Cutting to the chase: 2021 was a year and movies were released in it and I watched a lot of them. Here are the ones I liked the most. Let’s punch it.
20. Riders of Justice (Retfærdighedens ryttere)
The film turns the revenge-action genre into an outright sensation of character, transforming what would normally be a muted and derivative story into something with so much depth you feel as though you could drown in its thoughts at any moment. What’s very cool about Riders of Justice is that while it feels complete in its own story, there is enormous sequel/franchise potential for these characters and the world they operate in, and that’d be something I’d get very excited about. Mads is the widow we all deserve.
19. The Sparks Brothers
The rock-doc to end all rock-docs, it’s a blast from start to finish on every single level. Edgar Wright’s tenacity for spectacle is weaponized into a music-documentary style that follows the standards of the genre, while also offering some new and exciting ways to depict the story of one of the most influential and unsung bands of all time.
Titane is merciless, cold, sexy, and a real hot mess, but in a good way. While this movie didn’t sit completely right with me the first time I watched it, I couldn’t deny its style. After some discussions with friends, who both loved and hated it, and a good quiet rewatch, everything started to click together to form the real operation of this movie that is just as much machine as it is beating heart.
17. Red Rocket
A remarkable installment in the ever-growing legendary career of Sean Baker. While everybody in this movie is fantastic, and Simon Rex is pulling off something so unique and special, my MVP to this lil' slice of Texas life is Bree Elrod, whose many variations of Lexi are simultaneously unbelievable in performance and totally real as a human being. Just as depressing and uplifting as you’d come to expect from a Baker joint, Red Rocket, once again, shows that the director’s ability to generate the appropriate amount of substance to match his very unique and showy style is what really makes his movies sing. The NSYNC Revolution begins now.
16. A Quiet Place Part II
A sequel to a horror movie with a high concept hook that successfully substitutes scary suspense for action-based tension, and also has Cillian Murphy? I’ll take two, please. And I did. On first watch, this movie blew me and my small crowd away in the early part of 2021 as movie theaters just started opening back up. It wasn’t my first big-screen experience since the shutdowns, which is mainly due to my good fortune of owning a movie theater and operating a repertory Drive-In during the summer of 2020, but it was the first time I saw a brand spanking new movie on the big screen with a good sized crowd and I was absolutely floored at how well Krasinski pulled everything off. On rewatch just a few weeks ago, my convictions were assured, as it is in welcome company with some of the best action-driven horror sequels, such as Aliens and Terminator 2: Judgement Day. It’s as tight a movie as they come.
15. The Matrix Resurrections
The fact that this total body-slam to nostalgia-sploitation came out only DAYS after Spider-Man: No Way Home will forever be one of the craziest whiplashes I've experienced. I’m at a loss for words in trying to describe the brilliance and craft of this thing, from intentionally holding back natural artistic verve, to completely decoding and then recoding our understanding and relationship with one of the greatest movies ever made. It’s not what everyone would want from a long-awaited Matrix sequel, and that is very much intentional, but this is exactly what I didn’t even know I’d love for Lana Wachowski to do with the mighty power she has cultivated over the past 25 years. A true miracle of a movie, and I'm so happy it's now in my life forever.
Say it with me, everybody: The Beach That Makes You OLD! I’m absolutely loving this new era of Shyamalan when his geeky eccentricities are working in tandem with his bleeding heart semantics on whatever obstacle in his life he’s currently having a tough go at. This is extremely similar to Spielberg’s run of films when he was no longer dealing with the daddy issues he himself had from his own father, but started dealing with ones as he was becoming a father himself. Those stories would change over decades as his children grew. Shyamalan is also discussing this very idea, with a little, “Our children’s future is doomed,” thrown in there for good measure, all with the standard slew of Shyamalan unornamented yet somehow embellished dialogue, set pieces, and characterizations. But it is in the story’s thoughts and meditations on death and time, and more importantly, our relationship to these unavoidable truths, which make us face our own mortality and the mortality of those we love. It’s a purely existential concept, and one I think Shyamalan balances perfectly with his B movie inclinations, silliness and all. There’s also a running bit where Rufus Sewell’s character tries to remember the name of the film, The Missouri Breaks. Chef’s kiss.
A wickedly subtle film, Minari was the must-see flick of the 2021 awards season, one of the late releases that entered into the conversation in mid-February after having played all the festivals throughout 2020. Its legacy was firmly in place by the time it was released to general audiences, who most saw it for the first time in the comfort of their own homes through the use of virtual cinemas and A24’s radically different approach to releasing to streaming in tandem with independent theaters, as opposed to major streaming corporations. While this is something I’ll always think of when thinking about Minari, it is far from the most impressive, as the movie itself is packed with beauty in just about every aspect of filmmaking, from the acting to the music, to the score, to the writing, you name it. It’s one of those movies that just stays with you for so long after you watch it, and while that’s a bit of a well-used label that gets tossed on many worthy films, Minari is one that truly does.
12. The Power of the Dog
A precise and reckless film. Watching The Power of the Dog is the type of experience you hope you’ll have in all of the moments leading up to watching a new, hyped-up curiosity. Cumberbatch is insane in this movie, and Dunst and Plemons are turning in some real, restrained performances alongside Smit-McPhee’s unfathomably disconcerting presence. But it is she, ya dang majesty Jane Campion, who once again ignites the screen with humanity in even the shortest collection of frames. The film gets extra points for that Campion Peen™, of course.
11. Nine Days
Nine days is as much about existence as it is about the power of storytelling and movies, with a cast that’s practically ripping the ceiling right off of every scene. This has got to be one of the most emotional rides I’ve ever experienced from top to bottom in a film. I had a good amount of cries during some movies in 2021 (it’s been a very wild couple of years, and baby needs a nap), but Nine Days was the one I kept coming back to for a variety of reasons that the film made me tear up throughout. From joy to sadness to good ol’ existential crisis over three things simultaneously, I haven’t been as emotionally impacted by the beauty and life of a film since every time I watch Beasts of the Southern Wild.
10. Dune: Part One
DUUUUUUUUUUNE!!! The sweet, sweet boy Denis Villeneuve continues to inject arthouse sensibilities into modern IP-driven blockbuster tentpoles, and the mofo is evolving with every entry. Where Arrival was very much an arthouse movie with blockbuster sensibilities, and Blade Runner 2049 was a blockbuster with a MASSIVE amount of arthouse DNA, Dune finds the middle ground between these two highly different approaches to movie making and visual storytelling. Although its patience and contemplations on theme can feel a bit out of line with the massive scope of the thing, I found those shifts in mood highly engaging, letting me be equal parts shocked and awed by the world and effects, while also giving me some good brain food to turn over and over throughout the film. “A cool movie that’s also a very smart film and is made by loads of professionals,” should be a new genre unto its own that only Villeneuve can officially work in.
9. The Souvenir Part II
The Souvenir Part II is a deconstructionist approach to how the act of making movies has certain rules, and in turn, comments on how there are rules to watching a movie as an audience, and simultaneously asks of both: Why? It’s a movie that is equally an ode to the healing power and maddening turmoil of creating art, as it is a continuation of a tale of grief, regret, and the seemingly eternal inability to be content. But even more powerfully, Part II continues the dramatized journey of Honor Swinton Byrne’s Julie, as well as the creative journey of director Joanna Hogg and Swinton Byrne herself. Shot in a truly unorthodox manner of practically zero prep or typical pre-production planning, Hogg and her cast and crew create something that at once feels alive and real, yet still artificial in all the ways a movie should feel.
8. The Worst Person in the World
The Worst Person in the World creates an insatiable longing for a kind of freedom that just may not have ever existed. Vigorously shot and painfully acted, the movie balances its heightened qualities with the reality of its specifics, creating an unnerving want for everything to work out for everyone while also firmly making the viewer understand that that’s just not going to be possible here. I'm not the first to say it, and it's honestly a bit hyperbolic even for me, but it bears repeating: An Instant Classic.
7. Shiva Baby
Emma Saligman does everything right in a movie that is as tense and uncomfortable as it is side-splittingly hilarious. It was another very early 2021 watch, which I was so happy to be able to showcase at Story Screen Beacon Theater, as I was already a fan of Saligman without even knowing it. Only days before finally watching Shiva Baby, I discovered Saligman had directed the short film, Void, which I very, very much dug a few years ago when it was running around the world wide web. The technical craft, subtle to extreme lighting techniques, and ability to build and release tension to a fully Hitchcockian level are as present as ever in Saligman’s debut feature. I cannot wait to see what she, as well as actor, Rachel Sonnet, has coming next, because both of their talents are immediately unique and impossible to forget.
6. Bo Burnham: Inside
art /ärt/ noun :
the expression or application of human creative skill and imagination, typically in a visual form, producing works to be appreciated primarily for their beauty or emotional power.
Inside is something extremely special for a practically endless amount of reasons, some having to do with the level of creative ingenuity and craft involved with its production and editing, and some having to do with just how royally messed up the whole world was just as it was released. Do you remember in The Princess Bride when Westley says he built up a tolerance to iocane powder, the colorless, odorless, and deadly poison, by drinking a little for two years, therefore becoming seemingly invincible against its fatal effects? That’s what Inside is like in relation to the poison that was the total collapse of civilization for several months. A time where the only relative semblance of normalcy was found in sitting on the couch every night and watching movies, or in the case of Inside, experiencing art in its most textbook definition.
5. The Green Knight
The Green Knight is a glorious adventure that both challenges and delights just about any viewer, which is why you’ll see a lot of people who were super psyched about The Snyder Cut saying this movie was boring and confusing because they’re numbskulls who think saturation, monochromatic filtering and a 4:3 aspect ratio for no reason whatsoever are artistic. To those lovely darlings, I say with as much respect as I can: “You’re not supposed to be here. I don’t think this one had your name on it, dawg.” David Lowery has been a fave of mine ever since 2009’s St. Nick, and with later entries like Ain’t Them Bodies Saints and A Ghost Story, it has become a standard excitement for me whenever a new project of his is announced. He’s a fun creator to follow as he tends to operate both in indie, arthouse ventures as well as big studio numbers (his next film is the live-action Peter Pan movie, Peter Pan & Wendy). In The Green Knight, much in the same way Villeneuve perfected an artistic algorithm with Dune, Lowery has included the stunningly dynamic visuals of his larger works with the deliciously atmospheric tone and vibe of his smaller, more internally-driven pieces, and what we are given in the end is nothing short of magical.
4. The Hand of God (È stata la mano di Dio)
The Hand of God is a coming-of-age tale, masterfully executed through Paolo Sorrentino's usual flair for amazing characters, both big and small, with the patience of an absolute genius who fully understands the dynamic between cinema and audience. While I wouldn't QUITE place this film craft-wise above my current favorite of the director's, The Great Beauty, it's got way more to offer me in terms of content. I found some of the musings on death, regret, mental illnesses, and the freeing power of cinema (as both art and escape) to be fully overwhelming, an effect I'm sure ya boi Paolo intended.
3. The Novice
With elements that recalled (but never imitated) Julia Ducournau’s own trip to college, Raw, The Novice is equally accomplished and shows a level of talent both in front of and behind the camera that should make even the most skeptical critic excited about the next projects from this crew. It is raw, painful, tragic, grueling, and all the more beautiful for these reasons. This was an early one I caught at Tribeca in 2021 and was hands down the one film I caught that really got me excited for a release. After nearly a year of yelling about this movie to anyone who would listen, I gave it another watch to see just where it would land on my list and I am happy to report that the only two movies I couldn’t put it above happen to be the two movies that I just could not believe when I watched them.
2. West Side Story
Steven Spielberg has always wanted to do a musical, as far back as his insane run in the 80s, something I’ve noted from time to time in my retrospective article series on the director’s filmography, Movie Daddy (which you can check out on our Exclusive Content blog here). The Beard’s usual tenacity for dramatic execution, mixed with the incomparable style that he’s honed and evolved with over 50 years of filmmaking, is perfectly suited for the genre’s expected panache. Not only does West Side Story not disappoint, it blows expectations out of the water on just about every front the classic remake had against it. The relocation of certain scenes to different settings, the change in dialogue and remixing of the music, not to mention the absolutely unbelievable new choreography from Justin Peck, all added together with Spielberg’s instinctual talent for capturing motion in a cinematic language everyone can speak, create a monumental experience that I could watch again and again and again. And I will. West Side Story is not only one of the best films of the year, it’s one of the best films Spielberg has ever made.
Pig is a movie soaked in tropes from five different genres, yet it’s still completely original in both its theory and (so much more importantly) its execution. It’s a revenge tale that centers around the meaninglessness of all. A friggin’ fat-free fable.
The restaurant industry stuff in the film is obviously sublime and very affecting for anyone who has worked in kitchens or has a deep connection with the act of preparing and cooking food for others. I’ve worked in the Back of House industry for many years, from dishwashing to line cooking to managing, and the glamour and shame of the entire process as presented here really connected with me, mainly due to its heightened reality of a world that is pretty dang gnarly. I’ve had unbelievably talented, yet woefully depressed, professionals teach me the basics (and finer ideas) on cooking, and it was a rollercoaster of emotions watching these sentiments be so thoroughly explored and appreciated for the depth they hold.
Pig is a film about loss, about wealth, about skill, about love, about life itself, and the meaning we find in the moments we claim to call our own. It’s also about the meaninglessness we can’t help but think looms over everything we do professionally. It’s a tricky and very specific feeling to tap into, and it’s one that most people, regardless of their history of working in the service industry in any capacity, can connect with. We all know what it’s like to fail and fake it til you make it, to have what feels like the entire world against you, and Pig mines this knowledge in its audience to create something wholly bleak yet undeniably beautiful, allowing a route to the soul to contemplate its even heavier, existential ideas.
Nicolas Cage gives one of his most poignant performances, containing an irresistible sadness that recalls his Oscar-winning performance in Leaving Las Vegas, but also pitted in the same lane of heightened, self-aware genre work that he has become so known for in the past decade. It’s a truly extraordinary piece of acting, and just one of the many, many things about this movie that I love with every fiber of my being.
We don’t get a lot of things to really care about, but I very much really care about this movie.
There were so many great movies this year that I can’t even bring myself to type an honorable mentions list. That shit would be too long, dude. But if there’s a movie (or movies!) that you enjoyed that you’d like to hear if I loved it, hit the comments and I’ll let ya know!! Big promise.
Founder of and programmer for Story Screen. Lover of stories and pizza in the dark. When he isn't watching movies, you can find him reading things about people watching movies. He currently resides in Poughkeepsie, NY, and most assuredly is going through a French Connection phase.