The Best and Worst Films of 2021
By Danny Minton
Last year I found myself lamenting 2020 as an overall stinker year for movies, holding out hope that 2021 would deliver on all of the pre-pandemic promises. We are finally coming to the close of the year, movie-wise, and things are looking up at the box office. We are still seeing streaming platforms picking the pockets of the local multiplex, but with films like Spider-Man: No Way Home breaking the pandemic record in huge fashion, the hope is alive and well. That being said, audiences are being much more picky about what they are willing to risk going to theaters for. For example, while Spidey put millions of butts in seats worldwide, the highly regarded West Side Story landed with a thud. This was the case this year with many non-tentpole pictures. Perhaps this is because younger audiences are much more willing to risk getting Covid to see a movie or maybe its because older audiences are more willing to be patient now that the window between theatrical and home releases is shrinking so rapidly. Either way, things are shifting in the way the world is watching movies and so far, fortunately, the quality is still remaining relatively high. I will admit up front that many of the films on this year’s list are movies we were supposed to see in 2020, but were pushed off. I’m sure I’ll be able to say the same next year, but probably not to this extent. But regardless, I’m glad for many of the experiences I had this year and hope that I can say the same next. Without further ado, here is the cream of the crop from another interesting movie year.
1) Don’t Look Up (Streaming on Netflix). It’s been years since we’ve seen a great Hollywood satire along the lines of Dr. Strangelove and Network, and this one by writer/director Adam McKay (The Big Short, Anchorman) will go down as one of the best. With one of the most impressive casts of the year, including Leonardo DiCaprio, Jennifer Lawrence, Meryl Streep, Jonah Hill, Cate Blanchett and many more A-listers, McKay takes climate change deniers head-on with this loosely-veiled narrative about a comet that is heading towards Earth and how difficult it is to get people to care. It is incredibly smart but at the same time riotously funny and absolutely terrifying. But more importantly, it doesn’t demean its audience but rather tears apart the leaders and special interests that keep people purposefully in the dark in order to preserve their power and greed. Ultimately, it’s a brilliant comedy with an urgent and important message that I hope is able to get through to its target.
2) West Side Story (In theaters). When Spielberg announced that he would be remaking 1961’s Best Picture-winning West Side Story, the main question most folks had was why? Why would you recraft such a legendary and beloved classic? How can you possibly improve it? Well it turns out that Spielberg’s vision of what West Side Story could be is both stunningly beautiful and relevant. Telling such a complex story with a much more appropriate cast and a deeper dive into the characters and their motives proved to enrich the source material and provide for an amazing theatrical experience for a new generation. Unfortunately that new generation chose not to have that experience (or at least it appears that way so far), but hopefully it will have the home audience it deserves soon.
3) In the Heights (Streaming on HBO Max). I honestly thought that West Side Story and this less tragic but equally impactful musical from Lin Manuel Miranda and directed by Jon M. Chu would be the talk of the town during awards season, but while neither has really performed the way I thought they would, they are both equally important and thrilling to watch. The story follows a group of mostly hispanic characters, living their lives in the Washington Heights area of New York with encroaching gentrification and immigration struggles effecting their daily lives. With some of the best music and equally talented performers delivering the material, In the Heights will still remain a treasure for me, even though it feels like I’m one of the few lucky folks who sat through it.
4) Tick, Tick… Boom! (Streaming on Netflix). Not another musical! Yes another musical. This year it seems to be the category to beat. Lin-Manuel Miranda makes his directorial debut here with this big-screen adaptation of the Off-Broadway autobiographical musical from Jonathan Larson (played here by Andrew Garfield) about his struggles that led up to his Broadway-changing musical Rent and the tragedy that befell the world in the days before its release. The songs aren’t as catchy and memorable as Rent or the above two musicals, but the story and the heart behind the songs make for a remarkable film. But what really makes this movie work is the performance by Andrew Garfield, who should be a major awards contender this year.
5) Dune: Part One (Available on paid streaming and on Disc). Having been a sci-fi geek all of my life, the movie Dune has always held a place of regret and disappointment in my heart. That is until now. As soon as I learned that Arrival director Denis Villeneuve was tackling this massive project, excitement filled me once again. The story, much too complex to do it justice in this column, revolves around a gifted young prince (Timothée Chalamet in just one of his brilliant performances of the year) who is thrust into conflict when his family is put in charge of an important mining operation on a remote and dangerous planet. The differences between this Dune and the disastrous 1984 version are night and day. But mainly what makes this work is the attention to every little detail, ranging from production to actor choice. The only thing disappointing about this creation is that we have to wait two more years to finish the journey.
6) CODA (Streaming on Apple TV+). This surprise hit from Apple follows a young girl (Emilia Jones) who is the only member of her family (played by deaf actors Troy Kotsur, Marlee Matlin and Daniel Durant) who isn’t deaf. If she wanted to be in the fishing business with her family, a job for which they rely greatly on her ability to communicate with the outside world, then she would be fine. But when an aggressive music teacher (Eugenio Derbez) tries to convince her to pursue her singing in college, she must make the decision to follow her dreams with a talent her family could never fully appreciate or stick to her current responsibilities and forget about her future. What could have been a cheesy movie of the week is elevated by great material and even better performances. It is a bit manipulative (at least my tear ducts would tell you that), but its beauty and ability to draw empathy make it rather special.
7) The Worst Person in the World (Available February 4th in theaters). This dark romantic comedy from Norway tells the story of a young woman (Cannes Best Actress winner Renate Reinsve) whose quest for love and fulfillment in the modern world is creatively explored in chapters filled with joy, heartache, laughter and sadness. Structurally reminiscent of When Harry Met Sally, the movie moves around a lot, but with purpose and meaning behind every action. The marvelous performance by Reinsve is my favorite female performance of the year and in it you can see the makings of star.
8) Belfast (Available on paid streaming). Writer/director Kenneth Branagh shares this semi-autobiographical representation of his childhood through the eyes of a young child (Jude Hill) whose family (Jamie Dornan and Caitriona Balfe) must make tough decisions when civil war between Catholics and Protestants begins to wreak havoc upon their community. This beautifully told story is dark yet still pleasant due to Branagh’s clever script which doesn’t allow the material to ever succumb to the darkness it explores. But while the film takes place in the late 60s and is told in black and white, its relevance shines as a warning as to what can happen when people start to allow tribalism, rather than a sense of community, to take over their decisions and actions.
9) Pig (Streaming on Hulu). One of the biggest surprises of the year was this little indie starring Nicolas Cage as a former chef who has become a hermit, with only his truffle-hunting pig to keep him company. But when someone makes a move to steal his pig, he will do anything in his power to get his friend back. It’s such a weird little film, yet memorable and lovely also. The trailer makes it look like a revenge thriller, but it turns out to be quite the opposite, filled with heart and resonating in empathy.
10) King Richard (In theaters and available January 4th on paid streaming). Biopics are so hard to do and are often so poorly delivered that you have to be willing to the mental gymnastics to accept a good performance from a bad film in many cases. But in this project, Will Smith knocks it out of the park in a really good film about the father of Venus and Serena Williams and how he inspired them to tennis greatness in spite of his flaws and lack of resources. This could have been just a feel-good flick that is quickly forgotten, but the talent behind the production just makes Smith even better in this juicy role.
Honorable Mention: Candyman, The French Dispatch, House of Gucci, Licorice Pizza, The Lost Daughter, Mass, No Time to Die, Parallel Mothers, Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings.
1) Tom & Jerry. This mess of an irrelevant film didn’t even have a clever premise to lean on. The live-action actors are phoning it in and the cartoon actors make you wish you didn’t hold some sort of nostalgia for their antics.
2) Cry Macho. This project has been floating around Hollywood for a long time but why Clint Eastwood decided to direct it now is confounding. What is worse is that he so badly miscast himself in it.
3) Space Jam: A New Legacy. When Michael Jordan starred in the first Space Jam 25 years ago, it seemed kind of cool and clever. Unfortunately LeBron can’t fill Michael’s Air Jordans in this cringy sequel.
4) The Woman in the Window. In spite of having one of the best actresses in Hollywood (Amy Adams), best actors (Gary Oldman), best directors (Joe Wright) and best writers (Tracy Letts), this psychological thriller manages to fall apart before it can get going.
5) Eternals. I hope Marvel has better plans for this new group of strange super heroes because their first foray falls flat. It might not wreck Marvel’s newest phase, but it sure does provide quite a big speed bump.