Happy 2022! I am so excited to be presenting my third list for my top ten films of the past year and I would like to note that this is just a list of my personal favorites. It is not necessarily a list of the absolute best movies of 2021 (I still haven’t even seen Licorice Pizza or Last Night in Soho!); it is just a list of what I found to be most entertaining and inspiring from what I was able to see. Feel free to tell me all about how you thought Ghostbusters: Afterlife was the actual best movie of 2021. Though you’d be wrong. It was Clifford: The Big Red Dog.
10. The Catrix Matrix: Resurrections
A lot of people really didn’t like this movie, and that’s okay. I enjoyed it. I loved seeing it on a big screen instead of HBOMax because I felt surrounded by the sounds and mesmerizing special effects that define the Matrix series. This film was also special as the first-ever Matrix film led by a transitioned Wachowski sister, as the first three were created by Lana and Lily Wachowski before their transitions. It may be a coincidence, but to me, this film felt more female-centered than the first three. While Neo is still the main hero of the franchise, once he is restored by the red pill, Resurrections focuses on how to restore Trinity, how to empower her character and features a fleet of awesome, kick-ass female fighters.
(And I’m always a sucker for Neil Patrick Harris playing a villainous role.)
9. Quo Vadis, Aida?
With a 100% Certified Fresh score on Rotten Tomatoes, Quo Vadis, Aida? is a moving and gutwrenching Bosnian story of the Srebrenica genocide in July 1995. Aida is a translator working for the United Nations in a small town, Srebrenica. When the Serbian army invades, her family is among the thousands of people who stand outside the gates of a United Nations camp seeking shelter. Aida struggles to save her family while also neutrally translating the UN’s negotiations, and the orders of the Serbian army, to Srebrencian civilians.
The story is fictional, but the genocide is based on actual historical events. Aida’s character is inspired by the life story of Hasan Nuhanovic, a Bosnian survivor of the Srebrenica genocide and UN translator. Nuhanovic was forced to translate the orders sending his family away, losing his mother, father, and brother to the Srebrenica massacre.
8. Spider-Man: No Way Home
While I have watched several MCU movies and understand the fundamentals of the universe, I am not the super fan who has seen every film and knows every easter egg by heart. (I think loving history and studying true stories prevents me from getting fully into superhero sci-fi stuff). But even without knowing all of the details, I was very entertained by this film! To the chagrin of my die-hard MCU friends, my favorite Peter Parker is Andrew Garfield, so I was over the moon to see his return! Even my biggest MCU fan friends have admitted that they would love to see Garfield return in the future; maybe in a spin-off.
7. The Novice
When I first heard that The Novice is more intense than Whiplash, I didn’t quite believe it. But not even halfway through, I could understand why. Whiplash and Black Swan are about ruthless teachers working students to the bone; telling them when to keep going, when to push themselves, and when to stop. In The Novice, there is no abusive teacher; it is just Alex pushing herself harder and harder without anyone else pressuring her to do so, and no one can tell her to stop. So when Alex joins the rowing team as a college freshman, she doesn’t let anything stop her, especially herself, from overworking (and as someone who voluntarily worked three jobs last summer, I can kind of understand).
The lingering question I have with The Novice is why Alex was so set on being the best, specifically at rowing. When she sees the sign-up sheet, she is determined to be the best rower, and the film doesn’t allude to any previous connection to the sport. In Whiplash and Black Swan, Andrew and Nina are ruled by jazz music and ballet long before their terrifying teachers are introduced. We do learn that in high school, Alex was very competitive with school grades, and wanted to prove to herself and a classmate she could succeed. When a challenge arises, she is the first to face it head-on. As a college freshman, she majors in her worst subject to take on the extra challenge. I don’t find it entirely believable that she would go to the extremes of self-harm over not being the best at a sport she started out of the blue, unless that is the horrific point of the film, and it’s not meant to be understandable. The Novice may be implying that no matter what the sign-up sheet or general interest meeting sign had been posted for that day, whether it be rowing, drumming, dancing, or crochet, she would have still signed up with utmost determination and gone through the same agonizing process to be the best at it, because that is who she is.
6. Don’t Look Up
I think this movie should have come with a trigger warning at the start, so here is a very unscientific survey to start with, if you are debating watching it.
Have you ever:
Told others COVID-19 is a hoax
Believed climate change isn’t real
Reposted on social media doubts on vaccine safety
Refused to wear a mask in public spaces
If yes, watch this film. If not, do not watch this film, unless you feel prepared for an apocalyptic film on an incoming asteroid with themes that will hit very close to home. Easily replace “asteroid” with “covid” (or “climate change”) in this modern-day movie, and you have a very disturbing allegory that I was not ready for when casually deciding to watch something on Netflix at 2 am. It does not seem like a coincidence that one scientist is played by Leonardo DiCaprio, a strong advocate for climate change. He has set up foundations to protect biodiversity, attended the United Nations Climate Conference, and created films bringing attention to climate change. (Before the Flood is a life-changing watch).
This story is like if the CDC went on TV and directly told people today a virus is about to wipe out the planet, and no one believed them until they got sick themselves. If you are prepared for that, Don’t Look Up is well-done. However, viewing it as an allegory for climate change and global warming rather than the pandemic may make it easier to take in.
If a film like this feels a little too soon to watch with everything going on today, maybe check out something educational but more wholesome on Netflix that came out of the pandemic, like season 6 of Queer Eye.
Based on a true story of a seventeenth-century small village in Northern Italy, Benedetta, retells the life of Benedetta Carlini, a Catholic with saintly visions of Jesus Christ and Mary as a child, and later a nun and abbess. She believed she was the wife of Jesus, and claimed to have been visited by him in 1619. The movie has audiences questioning whether she has religious experiences or is part of an act. The film also focuses on the sins of female bodies and the forbidden exposure of sexuality. To the dismay of Catholic groups today who protested the film’s release, Dutch director (and atheist) Paul Verhoeven fully displays women in this satire. He contrasts with Benedetta’s statement, “Your worst enemy is your body,” by criticizing the Church’s control of female bodies and pointing out that even the most powerful nuns still answer to men higher up in the Church’s hierarchy.
4. Two Distant Strangers
Trigger Warning: BIPOC trauma, violence, racism, police brutality
This short initially came out at the end of 2020, but it wasn’t released for streaming until April 2021. It combines the stories of Trayvon Martin and George Floyd with a time loop, much more significant to the message of the story than in Groundhog Day or Russian Doll. The short is about Carter, a young Black man in New York City, who wakes up in a young Black woman’s apartment after a date and heads home to take care of his dog. Each time he wakes up and tries to go to his apartment, he is confronted and killed by the same white police officer. In montages of the time loop, the film puts Carter in the various real-life scenarios of real Black Americans who were killed and put at the forefront by the Black Lives Matter movement (ex: being suffocated on the street similar to George Floyd, or having the date’s apartment broken into like Breonna Taylor’s if he doesn’t go outside). Whether he’s simply smoking a cigarette, walking down the street, staying at home, or standing in place doing absolutely nothing, he is killed by the same officer. The end credits are powerful, and I won’t spoil it if you haven’t seen the film yet.
If you feel that this would be too traumatic to watch (as some have criticized the film for), please take care of yourself and skip this short.
I am bending the rules a little here; this is a limited series, not a movie. But I was so hooked on this story and these characters, I watched these ten, hour-long episodes, in two sittings. It moved me so much; my list wouldn’t be complete without it.
Maid is based on a true story, inspired by Stephanie Land’s 2019 memoir. Alex, a young single mother, escapes an abusive relationship to start a better life for herself and her two-year-old daughter, Maddy. Starting out with only $18, Alex leaves her abusive partner, obtains a job with a house cleaning service, and overcomes homelessness to provide for Maddy.
Alex is played by Margaret Qualley. Alex’s mother, Paula, is a self-proclaimed artist with an undiagnosed bipolar or schizophrenia disorder. Paula is played by Qualley’s real-life mother, Andie MacDowell (known for Groundhog’s Day). Their mother-daughter dynamic isn’t the center of the plot, but it adds to the overall themes of strenuous family relationships. It also has extra pull when played by a real-life mother-daughter duo.
Based on a person’s real-life experiences, the series contains very accurate portrayals of homelessness, privilege, poverty, broken welfare programs, and the psychological scenarios of domestic abuse survivors repeatedly going back to their abusers hoping they had changed. The DV shelter in the show mentions the real statistic: that on average, survivors will go back 6-7 times to their abuser before leaving for good. This is usually due to fear, love for the abuser, psychological control, or having nowhere else to go. I found Land’s story very inspiring, and the themes hit close to home. There is one particular quote that spoke to me:
“Our space is a home because we love each other in it.”
One of the things I have questioned over the past few years is how to define what makes a “home.” According to my GPS and Amazon deliveries, it’s where I return to at the end of the day most often. Maybe home is where my belongings are. Some say it’s where you feel safest and supported, but I didn’t have a home for 17 years if that’s the case, and I was never homeless. When frequently moving my belongings to different places I had no prior connection to, I questioned what it meant to call a home a “home,” rather than just a house, an apartment, or the place I sleep at night. This quote from Maid spoke to me because I have found that I start to consider a space a “home” when I begin to associate being between its walls with being surrounded by people who love and support me.
2. A Quiet Place Part II
This movie was a very close second to my top pick. The first week this movie came out, I saw it three times at Story Screen and rewatched the first film. My friends will think I’m biased for this movie because I have a big story now that I saw a film with Woody Harrelson, but genuinely, I love this movie. I love Emily Blunt’s silently open-mouthed pained face when a baby cries, the suspense of depleting oxygen tanks, and the fear when a cellphone’s ring breaks complete silence. As someone who has studied Deaf culture and is proficient in ASL, I appreciate the representation of a Deaf female superhero leading this thriller and the use of sign language throughout the film. I also love how extra creepy and unique it is for us Hudson Valley locals to watch an apocalypse movie filmed around Dutchess and Ulster County (including where I live, attend school, and where my dad worked as a Metro-North conductor). While I’m nervous that John Krasinski will not be directing the third installment, I cannot wait to see what these characters will conquer next in 2023, or how close to home the next filming locations will be.
Honorable Mentions: CODA, C’mon C’mon, In the Heights, Lamb, Pig, Minari, The Beta Test, The Guilty, The Lost Daughter, The Suicide Squad, The Unforgivable, @Zola
1. Bo Burnham: Inside
Over the past few years, my appreciation for Bo Burnham has greatly increased. Not first from his specials on Netflix (while they are entertaining), but from his first film, Eighth Grade in 2018, and then his role in Promising Young Woman in 2020. In 2021, after years of convincing from my partner on Bo’s talent, Inside sold me.
As I mention every year, my all-time favorite films are the ones that have a little bit of everything. We felt a broad spectrum of emotions in 2020, and Bo captured them alone, trapped in his house, during the lockdown. Drawing inspiration from an emotional rollercoaster of a year, Inside features a range of genres, as a film and musical. One scene will resemble stand-up, and the next will haunt you. Some lighthearted skits turned 2020’s lemons into lemonade; he teases the arduous process of trying to Facetime older parents and mocks the superficiality of white girls on Instagram. Some songs congratulate Jeff Bezos on his obscene wealth, or feature Bo humorously and genuinely checking his privilege as a white heterosexual male talking about the world’s problems. Other scenes take darker, sardonic turns, especially in the second half of the special. Bo’s mental health state dwindles as the lockdown continues. He questions audiences why they laugh or cheer when a comedian is in pain. Bo Burnham: Inside makes you laugh, scream, cry, cheer, and feel at peace. Like all of my favorite movies, Inside has, “a little bit of everything all of the time.”
A Beacon resident since 2001, Sophia is pursuing a Master’s degree in Education at SUNY New Paltz.