Wasn’t This Year Terrible? Nope! PBS Critic Bill McCuddy Picks Top ’11’ Films of 2021

Tim Blake Nelson in Old Henry
Tim Blake Nelson in Old Henry
Shannon Meehan (Shout Factory)

Great news. There was a lot of films to choose from in 2021. Don’t listen to the haters. Streaming has upped the quality game in Hollywood. And everyone has seen everything because, well, what else was there to do this year?

That’s why I’ve turned the volume up to 11 — in homage to Spinal Tap I added an extra film.

Full disclosure: In a year when I just said everyone has seen everything, I still have not seen Parallel Mothers, Drive My Car or Pig. So who knows, maybe my list should be a dozen. And yes I saw Licorice Pizza, so save me your rants on that overrated hit-and-miss 2 hours and 13 minutes, please.

(Aside: The best-written thing on a screen was HBO’s Succession, which should be called “Logan’s Run”)

Let the bitching begin. Save your tomatoes for the sauce.

Bill McCuddy’s Top 11 Films of 2021

Zola
ZolaA24

Zola

What started as a real Twitter thread ended up as a great road picture in the spirit of another McCuddy fave, 2019’s Queen and Slim. Elvis’ granddaughter is in the building here. But the always great Riley Keough is kind of overshadowed by breakout star Taylour Paige. Take this trip.

Anya Taylor-Joy and Matt Smith in Last Night in Soho
Anya Taylor-Joy and Matt Smith in Last Night in SohoParisa Taghizadeh / © 2021 Focus Features, LLC / EPK.TV

Last Night In Soho

Name a bad Edgar Wright movie. “It girls” Anya Taylor-Joy and Thomasin McKenzie (Hello? Jojo Rabbit. Case closed) are two sides of a twisted coin in this psychological thriller. This is a great ’70s drive-in kind of movie with a wistful and wicked last performance from Dame Diana Rigg.

Daniel Craig as James Bond in No Time to Die
Daniel Craig as James Bond in No Time to DieDanjaq, LLC and MGM. All Rights Reserved / EPK.TV

No Time To Die

Not THE best Bond film (From Russia with Love, for the record) but the best Daniel Craig Bond by far. Lots of cool “easter egghead” nods to past Bond films, and yes, a controversial ending, but a great time for audiences. License to thrill. #SorryNotSorry.

Ariana DeBose as Anita in 20th Century Studios’ West Side StoryPhoto by Niko Tavernise © 2020 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation. All Rights Reserved / EPK.TV

West Side Story

Remember when this was announced and everyone said, “Why?” Because Steven Spielberg said so. And that turned out to be just fine. He’s still a genius. A lovely send-off for Sondheim and terrific choreography. You won’t walk by Lincoln Center without thinking about it. Should have been bigger at the box office. See it on the biggest screen ya got.

Nicole Kidman and Javier Bardem in Being the Ricardos
Nicole Kidman and Javier Bardem in Being the RicardosGlen Wilson/ © 2021 Amazon Content Services LLC © Amazon Content Services LLC / EPK.TV

Being The Ricardos

A backstage pass to a week in the life of Lucy and Desi, Aaron Sorkin style. I can’t believe haters who say this isn’t funny. Every word out of J.K. Simmons’ mouth is hilarious. Kidman gets Lucy better than I ever imagined, but the man who steals every scene is Javier Bardem as the cheating but loving husband.

Adam Driver and Lady Gaga in House of Gucci
Adam Driver and Lady Gaga in House of GucciFabio Lovino © 2021 Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures Inc. All Rights Reserved / EPK.TV

House Of Gucci

My other backstage pass to yet another dysfunctional family, this is Dallas or Falcon Crest in Italy. If that sounds terrible, this isn’t your comedy. Lady Gaga is not really an actress so much as a natural. She’s the whole movie. The prosthetics on Jared Leto and the United Nations of assorted Italian accents is just the cherry on the cannoli. Bottomline: I was never bored. And I challenge you to produce one bad review that still doesn’t make you want to see it.

Bradley Cooper in Nightmare Alley
Bradley Cooper in Nightmare AlleyKerry Hayes, 20th Century Studios / EPK.TV

Nightmare Alley

About as perfect an ending as any film in the last 10 years and a load of fun getting there. Bradley Cooper as the con man getting conned is one of his best. A great ride down a dark alley.

Matt Damon and Adam Driver in Ridley Scott's The Last Duel
Matt Damon and Adam Driver in Ridley Scott’s The Last DuelPatrick Redmond, 20th Century Studios / EPK.TV

The Last Duel

The OTHER Adam Driver movie directed by Ridley Scott this year (see #6), this Rashomon-style story of Medieval French crime stars Ben Affleck and Matt Damon but the real star here is the victim — Jodie Comer — who claims she was raped before the case is solved in court and on the jousting field. Comer deserves an Oscar nomination here. Just one more of the film’s injustices.

Jude Hill in Kenneth Branagh’s Belfast
Jude Hill in Kenneth Branagh’s BelfastRob Youngson / Focus Features / EPK.TV

Belfast

Kenneth Branagh’s Roma is 10 times better than that personal project and waaaaay more accessible to audiences. An incredible cast that includes dames like Judi Dench and Caitriona Balfe (luminous) are actually upstaged by 11-year-old Jude Hill as Branagh’s “mini-me.”

I have a slightly better ending for this film but when don’t I? It’s nearly perfect and deserves the Oscar love it’s going to get. Erin go Branagh. (I hear your eyes rolling, leave me alone.)

King Richard
King RichardWB Pictures

King Richard

This Williams-sisters-approved biopic of their dad — Will Smith in one of his least commercial films — ignores racism and some of the other obstacles in their way, and it’s still one of the best films of the year. Smith shines and I hope he wins an Oscar. But the real stars are Saniyya Sidney and Demi Singleton who both learned how to play tennis to play Venus and Serena in the film. This is one for the whole family — theirs and yours.

Tim Blake Nelson in Old Henry
Tim Blake Nelson in Old HenryShannon Meehan (Shout Factory)

Old Henry

Old WHO? This twist-filled western proves that genre is not played out. And also that usual Coen Brothers “hayseed” Tim Blake Nelson is a terrific leading man. He blew me away. The power of this is much better than anything Benedict Cumberbatch and Jane Campion did. All the classic western elements are here because you’ve seen them before. Doesn’t matter. This is easily the best movie you haven’t seen. This or any recent year.

Bill McCuddy contributes to PBS/All Arts, GoldDerby.com, Schneps Media and various other print, television and digital outlets. He is a voting member of the CCA and cohosts The Accutron Show and Sitting Around Talking Movies podcasts. And he also sees the bad movies so you don’t have to.

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