2021 was a return to form of sorts for the film industry, because even though 2020 had its moments movie-wise, it did feel a little lacking compared to years past. It was a relief that 2021 didn’t slouch cinematically, despite the world still not being able to move completely past covid yet. Theaters came back, and streaming services delivered more this year than they ever had before, the end result being a cornucopia of movie magic for audiences to experience both in theaters or at home. Out of all that content, the following films were the ones that stood out the most to me.
Honorable Mention: A Quiet Place Part II
While it doesn’t hit the same heights as its predecessor overall, as it features the first film’s one flaw more prominently, A Quiet Place Part II is still one of the better horror offerings I’ve seen throughout 2021. The returning cast members are as great as they were in Part 1, and joining them is Cillian Murphy, who immediately becomes a highlight of the franchise thus far. There’s also one scene in particular that I would say is the best part of both films by a significant margin, leaving me with my jaw on the floor for a few minutes. John Krasinski proves yet again that he is more than adequately skilled at creating moments of dread, anxiety, and terror with his return to the director’s chair for this long-awaited sequel while also getting his audience excited for whatever comes next in his world where being heard leads to being hunted.
Number 10: Last Night in Soho
Edgar Wright is one of my favorite filmmakers, and he continues to impress even if his latest film might be a little more uneven than his previous works. Last Night in Soho is a tense thriller that keeps you guessing until the end and has style for days. The cinematic flair that Wright’s fans love him for is present throughout the entire feature, Thomasin McKenzie and Anya Taylor-Joy’s performances are phenomenal, and the soundtrack is one of the year’s best. I was immediately drawn in by the camera work, which is consistently stunning, and even if parts of the story aren’t as intriguing as others, there isn’t a single scene that feels slow or worth cutting. Lastly, as is the case with almost every Edgar Wright production, I’ll probably need to see it a few more times in order to fully appreciate everything happening on-screen at any given moment.
Number 9: The Mitchells vs. the Machines
With Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse and The Mitchells vs. the Machines, Sony Pictures Animation is building a reputation for crafting awesome movies with gorgeous, computer-generated visuals, strong humor, and bizarre, endearing characters. The story is a little formulaic, but it’s sweet and sincere enough that I honestly had a hard time holding its predictability against it, and the rest of the flick is a total blast otherwise. The voice cast, which includes comedic actors such as Abbi Jacobson, Danny McBride, Olivia Coleman, Fred Armisen, and Maya Rudolph is outstanding from top to bottom, and sells the dramatic beats almost as effectively as the humor. Then there’s the aforementioned animation; The Mitchells vs. the Machines is one of the most vibrant, colorful, and beautiful CG-animated films that I’ve ever seen. As far as 2021 releases that you can watch with the whole family go, this is definitely the cream of the crop.
Number 8: Mortal Kombat
This video game adaptation reboot definitely isn’t a masterpiece, but it more than succeeded in every aspect it needed to in order to please me, someone who’s been a fan of Mortal Kombat for over twenty years. The kast is stacked with martial arts talents who ensure their karachters walk that oh-so precarious balance of likeable, often komical, always badass, and that the fights are intense and brutal in addition to being insanely gory. The dialogue is also wonderfully cheesy and self aware, yet never hinders the action, and the darkly fantastical story feels in line with something you’d see in the games (which admittedly are built to get you from one epic beatdown to the next). Director Simon McQouid knows exactly what drew fans like me to the franchise and kept us enveloped in it, and translates it to the screen as well as I had hoped he would.
Number 7: Mad God
Mad God is expertly crafted, uniquely unsettling, and a cinematic experience like no other. There isn’t a clear narrative to follow in Mad God, but instead of a story we get to explore a bizarre, macabre world from the mind of VFX legend Phil Tippett, who delivers once again. There are so, so many moments throughout Tippett’s passion project that are as technically impressive as they are twisted. The stop-motion animation is breathtaking, each massive area throughout the hellish world that we’re taken to feels distinct, haunting, and the beings who dwell within them are consistently, jaw-droppingly horrific. I think the film occasionally gets too gross for its own good, but maybe I’m just being overly sensitive; after all, it’s basically a journey across what I assume is Hell on Earth or an approximation of Hell itself. It doesn’t matter if my single gripe with it is valid or not though, because either way Mad God is still one of the 2020’s best horror films so far.
You can read my full review of Mad God here.
Number 6: Bo Burnham: Inside
Inside is more than just a comedy special. It’s as brilliant as it is bizarre, going back and forth between hysterically funny and astonishingly raw, highlighting star/director/writer/everything else Bo Burnham’s sense of humor and despair in equal measure. It definitely isn’t for everyone, especially since we can’t put the trauma of covid completely in our rearview just yet, but there’s no denying the talent and ingenuity on display throughout. I know I’m late to the party here, but after seeing Eighth Grade, Promising Young Woman, and Inside, it’s clear to me now that Burnham is one of the most gifted individuals working today in the comedy circuit or film industry. Bless him for sharing his wit, humor, and state of mind with us. Giving us that insight probably wouldn’t have been easy for Burnham even in brighter days, but doing so during a pandemic that kept us locked away from the world and brought many of us to our psychological/metaphorical knees? Bravo.
Number 5: Spider-Man: No Way Home
The conclusion of the MCU’s “Homecoming trilogy” is a wonderful film for fans of the webhead. It pays homage to the wall-crawler’s previous, live-action adventures, while telling a story that evokes a similar array of feelings one might feel from his greatest comic book arcs; one that exemplifies how truly selfless and pure of heart Peter Parker is, and one that offers hearty laughs along with emotional depth. No Way Home also manages to succeed where the ending chapters of the previous live-action Spidey continuities failed by bringing in – and doing justice to – multiple villains all at once. Every antagonist, hero, and supporting player is given time to shine, and the cast sells pretty much everything they need to. It stumbles with a plot point or two, but the sheer ambition of what No Way Home sets out to accomplish is astounding, as is how it succeeds so often with so much. I could see it not being as big a hit with those who aren’t huge Spider-Man fans (although, even Zac loved it?), but to me, this was fairly close to everything I could’ve asked for.
Number 4: No Time to Die
No Time to Die is a bold and shockingly fitting finale for the best Bond actor yet (yeah, I said it!). It starts a little slower – yet much darker – than you’d probably expect, but is a thrilling ride for the vast majority of the journey, and eventually creates some of the most dangerous and personal stakes for the legendary spy in his entire decades-spanning history. No Time to Die is also one of the funnier films in Daniel Craig’s run, utilizing a small number of the supporting cast with pretty solid backgrounds in comedy. Rami Malek’s big bad isn’t given enough time to really make an impression (he fares far better than Christoph Waltz in Spectre though) but that’s pretty much the only complaint that can levy against the film. With all said and done, No Time to Die is exactly the kind of note I wanted the tenure of Craig’s 007 to end on, even if I didn’t know it.
Also, I need an Ana de Armas spin-off as soon as possible.
Number 3: Pig
Pig is yet another example that I can point to in order to back up my belief that Nic Cage is an exceptionally gifted and often overlooked actor. Cage brings a quiet intensity to his character, Rob, keeping a mix of rage, sorrow, and that career-defining chaotic energy he normally exudes just below the surface. Co-star Alexx Wolf is also in near-top form, giving tons of additional depth to Amir, the closest thing Rob has to an ally on his rescue mission. Many initial reactions to Pig’s trailer compared it to John Wick, and while there are similarities, they aren’t the ones I expected. It’s a more dramatic, more human deconstruction of the revenge-thriller subgenre, and subverts your expectations in ways that are equally clever and poignant. Pig spends as much time establishing the underlying pain and emotional baggage of its protagonists as much as it does on their mission to reclaim the stolen swine, and it’s all the more impactful for it.
Number 2: The Green Knight
David Lowery’s somewhat surreal take on this classic Arthurian tale is easily the best movie I’ve seen based on anything Round Table-adjacent, and an epic adventure more than worthy of the legends that inspired it. Leading man Dev Patel is a legitimate marvel, allowing you to really feel the weight on the soon-to-be Knight’s shoulders along with the discomfort and immense psychological strain he’s clearly under. The majority of the supporting cast is phenomenal too, with the likes of Alicia Vikander, Sean Harris, and Joel Edgerton performing as well as their also-award-winning careers would have you expect. The writing, cinematography, score, and sound design are of a similar quality to the cast, pulling you in and keeping you completely enveloped in every on-screen event from the first shot to the last. Very, very few films are made so well in every aspect, or have kept me in such a state of awe as I watched them. Simply put, The Green Knight is filmmaking magic.
You can read my full review of The Green Knight here.
Number 1: The Suicide Squad
Taking the top spot on my list (after a last-minute rewatch) is the latest superhero project of James Gunn’s, The Suicide Squad. It’s the DC Extended Universe’s strongest entry to date, and one of my favorite superhero films in general. Gunn had already established how well he could turn relatively unknown comic book heroes into ones that are genuinely memorable and enjoyable in his first two Guardians of the Galaxy films, and now he’s done an even finer job with lamer, mostly D-list bad guys. Warner Bros. gave the unquestionably talented director carte blanche with The Suicide Squad’s story, tone, and characters, and the result is a hilarious, R-rated action spectacle with just the right amount of heart and a cast of charming, yet less-than-noble antiheroes at its center. From John Cena’s trigger happy Peacemaker to a walking shark in shorts voiced by Sylvester Stallone, almost every member of the star-studded, eponymous crew of ne’er do wells is perfectly cast and written, keeping you invested in their survival… or eagerly anticipating their demise in one of the movie’s batshit insane action setpieces with a darkly enthusiastic glee. It’s pure, unadulterated, unfiltered fun, and my favorite film of 2021.
And those were my favorite films of 2021! Let me know if you agree (or disagree) with my choices by commenting below, on Twitter, or on Letterboxd, and you can see every new release that I watched this year on the latter as well. Until next time, remember: the best seats are in the Middle of the Row!