Top 10 of 2021

by | Dec 28, 2021 | 0 comments

Top 10 films of 2021 according to Young Critic

2021 was the year that movie theaters finally opened their doors and let a few brave cinephiles return to experience the magic of the big screen. The first movie I went back to see was nothing out of this world (Guy Ritchie’s bland and dark The Wrath of Man (2021)) and yet I got emotional with the popcorn and Pepsi commercials just before the film began. The pandemic is as unpredictable as ever, but we had a small reprieve in 2021 where a barrage of delayed films was finally released. This caused for a packed year with the beginning of 2021 featuring many Oscar hopefuls for this year’s Oscars, and many of the latter half of the year campaigning for next year’s Academy Awards. This has caused for a glutted quality of riches for us viewers. Many critics with advance screenings last year were able to include many of the films you’ll see in this list in their top 10 lists of 2020. For the rest of us mere mortals we had to wait for the films to be made widely available, this meant that I did not consider them as part of the collection of 2020 films. Thus, in the spirit of flexibility and fairness, I decided to expand my top 10 list this year to top 20, since it would seem incredibly unfair to be stringent with the embarrassment of riches that was this year in film. Even so, I must warn viewers that I have not been able to see every released film, just as last year, if the film has not been made available for wide release before December 31st, I will not be able to review it either (ahem The Tragedy of Macbeth (2021) ahem). Here is my ranked list, which is completely subjective, and in the spirit of recommendation and striking up debate, not as anything to be imposed or definitive for anyone else. Happy new years to all, and here’s to another year of fulfilling and transporting stories.

20. The Last Duel

This criminally under-watched Ridley Scott film took on the inventive structure of Rashomon (1950) that so greatly includes viewers into participating in the deciphering of the truth. The film’s analysis of power dynamics and gender roles are just as relevant in its 13th century French setting as they are in modern day society.

19. CODA

This heart-warming film about adolescence, responsibility, and family is one of the year’s most feel-good films. Led by a spectacular cast and looking at the lives of a deaf family, CODA fabulously interweaves a personal story of finding one’s identity while being inclusive in the types of families that we see on screen. Sian Heder fabulously wrangles one of the most talented casts of the year with breakout Emilia Jones at the head.

18. In the Heights

This musical adaptation was a truly transporting and inspiring journey at the beginning of this summer. Not only did it make viewers excited to enjoy a covid-free-summer (maybe someday…), but it was absolutely engrossing with its fabulously choreographed and filmed sequences by John M. Chu. Lin Manuel Miranda’s music is as catchy as ever, and the cast of relative unknowns bursts onto the scene with the groove and magnetism of a Hollywood classic.

17. West Side Story

A companion piece of sorts to In the Heights, this remake of the OG immigrant musical is given a new life thanks to the expert hand of Steven Spielberg. The musical is not just updated to being more authentic and relevant, but the staging and cinematic immersion of the numbers expand upon the original’s staid feeling, giving age-old songs an impossible new depth.

 16. One Night in Miami

Despite largely taking place in one location, Regina King’s directorial debut shamelessly engrosses viewers into the conversations its black icons are having. Employing a steady rhythm and a chemically sound cast, One Night in Miami is a fresh perspective into these 1960s figures that leaves you pondering on its concepts nearly 50 years after the real reunion.

15. Promising Young Woman

This bold new take on sexual assault is one of the most necessary and riskiest films to have been made in recent years. Yet first-time-director Emerald Fennell does fabulously in skirting the line of dark comedy to bring forth a conversation and perspective that has proved to be too divisive in the #MeToo era. Led by an unrecognizable Carey Mulligan, Promising Young Woman is the type of film that leaves you floored and mulling its concepts weeks after the credits had rolled.

14. Belfast

This autobiographical film about director Kenneth Branagh’s upbringing in the eponymous city is an incredibly effective way of looking at history through the eyes of a child. Much like Life is Beautiful (1997) did with fascist Italy, Belfast does with the “Troubles” of the 1960s. The beautiful use of imagery and the camera work to induce nostalgic childhood moments is an impressive act of reflection and memorial immersion. By peeling away from the distanced work of the classics and diving into the personal, Branagh has delivered his best work yet.

13. Nightmare Alley

Guillermo del Toro’s remake of the classic noir thriller is a perfect marriage between his distinct style and thematic elements. Led by one of the most impressive casts in recent memory, Nightmare Alley constantly keeps you on your toes, flipflopping between trusting your protagonist and salivating at his conflicted and mysterious past. Del Toro fabulously weaves his tale of morality, greed, and memory with his deliciously unique visual style.

12. Minari

This small film about a Korean family emigrating to rural Arkansas is equal parts sweet and devastating from its hopeful message of opportunity and hard work to its showcase of the psychological and physical hardships that immigrants must endure. The film is one of the best in recent memory to break down the idea of the “American dream” in such an effective and simplified manner; but done so through affecting and endearing characters.

11. The Green Knight

David Lowery’s latest film is unlike many medieval or fantasy epics that have been made. Taken from the 14th century poem about one of King Arthur’s knights, Lowery perfectly infuses the prose and imagery of his source material to create not only a faithful and unabashed adaptation, but a completely unique one as well. Lowery’s exploration of cowardice is an incredibly refreshing one in a genre and film world littered with unrelatable superheroes. The rich and lush visual aesthetic of the film are enough to transport you to the monk-drawn illustrations of medieval books that had been fascinating people for centuries.

10. The Hand of God

Paolo Sorrentino’s follow up to his take on the papacy with the two miniseries The Young Pope (2016) and The New Pope (2019) is a much more personal story than we are accustomed from him. Taken from his own upbringing in 1980s Naples, Sorrentino infuses both his beautiful sense of cinematography and silent immersion, with the quirky goings-on and eye-brow-raising events of his own past. Sorrentino perfectly couples this film with his Oscar-winning The Great Beauty (2013), which showed the superficiality within the beautiful Roman settings, with The Hand of God’s discovery of richness beneath the supposed ugly facades of southern Italy.

9. Summer of Soul

This documentary has been a true breakout since its premiere at Sundance. A look at a forgotten popular music festival in 1960s Harlem, Summer of Soul seeks to unearth the resilience, dignity, and power that black culture has perdured. Aided by a fascinating trove of footage and interviews with surviving attendees, first-time-director Questlove marinates a perfect blend of nostalgia and historical novelty to amaze and transport us to a criminally forgotten time.

8. Passing

Rebecca Hall’s adaptation of Nella Larsen’s 1920s novel is beautifully rendered in black and white, as it follows two light-skinned black women who navigate different sides of the color line. Just as its source novel, Passing prompts questions of race and identity that bring to light the true triviality of the associations society has given to skin pigmentation. In Hall’s hands, Passing is an intriguing character study into its two women, insuperably portrayed by Ruth Negga and Tessa Thompson.

7. Nomadland

This year’s Best Picture winner couldn’t miss out on the list. Chloe Zhao’s look into an ignored and forgotten America dons a dose of dignity that would have been missing in many other directors’ hands. Using her distinct documentary-style feel, while using largely unprofessional actors, the naturalism and cold realism of Zhao’s film reaches out from the screen with a breathtaking effectiveness.

6. The Power of the Dog

Jane Campion’s long-awaited return to the silver screen with this brutal and dark western was well worth the wait. Her take on masculinity, and how the toxicity of posturing can truly lead to psychological breakdowns in many forms is impressive. To simply witness the silent and tormenting battle that Campion’s characters undergo is worth the entrance fee, added to some of the most impressive performances of each actor’s individual careers, and The Power of Dog truly becomes and unforgettable film.

5. Flee

This Danish animated documentary is the most experimental film to have premiered in a while. While animated documentaries have been effectively produced in the past, Flee proves to be a culmination of sorts. With its extremely relevant tale of an Afghan refugee fleeing to Europe, Flee also never loses sight of its human characters, keeping them and their journey grounded to further exacerbate the pains and tribulations that the real subjects underwent.

4. Spencer

Pablo Larrain’s latest biopic of a world-renowned female figure of the 20th century is a heart-breaking look at Princess Diana. Using a magical realistic style that helps immerse viewers in the psychological breakdown of its central figure, Spencer fabulously traces the silent battles and suffering of its tragic character. Kristen Stewart in the lead role delivers a career defining performance that leaves viewers breathless by the time the credits roll.

3. The Father

Florian Zeller’s adaptation of his own stage play is one of the most effective and original takes on Alzheimer’s from a victim’s own perspective. Using an ingenious bait-and-switching of cast players, settings, and structure, The Father is the kind of film and artistic form that slowly sinks its tragic fangs into your emotional core. By the end of the film, it is hard not to be in tears and admiration for the strength that Alzheimer’s patients already show day-to-day. Anthony Hopkins (who won an academy role for the role), already a screen legend, gives arguably the best role of his entire career, perfectly encapsulating the demand for dignity and the slow descent into confusion and desperation that his character feels.

2. The Lost Daughter

Maggie Gyllenhaal’s directorial debut paired with the unabashed look into motherhood by Elena Ferrante is one of the most refreshing and bold explorations of motherhood in recent memory. Using a slow and silent visual style that takes its queues more from looks and glances than verbal explanations. Gyllenhaal perfectly commandeers her cast, led by the “practically perfect in every way” Olivia Coleman, that helps deliver an equally heart-wrenching and comforting peek behind the curtain of the realities of parenting.

1. Licorice Pizza

Paul Thomas Anderson’s nostalgic take on 1970s California life of his own childhood is the most transporting and escapist film of the year. PTA’s masterful use of aesthetic, sound, performance, and editing makes for a film that is not really about anything except longing and joy. Licorice Pizza is an exercise of how memory works within us and how simple the core elements of life truly are. Led by two of the year’s breakouts, Alana Haim and Cooper Hoffman, Licorice Pizza was the only film this year that had me wanting to dive into the screen and join its alluring world.

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