Top 10 Films of 2021 + 15 Honorable Mentions

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Hello fellow film fans! My picks of best/favorite movies of 2021 is here! Per my blog tradition, I usually wait until mid January to post the obligatory Top 10 Best list.

I always have to preface this kind of post that there are still plenty of 2021 movies I have not seen yet: The Worst Person in the World, The French Dispatch, A Hero, C’Mon C’Mon, Licorice Pizza, Spencer, Summer of Soul, etc. which might alter my current Top 10.

It goes without saying of course, that everyone’s list is personal… my criteria is that a film makes a lasting impression on me, combining the virtue of being entertaining, deeply-moving, thought-provoking and indelible. Replay-ability is a factor I take into consideration as well, though I don’t necessarily want to rewatch every single film on my list. Well without further ado, here we go… 

Top 10 Films of 2021

(in reverse numeric order)

10. Black Widow* (Full Review)

black-widow-Natasha-Yelena

I’ve included MCU films in my top 10 in the past and this past year, Black Widow is the one that really impressed me the most. Despite the lame villain, overall there are lots to love here, especially the introduction of Florence Pugh as Yelena. I’ve come to love Scarlett Johansson in the titular role so it’s great to finally see her get the solo movie, albeit it’s long overdue. The screenplay by Eric Pearson manages to balance the action, humor and emotional moments pretty well. It’s a fun mix of spy thriller and superhero genre that’s essentially about family ties.

9. Spiderman: No Way Home (Full Review)

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If you asked me earlier this year if a Spider-man movie would make my top 10, I’d say ‘no way!’ But hey, this is a year where some of my most-anticipated films end up disappointing or simply didn’t live up to my expectations. Well, kudos to Jon Watts + co for delivering first rate entertainment that’s delightful, funny, and surprisingly emotional ride that makes me fall in love with the characters all over again. Now that most people have seen this by now, I can say how much I enjoyed seeing the three Spideys hanging out and fighting together. Not only was the stakes really high for Peter (or I should say Peters), the movie also gave Andrew Garfield’s Spidey such a great redemptive arc. I think the record-shattering box office is well deserved. I for one think that films of any genre can be great art, including comic-book movies.

8. West Side Story (Full Review)

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In a year where there are plenty of musical adaptations, this is the one I’m most impressed with. I really wish ANNETTE would make the cut as I had anticipated that one the most, but I think the best part about that film is Adam Driver’s astounding performance (hence it makes my Honorable Mentions list). Admittedly, this version of West Side Story is the first cinematic adaptation I’ve seen and it looks absolutely glorious on the big screen! Seeing it on Dolby Cinema was quite a treat for the senses. This film further proves that Spielberg’s still got it and he is truly a master filmmaker who can thrive in any genre.

7. The Tragedy Of Macbeth (Full Review)

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I honestly didn’t think I’d be listing a popular Shakespeare adaptation to my Best-Of list, it’s a film I wasn’t even that interested to see. Yet I was blown-away by Joel Coen’s beautifully-crafted adaptation done with minimalist yet bold approach. Denzel Washington and Frances McDormand make for a captivating middle-aged Macbeth and Lady Macbeth, while Kathryn Hunter delivers an effectively-eerie, Oscar-worthy performance that’s quite hard to shake. The Tragedy of Macbeth exceeds my expectations in every respect and definitely one of the absolute best films of the year. 

6. The Lost Daughter* (Full Review)

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I’m thrilled there have been quite a few buzz-worthy female-directed films last year. This one is still fresh in my mind as I had just seen it recently. It’s another phenomenal directorial debut with stunning central performances. I’ve appreciated Maggie Gyllenhaal as an actress before and she’s definitely got the chops as a writer/director. It’s such a bold first film, tackling a a taboo subject about motherhood that’s rarely depicted on screen, yet it presents the issue without a condemning eye. She directed this with such a deft hand, keeping the tension & suspense up until the end.

5. CODA* (Full Review)

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CODA is actually an English-language remake of the French-language film La Famille Bélier (2014) that the original film producer himself wanted director Sian Heder to direct for American audiences. Well, Heder certainly did an astonishing job reinventing the story and making it her own. It’s such a delightful film about a family of mostly deaf adults, with the exception of Ruby (Emilia Jones), hence the title that refers to Child of Deaf Adults. Heder is astounding here and she deserved more attention this award season, as is Troy Katsur who plays her dad. The father-daughter moment while they’re looking at the starry sky is one of my favorite scenes I’ve seen this year.

4. Drive My Car

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I’m glad I got a screener for this and it was the first film I watched of 2022. I’m glad I waited before I posted my top 10 until after I saw this. The 3-hour running time might make it hard for some people, I actually had to break it up into two viewings. The fact that the story revolves around the world of theatre–the protagonist Yûsuke is adapting Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya–appeals to me, but it’s an emotional journey about loss and love. Hidetoshi Nishijima has a magnetic appeal as Yûsuke that I’m curious to see what else he’s been in. Filmmaker Ryûsuke Hamaguchi takes his time in peeling back its layers, and I think the film could be edited down to be closer to 2-hours. At the same time, the slow, atmospheric ride is a captivating one that does reward my patience.

3. Belfast (Full Review)

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Thanks to Twin Cities Film Fest, I saw this back in October and it’s definitely the film fest highlight for me. I’ve long admired Kenneth Branagh as an actor and director, and this time he tells his own childhood story of growing up during the turbulent times of ‘the Troubles’ in Northern Ireland. The cast is fantastic, with notable, Oscar-worthy performances from Ciarán Hinds & Caitríona Balfe. Despite the dark subject matter, I find BELFAST entertaining and heartfelt, with plenty of wit and humor to keep things from being too dour. At just 1hr 38min, it never overstays its welcome. I truly appreciate filmmakers who can tell their story efficiently in a relatively short time.

2. The Power Of The Dog* (Full Review)

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Of all the movies I’ve seen last year, I think The Power of The Dog is the most potent and haunting that really gets under my skin. There’s an unsettling mood and tension permeating every minute that takes hold of you and wouldn’t let go. It’s been weeks since I saw it and I still find myself thinking about it and recounting some of its layered mystery and meaning. Benedict Cumberbatch is in fine form here that proves his versatility, and Kodi Smit-McPhee is definitely one of the best young actors working today. Bravo Jane Campion for crafting a quiet but tremendous film with plenty of undercurrents beneath the surface. It’s simply exquisite, a word I don’t usually use to describe most films. She’s a shoo-in for Oscars’ Best Director nominations. I’ll be rooting for her to win this year, but mostly I wish she’d direct more movies!

1.  DUNE (Full Review)

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It’s so wonderful when a movie you’ve been anticipating lives up to your expectations. A film that ought be seen in as big a screen as possible, but also holds up on repeat viewing on HBO Max. I actually enjoyed it more on repeat viewing, and the visuals are still as breathtaking even on the small screen. There’s so many things Denis Villeneuve did right with this massive undertaking, and one of the biggest thing is pacing. Most films over 2-hours long tend to drag, but it kept me engaged most of the time.

‘Fear is the mind-killer’ is the book’s mantra, but it might as well be Villeneuve’s. It takes some gargantuan ambition, guts, passion and craftsmanship to tackle something deemed ‘un-filmable.’ The immensely watchable ensemble cast, led by Timothée Chalamet, are terrific overall. Bring on part II!


15 Honorable Mentions

There’s no ‘science’ in picking a Best List… mostly just gut instinct and personal preference. I really enjoy these 15 films, and some of them actually almost made it to my top 10 list. In any case,

(in alphabetical order)

  1. Annette – review
  2. The Green Knight – review
  3. The Harder They Fall
  4. I’m Your Man* – review
  5. King Richard – review
  6. The Last Duel – review
  7. MASS
  8. My Name Is Pauli Murray* – review
  9. Nightmare Alley – review
  10. No Time To Die – review
  11. Passing* – review
  12. Pig
  13. Riders Of Justice – review
  14. Shang-Chi – review
  15. When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit*

The films marked with * (asterisk) are those #directedbywomen
Check out my list of films I saw as part of the 52 Films By Women Challenge


What do you think of my 2021 Top 10 list? Any of your favorites on the list?

FlixChatter Review: West Side Story (2021)

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Musicals seem to be back in fashion again in Hollywood. Just this year alone we’ve got In The Heights, Annette, Dear Evan Hansen, Everybody’s Talking About Jamie… not to mention the Netflix release of Tick, Tick, Boom recently. I have to admit I wasn’t exactly clamoring to see a remake of West Side Story (I’m actually one of the last few people on earth who still haven’t seen the original), but I was curious because it’s directed by Steven Spielberg, a renowned director who has not done a musical before.

I wonder why he decided to do THIS particular one as opposed to a whole bunch of other musicals out there. Well, I read on IMDb that he had been a fan of the music since he was 10 years old and he had always wanted to direct an adaptation for it, so in many ways it’s kind of a personal dream the way Denis Villeneuve had always wanted to make DUNE since he was a teenager.

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Even without seeing the original, I knew that the story is inspired by Shakespeare’s Romeo + Juliet, that famous forbidden romance between two young people from opposing families. Instead of Italy, this one is set in New York’s Upper West Side in the 1950s and instead of warring families, we’ve got two warring teenage gangs – the Jets and the Sharks. The best part about this film is definitely the glorious visuals. Right from the opening scene where we’re introduced to the Jets, the white gangs made up of teenage boys, are bold and stylish. The actors are such amazing dancers who move fluidly and confidently through the streets, and the set design does a great job depicting the urban life of 50s New York. The Jets is led by Riff (Mike Faist), a willowy punk with a huge chip on his shoulder. 

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The prime ingredients for a great musicals are definitely the choreography, music and cinematography… and West Side Story has all three. Justin Peck, who started out as a dancer with New York City Ballet, is Tony-award winning choreographer and he does an astounding job here. The dance moves are so fun to watch and had me transfixed the entire time. Another Spielberg longtime collaborator, DP Janusz Kaminski is no stranger to creating beautiful visuals for various genres and he does it again here. I love the way he lights everything and his use of shadows is just awe-inspiring, there are countless ‘one-perfect-shot’ imagery here, but especially THIS one when the Sharks and Jets are meeting to fight in the middle of the night.

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Then there’s the absolutely amazing music! The classic songs are definitely the highlight for me… it’s astounding how SO many songs are familiar to me… (I just made a list of top 5 favorites here). Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim are music legends and their music truly stand the test of time.

The performances are generally pretty good. The star-crossed lovers are made up of Maria (Rachel Zegler) and Tony (Ansel Elgort) and I appreciate that the two look young enough to pull off being a teenager. I know lots of people have called out Zegler’s performance as Oscar-worthy and she’s even won some critics’ nominations for Best Actress, but I personally think her singing is more captivating than her acting. That’s not to say she’s not a good actress, but I don’t think it’s a stellar enough performance for me if it were a regular, non-singing role.

Still, it’s an impressive feature debut and she is definitely far more charismatic than Elgort. I remember he was quite good in Baby Driver, but Elgort has a rather bland presence despite having a really good singing voice. One can’t talk about him without mentioning the sexual assault allegations, now I don’t subscribe to ‘cancel culture’ that runs rampant in the social media age of today, but I’d rather give the filmmakers/producers the benefit of the doubt that they must not have found sufficient enough reason to recast him. I do think an actor with more charisma would’ve totally rocked the role. Elgort’s Tony hardly makes my heart skip a beat.

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For me, the two MVPs of the film are Ariana DeBose as Anita and Rita Moreno as Valentina. I remember in one of the sequence featuring Anita, I turned to my husband and said, ‘this girl is so magnetic!’ I’ve never seen DeBose in anything before but I sure hope she gets more prominent roles. It’s interesting to note as Moreno had played Anita in the original film, and her character plays a huge role here, especially in THAT scene where Anita is trapped in a shop with all the Jets boys. Let’s just say if it weren’t for Valentina, it would’ve been a terrible situation for Anita. I actually watched the Rita Moreno documentary where she talked about filming that scene, and because she is Puerto Rican herself, that scene was extremely difficult for her. 

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Out of the Sharks, David Alvarez stood out as the brooding Bernardo, he reminds me of young Russell Crowe in the role. Non-binary actress Iris Menas is quite memorable as Anybodys, a former-tomboy character that’s been updated to be a transgender who worships the Jets and wants to be a part of the gang. It’s one of the more inclusive approach of this new adaptation, and I also appreciate that this version is appropriately bilingual with the Puerto Rican speaking Spanish quite often.

Spielberg directed the script written by his longtime collaborator Tony Kushner, who also worked on Munich (2005) and Lincoln (2012) together. In many ways, the narrative is actually pretty timely and topical given the immigration theme– the Sharks are Puerto Rican wanting to fit in and be accepted, while the territorial white boys in the Jets feel threatened by their existence and want to maintain status quo. Definitely sounds really familiar in today’s political climate.

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One quibble I have is with the ending however. Now, I’m glad that somehow the finale hasn’t been spoiled for me, as I had no idea who would live or die by the end. Yet the finale didn’t really pull my heartstring as I expected. I think I just wasn’t as emotionally involved with the star-crossed lovers, I wasn’t as moved by the ending of say, Moulin Rouge! which is another doomed-love story musical.

 In any case, I’m glad I finally saw a West Side Story cinematic adaptation and watching it at a Dolby Cinema was quite a treat for the senses! Those who see this for the first time will likely be swept up by it and fans of the classic would appreciate this version that fixes the racial issues but also honors the beauty of the original. This film further proves that Spielberg’s still got it and he is truly a master filmmaker who can thrive in any genre.

4/5 stars


Have you seen the latest WEST SIDE STORY? Let me know what you think!

Music Break – Five favorite songs from West Side Story

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I am still humming the gorgeous songs from West Side Story today, as last night I had the privilege of seeing the newly-adapted musical directed by Steven Spielberg at a Dolby Cinema. I haven’t done a Music Break since last August, so I thought today would be the perfect time to highlight the timeless songs in anticipation for the new film’s release on December 10, as well as honoring the late Stephen Sondheim‘s astounding work.

Confession: I actually have not seen the original musical in its entirety, but my late mom had a CD of a bunch of Broadway songs when I was growing up so I’m familiar with most of the music. I’ve seen a bunch of the scenes since then too, so you can say I’m more familiar with the music/songs than the movie.

A few Interesting Trivia about West Side Story and Stephen Sondheim:

  • Per EverythingSondheim.org: West Side Story was Stephen Sondheim’s first foray on a Broadway stage in 1957. He was just 27 when it opened. Already eager to start his Broadway career as a composer and a lyricist, he was convinced by his mentor Oscar Hammerstein to debut as the show’s lyricist, the junior member of a team comprised of three well known artists: composer Leonard Bernstein, director and choreographer Jerome Robbins, and playwright Arthur Laurents.

Bernstein-and-SondheimSondheim (left) with Bernstein – photo courtesy of CulturalAttache.co

  • Per Google Arts & Culture:
    – Arthur Laurents taught him to write from the playwright’s perspective
    – Sondheim had been informally tutored by Oscar Hammerstein II. Hammerstein was one of the foremost lyricists of the first half 20th century, writing the book and lyrics to such classic musicals as OklahomaCarousel, and The King and I. Sondheim describes Hammerstein as a “surrogate father” who mentored the young Sondheim in his teenage years.
  • Since West Side Story, Sondheim has received eight Tony Awards (the most won by any composer) the American Theatre Wing Award Lifetime Achievement Award, eight Drama Desk Awards, eight Grammy Awards (including one for the West Side Story 2010 revival), a Pulitzer Prize, five Laurence Olivier Awards, The Kennedy Center Honors, and the 2015 Presidential Medal of Freedom.

Ok so here are 5 of my favorite songs featured in the film (in random order, I can’t possibly rank them!):

AMERICA

The lyrics for this one speaks of the immigrant experience, all the struggles and advantages of living in ‘someone else’s land.’ Some of the lyrics really hit home and even decades after the first production was released, the words still resonate and relevant.

Life can be bright in America
If you can fight in America

Life is all right in America
If you’re all white in America

Here you are free and you have pride
Long as you stay on your own side

I just love the spunk of Rita Moreno in this dance sequence!!

TONIGHT

This is perhaps the one song I’m most familiar with… it’s such a powerful ballad that I hope one day I get to watch West Side Story on stage to hear this sung LIVE. In the Spielberg’s adaptation, both actors actually sang the songs… and boy, Rachel Zegler has an incredible singing voice that’s perfect for this romantic song. The 20-year-old Colombian-American actor and singer-songwriter beat out over 30,000 applicants for the role and rightly so!

MARIA

Interesting that another favorite classic musical I love, The Sound of Music, also has a song with ‘Maria’ in it. I quite like this one sung by Richard Beymer who certainly has more charisma than the current actor, Ansel Elgort. Now, I barely pay attention to ‘cancel culture’ that’s running rampant these days, and apparently he’s accused of some sexual impropriety, but my issue is that Ansel is kind of a bland actor, though his singing voice is pretty decent.

In any case, the lyrics are just so romantic and sweet…

Say it loud and there’s music playing,
Say it soft and it’s almost like praying.

I Feel Pretty

There’s something so fun and whimsical about this song! Now, there isn’t a clip from the current film yet, which I really enjoyed and Rachel Zegler‘s voice is so gorgeous! So I’m including this clip instead. Natalie Wood‘s singing voice is dubbed by Marni Nixon in the 1961 version. It’s such a catchy song that I often find myself humming and one tends to twirl when hearing this song, ahah.

SOMEWHERE

It’s another ballad with such a beautiful, evocative lyrics… I think it beautifully captures the star-crossed love story and also the Puerto Ricans trying to fit in America, it’s truly amazing what Sondheim did with the words of a song… and of course Bernstein’s melody is equally breathtaking. In the original, the song was a duet…

There’s a time for us,
Someday there’ll be a time for us:
Time together with time to spare,
Time to learn, time to care.

… but I actually prefer the one sung in the Spielberg version, sung by Rita Moreno as you can hear in the teaser. It packs an emotional wallop!


Hope you enjoy this Music Break. Which song(s) from WEST SIDE STORY is your favorite?