Danny Baldwin’s Top 10 Movies of 2021

Danny Baldwin's Top 10 Movies of 2021

For the first time in 24 years, or since “Titanic” took home 11 statuettes a good six months before I would ultimately see it on the double-decker VHS set, I will be skipping the Oscars telecast this evening. Maybe the thought of out-of-touch gatekeepers alienating a core fanbase that has stood by them for decades was already weighing heavily on me, after the harrowing MLB lockout, but I just can’t partake in a ceremony that omits one-third of the awards. I could have swallowed getting rid of the shorts categories, but Sound? Score? Production Design? Editing? These are the fundamentals of filmmaking. Irredeemable, especially that given the “zero hour” in which these awards will be handed out isn’t even being livestreamed on the ABC website.

Given this move was purportedly designed to “save the ratings” of the show, I advise that you, too, opt out. Handing ABC and the Academy the Nielsen points they so desire, in exchange for this betrayal, would frankly be too polite.

Instead, consider watching one or two of my Top 10 Movies of 2021 tonight…

You Said 2021, I Said 2020: First, an upfront note that I classified “Quo Vadis, Aida?” — a masterwork that would make my list any year — as a 2020 release. The unorthodox nature of “qualifying runs” during the pandemic made it hard to definitively date certain films, which inevitably resulted in certain list-making inconsistencies. If you haven’t seen “Quo Vadis, Aida?”, make every effort to do so. Especially with the conflict consuming the world right now, it is especially relevant.

Just Missed The List (alphabetical): “Drive My Car,” “House of Gucci,” “Judas and the Black Messiah,” “Nightmare Alley,” “No Time to Die,” “The Power of the Dog,” “The Souvenir: Part II,” “Spencer,” “West Side Story,” “The Worst Person in the World”

10. “The Card Counter” — Paul Schrader’s latest doesn’t reach the same level of transcendence as “First Reformed,” but he feels reinvigorated in getting back to playing the hits, with an exceptional Oscar Isaac performance at the center.

9. “Shiva Baby” — In a year when the streamers competed furiously to capture the next movie that would inspire a social media frenzy, only to quickly become a passing fad, it was heartening to see Emma Seligman’s far superior zeitgeisty pressure cooker of Gen Z angst play in arthouses for months.

8. “Land” — At first, the notion of a film about a lead character who just wants to be left alone, however well-executed, seems like an unfortunate premise for the COVID era. But then the movie smacks you in the face with a warmth you never saw coming.

7. “Annette” — As seemingly every mass appeal movie tries to come off as kitschy and “weird” for charm’s sake (let’s call it the Taika Waititi effect), I was especially grateful to Leos Carax for reminding us that truly weird films are challenging, subversive, terrifying, outrageous, and ultimately, wonderful.

6. “Stillwater” — There continues to be a lot of discourse bemoaning the sad reality that Hollywood supposedly no longer makes handsomely constructed, star-led, down-the-middle movies for adults. I agree with the sentiment, but I also wish that instead of complaining, folks would spend their time championing this type of movie when one actually comes out. There is no better example than “Stillwater.”

5. “Red Rocket” — I don’t know if anybody gets better performances out of actors these days than Sean Baker, who continues his streak of surprising humanist films about deeply flawed people. As Mickey Saber, Simon Rex is a force of nature. And that 16mm film grain? Nirvana.

4. “Summer of Soul (…Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised)” — Debates over the truthfulness of the “lost footage” conceit that Questlove employs have predictably found a way to politicize what is to my eyes the purest, most joyful, most hopeful film of the year. Pay them no mind and feel the movie in your bones.

3. “Last Night in Soho” — Edgar Wright’s most fully realized vision to date has that rare level of formal mastery that reminds us that cinema can at once be precise and overflowing with passion, perfectly calibrated but utterly captivating in keeping us guessing what will happen next. And in Thomasin McKenzie and Anya Taylor-Joy, he channels the two most radiant onscreen presences of the year.

2. “The Killing of Two Lovers” – The TikTok era has made me cynical about any film that immediately announces its bold, unique aesthetic, because all too often these feel like gimmicks designed to remind the audience that “I’m making cinema!” as opposed to a 60-second video on an iPhone. But I quickly realized that this 84-minute opus from Robert Machoian is no gimmick. It’s a fully realized vision that converges landscape, composition, and performance to force us to confront the darkness within ourselves, and maybe, just maybe, come out the other side.

1. “Licorice Pizza” — For those of us who consider the movie theater a second home, the forced shutdowns of 2020 felt like they took away a sixth sense — a different way of seeing the world that helps us feel alive. As we returned to relative normalcy in 2021, the initial trips to the cinema felt jubilant, triumphant, even life-affirming. But it wasn’t until late in the year that I found a movie with the uniquely cinematic emotion that I covet most: aching. “Licorice Pizza” is a film I wish I could jump inside, not due to a superficial fetishization of the time and place in which the story is set (though, I’ll be the first to admit, I’ve done plenty of that). But rather, because it’s a movie that celebrates aspiration even while recognizing all of the pain of failure that inevitably comes with it. Warts and all, that’s the kind of world I want to live in.

A scene from the film "Licorice Pizza"