As the year wraps up, the Subjectify staff have shared their personal thoughts on the best movie moments of 2021.
2021 has been another odd year for movies, particularly because of the pandemic. Films due in 2020 finally came out, other films were delayed even further. Major studios pivoted to VOD and home release (or didn’t, and forced people to go to the cinema, and many arguments were had) and more and more movies made by streaming services made their mark as true award show contenders in the world of cinema – whether or not they got an actual cinema release.
Amidst all those ups and downs, we still did manage to see plenty of great films – some highly anticipated, and some delightfully surprising. Here are our highly subjective choices for the best movies of the year. For each movie, we’ve had the writer break down their single favorite or most special moment to explain why this film is one that will be sticking with them far beyond the year that’s now behind us.
Released May 28, 2021: Growing up in the 80s, my memories of all the high school hijinx movies I loved are all mixed with casual misogyny and racism. When I rewatch them now, I can see what I loved in them, but there’s a layer of hurt on top of that nostalgic feeling, because looking back, so much of the humor in 80s movies was required to punch down. International students are funny! Being gay is gross! Consent is for sissies!
Watching Plan B sparked all of those nostalgic happiness centers with none of the hurt. I like to imagine what teenage me would have felt getting to watch a movie about quirky, flawed, foul-mouthed, loving teenage girls who made mistakes, but were still people to relate to and care about. Honestly, my brain may have exploded. But for me, now, as an adult and a parent of a teenager, the part that really hit me was the resolution with the parents.
Plan B is the story of Sunny and Lupe, two teenage girls chafing under the restrictions and expectations of their parents. Lupe’s widower father, a preacher, disapproves of her hair and makeup. Sunny’s mother expects perfection, expressing disappointment with Sunny’s 96% on a recent test. When Sunny’s mom goes out of town, the girls throw a party where Sunny unexpectedly ends up losing her virginity to a boy she doesn’t even like. The next morning she discovers the condom was too loose and fears the possibility of getting pregnant. Unable to get the Plan B pill at their local pharmacy because of the pharmacist’s “morals,” they spend the next 24 hours on a mission to acquire the pill at the nearest Planned Parenthood three hours away.
After an entire night spent awake dealing with setback after setback they arrive at the Planned Parenthood to discover it has been permanently closed. Sunny breaks down in Lupe’s arms and cries, while saying she needs her mom. Sunny drops Lupe off at home where her dad has been frantically looking for her all night. He hugs her tight and tells her how afraid he was. Lupe, who has been afraid to be honest with him about her sexuality, asks him tearfully if he would ever kick her out. He tells her of course he wouldn’t, because he loves her and is always her father before anything. Then he casually compliments the rainbow pin that her crush had given her to encourage her to be brave.
Sunny arrives home to her angry mother, who immediately scolds her for taking the car without asking. Sunny finally breaks, telling her mother that maybe she isn’t the perfect person her mother is trying to raise. That sobers her mother enough to be honest about her own mistakes and ask what is really wrong. Sunny admits to everything. Her mother is furious at the pharmacist’s refusal and takes Sunny and Lupe back there to finally acquire the Plan B pill.
It’s hard to be a teenager, a parent, or, actually, a human, without making mistakes. It’s comforting to watch a movie where no one is perfect, but the love and care people have for each other can make life less scary. – Nichole David
‘Bo Burnham: Inside’
Released May 30, 2021: Despite all of the superhero flicks, spy thrillers, and sci-fi epics that came out in 2021, one of the most cinematic, cohesive, and affecting viewing experiences I had was while watching Bo Burnham’s latest feature-length Netflix comedy special, Inside. The special was filmed entirely by Burnham in his own house during the pandemic. Netflix definitely referred to this special as a movie at least once, so it totally counts for this list!
There are countless silly, yet meticulously crafted comedy songs from Inside I could pick that added some much needed levity to universal pandemic experiences like facetiming with your mom, depressing birthdays, becoming way too familiar with the internet, existential dread, simply feeling like shit, and of all things, Jeffrey Bezos. These songs pretty much all made me laugh and cry at one point or another in 2021, and even more impressively for a comedy special, dazzled and delighted me with visuals in a way that few theatrical releases managed to.
Ironically, the Inside moment that I’m going to pick as my best movie moment of 2021 is perhaps the least comedic of the bunch. Because Inside plays far more like a movie than a typical comedy special, it offers a true climax in the song, “All Eyes On Me.” The creeping darkness and building tension of the special culminates in this epic piece that rivals the “Kanye Rant” from Bo Burnham’s Make Happy special, which I have held as my “favorite piece of art ever created” since its release. “All Eyes On Me,” in all ways tonally, visually, and lyrically, illustrates the terrifying ease of drowning in the familiar, enveloping waves of depression that have been threatening to overtake Burnham since the Inside venture began, and the tempting comfort that staying “inside” forever offers a man who was previously struggling with having panic attacks on stage. “Come on in, the water’s fine.” The powerful performance is a standout of Inside, but is thankfully made even better because the special doesn’t end there, continuing on to conclude on a slightly more hopeful note with the emotional apex of “All Eyes On Me” buried safely below the surface. At least for now. – Kendra Cleary
Released July 9, 2021: Ever since we got a glimpse of Natasha’s tortured past in Avengers: Age of Ultron, the question left on my mind remained: how did she get to be an Avenger after such horrible events? Black Widow explored one of Nat’s final major forays before her untimely death (yeah, no one took the time to properly grieve her or hold a funeral).
The biggest beat of Black Widow is that of stopping the mind control effects created by Dreykov for his Black Widow program. Nat and sortof-sister Yelena are an odd pair. Sure, they were working to save the world. At the same time, it felt like the ladies were making up for lost time in teenage angst and bonding.
Seeing one of our first Widows die in action was heartbreaking. The moment where one is damaged “too much” and is thus programmed to take her own life hit me deep. I was with the sisters. Their drive was so specific, making their buddy cop adventure emotionally driven and on a tight time schedule. After all, it wasn’t too long ago Yelena was released from her mental bonds.
Nat’s final fight against the Widows had my emotions on overdrive. I usually get weirdly intense when watching action in shows like Avatar: The Last Airbender, but there was no amount of mental prep I could have done to get me through this fight. Nat’s blows felt like my blows. God, she really felt the pain of the Widows she was hitting much more than the pain of their punches landing on her.
It went all fine and good after their chemical release… or so I thought. We still had Antonia to contend with. Nat is more vulnerable than other Avengers because she isn’t like, a God or alien or whatever, but her freefall battle with Antonia removed that thought from my head. She felt in power, resourceful, and prepared. Nat knew she was going to right the wrong of the hit on Antonia. I didn’t expect it to all work out, but with some brilliant writing and fight blocking, Nat delivered Antonia from her mental shackles. Nat telling Antonia that Dreykov wasn’t able to hurt his daughter anymore sent me into a full of burst tears. Nat’s legacy lives on in the form of these freedoms. We never got a full, proper goodbye in Avengers: Endgame, but maybe Yelena will join in on some form of Young Avengers to continue Nat’s story. – Mitch Clow
Related: Staffer Subjectivities: ‘Ted Lasso,’ ‘Hacks,’ ‘Younger,’ ‘Pen15,’ and more of our best 2021 TV moments
Released August 13, 2021: I had been looking forward to Free Guy since we first heard about it coming to the big screen. Ryan Reynolds can do no wrong in my mind, and I find his particular brand of humor to be exactly what I crave whenever I need a good laugh. Combine that with the fact that he’d be playing an NPC gone rogue in a video game, and I knew this would be a movie I had to watch in theaters.
And let me tell you, it did not disappoint. I had high expectations for this film, and yet it exceeded all of them. Not only was it visually stunning and absolutely hilarious, but there was true heart to the story, both within the video game and outside of it in the real world. Everyone brought their A-game to the screen, and I have no complaints about a single second.
But I do have a favorite moment, and it comes at the end of the movie. Dude might not be a finished character, but he sure has plenty of muscle, and that’s all Antoine (Taika Waititi) needs to defeat the NPC ruining his game. Or so he thought. Because Guy has a few tricks up his well-pressed short sleeves, and it comes in the form of Captain America’s shield. I loved everything about the way this sequence was shot—that we heard the Avengers theme before we saw the front of the shield (I practically levetated off my seat as I fistpunched the air right there in the theater), plus Chris Evans’ hilarious cameo, and then the way Guy moves the shield down to reveal Hulk’s fist before landing a blow right to Dude’s chest. Literal perfection. – Karen Rought
Released August 13, 2021: 2021 continued the trend of “not all movie watching experiences are at the theater” in pretty epic fashion. Some of the best movies of the year were made available for viewing at home pretty soon after their theatrical run. CODA, released on Apple TV+ and in theaters simultaneously, was one of my favorite movies of the year. It’s a simple, sweet story about a family that struggles to make the world work with them, instead of against them.
The main character, Ruby, is the only hearing person in her family. As a result, she kind of doesn’t always fit in with them, as she loves music and wants to pursue it in college and beyond. Since her parents and brother are deaf, none of them understand her passion. Her father likes rap music because of the bold, strong beats that let him feel the vibrations, but otherwise, has very little experience with music. In the film, the family attends her school Christmas concert to support her, and watching them see her on stage, but not be able to experience any of the music everyone’s there to listen to is startlingly honest.
This moment, when paired with her entire family’s fervor to find her during her big college audition, really makes the whole movie sing. You can feel how supportive Ruby’s family wants to be after having downplayed her talent and dreams before, mostly because they couldn’t understand it. This movie just breaks open the difficulties families of mixed abilities have when relating to each other. While Ruby lives surrounded by the deaf community, it’s not necessarily her own community, so she has to step out and find a place in the world for herself. One where she can love and respect her parents, and also follow her passions and truly live. – Kristen Kranz
‘Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings’
Released September 3, 2021: I’m a big Marvel fan. Huge. This March actually marks my 10-year anniversary of that (as I sadly wasn’t exposed to the films and didn’t start reading comics until a couple of months leading up to 2012’s The Avengers). Over the last 10 years, Steve Rogers has stolen my heart and ruined me on all men. I completely fell in love with him and Chris Evans, and never looked back.
But, in all that time and with my great obsession, I never got turned on by a Marvel movie. That is, until the bus fight sequence in Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings. 😳
I’m still not quite sure what it was about the sequence that really got to me, but, let me tell you, it was an experience. From the beautiful fight choreography to the incredible danger present at every turn, it was probably the most exciting thing I watched all year. But, if I had to guess at why this scene impacted me the way it did, I’d lay that blame firmly on on the incredibly talented Simu Liu. Though I know it wasn’t, he made every move of that fight look perfectly effortless while still exuding a shit ton of charm and compassion with every punch, kick, and flip. I couldn’t imagine anyone else more perfect for that role or commanding that sequence. In those 10 minutes, he firmly cemented himself as my new favorite obsession and gave me a new go-to scene to watch when I need a bit of a pick me up. Or a little something extra. – Danielle Zimmerman
Related: Staffer Subjectivities: ‘Downton Abbey,’ ‘Lightyear,’ and more of our most anticipated 2022 movies
‘Boyfriends of Christmas Past’
Released October 23, 2021: For better or worse, I’m a rom-com aficionado— in love with watching other people fall in love, nothing feels as cozy or magical as a happy ending around the holidays. A masterpiece entry into Hallmark’s cinematic universe, Boyfriends of Christmas Past is the most charming movie I watched in 2021. Written by established comedy writer Lisa Parsons, Boyfriends of Christmas Past has that sparkle that eludes most rom-coms: it’s both genuinely funny, and at times heartbreakingly romantic.
Catherine Haena plays Lauren, a sweet, but commitment-phobic workaholic who gets visited by the ghosts of her four ex-boyfriends (yes, this is a spin on A Christmas Carol) in the days leading up to Christmas. Raymond Ablack (everyone’s new TV boyfriend) is absolutely dreamy as Nate, Lauren’s best friend and our romantic hero to root for. We’ve come to accept beautiful faces and wooden acting from our cable TV leads, but Ablack goes all in as Nate— a star in the making, I was blown away by the depth he brought to what could so easily have been a one-note character. His eyes have such a beautiful sadness and earnestness to them, it was so easy to feel both the longing as he pines for his best friend, and the hurt as she continuously tries to push away his romantic confession.
In Lauren, I found a heroine that was frighteningly relatable in her willingness to self-sabotage. It doesn’t make sense, but we’ve all shoved away a good thing when the possibility of it actually working out became too real, whether that’s in our careers, in life, or love. Our fears can become so entrenched in our bones that they grow to become their own form of comfort— an excuse for why we never have to push ourselves into the unknown. Lauren’s struggle felt real, and her willingness to acknowledge this and move forward resulted in one of the most genuinely romantic moments on screen this year. – Ariana Quiñónez
‘Tick, Tick… Boom!’
Released: November 12, 2021: This movie is about Jonathan Larson, of course. But this movie is also about Stephen Sondheim’s legacy. This movie is about Lin Manuel Miranda’s drive. This movie is about Andrew Garfield’s grief. And I think it’s about me. This movie awoke something very raw in me: as the end credits started rolling, I started writing, immediately, in my cinema seat, and ended up taking around 900 words of very emotional notes for an (as yet unpublished) article, an extremely personal one, about all the strange and connected moments of my life, regarding writing and theater and death and queerness and memory and coincidence and influence, that this film has somehow shown back to me as a pattern, or links in a chain: how my personal experiences with the work of Sondheim, Larson, Miranda and Garfield have all somehow woven and knotted together into their own narrative.
It must be said that I have a huge space in my heart for Andrew Garfield, and I’ve been keeping space for him for a very long time. He’s definitely my MVP as far as 2021 performances go, for this and other roles to be discussed later, and the truth is, every moment he’s on screen is the best movie moment of 2021. I — like everyone else — had no idea he could sing like that, and he really turns out some belters. The opener in particular, “30/90,” makes me want to see him in a live stage musical ASAP — I will fly to see it, the same way I flew to see him in Angels in America.
Beyond that, I’m saving my words about Tick, Tick… Boom! for something bigger and more difficult than a blurb, but I will reiterate how profoundly affecting this experience was for me – much more, perhaps, than I was expecting, despite the fact that I passionately adore the four men whose lifeblood is all over this film. It blew my expectations out of the water I feel unbelievably lucky to have gotten to see Tick, Tick… Boom! on its limited cinema release before I saw it on Netflix, and I wish everyone else who loves it one day gets the chance to as well. In particular, the staging of the “Sunday” number – Larson’s ode to Sondheim’s Sunday in the Park with George and the way the diner opens up like a theater set is just breathtaking on the big screen. I miss Broadway so much, and this genuinely felt like a true theatrical moment — the same sense of wonder. — Natalie Fisher
Released November 19, 2021: One of my most anticipated movies of 2021 turned out to be one of my favorite theater experiences in recent years. Ghostbusters: Afterlife was a non-stop easter egg machine, peppering references to that classic 1984 horror comedy that made revisiting this universe an absolute joy. The height of the movie’s tension, that final battle scene, is definitely my favorite, because not only did we get to see all the remaining Ghostbusters, Dan Aykroyd, Bill Murray, and Ernie Hudson suiting up one last time to bust a very familiar ghost, but, thanks to the magic of technology, we got to see all four familiar faces reunited for one last bit of movie magic. Egon Spengler’s ghost haunts many different portions of this movie, but seeing him floating alongside his friends and colleagues after so many years of being estranged was a shot straight to the heart. I could not have loved this movie more, and, hopefully the franchise has a bright new future with a few new characters ready to take the helm.
Ultimately, I’m just glad that the Ghostbusters franchise has had some youthful life breathed into it, as it lends a totally different perspective to the ongoing story, and really helps recapture all the magic and fun Ghostbusters is capable of. Jason Reitman was the perfect person to helm this film, and I really hope we see a sequel or two over the next few years. There’s a lot of possibility and potential packed inside Ghostbusters: Afterlife, and I can’t wait to see it bloom in the (hopefully!) near future. – Kristen Kranz
Related: Staffer Subjectivities: ‘Kung Fu,’ ‘The Sandman,’ ‘Strange New Worlds,’ and more of our most anticipated 2022 TV
’Single All the Way’
Released December 2, 2021: Here’s the thing. I know I watched other new releases this year. I’m absolutely positive that some of those new releases were brilliant works of art, worthy of several hundred words of praise each. But… were any of them gay Christmas rom-coms featuring a fake relationship trope between hopelessly pining best friends–with bonus Jennifer Coolidge? I think not!
For the uninitiated, the story goes like this: after a painful breakup, Peter (Michael Urie) convinces his best friend Nick (Philemon Chambers) to come home with him for the holidays, and pose as his new boyfriend to keep his family from pestering him about his relationship status. But before they can put the plan into action, Peter’s mother (Kathy Najimy) sets him up on a blind date with her trainer, and things get complicated… especially as the rest of the family can tell that Peter and Nick are desperately in love with one another and too scared to do anything about it.
Though the final scenes of the movie—surprise, they get together!—are truly wonderful, the stand out moment for me comes about halfway through, when Peter’s family decides to try and get him and Nick together.
From his well-meaning mother telling the rest of the family that they’re mistaking friendship for romance – “This is a common misconception we straight people have about gay people!” she tells them- to his sister Lisa (Schitt’s Creek’s Jennifer Robertson) insisting that Peter and Nick want to make out, and his two nieces deciding that whatever happens, they need to make sure he doesn’t go on another date with James, it’s utterly perfect from start to finish.
My only request is that Netflix produces ten more movies exactly like this one in time for next year. I’ll be waiting. – Cass Cooper
’The Hating Game’
Released December 10, 2021: Audiobooks slowly crept into my rotation this year and The Hating Game was a late contender as I worked through a backlog of contemporary romances on my TBR list. The film adaptation was released this year starring Lucy Hale and Austin Stowell as Lucy and Josh, the leading enemies to lovers. Where the book spends several hours setting up the deep-seeded hatred brewing between these two characters, the movie only has an hour and half to cover the gamut of emotional highs and lows.
After spending many, many hours with Lucy and Josh on errands, long walks, and household chores, it seemed impossible that the film would be able to convey so much history in so little time. But there is one scene, a cut away moment that solidified exactly what I wanted from the backstory of Lucy and Josh. In the midst of an elevator ride with HR, Lucy and Josh are being told that their feuding in the breakroom has once again led to a complaint.
In the moment Josh, who until this point has been issuing his grievances in controlled, calculated emissions. In the flashback to the breakroom feud he and Lucy are completely unhinged, yelling at one another about the merits of periods vs semicolons with doughnuts as props. If the entire movie showcased this type of energy between the two it would not work; however, this was the perfect dose of history before launching them on the journey toward love. The Hating Game as a whole was easily one of my favorite movies of the year and it was in large part to seeing Hale and Stowell fall easily into delivering the layered nuances of these characters from the pages of Sally Thorne’s novel to the screen. – Brittany Lovely