Top 10 Films of 2021

The Crimson Arts Board presents its favorite films of the year, from "Encanto" to "Drive My Car."
Simu Liu stars as the titular superhero in "Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings" (2021), directed by Destin Daniel Cretton.By Courtesy of Marvel Studios / Disney
By The Crimson Arts Staff

10. ‘Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings’ (Destin Daniel Cretton)

Marvel’s first Asian-led superhero action flick won’t earn many points for novel filmmaking techniques, but it earns its place on this list as an important film for representation — not just through casting, but through stories. On the surface, Shang-Chi’s (Simu Liu) arc looks similar to many MCU origin stories: He’s a character who tries to forge a new path for himself, which is complicated by a strained relationship with his father (Tony Leung). But writer-director Destin Daniel Cretton takes that conflict much deeper — exploring the importance of balancing legacy and identity in Asian American culture. Hopefully, “Shang-Chi” can also be a gateway for a wider audience to enjoy the martial arts films that inspired the MCU hit. Some places to start include Wong Kar-wai “The Grandmaster” or Zhang Yimou’s “Hero” (both of which also star Tony Leung) or Stephen Chow’s “Kung Fu Hustle” (which makes a cameo appearance as a movie poster in Shang-Chi’s room in San Francisco). —Lanz Aaron G. Tan

9. ‘Annette’ (Leos Carax)

Love it, hate it, meme it: No film released this year was more divisive than Leos Carax’s surreal musical fantasia “Annette.” Originating as a pop-rock-opera concept album written by the archly arty duo Sparks, the resulting film polarized audiences at Cannes in June and landed on unsuspecting Prime Video viewers like a bomb of weirdness in August. The titular character — the gifted child of tortured stand-up comic Henry McHenry (Adam Driver) and winsome opera star Ann Desfranoux (Marion Cotillard) — becomes an international singing sensation after Henry discovers his infant daughter’s angelic voice. Yes, baby Annette is “played” by a wooden marionette puppet. No, Driver does not sing while performing cunnilingus— not quite. (He’s taking breaks!) But through all its layers of oddity, provocation, and repetitive lyrics, “Annette” works best as a modern fable about the explosive intensity of love and the illusory tragedy of fame. Carax’s big-budget experimental melodrama of a film — his first in English — is both winkingly and devastatingly sincere at every turn. —Amelia Roth-Dishy

Mirabel, center, is the protagonist of Disney's "Encanto."
Mirabel, center, is the protagonist of Disney's "Encanto." By Courtesy of Disney

8. ‘Encanto’ (Jared Bush and Byron Howard)
“Encanto,” Walt Disney Animation Studios’ 60th animated movie, is truly enchanting, offering much more than captivating visuals grounded in Hispanic culture. The film follows the Madrigals, a Colombian family, whose members have supernatural powers that they use to help their neighbors in the town of Encanto. Unbeknownst to them, the magic is waning, threatening their home and their whole community. Young Maribel, neglected by her family as the only one without a gift, resolves to save the family. The stunning cinematography paired with Lin-Manuel Miranda’s catchy songs already makes for an audiovisual feast. But more importantly, “Encanto” proves to be an enthralling, inspirational story of ordinary family struggles set in an extraordinary setting that emphasizes the importance of caring for each other. While the film’s ending slightly undermines the beautiful message, “Encanto” might well be Disney’s best animated feature since “Frozen.” —Zachary J. Lech

7. ‘Candyman’ (Nia DaCosta)

Like any worthwhile horror film, DaCosta’s “Candyman” is more than just a campfire story with fake jump scares — on the contrary, it is grounded in believable and psychologically harrowing narratives. Jordan Peele’s script follows visual artist Anthony McCoy (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) trying to find his childhood home in the projects of Chicago. The film chronicles how he loses himself to an obsession with a terrifying local myth about Candyman, a man who was murdered and can be summoned in the mirror, only to find himself transforming into Candyman himself. The screenwriting breaks the mirage of generic villain mysticism by applying a historical explanation to the previously unexplainable origins of Candyman, revealing racial injustice as the real antagonist. “Candyman” stays relevant and important to the modern black experience by enrapturing the audience in a more lifelike tale that transcends the mirror into the present. —Alisa S. Regassa

We reviewed “Candyman” and gave it 4 Stars. Read more here.

Usnavi (Anthony Ramos) and Vanessa (Melissa Barrera) in the new film adaptation of "In the Heights."
Usnavi (Anthony Ramos) and Vanessa (Melissa Barrera) in the new film adaptation of "In the Heights." By Courtesy of Macall Polay

6. ‘In the Heights’ (Jon M. Chu)

“In the Heights,” the film adaptation of the 2008 Broadway hit from Lin-Manuel Miranda and Quiara Alegría Hudes, is exceptional in its multidimensional representations of the Latinx diaspora. Set in New York’s primarily Dominican Washington Heights neighborhood, the film follows Usnavi (Anthony Ramos), a bodega owner whose dreams to move back home to the Dominican Republic are accelerated by the gentrification rapidly overtaking the barrio. Through him, the film weaves an intimate story of Latinidad, the American Dream, and the immigrant experience. The result is stunning: a refreshing and colorful mosaic of community life. “In the Heights” remains largely singular in its depictions of Latinidad in a media landscape dominated by white men. Still, it’s impossible to praise the film without engaging with its problems, too. Since its debut, it has cultivated significant criticism for the lack of dark-skinned Afro-Latinx actors in its lead roles — a clear product of colorism and anti-Blackness. If nothing else, the film brings with it a call to shine a spotlight on more stories from and about Latinx communities, as no singular film can possibly undo the long, harmful history of Hollywood representations. —Sofia Andrade

5. ‘King Richard’ (Reinaldo Marcus Green)

Will Smith stars in the uplifting sports drama “King Richard” as Richard Williams, the loving and stubborn father of tennis stars Venus (Saniyya Sidney) and Serena Williams (Demi Singleton). Richard has his mind set on his two youngest daughters becoming world-class players; the film documents Richard and his wife Oracene’s (Aunjanue Ellis) relentless efforts to get them the training and support they need to go pro. As the film follows Venus and Serena’s rise to fame in the predominantly white sport of tennis, it never fails to acknowledge the significance of their presence in spaces that have historically excluded girls that look like them. In one scene, Richard says to Venus, “You not gonna just be representing you. You gonna be representing every little Black girl on Earth.” Smith chokes up as he delivers this line, and it’s in emotionally-charged moments like these that we see the care and effort he put into his performance. “King Richard” is worth watching for Smith’s powerful performance as well as its heartwarming portrayals of familial bonds and personal triumphs. —Jaden S. Thompson

Cooper Hoffman stars as Gary Valentine (left) and Alana Haim stars as Alana Kane (right) in "Licorice Pizza" (2021), directed by Paul Thomas Anderson.
Cooper Hoffman stars as Gary Valentine (left) and Alana Haim stars as Alana Kane (right) in "Licorice Pizza" (2021), directed by Paul Thomas Anderson. By Courtesy of United Artists

4. ‘Licorice Pizza’ (Paul Thomas Anderson)

Writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson’s coming-of-age comedy “Licorice Pizza” takes viewers on a dream-like romp around the San Fernando Valley in 1970s Los Angeles. Equal parts funny and endearing, Anderson’s latest is about finding love in the unlikeliest of places, and wanting to grow up, only to find yourself lost once you get there. Most of all, it’s a love letter to Hollywood — an ode to the insecurities of growing up in a town where everybody knows exactly what they want to do next. Anderson wrote “Licorice Pizza” for Alana Haim, and her scintillating debut performance is the brightest spot in the film. Ultimately, “Licorice Pizza” is a beautifully-shot exploration of adolescence, shifting gears from delicate happiness to sobering insecurity, all tied together with an indulgent flicker of 35mm nostalgia. —Lanz Aaron G. Tan

We reviewed “Licorice Pizza” and gave it 5 Stars. Read more here.

3. 'Drive My Car' (Ryusuke Hamaguchi)

There are few movies that stay with you for months afterward the way that “Drive My Car” does. Over the film’s almost 3-hour run time, Japanese Director Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s perfectly-calibrated leads bicker and dance around each other in a quiet yet also thunderous story about facing the deepest recesses of our own ugliness and living on anyway. “Drive My Car” is a story that threatens to swallow the viewer with the magnitude of its emotion — but then, right at the edge, extends instead an aching, deeply-felt hope. —Joy C. Ashford

We reviewed “Drive My Car” at the Cannes Film Festival and gave it 5 Stars. Read more here.

2. ‘Titane’ (Julia Ducournau)

In “Titane,” French director Julia Ducournau has somehow topped both the gore and the biting satire of her beloved debut, “Raw.” So many layers of meaning hum underneath this strange, exquisite film — from a visceral tearing-apart of the gender binary to a refreshing reversal of the disempowering kinds of stories about sexual assault the film industry — and many of “Titane”’s competitors — are currently saturated with. But the crowning jewel of the first-ever woman-directed film to win Cannes’ top award solo is its lead Agathe Rousselle, who rages and sobs and gyrates with a fury few others have come close to. —Joy C. Ashford

We reviewed “Drive My Car” at the Cannes Film Festival and gave it 4.5 Stars. Read more here.

(Center front-back) LAKEITH STANFIELD as William O’Neal and DANIEL KALUUYA as Chairman Fred Hampton in Warner Bros. Pictures’ “JUDAS AND THE BLACK MESSIAH,” a Warner Bros. Pictures release.
(Center front-back) LAKEITH STANFIELD as William O’Neal and DANIEL KALUUYA as Chairman Fred Hampton in Warner Bros. Pictures’ “JUDAS AND THE BLACK MESSIAH,” a Warner Bros. Pictures release. By Courtesy of Glen Wilson; © 2020 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.

1. ‘Judas and the Black Messiah’ (Shaka King)

Writer and director Shaka King’s “Judas and the Black Messiah” successfully earned its reputation as a gripping and powerful portrait of Chairman Fred Hampton and the Illinois Black Panther Party. King’s film follows the charismatic young Hampton (Daniel Kaluuya) as he passionately leads the 1960’s Black Panthers in actions towards radical justice while also centering William O’Neal (LaKeith Stanfield), the party member whose betrayal led to Hampton’s assassination. Exploring themes of Black power, structural racism, community solidarity, and state violence, “Judas and the Black Messiah” grounds itself in the present — forcing viewers to reckon with the glaring continuities of racial injustice experienced in the modern era. When combined with powerful leading performances, compelling screenwriting, and nostalgic cinematography, “Judas and the Black Messiah'' successfully humanizes the fight for radical racial equality and, in doing so, makes important strides towards restoring the legacy of the Black Panther Party. —Anya L. Henry

We reviewed “Judas and the Black Messiah” while at Sundance and gave it 4.5 Stars. Read more here.