2021 has been a mixed bag, but a mixed bag is magnificent on the heels of 2020. As far as cinema goes, it’s been a year of revivals. A revival of movie theaters, to some degree, with younger audiences returning in droves while older folks are more reluctant. 2021 was also the year of the musical, with eleven song-and-dance films calling the year home. That’s got to be some kind of record given the genre’s flailing state the past couple of decades. More than anything, 2021 was a return to big-budget filmmaking that didn’t sacrifice heart, humanity, or wit in order to please mass audiences. At a time when cinemas are still getting back on their feet, it was the perfect time for filmmakers working on a grand scale to bring their A-game again.
The Honorable Mentions
12. Annette (AMAZON PRIME)
Leo Carax of Holy Motors fame has delivered unto us a musical unfurling a peculiar world of song, dance, and standup comedy that washes over any viewer willing to follow it. Annette is for the cinephiles among us who revel in the abstract and the absurd, although narratively speaking, the film isn’t abstract at all. The plot is pretty straightforward, about a controversial stage comic and a Broadway opera sensation who fall in love, move in together, and eventually birth a child who will astonish the entertainment world. Thematically speaking, it’s a little more intangible in its sights until a sight for sore eyes in its final passage, an image and directorial choice so brilliant and moving so as to choke up even the most lost among us after laying witness to so many of Carax’s idiosyncratic flourishes. The child itself, for a majority of the film, happens to be one of them: a creepy-looking puppet signifying nothing until it is everything. Adam Driver delivers a tour de force performance, able to slip effortlessly from angry performer to lovelorn boyfriend to selfish bachelor, a toxic individual who cares only for himself and, for a brief period, Marion Cotillard’s Anne. The music, written by Sparks, alternates between simple but memorable earworms and slightly more complex passages denoting the increasingly unhinged mental state of Driver’s Henry McHenry. Annette is an engaging exercise about a provocateur by a provocateur.
11. Luca (DISNEY PLUS)
If Soul raised the question, Luca confirms the answer: Pixar films deserve to be seen on the big screen, not merely relegated to streaming on Disney Plus. Simple by design and lovely beyond compare, Luca is a sneakily poignant, mightily exuberant adventure tale revolving around two boys, Luca (Jacob Tremblay) and Alberto (Jack Dylan Grazer), who hail from under the sea where a secret, domesticated society of humanoid sea monsters flourish off the coast of Portorosso, Italy. They find each other, befriend each other, and set off to explore life on land, in town, and in search of a shimmering Vespa to call their own. Eventually, the two friends become three friends, and the race to win money and Vespa becomes a race to win the town’s adoration and acceptance, for this particular town makes a pastime out of hunting sea monsters. This is a sweet, funny, simply fantastic yarn that uses the beauty of the Italian Riviera to remind us why animated films need a big canvas. When Luca and Alberto go on a joy ride across the sea, utilizing their water-born gifts to somersault through ocean and air, director Enrico Casarosa’s digital “camera” spins along with them. Luca emphasizes the bond between three exuberant children, and explores that moment in time, in childhood, right before puberty hits and suddenly all that seems platonic may not be so anymore. Luca may be queer-coded for some, but intention is absent here, for there are platonic loves that transcend will-they-or-won’t-they.
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