Long ago — well, it seems like a long time ago — I was a full-time movie critic who every December would name my 10 favorite movies of the year, along with a handful of runners-up. Because I’d typically seen close to a couple hundred films that year, it was an interesting exercise, though I always resisted calling it a 10-best list (how can you say what’s best without seeing everything?), or ranking my titles numerically. (I’ve always wondered — and envied — how some critics have so much clarity that they can differentiate the year’s seventh-best movie from the eighth-best.)
But now, here we are. My job responsibilities changed a few years ago; I cover much more now than just movies. And, thanks to the pandemic, all of us spent a good chunk of 2021 — maybe even all of it — not able to see the newest movies in theaters. So while I saw and reviewed a decent handful of movies, particularly in the past few months, it really wasn’t enough to make a “top 10” list meaningful. But let’s try something different this year! Here’s my list of movies that helped get me through the mess that was 2021.
My Favorite Movie of the Year: People always ask this, so it behooves me to have an answer. Here goes: Jane Campion’s Western thriller “The Power of the Dog” (which you can, conveniently, watch on Netflix right now, though seeing it on a big screen took my breath away). Because out of everything I saw this year, this film dazzled me more than any other, in its rich performances, its shimmering atmosphere of mystery, its gorgeous light that seemed to change the story with every subtle shading. So many movies take us to familiar places; this one took me somewhere I’ve never been. Gorgeous.
The Movie That Gave Me the Most Joy: After 15 months without seeing a movie in a theater, I masked up back in May and saw Jon M. Chu and Lin-Manuel Miranda’s enchanting “In the Heights” — and how perfect was it to go back to in-person movies with a musical, a genre that by its very definition is larger than life? It made my weary spirits dance.
The Movie I Most Wished I Could Have Seen on the Big Screen: Rebecca Hall’s “Passing,” currently on Netflix, is a quiet masterpiece of subtlety, filmed in soft black-and-white. I loved it on my TV screen, but I wish I could have seen Tessa Thompson and Ruth Negga’s faces as big as a house, to better read the eloquent stories written there. (Other beautiful black-and-white films, both of which I was lucky enough to see in theaters: “Belfast” and “The Tragedy of Macbeth.”)
The Movie I’m Most Grateful to Have Seen on the Big Screen: I’m sure that “Spider-Man: No Way Home” will be plenty of fun when watched at home, someday. But on an enormous multiplex screen, with popcorn in hand and fellow (masked) audience members gasping in delight, it’s movie heaven.
The Movie That Was Exactly What I Thought It Would Be, and I Loved It: Wes Anderson’s “The French Dispatch” is just so very Wes Anderson-y — right down to the deadpan Bill Murray — in all the best of ways.
The Movie That Wasn’t At All What I Thought It Would Be, and I Loved It: I was deeply pessimistic about Steven Spielberg’s “West Side Story.” I needn’t have been. Hand Rita Moreno that second Oscar, right now.
The Movie With the Most Glorious Fashion: We’ve all probably forgotten about “Cruella” by now, but the costumes in that Emma Stone/Disney vehicle are seared into my memory: that red dress seemingly made of flames, the enormous “newspaper dress” with a train bigger than a garbage truck, the black leather work suit, the fit-and-flare Dalmatian print coat. I coveted it all, then and now. (The great Jenny Beavan, known for “A Room with a View,” “Mad Max: Fury Road” and many more, designed the costumes.)
The Most Larger-Than-Life Movie, In a Good Way: I’ll certainly listen to arguments that “House of Gucci” isn’t really all that good. But if there was a movie moment more hammily fun this year than watching Al Pacino, Jeremy Irons, Jared Leto, Adam Driver and Lady Gaga mix it up with an operatic range of Italian accents, I’d like to know about it.
Not a Movie, But the Movie-Related Breakthrough That Made This Pandemic Year Tolerable: My brilliant friend and Dinner at a Movie partner in crime Bethany Jean Clement (currently on leave, but don’t worry; she’ll be back before too long) figured out how to make movie popcorn — you know, the bright-yellow kind that smells of salty chemicals and matinees — at home. I am not going to tell you how often I made this popcorn for lunch in 2021. I might have done so yesterday. Don’t ask me.
And with that, I’ll gratefully call a wrap on 2021. As always, I’ll close with a hope that the new year brings us beauty, joy and peace — at the movies, and elsewhere.