Preference feeds identity, so a top ten list can be seen as a sort of flash-autobiography. 2021 has been a gradual, if incomplete, reawakening for the world. We’re all well-rested and more tired than ever. It feels like the year after–after the pandemic hit, after lockdown (jk), after beginning a reckoning about race in this country, after a crazy president (though he did have a wild cameo at the beginning of the sequel). I didn’t have a lot of patience for quiet contemplation last year and I found myself loving the Cruellas and Jungle Cruises of the year. There are movies on this list that helped me escape and reminded me of the adventures that the pandemic put on hold, and others that articulated things I didn’t know about myself. I’m thrilled that 2021 brought me into the Story Screen fam, and very excited to present my first official #topten.
Screenplay by Jesse Andrews and Mike Jones, directed by Enrico Casarosa
It’s not just that it’s about two boys and their intimate friendship, and it’s not just its resemblance to another film leading to the fantastic nickname Calamari Me By Your Name. What makes Luca a great piece of queer art is the story: hiding differences for fear of prejudice and violence. There are some raw moments of navigating unsafe spaces, or protecting yourself at the expense of others and vice versa, that have powerful truth to them. That other stuff just sweetens the deal.
NINE: TICK, TICK… BOOM!
Screenplay by Steven Levenson, directed by Lin-Manual Miranda
I was a theater kid in the late ‘90s, so Jonathan Larson’s RENT meant a lot to me growing up. Tick, Tick… BOOM! started out as a “solo rock monologue” that Larson would perform around town; it was autobiographical in content and talked about turning 30 while not having achieved the success he was reaching for. After his death, playwright David Auburn reworked the piece into a 3-person Off-Broadway musical using material from the original piece as well as other songs Larson had written. Now, Steven Levenson has done another round of the same thing, to even better results. The film manages to avoid the couple of clunkers in the stage show while working in great songs I’d never heard before. As time passes and the story becomes more and more of a period piece, the new script does a great job of providing context to a wider audience. I seem to be the only one who’s not crazy about Andrew Garfield in this (I think a tried and true musical theater performer would have felt less performative in the role), he does just fine and the story comes through, along with the always welcome message to keep going.
EIGHT: RED ROCKET
Screenplay by Chris Bergoch and Sean Baker, directed by Sean Baker
Sean Baker is a master at lacing a tragedy with humor galore, as he proves again here. Simon Rex, oozing pretty boy confidence that’s hard to resist, is the perfect choice for Mikey, an aging porn actor coming home to rural Texas for a lack of opportunity to do anything else. This, like Baker’s other work, is an amazing opportunity to spend a couple of hours with a group of very real people who many won’t come across in a lifetime. The situations are mostly bleak, but the film finds humor in everything, making watching Red Rocket a bittersweet joy.
SEVEN: DRIVE MY CAR
Screenplay by Ryusuke Hamaguchi and Takamasa Oe, directed by Ryusuke Hamaguchi
Drive My Car is a three-hour meditation on the volume at which people live their lives. Hidetoshi Nishijima plays Yusuke Kafuku, a married actor who lives quietly. Watching him interact with others, challenging them, and finally challenging himself, is painfully beautiful in this exquisite film. A viewer must be ready for a film, and I was not ready for this one. As I said, I haven’t had a lot of patience in the past year for slow-moving films, and so enjoying this one was a bit of a challenge for me, though no fault of the film’s. I hope the fact that the film made this list speaks for itself, and I look forward to encountering it again when I’m more ready for it.
SIX: C’MON C’MON
Written and directed by Mike Mills
I really thought this wasn’t going to be for me in the first fifteen minutes of this film: its narration and cinematography felt pretentious and navel-gazing in ways I couldn’t get past. But the more relentless thing in C’mon C’mon is its heart, embodied by all three of the leads. Full of mistakes and forgiveness and viewed through a kid’s eyes, this movie melted me as it melted its protagonists. Joaquin Phoenix once again excels at presenting an innocent, damaged man who learned how to get older without ever really growing up, and Woody Norman is terrific as a strange, sensitive soul trying to grow through the trauma of family life.
FIVE: JUDAS AND THE BLACK MESSIAH
Screenplay by Will Berson and Shaka King, directed by Shaka King
This pressure cooker of a movie tells a story that I regret to say I didn’t know, about Black Panther leader Fred Hampton’s rise and William O’Neal’s betrayal of him. Such a heavy story is always in danger of becoming a Very Important Movie and turning into spinach, but Shaka King’s bold direction keeps things moving, interesting, and entertaining. A fantastic ensemble cast led by Daniel Kaluuya and Lakeith Stanfield ground the movie while the writing and direction have fun but never lets up. The biblical lens adds to the mythos of the story in
Screenplay by Jordan Peele, Win Rosenfeld, and Nia DaCosta; directed by Nia DaCosta
This legacy sequel gives the Candyman franchise not just more nuanced and explored ideas about race and violence, but also about art, fame, exploitation, and police brutality. Early on, the film makes you wonder if it’s going to be a reboot, but it eventually ties back in with the original films in ways that are smart, insightful, and exciting. It’s also a visual feast, featuring some amazing shadow puppetry to communicate exposition in gorgeous ways.
THREE: WEST SIDE STORY
Screenplay by Tony Kushner, directed by Steven Spielberg
The new West Side Story takes what many point to as the pinnacle of musical theater – the high watermark of combining music, dance, and drama to tell a compelling story – and has the gall to improve upon it. The work that Tony Kushner and Steven Spielberg did is truly amazing, going moment by moment through the original play, fleshing out existing scenes, finding essential moments skimmed over in the original, putting songs into new contexts that activate them further, and transforming the archetypes of the original piece into fully dimensional characters. The cast is great across the board, the music sounds fantastic (though one of my few complaints is the overuse of autotune), and the movement! In the original film, you can feel the story code-switch as it goes into storytelling through dance; in the remake, choreographer Justin Peck takes original director/choreographer Jerome Robbins’s moves and integrates them with the everyday movements of the characters, so that when people start snapping, it somehow feels natural as opposed to a high style choice. The ways in which “One Hand, One Heart,” “Gee, Officer Krupke,” and “Cool,” are reframed continue to leave me giddy. Kushner’s context and Spielberg’s visuals take this masterpiece to new heights, and I can’t think of a film adaptation of a musical better than this.
Screenplay by Janicza Bravo and Jeremy O. Harris, directed by Janicza Bravo
I missed Aziah "Zola" King’s original Twitter thread when it took the internet by storm in 2015, which meant I had the enviable experience of surprise after surprise in this wild ride of a film. King’s storytelling is stylish, visceral, often hilarious, and totally unique, and Janicza Bravo and Jeremy O. Harris take that and run with it to create the most exciting cinematic vocabulary of the year. It’s a young-sexy-people-getting-into-trouble-and-adventure movie, cut from the same cloth as Go, which is a huge compliment in my book. The thing that takes it from good to great, though, is its relentless style, always entertaining while supporting the story. Special shout-out to the score and sound design that keep momentum, suspense, and comedy always marching forward. It’s not too long and full of suspense.
Written and directed by Bo Burnham
Before Inside, I had a vague impression of Bo Burnham as a clever, if fame-seeking, YouTube musical comic who turned in a great performance in last year’s Promising Young Woman. Whatever judgment someone has about him coming into this movie is immediately neutralized and overshadowed by his own self-hatred, existing right alongside his arrogance and self-awareness. After swearing off performing to prioritize his mental health, Burnham spent the first months of the pandemic writing, directing, and starring in what starts out as a musical comedy special and ends up as an exploration and deconstruction of whiteness, maleness, millennials, consumerists, and so many other things that were put into slow cookers in March of 2020. The movie articulates loneliness, frustration, narcissism, and helplessness that I wasn’t even aware was a part of my pandemic experience. And it dropped when most folks were still in some version of lockdown, marrying the discovery of the piece to the piece itself. Most movies should be seen in a theater; this one is best experienced while being stuck in your house, cripplingly alone.
RUNNERS-UP (in alphabetical order): Don’t Look Up, The Eyes of Tammy Faye, In The Heights, Last Night in Soho, Macbeth, Malignant, Pig, A Quiet Place Part II, Raya and the Last Dragon, Shang Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, The Sparks Brothers, Summer of Soul
HOTTIE OF THE YEAR: Daniel Durant, CODA
Musical theater writer, lover of bright colors and chocolate, dog dad to Parmesan. Scotty lives in a cabin in Fishkill spending winters wondering why he ever moved from California and playing in the snow. scottyarnold.com