As 2021 draws to a close, we take a look at the films that moved, shook, and entertained us through this most trying year. Whether viewed on a handheld device, a tv screen, or in cinemas, the power of film to transport viewers to another time and place has never been more relevant or appreciated as it’s been of late.
Without further ado, here are our favorite films from 2021:
The story of sea monsters Luca (Jacob Tremblay, Doctor Sleep) and Alberto (Jack Dylan Grazer), Disney Pixar’s latest film is a charming, witty feature on friendship, family, and acceptance. Set in an idyllic Italian seaside town (and the waters surrounding it), the film is also an unabashed 90-minute ad for Vespa that director Enrico Casarosa (Pixar’s La Luna short) somehow manages to keep from feeling crass. While not quite as masterful as some of the studio’s previous output (Soul, Wall-E, Up), Luca is a wonderful, humorous film that will hit you right in the feels (and maybe make you want to buy a Vespa).
When it comes to nostalgia, few fields are as ripe for harvest as high school. Director Glen Barit directs a cast of unknowns in this coming-of-stage story that draws from the collective experiences of everyone watching, and it is extraordinary. Technically an animated feature – having been shot on digital, printed on paper, and hand-colored before being scanned back into the computer – Barit pulls no punches in highlighting the highs and lows of small-town adolescence through a series of vignettes ranging from the hilarious to the heartbreaking. Originally premiering at the QCinema International Film Festival in 2019, where it took home the Audience Choice and Best Screenplay honors, Cleaners finally premiered to a wide audience online in 2021 and is well worth a watch.
For some, the third time is the charm. But for the creators of Nobody, it took three John Wick movies before they figured out how to blend action with heart. Now, as much as we love Keanu Reeves’ turn as the former assassin with a heart of gold, we’ve known him as an action star for over 20 years at this point. The same can’t be said for Bob Odenkirk (The Post), whose best-known role is that of fast-talking attorney Saul Goodman on TV’s Breaking Bad and its prequel, Better Call Saul.
As a middle-aged loser, Odenkirk is entirely in his element, before going full, well, John Wick, on the Russian mob. Similar in structure, but also entirely different in its approach, Nobody is a revenge-filled rampage that mixes humor and pathos into every brutal sequence. Hands down, one of the best action films of the year. John Wick who?
On the Job: The Missing Eight
Originally presented as a three-hour film at the Venice Film Festival, where lead actor John Arcilla was honored as Best Actor, On The Job 2: The Missing Eight premiered on HBO earlier this year as four episodes of a six-episode miniseries. Continuing the tale of prison inmates moonlighting as assassins-for-hire, this sequel to Erik Matti’s seminal crime flick makes no bones about cribbing from the headlines once more, in a no-holds-barred take on political and journalistic corruption.
The film opens with a thinly-veiled re-enactment of the Maguindanao massacre — scaled down to the titular eight because the filmmakers thought the real-life figure of 58 murders would seem too incredible — and doesn’t let up from there. This is Matti at his angriest, and the film is at its best when it centers on Arcilla as Sisoy, a small-town shock jock rediscovering his journalistic roots.
Last Night in Soho
Edgar Wright’s (Shaun of the Dead, Scott Pilgrim, Baby Driver) peerless command of cinematography, editing, music, and pop culture come together in this heady blend of 1960s iconography and intrigue. From an acting standpoint, the film is the cast is absolutely stacked, including Anna Taylor-Joy (Netflix’s Queen’s Gambit), Thomasin McKenzie (Jojo Rabbit), Matt Smith (TV’s Doctor Who), Sam Claflin (The Hunger Games), Terrence Stamp (Superman II, Big Eyes) and Dianna Rigg (Game of Thrones’ Olenna Tyrell) in her final role. McKenzie stars as Ellie, a young fashion student who discovers that she is able to travel back to the 1960s when she falls asleep. To say anything more would be going into spoilers, suffice it to say that Last Night in Soho displays brilliant, twisted filmmaking, and a new level of maturity from Wright. You can thank us later.
The French Dispatch
There’s precious little praise that can be heaped on a Wes Anderson (The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou) film that hasn’t already been written, but this is by no means a bad thing. In an era of endless reboots, sequels, and special-effects bonanzas (to say nothing of the ongoing pandemic), a Wes Anderson film is as close to an (original) sure thing as we’ve got, and The French Dispatch doesn’t disappoint.
The film tells the story of “The French Dispatch”, a fictional publication that takes more than a little inspiration from the real-life New Yorker. Presented as an anthology, we are treated to four stories from the Dispatch’s pages, as narrated by their respective authors on the occasion of the editor-in-chief’s (Bill Murray, Ghostbusters, Rushmore) passing. In true Anderson fashion, we’re treated to a who’s who of talent, led — in no particular order — by Owen Wilson (Paris At Midnight, The Royal Tenenbaums), Timothee Chalamet (Dune, Call Me By Your Name), Tilda Swinton (Doctor Strange, Isle of Dogs), Lea Seydoux (No Time To Die, The Grand Budapest Hotel) Adrien Brody (Fantastic Mr. Fox, TV’s Succession), Benicio Del Toro (Sicario, The Last Jedi), Henry Winkler (TV’s Happy Days, Barry), and Frances McDormand (Nomadland, Moonrise Kingdom).
Based on the semi-autobiographical work of playwright Jonathan Larson — who famously passed away a day before his play, Rent premiered to award-winning acclaim — Tick, Tick…Boom! is as much a love letter to Broadway as it is to the life and times of the man himself. In the lead, Andrew Garfield (The Social Network, The Amazing Spider-Man) delivers an award-worthy performance as Larson, juggling waiting tables and the difficulties in bringing his creations to life.
A heartfelt testament to life, love, and creative endeavor, Tick, Tick…Boom! is director Lin-Manuel Miranda’s (Hamilton, Moana) heartfelt look at the toil that goes into pursuing one’s passion. Provocative, poignant, and packed with more Broadway cameos than one can count, Tick, Tick…Boom! is a sincere, emotional tribute that would do anyone proud.
In Spencer, Kristen Stewart (Happiest Season, Charlie’s Angels) reaffirms her status as one of the best young actors working today, taking on the title role with awe-inspiring range and subtlety. Detailing the deterioration of the late Princess Diana’s mental health over the 1991 Christmas season, the film is an exploration of the institutional expectations that come with marrying into the world’s most prominent royal family.
Somewhat shocking to those expecting a straightforward biopic, Spencer is its own thing, deftly interweaving factual events with fantasy sequences of the title character’s internal conflict, including appearances by the ghost of Anne Boleyn, and a decidedly unappetizing depiction of a pearl necklace. Directed by Pablo Larraín, whose 2016 Jackie covered similar themes of being trapped, Stewart as Diana is impeccable, struggling to hold on to the last vestiges of her dignity while somehow striving to be accepted by the very people judging her every move.
What were your favorite films of 2021? Let us know in the comments, and check back tomorrow, when we unleash our list of the year’s WORST movies!