Screen Gems: 2021 didn’t bring us back to the theaters, but it brought an avalanche of quality films

click to enlarge Sian Heder's CODA stars Emilia Jones. - Apple TV+
Apple TV+
Sian Heder's CODA stars Emilia Jones.
Seen any good movies lately? We sure have.

In fact, 2021 was quite a cinematic year. As with last year, cinemas didn’t play a big role in the movie-watching experience, but there were still plenty of films that left lasting impressions. Here’s a list of our 10 favorites of the year.

Uplifting and emotionally resonant, the coming-of-age, feel-good narrative by writer and director Sian Heder (Tallulah) is built around a cast that is authentic, unpretentious and incredibly talented. At face value, Heder’s script might seem conventional, but the nuanced approach she takes to telling a story about an aspiring singer (Emilia Jones) and her deaf family brims with so much zeal for life, it’s impossible not to become starry-eyed by all the tender moments and how beautiful the family dramedy is executed in two languages. This jaded heart has been jolted.

2. Mass
Anchored by four top-tier performances, this intense drama from first-time writer and director Fran Kranz is challenging and transfixing in the way it presents its tragic tale. Jay (Jason Isaacs) and Gail (Martha Plimpton) are a husband and wife whose son was killed by a school mass shooter. Linda (Ann Dowd) and Richard (Reed Birney) are the mother and father of the boy who committed the crime. When both couples agree to meet to start the healing process, their intimate conversation is one that is equal parts cathartic and soul-shattering.

3. Licorice Pizza
Eight-time Oscar-nominated writer and director Paul Thomas Anderson (There Will Be Blood) has explored romantic stories before in Punch-Drunk Love, Phantom Thread and even Magnolia, but his latest film, set in the San Fernando Valley during the 1970s, is love in its purest and most lighthearted form. First-time actors Cooper Hoffman (the son of late actor Philip Seymour Hoffman) and Alana Haim (of the band HAIM) radiate with charming chemistry, and Anderson’s screenplay, far less misanthropic than his past work, is resolute in its pursuit of happiness and nostalgia.

4. Being the Ricardos
Director and Oscar-winning screenwriter Aaron Sorkin (The Social Network) can turn a phrase better than almost anyone in Hollywood. Even when he overwrites dialogue, it’s difficult not to be reeled in by his sharp wit and humor. It’s a perfect combination with a story centered on stars Lucille Ball (Nicole Kidman) and Desi Arnaz (Javier Bardem) during a turbulent week at work on their 1950s TV series I Love Lucy. Kidman masters her roles as Ball and Lucille Ricardo, and while it’s fair to criticize Bardem’s casting because he is not Latino, he nonetheless serves Arnaz well and captures his essence.

5. In the Heights
Directed by Jon M. Chu (Crazy Rich Asians) and written by playwright Quiara Alegría Hudes, the musical is a joyful celebration of culture and family that’s creative, spirited and sincere. The entire cast brings their best, but actor Anthony Ramos (Hamilton) and supporting actress Olga Merediz (The Place Beyond the Pines) deliver some of the picture’s most memorable scenes. With Lin-Manuel Miranda’s memorable soundtrack and magnificent choreography throughout, this is one musical that deserves to be played on a loop.

6. Language Lessons
Actress and filmmaker Natalie Morales (Plan B) directs Mark Duplass (The One I Love) and herself in a film about a friendship that forms between a man in mourning and his online Spanish teacher. Told entirely between the two lead characters speaking via video chat, the format is consistently engaging, and witnessing the narrative unfold is a rewarding experience.

7. Spencer
More artistic and unconventional than most biographical films, spending a weekend with Princess Diana (Kristen Stewart) inside the walls of the royal estate during the holidays is absorbing and, at times, an exercise in fostering empathy. Filmmaker Pablo Larraín (Jackie) creates an atmosphere of dignity and discontent.

8. Prayers for the Stolen
Three young girls in Mexico grow up fearing that one day the drug cartels who rule their territory will take them away from their families. The sense of dread that emanates from the harrowing drama is gut-wrenching as we watch these innocent children live in the shadows of their own homeland.

9. The Killing of Kenneth Chamberlain
The true story of Kenneth Chamberlain is heartbreaking. The 68-year-old former Marine was shot to death by New York police in 2011 when they went to his apartment on a welfare check. More Fruitvale Station than Detroit, the film, led by a phenomenal performance from Frankie Faison (Red Dragon), deserves to be seen.

10. The Mitchells vs. the Machines
Of all the animated films this year, the story of an eccentric family stuck at the center of a robot Armageddon, is the funniest and most imaginative of the bunch. Plus, it features a fat pug, so how can you go wrong with that?

Honorable Mention: C’mon C’mon, Identifying Features, Jockey, Nightmare Alley, Parallel Mothers, Pig, Red Rocket, Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, Summer of Soul, West Side Story

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