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'West Side Story,' 'Nightmare Alley' top our critic's best of 2021 list

Ansel Elgort as Tony and Rachel Zegler as

Ansel Elgort as Tony and Rachel Zegler as Maria in "West Side Story." Credit: Niko Tavernise/Photo by Niko Tavernise

Wait, what happened to 2021?

Time has been so weirdly skewed by the pandemic that the past year seemed to drag on forever — then somehow came to a sudden end. The movie clock didn’t help: Some films released this year already won awards, thanks to ad hoc rules for the Oscars and the Golden Globes, while would-be blockbusters such as "No Time to Die" and the ninth "Fast and Furious" film were delayed for so long that their release felt paradoxically like old news. Did we even have a summer movie season? Who can remember?

Nevertheless, 2021 boasted its fair share of excellent films. Some were made available for home viewing, some were released only in theaters, but all are worthy of your (possibly warped) time. Here are the ten best films of the year:

1. WEST SIDE STORY Steven Spielberg’s jazzed-up, toughened-up remake of the 1961 classic is the movie we didn’t know we needed. The nativist-immigrant rivalry feels newly relevant but never preachy (Tony Kushner wrote the screenplay) and Spielberg retains the original’s sense of fun even while upping the intensity. For a big-screen experience, this is the year’s clear front-runner.

2. NIGHTMARE ALLEY Guillermo del Toro goes noir — and if that doesn’t spell "dark," nothing does. Featuring a mesmerizing Bradley Cooper as a manipulative carnival worker and a skin-crawling Cate Blanchett as a psychiatrist, this dreamy/ghastly movie makes del Toro’s Oscar-winning "The Shape of Water" feel almost chipper by comparison.

3. CRUELLA The origin story of Cruella de Vil (Emma Stone) is one of the year’s freshest-feeling films, an unexpected blend of old-fashioned charm, punk-rock fashion and smeared-mascara emotion from director-to-watch Craig Gillespie ("I, Tonya"). An absolute crowd-pleaser.

4. THE LAST DUEL Ridley Scott’s medieval epic is based on the true story of a woman who literally stakes her life on a rape accusation. Featuring excellent performances from Jodie Comer, Adam Driver, Matt Damon and Ben Affleck (the latter two wrote the highly intelligent script, with Nicole Holofcener), this is a topical yet entertaining nail-biter.

5. THE POWER OF THE DOG A strange and shivery Western, in which a macho cattle rancher (Benedict Cumberbatch) wages psychological war on a widow (Kirsten Dunst) and her effeminate son (Kodi Smit-McPhee). Writer-director Jane Campion delivers a masterful exercise in tension that builds to a haunting conclusion.

6. THE FRENCH DISPATCH You only need a few frames of a Wes Anderson movie to know it’s his. Anderson’s latest, a series of vignettes taken from the pages of a fictional magazine, is his most Andersonian yet, packed with high-speed dialogue, dazzling colors, intricate sets and a who’s-who cast that includes Adrien Brody, Tilda Swinton and Timothée Chalamet.

7. KING RICHARD Will Smith may have just found his Oscar-winning role as Richard Williams, the father/coach to tennis legends Venus and Serena Williams. Don’t overlook Aunjanue Ellis, who as Richard’s wife, Oracene Price, gives this feel-good movie a welcome dose of hard reality.

8. JUDAS AND THE BLACK MESSIAH Thanks to a screwy awards season, this mid-February release already picked up a well-deserved Globe and Oscar for its star Daniel Kaluuya, who plays the martyred Black Panthers icon Fred Hampton. It’s a powerful story, and exactly the kind of historical stone that many Americans would rather leave unturned.

9. THE LOST DAUGHTER A middle-aged academic (Olivia Colman, in a possibly Oscar-winning turn) seeks a quiet seaside vacation but instead meets a young mother (Dakota Johnson) who dredges up memories of a sorrowful past. Maggie Gyllenhaal’s directorial debut is a delicately crafted and quietly harrowing character study.

10. THE VELVET UNDERGROUND Todd Haynes’ impressionistic documentary gives us only the basic facts about Freeport's Lou Reed and his oddball bandmates but offers a wealth of firsthand testimony to the power of their art — and why, more than 50 years on, it still matters. Required viewing for music-heads.

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