(This article is part of our Best of 2021 series.)
After an abysmal year for film in 2020 due to the chaos of the COVID-19 pandemic, 2021 gave us a bevy of solid blockbusters, while more dramatic contenders remained fewer and farther between. Many of the awards darlings for the Oscars are still not available to stream and the continued effects of the pandemic have made it difficult to find the smaller films in local theaters. But there were still plenty of films to love in 2021.
CODA is a typical coming of age story with a unique twist – the protagonist Ruby is a child of deaf adults, or CODA. This leads to some familiar beats: a child carrying too much responsibility in the family, parents that don’t understand, the crush that messes things up. But sometimes a movie isn’t great because it treads some brand new terrain. Great characters, themes and payoffs can make a well-worn path feel just as fresh and exciting as ever and CODA pulls it off in spades. The deaf actors in the roles of Ruby’s parents and older brother shine, particularly Troy Kotsur as Ruby’s father Frank. Eugenio Derbez is also wonderful as Ruby’s choir teacher Bernardo Villalobos (if you can’t roll your Rs, just call him Mr. V). Although the family fights like all families do in these movies, there isn’t so much angst and vitriol. The cast keeps it clear that behind the disagreements and pressures of daily life, there is a lot of love in this family. CODA makes you laugh and cry while showing a side of life we don’t often get to experience.
West Side Story
I haven’t seen the original Best Picture winning film for comparison, but watching Steven Spielberg’s remake felt like watching an instant classic movie musical. Every shot is beautiful and perfect. The story puts the focus on the forbidden romance between former Jet leader Tony (Ansel Elgort) and Maria (Rachel Zegler), sister of Sharks Leader Bernardo (David Alvarez). That romance honestly moves way too fast, but despite the romance being the catalyst for the film’s events, there’s enough going on with the present conflict between the Jets and Sharks that it really fades somewhat to the background. Zegler does provide a breakthrough performance as Maria, only to be slightly outshone by an even bigger breakthrough from Ariana Debose as Anita. The shots are absolute perfection, the bright colors of the dancers pop off the screen against the bleak New York backdrop. It would be a shock if Spielberg did not pocket another Academy Award nomination for this film, if not a win.
Dune opens with the title card explicitly stating it is “Part 1” and the movie that follows clearly feels incomplete. However, that half a movie is so visually spectacular from the cinematography to the costumes and set design, it really does feel like the most grandiose sci-fi fantasy adventure of our time. Having not read any of the source material and not seeing any previous film iteration of the story, the final product is an astonishing feat considering Dune has been called “an unfilmable story.” The performances are understated but strong, particularly Timothee Chalamet as the messianic figure Paul Atreides. Everything rides on his performance of being caught between so many warring political factions. It was disappointing to have Zendaya so limited in this first part, but I am much looking forward to she and Chalamet leading Part II. The real revelation of this movie is the sheer scope and magnitude of everything. Denis Villeneuve cements his already amazing resume with his direction. Arguably no film has ever immersed moviegoers so completely in a fantasy world as Dune Part I. If Part II succeeds at completing this story, it could very well be considered a masterpiece of fantasy filmmaking, the best since the much-celebrated Lord of the Rings trilogy.
A Quiet Place Part II
The original A Quiet Place did not get the respect that it deserved as an awards-worthy film, and it seems that its sequel will be similarly snubbed despite rising nearly to the heights of the first film. Some fans have even voiced their thoughts that the sequel even exceeds the original — I wouldn’t go that far, but it is a testament to this franchise’s massive success. John Krasinski returns to the director’s chair as well as writing the screenplay once again, and again delivers immensely. He also returns to act during a brief flashback scene to introduce the movie, and it is one of the best-directed scenes of any movie this year. In addition to Krasinski’s terrific direction, Emily Blunt and Millicent Simmonds continue to command so much attention. The movie is forced to shift significantly from the original due to that film’s ending. No longer is the family just trying to hide out in their farm in silence, they have to go out and find their way in the world. It really works to put these character through changes and growth. This movie does lose some of the strong family dynamic of the first film as the characters seem to spend a bit less time together, and going from sign language to whispering does slightly disappoint. But the tension and thrills remain for another instant horror classic and the chance at a legitimate classic horror trilogy.
The Green Knight
Whenever I sit down to watch an A24 film, I have no idea what I am about to get, but I know I won’t be bored. Going into The Green Knight, I had some knowledge of the classic poem, although fuzzy. I doubt it mattered much as David Lowery chooses to forge a very artistic and trippy re-envisioning of the tale. There were many times I wasn’t even sure what was going on any more, but my eyes were still transfixed to the screen. Dev Patel really captures this version of Sir Gawain, a nephew of King Arthur venturing out in search of honor. There were moments where the film would linger on Gawain trotting along a path, nothing pertinent happening. Yet the cinematography and tone draws you in. The end of the film changes up the Arthurian legend a bit, but emphatically ends the movie with an important message about the difference between being honorable and appearing honorable, a great coming-of-age tale for a knight. I’m not sure I saw another film in 2021 with such bold artistry and visuals.
Those are my five favorite films of 2021. The runner-ups include Nightmare Alley, Encanto, Nobody, Jungle Cruise, and Shang-Chi.
What do you think of my favorite films from the past year? Anything you think should have made my top five?