I have many friends who found 2021 to be a frustrating year for film but I can’t say I agree. I was complaining about the output of Hollywood films back in 2018 and 2019 but COVID-19 really put a lot of my complaints into context. When the only mainstream blockbusters you get for an entire year are Tenet and Sonic the Hedgehog, it puts your priorities in order.
2021 ended up being a pretty interesting year overall. There were at least two dozen films that I greatly enjoyed seeing! I had an amazing time going back to the theaters and seeing jazzed audiences for movies like Spiderman: No Way Home, Shang-Chi, A Quiet Place Part 2, The Suicide Squad, Free Guy, and Godzilla vs. Kong. Even though I didn’t give all of those films perfect reviews, it felt like the collective experience of film-going finally returned after a year and a half of death.
There were actually a handful of films this year I REALLY wanted to bump up onto my best off list but ultimately didn’t include. Sadly, it also didn’t feel like there was a true frontrunner. Maybe this year is just following the continual pattern where my favorite film of the year doesn’t get released until late in Oscar season because of the nature of limited release schedules (IE: Silence, Phantom Thread, Never Look Away, The Father, etc.) but we’ll see.
Additionally, I should note that this list diverges substantially from my two elsewhere published lists on Geeks Under Grace and my podcast. Those were recorded prior to January 1st and didn’t reflect everything I wanted to cram in at the last second to be able to discuss on my full list below.
Without further ado, let us begin with the yearly sundries!
Movies I didn’t have time to catch this year: Hand of God, Power of the Dog, Summer of 85, Riders of Justice, Quo Vadis Adia, Worth, Red Rocket, Dear Comrades, The Novice, Cmon Cmon, King Richard, Worst Person in the World, Belfast, Coda, Titane, Old
Most Entertaining BAD Movie: Malignant
Extremely Well Made BUT Morally Repugnant/Questionable Movies: Benedetta, Licorice Pizza, The Green Knight
Flawed but notably interesting: The Card Counter, Cry Macho, Matrix Resurrections, Zack Snyder’s Justice League
Runners Up: A Quiet Place Part II, The Most Reluctant Convert, Tick Tick Boom, Voodoo Macbeth, Run Hide Fight, Roadrunner, Annette, The Suicide Squad
10. Dune: Part One
There are going to be a lot of big names on this list but 2021 has two years of big movies releases crammed into it and that’s going to happen. Most of my favorite movies this year were massive studio films or lesser studio films. And none were quite as massive as Denis Villeneuve’s epic adaptation of Frank Herbert’s Dune (or at least half of it). My reservations with the film are still outstanding but with the announcement of Dune Part Two for October 2023, I can’t stay mad at it. This film series is doing the impossible of adapting a challenging book in a fun and accessible way! I’m willing to jump on that bandwagon!
9. Last Night in Soho
It’s still insane to me that we received an Edgar Wright film this year and that it bombed as hard as it did. As Scott Pilgrim vs. The World, Baby Driver, and the Cornetto Trilogy can attest, he’s one of our most important filmmakers and we should never take him for granted even when he’s not producing his most pristine work. Even being among one of his weaker films, Last Night in Soho is a marvelous work of technical competence and visual storytelling. Wright’s homage to 1960s psychological thrillers is an amazing spiraling descent into madness and identity and it’s worth checking out in a couple of weeks when it drops on DVD.
8. The Vigil
Exorcism films have been done and remade to death since the success of The Exorcist. It takes a talented horror director to find a new way to make the genre feel fresh and interesting and that’s something that The Vigil did spectacularly. This relatively low-budget horror flick found its angle by swapping out the traditional catholic imagery for orthodox Jewish imagery. In doing so, it manages to be both a great horror film and a powerful exploration of 21st century Jewish identity and collective trauma, that finds a very unique way to explore the ways in which the past haunt the present.
It’s not surprising that so many films this year were just about the nature of trauma. We are living through stressful and painful times. Mass explores the nature of some of the most politically heated and painful topics imaginable through some of the most modest and unassuming forms imaginable. In the backroom of an Episcopalian Cathedral, two families sit down and speak about their experiences raising children that would grow up to die in a school shooting. It’s an absolutely heart-wrenching and painful drama that digs deep into the psychology of broken people and asks some of the hardest questions imaginable about the kinds of people who go on to become mass murderers.
6. Nightmare Alley
Guillermo Del Toro remains one of the masters of modern genre filmmaking. His newest film is the first one he’s released since his success with 2017’s The Shape of Water and it is a doozy. His remake of Nightmare Alley is one of the most hard-boiled of hard-boiled noir stories you can find out there, with a nearly unforgivable and evil protagonist who manipulates his way through life with brutal consequences. It’s a story right out of the Noir playbook, evil has consequences and here we follow a man who can’t help but always make the wrong choice who gets exactly what he deserves.
5. West Side Story
I want to criticize this movie more than I did. I wish I could work up the frothing anger about woke content that others have, how it fetishizes racialism and throws bones to modern novel issues like gentrification, how it adds a pointless trans-character just to show off. That said, I just can’t help but love that we got a $200 million musical in 2021 that feels as large and spectacular as something we once got out of the golden age of Hollywood. Spielberg is still making movies as a septuagenarian with more energy and joy in them than most 20 years olds and I can put his pretentious boomer liberal tendencies aside enough to enjoy his movies!
4. The Last Duel
2021 was the year Hollywood tried to take a stand against medievalism in a big way. I don’t know why mind you. I don’t know what’s in the water that makes directors as diverse as Paul Verhoeven and David Lowry suddenly want to make postmodern films about why the middle ages sucked. Alas, this trend resulted in the unrelated trilogy of The Green Knight, Benedetta, and The Last Duel. Of the three, I preferred the latter despite the fact that it’s a three-hour epic made in honor of the #MeToo movement. Flaws and all, it’s an amazing period epic and legal drama that manages to capture some of Ridley Scott’s latent old-school talent that allowed him to become the king of the sand and sandals epic.
3. The Tragedy of Macbeth
I only just saw this film today and I was already tempted to shoot it up to the #1 stop on the list, and I might just do that later once I’ve had time to let all the films on this list settle in. I remain, as always, a dedicated student of the Coen Brothers and a patron who is eager to see what they cook up next. Sadly, this film marks the first time Ethan Coen has effectively left the duo and turned their work into a single act. That said, this film is a quiet masterpiece. It’s one of the starkest and most broiling adaptations of Macbeth I have seen and brings all of the best ideas of Shakespeare’s play to life with panache and a heavy tone.
2. The French Dispatch
Naturally, Wes Anderson makes it very high on the list because he remains to be one of our sharpest writers. His nostalgic dollhouse aesthetic remained ever on point with his newest film The French Dispatch, an anthology film about a quirky newspaper based in Liberty, Kansas yet who maintained its office in France. It’s an immaculate, funny, and intense work of storytelling that cannot be understood all at once. It’s meant to be watched and understood over multiple viewings just by right of how crammed it is. Thankfully it’s imminently watchable; funny, sad, introspective, melancholic, quirky, bizarre, and lovable.
In some ways, the top three films on this list are interchangeable. I loved all three so much that I couldn’t decide which deserved top billing even as I started writing this list. Sadly, this format means I must make a decision and I ultimately went with the choice of the most original and fresh of the three. Pig is a film that feels like it was made as a joke. It was sold to the public as a kind of John Wick spin-off starring Nicolas Cage trying to get his truffle pig back. In the end, it was nothing like that. It was the most surprising and emotional film of the year with one of the most powerful stories about grief and the emotional process we’ve yet received in years! Pig is a masterpiece worth going into without expectations and you will enjoy it for being as weird and powerful as it becomes!