Clinton Olsasky: My Top 10 Films of 2021
2021 was a mixed bag for the film industry, which is still rewriting its own rules in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic.
On the one hand, moviegovers across the country were able to safely return to theaters following the rollout of the COVID-19 vaccine.
On the other hand, the pandemic has refused to let up in many parts of the country, forcing the industry to offer more at-home viewing options than ever before.
Streaming giants like Netflix continued to reign supreme, churning out international sensations (“Squid Game”), uber-accessible action comedies (“Red Notice”) and auteur-driven prestige dramas (“The Power of the Dog”) alike.
The old-guard movie studios have adapted in different ways. Disney, for one, shortened their theatrical exclusivity window, premiering new releases on their Disney+ service after only 30 days in some cases.
Warner Bros. adopted an even more flexible strategy, premiering all of their 2021 titles on HBO Max and in theaters simultaneously (and yes, that even included big-budget blockbusters meant for big-screen distribution like “Dune” and “The Matrix Resurrections”).
All the while, the art of filmmaking — which is really the art of storytelling — has endured. From Hollywood legends like Steven Spielberg to promising newcomers like Shaka King, this year has seen a wide array of filmmakers, young and old, push the medium to exciting and bold new territory.
What follows are my 10 favorite films (and, in some cases, limited series) of 2021.
* Note: Several 2021 award contenders, including “Drive My Car” and “The Worst Person in the World,” had not received wide releases as of this publication date.
10. “Nightmare Alley” (dir. Guillermo del Toro)
From the demon-turned-superhero in “Hellboy” to the tenderhearted Amphibian Man in “The Shape of Water,” Guillermo del Toro has always held a fascination for the human side of so-called “monsters.”
But what about the monstrous side of so-called humans?
Enter: “Nightmare Alley,” del Toro’s noir-tinged tale of human greed, corruption and deceit.
Based on the 1946 novel of the same name (first adapted into a classic film noir in 1947), “Nightmare Alley” centers on a carnival worker by the name of Stanton Carlisle (Bradley Cooper).
Stanton comes to the carnival with a checkered past and, worse yet, an unchecked moral compass. After working with a clairvoyant act that involves an elaborate coded language, Stanton eyes an opening to boost his career — even if it means steamrolling others to do it.
Along with Cooper, del Toro has assembled a knockout cast to bring this story’s many archetypes to three-dimensional life: Rooney Mara as the innocent ingénue Molly, Willem Dafoe as the world-weary grifter Clem and Cate Blanchett as the slithering femme fatale Lilith.
Of course, this wouldn’t really be film noir without a tragic hero and a fatal flaw, and that’s where Stanton’s monstrous side comes into play. As we witness the swindling psychic’s meteoric rise, we can also sense a precipitous fall: a moral atrophy and irreversible regression from man to beast.
9. “Parallel Mothers” (dir. Pedro Almodóvar)
It’s fitting that “Parallel Mothers,” the latest high-wire melodrama from Pedro Almodóvar, opens with a photographer seeking to excavate a mass grave.
After all, Almodóvar has made a career out of unearthing long-forgotten genres and storytelling modes to create bold and complex narratives.
“Parallel Mothers” sees Almodóvar continue that tradition, spinning a tangled web of desire and deception like only he can. Only this time the Spanish auteur adds a political dimension to the mix, framing the central story against the backdrop of a small village confronting the past horrors of the Spanish Civil War.
Within this larger context of intergenerational trauma, the movie follows two single mothers who will soon collide with their own unforeseen trauma in their first year of motherhood.
The two women — Janis (a pitch-perfect Penélope Cruz) and Ana (Milena Smit) — fatefully cross paths when they share a hospital room shortly after giving birth. Unbeknownst to Janis and Ana, their paths will intersect again when they least expect it, disrupting both of their lives and altering their destinies — and identities — as mothers forever.
8. “Judas and the Black Messiah” (dir. Shaka King)
When it comes to race, Hollywood has a long and uncomfortable history of romanticizing and oversimplifying American history.
Fortunately, “Judas and the Black Messiah” breaks away from this trend. The historical drama, which focuses on the betrayal of Fred Hampton, a vocal and visible leader in the Black Panther Party, is firmly steeped in the lived-in experience of its Black characters.
Fittingly, the story is told from the dual perspective of its titular savior and betrayer: Hampton and FBI informant Bill O’Neal. Daniel Kaluuya embodies Hampton’s messianic spirit with boundless charisma, while Lakeith Stanfield quietly electrifies as O’Neal, which is, in effect, a performance within a performance.
Shaka King, a relatively unknown filmmaker before this movie, directs with vibrant motion and emotion, tapping into the aesthetic of New Hollywood police procedurals while always foregrounding the action against the era’s hostile political backdrop.
Harrowing in its depiction of institutional racism and violence, “Judas and the Black Messiah” serves as both a gripping political thriller and a stirring portrait of Hampton’s short but impactful life — a life that, for too long, had been shut out of American history books and, yes, American movies.
7. “The Tragedy of Macbeth” (dir. Joel Coen)
William Shakespeare’s tragedies are always ripe for reinterpretation, and none more so than “Macbeth,” arguably the Bard’s darkest and most prescient work about a power-hungry would-be king.
“The Tragedy of Macbeth” marks Joel Coen’s first directorial outing without the involvement of brother and long-time collaborator Ethan, but the directing duo’s career-long obsession with obsessive men continues here.
The always game Denzel Washington drills down into the compulsions that haunt the titular Thane of Glamis, turning in a career-best performance in a career filled with career bests. Washington utters Shakespeare’s text with breathless precision, wheeling between moments of suppressed disquiet and volcanic fury.
Frances McDormand, who also serves as a producer for the film, seethes as the steely-eyed Lady Macbeth, while stage actress Kathryn Hunter radiates supernatural horror as all three Witches with eerily avian physicality.
Such eeriness extends to the film’s stark and sharply geometric set design, which echoes the jagged abstraction of German Expressionism. Shot in inky black and white on soundstages that seem to exist outside of time and space, Coen’s dagger-edged direction distills “The Scottish Play” into its bare essentials.
From there, Coen tells a captivating story, full of sound and fury — but not signifying nothing. Rather, it is the timeless story of human greed, that all-consuming avarice that turns men into kings and kings into corpses.
6. “The Beatles: Get Back” (dir. Peter Jackson)
In the 50 years since the Beatles’ earth-shattering breakup and controversial release of their album “Let It Be,” fans of the Fab Four have fantasized about being a fly on the wall for those fateful final recording sessions.
Now, thanks to an exhaustive restoration of previously unseen footage, we can all be that fly in Peter Jackson’s immersive multi-part documentary “The Beatles: Get Back.”
Spanning a three-week period in January 1969, the film uncovers what really happened in the days leading up to what would be the group’s final public performance from the rooftop of Apple Corps headquarters.
As it turns out, reports of hostility during these sessions had been greatly exaggerated over the past half-century. Yes, Jackson’s resurrected footage does document some moments of friction, including George Harrison’s temporary (and shockingly polite) exit from the band.
But there is also a treasure trove of camaraderie and creative spontaneity, from Paul McCartney’s miraculous on-the-spot creation of the hit single “Get Back” to keyboardist Billy Preston’s tone-shifting arrival as the unofficial “fifth Beatle.” Not to mention plenty of Beatles shenanigans, such as John Lennon’s teeth-clenched rendition of “Two of Us” or Ringo Starr’s deadpan declaration of flatulence.
Taken altogether, “The Beatles: Get Back” is not only a long-overdue reevaluation of the legendary band’s breakup; it’s also a triumphant ode to the joys of creation and the creative process itself.
5. “Dune” (dir. Denis Villeneuve)
Over 35 years after David Lynch’s botched take on Frank Herbert’s sci-fi epic, Denis Villeneuve has finally done the impossible: adapt the unadaptable “Dune.”
Eschewing gaudy alien backdrops for austere architecture and sandblasted terrain, Villeneuve recreates the all-encompassing vastness of the desert planet Arrakis while diving deep into the psychological tug-of-war at the heart of Herbet’s story.
Unlike Lynch’s bloated version, Villeneuve’s “Dune” has a laser-sharp focus on its protagonist Paul Atreides (a wonderfully brooding Timothee Chalamet) and the insurmountable odds he faces as an unlikely hero — and even unlikelier savior.
The political intrigue and religious undercurrents of Herbert’s source material are still here, of course, as is the immersive world-building and thrilling action. But the ingenious plotting of Villeneuve’s adaptation rests squarely on Paul and the loved ones in his orbit (not the least of which is Chani, played by Zendaya in a magnetic performance that maximizes her limited screen time to the fullest).
Villeneuve’s “Dune,” then, really resembles an intimate character study, just wrapped inside an interplanetary adventure. The best part? This is only part one of what is sure to be one of the smartest and most satisfying big-screen adaptations in recent memory.
4. “The French Dispatch” (dir. Wes Anderson)
Now, a full quarter-century into his feature filmmaking career, Wes Anderson has pushed his visual and narrative aesthetics to their giddy extremes in “The French Dispatch,” a multilayered “love letter to journalists,” as Anderson himself put it.
The film opens on the death of Arthur Howitzer Jr. (Anderson favorite Bill Murray), editor of the fictional Liberty, Kansas Evening Sun newspaper and its French foreign bureau. According to Howitzer’s dying wish, the paper is to cease publication upon its editor’s death, but not before one final issue is published.
What follows is a rip-roaring retelling of the stories that comprise this final issue, including the stories behind the stories themselves.
Anderson is at his most visually playful — and experimental — in “The French Dispatch,” shifting between black-and-white and color cinematography, toying with aspect ratios and blocking elaborate real-time “freeze frames.”
And yet, whether tracing a prisoner’s unlikely transformation into modern art celebrity or piecing together a profile of police cuisine that finds a chef adrift in a foreign land, Anderson still manages to tap into a strong emotional core beneath all his heightened aesthetics.
In other words, he never loses sight of the human element at the heart of his stories. Just like any good journalist.
3. “The Underground Railroad” (dir. Barry Jenkins)
Based on the novel of the same name by Colson Whitehead, “The Underground Railroad” sees director Barry Jenkins reimagine the horrors of slavery in the Antebellum South, transforming the titular railroad into a literal subterranean train to freedom.
Jenkins’ sprawling historical epic centers on Cora (Thuso Mbedu), a runaway slave who escapes from a Georgia plantation, seeking safe passage on the railroad.
To tell Cora’s story, Jenkins leans into the aesthetics of magical realism, suffusing his images with a surrealist streak that blurs the lines between reality and fantasy, even between past and present. Avoiding spoilers, let’s just say that Cora’s journey north starts to resemble a journey forward, through time, as she encounters racism in all its mutating forms — from chattel slavery to eugenics to economic disenfranchisement.
Jenkins renders all this with an unflinching eye, which can make “The Underground Railroad” admittedly difficult to sit through at times. However, those willing to endure the journey will be rewarded with some truly awe-inspiring moments of quiet (and not-so-quiet) resistance, fittingly directed with Jenkins’ trademark swirling camera and punctuated with an achingly romantic and moving score by Nicholas Britell.
2. “Licorice Pizza” (dir. Paul Thomas Anderson)
What exactly is “Licorice Pizza” about?
It’s a tricky question. After all, there’s no licorice or pizza in the movie. However, there is an oil crisis, a mayoral campaign, a booming waterbed business and countless other memorable incidents that take place in Paul Thomas Anderson’s free-wheeling coming-of-age odyssey.
Set in the San Fernando Valley in 1973, “Licorice Pizza” centers on a few pivotal months in the lives of high school student Gary Valentine (Cooper Hoffman) and 20-something Alana Kane (Alana Haim of the rock band Haim).
A child actor already past his prime, the 15-year-old Gary is overly confident, fiercely ambitious and sorely lacking in self-awareness. Alana, meanwhile, is directionless, a dreamer floating through life waiting for something — or someone — to shake her awake.
Haim and Hoffman are magnetic as Alana and Gary. “Licorice Pizza” marks the feature film debut for both actors, but you would never know it based on the newcomers’ on-screen chemistry and impressive emotional range.
Anderson, whose direction is technically brilliant as usual, recreates the mid-70s setting with an uncanny eye for detail and real-life allusions to legends from Old and New Hollywood alike (the writer-director shot “Licorice Pizza” on 35 mm film, using older lenses to capture the texture of movies from that era).
That specificity of time and place, of the intersecting crossroads of New Hollywood’s arrival and the Golden Age’s exit, provides the perfect backdrop for Alana and Gary: a kaleidoscopic vision of young love and daydreaming in the shadow of the dream factory itself.
1. “West Side Story” (dir. Steven Spielberg)
Believe it or not, Steven Spielberg had never directed a musical before (not counting the Busby Berkeley-inspired opening to “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom”), but you wouldn’t know it from watching the filmmaker’s new take on “West Side Story,” a late-career masterwork of unrivaled reinvention.
The film’s plot (a “Romeo and Juliet” retelling set in 1950s New York) should already be familiar to those who have seen the 1961 adaptation of the Broadway hit by composer Leonard Bernstein and lyricist Stephen Sondheim.
Still, Spielberg makes the familiar feel fresh, adding new layers of context through inventive camerawork and blocking. This is evident from the film’s opening sequence, a bravura crane shot that tracks along the wreckage of a working-class neighborhood, soon to be replaced by Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts and its high-priced patrons.
Spielberg’s mastery behind the camera resonates throughout the film’s many musical numbers. The most notable is the newly choreographed “America,” in which Anita (Ariana Debose) and company all but burst through the screen in an extended outdoor sequence of sun-scorched exhilaration.
Such high-spirited direction is grounded by Tony Kushner’s screenplay, which adds texture and depth to the film’s characters, including new family dynamics for Maria (Rachel Zegler), a redemptive backstory for Tony (Ansel Elgort) and the return of Rita Moreno (1961’s Anita) in a new role filled with unexpected emotional weight.
- “Annette” (dir. Leos Carax)
- “The Power of the Dog” (dir. Jane Campion)
- “A Hero” (dir. Asghar Farhadi)
- “NYC Epicenters” (dir. Spike Lee)
- “Titane” (dir. Julia Ducournau)
— Clinton Olsasky