Last year, the slow return to movie theaters coincided with the Streaming Renaissance, making movies more accessible than ever. From long-awaited returns from two of Hollywood’s foremost Andersons (Paul Thomas and Wes), to boundary-pushing international features you may have missed, to stage-to-screen adaptations (good and bad), 2021 was a great year for movies. In no particular order, here are the Film Beat’s ten favorite movies of 2021.
— Jacob Lusk, Film Beat Editor and Katrina Stebbins, Senior Arts Editor
In the past few years of tumult, I have wondered about change. I am changing, you are changing, we are all new versions of the people we’ve since discarded. All too rarely do I think about the forces behind that change — my own agency or just the world slowly roiling to shit — nor do I sit down and reflect, ponder how change happens or where it has left me.
“Licorice Pizza” performed something of a miracle in that it allowed me to experience the course of my own enjoyment changing, welling up even moments after I saw it. Maybe it’s just me, but this isn’t a very pleasant film. It’s bright and loud and curious and maybe even a little hopeful at times, but it’s tough and queasy and sour too. Only after the credits rolled could I breathe a sigh of relief and accept a kind of nostalgia that can whisk away the darkness.
This is all to say: Maybe we have no control over the people we will become tomorrow or how content they’ll be. No more control than Gary (Cooper Hoffman, debut) as he watches his waterbed business crumble as the oil crisis sends the cost of rubber mattresses through the roof. That isn’t to say there aren’t little joys all around us worth celebrating. A hug from a crush, or a friend, or someone complicatedly both. The kinetic rush of a six-wheeler, out of gas and trundling down the hilly Hollywood streets. A kid actor, smashing a fluffy pillow into the face of his obnoxious boss, live on TV.
“Licorice Pizza” promises something I’ve never considered: These flecks are invisible to me right now. There is some happiness that can only be uncovered when you look back after the storm has beaten you down. I hope you will look for them with me, someday.
— Anish Tamhaney, Daily Arts Writer
“West Side Story”
Adapting a classic is a tall order, but occasionally you end up with the kind of film that outdoes its source material. Following the success of the 1957 stage production, the original “West Side Story” screen adaptation has been beloved since its release in 1961, but the film is also a relic of a time when Hollywood’s greater vices, specifically brownface and whitewashing, ran unchecked. In the 1961 film, the members of the Sharks, the Puerto Rican gang in a turf war with the white Jets, were primarily played by white men in brown makeup; Rita Moreno (“One Day at a Time”), who played Anita and won a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her performance, recounted that she was also given dark makeup despite being Puerto Rican.
This new adaptation, helmed by Steven Spielberg (“Jaws”), offers a chance to right those wrongs. It has all of the flashy dance numbers and catchy tunes from the original, but with new, thoughtful dimensions to some of its previously overlooked characters. Screenwriter Tony Kushner (“Lincoln”) rearranges some songs to great effect and gives stronger backstories and purpose to members of both the Sharks and Jets. Tensions between the gangs are not framed as fundamental racial and cultural differences; instead, the ever-looming threat of the construction of Lincoln Center and subsequent gentrification represent a wider sociopolitical context. The Romeo and Juliet love story between Maria (Rachel Zegler, debut) and Tony (Ansel Elgort, “Baby Driver”), despite being a catalyst for violence between the two gangs, is less central to the film because the supporting characters are so engrossing. Ariana DeBose (“The Prom”) in particular gives a stunning performance as Anita: Don’t be surprised if DeBose wins a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for Anita, 60 years after Moreno won hers. This awards season has already seen wins and numerous nods for Zegler, DeBose and Moreno, as well as Spielberg and Kushner.
Moreno is given a new opportunity in the remake as Valentina, a replacement for a peripheral character in the 1961 film. As part of the change, Moreno’s character sings the song “Somewhere” at one of the emotional turning points of the film. While the 1961 version of “Somewhere” is a lament between Tony and Maria about their forbidden love, Moreno’s version is softer, more universal — contemplating what divides people, with the hope that someday the world will change. It’s this energy and reflection that makes “West Side Story” feel like a more poignant, less problematic version of the 1961 film, and that in and of itself elevates it to one of the best films of the year.
— Kari Anderson, Daily Arts Writer
“Nary a more guttural noise has escaped my lips.” I’m obnoxiously quoting myself. That’s what I wrote about my reaction to the film “Flee” when it premiered at Sundance Film Festival last year, in regards to the laughs and cries and laugh-cries the film encouraged and carefully drew from my lungs.
That was at the beginning of the year. Many moons and many movies later and “Flee” has not been ousted as the king of kings of kings of movies this past year. “Flee” reigns supreme and remains unflaggingly unique.
You’re more than likely unfamiliar with “Flee,” for the simple fact that it has barely graced the silver screen. Picked up by Neon (they’re the guys that distributed “Parasite”) after its smash premiere at Sundance, it’s not yet available for streaming and is only just making its way to theaters.
It’s got a number of things going for it. For one, it’s a smashing story about real events (the premise of trueness always ups the ante a bit, eh?) in the life of Afghan refugee Amin Nawabi — a documentary retelling of just one example of what millions of displaced and diasporic people have gone through.
And it’s this aspect of the film that justifies its existence as not just a documentary but an animated film. Amin Nawabi is a pseudonym. Owing to his harried flight from Afghanistan, his identity remains concealed by the stylized touch of the animated medium, simultaneously serving as a tool to both obfuscate and augment the story as it alternates between the rotoscoped-precision of a present-day Amin and the more elemental renderings of his whiplashing emotional state as his country-hopping past is brought to life.
“Flee” is hitting the Michigan Theater Jan. 28. Go see it.
— Jacob Lusk, Film Beat Editor
As a proud Disney adult and admirer of all things animation, “Encanto” became a must-watch for me as soon as it was released on Disney+. Like most Disney animated films, “Encanto” features an incredibly beautiful soundtrack with hits like “Surface Pressure” and “We Don’t Talk About Bruno” composed by Lin Manuel Miranda (“In the Heights”). This, combined with the colorful scenery of an animated Colombia, makes for an experience that pleasantly awakens all of the senses, and I didn’t want it to end.
Watching the film on Christmas day with my family reminded me of why movies for all ages are so important (and difficult to come by). “Encanto” pleases children with its irresistible colors, music and a plot that’s easy to follow. But it satisfies adults in a different way, with its ability to bring a family together in one room and put a smile on everyone’s faces. These shared experiences are what, at least in my eyes, make films special. “Encanto” is relatable to everyone in some shape or form, reminding us that there is something unique that makes each person who they are. While it’s a strong message for an impressionable audience of younger children, it’s also a message adults can benefit from after a year of more frequent self-reflection than usual. We’ve all questioned ourselves over the course of the pandemic in some capacity as we look for something hopeful to grasp onto. “Encanto” reminds us to keep searching. There are always spontaneous moments of what feels like magic embedded in our lives. We just have to find and appreciate them.
— Laura Millar, Daily Arts Writer
I think of myself as something of a safe consumer, a creature of habit. I know what kinds of movies I like and I tend to stick to them: coming-of-age tearjerkers, overblown period pieces, slow-going meditations on everyday life, movie musicals. Most of my favorite movies are ones I can sink into slowly, that envelope me like a weighted blanket.
But “Titane,” my favorite movie of 2021, is absolutely none of those things. Directed by French filmmaker Julia Ducournau (“Raw”) and last year’s winner of the Palme d’Or, “Titane” is bold and audacious and really fucking gross. Even if it’s also strangely sweet at times, its goal is never to comfort; it’s all sharp edges and emotional whiplash, making it nearly impossible to sink into (on the off chance you feel possessed to do that at all). Its main character — a queer, binary-breaking anti-hero(ine) — has sex with a car, becomes pregnant with the car’s child, goes on a killing spree and then assumes a new identity, all in under two hours. It’s all gore and body horror and unassailable weirdness, the kind of movie you might watch, half shied-away, through the spaces between your fingers, but find impossible to fully turn away from. My jaw dropped no more than fifteen minutes in, and I couldn’t pick it up until well after the credits rolled.
Take it from a self-proclaimed wuss with a very low tolerance for gross things: “Titane” is not for everyone. It can be a difficult watch, but it’s also a genius thing — a forceful, raw confrontation of masculinity and femininity, of family, of losing and finding. It’s not for everyone but, then again, I didn’t think it’d be for me. If I haven’t scared you off completely, see “Titane” with an open mind and know that whatever you’re expecting won’t be even close to what you get.
— Katrina Stebbins, Senior Arts Editor
“Annette” is the kind of film an artist makes when they think they aren’t going to make another. Leos Carax’s (“Holy Motors”) latest masterpiece feels like a fever dream. It is bizarre, depressing and intoxicating in all the right ways. Where else can you see a character singing while performing oral sex, a cheesy parody of crass tabloid news shows and a creepy wooden baby puppet all in the same film? Adam Driver (“House of Gucci”) gives one of the best performances of his career, using his physicality and presence to create a terrifying portrait of a monster losing his mind. It’s the most perfect post-“Star Wars” project he could have picked — it destroys any notion that he’s just Kylo Ren. Driver is one of the best actors currently working, not just because of his acting talent, but because he’s willing to pick weird, challenging roles like this and give them everything he has. Every choice made in this film is a calculated swing for the fences, and while some aspects don’t totally work — like its uneven, nonsensical plot — it is so refreshing to see a film go for it all with such aplomb. People either seem to adore or despise this film, and that’s really the best compliment you can give it. It generates a strong reaction from its audience, and it doesn’t care whether that’s good or bad.
— Mitchel Green, Daily Arts Writer
Much to the chagrin of pretty much all of my friends and family, Denis Villeneuve’s (“Blade Runner 2049”) film adaptation of Frank Herbert’s 1965 classic science fiction novel “Dune” was released in October 2021. This launched me into an intense obsession with all the facets and details of the fictional universe brought to life by Herbert and visualized properly by Villeneuve’s movie (see “Dune” ). Calling this universe dense would be a gross understatement — it’s chock full of fictitious facts about giant worms and desert drugs and human computers — did I mention giant worms? If you are a fan of the never-ending stream of content that comes from universes like “The Lord of the Rings” and “Star Wars,” I promise you there is more than enough information here for you.
Villeneuve’s adaptation takes the key moments from those mountains of details and shoves them into your eyeballs in glorious IMAX orange. It’s truly magnificent — it feels as if Villeneuve and Hans Zimmer (“No Time to Die”), along with a female choir, are actually from this universe — and nothing in the look and atmosphere of the movie feels manufactured, even though it is a rigidly constructed movie. One of the main themes of the “Dune” novel is the hidden fabrication of the messiah narrative, and how those with power can use that “Chosen One” narrative to gain people’s obedience and twist their beliefs to do terrible things. Villeneuve’s movie takes this theme, condenses or omits some of the pace-shattering descriptive prose and the inner monologues, and uses the visuals and sound to orchestrate a pseudo-religious experience for the members of the audience. He does to the audience what the key players in “Dune” do to the inhabitants of the desert — drive them into fanaticism. As someone who watched “Dune” four times in less than a month, I can certainly say that his methods were effective.
— Alvin Anand, Daily Arts Writer
“The French Dispatch”
A Wes Anderson film inspired by both The New Yorker and French movies couldn’t have turned out bad. That being said, “The French Dispatch,” named after a fictional magazine in the fictional town of Ennui-sur-Blasé, is a beautifully made, often thought-provoking and frequently funny exploration of how stories are told. Anderson’s signature style complements the compartmentalization of the film into three separate stories, each with its own twists, structures and colorful finales. The vignettes — all based on stories within the final issue of “The French Dispatch” — are held together by scenes within the office itself.
The content of the stories is diverse. The writer of the first one gives a speech about the life of an artist who, while in prison, painted nude portraits of one of the prison officers, subtly examining their shifting power dynamic. The second reporter details a student protest that becomes something of a revolution after one student is forced to enlist in the military. In the third, a food reporter shares in a television interview the time he visited the chief of a police commissioner when the commissioner’s son is kidnapped, necessitating that he himself join in the son’s rescue.
The town becomes real in these stories, aided by the skillful cinematography promised in any Anderson film. The at-times fantastical usage of color, symmetry, detail and animation makes the film at once visually stunning and narratively engaging. Every shot is artfully made, they and the stories come together to bring the magazine and its location to life.
— Erin Evans, Daily Arts Writer
“The Electrical Life of Louis Wain”
This enchanting biopic might break your heart, but it will have been worth it. The film follows the life of Louis Wain, an eccentric English artist who popularized the domestic cat with his lively feline drawings. The story follows Wain through success and failure, love and pain — and it acknowledges the universal truth that no matter who you are, life is hard. Despite becoming one of the most popular artists of his time, Wain’s life is riddled with personal tragedy. Nonetheless, the film ultimately demonstrates that even in the darkest valleys, there is always beauty to be found and beauty to be created.
This film covers all the bases: In addition to stellar performances and flawless chemistry from Benedict Cumberbatch (“The Power of the Dog”) and Claire Foy (“The Crown”), the film boasts lovely cinematography and a quirky, artistic style that alone are reason enough to watch it. The first third of the story is told with such wonderful, off-beat humor that I actually laughed out loud — but then proceeded to bawl like a baby later on in the narrative (My roommate was incredibly confused. “What are you watching?”). All this to say that, by the end of the film, I genuinely felt like I had lived an entire life.
So the next time you find yourself in need of a beautiful, cathartic, soul-purifying 111-minute journey, go ahead and watch “The Electrical Life of Louis Wain.” It won’t disappoint.
— Pauline Kim, Daily Arts Writer
Guillermo del Toro’s (“The Shape of Water”) noir thriller “Nightmare Alley” is a modern take on one of the film’s oldest genres, with all of the moral ambiguity of the classics it was inspired by. It has rightfully been called a slow-paced movie, and while this might appear to be a major fault while watching it for the first time, once you finish the movie, the entire two-and-a-half-hour runtime will feel entirely worth it. We see every step of the main character Stan’s (Bradley Cooper, “A Star is Born”) journey from a small town carnie with a mysterious past, to a mentalist in deep with powerful titans of society, to a broken man fallen from grace. The stakes are progressively ramped up until they reach a breaking point, with Stan being unable to run from the consequences of his actions.
On top of all that, the movie is also flat-out beautiful. Everything from the costume design to the cinematography contributes the same constant, sinister ambiance. The sun never shines in the movie both physically and metaphorically, a small example of the ominous feeling exuded throughout the film. This is really what makes the movie work — the constant dread the audience feels as they watch Stan dig his own hole deeper and deeper. One of the best meditations on the causes and consequences of moral corruption in recent decades, “Nightmare Alley” will surely leave you blown away.
— Zach Loveall, Daily Arts Writer