The world slowly tried to crawl back to a sense of normalcy in 2021, despite COVID and her variants continuing to rampage across the globe. Movie theaters and studios were desperate to get new movies in front of people, and this year’s releases really did not disappoint. With so many movies being delayed last year, 2021 was overflowing with great stories, from major blockbusters to indie dramas.
Here are my top 10 movies released in 2021:
- Barb and Star Go to Vista del Mar
What more can I say about Barb and Star? Sometimes you watch a movie that connects with you on such a personal and spiritual level that you can’t put it into words. This movie is 107 minutes of pure serotonin. Kristin Wiig and Annie Mumolo are perfect as these middle-aged Midwestern gal pals. Masterpiece.
- West Side Story
Only Steven Spielberg could remake a beloved classic Oscar-winning musical and somehow make it better. His West Side Story is phenomenal. It builds out the world of the story, adds depth to side characters to make them feel more significant and highlights the class and racial tensions that existed in the original story but somehow feel more relevant today. And despite never having directed a musical before, Spielberg really knows how to direct a musical. Every song is staged so beautifully and the talented cast shines.
And what a cast it is! Rachel Zegler (in her first film role ever) is the true standout. She embodies Maria completely and is a joy to watch. Ariana DuBose and Mike Faist also knock it out of the park as Anita and Riff. This movie is full of energy – the songs are just as iconic as they always have been, and there’s enough homage to the original while still feeling fresh and new.
DUUUUUUUUNE. Good grief, what a movie. Based on the foundational 1960s sci-fi book, Dune is the story of Paul who arrives on a new planet with his family to mine a precious resource called spice. Chaos ensues between Paul’s family, the natives of this new world and the planet’s former rulers while Paul begins to discover his true destiny.
Dune is a massive and expansive sci-fi experience. Coming off other bangers like Arrival and Blade Runner 2049, director Denis Villeneuve has solidified his position as the master of high-concept science fiction. Dune is a visual feast – even if most of the movie takes place in varying shades of desert brown. The cast is truly magnificent, and the Hans Zimmer score is unlike anything I’ve heard before. The continuation of this story cannot come soon enough.
- C’mon C’mon
This movie stole my heart. It’s about an uncle who volunteers to look after his 9-year-old nephew while his sister is out of town for a few weeks and how they learn from each other. C’mon C’mon is such a beautifully simple story, but it’s the most human and heartfelt movie I saw all year. I have a nephew that’s almost 3 right now and I would do absolutely anything for him, so this movie felt personally made for me. Joaquin Phoenix is fantastic, but Woody Norman completely steals every scene as Jesse. He’s delightful.
The movie also has an interesting subplot where Joaquin Phoenix’s character goes around to different cities and interviews kids about their thoughts and feelings about life and the future. The perspective children have of what the world is and what it could be is always fascinating to hear.
- The French Dispatch
2021 was the year I fell in love with Wes Anderson. He has such a unique style and vibe to his movies that I’ve become obsessed with. His latest movie, The French Dispatch, feels like the most Wes Anderson-movie while still being a unique undertaking. It centers on a small New Yorker-style magazine in Paris and visually presents its latest issue through three feature stories all distinct from each other.
All the hallmarks of a Wes Anderson movie are there, but the structure of the movie keeps you on your toes and never lets you get bored. The cast is overflowing with some of the most talented actors of our time, many of whom show up just for a few moments to steal the show and then disappear. It’s truly a wonderful experience and unlike any other movie you’ll see this year.
CODA, which stands for Child of Deaf Adults, is the story of Ruby, the only hearing member of her family, and her struggle between duty to her family’s business and her dreams of becoming a singer – something her family can never fully appreciate. Since she is the only one in her family who can hear, she feels an additional weight to stay and be an interpreter between them and the people living around them.
So many young people struggle to balance their duty to family and their desires to be their own person and follow their dreams. CODA puts that familiar story through a lens that is not often seen on screen. Our world was designed for hearing people, so even the smallest glimpse at a family like the one in CODA can really change your perspective. And there’s so much love in this family – it’s a beautiful story about love, letting go and being true to yourself.
- Licorice Pizza
I’m fascinated by “hang out” movies – the kind of movies where on the surface you can say “this movie is boring, there’s no plot…” But you’d be wrong. Movies like Licorice Pizza are such great vibe movies. They allow you to settle in and just exist with these characters. Licorice Pizza follows a high school student and child actor as he chases success and the attention of a young woman and how their lives change as they grow together.
The movie is also set in the early 1970s, so the costumes and music featured are a joy to behold. 2021 had a number of first-time actors that truly crushed their performances – like Rachel Zegler in West Side Story – and the two leads of Licorice Pizza, Alana Haim and Cooper Hoffman, are also at the top of that list. They’re captivating, real and so fun to watch.
- Judas and the Black Messiah
It’s hard to believe this movie came out this year. It came out early enough to be nominated for a handful of Oscars – Daniel Kaluuya even won Best Supporting Actor for his incredible performance. But to watch this movie in 2021 is a little haunting because of how relevant its story and themes still are today. Judas tells the story of Black Panther leader Fred Hampton (the “Black Messiah”) and the undercover FBI agent charged with infiltrating his ranks and bringing him down (“Judas”). It’s a powerful story anchored by Kaluuya and LaKeith Stanfield’s stellar performances.
- The Mitchells vs. the Machines
No, I did not put this movie in my top 10 just because it has my name in the title. But it certainly didn’t hurt.
The Mitchells vs the Machines is the latest animated movie from the team behind Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse and The Lego Movie. The animation style is so unique and often chaotic, but it supports the insanity of the Mitchell family and the situations they find themselves in (the Furby scene is a masterpiece).
It’s an animated movie that works well for adults as well as kids, especially when it looks at the way technology has affected our lives – for good and for bad. But the movie’s heart shines as well. Mixed in with the robot apocalypse plot is the story about a family who’s learning how to grow together and understand each other as their kids get older. The zany robot antics are fun, but the family is what makes this movie click and elevates it to another level.
- The Power of the Dog
It’s difficult to explain The Power of the Dog – it’s one of those movies where the less you know about it going in, the more you’ll get out of it. The Power of the Dog is a slow-burn western set in 1920s Montana and follows a family as they explore love and power dynamics. The movie winds through twists and turns, keeping you guessing and building anxiety until its shocking final moments.
Benedict Cumberbatch, Kirsten Dunst, Jesse Plemons and Kodi Smit-McPhee lead this cast and all four of them give knock-out performances – each one of them could possibly be nominated for Oscars this year.