2021 was a wild year for cinema. The pandemic shifted releases of popular films such as Spider-Man: No Way Home, F9, Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, Black Widow, and No Time to Die. Various in-depth introspective films including C’mon, C’mon, Mass, and Nine Days flew under audience’s radars, accompanied by busts and disappointments such as Venom: Let There Be Carnage, The Woman in the Window, Encanto, Chaos Walking, Belfast, and The Matrix Resurrections. With that said, 10 films prevailed and gave audiences a truly unique and special experience to take home with them, whether it be the ability to relate to the character or plot, or the many themes the films on this list very beautifully demonstrate. Here are the top 10 movies of 2021, ranked.
The Power of the Dog
Malcolm and Marie
10. West Side Story
When I first heard that the 60’s classic West Side Story was being remade by Steven Spielberg, I was worried. Why, you might ask? I was afraid that no matter how good of a director Spielberg was, he just couldn’t tackle this subject matter. I. Was. Wrong. West Side Story is a BLAST from start to finish and is one of the best choreographed movies I’ve ever seen, assisted by a strong screenplay that isn’t copy-paste and by stellar performances from Ariana DeBose and Rachel Zegler. This is a technical masterwork, and one of the rare reboots/redos to outdo the original.
9. The Suicide Squad
James Gunn’s latest feature The Suicide Squad is as ridiculous and as comical as it needs to be to appease its target audience. David Ayer’s take on the group of antiheroes was widely panned for its script and drastic shifts in tone. Gunn, however, took what seemed unfixable and made it a modern-day comic book masterpiece. The script is smart and witty, introducing every character in a way that makes you genuinely care for their well-being despite their status as a villain. The acting greatly improves, allowing others that aren’t named Margot Robbie (who is excellent, as always) to shine in their own respective roles. The action set pieces and production design are spectacular, capturing the very feel and aura of a comic book brought to life. The humor is on point, and the film is very self aware that it is a comedy, which prevents confusion about the film’s tone. Overall, The Suicide Squad is a fun, action-packed ride that is best viewed in cinemas, and is one of the best surprises of 2021.
8. Wrath of Man
As H (Jason Statham) walks to a burrito truck to assist his men in a covert heist, the audience is gifted with many detailed aerial and tracking shots that help the scene play out beautifully while carrying as much suspense as possible.
That is just one of the MANY positives of Guy Ritchie’s newest feature, Wrath of Man. If you have ever seen any of his action films, they usually have a formula of their own that revolves mostly around telling a story in an awfully flamboyant manner that takes away from the vital character development that is needed to sustain and drive an excellent story and film. But something feels eerily different here. Everything seems like it was picked out of an excellent noir thriller and blended together with fantastic writing and editing. The streets of Los Angeles feel gritty and frightening, and the color grade helps the film sustain this eerie tone. This is Jason Statham’s best work next to his Fast and Furious appearances, and his acting makes his character seem really intriguing and suspicious. Who is H? What does he symbolize? Well, in many ways, the title of the film can give the viewer an important hint. Wrath of Man dives deeply into the psyche of a mentally broken man at his greatest power as he strives to find the man that killed his son. He is driven by wrath to find closure, and the ending of the film perfectly signifies said closure. The score drums itself into your body, as composer Chris Benstead masters the use of percussion during scenes that involve high tension where it seems like the characters we deeply care about may be in danger. Guy Ritchie once again shows his audience why he deserves the hype, with uses of many impressive and innovative shots, and editor James Herbert piecing them all together in a manner that honestly could make Thelma Schoonmaker smile. Wrath of Man is AMAZING and one of my new personal favorites, and Statham’s thirst for revenge definitely merits a watch.
Emilia Jones shines as Ruby, the only hearing member of an otherwise deaf family. Her life is slowly turned into a self-induced ultimatum when she has to choose between her musical passions or her family and their business. I’m about to give an extremely hot take, so bear with me here. CODA IS BETTER THAN WHIPLASH. The plot-line is much more relatable to an average human audience, and presents the overbearing, heavy question “What direction should I take in my life?” We see that strain to choose displayed excellently through the eyes of a confident newcomer with musical range and talent. I’ve been reading some reviews and Eugenio Derbez hasn’t been mentioned. I’m honestly starting to wonder if others and I viewed the same film, because Eugenio Derbez plays a teacher that instills passion in our main lead, and helps rid Ruby of her minuscule insecurities that hold her back as a singer. CODA is also really funny mostly because of the immaculate chemistry on set among every actor. It is part of this reason that a truly well-written script is made even better in execution, and is a main reason that CODA is a top film this year.
Coming off of a massive success with a sequel to one of the greatest sci-fi films in recent memory with a worthy competitor in Blade Runner 2049, Denis Villeneuve sought to continue this trend by repairing the memory of one of science-fiction’s greatest gifts— Frank Herbert’s political space epic Dune. In the 1980s, a renown director with a taste for weird and unorthodox in David Lynch took on the challenge of adapting this extremely convoluted story and seamlessly transferring it to the big screen. The result? Absolute crap.
Lynch’s adaptation of Dune was panned due to its incoherent story, unexplored characters and poor development, and absolutely unnecessary and excessive plot exposition. The effects are obviously going to look choppy, and I forgave that due to the fact that it WAS the 80s. But I had a thought in the back of my head in anticipation for this movie that cried, “What if this is a repeat?” Well, ladies and gentlemen, it isn’t. In fact, Denis Villeneuve’s adaptation of Dune is so masterful and wildly spectacular that it is one of the top movies I have ever had the privilege and pleasure of viewing.
The film starts out with a narration from Chani, played by the wonderful Zendaya, who we unfortunately don’t really see until the last half-hour or so, other than in Paul’s visions. She fills the audience in on what is going on, with alluring visuals accompanying her words. We see an amazing depiction of Arrakis, and it feels as if we ARE there, and we are in the shoes of the Fremen. We are introduced to the Harkkonen, who look deeply menacing from the first frame they are shown in, providing an enthralling inciting threat to our protagonists. We then meet our main characters, who belong to House Atreides.
Let’s start with Timothée Chalamet. He is absolutely fantastic in this film, capturing the very essence and youthful curiosity of Paul Atreides. This honestly might be his best role, but I would still lean towards Call Me By Your Name for now, because that film put him on the map in my eyes and helped cement him as one of the “young studs” in Hollywood. The supporting cast did an amazing job of bringing their respective characters to life, with Ferguson, Isaac, Momoa, and Brolin stealing the show in any scene. The Atreides connection between Paul and Leto was excellently portrayed here, with a very well-acted scene that shows just the scope and magnitude of the story being told, and the powerful writing by Villeneuve and Eric Roth behind the scenes.
Hans Zimmer has officially outdone himself as a composer, consistently showing me why he is the greatest film composer of all time. With powerful percussion to accentuate tense action sequences and triumphant fanfare to put into perspective the influence of the royal houses, Zimmer crafts a score that honestly might be my new favorite from his, that title previously held by Interstellar.
The only con to this film is not even really a con. The film ends on an obvious and notable cliff-hanger, which leaves you wanting to find out more about our characters and the world of Dune. Who will survive? Who will die? Do Paul’s visions have any truth to them? Will Chani betray Paul and show just how much of tricksters the Fremen are? Will the Harkkonen succeed or fall? There are so many questions I would love to have answered, and I really hope for the love of film these questions are answered in the sequel.
5. In the Heights
In the Heights encapsulates my Hispanic culture into a 2 and a half hour musical epic that had me laughing, bawling my eyes out, learning valuable lessons about your family, country, and duties as a person, and discovering yourself. As the first person in my family born in another country, I represent the future of our bloodline and my decisions can affect the future and its consequences. This is exactly why I relate to Usnavi more than anyone in the film. Usnavi’s character arc revolves around his desire to move back to the DR due to a feeling of plight he experiences while living as a bodega owner in a pueblo of innovative and unique people. Throughout the film, many events occur that allow Usnavi to realize something important about his desire, allowing for lengthy and detailed character development that coincides with his romantic interest’s development throughout the duration of the film. The dance sequences are immaculately filmed, and the songs are once again wonderfully catchy as Lin-Manuel Miranda finds yet another way to enthuse audiences with his deep lyrical genius and expertise. After the widely successful release of Hamilton, I was ecstatic to see what Miranda had up his sleeve and was definitely not let down by a sophomore slump. Rather, In the Heights is a success story for the ages for its vivid use of the power of culture and love for country, as well as its use of familial piety through the character of Abuela, who is easily my favorite character as she is a driving force for our main protagonist. If it wasn’t obvious enough, I HIGHLY recommend In the Heights, and you should definitely go check it out.
4. Bo Burnham: Inside
Well, there’s a lot to unpack here. This is quite possibly both the most relatable, introspective, and wildly impressive piece of film I’ve seen this year. Bo Burnham (the director, writer, editor, composer, and cinematographer) does everything to make this special memorable, and it shows. But at the same time, we really spend 87 minutes inside of his mind, a small, messy room full of misplaced records and unorganized instruments. As Burnham progresses through the special, he begins to lose who he is and suffers many attacks of severe depression and anxiety. We as the audience see through his eyes, as we have all lost a piece of ourselves throughout the span of the COVID-19 pandemic. Being entrapped behind closed doors has hurt us in the way that we lost many social opportunities, but helps us to uncover parts of ourselves that we thought were lost in the deep, dark depths of our unexplored minds. I can confidently tell you that what Bo Burnham has created is a beautiful and moving work of art.
In the 87 minutes we spend with Bo, we find a part of ourselves we never thought we’d recover through all the pain and loss. His songs really tell of a society that is evolving in a different and unfavorable manner, choosing to support and fund the very things that would plunge our system into a deeper state of chaos. The music is so delicate, almost like background elevator music that we shove aside in pursuit of bigger goals. We never look at ourselves in the mirror and take time to work on us. We focus on getting ready for the next 10 years, rather than avoiding missing your bus. We focus on how many likes we accumulate on Instagram for the simple fact of self-gratification, rather than look at ourselves and give that approval regardless. Society is changing, and Inside serves as a meditative masterwork to help us reflect on the past, and work toward a better future for us and our loved ones.
3. Zack Snyder’s Justice League
Upon watching Zack Snyder’s Justice League (2021), I became even more infuriated with Joss Whedon and WB’s blatant attempts to turn the Justice League into an Avengers sequel. However, that doesn’t mean that JOSStice League, as many DC fans refer to it, is a horrible film. It is just “meh.” It utilizes the formula of Marvel’s light-hearted theatrics in its own unique way to craft a film that is more aimed at younger audiences, but the film it creates inevitably suffers from pacing issues and world building. Unlike its fantastic predecessors Man of Steel (2013) and Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016), the film feels soft and cheesy, and the audience witnesses a drastic change in tone that can clearly be attributed to studio interference. A ton of important exposition was cut in order to keep the film at two hours, as mandated by WB. However, the only characters that have been explored up until now are Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman. To make matters worse, however, only two of the latter had solo films before Justice League released in theaters. In following the proven formula of Marvel to bring our favorite superheroes to life, WB missed an important detail. Before Justice League released in theaters, there had been three films produced under the DCEU banner: Man of Steel (2013), Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016), and Wonder Woman (2017). Before The Avengers saw the big screen, however, there had been five films produced under the MCU’s banner: Iron Man (2008), The Incredible Hulk (2008), Iron Man 2 (2010), Thor (2011), and Captain America: The First Avenger (2011). The DCEU dedicated a large chunk of exposition at Superman, and he was easily the best character, while the MCU shined in introducing Iron Man, Hulk, Thor, and Captain America all before their first team up along with Hawkeye and Black Widow against Loki and his alien army.
However, when Zack Snyder’s Justice League premiered on HBO Max in March, I noticed just how much Joss Whedon ruined this film. Cyborg was supposed to be the heart and soul of the film, and was reduced to a useless metal sculpture. Batman was supposed to continue being a brooding badass, but instead develops an awkward “bromance” with Superman and gives Wonder Woman the option to “dress like a bat.” Superman becomes this goofy sort of character that wasn’t portrayed in Man of Steel or BVS. Wonder Woman becomes a flurry of butt shots and suggestive moments that sexualize what was supposed to be a role model for women all over the world. Flash is the main comedic relief of the film, and rightfully so. But Barry Allen feels like a stranger, as he doesn’t seem like the Flash portrayed in the comics. Barry is reduced to rubble, and is the butt of every joke in the film. His “hero” moment of the film is saving a Russian family by pushing a car. Compare that with his heroics in Zack Snyder’s Justice League, where he turns back time to save the League after the motherboxes synchronize, and you see why one film failed and the other succeeded. Last but certainly not least, Aquaman is a badass, so there’s no complaining here. In short, Justice League is what happens when a studio tampers with a director’s vision to craft something aimed at a more younger audience when in reality, the film should have been a lot more serious in tone due to the events of its predecessor, which culminated in the death of an inspiration to many—a human, but not just a man. A Superman.
1 (Tie). The Worst Person in the World
Masterfully directed by Joaquin Trier, The Worst Person in the World is a perfect meditation on growing up, regrets, and the impact we leave on others. We follow the character of Julie through four years of her life, as she struggles to find love and find herself, as she deals with issues relating to her estranged father. The acting and writing are all stellar and feel painstakingly real, painting a portrait of a woman who is lost and is trying to be found before it is too late. The film’s structure is split into chapters in order to carefully analyze Julie’s journey through life, and chronicles her feelings and emotions that any one of us can relate to. She loves. She cries. She cheers. She fails. She succeeds. The Worst Person in the World is a haunting study of the human condition and an examination of humanity and our faults. Renate Reinsve and Anders Danielsen Lie deliver two of the best performances of the year in a romantic epic that is surely one of my new favorites, and The Worst Person in the World is so masterful that it has created a tie for the #1 spot.
1 (Tie). Spider-Man: No Way Home
I mean, come on. What else did you expect?
Never did I think I would be so wrong, but after avoiding what makes Spider-Man, well, Spider-Man in the first two installments in the MCU and really only giving us a sample size, No Way Home captures the magic I felt watching Sony’s Spider-Man 2 and Sony’s Spider-Man 3. The entire film was perfectly put together, with immaculately set high stakes and well-written villains returning from previous installments with a new motivation to cause chaos and wreak havoc. The main issue I had with Far From Home is that it drifted so far away from the basis of Homecoming, which tries to cement Peter as a “friendly neighborhood Spider-Man.” The film ups the stakes without providing Peter with his own independent struggle, as Happy still pampers him with million-dollar suits and armor. Even Homecoming went too far by putting Spider-Man in Tony Stark’s licensed armor, essentially making him “Iron Boy Jr.” But this film, while still sticking to the same principles for the most part, takes off the training wheels. Peter loses, and he loses big time. He experiences pain, sadness, euphoria, and love, and gathers the courage to GROW UP and fight his inner demons holding him back from becoming Spider-Man. Spider-Man to me isn’t just a superhero, he’s Peter, and I’ve watched these movies since Spider-Man 2 (I’ve since watched the 2002 installment) to relate to him. I can confidently say with enough pride and joy that Tom Holland is arguably a fair competitor along with Tobey for the best live-action Spidey. The action, writing, acting, fan-service, and throwback moments will make you truly appreciate Spider-Man as much as I do, and I can guarantee that when you walk out of that theater, you will understand what it truly means to be the hero.