Top Five Movies of 2021

Plus, quick thoughts on many more

by Mitch Pollock

We’ve all seen the Nicole Kidman AMC ad, right? The promo, which has aired before every AMC Theaters screening for five months and is burned into my brain forever, features Kidman cat-walking into an empty theater, buying popcorn, and waxing lyrically about the wonders of the big screen over swells of dramatic music. It’s corny, ridiculous, and perfect meme fodder, and like most memes, the line between ironic and genuine appreciation is impossible to parse. When AMC started showing a shortened version, fans launched an internet campaign to restore it to its original length. The ad’s signature line, “Heartbreak feels good in a place like this,” has inspired everything from mugs and t-shirts to cosplay (Kidman’s response: “It’s so true”). As advertising campaigns go, you can’t get more successful than that.

I have mixed feelings on the whole thing. On the one hand, the ad’s pitch that corporate-owned movie theaters are the cultural temples that can heal our souls of pandemic misery is dubious while the virus is still running wild. On the other hand, I might actually believe it. They certainly helped me. Ultimately, I can’t hate the ad. It’s a thing of beauty: a unique combination of picture, light, and sound that I’ll never forget. In the words of Bong-Joon Ho, “To me, that’s cinema.”

At this point, I’d normally bore you with some long ode to the unique power of movies in troubled times, but since Kidman pretty much covers it, I’ll keep it brief. We all went through a lot in 2021, each of us finding ways to cope with the boredom, frustration, despair, and loss of the ongoing pandemic. Among other things, I watched a lot of movies. Here are my five favorites.

5. The Power of the Dog

The once-dominant Hollywood Western is in short supply these days, but the few we get tend to be special. The Power of the Dog belongs to the Revisionist Western tradition started by Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven in 1992 and continued by movies like The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, True Grit, Django Unchained, and Hostiles. These modern anti-Westerns aim to interrogate and reorient the stories of the American West as they’ve traditionally been told. They’re like MythBusters episodes for cowboys, that pick various aspects of the genre’s white hat/black hat formula and add touches of gray.

In The Power of the Dog, director Jane Campion pokes at American masculinity in ways that feel completely fresh and unexpected. At the center is Montana rancher Phil Burbank (Benedict Cumberbatch), an archetypal macho American cowboy: quiet, tough, talented, and feared. He’s every bit the toxic male antihero that’s become commonplace in today’s dramas. When his timid brother George (Jesse Plemons) brings home a new wife and stepson (Kirsten Dunst and Kodi Smit McFee, respectively), Phil relentlessly bullies both of them – the mother for her poor background and drinking habit, the son for his effeminate manner. The first half of the movie is spent hoping they’ll survive.

It doesn’t take long for things to get more complicated. Slowly but surely, we see the dimensions of a human being behind Phil’s hard façade. It’s revealed that he’s no country rube, but a Yale graduate with a sharp intellect. We get hints of his adolescent bond with a mentor named Bronco Henry, whose death still haunts Phil years later. Cumberbatch gives the most multi-dimensional performance of the year: over the course of two hours, I felt respect, hatred, fear, empathy, and finally, pity for his character. It really starts to shift when he takes his new nephew Peter under his wing. Phil sees a soft, sensitive boy and seeks to prepare him for a man’s world; he’s also just desperate for a friend.

Of course, just when we’re settling into that familiar narrative, the movie becomes something completely different. To say more would reveal too much, but suffice it to say, The Power of the Dog is a wild ride, a worthy addition to the modern Western canon, and a brilliant examination of what it means to be a strong man – and how that might not look like anything you’d expect. Check it out on Netflix when you get a chance. It’s what Bronco Henry would do.

4. The French Dispatch

As a New Yorker subscriber who harbors a mostly hypothetical writing habit, I chalked The French Dispatch into my Top Five after only seeing the trailer. It didn’t disappoint. A loving homage to literary journalism, it’s structured exactly like an issue of the aforementioned magazine, with three short films representing three feature stories from different sections (Arts & Artists, Politics/Poetry, and Tastes & Smells). The premise: it’s the last issue of the fictional magazine ‘The French Dispatch,’ and they’re going out with a bang.

The result is a grab bag of different tones, styles, and topics, and everyone I’ve talked to has a different favorite “article.” Mine’s the first (“The Concrete Masterpiece”), which features Benicio del Toro as an imprisoned painter, Lea Seydoux as his prison guard muse, and Adrien Brody as the art speculator trying to make them rich. It works wonderfully as a satirical critique of the art world, but it’s also just really funny and exciting and romantic. I was mostly unmoved by the second part, the politics- and youth-focused “Revisions to a Manifesto,” but Frances McDormand was as great as ever. And in “The Private Dining Room of the Police Commissioner,” Jeffrey Wright earns Most Valuable Performer for his role as Roebuck Wright, a lyrical writer with a perfect typographic memory and a heart wrenching inner life (a wonderful homage to James Baldwin).

Wes Anderson’s a distinctive director with a “take it or leave it” style, and that hasn’t changed with his latest. It doesn’t have a plot, really; it drifts and meanders, shifting focus between several of Anderson’s niche interests. More impactful than any individual piece is the overall feeling it gives off: a pervading affection for literary writing that eventually envelops the patient viewer. And for better or worse, the movie is extremely literary. The dialogue and narration are dense and writerly in the New Yorker style and your mileage may vary depending on your tolerance for that sort of thing. It’s spoken at a quick pace, too; at times, I was left confused and wishing I could slow things down and catch my breath.

It’s more of a collection than a cohesive work, but what it lacks in impact it makes up for in tone. Less like a hammer, more like a warm bath with a stack of books next to the tub. If that analogy seems pretentious to you, cut me some slack. This is Wes Anderson we’re talking about. With Wes, you’re either in or out. For devoted fans, The French Dispatch is exactly what the doctor ordered. I can’t wait to watch it again.

3. tick, tick… BOOM!

When The Batman comes out in March, it’ll mark the culmination of a career renaissance for Robert Pattinson. After starting out in Hollywood as the pretty boy star of a teenage romance fantasy series (the Twilight Saga), he redefined his career with a series of under-the-radar, artistically minded projects (The Lost City of Z, Good Time, High Life, The Lighthouse) that allowed him to display his dramatic range and emotional depth. He’s now widely regarded as one of the best actors of his generation.

Wondering what this has to do with tick, tick… BOOM? Well, there’s another handsome late-30’s British actor whose career description is nearly identical, and who also should be acknowledged as one of the finest actors of his generation: TTB’s bright, shining star, Andrew Russell Garfield. His talent has been recognized in the past; he was nominated for an Oscar for The Social Network before being cast as Spider-Man, and he won a Tony Award in 2018. But he lost a bit of luster after hanging up the red-and-blue tights, and that’s a shame given how much great work he’s done since (Hacksaw Ridge, Silence, Under the Silver Lake). Hopefully, tick, tick…BOOM! starts to reverse that.

Okay, let’s get to the movie. Not surprisingly, given its origins as a stage musical, tick, tick…BOOM! is positively gushing with Theatre Kid Energy. I hope you had enough experience in high school theatre to know what I’m talking about; if not, refer to the recent kerfuffle about Jeremy Strong’s acting approach that spilled out of the pages of the New Yorker, or remember how everyone used to hate Anne Hathaway. Modern society is baked in cynicism and ironic detachment from our art and entertainment, but theatre people live in a different world where it’s cool to care. They’re often wildly passionate, painfully earnest, and more than a little self-involved. To everyone else, this makes them seem like weirdos. I know; I used to be one.

tick, tick… BOOM! tells the real-life story of one of these weirdos. It’s based on an autobiographical musical by composer Jonathan Larson which chronicles his struggle to bring his rock opera Superbia to production and realize his Broadway dreams, while simultaneously holding down a diner job and trying to fix a strained relationship. Garfield plays Larson, and his performance is the lifeblood of the movie. He perfectly balances the exuberance, earnestness, and selfishness of a dedicated artist still looking for his big break. Anyone who’s pursued a creative endeavor will connect with Larson’s journey and the yearning, frustrating, occasionally joyful process he suffers through. Garfield is simply a delight to watch.

And he can sing! After streaming the movie, I went on a YouTube hunt for alternate versions of his songs (‘30/90’, ‘Therapy,’ ‘Louder than Words’), and (with the big disclaimer that I’m not a musical theater expert) Garfield’s versions were the best. I’ve had ‘30/90’ stuck in my head for months and have watched this clip about fifty times (check out this one, too).

Calling a film an “emotional roller-coaster” is a nauseating cliché, but in this case it’s perfectly apt. It’ll break your heart if you let it. It works by doing what musicals do best: amplifying real human emotions and experiences with powerful music compositions and lots of heart. And it works mostly because of a former Spider-Man who is finally getting his due.

2. The Green Knight

After seeing David Lowery’s 2017 film A Ghost Story, I had a minor existential freak-out and ended up sitting in Lincoln Park for two hours talking with my college roommate about the meaning of life. It was awesome. His latest movie, The Green Knight, is slightly more conventional but an even greater cinematic achievement. Based on a 14th century romantic poem titled ‘Sir Gawain and the Green Knight,’ it’s as atmospheric and moody as any other A24 movie, but with a buoyant spirit of adventure on top. And while it didn’t fill me with the same angst as A Ghost Story, it shares many of the same philosophical concerns, and in particular, one big question: if we’re all going to die, how should we live?

Set in the last days of King Arthur’s court, the film follows Gawain (Dev Patel), a would-be knight with a bad case of arrested development. He wastes away his days in brothels and bars daydreaming about earning his spot at the Round Table. Then, at Arthur’s Christmas feast, an encounter with a mysterious visitor sets him on a hero’s journey into the dark English wilderness. What follows is a surreal art-house version of a medieval quest story, where Gawain meets giants and ghosts, tangles with robbers, and encounters scenarios too strange to properly describe. It’s a trip, but behind all the visual tricks and narrative weirdness is a deceptively simple, painfully human, and deeply moral story about growing up.

As Gawain travels to meet the titular knight, he encounters challenges that test him on the five chivalric virtues: friendship, generosity, chastity, courtesy, and piety. Without revealing specifics, Gawain fails nearly every test, routinely proving that he’s not ready to be one of Arthur’s knights nor prepared for the responsibilities of manhood. He’s far too concerned with being a great man and forgets to be a good one. It culminates in his fated meeting with the Green Knight and one final test. What follows (the fifteen minutes or so that close the film) brings the entire narrative into focus and hits you like a ton of bricks. It’s one of my favorite movie endings of all time.

The ending caps off a phenomenal screenplay, and the visual storytelling is equally impressive. Lowery’s vision of medieval England is gorgeous and otherworldly. He captures Gawain trudging through old growth forests and muggy swamps with slow panning shots filled with fog and rot. Patel is often tiny in the frame, emphasizing the smallness of his mortal concerns against the eternity of nature: visual storytelling reinforcing the themes. Top-notch filmmaking.

This isn’t an easy movie to recommend. It’s slow and strange, and will definitely require a viewer’s patience, especially since the story doesn’t click into place until the end. It also includes some sexual content that could make people squirm. But if you’re looking for something like nothing you’ve ever seen, this fits the bill.

1. Licorice Pizza

Like The French Dispatch, Licorice Pizza is the work of a fully proven artist with no more worlds to conquer. While Wes chose the deep end, cranking his visual and narrative experimentation to the max, Paul Thomas Anderson took it easy. He penned a script based on childhood memories, gathered a cast consisting largely of family and friends, and made the lightest and loosest film of his career – which, because it’s PTA, is also the best damn movie of the year.

The L.A.-set 1970’s coming-of-age story follows Gary Valentine (Cooper Hoffman, in his first film role), a 15-year-old child actor, as he clumsily but confidently pursues the affections of Alana Kane (Alana Haim, in her first film role), a 25-year-old woman trying to find her way in the world. (If you’re raising eyebrows about the age gap, I will vigorously defend it later on). Beyond that description, it’s a movie that’s exceedingly tough to explain. It resists climactic scenarios and dramatic epiphanies, and while it’s bathed in 70’s nostalgia (water beds, rock and roll, no adult supervision ever), it doesn’t rely on that, either. In a word, it’s chill. Anderson gives the keys to his two central characters and their strange, charming friendship, and lets go of the wheel.

I said this was a coming-of-age story, but interestingly, it isn’t Gary’s coming-of-age; it’s Alana’s. In most ways, Gary’s more of an adult than her: he flies across the country for acting gigs, he starts multiple businesses, he frequents a local bar where the owners know him by name, and he romantically pursues a woman ten years older than him with total confidence. He might still have pimples, but he knows what he wants out of life (“I’m a showman, it’s what I’m meant to do”). This isn’t a growth story for him. The audience is keenly aware that Gary will soon leave adolescence behind and have to face the challenges of adulthood; Peter Pan will grow up. In the frame of the movie, though, he’s killing it.

Comparatively, Alana still lives with her parents; works a job she hates; faces frustration, harassment, and idiocy in her dating life; and has no idea what she wants to do with her life. In other words, she’s an achingly authentic 25-year-old woman. (You can see why I fell in love with this movie: I’m a former teenage boy who did theatre and had countless hopeless crushes on girls far beyond my maturity level, who is now a 26-year-old romantically frustrated man who feels completely lost most of the time.) Alana is caught between two worlds: the joyful foolishness of adolescence that she’s probably outgrown, or the cynical bitterness and constant struggle of Grown-up Land. You’ll have to watch the movie to see where she lands. Just know that I left the theater both times with a massive grin on my face.

I’ll now defend the movie (briefly) from the preposterous future controversy, certain to arise from Twitter World in time for Oscar voting, regarding the age difference. Bear with me. Among his many talents, Anderson’s greatest ability has always been creating characters whose inner lives are authentic and complex. Think of Barry Egan of Punch-Drunk Love: a lonely, vulnerable man who’s easy for the audience to love. Also, a man-child who releases his pent-up rage at inopportune times. Are we supposed to feel good when Barry unleashes anger and violence on the criminals who wronged him? It’s complicated.

Licorice Pizza is complicated, too. It’s an adolescent story that refuses to be tidy, simple, or safe. Gary is sweet, funny, and terribly lovesick; he’s also totally self-interested and a bit of a sleaze. In other words, he’s an achingly authentic 15-year-old boy. It’s also obvious that there’s nothing sexual about whatever affection Alana feels towards Gary. She likes him, she’s drawn to him, she gets jealous about him, but she doesn’t want to sleep with him. Is this the right way to read the film? I don’t know. That’s for each viewer to think about for themselves, but for God’s sake, don’t listen to people on social media about anything. Go outside. Go to the movies!

In summation: Paul Thomas Anderson is a genius. Go see this movie. It’ll remind you what it’s like to be a kid, warts and all.

Hey, you’re still reading! Here’s a bunch of other stuff I loved at the movies last year:


It didn’t crack my personal top five, but it’s the movie of the year: the biggest, definitely the loudest, and the most ambitious achievement in film in 2021. As a book adaptation, it’s the best of both worlds: it maximizes the possibilities of the big screen while remaining extremely faithful to the original Frank Herbert novel.

I’m not the biggest fan of Denis Villeneuve’s previous movies and was worried I’d find this one emotionally inert, but the cast delivers the goods. Oscar Isaac and Rebecca Ferguson are phenomenal. It’s just an extremely well-crafted movie, from the production design to the costumes to the CGI to the sound. The sound! I saw it in a Dolby theater and was shaking in my seat.

I can’t wait for Part Two. If it can stick the landing, the combined Dune double feature could go down as an all-time classic of the science fiction genre.

Spider-Man: No Way Home and the return of the Goblin

The other big movie of 2021. If you haven’t seen it, turn back now, because spoilers are incoming. Folks… Tobey is back. Do you know how long comic book nerds my age have waited for this? YOU KNOW HOW MUCH I’VE SACRIFICED?

I can’t say I love the movie; I’m mostly out on Marvel these days, unfortunately. Despite the significant screen time they’re given, most of the returning characters from the Maguire and Garfield movies aren’t given interesting material by the screenwriters and are mostly there to spark nostalgia. The exception – the huge exception – is Willem Dafoe as Norman Osborn/Green Goblin. Dafoe brings maximum effort to the revival of his grinning, schizophrenic villain from the original Spider-Man. He steals every moment he’s on screen and brings a terrifying, realistic menace to the movie that surpasses every MCU villain to date. It’s the portrayal that Spider-Man’s comic book arch-nemesis has always deserved. Bravo, Norman.

The best movie no one saw: Nightmare Alley

Bradley Cooper, Cate Blanchett, Rooney Mara, Willem Defoe, Toni Collette, and Ron Perlman. Guillermo del Toro directing. Impeccable 1940’s production design. A National Board of Review Top 10 Film of the Year. A Christmas season release. Mystery. Horror. Romance. Sex. Murder. Carnies! This movie grossed less than $10 million at the box office, in the same month that the aforementioned Spider-Man movie hit $1 billion. What the hell is wrong with you people?

Any fans of film noir or anyone looking for something pitch dark and disturbing as hell should check this out.

Space Jam: A New Legacy, LeBron’s answer to The Last Dance

I have a half-written blog about why The Last Dance sucks that I’m saving for a special occasion (Michael Jordan’s 60th birthday, maybe). For now, I’ll just say this: Space Jam: A New Legacy is dumb, but still way better than the original. Michael Jordan can’t hold a candle to LeBron on the big screen or the basketball court. Take off your nostalgia goggles: Space Jam is bad, and LeBron is the G.O.A.T.

The Black Widow credit sequence

Marvel’s output this year largely disappointed me outside of WandaVision, but I came close to loving Black Widow until the disaster third act. I’ve always been a fan of the character and Scarlett Johansson’s performance, and the grounded espionage angle is right up my alley. I especially love the first scenes depicting Natasha’s childhood, and the Nirvana-backed credit sequence afterwards (even if it was cribbed from The Americans on FX).

The French romance movie hidden inside Stillwater

Stillwater is ostensibly about an American girl imprisoned for murder in France and the efforts of her father to free her. Yet, for a large chunk of the movie, it sets the crime thriller plot aside and becomes a romance between the Oklahoman screw-up dad (Matt Damon) and the French woman he’s staying with (Camille Cottin, doing amazing work). Perhaps I’m just a sucker for a good love story, but I thought it was beautifully rendered and quite moving. I’d love to re-watch just that section.

Angelina Jolie

I’ve already explained how my Marvel Studios loyalty has been waning for years. Casting Jolie in Eternals and letting her blow everyone else off screen is a good way to start winning me back. She looks great, she kicks ass, and she elevates the material with a committed dramatic performance.

Lady Gaga as Patrizia Reggiani, terrible accent and all

Speaking of blowing people off screen, Stefani Germanotta has done it again. If you know me at all, you know how I feel about A Star is Born. House of Gucci isn’t in the same ballpark, but Gaga’s screen presence and acting range continue to impress, and it could net Gaga another Oscar nomination (fingers crossed for a win!). Disrespect her at your own peril.

No Time to Die‘s night in Havana

I shamefully admit that this section of the blog has become “hot actress gives good performance,” but please indulge me once more while I shout out Ana de Armas. According to the Cuban actress, her character Paloma wasn’t in No Time to Die’s original script, but director Cary Fukunaga and Knives Out co-star Daniel Craig wanted her in the movie, so they wrote her in. Well done, boys! Her over-eager yet capable rookie agent leaps off the screen and makes the Cuba sequence the best part of Bond’s latest outing.

Leading man Eric Andre

I didn’t love Bad Trip, but I’m happy for my man Eric. He’s come a long way since screaming naked on the New York subway. Keep climbing.

The thrilling Broadway dance numbers in West Side Story

My mom hates West Side Story. Her reason: “It’s silly.” For once, I agree with her: the music clashes with the subject matter, the story sucks, and no one involved with its creation knew anything about Puerto Ricans. But hey, the dancing? Pretty great!

Dame Judi Dench making me cry in Belfast

Judi Dench’s character Granny reminds me of my own grandmother, who passed away this year. She has the same dry, lightly inappropriate sense of humor, and the same protectiveness. I’m rooting for her at the Oscars for this reason alone. It’s always nice when movies make you think about the special people in your life. I only wish I could call her up and tell her about it.

Being back in a theater

I saw A Quiet Place: Part II back in early summer. I remember it being pretty good: not as complete as the first one, but equally thrilling. More importantly, it was my first time going to a movie theater in almost a year, and it made me unfathomably happy. I know I already talked about this in the intro, so I’ll just say this: I like seeing movies on the big screen. It’s a nice thing, and I missed it, and I’m glad it’s back. If you haven’t gone in a while, give it a try.