When collecting blurbs for this year’s list, I had a conversation with Orrin Grey where he coined this “the year of Dumb Shit” and honestly, he’s not wrong. The picks for this year’s best movies list are probably a more interesting combination than we’ve had in a few years, an even combination of art house classics for the A24 nerd and big budget science fiction tentpoles.
2020 was a year of establishing a new normal in terms of media consumption, specifically with film, and this year continued the trend. A lot of our writers haven’t seen a movie in theaters this year; a lot of people weren’t able to populate a list with 10 solid 2021 releases.
Be sure to check the end of the list for a few honorable mentions as well.
– Amanda Hudgins, Curator
Godzilla vs. Kong
Oh Godzilla vs. Kong… Why did you have to be the only movie from 2021 that I’ve seen this year?
You’re quite possibly the most disappointing kaiju movie I’ve ever seen. Yes, even worse than the fever dream 90’s Godzilla starring Ferris Bueller. Seriously. For as bizarre and wrong-headed as that over-produced mess was, at least they tried. It was bad but it had entertainment value.
But you? It’s like you just don’t care. Not about the history of the series; not about the fanbase; and worst of all, not even about the inherent fun to be had when you pit two gigantic monsters against each other. You’re like a Universal Studios “4D” simulation ride that was phoned in at the last minute. You’re like something that was shat out by an executive that only knows about Godzilla and/or King Kong from seeing a VHS cover out of the corner of their eye when walking through a Blockbuster Video.
For as objectively bad as King of the Monsters was, at least it’s obvious that the people making it cared. At least that movie allowed itself to have fun. To be fun.
A modern update to the classic match-up from 1962 should have at least been as good (or so bad it’s good). But you couldn’t be assed, and instead we have one of the most dull and soulless slogs of an action movie I’ve seen in decades.
– Robert Rich
The Power of the Dog
Who is Bronco Henry?
A friend? A mentor? A legend? An abuser? A lie?
Where can such a man be found?
In the leather of a saddle above a plaque in his memory? In a box of hidden shame nestled between dead trunks? In the wisps of white smoke bursting from a delicately rolled cigarette moving back and forth between waiting lips?
If you could summon him once again what would you say?
Hello good sir could I shake your hand? You know I never forgot you right? Did you love me like I did you? Do love me like I do you? Is there anything more you can teach me? When I held that beast at the barrel of my gun and he begged for mercy, begged for a little bit of something from the land of his ancestry so that he and his family could survive just a few days and instead of giving him a scrap from my bounty I beat him senseless – you know I did that for you right?
Who is Bronco Henry?
What is the difference between truth and myth when you’re the one holding the whip?
– Oluwatayo Adewole
Most of the time, when directors achieve some commercial or critical success, they tend to gravitate toward doing more of whatever got them there. Then there’s James Wan, who took the cachet of The Conjuring and the money he made doing Aquaman and a Fast and Furious sequel and used it to make this idiot thing, which is basically one notch away from a Troma flick. And we love him for it.
Sure, Malignant is stupider than a box of hair, but that’s no surprise to those of us who also loved Wan’s R-rated Goosebumps movie, Dead Silence. What is surprising is how absolutely wild this gets before the closing credits. In a year when good times were hard to come by, Malignant offers them in spades.
– Orrin Grey
There are not a lot of places the Fast and Furious franchise can go. There are scenes in the preceding movies where they jump between skyscrapers in Dubai (in cars) or where they fight a nuclear submarine on a glacier (with cars) or where they drop onto a remote pass from an airplane (again, in cars). Years ago, when discussing where the series was going to go, I said space. I knew I was going to be right, and I was.
F9, like every previous movie in the series, is a kind of love letter to the action-packed Blockbuster. It’s more exciting than the MCU because it’s less grounded in reality. There are no physics in the Fast and Furious, only family. If the idea of a car swinging through a canyon on a broken rope bridge is something that makes you sit on the edge of your seat, F9 is the kind of movie for you. If just hearing that made you groan, sit back and watch a different movie on this list.
– Amanda Hudgins
Evangelion: 3.0+1.0 Thrice Upon a Time
It’s still hard to believe Thrice Upon A Time is out and that the Rebuild of Evangelion is not just over, but a complete, coherent text. It’s a hell of a conclusion, solidifying many of the most interesting critical reads of the Rebuild’s and honing Anno’s commentary on the medium and industry at the heart of the entire endeavor. It doesn’t all land. Gendo’s evil backstory of hikikomori certainly resonates less with Western audiences that found Shinji’s dissociation intelligible as a more individualistic experience of depression, and I can’t really find anything good in Shinji’s “happy,” straight, white collar ending. But that’s Evangelion: It all returns to nothing. And sure, it won’t really end, not so long as there’s money to be made, but Thrice Upon A Time is a punctuation mark on the series as a medium defining phenomenon with Something Important to say.
So long, Evangelion. Goodnight. Good morning. Thank you. Goodbye.
– Autumn Wright
Judas And the Black Messiah
Shaka King’s Judas and the Black Messiah is the story of Fred Hampton (played by Daniel Kaluuya), the Marxist/Leninist Illinois Black Panther leader who built the original Rainbow Coalition and struck so much fear into racist FBI director J. Edgar Hoover that Hoover nicknamed Mr. Hampton “the Black Messiah.” It’s also the story of Bill O’Neal (played by Lakeith Stanfield), a car thief who occasionally poses as an FBI agent. When the FBI arrest him, they make him a deal: Infiltrate the Black Panthers or go to jail for most of his life for impersonating a federal officer.
The story is a historical drama that plays out like a crime thriller. There are shootouts, chases, bomb plots, interrogations and the tragic final police raid. The thread that weaves the film together is Bill O’Neal. What makes the film even more impressive is how deliberately King keeps O’Neal’s motivations ambiguous. O’Neal takes pride in being part of the struggle but also enjoys the fancy dinners, booze and envelopes of cash Jesse Plemmons’ Agent Roy Mitchell supplies in exchange for information on Fred Hampton. O’Neal genuinely seems to like Hampton, but he also watches out for himself over others, in direct contradiction to Hampton’s ideology.
Judas and the Black Messiah is not a story they teach in American history classes. The American Government was complicit with the assassination of 21 year-old Fred Hampton in the middle of the night. The man was sleeping next to his pregnant partner and the cops shot him in the back of the head during a police raid. Shaka King’s film brings that history to life and leaves the viewer devastated in its wake.
– Ian Gonzalez
Candyman did a wonderful job of breaking out of some of the pitfalls so many other horror movies have fallen into. I am so sick of movies that rely on formulaic jumpscares of dark room, spooky sound, and sudden jack in the box monster moment. The kills in Candyman were obvious and clearly telegraphed, but no less horrific for it. Watching an art critic get maimed and then having the camera zoom out as she dies didn’t lessen the terror of her death at all, but instead emphasized the loneliness of her demise and how the world kept moving along without issue after she died. The scenes were shot beautifully, the characters drew me in (I both loved and wanted to strangle Anthony in turn), and the references to the original film were fun without being in your face and feeling awkward for it. I loved the gradual buildup as Anthony dug deeper and deeper into Candyman’s story, the notion of this constant pain and suffering eventually being turned back on the people who caused that harm, and everything being neatly packaged into a tight 90 minute run.
– Gingy Gibson
As a Portland native, I can’t confirm that there is a fightclub for the city’s resident chefs, but I also can’t deny it either. It does feel like something that could exist, but it’d be a relic of what Portland used to be. Before the gentrification, back when it was a city that had bad parts of town, but with light traffic and a relaxed tone. Now though, it’s still laidback, but more uptight, with a greater need to “be with it”, and parking’s harder to find. The yuppie that Nicolas Cage has to jaunt around with in Pig is a perfect embodiment of this, while Cage himself represents what the city used to be, at least in myth: uncompromised but refined, thanks to his nigh-legendary skill with cuisine.
Some may have been disappointed that this wasn’t “John Wick with a truffle pig,” but it’s a helluva consolation prize to see Cage give what’s possibly his best performance ever. He doesn’t just own his scenes, it’s like he has an aura that transfixes everyone, from the characters to the audience. Bullets don’t go flying, but Cage still takes quite a few hits, and Pig can still devastate you with gut-punches you couldn’t see coming.
– Evan Dennis
I love sand. It’s coarse and gives the giant sandworms that excrete spice a home. So too does Denis Villeneuve. Perhaps for different reasons. Villeneuve’s take on Frank Herbert’s epic Dune is clearly about his love for the source work.
Dune 2021 is, for better or worse, a specific kind of love letter. While still very weird, Villeneuve crafts a film designed not just to tell the story of the first portion of Dune but to do so in a way that is satisfying and digestible. It is not the hyper strange foam-based, molecular gastronomic delight that its die-hards would demand but it also is not a watered down Game of Thrones…in Space! It is simply a fair, accurate, well told adaptation.
In doing so Dune 2021 accomplishes a major feat. It’s towering but not overwhelming. It is dense but not overly solid. That a group of people came together to begin to tell a strange story of intrigue, drugs, appropriation, and machinations without it ever feeling overcooked or overlong is rarely accomplished, perhaps not accomplished with such style and substance since Peter Jackson began to tell the story of the Lord of the Rings 20 years ago.
– David Shimomura
The Green Knight
When I watched the first trailers for Green Knight I was worried it’d be another unexamined paen to medieval chivalry and bodacious sword-wielding manhood, a simplistically moral reification of the nationalistic fairy tales told over centuries of Arthurian legend. I’m glad to say I was wrong on all counts. What I got instead was a tone piece and a rich philosophical text that deconstructs everything previously considered rote in England’s literary origin stories. It’s a text which ties masculinity to colonial power, which reveals the cowardice of untested hubris and blind ambition. It exposes the masculine fear of the feminine along with the wet and the dark, the death and decay (and rebirth!) that the feminine represents.
Dev Patel delivers a career distinguishing performance as he balefully carries the audience through a harsh, alien landscape full of the heights of otherworldly magic and the depths of human depravity. His boyish face and yearning eyes provide a rich platform for the film to wrestle with modern anxieties around place and purpose. Meanwhile Alicia Vikander brings the house down as she seduces and soliloquies through her standout scenes. Overall, the film boasts a stunning cast of freaks, all in on the dark joke, all urging Patel forward, to overcome his fear and embrace his death, to become something entirely new.
– Yussef Cole
These are the works of filmic progress that didn’t quite make the list (for whatever reason) but deserve to be talked about in a year like 2021.
Best Remaster: Possession
When I first saw this year’s chatter about the 4k restoration of Possession on Twitter I thought to myself, wow – people are really into Gwyneth Paltrow and Aaron Eckhart! Turns out everyone was talking about a 1981 horror movie that had entirely escaped my radar. In this Possession, Sam Neill and Isabelle Adjani play a married couple. He’s a spy and they live in West Berlin near the Wall. On top of that, they’re also getting a divorce.
At points I felt like I was going to pass out or throw up from this movie. It wasn’t the literal grisly viscera (there’s a lot) triggering either response, it was the grisly viscera as literal manifestation of the relentless emotional turmoil two people can exact upon each other, especially when they love one another so long it curdles to fetid goo. There was a point, much like points reached during some bad drug highs, when I felt as if I had to give myself over to the horror or risk losing myself completely. The trip became no less terrifying but there was a sort of calm that followed the acceptance of what may come, a feeling similar to the strange security of realizing those who know you best can rip your guts out most completely, and that maybe if they did they would use them to fashion a version of you more suited to their liking. Gwyneth Paltrow and Aaron Eckhart could never.
– Sara Clemens
Best Movie to Come Out the Week End-of-the-Year Lists Were Due: The Matrix Resurrections
The Matrix Resurrections is something of an anomaly.
As a movie, it shouldn’t be. The Matrix trilogy is an entirely closed loop. The path of The One concluded. There was simply no more ground to trod. Zion was saved, humanity would prosper. It was over.
Except that it wasn’t over, apparently. And thus, perhaps a bit out of greed and perhaps a bit out of hubris, we have The Matrix Resurrections, a movie that I love.
As far as unnecessary sequels go, Resurrections is among the best of them. Instead of burying the characters and actors that viewers love they remain front and center. Instead of a series of new and frustrating new characters meant to carry a new franchise we’re given ones who are there to gaze upon our favorites with our same awe and enhance them.
Resurrections is far from perfect. The script is full of lamps and has shades to hang on all of them. One recast actor in particular is very jarring. There are also more than a few scenes that feel like COVID production protocols were in maximum effect.
But for all that, Resurrections digs deep into the themes of the original trilogy and finds new themes and resonances to pull forward. Somehow, Resurrections becomes a deeply strange story of radical love, peace, and hope. And I love it for that.
– David Shimomura