Columbus Alive’s top 10 movies of 2021

Here are the films that most stuck with critic Brad Keefe over the last 12 months

Brad Keefe

Hey, what a weird year it was, right? Again, right?

As someone who spent time in a movie theater at least once a week for the last decade-plus, I’m still adjusting. I’m still not OK with this. I want it to come back in a way I’m quite certain it will not.

But I also see the light at the end of the tunnel, even if the whole paradigm has shifted and the theatrical/streaming genie can’t go entirely back in the bottle. But, unlike 2020, some of these movies I actually did see in a theater, and it was and still is a glorious experience.

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The usual year-end caveats: My opinions are subjective, and my experiences are my own. There are movies in a Film 101 sense that I saw that are “better” than some on this list, but none of them affected me quite as much as these 10 did in 2021.

1. “CODA”

One of the first movies I saw in 2021 remained my favorite through some tough competition. The biggest critical knock on it seems to be that it’s kind of Hallmark in its structure. I don’t see the problem with that, because it’s the greatest Hallmark movie ever made. It’s made me laugh, feel and just outright cry every time I’ve watched it. Whatever writer-director Sian Heder does next, I’m there. The only reason America hasn’t fallen in love with this movie is that not enough people have Apple TV subscriptions.

2. “Licorice Pizza”

The last movie I saw in an actual movie theater (on Christmas Eve, no less) came unbearably close to unseating “CODA,” but Paul Thomas Anderson’s pic has plenty of accolades. It’s complicated — the kind of movie that got made more in the ’70s than now — and that’s a good thing.

3. “The Power of the Dog”

Woof. No dog pun intended. Jane Campion’s 1920’s drama was not something I’d be drawn to on paper, but everything about this came together in a gorgeous, haunting movie with one of the all-time great ensemble casts. Give it the Oscars. All of them.

4. “Red Rocket”

Sean Baker has already established himself as a director with a signature style unlike any other. He again dives in, giving an uncannily honest look at how folks navigate material poverty that leaves the judgment up to the viewer. Ex-MTV VJ Simon Rex gives one of the year’s best performances (a phrase I never expected to type) as an ex-porn star who’s a survivalist, amoralistic grifter. Those who frame him as the protagonist have maybe never seen a Baker film. He always makes things more complicated than that.

5. “Judas and the Black Messiah”

Plot twist: This is generally considered a 2020 film, but it wasn’t screened for Columbus critics, so the virtual 2021 Sundance Film Festival was my introduction, and I haven’t forgotten it. Director Shaka King took the full weight of telling the story of Fred Hampton (Daniel Kaluuya), but also made it pop so more folks would take it in. That’s important.

6. “C’mon C’mon”

Another director with a singular style, the latest from Mike Myers (“Beginners,” “20th Century Woman”) continues to make him a director I’ll follow anywhere. In this case, it’s Joaquin Phoenix as an uncle navigating the unexpected caretaking of his nephew (Woody Norman delivering a master class in child acting).

7. “Pig”

Possibly no movie zigged more than you expected it to zag than “Pig.” Nicholas Cage plays an Oregon wild man on the search for his kidnapped truffle pig. We all expected a bonkers “John Wick.” We got both a wild movie and one of the most unexpectedly heartfelt performances of Cage’s career.

8. “Inside”

Look, it’s 2022, and I don’t know what constitutes a “movie” for this list anymore. There are some amazing music documentaries just on the other side of this top 10 (“The Summer of Soul,” “The Sparks Brothers,” “The Velvet Underground”), but former YouTuber and comedian Bo Burnham (whose feature directorial debut “Eighth Grade” was my top film of 2018) made the defining film of the pandemic.

9. “Dune”

I haven’t really made much of a secret of the fact that I don’t think every great novel needs to be a movie, and another attempt at Frank Herbert’s impossibly dense sci-fi epic had me skeptical. But Denis Villeneuve proved me wrong. He streamlined the material to make audiences “get it” more than most who attempt to read the book.

10. “Titane”

It came out of Sundance with all the buzz of a “someone has sex with a car in the first 20 minutes” could. It’s bonkers, yes, but honestly, my favorite thing about writer-director Julia Ducournau is that she makes the wildest decisions with a confidence that makes you think it all makes perfect sense.