For as much as everything was still *gestures broadly to all the fire and horror* you know, all of that this year, 2021 still provided a steady stream of cinematic excellence. There were movies that stirred the soul, that bent the brain, that played the hits better than anyone has in a long time, that blazed totally new trails that others will be following for years to come.
This year reminded us of the ability of films to help us escape our world, and of their ability to show us our world in new and richer ways, such that we could never dream of turning our backs on something so precious.
I don’t really believe in rankings or that sort of thing, but here for your reading pleasure are twenty of my favorite movie moments from the past year.
(Note: It should go without saying that if you haven’t seen a particular movie on this list, don’t read that movie’s entry. Be smart, folks, come on.)
- ANNETTE — May We Start?
What better way for the Sparks-written musical to start than with Sparks themselves on screen, cuing up the orchestra? As Ron and Russell Mael swagger out of the recording studio and into the street, they’re joined by not only backup singers but actors Adam Driver, Marion Cotillard, Simon Helberg and director Leos Carax, all of them rhapsodizing about the movie they are about to make/we are about to watch. As the song reaches its conclusion, the actors don the costumes they’ll need for the film’s first scene and head off to get into character.
With its wild swings in tone, defiantly ersatz world, and whipsawing between all forms of culture, high and low, Annette may be the year’s messiest masterpiece (it may just flat out be a mess to many a viewer, and I can’t begrudge anyone that reaction). But this prologue grounds everything we’re about to see squarely within the realm of the theatrical, the playful (puns intended). It’s a movie pulsing with “Can you believe we get to make a movie?!?!” joy in its every frame, a joy that persists even as the film leaps face-first into the bizarre and the grotesque.
2. BARB AND STAR GO TO VISTA DEL MAR — Seagulls in the Sand
Look, we all could use as many laughs as we can get these days, an appetite that everyone involved in the very silly, very funny Barb and Star have done their darndest to fulfill. The pastel-drenched delight keeps the laughs rolling from first scene to last frame, bolstered by a cast and crew who all seem to be having a great time bringing the saga of Barb and Star (and Trish, can’t forget Trish) to life.
No one’s having more fun than 50 Shades brooder Jamie Dornan, especially when he bursts into random song to express his tortured romantic longings. It’s shameless, it’s hilarious, and it’s not something you would ever expect from someone previously pegged as a grim-faced leading man. Not since Chris Hemsworth regaled us with the tale of his dog, Mike Hat, has a heartthrob taken such palpable joy in making a complete ass of himself. Months later, just thinking of Dornan frolicking with abandon is enough to get the giggles going once again.
3. CODA — Frank Hears Ruby Sing
Adults not understanding their teenaged children is a universal experience, a universality that makes the specificity of director Sian Heder’s CODA that much more poignant. Frank (Troy Kotsur) and Jackie (Marlee Matlin) are deaf, but their daughter Ruby (Emilia Jones) can hear, and so there is inherently a gulf between their respective experiences and understandings of the world and how each other fit into it. When Ruby takes an interest in singing, her parents are politely attentive but they can’t really claim to ‘get’ what it means to her.
All that changes after Frank sees an audience’s euphoric response to Ruby’s voice. After the concert, when Frank and Ruby are alone together on the back of his pickup truck, he asks her to sing for him and places his hands on her neck so he can ‘hear’ her song. There is no finer moment of film acting this year than the flood of emotion that washes across Kotsur’s face. It’s not just pride, it’s not just sorrow, it’s not just joy, it’s a storm of all these and more colliding inside of him as this person he loves reveals herself to be even more than she already was. It’s the great tragedy of a parent to know that you can never fully know your child, and it’s the great joy of a parent to always have the chance to discover new facets of these people you have given life to.
(I swear to God not all of these are going to be musical numbers. But…uh…many of them are gonna be, sorry.)
4. DUNE — Harvester Rescue
Dune, in all its forms and permutations, is many things. It’s an instruction manual for various technologies that don’t exist. It’s a treatise on the intersection of politics, economics, and religion. It’s a philosophical quandary on the nature of fate, free will, and our relationship to time, space, and other human bodies caught up in the same spirals of time and space as ourselves.
But Dune is also, when it wants to be, a rip-roaring pulp adventure, one that’s filled with nail-biting action. All these aspects and flavors coalesce in Dune ‘21’s thrilling rendition of the Atriedes ornithopter rescuing a crew of spice harvesters from being devoured by a sandworm (I realize that sentence means nothing to anyone who hasn’t seen or read Dune but, as my dad would say, that’s a ‘you’ problem). The scale is huge, the stakes are human, and in the midst of all this mayhem Timmy Chalamet’s Paul is coming unstuck in time thanks to an overload of spice. Scary, thrilling, head-spinning, mind-expanding, this sequence epitomizes why Arrakis is such an overwhelming hellscape, and also why I can’t wait to get a return ticket.
5. EVANGELION: 3.0+1.0 THRICE UPON A TIME — Getting into Gendo
Seminal anime series Neon Genesis Evangelion famously ran into budgetary problems during its last run of episodes, and so the show abandoned all its mechs vs. giant monsters thrills in favor of long montages narrated by various characters as they delved into their innermost thoughts, fears, and desires, each protagonist in turn sifting through their accumulated experiences and traumas.
It wasn’t what fans wanted, and creator Hideaki Anno spent the last few decades telling and retelling his story in different mediums and formats, tweaking and rearranging his saga’s pieces in all manner of alternate ways. With the Rebuild series of films, what began as a remake of the show gradually morphed into an entirely new timeline, breaking off from the original story until it essentially became an entirely new saga, one related to but entirely distinct from the Neon Genesis we all knew (as much as anyone can ever ‘know’ this lunatic fucking franchise).
But when it came time to bring this new iteration of his series to a close, what did Anno do?
Abandon all the mechs and giant monsters. In favor of long montages. Delving into innermost thoughts, fears, and desires. There is a perverse thrill that strikes when this stuff starts up, as it becomes clear that Anno decided he was right the first goddamn time and that once again we are going to get a psychological dossier rather than a punch-up. But this time, Anno turns his scalpel onto the franchise’s villain, digging into mad scientist/genocidal monster/ultimate wife-guy Gendo Ikari and laying bare his all-too human origins and motivations. Protagonist Shinji Ikari finally ends an Evangelion cycle with a flawless victory, not by delivering the perfect killshot to a rampaging kaiju but by coming to understand his father not as a monster, but as a flawed person.
If the CODA moment stings because it’s a perfect depiction of a parent finally understanding the person their child has become, the Evangelion climax is so moving because it’s a perfect depiction of a child recognizing their parent as a person at all. And it’s only by making this last empathetic leap that Shinji is able, at last, to break the cycle of doomsdays that have defined the Evangelion series in all its forms.
6. FEAR STREET PART THREE: 1666 — The Witch’s Curse
I’m hard-pressed to think of anything comparable to Leigh Janiak’s Fear Street trilogy. The first film is a slick retread of by-the-numbers slasher fare from decades past, but parts two and three continue to push backwards in time, turning the franchise into something richer, deeper, and scarier. Janiak’s saga may begin as a rote slasher, but each subsequent move into yesteryear reframes the violence as installations in an unending cycle baked into the very bones of modern America. Societies always sacrifice their children, and the different and diverse are always the first on the chopping block.
Horror doesn’t just have to be an illustration of society’s evils, though. At its best, it can serve as equal parts rallying cry to break those cycles. With this pivotal moment in 1666, Janiak weaves three hundred years of terror into a single narrative thread, tying together all the diffuse pieces of her epic into a united whole. But even in a moment of evil triumphant, the seeds of evil’s destruction are laid, coming to fruition in 1666’s second half and teeing up one of the most cathartic final sequences of any horror film in recent memory.
7. THE FRENCH DISPATCH — Police Station Tour
Wes Anderson has always been one to stack cinematic devices and affectations on top of one another like the twee-est Tower of Babel that you ever did see, but more often than not the lively pacing of his films, the enthusiasm of his casts, and the mannered perfection of his craft keep the damn tower upright. The French Dispatch is composed of stories within stories within stories, constantly devouring itself/regurgitating itself with reckless enthusiasm, the sheer tonnage of stories, jokes, characters, and references matched in number only by the number of techniques that Anderson and his team deploy to capture them all.
Picking just one scene as representative is a tall order, but the tracking shot of Jeffrey Wright wandering through a police station might have to be the winner. The camera tracks with Wright’s brilliant but directionally-challenged reporter as he stumbles through one elaborate dollhouse set after another, each area not only perfectly composed but loaded up with gags on top of gags. All the while, Wright rattles off his narration on camera, the actor matching the formal audaciousness of the filmmaking with his own brand of holy-shit-how-is-he-doing-that. So many in the arts seem almost ashamed by their mastery, but here you see both Wright and Anderson reveling in their abilities and delighting to be dancing with a partner who allows them to go even further than they ever might have before.
8. GODZILLA VS. KONG — King Kong Punches Godzilla in the Fucking Face
Cinema is an incredibly rich artform, an incredibly vital medium. It is built on the architecture of dreams and speaks to that within us which is most human. Cinema is sculpted out of time, woven from impermanence so that it might create something that is permanent, that is yet, that is still, that is in and of itself infinite.
The movies…the movies can speak to the soul and make you realize things about yourself and your nature that you might never have known before.
For example, one of the things I learned about myself this year is that I really, really, really enjoy it when a big fucking monkey standing on some big fucking aircraft carriers punches a big fucking lizard right in the fucking jaw.
Look, art’s all well and good, man, but let’s not forget we’re all here to have some fun, you know?
9. THE GREEN KNIGHT — St. Winifred
The original poem “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight” doesn’t describe any of the adventures that Gawain (pronounced GAR-win, if you believe this movie. Which I do not.) experiences on the road from Camelot towards the Green Chapel to keep his bargain with the verdant paladin of the title. For his adaptation, writer/director David Lowery fleshes out the runtime with a series of misadventures and encounters that play out as self-contained short stories within the larger narrative.
The best of the lot is the episode which finds Gawain (Dev Patel) seeking shelter in a rundown house only to discover the place is occupied by an eerie young woman (Erin Kellyman) who tasks Gawain with an odd request. The ghostly encounter is as creepy and unnerving as you could ever want, but also boasts an arch, wry comic timing that leaves you laughing even as goosebumps crawl up your flesh. Much of that rests on Kellyman, who strikes a perfect balance between achingly vulnerable and utterly terrifying. There’s plenty of supernatural sights to see in The Green Knight, but none quite so otherworldly as the spell Kellyman casts. You could remove this scene from context and have the best short film of the year, but it stands out even surrounded by other magic on all sides.
10. IN THE HEIGHTS — Carnaval del Barrio
‘96,000’ is the signature song of In the Heights and Jon M. Chu’s bravura staging of that number in the NYC public pools has gotten the most buzz from this feature adaptation. Deservedly! And the way the film reconceives ‘Paciencia y Fe’ into an emotional hammer blow is still making me shiver months after seeing it. It’s like getting hit upside the dome with Mjolnir. But, like, a Mjolnir made of…emotions…
Look, point being, In the Heights is chock-full of great numbers and the film does right by just about all of ’em. But ‘Carnaval del Barrio’ is the film’s big beating heart captured fully and completely in a five minute burst of pure full-bodied exuberance. What is a community except for the people who make you feel hope even when things are hopeless? Stuck in a blackout, facing encroaching forces of gentrification, reeling from grief after a recent death, the locals nonetheless come together for a moment of defiant joy. Goddamn right singing and dancing bring the power back. Why would you ever even doubt it?
11. MALIGNANT — Meet Gabriel
James Wan is not a half-measure kind of motherfucker. The man goes BIG. Malignant spends its first two acts educating the audience on how to watch it, ramping to higher and higher levels of gruesome absurdity while simultaneously playing keepaway with its own narrative hook. We know a mysterious, murderous figure named ‘Gabriel’ is stalking our protagonist Maddie (Annabelle Wallis), and we know it’s somehow related to the monstrous, murderous creature we saw in the film’s prologue, and eagle-eyed viewers know that in our brief glimpses of Gabriel in mobile, murderous action, he seems to be moving backwards. But why? How do all these things fit together?
When all the pieces slam into place and Gabriel rips his way out of the back of Maddie’s skull, it’s so singularly audacious that even with all that pregame it’s still hard to believe you’re seeing what you’re seeing. And Wan keeps that lunatic momentum going for the remainder of the film, merging his schlock soul with all the tricks he learned working on Furious 7 and Aquaman. Is Malignant great, or so-bad-it’s-good, or just plain bad? That’s missing the point. Malignant is itself, and there’s nothing else quite like it.
12. Nightmare Alley — “What’d You Do?”
Nightmare Alley is very clear from the start about who and what its protagonist is. Bradley Cooper’s Stan is a scoundrel, a cheat, a coward, and a killer. He’s too scummy to even keep a job as a carny, for God’s sake. Whatever scrap of soul he has at the start of the film, he cheerfully forks it over in installation payments for the chance to climb the ladder to greater levels of wealth and fame.
Yes, Stan is a very bad man.
But he’s not a ‘monster’. And because he’s not a monster, he is fully unprepared for what occupies the space at the top of that ladder. Nightmare Alley unfurls its twisted black heart in full with one perfect line, delivered by a confounded Cooper as all his slick hustler affectations fall away. Here he’s thought he’s laid the perfect grift on doddering old industrialist Ezra Grindle (Richard Jenkins) by milking the old fool’s guilt over an affair that ended badly. But Grindle’s not a hapless old man nursing ancient heartache. He is a monster, and in one devastating instant Cooper’s Stan realizes he has strayed off the edge of the map into a…a sort of alley full of nightmares, if you will. He’s entered a realm of mad gods, gods who do not treat kindly with the mortals who dared believe themselves worthy of so lofty a position. The fall is awful, and it lasts forever.
13. THE PAPER TIGERS — Pool Fight
The trick of writer/director Quoc Bao Tran’s Paper Tigers is that it wouldn’t take that much work to relocate this story of feuding martial arts schools and disgraced students seeking to avenge their murdered master into the historical milieus of your Ip Mans or your Once Upon a Time in Chinas, etc.
But being contemporary allows Paper Tigers to juxtapose its classical kung fu concerns with modern contexts that makes the hard-hitting action hit that much harder. Like this sequence, where our beaten down heroes Danny (Alain Uy), Hing (Ron Yuan), and Jim (Mykel Shannon Jenkins) have a mini-tournament in an empty pool against some young punks they need information from, resulting in some major beatdowns. The choreography is fast and ferocious, while the slams of bodies into tiles and concrete lends more pain to the proceedings than any CGI could buy. And because Tran locates the film in such aggressive reality, you almost don’t notice the moments where Paper Tigers dips a toe into highflying wuxia magic.
14. RAGING FIRE — The Final Shootout
For the late, great Benny Chan’s final heroic bloodshed magnum opus, he asked a very simple, but extremely scintillating ‘what if’ question. Namely, what if you just kinda remade Heat but everyone, cops and criminals alike, was a martial arts expert?
Like many of the great action films, Raging Fire’s action sequences serve the same purpose as songs in a musical. They’re the explosive catharsis of all the emotions the heroes and villains cannot express in words. To that end, the finale of the film is a symphonic crescendo as a feature film’s worth of intertwining subplots and mounting tension finally combust. A heist gives way to a chase gives way to a pitched gunfight gives way to Donnie Yen and Nicholas Tse beating each other to bloody ruins inside (of course) a church where stained glass windows rain Technicolor illumination down on these foolish sinners and their exhilarating battle to the death. It’s unfortunate that the year’s best action film should be its director’s very last, but it’s hard to imagine a final statement more viscerally compelling. If you have to put the mike down, you might as well spike the fucker.
15. RIDERS OF JUSTICE — Bathroom Breakdown
With most revenge movies, it’s not until late in the game, if ever, that the film starts calling into question the morality of the protagonist’s vigilante actions. Anders Thomas Jensen’s Riders of Justice knows right from the start that former soldier Markus (Mads Mikkelsen) is drowning in toxic masculinity and that his murderous rampage against the titular motorcycle gang responsible for his wife’s death is misguided at best, especially since Markus’s daughter is actively begging him to attend therapy with her. But Markus refuses, unable to express himself in any way except through violent reprisals.
When a late-in-the-game reveal robs Markus of his chance for bloody catharsis, all the emotion he’s been burying explodes out of him, manifesting in him tearing apart a bathroom with his bare hands (and his bare face). Mikkelsen trying and failing to rip a handrail off the wall in a fit of rage is Riders of Justice in microcosm: Funny and tragic and attuned to the intimacies of grief in a way that action movies and revenge fantasies normally don’t bother with.
16. RUROUNI KENSHIN: THE BEGINNING — The Scar
For five films, writer/director Keishi Ōtomo teased out the secret behind the iconic X-shaped scar on the face of former assassin, current warrior pacifist Kenshin (Takeru Satoh). The fifth (but not, in fact, final) film, The Final, seemed to reveal the secret in full: Kenshin, in his former life as a ‘killsword’ fell in love with Tomoe, (Kasumi Arimura) not realizing that she was the widow of one of his victims and a mole for the opposing side in a civil war. Kenshin was forced to kill her, and she in turn scarred his face, marking him as a killer forever.
But the (actual) final film (titled…The Beginning) tells the full story of Kenshin and Tomoe’s doomed love and reveals that that love was in fact sincere. Seen in full context, Tomoe’s marking is not a punishment for the past but a promise for what the future might hold if Kenshin can become his best self. As The Beginning loops back to…the beginning…the first moments of the first film, viewers who have watched all the Kenshin movies leading up to this one know that we are seeing the start of a cycle that will prove Tomoe right. The killsword becomes a savior, and those he saved save others in turn. The mortification of the flesh becomes the promise of the transformation of a soul, a saga’s ending and beginning inextricably joined.
17. tick, tick…BOOM! — Is This Real Life?
For most of its runtime, tick tick grounds you squarely in the head of Jonathan Larson (Andrew Garfield) and his creative ambitions/obsessions. The man cannot see any further than the next big opportunity to get his Broadway dreams up and running, and everything else in his life is either fodder for his creativity or a distraction to be ignored.
When his best friend Michael (Robin de Jesus) reveals that he has recently been diagnosed as HIV+, that myopic worldview crashes down around both Jonathan and the audience. Suddenly, getting flustered because you haven’t hit the big time by age 30 doesn’t seem like such a big deal. Garfield’s shock and grief are deeply felt, but it’s de Jesus, belting his rage and pain down the barrel of the camera lens, who reaches through the screen and breaks your heart.
18. TITANE — Poor Wayfaring Stranger
How much of gender is performance, and how much of it is actual identity? Where does performance end and identity begin? Is it possible to divorce one from the other? These are questions that may not have answers, but that doesn’t stop Julie Ducournau from asking them in her bruising Titane, a comedy of errors played as bloodsport.
These questions all come to the fore in a climatic sequence when model/serial killer/car-fucker Alexia (Agathe Rousselle) enjoys a rowdy celebration with the squadron of firemen she’s been living among, disguised as a boy. Ducournau has conceived of the firefighter’s headquarters as a seething cauldron of machismo, a cauldron that’s overflowing as the rager rages and the building fills with muscular, half-naked men pounding chests. Overlooking this inferno from the top of a truck, Alexia drops her affected masculine persona and begins to dance as she once did, the showgirl suddenly come back to life in the most unlikely context imaginable. The men are stunned, and so are we. It took becoming an entirely new person, but Alexia is finally herself.
19. VIVO — The Last Concert
The year’s best animated film (I said what I said) calls its shot very early. When impresario kinkajou Vivo (Lin-Manuel Miranda) decides to put his fears aside and make the perilous journey from Cuba to Florida so he can present his late friend Andrés’s final song to Andrés’s unrequited beloved Marta (Gloria Estefan) for her farewell concert, he imagines handing over the sheet music and this causing Andrés to reappear as if he’d never been gone.
The ending of the movie is then clear: Vivo’s going to go through all kinds of trials and tribulations, but he’ll get that song to where it belongs at the last second, Marta will sing this final song, and when she does Andrés will appear (possibly in a heavenly light) and he and Vivo can say goodbye to each other.
And yes, that is exactly what happens. But knowing that ending was coming didn’t stop me from crying hysterically when I watched it the first time. Or the second. I’m fucking crying right now, writing this out. Part of it is just the collision of a movie with a thematic subject close to the heart. If there’s one thing I believe above all others, it’s that it’s that the art we create and that we share connects us to the people we love, that keep them alive in our hearts and that keep us alive for others when the time comes for us to leave too. I didn’t expect the musical cartoon about the singing monkey to have this as its thematic backing, but there you go.
The knock against Vivo, and any movie that plays familiar narrative beats, is that it’s too ‘predictable’. I hate that word. Stories have shapes, and just because you know the shape, that’s not the fault of a story well-told. If a story is told with earnestness, with emotional intelligence, with invention and energy and flare, then arriving at the foreseen destination isn’t ‘predictable’, it is the story fulfilling the promise of itself. Vivo tells you where it is going from the start, but every step towards that destination earns the ending in full.
20. WEST SIDE STORY — America
It wasn’t exactly a ‘surprise’ that Steven Spielberg would direct the hell out of a musical (Temple of Doom’s cold open was more than indication enough that he had the juice) but even going in with high expectations…holy fucking shit. Spielberg’s peerless understanding of how to construct a set-piece has never been put to better use than working his way through the classic West Side Story songbook, and no number better fulfills the boundless capacity of his imagination and the mastery of his craft than ‘America’. The sequence just builds and builds and builds, starting with a lone character musically musing to herself on a fire escape and then adding more and more voices raised in song and more and more bodies in motion until an entire city block is engaged in rapturous synchronized expression.
And right at the center of the whirlwind is Ariana DeBose as Anita in what better be a star-making turn. It’s no easy thing to step into a such an iconic role and perform such an iconic song in such an iconic show, especially since the screen legend who won an Oscar for playing this role decades ago is also in this movie. But DeBose lets all of that roll off her back like it’s nothing. The joyful ferocity with which she brings the song to life make the number, over sixty years old, feel blazing and new.