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Richard Roeper: The best movies of 2021

No. 1 for the year is ‘Belfast,’ Kenneth Branagh’s black-and-white love letter to his childhood in the Northern Ireland of the late 1960s.

Caitriona Balfe (left), Jamie Dornan, Judi Dench, Jude Hill and Lewis McAskie play members of a cinema-loving family in “Belfast,” the best film of 2021.
| Focus Features

We like to kick off our annual “Best Movies of the Year” piece with a tip of the cap to some excellent films that fell just short of making the cut, and this time around that list includes:

“Candyman,” “Encanto,” “King Richard,” “The Last Duel,” “Last Night in Soho,” “The Lost Daughter,” “Mass,” “Nightmare Alley,” “The Power of the Dog” and “The Tragedy of Macbeth.”

That would make for a stellar Top 10 list — but difficult choices have to be made, and when the final credits rolled on the 2021 movie year, the following films are the ones that resonated most with me.

10. ‘A Quiet Place, Part II’

Evelyn (Emily Blunt) watches over children Regan (Millicent Simmonds) and Marcus (Noah Jupe) in “A Quiet Place, Part II.”
Paramount Pictures

Rather than go the streaming route in 2020, writer/director John Krasinski waited a year and then gave us a theatrical release last May — and what a great decision that was, as this nearly perfect sequel should be seen in a theater, where the use of sound can be fully appreciated. (And yes, sound is a MAJOR player in the “Quiet Place” movies.) Kicking off with a prologue that served as prequel, “A Quiet Place II” expanded the post-apocalyptic universe in ingenious ways, with Emily Blunt delivering passionate work as a mother who will go to extraordinary lengths to protect her children. This is one of the best sequels in any genre in the last 10 years.

9. ‘The Harder They Fall’

Director/co-writer/producer Jeymes Samuel is squarely in the Sergio Leone-meets-Quentin Tarantino zone in this violent, bloody, funny, exhilarating and beautifully acted Black Western. “The Harder They Fall” is brimming with characters such as Rufus Buck and Cherokee Bill who were real-life 19th century Black figures — but the story is 100% fictional, with Jonathan Majors heading an outstanding cast as one Nat Love, a classic anti-hero out to avenge the murder of his parents. This is one rip-roaring adventure, and I haven’t invoked the term “rip-roaring” in a long time, so you know I mean it.

8. ‘In the Heights’

Melissa Barrera (in green) plays a stylist with big dreams in “In the Heights.”
Warner Bros.

Director John M. Chu (“Crazy Rich Asians”) teams with Lin-Manuel Miranda (I believe he had something to do with “Hamilton”) in this vibrant, wide open, beautifully filmed adaptation of the Tony Award-winning musical. Set in the multicultural neighborhood of Washington Heights in upper Manhattan, “In the Heights” is a generational tale about family, heritage and, of course, love. Anthony Ramos as the bodega owner Usnavi and Melissa Barrera as Vanessa, who yearns to break into the fashion industry, are the most engaging romantic couple in a 2021 musical this side of … well, another movie appearing on this list.

7. ’Old Henry’

Who doesn’t love a little Tim Blake Nelson? From “Minority Report” to “Syriana” to “The Grey Zone” to “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs” and we could list 25 more credits, Nelson has been one of the most reliable character actors of his generation — and he gets arguably the role of his career as the lead in “Old Henry,” writer/director Potsy Ponciroli’s bleak and brutal early 20th Western, with Nelson as the title character, an Oklahoma Territory farmer who finds himself in the crosshairs of a ruthless posse. Featuring the best plot twist of any movie this year.

6. ‘Those Who Wish Me Dead’

Angelina Jolie plays a smokejumper protecting a 12-year-old boy on the run in “Those Who Wish Me Dead.”
New Line Cinema

Actor-turned-filmmaker Taylor Sheridan is an American treasure as the writer and/or director of brilliant films such as “Sicario,” “Hell or High Water” and “Wind River,” the TV series “Yellowstone,” “1883” and “Mayor of Kingstown” — and the outlandish and wildly entertaining neo-Western “Those Who Wish Me Dead,” and yes, it might be a stretch to buy into Angelina Jolie as a smokejumper haunted by a tragedy, but Jolie pours herself into the role and is particularly effective in the scenes where she has to protect a 12-year-old (Finn Little) who is the target of a father-and-son assassin duo. (Told you it was outlandish.)

5. ‘The Card Counter’

Oscar Isaac has become one of my favorite actors, as he has a style and approach reminiscent of 1970s Al Pacino, and he’s perfectly cast as a tightly wound veteran who has a methodical, workmanlike mode of playing blackjack and poker — his only means of quieting the demons in his head. Writer/director Paul Schrader (screenwriter of “Taxi Driver” and “Raging Bull”) specializes in searing stories about obsessive loners who are often their own worst enemy, and with “The Card Counter” he has delivered arguably the best gambling movie since “Rounders.”

4. ‘Pig’

Nicolas Cage plays a hermit whose beloved animal companion is kidnapped in “Pig.”
Neon

It’s just too easy to joke about all the B-movie roles Nicolas Cage has accepted over these last many years, and on its surface, “Pig” might have seemed like the latest in that very long line. After all, Cage is playing Rob, a former celebrated chef who is now living in a remote cabin in the Oregon wilderness with his only friend: his beloved truffle pig. When the valuable pig is kidnapped, Rob has to return to civilization to try to save her. I know, that sounds crazy, but in the hands of director and co-writer Michael Sarnoski, “Pig” is a mud-splattered, Shakespearean drama, with Cage giving a passionate but beautifully controlled performance that reminds us he can touch greatness.

3. ‘West Side Story’

A Star is Born in Rachel Zegler, who makes for a luminous, warmhearted, strong and memorable Maria in Steven Spielberg’s sensational update of one of the great movie (and Broadway) musicals of all time. “West Side Story” is wall-to-wall old-fashioned entertainment, from the lavish and impeccably designed location and set pieces to the expertly crafted choreography to the outstanding cast, including the legendary Rita Moreno, who won best supporting actress for playing Anita in the 1961 film and could earn another Oscar nomination for her radiant work as a new character: Valentina, the unofficial matriarch of a block torn apart by longstanding rivalries.

2. ‘Licorice Pizza’

Alana (Alana Haim) and Gary (Cooper Hoffman) become unlikely partners in “Licorice Pizza.”
MGM

The great Paul Thomas Anderson delivers one of his most sentimental and sweetest stories with this early 1970s period piece featuring amazingly accomplished performances from two newcomers to the big screen: musician Alana Haim as Alana Kane, a 25-year-old woman yearning to escape the mundane trappings of her life in the San Fernando Valley, and Cooper Hoffman (son of the late Philip Seymour Hoffman) as the fantastically named Gary Valentine, a teenage schemer and dreamer who becomes Alana’s unlikely partner in a number of get-sorta-rich-sorta-quick schemes, her best friend and maybe more.

1. ‘Belfast’

Writer/director Kenneth Branagh’s black-and-white love letter to his childhood in the Northern Ireland of the late 1960s is a story of the Troubles between the Protestants and the Catholics and how they impact three generations of a working-class family that knows no other existence outside of their tightly knit neighborhood in Belfast — but has to face the reality of the world closing in all around them. Told through the eyes of 9-year-old Buddy (Jude Hill), “Belfast” features strong performances from Jamie Dornan and Caitriona Balfe as Buddy’s parents, and unforgettable work from Judi Dench and Ciaran Hinds as Buddy’s grandparents. This is the best movie of 2021 and should take home a crate of Oscars.

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