The Top 10 Movies of 2021

Boy, did it feel good to be back at the movies again. After a year away from the cinema, I gleefully sat in a packed theater and witnessed two titans of monster mayhem pummel each other into submission and the world with them. I gathered with friends to see Dune in IMAX on opening night and I was enveloped by screaming fans as three eras of Spider-men all converged in on each other. Going to the movies is a special experience and this past year’s return provided a well-spring of needed emotional and spiritual nourishment. I didn’t quite get to all of the TV I would have liked as of this writing, so I won’t do a big list but will instead just say that my favorite shows were Succession, Mythic Quest, Only Murders in the Building, What We Do in the Shadows, and Hacks. I’ve cut down my honorable mentions back to 10 (no real reason) and changed up the special notices a bit. Without further ado…

Honorable Mentions

Special Awards
Best Lead Performance: Winston Duke, Nine Days

Best Supporting Performance: Cate Blanchett, Nightmare Alley

Biggest Surprise: Pig

Visual Achievement Award: Dune

Best Scenes:
Reverse Driving, Licorice Pizza
The Balcony, West Side Story
The Spice Harvester, Dune
The Restaurant, Pig
Everlasting Love, Belfast

10. Drive My Car
Dir. Ryusuke Hamaguchi
An epic exploration of love, grief, connection, art, inspiration, and all the things in between that makes us human. At three hours in length, it’s a demanding film that can feel tedious at times yet is an experience that I’ve been unable to shake in the days and weeks proceeding my screening. Intimate in its portrayal yet epic in its scope of human emotion. This is filmmaking as high art.

9. Belfast
Dir. Kenneth Branagh
A semi-autobiographical remembrance from Kenneth Branagh as he grew up in the midst of The Troubles in Northern Ireland. Deceptive in its simplicity and muted nature, which gives its big moments hefty emotional weight. It has an incredibly endearing cast while giving a poignant look through the eyes of a child as his world is turned upside down. This is a film that snuck up on me and has stuck in my mind ever since.

8. Nightmare Alley
Dir. Guillermo Del Toro
A spectacularly crafted and gorgeously realized world that only a director of Del Toro’s talents could muster. This is such a rich and textured environment with so much to savor and get lost within. While it does feel its considerable length at over 150 minutes, I felt sad to leave a world I wanted to continue to explore. Bradley Cooper headlines an exceptional cast with one his strongest performances while Cate Blanchett shines like a supernova in a role she was born to play.

7. Nine Days
Dir. Edson Oda
Soul for adults. Writer-Director Edson Oda’s debut feature is a powerful exploration of the human condition and what makes life worth living. Winston Duke delivers a knockout performance as the man tasked with interviewing souls before they can be born. It’s very heady and deeply philosophic yet never loses sight of the emotional complexities that come with living in this world. One of the most emotionally affecting theatrical experiences I’ve ever had.

6. No Time To Die
Dir. Cary Joji Fukunaga
In his final entry as James Bond, Daniel Craig cements his status as the best to ever portray the character. The only other consideration is Connery as the original, but no other iteration can claim the complexity and pathos that Craig brought. Filled with exhilarating set-pieces and big narrative swings, this is a Bond that comes with unexpected emotional stakes (even if it feels a bit overstuffed). Craig has left big shoes to fill as his swan song is perhaps my favorite in the entire series.

Dir. Sian Heder
CODA (Child of Deaf Adults) broke records at Sundance as the festival’s biggest sale ever to Apple TV. It’s easy to see why as this crowd-pleaser knows how to not only tug at the heart strings but rip them out of your chest and turn them into music. Emilia Jones is incredible as the only hearing member of a deaf family whose greatest passion in life is singing. Eugenio Derbez as Mr. V immediately jumps to the top of the list of film’s greatest teachers while Troy Kotsur is easily one of the best movie dads we’ve ever seen. An absolutely beautiful gem of a movie that you want to wrap your arms arounds and hold tight.

4. Licorice Pizza
Dir. Paul Thomas Anderson
Another entry in the recent pantheon of filmmakers looking back on their childhoods. Anchored by two fabulous breakout performances from Alana Haim (of HAIM) and Cooper Hoffman (the son of the late Philip Seymour Hoffman), PTA takes us on one delightful misadventure after another within the San Fernando Valley of the 1970’s. The chemistry between Haim and Hoffman bursts off the screen and both Sean Penn and Bradley Cooper make memorably zany appearances. There’s very little plot as we meander through life in the Valley, simply existing in its world and fun row of supporting characters. It’s the director’s most whimsical and sweet film.

3. West Side Story
Dir. Steven Spielberg
This movie had a lot of skeptics. Why remake such a classic? What could be added? Quite a bit as it turns out. To finally see Steven Spielberg take on a full musical is a wonder to behold. His staging and execution of each dance sequence is some of the most spectacular and awe-inspiring direction of his career. The ensemble is magnificent with Rachel Zegler and Ariana DeBose giving star-making performances that deserve as many accolades that can come their way. Steven Spielberg’s West Side Story is one of the esteemed director’s finest hours that sweeps you up and leaves you breathless.

2. The Green Knight
Dir. David Lowery
Based on an ancient Arthurian legend, David Lowery’s morality tale following the quest of Sir Gawain as he travels to meet his doom is a beguiling and wondrous experience. While it doesn’t boast much action, it is filled with unforgettable sequences and Dev Patel delivers a career-defining performance. Lusciously photographed and designed, Lowery delivers a singular vision and a film that feels like the culmination of all his prior work. It is filled with deeper meanings and mysteries that beckon you to revisit again and again, each experience offering something new. It already feels like a modern cult classic.

1. Dune
Dir. Denis Villeneuve

The definitive adaptation of the most influential book in sci-fi history. Sitting in a dark theater to watch Villeneuve’s vision of Arrakis was like seeing The Fellowship of the Ring for the first time 20 years prior. What Villeneuve and his team have done here is simply remarkable. For so long the novel was considerable unfilmable yet they succeeded and did so in a way that embraces the details of Herbert’s complex world while also streamlining it for modern audiences. It’s one of the most visually stunning and impeccably crafted films ever made with an all-time great cast in assembly. Chalamet delivers a movie star-caliber performance that will likely define his entire career while Rebecca Ferguson, Oscar Isaac, and Jason Momoa do some of their most memorable work. Special mention must be paid to Hans Zimmer’s incredible score, which is his best since 2000’s Gladiator. The first half of Villeneuve’s planned two-part adaptation is a sci-fi epic by which all future ones will be judged and a cinematic adventure for the ages.


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