by @holocronGeorge, @holocronJosh, and @holocronJulie
In a rough year for many, 2021 has featured a number of films that provided more than just mere escapism. This year marked the return of the theatrical experience for many, saw a new dawn of streaming and home video, and, overall, offered up some incredible films. Here’s an overview of our top 10 films of 2021 in no order.
THE BETA TEST
If you don’t know the name Jim Cummings, you should. Within the last three years, Cummings has firmly cemented his place as one of the compelling filmmakers working today. Cummings is the total filmmaker – director, star, writer, editor, even composer at times. And, while his previous efforts such as Thunder Road and The Wolf of Snow Hollow are perfect blends of off-kilter dark humor and emotional character journeys, The Beta Test marks his most refined and accomplished effort to date. It’s groundbreaking to see a director/writer tackle so many complex themes/motifs into a motion picture experience that feels so genuine. The Beta Test evokes the best elements of a Hitchockian thriller, while serving as a nuanced Hollywood satire and commentary on contemporary culture – not to mention the depths of psychological horror this film touches. The Beta Test is easily one of 2021’s best films and is more than deserving of a watch. You won’t be disappointed.
SPIDER-MAN: NO WAY HOME
Spider-Man: No Way Home was easily 2021’s most anticipated film and, thankfully, it met and really exceeded any and all of its lofty expectations. No Way Home overcomes some gaps in its narrative to deliver one of the most ambitious and groundbreaking superhero movies to date. Anchored by characteristically excellent performances, the film navigates an interesting, multiversal plot that moves this iteration of Spider-Man somewhat away from its connections to the MCU and toward a Spider-Man more aligned with previous live action adaptations of the character. The action is superb, the emotional points hit hard, and there are moments of this film that will be rewatched for years to come.
Val is an interesting and somewhat overlooked documentary chronicling the life of actor Val Kilmer. Starting in a pre-internet, pre-YouTube era, Kilmer filmed much of his life, including family interactions and behind the scenes of his stage and film productions, in a raw and breathtaking fashion. Val manages to weave together the decades of this home footage into a film that breeds new appreciation for Kilmer as both a performer and a person. Val is a deeply intimate and genuine examination of Kilmer. His successes and tragedies are portrayed with startling honesty. Watching Val will reshape the way you see Kilmer in any of his prior films. This is a man dedicated to and in love with his craft, who is genuine and kind above all else. Val is a must watch.
ZACK SNYDER’S JUSTICE LEAGUE
Fans had pushed the #ReleasetheSnyderCut movement to the brink until Warner Bros. finally commissioned the release of Zack Snyder’s true vision of Justice League. And the film did not disappoint. Zack Snyder’s Justice League is a gargantuan filmmaking effort. Free of previous constraints that married theatrical releases of other films, Snyder tells a story from the heart at his own pace. It’s epic and grand, as one would expect from a Snyder film, but also intimate and emotional. Justice League is a 4 hour odyssey that feels as if you’ve cracked open and dug yourself into a classic, dark comic book. Featuring a mind-blowing epilogue, Zack Snyder’s Justice League is easily the best DCEU movie and one of 2021’s best.
Dune marks another mammoth effort from Warner Bros. in 2021. Dune and the entire world crafted by Frank Herbert have been notoriously difficult to adapt and capture in cinematic format, something Denis Villeneuve manages to do with his latest film. Although Dune ends rather abruptly, feels like only one half of a total story, and somewhat loses momentum as the film progresses, it is nonetheless an incredible filmmaking feat. Villeneuve deftly tackles dense world building, while never making the audience feel left behind. Dune is probably 2021’s most visually stunning film and also one of the year’s most ambitious.
DON’T LOOK UP
Adam McKay continues his journey into more polished and socially relevant filmmaking with Don’t Look Up. Don’t Look Up is most certainly a strange viewing experience. It’s infused from beginning to end with existential dread – make no mistake about it, this is a horror film. And yet, you find yourself laughing consistently throughout. McKay’s film operates at a heightened tone and story for its entire runtime, which may be a bit tiresome for some. However, we see Don’t Look Up as the modern day Dr. Strangelove. Like Kubrick’s classic film, McKay manages to detail the horrors of our world and the fragility of our existence with an unexpectedly outrageous tone. After the spitfire editing and witty jokes subside, you’re left with a feeling of discomfort and dread that, unfortunately, makes Don’t Look Up the year’s most relevant film.
Lin-Manuel Miranda hit the ground running with his feature length directorial debut. Anchored by one of the year’s best performances in Andrew Garfield as composer and playwright Jonathan Larson, Tick, Tick…Boom! spins a fascinating and heartfelt tale of the creative process. This is a film made by artists about an artist making art, and it excels at doing so. The musical seems difficult to adapt for a feature film, but Miranda does so stunningly. In large part, this is due to Garfield’s commanding and captivating lead performance. Not only does he land all of the film’s emotional moments, but his singing talent on display is impressive to say the least.
Nicolas Cage films have been hit or miss in recent years, but Pig is most certainly a hit. The premise of a truffle hunter returning to Portland to track who stole his beloved pig seems out there and likely rife for the sort of (intentional or unintentional) humor we come to expect from many of Cage’s recent efforts, but this is not the case. Nicolas Cage is stunning as the truffle forager Rob. His performance is so raw and so effective. This is not Cage swinging for the fences with his performance, but, rather, a much quieter and more subdued and nuanced portrayal. Pig has the potential to go into John Wick-revenge territory, but unexpectedly never does. This is a deeply emotional chronicle of loss and compassion that has a lot to say about ambition and obsessive focus on wealth. Pig triumphs on every cylinder.
THE LAST DUEL
Ridley Scott delivered, not one, but two terrific films in 2021 and The Last Duel makes our list of the best of the year. The Last Duel works less well as a historical drama and better as a complex tale of conflicting ‘truths.’ The influence of Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon is felt all over this film. Despite its historical setting, The Last Duel feels extremely timely. It’s a Rashomon-style story for the #MeToo era that tackles victim-blaming, sexual assault, and institutional sexism in a manner that transcends era. Ben Affleck, Matt Damon, and Nicole Holofcener create an intricately woven screenplay that could easily go awry in less capable hands. Jodie Comer and Adam Driver are particular highlights in the film, and further cement The Last Duel as one of 2021’s crowning achievements.
Last, but not least, is Belfast. The semi-autobiographical coming-of-age story written and directed by Kenneth Branagh is perhaps the accomplished filmmaker’s greatest effort to date. Belfast doesn’t break new ground with its narrative, but excels as a crowd pleasing and touching journey for the audience. Belfast is a difficult movie to dislike. It is vibrant, romantic, affectionate, and so much more. Branagh writes one of 2021’s sharpest screenplays here and a supporting performance from Ciarán Hinds proves to be one of the year’s best.