It was a good year for movies, all things considered. Here are the picks for the best of another weird year.
2021 was meant to be the year the movies came back in full force after a year without them, and in a few ways they certainly did. Franchise blockbusters like Godzilla vs Kong, F9, and Spider-Man: No Way Home did the unexpected by making serious box office bank in the middle of a pandemic, plenty of theatrical releases received a possible wider audience by moving to streaming services – or in the case of HBO Max, both simultaneously – and with people forced to stay home, more hidden gems were found than ever before thanks to time spent scrolling looking for something interesting to watch. Notable film originally scheduled for 2020 also were able to finally come out one way or another, filling any gaps left by the pandemic putting productions into a halt for so long.
There was no shortage of great movies this year of all different kinds. The best movies to me are the ones that surprise get real emotions out of me in some way. Out of the over 200 films I watched this year, the following are the ones that managed to genuinely floor me, make me laugh and laugh hard, move me to tears, teach me, and most of all, entertain me. There are horror picks that range from the absurd to the impossibly frightening, medieval epics, animated adventures, and stories that end in triumph, tragedy, and everything in between. Give ’em a try if you’re one of the lucky ones who have the chance to watch them for the first time.
‘Malignant’ Directed by James Wan (Available to rent or buy online)
Malignant starts off much like James Wan’s other chilling supernatural films Insidious and The Conjuring and the slew of lesser copycats that came after them, but it seems that the filmmaker’s time spent in the even wackier realms of The Fast & the Furious and Aquaman have inspired him to stretch some different creative muscles. The story of a woman named Madison (Annabelle Wallis) who begins having terrifying visions of a serial killer may seem like it’s headed toward an obvious trajectory only to leap off the track entirely, making for one of the most delightfully deranged horror movies to come from a major studio in quite some time. The film’s biggest reveal followed by a scene of mayhem at a police station is unquestionably one of the best sequences of the entire year, and the most fun Wan has ever been.
‘Wild Indian’ Directed by Lyle Mitchell Corbine Jr. (Streaming on STARZ and available to rent or buy online)
This is not a happy film. The debut feature of Lyle Mitchell Corbine Jr. is a howl of pain and rage condensed into a tight and quiet thriller about two young Native American boys, Makwa (Phoenix Wilson) and Teddo (Julian Gopal), whose lives are forever changed by a shocking act of violence that they’re involved with. Decades later, the event has led the two men (now played by Michael Greyeyes and Chaske Spencer) to go down radically different paths, but they’re both soon confronted with the past they couldn’t bury. Wild Indian is a grave and tense tale that follows the ripple effects of genocidal violence, both the brutality of centuries past and the more subtle but equally as devastating ways it still exists today, told in such a personal and raw way that it feels like a force of nature all its own.
‘The Last Duel’ Directed by Ridley Scott (Available to rent or buy online)
A fight to the death between knight Jean de Carrouges (Matt Damon) and squire Jacques Le Gris (Adam Driver) was the last officially recognized duel in the history of France, and director Ridley Scott stages the story as a medieval epic / melodrama. The events leading up to the duel are shown from three different perspectives: The first is Jean’s, the second Jacques’, and the third is Jean’s wife, Marguerite (Jodie Comer). The Last Duel is the whole package – a strong historical drama with great performances, intense action and a genuine sense of grandeur that’s elevated by its thorough commentary on rape culture and patriarchies. It’s the small differences more so than the big ones between the three points of view that reveal the stark ways in which we view ourselves versus how others see us.
‘Violet’ Directed by Justine Bateman (Available to rent or buy online)
Not since BoJack Horseman has there ever been a better depiction of that constant self-sabotaging voice in your head; the one born from childhood trauma (what isn’t?) that keeps you in a state of fear and self-hatred despite outward success and happiness. Justine Bateman’s directorial debut follows Violet (Olivia Munn) a film executive who’s been hearing that voice (Justin Theroux) for as long as she can remember. It rules her every decision in both her professional and personal life until one day, she finally begins to question it, and the world seems to truly open up for her. Violet flourishes in its simplicity and blunt presentation of that voice – how it tears you down with ease and can only be quieted through small leaps of faith.
‘The Mitchells vs the Machines’ Directed by Mike Rianda & Jeff Rowe (Streaming on Netflix and available to rent or buy online)
One of the most impressive animated feats of the year among many astounding looking choices, every single frame of The Mitchells vs the Machines is a work of art all its own. The explosively colorful film follows the dysfunctional Mitchell family as they embark on a road trip just as the robot apocalypse begins, and unwittingly become humanity’s last hope. The blend of humor and heart may be what’s expected from family entertainment, but The Mitchells vs the Machines delivers it in such a genuinely hilarious, intelligent, and passionate way that no Disney or DreamWorks or Illumination film was able to match this year.
‘The Green Knight’ Directed by David Lowery (Available to rent or buy online)
David Lowery takes one of the oldest and most famous Arthurian legends, that of Sir Gaiwan and the Green Knight, and translates it to the screen to deliver a mesmerizing and challenging exploration of the story’s themes on chivalry and masculinity. The Green Knight follows a young man named Gaiwan (Dev Patel) who’s all too eager to prove himself in King Arthur’s (Sean Harris) court, so when a strange entity known as the Green Knight (Ralph Ineson) arrives with a challenge, Gaiwan is quick to jump on it. The film takes a classic hero’s journey and completely deconstructs it, and Lowery and his team make a $15 million dollar movie feel just as grand if not grander than most big name $200 million blockbusters. Gaiwan’s adventure is rife with gorgeous, epic, and dark imagery that’s constantly serving the character’s inner journey of temptation and worthiness, challenging the very notion of glory and manhood along the way.
‘In the Heights’ Directed by Jon M. Chu (Streaming on HBO Max and available to rent or buy online)
It’s evident from the opening number of Jon M. Chu’s adaptation of the hit Broadway show that this is one of the liveliest and electrifying musicals to come along in quite some time. The energy, colors and radiant cinematography of In The Heights is let loose right off the bat, and miraculously only continues to grow in its showcase and emotion as it tells its story of the diverse community of Washington Heights, including bodega owner Usnavi (Anthony Ramos) and his friends. A rich tapestry of the immigrant experience and the dreams of the second and third generations told through the magic of song and dance (both of which are genuinely wonderful here), Chu manages to make the rare film adaptation that’s better than its stage version. It’s pure joy.
‘Judas and the Black Messiah’ Directed by Shaka King (Streaming on HBO Max and available to rent or buy online)
Few movies released by major studios like Warner Bros dare to voice such strong and revolutionary politics as blatantly as Judas and the Black Messiah, but all Shaka King’s film has to do is allow its subject, Black Panther chairman Fred Hampton (Daniel Kaluuya), to do the talking. Hampton was a leader of his Chicago community and beyond, feeding and educating children and their families through various programs while also uniting the city’s various gangs and groups under common causes. At the age of only 21, he was murdered by the FBI after the betrayal of his friend and confidant, William O’Neal (LaKeith Stanfield). Taking the standard historical biopic format and turning it into a war film, Judas and the Black Messiah is brimming with righteous fury and acts as a stark reminder of how the powers that be refuse to allow actual freedom – and the price that’s paid for daring to achieve it for yourself and others. The war goes on.
‘Dune’ Directed by Denis Villeneuve (Playing in theaters and available to rent or buy online)
Filled with important exposition, terms and names that range from the indecipherable to the ridiculous (hello, Duncan Idaho), Denis Villeneuve’s adaptation of Frank Herbert’s seminal 1965 science fiction novel could have easily been a big bloated disaster. Villeneuve had already proven his proficiency at blending large scale, blockbuster sci-fi worlds and concepts with cerebral and contemplative style with films like Arrival and Blade Runner 2049, and his obvious passion towards Dune makes for one of the most intriguing and engaging would-be franchises in recent memory. With an all-star cast and an immense production, this first of two parts heavily layers itself with themes of religion, royal politics, and the human mind. But at the heart of it is an adventure between a son and his mother – and one of the best scores to ever come from legendary composer Hans Zimmer.
‘Cryptozoo’ Directed by Dash Shaw (Streaming on Hulu and available to rent or buy online)
Cryptozoo opens with an understandably eye-rolling bit of college stoner filmmaking of two naked hippies doing drugs and banging in the woods – but its ambitions prove to be much, much higher. Dash Shaw airs out his grievances with late capitalism and neoliberalism with a colorful globe-trotting adventure set in a world full of mystical and magical creatures known as cryptids. Everything from unicorns to Sasquatch to dragons are here, with many of them living in a supposed sanctuary known as the Cryptozoo. The film stars Lake Bell as Lauren Gray, an adventurer who has dedicated her life to the rescue and protection of cryptids. They’re routinely captured and sold on black markets, and once the U.S. government gets their hands on a particularly powerful one, it’s up to Lauren and a gorgon named Phoebe (Angeliki Papoulia) to stop them. Cryptozoo features some astounding feats of painstaking hand drawn animation, and rather pointed commentary on commercialization versus conservation. You’ll never see anything like it again.
‘The Power of the Dog’ Directed by Jane Campion (Streaming on Netflix)
The Power of the Dog is a prime example of a film where every part of every scene holds a precise and deliberate function. Jane Campion delivers a masterful and spellbinding work in this adaptation of the 1967 Thomas Savage novel, crafting a haunting and enticing Western that joins a select group of other recent films that have been redefining the genre. Phil Burbank (Benedict Cumberbatch in a career-best performance) is the callous head of a ranch who bullies and mocks anyone unlucky enough to get caught in his orbit. When his set and rugged life is upended by the marriage of his brother (Jesse Plemmons) to a woman named Rose (Kirsten Dunst), Phil’s unhappiness cranks his cruelty up a notch. But the arrival of Rose’s soft-spoken and effeminate son (Kodi Smit-McPhee) turns the story into a strangely tense psychodrama of shifting power dynamics and unknown motivations, where every look and movement of both the characters and the camera takes on greater significance, and practically demands a second viewing.
‘Sator’ Directed by Jordan Graham (Streaming on Amazon Prime Video, Shudder, and available to rent or buy online)
An essential middle-of-the-night, lights out watch, Sator is a fully immersive experience. It’s obviously a horror film, one that takes inspirations from the folk side of the genre and gives off a Southern Gothic vibe with the way it frames its central location of a cabin out in the woods. But it’s also so much more – a singular, painstaking artistic vision, a master class in sound design, and perhaps even a dark form of therapy for its creator. Much like The Blair Witch Project, Sator is more about creating a mood and an atmosphere rather than offering a generic linear narrative. Its scares come more from the power of suggestion, from the things that you don’t see, and its imagery is more haunting and melancholic than directly gory or terrifying. It even has a few moments of handheld camera work, presumably shot throughout the years that this film was in production. Sator is an impressive film by any measure, but it’s all the more astonishing for the fact that its creator, Jordan Graham, did everything on it himself aside from acting. That includes directing, writing, cinematography, music, set design; you name it, he did it. The film follows a man named Adam (Gabriel Nicholson) living out in the woods in search of a mysterious and terrifying entity known only as Sator, who appears to have a mysterious connection to his family. No other horror film this year does as much with as little.
‘West Side Story’ Directed by Steven Spielberg (Playing in theaters)
The man doesn’t miss. Watching a Steven Spielberg movie is always going to be a good experience, but it’s been awhile since America’s most famous filmmaker delivered something as immediately captivating as his adaptation of West Side Story. The tragedy of star-crossed lovers María (Rachel Zegler) and Tony (Ansel Elgort) has remained a classic for its beautifully timeless music and lyrics by Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim, and from Spielberg’s opening crane shot to the finale, he does it justice and then some. Every frame is a painting, the musical’s iconic choreography is as stunning as it’s ever been, and what Spielberg’s longtime collaborator, cinematographer Janusz Kamiński, brings is indispensible: True movie magic.
‘Evangelion: 3.0+1.0 Thrice Upon a Time’ Directed by Hideaki Anno, Kazuya Tsurumaki, Katsuichi Nakayama & Mahiro Maeda (Streaming on Amazon Prime Video)
Hideaki Anno’s landmark 90s anime about a sensitive and sad boy named Shinji Ikari (Megumi Okata) thrown into a biblical conflict against terrifying Angels and equally as terrifying mechas called Evangelions tore down and rebuilt the entire genre from scratch. Starting in 2007, Anno returned to retell and reimagine the series in the form of four movies, effectively tearing down and rebuilding his own story in the same way. It’s only just now reached its final conclusion with the miraculous fourth chapter and official end to the entire Evangelion franchise, 3.0+1.0 Thrice Upon a Time, which takes a heartbreaking look back to reflect on lost time and what could have been for its tragic heroes. Somehow serving as the perfect retrospect to all that’s come before as well as a revelatory and incredibly cathartic finale / farewell, the film is a true testament to the limitless of animated storytelling. Gorgeous to look at, undeniably moving, and forever provocative and thought-provoking, it’s genuinely amazing to witness the action-packed, apocalyptic series end on its greatest emotional highs ever. Sometimes things just come down to a kid needing a hug from their parent. Everything is earned here.
‘Pig’ Directed by Michael Sarnoksi (Streaming on Hulu and available to rent or buy online)
The greatest film of 2021 is all the more astonishing for the fact that it’s the very first feature film of writer and director Michael Sarnoksi and co-writer Vanessa Block, who evidently have a lot to say. Pig follows a reclusive truffle forager named Rob (Nicolas Cage) who is forced to venture into the city when his only companion, his beloved pig, is stolen in the middle of the night. He drags the only other person he knows, a young entrepreneur named Amir (Alex Wolff), with him on a dangerous journey into the city’s culinary underworld. What seems like either a revenge thriller in the vein of John Wick or another wacky Nic Cage B-movie turns out to be neither, circumventing most of the violence that usually defines films like it in favor of something else entirely. It’s constantly surprising, weaving in and out of being profound, incredibly tense, strangely hilarious, and so much more. It’s an enlightening film about the things we really care about, and it is a masterpiece. The movies aren’t going anywhere.