Yet there were still movies that mattered for various reasons, some having as much to do with what they represented as the films themselves, in what is clearly an evolutionary period for movies and movie-going.
How much premium content is there? As one rather amusing sign, four movies were seriously considered for this list that were shot in black and white: “Belfast,” “C’mon, C’mon,” “Passing,” and “The Tragedy of Macbeth.”
What did make the cut? Let’s start with a group nod to a genre that delivered more quality than box-office dollars:
‘West Side Story,’ ‘Tick, Tick … Boom!’ and ‘In the Heights’
All three of these movies could have qualified individually, but the thrill of three standout musicals in one year was offset in part by their commercial struggles, with only “Tick, Tick” — Lin-Manuel Miranda’s impressive directorial debut — being spared questions about underperforming at the box office by virtue of Netflix declining to provide such data.
These movies nevertheless deserve to be collectively lauded in part to encourage more of them, with the understanding that more at bats will inevitably mean artistic and/or financial strikeouts, a la “Annette” and “Dear Evan Hansen.”
‘Shang-Chi’ and the ‘Legend of the Ten Rings‘ and ‘Encanto’
‘Coda’ and ‘Belfast’
‘Spider-Man: No Way Home’
‘The Power of the Dog’
A lightweight dramedy from director Paul Thomas Anderson, looking back on life in L.A.’s San Fernando Valley during the 1970s, that validates a certain kind of auteur-driven filmmaking. In that sense, despite the problematic aspects of its central relationship the movie stood out next to less-accomplished examples of that in 2021, including Wes Anderson’s “The French Dispatch” and Guillermo del Toro’s “Nightmare Alley.”
‘Drive My Car’
In a year full of terrific documentaries, it’s hard to think of one that more nimbly combined different genres than this Danish film, using animation to tell the story of Amin Nawabi, who fled Afghanistan for Denmark seeing little future as a gay youth growing up under an oppressive regime.
While employed in part to obscure Amin’s identity, the animation adds a vivid and almost hypnotic quality to those memories, bringing the story together in an utterly original way.
‘Summer of Soul’
‘Being the Ricardos’
A fun and an enlightening look at Lucille Ball’s genius through one eventful week during “I Love Lucy’s” heyday, Aaron Sorkin’s film is represented here primarily as a rebuke to the premature freak-out crowd that objected to the casting before seeing the movie. Argue the movie’s merits all you want (and reaction has certainly been mixed), but Nicole Kidman and Javier Bardem’s performances as Lucy and Desi Arnaz serve as a reminder it’s usually wise to tune out the voices of outrage that bubble up from social media.