Like many other aspects of life, the COVID-19 pandemic and its lingering nature has drastically altered the way we watch movies. In 2021, with the knowledge that this virus will not be leaving us for some time, we were forced to adapt our habits. For better or for worse, our new viewing habits include a strange hybrid of streaming, early digital access, and limited and altered theatrical runs. I happen to adore this bizarre new world of cinematic indulgence. I found myself more eager to catch new releases in 2021 than I have in recent memory. Part of it was an itch to get back to theaters; part of it was an increased willingness to rent or buy a new release on whatever streaming platform offered it.
Back to the Theaters
My first experience back in a movie theater in more than a year was John Krasinski’s perfectly adequate A Quiet Place Part II. A movie that is nothing to write home about, but a massively excitable experience, nonetheless. To be back in a darkened room surrounded by strangers, feeding off their energy as we communally witness the magical world of movies together was endlessly moving. I didn’t realize how much I had missed the phenomena of the theater. I was instantly hooked once again.
Theatrical runs for films like Old, Candyman, and Eternals had me running back to theaters like my life depended on it. Even my worst theater experiences this year felt special.
At Home Viewing
On the flip side of that coin, sometimes going to the theater felt like too tall of a task. In moments like, that the home viewing option was more than enough. Streaming services like Netflix and the bunch continued to churn out a steady diet of direct to streaming flicks; some enjoyable, many questionable.
In past years, movies like Godzilla vs. Kong or Luca would likely not have caught my interest upon their release. But the ability to watch on HBO Max or Disney Plus immediately upon release offered a perfect excuse to check them out as soon as they were available. Why the hell not, right?
2021 didn’t offer me anything wildly life altering. Nothing that completely reshaped my understanding of what movies can do or how they can make us think or feel. This isn’t to say that I didn’t appreciate what 2021 had to offer. Many of the new releases this year were strong to quite strong. I was at times pleasantly surprised and occasionally slightly disappointed, but overall, 2021 helped to remind me why I love movies so freaking much. Here are the ten flicks that I dug most this year:
1. Licorice Pizza
PTA is still a master of the craft. Licorice Pizza is probably his most charming film to date. I left the theater smiling from ear to ear. PTA once again left me in absolute awe of his keen understanding for what makes us tick as filmgoers.
2. West Side Story
Speaking of masters of the craft, this Steven Spielberg dude might know a thing or two about filmmaking. His remake of West Side Story perfectly balances homage to the stage and original 1961 film versions with the ability to breathe new life into the story. The camerawork in this is absolutely impeccable – as graceful and elegant as any film released this year.
Zola’s lasting legacy could very well be an increase in the number of scripts based on Twitter threads. This zany romp translates both the form and vibe of its social media roots with deft eyes. Director Janicza Bravo does wonders to make Zola both a wacky ride and a grim look into the world of sex work.
To get the obvious out of the way: yes, Nicolas Cage is incredible in this. But beyond his great performance is a subtle, subversive, and remarkably tender film. Pig wins my 2021 award for “Most Unexpected Cry”.
5. The Matrix Resurrections
I can’t think of the last time a studio blockbuster was this polarizing. Lana Wachowski gives double middle fingers to the current state of the film industry in this bold as hell Matrix sequel. She also manages to tell an earnest and heartfelt love story. The Matrix Resurrections is a great example of how big action movies can be emotional, provide commentary, and remain tons of fun.
After watching Julia Ducournau’s Raw earlier this year, I couldn’t wait to sink my teeth into Titane. While not at all being what I was expecting, it certainly did not disappoint. Ducournau has undoubtedly solidified herself as one of the top up and coming directors to keep an eye on in the future.
7. The French Dispatch
The French Dispatch is Wes Anderson at his most Wes Anderson. His quirk certainly isn’t for everyone, but fans of his aesthetic will most definitely love this flick. Versatility is probably not a word often associated with Anderson as a filmmaker, but The French Dispatch proves that he has the ability to tackle a variety of subject matters with a unique style and compassionate heart.
8. Judas and the Black Messiah
Biopics are tough movies for me to enjoy. I often leave thinking I could have just read a book or watched a documentary on the subject matter. Judas and the Black Messiah aims to dig a bit deeper to tell a terribly tragic tale of a troubled figured and the destruction left in the wake of his decisions. Lakeith Stanfield and Daniel Kaluuya both give powerhouse performances, but Stanfield should’ve been the one to take home the Oscar if you ask me.
Annette is probably the most bizarre film I’ve seen this year. I want to sing its praise, but also don’t want to give too much away. This movie is very much so a hard sell, but if you can buy into all of its weirdness, you’re sure to have a fun time. This is one of those “just give it a try” films.
I wasn’t sure if Dune would crack my top 10. My expectations going in were absurdly high. The space epic fell short of my expectations, but Denis’ talent as a filmmaker is undeniable. This one might continue to grow on me with time and once Part II is released. Check back in in five years for my 2021 retrospective to see if my love for Dune has grown.
Thus wraps my top 10 movies I saw in 2021. Several others could have made a strong case for themselves to be on this list. Among others, Spencer, The Green Knight, and Shang Chi all deserve honorable mentions. And movies like Drive My Car, Benedetta, and The Tragedy of Macbeth all remain high on my watchlist.
I hope this list has ruffled some feathers and piqued some interest. Let’s keep the conversation going. What did I rank too high? What are my egregious omissions? What are you putting on your list?