By John Mulderig | Catholic News Service
NEW YORK (CNS) — The year just past saw the film industry tentatively working its way back from the nearly paralyzed state into which it had been thrown by the coronavirus pandemic.
It remains to be seen, however, when — or, indeed, if — things will return to something resembling pre-COVID-19 normal for Hollywood.
Meantime, releases have continued and, although several of 2021’s best movies qualified, under revised eligibility rules, for the Academy Awards presentation in April, some that arrived on screen later were of notable quality. Of these, two were musicals, a genre not often encountered at the multiplex these days.
Outstanding films suitable for family viewing seem to be increasingly rare. In part, that’s due to the inclusion, even in children’s movies, of material at odds with traditional morality. As a result, only a limited number of pictures can be endorsed as both cinematically worthy and genuinely wholesome.
Below, in alphabetical order, are capsule reviews of the Top 10 movies overall and seven of the best family films of 2021 as selected by the Media Review Office of Catholic News Service.
The CNS classification of all the pictures on the former list is A-III — adults. Unless otherwise noted, the Motion Picture Association rating of each is PG-13 — parents strongly cautioned. Some material may be inappropriate for children under 13.
With regard to titles in the second category, except as indicated, the Motion Picture Association rating is PG — parental guidance suggested. Some material may not be suitable for children.
Top 10 overall:
In “Belfast,” writer-director Kenneth Branagh uses the perspective of a 9-year-old boy (Jude Hill) to examine the effects of the sectarian strife that swept across Northern Ireland at the end of the 1960s. As the lad’s father (Jamie Dornan) resists pressure to join in the violence, his mother (Caitríona Balfe) struggles to keep him and his older brother (Lewis McAskie) safe and morally grounded. A sensitive exploration of the plight of decent people surrounded by malignant bigotry, this moving drama is also a celebration of romantic love, including that uniting the protagonist’s grandparents (Judi Dench and Ciarán Hinds).
The challenges of being the only hearing member of a close-knit family are movingly explored in the drama “CODA,” the title of which is an acronym for child of deaf adults. The 17-year-old scion (Emilia Jones) of a working-class fishing clan (rounded out by parents Marlee Matlin and Troy Kotsur and older brother Daniel Durant) in Gloucester, Massachusetts, struggles to decide whether she should try to get into a prestigious music college or stay at home where she has always served as her relatives’ interpreter. Writer-director Sian Heder’s high-quality coming-of-age story is both authentic and insightful.
Adapted from his play by director and co-writer Florian Zeller, the drama “The Father” portrays the difficulties resulting from dementia in an innovative way. Anthony Hopkins turns in a skillfully understated performance as a man in his 80s whose mental confusion — Olivia Colman plays one of the women he takes for his daughter — keeps the viewer off-balance as well. Zeller and his script partner Christopher Hampton courageously delve into moral depths and lay bare family relationships.
The vibrant musical “In the Heights” charts the efforts of a youthful New York bodega owner (Anthony Ramos) to return to his native Dominican Republic, the scene of his idealized childhood, and the effect of this “little dream” on — among others — the aspiring fashion designer (Melissa Barrera) for whom he’s fallen. Director Jon M. Chu’s sweeping adaptation of composer and lyricist Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Broadway hit also follows the parallel romance linking the protagonist’s best friend (Corey Hawkins) with a gifted college student (Leslie Grace) and introduces a variety of neighborhood characters while touching on themes of racial dignity and the plight of immigrants.
“Judas and the Black Messiah” is a compelling fact-based drama, set in the late 1960s, in which a Chicago car thief (Lakeith Stanfield) facing a long prison term agrees to infiltrate the local chapter of the Black Panther Party and supply information to an FBI agent (Jesse Plemons) about its charismatic chairman, Fred Hampton (Daniel Kaluuya). Working from a script he co-wrote with Will Berson, debuting director Shaka King skillfully maintains interest in this personality-rich study of conflicted loyalties and in the budding romance between Hampton and one of his followers (Dominique Fishback). The Motion Picture Association rating is R — restricted. Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian.
A vivid performance from Will Smith as the father of future tennis greats Venus (Saniyya Sidney) and Serena (Demi Singleton) Williams energizes the intriguing fact-based sports drama “King Richard.” By turns determined and, as the nickname of the title suggests, domineering, with the help of his dedicated wife (Aunjanue Ellis), he overcomes long odds to fulfill his dream of making his daughters world-renowned champions. Director Reinaldo Marcus Green’s film highlights the value of persistence, humility, self-discipline and good parenting.
Set in the 1980s, and loosely based on the childhood experiences of writer-director Lee Isaac Chung, “Minari,” a gentle mix of drama and comedy, explores the immigrant experience from a Korean-American perspective while also charting the struggles and triumphs of family life. An aspiring produce farmer (Steven Yeun), his wife (Yeri Han) and their two children (Alan Kim and Noel Kate Cho) move from California to rural Arkansas where the tensions of their new life inspire constant bickering. So, too, does the presence of the children’s maternal grandmother (Yuh-jung Youn) after she joins the household to help look after them.
A sense of loneliness pervades the poignant drama “Nomadland.” Frances McDormand gives a bravura performance as a working-class widow from a failed factory town who takes to the road in search of seasonal employment, becoming part of a subculture of marginalized sojourners who move from one trailer park to the next in their struggle to evade economic ruin. Drawing on journalist Jessica Bruder’s 2017 book, writer-director Chloe Zhao highlights how momentary encounters and emotional connection help to relieve the cycle of menial labor and anxiety for the future her vulnerable but resilient protagonist endures. (R — restricted. Under 17 requires accompanying parent or guardian.)
Action, humor and drama are skillfully combined in “Spider-Man: No Way Home,” the lavish final installment of a trilogy of films starring Tom Holland as the Marvel Comics superhero. When the revelation of his identity as Peter Parker and a raging public debate about his true intentions have an adverse effect on the lives of both his girlfriend (Zendaya) and his best pal (Jacob Batalon), Spidey turns to sorcerer Dr. Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) for help. But the latter’s spell goes awry, with potentially dire consequences. Returning director Jon Watts serves up giddy visuals and high-budget special effects as his movie explores themes of altruism, moral decision making and the desire for revenge.
“West Side Story,” the splendid second film version of the classic 1957 Broadway musical, charts the romance of its modern-day Romeo and Juliet, Manhattan slum dwellers Tony (Ansel Elgort) and Maria (Rachel Zegler), and their effort to cross the ethnic divide that separates them, a division embodied and intensified by the escalating feud between the white gang to which he belongs (led by Mike Faist) and the Hispanic one headed by her brother (David Alvarez). By turns celebratory and heartbreaking, director Steven Spielberg and screenwriter Tony Kushner’s masterful enhancement of an already brilliant work proves captivating.
BEST FAMILY FILMS:
The cheerful, lively biopic “American Underdog” traces the initial challenges and eventual rise to stardom of NFL quarterback Kurt Warner (Zachary Levi). In recounting how the ex-college player found his way back onto the traditional gridiron via arena football, overcoming personal problems and falling for a previously married former Marine corporal (Anna Paquin) along the way, screenwriter David Aaron Cohen and directing brothers Andrew and Jon Erwin touch only lightly on their protagonist’s well-publicized evangelical beliefs, focusing instead on the mechanics of the game. But they avoid a preachy tone while keeping things generally wholesome. The Catholic News Service classification is A-II — adults and adolescents.
“Encanto” is a vivacious animated musical about a teen girl (voice of Stephanie Beatriz) living in an enchanted enclave in Colombia with her strong-willed grandmother (voice of María Cecilia Botero) and protective parents (voices of Angie Cepeda and Wilmer Valderrama) as well as other members of her family, many of them endowed with a supernatural talent. Amid colorful visuals and catchy songs by Lin-Manuel Miranda, the script — penned by Charise Castro Smith and Jared Bush (both of whom co-directed with Byron Howard) — delivers worthy messages about community service, cooperation and family reconciliation. But a strong emphasis on magic may be of concern to some parents. (A-II)
Filmmakers Jonathan Cipiti and Megan Harrington’s inspirational hourlong documentary “The House That Rob Built” profiles longtime University of Montana women’s basketball coach Robin Selvig. A former college player kept from becoming a professional by a knee injury, Selvig began coaching in 1978 at a time when female squads weren’t even recognized by the NCAA. Over the four decades that followed, he not only amassed a winning record but, more significantly, wielded a positive influence over the lives of many students, both on and off the court. Former players movingly recall his impact, making this an upbeat biography that’s also suitable for family viewing. The Catholic News Service classification is A-I — general patronage. Not rated by the Motion Picture Association.
In the animated fantasy “Luca,” the timid young sea monster of the title (voice of Jacob Tremblay), who lives off the coast of Liguria, discovers that he is transformed into a preteen boy when on dry land, befriends a more daring shape-shifter (voice of Jack Dylan Grazer) in the same situation as well as a strictly human local girl (voice of Emma Berman) and together the trio enters a triathlon, hoping to defeat the arrogant bully (voice of Saverio Raimondo) who has long dominated the event. Director Enrico Casarosa’s film is a winsome tale full of charm and Italian flair. Too complicated for tots, who might also be frightened, it’s acceptable for all others. (A-I)
Adapted from the Nickelodeon cartoon series, “PAW Patrol: The Movie” follows the exploits of a rescue crew of puppies led by a preteen boy (voice of Will Brisbin). As they once again take on the egotistical politician (voice of Ron Pardo) who has long been their nemesis, they’re aided by a newcomer to the team, an enthusiastic dachshund (voice of Marsai Martin), but hindered by the self-doubts troubling the German shepherd who serves as their policeman (voice of Iain Armitage). Director and co-writer Cal Brunker serves up a breezy, tenderhearted adventure with built-in lessons about the nature of heroism and the value of cooperation. (A-I) The Motion Picture Association rating is G — general audiences. All Ages Admitted.
In “Raya and the Last Dragon,” a teen (voice of Kelly Marie Tran) teams with the creature of the title (voice of Awkwafina) to defeat the dark force that has brought turmoil to her once-tranquil world and turned many of its inhabitants into stone statues. The duo is aided, on their quest, by a young mariner (voice of Izaac Wang) and a fearsome but good-hearted warrior (voice of Benedict Wong). Co-directed by Don Hall and Carlos Lopez Estrada, this lively and colorful animated adventure promotes trust of adversaries and showcases the ills produced by greed and aggression. Some quasi-religious behavior might confuse impressionable youngsters. (A-II)
“Ron’s Gone Wrong” is an endearing animated comedy in which a socially isolated middle schooler (voice of Jack Dylan Grazer) yearns for the robot toy that has become a status symbol among his classmates. But, when he receives one as a birthday gift from his cash-strapped, widowed dad (voice of Ed Helms) and Bulgarian immigrant grandmother (voice of Olivia Colman), it turns out to be a damaged model (voice of Zach Galifianakis) that he initially spurns — though he eventually learns to appreciate the affection and sunny good nature underlying the eccentricities of his quirky new companion. Co-directors Sarah Smith, Jean-Philippe Vine and Octavio E. Rodriguez’s film wreaks entertaining chaos while sending positive messages about friendship, altruism and the need to resist both peer pressure and mindless consumerism. (A-I)
Mulderig is on the staff of Catholic News Service.