As far as new releases go, 2021 was one of my laziest years on record. I saw fewer new movies than I have in the last half-dozen years (so if you don’t see something you thought deserved to be on this list, maybe I hated it or maybe I just haven’t seen it yet). Though this year saw my return to movie theaters after nearly 14 months (when I saw “Nobody”), from May through December I only went into movie theaters about a dozen times. Still, I was able to see some riveting films this year (mostly from the comfort of my home). Here are the ten best, if you ask me.
10. The White Tiger
We see an India still entrenched in a bitter divide in “The White Tiger,” director Ramin Bahrani’s (“99 Homes,” “Fahrenheit 451”) adaptation of the popular 2008 novel. Voting members of the Academy were able to see it last year, and nominated it for Best Adapted Screenplay (the award rightly went to “The Father,” my pick for last year’s best film). Most of us had to wait until early 2021, when it arrived on Netflix. Though it’s now a whole year old, those who haven’t had the chance to see this blistering tale of class division really owe it to themselves to do so.
9. The Green Knight
I won’t lie, “The Green Knight” meanders a bit in the middle. Anyone who endured the original 14th-century Middle English poem in English class can attest to that. But I dare you to be bored after watching the thrilling final minutes…and then looking up a summary of the poem (because, after all these years, I didn’t remember it well enough) and appreciating what David Lowery did with his adaptation.
Wes Anderson’s anthology film features a few stories that, stretched out to feature length, could have had a shot at making this list all on their own. But Anderson decided to give us all three together. How kind!
Disney makes magic again with “Encanto,” a beautiful story about family that manages to entertain audiences without sending its main character on a globe-trotting adventure. Instead, she stays home. That’s a good lesson in these pandemic times.
6. The Mitchells vs. the Machines
My favorite animated movie of the year, though, was the hilarious “The Mitchells vs. the Machines” (from directors Jeff Rowe and Michael Rianda, who wrote for the series “Gravity Falls”…which I haven’t seen yet, but might need to). It’s funny and heartwarming, and it came at just the right time…when we all needed something funny and heartwarming.
I thought this documentary about the 1971 prisoner uprising in Attica Correctional Facility was good—not great—until the final thirty minutes, when you start to see why it really matters. For a while, I thought “Attica” was just good for the kind of drama that comes with any revolt of this kind. Then we’re shown what the cameras (and tape recorders) caught in the aftermath, and you won’t think about it the same way after that.
“In the Heights” wasn’t the first movie I saw in theaters since the beginning of the pandemic, but it was the first one that reminded me what I had been missing. If this high-energy musical doesn’t get your heart beating, you might need to check if you still have one. Lin-Manuel Miranda’s first big hit took longer to make it to screens than “Hamilton,” but it was worth the wait.
3. Tick, Tick…Boom!
Lin-Manuel Miranda’s terrific, amazing, not bad, very good year was capped off with his directorial debut, “Tick, Tick…Boom!” The songs in this adaptation of Jonathan Larson’s (“Rent”) musical are great, but what really stands out is Andrew Garfield’s acting. His performance shows that he’s willing to commit to a role and even go the extra mile. You love to see it.
One of the year’s biggest surprises was “Cyrano,” a musical adaptation of the late-19th-century play “Cyrano de Bergerac.” Peter Dinklage, turning in what should be an Oscar-nominated performance, plays the pitiful romantic Cyrano, who loves his childhood friend but reluctantly helps her handsome suitor win her heart. Music by The National is what sets this one apart. It sounds like no other musical you’ve ever heard.
1. The Summer of Soul
Questlove produced this incredible concert documentary about the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival, which took place the same summer as Woodstock and in the same state. But few people had ever seen the footage captured at this “Black Woodstock,” as it was known. Until now.