It’s that magical time of the year once again! As movie studios have slowly begun to release big budget projects back into theaters there has been much to enjoy in the world of cinema. With 2021 having come to an end, let us look through the best movies of the past year!
10) Cruella (3.5 Stars)
Cruella is an engaging character study that creates mythology around a person that does not necessarily demand it, but in the process creates an opportunity for one of our best current actresses to shine bright with Emma Stone’s perfect embodiment of the titular role. We observe Cruella Devil(Emma Stone) from an early age as she grows up in London and develops into the cartoon-character we are familiar with from 101 Dalmatians. We learn what makes her tick and how the world has influenced her, specifically the impacts of her boss, a fashion designer known as the Baroness(Emma Thompson). It is a fantastic portrayal from Stone, filling Cruella with motivations and shades of personality way beyond what audiences previously familiar with the character have come to know. Stone goes all out, and nails it. Thompson is great in her own right, oozing Meryl Streep vibes from The Devil Wears Prada. Brilliant costume design and a jam-packed soundtrack bolster the enjoyment level of this intriguing, although a bit uneven and overly long, story.
9) Nightmare Alley (3.5 Stars)
Nightmare Alley is an engrossing tale led by a talented cast that lures the viewer in and holds their attention from start to finish with an interesting, albeit long story. It centers around Stan Carlisle(Bradley Cooper), a drifter who becomes intrigued by a traveling circus and becomes infatuated with fame and success. After speaking with the troupe manager(Willem Dafoe) he is able to join and immediately begins learning from Zeena the Seer(Toni Collette). The film carries a dark tone, but succeeds on the strength of its cast, particularly Cooper who is fantastic, along with strong supporting work by Collette and Cate Blanchett. Cooper fully encompasses his character, fleshing him out with a multitude of subtleties that help bring the role to life. The darker subject matter may be a turn off for some, but Nightmare Alley offers a rewarding character study at its heart for those willing to invest the time.
8) Don’t Look Up (3.5 Stars)
Don’t Look Up is a contemporary satire with a star-studded cast and overt that combine to create a thoroughly enjoyable, if a bit scattershot, cinematic experience. Directed by Adam McKay, the movie revolves around astronomer, Dr. Randall Mindy(Leonardo DiCaprio), and his student, Kate Dibiasky (Jennifer Lawrence), as they discover a comet that is headed straight for Earth which will result in an extinction-level event. They attempt to warn the world of this imminent threat via the president (Meryl Streep) and a morning news show (Cate Blanchett and Tyler Perry) with middling results. The plot delves into outlandish territory at times with the jokes not always landing, but the onslaught of quality performances and important messages always manages to pull the audience back in. DiCaprio, Lawrence, Blanchett, and Timothee Chalamet are all fantastic, along with strong work from Streep, Perry, Jonah Hill, and Mark Rylance, resulting in a riveting viewing experience where all these charismatic characters generate investment in this fictional world with very real-world problems. McKay’s use of stylish editing helps in his endeavor to convey his important message, albeit with an uneven tone at times, but it remains a message that should be received by all.
7) Shang-Chi and The Legend of the Ten Rings (3.5 Stars)
Shang-Chi and The Legend of the Ten Rings is a well-done, if a bit formulaic, superhero origin story that falters with an over-stuffed climax, but in the end stands out as something special due to its awe-inspiring fight choreography. The movie introduces the viewer to Shang-Chi(Simu Liu), a seemingly ordinary man living in San Francisco who must confront his past when he is forced to cross paths with the Ten Rings, a clandestine criminal organization led by his father(Tony Leung). The story mixes comedy, action, and family drama successfully thanks in large part to Liu and Awkwafina who both deliver grounded, humorous portrayals. The hand-to-hand combat in this film can not be understated, as it is the best seen thus far in the Marvel Cinematic Universe franchise. Excellent cinematography utilizes long cuts and wide shots that keep the battles clean and in focus for maximum enjoyment. There are some truly thrilling moments sprinkled in throughout that amount to a vastly fun endeavor.
6) Malcolm and Marie (3.5 Stars)
Malcolm and Marie is an acting showcase that demonstrates the full potential of its dual leads and more than makes up for a thinly veiled storyline to create a rocking, gorgeously shot spectacle. The story follows Malcom(John David Washington) and Marie(Zendaya) as they arrive home the night of the premiere for a movie Malcolm directed, and a fight ensues. The plot is a simple one, yet one that effectively sets up Washington and Zendaya to flex their acting chops as the camera locks in on them the entire time. The result is a success, with the viewer becoming engrossed in the lives of these two due to the showstopping performance put on by Washington. It is easily career-best work, as he commands the screen with his body language and impassioned speech. Additionally, Zendaya matches Washington every step of the way with a more nuanced portrayal that perfectly balances out Washington’s bombastic charisma. Their marvelous chemistry overcomes the plot’s shortcomings to create a theater-esque show worth the price of admission.
5) Spider-Man: No Way Home (3.5 Stars)
Spider-Man: No Way Home is the definition of an event movie, brimming with fan service and best experienced in a group, particularly those most passionate about the source material. The story picks up right where Spider-Man: Far From Home left off with Peter Parker(Tom Holland) having his identity revealed to the world. Parker seeks out Doctor Strange(Benedict Cumberbatch) for assistance with this problem which backfires, leaving Spider-Man to pick up the pieces of the mess he created. It certainly delivers on expectations, providing heart, humor, and a plethora of memorable characters. Unfortunately, the kryptonite of this superpowered tale is a script that leaves much to be desired. The choices made to get our characters where they need to be to have a blast don’t always hold up to close observation, but the excitement of the story’s destination enraptures the viewer and unequivocally provides some of the highlight moments the Marvel Cinematic Universe franchise strives to offer. Holland gives the most mature portrayal of Peter Parker seen so far in his films, but the true standout is without question Willem Dafoe who is fantastic in his return to the Norman Osborn/Green Goblin character. His over the top menace is delightfully evil, creating a tension between Peter and himself that evokes comparisons to The Dark Knight’s Batman and Joker relationship(though to be clear, never to the same degree). There is a much more compelling story within this overstuffed one that finds Holland grappling with his identity crisis, his blossoming MJ relationship, and homing in on the Spider-Man/Green Goblin rivalry. Alas, 4 additional villains and an uncharacteristic Doctor Strange story arc are thrust in with mixed results. Nonetheless, this is a story with spectacular action sequences, full of twists and turns that work magnificently, all culminating in an exciting climax for our friendly neighborhood hero.
4) The Mitchells vs The Machines (4 Stars)
The Mitchells vs The Machines is a wild and vibrant adventure that possesses just as much heart and ideas as it does laugh out loud fun. It centers around the dysfunctional Mitchell family, Rick(Danny McBride), Linda(Maya Rudolph), Katie(Abbi Jacobson), and Aaron(Michael Rianda), as they attempt a cross country road trip to send Katie off to college, when suddenly they find themselves in the midst of a robot apocalypse. The movie, from the creative minds of Phil Lord and Christopher Miller, successfully pulls off the balancing act of being both a family story filled with heartfelt and humorous moments, as well as a dystopian science fiction action epic that possesses strong themes. The laughs and lessons are deftly blended for a glorious ride that can get a little off the rails at times, but overall is still a wonderful experience that kids and adults alike should seek out.
3) A Quiet Place: Part II (4 Stars)
A Quiet Place: Part II is a high-quality sequel to one of the best films in recent memory. Part II expands the dystopian world, while still managing to maintain the claustrophobic essence that made the original great, and not becoming too overwhelming in the “bigger is better” mentality that so often accompanies sequels. The plot continues from where the original left off and sees Evelyn Abbott(Emily Blunt) venturing off into the unknown with her children, Regan (Millicent Simmonds) and Marcus(Noah Jupe), following the attack on their house. In this sequel, director John Krasinski continues to showcase expertly crafted scenes of tension-building and strong cinematography for just about every scene. Really solid work all around from Blunt, Simmonds, and Jupe further elevate the already compelling story. The climax is good but delves into repetitiveness which begs the question of whether this film even really needed to exist. Nonetheless, there is enough new material here, along with continued use of a successful formula, to result in a thrilling story that stands up to the heights of the original, even if it at times goes for imitation more than improvement.
2) Tick… Tick… BOOM! (4.0 Stars)
Tick… Tick… BOOM! is a wonderfully creative musical journey delivered from the mind of Lin-Manuel Miranda. The film centers on Jonathan Larson(Andrew Garfield) as a 29-year-old theater composer trying to establish himself in New York City. The structure of this story is one of a kind, with insanely catchy musical numbers, moments of raw tenderness, and, without a doubt, the performance of the year delivered by Andrew Garfield in the leading role. His commitment to the role is evident as he pours every ounce of himself into the performance, creating a whirlwind of kinetic energy that mesmerizes, hooking the viewer from start to finish. Surrounded by a strong ancillary cast, all the characters feel fleshed out and compelling which helps keep the viewer enthralled with this world they are being introduced to. This is a highly rewatchable experience filled with energy and heart that should be witnessed by all whether they prefer musicals or not, at the very least to watch Garfield shine.
1) Raya and The Last Dragon (4.5 Stars)
Raya and The Last Dragon is yet another example of the fantastic stories that can be told within the world of animation. The story follows Raya (Kelly Marie Tran), a warrior in pursuit of the world’s last dragon, Sisu (Awkwafina), hoping she can help heal a troubled civilization. The film engulfs the viewer into its vast world filled with complex characters and relevant themes. The expertly crafted story elegantly pulls off some strong world building while taking our hero on a journey infused with heart and humor that culminates in a creative climax that subverts expectations, thus conveying a much stronger message in the process. Additionally, the animation is remarkably well done and provides some of the best action sequences seen in an animated film. This is a story that will please children with its superficial entertainment, as well as adults with its resonating themes. Everyone should seek out this one and enjoy the wonder of what the cinematic artform can offer.