Every year I try to watch as many new movies as I can. Maybe to make compiling this list more challenging, maybe just to do it for the culture. Two years ago I might have fretted about the shift to streaming, but admittedly it’s been nice to have quicker access to new releases, to an extent.
There is simply too much stuff to watch these days. Never thought I’d say it, but catching up on the past year in film feels like homework. Perhaps it’s because studios slowly gained confidence last year and dumped everything at the same time. September to October was a doozy, and December was straight up mean. February feels much the same way for new releases available to stream. Now I’m just burnt out. As much as I wanted to postpone this list til I could complete my 2021 watchlist… I’ve decided to throw in the towel. I’m moving on. I just wanna go back to my default mode of rewatching Jackie Chan and ‘90s action movies.
No honorable mentions this time around, though I will give shoutouts to Nightmare Alley (GDT can do no wrong), A Quiet Place Part II (we all forgot about this one huh?), The Suicide Squad (CBM of the year for me), and Raging Fire (the best action movie of 2021).
Alas, these are my top ten favorite movies of 2021:
10. Fear Street
Yes, I’m talking about THE WHOLE BLOODY TRILOGY. Director Leigh Janiak remixes entire eras of horror here and does so with loving pastiche. From the ‘90s meta-slasher, ‘80s summer camp, and a little bit of bewitch-y folklore, Fear Street is a neon-brite jukebox with incredible replay value. I ate this thing up when 2021’s summer movie season went kaput. Netflix’s “summer event” filled a double whammy of a void as The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It didn’t quite live up to my expectations. And, in retrospect, the infamous bread slicer kill stole Halloween Kills’ lunch. Fear Street brought the fun, the vibes, and the bloodlust – a hype-filled horror mashup akin to a geeky trading card game. Fear Street movies every year, Netflix, pleaseandthankyou.
Dune makes spectacle out of things we see plenty of in sci-fi and take for granted: spaceships landing and taking off, armadas stretching far as the eye can see, or the jaw-dropping panorama of the desert reminiscent of Lawrence of Arabia. Franchises like Star Wars and Star Trek have understandably made us giddy for the “action” component of modern sci-fi. Denis Villeneuve exercises patience, and bids us to savor every frame as a wonder to behold moment-to-moment. Dune is one of the few movies that shook me literally—an audio-visual experience that can only be captured in the theater, if only for the enormity of the sandworm sequence. When that thing came charging like a freight train, rattling my seat and the entire world it seemed, I knew my ass was already seated for Part Two.
8. The Green Knight
The most sumptuous visuals I’ve seen all year. This movie cost $15 million to make and it looks better than movies 12x that. This is not your dad’s King Arthur telling. (Nor is this a movie for everyone.) Gawain, in Arthurian legend, is destined for great things. But Dev Patel’s Gawain is a mess; he drinks, fornicates, stays out late, often up to no good, and is an overall disappointment. (A millennial, basically.) A challenge presents itself at King Arthur’s court by a mysterious Green Knight. Greatness is his for the taking, until the Green Knight promptly picks up his decapitated head, and Gawain awaits the same fate in a year’s time. On the road, Gawain is tested with the virtues of a good knight. When a woman or ghost asks for help, he asks rather non-chivalrously, “what will I get in return?” When he stumbles upon giants, he asks to ride on their back. Under the roof of a generous lord and lady, Gawain gets a little too comfy under the covers. So when he finally meets the Green Knight, it’s all put into harsh perspective: is it better to live as a legend in an unjust world, or to die for a single act of honor? The Green Knight entranced me under it’s cerebral, medieval spell. Fellow millennial fuckups, we have our banner.
7. The Last Duel
A trilogy of perspectives shines a cold hard light on honor and chivalry—though not as fallen virtues, but as byproducts of man’s ego. Both Jean de Carrouges and Jacques Le Gris believe themselves to be the righteous hero, with the Lady Maguerite as window dressing after the fact. Maguerite is damned long before we get to her POV; she doesn’t get to be the main character in her own story. Ridley Scott couldn’t have cast a better actress. Jodie Comer is a towering tour de force, acting in circles around veterans like Ben Affleck and Matt Damon. The subtle changes Comer makes in each retelling by the mere tilt of her head, or a single tear down her cheek; it’s mightily controlled and fine-tuned. The little details in each recounting, too, is wielded like a devastating Warhammer to the chest. The Last Duel makes a strong case for revisiting the damn history books and who wrote them to begin with. (After 700 years, us men would literally fight each other to the death instead of doing some moral inventory, go figure.) If you can believe it, The Last Duel had one of the happiest endings of the year: “She never remarried.”
6. West Side Story
Steven Spielberg puts every movie musical of the last decade TO SHAME. The scale, ambition, and staging of this thing is sheer magic. The numbers are snappy as hell, and colors burst on screen like fireworks. Spielberg and cinematographer Janusz Kamiński executed this on the day and IN CAMERA. They’re truly among the last auteurs in an era of moviemaking that’s become reliant on post-production to color-correct and light. There are shots in this movie that had me sobbing. Like Tony singing in a puddle, or Maria shining magnanimously in closeup. Or the all-out wonder of the “America” number, where reds and yellows and whole bodies ignite across the frame like cinematic constellations. This is Romeo & Juliet in Manhattan, and a heartbreaking rendering of the American dream. Try as we might, this is not the land of opportunity; it’s a rubble where the few and the privileged can rise. All that’s left, in the end, are the gangs.
5. The Empty Man
Dropped in the limbo of 2020 by Disney who was happy to be rid of a late 20th Century Fox property, The Empty Man never stood a chance. I’m considering this a 2021 release because The Empty Man’s arrival on HBO Max filled a weird void when studios were retooling their summer slate into streaming upcharges.
The Empty Man begins as a search for a missing girl that revolves around an urban legend known as “the Empty man.” What our protagonist will uncover is something more cosmic and existentially terrifying, and also just straight up terrifying. I’m a sucker for pensive journeys into the self, and I just love me some slow walking in film. (One of many reasons Blade Runner 2049 is my jam.) The Empty Man initially invokes something moody and nightmarish as The Ring, then spirals into the cult terror of The Wicker Man. The line “Do you know that the brain can itch?” drove me MAD. The ending is a master class of an emotional unraveling, and the whole construction of this hopeless labyrinth is as brilliant as it is black-tar bleak. It’s a feel-bad, downer of a movie that I can’t in good conscience recommend to everyone. If you thought Hereditary was tame, then boy do I have a movie for you.
Disney Animation has evolved from the storybook princess setup and heartily embraced some weighty coming-of-age themes. Zootopia deals with prejudice; Raya and the Last Dragon is about the hard-won battle of coming together, and Encanto wrestles with the weight of family expectation. Mirabel is surrounded by a loving family, but that same family tiptoes around her being ordinary. She can’t lift houses or conjure a storm; she’s just Mirabel, and this ironically makes her special out of the bunch. But that doesn’t stop the passive-aggressive to outright aggressive blows. Mirabel lives in quite a big household, too. The bigger the family, the more piercing the reminders. It’s absurd how our families can make us feel incomplete sometimes. It’s a complicated song and dance, and Encanto nails it with flying colors. This is the Disney movie I wish I had growing up. To hell with “Hakuna Matata,” I’d have sung “Surface Pressure” through adolescence; and both “Waiting on a Miracle” and “Dos Oruguitas” turned me into a puddle of a human being. Though I don’t think my heart could take another one, I’d give my entire being for an Encanto 2.
3. The Matrix Resurrections
The Matrix Resurrections was my most anticipated movie of 2021. I gotta say, it wasn’t what I expected—and that’s what I fucking love about it. We live in a blockbuster culture that weaponizes our nostalgia, one that’s content with dipping into fan service to placate viewers and score cheap bucks. At this stage, I yearn for surprise. I crave a story not giving me what I want, and instead gives me something I never knew I needed. Resurrections is a reckoning with the current state of “content” and ultimately with itself. Director Lana Wachowski asks: why make a fourth Matrix movie? And how can you make another Matrix movie when people took the wrong lessons from it, the story having been butchered of all meaning?
Lana does what any shameful creator would do – she smashes her own creation to smithereens. The iconic “bullet time” sequence is a now dry punchline; the franchise’s philosophical underpinnings are put on a slab of its own Comedy Central Roast; it even takes a shot at the Wachowskis’ original intent (“trans politics”). Lana tears everything down, though not for the sake of destruction, but to rebuild anew. The last act of Resurrections is keenly a heist movie. No con jobs or retcons here, it’s simply to reclaim the earnest spirit of a franchise where one character brought another back to life with a kiss. It’s the hat-trick of Rocky where you thought you were watching a boxing movie, only to find it was a love story the whole time. With the Matrix trilogy, we’ve witnessed a sci-fi action epic unfold before our eyes. Resurrections, then, boldly states that this was an epic romance too. The coffee shop, man. It HAD to be at a goddamn coffee shop. 🥺
2. The Mitchells vs. the Machines
Mitchells vs. the Machines set the bar too damn high way too early last year: a dazzling visual style, a genuinely laugh-out-loud script (that Furby scene tho), and a sweet father-daughter story at its core. It’s a movie that digs into the techno fears of every 21st century parent – the damage our devices are wreaking upon our kids. I myself started to worry when my daughter was on TikTok more than she was playing with her toys. She has long since ceased her drawings on the walls and the refrigerator door.
Mitchells vs. the Machines is perfectly in sync with our penchant for distraction. Scenes pause to insert a meme, a cat filter, or the latest viral craze like an indictment of where we’re at socially. Yet, that same tendency for distraction is also a cheeky reassurance of what technology can do – make us more creative than we ever thought possible. (A hilariously clever failsafe for algorithms studying our every move.) In another apocalyptic scenario, Rick Mitchell’s survival skills would make him the hero. But in the 5G era, it’s Katie Mitchell’s time to shine babyyyyy. Whether it’s painting the road atop their car for “camouflage,” or using a meme-ready dog video like the most efficient anti-robot weapon of all; Katie’s wicked artistry is literally the solution to an A.I.’s ridiculous plan for world domination.
Sure, technology gets in the way sometimes. But it’s also the tool that helps us recall—even prolong a cherished memory, so it can’t be all that bad. It’s up to us to bridge the gap anyhow. I might instinctively groan whenever my daughter is on TikTok, yet I can’t help but watch in awe at what she’s able to do at her age – make videos purely for her own enjoyment. It hit me one day recently: she didn’t give up on her drawings; those drawings just evolved into something else.
I don’t what to tell ya except that I fucking loved this movie. I loved it so much that even after I checked it out on HBO Max, I
threatened cajoled a bunch of friends to see it in theaters, and I knew then where it would end up on this list. (AND that I’d make it my whole personality here on out.)
Malignant is a hall-of-mirrors for James Wan’s previous stabs at the genre, and a roller coaster of a horror movie in the vengeful spirit of Evil Dead. The plot finds Madeline psychically linked to a psycho-supernatural killer, only to find in the film’s gonzo third-act that it’s her. Er, her backwards self—her half-formed parasite of a twin brother named Gabriel who didn’t quite separate at birth and… ah who gives a shit. This isn’t about clearing the Cinema Sins test; it’s about THE AUDACITY. When Dr. Fields says the utmost ridiculous line, “he’s broadcasting his thoughts,” or when the movie pulls the adopted sibling card straight out of a daytime soap opera; you’re either onboard for the wild ride or you’re not.
Wan’s latest is a bloody refreshing antidote to an internet age where all movies seemingly have to be high-IQ, morally upstanding, positive and life-affirming, etc. What’s Malignant about? Letting go. It’s about funny and fucked up things happening to people, which can be cinematic when done for no other rhyme or reason than for the pure, unadulterated joy of entertainment. It’s camp, over-the-top, it’s escapism at its primal form and the suspension of disbelief that happens when the lights dim and the screen comes to. This gnarly little devil snuck up on me and was by far the most fun I had at the movies all year long. Malignant rocks, Malignant rules, and I sincerely hope this isn’t the last we’ve seen of Gabriel’s radio-friendly face. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have an Oscars fan-favorite campaign to manage.