Going to the movie theater has become my favorite pastime the last few years. The obsession started a while back when a local theater offered Groupons with 5 tickets for $25. It continued when MoviePass dropped their monthly subscription to $10 and was cemented in the summer of 2019 with the launch of Regal Unlimited. So when my local Regal closed in 2020 and didn’t open up again until April of this year I had to make up for a lot of lost time.
And boy did I. In 2021 I wound up seeing 92 movies in various Regal theaters. I saw movies in 5 different languages and multiple different formats. Some were older movies re-released like the original Ghostbusters or the Rocky IV Director’s Cut. Some were movies that were nominated for this year’s Oscars like Nomadland, The Father and Minari. For the sake of this list I omitted those movies (even though all 5 would have made the cut) and I’m just including movies released (or streamed) for the first time in 2021.
I should also preface this by acknowledging that movies are incredibly subjective. My top 25 could be your 25 worst. And that’s okay. But based off of what I look for in movies (Does it evoke a strong emotion? Did it make me laugh? Wince? Cry? Did it keep me awake an entertained? Does it make sense within the world it exists in? If it’s part of a series; is it cohesive with pervious movies?) here is my personal top 25 movies of 2021:
Honorable Mention: The Many Saints of Newark, Stillwater, Respect, Don’t Breathe 2 and The Sparks Brothers.
25. Lamb. This Icelandic drama-horror mash-up is one of the weirdest movies I’ve seen all year so just for that and to show how worldly I am I had to give it a spot.
24. The Eyes of Tammy Faye.
23. 6:45. Picture if Groundhog Day had a baby with Scream. Then that baby grew up and had a baby with American Psycho. That’s 6:45 in a nutshell.
21. Boogie. I enjoyed that this wasn’t your typical underdog story. This was less of your sports cliche “Will he win the big game?!” though of course that was sprinkled in there too and more about which path to take when you’re presented with two and both have positives and negatives. It also doesn’t hurt that I’m a big Fresh Off The Boat fan and Eddie Huang wrote and directed this.
19. Roadrunner: A Film About Anthony Bourdain.
18. 83. A Hindi language movie that tells the story of the 1983 Cricket World Cup winning Indian team this is a similar feel good story to American Underdog despite being set across the pond. The difference is this is more of an ensemble piece than the singular story of the next movie. You could easily flip these 2 but American Underdog made me cry more because it had children with disabilities and that will always rip at my heart strings.
17. American Underdog. Yes it was a melodramatic, rose-colored cookie cutter feel good story. Almost the polar opposite of the movie at #13 but sometimes I want to just leave a theater feeling positive.
16. The Card Counter.
15. Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings.
14. In The Heights.
13. New Order. This Mexican-French Spanish language movie is pure misery porn. Want a movie that just brings you down and keeps you there the entire time? Want a movie that takes away any faith you had in humanity? Want a movie that makes you gasp over and over at the sheer brutality of humans? Probably not. But I adored how brutal and relentless this movie was from start to finish.
12. 8-Bit Christmas.
11. The Alpinist.
10. West Side Story. I don’t like the songs in West Side Story. I knew that going in. So the fact this musical, loaded with songs I don’t enjoy brought me to tears multiple times is telling of just how great the rest of this movie is. The beginning of this movie really irked me with Riff being so over the top and unlikable for not just his character but his voice and overall existence. But it really picked up later on. Spielberg could have easily butchered this but instead he elevated it so kudos to him.
9. Blue Bayou. A unique story about a Korean immigrant raised in Louisiana facing deportation this was a compelling story of family and blood vs. water. It tackled identity and belonging and the complexity of people. What makes somebody good or bad and better or worse than somebody else? Maybe it’s the Dad in me but my top 10 is loaded with movies dealing with the family dynamics and this is another one. Sydney Kowalske as Jessie does a phenomenal job doing all that she can to hold on to Antonio who feels more like a Dad than her real Dad. I love that the ending is likely not what you expect but without the cheesiness of the twist that two movies coming up have.
8. Nightmare Alley. Like The Harder They Fall this was a movie that could have been ruined by the “twist” if not for such a fun experience leading to it. Visually the movie being set largely in a circus in the mid-20th century helped give it a much different look and feel than most of my list and really set itself apart. Bradley Cooper does great work here but the supporting cast really steal the show. David Strathairn and Toni Collette are unsurprisingly terrific in their roles. It’s fitting that as I pen this list the morning of New Year’s Eve that this movie felt like a really great 2 hour 30 minute classic episode of The Twilight Zone.
7. Nobody. April 2, 2021. For the first time in over a year I stepped back in the theater and the very first movie I saw was Nobody. This was a blast from start to finish. If the next movie on the list was the most reliant on speaking this is the movie that probably needed it the least. The action from start to finish was a hoot and watching a mild mannered, unassuming Dad in Bob Odenkirk transition into a Jason Statham like badass was such an enjoyable experience. Christopher Lloyd deserves a category all his own for the work he did here as well!
6. C’mon, C’mon. Like a movie that’ll be ranked above it this was a black and white Oscar bait type movie but a great one regardless. This is the slowest moving of any highly ranked movie on my list and reliant almost entirely on dialogue but gripping nevertheless. Another one that hits close to home for me it deals heavily with the concept of growing up and how kids feelings often end up overlooked or pushed to the back-burner. The relationship between Johnny and Jesse isn’t quite as neat and clean as Buddy and Pop in Belfast but it’s in the top 2 on-screen familial relationships from this year for me. This should absolutely be up there for Best Picture next to Belfast.
5. The Suicide Squad. It’s placement on this list might be more that it’s a victim of releasing before 3 of my othEr top 5 movies thank a knock on the movie itself. I enjoyed The Dark Knight movies but generally didn’t consider superhero movies my thing until movies like Guardians of the Galaxy and Deadpool came out. This felt like DC’s version of Guardians and I loved it! I laughed harder and more steadily at this than any other movie on my list and “that scene” with Taika Waititi brought on the full blown waterworks for me. Can DC make next year’s list again with The Batman? I doubt it but time will tell.
4. The Harder They Fall. This is one of only two movies to make my list that I watched from home but it earned it’s spot. It was written by Jeymes Samuel and Boaz Yakin but reads like the best of Tarantino. The opening 2 scenes hooked me like no other start to any movie I’ve seen this year. It’s the most quotable movie I’ve seen this year and while there’s a twist at the end that teeters on the edge of being too cheesy I enjoyed it and the entire movie preceding it more than make up for it. And the soundtrack is one of, if not the best of the year. “Guns Go Bang” has been stuck in my head way more often than I care to admit.
3. Belfast. It’s a drama shot near entirely black and white movie set in Ireland in the 1960s with an Irish cast. By all accounts this is prime Oscar bait. But I went for the bait and they reeled me in! There’s a common thread in most of my top movies and this was another one that moved me to tears. The relationship between Jude Hill as Buddy and Ciaran Hinds as Pop is one of the cutest, most endearing relationships I’ve seen on film this year. This one hits close to home with me as it deals heavily with the idea of moving for a better life or staying where you are with family. So maybe I’m biased here but of all the movies I expect to be nominated for an Oscar right now this was my favorite.
2. Peter Rabbit 2: The Runaway. To my knowledge Paddington 2 is the best reviewed family movie with a CGI main character with 99% fresh reviews on Rotten Tomatoes. And deservedly so. But while Peter Rabbit 2 may only have a 67% fresh from critics it actually has a higher audience score (89% to 87%) from audiences and I’m in agreement with said audiences. The movie has a wit and self-awareness that is unmated by anything I’ve seen this year. It was clever, hilariously funny and absolutely perfect for a family watch. Kids will enjoy the hijinks and adults will love that it’s essentially 93 minutes of winking and nodding at the camera. This was set to be my #1 until just a few weeks ago.
1. Spider-Man: No Way Home. I wanted to go against the grain and find something else but I just can’t. The last two Avengers movies are considered by some to be the most ambitious movies ever made and they’re up there. But every movie tied in to Endgame was made knowing Endgame was the…well, Endgame. No Way Home managed to incorporate 2 previous franchises of the same character, spanning 19 years. And they did it beautifully. With that much to work with it would have been very tempting to overcomplicate the story to tie everything together but they kept it relatively simple and the result was a fantastic movie from start to finish that’s going to be hard for any superhero movie and movie period to top for me. Sure, I marked out for the heavily pro wrestling based fight choreography but the way they tackled the feelings of loss, guilt and anger should warrant an Oscar nod but we know it likely won’t.
Cheers 2021! Here’s hoping 2022 keeps theaters open a full 365 days for the first time in 3 years and I can expand this to a top 50 next year!