Coming off the heels of 2020, I didn’t know what to make of the current landscape of filmmaking or filmgoing. Though uncertainty still remains regarding what stories get told on the big screen and how the theater experience might change with streaming digging a deeper foothold, one important change between 2020 and 2021 is that I was able to actually — physically — go to the movie theater to see new films.
My Top 10 films this year cover the spectrum of genres; you’ll find musicals, sci-fi/fantasy tales, and coming-of-age films all on this list. But one thing they each have in common are the ways in which they examine our connections to one another — from friendships, to children and their parents, to the undefined spaces in between. Connection has always been a vital part of the movie-watching experience for me, and I’m deeply grateful to have seen the majority of these films in a theater this year, surrounded by film fans equally as excited for the incredible stories we’ve been waiting so long for.
Without further preface, here are my Top 10 films of 2021:
Honorable Mentions: Spider-Man: No Way Home, Zola, Belfast, tick, tick…BOOM!, Luca
10. West Side Story
There are some films that don’t need to be remade. Up until quite recently, I would have put 1961’s West Side Story in that category. The film’s vibrant color palette, entrancing choreography, and timeless songs have cemented its place in the medium’s history. In a world where so few original stories are told in favor of remakes, reboots, and sequels, did West Side Story need to fall prey to this same fate? Well, with 2021’s West Side Story, I learned a key lesson: Never underestimate Steven Spielberg.
Based on the stage musical of the same name, West Side Story depicts the rivalry between warring gangs the Jets and Sharks and the ill-fated love story between Maria (Rachel Zegler) and Tony (Ansel Elgort) caught in the cross-hairs. Spielberg directs each musical number as deftly as one of his big-budget action set-pieces, his camera always in motion. He even improves on the original film in a few areas, particularly by casting several talented Puerto Rican actors in the lead roles as well as performers who can actually sing.
There is one glaring detractor in the cast: Elgort as Tony. In real life, the actor has incredibly troubling allegations levied against him (you can read about them yourself) that’s difficult to ignore when he’s on screen. Beyond that, however, his lackluster performance is blown off the screen by literally every other actor in the film. Notable standouts include newcomer Zegler (who I’m sure we’ll be seeing more of in the future), Ariana DeBose as Anita, and Mike Faist as Riff. The queen Rita Moreno also returns for this version of West Side Story as the newly created character Valentina — a performance which might earn her a second West Side Story-related Oscar.
Remakes and reimaginings are still too prevalent for my liking, but with West Side Story, Spielberg becomes the exception.
9. The Green Knight
The Green Knight is the rare type of film that you could view from a hundred different perspectives and come away with a hundred different conclusions. A deconstructed medieval knight’s tale, director David Lowery’s latest adapts the 14th century poem “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight” and follows the titular Sir Gawain (Dev Patel), the drunken, aimless nephew of King Arthur (Sean Harris). When a mysterious figure known as the Green Knight arrives at Camelot on Christmas Day to challenge any knight to land a blow on him, Gawain confidently beheads him. The Green Knight survives, promising to return the same blow to Gawain in one year’s time.
Gawain’s ensuing quest to honor the Green Knight’s challenge forces him to grapple with his own sense of self-worth and the legacy he wishes to leave for himself as a member of Arthur’s Round Table. The Green Knight may have cemented Gawain’s legendary status, but he may also have condemned the young knight to a fate from which he cannot escape.
To that end, are Gawain’s decisions his own, or borne out of the forces of destiny conspiring to shift his course? Is he motivated by honor, or cowardice? These questions continuously shift our perception of Gawain to the very last scene of the film, almost to the point of nihilism. Then again, that is precisely the point. In Gawain, Lowery presents us with a knight lacking in knightly qualities for a film that flips the “Hero’s Journey” on its head, leaving us to ponder these themes long after the quest has concluded.
Spencer might be the best horror film of the year. A spiritual sequel of sorts to his 2016 film Jackie, director Pablo Larraín presents a snapshot of Diana Spencer’s (Kristen Stewart) life over the course of three days: Christmas Eve, Christmas, and Boxing Day. With each passing moment, the walls of the Queen’s lavish Sandringham Estate close in on her to the point of suffocation.
Larraín telegraphs in the opening text of the film that this is “A Fable of a True Tragedy.” He burrows into the psychology of Princess Diana — accented by a disconcerting string score from Jonny Greenwood — as she attempts to reconcile the expectations of her life as a royal, her role as a mother, and the girl she was long before she met Prince Charles. The result is a searing indictment of the royal institution and parasocial celebrity relationships.
Stewart seemed like an unconventional choice for the lead role, most obviously because she is American, not British. However, Stewart certainly knows a thing or two about navigating fame and what public figures might sacrifice of themselves in the face of it. Her vulnerable portrayal of Diana is magnetic, impossible to look away from. She forces the viewer to reckon with the psychological toll placed on a misunderstood woman.
Diana may have been a beautiful princess living in a beautiful palace, but to borrow a quote from acclaimed author Madeline Miller, “a golden cage is still just a cage.”
Leave it to a fellow Wisconsinite to direct such a poignant story about man, animal, and society. Pig follows Robin Feld (Nicolas Cage), a chef turned reclusive truffle hunter who lives in the wilderness with his beloved truffle pig. When his pig is stolen, Robin returns to his native city Portland to get her back.
Director Michael Sarnoski examines the ties that connect us to society and what happens when those ties fray. With a restrained performance from Cage, Robin emits a quiet strength that pushes through over the course of the film — and with it, the wounds of his past. In the wake of a devastating loss, Robin found solace in the wild, making a good living with the help of his trusted animal. In Robin’s quest to find his pig, he is left to decide whether he wants to try to forge a new tie to society and the people he left behind in his previous life.
Pig is less a story of revenge than it is of grief. The losses we endure leave a permanent hole, and try as we might to fill it, we have to accept the fact that some broken bonds cannot be mended. It’s up to us to decide whether to push forward towards something new.
6. C’mon C’mon
Director Mike Mills’ works often look the way memories feel: fleeting images filtered through melancholy, grief, and joy. It’s his greatest strength. C’mon C’mon doesn’t quite reach the same heights as Twentieth Century Women or his short film I Am Easy to Find, but it does possess all of the elements in this formula (topped off with an emotive score by the Dessner brothers from The National, as a treat) to examine the lives we impact as we try to figure out how best to live ourselves, and how those bonds forge or wither over time.
When radio journalist Johnny (Joaquin Phoenix) is tasked with looking after his nephew Jesse (Woody Norman) for a few weeks, they travel together to different cities to record interviews from kids to capture their perspectives on today’s world. In doing so, the seemingly mismatched pair challenge each other to view life from a different angle.
C’mon C’mon offers a message of hope from the kids growing up in an increasingly tumultuous, uncertain world. In spite of their struggles, both Jesse and the interview subjects exude genuine excitement and joy for life. Through Jesse’s eyes, through these kids’ words, Johnny reckons with his own life decisions. He re-examines his relationship to his nephew and his sister Viv (Gaby Hoffman). And he realizes that he may have an impact after all.
5. The French Dispatch
Wes Anderson pushes his directorial style further and further with every film. If The Grand Budapest Hotel was a sort of magnum opus, the culmination of his style, then The French Dispatch is the most “Wes Anderson” Wes Anderson has ever been, pushing his visual language to new extremes that play within his established aesthetic and sometimes even break it.
A love letter to The New Yorker, The French Dispatch depicts three separate stories, each one emulating the feel of a different feature article from the fictional print magazine “The French Dispatch.” These stories depict artists, student revolts, and kidnappings. The episodic feel of these stories ensures that there is always something new happening on screen to arrest the viewer’s attention, from Anderson’s immaculate set designs to his intentional variations in color (a stylistic tactic I’m still wrapping my head around now). If that doesn’t sway you, his staggering cast of A-list talent just might. Seemingly everyone who has ever been in a Wes Anderson film (and everyone who hasn’t) have coalesced for an arthouse, Avengers-esk team-up for this one (Bill Murray, Benicio del Toro, Timothee Chalamet, Jeffrey Wright, Owen Wilson, and Tilda Swinton, to name a few).
What binds these three vignettes together is the hard work of the fictional journalists who have crafted the stories on display. For all Anderson’s quirkiness, he understands the labor of love it takes to craft any story, let alone a compelling one. The French Dispatch is, above all else, a celebration of storytelling.
4. The Power of the Dog
From its grand sense of scale to its haunting final frame, director Jane Campion creates an atmosphere of foreboding that pulls the tension taut to the point of breaking in The Power of the Dog. Set in 1920s Montana, rancher Phil Burbank (Benedict Cumberbatch) psychologically torments his brother George’s (Jesse Plemons) new wife Rose (Kirsten Dunst) and step-son Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee) when they are brought to live on the Burbanks’ ranch.
I couldn’t immediately articulate why I found The Power of the Dog so gripping. When broken down into plot points, there are no earth-shattering turning points or revelations that occur — at least, not on its surface. But the spell of the film comes from Cumberbatch’s central performance as the intimidating, cruel rancher. Phil has an unpredictable energy about him that left my heart pounding, which is only further complicated by the information Campion dolls out about him. Smit-McPhee goes toe-to-toe with him in his portrayal of Peter, a seemingly mild-mannered young man whose relationship to Phil vasillates between antagonism and intrigue. Only after this central tension is resolved did I finally catch my breath.
There’s always one film every year that sinks under my skin and stays, and The Power of the Dog earns that honor this year.
One could argue this is more of a special than a feature film, but this is my list, and it would be dishonest of me not to include one of the most moving projects I watched this year.
Bo Burnham made a name for himself through his self-aware, self-deprecating comedy before branching out into directing (his directorial debut Eighth Grade made it onto my 2018 Top Ten list). Burnham returned to our screens this year with his hilarious, depressing, cerebral Netflix musical-comedy special Inside, in which Burnham deconstructs the ramifications of internet culture (even though he himself is indebted to it) and examines the isolation we’ve all experienced over the last two years (never mentioning the actual pandemic directly), all while filming in the confines of his room.
The production value Burnham achieves in what is effectively a one-man show is almost as mind-boggling as the clever, biting lyricism of his songs. “Welcome to the Internet” captures the frenetic feeling of flitting from app to app to app (“Can I interest you in everything, all of the time?” he sings with snark), while “That Funny Feeling” delivers a melancholic stream of consciousness that conveys our collective existential dread in the face of a pandemic, big business, and the climate crisis (“A whole world at your fingertips, the ocean at your door”). Even now, I still find myself randomly singing his “Bezos” songs simply because they’re so catchy.
Many films have been made and will continue to be made about the 2020s thus far, but it is Burnham’s zany, thought-provoking work in Inside that conveys, ahem, that funny feeling, so well.
As previously noted both in my full review and my most anticipated films of 2020 list (ha-ha), I had been patiently waiting for Dune to blow my mind for quite some time. In its many release date delays over the last two years, I found time to read Frank Herbert’s 1965 novel of the same name, further entrenching me in the “Dune” fandom. Upon the arrival of the actual release date, Denis Villeneuve’s Dune provided the most immersive theatrical experience I’ve had in years.
Set in a futuristic, intergalactic landscape, Dune follows the honorable Atreides family, led by Duke Leto (Oscar Isaac) his concubine Lady Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson), and ducal heir Paul (Timothée Chalamet), as they attempt to govern over the desert planet Arrakis and oversee manufacturing of the precious resource spice. A mixture of political intrigue and sci-fi dystopianism, Villeneuve offers a meditative look into the psyche of each of these characters as they try to outmaneuver the members of the less moral House Harkonnen and establish themselves in an entirely new world.
Herbert’s novel became a sci-fi staple for the way it blends genres while playing with our expectations of genre conventions. Dune brings to life this central element, offering the rare blockbuster that places story and stakes above spectacle. Dune is, by design, only half of Paul’s origin story, but with Part II on the way, Villeneuve’s adaptation has the necessary components to break ground not only in the sci-fi genre, but in big-budget filmgoing as a whole.
1. Licorice Pizza
I boarded the Paul Thomas Anderson train fairly recently, but it didn’t take long for him to rise through the ranks as one of my favorite directors. A key theme that permeates through each of his films is one of connections between people — often unexpected, sometimes antagonistic, and always moving.
Licorice Pizza is a film about being at the right place at the right time for the right person. In 1970s San Fernando Valley, Alana (Alana Haim, of the band Haim) is a wayward 20-something who attracts the attention of Gary (Cooper Hoffman), a high-schooler with a hustler’s mentality Alana can’t help but be charmed by. They forge an unlikely bond as they run various business ventures together and struggle to define what their relationship to the other is in any given situation.
Before you bristle at the premise, it’s precisely this nebulous bond around which the film gravitates as Alana and Gary realize they might understand the other in a way no one else can. The result of their connection is a film that feels both fantastical and deeply lived in, as though you could stumble into Alana and Gary on the streets of Encino while they’re in the middle of one of their episodic adventures. In their respective screen debuts, Haim and Cooper imbue their characters with such sweetness that only heightens the nostalgic, dream-like quality of the film.
We can never fully know what our attention means to another person, but we never forget what another person’s attention means to us. Licorice Pizza bottles this feeling so purely in a film I could get lost in over and over again.