Superheroes, Songs, and Dance Dominated the Movies Last Year

10. In the Heights

Anthony Ramos and Melissa Barrera in IN THE HEIGHTS (2021)

Musical adaptations are not guaranteed, no matter how beloved they may be, so hats off to Jon Chu for bringing Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Broadway hit to the screen. Chu takes advantage of the format with some great surreal scenes that help the film stand on its own apart from the stage show, and the songs are great, even if Miranda is running the risk of overexposure, in my opinion. 

9. Jungle Cruise

I can’t really defend why I like this movie so much. Maybe its the Rock’s perfect delivery of the dad jokes that made the Disney ride so fun, or the way it feels like the movie baby that Indiana Jones and Romancing the Stone (films I loved growing up) would make. It is fun, and one of those films I will probably finish if I ever see it playing. And that’s not nothing.

8. The Power of the Dog

I love a good Western. Sure, it needs a good story and acting, but the best also give the land a chance to tell its own story. Jane Campion lets the open plains and distant hills of New Zealand stand in for Montata and hold memories of the past and hope for tomorrow. Benedict Cumberbatch delivers a great performance as a cruel, jaded, and haunted cowboy, caught in the times, while also himself being a perpetuator of that ostracizing. 

7. The Sparks Brothers

I would put myself in the category that kinda gets Sparks. There’s some gushing on this bizarre group that is a bit beyond me, but no matter if  you like their music or not, their story is one of a kind. Edgar Wright clearly loves them, and he captures why they have stood the test of time and have impacted the pop industry so much, while also making it pretty clear why they aren’t lighting up the Top 10. The music industry is better for having Sparks in it, though, and this doc will bring that to light to many who have never heard of them.

6. tick, tick…BOOM!

I’m married to a theater actress. Among the many things that I have appreciated and benefitted from in this relationship is having someone who truly loves theater to just teach me about it. Before I even saw tick, tick…BOOM!, my wife who loves Rent had shared Jonathan Larson’s story with me. This film isn’t about Rent, or rather it is but indirectly. This is the mostly biographical story of what led to Rent. Garfield is great as Larson, and as someone who wasn’t really a singer, he does an amazing job stepping into the music theater world. The songs are…hit or miss, depending on your love of that late 80s/early 90s rock musical sound, but the movie really stands on its own. The tale of an artist on the brink of living on the street, striving to make it isn’t anything new, but the tale is timeless for a reason. 

5. Luca

Soul seemed to be a hit with critics, but I found it to be a pretty soul-less outing for the generally dependable animation studio, so I was happy that they seemed to return to form with a simple story about prepubescent friendship and the tensions that show up as kids become teens. The soundtrack is a real treat as well. Now to brace myself for their 

4. The French Dispatch

Bill Murray in THE FRENCH DISPATCH (2021)

Rewatching some of Wes Anderson’s other films earlier this year, I realized that what I appreciate about his films beyond the aesthetic and humor, is that his characters always care. Sometimes they are jaded or hurt, but they have real heart. This clearly is an echo of Anderson, and here he delivers a series of tales that capture his love of French cinema, journalism, and storytelling. The cast is incredible and Anderson’s “study guide” for the film is a treasure in and of itself.

3. Dune

Going just by its cinematography, Dune is the best film of the year. Denis Villeneuve is a master of taking full advantage of today’s technology without letting it wag the dog. From its color palette to its epic scope, Dune is a wonder to watch. And this is to say nothing of its incredible adaptation of Frank Hubert’s difficult source material. It’s big and somber and otherworldly, and one of the best compliments I can pay it, is that it never seems to be trying to be Star Wars or the MCU. It’s a beautiful, confident film that stands on its own, but may only prove greater when it gets its chance to finish with the now-greenlit sequel.

2. Get Back

I struggled to know whether this was magical, because of Peter Jackson’s skill at editing and piecing together this story of the Beatles on the brink of breaking up, or whether it is impossible to see McCartney create timeless songs and not be in awe. It takes a significant commitment, but every moment is worth it. Incredibly, you will likely be left wishing for one more side conversation or loose jam session just to be able to keep watching the Beatles in action. Jackson has to be complimented for delivering a film that resists the urge to be the disaster doc that the previous iteration was, and instead shows a band with tensions but also able to get beyond that to make great music. 

1. Spider-Man: No Way Home

This movie was made for me. I’ve loved Spider-Man since I was a little kid. I felt a companionship with Peter Parker in my adolescent years as a bespecled, awkward nerd kid. And as an adult, not a day goes by that I don’t think about the Spider-Man mantra in regards to my life and believing that I’ve been given a life and time and have a responsibility to live it well and strive to love well, despite the cost. I don’t know how No Way Home did it, but it takes last 20 years of cinematic Spidey stories and it elevates them, honors them, and even corrects some fan complaints. It is just astouding not only what all they brought together, but the players involved all give good to great turns. Holland has never been stronger, and this is without a doubt his best go as Peter. The back third of this movie I’ve been in tears both times I’ve seen it, as it goes from a fun superhero romp to a film with real stakes and emotions. It’s beautiful and wonderful, and it is one of those rare films that when I think about it, I’m just thankful that I got to see it. And it truly is remarkable how much it feels like the filmmakers heard everything that fans had said and delivered a film that makes every Spider-Man film matter. It’s an experience that will make an impact on almost anyone who sees movies. It’s amazing, and you need to hear that.

Honorable Mentions: Ghostbusters: Afterlife, The Eyes of Tammy Faye, Judas and the Black Messiah, Encanto, The Mitchells vs the Machines, A Quiet Place Part II, Nobody, Nomadland

Wish I’d Seen: CODA, The Last Duel, King Richard, C’mon C’mon, West Side Story

Wish I Hadn’t Seen: Don’t Look Up, Eternals, No Time to Die