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2021 was supposed to be our first tip-toe back into normalcy, or at least into a new normal. The latter proved to more true than the former, as the cinematic experience tried to recover in the middle of the very pandemic that closed movie theater doors worldwide. Audiences got used to watching big-screen experiences on their living room television sets, while at the same time longing for a return to squeaky movie theater seats, extra large popcorns, and a chance to watch a movie like it was during the Before Times.
Thankfully, 2021 delivered a strong roster of genre films to help with that, from nearly-three hour sci-fi epics to slow-burn horror chamber pieces, to two movie monster icons punching the hell out of each other. As another stressful year winds down, we revisit some of the best 2021 genre releases that got us through it.
Director/co-writer Nia DaCosta resurrected the '90s horror property by making a direct sequel to 1992’s Candyman. Via artist Anthony McCoy's (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) quest to know everything he can about the legend of the Candyman, the film reacquaints us with the long, sorrowful history of the vengeful spirit dating back to 1890. DaCosta makes the generational racial injustice front and center in this story, while also crafting sequences that make for some visceral thrills. And Teyonah Parris steals the show. - Tara Bennett
Writer/director Denis Villeneuve has been dreaming about making his adaptation of Dune since he first read the book as a teen, so when WB gave him the keys to do it, the man was clearly ready to go. Whether you’ve read the books or not, there’s so much spectacle in every frame which makes it a world-building geek’s dream. Overall, it gets some dings for sacrificing needed character moments for excessive sandy set pieces and landscape shots. But the cast work their hearts out with what they’ve got and the promise of what’s to come with them, story wise, has us excited to see what Villeneuve envisions next. - TB
Godzilla vs. Kong
No other movie this year delivered on its title as much as Godzilla vs. Kong.
The fourth installment in the Monsterverse understood the assignment, as the saying goes, and it provided an all-time kaiju showdown between the King of the Monsters and the Eighth Wonder of the World. Godzilla is an unstoppable force of nature and King Kong a plucky underdog, which adds a real sense of stakes and character to what could otherwise be an empty CGI slugfest. But, Godzilla vs. Kong has more to offer than just the titular duel: It also makes great actors like Rebecca Hall say lines like “Kong bows to no one.”
Godzilla vs. Kong is perfect popcorn schlock, and as one of the first blockbusters to premiere just as it seemed we were starting to turn a corner in the pandemic, it was an especially welcome relief. The world is scary, so here’s two hours of Godzilla fighting King Kong. - James Grebey
The Green Knight
Writer/director David Lowery’s take on the 14th-century poem, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is a cinematically gorgeous adventure with plenty of absurdity and existential tangents abound. Dev Patel’s Gawain is delightfully shallow and impulsive, yet thoroughly charming enough to make your root for him throughout. The Green Knight is definitely not a film for everyone, with its often inscrutable side adventures and very measured pace. But there’s something incredibly beautiful and beguiling about every frame. - TB
I'm Your Man
Who doesn’t want to see a smart android rom-com starring Dan Stevens done in German?
Believe us, this is a charming and thoughtful exploration of the actualities of living with an android programmed to be your perfect partner. Dr. Felser (Maren Eggert) is the extremely reticent archeologist enlisted to live with, and then report on her relationship with android Tom (Stevens). Despite his extremely amenable personality, she barely gives Tom a chance. But their time together is revealing about what makes someone fall in love with someone else. I’m Your Man lays the case that sometimes technology can’t fix everything. And then inverts that notion on its head in a satisfying way. - TB
Director James Wan and writer Akela Cooper’s Malignant is a tonally odd film. At times hyper-stylized and overly serious in its first two acts, but then your patience for its slow slow burn is rewarded with a genuinely WTF?! third act. When the reveals start coming, it's a breathtaking spiral until the very end. More praise needs to go to Cooper’s script, which unfolds from a welcomed female point of view. This adds another level of perspective to this roller coaster ride. If you haven't seen it yet, stop reading anything else about it and just experience it as pure as possible. - TB
The Mitchells vs. the Machines
The premise of The Mitchell’s Vs. the Machines could’ve gone bad so easily. A Gen-Z teen, obsessed with filmmaking and YouTube, doesn’t see eye-to-eye with her dad, who is technically probably Gen X but has big “okay Boomer” energy. But, far from being a preachy treatise on “kids these days” or “parents who just don’t understand,” The Mitchells Vs. the Machines is an even-handed, earnestly touching story about parenthood and coming-of-age, largely inspired by director Michael Rianda’s real-life relationship with his father.
Of course, Rianda didn’t have to deal with a madcap machine uprising, and the Phil Lord and Christopher Miller-produced film showcases a similar animation style as Into the Spider-Verse, giving a sense of fluidity and spontaneity that makes The Mitchells one of the year’s best films. - JG
The Night House
Rebecca Hall is having a big year, directing Passing and starring in The Night House as a widow discovering secrets about her recently deceased husband. A haunted house film, both literally and figuratively, Hall does an exceptional job conveying the conflict of a wife trying to unpack her past depression, while mourning and seething about the things she didn’t know about her spouse. Director David Bruckner paints a creepy and compelling psychological exploration of death. - TB
Winston Duke and Zazie Beetz give impressive yin/yang performances as two souls grappling with their opposing approach to living. Duke’s Will is a brooding judge who interviews souls over nine consecutive days to determine if they are ready to go to Earth. Having already lived a life on Earth, Will is now battered by the failures of that painful experience.
While Beetz’s Emma is pure, finding delight and excitement in even the most mundane of life’s offerings. Nine Days succeeds on the shoulders of its fantastic ensemble cast, and writer/director Edson Oda’s thoughtful and compelling concepts about the space between life and death. - TB
Nobody, like the first John Wick movie before it, became somewhat of a sleeper hit with action fans in early 2021 as it explored the highly entertaining, kick-punching exploits of a seemingly-middle class family man (Bob Odenkirk) forced to revisit his prior life's Taken-level skillet when he becomes the victim of a home invasion.
Derek Kolstad's script is a slow-burn thriller mixed with middle-class family drama that boils over into full-blown, balls-to-the-wall action movie porn by the third act, as Odenkirk's Hutch uses his modest day job means to unleash an inventive mix of action set pieces on some bad guys. Nobody wisely invests all the balletic violence and tire-squealing car chases with an emotional storyline that is both relatable and resonate, a necessary and earned touch that makes the movie all that more rewarding to watch on subsequent viewings. - Phil Pirrello
No Time to Die
No Time to Die is unlike any James Bond movie before it. And that’s not including the fact that it kills 007 in the end.
The franchise’s 25th movie, and Daniel Craig’s last, affords the brooding and trust-deficient spy with some of his most emotional and highest stakes yet, as Bond is forced to come out of retirement when the sins of his past — and that of his estranged lover, Madeline Swann (Lea Seydoux) — come back to haunt them by way of a bio-engineered virus. Confidently directed by Cary Joji Fukunaga, with a seemingly effortless ability to keep the emotional and physical geography of every action scene clear, No Time to Die is at its most compelling outside the impressive, practical effects-heavy set pieces. Its the moments where Craig invests Bond with certain flourishes, humor, and nuance never before afforded the character, as seen when he confronts M (Ralph Fiennes) over his role in the hi-tech plague that threatens to wipe out millions. Or when he visits the grave of Casino Royale’s Vesper Lynd and lets himself spend a vulnerable moment inside the trauma that put him on Die’s tragic path. Or the scene where Bond looks more nervous standing before his newfound young daughter, waiting for her reaction to the modest meal he just prepped for her, than he has ever looked when facing off against sinister villains. Speaking of villains, the baddie this time, Safin (a “just okay” Remi Malek), struggles to find the same agency and urgency in Bond’s storyline as he has in Swann’s, with the latter character’s backstory providing the narrative spark that puts 007’s explosive fate into motion.
Along the way, two of the most fully-formed female characters join the franchise — Ana de Armas as the best CIA rookie ever, and Lashana Lynch as the new (and instantly iconic) 007, Nomi. Their limited screen times makes one want whole movies based around their characters, but we’ll settle for hopefully more appearances in the Bond canon whenever a new 007 is announced. But we don’t envy the team that picks up where Craig and Fukunaga’s exceptional entry left off. These are some considerable knife-tipped shoes to fill. - PP
A Quiet Place Part II
If anyone had concerns about whether A Quiet Place sequel would be worthwhile, the ten-minute prologue which opened the movie, showing the day the monsters arrived, proved there was still plenty of story for director John Krasinski to tell extremely well.
Set only a short time after the end of the first film, Emily Blunt’s Evelyn and Millicent Simmond's Regan quickly prove they are the MVPs of this sequel. Both are fierce, but they also make us care about them with their ability to put their vulnerability front and center. Regan in particular is so much more than her hearing impairments, and the framing of her experience living without sound adds another layer of value to this series. And despite the tension and scare thrills, there's always a sense of hope that drives these films which it was appreciated in a year like this one. - TB
Another example of what fresh voices in genre storytelling bring to the table. Writer/director Rose Glass’ first theatrical film is an exceptional calling card in this psychological horror exploration of religious zealotry. Glass feeds us the unreliable protagonist’s point of view of hospice nurse Maud (Morfydd Clark). A recently converted Catholic, she truly believes that she’s doing God’s work to cleanse sin from the world, but is she? Unsettling and thought-provoking, we’re left unsure from top to tails if this is a story about mental health or the supernatural. With its out of time aesthetic and production style, Saint Maud will stay with you long after it’s done. - TB
Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings
An invigorating and charismatic introduction to a new player in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings welcomed the first Asian superhero into its ranks and actor Simu Liu made it look easy. Charming, confident, yet troubled by his complicated family history, Shang-Chi is an engaging character with layers from the start. Having him straddling two worlds, one familiar and one mystical, allowed Marvel Studios to go into new spaces and mythology.
Director/co-writer Destin Daniel Cretton also leaned into his strengths by telling compelling personal stories. In particular, Shang-Chi’s relationships with capable women, from BFF Katy (Awkwafina) to his sister, Xu Xialing (Meng'er Zhang) and his beloved mother (Fala Chen) make it clear that he's an empathetic hero who isn’t a punching machine. And that makes his ongoing issues with his criminal father, Xu Wenwu (Tony Leung), even more impactful because their pain comes from loss not ego. - TB
Another exploration of how technology in the near future will impact our fundamental conceits about life and death, Swan Song is a beautiful meditation on the boundaries of death and what we think makes us unique in this world. Mahershala Ali is exceptional as Cameron Turner, an artist recently given a terminal diagnosis that he's kept secret from his wife and young son. When offered to participate in groundbreaking pilot program that will put his lifetime of memories into a genetic clone so his family can still have him in their lives, Cam struggles with letting go.
Writer/director Benjamin Cleary shows masterful control in keeping the film’s big concepts intimate and quiet, allowing Ali the space to say so much with just his eyes and body. As Cam wrestles with regret, fear and uncertainty, his body increasingly fails him so there’s a mature thriller's pace propelling the story to its impactful conclusion. - TB
Director Josh Ruben and writer Mishna Wolff adapt the video game of the same name into this claustrophobic murder mystery set against a blinding blizzard that overtakes the tiny town of Beaverfield. Newly-appointed Forest ranger Finn Wheeler (Sam Richardson) rolls into town right before the storm and gets to meet the quirky residents mere hours before all hell breaks loose. And that hell includes one of them being a werewolf that’s slowly picking off residents one-by-one before the storm blows over.
Richardson is pitch perfect as the smart but self-esteem impaired newbie that has to dig deep for the reluctant hero within. Funny, scary and smartly constructed, Werewolves Within is the sleeper gem of the year. - TB