According to film industry blogs there were about 400 feature films released in the US during 2021. That is about half of what used to come out in the Before-years. They made fewer and I screened less, sixty-six. That is about ten less last year, according to the industry of me. On the one hand there was not much going to movie theaters, on the other hand there were more new releases streaming. On one hand there was more time stuck at home, on another hand I do not maintain a log of all the back number movies I watch. Perhaps all that is to be learned from this dance of many figurative hands is that trying to understand patterns during the wretched times in which we live is pointless. Speaking of pointless, let me remind you of my innovative film rating system. I rate each new film release from zero to 100. Anything above fifty I “recommend” to general audiences. What appears below is a list of the year 2021 movies that I scored ninety or better. Remember RFantix, this list is not intended to imply that I saw everything that I should have for the year. Sixty-six movies is less than 20% of all releases, and I barely watch perfectly worthy foreign language films or documentaries. So, my best list only captures the best of what I happened to watch. Nine movies scored ninety or higher. Congratulations to this illustrious group in doing so well by me:
In The Heights (d. Jon Chu, w. Quiara Alegría Hudes)
It is no secret I love musicals. There were a lot of them this year and a lot of them made this ennealogy. In The Heights is brilliant at creating the fantasy of people making joy of lousy circumstances. The hip-hop music, Latin dancing, and the colors of summer in the city are intoxicating. The plot and characters are as melodramatic as classic MGM movie musicals, and the elaborate musical sequences are a worthy refresh of that form.
John And The Hole (d. Pascual Sisto, w. Nicolás Giacobone)
While suburban life in America is suppose to produce safety, quiet prosperity, and family time, a lot of half-acre yards grow sociopathic monsters. What teenage John does keeping his parents captive in a hole is pretty punk, but their inability to ascertain that affluence is not love is what is actually more bizarre. This movie is menacing, unpredictable, and a deft critique of capitalism’s sympathetic hole.
Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings (d. Destin Daniel Cretton, w. Dave Callaham)
I’m so over comicbook movies. Superheroism has become tedious and existentially draining. I will not claim that Shang-Chi is a radical departure from the current blockbuster formula of movies I do not want to watch anymore; I will confess to being glad I returned to a movie theater to see it. Shang-Chi’s cast is earnestly funny, its special-effects set pieces are exciting, the mythological Chinese alternate dimension is cool, and I will probably never be able to quit being mesmerized by kung fu. I’m so into this comicbook movie.
Dune (d. Denis Villeneuve, w. Jon Spaihts)
I’m not a Dune completist, too lazy to read the books, but I did the homework of watching both the 1984 David Lynch feature film version and the “Eurofic” 2000 Sci-Fi Channel miniseries. I am an unashamed fan of the Lynch, despite its story incoherency, because I get into its mood, effects, and art direction. Dune miniseries, despite its exterior scenes looking chintzy, benefits from having the time to tell every part of a multifaceted story. There’s also a lot of soft-core nudity! What I like about Dune ’21 is that it successfully shrinks the lengthy and complicated plot into a digestible screenplay, served by an excellent cast. And Villeneuve’s planet Arrakis is an amazing visual world on which both fascinating political schemes and magical systems battle for power. The only big flaw with this Dune is that there is too much build up to a under-satisfying plateau, it is not a film that truly stands on its own without its forthcoming Part 2. I do hope the forthcoming second half includes more soft-core nudity. Does anyone know how I can get in touch with Chalamet?
Lamb (d. Valdimar Jóhannsson, w. Sjón)
Two rules re Iceland’s Lamb. One, do not read this any further, or any review or synopsis, until after you have seen the movie. Two, you have to watch the whole first act. If for a long time at first you wonder why you are watching a painfully-paced farm-couple marriage drama…wait for it. What makes Lamb so bril is how the film anticipates and plays with your expectations in such clever ways––weird surprises, character reversals, imagination versus reality, and metaphor versus myth. All along you feel like you are inside a modern fable with a moral that is both at your finger tips and not completely clear. Lamb is a precious but potent achievement.
Caveat (d., w, Damian McCarthy)
Caveat is about a confused amnesiac who is hired to live chained-up inside an isolated house with his psychologically disturbed niece. It is hard to go into why. It is hard to summarize how much goes on in this small budget, small cast production because the story so dexterously integrates mental illness, abuse, petty crime, family disfunction, murder, intense captures/escapes, and vengeful ghosts. To my appreciation, a good horror movie does not seek to amuse us with high body count and a jargon of over-familiar tropes. What makes Caveat special, daring, and terrifying is its hiring of antihero protagonists who become disturbingly lost in reality, place, and time.
Tick, Tick…Boom! (d. Lin-Manuel Miranda , w. Steven Levenson)
While the Broadway-rock music composed by the late Jonathan Larson that was collected for this off-Broadway musical project is fantastic, I would grade its biographical story in all versions, including this movie, a B+. What makes TTB great is Andrew Garfield’s virtuoso performance. His convincing angst, sincere buoyancy, and surprisingly gifted singing voice lifts the movie to masterful.
West Side Story (d. Steven Spielberg, w. Tony Kushner)
A Broadway reviewer referred to this West Side Story movie as “AN” adaptation of the original stage musical, indicating an opinion that the 2021 West Side movie is not a remake of the of the 1961 West Side movie. Both are differently marshaled adaptations, the reviewer was right, of the unsurpassed work for the stage. Both movies are complete film works with their own strengths and flaws. I think the first movie succeeds in bringing the experience of dance (West Side Story is a dancing story) and theatrical atmosphere to a screen. WSS ’21 excels in expanding, supposing, and portraying the underlying story. The new movie is a good musical; it is a GREAT, creative, heartbreaking, amazingly cast and acted drama. I might say WSS ’61 is the best musical movie ever made, but Spielberg’s audacious vision and Kushner’s remodeled screenplay might be second for its own accomplishments.
Spencer (d. Pablo Larraín, w. Steven Knight)
I’m not a royals-queer. I find the American fetish with the British royal family just as lowbrow as those housewife reality-TV shows. I came to Spencer via Kristen Stewart because I felt challenged to believe her performance could be all that. It is. In Spencer she is a force of both studied and natural acting. And the movie is no melodramatic cable channel biopic. It is a film of carefully crafted style and atmosphere, brilliantly utilizing location and tempo as metaphors for Lady Diana’s state of psychological torture.
almost made the list: Power Of The Dog, Candyman, Old Henry, Swan Song, Nightmare Alley, Cyrano