The Top Ten Films of 2021
It's time once again to lay out the ten best films I saw this year. This year seemed a little more difficult than most, what with a number of big hopefuls being a little disappointing ("Dune," "The French Dispatch," and "Last Night in Soho," to name a few), but there were still plenty of worthy films to choose from, so let's dive right in:
10. The Suicide Squad - When David Ayer released his disastrous adaptation of the popular comic just five years ago, not only did it leave quite a lot to be desired, but it also left a whole lot of untapped potential. Luckily for all of us, Warner Bros. was not only willing to try again with the material, but this time, they put it into the hands of the amazing James Gunn, who had already shown what an incredible job he could do with Comic Book adaptations with "Guardians of the Galaxy" and "Guardians of the Galaxy: Volume 2." The result was the single best action film of the year, and one that could easily be called one of the most fun flicks of recent memory. With a marvelous cast that includes Margot Robbie, Idris Elba, Viola Davis, John Cena (and many more), the film is hysterical, absurd, over-the-top, and takes you on one hell of a ride. It's not perfect by any means, but major kudos must be given to Gunn once again for showing us just how fun, entertaining, and compelling films like this can be when given the proper treatment.
9. Quo Vadis, Aida? - Switching gears completely, here we have the Bosnian entry (and nominee) for the Best International Film Oscar for the 93rd Academy Awards. It's the heartbreaking tale of a UN translator who is trying to save her family during the Army of Republika Srpska's invasion of Srebrenica in 1995. We follow her through all of the negotiations, false promises, and desperate attempts to protect her husband and two sons. It's a remarkably riveting tale that has you hanging on in hope as the situation continually degrades further and further. Led by a stunning performance from Jasna Đuričić, it will have you on the edge of your seat right up to the end, and thinking about what you've seen for long after.
8. CODA - This audience favorite at Sundance tells the story of a young woman who is a Child of Deaf Adults (CODA). For years she has helped her parents with their fishing business, with plans to join up full-time after high school, but she soon finds herself with a dream of going to school for singing, giving her a very difficult choice: pursue her dream or stay and help her family. It's fair to say that "CODA" has a good amount of cliches about it, but what's so impressive is how it manages to use those cliches to great effect, which, when combined with the outstanding cast (Emilia Jones, Troy Kotsur, Marlee Matlin, and more), results in a very sweet and touching film that has you very much engaged, despite more than likely knowing exactly where it's headed.
7. The Sparks Brothers - Here we have the best documentary I saw in 2021. Hailing from filmmaker Edgar Wright, it explores the amazing longevity of the band Sparks (Ron & Russell Mael), who have changed and evolved their sound over the last 50 years (encompassing 25 albums). Featuring interviews with multiple musicians, producers, and fans, Wright's doc is fun, informative, and remarkably entertaining. Whether you're a fan or not, or even if you've never even heard of them, this is a wonderful documentary that celebrates the very innovative (and a little peculiar) musical duo.
6. Encanto - This just might be the most surprising entry on this list, for what I expected to be just another run-of-the-mill animated Disney outing turned out to have a little more to it than usual. The story may not be anything particularly special, but it does contain some great positive messages about the importance of family, and it even manages to work a little magic with its somewhat familiar foundation. What really stands out here is the outstanding music, which is filled with great and catchy songs, and the excellent vocal cast, headed by Stephanie Beatriz. All of it put together makes for a touching film that's a little more memorable than many Disney entries of recent years.
5. Belfast - Just like "CODA" was the audience favorite at Sundance, here we have the audience favorite from this year's Toronto International Film Festival. Sir Kenneth Branagh's "Belfast" marked a welcome return to form for the director, who is still most well-known for giving us some of the greatest Shakespeare adaptations on film ("Hamlet," "Much Ado About Nothing," "Henry V"). In his latest film, Branagh reflects on his childhood in the titular city, growing up in a turbulent time in the late '60s known as "The Troubles," during which Protestants conflicted with Catholics. This is another one that doesn't particularly have a lot of narrative heft, but it more than makes up for it with the sweet & emotional nature of the story, bolstered by a stellar cast that includes Ciarin Hinds, Jamie Dornan, Dame Judi Dench, young Jude Hill, and a particular stand-out turn from Caitriona Balfe. Beautifully shot in black & white, the film is simply easy to get absorbed in as we follow this family through a difficult time. It's hardly a wonder why it's been such a favorite at multiple festivals, and an awards favorite with the critics.
4. A Hero - Writer/director Asghar Farhadi's ("A Separation," "The Salesman") latest film starts off as a somewhat simple tale of a man in prison for debt who attempts to make good with his creditor during a leave, but ends up in a rather complicated situation instead. For a two-hour film that doesn't have a particularly complicated plot, the film breezes by pretty quickly, taking you along for the ride as its main character gets deeper and deeper into his predicament, while trying to dig his way out with the help of his family and friends. It's basically one of those films that pulls you in from the start and keeps you glued to the screen as you wonder how his situation could possibly get any more out of control. Over the last decade or so, Farhadi has made some remarkable films, so it hardly comes as a surprise to find that "A Hero" ultimately becomes yet another impressive notch in his filmography.
3. Tick, Tick... Boom! - After a period in which it seemed like a really long time since we had gotten a great movie musical, "Tick, Tick... Boom!" showed up to fill that void. This is a wonderful, joyous celebration of the life and work of Jonathan Larson (most well-known as the writer of the smash hit musical "Rent"), which features a lot of great, catchy musical numbers. Andrew Garfield delivers his best performance yet, brilliantly going through the highs and lows of this tumultuous time in Larson's life, while Lin-Manuel Miranda displays some excellent work behind the camera in his theatrical directing debut. Whether you're a fan of musicals, or just a fan of compelling stories, this was quite a pleasant surprise that is very much worth your time.
2. The Tragedy of Macbeth - Over the years, I have seen many different filmed versions of Shakespeare's Macbeth, ranging from decent adaptations (like the 1983 BBC adaptation with Nicol Williamson) to ones that left a lot to be desired (like the 2015 version with Michael Fassbender), but never one that I would say is a particularly definitive version. This year, multiple Academy Award-winner Joel Coen came along and delivered the most striking rendition of the play I've seen yet. This is a brilliantly-performed, gorgeously-shot, and all-around stunning version of Shakespeare's play. Denzel Washington and Frances McDormand show you exactly why they are two of the very best in the business as they mesmerizingly perform their parts on the remarkably simple, but beautiful sets. Simply put, even with the cuts Coen makes, it seems likely that this is as close to "definitive" as an adaptation can get.
1. Mass - If there was one film that I wasn't fully-prepared for this year, it was Fran Kranz's "Mass." Without giving too much away, for it's really best to know very little going in, the film is about two couples who get together at a church to discuss a tragedy. What unfolds over the next two hours is the single most riveting film of the year, made even more impressive from the fact that about 90% or so of the film is just these four people in a room talking to each other. That's the power of Kranz's emotionally-rich screenplay, which is brilliantly performed by the year's best ensemble: Ann Dowd, Jason Isaacs, Martha Plimpton, and Reed Birney. It's heartbreaking, devastating, and may leave you drained as it takes you on an emotional roller coaster, but there's absolutely no doubt that it ultimately easily claims the title of the best film of 2021.
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