Caution: light spoilers for all movies mentioned below.
Coinciding with another year of pandemic-induced quarantine, the movies released in 2021 have helped satisfy a craving for escapism amidst boredom more so than before. This past year’s productions featured a variety of blockbuster and independent films that profoundly impacted us. From the return of famous directors to huge, big-budget movie events, 2021 had gems for any and all kinds of movie-goers; here are my picks for the titles that shone above the rest. A short disclaimer: some notable movies that I couldn’t catch were “The Tragedy of Macbeth” dir. Joel Coen, “Nightmare Alley” dir. Guillermo Del Toro, and “Titane” dir. Julia Ducournau. Other movies like “Dune” dir. Denis Villeneuve and “The French Dispatch” dir. Wes Anderson captured our hearts, but were left out of the list due to existing reviews dedicated to those movies by The Phillipian.
Best Picture: “C’mon C’mon” Imparts A Beautiful Examination of the Future
Mike Mills’ “C’mon C’mon” excels in its earnestness and simplicity. The wonders of our childhoods, the beauty in the sound around us, the pleasures of innocence are all translated in the film’s beautiful black-and-white cinematography and touching score. While the plot can be described in one sentence—documentary filmmaker Johnny (Joaquin Phoenix) has to take care of his nephew Jesse (Woody Norman) while finishing his latest project—the film is captivating nonetheless. The movie finds its complexity and meaning through exploring the nuances of life. “When you think about the future, how do you imagine it will be?” is the first line we hear in the movie; as we progress on in the film’s narrative, we get the answer—“whatever you plan on happening, never happens.” In life, you can never predict the future; you will never know what you’ll feel, who you’ll meet, and what you will experience, and “C’mon C’mon” argues that this unexpectedness in our times ahead is, maybe, alright.
Best Direction: “The Power of the Dog” Excels as A Meticulously Crafted Suspense
Oscar-winner Jane Campion returns after a 12-year hiatus with a movie that completely proves her mastery of the craft. “The Power of the Dog” finds its strengths in atmosphere and tension, weaving confident yet meticulous direction with the eerie melodies from Johnny Greenwood’s haunting score to create a constant feeling of dread and suspense. Phil Burbank (Benedict Cumberbatch) is a rancher whose life is twisted when brother and business-partner George (Jesse Plemons) brings wife Rose (Kirsten Dunst) and kid (Kodi Smit-McPhee) home. It is a movie that benefits from multiple watches just by the amount of layers hidden underneath the surface. All its complexity is enhanced by the incredible cast, especially Cumberbatch, who commands the screen and manages to be scary yet compassionate.
Best Screenplay: “The Worst Person in the World”—Complexities Through the Lens of a Romantic Comedy
Julie (Renata Reinsve) is a student in her 20s going through an early mid-life crisis; jumping from major to major, boyfriend to boyfriend, she tries to find fulfillment in a time where few can, depicting the messiness of millennial living and difficulty of creating a legacy you will be proud of. Split into 12 chapters, with a prologue and an epilogue, the movie has a dream-like quality to it; in one beautiful scene, as the world and the people suddenly come to a stop, the film’s wide shots of Julie freely running around bring out a beauty in the vastness of the world around her. With incredible performances all around—especially from Renata Reinsve and Anders Danielsen Lie—and eloquent direction from Norwegian Joaquin Trier, “The Worst Person in the World” is a delight to watch unfold.
Best Sci-Fi/Fantasy: “The Green Knight” Explores the Importance of Honor in a Medieval World
David Lowery’s modern retelling of the 14th-century classic “Sir Gaiwan and the Green Knight” might wear the skin of a fantasy epic, portraying the story of Gaiwan (Dev Patel), who goes out in a quest to find the Green Knight and take the blow he was promised one year earlier. But beneath its veneer, the film is an introspective journey that addresses the moral and ethical ideologies of being a knight; why should a knight follow a code of honor and how important the legacy of a ruler is are questions heavily pondered in “The Green Knight.” The film consists of short and mysterious encounters with a large cast of characters and creatures, but how this movie differentiates itself is its natural integration of anecdotes without any forced resolution or purpose. In the most astounding one, Gaiwan encounters a horde of roaming giants who tower over the scene—though there is no concrete explanation given, the surreal imagery and haunting music contributes to an experience whose meaning speaks for itself.
Best Comedy: “Licorice Pizza”—Hilarious and Sweet; Magical and Entrancing
“Licorice Pizza” is the shining light in a dark year: an odyssey of two souls trying to find their place in the world, driven by big dreams but overwhelmed with the responsibility of growing up. Gary Valentine (Copper Hoffman), 15, is a child actor and entrepreneur with an air of wisdom beyond his years, and Alana Kane (Alana Haim) is a 25 year-old assistant photographer cooped up in San Fernando Valley, wishing for a rush of youth in her uneventful adulthood. When the two meet in an unlikely encounter, they start a budding friendship that changes both of their lives. The movie is also a comedy unlike any other; with its bizarre yet fitting pacing and outlandish situational humor, one notable scene from the film has Bradley Cooper show up, threaten to kill Gary’s family, and then run through the street like a maniac, making for one of the most hysterical scenes of the year. However, though the movie doesn’t specifically emphasize the romantic quality of Gary and Alana’s relationship, it still implies flourishing feelings within a potentially predatory ten-year age gap relationship—one that considerably diminishes the quality of the movie. Yet their ambiguous connection is still the kingpin of the movie; playing off each other as narrative foils, the characters establish a well-acted and complex ‘coming-of-age’ narrative with phenomenal performances from the two newcomer leads, especially the magnetic Alana Haim. Writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson knows exactly how to create an irresistible atmosphere and perfectly brings it to life with this compelling and nostalgic movie.
Best Musical: “West Side Story”—We Found God in the Details
“West Side Story,” directed and co-produced by Steven Spielberg, tells the heartbreaking story of two ethnically and ideologically clashing gangs, the Jets and the Sharks. A retelling of “Romeo and Juliet,” the Puerto Rican Maria (Rachel Zegler) and white Tony (Ansel Elgort) fall in love and fuel tensions between the two gangs, leading to a sharp and harrowing tragedy. Incorporating multiple portions of the film in Spanish and choosing to omit subtitles, Spielberg allows both languages to coexist with mutual respect or prioritization of one over the other. Additionally, Paul Tazewell designed costumes that both honor and modernize the musical’s original ensembles. With the Sharks clad in burnt reds, oranges, and khakis while Jets donned cool grays, blues, and jeans, Tazewell visualizes the tension between the rival gangs through a clash of styles. His choice with designated fashion schemes also allowed Maria and Tony’s outfits to symbolically blur the lines between the unspoken norms between their gangs. Powerful in every aspect of its production, this film leaves audiences stunned, broken, and with much to think about as they leave the theater’s dark room.