With more time than is healthy spent alone in 2021, I had the opportunity to see literally hundreds of films…way more than I could ever possibly review. One of the great perks of being a film critic are the free screenings, be they in person, on DVD, via links, or loaded onto my Apple TV. Some days felt like Christmas morning, waking up to find packages at my door or a dozen movies awaiting my eyeballs on one of the studio apps. Receiving a noose keychain from the folks who brought you The Power Of The Dog was a nice, diabolical touch. Now I think about murder and gay stuff whenever I start my car, but living in West Hollywood, that’s nothing new.
As I look back at the year in film, I think less of Top Ten Lists and more about those indelible moments which made an impression on me. A long-discontinued but influential annual column called Moments Out Of Time” from Film Comment magazine serves as my inspiration. The critics would cite their favorite scenes, images, or lines of dialogue, even from films they may not have liked. Even bad films have their moments, yet 2021 had a great many fantastic films, from West Side Story to The Power Of The Dog, Red Rocket, Licorice Pizza, Titane, to the new midnight movie cult classic, Shit & Champagne. These are my favorite moments from a pretty outstanding year.
A group of Jets get on their knees in the last moments of “Gee, Officer Krupke”, and as they spin around, the newspapers on the floor gloriously swirl up around them. Steven Spielberg and Tony Kushner may have given this classic story better context, more accurate and sensitive casting, but its greatest gift is in finding new, thrilling ways to make this version cinematic on its own terms – West Side Story
A character quietly slides something under a bed as a happy couple arrives. Not since Hitchcock’s Frenzy has a film featured something so quiet yet so loaded – The Power Of The Dog
Forget about all things Marvel for one hot second, OK? The year’s best action sequence involves a young woman driving a truck backwards down a winding, early 70s, Los Angeles road at night. Although she’s trying to focus, the horny teenager next to her won’t leave her alone. Alana Haim secures her place on this list by shoving Gary (Cooper Hoffman) back against the seat so that she can see from his side mirror. It’s the most bad-assed, baller move of the year – Licorice Pizza
Mikey Saber (Simon Rex in my favorite performance of the year) wakes up on a bus in perfect sync with the film’s recurring song, “Bye Bye Bye”. Moments later it will cut off abruptly, signaling something perhaps unsettling about this manic, motor-mouthed, amoral hustler we’re about to follow for the next 128 minutes. The song returns in a great scene where a character named Strawberry (a winning Suzanna Son) sings a stripped down ballad version and then, finally, in a great callback, gets used near the end of the film by one of Mikey’s many enemies – Red Rocket
“My name is Champagne Horowitz Jones Dickerson White. So I’ve been married a couple of times. It’s none of your fucking business!” – Shit & Champagne
When a film brings new and lovely meaning to dancing on someone’s grave, you know you’re in for something captivating – Summer Of 85
A modern day young woman (Thomasin McKenzie) travels back in time as she enters a nightclub in Swinging Sixties London and sees someone else (Anya Taylor-Joy) reflected in every mirrored surface. The reflections of them both as they descend a staircase is a great effect – Last Night In Soho
Is there a more heartwarming moment in a 2021 film than our main character shouting “Silenzio, Bruno!” as a homemade Vespa careens over a cliff? I didn’t think so either – Luca
In another film with a great Bruno reference and with its own queer coding (hi there, Luisa Madrigal and your sublime butch energy in “Surface Pressure”), I was in love…seriously in love…with Lin-Manuel Miranda’s gift for emotion and melody in my favorite song from a film in 2021, “Dos Oruguitas”, gorgeously sung by Sebastián Yatra – Encanto
A hand goes into a box and experiences unimaginable pain, far surpassing the original in this viscerally tense moment – Dune
What do you do when a great work of art is painted on a prison wall? The solution made me laugh out loud, as did Tilda Swinton’s outrageous performance. When a nude photo of herself accidentally ends up in her presentation, she exclaims, “Good God. Wrong slide. That’s me!” – The French Dispatch
Cruella makes the entrance of all entrances when she crashes the ball, asks for a light, and sets her white cape on fire to reveal a gorgeous red gown underneath – Cruella
They say you always remember your first time. So my first time seeing those chopsticks being put to terrifyingly gory use will stay with me forever – Titane
A witch stands up to face the title character. The reflection of her in a pond, one of the most striking shots of the year, creates the illusion that there are three of them, all played by the incredible Kathryn Hunter – The Tragedy Of Macbeth
A young married woman runs through the streets of Oslo to pursue a married man she recently connected with at a party. As she does so, time freezes for everyone else around her, creating the deft illusion of destiny – The Worst Person In The World
Jessica (Tilda Swinton) sits with a Sound Engineer in an attempt to recreate the strange banging noise she keeps hearing at unexpected times. In this slow yet fascinating film, which relies on its aural landscape more than anything else, it’s the most memorable and haunting sound I heard all year – Memoria
Someone notices that Richard Williams (Will Smith) doesn’t get much sleep, to which he responds, “Don’t nothing come to a sleeper but a dream” – King Richard
That moment when we discover the meaning of a “bronteroc”, my favorite callback joke of the year – Don’t Look Up
A husband discovers his wife having sex with a much younger man, but says nothing to her as his presence goes unnoticed. His reasons get revealed long after the other man becomes his employee and things don’t go anywhere as expected – Drive My Car
A stunning, wordless sequence in which we see an alternative future for Gawain had he chosen a different path. Covering years and years of story in a couple of minutes, director David Lowery creates rich, emotional tableaux which seamlessly take us through the “what ifs” we all face in life. Call it a medieval Sliding Doors – The Green Knight
The sight of Udo Kier defiantly riding a slow moving Rascal scooter through the streets of Sandusky is a great image. It’s made defiantly revolutionary due to his powder green suit, ascot, brimmed hat, cigarette perched just so, crossed legs and an attitude that says he doesn’t care that he’s holding up traffic – Swan Song
Nicolas Cage, looking like he’s been living on the streets for decades, calls the Head Chef over at a fine dining establishment to dissect the food on his plate, thus revealing a man of hidden depths – Pig
That gasp-inducing yet slightly off-the-cuff reveal that rewards our patience and finally tells us what the situation is with that baby lamb. Now I know it’s possible to be haunting, ludicrous and unforgettable all at once. And if you think this film has only one surprise up its sleeve, think again. Those final moments made my jaw drop – Lamb
James Bond rides his motorcycle up a ramp, flying through the air and landing on top of a street, the camera gliding up with him in perfect sync – No Time To Die
After a spectacularly realized musical sequence of the song “Spotlight”, in which cafeteria workers become backup singers, our hero reprises the chorus as the camera spins overhead. As the song ends, the lighting shifts, signifying a return to reality. As a perfect button to the scene, Jamie says with utter joy, “Jamie New. The boy so nice, he came out twice!” In a year of great musical movies, this moment, simple and sweet, captures the pure magic of the genre – Everybody’s Talking About Jamie
Sure, there had to be one stinker of a musical, and this one certainly laid a big egg. Still, this one also had the energetic, quick-cutting, and fun realization of the song, “Sincerely, Me” – Dear Evan Hansen
A young girl goes from a sexual encounter to pregnancy to a harrowing birth sequence in a matter of minutes. Horror filmmakers who had previously explored pregnancy themes in their movies, from Rosemary’s Baby to Prometheus, tipped their hats to M. Night Shyamalan’s nightmarish vision – Old
Barb: Star, did you see that restaurant?
Star: Oh, yeah!
Barb: I’m so excited. It’s almost time for dinner.
Star: And time for a cocktail?
Barb: (incredulously) Star!
My favorite dialogue exchange of the year. Barb thinking that getting a drink is so very naughty tickles me still. It captures the excitement and guilelessness of our heroines. Bonus points for giving us the term “soul douche” and for making culottes the wardrobe choice of champions. Extra bonus points for turning the usually oh-so-serious Jamie Dornan into a comedic national treasure— Barb & Star Go To Vista Del Mar
Usnavi steps on a manhole cover and shuffles it back and forth as if he were a DJ, announcing at the top of the film that director Jon Chu has an eye and ear for musical rhythms and visual realizations….proven throughout with a giant number in a local pool and, breathtakingly, on the side of a building – In The Heights
Perhaps providing the year’s biggest laugh from a serious film, Princess Diana (Kristen Stewart) gets rid of a housekeeper in her chamber by announcing, “I want to masturbate” – Spencer
A young boy wanders into the public bathroom of a swim club and is caught looking at the men in there. That he lives in a deeply homophobic South Africa of the 1980s only serves to heighten the drama and agony in this brutally effective film – Moffie
I’m not pulling your strings here. Our first view of the title character is a surreal shocker – Annette
The lovely relationship between Eleanor Roosevelt and Pauli Murray, an unheralded, non-binary, queer, Black activist, some of whose essential work pre-dated the Civil Rights Movement by many years, features some warm correspondences. In 1953, however, the film shows Roosevelt appearing on the cover of Ebony magazine with the headline, “Some of my best friends are Negroes”, a brave statement at the time which would now be considered tone deaf and offensive. This film beautifully captures Murray’s lifelong quest for equality – My Name Is Pauli Murray
Riley Keough’s Stefani turns around to face Zola (Taylour Paige) in the backseat of a car. She shouts, as she tells a story, “This bitch with her nappy-assed hair was up in my face!” Zola, sits and stares at her. Perhaps she’s horrified by Stefani’s appropriation of Black culture or maybe she’s wondering how she ended up in this car with this crazy person. After a delicious beat or two, Zola breaks her silence and simply responds, “Word.” – Zola
A car travels through outer space. Ludicrous? Yes. And Ludacris is in the car? Also, yes – F9
Finally a film with deaf characters who have hilariously human layers. Troy Kotsur and Marlee Matlin’s sexually charged, savagely funny parents elevate what could have been a fairly standard feel-good movie into something electric. Watch them complain that they have no idea what’s going on as their daughter sings and you’ll see the glorious messiness they bring to the film – CODA
With its Wes Anderson meets Guy Maddin highly stylized, theatrical sensibilities, Wes Hurley’s debut feature still manages to exhibit great warmth through a surprising reveal of a heretofore villainous character’s sweet, tender side – Potato Dreams Of America
Jennifer Hudson may be getting the lion’s share of the praise for her portrayal of Aretha Franklin, but Skye Dakota Turner as her younger counterpart sizzles as a poised, confident young girl. Watch her beam as she relishes the moment she’s asked to sing at a family gathering – Respect
Like a conductor, Jonathan Larson (Andrew Garfield) lifts his arms, virtually commanding that the wall of a New York City diner collapses, opening up the place to a glorious new day. A great effect only surpassed by the fact that what seems like every single Broadway legend appears here to sing “Sunday” – tick, tick…Boom!
The big reveal may just be ground zero for why so many films have recently been described as “bonkers” – Malignant
William Tell (Oscar Isaac) clearly has some demons. The intense, single shot handheld sequence through a prison unforgettably takes us to the heart of them – The Card Counter
Jim Bakker (Andrew Garfield, having a great 2021 in film) wrestles around with a colleague, exposing years of suppressed homosexuality in the most childish and transparent of ways – The Eyes Of Tammy Faye
Also having a great year? Bradley Cooper. He brings a wild energy to his brief role in Licorice Pizza and in the final moments here, as he comes to terms with his fate, he gives the scene just the right amount of pathos and horror, facing the inevitable by accepting that he probably had it coming – Nightmare Alley
When Clare (Ruth Negga) introduces her friend Irene (Tessa Thompson) to her husband John (Alexander Skarsgård), he proudly declares himself a racist, unaware that both of these women are Black. It’s a chilling moment, reminding us of the stakes and the uncertainty ahead- Passing
Watching any given moment of Martha Plimpton’s face as she silently squirms throughout this story of intense pain and loss is to witness a master class in how to listen as an actor – Mass
Although, for me, I found this to be the year’s most overrated film, that final close-up of Judi Dench, showing all of her years of experience as she whispers her final line, will forever be etched in my memory – Belfast
After Leda (Olivia Colman) refuses to give up her spot on a beach to a loud, rude family, she apologizes later to chilling effect:
Leda: Look, I’m sorry about earlier as well. I was feeling a bit anxious.
Callie: Yeah. Well, you know the sun can do that. And well, maybe your girls. Being away from your girls, you know?
Leda: Yeah, well, you’ll see. Children are a crushing responsibility. Happy Birthday! – The Lost Daughter
The delicious silence as Lucy (Nicole Kidman) stops for an uncomfortable amount of time while shooting a scene from her sitcom. Perhaps she’s thinking about all of the struggles it took to get to that moment, or reflecting on her crumbling marriage, but she follows it with her very pragmatic, “Sorry! I got lost for a second.” – Being The Ricardos
The way Penelope Cruz’s Janis looks at Ana (Milena Smit) after the big reveal is to see empathy, hurt, longing, and compassion in an actor at the top of her craft – Parallel Mothers
Same goes for Amir Jadidi’s inmate character, Rahim, in a scene in front of an organization that holds all the cards regarding his freedom. His look of pure innocence may or may not be a clever façade for all of his lies, obfuscations, and threats of violence. This beautifully calibrated film asks an important question: how do you know if you’re a good person or not? – A Hero
The love between two vividly complicated adults gets conveyed by their recurring coded whistling in this fascinatingly unsentimental film – The Hand Of God
The terrors of human trafficking finds more emotional resonance via animation than it would have through live action. Just climb down with our refugees into a hidden compartment of a boat and you’ll know what I mean – Flee
After about an hour of awkwardly tuneless musical moments, I was finally won over by the swoon-inducing balcony scene in which Cyrano (Peter Dinklage) pours his heart out to Roxanne (Haley Bennett) in the moving song, “Overcome”. Passion meets melody to produce this sublime moment – Cyrano
As Jim Cummings’ Jordan greets a potential client at his talent agency, the voices in his head keep reminding him to think “It’s exciting” over and over again, as though he needs a reminder that any of this empty Hollywood bullshit is worth the effort – The Beta Test
Hans (the great Franz Rogowski), an inmate jailed on and off over a period of decades for being gay in Post World War II Germany, figures out a way to have a “date” while incarcerated. He and his friend quietly have sex in front of others without getting caught – Great Freedom
In a film filled with loopy, surreal touches, such as anything involving Sylvester Stallone’s divine King Shark, the Polka-Dot Man looking up and seeing a giant version of his Mom smashing buildings and causing all sorts of destruction was just the right Oedipal vision from Hell I needed – The Suicide Squad
Erik (Richard Jenkins): Hey, listen, you’ll find someone new. Hey, I’m serious. You’re going to find someone.
Aimee (Amy Schumer): No. Not with history. Carol knew me with acne. She helped me with my law school application.
Erik: You’re going to come out of this stronger, I promise.
Aimee: Oh, just stop, daddy. Just stop lying to me. Just stop! Don’t actually stop. Keep saying things to me.
In a film filled with memorable images of pipes and walls, this dialogue exchange lived up to its title – The Humans
In a year in which ABBA reunited after four decades away, it was heartening to see “The Winner Takes It All” used in a scene in which Mia Wasikowska bops around a bar to this melancholy classic after experiencing the death of a relationship. It was as if to say, this pandemic may suck, but at least we have Anni-Frid, Benny, Björn and Agnetha back in our lives to give us the melodies, harmonies and moody lyrics we’ve craved – Bergman Island
By Glenn Gaylord, Senior Film Critic