We have (sort of) returned to normal. But whether you went out to a theatre or chilled at home, there were several memorable films this year.
Here’s all you need to know:
The 10 best
- Pig – Admit it. You snorted with laughter when you first heard about this one. Nicolas Cage relentlessly searching for his stolen truffle pig seems as absurd as his Benjamin Franklin Gates character stealing the Declaration of Independence. Our apologies. We were wrong. Pig is an unexpected triumph and a reminder of Cage’s acting chops. In the hands of an inferior leading man, this concept wouldn’t work. Cage plays a former star Oregon chef who’s left big city life in favor of the wilderness. But he’s forced to return to Portland as he tries to find his beloved swine.
- The Harder They Fall – Black history in America is often overlooked. The characters in The Harder They Fall were real people. According to some estimates, as much as 25 percent of cowboys in the American West were African American. Of course, you might never guess this based on most movies and literature. Thanks to a lively script and an all-star cast, The Harder They Fall gives Black cowboys their due. The energy is reminiscent of a Tarantino movie – without the excessive use of the N word. Kudos to LaKeith Stanfield and Regina King, who give the best performances.
- Violation – Imagine the worst thing that could happen to you. Now imagine it being done by someone you love and trust. Violation is frightening because it’s rooted in something realistic: betrayal of the worst kind. Miriam (Madeleine Sims-Fewer) seeks justice, and her solution is what turns this drama into a horror film. It’s pure rage fueled in part by the fact that her own sister doesn’t believe her story. Violation is a revenge film so unapologetically brutal that you won’t forget it. Also, you won’t ever want to watch it again.
- The Mitchells vs. the Machines – Our devices have made our lives easier and better in many ways. We can connect with people we’ve never physically met in person. We can get stuff without leaving home. But what is the cost of convenience? We’ve become so dependent and so addicted to technology, it’s scary. The Mitchells vs. the Machines is the thinking person’s animated family comedy. It pokes fun at our overreliance on tech while also telling a heart-warming story about a father (Danny McBride) struggling to reconnect with his college-bound daughter (Abbi Jacobson).
- Free Guy – Call it The Truman Show 2.0 because the protagonist has no clue that his life is a simulation. Free Guy is an enthralling, fun ride that feels both modern and old school because even without the snappy dialogue and Easter Eggs, it’s basically a guy-meets-girl story. That guy is Guy (Ryan Reynolds) as an NPC (non-playable character) in a video game. Reynolds dials back his usual wisecracks and plays it straight as he pursues real person Millie, known as Molotov Girl (Jodie Comer) in this virtual universe. You don’t have to be a gamer to enjoy Free Guy.
- The Dry – A murder in a small town stirs up suspicion and fear. You start looking at your neighbor wondering if they could have done it. Sometimes confirmation bias kicks in and you lose sight of the truth. The Dry is a mystery involving two homicides committed decades apart and the Australian federal police officer (an excellent Eric Bana) connected to them both. What makes the investigation complicated is that some of the townsfolk see him as a suspect in one of the killings. The Dry is a carefully crafted thriller about secrets and regrets.
- Shiva Baby – Great new funny films are hard to find. So, when you discover a film that makes you laugh, it should be cherished. Shiva Baby is a dark comedy about a 20-something living two lives: one as a college student, the other as a sugar baby. Her two worlds collide at a funeral when she unexpectedly encounters her Sugar Daddy, his wife, and child. Shiva Baby is a comedy of avoidance. Danielle (Rachel Sennott) is trying to avoid detection of her secret life while also dealing with her mother and an ex-girlfriend. Enjoy 77 minutes of awkward hilarity.
- Operation Varsity Blues: The College Admissions Scandal – The goal of any good documentary is to provide nuance. To show what led up to a particular event: how we got here, what we can learn, and what was the actual impact. This Netflix film examines the college admissions scandal. The focus was on the celebrities who were caught as opposed to the system that helped enable this fraud. Instead of sewing together merely a bunch of interviews, director Chris Smith relies on reenactments with actor Matthew Modine as Rick Singer. Singer orchestrated the largest admissions scam in history.
- Licorice Pizza – Art can simultaneously be engaging and problematic. Director Paul Thomas Anderson walks that line. On one hand, it’s an odd love story because of the characters. On the other hand, it’s an odd love story because of the age difference. In the movie, Alana (Alana Haim) is 25 and Gary is 15 (Cooper Hoffman). In real life, Haim is 30 and Hoffman is 18. Maybe things were different in 1970s California. Putting that aside, you can’t deny the earnest charm here, especially from Haim – one of the three sisters from the rock band Haim. It’s her debut and it’s stunning.
- Mass – Mass is about as barebones as it gets: two couples meeting inside church. That’s it. Minimalism has its advantages. There’s nothing superfluous. Everything has meaning. The audience is left to solely focus on a tense and emotionally charged conversation about the deaths of their sons. Mass feels like it was adapted from a stage play, but it’s a tight original script. The movie is gut-wrenching without being overly depressing thanks to the performances of the four leads, highlighted by Martha Plimpton and Ann Dowd. Mass explores the question of how do we begin to heal from a horrific tragedy?
Just missed the top 10
Best Actor: Jake Gyllenhaal, The Guilty
Jake Gyllenhaal does all the heavy lifting. Starring as a cop who has been demoted to a 911 operator, he’s in almost every frame. Gyllenhaal is riveting as he tries to help a caller while awaiting a court hearing on police misconduct.
Best Actress: Jessica Chastain, The Eyes of Tammy Faye
It can be difficult to portray larger-than-life figures. Often, Hollywood reduces them to caricatures. Chastain brings nuance to Tammy Faye. Her interpretation is complex and interesting. You can tell Chastain put in the work.
Best Supporting Actor: LaKeith Stanfield, The Harder They Fall
No actor made the most of limited screen-time than the immensely talented LaKeith Stanfield. He dominates every scene in a movie that also has male actors Idris Elba, Jonathan Majors, and Delroy Lindo.
Best Supporting Actress: Martha Plimpton, Mass
You could go with either Mass actress Martha Plimpton or Ann Dowd. Slight edge to Plimpton, who feels like the film’s emotional core. She conveys so much seething anger as she struggles to find forgiveness in the aftermath of devastation.
Best Child Actor/Actress: Woody Norman, C’Mon C’Mon
Woody Norman, 11, is a British actor to watch. He’s extraordinary playing a quirky nine-year-old American kid who’s bonding with an uncle while his parents are away dealing with a mental health issue.
Best Director: Steven Spielberg, West Side Story
From the vibrant opening scene to the tragic ending, Steven Spielberg reminds everyone why he’s one of history’s greatest filmmakers. So many mesmerizing moments mixed with outstanding choreography.
Best, worst, and WTF moments
- “Who plays hockey in a cardigan? He’s like an athletic librarian.” – Plan B
- “An idiotic motive, an idiotic plan, an idiotic man!” – The Trip
- “The computer’s Black!” – Space Jam: A New Legacy
- “I was about to talk about fallopian tubes, but okay.” – Black Widow
- “I hope they’re serving Fireball up in paradise, brother.” – There’s Someone Inside Your House
- “You look like Gwyneth Paltrow on food stamps–and not in a good way.” – Shiva Baby
The 9 most ridiculous things in the Fast & Furious’ F9:
9. Cipher imprisoned in a glass box.
8. Cipher’s bowl cut.
7. Cars outrunning land mines.
6. The use of super-magnets to clear traffic.
5. Jakob’s never-ending zipline.
4. Jakob drives off a cliff but is caught by an airplane.
3. Dom drives up a rope bridge while it’s collapsing.
2. Roman and Tej go to space in a rocket car and intentionally crash into a satellite.
1. Casting John Cena as Dom’s secret brother.
Best action scene: The bus fight in Shang-Chi
A fight within the tight confines of a moving vehicle? At times, you wonder how they did it. The spectacular martial arts battle which takes place on a downtown bus reportedly took a year to make.
Best voice actor: Olivia Colman in The Mitchells vs. the Machines
Whoever came up with the idea to cast Oscar-winning actress Olivia Colman as an evil virtual assistant deserves a raise. She’s the best thing in this delightful feature. It’s so much fun to hear her erupt into a rage. Colman makes for a hilarious villain.
Best cameo: Chris Evans in Free Guy
Chris Evans’s appearance lasts three seconds, but you’ll laugh a lot longer. According to CinemaBlend, Evans’ appearance was a spur of the moment decision. The entire scene took only five minutes to film.
Funniest original song: “I Love Boobies” from Barb & Star Go To Vista Del Mar
Richard Cheese’s ode to mammaries is hysterical.
Worst movie: Karen
In a polarized America, it’s hard to get a consensus on anything. We can all agree that Karen is an absurdly awful movie about an absurdly awful person. As a thriller, it’s a failure. As satire, it’s a failure. As a commentary on racism, it’s a failure.
Worst sequel: Coming 2 America
Possibly the most unfunny Eddie Murphy comedy ever made. It’s joyless and lacks all the charm that made the original special. If you enjoyed it, it’s only because of nostalgia. The lone saving grace is scene-stealing Wesley Snipes.
Worst reboot: Home Sweet Home Alone
A soulless money-grab by Disney. None of the characters are lieable. Not even Ellie Kemper. You’ll wince in agony at this unnecessary attempt to restart the Home Alone franchise.
Worst actor: Bruce Willis, Out of Death
Bruce Willis stopped caring a long time ago, but he takes indifference to the next level here. Not only does he look bored, but he mutters his lines as if someone just woke him up from a nap. Shame. Willis was once one of the biggest stars in Hollywood. Now he’s just mailing it in for a paycheck.
Most WTF movie: Annette
So bizarre. Adam Driver singing while performing a sex act is NOT the weirdest moment. Driver and Marion Cotillard are the parents of a …puppet baby. This wooden marionette is creepy. Despite it’s lovely voice, you expect this doll to jump off the screen and stab you in your heart.
— 🦋Kimi➰Skywalker🦋🐊🗡💚 (@KimiStarr) October 17, 2021
Worst ending: Dune
If Dune were a TV series, the ending could be more forgivable. The story just abruptly pauses. Like director Denis Villeneuve suddenly realized the run-time was approaching three hours and said, “Screw it. Let’s stop it here and pray for a sequel.”
Most depressing: The Card Counter
Most card-playing movies are sexy, fun, and thrilling. Think Rounders or 21. Films with big stakes that keep you entertained. William Tillich (Oscar Isaac) has PSTD and guilt about his time in the military when he participated in the torture of prisoners at Abu Ghraib in the 2000s. This movie is bleak.
Most entertaining documentary: The Lost Leonardo
The story of The Lost Leonardo unfolds more like a thriller than a documentary. It’s an unbelievable tale about how a painting purchased for $1,175 wound up becoming the most expensive painting ever sold ($450 million).
Best use of a song: So What’cha Want by Beastie Boys in Vacation Friends
A solid buddy comedy starring mismatched friends John Cena and Lil Rel Howery. One of the best comes when they accidentally eat psychedelic mushrooms and start hallucinating. This scene plays homage to the 1992 classic video.
Vacation Friends has a perfectly executed Beastie Boys pic.twitter.com/nWBOtJ8VCm
— Mike Rhoads 💭 (@mikerhoads) September 5, 2021
Best romantic moment: The Everlasting Love scene in Belfast
It’s always cool to see a couple rediscover the feeling of being in love. When Jamie Dornan’s character Pa serenades Catriona Balfe’s character Ma with “Everlasting Love,” it’s sheer bliss. You’ll swoon.
Worst (major) goof: The omission of Neil Peart in Count Me In
Count Me In is a Netflix documentary about rock drummers. It’s perfectly fine except they left out somebody. How can you make this film and not even mention the late, great Neil Peart? He belongs on the Mount Rushmore of percussionists and influenced an entire generation of drummers. #Boo.
— Melissa Ross (@MelissainJax) September 1, 2021
Worst (minor) goof: The stolen car scene in Cruella
Cruella is, or at least aspires to be, a British movie. It takes place in London. Most of the actors (except for Emma Stone) are British. The fashion, the scenery, the accents are all supposed to be British. And yet, when Estella/Cruella steals a car, the steering wheel is on the left (American) side.
About halfway through Cruella, which has been great so far, but why is this steering wheel on the left side in London…? pic.twitter.com/CW1CKduqni
— Rob Sanderson (@RobSandersonPxP) June 6, 2021
Best additional to the Marvel Cinematic Universe: Florence Pugh in Black Widow
Florence Pugh is a delight in everything she does. Most surprising is her passable Russian accent. Accents can go horribly wrong. See Jennifer Lawrence in Red Sparrow.
Worst superhero movie: Thunder Force
Two Academy Award nominated actresses are in this ridiculously awful film. How did Melissa McCarthy and Octavia Spencer get talked into this unfunny mess?
Best plot twist: The Power of the Dog (No spoilers)
The Power of the Dog will be nominated for a bunch of Oscars. A very good film about toxic masculinity. What makes it work is an ending you’ll never see coming but makes perfect sense in retrospect.
Most WTF plot twist: Malignant (No spoilers)
From the start, we know an experiment is going on. We know that the protagonist seems to be haunted by a killer imaginary friend. But good god, the plot twist is gross.
Most WTF movie prop: The confederate flag soap dispenser in Karen
In case you haven’t figured out that the main character is racist, the film doubles down by having this item in her bathroom. Even the most hardcore white supremacist would not own this. Just dumb.
My God, there’s a confederate flag soap dispenser in this movie. Real subtle. pic.twitter.com/J1aPX9gZkA
— Michael Grant (@MichaelGrant_CJ) September 21, 2021