Sam Landstra—Co-Chief Editor
After a year of half-capacity theatres and Metro-Goldwyn Meyer delaying James Bond: No Time to Die for the umpteenth time, films appeared to return to their pre-pandemic force in 2021. This year, heavy-hitting production studios and directors, as well as lesser-known filmmakers, took moviegoers to the basement of an Episcopalian church in the aftermath of a tragic shooting (Mass), to an underground network of chefs in Portland (Pig), to the desert planet of Arrakis (Dune), and more.
While film is a personal, subjective experience, here are my top ten films from the previous year and the reasons they’re worth your time.
#10: West Side Story
During my senior year, my predominantly white high school put on a production of West Side Story, so I’ve got a complicated, regrettable history with the musical. Despite this, Steven Spielberg’s West Side Story was still top-notch for me.
While I really, really didn’t like Ansel Elgort’s portrayal of Tony (stay boring, boy), and couldn’t separate the actor’s prior-to-filming allegations from his character either, West Side Story is beautifully shot and pulls off what few remakes achieve: living up to its predecessor. Spielberg is a master.
In 2018, after the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglass High School, my high school global studies class debated gun control. It felt sticky and wrong. There wasn’t any empathy or grieving in our discussion. There was just inconsiderate, political rhetoric.
Mass is different. It’s real, raw, and moving. It doesn’t pervert tragedy but mourns the parents’ loss of their son. While watching, I kept on thinking about my dad and the love a parent has for their child. I’m not sure I’ll ever understand it, and I don’t ever want to know the loss that Gail, Jay, Linda, and Richard felt.
#8: The Power of the Dog
You don’t know what you’ve got until it’s gone, and you won’t realize that The Power of the Dog deserves to be a frontrunner for Best Picture until a month after watching it.
The Power of the Dog rewards patience and requires much of it. Here, a surly rancher bullies his brother’s wife and son until the son—a stringy, artistic boy—softens the rancher’s defenses. As their relationship deepens, the film’s themes of masculinity, protection, and predation slink through, tying up The Power of the Dog with a striking ending.
If you can stay on the bull for the first hour of the film, you’ll be hooked by the horns until the end.
#7: The Last Duel
The Last Duel tells three different accounts of a knight’s vicious assault of a lady. And, through the differing truths of the knight, the lady, and a squire, the viewer is compelled to confront the effects of ego-driven, unchecked masculinity.
I’m not a medieval fan, but the film’s well-paced, 153-minute runtime never left me uninterested. As a 22-year-old male, I’m not the person with answers, but The Last Duel seems to be a rare, nuanced depiction of sexual assault in an industry that thrashes between historical misogyny and performative political statements.
#6: Spider-Man: No Way Home
There’s a Venom to every Spider-Man.
Spider-Man: No Way Home wanted you to like it, so it brought back Tobey McGuire, Andrew Garfield, and someone who’s something of a scientist themselves.
Well, it worked. I haven’t seen a majority of Marvel’s movies and am not a fan of their comedy and generic, palatable visual style, but I really enjoyed the flop-proof No Way Home.
Sure, this film is just a cash grab disguised as an homage, but it’s still an homage in effect. I’ll choose to focus on the positives (they make me feel better).
#5: Judas and the Black Messiah
Because of its release in mid-January of last year, it’s easy to forget about Judas and the Black Messiah. It’s also easy to forget about the FBI’s murdering of Fred Hampton, the young leader in the Black Panther Party, but director Shaka King won’t let you forget.
King doesn’t hold anything back in his depiction of the vile racism and corruption that existed in the late 60s (and still exists today). The film’s screenplay, with its politically charged lines, pulls no punches.
#4: The Green Knight
For me, The Green Knight made everything in film feel normal again. After watching David Lowery’s epic retelling of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, a 14th century chivalric romance, anything felt possible.
T hat’s a whimsical statement, to be sure, and it speaks to the transformative power of fantasy. The genre’s time-honored tales of knighthood and honor are magical, and The Green Knight’s scale and cinematography was divine enough to make me believe in destiny. If you take the time to understand its story, it’ll do the same for you.
Here’s the logline for Pig: Nicholas Cage’s pig is stolen. Nicholas Cage must find his stolen pig. Nicholas Cage is angry.
That’s all you need to know, and all you should know, before watching Pig. The anti-revenge film subverts the genre in award-winning ways. When I planned on violence, Cage’s character cooked a meal. When I planned on a bloody ass-kicking, he took the punches.
Pig didn’t meet my expectations in the best, most touching of ways (and it’s on Hulu).
#2: Licorice Pizza
Licorice Pizza is one of those movies where, after watching it, you hate everything about your own redundant, predictable life. It is, to paraphrase David Ehrlich of IndieWire, a holyfreakingshootIlovemovies type of movie.
It’s messy. It’s free and aimless. It’s what happens when a top-tier filmmaker takes a mattress-selling middle schooler and matches them with a desperate-to-belong twenty-something and then writes where the characters take him.
You’ll want to run somewhere, anywhere, after watching Licorice Pizza, with 70s rock music blaring in the background, preferably.
Dune is a better Star Wars. I mean, let’s be real. It ought to outpace the most recent Skywalker trilogy at both the box office and The Academy. It won’t, because of generations of nostalgia, but Denis Villeneuve’s masterpiece is light years ahead of The Force Awakens and friends.
The first act of Dune rushes towards an action-packed second, and the third act drags in comparison because of it as well. Still, the film’s stunning camera work keeps the viewing from becoming a chore.
That’s the thing about Dune that surprised me: it’s snappiness and accessibility. Though its space politics narrative, especially in the first hour, remains expositional, it’s not arduous either. I wouldn’t say that about most of Villeneuve’s work. It’s fun! And funny at times too.
I have but one sand worm-sized qualm with Dune: its source material was so clearly written in the 60s. The book’s messianic godchild, born with prophetic visions and the ability to warp the space time continuum, is just some guy named Paul.
I’ll get over it because Dune is the beginning of something big.