In the Heights – A rapturous delight that takes Lin Manuel Miranda’s first musical that was produced in 2007 and turns it into something completely of the moment in 2021 and sacrifices none of the energy, authenticity, enthusiasm and overwhelming heart of that project, and turns it all up to an 11. Full of optimism, love, standout performances and dazzling musical set pieces. Exactly the kind of movie I needed to see on a big screen a hundred times this summer after a year plus stuck inside.
Barb and Star Go to Vista Del Mar – An instant comedy classic and an utter delight from beginning to end. I expected weird, but this thing is high on its own kind of infectious, insanely bonkers energy and I sat on my couch by myself laughing so hard I had to catch my breath several times. The surrealist, heightened nature of this stupidest-smartest comedy is balanced by the genuine heart Kristen Wiig and Annie Mumolo bring to these characters, and I couldn’t love them more.
The Father – Competed in the 2020 Oscars, but didn’t get a release, theatrical or streaming, until March 2021, so it’s a 2021 release. The Father is a horror movie about dementia. We see the world through our lead character’s eyes, and he lives in a world where nothing quite makes sense and he can’t know what anyone’s motivations are. He’s the ultimate unreliable narrator because even he doesn’t know what’s true and what isn’t. And The Father is a profoundly unsettling and unforgettable viewing experience.
Cruella – Easily the best Disney live-action ‘re-imagining’, and that could be because Cruella doesn’t feel very much like a Disney movie at all. It feels like The Devil Wears Prada meets Joker meets Death Becomes Her, and it has cult classic written all over it. The overwhelmingly catty battle of one-upsmanship between Emmas Stone and Thompson brought me the exact kind of campy thrills the Maleficent sequel failed to give me. It is so much fun to watch these two ladies go to war, and the movie lets them revel in every second of it. And the costumes! Oh, the costumes!
Bo Burnham: Inside – Not really a movie, but it’s feature length and it’s the most cathartic viewing experience I’ve had all year, so it belongs here. My broken soul needed this unhinged, therapeutic and deeply wise tragicomedy masterpiece that beautifully puts this entire pandemic year into perspective. Burnham seems to be making a comedy special about shared trauma and what it’s going to take to even want to move forward. Only someone truly brilliant would take this awful, painful, traumatic year and make something truly beautiful and life affirming with it. We don’t deserve Bo Burnham.
Saint Maud – I think the horror films that I respond the most are those that leave you feeling terrible. Those that create a grim and desolate atmosphere, and then they keep it there, or go somewhere even darker. The films where there is no happy resolution or catharsis in the end, and the bad thing is going to keep happening long after the lights come up, and that’s the exact kind of film we have in Saint Maud, the remarkably assured and horrific first feature from writer/director Rose Glass.
Nobody – A hoot and a half – a fast-paced and infectiously fun action thriller with a career defining Bob Odenkirk performance and plenty of the kind of stunt work you’d only expect from the John Wick team. I’m not sure what Nobody is saying about masculinity, toxic or otherwise, or the American dream in a general sense. It might not be saying anything of value at all. But in this case it really doesn’t matter.
The Mitchells vs. the Machines – A zany, zippy, hilarious and heartfelt animated comedy from the makers of Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse. In fact, Into the Spider-Verse ran so The Mitchells vs. the Machines could fly. A gloriously colorful madcap delight about what happens to a dysfunctional family when they’re suddenly tasked with having to save the world. The attention to character and some genuine emotional truthfulness sets The Mitchells apart in some big ways.
Long Weekend – This sharply crafted, bizarre, genre defying rom-com has two lovely performances from well-matched leads Finn Wittrock and Zoë Chao, and it’s kind of a perfect movie for how we’re all feeling right now. It’s a story about the importance and necessity of human connection, and it’s got plenty of surprises along the way.
Judas and the Black Messiah – A kind of eat-your-vegetables historical movie that somehow doesn’t feel like a homework assignment at all. The incredibly powerful story of Fred Hampton and the conflicted mole in the Black Panther Party is something I never learned about in school, and of course I didn’t. This is a gripping, remarkably performed and powerful story that provides insight on why the civil rights movement in the United States still has so far to go today.