The News-Times

Some of the movies that wowed Washington Post critics in 2021

- By Michael O’Sullivan - Ann Hornaday

Will 2021 be remembered as the year we returned, tentativel­y, to movie theaters, after months in lockdown?

If so, then these are the films that gave us a reason to get out of the house again (or, in some cases, to stay on the couch and surf the streaming services). We looked back on the past 12 months and found the 33 movies that earned 3 1/2 or 4 stars from our critics - our highest ratings. The selection is diverse: foreign films, documentar­ies, stories to make you laugh and cry and sing.

More than anything else, these are the movies that reminded us what we had been missing.

“7 Prisoners” (R)

“Although the film depicts the cyclical nature of crime and poverty, director and co-writer Alexandre Moratto has little interest in making a didactic message movie. Instead, he plunges viewers into the reality of a São Paulo junkyard, making no excuses for the desperate things his characters do, while somehow finding sympathy for all of them - even the seemingly monstrous ones.” (Netflix)

- Alan Zilberman

“Belfast” (PG-13)

“As the portrait of a little boy sorting out right and wrong amid the moral confusion of war, ‘Belfast’ joins a venerable canon, from John Boorman’s ‘Hope and Glory’ to Taika Waititi’s ‘Jojo Rabbit.' [Writer-director Kenneth] Branagh has created a touching and genuinely entertaini­ng addition to the list, guiding a terrific ensemble of actors and setting his entire vision to note-perfect (and gratifying­ly non-period) cuts from the

Van Morrison discograph­y.” (In theaters)

“CODA” (PG-13)

“This is an old-fashioned movie that adheres to admittedly familiar principles of storytelli­ng and emotional stakes, but by way of such a winning cast, evocative atmosphere and genuine tone that its impossible not to love. For audiences weary of superheroi­c bombast and worn out from puzzling through art house arcana, ‘CODA’ is here to save the day. It’s sweet, funny, meaningful and accessible in precisely the right measure.” (Apple TV Plus)

“The Dig” (PG-13)

“Gradually, and with the methodical patience of someone unearthing buried treasure with a tiny brush, ‘The Dig’ reveals itself to be a story of love and estrangeme­nt, of things lost and longed for, of life and death - of what lasts and what doesn’t.” (Netflix)

- Michael O’Sullivan

“The Green Knight” (R)

“Like the source material, this is a story of temptation and lessons. Green, the color not just of life, but of jealousy and rot, is only one of many multifario­us symbols here, in a legend that plays out less like a one-to-one allegory than a dream, in which one thing can mean many different things, sometimes contradict­ory, at once.” (On demand)

- Michael O’Sullivan

“Gunda” (G)

- Ann Hornaday

- Ann Hornaday

“‘Gunda’ - whose title is also the name of its porcine subject, a charismati­c female pig on a Norwegian farm whom [director Viktor] Kossakovsk­y has described as his ‘Meryl Streep’ - is not really a movie about a pig at all ... Completely aside from its backstory and dietary moral, it is a piece of wondrously immersive filmmaking that invites us to slow down and consider life at its most elemental and - though this may sound corny in reference to a farm animal - humane.” (On demand)

- Michael O’Sullivan

“King Richard” (R)

“As one of the biggest celebritie­s in the world, [Will] Smith has become such a global commodity that it’s easy to forget what a fine actor he is. ‘King Richard’ is here to remind us, in a central performanc­e that is just as uncompromi­sing and all-engulfing as the title character himself. Even more gratifying is the way Aunjanue Ellis winds up stealthily stealing the movie despite her co-star’s gravitatio­nal charisma: As Richard [Williams]'s wife Oracene ‘Brandy’ Williams, she takes the otherwise underwritt­en role of patient helpmeet and gives it her own brand of quiet but sinewy strength.” (Not yet available on demand)

“Limbo” (R)

- Ann Hornaday

“A sensitive Syrian musician seeking asylum after fleeing his country’s civil war winds up on a small, windswept Scottish island in the Hebrides in ‘Limbo,' writerdire­ctor Ben Sharrock’s sensitive, bitterswee­t and, despite a moment of tragedy, ultimately hopeful migrant drama. It’s tempting - and not entirely inaccurate - to call this oddly moving little film a comedydram­a, but if so, it’s a dark one at that.” (Netflix)

- Michael O’Sullivan

“A Quiet Place Part II” (PG-13)

“Like ‘A Quiet Place,' ‘Part II’ is a lean, nearly flab- and gristle-free piece of sci-fi steak. After a short, prequel-like prologue that neatly recaps the situation for newcomers - jumping back to Day 1 of the alien invasion, a backstory notably omitted from the earlier movie the story sets to sizzling. Of particular note is the way the chaotic opening sequence shifts sonic perspectiv­e from a hearing character to a deaf one. The contrast between hush and hullabaloo is symphonic.” (On demand)

- Michael O’Sullivan

“Raya and the Last Dragon” (PG)

“In its broadest contours, ‘Raya’ isn’t all that different from stories we’ve seen before, echoing the Lord of the Rings cycle and the Infinity Stone plot line of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. But it also evokes a world, one of sight and sound - even, at times, of smells and tastes - that we haven’t seen before. Kumandra feels vibrantly real, even in, say, scenes in which we watch, with awe, a dragon prance on raindrops. Its overarchin­g theme of sacrifice is also a powerful one.” (Disney Plus)

- Michael O’Sullivan

“Spider-Man: No Way Home” (PG-13)

“As much fun as this movie is, it is, at heart, a story of loss and letting go. For a film that’s so stuffed - some might say overstuffe­d - with action, effects and quippy dialogue (by Chris McKenna and Erik Sommers, both of whom worked with [director Jon] Watts on his previous ‘SpiderMan’ films), one of the film’s nicest moments is wordless and very still.” (In theaters)

- Michael O’Sullivan

“Summer of Soul” (PG-13)

“What [director Ahmir ‘Questlove’ Thompson] has created with ‘Summer of Soul’ transcends a mere chronicle of a legendary concert - which, frankly, would have been entertaini­ng enough. Instead, he pulls the lens back to examine an event whose artistic and generation­al significan­ce can be justifiabl­y compared to the three-day (Woodstock) concert that took place the same summer in upstate New York, but was never allowed to achieve similar traction in the collective psyche.” (Hulu)

“West Side Story” (PG-13)

“It doesn’t take much for ‘West Side Story’s’ themes - immigratio­n, racial anxiety, abuse of police power, the casual dehumaniza­tion of the Other - to feel of-the-moment. But [screenwrit­er Tony] Kushner makes subtle work of making sure they resonate. In one scene, Riff and his peers are called ‘the last of the can’t-make-it Caucasians’; later, he’ll complain of waking up every day in a world that’s being ‘sold or wrecked or taken over by people I don’t like.' “(In theaters)

“Zola” (R)

- Ann Hornaday

- Ann Hornaday

“[Riley] Keough comes fully, even triumphant­ly, into her own in ‘Zola,' which marks her arrival as an exceptiona­l actress. She has played similar parts before, in the movie ‘American Honey’ and the Starz series ‘The Girlfriend Experience.' Here, she vaults above and beyond even those impressive turns to deliver a performanc­e that’s fearless, funny and, as [her character] Stefani’s true complicity becomes more obvious, terrifying.” (On demand)

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