Heading warily into 2021, I wasn’t a confident moviegoer. After all, 2020 had been a cinematic wipeout thanks to the global pandemic and its resulting quarantines. But as cinemas gradually re-opened, and I committed myself to attending as regularly (and as safely) as possible, I soon found that some real gems were making their way into the movieverse. Some of these films were “big movies” held over from 2020, sure, but my favorites were the small independent and foreign films that suddenly found themselves gracing multiplex screens. I’m talking about movies like Pig and Lamb and Antlers, that wonderfully odd assortment of farm-themed strangeness. Or The Sparks Brothers, Edgar Wright’s frenetically whack-o music documentary that had empty auditoriums all to itself in mid-summer. There were also some excellent streaming-exclusive films, like Riders of Justice and CODA, but for me the real movie experience will always be the cinema—even a deserted one.
And that was the big problem in 2021—empty auditoriums. Everyone was still suspicious of closed-in spaces with shared, circulated air. At least until a little movie called Spider-Man: No Way Home broke the spell, 2021 was a lonely time at the movies. I tried to do my tiny part every week or so, but more often than not I was all by my lonesome, worrying that my local theater couldn’t possibly survive much longer. (While my local northern Colorado theaters remained closed for months, I even ventured across the border into Wyoming, where Cheyenne theaters opened earlier and hosted a variety of interesting flicks to sparse crowds.) But cinemas plowed forward, one bag of popcorn at a time, and it seemed like audiences might never come back. Now, however, even as COVID-19 tries new ways to infect the populace (thanks to throngs of the unvaccinated), movie theaters are back open and thriving; the latest Spider-Man has already entered the top 10 box office hits of all time.
So I’m feeling a little heartened, but my mild paranoia remains. The truth is, in the age of streaming media, the cinema will probably keep enduring its long, slow slide toward a niche existence. But the same could probably be said for a relic like myself, who continues to enjoy LPs and CDs and films on physical discs! With all that being said, it’s with an excitement tinged with melancholy that I present my top 20 films of 2021:
- Pig—The biggest surprise of the year, this little movie that becomes profound. It’s the story of a chef lost to the wilderness, living alone in a pacific northwest forest with a truffle-hunting pig. When the valuable pig is stolen, Chef Cage goes on a single-minded hunt. You might think it’s going to be a typical tale of revenge, but Pig has subtler, more resonant things in mind. What happened to this chef long before the events of the film? The way Pig metes out those revelations is masterful. It’s also got the best Nicolas Cage performance in years. Who knew you’d get all emotional over a little porker?
- Don’t Look Up—Another big surprise, a brilliant satire that’s nothing like what you expect but manages to accurately skewer the world we’ve devolved to. Don’t Look Up is a movie that’s going to grow in stature over time: It’s a film that’s been called unsubtle, but that’s exactly the point. We live in an era that utterly lacks nuance. I love how in-your-face this movie is, as if that’s the only way left to communicate its obvious message.
- The Power of the Dog—Jane Campion’s adaptation of the modern classic Thomas Savage novel hits all the right notes and—I’m saying it right here–will win the Best Picture Oscar. It has the measured pace of a great western, and its secrets become clear with breathtaking subtlety. By the time the powerful third act arrives, you realize that it has snuck up on you and has changed everything.
- Licorice Pizza—Paul Thomas Anderson’s hangout flick features two indelible characters (and first-time performances) and simply delivers a great nostalgic time. Alana Haim and Cooper Hoffman are a magnetically strange and unlikely screen couple, outshining the veterans all around them. I even love the silly politically incorrect elements of this tale! We need more of that kind of thing in this culture we’re in.
- The Green Knight—A reimagining of the Sir Gawain tale, this film is an incredible visual feast full of indelible performances and vivid imagery and soundscapes. For some reason, I resisted this film during its initial theatrical run, but when I caught it on Blu-ray, I was overwhelmed by its beauty and the power of the tale.
- Dune—Denis Villenueve’s take on the Frank Herbert novel is huge, weighty, and perfectly realized, leaving the campy Lynch film for the Lynch apologists. I saw this film in an “IMAX Lite” auditorium and was enveloped by its massive soundscape and its otherworldly cinematography and design. It’s flawlessly cast, too. Yes, it’s only half the story, and that worried me for a month or two, but now that Part 2 has been greenlit, we have another stunning sci-fi epic to look forward to.
- Riders of Justice—Here’s a dark Danish comedy starring Mads Mikkelsen that has all the makings of a brutal revenge tale but ends up unexpectedly sweet and sad and rewarding.
- The Sparks Brothers—Probably the best time I had at the movies this year, Edgar Wright’s loving tribute to this band is propulsive and hilarious. It was such an odd experience, moving through this band’s extensive, years-long discography, realizing that the Sparks had only pierced my teenaged awareness, back in the ’80s, with one song: “Cool Places.” But they’re SO much more than that.
- Spider-Man: No Way Home—The second-best time I had at the movies! The trilogy enters the multiverse and deals with nostalgia the right way. (See disappointments below.) The first two films in Tom Holland’s “Home” trilogy, Homecoming and Far from Home, were child’s play compared with this emotionally powerful, far-reaching conclusion. It combines past and present in such a rich way that it leaves you flabbergasted.
- Nightmare Alley—Guillermo del Toro’s adaptation of the classic William Gresham novel is a noir beauty. I wasn’t as enamored as most people were with Best Picture-winning The Shape of Water, finding it a little strained and obvious, but to me Nightmare Alley is a return to form (if not genre). It’s dark and brutal and weird, and it’s right up my own alley. I just thank the cinema gods that movies like this are still being made in the age of films like my #9!
- Saint Maud—My favorite horror film of the year deals with intersection between religious faith and madness.
- West Side Story—Turns out, Spielberg had a great musical in him. This remake makes changes to the original that both tighten it up and bring it out into the open.
- The French Dispatch—Not a classic Wes Anderson, but parts of this anthology film are as intricately rewarding as anything he’s done.
- CODA—Hey, sometimes I’m a sucker for a crowd-pleaser, and this tale of a “child of deaf adults” is certainly that.
- Titane—The strangest film of the year both titillates and horrifies.
- Red Rocket—An ex-porn star/current scumbag returns to his Texas town to find a new beginning. This film has interesting, subtle things to say about how the world went sour in 2016.
- Benedetta—Paul Verhoeven’s nunsploitation flick brings the kink and the blasphemy!
- The World to Come—A powerful tale of forbidden romance and joy and loss.
- The Night House—Here’s a great, twisty horror tale, led well by Rebecca Hall.
- C’mon C’mon—This black-and-white Joaquin Phoenix film is well worth your time, examining family in the 21st century.
Even a surprisingly strong year for film is going to have its share of disappointments, and—like any year—some of those were potential blockbusters that I’d really been looking forward to. Here are my top disappointments, in no particular order:
- “Ghostbusters: Afterlife”—Nostalgia done wrong; fan service delivers scenes that are nonsensical beyond spoonfeeding the audience.
- “Old”—M. Night Shyamalan is reduced to awkward, stupid filmmaking.
- “Annette”—Sometimes audaciousness is just bad.
- “Cry Macho”—Clint Eastwood shows his age and out-of-touchness. Again.
- “Free Guy”—Ryan Reynolds may be the antichrist.
- “The Card Counter”—Tiffany Haddish isn’t the only bewilderingly bad thing about this one.
- “Matrix Resurrections”—Everyone’s just too old and politically correct now.
- “The Woman in the Window”—Start with a plagiarized novel, add a turgid self-serious tone, and you’ve got a crapfest.
- “Gunpowder Milkshake”—Could have been fun! Ended up ridiculous.