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by Jason Snell & Dan Moren

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By Six Colors Staff

2021 Favorites: Movies

It was a weird year for movies. Theaters were closed, open, and sometimes closed again? And not everyone felt comfortable returning to an enclosed space full of other people later in the year. And yet, the move out of theaters also made some films more accessible than they would have been in other years. Most Oscar nominees were available on streaming services before the awards occurred, and one of us (Jason) managed to binge an awful lot of nominees early this year. Some of them made this list! (We’re praising movies we saw in 2021, even if they were made a few years earlier.)

Dune: Part One

I read Frank Herbert’s novel in high school and have been amazed how such a deeply weird book has resonated with so many people for so long. This year, I noticed a bit of an echo to that reaction: I am once again surprised that an enormous audience has watched, and loved, Denis Villaneuve’s new adaptation of the novel. Maybe it’s the delight at seeing such an epic film after a long period of pandemic movie delays and cancellations. Maybe it was the fact that people could watch it on HBO Max over and over and over if they wanted to. I liked it primarily for Villaneuve’s visuals—nobody makes weird stuff hovering in midair look as grand as he does—and the supremely weird soundtrack by Hans Zimmer. The story was familiar, and it’s only the first half, anyway. But I still really liked the film, just for the whole experience of it. It’s a vibe.—Jason Snell

Spider-Man: No Way Home

There have been a perhaps unbelievable nine Spider-Man movies in the last 19 years, but Tom Holland’s incarnation seems to have been among the most well-received, and “No Way Home” continues that trend. It’s the “Avengers: Endgame” of this particular series, wrapping up one chapter of Peter Parker’s story, and packing in so many references, Easter eggs, and callbacks that your head might spin. But it’s still filled with charm and humor amongst the fights and special effects, and it’s hard to not have a good time when the ride is this fun.—Dan Moren

Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings

I have to hand it to Marvel Studios—they have managed to take several B- and C-list heroes from Marvel Comics history and turn them into the stars of blockbuster hit films. Shang-Chi is one such character, designed to cash in on the 70s Kung-Fu craze in America with an origin story that’s just as grimace-worthy as you might expect. But processed by the Marvel Machine, it comes out here as a joyous mix of Marvel superhero film and modern martial arts/action film. Simu Liu is game as Shang-Chi, but Awkwafina steals the portions of the movie left over after Tony Leung, Michelle Yeoh, and Ben Kingsley steal the bulk of it. The public-transport-themed action scene that starts the film is one of the best ever in a Marvel movie. I look forward to seeing what director Destin Daniel Cretton does next.—J.S.

No Time to Die

I didn’t go into Daniel Craig’s last outing as James Bond with very high expectations—after 2006’s “Casino Royale”, the franchise has never really passed middling for me—but “No Time to Die” largely surprised me with its swerve away from Bond tropes, especially in regards to its ending and its female characters. (For example, the movie is bookended with scenes from the perspective of Léa Seydoux’s Madeleine Swann, in some ways making it more of her story than Bond’s.) But the real gem here is Ana de Armas, Craig’s “Knives Out” co-star, who appears for about 10 minutes, but absolutely steals every single frame she’s in.—D.M.

In & Of Itself

Derek DelGaudio’s “In & of Itself” is a film, directed by Frank Oz, based on a one-man show by a magician. I think I may have said too much already. This is live theater captured on film for those who couldn’t attend, and it’s… oh, I shouldn’t say “magical,” should I? It is funny, riveting, and ultimately quite emotional. Don’t read anything about it going in. It’s better to be unspoiled. But you’ll be thinking about what you saw, what it means, and how it all happened, long after the movie is over.—J.S.

Tenet

I always find Christopher Nolan’s films worth watching, even if the director does at times get somewhat precious about the nature of cinema. “Tenet” is a brain-bender, and absolutely worth watching at home, where you can pause every couple minutes and assess what the hell is going on. It’s a great looking movie with some fantastic action set-pieces, and, above all, it’s a piece of original science-fiction. Robert Pattinson, John David Washington, and Elizabeth Debicki all lend some solid performances to the mix, as does Kenneth Branagh as a scenery-chewing villain..—D.M.

CODA

My favorite Apple TV+ film so far, “CODA” is a story about a young woman with a deaf family who falls in love with music. From that description, you can pretty much imagine what story the movie will tell, and you’d be exactly right. But it’s more than just that log line. The family business is fishing, and the entire industry is struggling, especially the little guys, so there’s a storyline about how fishermen can collectively organize and how a deaf fisherman can get a seat at the table. Ruby’s parents, played by Marlee Matlin and Troy Kotsur, are unforgettable. The end of the movie is, again, exactly what you’d expect—but with the added seasoning the film has added along the way, it’s completely effective.—J.S.

Widows

I’d heard people talk up “Widows”, and as a fan of heist movies, this is a fun twist on the genre (adapted, to my surprise, from an old British TV series from the 1980s). When a crew of thieves is killed mid-robbery, their widows are on the hook for the score, and have to pay it back. Add some Chicago politics into the mix, and you’ve got a taut, interesting crime story. But the real standout here is the cast: Viola Davis, Michelle Rodriguez, Cynthia Erivo, and Elizabeth Debicki (again!) form the key crew, with Brian Tyree Henry, Daniel Kaluuya, Jacki Weaver, Carrie Coon, Robert Duvall, Liam Neeson, Jon Bernthal, Garret Dillahunt, and Colin Farrell in supporting roles.—D.M.

Promising Young Woman

Emerald Fennell’s story of a woman out for revenge years after the death of a medical school colleague is scathing, angry, darkly funny, and ultimately tragic. (As all stories of revenge should probably be.) Carey Mulligan’s been one of the world’s best actors for a while now, and she’s spectacular as Cassie, who is working at a coffee shop when she meets a former classmate in med school who is indisputably a “nice guy”—whatever that means—and the entire plot begins to kick off.—J.S.

Never Rarely Sometimes Always

This is a movie about a girl in Pennsylvania who gets pregnant and can’t get an abortion. So she steals away with a friend on a bus to New York and try to figure out how to make that work. That’s what the movie is. It’s unflinching. (“Plan B,” a 2021 film with a similar premise and point of view, takes a very different approach—it’s a raunchy road-trip comedy. I liked it, too, just not as much as this one.)—J.S.

Nomadland

It was Best Picture… maybe you’ve heard of it? I loved how quiet and contemplative this film, about an older woman who has been driven by the Great Recession to live in a van and work itinerant jobs among other people who are living the same lives. It’s got beautiful vistas, quiet desperation, camaraderie, and a whole lot of deferred grief. My in-laws, who read the book upon which the film is based, hated it. I haven’t read the book, but as a work of art I find myself more or less in agreement with Oscar on this one, for once.—J.S.

First Cow

Nobody has ever heard of “First Cow,” which was nominated for zero Oscars. But it has stuck with me all year. It’s a quiet, slow story about a period of history that isn’t often seen, namely the west coast of North America in the early 19th century, pre-Gold Rush. Director Kelly Reichardt’s film is set in Oregon Country, and European society is only hesitantly setting up shop. The title cow is the first one to be imported to the region, up from San Francisco, promising milk and butter for those with the money and access. (Or for those who might be able to climb a fence and steal said milk.)—J.S.

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