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Aqua aerobics! Awkward sex! Justin Bieber! The best movie moments of 2021 | Movies

The 96,000 routine – In the Heights

When I say I missed the cinema, specifically I meant I missed seeing musicals on the big screen. While Jon M Chu’s In the Heights was made before the pandemic, his commitment to the supremacy of the production number delivered what our eyes were craving. Naturally, the film opens up the musical’s theatre staging, and it begins with a vast ensemble song of escalating excess, but it’s the 96,000 routine, about a third of the way in, which made the biggest splash and proved the director’s commitment to Technicolor extravagance by way of Busby Berkeley, aqua aerobics and gurning contortionists. Aptly, it’s a song about bragging and wish-fulfilment, in which the cast speculate on how they’d spend a lottery windfall. And for a song about big numbers, the scale is as massive as it ought to be: bikini overkill. It’s a little daft, sure, but so exuberant, you’ll grin all the way through – even at the goofy graffiti effects. Pamela Hutchinson

The dinner – The Hand of God

This image released by Netflix shows, from right, Filippo Scotti, Toni Servillo, Renato Carpentieri, Mimma Lovoi, Marlon Joubert, Franco Pinelli, Carmen Pommella, Teresa Saponangelo, Massimiliano Gallo, Antonella Morea, Monica Nappo and Luisa Ranieri in a scene from “The Hand of God.” (Gianni Fiorito/Netflix via AP)
Photograph: Gianni Fiorito/AP

“When did you all become such disappointments?” So asks the elegantly dressed Alberto, one of the elders of the extended Schisa family, as they dine al fresco on a gorgeous Neapolitan afternoon in Paolo Sorrentino’s winsome cine-memoir The Hand of God. Their summit is one of glorious ridicule as they mock the angry grandma who repulsively sucks on a fat lump of cheese while wearing a gaudy fur coat, chuckle as a rotund aunt gripes “my spleen is acting up”, and roll their eyes at a crooked cousin too stupid to steal anything but watermelons. Explosive laughter comes when the morbidly obese sister brings her new beau, who introduces himself through a robotic electrolarynx. And yet this garishly-shot parade of cinematic invective, peppered with many a hearty “va fongool!”, is awash, somehow, in the glow of nostalgic, familial love. To extract warmth from cruelty is a movie-making miracle. Jordan Hoffman

The clients – Last Night in Soho

This image released by Focus Features shows Anya Taylor-Joy, left, and Matt Smith in Edgar Wright’s “Last Night in Soho.” (Parisa Taghizadeh/Focus Features via AP)
Photograph: Parisa Taghizadeh/AP

About halfway through Edgar Wright’s cautionary tale about the hazards of escapism, the dream of young Eloise – to travel in sleep back to 60s London as bewitching it-girl Sandie – morphs into a nightmare. Though in this dizzying montage, it’s more like a good trip gone bad; Sandie’s yanked out of her bed by her boyfriend turned pimp with a bark of “everyone’s waiting for you”, a cruel inversion of the beckoning Petula Clark lyric sung a few scenes prior, and suddenly she’s at a club bathed in rainbow psychedelia. In time with the Walker Brothers’ cover of Land of 1,000 Dances, she whirls through a series of reluctant dates with oily clients, taking the edge off by getting progressively drunker until she’s cackling at their stock line about how lovely her name is. They don’t really care, assigning her a persona of their choosing, another dark play on the desire to be someone else she expressed before. The lyrics turn into mocking jeers, their exhortations to do the Watusi or Mashed Potato now demands from cruel men for her to dance to their liking. All she can do is get lost in the song. Charles Bramesco

The party – The Worst Person in the World

This image released by Neon shows Renate Reinsve in a scene from “The Worst Person in the World.” (Kasper Tuxen/Neon via AP)
Photograph: Kasper Tuxen/AP

In a year of truly weird sex in movies (singing cunnilingus, oral period sex, sex with cars and Jesus figurines), the hottest scene of all may have been one without intercourse. Julie (Renate Reinsve, Cannes’ best actress winner) is flitting through careers and men, waiting for something to happen, as she approaches 30. One evening, walking home through luminous Oslo, she happens upon a wedding party, where she helps herself to too many drinks and chats up a tall, attractive stranger (Herbert Nordrum).

What follows is 10 minutes of one of the most disarmingly romantic set pieces this side of Four Weddings and a Funeral, and a masterclass in chemistry. With both happy in relationships and loath to cheat, they insist nothing can happen. But in various dim nooks around the party, they engage in a captivatingly sexy game of Is This Cheating?, involving biting, smelling armpits, shotgun smoking and peeing in front of each other (hotter than it sounds). As the sun rises, they say goodbye, positive they didn’t transgress – just as we’re certain it’s the beginning of a transformative romance. Lisa Wong Macabasco

The Bieber – Billie Eilish: The World’s a Bit Blurry

Billie Eilish is at Coachella. She’s watching Ariana Grande, minding her own business, when a man in a baseball cap and medical mask approaches her. She recoils, keeping her distance. He holds her gaze, and she offers a shy, stressed wave. He opens his arms for a hug, and after taking a minute to gather herself, she eventually receives the embrace. The man is veteran teen idol Justin Bieber. Caught on camera in RJ Cutter’s masterful fly-on-the-wall rock doc, it’s an extraordinary moment that feels like lightning in a bottle. He strokes her hair as she weeps uncontrollably, face pressed into his chest. “He just stood there and looked at me WITH HIS EYES,” sobs Eilish, reliving the experience in the car on the way home. “You know exactly how it feels to be him in that situation,” replies her brother, Finneas. The film is a snapshot of the planet’s biggest pop star as her fame is cresting; the scene draws a clever parallel with Bieber, the object of her own fandom. Simran Hans

The first time – Plan B

This image released by Hulu shows Kuhoo Verma in a scene from “Plan B.” (Brett Roedel/Hulu via AP)
Photograph: Brett Roedel/AP

At first glance, Hulu’s Plan B could easily be confused with last year’s Unpregnant – both films follow two inseparable best female friends on hijinks-filled road trips for reproductive healthcare denied to them by real-life restrictions. But I knew Plan B, directed by Natalie Morales and written by Prathi Srinivasan and Joshua Levy, was more than a retread of Unpregnant in the film’s first act, when firecracker Lupe (Victoria Moroles) convinces the inexperienced, tightly-wound Sunny (Kuhoo Verma) to host a party as a scheme to court her crush.

That plan goes bust, of course, and Sunny instead ends up in a bathroom with Kyle (Mason Cook), a dorky, ultra-Christian classmate. Over the course of four and a half minutes, Plan B captures with cringeworthy precision an under-represented teenage girl experience: first-time sex that is not traumatic or revelatory, but boring – anti-climactic, incidental, very brief, unworthy of the hype. Verma and Cook hit all the humbling notes: impulsive lust, disillusionment (theres’s a Squatty Potty involved), shock, shame. It’s an endearing, searing and hilarious ride, whose stressful consequences for Sunny only casts the increasingly dystopian nightmare of US reproductive rights in starker relief. Adrian Horton

The opening – Barb and Star Go to Vista Del Mar

Barb and Star Go to Vista Del Mar
Photograph: Richard Foreman/Richard Foreman, Jr. SMPSP/Lionsgate

You can never anticipate how any movie is going to open, but there was no throat-clearing quite like Barb & Star Go to Vista Del Mar, which starts with a paperboy rolling through a middle American suburb on his bike, slinging deliveries while lip-synching to the 1980 Barbra Streisand-Barry Gibb duet Guilty. Why that song? It’s not connected to the period or the themes of the film that follows, such as they are, but it nonetheless seems like an ideal primer, suggestive of both the culotte-and-casserole souls of Kristen Wiig and Annie Mumolo’s Nebraskan adventurers and the random battiness of the film’s delightfully offbeat sense of humor. Later in the film, when Wiig and Mumolo spend an entire plane ride talking up an imaginary perfect woman named Trish or Jamie Dornan launches into an impromptu beachside song-and-dance numbers, we can’t say we weren’t prepared for odd things to happen. Scott Tobias

The downhill drive – Licorice Pizza

Bradley Cooper, Cooper Hoffman, and Alana Haim in a scene from Licorice Pizza.
Photograph: Courtesy of Metro Goldwyn Mayer Pictures Inc./AP

Few film-makers put together moments that hit on multiple levels like Paul Thomas Anderson. The dude rocks images that can simultaneously move the plot forward, deliver a symbolic punchline and do a number on our emotions. Licorice Pizza’s downhill sequence – peak cinema in 2021 – is just the latest example. That’s when the adult protagonist in Anderson’s 1973 set coming-of-age comedy, Alana (Alana Haim), steers a U-Haul with an empty gas tank in reverse down the Hollywood Hills. It’s a breathtaking stunt that’s also devastating for Alana. She’s a beguiling young woman whose life was stalled working a job to nowhere. And then she found some forward momentum when meeting Gary Valentine (Cooper Hoffman), a 15-year-old googly-eyed go-getter. But the high of their relationship, and all its youthful recklessness, is wearing thin when they hop in that truck and let gravity drag them backwards. Licorice Pizza has a few moments when Alana catches her own reflection and reassesses. Here we see her face in a riveting close-up of the driver’s side mirror, struck with fear and melancholy as the road behind her comes closing in. Radheyan Simonpillai

The walk – The Power of the Dog

The Power of the Dog.
Photograph: Courtesy Of Netflix/COURTESY OF NETFLIX

There’s been a strange reticence to much of the writing about Jane Campion’s magnetic Oscar-buzzed comeback. Critics have praised and pored over its themes of masculinity and a loose definition of repression, but most have been too coy to discuss how overwhelmingly, fascinatingly queer the whole film is. The uneasy dynamic between Benedict Cumberbatch’s sad, closeted rancher Phil, whose quick temper and filthy cowboy get-up help to mask his sexuality, and Kodi Smit-McPhee’s delicate, almost otherworldly med student Peter, whose exterior softness hides something far steelier is endlessly intriguing for everything it does and doesn’t say. The moment that burrowed its way under my skin the deepest was the film’s big turning point, as Phil watches Peter confidently strut over to examine a bird’s nest despite being ridiculed and called a faggot by the men nearby. It’s when the elder gay decides to suddenly take him under his wing. For what purpose? We’re not so sure and neither, it seems in the moment, is Phil. Is it some sort of desire? Is it a need to protect? Is it a form of jealousy? Is it perhaps all three? It represents a specific, hard-to-explain confusion that comes with generational queerness and while others might interpret it as a moment of darkness (was it really just a new way to torture Kirsten Dunst’s beleaguered mother?), I saw it as something tender. And undeniably queer. Benjamin Lee

The Sondheim – tick, tick … BOOM!

This image released by Netflix shows Andrew Garfield in a scene from “Tick, Tick...Boom!” (Macall Polay/Netflix via AP)
Photograph: Macall Polay/AP

This was the year an American titan left us: Stephen Sondheim, whose great early hit West Side Story (for which he wrote the lyrics at 27) has now been revived in a new screen version by Steven Spielberg. So it is fitting that Sondheim appeared for a poignant moment, sympathetically played in cameo by Bradley Whitford, in Lin-Manuel Miranda’s tick, tick … BOOM!: the autobiographical musical by the late Jonathan Larson, who wrote Rent, detailing his heartbreaking attempts to get an early work produced – a complicated, ambitious, futurist extravaganza called Superbia.

Larson, played by Andrew Garfield, is seen presenting a workshop performance with some musicians and singers and himself narrating and singing at the piano keyboard. Afterwards, two established figures of the musical theatre world take to the stage and offer their advice and criticism. Richard Kind plays a fictional person called Walter Bloom (based, it is suggested, on the composer and lyricist Charles Strouse). The other is Sondheim himself – whose simple presence in the room stuns and awes all the young hopefuls – a rumpled, donnish, bearded figure, modestly retreating behind his shy mannerisms.

Bloom is a supercilious, condescending fellow who dismisses the oddities and complexities of Larson’s work and says that it’ll never work commercially. But then Sondheim speaks and says that these are the things which make him like Larson’s work – and of course the submissive creep Bloom instantly tries turning around 180 degrees and claiming that he agrees. And what made me love this scene the most is that Sondheim says that the “tunes” are “swell”. This is the way a New Yorker of the old school speaks – there’s casual heft and authenticity in his words. And the simple spectacle of this great figure, taking time out of his day to help people coming up, is very moving. Peter Bradshaw

The tree warrior – The Green Knight

Ralph Ineson in a scene from The Green Knight.
Photograph: Landmark Media/Alamy

Of all the movies released this year – or in fact this century – this is the one that looked most disastrous on paper. I remember sweating over Sir Gawain and the Green Knight at university: that, plus Dev Patel, plus the guy who directed Pete’s Dragon and A Ghost Story? You’re having a laugh. But the laugh was on us, and to be honest, pretty much every frame of The Green Knight is a movie moment in itself. If I had to pick one, it’s probably when the tree-faced warrior gets his head separated from his shoulders, and then creepily, comes back to life, picks up his head and gallops his horse out of the door. Despite the batsqueak of Monty Python and the Holy Grail (“Tis but a scratch!”) this is as stunning as anything else in the film. Andrew Pulver

The Pearls – Spencer

Kristen Stewart as Princess Diana.
Photograph: Landmark Media/Alamy

Pablo Larraín’s remarkable, almost fully fictional biopic flirts extensively with camp, as befits a study of a celebrity already exaggeratedly set in the public’s imagination via tabloid culture and kitsch iconography. But that tendency reaches its apotheosis in an exquisitely nightmarish banquet scene, where the combination of royal decorum and fevered mental illness prove entirely too much for Kristen Stewart’s frail, exhausted Princess Diana to bear. Frantically, the tugs at the chunky string of pearls around her neck – lovelessly gifted by her husband – that may as well a noose. Finally, it comes apart, shallot-sized pearls scattering and bouncing across the dinner table – and bobbing into her pale green soup. Naturally, she scoops them up with a spoon and gets chewing. It’s a dream sequence of nakedly absurd horror, risking immense bad taste in its allusion to Diana’s eating disorder. Yet there’s something strangely powerful, too, about its spectacle of a woman attempting to destroy (to eat, even) her own stifling privilege. Guy Lodge



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