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2021 recap: The ten best films of the year, the continued rise of streaming, and the future of the theatrical experience

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Photo by Mario Anzuoni / AP
Photo by Mario Anzuoni / AP

The craziest thing about watching new films in 2021 was how much it resembled 2020. While theaters slowly reopened, thanks to COVID, they never did spring back to life completely. Yes, this month's release of Spider-Man: No Way Home showed that a billion dollars in worldwide receipts was still possible (in a little under two weeks, no less), but that sort of success was the exception, not the rule. While there were other success stories, most were few and far between, and almost all came from a single studio (Disney) or were massive franchise entries with large, mostly young fan bases.

But mostly we all watched new releases from the comfort of our own homes. Warner Bros. took the unprecedented step of releasing its slate of films in theaters and on HBO Max at the same time. Disney did the same for much of the year, shuffling some titles like Luca to Disney+ exclusively, while others like Marvel's Black Widow, Jungle Cruise, and Cruella could be viewed theatrically or watched on the streaming service for an extra $30. Universal and Paramount followed a similar path with a few of their titles, the former utilizing its Peacock platform while the latter finally opened the curtain on Paramount+.

It was a banner year for Netflix and Amazon Prime, as the two stalwarts in the streaming game went to town with a variety of self-financed releases, while also paying top dollar for pictures from the traditional Hollywood studios that they could debut on their platforms instead. Other, smaller outlets, like Shudder and Mubi, also increased their new-release output significantly in 2021; the former was particularly gung-ho about debuting three or four new features each month.

Not that theaters are throwing in the towel. AMC and Regal went all out trying to lure back patrons. AMC went so far as to offer up full theater rentals during the first half of the year for a relatively meager $99. That's gone up significantly since (it's now $469 at most venues, and the selection is limited to new releases), but it is still a slick way to drum up business while also creating a feeling of relative safety.

Still, as mentioned and with rare exception, the films that did the best theatrically were giant franchise tentpoles like Godzilla vs. Kong, F9, Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, Halloween Kills, and Venom: Let There Be Carnage. The only original title to massively break through commercially was Free Guy, a holdover from Disney's purchase of 20th Century Fox (now 20th Century Studios), which also happened to have direct tie-ins to the studio's Marvel and LucasFilm properties.

Another somewhat surprising success story was an adaptation of the first half of Frank Herbert's Dune by Warner Bros., a hugely expensive gamble directed by Denis Villeneuve sold on the promise that it would deliver sights and sounds that could only be fully enjoyed on the biggest screen available. The gamble paid off and a sequel was quickly greenlit.

Otherwise, everything skewing to an even moderately older viewership failed rather miserably, including a string of high-profile musicals (In the Heights, Dear Evan Hansen, West Side Story) that in pre-COVID times likely would have done gangbuster business no matter the critical reception.

Other films that failed to make a significant dent at the box office included Clint Eastwood's Cry Macho, Wes Anderson's The French Dispatch, James Wan's Malignant, Guillermo del Toro's Nightmare Alley, and Kenneth Branagh's Belfast, all of which I suspect would have been minor to significant hits pre-2020.

How will things change in the future? I can't say I know. Streaming is here to stay, I think we all agree, but I'm equally terrified to imagine a world where only giant tentpoles like the next films featuring Spider-Man or Batman are the only titles playing at the local multiplex. There has to be a way to maintain variety, a method for venues to successfully showcase a broad selection of titles and not just the latest $200-million-budgeted entry in a long-running franchise.

All that depressing stuff aside, there was plenty I still managed to get excited about in 2021. I dropped my 1,001 Great Films series this year, a painstaking 10-month journey through over a century of film that was arguably the most exhaustively personal set of features I've ever written. I'm understandably very proud of it.

As for this year's new releases, there were numerous pleasures to be had, with so many filmmakers taking me on journeys I'd never have thought to venture on had they not confidently led the way.

A few notes on my top ten: I've purposefully kept a couple of notable titles that were technically 2020 releases — Shaka King's Judas and the Black Messiah, Harry Macqueen's Supernova, Josh Greenbaum's Barb & Star Go to Vista Del Mar — out of consideration. They were released in January and February to try and take advantage of an elongated eligibility period to qualify for last year's Academy Awards. I've also once again separated out my favorite documentaries, mainly because I want to showcase each title in hopes that more people might take the time to give them a look.

Finally, I've also included a list of ten new-to-me discoveries I made during the past year. Cinema isn't just about the here and now. It is also about investigating where we've come from and seeing how the medium has continued to evolve over the past 120 years, so I can't help but wish that at least a few people will be curious enough to seek out some of those titles for themselves.

Without further ado, here are my picks for my ten favorite films of 2021:


Photo courtesy of Utopia  

1. Shiva Baby (Dir.: Emma Seligman)
I don't think any 2021 film made me feel more anxious than writer-director Emma Seligman's audacious Shiva Baby. In this a cringe comedy and astute social commentary rolled into an excruciatingly tense 87 minutes, mixed-up college student Danielle (a sensational Rachel Sennott) butts heads with her parents while also running into her married sugar daddy and her former childhood best friend — and semi-secret ex-girlfriend — Maya (an equally outstanding Molly Gordon) at a Jewish wake. Seligman structures her high-wire familial farce — also sex-positive in a way few films dare — as if it were a horror movie, and by doing so crafts one of the more innovative and original debuts I've seen in ages.

Photo courtesy of Neon  

2. Pig (Dir.: Michael Sarnoski)
Pig is a quietly spellbinding, introspective gem that grows in grace and power as it goes along. What could have been a culinary curiosity about a award-winning former chef now living in seclusion as a bearded outcast and truffle farmer going all "John Wick" on Portland's culinary elite while searching for his beloved pig instead becomes something chillingly haunting and emotionally pure. Sarnoski wisely centers things on star Nicolas Cage, who delivers one of the finest, most bone-chillingly authentic performances of his long and varied career.

Photo courtesy of Neon  

3. Titane (Dir.: Julia Ducournau)
I can't stop thinking about Julia Ducournau's sophomore stunner, Titane. This masterfully forceful genre mash-up is a madcap deconstruction of gender, sexuality, and parenthood, and just when I thought I had a firm grasp on where the filmmaker was taking things, she quickly made a quick left turn into shatteringly unexpected unknowns that sent my head spinning. A mesmerizing Vincent Lindon anchors the second half with a spectacular supporting performance, while star Agathe Rousselle boldly and proactively announces herself as a major talent worth keeping an eye on.

Photo courtesy of IFC Films  

4. Bergman Island (Dir.: Mia Hansen-Løve)
Few films moved me to tears as quickly as Mia Hansen-Løve's poetically luminous Bergman Island. Vicky Krieps and Tim Roth are wonderful as a pair of married filmmakers who have journeyed to the Swedish island of Fårö looking for inspiration as they work on their latest projects. Their relationship is juxtaposed with a fictional one acted out to perfection by Mia Wasikowska and Anders Danielsen Lie, and Hansen-Løve layers these subplots with confident dexterity. The film is a delicate little dance that analyzes the dizzying complexities of artistic creation with mesmeric glee, with everything building to an emotional bombshell of a climax that filled my heart with joy.

5. The Mitchells vs the Machines (Dir.: Michael Rianda, Jeff Rowe)
The Mitchells vs the Machines is a thunderbolt of exuberant imagination overflowing in sights and sounds so blissfully luminous that just thinking about them is enough to bring a smile to my face. It is also a devastatingly insightful satire on corporate culture, technological excesses, and societal dehumanization, all sitting rhapsodically inside a story of a dysfunctional family that has to relearn how to work together to save the world from robotic overlords straight out of an Isaac Asimov novel. I should also say that Katy Mitchell is, without question, my favorite character of 2021. Hands down. No contest.

Photo courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics  

6. Parallel Mothers (Dir.: Pedro Almodóvar)
Pedro Almodóvar does it again. This ferociously sentimental melodrama cuts deep and refuses to take shortcuts. Ostensibly the relatively simple story of two mothers who give birth on the same day, the film becomes a wildly impressionistic marvel of storytelling legerdemain, where nothing is exactly as it seems yet everything sparkles into reality exactly as it needs to in order to make a suitably dramatic impact. Frequent Almodóvar collaborator Penélope Cruz gives a titanic performance that's one of the finest of her Academy Award—winning career.

Photo courtesy of Warner Bros.  

7. The Matrix Resurrections (Dir.: Lana Wachowski)
Lana Wachowski doesn't so much resurrect The Matrix as she takes a sledgehammer to Hollywood's current obsession with nostalgia-laden franchise filmmaking, while at the same time crafting an unapologetically heartfelt love story that is perfectly faithful to her and her sister Lily Wachowski's groundbreaking original trilogy. It's a glorious, spellbinding continuation of the story that tackles questions of gender, self-perception, sexism, misogyny, capitalism, and corporate overreach with angrily messy determination, with love conquering all, as Neo and Trinity soar back into one another's arms.

Photo courtesy of Janus Films  

8. Drive My Car (Dir.: Ryûsuke Hamaguchi)
Nothing happens in Ryûsuke Hamaguchi's Drive My Car. Also, everything happens in Ryûsuke Hamaguchi's Drive My Car. A quiet miracle, this three-hour tour de force is a ride into the unknown that subtly grows in powerful resonance as it motors to its suitably ephemeral conclusion. Hamaguchi weaves a tale involving grief, artistic expression, community, friendship, and so much more with mesmeric authority. The subtle depths of human discourse being examined are as pure as they are profound.

Photo courtesy of Netflix  

9. The Power of the Dog (Dir.: Jane Campion)
Jane Campion returns with The Power of the Dog, her first feature film since 2009's Bright Star. Her astutely minimalist adaptation of Thomas Savage's revered novel is a flabbergasting visual and emotional juggernaut that left me speechless. Benedict Cumberbatch's tremendous performance as uncompromising rancher Phil Burbank is something special, as are magnificent supporting turns from Kirsten Dunst, Kodi Smit-McPhee, and Jesse Plemons. But it is the unnervingly stark gaze into the masculine ego that is most impressive, as Campion takes Savage's prose to a place of beauteous devastation that chilled me to the bone.

Photo courtesy of IFC Films  

10. Werewolves Within (Dir.: Josh Ruben)
As the year's best Agatha Christie-meets-Clue-meets-Knives Out-meets-Arachnophobia-meets-The Beast Must Die mash-up (and also the only one), Josh Ruben's deliciously amusing horror-comedy whodunit is the most fun I had watching a movie for the first time in all of 2021. A pitch-perfect ensemble, led by Sam Richardson and Milana Vayntrub, gamely go for broke every second of this quickly-paced 97-minute mystery, while Mishna Wolff's virtuoso script jubilantly toys with the audience in a variety of ingenious ways. An absolute triumph worthy of multiple viewings.

A SECOND SEVENTEEN (because I can)

A SECOND SEVENTEEN (because I can)
Photo courtesy of Focus Features  

Belfast (Dir.: Kenneth Branagh)

Photo courtesy of A24  

C'mon C'mon (Dir.: Mike Mills)

Photo courtesy of Universal Pictures  

Candyman (Dir.: Nia DaCosta)

Photo courtesy of Netflix  

The Fear Street trilogy (Dir.: Leigh Janiak)

Photo courtesy of A24  

The Green Knight (Dir.: David Lowery)

Photo courtesy of Bleecker Street  

I'm Your Man (Dir.: Maria Schrader)

Photo courtesy of RLJE Films  

Jakob's Wife (Dir.: Travis Stevens)

Photo courtesy of Warner Bros.  

King Richard (Dir.: Reinaldo Marcus Green)

Photo courtesy of Focus Features  

Limbo (Dir.: Ben Sharrock)

Photo courtesy of Shudder  

Lucky (Dir.: Natasha Kermani)

Photo courtesy of Kino Lorber  

Never Gonna Snow Again (Dir.: Malgorzata Szumowska Michal Englert)

Photo courtesy of Searchlight Pictures  

The Night House (Dir.: David Bruckner)

Photo courtesy of Netflix  

Passing (Dir.: Rebecca Hall)

Raging Fire — Photo courtesy of Well Go USA  

Raging Fire (Dir.: Benny Chan)

Photo courtesy of Apple Original Films / A24  

The Tragedy of Macbeth (Dir.: Joel Coen)

Photo courtesy of 20th Century Studios  

West Side Story (Dir.: Steven Spielberg)

Photo courtesy of Kino Lorber  

Wife of a Spy (Dir.: Kiyoshi Kurosawa)


Image courtesy of Neon / Participant  

Flee (Dir.: Jonas Poher Rasmussen)

Photo courtesy of Greenwich Entertainment  

The Rescue (Dir.: Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi, Jimmy Chin)

Photo courtesy of Roadside Attractions  

Rita Moreno: Just a Girl Who Decided to Go for It (Dir.: Mariem Pérez Riera)

Photo courtesy of Focus Features  

The Sparks Brothers (Dir.: Edgar Wright)

Summer of Soul (...or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised) (Dir.: Ahmir-Khalib Thompson)


Photo courtesy of MGM  

The Badlanders (1958) (Dir.: Delmer Daves)

Photo courtesy of DCA  

Cast a Dark Shadow (1955) (Dir.: Lewis Gilbert)

Photo courtesy of Columbia Pictures  

Johnny O'Clock (1947) (Dir.: Robert Rossen)

Photo courtesy of Paramount Pictures  

Last Train from Gun Hill (1959) (Dir.: John Sturges)

Photo courtesy of RKO  

The Lusty Men (1952) (Dir.: Nicholas Ray)

Photo courtesy of Paramount Pictures  

Merrily We Go to Hell (1932) (Dir.: Dorothy Arzner)

Photo courtesy of Tubi TV  

Next of Kin (1982) (Dir.: Tony Williams)

Photo courtesy of Shudder  

Scare Me (2020) (Dir.: Josh Ruben)

Photo courtesy of Columbia Pictures  

The Tall T (1957) (Dir.: Budd Boetticher)

Photo courtesy of Cinema 5 Distributing  

Visions of Eight (1973) (Miloš Forman, Arthur Penn, Claude Lelouch, John Schlesinger, Mai Zetterling, Kon Ichikawa, Yuri Ozerov, Michael Pfleghar)