Well, last year was…a little better…right?
Hello again, everyone! We’ve reached the end of 2021 and it’s time, just like every year, to discuss the best in movies from last year. 2021 was an overall improvement of a year, and I also happened to see a lot more movies in 2021 than the year prior. In 2020, I think I saw 30 movies. 2021 was a lot closer to 90.
More than anything else, 2021 was the year I got to go back to the movies. To be honest, I wasn’t quite sure that would happen. This year, the theaters reopened (and had movies to show), and I got vaccinated. To be honest, it was tough for me to even consider going to the movies again once they reopened until I was vaccinated. That’s not me preaching to any of you; it’s more me saying that I didn’t think I could lose myself in the movie without thinking of COVID.
That means I missed seeing theater-worthy movies like Godzilla vs. Kong, but I was finally convinced it was time to return to the cinema for Spiral: From the Book of Saw was released. Saw was such an important franchise for me, I couldn’t miss it.
Yes, I finally went back to the theater in June, and I haven’t looked back. It’s been a really solid element in my mental health to be back at the cinema (I’ve stated many times that the theater has been a place of solace for me when the world becomes too much to handle). I’m not alone in this regard, as audiences flocked back to the theaters back in the 30s in the height of the Great Depression. Well, 2020 and its sequel were rather Greatly Depressing, and I used the theater as a tool. Great movies or terrible ones, it really didn’t matter.
All of that is a long way of telling you that I saw a great many movies, and I feel better talking my Top Ten Films of 2021. So let’s not waste any further time and get right into it.
Now, in order to properly begin, we have to state the obligatory forewarnings:
- I did not see every film released in 2021. In fact, there are still a few films released very quietly in 2021 that many reviewers have not been able to see, like The Tragedy of Macbeth and Cyrano, and I am unable to include those films in my list. If you know of a film that belongs on this list but you don’t see it, it just means I didn’t see it…that, or it doesn’t belong on my list.
- On that note, this is my subjective list, not yours, and not objective whatsoever. They are MY personal picks for best of the year. These are the films that spoke to me as a filmgoer. There are better made films that came out in 2021, and there are some films on this list that did not get Fresh on Rotten Tomatoes and quite a few that will miss the Academy’s selection process for Oscar-worthiness. They are MY picks and mine alone, so don’t be upset if a film is on your list that isn’t on mine. That’s the beauty of art and entertainment: we don’t have to love the same things to make them worthy.
- Along with all that, I crave discussion, dissection, and (respectful) disagreements. So let me know by commenting below with your Top Ten Movies of 2021 (or just a list of favorites, especially if they aren’t on my list). I’d love to see what you loved last year.
Alright, without further adieu…
-In less than 2 1/2 hours, Edgar Wright turned me, someone who had heard one Sparks song but couldn’t even connect it to the band, into a lifelong fan who spent his entire summer listening to the band as if he was trying to play catchup for time lost. His documentary is equal parts biography, concert film, and fever dream, and it all seems to work quite well. It’s also an incredibly watchable film, an entertaining instruction manual on first watch and a celebration of the band for those viewers who had discovered the incredibly prolific but under-appreciated musicians.
-Who would’ve guessed that the Princess Diana movie starring Kristen Stewart would end up being a horror-thriller Christmas film? Well, okay, it isn’t so exact as that, but this is a Christmas-set “biopic” that is less concerned with the details and minutiae of a life’s timeline and more set on a story that captures the character and person that Princess Diana was. Set during the last holiday season of her time involved with the royal family, the film sees Diana breaking apart at the seams while she struggles to maintain a strong face for the sake of the Crown. She’s there for her children, the one piece of her life in this world that still has good in it. I also have to credit the incredible performance of Kristen Stewart as Diana, a piece of acting prowess that captures her spirit and soul more than her mannerisms and speech patterns, but I was completely lost in her performance and never once doubted that I was seeing Diana on the screen. I would also be remiss if I did not mention the unsung actor from the film, Sean Harris as McGrady, the Royal Head Chef, and one of the best scenes of the year, in which McGrady confesses how the staff really feels about Diana, and don’t forget the single best needle-drop of the year as the film comes to a close.
- The Last Duel
-Ridley Scott dropped two bangers in 2021, and one of them ended up on this list. I didn’t have the highest hopes for The Last Duel because, for me, Ridley Scott can get a little divisive. Every film he makes, the film gods flip a coin. As bonkers as House of Gucci ended up, The Last Duel is an elegant and intense view at altered perspectives done in the style of Rashomon. I have minor faults with a few elements in the overall film, and I argue that “kids-on-their-phone” is so old man and silly. The reason that The Last Duel underperformed is that we are in the middle of a pandemic and many filmgoers are forced to make choices of what they want to watch. Several great films slipped between the cracks this year, and a movie that portrays a rape (not once, but twice, mind you) may not be the type of film that audiences wanted this year. That’s one of the factors why a film like Spider-Man: No Way Home did so well this year while bleaker fare like Nightmare Alley and The Last Duel struggled to find a presence. Beyond all that, though, the film is fantastic. It’s a tough sell to do a film that covers a painful and intense event from multiple viewpoints. You have to keep the film fresh while essentially telling the same story. Scott’s film teases us with the titular duel and then presents these views in a captivating way, and each retelling sought to alter the narrative in interesting ways.
-I try not to hinge my thoughts on one film based upon another, but it’s nearly impossible to do so in the case of Dune, or Dune: Chapter One, or whatever it will eventually be called. We knew going into this film that it would be an adaptation of the first half of Frank Herbert’s epic science fiction novel, but we also went into it knowing that the second half of this story was uncertain. It’s a lot of baggage to carry for a single film, and that’s not even diving into the quality of the film itself. Well, Denis Villeneuve surprised us all yet again by turning the oft-believed-unfilmable novel into a science fiction masterpiece on the level of Star Wars and The Lord of the Rings. Well, potentially one day, but it’s a beautiful and elegant masterpiece of cinema nonetheless, but it needs to be stated that this is the first half, and it carries a level of understanding. Dune was not filmed back-to-back with its sequel like Back to the Future II & III or The Matrix Reloaded and Revolutions or even the previously mentioned epic production of The Lord of the Rings. Dune was also not handled like the recent 2-part It adaptation. With that film, had we not gotten It: Chapter Two, the first film would stand on its own. Dune: Chapter One hinges on that sequel more than any other two-parter that I can recall. Had that sequel not been announced, I’m not sure this film would be on this list, but it was announced, and it will (likely) happen. With all that, I can’t wait to see this story come to an end and rewatch the first film a bunch when it drops on home video.
-Okay, I trust James Gunn to make a solid and entertaining film, and I trust the recent moves of the DCEU (overall, I’ve been positive on most of the universe, but the recent stuff has been the best), but I didn’t expect nearly as entertaining a time as I got with The Suicide Squad. Early reviews were very positive, and when I finally caught the film at a press screening, I was initially worried the hype was too hyped. Nope, this is an excellent time at the movies, a mean-spirited and bonkers action film that has shades of gritty 70s action pictures. Essentially, Gunn has made a big-budget Troma film, and you can tell he’s having the time of his life with his characters. A more stacked cast than his previous Marvel films, he’s able to give each of his “Squad” a moment to shine. By shine, I’m referring to debauchery or sin, but you get what I mean. The Suicide Squad is a wild ride of entertainment that, dare I say it, is damn beautiful and makes me excited for Peacemaker later this month.
–Candyman was the last new movie I saw in 2021, and I’m surprised to see it on this list. Don’t get me wrong, I liked the original film quite a bit, but I did not expect the hit on this legacy sequel just waiting for me to watch it. A little context for you: I’m big on franchises and I don’t like the idea of the legacy sequel (it feels lazy and oftentimes falls into the same pitfalls as the films it ignores), and the only reason I waited on Candyman 2021 was that I hadn’t watched Candyman: Farewell to the Flesh and Candyman: Day of the Dead, so last week, I binged the whole franchise, and I must say, this newest film is the best film in the series by a stretch. The clever screenplay, co-written by Jordan Peele, paired with the picture-perfect directing from Nia DeCosta (I can see why she was so quickly snatched up by Marvel). It’s a legacy sequel that chooses to build on the mythology in a way that doesn’t retcon anything that came before but instead decides to add and validate what came before while challenging the history of the series at large. It’s gorgeous, haunting, and thought-provoking to the very ambitious ending.
- Halloween Kills
-This is the part when everyone stops reading, so let me remind you that this is a subjective list, and I would be wrong not to put Halloween Kills on the list. I’ve said it before, but Halloween is my all-time favorite horror film, and I have a special place in my heart for the rest of the franchise, convoluted and deeply-flawed though they may be. For Halloween 2018, I was interested but, as stated above, I don’t like the retcon aspect. All that being said, I get why the rest of this franchise was retconned, as most audiences did not keep up with the mythology as much as I did, and trying to make sense of it all would’ve been a bit of work. Also, Laurie Strode was dead in the previous films. Well, I saw Halloween 2018, and it is easily the best-made film since the original, but I felt like it was more of a Greatest Hits album of Halloween, sending up a mashup of great scenes and references from the other non-canon entries, but really not doing a whole lot to distance itself. Well, I revisited Halloween 2018 right before Kills came out, in what amounted to a quick trilogy binge (1978/2018/Kills). Halloween Kills, while being less-polished than David Gordon Green’s previous film, is all the better for its ambition. Sure, it does tread some of the same waters and ideas, but it uses them in a wholly different way. Here, we see Haddonfield as a real town full of interesting characters (I love that many of the background characters of 2018 show up again in Kills), and it’s a town dealing with its trauma in an unhealthy way. This sequel speaks to the question of how we react to fear, and it pushes the Halloween story into delightfully bloody new directions while making its predecessor much better and more palatable as a chapter in Green’s story.
- The Green Knight
–The Green Knight was a movie that almost seemed to not want me to watch it. It didn’t have a lengthy run at my local theater, and the weekend my wife and I had planned to see it ended up with me self-quarantining and getting tested for COVID because I was very sick. I ended up being negative but by the time I ended up feeling better, we didn’t have a free night to see it, so we missed its theatrical run. Thankfully, I ended up with a 4k copy of it, and I was actually able to watch it. Also thankfully, the movie is excellent. The way The Green Knight takes the classic fable and legend and reconfigures it to fit David Lowery’s filmmaking sensibilities and give us a Gawain who is essentially a hopeful hero without any heroic skills, a leader who only takes the killshot because he can, a man who cannot take responsibility for his actions and flees at the sight of danger. It’s also a technically stunning piece of medieval fantasy with terrific performances and a haunting visual aesthetic. If you missed it like I did, rectify that immediately.
-There’s an argument out there that Belfast is not as hard-hitting and serious as the events it is depicting require, and I can understand it. The reason the film works for me is that it’s not about those events specifically; it’s about the family at the center of it, specifically young Buddy (played by newcomer Jude Hill). Seeing these traumatic events through the eyes of a child was something very effective for me. For Buddy, everything going on in his world is strained through the filter of his family, and that’s all he wants. He wants things to go back to normal, he wants to stay in Belfast, he wants his life to go in the direction it has been up to now. That’s his reckoning in the film, and it’s a small story against a big backdrop, and it was a joyful (as joyful as it could be, given the surrounding political unrest of the time) coming-of-age story that I want to share with my family, friends, everyone.
-No, I’m not a Marvel fanboy saying it is better than everything ever made without discussion ever. The last time I had a Marvel film on my Top Ten, it was back in 2011 and it was Thor. If you look at my list, there’s a good number of acclaimed films in Oscar contention as well as some really entertaining popcorn movies. Shang-Chi is the best of both worlds, and if there were to be a superhero film in the Best Picture race, it would be Shang-Chi. The film has an important cultural touchstone, and it showcases a terrific starring turn from Simu Liu as the titular hero, but the film has so much more. It has a terrific friend/potential love interest in Awkwafina, and it has one of the MCU’s best villains in real Mandarin Xu Wenwu. The film has loads of excellently-choreographed action, nods to wuxia, and it plays off one of the MCU’s best arcs in the Mandarin, especially with how the character ties to Iron Man 3. I even find the finale to be much more than a CG mess that most superhero fare gets lost in. Shang-Chi ends with a bang, but it is character-driven all the way through. Gosh, I can’t wait for a sequel to this film. Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings is all-around excellent, and it’s my favorite movie of 2021.
There you have it. My Top Ten Films of 2021. I’ve said my piece, now it’s time to say yours. What are your favorite movies of last year? Leave your favorites below! See you next year.
-Kyle A. Goethe