2021 Review

31 Dec

By Tanner Smith

It’s the most wonderful time of the year–celebrating the holidays, spending time with loved ones, and of course, perfect for a movie guy like me, checking out all the film critics’ year-end lists.

By now, I have a reason to hate making these lists–while they’re a reflection of how I feel in the moment, they don’t represent the changes of perception to the subjected movies, and how could they? (Many of these movies on the list, I’ll have only seen once as of now.) But at the same time, I still love making these lists for three reasons–because I like looking back at the past year at the end of said-year, I like looking back on them years later to see what’s changed, and it doesn’t mean I’m going to change my opinion of how I felt in the moment (I can only change my opinion of a movie after more time and viewings pass).

I’ve seen many movies in 2021. However, at the time making this list, I’ve missed a few well-received titles such as Being the Ricardos, Mass, CODA, Don’t Look Up, The Power of the Dog, and The Lost Daughter. But that doesn’t mean I’m never going to see them, and if I like one of these movies enough, I’ll find reasons to write about them.

Oh, and there are two movies on my list that have made critics’ year-end lists for 2020–to that, I say they were released to the public in 2021 and thus they’re qualified for my list. (You’ll know them when you see them.)

So let’s get started!

I’ll do things a little differently this time. For starters, I will present my top-10 list first–and in alphabetical order simply because…well, it’s my list and I’ll do with it what I want. So, here they are–my Top 10 Favorite Films of 2021 (in alphabetical order)!

  1. Bo Burnham: Inside
    Is it really a movie or a comedy special? Why is that even a debate? Let it be what it wants to be; for me, comedian-musician’s Bo Burnham’s visual album that represents being alone in quarantine is one of the most entertaining things I’ve seen all year! My favorite song on the playlist: “Facetime With My Mom Tonight.” Available on Netflix.

2. C’mon C’mon

I love writer-director Mike Mills’ work and I’m glad to have seen his latest film in time for a year-end list for once. This is a beautiful movie about connecting and with a moving performance from Joaquin Phoenix and wonderful moments of gentleness and sincerity.

3. Language Lessons

“Bo Burnham: Inside” and “Language Lessons” are two sides of the same coin–they show us what can be done when we’re forced to make art using very limited resources while in isolation. Director/co-writer/co-star Natalie Morales and her collaborator Mark Duplass might have played my favorite movie duo of the year as two lost souls who virtually find each other.

4. Licorice Pizza

Whew! Saw this one just in time, and man, am I glad I did! The great filmmaker Paul Thomas Anderson has delivered what I think is one of his absolute best works with this uplifting and sweet-natured 1970s period piece about the awkwardness and charms of first love. A wonderful film. (Maybe the reason this list is alphabetical is because not enough time has passed for me to properly rank it. Is it #5? #2? #1?? Check back with me in a month or so.)

5. Minari

Here’s one of the two 2020 holdovers that made it onto my 2021 list because come on, it was officially released to the public in early 2021, so that’s how I see it. (Fun fact: this was also the first movie I saw in a cinema since before the pandemic happened.) “Minari” is a beautiful film with moving performances and a touching story about family and ambition.

6. The Mitchells vs. the Machines

Disney has presented some great animated treasures in 2021. But while Sony’s “The Mitchells vs. the Machines” doesn’t have the grand scale of “Raya and the Last Dragon,” the warmth of “Luca,” or the emotional impact of “Encanto,” it is my favorite animated film of the year because it’s just a ton of fun. Available on Netflix.

7. A Quiet Place Part II

Instead of letting this sequel to the 2018 horror smash hit “A Quiet Place” go straight to streaming in 2020, writer-director John Krasinski and Paramount Studios decided to wait a full year to give us this wholly entertaining thrill ride to the big screen. And God bless them for it, because this is a great sequel.

8. Spider-Man: No Way Home

Yep, it’s the number-one movie of the year, and I, an unapologetic Spider-Man fan, can see why! I was very impressed with the previous “Spider-Man” movies in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (“Spider-Man: Homecoming” made my 2017 list; I still stand by that)–but even I had no idea that it was all leading to what is undoubtedly one of the greatest films in the MCU. Tom Holland, who was already immensely likable as Peter Parker, grew into being a great Spider-Man; the directing from Jon Watts is top-notch (even above his work on the previous movies); and…I didn’t know being a fan of the other “Spider-Man” movies (from outside the MCU) would pay off in such a major way! (Does this mean I don’t have to apologize for liking “The Amazing Spider-Man” anymore?)

9. The Water Man

“The Water Man” is proof that the family film is alive and well even today–both children and their parents can get something out of this beautiful story filled with tense adventure and well-deserved drama plus appealing characters going through it all. Check it out, show your kids, and prepare for an interesting blend of fantastical legend and human interest.

10. West Side Story

Steven Spielberg’s take on the classic “West Side Story” is not just another film–it’s an experience. Everything about this musical screams “OUTSTANDING!” The cinematography, the choreography, the acting from the outstanding cast, the set pieces, and of course, the music direction are more than enough for me to say go check it out–but there’s more to it than all that: modern context helps make the hindsight look clearer. I’m surprised Spielberg hasn’t made a musical before.

And now…my OTHER Top 10 of 2021 (also in alphabetical order)!

  1. Belfast–Kenneth Branagh’s heartwarming personal story
  2. Encanto–I still can’t get that “We Don’t Talk About Bruno-no-no” song out of my head!
  3. Ghostbusters: Afterlife–THIS was the “Ghostbusters” follow-up I was waiting for!
  4. Luca–simply delightful Disney/Pixar flick
  5. Nightmare Alley–Richard Roeper of the Chicago Sun-Times put it best: ” a great, great movie about some bad, bad people.”
  6. Nomadland–this is the other “2020 holdover” I mentioned.
  7. Raya and the Last Dragon–Disney had a great year!
  8. Ride the Eagle–I love indie dramedies, and both this and “Language Lessons” were my two favorites this year. Great work from actor Jake Johnson.
  9. Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings–Great year for the MCU too!
  10. Val–A loving tribute to actor Val Kilmer helped by Val’s son Jack. Available on Amazon Prime.

And now, a bunch of honorable mentions, in no particular order: Long Weekend, Fear Street Part Three: 1666, Old, Adrienne, The Suicide Squad, The White Tiger, The Stylist, tick, tick…Boom!, Jakob’s Wife, No Sudden Move, Last Night in Soho, Stillwater, Our Friend, Candyman, Slaxx, Together Together, The Vigil, Passing, Judas and the Black Messiah, Operation Varsity Blues, Pig, My Salinger Year, and Shiva Baby.

And last but…maybe least, I dunno…I have to mention this one film in particular because whether it’s good or bad, I don’t care because it’s the silliest movie I’ve seen all year (and one of the most entertaining–as I said in my review of the movie, it’s my kind of silly). It’s the German import Help, I Shrunk My Friends.

There is no way I can further defend it better than I’ve already tried in my initial review, so you can check that out–my opinion of it hasn’t changed; it’s still one of the more bonkers and entertaining films I’ve seen this year, and that has to count for something!

And that’s it! I love this time of year and I love going into a new year not knowing what truly great movies await me. There’s only one way to find out and that’s support local art, go to the movies, and because streaming services are bigger now than ever, give some underappreciated Netflix Originals a chance.

See you later!

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