Posted January 18, 2022 / Updated February 19, 2022
love to come out here and say that my experience with the movies returned
to a place of relative normalcy in 2021, but I would be hopelessly
That's not to say that I didn't consume as many cinematic offerings as I could in the past twelve months, but rather that - very much like I did in 2020 - I was forced to get creatively varied in my approach to seeing them (especially with our seemingly never-ending pandemic woes). I managed to feel safe and secure enough to make a return to cinemas in the latter half of 2021 (thanks to them re-opening in my neck of the woods on top of myself becoming fully vaccinated), but a lion's share of what I screened last year remained on the home front via VOD (either because of availability or health and safety issues). Interestingly enough, my screening and review output reached a three year high in 2021, but equally compelling was that - despite seeing a dozen more films last year than in 2020 - I truly struggled to post many holy grail 4-star reviews. For the first time since I can remember as an online critic, my list below of the TEN BEST films of the year is not completely comprised of 4-star rated efforts as graded by yours truly. Am I being tougher on films...or were the silver screen offerings of the past year less than deserving?
Still, the ten picks below are nevertheless highly worthy of being on an upper echelon quality list like this, and as I've tried to do every year in posting these annual compilations I aim for variety...and 2021 had a lot of it. Of my TOP TEN there includes: a fantasy; a 20th Century Western; a deeply strange psychological drama (involving farm animals); another deeply strange psychological drama (involving gambling); a black and white shot coming of age drama; a black and white shot adaptaptation of Shakespeare; a revenge thriller; a young adult dramedy; a super hero blockbuster (a looooooong time in the coming); and a medieval drama. And because I just can't put out a list of just ten great films, I also offer up a greater TOP 25 list to give honorable mentions to other work that just couldn't quite crack the TOP 10.
One last note: There remains a few films that I have not been afforded the opportunity to screen yet in Saskatoon as of the date of this blog's posting, namely LICORICE PIZZA, KING RICHARD, and LOST DAUGHTER. I will endeavor to seek those out ASAP and if they warrant inclusion on this list...then watch for updates!
one more last note:
Oh, one more last note:
2021 was really different year for movie releases and Oscar eligibility. Some absolutely sensational offerings like NOMADLAND, MINARI, and THE FATHER - all of which became Academy Award nominated and winning darlings - either had limited release in late 2020 or early release within the first few months of 2021. I screened these three too late for them to make my TEN BEST of 2020 blog, but feel that they've been discussed and dissected so much during the past awards season that it would feel odd to put them on this TEN BEST list. And depending on who you talk to, some see them as 2021 offerings, whereas others perceive them as 2020 releases. To avoid any confusion (or a feeling like I'm moving backwards into the past with these lists), I've opted to consider them in-limbo releases caught between this year's and last year's TEN BEST compilations and have decided not to list them at all here. But are they amazing 4-star films? Unquestionably, in my humble mind.So, let the accolades begin with my number one film of 2021 followed by 14 other highly worthy candidates:
My choice for the
number one reason why you should have ran to the cinema last year was
a no-brainer/zero hesitation one on my part.
Director Jane Campion re-emerged in 2021 to remind us all of her commanding might as a bravura storyteller with her stunning adaptation of Thomas Savage's 1967 novel THE POWER OF THE DOG.
An early 20th Century, Montana set neo-Western (such an atypical time period for most examples of the genre), this Netflix produced drama - Campion's first film behind the camera in over a decade - was a supreme gamble and game of bait and switch. THE POWER OF THE DOG started off as one kind of Western about the toxic nature of frontier masculinity, but then as the film slowly and surely washed over viewers it became something fundamentally different about lopsided power dynamics, combating deeply rooted urges, living in complete denial, and, most crucially, dishing out revenge in the most coldly unexpected and protracted ways. With a ferociously empowered Benedict Cumberbatch (not everyone's ideal actor to be cast as a cowboy) giving one of his most richly textured and multi faceted performances of his storied career alongside Campion's passionate and keenly observant filmmaking eye, THE POWER OF THE DOG achieved the nearly impossible of subverting some of the most well worn and established troupes of one of the oldest of movie genres.
Michael Sarnoski's PIG was the biggest cinematic Rorschach Test that I
came across in all of 2021...and I mean that as a sincere compliment.
Let's get legendary on-screen nutbar Nicolas Cage to play a hermit that was once a celebrated big city chef that goes on a JOHN WICK-inspired revenge spree to find the crooks that kidnapped his loyal and loving truffle-hunting pig.
On paper, PIG sounds utterly daft, to be sure, but the most utterly astounding and masterful thing about Sarnoski's directorial debut here was that he trolled our very expectations of this cockamamie premise and instead delivered a hauntingly melancholic and frequently moving commentary on loneliness, isolation, odd friendships, and how people at the lowest fringes of society find highly unique ways to connect with others. And Nicolas Cage here - in what could have easily (like, really easily) been yet another pathetic paycheck grabbing B-movie gig for him - gave one of his most layered and compelling performances in the latter stages of his troubled career. As an intimate character study and descend into an unlikely heart of darkness of its subject matter, PIG completely defied the odds more than just about any other film of last year.
in 2018 writer/director Paul Schrader's FIRST
REFORMED made my list of the TEN
BEST FILMS of that year; it was a faith-in-crisis drama about a
man of the cloth that was being thrust down a dark chasm of complete
emotional and spiritual breakdown.
The legendary TAXI DRIVER/RAGING BULL veteran screenwriter followed
that up with THE CARD COUNTER in 2021, yet another searing and
intoxicating psychological drama that honed in on the darker underbelly of
a traumatized character that's trying to seek some form of personal
salvation...even if it seems hopelessly and tragically out of reach.
thought that celebrated actor/director Kenneth Branagh made one of the
worst films of 2020 - and his career - with the woefully wrongheaded
sci-fi adventure/HARRY POTTER wanna-be ARTEMIS
FOWL, but in 2021 he roared back to creative heights with his
stunningly well realized BELFAST, which represented a tour de force return
to form for the Oscar winner.
Jensen's RIDERS OF JUSTICE was one stealthy curveball of a film.
It made viewers think that they were
getting one type of conventional and predictable genre picture, but then
it cunningly and sneakily pulled the rugs out from under all of our feet
to deliver something refreshingly unique and original (this is definitely
a trend on this list, eh?).
That's hard to pull off these days.
Nothing about CODA - at least on paper - was fresh or new.
was the kind of coming of age film that we've all seen so many times
You know the kind: A young and talented teenage girl that's trapped
and feels suffocated by her small town and obligations to her
eccentrically oddball family that has lofty career/education ambitions
that most likely would take her well away from those that she loves.
Oh, and also thrown in are the quirky and no-nonsense
teacher/mentor that nurtures the girl's talents, the hunky love interest,
and, of course, the big obligatory final competition/audition that will
serve as either a make or break moment for this young woman's future.
why is this Apple Original Film on my list of the TEN BEST of 2021?
Probably one of the most well publicized director's cuts of recent memory was ZACK SNYDER'S JUSTICE LEAGUE, and one with a deeply troubled production history that would make for a deeply compelling making of documentary all on its own.
For those living
under a rock, the first cut of JUSTICE LEAGUE back in 2017 was meant to be
a massive event film launching point for the larger DCEU, and one that, by
Snyder's admission, was so vast and sprawling that it would have required
two entries to be released. With
the polarizing response to Snyder's last film before it in BATMAN
V SUPERMAN: DAWN OF JUSTICE, Warner Brothers balked: Not only did
they want a lighter and more quippy film than what Snyder
envisioned, but also a shorter one. When personal tragedy struck Snyder, he left the project
before completion, leaving Warner Brothers to hire AVENGERS
helmer Joss Whedon to come in and "finish" JUSTICE LEAGUE, and
by "finish" that meant reshooting reportedly 80-90% of Snyder's
footage. The rest was proverbial history, with the disjointed feeling
JUSTICE LEAGUE being released to fan and critical backlash and major box
Snyder took to the convention circuit and revealed that he had his own cut of JUSTICE LEAGUE in the can, but that he needed time and capital to see it through to final fruition. The "Release the Snyder Cut" social media movement ensued, all of which culminated in Warner Brothers - in a completely unprecedented move - giving Snyder the go-ahead to finish his passion super hero mash up project (and with a cool $80 million given to him to complete it). His newly retooled JUSTICE LEAGUE triumphantly emerged as the real deal: A boldly uncompromising four hour cut that made for a legitimately - and infinitely more satisfying - viewing than Whedon's pinch hit effort, and one that gave these iconic DC heroes - and villains - the narrative scope and scale that they rightfully deserved. Most importantly, ZACK SNYDER'S JUSTICE LEAGUE took calculated risks and gambles with the handling of the material, many of which we never see with most other pre-packaged assembly line sameness we get from that...well...other cinematic universe. And for what it was worth, this represented a wholly triumphant follow-through on a once near mythologized promise from filmmaker that a longer, better, and more involved and complete version of this super hero squad's story was out there.
If you're one of
the Coen Brothers and you've decided to branch out all on your own as a
solo director...then why not ambitiously aim your sights exceedingly high
and adapt one of the most celebrated of all Shakespearian plays?
what Joel Coen did with his TRAGEDY OF MACBETH to mark his feature film
directorial debut after decades of celebrated work with his equally famous
10. THE LAST DUEL
this for a cinematic cocktail:
director Ridley Scott with Oscar winning screenwriters Ben Affleck and
Matt Damon to adapt Eric Jager's non-fiction historical novel concerning
the final recognized judicial duel fought in 14th Century France.
|...and now to round off my TEN BEST FILMS OF 2021 with my selections from 11-25:|
12. PASSING: Rebecca Hall made a superlative directorial debut with this beautifully shot black and white Netflix produced period drama based on the 1929 novel of the same name by Nella Larsen.
14. A QUIET PLACE: PART II:IWriter/director John Krasinski made another dread-filled nerve-jangler here that served as a very worthy expansion of his pioneering original.
15. VAL: A thoroughly revealing and intoxicating Amazon Prime documentary about the career, life and times of actor Val Kilmer, astoundingly made up of thousands of hours of his home movie footage.
17. THE GUILTY: Jake Gyllenhaal proved yet again why he might be the best actor of his generation to have never won an Oscar with his tour de force performance in this taut minimalist Netflix thriller from director Antoine Fuqua.
18. BARB AND STAR GO TO VISTA DEL MAR: One of the most sublimely uproarious and delightfully strange comedies of the year...and one that unfairly never found an audience.
19. COWBOYS: This delicately rendered and authentically grounded portrayal of a kid struggling with identity norms was fantastic for how it completely subverted audience expectations.
20. WRATH OF MAN: Director Guy Ritchie got his creative groove back big time with this criminally underrated pulp fiction crime saga.
21. OXYGEN: An unnervingly effective Netflix sci-fi thriller that did a lot with its extremely claustrophobic, mostly one setting premise.
22. NOBODY: The rather implausible stunt casting of 58-year-old Bob Odenkirk in this kick ass JOHN WICK clone managed to pay off handsomely.
23. STREET GANG: HOW WE GOT TO SESAME STREET: This utterly engaging documentary proved to be an unapologetic love ballad to a ground breaking and never duplicated before or since children's TV series.
24. FALLING: Featuring career defining, tour de force work by Lance Henriksen in a very difficult and polarizing role, this Viggo Mortenson written and directed family drama (his filmmaking debut) was a tough, but memorable watch.
25. THE HARDER THEY FALL: The second best Netflix produced Western of the year also combated some of the more off-putting legacies of Western mythology, and to its esteemed credit it succeeded at challenging them.
|Beyond my TOP 25, here's a further selection of films that are definitely worth seeing, but just not quite great enough to make the final cut:|
THE WORLD TO COME: Romance tales of two lost souls being trapped by circumstance and time while embracing forbidden love seem are as old as the art form, but this historical LGBT period drama was told with graceful dramatic touches and was richly atmospheric.
FINCH: Think equal parts TURNER AND HOOCH, CASTAWAY, SILENT RUNNING, THE ROAD, and I AM LEGEND, but with Tom Hanks, a cute doggie, and a self-aware robot; shockingly more charming than I was expecting.
IN THE CLOUD:
This Australian/America Netflix
produced drama about a tormented family that rescues and nurses a magpie
back to life sounded preposterous on paper, but was sensitively acted and
delved into worthy themes of shared grief and a unique forms of
This Australian/America Netflix produced drama about a tormented family that rescues and nurses a magpie back to life sounded preposterous on paper, but was sensitively acted and delved into worthy themes of shared grief and a unique forms of therapy.
MAP OF TINY PERFECT THINGS:
OF THE DEAD:
macabre and memorably efficient piece of low-budget horror filmmaking.
A brutally macabre and memorably efficient piece of low-budget horror filmmaking.
AND THE BLACK MESSIAH:
COURIER: Do minic
Cooke's historical spy thriller might have flown in under everyone's
radars this past year, but it was satisfyingly engaging in an old school
minic Cooke's historical spy thriller might have flown in under everyone's radars this past year, but it was satisfyingly engaging in an old school way.
AND THE LEGEND OF THE TEN RINGS:
ARMY OF THIEVES: This more grounded heist prequel to the more undead focused ARMY OF THE DEAD was stylishly made, hilarious in the right dosages, and made exquisite usage of its European locales.
THE FRENCH DISPATCH: Wes Anderson was at his idiosyncratic best in terms of pure filmmaking craft with his latest comedy, but the human element frustratingly took a back seat at times.
THE TENDER BAR: This George Clooney directed/Amazon Prime produced coming of age period drama hit too many perfunctory and predictable notes, but Ben Affleck's wonderfully understated and awards worthy supporting work in didn't hit a false one.
LICORICE PIZZA: Coming after his late career masterpiece in PHANTOM THREAD, writer/director Paul Thomas Anderson's latest was a bit of a qualitative step down for him, but nevertheless emerged as a compelling love ballad to the California of his youth as well as a thematically challenging coming of age romcom. - Added February 19, 2022