2021 was a surprisingly great year for film. It feels like we’re finally coming out of the pandemic darkness and into a new time where there’s actually (cautious) hope for the future. This year I’m not limiting myself to 10 movies – there’s about 20 here. And these are not the technically best films of 2021, these are the films that stuck with me and made an impact on me in one way or another. They are more or less in order, but not really. And I recommend you see each and every one of these.
Come From Away –A filmed stage musical that took me by surprise. Not just by how much I cried (which was a lot), but because of how seamlessly this show works in a hundred stories, a hundred characters and a hundred emotions. With minimal sets, few props and only twelve actors (six men and six women) switching in between roles, sometimes in the same song, it’s remarkable how well this thing works and how breathtakingly beautiful and stunningly emotional it is to behold. A joyful and tragic celebration of the best of humanity. This is absolutely essential viewing, and that’s why it’s at the top of this list.
Licorice Pizza – A meandering hangout movie about a kid who’s growing up too soon and the emotionally stunted 25-year-old woman with whom he strikes up a friendship. And their misadventures together. I think there’s an inescapable charm and lightness to this movie that doesn’t feel like Paul Thomas Anderson’s previous works at all, but there’s also a lurking sense of danger around every street corner that keeps the viewer on edge throughout. The kind of film you just want to live in.
In the Heights – A breathtaking Broadway adaptation 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. In the Heights gave me everything I possibly could have wanted from a film production of a beloved musical. It’s a gorgeous, energetic, thrilling translation to a different medium.
CODA – Feels like something you’ve seen a million times before told in a way you’ve never quite experienced. I’m a sucker for a good coming of age movie, and this one is remarkable in every way. From the performances, to how vividly these characters are drawn, to how well the comedy and the drama works. It’s all pretty spectacular. This is one that really sneaks up on you in a beautiful way.
Barb and Star Go to Vista Del Mar – Wacky, insane, and utterly joyous 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, which is irresistible. One of those movies I really regret not being able to see with a huge crowd of 50-something wine moms.
The Worst Person in the World – A story about a regular gal who’s doing her best and trying to figure out what her best life is, and what that means. This is a super lovely romantic coming of age drama, which deeply resonated with me as someone in their late twenties who is trying to figure themselves out, and worrying if it’s too late to still be worrying about all this. This is one of the most vividly drawn character studies I’ve seen in years. Renate Reinsve should absolutely be nominated for an Oscar.
tick, tick…BOOM! – Lin Manuel Miranda’s directorial debut is a musical about the late Jonathan Larson, adapted from his own stage play – the one he did before Rent set the world on fire. And it’s a deeply thoughtful, super entertaining and gorgeous musical meditation on the creative process and what it means to be an artist. Anchored by a career-best performance by Andrew Garfield, tick…tick…BOOM! is a beautiful tribute to not just Larson, but the magic of live theatre. And it’s one that made my theatre kid heart explode with joy.
Everybody’s Talking About Jamie – A big, loud, wildly energetic and quietly revolutionary musical powerhouse that’s deeply meaningful but also irresistibly fun. Max Harwood, in his first feature role, is an absolute stunner and this is also jam-packed with terrific supporting roles, including absolutely terrific performances from Richard E. Grant and Sarah Lancashire. This is a film that could be a beacon of hope to a generation of queer kids, but also the adults who wish they would’ve had this when they were kids. But its themes could also not be more universal and the final product is nothing short of triumphant.
Nine Days – Edson Oda’s incredible first feature is a staggeringly beautiful, contemplative, rich observation of the meaning of life and what it truly means to be alive and what it means to want to wake up each morning. Winston Duke and Zazie Beetz turn in terrific performances, but everybody here brings something really great to the film. If movies like this are good, I find it easy to connect to movies that ask big questions like this. Nine Days doesn’t attempt to answer any of them, but it leaves you with so much to ponder long after your drive home from the theater.
Last Night in Soho – Edgar Wright’s new twisted, atmospheric, almost hypnotically gorgeous horror story is one of his very best, and has a playful, inventive quality to the cinematography, the storytelling and the performances. It keeps the viewer on their toes in a way a lot of thrillers can’t seem to do anymore.
Bo Burnham: Inside – My broken soul needed this unhinged, cathartic and deeply wise tragicomedy masterpiece. We don’t deserve Bo Burnham. Only someone truly brilliant would take this awful, painful, traumatic past year and make something truly beautiful and life affirming with it. However, this special made for Netflix (I’m calling it a movie, deal with it) is cinematic and inventive and remarkably assured, beyond the emotional truthfulness at the core.
Parallel Mothers – Pedro Almodovar, the Master of Melodrama is back! And he’s once again firing on all cylinders. Parallel Mothers is one of his very best in recent memory. Like his best films, it’s chaotic, unpredictable, and thick with camp and melodrama, but also primarily focused on the character – their motivations, their desires and their secrets. This is the best performance of Penelope Cruz’s career.
West Side Story – Somehow feels like it was made in 1958 and 2021, simultaneously. It’s a technical marvel and is a shockingly gorgeous old-fashioned stunner, whose message couldn’t be more welcome and necessary in 2021. Due to its technical ambitions, stunning cast and impeccably staged musical numbers, this is a remake that is somehow better in every way than the classic you’re comparing it to in the back of your mind the whole time.
Dear Evan Hansen – Okay, look. I know everyone hated this movie. I don’t care. As an avid fan of the remarkable stage production – the night I saw Dear Evan Hansen on Broadway in early 2017 is still one of the best nights of my life – this film gave me enough of what I felt emotionally on that night, and it was enough for this to become an instant comfort movie for me. I will probably never arrive at a place emotionally where I can agree with the criticism of this film, and that’s okay. Also, Ben Platt is wonderful, and you’re all just mean.
The Mitchells vs. the Machines – A zippy, colorful hilarious and deeply weird animated adventure that was obviously created for the widest audience possible, but somehow speaks to something very specific in me, and this is one I watched a lot in 2021.
Cyrano – a lavish, decadent, monstrously entertaining and breathtakingly beautiful gamble that pays off in every way. From its incredibly well chosen cast to the songs that sometimes feel weirdly anachronistic (in a good way) and sometimes feel like the best of Broadway. Peter Dinklage absolutely should have an Oscar nomination for this, but it’s a film full of wonderful performances and overflowing with love.
C’mon C’mon – a deeply lovely meditation on life, what we want from it, and why it thrills and disappoints us. It’s the most hopeful, sweet, genuine movie that miraculously does not hit a single false note. Like Licorice Pizza, this is a film where I just didn’t want it to end. I just sat there over the end credits until the lights went up enjoying every second of this. I wish more directors made films with the emotionally perceptive eye – the humanity – that Mike Mills does.
Encanto – It feels like the runtime of Encanto was about 25 minutes. Does that mean it’s too slight or does that mean I was enjoying it so much that time slipped away? I’m not sure, but this is pretty delightful stuff. I think the reason why this film has resonated with the public so deeply is because it’s for the wounded child trying to put on a brave face as an adult. if you’ve ever felt out of place in your family or anywhere, I think you’ll find something to enjoy here.
Saint Maud – I think the horror films that I ultimately respond to 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 exactly the kind of movie we have in Saint Maud. It’s an expertly performed, beautifully shot psychological horror show that will linger with you long after it’s over.
Cruella – The best thing to come out of Disney in years is something that doesn’t feel like a Disney movie at all. Cruella is a deliciously mean spirited hybrid of The Devil Wears Prada and Death Becomes Her. The best thing, however, is not the sensory overload of the fashion and 70s punk rock needle drops, it’s that it’s a Disney villain origin story that doesn’t ask you to sympathize with its lead. It gives her context and contextualizes her journey but it never asks you to feel bad for her. There’s soap opera style reveals and plot twists, but there’s never a scene where she’s broken, crying and reduced to nothing. Cruella always has another trick up her sleeve.