Favorite Movie Moments of 2021

I’m nearing the finish line of my 2021 wrap-up. First, my favorite movie moments.

I swoon endlessly about entire movies, but sometimes a moment can sing all on its own. It can be a single scene, a line, a shot, etc. These were the standouts, the ones I felt compelled to single out because they entertained me, shook me (some literally), or got the waterworks going above all the rest. I tried to stick to a top ten here, but I couldn’t relegate a few as “honorable mentions” because they simply stayed in my mind and on this list.

These were my favorite movie moments of 2021:

12. SPIDER-MAN: NO WAY HOME – Ned’s Nana

No Way Home is full of big moments, but the biggest one for me was Ned’s nana speaking Tagalog. This probably didn’t register much at your screening, seeing as this happens within arguably the most seismic thing happening in the entire movie. But here in Hawaii, that Tagalog speak tore the goddamn roof off. No exaggeration, Ned’s nana got a bigger reaction in the theater than the bigger things happening IN THE SAME SCENE, hooting and hollering and everything. She ain’t even a superhero, but that’s power right there 🇵🇭✊

11. SHANG-CHI AND THE LEGEND OF THE TEN RINGS – The Father and the Son

It’s such a small moment but I gasped. We know Wenwu is the biggest villain in Shang-Chi’s life. He ran away and never looked back. Here, father and son reunite, though there’s hardly any hugs to go around. Shang-Chi doesn’t try to bolt or fight either. He stands still, paralyzed, like he knew this was always coming and dreading it. It’s a quiet moment that distills his emotional struggle in the movie. Wenwu may be his ultimate tormentor, but he’s also his father. It’s all so madly complicated in ways that render speech and monologues useless. Using little to no words, Simu Liu and Tony Leung play this father-son moment to Shakespearean perfection.

10. FEAR STREET PART THREE: 1666 – The Truth Shall Be Your Curse

Releasing a trilogy in a span of 3 weeks is already a bold flex, but to actually deliver on how intertwined this saga is outside of the MCU banner, now that’s BOLD. Part Three eventually dispenses with exposition and ties everything together in a neat bow, and does so in a narratively powerful way. It’s something I’ve never seen done before, or pulled off with such confidence. The reveal of Sarah Fier’s death deepens the saga as a whole; it makes Part One and Part Two ripe for an immediate rewatch, and achieves an operatic high note of emotion that sets us up nicely for the roller coaster finale.

9. THE SUICIDE SQUAD – Ratcatcher II

I don’t know how James Gunn does it. He crafts some of the most bizarre stories on this side of the superhero spectrum, often dialing up the assholery of every character, yet manages to find something soulful and sweet to say about them. This incarnation of the Suicide Squad has an arsenal of weirdo powers, Ratcatcher II perhaps the weirdest of them all. What the hell can mind-controlled rats do in a military coup? Turns out rats can remind you that there’s a beating heart beneath the comic book insanity. I never thought a million rats swarming a starfish Kaiju could elicit so much emotion, but here we are. The progression of riffs and choirs in John Murphy’s “Ratism” shot me straight into the stratosphere.

8. ENCANTO – Madrigal Gossip

Encanto might be entrenched in Spanish culture, but I’ll argue that Disney’s latest doubles as a Filipino documentary. (As this timeless video illustrates, Filipino and Spanish cultures are inseparable for a reason 🌈⭐) In the movie, Mirabel unearths a family secret that’s now hers to keep. But she’s literally got a cousin named Dolores whose superpower is fueling the gossip train, so it’s only a matter of time. Mirabel death stares Dolores across the dinner table like she’s trying to telepathically establish the boundary line, and I’ve never felt more seen. (Or laughed so damn hard.) Dolores does the thing that any big mouth relative will do to divert the attention – she turns the family spotlight on anyone else but her. Multiply Dolores by 20-plus people and that’s what my family gatherings are like.

7. MALIGNANT – Heavy Metal Intro

Intro of the year, hands down. Within the first 5 minutes, James Wan telegraphs the mood and ambition of his latest horror feature: this is camp, and you won’t be ready for it. We know an attack breaks out at this psychiatric hospital, but we don’t know the details. Wan distinctly shoots around his main antagonist and gets us salivating early on. “It’s time to cut out the cancer” has become THE quote among fans, but for me the dead giveaway happens a second earlier. When Dr. Fields says, “he’s broadcasting his thoughts,” I promptly checked any and all logic at the door. The opening credits are as madly iconic to me as David Fincher’s Se7en. The buildup alone to that razor-sharp Celldweller track is sublime 🤘

6. THE GREEN KNIGHT – Gawain’s Vision

Gawain thought it was over when he lopped the head off the mysterious Green Knight, when the game had only just begun. He sets out to make good on their wager, stumbling through strange quests and stranger interactions – all of which he fails – until he finally meets the Green Knight at his woodland chapel. Gawain kneels, owing his head per their agreement, and he seemingly fails this too. What follows is a sumptuous and utterly cinematic montage – zero dialogue, all performances accompanied by a delicate score. The coward Gawain returns home, lies, and becomes a hero. He’s crowned king, weds a wealthy queen, has a son. But all lies pay out eventually. Old Gawain loses his son, followed by the favor of the people. Then his kingdom disintegrates until the debt comes knocking once and for all. Snap back to young Gawain on his knees, back at the chapel. Was it a nightmare of what’s to come, or a vision that brings clarity to his life full circle? Gawain nonetheless finally understands the meaning of honor. Like Looper’s midway montage of Old Joe, this is a flat-out fucking master class in visual storytelling. I bow down.

5. DUNE – WORMMMMMMMM

Nothing rocked me in my seat last year quite like the sandworm in Dune. Lesser filmmakers would’ve exploited the hell out of ole Sandy (what I’m calling the sandworm here on out). Denis Villeneuve instead makes it a full-tilt experience to savor, and immensely worthy of the big-screen experience. This wide shot of Sandy erupting in the background rendered me comatose. Let me reiterate, the biggest thing in the movie happens IN THE BACKGROUND of the frame, yet we see and feel Sandy’s arrival like a terrifying movie-monster closeup. I get chills just thinking about this shot. The first screening of Dune Part Two is just gonna be me chanting “worm, Worm, WORM” until I reunite with my beloved Sandy again.

4. THE EMPTY MAN – Unraveling

“Do you know that the brain can itch?” This line drove me INSANE. (Spoilers for the ending of The Empty Man. Leave now if you have this on your watch list!) James finds out that up until the film’s events, he never existed. He was manifested by a cult who’s been seeking a human vessel for their supreme being of a god known as “the Empty Man.” It’s a devastating emotional unraveling, and we’re right there with James as he struggles to process this world-shattering reveal. Not many people will dig this twist because it negates everything we’ve seen beforehand – James’ search for a missing girl, the investigation leading to said cult with the Empty Man as its deity, including James’ memories and backstory entirely. It was all a nightmarish labyrinth in search for the right candidate, hollow and empty. Picture Hereditary’s downer of an ending but somehow plunged further into the abyss. The Empty Man is technically a 2020 movie but I don’t care. It was made available on HBO Max last spring and I haven’t been able to pry this thing out of my head since, nor this bravura bleak ending.

3. WEST SIDE STORY – Maria’s Closeup

This shot of Maria had me in buckets. It’s hardly a sad scene; she’s falling hopelessly in love with Tony and you see it all on her magnanimous face. Maria is SO full of awe and yearning in this moment, and why wouldn’t she be? She’s not yet had her heart broken by jealousy, violence, by the disappointment of growing up. So she beams brighter than the sun, and her youthful recklessness is a wonder to behold as much as it is a tragedy in-progress. She may be caught in a love story, but unbeknownst to Maria this is also a story about the falseness of the American dream, and the class divide that prevents us from ever rising above the rubble. It’s all just a dream. A certified star was born last December, and her name is Rachel Zegler.

2. THE MATRIX RESURRECTIONS – Neo Wakes Up, Again

Talk about déjà vu. The Matrix Resurrections is a wholly (and holy) surreal experience with visual callbacks to send any fan spinning. It’s full of hair-raising moments—none more so than this one. Morpheus and Bugs’ initial attempt to rescue Neo doesn’t go so well. The second attempt takes place on a bullet train full of zombies swarm bots where their only escape is a tiny bathroom mirror. In Neo goes, and he is suddenly pulled from the matrix simulation… again. This particular callback is so eerily uncanny, with a bald Keanu Reeves looking exactly like he did in the first Matrix. Director Lana Wachowski pulls the same sci-fi hat-trick with some diabolical misdirection to make a repeat moment feel mind-blowingly new again. The blood red glow plus Johnny Klimek & Tom Tykwer’s pulsating score take this to a whole new nightmarish level.

1. MITCHELLS VS. THE MACHINES – Talent Show Mix

This could’ve easily been the Furby scene. This sugary sweet moment takes the cake because I’m a sucker for this stuff. For all of its colorful fun and enthusiasm, Mitchells vs. the Machines probes a thing I’m terrified of each year – my daughter growing older. She’s rapidly outgrowing her doodles on the fridge, her toys and her dollhouses, and I know she’ll eventually outgrow me. It’s what Rick Mitchell fears of his daughter Katie as she heads off to college, and uses a last-ditch family road trip to hold onto the moments that matter, like singing along to a Rihanna song in a home music video. “Live Your Life” sounds like resignation from a father letting go. The track instead becomes a redemptive father-daughter bonding moment taken to the literal skies. Neither could have gotten this far without the other—let alone survive a robot apocalypse. SO LIVE YOUR LIFE 🥺 AYYY 😢 OOOO 😭 😭 😭

The Matrix Reloaded vs. Tenet – Highway Chase

IT’S MATRIX RESURRECTIONS WEEK Y’ALL!!!!!

This is my Star Wars or Star Trek or whatever sci-fi franchise have you. Instead of lightsabers and spaceships, it’s nothing but dope shades, high-flying kung fu, and Rage Against the Machine babyyyyy. I’m celebrating the return of a monumental franchise by taking a misty-eyed look back on all of my favorite things from The Matrix trilogy. First up, The Matrix Reloaded’s bonkers highway chase.

It’s such a ballsy set-piece 18 years later that I found myself wondering, “why hasn’t anything else come close?” But something has come close, or at least aspired to those ridiculous live-action heights: Tenet’s own forward-reverse highway chase.

I’m gonna have a little fun here by pitting the two against each other in a comparison game. Matrix Reloaded vs. Tenet. The Wachowskis vs. one Christopher Nolan. Who will win? Buckle up.

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