Previously on Midlife Crisis Crossover: In 2021 I made 22 trips to the theater to see films made that same year. In Part 1 we ranked the majority from “this film is pretty keen” to “this film is my mortal enemy” but in reverse. And now, the countdown concludes with the ten most relatively awesome films I saw at a theater in 2021 that were released for general audiences in 2021. Exactly those dates. Exactly those dates.
EXACTLY those dates.
10. Black Widow. Most film series have the decency to give an underused character their greatest moment before they’re killed off. Scarlett Johansson, on break from offending the internet for the crime of Accepting Wrong Parts (setting the example that Chris Pratt would follow and overtake), brings Natasha Romanoff to life one last time for the grand finale of her origin flashbacks with the arranged family that raised her, her best fight scenes ever, a nearly great villain in Ray Winstone, a fitting burial of some of the weight Joss Whedon foisted on her, and a “where are they now?” reunion that recruits a trio of grade-A thespians who help elevate her game and the film itself. Bonus points for introducing Florence Pugh as the Best New MCU Character of 2021 amid fierce competition that included Agatha Harkness, Kate Bishop, Shang-Chi, Captain Carter, Karun the cameraman, and Alligator Loki.
9. Dune: Part One. Denis Villeneuve’s transfixing reinvention of America’s original “Chosen One on Planet Sahara” space opera didn’t disappoint until it ended anticlimactically like an ordinary TV episode hoping viewers come back next week anyway, and in this case the week will be two years long. A few A-listers got shorted on screen time while character actors fought for space to make their marks and Timothee Chalamet and Rebecca Ferguson elbowed past the brawny-guy kick-line to claim the stage and promise us the future of expensive blockbusters doesn’t have to be left solely in the hands of superhero flicks or their veterans. At last the demons of my previous awful Dune experiences were laid to rest.
8. No Time to Die. Skyfall remains my all-time favorite Bond film because I never cared for the first fifteen or twenty films’ worth of snobby-rich-guy antics celebrating booze, bedding, and badinage with an emphasis on “bad”. Rami Malek’s Phantom of the Operatics and his convoluted scheme weren’t quite the Final Boss we needed, but many thanks to Cary Joji Fukunaga for giving Daniel Craig, my James Bond, a properly propulsive platform for his swan song. Craig’s rendition always felt less polished in a good way, deadlier than the previous retro-macho Bonds yet possessed of a fuller emotional core that finally opens up as his last words reach maximum gravitas and the viewer realizes the producers’ hunt for the next Bond will be long and disappointing no matter who’s chosen.
7. Last Night in Soho. Whereas The Matrix Resurrections prescribes nostalgia as an antidepressant, in Edgar Wright’s psychoactive cabaret thriller it’s a hallucinogenic that lures sprightly naif Thomasin McKenzie into a nightly addiction to those swingin’ ’60s, which she’s idealized and idolized all her life while oblivious to the dark side of the party that they never covered on Top of the Pops. McKenzie and her mirror-dance body-swap twin Anja Taylor-Joy alternate sashay and run screaming through the past’s groovy fun-house mirrors, realizing too late that the men who lured ladies inside those happenin’ halls built them as traps.
6. West Side Story. Steven Spielberg’s best film since Munich reinvigorates the creakily aging classic, pumping up the volume of its unforgettable songs while excavating the grim-and-gritty tragedy of star-crossed love and brutal street warfare from behind the original film’s Day-Glo veneer. Though the tidily happy couple at the center are its weakest link, they ride high on the shoulders of a superb ensemble of stars-in-the-making — including but not limited to David Alvarez, Mike Faist, and especially Ariana DeBose as Rita Moreno’s literal and spiritual successor — as they live, love, hate and die in a dust-shrouded New York City where every form of progress (or “progress”) looks like a wrecking ball to the targets on its bad side.
5. The Suicide Squad. The year’s most guiltless of guilty pleasures what ever did pleasure. James Gunn’s outrageous, zealously deranged sequel is much-needed shock therapy for the comatose DC Extended Universe, especially if you paid extra for a senses-shattering, sometimes sickening IMAX showing like our family did. It’s a Grand Guignol live-action cartoon that belies a faithful mash note to characters and lore from actual DC comic books — the classics and the crap — while proudly upholding the Squad’s core conceit: that in every one of their escapades, the day is saved thanks to super-villains. (Antihero, shmantihero.) We also owe much gratitude to Gunn for exposing a long-denied truth: Starro the Conqueror is basically a kaiju, and it’s a crime that all of fandom went 61 years without celebrating that.
4. In the Heights. One of this year’s three Lin-Manuel Miranda musicals (along with Disney’s Encanto and Netflix’s overlooked Vivo), Jon M. Chu’s infectiously upbeat adaptation of the pre-Hamilton Broadway show eschews West Side Story‘s Upper West Side gentrification calamity-ville in favor of a Hollywood-ized rendition of Washington Heights where every block has a story and a soul, every resident could be an up-and-comer in their field, and every bad day and sign of struggle can’t faze a loving community where every resident in sight hopes not just for their own success, but for better lives for all, whether they move on or stick around. Dropped in theaters shortly after the vaccines went wide but well before everyone was ready to leave the house and hang out in just any crowd of strangers, In the Heights hit bumpy patches at the box office and in the press, but if you can forgive the film like its characters forgive each other, it’s an invigorating reminder that one day — hopefully sooner than it feels like — maybe it’ll be okay for us all to dream big again, and to dream together.
3. Eternals. Midlife Crisis Crossover presents INTERNET V. ETERNALS: A ONE-ACT PLAY:
INTERNET: Why does every Marvel movie have to look and feel exactly the same? Why can’t they make something different for once?
CHLOE ZHAO: I give you Marvel’s alt-universe Book of Genesis with a truly intergalactic scope; the imagination of Jack Kirby writ larger than ever; naturally filmed scene settings and not just Paint Shop wallpapers; fight scenes all the more exciting because they have weight and the human eye can actually follow them; and an array of underrated actors from your favorite geek works and/or new stuff you should go check out. And in the first Marvel film to tackle religion in any true sense, it’s a philosophical inquiry into the complicated relationship between god and human, between family and independence, between obedience and faith, and the wide spectrum of reactions from believers who might live it out, reject it, or wrestle with it in an ongoing search for personal answers.
INTERNET: No, not like that.
I’m not sure which is the opinion more likely to ensure I remain an online hermit forever: that I called No Way Home my worst theater film of the year and Eternals the year’s best superhero film, or that I liked Eternals far more than I did Zhao’s Nomadland. Let’s just print both and keep enjoying the solitude, shall I?
2. The Green Knight. A deconstruction of male-pattern blustery machismo and its attendant misconception that heroism comes naturally and easily to males on principle? Yep, I’m in. David Lowery’s gorgeously unsettling anti-epic sends Dev Patel’s Sir Gawain through the usual fantasy-flick gauntlet of unconnected episodes involving monsters and miscreants, only to find that victories are not merely handed out to men just for showing up armored, nature itself might have something to say about all that careless tromping, and sometimes a humble hero’s death is the best thing if it means he never grows old enough to believe his own press and cheerfully become the tyrant.
1. Judas and the Black Messiah. Hey, remember that time I was oddly emphatic about dates? Shaka King’s incendiary feature debut — in which the magnetic duel between Daniel Kaluuya and LaKeith Stanfield illuminates a critical, shameful part of U.S. history — was eligible to win Oscars for 2020, the year of its intended release, but it wasn’t actually released to theaters till February 2021, where I did indeed catch it. The Academy may have extended their eligibility deadline and pretended 2020 was 14 months long just to enlarge the candidate pool and deny The Invisible Man its crown, but no one asked me to rewrite my calendar and grant any such exceptions. And, whereas I usually don’t see all the most heavily Oscar-nominated films till after January 1st, thus disqualifying them from these annual year-end lists that consequently end up being heavy on superheroes and light on indie fare, Messiah‘s convoluted history makes it the first time I’ve ever been able to put an Oscar-winning film on such a list. Thanks, pandemic!
…and that was my 2021 at the movies. Check back with us in the months ahead and see how many times I can be cajoled out of my comfy living room for two hours of cinematic splendor out in the wild with other humans who may be secret viral time bombs waiting to explode in my face!