In 2021 I only saw three movies in theaters, which is two more than I saw in 2020. A personal historic low, it probably goes without saying. But ultimately I’m just grateful to be able to watch great movies, whether at the theater, on a streaming service, or with a library Blu-ray.
To that end, here are the 2021 movies that stuck with me.
10. Shiva Baby
This indie comedy had me cringing but also grinning at its fairly astounding tonal tightrope act, which follows a sardonic young Jewish woman navigating family, friends, and lovers during a shiva. Such a singular, confident debut from 26-year-old (!) filmmaker Emma Seligman.
9. C’mon C’mon
I was split on Mike Mills’s last two features: 2017’s 20th Century Women was as middling as 2010’s Beginners was marvelous. This feels like a return to form, with Joaquin Phoenix as a radio journalist caring for his estranged sister’s nine-year-old son during her absence. It’s a closely observed, touching, and tumultuous portrait of surrogate parenting, and echoes this line from the Richard Powers novel Bewilderment: “Nine is the age of great turning. Maybe humanity was a nine-year-old, not yet grown up, not a little kid anymore. Seemingly in control, but always on the verge of rage.”
Yet another self-assured directorial debut, this one from Michael Sarnoski about a reclusive former chef (Nicholas Cage) who embarks on an illuminating quest to recover his abducted truffle-hunting pig. It’s become pat to laud Cage for the roles in which he really Gets Serious (in contrast to the Go Crazy ones), but it’s nevertheless refreshing when he does tap into his innate performative greatness. And he does here to a quietly magnificent level.
7. In the Heights
With all due respect to Spielberg’s West Side Story, this was the superior NYC-set movie musical of 2021. Better songs, far better talent and chemistry among the leads, and a better overall story that nods to tradition while dancing to its own beats. The mark of a good musical: whenever I listened to the soundtrack (which was often), the songs would earworm me for days. Also recommend In the Heights: Finding Home, the book by Lin-Manuel Miranda and his collaborators about bringing the stage and film versions to life.
This directorial debut from actress Rebecca Hall kinda knocked me out. Ruth Negga and Tessa Thompson star as two African American women and reacquainted friends in 1920s New York City, one of whom is “passing” as white. Facade cracks of many kinds abound, and the film uses the fullest of its rather short runtime and black-and-white cinematography to pack a dizzying amount of portent through them.
5. The Green Knight
I went into this wholly ignorant of the source material but was eventually won over by the haunting filmmaking (by David Lowery, whose A Ghost Story was one of my favorites of 2017) and mesmerizing performances—specifically Dev Patel, whom I hadn’t seen since Slumdog Millionaire (meh). Ultimately it was the film’s perfect ending (maybe the best of the year?) that transformed a pretty good experience into something I knew I’d have to revisit.
Similar to The Green Knight, I went into this as a complete Dune newbie and emerged a fan, both of the world the film created and how Denis Villenueve went about it. Compared to Villenueve’s previous film Blade Runner 2049, which was pretty but alienating, Dune is gorgeous (in a deadly way) and mesmerizing—so much so I had to watch it twice in pretty quick succession. Not sure I’ll actually dive into the novels though.
This Netflix documentary features a group of men who were molested by Catholic priests as boys using drama therapy as a way to overcome their long-festering trauma, by making (non-graphic) short films dramatizing their experiences. Despite (or maybe because of) the heavy subject matter, it’s a really beautiful portrait of a brotherhood formed by shared anguish as these men help each other get through their emotional journeys together.
2. The Rescue
An extraordinary documentary from National Geographic (available on Disney+) about the 2018 Thailand cave rescue, which I remember happening at the time but hitherto knew very little about. Combining arresting firsthand footage with talking heads by the amateur British/Australian cave divers recruited for the job, the filmmakers expertly show how the massive operation’s inspiring cross-cultural cooperation and logistical creativity led to a near-impossible outcome. (I mean, just read the details of the actual rescue for a taste of how preposterous it was.) It felt a little like Arrival meets My Octopus Teacher—two other top-10 films for 2016 and 2020 respectively. Other dramatized versions of the story are coming, but be sure to watch this.
1. The Beatles: Get Back
This nearly 8-hour documentary from Peter Jackson telling the story of the Beatles’ January 1969 recording sessions spoke to me on many levels. As a former drummer in a rock band, I recognized the tedium, tension, and creative thrills that hours upon hours in the studio can engender. As someone interested in the creative process, I relished watching even certified geniuses inch their way from nothing to serenading London from a rooftop in less than a month. And as a huge Beatles fan, I treasured being able to spend so much quality time with the lads from Liverpool as they worked through a difficult period together. This film feels like a miracle, and I’m glad to have witnessed it. (Watched on Disney+, which is the wrong fit for this project. Even if it introduces a younger audience to The Beatles, the long runtime will put off just as many potential fans.)
- Licorice Pizza
- Listening to Kenny G
- A Quiet Place Part II
- Bo Burnham: Inside
- The Harder They Fall
- Spider-Man: No Way Home
- The Lost Daughter
Haven’t seen yet:
- Red Rocket
- A Hero
- The Tragedy of Macbeth
- Summer of Soul
- The Disciple
Non-2021 movies I watched and liked:
- Witness for the Prosecution
- Crimson Tide
- Showbiz Kids
- Palm Springs
- Jimmy Carter: Rock & Roll President