The “new normal” continues to shift and evolve in Hollywood. Because of major shifts implemented in 2020, the way that audiences interact with movies has drastically changed – and might not ever go back to the way things were. Streaming options and theatrical exclusives now compete for the same audiences, so while there are always going to be multiplex-packing blockbusters like Spider-Man: No Way Home, there are an equal amount of gems to be found on expanding players like AppleTV+, HBO Max, and Netflix.
This year did feel like a return to a standard release calendar, at least compared to 2020. And when scanning the landscape of viable candidates, there were a lot more than 10 movies I wanted to single out. But these are the 10 movies I saw this year, both in theaters and on select streaming services, that changed me, moved me, and will stay with me for years to come. Starting with a movie that we never thought was going to see the light of day.
10. Zack Snyder’s Justice League
This choice is a celebration of so many historic factors, it had to make the list. Fans told fables about the legendary “Snyder Cut” of Justice League, then took to social media to fight Warner Bros., toxic film reporters, and a skeptical pop-culture community who bought into the fallacy that the movie didn’t exist. The best part about Zack Snyder’s Justice League? The movie was fantastic, a drastic improvement over the theatrical cut that ends up being the best DCEU movie ever released… which almost wasn’t released.
9. I Care A Lot
A vicious, pitch-black comedy written and directed by J Blakeson, I Care A Lot stashes some delicious twists up its sleeve as it tells the engrossing story of an ice-cold con artist (Rosamund Pike) who takes advantage of the elderly by obtaining legal guardianship over them. Pike is both sinister and brilliant, as expected, but the movie excels as the story escalates because Pike’s character lays claim to a woman she should have left alone. Go into I Care A Lot knowing as little as possible, and enjoy this whip-smart roller coaster ride peppered with stellar performances from actors sinking their teeth into a script with a heart of coal.
8. The Green Knight
An epic medieval fantasy that over delivers, even by the standards set by David Lowery (Pete’s Dragon, A Ghost Story). The director adapts the 14th century poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight into an imaginative, provocative tale of bad choices, second chances, legacy, and environmentalism. What? Yes, Lowery’s text is so rich in symbolism that you can translate Sir Gawain’s journey through numerous lenses… and one definitely pertains to our relationship with the planet. Beyond the literal text, Lowery’s visuals and Dev Patel’s performance make The Green Knight one of the year’s most unforgettable features.
7. Barb and Star Go To Vista Del Mar
The opening scene of the wickedly hysterical Barb and Star alert us to the fact that we’re in for something unexpected. In case you haven’t yet seen this film, I can’t tell you what you are in store for. But I can promise you that co-leads Kristen Wiig and Annie Mumolo, who penned the screenplay, have concocted one of the wackiest, most self-aware spoofs since the first Austin Powers movie, packed to the brim with scream-out-loud gags that are as funny as they are bizarre. But it’s 50 Shades of Grey star Jamie Dornan, cutting loose in ways we never thought possible, that steals every ounce of this enjoyable show.
It’s Denis Villeneuve (Arrival, Blade Runner 2049) doing large-scale science-fiction. You shouldn’t need any more of a recommendation to immediately dig into Dune: Part One. But Dune also seamlessly adapts one of the seminal novels of this genre, transporting audiences to the surface of the distant planet of Arrakis while also plunging us into the royal drama of House Atreides as they fulfill destinies, colonize worlds, and fight to stave off antagonists. The only thing preventing this masterful epic from making it a few notches higher on my Top 10 list is the fact that it’s half of a compelling story, ending on a cliffhanger that, thankfully, Villeneuve will be able to conclude with his excellent, A-list cast.
I love it when a movie lives up to its insane hype. Usually, films generate buzz at early festivals like Sundance or SXSW, and when larger audiences finally get a chance to watch, we are left scratching our heads at what was so special about the feature. Every once in a while, though, we get a special, heartwarming gift like CODA, which justifies all of the praise it received in the beginning of 2021, and held on to make my Top 5. Welsh actress Emilia Jones lights up the screen as Ruby, the only member of a deaf family who’s able to hear. Will she leave home to study at a special music school, or stay home to care for her relatives. Coming-of-age stories hit the sweet spot when done right, and CODA had me crying my eyes out with a mixture of melancholy and joy.
4. The Father
There’s nothing more satisfying than a world-class actor servicing a gripping script, which is precisely what we get out of Anthony Hopkins in The Father. The film was released early enough in 2021 to contend for the bizarro Academy Awards, which made adjustments to include more features. And the brilliant drama about an elderly man succumbing to his dementia earned well-deserved Oscars in those two categories: Best Actor, and Best Screenplay. Hopkins is brilliant, suffering from the confusion brought on by his dementia while also keeping us guessing about how much of this is real. And since it was released this year, it qualifies for this list.
Ninety-seven minutes of pure bliss. Kenneth Branagh’s black-and-white treasure box is a heartfelt ode to his childhood on the politically charged streets of the close-knit Belfast neighborhood, where films, comic books, and the colorful stories spun by his family members (Ciaran Hinds and Judi Dench, both delightful) help young Buddy (Jude Hill) escape the doldrums of life. Belfast honors the bonds of family, as well as the mild pains associated with first loves. And Belfast really soars once co-star Jamie Dornan launches into “Everlasting Love,” easily the second-best Dornan song sequence of the year (after “Edgar’s Prayer” from Barb and Star).
2. Tick, tick… BOOM
Andrew Garfield’s so talented, it makes me angry. Seriously, I turned to my wife halfway through the opening rendition of “30/90” and stated, with all due respect and sincerity, “Man, fuck this dude.” Because what can’t he do? By playing Broadway playwright Jonathan Larson in his earliest days of creative uncertainty, Garfield gives the performance of the year, connecting with both the material and the imaginative direction of the equally brilliant Lin-Manuel Miranda to deliver a triumphant celebration of Larson, of the theater community, of struggling in your 20s as you chase whatever dream you hold on to, and of the power of movie musicals. In a year filled with them, tick, tick… BOOM was the head of the class, and one of the most enjoyable times I had at the movies all year.
1. Spider-Man: No Way Home
If you know anything about me, you know that Spider-Man is my favorite fictional character, in any medium. I grew up collecting his stories in weekly comic books. I devoured his appearances in animated programs, and on The Electric Company. And I’ve worshipped at his cinematic altar ever since Sam Raimi brought him to life in 2002. (Hell, I’m writing a book about Spider-Man’s Hollywood history, so yeah… I’m a fan). Even knowing all that I know about the wallcrawler, I’m still shocked beyond belief that Spider-Man: No Way Home exists. Literally, all of the boxes Marvel needed to check just to make a movie like No Way Home possible are mind-blowing. But it’s the effortless way that director Jon Watts balances a worthy Tom Holland sequel with the elements that honor the franchise’s legacy, producing the most surprising and satisfying Spider-Man film, ever. This was my favorite movie of 2021.