As Hollywood release strategies continue to evolve — with fewer films opening in theaters and nearly a dozen major streaming services all putting out exclusives — even being aware of what’s out has become a challenge.
The effort gets harder when one attempts to sift through and decide the best films of the past year. You could look at top box-office earnings or most-searched-for films, although that’s only part of the story. Longtime film critics will roll out their lists, whether populist or reflecting a serious student of cinema. It’s a long conversation, really, as the Oscars occur in late March.
Because people seem to want different things out of movies, opinions often vary wildly. Films based on real-life events that inspire, challenge, and provide new perspectives often resonate with me and my wife. The big-budget popcorn flicks usually get a couple spots. But then so do select documentaries and animated flicks (no, they’re not just for kids).
Admittedly, this list is not comprehensive. Even in biopics and related genres, a few films have so far escaped my watchlist (namely: director Kenneth Branagh’s “Belfast,” Disney’s “Encanto,” “Pig” starring Nicholas Cage, Steven Spielberg’s reimagined “West Side Story,” and Denzel Washington’s “A Journal for Jordan” out on Christmas). Based on dozens of theatrical and streaming films seen this year, the following ten gems are worth seeking out.
1. American Underdog
(sports biopic, PG, 112 min.)
Versions of Kurt Warner’s rise to stardom have circulated for decades: how he stocked grocery shelves after being cut by the Packers, played two seasons of arena football, and, upon finally debuting with the St. Louis Rams, won the Super Bowl. Throw in his concurrent love story with a spirited mother of two kids, and any biopic must be too saccharin and beyond belief — right?
With pitch-perfect leads Zachary Levi (“Shazam”) as Warner and Oscar-winner Anna Paquin (“The Piano“) as love interest Brenda, “American Underdog” removes a few layers of gloss from the Hall of Famer, who starts out as self-centered. In the tradition of “Rudy,” it’s a story of determination that delivers dynamic NFL action while keeping relationships at the forefront.
2. The Courier
(spy thriller, PG-13, 112 min., on Amazon Prime Video)
Benedict Cumberbatch has contributed a lot more to cinema than “Doctor Strange,” proven again in this historically grounded Cold War thriller. As Welsh businessman Greville Wynne, he’s an everyman recruited by MI-6, portrayed sublimely by Rachel Brosnahan (“The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel”) and the CIA to take sales trips to Moscow, which is a cover for trading top-secret information with a Soviet double agent.
Keeping his service secret even from his wife, his actions help avert the Cuban Missile Crisis. Yet attempting to get out from behind enemy lines reveals the peril and sacrifice of those who serve in espionage.
3. Spider-Man: No Way Home
(superhero/action, PG-13, 150 min.)
To sidestep spoilers, suffice to say that the closing entry in Sony/Marvel’s latest “Spider-Man” trilogy fulfills the promises it set out in previews. Against a backdrop of high-school senior year angst, fans will get more edge-of-your-seat action, quick-witted comebacks, digitally de-aged villains, and mind-bending sci-fi visuals than you’d think possible.
In no way accessible for superhero movie newbies, this flick assumes viewers are quite familiar with the Marvel Cinematic Universe (at least review the last movie’s plot before entering). Surprisingly talkie at times for a teen-targeted action-adventure, it shifts from drama to comedy in seconds and plays a lot like fan fiction. But there’s a reason the MCU has become the one common cultural trough in an age of narrowcasting: this blockbuster delivers the goods.
4. Blue Miracle
(inspirational biopic, PG, 95 min., on Netflix)
In a banner year for family films, this one may be the biggest surprise. After a devastating hurricane, the world’s largest offshore fishing competition held in Cabo San Lucas, Mexico changes their entry rules to benefit locals. It forces pro fisherman Captain Wade Malloy (Dennis Quaid, dialing up cantankerous to 11) to launch out with a crew of inexperienced orphans.
He and the kids’ guardian Omar Venegas (Jimmy Gonzales) spar over fishing techniques, prize money, and every aspect of their journey on the water. Even if you can guess some of the ending, this sleeper hit’s sharp script, eye-popping cinematography, and street-party rap soundtrack make “Blue Miracle” more than the sum of its parts.
(animated fantasy, PG, 95 min, on Disney Plus.)
Essentially a story about pre-teen friends enjoying summer and pursuing shared goals, “Luca” brings the sights and sounds of the Italian Riviera to glorious life. Granted, there are some fantastical elements -– two boys are sea monsters who take on human form when on land. But it’s a breath of fresh saltwater air that there’s not a superhero, princess, or wizard in sight.
A fixture at Pixar for the past 15 years –- showing how deep their storytelling bench goes -– first-time director Enrico Casarosa drew from his boyhood spent in small Italian seaside locales for this story that reflects the awkwardness and wide-eyed wonder of growing up.
(music biopic, PG-13, 145 min.)
The life of Aretha Franklin, the “Queen of Soul,” hits the big screen in a film that depicts Franklin’s journey from a church choir soloist to a pop superstar. Despite being a major Hollywood film budgeted at $55 million, the film doesn’t shy from religious themes. It also doesn’t sugarcoat abuse and trauma Franklin experienced — nor her reliance on God to overcome it.
From the pain of broken relationships, Franklin (Jennifer Hudson) discovers her voice. Yet with fortune, she turns to substance abuse until a spiritual experience changes her. She convinces executive Jerry Wexler to put out a live hymns record, saying: “This album is not for me or for you or for anybody else. This album is for God.” “Amazing Grace” became her biggest best-seller.
7. Street Gang: How We Got to Sesame Street
(documentary, PG, 107 min., on HBO Max)
Colorful puppet-driven edutainment program “Sesame Street” premiered in 1969, since copied by dozens of shows. No matter what one thinks of current iterations, their early experimentation was trailblazing. Using newly unearthed archive footage, “Street Gang” explores how diverse creative talent came together to get parents talking with their kids about learning concepts.
Educational producer Joan Ganz Cooney teamed up with storyman Jon Stone and Muppets creator Jim Henson to form the show’s creative triad. “Joan, Jim, and Jon, the three J’s, (led) this gang of creative rebels,” said producer Ellen Crafts. From outtakes of Henson and his troupe of performers, to sharp questions about how kids learn, it’s sure to spark discussion.
8. In the Heights
(musical, PG-13, 143 min., on HBO Max)
Call it the “Hamilton” effect. 2021 saw a dozen movie musicals released, partly due to COVID-related delays. Four came from Lin-Manuel Miranda himself — who wrote songs for two animated flicks, “Vivo” on Netflix and “Encanto” coming this Christmas to Disney Plus — in addition to directing the play-about-Broadway “Tick Tick Boom,” worth a watch on Netflix.
On that sea of soaring notes, Miranda’s first musical “In the Heights” best captures the appeal of his work as a celebration of family and diverse Latin cultures. Notably, Olga Merediz reprises her Tony-winning role as “Abuela Claudia,” portraying the work ethic and struggles of an elder generation.
9. Operation Varsity Blues: The College Admissions Scandal
(documentary, R, 103 min., on Netflix)
Thanks to heated competition among streaming services, we’re living in the Golden Age of Documentaries with fascinating takes on notable lives, cultural trends, and current events only a click away. One of this year’s best comes via filmmaker Chris Smith, known for “Fyre: The Greatest Party That Never Happened” and “Tiger King.”
It shocked the world to learn that wealthy parents had conspired to ensure their children were accepted into elite universities on sports scholarships. Days ago, a half-dozen more people were sentenced in the ongoing court proceedings. “Operation Varsity Blues” smartly recounts Rick Singer’s long con by crafting a dramatic film using FBI wire-tapped call transcripts as a primary source for the script. Note the rating for explicit language.
10. The Mitchells vs. the Machines
(animated comedy, PG, 113 min., on Netflix)
A wacky take on the machine apocalypse plot seen before in “I, Robot,” this fast-paced flick from the creators of “The Lego Movie” follows a family road trip that goes awry. While it’s a tongue-in-cheek comedy, “Mitchells” provides an entry point into real-world issues regarding the power and reach of the “Big Five” technology giants.
When a tech giant CEO realizes his part in designing their robot overlords, he apologizes to a fellow prisoner: “It’s almost like stealing people’s data and giving it to a hyper-intelligent AI as part of an unregulated tech monopoly was a bad thing.” It’s funny, but it also makes you think.
Family-centered biopic “King Richard” starring Will Smith, “Psych 3” for on-point ensemble comedy, fascinating yet tragic portrait “Bob Ross: Happy Accidents, Betrayal and Greed,” “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings” (especially the first third), and “8-Bit Christmas” for outdoing the holiday comedy it remade.