This year I found myself optimistic as the film industry was, like most everything else, getting back to “normal.” Theaters prior to the pandemic were facing difficulty in staying relevant and finding innovative ways to keep seats filled. Heck, the most hype for movies in recent years could arguably be the AMC meme stock. But now, as we navigate life aside the pandemic, we are reminded again of the underlying fact that people love interaction with other humans and enjoy experiencing something together. Movies fall under this category and it was a major factor that weighed heavily on how I rated films this year. That personal human to human connection is something that simply can’t be beat. As the year went on more and more people, my friends included, returned to theaters and enjoyed one big blockbuster after another. We were able to laugh, to love, to cry, and every emotion in between. Best of all, we could finally experience all of this together again.
The year itself has felt like a roller coaster and being back in those theater seats really brought that ride into perspective in a very special way. Don’t believe me, just look to Spider Man No Way Home as the prime example. Crowds of people flocked to the theaters and were swept away by the anticipation for this big experience that would bring about nostalgia, excitement, and a joyous time. The theater filled and radiated with that energy that had been missing for far too long. It was for most their first time this year being filled with those indescribable feelings that movies can leave long after the end credit scenes have rolled. Movies, as only they can, have made us feel what it means to be human again and I hope everyone was able to find that film to experience it.
Whether you’re watching a big studio movie or an indie release, quality of film is a very subjective matter. Naturally, I felt some of the high caliber films seemed to be replaced by what we needed most, larger than life blockbuster excitement. No matter what I watched, even if it wasn’t a technically stellar film, I still left the theater in good spirits. I don’t mistake that enthusiasm for quality, which initially, did plague some of my movie ratings. Only a few times did I find myself emotionally invested in a film and even then I was never moved enough by the script, score, or even acting, to warrant the perfect rating (although some were close). If you know me, you know I’m all about movies that put you on an emotional roller coaster ride but those transcendent films can be tough to find. This year especially, finding emotionally moving films felt like a scavenger hunt through the many blockbusters littering the theaters.
To the detriment of my own enjoyment at times, I found myself lounging around most Friday nights and falling victim to the Netflix algorithm. Theaters are back, but the streaming world is here to stay and getting bigger by the day. Convenience is still a major factor in film watching, and when you’re not doing much it can be quite easy to fall victim to click bait and a film that, if nothing else, serves as background noise. For me, this led to the unfortunate discovery of some very obscure, offbeat films that may have had the acting talent, but lacked everything else altogether. Unless you attended film festivals or are fortunate enough to live in an area where commuting to limited theatrical releases is possible, it seems many higher quality films were not so easily accessible this year as I myself would have liked.
With all that said, whether it was streaming films at home with the family or attending a theater release with friends, I found myself carving out my Top 10 with films that I felt emotionally connected to. As much as the big block busters were a delight, and other obscure foreign films may not have fit my taste (thank you for nothing Titane), it was the personal connection that had my attention and captured thoughts. Without further ado lets dive right in!
10. Pig - Michael Sarnoski
Who doesn’t love a man on a mission to save his beloved partner. Now what if I told you that man was Nicholas Cage and his partner was a truffle pig. Yes, a Nicholas Cage movie has cracked my Top 10. Pig is one of those films I included to represent the many surprising, unexpectedly powerful or emotional films that get lost in limited release. This was one I was fortunate enough to catch and I am glad that I did. I wasn’t expecting much going in, but the story of these characters who get involved in a man’s mission become more compelling by the minute. “We don’t get a lot of things to really care about.” Are the words uttered by Cage during a memorable scene at a table and he is right. This movie reflects on the journey to find one’s meaning in the world. It all plays out in a bleak and cold fashion, but within that moments are created that present a sense of wonder and warmth. These are the types of movies that need more awareness and I’m just here to help spread it.
Pig is streaming on Hulu right now
9. Red Rocket - Sean Baker
You want to talk about a trip of a movie, well this is it. Red Rocket follows an ex porn star by the name of Mikey Saber (Simon Rex), a man who is down on his luck and must return home to Texas as his Los Angeles lifestyle hasn’t quite panned out. Rex plays this character with such charm and comedic flare that there is a magnetic likable force behind his motives. So good is he that ultimately I’m hoping he receives an Oscar nomination as this is one of the best single acting performances of the year. Mikey is a flawed individual who always has his own self interest at the forefront. He’s obsessed with reclaiming his lost glory, and yet in all his lies and shortcomings, this charismatic huckster is still as likable as ever. It’s crazy to me to to have such fun and wild entertainment value while constantly asking how the hell he can get away with this. Even with the never ending disasters that, at times quite literally, take the clothes off Mikey’s back, you can be sure that you will be left with a smile from a fun character study of a broken man.
Red Rocket is playing in wide release nationwide
8. The Mitchells vs. The Machines - Michael Rianda
Not sure anyone reading this up to this point would believe this is my Top 10 if it didn’t have an animated movie. In an even more shocking turn of events this year’s entry was delivered by Sony rather than Pixar. Sorry Luca. I have always felt that animation can provide a personal warmth and unique charm. These films aren’t bound to the confines of reality and can come up with a creative, vibrant story to tell. Such high concepts and thoughtfully planned out stories can in turn become emotionally compelling to any viewer if given the chance. The Mitchells vs. the Machines does just that by taking us on a family road trip with the dysfunctional Mitchell family as they navigate their own drama while also having to stop a robot apocalypse. As hyperactive as this film may be, with its messages on the dangers of tech, it still can’t help from being very relatable. This is undoubtedly a family film, best experienced with your own family as I did. It’s a clever and funny story weaving heartfelt moments together about seeing eye to eye, reminiscing over memories that you didn’t know you cherished and creating new ones along the way. Families can be drama, but at the end of the day nothing is stronger. Sorry Dom, stole your line.
The Mitchells vs. The Machines is streaming on Netflix right now
7. The Rescue - Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi, Jimmy Chin
I’ll be the first to admit, as much as our livelihood relies on human interaction and as much as I deem myself a people person, I too have those moments that make me think: “I hate people.” But then I come across a documentary like The Rescue that is so deeply immersive in kinder qualities of humans that it’s almost gut wrenching. Through perseverance, determination, and unceasing will power, a few select individuals pull off nothing short of a miracle. Rick Stanton and John Volanthen, the best in the business by many of the cave diving community, are given the impossible task: to assist in a rescue mission of a youth boys soccer team trapped in the Tham Laung Nag Non cave system of Thailand. As the caves are rapidly flooding this rescue becomes a race against the clock. Built with gripping tension, you will be holding your breath in anticipation. Rick and John, along with many other volunteers and rescue team personnel, remarkably come together in this high pressure situation, find understanding and common ground in order to make the impossible possible. Naturally it would be difficult for me to not feel emotionally moved by the outcome.
The Rescue is streaming on Disney+ right now
6. Licorice Pizza - Paul Thomas Anderson
Human interaction is something that is inevitably needed to maximize our quality of life. In Licorice Pizza, we follow Gary (Cooper Hoffman) and Alana (Alana Haim) in their adventures through the San Fernando Valley. The film encapsulates a need for human interaction and creates this warm sense of coziness. Gary is struck at the first site of Alana and from the get go we are hit with this flirtatious banter between the two. It’s just a joyfully hangout movie that at times is childish, yet still sophisticated. Both characters carry themselves with such poise that no matter the situation or the people they meet, they find a way to grow, as does their relationship in the process. The mentality this film takes is exactly the immersive experience I fondly adore. It instills a sense of charm you didn’t know could be had from nothing more than two people be swept away in feelings and making their way in the world.
Licorice Pizza is playing in wide release nationwide
5. Judas and the Black Messiah - Shaka King
It is hard to believe Judas and the Black Messiah released in 2021 as it has already received its praise at the Oscars. Still, this a 2021 release and one that continues to hold up, presenting the inspiring and intense conviction of Fred Hampton (Daniel Kaluuya), the chairman of the Illinois Black Panthers. This fits the mold of biopic films that I adore and takes a personal look into one of the most revered men in a crucial moment of history. Bill O’Neal (Lakeith Stanfield), an FBI informant planted within the Black Panthers, became one of the many swept away by the riveting charm of Hampton. O’Neal becomes one of the causes for Hampton’s death in 1969, when began to quarrel with himself over what he was doing. Fred’s actions and speeches had Bill pondering what it was this man truly stood for, was fighting for, and it was all a very powerful thing. Both lead performances, and even the supporting ones as well, were all so effective in their vulnerability, strength, and power that lead to this encompassing emotional weight throughout. I found myself wanting to know more when it was all over and if a film can inspire that, I feel it accomplished what it set out to do.
Judas and the Black Messiah is streaming on HBO Max right now
4. Coda - Siân Heder
Family is never easily understood and sometimes it feels as if they aren’t even listening to what you have to say. Well, in this coming of age story, that feeling is the literal truth. Ruby Rossi (Emilia Jones) wants to pursue her ambitious goal of a career in music but, the twist, her family is deaf. As she desires to carve out her own path, she faces a fear that prioritizing her own life will mean trouble in her family’s. In facing this challenge we see the grace and maturity of Ruby to juggle her priorities against those of her family. It is a frustrating endeavor to not be understood, to not have the people you love most in your corner. But this film tenderly provides us with the understanding that everyone in the family does care, even if it is not always easily expressed. And in the moments that care is expressed, when the heartstrings are firmly pulled, comes a feeling of comfort that makes CODA emotionally rewarding. It all works itself out to be a very beautiful, heartfelt, and relatable story filled with such tender moments that anyone would want to have with their own loved ones. That is a special feeling and one I felt strongly when this film was over.
CODA is streaming on Apple TV+ right now
3. C’mon C’mon - Mike Mills
Sometimes the simplest of questions seem the hardest to answer. In C’mon C’mon we see a documentarian, Johnny (Joaquin Phoenix), conducting interviews with kids about what the future will look like. Kids respond with everything from fear to hope, stemming from an underlying desire for everyone to just get along. They want the world to accept them as they are and that turns personal for Johnny when he steps up to care for his nephew Jesse (Woody Norman.) Johnny wants to be an endearing loving uncle who shields Jesse from the reality of his father’s illness and their earnest interactions show his genuine care for the boy. This dynamic duo pushes one another to their wits end from time to time, but through trial and error and some frightful, frustrating events, we are rewarded as an audience with heartfelt and warm interactions. Each of Johnny and Jesse’s interactions unfold into more understanding for one another. We eventually conclude with Jesse recording the repeating words of, “c’mon c’mon” as if on a loop. When Johnny hears this playback he is reminded that the nature of life is filled with a fair share of challenges, and one must simply keep on going. It is a sincere way to conclude that Johnny and Jessi will both remember this time spent together. The movie doesn’t end there however, as all the authentic responses to the interviews keep on playing as credits roll. These interviews had me glued to my seat as I welcomed the responses and reflected on what these kids had to say, much like Johnny with Jesse. It summed up nicely what I felt was the most gentle, genuine, sweet, and real human experience of the year.
C’mon C’mon is currently playing theaters in limited release
2. Spencer - Pablo Larraín
Spencer was a film I found deep appreciation for, and also one that likely would have gone unnoticed in years past. “A fable from a true tragedy” are the words read on screen to set the stage for a story that will be more fiction than fact. Told across three days of a real royal Christmas celebration, we hinge on the performance of Kristen Stewart who wonderfully portrays Princess Diana. Larraín like a painter and Diana his muse, we are painted a daunting metaphorical picture, of a caged women longing to be set free. On a human level, we feel the emotional burden Diana bears as she must carry herself in a manner suitable to the public eye. All this suppression is a haunting nightmare, heartbreaking as she sees no freedom for self expression. Rest assured this slow burner captures the feeling of a struggle, both internal and external, that reveals an impactful meaning to all her actions and motives that you can’t help but get behind. The strong sense of emotion, fearsome imagery, along with a stellar performance and story, made this my biggest surprise of the year.
Spencer is available to rent or buy on most streaming platforms
1. tick…tick…Boom - Lin Manuel Miranda
Broadway musicals are an art form that can provide a transformational experience much like that of movies. Something about putting song, dance, and a well structured story together can be a breathtaking thing. There were a handful of movies this year that tried to adapt the broadway stage to the screen, while many were quite satisfying, none hit the mark like tick…tick…BOOM! On the brink of his 30th birthday an artist by the name of Jonathan Larson was nearing the end of an 8 year long endeavor to bring his dystopia sci-if musical to life. Portrayed wonderfully by Andrew Garfield was a sense of understanding for the urgency, confidence, ambition, and frustration behind a man who may have had something to say, but was faced with the burden of life’s challenges. Life is a gift that no one knows how much time is to be had. Sometimes we feel as if it is being wasted when those ambitious goals, those dreams we have in our head, don’t pan out as we planned. This begs the question I think a lot of us face daily, ‘What am I doing with my life?” A question so simple, yet one we can only answer for ourselves and may find difficult to do so. Although it was special to share the journey with Jonathan Larson, he is just one of the many people who have their own story to tell. It was all so emotionally engaging and challenging. I loved every second of this.
tick…tick…BOOM! is streaming on Netflix right now
So here I sit at the end of 2021 and think to myself movies are back and here to stay. Audiences have already began scavenging YouTube videos and looking at studio websites to read announcements as they begin to organize the 2022 releases. Streaming as well has undoubtedly become unavoidable as a means of progress to the industry. I hope it will be utilized to bring about opportunities for films outside of blockbusters. It’s going to be another exciting year with many eager to get back to “normal.” I think movies will have a place to do just that and I’m ready for it.