New from Every Movie Has a Lesson by Don Shanahan: COLUMN: My 10 Best Movies of 2021

Last year at this time, I talked about a long sigh and a deep breath defining 2020. Go ahead and double it for 2021. This year felt, in many ways, more difficult because of the ongoing societal hurdles. After nearly a year away (between Onward in March of 2020 to Raya and the Last Dragon in March of 2021), in-theater movies and press screenings returned. It was great to see that circle of friends and acquaintances again. 

Nevertheless, the day job work was harder, family life was harder, the balance between them both was harder. It was all wonderful, but harder. Compared to 94 published reviews on Every Movie Has a Lesson in 2020, I only published 67 this past year (with a good two dozen still in the draft folder), including my 1000th on this site in its 11th year of service. Even with a lower written output, the personal growth of it all hasn’t stopped.

Flying the 25YL banner where my work is professionally published, I was admitted into the prestigious and nationally-recognized Critics Choice Association. That’s a ladder rung I never thought were attainable when I started all this years ago. Thanks to their membership, I’ve had new levels of press access and perks, including my first trip to Los Angeles. I was also admitted into the Internet Film Critics Society and Globe Film Awards as well. Between my continued standing with the Online Film Critics Society (OFCS) and my own director work with Chicago Indie Critics (CIC), the hat is filling with feathers, and I’m incredibly honored.

After years of appearing on other creators’ podcasts and shows (including 48 appearances this past year), I also embarked on a bold new creative endeavor this past year in that direction. I was propositioned by 25YL and their partnership with the Ruminations Radio Network to start a film podcast with Phoenix-based writer Will Johnson. With rocking enthusiasm, the Cinephile Hissy Fit podcast was born, and we’ve produced 41 episodes so far with no signs of slowing down. Thank you to all of those new fans and listeners out there!

Alright, that’s enough about me. Let’s talk about the movies of 2021. I can’t see everything (see that rant early about everything being harder) and I’ve got my sizable blind spots. Still, I feel I’ve seen enough to give all of you a solid “10 Best” list for this past year. My Letterboxd followers have seen these ranks in progress for a little while, but let’s make them official on the home site.

(all poster images from IMP Awards)


MY 10 BEST FILMS OF 2021

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1. CODA

2. Belfast

3. The Tragedy of Macbeth

4. Nine Days

5. Swan Song

6. In the Heights

7. Malcolm & Marie

8. West Side Story

9. The Map of Tiny Perfect Things

10. The Harder They Fall

I think I’ve got quite an eclectic list that mixes good, old fashioned feels with some appreciated and worthy cinema. To highlight the ongoing online trend of things that has grown during the pandemic, seven of my Top 10 films were available on streaming platforms alongside or ahead of theatrical showings. Three of them call AppleTV+ home, along with two from Netflix, one from Amazon Prime, and another that dropped on HBO Max.

During the early third of the year, Malcolm & Marie was my early leader in the clubhouse. I still think it’s the ballsiest talker of the year, right there with the stinging Shakespearean poetry of The Tragedy of Macbeth. In the Heights was my peak for a year of impressive musicals that I sure didn’t see coming, even with the vaunted Spielberg doing West Side Story. Even if it’s one movie, it’s nice to see a proper western treatment with The Harder They Fall. 

In the end, emotional experiences won this softie over more often than not. The Map of Tiny Perfect Things was easily the breeziest and most pleasant movie experience I had this year, even with the Irish treat that is Belfast toasting the talent of Kenneth Branagh. The astoundingly unique and masterfully soulful duo of Nine Days and Swan Song crushed my head and my heart. I can’t get either of those two journeys of existential dread out of my head and I love that. 

Last and certainly not least, I was late to the party on the Apple Original Film CODA, the wonderful drama of a deaf family guided by their one hearing teen daughter. Everything about tugs the simplest heartstrings far from any blockbuster. I was so late that I don’t have a proper review written (see again that early rant about work-life balance). I urgently need to remedy that someday. Until that rainy day and after, I will sing its praises and check its awards boxes every chance I get.


THE NEXT TEN:

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11. The Mitchells Vs. The Machines

12. Spider-Man: No Way Home

13. Judas and the Black Messiah

14. Here Today

15. King Richard

16. Passing

17. The Ultimate Playlist of Noise

18. Nobody

19. A Journal for Jordan

20. Supernova 

There’s plenty to love even in this next ten. If you discover and love The Map of Tiny Perfect Things from my Top 10, seek out The Ultimate Playlist of Noise as a double feature of teen love and engaging original storytelling. The Mitchells vs. The Machines packed more messages than most live-action movies and stands as the best animated film I saw in 2021. I don’t think I have to advertise Spider-Man: No Way Home or King Richard. They’re well-known commodities.

In the tearjerker department, I have one big and two small movies to recommend from this second list. The Michael B. Jordan flick A Journal for Jordan directed by Denzel Washington debuts wider here in January and should find an audience. The smaller indies require a little digging that will be worth your times. Seek out Supernova starring the on-point duo of Stanley Tucci and Colin Firth and Billy Crystal’s first directorial effort in over a decade with Here Today. Those three are wholly different movies with wonderful drama in their own realms. If that’s not your speed, just let Bob Odenkirk punch people all day in Nobody.


Other four-star reviews this past year: 

The Lost Daughter, The Ultimate Playlist of Noise, American Underdog, Being the Ricardos, No Time to Die, Surge, Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, Candyman, Free Guy, The Suicide Squad, Long Story Short, A Quiet Place Part II, The Water Man, Zack Snyder’s Justice League, and Raya and the Last Dragon



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