As the movies of 2021 now compete with screentime and theater space, here’s my list of films that surprised and delighted me or made me think. Many of these have been given more space in early reviews on this blog like “Nine Days” and “Drive My Car”. There were so many interesting films made by directors who made courageous choices: filming in black & white, utilizing animation or mixing genres, or pushing the boudaries of storytelling in some way. Many of these films I admired even as I didn’t enjoy them (“The Green Knight”, “Memoria”, and “Zola” come to mind). There are films that others loved that I couldn’t bring myself to watch or found disturbing/stupid/annoying (“Titane”, “Pig”, “Licorice Pizza”, “Bad Luck Banging”, “Annette”).
There were a few films that presented the female experience in wonderful creative ways: “The Lost Daughter“, “The Worst Person in the World“, and “Ninjababy“. All three films explored how women can have agency in their choses of romantic parners or the way they become mothers or choose to not be mothers.
Movies that surprised me when I had low expectations: “Cruella”, “Dune”, and “Free Guy”. I thought the production design and costumes were phenomenal in “Cruella”, the acting top-notch by both Emmas (Stone and Thompson) and the concept was a fun spoof on the old Disney version. Streaming on Disney +.
I’ve read all the Dune books and have seen two versions. The current iteration surpasses them both, “Dune” is both beautiful and exhilarating in the creation of the various worlds of the novels. Sadly, the characters that you come to love are often killed before you have any quality time…but the movie left us all craving the rest of the story. Streaming (but how unfortunate to experience it that way) on Apple TV, stream for $25 (!) and still in a few theaters.
“Free Guy” had a great concept but then followed through with hilarious performances and a little genuine heart. What could’ve been a strictly gamer film aimed at teen boys had a kick-ass female lead (Jodie Comer), a sweet buddy relationship (Lil Rel Howery) and a less snarky Ryan Reynolds as Guy. Streaming on most sites for $6.
Documentaries that revealed different worlds or perspectives: “Julia” revealed a side to Julia Child that I hadn’t known. She was both a sensualist and a feminist (though she might’ve argued that point). It’s the scrumptious film that everyone who only liked the Julia part of “Julie and Julia” deserves. Streaming for $20 or still in a few theaters.
Two smaller documentaries that I lucked into seeing at the Philadelphia Film Festival are worth seeking out. “Krimes” is a look at how art can be a redemptive force. One talented young man, Jesse Krimes, used art to stay sane behind bars. Other inmates found redemption through public art. All of the artists would say that art saved their souls. Stay tuned to MTV Documentary.
“The Automat: The Horn & Hardart Movie” blew me away. Who knew there were once more Automat restaurants in America than any fast-food chain? The idea of a warm piece of pie behind a coin-operated kiosk that you could enjoy with a great cup of coffee from an art deco urn is amazing enough. But to think you might enjoy it at a marble table you might share with an artist, an aristocrat or a homeless person? I had no idea that Philadelphia was the birthplace. The film features Mel Brooks and it’s an inspiring story of an America I wish I’d known. Follow them @AUTOMATmovie to see the film festival screenings.
Animated films: “Flee” is award worthy as a ground-breaking queer immigrant story. It’s also an amazing film. Limited theater screenings, Neon will likely stream in 2022. I enjoyed “Raya and the Last Dragon” and wish it had opened next year to gain a larger audience. It deserved to be seen by families on the big screen. Stream on Disney + or $4 on other platforms.
Big-budget Action Film: “Dune” could fall in this category too. I haven’t seen “Matrix Resurrection” yet. My favorite was “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings” – an unexpected pleasure with humor, great fighting and a wonderful story. Stream on Disney + or $5 on most platforms.
Musical: “tick, tick…Boom” is inventive, has catchy songs, and is a great memorial for the talented Jonathon Larson. The film’s star, Andrew Garfield, deserves all the accolades. Stream on Netflix.
Sci-Fi/Fantasy: “Nine Days” is a philosophical/spiritual film that happens to be set in an other-worldly space. In turns moving, funny, and thought-provoking; I found myself thinking about the film long after I left the theater. Great performances by the incredible cast. Stream it for $4/$5 on the usual platforms.
Best Drama: “The Power of the Dog” is Jane Champion at the top of her game as a director and the small central cast is outstanding. It’s a film that gets under your skin and expects the audience to commit to story to gain the full power of this unsettling tale of toxic masculinity. Runner Up: “Drive My Car”. In a year that I lamented the 2-hour plus running time of the Big Movies (ugggh!), Ryasuke Hamaguchi has made a three-hour masterpiece. “Drive My Car” ruminates on grief, recovering from trauma, the transformative power of relationships, and Chekov. Playing at art-house cinemas, likely to stream in 2022.
There are many other films that I enjoyed; that moved me, made me laugh or ponder, and gave me joy. There are some that I still haven’t seen and hope to get to once they’re out next week or that I’ll be forced to watch on my tv. I’m truly grateful for the incredible films of 2021. Follow me at Drinks With Films on Instagram to see even more film reviews. See you at the movies!