In many ways, 2021 still felt more like the worst of times than the best for movies, with a lot of quality projects being made for (or winding up on) streaming services while theaters tried, often in vain, to rebound toward something approaching pre-pandemic viability.
Yet there were still movies that mattered for various reasons, some having as much to do with what they represented as the films themselves, in what is clearly an evolutionary period for movies and movie-going.
How much premium content is there? As one rather amusing sign, four movies were seriously considered for this list that were shot in black and white: “Belfast,” “C’mon, C’mon,” “Passing,” and “The Tragedy of Macbeth.”
It’s also worth acknowledging a few other admirable films omitted, beginning with “Dune,” which played a little too conspicuously like “Part One,” feeling almost incomplete until “Part Two” sees the light of day. “King Richard” represented another close call, with the strength of its performances (Will Smith in particular) elevating an otherwise fairly conventional sports framework.
What did make the cut? Let’s start with a group nod to a genre that delivered more quality than box-office dollars:
‘West Side Story,’ ‘Tick, Tick … Boom!’ and ‘In the Heights’
All three of these movies could have qualified individually, but the thrill of three standout musicals in one year was offset in part by their commercial struggles, with only “Tick, Tick” — Lin-Manuel Miranda’s impressive directorial debut — being spared questions about underperforming at the box office by virtue of Netflix declining to provide such data.
These movies nevertheless deserve to be collectively lauded in part to encourage more of them, with the understanding that more at bats will inevitably mean artistic and/or financial strikeouts, a la “Annette” and “Dear Evan Hansen.”
‘Shang-Chi’ and the ‘Legend of the Ten Rings‘ and ‘Encanto’
Tony Leung Chiu-wai and Simu Liu in ‘Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings.’
Credit Disney with a twin blow for inclusion by launching Marvel’s first Asian superhero vehicle and a sprightly animated musical (also with music from Miranda) about a Latinx family whose matriarch survived a refugee experience to settle in Colombia. Both movies were quite good on their own but make a stronger statement together.
Caitriona Balfe, Jamie Dornan, Judi Dench, Jude Hill and Lewis McAskie in ‘Belfast.’
The small-boned coming-of-age story has been almost entirely relegated to the indie-film shelves, but the Apple TV+-backed story about the hearing child of deaf parents hit nary a false note, an example of taking a very basic template and making it shine.
Ditto for Kenneth Branagh’s semi-autobiographical trip back to the violence-torn Ireland of his youth, in a movie that exhibits the formative role of pop culture in the young protagonist’s life, while offering a timely illustration of the human toll associated with bigotry and division.
‘Spider-Man: No Way Home’
Zendaya and Tom Holland in ‘Spider-Man: No Way Home.’
A very enjoyable sequel on its own, represented here primarily because of the reassuring signal that it sends about the ability to get people in theaters. That said, the movie’s blockbuster numbers also highlight the gap between such marquee franchises and more serious dramatic fare — a feast or (more often) famine scenario that has become a yawning chasm during the pandemic.
‘The Power of the Dog’
Benedict Cumberbatch in ‘The Power of the Dog’
Another title that benefited from Netflix’s patronage, allowing writer-director Jane Campion to adapt a story that is a very, very slow burn, with one of the most lingering payoffs of any movie released this year. Even with a splendid cast topped by Benedict Cumberbatch, it’s the kind of film that streaming increasingly makes possible, and that more people have surely seen because of it.
Cooper Hoffman and Alana Haim in ‘Licorice Pizza.’
A lightweight dramedy from director Paul Thomas Anderson, looking back on life in L.A.’s San Fernando Valley during the 1970s, that validates a certain kind of auteur-driven filmmaking. In that sense, despite the problematic aspects of its central relationship the movie stood out next to less-accomplished examples of that in 2021, including Wes Anderson’s “The French Dispatch” and Guillermo del Toro’s “Nightmare Alley.”
‘Drive My Car’
Although Japanese director Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s film clocks in at three hours (so no points for economy), it’s an engrossing tale of loss and forgiveness, and based on early response, perhaps best positioned to extend the representation of international film in the Oscar race after “Parasite’s” breakthrough in 2020.
In a year full of terrific documentaries, it’s hard to think of one that more nimbly combined different genres than this Danish film, using animation to tell the story of Amin Nawabi, who fled Afghanistan for Denmark seeing little future as a gay youth growing up under an oppressive regime.
While employed in part to obscure Amin’s identity, the animation adds a vivid and almost hypnotic quality to those memories, bringing the story together in an utterly original way.
‘Summer of Soul’
Questlove’s directing debut culled from newly discovered footage of the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival offered a fascinating window into that historical moment, and how that period has echoed from a half-century ago into the present. In a year of memorable weddings of music and film, the combination seldom paid off more handsomely than this.
‘Being the Ricardos’
A fun and an enlightening look at Lucille Ball’s genius through one eventful week during “I Love Lucy’s” heyday, Aaron Sorkin’s film is represented here primarily as a rebuke to the premature freak-out crowd that objected to the casting before seeing the movie. Argue the movie’s merits all you want (and reaction has certainly been mixed), but Nicole Kidman and Javier Bardem’s performances as Lucy and Desi Arnaz serve as a reminder it’s usually wise to tune out the voices of outrage that bubble up from social media.