I always read my previous year’s Top 10 list before starting my new one. I write so rarely now that I need to almost remind myself how to do it. Not how to type or how to make sentences but how to properly express myself. Lube up the brain so thoughts can zip past my mouth right to my fingers. Sorry, I said lube, but “grease up” doesn’t exactly conjure up a better image, right? This time of year for me, and I imagine many others, is very reflective. Reading my previous list gives me some insight as to where I was mentally before and usually reminds me of the progress I’ve made. These lists for Story Screen are one part of a celebration of a medium we hold so dearly that we spend hours of our week discussing, displaying, writing, making content for. The lists also serve as a journal entry. I’ve been doing these for six years now; it’s pretty neat to look back and see how my writing has changed and evolved. Having yearly anchors lends to a stroll down memory lane, as each one feels distinct. These prologues to content are more for me than anyone else.
I feel very emotional reading my last year's intro because I see the beginnings of a problem I’ve been having that’s only gotten worse since the advent of 2021. I wrote last year about how I was feeling beat down and unmotivated. I wrote about how creating content, a thing I used to really enjoy, feels harder and harder to do. I can’t believe that hasn't changed. I can’t believe it’s gotten worse. I feel like I’m a bug trapped in sap, soon to be frozen in an image that people will look at and whisper, “look how hard he tried to get free.” Maybe this is all part of the “creative’s” journey. Maybe this is the first time I stopped, looked at the content I’ve created these past few years and wondered, “Does this make me happy? Am I any closer to my dream career?”. For six years I’ve been doing this. Have I moved the needle? Was the speedometer broken all along? I can only blame myself. Everyone on the team is very talented and supportive, and I wouldn't have had any success if it wasn’t for the rest of them.
Yeah, I dunno, sorry I’m such a bummer. I don’t even know if anyone reads these. I’ve been struggling with my creative destiny recently BUT outside of that existential crisis, ya boy is pretty happy. 2021 was a year of great change in my life. I turned 30, and the transition truly felt like the closing of one toxic chapter and the beginning of a new and exciting one. In some ways, movies and the content I create around them have been a source of turmoil, but they’ve also been the source of extreme happiness. If 2021 taught me anything, it’s that movies truly are a magical medium. One of the most exciting moments of my life happened in a movie theater in 2021 and I can’t help but wonder if the film gods are giving me some kind of cosmic high five for how much I worship them. I won’t bore you with the details; if you know, you know.
Alright, so I’m assuming you’re mostly here to see what movies I liked last year. My name is Robby, my friends call me Baebae, I’m a podcaster and content creator for storyscreenbeacon.com and sometimes Mike Burdge calls me Head of Telecommunications when I’m doing okay at my job. This isn’t a list of the best movies of 2021; this is a list of my FAVORITE movies of 2021.
10. Bo Burnham: Inside
This counts as a movie right? Well, it’s on my list so sit down. That’s what I thought. Inside was my first love of 2021. I don’t know if you guys remember, but 2020 was a pretty weird/rough time. Bo’s newest special really seemed to encapsulate a lot of the feelings so many of us were having while locked down at home. I connected with it on a personal level, as is the special’s design. Bo sings songs about struggling with inspiration, the treadmill of content creation, and staring down the Grim Reaper’s younger brother, Thirty. Also, both of our names are Robert, so that’s pretty cool too.
Bo’s special is ubiquitously loved at this point, with every song on Spotify exceeding
at least 20 million listens. It feels like the millennial’s soundtrack to 2020. Something that really united a lot of us by articulating a generation’s unanimous contemplation of yeah…” what the fuck is going on?”. Bo’s always been a one-man musical act and here he feels at both the peak of his powers and the saddest. He’s always been alone on stage but he’s never felt isolated. I finished Inside feeling inspired. Armed with a sick lighting kit, good camera, and an obscene level of talent Bo was able to make one of the most powerful pieces of performance art I’ve ever seen. Surely with an iPhone and Premiere Pro, I could make something that was at the very least “cool.” Bo Burnham isn’t exactly a struggling artist, and when everyone found out he made this special from his spare home I was a little surprised to see other people surprised. Like somehow being successful discounts his experience or his feelings. But that’s the natural lifespan of popular media. The dissenters dance around the little shit-talking fire they started chanting, “well actually” into the stormy sky while conjuring discourse from the Gods. I found everything about Inside to be genuine. From breakdowns to lonely laughs. I don’t think the real moments of human frustration are only performative. It’s really cool that one of the most prolific performers of our generation is a child of the internet - spawn of the early Youtube generation. I think that Inside will prove to be a very important time capsule, one that future generations (if there are any) will be able to watch and understand where we all were emotionally at the time: feelin’ bad, but still funny.
9. The Novice
“It’s Whiplash but about a girl on a college rowing team,” was the pitch I received for this movie by Story Screen founder and cinema hype man, Mike Burdge. The Novice does feature many thematic ingredients from Damien Chazelle’s Whiplash. Both feature a protagonist that against all odds and against all logic will endure any level of torture to achieve a goal. There is a core difference between Whiplash’s protagonist and The Novice’s Alex Dall. Rowing isn’t a lifelong dream of Alex’s, it’s just another proving ground. We all can relate to chasing a dream. I spent the intro to this list discussing the emotional turmoil that can come with it, but Alex’s drive in this film is much darker. While this may be Lauren Hadaway’s directorial debut it is not her first foray into film. She was a part of the sound department for such films as Justice League, Hateful Eight, and Whiplash. Hadaway brings her expertise in the world of sound to The Novice as well. Sound is what sells the epic scope of this intimate story. Oars crashing into the water, rowing machines tearing open blisters, and frantic freakouts inside porta-potties. The soundscape of the film is immaculate. All there to punctuate extreme close-ups of Alex’s body, tearing apart under the strain of her drive. Isabelle Fuhrman’s powerful performance as Alex Dall gives you a character you’re not just sympathetic for, you’re afraid of. The Novice sits boldly among movies about obsessive protagonists, but this film sits darkly separate from the rest, desperately trying to be the best.
The name of the book this movie was based on is probably the greatest title in human history: Immodest Acts: The Life of a Lesbian Nun in Renaissance Italy.” If you read that and aren’t like “fuck yeah tell me everything,” then we CANNOT be friends. I can’t speak to whether this film is the intended vision of the book’s author Judith C. Brown, but director Paul Verhoeven certainly used it to make the spiciest damn movie of 2021. If lesbian art house drama Portrait of a Lady on Fire was considered a slow burn, Benedetta is so ablaze even the flames are on fire. It’s sexy, darkly funny, and as crass as movies come. I can’t think of a single period piece that comes close to Benedetta’s tone. The film’s spiciness aside, Benedetta’s plot has much on its mind. In Verhoeven fashion, this film’s satiric undertones ring painfully true. Dealing with hypocrisy in the church, this era’s restrictions placed upon the female body, and the encroaching black plague thematically can all be unearthed and interpreted as reflections of today’s modern hellscape. Virginie Efira’s performance as the titular Benedetta is in all ways captivating. Her character is one of many different and subtle (and sometimes not so subtle) inflections all trapped in a nun obsessed with her destiny. Benedetta is never afraid of what it is and it's one of the boldest movies of 2021 that is fully poised to cause walkouts, uproar, and bring little freaks like me happiness.
7. Summit of the Gods
I think my favorite thing about animation is the malleability of the medium. Despite special effects and CGI being able to bring live-action cinema to new visual extremes, nothing can quite keep up with the creative freedom of animation. You can have insanely abstract art house montages like Fantastic Planet. You can have movies like Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse that presents complex ideas like the multiverses and quantum theory but are made all the more palatable through visual storytelling and comic book tropes. For all the worlds, dimensions and abstract concepts animation can cover, there’s something so special when it shows restraint. When it’s grounded (maybe not the best phrase for this example). Summit of the Gods is a French adaptation of a Japanese manga of the same name and it's truly one of the most meditative and beautiful films I’ve ever seen. Movies like Free Solo and The Alpinist have explored the almost sociopathic nature of some of these death-defying climbers. Summit of the Gods feels like an excellent companion piece to these documentaries of similar ilk. Despite being a story with not too many frills, it still uses its medium to great effect. The animation captures the ambiance of these harrowing climbs and these beautiful isolating vistas. It also communicates tension in one of the most anxiety-inducing scenes I’ve seen all year. Summit of the Gods tackles obsession on multiple planes, both literally and thematically. By its conclusion, it doesn’t present answers, it simply endures.
6. Nine Days
Saying a movie is about “life” or “existence” is about as vague as a plot synopsis gets. We’ve seen it before, an award-winning pretentious slop that intellectuals chew from their troughs only to meet your criticisms with, “maybe you didn’t get it.” Nine Days is one of those existential romps, no doubt about it, but its narrative accessibility is what sets it apart from the rest. The world of the film acts as the queue before life itself, establishing its rules very early, allowing for plenty of room for amazing character beats. That’s what this film does best, character. A powerhouse cast, every character has a moment and shines. Winston Duke plays an arbiter or perhaps liaison to life itself, and his performance might be the most stunning of the year. Sometimes when I watch a quiet, intimate story I say, “This feels like a play.”Nine Days does feel like it could be happening live on a stage at times. Its narrative is buoyed by amazing performances, but it has so much to say about cinema: the way we watch life voyeuristically on screens, the way we view tragedies and stories while so rarely basking in our own. Life feels like it’s always happening on the outside. We so rarely appreciate the fact that we exist in the sea of it.
5. Shiva Baby
Shiva Baby is one of those movies that will make you tear your hair out. A film about a college girl attending a family shiva who runs into her sugar daddy. There are laughs to be sure, but trust me, this movie is by definition a thriller. Many spoke about how Shiva Baby was reminiscent of Uncut Gems, and I find this observation to be right on the money. The difference is Shiva Baby boils down that anxiety-inducing energy to its purest form. We are TRAPPED at this shiva. It is hilarious, it is painful, it is oh so awkward its entire runtime. This movie wouldn’t be possible without the performance of actress and social media icon Rachel Sennott, whose portrayal of Danielle shows a young woman who is not only trapped in the worst of scenarios, she just might feed on it as well. Seeing a character stuck in a bad situation will make an audience anxious, but when they actively start making things worse is when you start losing your damn mind. There isn’t a more fun movie this year than Shiva Baby, don’t let your fear of having a bad time deter you, but instead, enjoy the ride.
I host a podcast called Hot Takes (like, share, subscribe, thanks) and I was so happy that we didn’t cover this movie immediately after watching it. Some films are meant to be sat on, to mutate in the jelly of your brain until coalescing into an opinion you can share with the world. I left Titane initially digging it, but not even knowing where to begin analyzing it. I knew I liked it because I had some familiar buzz words vibrating in my head. It was provocative, it was bold, it was sexy, it was French. My girlfriend and I talked about the flick for days; we’d share articles reviewing the film and breaking down its themes back and forth while formulating our own. That’s the cool thing about these weird-as-fuck art house movies: there’s not just one way to interpret them. Titane is no different. I wouldn’t sit here and tell you exactly what the movie is about. I can, however, speak to its themes. The way the film handles gender and identity is wholly unique. The way it conveys tenderness will surprise and intrigue you. The film, to use another buzzword, is visceral. It’s a movie you feel. It’s a movie that has to shock you, that has to break you down as you watch it. It will not bore you, it will aggressively hold your head and make you watch. Movies like Titane are so exciting in the world of film criticism. The discussions that can blossom from it can continue forever. Go watch Titane and talk to a friend about it, I guarantee it will be some of the most fun you’ve ever had.
3. Dune: Part One
Name a movie that looks cooler than Dune. I’ll wait. That’s what I thought, now sit back down. Our sweet, sweet boy, director Denis Villeneuve, follows up his incredible sci-fi “didn’t think that would ever happen” sequel, Blade Runner 2049, with a movie that may just be his best film yet. Dune is obtuse. Dune is weird. Dune is the next Lord of the Rings. For a long time in Hollywood Lord of the Rings was considered to be a book that just could not be adapted properly to screen. Frank Herbert’s Dune was not too different. Dune inspired a lot of sci-fi media, including the biggest film franchise ever made, Star Wars. Even in this week's most recent episode of The Boba Fett Show (or whatever it’s called), they refer to a commodity as spice. When Dune was adapted in 1984 by known weirdo David Lynch, it pretty much dashed all hopes of seeing the franchise on the big screen ever again. But our sweet boy did it. Dune has all the ingredients of an epic: political strife, magic, war, and a steady stream of proper nouns. The design and craft of the film are meticulously perfect, feeling like pure retro science fiction aesthetics come wholly to life. This doesn’t feel like an old property shoehorned into modern aesthetics, this feels authentic. Authenticity, like spice on the sand planet Arrakis, is the rarest commodity in film. It is too early to tell if Dune can be the next mega-franchise, we’ll have to wait until its sequels come out. I’m so excited for the future of Dune; I’m relieved that it was met with pretty much universal acclaim. Somebody give the sandworm an Oscar, c’mon.
It was interesting listening to folks discuss the Pig trailer prior to seeing the flick. So many were convinced it was a John Wick-esq revenge story. To be fair, Pig does share some themes with the king of headshots - a character who’s left a community behind after the death of a loved one, finding peace in solitude and animal companionship, a character who must slip back into the catacombs of his past to unearth information on their mission. Tonally, Pig is on the other end of the spectrum from John Wick. Nicolas Cage‘s character, Rob, doesn’t use bullets and brute force against his foes, but instead, his weapon is memory and tenderness. John Wick has to dig up his old guns and blocks of money (?) when it’s time for him to re-enter the world of assassins. Rob has to dig up his expertise; he has to cook again, he has to mend his relationship with food so that he can get what he wants. Sometimes it feels reductive, but I like pitching movies to people as “it’s this meets this.” Pig is First Cow meets John Wick. It’s tenderness and respect for animal companionship, meets the painful loss and drive of a man on a mission. Pig is one of the sweetest movies of the year, and it is a film that will mean the world to me forever.
1. The Green Knight
The Green Knight was one of the most anticipated films of 2021. Having been delayed multiple times, a certain level of fervor was starting to surround it, which was a tad bit uncommon for movies of its kind. Perhaps it’s because of its kickass trailer, seemingly purporting it as an Arthurian epic. (Which in my humble opinion, it is not). This is a horny art house movie, and if you’ve made it this far down my list, you know that’s the exact kind of sicko shit I like. This isn’t to say it feels classic like legends of yore. Quite the opposite, The Green Knight feels old yet modern, classic yet new. It feels as whimsical as it feels ancient. Its moral allegories are tea leaves steeped for thousands of years, that now, in the modern world, we can toss the tea bag to wind and drink dankness. The Green Knight, despite its flairs, its intricate design, its “artsy” aesthetic, is still a simple story. It has to do with honor and what we do to achieve it. It questions the pursuit of honor, it asks if such pursuits are, in fact, honorable. Is it just a game invented by men to make them throw their lives away for something meaningless?
This movie imprinted on me. I saw it at a formidable time in my life. Sir Gawain’s journey may be one that’s easy to understand but the road is complex with imagery. Much like Titane, The Green Knight is open to interpretation down to its final moments. I think we all have movies we saw at certain times in our lives, where scenes and moments reflect something personal to ourselves. No, I’ve never had to prove my honor to a big wooden dude with an axe and amazing tenor, but, I have questioned the honor in my decision making, the call of risk aversion, and the freezing surge of choice paralysis. Nothing stood a chance of pushing The Green Knight off the top of my list, to me, it’s an embodiment of a wild year, and I couldn’t be happier.
Thank you for reading my list. Thank you to all of the incredible creators that offer us escape during these tumultuous years. Thank you to my Story Screen Family.
All original artwork created by Robby Anderson
Head of Podcasting
Robert has a degree in Screenwriting and Playwriting and works in multiple genres. He's just your typical man-child who enjoys most things nerd culture. You can follow him on Twitter and Instagram @RoBaeBae