You don’t need me to tell you that our collective memory of movies includes films in their entirety alongside scenes that stick out — those moments that we quote, that we reenact, that we carry with us. These are some of the sequences from 2021’s crop of new movies that I suspect will have that sticking power:
“Annette” — “So May We Start?”
The bravura opening sequence of Leos Carax’s musical begins in a recording studio, as the band Sparks (who composed the music and wrote the lyrics) asks — in song — to get things rolling. They walk outside with members of the cast, where a choir is waiting to join them, and the actors depart in separate vehicles, now in character. It’s a prologue that throws down the gauntlet, letting audiences know they’re in for something wild, and the rest of the film lives up to that promise.
“Bad Trip” — Tiffany Haddish Has Questions
Filmed before “Girls Trip” made her a famous face, this prank comedy unleashes Tiffany Haddish, in character as a ferocious ex-con, upon a restaurant full of unsuspecting diners who are definitely not ready to face the fury of her interrogation. Her commitment to the bit is hilarious, but you can also imagine how overwhelming it must have been to be there in person and not know that a comedy was being filmed. (The scene isn’t on YouTube, alas, but the trailer gives you a taste of what Haddish brings to the film.)
“Everybody’s Talking About Jamie” — “This Was Me”
This charming, based-on-a-true-story musical about a teenage drag queen reaches an emotional climax with “This Was Me,” in which drag elder Richard E. Grant (with singing voice provided by Frankie Goes to Hollywood’s Holly Johnson) recounts the triumphs and tribulations of gay life in the ’80s and ’90s to his young charge. Like Todd Stephens’ “Swan Song,” it’s a moving tribute to the generation who had to battle the devastation of AIDS as well as institutional discrimination.
“The French Dispatch” — Pursuing the Kidnapper
Director Wes Anderson’s visual style extended to stop-motion animation in “Fantastic Mr. Fox” and “Isle of Dogs,” but in his latest film, he switches to traditional 2D animation for a sequence in which police commissioner Matthieu Amalric (accompanied by writer Jeffrey Wright) give chase to the criminal who has kidnapped the commissioner’s young son. In a movie already overflowing with visual delights, it’s a sequence with enough extra dazzle to make it a highlight. (The scene is not yet on YouTube, but enjoy Alexandre Desplat’s scoring of it.)
“The Harder They Fall” — Regina King vs. Zazie Beetz
Brawling women on screen is nothing new; it’s a proud tradition that goes back to classics like “Johnny Guitar” and “Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!” But with occasional exceptions, it’s clear that filmmakers feel much more comfortable letting men go mano-a-mano. Not so the audacious Western “The Harder They Fall,” which pairs its primary female protagonist and antagonist in a knock-down-the-house fight that’s thrillingly choreographed and breathlessly shot and edited.
“In the Heights” — “96,000”
In a year packed with musicals honoring the styles of the past while keeping an eye on the future, there was something giddily thrilling about seeing a Busby Berkeley number break out in the middle of a Lin-Manuel Miranda adaptation.
“Locked Down” — The Zoom Calls
In the years to come, there will no doubt be a plethora of narrative films looking back at the COVID-19 pandemic and how it altered everyone’s day-to-day professional and personal lives. One of the first movies to tackle the subject, “Locked Down” brilliantly captures the awkward drudgery of interacting with bosses and peers (and friends and family) via Zoom, making a perfect and appropriately cringe-worthy snapshot of life in 2020 and 2021.
“Nobody” and “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings” — Get on the Bus
Through sheer coincidence, two of this year’s most thrilling action sequences took place within the confines of a city bus, and both featured action heroes demonstrating their prowess for the first time in the movie. But whether it’s Bob Odenkirk’s seemingly mild-mannered office drone or Simu Liu’s seemingly mild-mannered valet going off on the bad guys, off they indeed go. (Extra points to “Shang-Chi” for staging the sequence on one of those accordion buses, and for having it move through the streets of San Francisco for most of the melee.)
“Pig” — Speaking to the Chef
Nicolas Cage’s protagonist, who’s returned to the city to retrieve his beloved truffle-finding pig, tends to be a man of few words. But when he encounters a former colleague (David Knell) from his days as a successful chef, he’s got plenty to say about art and creativity.
“A Quiet Place Part II” — How It All Began
Prequels are often unsatisfying, because we know where everything is headed, so writer-director John Krasinski, in his follow-up to the 2018 suspense hit, wisely limited the backstory to a chillingly effective prologue that lays out one final glimpse of normal life for the Abbott family before the aliens showed up.
“The Suicide Squad” — Taking the Camp
We’ve seen plenty of action movies where the marauding heroes stealthily arrive at the enemy camp and dispatch the bad guys. This brutally comic sequel puts a spin on that idea, first by having Bloodsport (Idris Elba) and Peacemaker (Jon Cena) constantly attempting to one-up each other in the homicide department, and then with a potent punchline that underscores the insanity of gung-ho violence.