I saw a film at the Arclight Sherman Oaks the night of March 15, 2020 and had no idea that hours later, my greatest passion of going to the cinema would be taken away for an entire year. Or that night would be my last time attending an Arclight theater- my home away from home. When theaters re-opened in Los Angeles exactly one year later to the date, I knew I had to be there in person to celebrate. I didn’t just stop there either. In 2021, I watched 61 films across 11 different theaters. Additionally, I rented and/or streamed another 50+ films at home but my priority has and always will be the theatrical experience for any film available to me on the big screen. Long Live Theatrical Exhibition!
This is my personal list of my top ten favorite films of 2021. It’s a collection of movies that shocked, surprised, thrilled but most importantly, moved me to my very core. Cinema is a powerful medium and if these last few years have taught me anything, it’s that I can’t live without it.
1. THE LOST DAUGHTER
A professor goes on a solitary seaside vacation to a Greek island expecting relaxation, good books, and serenity. Instead, by watching a young mother vacationing at the same resort, it stirs up painful memories forcing her to confront her troubled past and inner demons. This is a searing portrait of motherhood and an unflinching psychological thriller that is so taut and savage that you can’t tear your eyes away. In a spellbinding directorial effort by Maggie Gyllenhaal, she expertly ratchets up the tension so that you are a ball of nerves jumping at the sight of rotten fruit, a fallen acorn, but most of all, from observing the shared looks of desperation and acknowledgement between the two extraordinary leads, Olivia Colman, and Dakota Johnson.
2. THE HAND OF GOD
Paolo Sorrentino writes, directs, and produces his most intimate film, and it’s magnificent. Sorrentino has openly stated that almost everything in it is autobiographical and it often feels like a gift that he has let us in on such a personal look inside his life as a youth growing up in Naples, Italy. It’s a coming-of-age story unlike no other- full of wonder, confusion, joy, heartbreak, angst, and laughter. The Hand of God is a stunning achievement, and I was in awe of it.
3. A QUIET PLACE PART II
A spectacular sequel with absolutely riveting storytelling, multi-layered pulse pounding scenes, visceral scares, and completely affecting scenes that left me in tears both times I saw the film in the theater. The opening sequence is just staggering filmmaking, but the moment that always gives me chills is when Cillian Murphy’s character runs across an idyllic island screaming in warning while aliens thrash and descend all around him.
4. RED ROCKET
Simon Rex is mesmerizing as a fast-talking adult film star named Mikey Saber, who returns home to Texas after losing all his money in Los Angeles. He’s so charming that he can easily manipulate the naïve people he meets into doing things for him that will further his ridiculous wide-eyed ventures. Mikey may be a terrible person, but I couldn’t help but enjoy being in his company and getting a front row seat to the train wreck that is his life.
5. SPIDER-MAN: NO WAY HOME
This is the first film based on a Marvel superhero that has made my top ten list, and although I am a tad biased, I didn’t hesitate in placing it on my 2021 list. Spider-Man: No Way Home is more ambitious, more amazing, and more breathtaking that I ever hoped it would be. It’s also clever, poignant and heaps of fun. I was so overwhelmed with emotion in a surprise scene that I actually burst into tears in my theater seat. It’s an unbelievably moving film and deserves to be heralded among the very best films of the year.
6. WEST SIDE STORY
My mother made sure my sister and I grew up on the 1961 film version of West Side Story and it made such an impact on our lives that my sister even named her son, Anton after Tony. I was optimistic about the remake but never ever did I imagine it could come close or much less, surpass the original. But there I was, sitting in the theater, completely entranced. It’s a masterwork. The lighting, the shot composition, the choreography, the camerawork, the performances….the EVERYTHING is exhilarating. It would be a tragedy if Steven Spielberg didn’t make more musicals for years to come.
Equal parts harrowing and life affirming, this animated documentary follows the true story of Amin Nawabi who recounts his life story for the filmmakers as a refugee who fled from Afghanistan to Russia and ultimately to Denmark as a kid. It’s a testament to the power of cinema that a film can provide you with life experiences and perspectives that you would never have had otherwise. Perhaps Flee will change hearts and minds by instilling empathy and awareness into viewers that didn’t expect to be transported by this exceptional movie.
8. THE LAST DUEL
One of the characters in The Last Duel lashes out at the character, Marguerite de Carrouges by viciously asking, “Who do you think you are?” It’s a question that women have been asked for generations when they have challenged injustice and fought to have a voice. Marguerite was one of these courageous women spotlighted in this astonishing film set in medieval France. Nicole Holofcener, Ben Affleck and Matt Damon teamed up to write this fascinating Rashomon style account of the events that led to France’s last officially sanctioned trial by combat. Not every character is as they seem and it’s a blistering watch to see how each of the three main characters views their role in this captivating slice of history.
9. BO BURNHAM: INSIDE
Comedian/Filmmaker/Actor Bo Burnham recorded this special in his house by himself throughout the first year of the pandemic which includes comedy sketches, performance art, songs, and musings. It’s bold, inventive, candid, eccentric, hilarious and it’s flat out brilliant. The first hour itself is almost perfect and despite the bleak circumstances in which it was created, it’s enthralling that it inspired this work of art.
10. TICK, TICK…BOOM!
Andrew Garfield is soulful and wonderful as the playwright and composer, Jonathan Larson in this adaptation of the stage musical written by Larson. Lin-Manuel Miranda directs this glorious autobiographical story of a distinct time in Larson’s life leading up to his 30th birthday, and crafts a film that is bursting with love, life, and warmth.
Honorable Mentions: WHEEL OF FORTUNE AND FANTASY, LILY TOPPLES THE WORLD, SCENES FROM A MARRIAGE, VIVO, PIG, DRIVE MY CAR, ZOLA, RESIDENT EVIL: WELCOME TO RACCOON CITY, KING RICHARD, ENCANTO, DUNE