Hello and welcome to the year 2031! The 40th Spider-Man movie is a hit. Timothee Chalamet still hasn’t cut his hair. Taylor Swift just released an hour-long song about her summer with that Kennedy cousin. People are still in awe of that gorgeous West Side Story remake. And nobody cares, let alone vividly recalls, the Hollywood studios’ ever-fluctuating theatrical versus streaming strategies in the wake of a global health pandemic.
My point: There was a lot of breathless talk devoted to the new-normal movie-going experience in 2021. (Read: Yeah, maybe Dune and that Sopranos prequel shouldn’t have been available to watch on HBO Max for free the day they also arrived on big screens). But ultimately, only the movies themselves will stand the test of the time.
And this year’s offerings deserve to be a part of the long-term pop culture fabric. For starters? Ghostbusters, Suicide Squad and Cruella were all re-born to surprising success, while a certain A Star Is Born leading lady proved she was no one-hit wonder. Black Widow said farewell to the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and the all-powerful hero Shang-Chi kicked his way in (and proved himself an excellent karaoke singer!). But ten marvelous movies truly stood out from the crowded field. Here’s this year’s honor roll. P.S. Another Spider-Man is coming in 2022.
10. Barb & Star Go to Vista Del Mar
Seriously. From Kristen Wiig and Annie Mumolo, the Oscar-nominated actresses and screenwriters who brought us Bridesmaids a decade ago, comes a goofy vibe-of-a-movie centering on two middle-aged culottes-lovin’ gal pals who take a wild trip down to Florida. Makes the list if only for Jamie Dornan and his chortle-inducing musical number. (You’ll have to watch to see for yourself). (Now available to purchase on demand)
9. Billie Eilish: The World’s a Little Blurry
A Justin Bieber-obsessed teen grapples with an emotionally distant boyfriend and attempts to sort out her ever-fluctuating feelings by writing in a journal in her bedroom and then recording her thoughts. Of course, Billie Eilish is hardly your prototypical Gen Zer; but thanks to this illuminating documentary, she’s never seemed so authentic. I must admit that I wasn’t even a huge fan before I watched. (Now streaming on Apple TV+)
8. Last Night in Soho
Yeahhhhhhh, so this audaciously original time-traveling thriller — with a plot too complicated and twisted to explain in a few sentences — wasn’t exactly a huge box-office hit (or even a medium-sized one). But please do yourselves a favor and stream it soon. You’ll never be sorry watching Anya Taylor-Joy strutting around in 1960s London singing “Downtown.” (Now available to purchase On Demand)
7. The Last Duel
Good Will Hunting Part 2, this is not. But Matt Damon and Ben Affleck do finally reunite onscreen in an ambitious and thought-provoking spectacle that deserved better at the box office. Set in France in the 14th century, the two are at odds after Damon accuses his former friend (Adam Driver) of raping his wife (Jodie Comer). A layered, if uneasy watch. And I’m telling you, the secret weapon here is co-writer Nicole Holofcener, who delivers a punch from the female point of view. (Now available to purchase On Demand)
6. Don’t Look Up
Please ignore that instruction — or else you’ll miss out on a so-sharp-it-hurts satire that skewers our current state of politics, technology and celebrity culture within the context of an asteroid headed to Earth. But hey, if anyone is going to warn us about all the above, it may as well be Leonardo DiCaprio, Jennifer Lawrence, Timothee Chalamet and Meryl Streep. I just wish writer-director Adam McKay et al had spent just a little time in East Lansing before making his characters Michigan State University researchers. (Now in theaters; streaming on Netflix December 24)
5. House of Gucci
It’s long and poorly paced and plays too loose with the facts. (The Al Pacino character had several kids in real life, FYI.) Oh, well! The bonkers true story that chronicles the unraveling of the Italian fashion empire is also first-class frothy and fun entertainment. And Lady Gaga, as the status-obsessed scorned wife, puts on her fine leather boots and stomps over everyone in her sight. Bravo. (Now in theaters)
The fall film festival favorite (and Oscar frontrunner) is both grand and intimate, gooey sweet and shockingly violent, life-affirming and cynical. Set during the Protestant-Catholic conflicts in Ireland in the late 1960s, it’s writer-director Kenneth Branagh’s semi-autobiographical drama as seen through eyes of a movie-obsessed, girl-chasing 12-year-old boy (Jude Hill). Expect lots of nominations for the cast, which includes Dame Judi Dench and Jamie Dornan. (Now in theaters)
3. King Richard
So let me get this straight: A man with virtually no athletic experience raised two girls in downtrodden Compton, California, to become tennis icons???!!! No doubt Venus and Serena Williams’ path to glory is truly incredible — and their ultra-compelling feel-good biopic happens to be as well. Featuring a towering performance from Will Smith in the title role, proving that a hero is not necessarily easy to root for. (Now in theaters and streaming on HBO Max)
2. West Side Story
Somehow, someday, somewhere a glorious classic musical has been reimagined for the ages. Steven Spielberg’s sweeping take on the tragic Romeo and Julia tale dazzles the senses, as each shot looks like a painting and each song makes you want to float on air. The whole cast, including Ansel Elgort and Rachel Zegler, is outstanding. Special shout-out to fierce breakout star Ariana DeBose, who shows how this West was won. (In theaters December 10)
No theatrics, no gimmicks — just a wonderful coming-of-age gem that aims directly at the heart and hits the bullseye. The fantastic Emilia Jones (who does ASL, sings like an American Idol champ and uses a flawless American accent) stars as a teen who much choose between going away to college to pursue music or staying home to help her deaf parents run their business. Guaranteed to make you laugh, cry and everything in between. Want to know what’s wrong with that? Nothing. (Now streaming on Apple TV+)