Sarah’s Top Ten of 2021
This was another strange year. We all had to navigate and negotiate our comfort levels as the pandemic continued. I only ended up seeing one film in the theaters this year. It was nice to be back but also stressful in ways that any close proximity activity seems to be these days. I’m hoping 2022 will be a better year for all and a great year for film. A few films I can recommend that didn’t quite make my list are: Old Henry, Little Fish, The Power of the Dog, The Tragedy of Macbeth, Copshop, and Coda.
10. The World to Come (dir. Mona Fastvold)
Period dramas about lesbians have become an object of parody (Saturday Night Live) in the past few years but as they say, “imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.” The World to Come tells the story of two neighboring couples on the American East Coast frontier. The film shows how difficult and isolating frontier life can be and how something like a new friendship can turn the barely-tolerable into an escape. The quietness and steadiness of the film make me eager to see what director Mona Fastvold does next.
9. Queenpins (dir. Aron Gaudet, Gita Pullapilly)
Who knew the world of couponing could be fraught with drama? Based on a real scam, Queenpins is about a woman named Connie (Kristen Bell) who figures out how to make fraudulent coupons and sell them to people online. With the help of her friend JoJo (Kirby Howell-Baptiste) who is crippled by credit card debt due to someone stealing her identity, these two suburban women create a fraudulent coupon empire. Equally as fun as watching Connie and JoJo try to navigate the criminal world is watching a loss prevention officer named Ken (Paul Walter Hauser) and a US postal inspector (Vince Vaughn) try to take them down.
8. The Green Knight (dir. David Lowery)
The Green Knight was the one movie I saw in the theater last year and I think it was a good choice. The Green Knight was probably one of the most beautiful movies of 2021. I walked away from it in a bit of a fog but what stuck with me were the visuals and performances. The film follows Dev Patel as Gawain on his heroes’ journey, though it might be more accurately described as an ‘I hope I’m not a coward’ journey. The film, much like the epic poem, follows a series of lightly connected stories as Gawain rides out to meet his fate with the green knight. The film is beautiful, confusing, haunting, and thought-provoking. It feels very much like a spiritual sibling to director David Lowery’s 2017 A Ghost Story. If Casey Affleck wandered through the background of The Green Knight under a bedsheet, I would have completely believed it.
7. In the Heights (dir. Jon M. Chu)
I admit I went into In The Heights with a very skeptical eye. But I was really delighted by how well the stage musical transitioned from the stage to the screen. Director Jon Chu keeps the energy up with large, colorful musical numbers that span the entire Washington Heights neighborhood. He also embraces the medium of film, allowing the musical to go beyond the stage by, for example, choreographing a number going up and down a vertical apartment building wall. The film also captures the feeling of community and their associated struggles that Lin-Manuel Miranda wrote into his original stage play. I was surprised and invigorated by In The Heights.
6. Judas and the Black Messiah (dir. Shaka King)
Judas and the Black Messiah tells the story of a man infiltrating a Chicago chapter of the Black Panthers on the orders of the FBI. Nicknamed Wild Bill, William O’Neal finds himself in a difficult position, caught between a cause he grows to believe him and fear of the white men who hold his future in their hands. The film is full of outstanding performances including the two leads LaKeith Stanfield (William) and Daniel Kaluuya (Fred Hampton). The screenplay shows the impossible position William is put in, the tensions of the time, as well as the positive changes the party brought to their community as well as their failings. Films that tell black stories told by black voices are vital not only to art but to the world at large.
5. Nobody (dir. Ilya Naishuller)
I’ve been a Bob Odenkirk fan since the 1990s. He is a welcome presence no matter the size of his part. He has always been a reliable comedic actor, but in Nobody, he gets the chance to stretch his skills with action. Odenkirk plays Hutch Mansell, a suburban dad and husband who works at his father-in-law’s machining company. We see that every day is basically the same for Hutch and his mundane life isn’t bringing him or his family much joy. When a home invasion tips the balance away from the mundane, a fire within Hutch is relit and he gets himself involved with the Russian mob. He has to rely on his old skills from the army to get out. Odenkirk is extremely convincing in the role. He brings the action scenes to life but also allows moments of levity to break the tension. I’m sure the film would have worked with a different actor, but I think it is Odenkirk’s commitment and unique talent that takes the film from standard action fare to a genre-bending triumph.
4. Oxygen (dir. Alexandre Aja)
Oxygen relies on a tour de force performance by the film’s lead Mélanie Laurent. Laurent, as Elizabeth, wakes up in a cryo-pod about the size of a coffin with no memory and limited oxygen. Elizabeth has to problem solve using only flashes of her past life, a weak Wi-Fi link, and the pods artificial intelligence M.I.L.O. voiced by Mathieu Amalric. Director Alexandre Aja keeps the pacing up with a ticking clock in the form of an oxygen gauge in the tight surroundings. Oxygen kept me on tenterhooks right up to the end.
3. Chaos Walking (dir. Doug Liman)
I think the superpower I would want the least is mind-reading… and maybe talking to fish. Chaos
Walking is a science fiction film set on a planet that affects only men, allowing their thoughts to be read and even seen by others. When a woman crashes near an all-male settlement she meets Todd (Tom Holland). She needs to find a way to communicate with the rest of her shipmates, so Todd has to get her to communication beacon without getting caught by the town bad guy (Mads Mikkelsen) or the native alien species. There are some compelling action scenes as well as some moments of genuine humor. Chaos Walking is a film about finding courage in the face of adversity as well as the fear of the other.
2. Barb and Star Go To Vista Del Mar (dir. Josh Greenbaum)
Barb and Star Go To Vista Del Mar was without a doubt the funniest movie I saw in 2021. Annie Mumolo (Barb) and Kristen Wiig (Star) play best friends who take a trip to sunny Vista Del Mar, Florida to find their shimmer. They end up finding a lot more along the way. A tremendous supporting cast is rounded out with Jamie Dornan displaying surprising comedy chops and a commitment to silliness that I did not expect. Delightful musical numbers, cameos galore, and an absurd plotline make it endlessly delightful and a standout comedy.
1. Summer of Soul (dir. Questlove)
A good documentary, in my opinion, should educate and entertain. Summer of Soul knocks it out of the park on both (pun intended). Summer Of Soul (…Or, When The Revolution Could Not Be Televised) tells the forgotten story of a multi-week music festival called the Harlem Cultural Festival that happened the same summer as Woodstock. The festival was filmed but then lost to time and finally brought to life with interviews of attendees and participants by director Questlove. Summer of Soul shares the talent of many well-known black musicians such as Sly and the Family Stone, Nina Simone, and Gladys Knight. But also features many less well-known acts across many musical genres. I sang along, I got up and danced, and I shed a few tears. At a time when minority voices are needed more than ever, the messages and feelings captured in Summer of Soul are as relevant today as they were over fifty years ago.