Top Movies of 2021


Kayelyn Tate, Staff Reporter

“House of Gucci” has a transfixing backstabbing allure. It may be a drama about a crazy rich Euro-chic Old World fashion dynasty, with a cast dominated by American actors scheming in harsh Italian accents, but that doesn’t mean it’s some overly dramatic piece of high camp. Ridley Scott’s supremely entertaining and revealing drama about the Machiavellian machinations that brought down the Gucci fashion dynasty certainly has scenes where you chuckle at the audacity of what you’re seeing — the greed, the backstabbing, the revenge. “House of Gucci” is a knowing high-trash Godfather Lite, and one should feel free to giggle at Jared Leto’s comically pathetic Paolo, the Fredo of the family, even as Leto makes him a weirdly layered buffoon. But Lady Gaga, as Patrizia, who marries into the Gucci clan and tries to take it over, is at once lusciously devious and earnestly exacting playing a conniver in over her head, who we root both for and against. And Adam Driver and Al Pacino give pinpoint performances as the Gucci entrepreneurs who see their empire cut out from under them. “House of Gucci” is a study of the cruelly shifting whims of power. It’s a lethal game of musical chairs, in which the House of Gucci turns out to be a house of cards. But the more it implodes, the more you can’t look away.
”Dune” may not be the best new movie you’ll see this year, but you’ll definitely go for a ride. I left the theater feeling overwhelmed and a little parched, as though I’d spent two hours and 35 minutes being pummeled by hot desert winds and blinding sandstorms. The world of Frank Herbert’s novel feels big and immersive here in a way it never has on-screen, with its futuristic spacecraft, cavernous fortresses and, of course, terrifying sandworms. Even though Denis Villeneuve’s “Dune” is incomplete by design, there’s something odd and unsatisfying about the point at which it slams to a halt. Still, it duly sharpens your appetite for part two, assuming it gets made; This first “Dune” may not be a great movie — or even half a great movie — but Dune the planet is gorgeous enough that a return visit wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world. This movie earns a 2/5 simply for the underwhelming use of Zendaya in the film, with only 7 minutes of screen time. Hopefully, if there’s a part two, we will get a sufficient amount of Zendaya time. As for now, I guess we’ll have to be satisfied with her screen time in “Spiderman: No Way Home”.
Deadly secret agent James Bond is a man who risks his life a dozen times before breakfast, but the Bond movie formula has always been a little bit safe. That’s not quite true for “No Time to Die,” though. With the help of Cary Joji Fukunaga and Phoebe Waller-Bridge, Daniel Craig zooms into the sunset in his Aston Martin with a superspy swansong that throws a bomb under the Bond formula. For something that once felt like it so deftly balanced the old of a timeless character with a new, richer style, perhaps the biggest knock against “No Time to Die” is that there’s nothing here that hasn’t been done better in one of the other Craig movies. That’s fine if you’re such a fan of Bond that reheated leftovers still taste delicious—and even more so after waiting so long for this particular meal—but it’s not something anyone will remember in a few years. Maybe it all should have ended a couple of movies ago, that way we could all avoid the disappointment of this overhyped film.
Above all, the film, about martial-arts master Shang-Chi confronts the past he thought he left behind when he’s drawn into the web of the mysterious Ten Rings organization, is driven by engaging characters. The Marvel Cinematic Universe has rarely dealt with the superhero genre staple of secret identity, but Shang-Chi recontextualizes the challenges of living two different versions of yourself through the lens of the Asian-American experience. In the hands of director Destin Daniel Cretton, The Legend of the Ten Rings mindfully corrects past failings of representation by Marvel and offers a depiction of Chinese family and culture that viewers from Asian backgrounds are hailing for its warmth and authenticity. There was a point in “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings” when I forgot I was watching a Marvel movie. It’s strange to say that one of the biggest strengths of this latest Marvel flick is how un-Marvel it is, but maybe it’s fitting that a film about conflicting identity has a dual identity of its own.
“A Quiet Place Part II” is a near-silent sequel but it’s got even more to say in the pandemic era. Written and directed by John Krasinski, with Emily Blunt and Cillian Murphy on screen, this thriller is filled with precision-tooled suspense even if it doesn’t expand on the 2018 original as much as it could. It is likely to make you a little jumpy. Though it doesn’t have the same claustrophobic intensity as its predecessor, it’s just as taut, suspenseful and beautifully made. As before, Krasinski doesn’t explain why the aliens are here in the first place. But he does give us an opening flashback to the terrible day they arrived, laying waste to the Abbotts’ small town in upstate New York — and other towns and cities all over the globe. Many people die, but the Abbotts survive, mainly because they’re quick to realize that the monsters hunt by sound. Then the movie flashes forward many months, picking up right after the events of the first film. That makes “A Quiet Place Part II” an unexpectedly resonant film for the present moment as this country slowly emerges from a crisis that — while surely less terrifying than an alien apocalypse — has revealed humanity at its best and its worst. The movie ends on an inconclusive note, leaving the door open for another sequel, which is both frustrating and heartening. I’m already looking forward to finding out what happens next — hopefully in a dark theater, watching as quietly as I can.
I’m a sucker for movies based on true events. I’m also a big fan of tennis. Combine those two passions, and it’s impossible not to be enamored by King Richard, a touching tribute to the father of tennis superstars Venus and Serena Williams, who was central to launching their careers. At times heart-wrenching and at others inspiring, the film is a tender portrayal of love, kinship and sacrifice, and a testament to the power of hard work and dreaming big. Will Smith has shown us his edge before, but never this brilliantly. The movie is about how Richard, working from a plan he drew up before Venus and Serena were born, taught them to be tennis wizards, but this wasn’t just a matter of devoted training. The Williams sisters grew up in Compton, and Richard, at every stage, had to break the color line and convince the white-dominated world of tennis to take his daughters on. He rewrote the rules — and then kept breaking his own rules because only he knew just how high his daughters could climb. Much will be made of Smith’s performance, which is excellent. But Saniyya Sidney and Demi Singleton should also be commended for their excellent work as Venus and Serena. Both had difficult roles to play, that of the rising star and the budding one temporarily trapped in her shadow, respectively. Unlike Will Smith, they have to mimic two of the greatest athletes to ever play any sport. They should be kept in the conversation because it’s the acting across the board that ultimately saves “King Richard” and earns the extra half-star that makes this a “thumbs-up” review.
Can you tell I’m a sucker for musicals? I think we can all admit that the past five or six years haven’t been the best for movie musical adaptations. “In The Heights,” however, is the one film adaptation I have recommended to people even outside the musical theater sphere. “In The Heights” adapts Lin Manuel Miranda’s first production and features a talented (though admittedly not as representative as it absolutely should be) cast as they experience life in Washington Heights bodega. There’s love, loss, drama, intrigue, piragua and a whole lot of stunning choreography. If you enjoyed Hamilton and you’re the type of person who finds themself bopping along to tunes, you’ll probably get a kick out of “In The Heights” — and yes, there’s a Lin Manuel Miranda cameo. The score, phenomenal, the choreography, phenomenal, the cast… disappointing. Don’t get me wrong, we were blessed with an array of multi-talented actors and singers from Stephanie Beatriz to Dascha Polanco, but I longed to see more Afro-Latino representation in the movie, which is why the film loses a star.
There’s a palpable sense that this story would have felt a little delayed even in May 2020. After all, why did Thor, Captain America, and Iron Man get three standalone films before Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johannson) got one? Fans complained long before the pandemic that it felt like Black Widow was getting pushed aside, only given her own adventure after the end of her story in “Avengers: Endgame.” Finally, we get a background into the life of Natasha Romanoff, aka “Black Widow,” when she confronts the darker parts of her ledger when a dangerous conspiracy with ties to her past arises. Pursued by a force that will stop at nothing to bring her down, Natasha must deal with her history as a spy, and the broken relationships left in her wake long before she became an Avenger. David Harbour’s take on Russia’s version of Captain America is a clever one, finding just the right balance of humor and bravado. However, the film really belongs to Florence Pugh, who nails every single line reading in a project that’s clearly designed to hand the baton off from Johannson to Pugh, who will appear in Disney+’s “Hawkeye,” in much the same way that Captain America’s shield went from Steve Rogers to Sam Wilson. Pugh proves more than up for the challenge, finding just the right shades of strength and vulnerability. It’s a top-tier MCU performance and solely earns a 4 star for the long-awaited background of Natasha Romanoff and earns an additional half star for Pugh’s brilliant performance.
We’ve all waited long and hard for the ending to Tom Holland’s Homecoming trilogy. And for all the 10-year-olds who were first in line, move to the back because this film is filled with nostalgia they wouldn’t understand. “Spider-Man: No Way Home” is a masterclass in balancing MCU Peter Parker’s story with nearly 20 years of legacy elements. Green Goblin is particularly intense, and Willem Dafoe is clearly having an amazing time being a total monster. The arrival of Tobey Maguire and Andrew Garfield’s Peters was magnificently timed, bringing hope in a super dark moment and led to an eruption of applause in the theatre. If there’s one thing you absolutely need to give this film credit for, it’s how seamlessly it blended the vibe of each Peter and his film set. Tobey Maguire’s mature Peter has always held more of the weight of this responsibility, so it felt all the more rewarding to see him as a sage mentor for not just Tom Holland’s Spider-Man, but also Andrew Garfield’s. Zendaya (MJ) and Jacob Batalon (Ned) played Peter’s sidekicks, if you will, and were the brains to his continuous string of diabolical plans from locking Doctor Strange in his own multiverse, to defeating 5 villainous characters from previous installments. The ending, however, is what demotes it to the half star. I left the theatre slightly heartbroken with the loss of Peter’s relationship with MJ and Ned. Nonetheless, “Spider-Man: No Way Home” plays just about every trump card it has to claim the title of the next “Avengers: Endgame”. In other words, if you came for the biggest movie of the year, you’ll definitely leave satisfied.
There have been some terrific musicals this year — “West Side Story,” “tick, tick…Boom!,” “In the Heights.” Yet on that score, “Cruella” may have them all beat, even though it isn’t technically a musical. It’s a live-action Disney prequel (in other words, a movie you probably assumed you would hate), all about how Cruella de Vil, the aristocratic villainess from “101 Dalmatians,” started out as an orphan in ’70s London with two-toned hair and a fashionista flair that would take her far. Emma Stone plays this punk urchin with a commitment that will stun you, and the director, Craig Gillespie, orchestrates it all like a flowingly deranged rock opera of needle drops as if Ken Russell had been handed the keys to the Disney kingdom. Emma Thompson plays Cruella’s monster of a mentor, the Baroness, and Thompson’s line readings are delivered with skepticism so elegantly crisp you don’t know whether to run for cover or bow. I personally enjoyed it because the villain stories are the most captivating to watch and Emma Stone delivered just that.