a dumbed-down version of herself to the roster of older men who make a pass at her. It’s a strange double standard that “Licorice Pizza” explores with tact and subtly. Much like three kids tumbling around in the back of a truck, adulthood is a bumpy, uncertain time that so many sprints towards well before they truly need to.
As much as I love big spectacle and ambitious, obviously-directed films, “Mass” proves the power of simplicity in cinema. All you need to make a great film is an intelligent script and talented actors. Here, the four performers tasked with carrying the entirety of this extremely chatty film work together in such perfect harmony that it’s practically impossible to single out one of them as the MVP. All four get at least one moment to truly shine in the spotlight. But while it’s a crackling display of acting prowess at all times, no one performer pulls attention and uses this actor’s dream of a film to distractingly show off their dramatic abilities. The concept explored in “Mass” – one set of parents meeting with the parents of the school shooter who killed their child – is a highly emotional one even on paper, but the film never tips into the realm of overwrought, overdramatic histrionics. Even in its loudest moments, “Mass” approaches its subject in a realistic and grounded way. It’s simply about four everyday humans who are unwilling to face the unthinkable, told with appropriate care and patience.
Before its release, I attempted to make my way through the legendary novel on which “Dune” is based. And while it’s undoubtedly creative, I had a very difficult time with the dense-in-every-way book. So, I was beyond surprised to find that Denis Villeneuve’s epic film adaptation succeeds at making the story entertaining and, even more impressive, easy to follow. Even with a deep lexicon of fantastical worlds, creatures, and customs, this sci-fi masterpiece is able to streamline and focus the plot in a way that is nothing short of miraculous. And all the while, it assumes the best of its audience’s intelligence by never dumbing down anything about its source material. It’s the kind of gargantuan, magnetic adventure film that only big screen-minded filmmaking can effectively bring to life.
3. THE POWER OF THE DOG
Master filmmaker Jane Campion’s latest is a deceptively twisted little story. What appears to be a character study exploring difficult interactions between opposing personalities forced to cohabitate is quickly and brilliantly revealed to be about so much more as the film hurries toward its shocking finale. But “The Power Of The Dog” is more than just its revelations – this psychological Western probes into the very nature of behavior, both instinctual and learned. We are as much a product of others’ actions and the impact left by them as we are our own organically cultivated human beings. It’s tense, upsetting, and gripping, all in deliciously equal amounts.
2. IN THE HEIGHTS
In a year dominated by movie musicals, one rose above for me and contained the spirit and energy that I wished to imbue into every part of 2021. “In the Heights” is a joyous, festive time at the movies that never loses its energy or honesty at any point. Director Jon M. Chu brings in fresh and innovative concepts to every musical number that elevates the action without distracting from the heart of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s songs. Additionally, the absurdly talented cast brings it all perfectly to life. Also, they all can sing, a shocking rarity in filmed musicals. I’ll always have a place in my heart for movies featuring singing and dancing, and “In the Heights” is among the best of them.
1. SUMMER OF SOUL
More than just a concert film, debut director Questlove uses never-before-seen footage of the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival as a jumping-off point to explore cultural moments and racial relations that came to a head in arguably the most turbulent, impactful decade of American history. This documentary manages to be both an entertaining look at a pop culture moment that was quite literally buried by time and an informative capsule of an era of change and upheaval. But the best part of “Summer of Soul” is how it gives the audience the chance to witness some of the surviving artists watch footage of themselves performing for the first time. These moments of the past meeting the present are just as exciting as they are moving. And this may be a bit on the nose considering Questlove’s more well-known profession, but the entire film is constructed and edited with such a galvanizing percussive beat it’s impossible not to get caught up in its engrossing rhythm.
What do you think of my list? Let us know what you think in the comments section below or on our Twitter account. Be on the lookout for more of our Top 10’s for 2021 and check out our Editor In Chief Matt Neglia’s Top 10 list here, along with Josh Parham, Daniel Howat, Tom O’Brien, Eve O’Dea & Casey Lee Clark’s lists here, here, here here, and here respectively. The annual NBP Film Community Award nominations ballot went out yesterday and can be voted on here.
You can follow Cody and hear more of his thoughts on the Oscars and Film on Twitter at @codymonster91