WTOP Film Critic Jason Fraley’s favorite movies of 2021

Whew! We’ve reached the end of another year where pandemic moviegoing has become a fickle thing to track. Some folks found their way back to the multiplex this year, while others kept streaming from the safety of home.

Marvel’s “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings” was the biggest blockbuster among popcorn flicks like “Black Widow,” “Cruella,” “Dune,” “Free Guy,” “Godzilla vs. Kong,” “Jungle Cruise” and “No Time to Die.”

On the arthouse side, “The Power of the Dog,” “Licorice Pizza,” “Spencer,” “C’mon C’mon,” “The Card Counter,” “The Green Knight,” “The French Dispatch,” “The Lost Daughter,” “Old Henry” and “Pig” wowed cinephiles.

Somewhere in between were star vehicles like “King Richard,” “Don’t Look Up,” “Nightmare Alley,” “Being the Ricardos,” “Tick, Tick…Boom!” and “House of Gucci,” which are all shaping up to be steady awards contenders.

And yet, believe it or not, none of those films are in my Top 10 favorites of 2021.

So what cracked my highly subjective list of personal favorites?

Let the countdown begin!

NOTE: My list doesn’t include films from January and February that competed in last Oscar season, but you can still read my reviews of “One Night in Miami,” “Minari,” “Judas and the Black Messiah” and “Nomadland.”

Favorite Documentaries of 2021

Before we get to the main list, here are 10 great documentaries:

10. “Roadrunner: A Film About Anthony Bourdain” – Morgan Neville
9. “Rise Again: Tulsa and the Red Summer” – Dawn Porter
8. “Pray Away” – Kristine Stolakis
7.  “Street Gang: How We Got to Sesame Street” – Marilyn Agrelo
6. “Muhammad Ali” – Ken Burns / “The Kings” – Mat Whitecross
5. “The First Wave” – Matthew Heineman
4. “The Rescue” – Jimmy Chin & Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi
3. “Attica” – Stanley Nelson
2. “Flee” – Jonas Poher Rasmussen
1. “Summer of Soul” – Questlove

**Still need to watch “The Beatles: Get Back” by Peter Jackson**

Favorite Animation of 2021

Here are my Top 5 animated films:

5. “Vivo” – Kirk DeMicco
4. “Luca” – Enrico Casarosa
3. “Encanto” – Jared Bush & Byron Howard
2. “The Mitchells vs. The Machines” – Mike Rianda
1. “Raya and the Last Dragon” – Don Hall & Carlos López Estrada

Favorite Foreign-Language Films of 2021

I made this a separate category since most have only screened in festivals and aren’t available yet in the U.S.

5. “A Hero” – Asghar Farhardi (Iran)
4. “Petite Maman” – Céline Sciamma (France)
3. “Riders of Justice” – Anders Thomas Jensen (Denmark)
2. “Drive My Car” – Ryûsuke Hamaguchi (Japan)
1. “The Worst Person in the World” – Joachim Trier (Norway)

Without further ado, on with the list!

10. “The Harder They Fall”

Director: Jeymes Samuel

If you wondered what the next evolution of the genre might look like after Sergio Leone’s spaghetti westerns and Quentin Tarantino’s cinephile homages, hold onto your saddle. Filmmaker Jeymes Samuel crafts a rip-roaring ride in “The Harder They Fall,” packed with Black Hollywood icons spitting the fastest dialogue in the west. The film showcased the collective talents of Jonathan Majors, Idris Elba, Zazie Beetz, Lakeith Stanfield and Regina King, who demanded, “We ain’t no nincompoop.” It was recently named Best Film by the African American Film Critics Association, while earning 20 nominations by the Black Reel Awards, breaking the record of 17 by “Black Panther.” Note that the train is named “C.A. Boseman” in honor of the fallen King of Wakanda.

9. “The Last Duel”

Director: Ridley Scott

Named one of the year’s Top 10 films by the National Board of Review, “The Last Duel” may have bombed at the box office, but it’s fantastic filmmaking. Screenwriter Nicole Holofcenor teams with Matt Damon and Ben Affleck to adapt Eric Jager’s novel about a real-life case in 14th century France where knight Jean de Carrouges (Matt Damon) challenges squire Jacques Le Gris (Adam Driver) to a judicial duel after his wife Marguerite (Jodie Comer) accuses him of rape. Don’t expect an action-packed epic like “Gladiator;” this film is more like “Rashomon,” depicting three contradictory accounts of an alleged crime, allowing director Ridley Scott to show different perspectives via expressive camera angles and detailed reaction shots. Bravo!

8. “Passing”

Director: Rebecca Hall

The concept of light-skinned Black Americans “passing” as white provided some folks an escape from Jim Crow-era injustices — but at what price? That’s the subject of Rebecca Hall’s new Sundance-to-Netflix awards contender “Passing,” symbolically filmed in black-and-white to capture its black-and-white themes, but with plenty of shades of gray for complex characters ensnared in a Gatsby-style tragedy. Tessa Thompson hides under her hat as a Black woman living with her Black husband in 1920s Harlem, before reconnecting with her lighter-skinned Black childhood friend (Ruth Negga), who “passes” in order to marry a white man downtown. Both should be considered for Oscar nominations for their stunning performances, as should Hall for her poetic pacing, telling us everything we need to know about the characters simply with lighting, wardrobe and subtle glances, as her camera pans past Negga without even noticing before whipping back in a telling double take.

7. “Nine Days”

Director: Edson Oda

Japanese cinema fans will remember Hirokazu Koreeda’s “After Life” (1998) where people on their death beds had a week to choose only one memory to keep for all eternity. This year, Edson Oda’s existential indie “Nine Days” explored the inverse of “before life,” set in a pre-birth purgatory where a reclusive man lives alone in a beach house, conducting a series of interviews with human souls for a chance to be born into the real world. In his spare time, he watches a wall of TV sets that show the full lives of past souls that he has hand-picked to move on to the next plane. It all builds to the most powerful ending of any movie this year as Winston Duke delivers a theater monologue for the ages. With all due respect to “Dune,” this is the year’s best sci-fi/fantasy.

6. “Mass” 

Director: Fran Kranz

One room. Four actors. Two broken pairs of parents unpacking a devastating tragedy. That’s the simple but effective premise of Fran Kranz’s directorial debut “Mass,” starring Jason Isaacs and Martha Plimpton as the grieving parents of a teenage boy killed by the son of Ann Dowd and Reed Birney. Here’s hoping these Oscar-worthy performances don’t get lost in the shuffle as all four parents process grief in different ways, while Kranz’s script gradually doles out information with sparse dialogue rather than exposition. These parents know exactly why they’re there, so they talk accordingly, as we the audience piece it together like a mystery of human drama. Recent school shootings only make this story more timely, and if you doubt the film’s enduring power, just wait two weeks until the next school shooting. That is the sad state of America since Columbine, where not even the Sandy Hook massacre can force common-sense solutions by entrenched interests.

5. “The Tragedy of Macbeth”

Director: Joel Coen

“West Side Story” wasn’t the only film to modernize Shakespeare this year as “The Tragedy of Macbeth” opens on Christmas Day. Denzel Washington delivers a tour-de-force performance as the titular Scottish lord (“out, out, brief candle”) who is foretold to become the next King of Scotland by a trio of witches, played by a scratchy-voiced, body-contorting, show-stealing Kathryn Hunter (“Double, double, toil and trouble”). Reigning Best Actress champ Frances McDormand is equally riveting as his ambitious wife Lady Macbeth (“out, damn spot”), who moves the chess pieces for him to seize power, while Corey Hawkins makes a killer Macduff, vowing to seek revenge in a brilliant finale atop the castle. Rather than “sound and fury signifying nothing,” Joel Coen’s direction drips with symbolism in his first solo effort without brother Ethan. It’s a directorial masterclass where every shot selection, every camera angle, every macabre nightmare sequence conveys deeper meanings, all exquisitely filmed in some of the most stunning black-and-white cinematography you’ll ever see.

4. “West Side Story”

Director: Steven Spielberg

When it was first announced, we all gasped, “How dare they remake “‘West Side Story,'” but when you realize the 1961 movie was a remake of the 1957 Broadway smash, which was itself a re-imagining of Shakespeare’s “Romeo & Juliet,” the sacred celluloid seems less untouchable. Add the curiosity of Steven Spielberg’s first-ever musical and the recent passing of the original lyricist, Stephen Sondheim, and we get a perfect storm of novelty and nostalgia that makes the new “West Side Story” a must-see movie. Ansel Elgort and Rachel Zegler are grabbing all the headlines as Tony and Maria, but the real standout is Ariana DeBose as Anita, who delivers a lively and still timely “America.” Spielberg delivers some of his finest directing in years, from an opening single-take around wrecking-ball gentrification, to the powerful balcony scene of “Tonight” where the fire escape symbolically keeps the lovers apart and foreshadows their doom. It remains to be seen whether the 2021 version will be as big of a cultural phenomenon as the 1961 film, which was both the year’s top-grosser and won 10 Oscars, but this is a worthy musical remake that in many ways improves upon aspects of the original.

3. “In the Heights”

Director: Jon M. Chu

Lin-Manuel Miranda is the hardest working man in show business. After last year’s Disney+ release of Broadway’s “Hamilton,” Miranda has been a “wow in a world full of ho hum,” writing the animated songs for both “Vivo” and “Encanto,” making his directorial debut in “Tick, Tick…Boom!” and overseeing the stage-to-screen adaptation of “In the Heights,” which rivals “West Side Story” as the year’s best movie musical. Based on the 2008 Tony-winning Broadway show, the story follows Usnavi de la Vega, a bodega owner in New York’s Washington Heights neighborhood who dreams of returning to the Dominican Republic. The upbeat musical showcased the talents of its four young leads (Anthony Ramos, Melissa Barrera, Corey Hawkins and Leslie Grace), as well as an unforgettable subway dream number by Olga Merediz as Abuela. Who cares if its summer box office was muted by HBO Max? No amount of after-the-fact “think pieces” can change the fact that “In the Heights” delivered the year’s most magical scene as two lovers danced up the side of a building.

2. “Belfast”

Director: Kenneth Branagh

Winner of Best Picture by the Washington Area Film Critics Association and the People’s Choice Award at the Toronto International Film Festival, Kenneth Branagh’s “Belfast” is a rare black-and-white Oscar nominee (i.e. “Roma”) that also happens to be a total crowd pleaser. Branagh blends childhood nostalgia with political awakening for a wonderful coming-of-age story with enough heart and chops to go the distance for Best Picture. It loosely follows Branagh’s own memories growing up in a blue-collar family in Belfast, Ireland during the tumultuous Troubles between Protestants and Catholics in 1969. Filming from a child’s eye level, the story is told through the eyes of an impressionable young boy named Buddy, who learns life lessons as his beloved neighborhood becomes a literal battleground between religious sects. Jude Hill is adorable as the child star, while Caitriona Balfe and Jamie Dornan shine as his parents, but the real standouts are Ciarán Hinds and Judi Dench as the comic-relief grandparents, consistently asking Buddy, “What do you want?” amid the chaos.

1. “CODA”

Director: Siân Heder

Every year, I recommend indie flicks to fellow film critics and blockbusters to family and friends, but the one movie that I could reliably recommend to everyone and have them all come back raving was “CODA.” That makes sense since it won both the Grand Jury Prize and Audience Award to become the most awarded film ever at the Sundance Film Festival in January. Now it’s streaming on Apple TV+, so fire up the streaming app, get a free trial or do whatever you have to do to see this movie, which rivals Greta Gerwig’s “Lady Bird” (2017) and Bo Burnham’s “Eighth Grade” (2018) as the best coming-of-age flicks of the past decade. Emilia Jones shines as a high-school senior and CODA (Child of Deaf Adults) who is the only speaking member of her family, played with sign language by an award-worthy Troy Kotsur and Marlee Matlin, who struggle to understand her newfound passion for singing in the school choir. It all builds to a rousing rendition of Joni Mitchell’s “Both Sides Now” that will leave you crying tears of joy. Will it top the year-end best lists of the most cynical, contrarian critics? Probably not, but after two years of a depressing pandemic, I’m aching to hold up a heartwarming gem.


Jason Fraley

Hailed by The Washington Post for “his savantlike ability to name every Best Picture winner in history," Jason Fraley began at WTOP as Morning Drive Writer in 2008, film critic in 2011 and Entertainment Editor in 2014, providing daily arts coverage on-air and online.

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