I began my “Best Movies of 2020” article with the hope that 2021 would, on a macro scale, be a better year that launched us into a new, better future. At that point in time, the United States had completely botched its handling of the pandemic, and seemingly every single industry (including, of course, the film industry), was plunged into major uncertainty. The New Year brought the promise of change, and with life-saving vaccines around the corner with unimpeachable, measurable science backing up their legitimacy and effectiveness, the promise of 2021 was almost too much for my mind to handle. But here at the start of 2022, it seems COVID-19 is our new normal, which is terrifying when considering the future of anything, but especially the film industry.
But enough about the seemingly insurmountable doom that surrounds us, let’s talk about something that, in a world like the one we live in, feels more and more trivial every passing day: movies!
Last year, I made categories of honorable mention-like titles prior to my top 10 list, and I decided that I would make it an annual tradition to use those same categories to highlight films that didn’t quite make the list. So without any further ado, here is my list:
Most Surprising Film — For this category, there was one film that stood head and shoulders above the rest. I am of course referring to James Wan’s wildly original horror film Malignant, a film that feels like something you’ve seen many times, before pulling the rug from under you and going into full-blown bonkers town. It has been a very long time since I’ve seen a film that I wasn’t really vibing complete a full 180-degree turn and become a film I unapologetically love. Due to the possibility that someone reading this hasn’t seen Malignant, I don’t want to reveal the surprise. What I can say is if you are a horror fan, you owe it to yourself to experience Wan’s slice of insanity.
You Just Didn’t Understand It, Man — I feel this year in particular, I have seen people champion all sorts of films, so this category was a hard one to decide. For this category, I am choosing Guy Ritchie‘s Wrath of Man. Perhaps it is because this was one of the first films I returned to the theater to see after being fully vaccinated, but I found this film to be a fun, hard-boiled time at the movies. Jason Statham is the definition of a hit-or-miss actor for me, but he worked in this film, and Wrath of Man ultimately feels more like an ensemble piece. If you are looking for a moody, deeply cynical action film, then seek this one out.
Most Criminally Underseen — One of my favorite filmmakers of all time is George Romero, who passed away in 2017 leaving behind a legacy unlike any other filmmaker in the history of the medium. As the man who essentially created the modern concept of the zombie, how fitting a thing it is for him to continue to haunt us from beyond the grave with my pick for this category: The Amusement Park. The surreal, day-lit nightmare not only has an especially hilarious making-of story, but also provides a highly disturbing vision of aging in a society that doesn’t care about you, all told in the microcosm of the titular “amusement park.” This is an unforgettable film from a legend of cinema.
Film(s) I’m Most Butthurt Didn’t Make the List — This year was a nightmare to whittle down my list to 10 picks because in order to do so, I have to leave out some incredible works of art. As a result, I’m going to briefly list multiple films here that genuinely hurt me to not include. Cusp is a devastating documentary and portrait of three girls coming of age in rural Texas. The Last Duel is further solidification that Ridley Scott is one of the greatest filmmakers of all time. Rose Glass’ Saint Maud is a deeply disturbing portrait of faith and delusion that is one of the most memorable debuts in recent memory. Flee is a profoundly human documentary and one of the most moving films of the year. Red Rocket is a disturbing and engaging look into an America we often do not see portrayed on film from Sean Baker, who has made a career of portraying underrepresented communities. Finally, Pig features the best Nicolas Cage performance in a very long time (this is coming from someone who considers Mandy one of his favorite films), taking what could be a standard revenge film and creating a tender story about forgiveness, loneliness, and grief.
Most Cinematic Experience of 2021 – Last year, the piece of media I chose was The Last of Us Part II, and this year, the most cinematic experience I had was Mike Flanagan’s Midnight Mass. This series is a stone-cold masterpiece and is by far my favorite piece of media in 2021. Nothing even comes close. I almost can’t find the words to articulate the genius of the narrative, the heartbreaking emotion, the gobsmacking performances, or the thought-provoking nature of the story’s examination of faith, doubt, death, family, love, and dogma. Prior to this series, Flanagan had already proven himself as one of the best filmmakers currently working in horror. With Midnight Mass, he has made a towering work that stands shoulder-to-shoulder with the greatest pieces of horror media ever made. If you have Netflix, and you have not watched this, I implore you to do so.
Now, onto what you likely clicked on the article to see:
#10: Nightmare Alley
From here on out, when a Guillermo Del Toro film seems to have a non-rapturous response, I am going to get very excited. Between Nightmare Alley and Crimson Peak, Del Toro works for me when he is stretching from monster movies into the realm of genres he has a clear passion for. Where the wildly underrated Crimson Peak saw Del Toro delve into gothic romance, Nightmare Alley is a neo-noir psychological thriller featuring an incredible cast including Bradley Cooper, Rooney Mara, Willem Dafoe, Toni Collette, and Cate Blanchett (and that’s not even all of them). The film weaves a constantly engrossing, twisted, and consistently surprising tale. From the opening scene, I was immersed in this world, and when the film reached its horrific conclusion (undoubtedly my favorite final scene of the year), I walked out into the cold December Colorado air and thought to myself, “cinema is alive.”
Julia Ducournau‘s sophomore feature Titane is an experience unlike any you have ever had. A difficult film to describe, no doubt, but an experience that you will not be able to shake. Despite being a wildly disturbing and transgressive film, how it addresses themes of family, pain, and gender dysphoria are surprisingly moving despite being coupled with some of the most shocking imagery this year had to offer. If there was any doubt that Raw was not conceived from a true visionary, then Titane will surely cement that fact, whether you love it or hate it.
#8: The Power of the Dog
Jane Campion‘s searing portrait of a man completely drowning in his perception of masculinity is a complex, methodical character study that features far and away the best performance of Benedict Cumberbatch‘s career. This isn’t unfamiliar territory for Campion, and in many ways, feels like a spiritual successor to her 1993 masterpiece, The Piano. How this film reveals information about its deeply flawed and three-dimensional characters is never anything short of fascinating. The ending recontextualizes the entire story in ways that beg for a rewatch. Having seen the film twice, that rewatch is necessary to fully realize how rewarding a film Campion’s latest truly is.
#7: The Green Knight
David Lowery is one of my favorite up-and-coming filmmakers, and his latest film, The Green Knight, is further proof that he is a versatile and interesting voice. His latest is based on the Arthurian legend of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Featuring an uber-sexy Dev Patel as Gawain, this fantasy film is really a meditative poem about fate. It feels both massive in scope, yet intimate and personal regarding the journey of our hero at the center. The final fifteen minutes feel like Lowery taking the themes he’s developed over the years such as the concept of time to breathtakingly display his power at visual storytelling. I get chills just thinking about the final line.
#6: Drive My Car
While watching Ryûsuke Hamaguchi’s Drive My Car, you, much like the characters populating the world of the film, don’t always feel like you are headed somewhere; that is, until you arrive. This film blew me away in its examinations of grief, art, and connection in a sometimes chaotic and unforgiving world. There are deeply beautiful scenes where characters simply drive in silence with one another (including what might be my favorite shot of the year involving a sunroof and cigarettes). If you allow this film to wash over you, I cannot imagine anyone finding the experience anything less than deeply moving and rewarding.
#5: The Worst Person in the World
I want to start by saying I think it’s silly that people are adding a film that essentially only has a 2022 release date to their 2021 lists (I realize that is exactly what I am doing here). It’s frustrating to add a film that someone reading this article cannot watch, but at the very least, including this on my list will hopefully get someone to watch it upon its release because you owe it to yourself to seek out this one. The Worst Person in the World is beautiful, grounded by an astonishing lead performance by Renate Reinsve as well as a shattering supporting performance by Anders Danielsen Lie. It’s a coming-of-age film for a person approaching their 30’s, and there is no point where it doesn’t feel completely honest and unflinching in its portrayal of relationships and modern love. This film packs a punch emotionally, but it is also a very funny film that cares about the characters at the center, even when they are making questionable choices. The times we live in are difficult to navigate, and this film grips the viewer with complicated, messy people attempting to work their way through modern struggles.
#4: The Matrix Resurrections
This is my most personal pick on the list. I love all of The Matrix films, as well as Lana Wachowski as a creative voice. With The Matrix Resurrections, Wachowski is working through her feelings on the state of modern blockbuster filmmaking, as well as the digital age we live in where faceless bots will attack you on every digital platform you navigate. Her usual “swing for the fences” style is on display in virtually every single frame. This is an angry film about the state of an industry wherein originality is in sharp decline, but it is also an earnest love story about two characters who I care for and have for the majority of my life. It’s divisive, and it should be; it is, after all, a Matrix sequel.
#3: Petite Maman
Celine Sciamma’s follow-up to the astonishing Portrait of a Lady on Fire is here in the understated Petite Maman, and it more than lives up to her previous film. A melancholic ode to motherhood, this film knocked the wind out of me. It manages to say more about life, family, and grief in its brief 72-minute runtime than other films do with three hours. I was an emotional mess watching this film, and as it began to wrap up, I was sad to leave these characters behind. They taught me so much.
#2: Bo Burnham: Inside
The defining piece of COVID-era art. It’s impossible not to be in complete awe of the talent that one individual (in this case, that individual being Bo Burnham) wields watching this work of art. I also think it’s one of the most insightful pieces of media ever made about what it is like to live in the digital age. It’s difficult to pick one moment that showcases its brilliance, because virtually every single scene is packed with brilliant moments or observations. I felt a great sense of catharsis watching Inside. “That Funny Feeling” seems like a defining anthem for the times we live in. More a documentary than a comedy special, and more an epic of human emotion than a documentary.
#1: Licorice Pizza
The final film I watched in 2021 was a 70mm projection of Paul Thomas Anderson‘s exquisite Licorice Pizza and the moment I walked out, I knew it was my favorite film of the year. I’ve seen this film described as an easy-going, delightful trip down memory lane, and I couldn’t disagree with that characterization more. This is a complicated film about a complicated woman who feels stuck in place and will latch herself onto anything that will potentially propel her forward. Alana Haim gives the best performance I saw in 2021 (in her debut feature film debut, no less) as she completely embodies the character of Alana. It seems impossible to separate this film from the discourse (including two completely unnecessary scenes involving Asian racism that are completely inconsequential), but I couldn’t help but get swept up into this world. While there is an undeniable charm to this film, I ultimately found it to be an imperfect, and melancholy portrait of an imperfect time. A film about a person trying (and failing) to feel important and loved.
Thank you for reading! What are your thoughts on my best movies of 2021? Comment down below!
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