Despite every passing year seeming bleaker and bleaker in regards to the quality of art being produced in the world (as is such in a society plagued by late-stage capitalism), I am delighted to report that 2021 was actually an excellent year for movies. Sure, that could just be because so many of the big releases from 2020 got pushed back because of the novel coronavirus, and sure, the bad stuff was BAD, but the good stuff was great! Not only were movies pretty solid, but there was also a decent output of quality releases. I watched 50 films that were released in 2021 and ranked them here. Here’s to 2022 hopefully being just as great cinematically, if not better!
It must be stated that I still have yet to see a few notable films, including, but not limited to:
ANNETTE dir. Leos Carax
BERGMAN ISLAND dir. Mia Hansen-Love
DON’T LOOK UP dir. Adam McKay
ENCANTO dir. Byron Howard, Jared Bush
THE HAND OF GOD dir. Paola Sorrentino
THE HUMANS dir. Stephen Karam
KING RICHARD dir. Reinaldo Marcus Green
THE LOST DAUGHTER dir. Maggie Gyllenhaal
MEMORIA dir. Apichatpong Weerasethakul
THE SCARY OF SIXTY-FIRST dir. Dasha Nekrasova (Yes, I will be watching this because it sounds literally so insane that I will have to)
THE SOUVENIR PART II dir. Joanna Hogg
STILLWATER dir. Tom McCarthy
TOGETHER TOGETHER dir. Nikole Beckwith
PASSING dir. Rebecca Hall
WE’RE ALL GOING TO THE WORLD’S FAIR dir. Jane Schoenbrun
WHEEL OF FORTUNE AND FANTASY dir. Ryusuke Hamaguchi
THE WORST PERSON IN THE WORLD dir. Joachim Trier
Without further ado, the 50 films I watched from 2021, ranked:
50. SPACE JAM: A NEW LEGACY dir. Malcolm D. Lee
The difference between Michael Jordan and Lebron James, aside from the fact that one of them never lost in the Finals and was an enigmatic cultural icon and the other one is desperate for people to like him, is that Michael Jordan isn’t a charisma vacuum. The original SPACE JAM is not a masterpiece, by any stretch, but it also doesn’t feature insanely bizarre moments where the Looney Tunes and Lebron James are shoehorned into MAD MAX: FURY ROAD or CASABLANCA. I suppose Lebron is not as good of an actor as his on-court flopping would suggest! I don’t care that this is a children’s movie; it is still nauseating to look at, artistically bankrupt, and is not even slightly amusing or fun.
49. FREE GUY dir. Shawn Levy
I am willing to recant my stance on prison abolition because of Shawn Levy and Ryan Reynolds, both of who surely need to be jailed for their involvement with this film. Ryan Reynolds has the most punchable face in the history of Hollywood. He is not a movie star. I’m convinced he is an industry plant. This movie is an abomination and the natural conclusion to what the film industry has been building towards, what with the rampant and whorish use of IP. When I was doxed by the alt-right earlier this year, I was sent multiple posters of this film with Kyle Rittenhouse’s face photoshopped over Reynolds’, which felt appropriate, as that sect of folks would probably be the only ones who would find anything of worth out of this movie. One star for Jodie Comer trying her best.
48. DEAR EVAN HANSEN dir. Stephen Chbosky
2021 was a genuinely great year for the movie-musical. TICK, TICK… BOOM and WEST SIDE STORY were both good movies (WSS, in particular) and I heard very promising things about Amazon’s ANNETTE starring Adam Driver. DEAR EVAN HANSEN, however, was nightmarish. Ben Platt (who is allegedly not 46 and appears to be doing an impression of the Elephant Man throughout the entire film without an ounce of the empathy) plays a high schooler who lies to a traumatized family about having a friendship with their son who recently committed suicide as a means to improve his chances of sleeping with their daughter. Pretty grim!
47. SPIRAL: FROM THE BOOK OF SAW dir. Darren Lynn Bousman
Admittedly, I love the SAW franchise, despite almost all of the movies being mediocre-to-horrendous. I also am a firm believer that we should allow franchises that have run their course to remain finished. Apparently Darren Lynn Bousman and the folks at Lionsgate do not agree with me, which brings us SPIRAL, a new take on the SAW franchise featuring Chris Rock. I think there is maybe something interesting to explore in relation to how the police are corrupt and some of the most abhorrent people in the SAW universe, but this movie stumbles mightily. It tries to be anti-cop and yet, many times comes off as pro-cop. I just don’t think this is a franchise where social justice commentary makes any sense. Also, this is the SAW with the least memorable traps to date and the most lackluster gore, which is one of the only real selling factors of these films at this point.
46. RESPECT dir. Liesl Tommy
I am firmly in the camp of people who believe it is time that we abolish biopics. Aretha Franklin is quite possibly the greatest vocalist to have ever lived. With that in mind, it is bewildering she was given such a boring and lifeless movie about her time on earth. Even more bewildering is the fact that this movie is 145-minutes. I have no issue with long movies, provided said movie is interesting. This movie feels as long as LAWRENCE OF ARABIA and as interesting as 2016’s THE MONSTER (an uninteresting movie). Jennifer Hudson does an admirable job playing Aretha, but it is all for naught.
45. LAMB dir. Vladimar Jóhannsson
This movie is good if you like movies that work better as two-minute trailers as opposed to 106-minute-long features. To its credit, it was a charming enough trailer that had me mildly excited for the movie, but ultimately, this feels like the embodiment of the twitter joke, “I had a bot watch 1000 hours of A24 movies and had it auto-generate a script based on the findings.” This was the product of an algorithm or something. I didn’t even despise it, but I was bored for long portions of it. The lamb child was getting fits off, at least!
44. ETERNALS dir. Chloé Zhao
We’re at the MCU portion of the blog, starting with ETERNALS, which is a miserable drag to look at, completely devoid of color and life, and is excruciatingly not funny AND was pitched to people as “prestige cinema”. Some people compared this film to a Terrance Malick movie and I honestly think those people deserve to be executed. There was a moment where one of the Marvel superheroes was shown as having been responsible for the bombing of HIROSHIMA (???) that was so unhinged and insane that I couldn’t help but start laughing out loud. Every other audience member was taking it very seriously, almost as if they thought they were watching a real movie. Kit Harrington was fun enough for the five minutes he was onscreen, I suppose.
43. BLACK WIDOW dir. Cate Shortland
I found myself becoming less feministic as this movie progressed. This is the ugliest a Marvel movie has looked since probably the first two THOR movies. The visual effects were embarrassingly bad, despite effects supposedly being one of the main selling points of these movies. Scarlet Johansson had absolutely nothing to do in her first solo movie and sendoff film. That was kind of weird? Florence Pugh, one of the most talented actresses alive, attempts to salvage tepid dialogue. She’s so good she almost makes it work (she blows everybody else off the screen, truthfully). David Harbour also did some silly things and was moderately amusing at times. Still, this was tensionless and featured incoherent editing and a disaster of a third act. It slots above ETERNALS because it was 20 minutes shorter.
42. LAST NIGHT IN SOHO dir. Edgar Wright
This could’ve been a good movie, perhaps. Upon seeing the trailer, it was one of my most anticipated films-of-the-year, off the strength of my love for Anya Taylor-Joy alone. It’s also stylishly and sharply shot, as most Wright films are. Despite that, this movie kind of sucked, the screenplay, in particular. I’m not sure there is a movie with worse politics than this one to be released this year. Reminded me of JOJO RABBIT and PROMISING YOUNG WOMAN, which are both abhorrent recent releases. It tries (??) to be feministic but it comes off as one of the most misogynistic and insulting movies of the year. Perhaps Edgar Wright is not the man to tackle issues concerning woman. Anyway, sleazy, perverted movies should be made by people who have sexual perversions, not by people who made SCOTT PILGRIM VS. THE WORLD. Two stars for blonde Anya Taylor-Joy in the pink dress and for a somewhat decent second-act, but the third act is about as bad as anything I’ve watched. Also, it’s too boring to allow how politically backwards it is.
41. SHANG-CHI AND THE LEGEND OF THE TEN RINGS dir. Destin Daniel Cretton
The first act of this movie is passable. The fight choreography is actually excellent throughout much of the movie and is perhaps the best the action has ever looked in a Marvel movie, so it has that going for it. Cultural appropriator and traditionally annoying person Awkwafina was unfortunately pretty okay here. The legend Tony Leung is also more than acceptable, as is Simu Liu in the title role. Like every MCU movie, though, the third act is wretched and is a mess of ugly CGI monsters fighting people in front of green-screens. This movie also suffers because it definitely feels way longer than 132 minutes. It feels closer to 155 minutes, which is less than ideal. It’s better than the previous two MCU movies because of the choreography alone, but it still isn’t good.
40. SPIDER-MAN: NO WAY HOME dir. Jon Watts
This is movie is loathsome and annoying. The nostalgia porn is completely grating, sure, but the biggest issue here is that this movie is both soulless AND doesn’t even look interesting. Garfield is the best actor of the three iterations of the character, but his movies are terrible so I felt nothing when he appeared back on the screen. Tom Holland has the charisma of a wet noodle. He is a novice actor, at best. Tobey, the best Spider-Man, is fine here. It was wholly unnecessary to see him in the costume again, but it still reminded me of a simpler time when these movies were actually crafted with care. I’m also still not sold on Zendaya as a superstar yet, either. She has yet to be one of the three best people in any project she’s ever been involved in. Willem Dafoe is the best part of the movie. None of the other villains belong in the movie. Dafoe is acting them all off the screen. This movie is one of the most emotionally manipulative films I’ve ever seen. All these films are is the epitome of, “Consume product. Clap. Consume it more. Clap more. Question nothing.” Disney is evil and one of the most harmful corporations on planet earth. Few establishments have contributed to the degradation of art more.
39. MALIGNANT dir. James Wan
The first act of this movie is not good, but it is weird enough to almost be enticing. The second act SUCKS and is completely dull. The third act is so insane that the movie actually becomes hilarious (so bad it’s good) and sort of incredible for a 20-minute stretch. Ultimately, the whole thing is uneven. It’s fine. Something I could throw on TV and watch with a few friends and cackle at as I check my phone regularly, but I don’t think it resembles a real movie all that much. It was amusing how James Wan was like, “I need a score that sounds kind of like the main SAW theme but way worse” and then they just gave it to him!
38. ANTLERS dir. Scott Cooper
With ANTLERS, Scott Cooper poses the question, “What if TWIN PEAKS: THE RETURN was mediocre?”. I think if a director tries to make a scary movie, he should actually make it scary!! The creature design here is actually really effective, though, and the movie does get decently thrilling for a solid ten-minute stretch, so it has that going for it. It’s also always nice to see our nation’s most under-appreciated actor, Jesse Plemons, getting work.
37. THE SUICIDE SQUAD dir. James Gunn
This felt like I was watching Amazon’s THE BOYS but with far worse characterization and excessively juvenile jokes and a jarringly confused tone. It’s the best of any of the superhero movies to be released this year, but that’s a very low bar to climb. John Cena does give a legitimately sturdy performance (Gunn deserves praise for the work he was able to pull out of Cena here) and Idris Elba and Margot Robbie are good, as they typically are (though, I’m ready for Margot to be freed of having to play Harley Quinn, personally). The critiques of American imperialism are very obvious and overt in an eye-rolling type-of-way but people still lauded the film for having any sort of perspective or opinions. The bar is truly below sea level. It’s as if people have never watched any other movies when they talk about these films. For a comedy, it’s not very funny! I maybe laughed three times (and those were slight chuckles at best). Saying “splooge” is not a joke! Hopefully this will be the last movie featuring the Suicide Squad, seeing as this tanked at the box office!
36. OLD dir. M. Night Shyamalan
It really hurts me to put this one here. There is ALMOST a good movie here. I can see it in the margins if I squint hard enough. I’ll always respect a weirdo filmmaker like Shymalan being able to make whatever he wants to. Hollywood is a better place when it is less corporate. That being said, you still have to make good movies! This one isn’t terrible, but it’s not really good, either. The script is poorly written, forcing everybody to deliver dialogue that sounds like it was written by aliens. The concept is brilliant and lots of the camerawork is dazzling, but its overall a little too boring and the twist doesn’t land (Shymalan has rendered his twists almost inert because they’re so expected at this point). Alex Wolff, a true professional, is committed to the bit here and gives a nice performance, but as a whole, the acting isn’t memorable and the film is over-directed. I can accept silly dialogue or bad acting in a horror movie if the imagery is at least disturbing or freaky (David Cronenberg rules because body horror is always potent), but because this is PG-13, any of the potentially horrific imagery is completely toned down. A disservice, I think. A frustrating movie.
35. GODZILLA VS. KONG dir. Adam Wingard
Look, I get it’s supposed to be a big dumb monster movie, but like… the humans are so insufferably dull, flimsy, and frankly, stupid that this collapses in on itself. The plot is also unbearably convoluted and the monster fights, which are admittedly quite a lot of fun, only take up around a third of the movie. This is one that I’m sure I might’ve been able to enjoy more if I saw it in a theater, but I didn’t. Or perhaps if I had been drunk when watching it. Anyway, justice for GODZILLA (2014), which is actually a very solid movie.
34. THE MANY SAINTS OF NEWARK dir. Alan Taylor
I liked this, but it’s not really good. It’s also completely unnecessary. It shouldn’t exist! Similar to EL CAMINO (the BREAKING BAD movie), it’s competent but relies far too much on fan service. I was willing to forgive it at times because THE SOPRANOS is both my favorite and the greatest TV show ever made, but that doesn’t make this a GOOD film. It was fun seeing a bunch of good character actors doing impressions of THE SOPRANOS characters at times, though. Vera Farmiga nails her Nancy Marchand (Livia Soprano) impression and Corey Stoll does wonderful work as a young Dominic Chianese (Uncle Junior). Always good to see Jon Bernthal, too. He’s underrated. Young Michael Gandolfini captures the essence of his late father perfectly. It’s eerie how perfect his eyes and cadences are. I suppose he is his father’s son, but it still took me out. And Alessandro Nivola was the star of the whole movie. He could’ve belonged with the original cast easily. Not a very needed movie, but it’s the state of our world that this got made and will probably have a spin-off miniseries, too.
33. ZOLA dir. Janicza Bravo
This felt like a movie made for preppy NYU girls who are too online and walk around with A24 tote bags. This is the product of EUPHORIA and the Safdies (a directing duo I adore) being two of the most notable pieces of current pop culture. Everything so desperately wants to look like EUPHORIA. I don’t think this is a good thing! Comlan Domingo does give one of the finest performances of the year here, at least, and Riley Keough is wonderful. Unfortunately, Taylour Paige, playing the title character, has nothing to work with. She gives it her best, but Zola is severely underwritten and has no perspective or opinions on anything. It lowers the ceiling on Paige’s performance. Nic Braun also shows up and plays bipolar cousin Greg from SUCCESSION, another reminder that this feels like it is made for people who are on Twitter. The original twitter thread, from which this film is based off of, has far more life and energy than any moment in the film and the woman who wrote that was dynamic, clever, and had clear perspectives. Here, Zola is, for much of the movie, a wooden husk who things simply happen to. Perhaps this should’ve been left as a funny internet moment? Real life doesn’t always make for good cinema. It gets pretty okay for ten minutes in the third act, at least.
32. SPENCER dir. Pablo Larraín
I felt like I was going insane watching this movie because everybody told me it was one of the best movies of the year; it isn’t! Great Jonny Greenwood score and terrific costumes. Okay??? Kristen Stewart is doing capital-A acting. She’s good, but it’s all SO showy and acted with awards in mind. She will get a nomination, but it ultimately becomes boring biopic acting after a while. Sally Hawkins is lovely in her five minutes of screen time and there is a charming enough chef that I liked. There is a decent scene with Stewart and her children at nighttime in a candle-lit room. Some of the efforts at horror are effective but because Larraín never commits to any sort of clear tone, the movie feels super disjointed. Awful screenplay, too. The ending is terrible. Feels like it ends three times. It’ll probably get ten Oscar nominations and win a few, but it’s a movie completely devoid of any personality. We need to abolish biopics.
31. IN THE HEIGHTS dir. Jon M. Chu
An acceptable and passable movie-musical. Not nearly the albatross that is DEAR EVAN HANSEN, but doesn’t reach the heights that some of the other movie-musicals on this list reach. The large group numbers are all typically wonderful and will sweep you off your feet, but the incessant corporate branding is really annoying and the unnecessary changes from the stage version of IN THE HEIGHTS don’t work to serve the storytelling in any way. On stage, this is one of the most beautiful and emotionally evocative shows I’ve ever had the pleasure of watching. Here, it comes off a bit sterile, sexless, and lifeless at times. It isn’t a Disney film, but the effects of Disney’s omnipresence in the film industry are clearly felt during the runtime. It features a very talented and pretty cast, at least. Anthony Ramos as Usnavi is particularly good, as is Jimmy Smits (the best performance in the movie). With a better director, this could’ve been special. So much of this, outside of the big musical sequences (which, again, are stellar) feels flat and uninspired.
30. CANDYMAN dir. Nia DaCosta
One of the biggest issues with the state of modern art is the idea that art has to set out to try and teach. Didactic art is almost always coma-inducing. If you can make a movie where somebody can walk away having learned something new, that’s great (see: Schrader’s FIRST REFORMED), but that shouldn’t be the goal. It’s like artists nowadays have never heard of tact. I assume most audience members aren’t stupid and don’t need to be talked down to or given wikiquotes about gentrification, cycles of trauma, and expository dialogue about how bad cops are. For the most part, the people watching will either agree and already know this information or they just won’t show up to see your movie (I doubt a lot of racists are tuning in for CANDYMAN). Jordan Peele is a better writer than this. This feels like something made with white people in mind, with the hopes of teaching them. DaCosta has an eye for where to place the camera and how to shoot some effective horror sequences and the third act is pretty engaging and features some genuinely creepy body horror and practical makeup effects, though. Solid cast, particularly Colman Domingo, Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, and especially Teyonah Parris, who I look forward to seeing more of in future projects. I just wish it cared more about being scary instead of being informative.
29. NOBODY dir. Ilya Naishuller
This movie probably doesn’t need to exist. It certainly isn’t a bad movie, but I don’t know if it’s good. But did it feel good to be back in a theater, looking up at the big screen, and chewing on popcorn as Bob Odenkirk cosplayed as John Wick and blew up nameless Russians with Rube Goldberg machines? Absolutely. Perhaps my major return to theaters (outside of, of course, TENET, in 2020) colored my perspective on this one, but it was a truly inoffensive and never insulting little action movie with solid choreography and all of the expected action clichés. Bob Odenkirk rules, so I genuinely had a joyous experience watching this one.
28. HOUSE OF GUCCI dir. Ridley Scott
I’m not sure if this is a bad movie. It certainly might be, despite the fact that I was entertained watching it. Adam Driver is one of the most talented actors alive but he is the worst one here because he is the only one treating this movie like a real film. Pacino looks like garbage at this point in his life but he’s fun. I despise Jared Leto and have long held the opinion that he should be tried at the Hague, but he truly gives such a stupid performance here that he became the most entertaining part of the movie. Gaga is going for it. The dialect is bonkers. We need more insane people in Hollywood acting (safely) insane for their craft. She’s fine here. I was never mad when she was onscreen, but her performance is nothing compared to her masterful work from 2018’s A STAR IS BORN. The movie is definitely 45 minutes too long, though, and is even boring at times. The script is shockingly weak. Still, I am happy it exists because it is truly so rare in 2021 that we can get high-budget camp with A-listers. I don’t know if this makes it a good movie, but I had enough fun that I would probably recommend it still. Maybe?
27. BLUE BAYOU dir. Justin Chon
This is the movie from 2021 that I always forget I watched. Not that it’s bad, but it wasn’t particularly memorable. Every single time I remember I watched it, though, I think, “Ah. Yes. BLUE BAYOU. That wasn’t bad.” I will always praise the writer/director/actor. Justin Chon does commendable work here directing, writing, and starring in this movie that is obviously deeply personal to him. BLUE BAYOU explores Asian-American identity and if immigrants can ever truly belong in places that aren’t “home”, as well as the grueling nature of capitalism and the prison-industrial complex. The script is the weakest part of the film, though there are a couple of visually striking sequences and lovely imagery. Alicia Vikander does some nice work here, too, even if at moments she may feel a bit like she’s on autopilot. She’s a gifted actress so she can swing it. It’s definitely a movie that feels like it’s 140-minutes despite it only running at 119, though. I also found it particularly strange to feature a friendly ICE agent (??) and the fact that a cop is given an unearned redemptive arc, but all-in-all, it’s a competent film that I wasn’t mad about seeing.
26. A QUIET PLACE II dir. John Krasinski
This is an adequate enough of sequel. Krasinski shows improvement as a director after the first installment but with that comes a deterioration in regards to the writing. The cold open is great. It was wonderfully tense seeing it unfold on the big screen. This features way too much of the creatures, though. Less is more! JAWS would’ve sucked if we saw the shark the whole time. Perhaps having the monsters constantly flood the screen does not do well to ratchet up tension!? Cillian Murphy is excellent here and Millicent Simmons continues to impress after her stellar performance from the first film. Emily Blunt isn’t given enough to do but she makes due with what she has. Hope this doesn’t become a full-blown cinematic universe (I’m sure it will), though. The first one was good and this one was acceptable, but I think the story is over! I’m sure it’s “not”, because these films are profitable and this is left open-ended, but I think that would be a mistake. Regardless, decent film!
25. ROADRUNNER: A FILM ABOUT ANTHONY BOURDAIN dir. Morgan Neville
Morgan Neville’s Anthony Bourdain could probably be classified as unethical. The use of AI speech to fill in moments of the documentary with Bourdain’s “voice” is unsettling at best and harrowing at worst, as is the framing of Asia Argento and Bourdain’s relationship failing as the reason Bourdain took his own life. With all that said, I love Anthony Bourdain. He was a deliriously singular and authentic figure and a deeply important person that cultivated culture in a legitimately meaningful way that appealed to the masses. His documentary, despite all of the misgivings I have with it, mostly works because it’s delightful just to spend time with him again and experience some unseen footage of him or to hear people who loved him and cared about him wax poetically about him. It’s definitely unethical and leaves me conflicted, but it affected me. It’s a solid documentary about an incredible man.
24. NIGHTMARE ALLEY dir. Guillermo del Toro
This is a truly silly movie. It lacks the emotional depth and fantastic magical realism that is so often pervasive in a del Toro picture, but it looks pretty enough and has a talented enough ensemble that I can forgive some of my issues. For starters, Cate Blanchett, despite being a technically stellar actress, has never appealed to me much. She’s the weakest part of the cast here. Willem Dafoe turns out another unhinged performance, per usual, where he chews the dialogue to an unreal degree. It’s a shame he’s not in it more. It’s also a really terrific Bradley Cooper performance, who is playing the ultimate scammer! He’s a monster, as is the case in every del Toro film (the men are always the REAL monsters!), but his sleaziness is so nasty that it becomes genuinely enjoyable to watch. Rooney Mara, one of the most wonderful actresses alive, is the best part of the movie. She imbues the movie with a steady emotional heartbeat that is necessary to ground the movie. The movie is a bit disjointed and the middle definitely sags, but even with that said, it’s another decent entry into del Toro’s filmography.
23. CRY MACHO dir. Clint Eastwood
The quietest movie of the year. It’s sort of aimless, listless. It’s a sweet film made by and starring a 91-year-old auteur (Clint Eastwood) that argues it’s more rewarding to be a kind man than a macho one. In a way, it reminds me of Scorsese’s THE IRISHMAN; not in the way that THE IRISHMAN was a sprawling mafia epic or anything like that, but more so how both Marty and Clint use these late-stage swan song films as chances to analyze their status in the landscape of cinema and iconography throughout the world. It doesn’t always work perfectly here like it does in THE IRISHMAN (the child actor is bad, though this is not shocking for a Clint movie), but it’s still a sweet movie that gets better as it goes on. And Clint is 91!! And gets up on a horse! The final image is filled with so much heart. It’s a good movie.
22. JUDAS AND THE BLACK MESSIAH dir. Shaka King
It almost feels strange talking about this movie because it came out right at the very start of 2021 and got grouped in with the movies of 2020 for last year’s Oscars, but it is a 2021 release, even if it feels like it was watched ages ago. Shaka King is a talented filmmaker with visual style, but it would’ve been nice if the messaging of the movie was clearer. If you’re going to make a Fred Hampton biopic, don’t just make it super plot heavy and expository. Make audiences CARE about Fred Hampton, so the third act becomes even more tragic. This is no MALCOLM X. The acting from the cast is legitimately spectacular, though. Dan Kaluuya won an Oscar for his turn as Hampton, which was completely earned. He is too old for the role (Hampton was 21 and Kaluuya is over 30 and looks it, which minimizes some of the potency of the final act), but the acting is impeccable regardless. LaKeith Stanfield acts the hell out of this, too. Still, his character is too underwritten and he doesn’t have nearly enough of a connection with Hampton to make his betrayal feel as tense or impactful as it should feel. Stanfield still knocks everything he has to work with out of the park, so maybe it doesn’t matter. It’s a strong movie that is brilliantly acted, but it may just be too safe. Perhaps a little toothless. It’s good, but could’ve been special.
21. TICK, TICK…BOOM! Dir. Lin-Manuel Miranda
I really wanted to hate this, given who the director is, but it just wasn’t possible. I watched this on a plane ride back to Manhattan in December and it made me cry four times (4!!), which was particularly humiliating. TICK, TICK…BOOM! follows the life of real-life musical theatre composer Jonathon Larson (of RENT fame) and is about the struggles of being a gifted artist who wants to create in a world where it isn’t financially possible and people don’t seem to believe in you like you believe in yourself. Andrew Garfield, one of the most talented young actors working today, gives an exceptional performance as Larson. The direction from Lin-Manuel leaves a bit to be desired, but the performances from Garfield, Vannesa Hudgens, Alexndra Shipp, and Joshua Henry are able to pick up the slack more than well-enough. And the singing is great! It’s so nice that in 2021, studios realized they needed to cast good singers in their movie-musicals!
20. SHIVA BABY dir. Emma Seligman
This is the most claustrophobic film of the year, and truthfully, one of the most claustrophobic films I’ve ever experienced. It’s one of the few times where it feels like a script was written with Twitter in mind and it actually works out. It’s about a college-aged Jewish woman at a family shiva where her family cannot stop making her life hellish AND her sugar daddy also shows up with his wife and kid. It’s a biting screenplay and Rachel Sennot displays true star-potential as a suitable face of Gen Z. It was nice seeing people portrayed accurately by age-appropriate actors and actresses. Dianna Agron also delivers, perhaps stealing the entire movie, as the wife of Sennot’s sugar daddy. An absolutely nightmare. Wickedly uncomfortable and nausea-inducing but always funny.
19. NO SUDDEN MOVE dir. Steven Soderbergh
This film might feature the most stacked cast of the year. Soderbergh, one of the greatest living directors alive, gives you a movie featuring Don Cheadle, Benicio del Toro, David Harbour, Jon Hamm, Ray Liotta, Brendan Fraser, Kieran Culkin, Julia Fox, and [REDACTED] (I will not spoil the ending, but it’s a great cameo from Soderbergh’s favorite Bostonian). Everybody comes correct. This is a Soderbergh crime thriller; he’s not reinventing the genre or treading much new ground here, but he’s the master of this genre to the point that even if he’s “playing the hits”, a fun, tight noir-thriller is more than appreciated, especially when it moves this quickly and the performances are all so excellent. Don Cheadle, in particular, is superb, and would be best served escaping the MCU as quickly as possible. Essentially every Soderbergh movie is a critique of capitalism and I hope the never changes.
18. NO TIME TO DIE dir. Cary Joji Fukunaga
This is how pop movies are supposed to look and feel. The first of the Daniel Craig Bond films, CASINO ROYALE, is a pop masterpiece and one of the finest films of the 2000s; it truly hits every note perfectly. While NO TIME TO DIE doesn’t quite hit the heights of the original entry, it’s still very good and, arguably, the second-best of the five Craig Bond movies. The action set-pieces are mesmerizing and the camerawork is measured and effective. Ana de Armas is in the film for 20-minutes and I haven’t stopped thinking about her since I got out of the theater in October. This was an event-movie with a packed IMAX showing (that matters, when considering the sad state of the theater at this moment) filled with folks who were gracious to go on one last ride with Daniel Craig, who I’d confidently say is the best Bond, despite me not having even seen majority of the other Bonds. Rami Malek is the only weak part. I’m not sure he’s a good actor! He might not be. He’s fine as a weirdo villain here, I suppose, but he just doesn’t have it like that. Still, this rocked.
17. THE TRAGEDY OF MACBETH dir. Joel Coen
This is one of the three best looking movies of the year, easily. Denzel has always been and will always be HIM. It’s impossible not to marvel at the work he does as the titular character here. Corey Hawkins, an underrated actor, also is a very serviceable MacDuff. McDormand is her typical usually good self, but for some reason, she’s rarely my speed. I will say, as somebody who has read Macbeth twice, the text is obviously dense (it’s Shakespeare, so this is to be expected) and I would’ve preferred if I had caught a showing with closed-captions, not even because it’s difficult to hear (the sound design is as gorgeous as the set design and camerawork, truthfully), but because there is just so much text to consume. I don’t usually find it difficult to keep up, even in rather complex films, but there were moments where the dialogue overwhelmed me ever so slightly, which is odd cause I rarely feel that way when I see Shakespeare on the stage. It’s a great movie. I’m not even as high on the Coen brothers as most (this is the debut of Joel Coen as a singular artist, without his brother Ethan alongside him), but this is worthy of praise.
16. THE LAST DUEL dir. Ridley Scott
Ridley Scott is a masterful auteur and THE LAST DUEL only serves to validate that statement. This could’ve been a top five film of the year if it had gotten a better performance out of Matt Damon. As an ardent fan and supporter of Damon (unfortunately), I think this is one of the weakest performances of his career. With that being said, everything else is pretty top-shelf. Adam Driver delivers, per usual, playing the slimy, monstrous villain. Ben Affleck showed up and delivered one of the more meta performances of the year, drunkly having orgies and being flippant, donning bleached-blonde hair. He was a joy to watch. Jodie Comer is a revelation here. She gives a fearless and spellbinding performance that has been rightfully lauded and should earn her an Oscar nomination (it probably won’t). The fight choreography, costume design, and production design were all spectacular. The final duel, in particular, was simply enthralling. It was nice watching something have such clear stakes and heaps of tension built up and then having satisfying payoff. The perspective “gimmick” for storytelling purposes works effectively here (reminds me of Showtime’s wonderful THE AFFAIR, which uses the same gimmick), but I do wonder if more ambiguity would’ve served the story a bit better. The discourse around this movie was insufferable, though, and Ridley not really engaging with it only makes the movie cooler. Good art should provoke and it’s quite baffling that some don’t agree.
15. WEST SIDE STORY dir. Steven Spielberg
I usually belong to the camp of “Don’t-Remake-Classics” and was very turned-off at the idea of WEST SIDE STORY being remade by Speilberg, a director I respect on a formal level but have always blamed the degradation of cinema on, but… this is pretty unimpeachable. Magnificently shot (there might be nobody better behind a camera than Speilberg), vivaciously choreographed, and beautifully sung, WEST SIDE STORY just flies. Mike Faist as “Riff”, David Alvarez as “Bernardo”, and especially Ariana DeBose as “Anita” all give star turns and Rachel Zegler is a perfect Maria. She comes loaded with a heavenly soprano, out-singing Elgort at every moment. Elgort is the weakest link here (and that’s without commenting on his sexual assault allegations), but he isn’t nearly as bad as everybody has made him out to be. He’s wooden and the least vocally adept, but he’s fine. The character of Tony is already the least engaging of the entire cast. I wanted to hate him more, but he’s mediocre enough to not sink the movie much at all. I went into this expecting to roll my eyes and I left flabbergasted. Very good year for movie-musicals!
14. NINE DAYS dir. Edson Oda
It’s unbelievable to me that this is a directorial debut from Edson Oda, let alone the fact that he also wrote the screenplay. It’s a simple elevator pitch: Will (Winston Duke) watches and observes humans on earth from a sort of peaceful purgatory and when one of his humans unexpectedly dies, he has to interview souls waiting to be born and decide who is most worthy of being born. Winston Duke gives a sensational and deeply controlled performance. I knew where his character arc was going, but that didn’t take away anything from the performance, especially his final five minutes, which were masterfully breathtaking. The movie is just deeply poignant and quite beautiful. So much gorgeous imagery. There’s a sequence featuring a bike ride that left me bawling in the theater, to the point it became difficult to regain my composure. Good film. Underrated Tony Hale performance, too, and I always enjoy Zazie Beetz.
13. THE GREEN KNIGHT dir. David Lowery
The A24-instagram-house style on display is a bit grating here, but David Lowery’s THE GREEN KNIGHT is such a finely crafted technical marvel that it almost doesn’t matter. This also takes a bit to get going but once it does, it GOES. Dev Patel plays our protagonist, Gaiwain, who embarks on a brave quest to confront the Green Knight. It’s a basic premise: The hero’s journey set to the backdrop of a medieval fantasy. It was fun seeing this in a theater in Florida where everybody got very angry when the movie finished. It was reviled and I wouldn’t be shocked if I was the only person who enjoyed themselves. Dev plays an emotionally distant character but his stoicism is appropriate and works and the challenges he encounters are genuinely exciting to experience, whether it be a pesky Barry Keoghan (maybe the most unsettling screen presence alive) or Joel Edgerton as a far off Lord coming onto him. Alicia Vikander also plays two separate roles here and she’s equally great as both of them. She’s got a monologue in the final act that is expertly delivered. I loved David Lowery’s 2017 A GHOST STORY (one of my favorite movies ever, truthfully) so I didn’t find it shocking that I loved this, but it really is good. It’s clear Lowery has a vision and he commits to it and that’s commendable. Really thrilling final 20 minutes, too.
12. THE POWER OF THE DOG dir. Jane Campion
This was the last movie I watched in 2021. I watched it on Netflix, regrettably, as I’m sure it would’ve blown me away even more if I caught it on the big screen. It’s a Jane Campion western starring Benedict Cumberbatch, Kirsten Dunst, Jesse Plemons, and Kodi Smit-McPhee that quietly explores sexuality and masculinity. I’ve never been high on Cumberbatch but he blew me away here. Maybe the first time I’ve actively loved a performance of his. Kodi Smit-McPhee does equally terrific work. It’s a really subtle performance. He’s not doing too much and it becomes super effective because of the understated nature of it all. Dunst and Plemons are wonderful. Dunst is an actress who isn’t utilized enough by the industry. She’s an actress who is always making really compelling choices. Seeing all of her various reactions to the way in which Benedict terrorizes her is a treat and I’ve raved about Plemons enough in my life, but he really is one of my favorites. The Jonny Greenwood score is probably the best score of the year. He’ll be competing against himself this year for the Oscar (against his SPENCER score, which isn’t nearly as effective as his score here). This is a project that you can just tell was handled with care from Campion. It’s “slow”, but slow is never an indictment if the film has the necessary payoff. This has the payoff, while still managing to subvert the typical expectations that come with the genre.
11. BENEDETTA dir. Paul Verhoeven
Paul Verhoeven is the least subtle director ever and while that typically would not work for anybody else, the rule of gifted creatives are that they can break the rules, so, of course, for Paul, it works. Verhoeven has made two of the most important movies to me ever (STARSHIP TROOPERS and TOTAL RECALL) and everything else of his that I’ve watched has always, at worst, resonated with me. His works are always satirical in nature and typically wildly horny and biting and BENEDETTA is no exception. BENEDETTA is a French film about sexual discovery and religious examination in the 17th century featuring the famous nun Benedetta Carlini. It’s blasphemous and purposively explosive. It also features one of the most deeply felt lesbian romances of the year AND it is riotous! It’s perhaps the most darkly funny film of 2021 and the audience I saw it with was simply not laughing enough! All hail Verhoeven. LAST NIGHT IN SOHO may have been good if it was made by an actual pervert like him! This movie features a Virgin Mary statue that gets carved into a dildo. It’s totally awesome.
10. THE CARD COUNTER dir. Paul Schrader
Deranged madman Paul Schrader makes another quintessential Paul Schrader movie with THE CARD COUNTER, starring Oscar Isaac as a gambler hellbent on getting revenge against a corrupt military general, whom he encountered at military prison. Isaac is sublime here, as he always is. He’s the type of actor that I imagine could’ve been as big as Pacino if he came up in the 70s instead of coming up in the 2010s in the corporate Disney-era. Schrader makes good use of Tiffany Haddish here, too. She was lovely and her and Isaac had super believable and affecting romantic chemistry. Willem Dafoe is underused in every movie, and this is no exception, but he’s perfectly vile. Schrader is an excellent director because his movies always burst with passion. I always feel as if Schrader is screaming like Ned Beatty in NETWORK when he makes his movies. This is set in miserable and drab settings: Darkly lit hotel rooms, bleak prisons, slimy casinos, etc, which feels as if it perfectly captures the present moment. Life is a never-ending dark nightmare (in both reality and in Schrader’s world), but perhaps love can save us all from damnation. On a side note, it is incredibly amusing that Obama watched this and liked it. How insane.
9. RED ROCKET dir. Sean Baker
Movies about degenerate scumbags are always awesome. Sean Baker, one of the better modern filmmakers, truly delivers with this one. Starring Simon Rex, who gives an Oscar-worthy performance as our scumbag protagonist, plays Mikey Saber, a washed-up pornstar who moves back home with his wife who he has been separated from for years and quickly engages in a relationship with a young girl who’s on the precipice of turning 18 and works at the local donut shop. Rex’s charisma leaps off the screen. He’s as charming as he is deplorable. It’s pretty impossible to look away from him as he lies, cons, and scams his way through life and uses any and everybody around him, even to the point of there being grave consequences. He’s a user. It’s sad and pathetic, but it makes for great cinema. The young “Strawberry” is played by Suzanna Son, giving a true star-turn in her big screen debut. She’s beautiful and headstrong, but just naïve and insecure enough to be easily manipulated (as well as the fact she’s almost 20 years younger than Rex’s Mikey). I expect to see more out of her. Baker is becoming a more confident filmmaker with every release and I’d say this is decidedly his best work. He doesn’t make movies like Eastwood, but I’m not sure there are two working directors who have a better eye for capturing a specific sect of forgotten American life. Like Eastwood, Baker doesn’t portray these people with disdain or contempt but rather with lots of empathy and compassion. And, like Clint, he’s great at utilizing undiscovered talent. Great film. Terrific third act.
8. TITANE dir. Julia Ducournau
This is one of the hardest films to talk about on the year but that doesn’t make it any less exceptional. Julia Ducournau might be our next Cronenberg, truly, and I don’t say that lightly. I’m not usually squeamish ever, but Ducournau’s movies are 2/2 in terms of making me visibly uncomfortable and making me shift nervously in my seat. Julia’s films are morbid and macabre as hell, pulsating with grotesqueness and visually provocative imagery that should make you want to rip your eyes out of your skull. Ducournau’s RAW is a favorite of mine from the past few years, but TITANE is probably the superior film. Like RAW, TITANE is a disturbing French body-horror film that explores femininity and sexual identity and our most animalistic and nihilistic impulses. Agathe Rouselle gives an unforgettable performance as Alexia/Adrien here and Vincent Lindon quietly gives one of the strongest and most underrated supporting actor performances of the year, too, filled with so much wonderful eye acting. This has four or five sequences that I will never be able to shake from my memory, particularly one that involves somebody having sex with a car (!!). Is it a FUN movie? Perhaps not! But it’s unforgettable and expertly crafted, so it more than earns its spot here!
7. THE FRENCH DISPATCH dir. Wes Anderson
Do you like Wes Anderson? If you do, you’ll probably love this. If you don’t, you probably won’t! Perhaps that isn’t good criticism, but the dude has been making movies like this for 20 years, so it is what it is. I love Wes. I think he’s very good. Perhaps he’s never made a masterpiece (TENENBAUMS or this would be the closest he has come, I’d say), but he’s got an entire filmography of particularly impressive and CONSISTENT films. Even when he “misses”, it’s more likely that the work is just minor Wes, as opposed to straight-up bad. People complain about Wes and his style but I’m not sure what the issue with a director having a unique and distinct voice, perspective, and visual style is? Doesn’t make a lot of sense to me! Anyway, this is a stacked cast, per usual with Wes, getting great performances out of Frances McDormand (one of my favorite things she’s ever done), Benicio del Toro, Léa Seydoux, Tilda Swinton, Adrien Brody, Jeffrey Wright, Live Schrieber, Bill Murray, Owen Wilson, Ed Norton, Willem Dafoe, and Timmy Chalamet. It’s split into three parts essentially, telling three different stories that were published in a European publication. All the parts are great, but the second one (with Chalamet and McDormand) particularly resonated with me. The climax of that sequence is some of my favorite Wes Anderson content ever. The final act is probably the true champion of the film, with a deeply felt and tender Jeffrey Wright performance. Wes is in top-form here, delivering one of his best films ever. This is one of my favorite theater experiences of the year. I left with a huge grin on my face. Great film.
6. PIG dir. Michael Sarnoski
When all is said and done, this will probably go down as my favorite film of 2021. I expect in 2030 I’ll look back and be like, “That was the one.” Nicolas Cage, one of the best actors alive, plays a renown retired chef and recluse who has to go on a quest to recover one of the only meaningful possessions in his life after it is stolen from him: his pig. He has a scene in a phony restaurant designed for rich kids to take pictures of their food for IG stories where he screams about how all of the superfluous bullshit that we care about is useless and unnecessary. “We don’t get a lot of things to really care about.” is delivered with such an aching amount of pathos that it is breathtaking. It might be one of the finest performances of his life. Alex Wolff goes blow-for-blow with him as his “sidekick”, the rich kid (and son of the chef who stole Cage’s pig) who desperately wants to carve his own path. I’m a sucker for any movie that indicts capitalism as the most violent and oppressive force that most humans experience, so this was right up my alley, but it really is spectacularly crafted. Sarnoski delivers a hell of a picture for his debut. The final thirty minutes left me weeping endlessly. Incredible film.
5. C’MON C’MON dir. Mike Mills
This one shocked me. I went in very much not excited about, expecting to maybe mildly like it, but I certainly never thought it would emotionally destroy me. C’MON C’MON is about a documentary filmmaker (Joaquin Phoenix) who suddenly becomes responsible for looking after his smart and unique nephew when his sister’s husband stars having manic bipolar episodes. It’s annoying that the majority of the world is going to remember Phoenix for JOKER (2019) when Phoenix has given some truly remarkable performances over the years (HER, THE MASTER, and now this). He’s absurdly open emotionally, which makes him a really captivating actor. He always looks like he’s on the verge of crying. That level of being dropped in is rare with most actors and in C’MON C’MON, Joaquin shows us why he’s one of the best. Woody Norman, the nephew, gives an inspired performance. At only 11-years-old, he goes toe-to-toe with Phoenix all film in a way that most children would never be able to dream of. I’m rarely a fan of movies about children because I usually find they don’t have the necessary juice to hook me, but Woody had it in droves. This film also features some ridiculously stunning shot composition. Not sure the last time New York has been shot so affectionately but as a resident of the city, it had me emotionally compromised for much of the runtime. Brilliant picture and one of the ones that will stick with me years down the road, I presume.
4. THE MATRIX RESURRECTIONS dir. Lana Wachowski
THE MATRIX RESURRECTIONS currently sits at a shameful 3.1 on Letterboxd and I have to say… Everybody is wrong! This is far-and-away one of the absolute best movies of the year and one of my three personal favorite things I saw this year. As somebody who has spent far too much of my time on this planet complaining about corporatism and nostalgia porn and the issues with studios regurgitating IP for profit, I was nervous about this. And then Lana Wachowski, one of the most underrated working directors, returned (or, was forced, by Warner Bros., who allegedly planned to make the movie with or without her involvement) back to the world her and her sister Lilly created in 1999 and delivered one of the best sequels I’ve watched in some time. It’s super-meta (appropriately! It feels Lana was telling Warner Bros. to screw off the entire movie!) and messy as hell and the action isn’t as crisp as the first film (which, of course, is probably one of the most influential action movies ever), but it didn’t matter because that was never what made THE MATRIX so wonderful; it was always about the overwhelming amount of love between Neo and Trinity and the power of choice. Keanu and Carrie-Anne Moss’ first scene together had me in tears (I cried four times, to be fair) just from a simple touch of the hands. I was truly overwhelmed. The love and admiration they had for each other just looking at each other was palpable. When Trinity said, “I wish you would fucking stop calling me that. I hate that name.”, I thought I was going to levitate out of my chair. The final thirty minutes of this are as good as any movie has been this year. This is a pop masterpiece and one of the greatest love stories of the year that is getting maligned but will be widely regarded as brilliant in a decade. It’s a triumph in every conceivable way and deserves to be seen on the big screen in IMAX, where it genuinely soars. Shout-out to Jonathon Groff, who was clearly having the time of his life making this.
3. DUNE dir. Denis Villeneuve
Movies should feel like spectacles. They should matter. It should feel like an event to go to the movies. The reason DUNE rules so hard is because it felt like a spectacle as I watched it. DUNE is a formal and technical sci-fi masterpiece in every imaginable way. It’s exactly one-half of the 1965 Frank Herbert novel, so it should be a nightmare to adapt, but Denis Villeneuve was the perfect director for the challenge. No working director frames a shot as well as Villeneuve does and his prowess is on display for the entire 155-minute runtime. Rebecca Ferguson kills it here, as does Oscar Isaac, Javier Bardem, and Jason Mamoa. The movie is littered with all-time great supporting cast performances. Timothee Chalamet finally ascended to movie-star status here for me, too. He’s always been an excellent actor, but upon watching this, it was like, “Okay, that dude is a movie star!” He’s the only one in the cast who was met with any sort of criticism, but I think that’s foolish. He gets across so much with his eyes. It’s really subtle and understated, but it is terrific work. The Hans Zimmer score is also to die for. Zimmer bodies it. The production and costume design is marvelous, too, as expected. This may lack some of the goofy charm and abstract visual language of the David Lynch DUNE, but the final product makes for a much more impressive and successful movie.
2. DRIVE MY CAR dir. Ryusuke Hamaguchi
In the same way that Frank Ocean writes songs that aren’t perfectly specific but feel like fragments of memories, sort of pockets of clarity in a shroud of messiness and emotions, DRIVE MY CAR works similarly. Rusukue Hamaguchi’s film is about Yusukue Kafuku (a very measured performance from Hidetoshi Nishijima) , an actor/director who has spent two years grieving the loss of somebody he loved without being able to move on and his journey of trying to mount a production of UNCLE VANYA all while being driven around by the reserved Misaki (played perfectly by Tôko Miura). It’s a slow and meditative film about pain and grief, both about the pain we carry on our own and the grief we can communally share with those in our life. This is one that’s probably best to go into blind, honestly, but the blending of the real-world characters with the theatre characters works to create a wonderfully unnerving and emotionally cathartic viewing experience. The final 40 minutes, especially once the movie gets to a snowy destination, left my heart in my stomach. And this features one of my favorite singular shots of the year, with two hands holding cigarettes outside of a car. Was breathtaking. This film is going to sit in the corners of my mind like ever-elusive wisps of already passed moments for quite some time. The pain is always there, even when it isn’t being shown; it’s always there and it always will be. Wonderful film.
1. LICORICE PIZZA dir. Paul Thomas Anderson
When all is said and done, there is a very real possibility that Paul Thomas Anderson will go down as the greatest film director to have ever lived and I don’t say that lightly. In 25 years, Anderson has released nine movies, six of which I would say are 5/5s and many which can be argued as the finest of every decade (THERE WILL BE BLOOD and PHANTOM THREAD both come to mind as acceptable choices for the finest of the 2000s and best of the 2010s, respectively). With LICORICE PIZZA, Anderson does it again. There wasn’t a movie experience in 2021 that was filled with more joy and exuberance than this one. It’s Anderson’s ONCE UPON A TIME… IN HOLLYWOOD and is loosely based off events from Anderson’s childhood. Set in the San Fernando Valley in the 70s, LICORICE PIZZA follows Alana Kane, an aimless yet spunky 25-year-old, and Gary Valentine, a 15-year-old child actor with an overabundance of charisma and gusto, as they each try to navigate staying young forever (Alana) and growing up too quickly (Gary). Gary is played by son of the late, great Phillip Seymour Hoffman, Cooper Hoffman, in his debut role. He’s excellent, delivering a performance that oozes with sincerity and authenticity. Alana Haim, of HAIM, plays Alana and she is simply revelatory. She would run away with the leading actress Oscar this year if I was the only member of the Academy. Haim is unbelievably expressive and propels the story forward like a bullet train. She’s the true emotional heartbeat of the whole thing. The rest of the supporting cast is uniformly great, particularly Sean Penn, Benny Safdie, and especially Bradley Cooper, who almost steals the movie from Haim in his second-act cameo. Anderson shoots the movie with an astounding amount of love. There are few things in cinema more romantic than people running towards each other and thankfully, Anderson gives the audience quite a few sequences that just burst with romanticism. The needle-drops rip, too. The Bowie “Life On Mars” one really hits the spot. I stepped out of the theater having seen LICORICE PIZZA and felt like I was walking on a cloud. It’s certainly the best film of the year.