Returning to cinemas has been good for the soul — where done safely, of course. Here in no particular order is my list of 17 things that made moviegoing feel like a gift in 2021.
1. There were a few times being physically present at the cinema lifted me this year. Following the advice of public-health experts, my family and my kids’ friends bought out the house a couple of times for private watch parties, and the excitement was palpable. I recently attended a screening of “A Journal for Jordan,” and while I didn’t love the movie, the, ahem, enthusiasm in the room for Michael B. Jordan was fun to feel.
2. I caught “Dune” in a top-line theater with superb picture and sound. The film’s atmosphere on the big screen is immersive, transporting. I rewatched it at home, and it held up as a drama, but the experience couldn’t match the spectacle, the epic scale in the theater.
3. After a year of watching so many things break down in real life, “Awake” managed to make the apocalypse fun again with its ingenious twist on what could end civilization.
4. The awesomely awkward almost-sex scene in “The Eyes of Tammy Faye” — there’s nothing funny about it to the two involved (Tammy Faye Bakker and her music producer), but it’s both hilarious and touching for its clumsy earnestness. It’s a testament to how deeply successful Jessica Chastain is at making human someone most of us knew only in Grand Guignol caricature. I was hardcore rooting for her to get some. She deserved it. That whole movie is great.
5. The depth and complexity of Mahershala Ali’s dual performance in “Swan Song“ — he accomplishes the rare feat of being present in every moment. The degree of difficulty is significantly higher when playing against himself in so many key scenes. It’s subtle, intelligent, deeply felt work.
6. Really, everything about “The Electrical Life of Louis Wain,” which I’d say features the best Benedict Cumberbatch performance of the year (yes, even better than in the Spider-movie and the dog movie). This cat movie’s detailed and iconoclastic and weird and lovely. Claire Foy and Andrea Riseborough are wonderful.
7. Some emerging stars, including Alexis Louder of “Copshop,” Emilia Jones of “CODA,” Alana Haim and Cooper Hoffman of “Licorice Pizza” and of course, the actresses blazing out of “West Side Story” — Rachel Zegler and Ariana DeBose.
8. Jamie Dornan’s music-video treatment of “Edgar’s Prayer” in “Barb & Star Go to Vista Del Mar.” His whole performance is a delight, but that roughly 2 minutes and 24 seconds … pure joy. “Watch me climbin’ / I’m goin’ up a palm tree / like a cat up a palm tree / who decided to go up a palm tree” — like his beach-ballet dance moves and handsome angst, sheer poetry.
10. The in-your-face metaphors of Adam McKay’s “Don’t Look Up.” It could never happen here, of course. I mean, who would ignore the dire warnings of peer-reviewed science for the sake of political or financial gain? … Um, what’s that outside the …
11. Bradley Cooper’s blistering rampage through “Licorice Pizza” jumps instantly into the Alec Baldwin-in-“Glengarry Glen Ross” stratosphere of unforgettable screen jerks.
12. Hulu’s “Boss Level” takes the crown for most badass action movie overall. But the year’s best fight scene is in “Kate,” when Mary Elizabeth Winstead’s dying assassin protagonist takes on … a lithe fellow in lounge wear (played by Miyavi, a well-known Japanese guitarist/composer/producer — that dude can fight). Runner-ups include the climactic bout from Halle Berry’s “Bruised” and three from the MCU: The first Green Goblin-Spider-Man matchup in “Spider-Man: No Way Home“; the bus fight in “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings” (for bonus enjoyment, check out a real bus operator’s tweeted analysis); and Makkari vs Ikaris in “Eternals.”
13. My reviews editor. Because of the many assignments he throws my way, I occasionally come across gems I might have never heard of otherwise. Among them are several movies shouted out here and two of my favorites of 2021: The low-key comic drama of “Hard Luck Love Song” and the humanistic immigration tale “No Man’s Land.” There’s also the inventive, Jungian microbudget horror of “Come True” and one of the best Christmas movies in a while: “8-Bit Christmas.” So thanks, O Editor — you know who you are.
14. The way “Summit of the Gods” expresses so much in the facial expressions and body language of its characters. As an Asian American movie nerd, I find it tiresome to see so many Asian faces in animated films that, frankly, do not reflect the individuality of Asian people. “Summit of the Gods,” made by white French animator Patrick Imbert and hand drawn, does not forget for a single frame that each character is an individual person.
15. “Drive My Car’s” investigation of “Uncle Vanya.” The film delves deeply into the meaning and the moments of Chekhov’s play and the agonies of its characters as “Drive’s” characters mount a multilingual production. The powerful metaphor for the struggle to communicate enriches the classic text and reveals wells of emotion and resonance of which the very best stagings would be envious.
16. Speaking of new looks at classics, the thing that stayed with me most about Joel Coen’s expressionistic take on “The Tragedy of Macbeth” was its imaginative, menacing manifestation of the Weird Sisters by Kathryn Hunter. It’s the most eerily effective interpretation I’ve seen on screen or stage.
17. This was also one of the best years in recent memory for film versions of musicals. Andrew Garfield is a likely Oscar nominee for his lead performance in Lin-Manuel Miranda’s impassioned directorial debut, “Tick, Tick … Boom!“; Jon M. Chu’s adaptation/update of Miranda’s “In the Heights” beefed up the story and sociopolitical context with a shot of energy; and despite my misgivings about a remake of perhaps the greatest movie musical ever, Steven Spielberg’s “West Side Story” is lifted by a smart screenplay by Tony Kushner. In the courageous adaptation of “Dear Evan Hansen,” the filmmakers chose to impose the agonizing anxiety of the protagonist on us to help explain his actions. It’s an unflinching look at teen mental illness, and the cast — especially Amy Adams and Julianne Moore (how can you not be touched by her delivery of “So Big/So Small“?) — came through. Each of these musicals made this jaded moviegoer feel something at the cinema, and that’s one of the greatest gifts the art form can give.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.