Review: The best and worst films of 2021

Yes, it’s that time of year, when films are named the best of the past 12 months. In a year as unpredictable as 2021, the best movies remind us what entertainment we crave no matter where the screen may call home. So, as we await for Oscar’s choices, here are the annual “Schumie” recipients.
Baked to Perfection: The Power of the Dog
Jane Campion – well remembered for directing “The Piano” – creates a visual and emotional feast with this haunting story of an intense, mysterious rancher who grapples with his brother’s decision to bring a new wife (and her son) to the family ranch. With a cinematic sweep reminiscent of legendary directors John Ford and George Stevens, Campion reminds us how great it feels to experience such a rich widescreen experience.
Brimming with Flavor: The Lost Daughter
Maggie Gyllenhaal explores layers of parental denial in a magical drama that marks her debut as a screenwriter and director. Playing a professor on holiday in Greece, Olivia Colman carefully reveals secrets and scars that can take years to solidify and seconds to reveal. The actress reaches beyond her previous highs to again confirm that she may be, simply, the best working in film today. And Colman is perfectly supported by Jessie Buckley and Dakota Johnson.
Pièce de Résistance: Licorice Pizza
Every moment in this rich fantasy takes us back to the challenges of 1973, a year filled with tension across the country and oversized cars on the streets. As eyes focus on where to find gasoline to fill guzzling auto tanks, an enthusiastic 15-year-old high-school student considers how to navigate his personal and professional paths. Paul Thomas Anderson creates a cohesive narrative that makes us smile as we relive a time long gone by and celebrate what matters in an ever-changing world.
All the Right Ingredients: King Richard
This detailed look at the family behind tennis legends Venus and Serena Williams becomes less a tale of sport than a tribute to the commitment of parents who refuse to stop believing in what their children can be. As the film takes a serious look at what it takes to succeed in the challenging sport, it reminds us to let children simply breathe and become. These parents of many years demonstrate a selflessness that enables their daughters to soar.
Leaves You Wanting More: The Tragedy of Macbeth
This outrageous, unforgettable interpretation of Shakespeare makes the classic accessible to anyone who loves a thriller. Director Joel Coen visually creates a unique movie world, realistic for film while exaggerated as theater, to explore the layers of ambition and aggression that define politicized relationships. And Denzel Washington – in a career-capping performance – should find himself in the chase for his third Oscar.
Lasting Nourishment: The Humans
The film version of the Tony-winning play works on screen because playwright, adapter and director Stephen Karam doesn’t try to recreate what thrived in live performance. As a result, the movie never feels bound by its stage origins as it beautifully creates a sense of people trapped inside an emotional ghetto where feelings must be expressed. This meticulous and meaningful study of family dynamics offers a textbook example of how to adapt a play for the screen.
Food for the Soul: Flee
Jonas Poher Rasmussen brings a true story of heroism to life in a most unusual way in this documentary: he animates most of the visuals. Using actual interviews as the soundtrack, the filmmaker creates a unique visual language to make his story accessible. This daring choice makes for one the year’s most memorable non-fiction films as Rasmussen both suspends and enhances reality. And, like the best of documentarians, the filmmaker makes us think too.
Delightful Delicacies: The Worst Person in the World
This delightful romance from Norway follows a woman’s journey through the challenges that relationships and career can bring. Featuring a magnetic lead performance from Renate Reinsve, the early moments recall the carefree romantic comedies of Woody Allen before the movie takes its own, serious turns. Reinsve –named Best Actress at the Cannes festival – captures our hearts as a woman who hesitates to commit to a life she says she wants to live.

Bringing Home the Bacon: “The French Dispatch”
Wes Anderson – who can do little wrong on screen – delights again with his daffy details about eccentric life in a fictional French village. Told in a series of sequences that model articles in a publication, the filmmaker reminds us how entertaining human folly can be especially when brought to life by such luminaries as Bill Murray, Frances McDormand and Tilda Swinton. And, like every Anderson film, this movie looks and sounds beautiful.
Comfort Food: Jockey
Filmmaker Clint Bentley knows his way around a horse track. As the son of a jockey, he holds the hidden layers of such locations in the deep corners of his creative imagination, incorporating moments saved in his memory for crucial moments in his film. And the movie he directs grabs us from its first moments with a level of authentic humanity that immediately makes us feel we’re at home. Bentley helps us get to know some people who will stick with us for a long time.
Cooking with Gas: Rita Moreno, Just a Girl Who Decided to Go for It
There’s more to this remarkable lady than movies she has made, awards on her shelf, or accomplishments detailed in photos around her home. Yes, she is a member of that exclusive club known as EGOT – for artists who win an Emmy, Grammy, Oscar and Tony – and, yes, she made her film debut more than 70 years ago. But Moreno doesn’t deserve a documentary because of her endurance. As we learn what drives this lady is what she absorbs from life, the good, bad and, at times, very ugly.
Lasting Delight: Summer of Soul
They say history repeats itself, especially if we don't learn the first time. In some ways, the summer of 1969 feels a bit like the year we have just been through. Then, as now, movies help us remember the lessons by taking us back to moments we may forget or not be old enough to have experienced. As the heat index soars in New York City, thousands of people in Harlem gather in Mount Norris Park (now Marcus Gravey Park) each Sunday evening for concerts. And we are forever changed.
Savory Side Dish: CODA
This fresh and insightful story about a family dealing with unique challenges offers heartfelt lessons of what it takes to keep people together when so much can tear us apart. The film’s meaningful exploration into the layers of disability and disappointment, fear and fairness, opportunity and obstacles that can define family reminds us that people we hold closest to our hearts can, at times, be the ones most likely to break them. And, together, we can recover.
Proof is in the Pudding: Passing
As an actress, Rebecca Hall impresses with precision in her portrayals, attention to detail, and powerful use of gesture and expression. It’s no surprise that, in her first film as director, she brings the same command of the subtle to a tale filled with nuance. Hall’s interpretation of Nella Larson’s novel rarely relies on words to tell its story. Instead, the director chooses a distinct visual approach that forces us to pay attention. The director beautifully creates a fairy tale world for this very real tale to inhabit.
From a Master Chef: West Side Story
Any theatrical piece deserves to be reimagined for new generations. On film, Steven Spielberg dares to rethink the Broadway standard and Oscar-winning movie (from 1961) for a new audience. I admit entering the movie theater with hesitation, fearing the worst, hoping for the best, and remaining open to what the director would deliver. I was amazed. The new “West Side Story” feels true to its origins and fresh in its approach; respecting what it was while stretching what it can be.
Frozen Surprise: Spencer
Rather than recreate conversations Diana may have had with Charles, or the Queen, this fascinating fantasy focuses on the inner battles within the Princess herself. This Christmas celebration in the country is less about possible confrontation between a troubled lady and people she cannot reach than it becomes a fascinating journey through the dimensions of emotional fragility. And making all of this work on screen is Kristen Stewart’s dynamic portrayal of the complex Diana.
Turn Up the Heat: In the Heights
On stage, this small musical, about people sharing their dreams and realities while occasionally feeling trapped in Washington Heights, immediately connected with audiences looking for substance beyond sizzle. On screen, filmmaker John M. Chu finds every way to enlarge every moment. He transforms a simple show into a full-scale extravaganza where each production number tries to outdo one before. That works for musical lovers but risks overwhelming the intimate power of this show.
Taking the Cake: Red Rocket
Sean Baker follows the magnetic “Florida Project” with a fascinating look at a washed-up man who tries to reconnect with his life in a small town in Texas. That the character – perfectly played by Simon Rex – once experienced fame and fortune as a porn star only adds to his challenges to go back home. Once again, Baker captures the fringe of communities with care and sensitivity that make us think about today and hope for better tomorrows.
Piping Hot: Mass
Filmmaker Franz Kranz explores a tragedy shared by four parents in this exquisitely crafted film that challenges with its approach and engages with its lessons. Rather than make the movie larger to fit a theater screen, Kranz shrinks the experience to take us inside four damaged souls, letting lets us know that sharing their pain will make any parent thankful for the children we get to hug. Ultimately, they decide if they can move on, knowing the emptiness of that day will never be filled.
Irresistible Junk Food: Cruella
Disney’s delightful prequel may not be the most original film of 2021 but it certainly captivates. Thanks to a precise attention to detail, energetic performances and a light-hearted respect for the animated original, the film delivers more than it promises. And that equals a lot of movie fun. Thanks to the over-the-top performances from the dueling Emmas (Stone and Thompson) the film delivers the goods, and the dish, whether you see it on a big screen or from the comfort of home.
Fallen Soufflé: Dear Evan Hansen
On stage, this musical creates an unforgettable view of people detached by the artificial conversations in social media. But the film, for some reason, chooses to diminish the power of the songs. With four numbers deleted and two new ones added, the power of the musical sequence falls victim to under-staged performances. While this choice may please those who do not like singing and dancing on screen, songs in musical comedy enable characters to express what dialogue cannot capture. Not this time.
Reheated Leftover: Cinderella
While the original Disney animation focused on Cinderella’s animal friends, and the musical made most of her Fairy Godmother and stepsisters, this new version has something to say about what such a girl should want out of life. While earlier Cinderellas were content to stay at home, this one pictures herself owning her own store. designing clothes for celebrities (difficult to do without the store) and standing on her own two feet. As familiar as it tries not to feel, it is still a lot of fun.
Overcooked: The House of Gucci
While the camera loves Lady Gaga, there’s little to savor in an unsatisfying biopic that leaves you hungry for a real movie meal. Without a character to play, and challenged to sustain her Italian accent, the actress relies on her charisma and personality to keep us engaged. But we need more. And Gaga, always a performer willing to reveal, finds herself at odds with a script that exaggerates the character’s layered realities. The result is a confused performance (and film) that never quite works.
Half Baked: The Eyes of Tammy Faye
Jessica Chastain rings true in every moment of a confused (and confusing) film that can’t decide whether to have fun with this lady’s life or seriously examine the demons she tries to overcome. And, because the film doesn’t know what it’s trying to say, we’re never certain what we’re watching. Is this a comedy or drama? Tribute or investigation? Through the confusion, however, Chastain rings true in as layered and shaded a portrayal as she has delivered. She rises above the material to let us inside a woman so haunted by what people see that she struggles to see herself in a mirror.
Devilish Delight: Titane
Julia Ducournau creates an outrageous thriller that stuns as effortlessly as it entertains. While the filmmaker follows movie traditions for frightening audiences, she breaks new ground with bold content and characters. As the film shocks in a series of highly visual sequences, its respect for the genre makes this inventiveness even more effective. And Agathe Rousselle delivers a breathless performance as a woman living the impact of a childhood car accident.