in Top Ten

One thing about our annual top 10 lists that we have to deal with every year is that eligibility gets a little more complicated each week as we move through the media we cover. Despite the Grammys bizarre rules, picking albums is easy: did it come out between January 1 and December 31? Then it counts, even if the album had a single or two from the year before. TV shows get a little more complicated, since some shows have seasons that start in the fall of one year and the spring on another, for example. And then movies are the most difficult, because a lot of indie movies have multiple release dates: do we go by festival debut? Limited release in LA and New York? Wide release? If they’re foreign films, do we go off their home country’s release or when they came out here?

For the most part, we’ve just done whatever the big critics did, which, living in Seattle, often meant making a lot of trips to the art house theaters in December and January to catch up with the indie darlings critics saw in the bigger cities, at festivals, or on screeners. But that was not the case in 2020! The theaters stayed closed after March 2020 and didn’t become a part of my life again until F9 saved cinema in June of 2021. For the first time ever, it just was not possible to see a lot of the most beloved movies – including major Oscar pictures – until their digital release in 2021. So (and I warned John and Colin I’d be doing this) I’m making a one-time exception to my own list eligibility rules and expanding the field to any movie that was released for the first time IN A WAY I COULD SEE IT in 2021. Does this have anything to do with the fact that I’m still skittish about going back to theaters and haven’t seen a lot of beloved 2021 movies? MAYBE.

Still on my watchlist
The Card Counter
Drive My Car
In the Heights
Last Night in Soho
Licorice Pizza
The Mitchells vs. The Machines
No Sudden Move
The Nowhere Inn
The Power of the Dog
Raya and the Last Dragon
Red Rocket
Shiva Baby
The Sparks Brothers
Summer of Soul (…or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised)
The Tragedy of Macbeth
tick, tick… BOOM!
Together Together
West Side Story
The Worst Person in the World

10. F9

Just look at that image. That is a rocket car that Tyrese and Ludacris are going to drive off an airplane (flown by Lucas Black and Bow Wow) and into space to stop an evil satellite from hacking every computer in existence and allowing John Cena to take over the world. It’s the most over-the-top moment in a movie full of exactly that kind of ridiculousness: Dom turns into the Hulk and kicks down a building he’s inside, the gang uses magnet cars to wreck a whole town, and, oh yeah, Dom does a Tarzan vine swing WITH HIS DODGE CHARGER. This is also the movie that brought Han miraculously back to life and set us up for inevitable #justiceforhan in either Fas10 Your Seatbelts or the Hobbs & Shaw sequel. Look, I may be dumb, but I’m not dumb enough to not have this on my list.

9. Passing

If you’re making a directorial debut, make sure to hire cinematographer Eduard Grau. Grau worked with Tom Ford on A Single Man, Joel Edgerton on The Gift, and now Rebecca Hall on Passing and is three-for-three helping them make visually-striking debuts. Passing is a complex and nuanced film about virtually ever aspect of identity: race, nationality, gender, sexuality, class, family – it’s all relevant to this story about the chance encounter between two old friends. So it’s surprising to read that, if anything, Hall’s thoughtful adaptation simplified Nella Larsen’s 1929 novel. We want to believe modern audiences are more savvy but I guess the reality is just that these sorts of stories – and the creators of them – have been repressed for far too long. Guess I gotta read that book.

8. The Last Duel

About 44 years after The Duellists, Ridley Scott returns to the world of French blowhards fighting each other in a big, dumb duel. This time he was able to cast two actors who somehow seem even more American than Keith Carradine and Harvey Keitel, bringing in Matt Damon and Adam Driver as two brothers-in-arms turned bitter enemies after Driver rapes Damon’s wife, Jodie Comer. But The Last Duel evokes more than just Scott’s first movie: I couldn’t help but think of Gladiator and Kingdom of Heaven during some of the big battle sequences that reminded me that few people make this kind of movie better. And of course the he said/he said/she said structure evokes Rashomon, although I wish Scott had taken a more Zhang Yimou-esque approach and visually distinguished each POV better. Needless to say, this is an extremely appealing movie to film dudes, as long as their not millenians who can only watch phones.

7. The Green Knight

Look, you chop a tree guy’s head off, it’s only fair he gets to chop yours off a year later. That just make sense. After all, we live in a society. It’s that kind of grounded realism that makes The Green Knight such an action-packed laughriot. I kid, but yeah, I watched this on one of A24’s exclusive digital screenings with my dad and he basically thought it was the most boring movie he’d ever seen. I guess it just goes to show you can fill your movie with talking foxes, naked giants, banshees, and ill-advised sexual escapades and it still won’t be enough to overcome Sean Harris’ whispery, exhausted old King Arthur and Joel Edgerton’s friendly cuck. Oh well, better luck next time, David Lowery.

6. Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings

There was no Marvel stuff in all of 2020, which was weird, but somehow 2021 was even weirder because they over-compensated and came out with four movies and five TV shows and made it so there was basically something MCU-related going at all times. Of the four movies, Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings was by a significant margin my favorite, to my great surprise. Black Widow felt unnecessary since, you know, she’s dead and they couldn’t really add anything interesting to her story. The Eternals was beautiful and ambitious but it’s actual story was boring. And while I had a lot of fun with Spider-Man: No Way Home, I worry too much about the various things it represents to actually be able to love it. Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, the movie with perhaps the least MCU baggage of the four, really doesn’t have any glaring issues for me to point at. Instead, it’s got a lovable main cast and a bunch of awesome action sequences. So, in conclusion, more daddy issues please!

5. Nomadland

For a movie that has a reputation for being deeply depressing, I didn’t actually think Nomadland was that sad. Near the end of the movie we see Fern (Frances McDormand) reunite with her sister (Melissa Yandell Smith, RIP) who tells her that she always fiercely independent. Fern visits her old home and we see that it sits on the edge of a vast natural expanse, with wide valleys and tall mountains as far as the eye can see. The message seems to be: she was always a nomad at heart, and van-dwelling has gotten her closer to the life she wanted than ever before. It’s not ideal – director Chloe Zhao keeps the specter of poverty and the broken healthcare system at the edges of the frame rather – but Fern’s just plucky enough to make it work. A moving, beautiful film that I wish I could have seen on the big screen instead of Zhao’s more recent movie (although, you know what? The Eternals is perhaps Marvel’s most visually striking movie).

4. Judas and the Black Messiah

Unlike a few of my more questionable picks, I don’t think you could make an argument Judas and the Black Messiah is a 2020 movie. It played at the 2021 Sundance Festival and was released simultaneously in theaters and on HBO Max shortly after in February 2021. But it somehow also was able to get Oscar nominations and wins in April so for some reason it feels like it came out in 2020. I dunno, maybe John or Colin can explain it. Regardless, Judas and the Black Messiah really opened my eyes the Black Panther Party and particularly Chairman Fred Hampton, who also featured briefly in 2020’s The Trial of the Chicago 7. It was shocking to learn that Hampton was only 21 years old when the government had him murdered. Like many of the civil rights leaders of that era, his legacy has been distorted and his message that the struggle against fascism transcends race is as important as ever. A thrilling, infuriating movie that hasn’t been far from my thoughts for the better part of a year now.

3. Pig

Pig is about Nicolas Cage playing an old chef with a really dirty face. So you’re like “Hey! Nick! Wash your face man!” And he’s like, “No way dude!” And then, just to spite us, he gets his face even dirtier. And then he gets gaping head wounds that he just lets bleed and dry on his face. Yuck! After all that and despite looking like a real life Pigpen, he prepares some food that people somehow willingly eat? But then… SPOILER ALERT… at the very end of the movie, he finally washes that face. Five stars.

2. Minari

Like several of the movies I’ve already written about for this list, Minari is about the disconnect between the American dream and our reality. This is the story of a Korean immigrant family’s struggle to make it on their own by starting a farm in rural Arkansas sometime in the Eighties. They run into financial and logistical problems almost immediately and it becomes clear this film will be about a test to see if they’re strong enough for this country. That struggle is also represented by son David’s (Alan Kim) heart condition, which limits him from being being able to exert himself at all – his mother won’t even let him run. I think I really needed the reminder that overcoming horrific odds, when every external and internal force is pushing back against you, is a thing that actually happens. It likely doesn’t happen the way you hope it will, it might not even feel like a win. But it does happen. And that optimism is something I could use a lot more of these days.

1. Dune: Part One

We’ve covered this pretty in-depth already, but in case you missed it: Dune is notoriously hard to adapt. This adaptation got so much right, starting with writer-director Denis Villeneuve and the great cast led by Timothée Chalamet, Rebecca Ferguson, Oscar Isaac, Josh Brolin, Stellan Skarsgård, Jason Momoa, and Javier Bardem. I loved the movie’s visual style. I loved the music by Hans Zimmer. I even loved the decision to split the story in half, even if that became a source of anxiety for years until the sequel was finally greenlit. But the question is: does this adaptation suffer for removing the politics and trippy elements from the story? I don’t think so. I think:

  1. Villeneuve set out to make a thrilling action movie that stayed true to the book and totally succeeded
  2. It’s totally fine for a movie to be a different experience than the book it’s based on

So I very much enjoyed seeing Dune in theaters this fall, and had just as good a time when I re-watched it the next day at home on HBO Max. Part Two can’t get here soon enough.