2021 felt like a transitory year in the cinema world. Although many of us were able to make a triumphant return to theatrical moviegoing, box office returns continue to struggle, and the future of theatrical exhibition as a mass-media artform (rather than a niche cultural experience) remains in considerable flux. Although it’s true that, as the prophet Nicole Kidman once said, even “heartbreak feels good” at the theater, the explosion of streaming platforms has made new releases more accessible than they ever have been before. And the combination of 2020 hold overs and planned 2021 releases created an explosion of thrilling cinema, proving that no matter how we watch them, the movies will continue to dazzle, provoke, excite, and move us.
For me, 2021 was an unusually introspective year at the movies. A lot of that was due to the relentless work of Lin-Manuel Miranda, whose triple-threat presentation of In the Heights, Vivo, and Encanto brought Latinos to the forefront of mainstream studio cinema in ways we never have been before. There’s a magic to seeing your own story told on screen, especially when, for most of your life, it just hasn’t been there, and I can’t recall a time when I cried harder in a movie theater than during Encanto’s emotional centerpiece—a nearly wordless depiction of a Latin American family fleeting the threat of political violence—set to one of Miranda’s most beautiful songs. Though it was a lesser film, by focusing on the cultural and physical gulf between Cuba and South Florida, Vivo hit even closer to my home. And In the Heights marked the culmination of my 13-year love affair with Miranda’s Broadway musical debut; seeing and hearing those songs on screen after committing them to memory more than a decade ago was an incredible sensation, and one I won’t soon forget.
Heights was far from the only musical film this year that arrived with extreme expectations. None other than Steven Spielberg, the filmmaker behind some of the most beloved and formative films of my childhood, took on the challenge of revisiting my favorite movie musical of all time—his West Side Story provided yet another platform for soaring melodies and a kaleidoscopic Latino cast, more than delivering on the promise of its pedigree. Spielberg was aided in that effort not only by genius playwright Tony Kushner, but also by the icon Rita Moreno, who shepherded the film that made her a star into a new era as actress and producer. Moreno, one of my earliest on-screen crushes and one of the first ever Latina movie stars, was also the subject of an excellent documentary this year that chronicled what she has meant to Latino moviegoers like me over the decades.
Having not one, not two, but FIVE musical movies focused on the experiences of Latinos was an absolute dream, of course, but the wide array of Latino talent in Hollywood wasn’t just confined to projects explicitly dealing with the Latin American experience. This year, Oscar Isaac continued to redefine what is possible for Latino performers, carrying Paul Schrader’s existential morality tale The Card Counter and leading a noble house into the depths of space in Dune. Ana de Armas turned a one scene performance into the thrilling highlight of No Time To Die, and Gabriel García Bernal went to the Beach That Makes You Old. This year’s movies made me feel like I can do anything, go anywhere, be anyone. Is 2021 a breakthrough year for onscreen Latino talent? We can only hope.
In 2021, I also turned 30—a major life milestone that I shared with a few other Rough Cut writers this year—and the movies didn’t let me forget it. Miranda (again) explored the internal time bomb that you start to feel at 30 when the pressure to pursue creative passions and the weight of societal expectations begin to weigh against each other. As a lawyer who still harbors musical theatre dreams, Tick, Tick…Boom! felt like having a corner of my brain spilled out on screen (and that was before the parade of Broadway cameos from the artists who’ve taken up residence in my mind). If Tick, Tick…Boom! represented a life I once envisioned for myself, Joachim Trier’s The Worst Person in the World is closer to the life I’m trying to have now: on the cusp of 30, Renate Reinsve’s Julie works to accept the unknown, embrace love, prioritize herself, and let the currents of life’s uncertainties carry her forward. Meanwhile, Bo Burnham’s Inside abandoned the realm of fiction entirely. A self-assessment of turning 30 in 2021 during the COVID-19 pandemic and the age of the internet, slowly disintegrating to music as the world burns? Welcome to the Internet.
Hitting a milestone birthday has a way of making you look back, and the films of 2021 provided ample opportunity for nostalgia, wistfulness, and, well, Reminiscence. From directors actively reliving their own childhoods (Belfast; Hand of God) to characters traveling through space and time (Last Night in Soho; Petite Maman) and from extremely metatextual franchise entries (Spider-Man: No Way Home; The Matrix Resurrections) to somewhat disappointing prequels (Cruella; The Many Saints of Newark), the past seemed nigh inescapable. And sometimes, that’s okay! One of the few silver linings of the pandemic circumstances of the past two years has been the opportunity to revisit dozens of movies, either for reevaluation or just plain comfort. Having both the time and the desire for rewatches has been one of the past year’s unqualified joys.
And, as always, the year’s new movies provided unlimited opportunities to find facets of myself reflected back at me in the frames. Luca reminded me of the euphoria of clicking immediately with a newfound friend, and the pain that comes when friends grow apart without fault. The Tragedy of Macbeth and Drive My Car (along with the musicals I mentioned above) reinvigorated my love of theatrical language and storytelling and expanded my conception of what a play can really be. Could I have appreciated the bold madness of Benedetta or the fiery outrage of Procession without my decade-plus of Catholic school education? After two years spent largely isolated from my family, Encanto, In the Heights, King Richard, CODA, The Mitchells vs. The Machines showed me glimpses of the complexities of my relationships with parents and siblings, deepening my appreciation for our similarities and our differences all at once. And when homesickness became too much to bear, Zola was my annual cinematic return to A-Twenty-Florida, a mystical land where art films meet Florida’s humid, indelible atmosphere and invigorate my affection and bewilderment for my home state in equal measure.
I loved so many movies this year, but maybe the best single experience I had came in May, when I returned to my local AMC for the first time in 16 months for the Angelina Jolie action-thriller Those Who Wish Me Dead. Is it the best movie I’ve ever seen? No. But have I ever felt euphoria like I did upon reentering a theater for the first time in over a year? Absolutely not.
Regardless of quality, the movies of 2021 would always have been memorable because of the circumstances in which they were released—but luckily, the best of the year are also some of the most daring, inventive, and moving I’ve ever seen.
Jonny’s Top 10 of 2021
West Side Story
The Green Knight
Drive My Car
The Worst Person in the World
In the Heights
The Power of the Dog
Honorable Mentions (Alphabetical): Encanto, A Hero, Judas and the Black Messiah, Luca, Mass, The Mitchells vs. The Machines, Passing, Spencer, The Tragedy of Macbeth, Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy