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My favorite movies of 2021

If there was one thing that 2021’s remake of 2020 improved upon was that I got to see a lot of movies back at the theaters; beyond that, it was another bad remake that repeated a lot of the mistakes of the original. As such, my list for this year is a mix of streaming movies and theater releases; it was also one of the hardest lists I’ve had to curate since I started this blog. I’ll be the first to admit that this year didn’t really have that “special” movie – at least from the ones I managed to see as of writing this – however, there were so many great movies of similar quality that I found it extremely difficult to narrow them down; but that is what I did. The list that follows, as always, consists of three honorable mentions, 8 movies that are tied for 3rd place and are in alphabetical order, as well as my ranked top two for this year. So, let’s celebrate the new year with some great movies and set up the bar that 2022 will hopefully exceed.

Honorable Mentions:

When I first watched “A night in Paradise”, I have to admit I was a bit underwhelmed; Park Hoon-jung may not be a recognizable name (yet), but he has been involved in some of the best Korean movies of the past decade and shows no signs of slowing down or losing his touch. Despite that, I felt “A night in Paradise” needed more to live up to his high standards; I thought the protagonist could have used more work and the story wasn’t as impactful as Hoon-jung’s previous work. However, it lingered in my head for weeks and having seen it a couple more times, I have to say that while I stand by my review, I find the issues to have lost their potency. Looking back at the movie, I think of what Hoon-jung does so well, instead of the issues; it’s not as good as “I saw the devil”, but that movie is special and topping it would require something extraordinary. “A night in paradise” is not that, but it is so good and a great introduction to Hoon-jung’s filmography, since it’s on Netflix and is a lot more “welcoming” than other movies he has worked on. I wished the protagonist would be a little more interesting, the story a little more impactful, but make no mistake; his nihilistic touches, his eye for great moments, great action scenes with gore and over-the-top violence, while maintaining and advancing themes and arcs, are all still present. Watch this great movie and then go see the rest of the amazing films he has made since 2010, you won’t be disappointed.

“Oxygen” suffered from something I called “early-movie-hope”, which is what happens to me every year; I watch a great movie early in the year and hope that, this is the bar other movies will not only match but also exceed, thus those early movies don’t get as much love as they should. “Oxygen” is a great, sci-fi, drama-thriller, on Netflix that was one of the most “original” movies of the year; it has a premise that has been done before, but it has been so long since it was attempted again, and, at times, it is exceptional. The directing is inventive and energetic; the acting is top-notch; the writing, editing, and musical work are all brilliant. The only reason it doesn’t make it on the actual list is that I wished it had used its premise a bit better; it sets up sci-fi “Buried”, but ends up delivering a compelling sci-fi thriller where the protagonist doesn’t feel all that restricted.

Rounding up the honorable mentions is another South Korean, Netflix movie, and my personal surprise of the year from Netflix’s offerings. I had never heard of Sung-hee Jo before, so I went in expecting a decent sci-fi action flick, but I got a great one. There is so much heart, effort, and love poured into this movie that it just stayed with me; it’s one of the few movies that came out this year with a reliance on CGI and bombastic set-pieces, which kept me entertained and thrilled me in several moments. Beyond that, it is a movie that wants to explore darker themes, characters with complexity and humanity, and build a world that is interesting, alongside being a blockbuster. That mix doesn’t always come together as neatly as it could, but it mostly does, and rewards the audience for sticking with it and for engaging with it with a bit more care and consideration.

My favorite 10 movies of 2021:

“Dune” is the beginning of what has the potential to be this generation’s defining trilogy; that may sound like hyperbole, but I genuinely believe it has that potential. As a standalone film, though, most people will find it lacking a satisfying ending and I get that – I thought the exact same thing when the credits rolled and I stayed in my seat, expecting the movie to keep going. The more I thought about it though, the more I like what it is and what it attempts to do. The worldbuilding is second to none; the action, the music, the cinematography, are all incredible. What keeps “Dune” on this list is how the crew decided to tackle this infamously, impossible adaptation. This may be the first part in terms of the story, but in terms of the character arc Paul Atreides goes on, it is a satisfying and beautiful ending; while the Dune saga is only just beginning when this film ends, so much of the magic and the story is already ingrained in us, which should make what follows even better. This is one of those movies that will get better if what follows is as good (or better), or it will get worse if the announced sequel is cancelled or does not live up to expectations. As a movie fan, I hate it when movies require you to watch other stuff or be a “fan” to get the full experience, but I always maintain that these techniques or tropes are not inherently bad they just suit certain tastes or ideas. “Dune” is that story for me; I lament other movies for the exact same reasons I applaud this one, I understand why that makes me look like a hypocrite, but I still had one of the best experiences watching this movie in all of 2021.

I love James Bond; from Connery to Craig, I’ve seen all the movies and I consider myself a fan of this franchise. I understand that, with a franchise like this one, adapting to the times and changing up the formula, is vital if it is to continue existing. Daniel Craig’s version of the character has been, at times, the best example of that and the worst; from “Casino Royale” and “Skyfall” to “Quantum of Solace” and the forgettable “Spectre”, Craig has given us classics and some of the worst Bond movies of all time. “No time to die” has its issues, I won’t deny that, but it is one of the best movies of the year, simply because despite all the changes and new ideas, this is still Bond. It has exceptional action set-pieces, grand visuals, and a great finale to give Craig’s Bond a fitting ending. More than any other movie in this list, you could nitpick or just easily point to a lot of issues, but the overall experience and the great emotions it gets from the audience are unaffected by those issues. I wish this franchise will now go on to another successful tenure and keep this legendary character where they need to be; in cinemas all around the world, where movie buffs and general audience members fall in love with the art of cinema and blockbuster-movie-making all over again.

  • The Fable: The killer who doesn’t kill

During the most recent quarantine, I decided to start catching up on a particular genre that I hadn’t kept up with – action. Specifically, I am a huge fan of Asian cinema and the particular sub-genres cinemas from Korea to Hong Kong have cultivated; the gory, bloody, and nihilistic style of revenge thrillers that have defined Korean cinema; the martial arts and passion that placed Hong Kong as one of the premier cinema scenes since the late 60s. However, one of the best action movies to come out this year has come from Japan, a cinema I never really associated with this genre. Japanese style and way of storytelling is something I enjoy greatly, but I’ve never been able to connect with their purely action-driven movies, yet in 2019 they released “The Fable” and then there was a sequel; that duology gathered so much praise that when Netflix landed their worldwide distribution rights, I couldn’t help but be excited. Both movies are about a legendary assassin, being forced into civilian life with only one rule: He cannot kill anyone for any reason. The Fable movies are about mixing two things that I adore, which makes them feel custom-made for me; over-the-top action with an emphasis on martial arts and practical stunts, alongside over-the-top silliness and not taking itself too seriously for comedic effect. While the first Fable movie is also pretty good, one of my grievances was that it was too goofy; I enjoy goofiness more than most people, but clashing with the gore and high-octane stunts of the action side with over-the-top silliness was a bit too much for the movie to handle. 2021’s “The Fable: The killer who doesn’t kill” not only addresses that critique without forgetting to be goofy and funny, it also delivers one of the best martial-arts movies I’ve seen in quite a while. The slight shift of focus away in tone from the first movie, allows the movie to recover some emotional punch and provide characters who have vulnerability and dramatic stakes. This, in turn, allows the goofy side of the movie to offer more relief and achieve a lot of great laughs occasionally, instead of many more good laughs all the time that the original aimed for. Most importantly, this allows the movie to set up so many more, over-the-top, set-piece moments that are some of the bests of the year; the scaffolding scene, the late-movie standoff in the forest, the beginning involving cars in a parking lot. There are so many great moments and stunts that thrill, alongside some CGI elements that don’t look as good compared to their Hollywood competition, but I couldn’t help but be enthralled by the craftsmanship of these scenes and the creativity behind them. My only real issue is one of pacing and focus; clearly the events of the first movie matter to the setup, but shifting focus away from this story to remind us of the first movie and those characters, only served to kill the pacing and distract rather than add anything of value. Besides that, I really hope this duology becomes a franchise as I want a third movie and much more after that, provided they keep this level of quality.

I know for most people, this is a 2020 movie, but it got a theater release in 2021 for me. I don’t have much to add to the praise others gave it or my previous review, only that my opinion has only gotten better with time. “The Father” is a movie that deals with heavy subjects and can easily appear as something “depressing” or “not that fun”; truth be told, I’ve seen a fair few of those movies this year and I’m not always in the mood for them, but “The Father” is not that. It is a brilliantly directed adaptation of a stage play and it uses this new medium to great effect; it allows the audience to empathize with sir Anthony Hopkins’ character, but it also creates something that is inherently more entertaining than most “serious dramas”. There is entertainment to be had from the use of cinematic language and techniques with this context, besides the obvious narrative purpose. The acting is incredible and still some of the best performances I’ve seen this year, alongside one of the most emotionally effective and envy-worthy scripts. The reason I haven’t forgotten about it though, the reason I have rewatched it with friends is that it manages to nail that balance between the drama and seriousness required of such a story, and the entertainment/creativity needed to endear it in my heart.

I stand by what I wrote in the intro; there were a lot of great movies this year, but not many that felt “special”. In a year where both Wes Anderson and Paul Thomas Anderson released their movies, this could be seen as a disappointing return from two legendary directors, since their work is usually “special”. I don’t agree with that, despite both of these directors being some of the best working today; “special”, for me, should be reserved for something that comes along and really speaks to me. Both directors made “special” movies to me, but their latest is not that, despite being two of the best movies to release (“Licorice Pizza” released in 2022 in my theaters, that is why it’s not on this list). Having said that, “The French Dispatch” is one of the best movies I’ve seen all year; as always with Wes Anderson movies, I am envious of his creativity and ability to translate those wonderful pictures in his head on the big screen. I am stunned how he’s able to write and direct these masterpieces, without losing their soul in the process of creating something so unique and detailed, while also allowing and capturing improvisation like few others can. More than anything, I am deeply bitter about his ability to make something that I can spend an entire evening obsessing over and dissecting every little detail to add more depth and intention behind every single frame and word, yet everyone will be able to just simply watch and get exactly what they want from it; a smartly humorous, thoroughly entertaining, comedy-adventure with so much creativity and talent pouring out of every frame.

Adaptations have long been Hollywood’s golden goose, but recently they’ve become almost weekly events. Every comic book, novel, graphic novel, video game, or Twitter thread, has gotten its own adaptation this year; I’m not really complaining about this, since original IP hasn’t really gone away it’s just harder to find in the sea of sequels, prequels, and adaptations that are a safer bet for big-budget movies or studios looking to start their own franchise. “The Green Knight” was my yearly reminder that adaptation does not equate to “safe”. This was a weird, faithful yet creative, artistic adaptation of the synonymous poem and it was one of the most memorable experiences I’ve had in cinemas in 2021. Great performances, with Dev Patel being a standout, David Lowery’s script and directing being some of the most creative works in the past year, while the excellent cinematography from Andrew Droz Palermo created visual moments still lingering in my head, months after I saw the movie.

Comic book movies are a genre that I enjoy, but have become increasingly tired of; some of my favorite movies are comic book movies, yet the fixation on them has resulted in a genre that has quickly become oversaturated with options that largely feel the same. For most people that previous sentence is either not true or don’t really care about it, because they enjoy the genre so much; I’ve seen a ton of horror movies that will look like the same thing to most people, yet my enjoyment of that genre and my will to look for the differences and the details don’t allow me to get fatigued. When I went to the theater to watch “The Suicide Squad” – as I do with all comic book movies with a few rare exceptions – I went in expecting a good blockbuster; same with Marvel movies that I saw this year like Shang Chi and Spiderman, which both matched my expectations. “The Suicide Squad” had me genuinely excited and gave me a great experience. It was different, in a way that I enjoyed; it was silly in ways that felt genuine rather than “fan-service”; it had a lot of practical stunts and character-driven moments, alongside the bombastic and great-looking CGI, which offered something more imaginative than most other movies; it had a lot of levity, but it also offered a lot of drama and suspense. Given that these were characters I mostly did not know, on a premise that already bombed spectacularly last time it was attempted, I was stunned to find that I look back at my time with “The Suicide Squad” so fondly, and genuinely feel like this was one of the best experiences I’ve had in a cinema this year. I hope James Gunn (and other visually, tonally, and creatively distinctive creators) is given the resources and backing to create more weird and fun comic book movies because I would love some more of this style.

  • The trip

Netflix had a pretty good year; “Squid Game”, “Lupin”, “Bridgerton” are just some of the series that premiered this year, with many others getting more acclaimed seasons, or getting much love from the public. In terms of movies, they’ve had one of their best years yet; “Don’t Look Up”, “Pieces of a Woman”, the “The power of the dog”, are just some of the movies they released this year not already mentioned somewhere in my lists. Alongside all these praiseworthy movies, they release pretty bad ones or unremarkable movies, which added alongside the shows and series they produce, adds up to a whole lot of content. That is why, sometimes, a movie being added to Netflix is a ‘high risk, high reward’ proposition; if it shines through everything else, then people will flop to it due to easy availability; however, if it doesn’t, it will often get lost and hidden. That is why I liked doing the Netflix list last year, why I kept reviewing or discussing Netflix movies this year and will continue to do so; there’s a lot of really good stuff being buried by more popular options and that’s a shame. “The Trip” is one such example. Starring Noomi Rapace and Aksel Hennie, co-written and directed by Tommy Wirkola, the movie is about soap-opera director Lars and his wife, and actor, Lisa; they are going through a rough spell in their marriage, so naturally Lars wants to take Lisa out in their vacation cabin and kill her. Too bad for him, Lisa has the same idea. This is a dark comedy that is filled to the brim with gore, ludicrous twists and turns, great performances, and almost perfect pacing. It is smart and has a few themes it explores really well, but what surprised me the most is how funny and exiting it is; I’d expect a movie with this premise to be more about the metaphorical fight of a failing marriage and what has let them there, being subverted and turned into a literal fight, since that is the premise for a lot of similar, European art-house movies, but I was surprised by the restrain and creativity the movie had. I laughed my heart out with this movie and I found it to be much more than just a smart subversion; it’s raw and gory, violent and thrilling, without forgetting to be what I expected it to be and deliver a smart drama about these characters. I highly recommend it and I would urge you to not look at trailers, because some of the twists are best experienced by going in blind.

2. Last night in Soho

Ever since “Shaun of the Dead”, I have watched Edgar Wright’s career blossom and exceed even my highest expectations. I love his style and vision of cinema, and I love his versatility; from horror-comedy to action-comedy and adventure, it is clear that he has an eye for style and comedy, but he is able to apply them to a variety of ideas and genres. 2021 was a landmark year for him and for his fans; two new projects, one a documentary and one a horror movie. Given his passion for the industry and music, I can’t say I never expected these projects, but to get them both in the same year was a treat. “Last night in Soho” is a brilliant movie; it has the style Edgar Wright is known for, but it is more than what meets the eye. It feels dirty or a fresh paint over something rotten and decaying. What captivated me in the cinema was that style and his unique ideas on capturing his vision on screen, like the protagonist (Thomasin McKenzie) and her alter ego (Anya Taylor-Joy) popping in and out of frame in a glorious one-shot sequence; what kept it in my head was the script and the themes, which is a first in an Edgar Wright movie for me. Even if he is one of my favorite directors, I understand the criticism of his movie being “style over substance”, even if his style has (and adds) so much substance to all his movies, but “Last night in Soho” is different; it has style and substance, and both are excellent throughout. It’s a horror movie, because of the themes it explores, the brilliant performances, the genuinely terrifying implications it leaves the audience with, but it never stops being an Edgar Wright movie; it’s the best-looking movie of the year, the most stylish, and is entertaining right to the last frame. It still doesn’t top my favorite Edgar Wright movie (“Hot Fuzz” is still the best action-comedy I have seen), but it does come really close. In a year where I found a lot of the horror offerings to be lacking, “Last night in Soho” gave me my horror fix for the year and my Edgar Wright fix at the same time.

1. Nobody

One of the best feelings with any entertainment medium is discovering your next favorite creator; whether that’s a musician, an actor, a game studio, or a director. Ilya Naishuller is not a new name, for me, since his unique music videos (check them out if you want 3 minutes of pure chaos and creativity) and his feature film, “Hardcore Henry”, have both proven he is a talented director with great instincts and style. “Hardcore Henry” in particular was an overlooked and criminally underrated action movie that I wished was more successful, so that Naishuller would be given more opportunities; thankfully, he was. “Nobody” has a weird backstory, since it was originally inspired by star Bob Odenkirk’s real-life experience with a break-in; he wanted to make a movie about overpowering that situation when in real life he would have not, had he not outsmarted them. Thus, he went to the best man for the job: Derek Kolstad, the writer of the original “John Wick”. He then, after finishing the script, went looking for Naishuller, since he liked “Hardcore Henry” so much, for directing it. So, an action blockbuster from the director of “Hardcore Henry”, the writer of “John Wick”, and the star of “Better Caul Saul”; what could possibly go wrong? Many things, but not only was this the best action experience of the year for me, it was also the best movie experience. Everything I wanted from this movie, I got; Bob Odenkirk utilizing his natural comedic talent to provide levity, alongside his underrated dramatic chops to sell the character and the action – not only that, but he also did most of his stunts adding that undeniably entertaining effect of watching the actor perform his own stunts. Kolstad makes the world and the characters memorable and mysterious, while also giving plenty of reason to hate the bad guys, love the good guys, and have many memorable action set-pieces and scenes. By far, the brightest shining star has to be Naishuller; his directing of the action was never going to be questioned, but he gave us the best action scene of the year (bus scene). He relentlessly paced the movie to be interesting in the setup, endearing with the characters, and relentlessly brutal once the action starts; he even got a lot of the comedic timing and techniques right, which made “Nobody” a brilliantly balanced movie. There’s a ton of action, but there’s also a lot of levity and worldbuilding, with touches of character moments to make the stakes relatable. I know a lot of people will see this movie as ‘John Wick with middle-aged man’ because it is a retired assassin kicking the crap out of the Russian Mafia, but I honestly don’t care. Yes, there are similarities, and for some, they may be distracting or feel like they are watching a lesser “John Wick”, but I couldn’t disagree more; Bob Odenkirk is a badass, but also funny; the story is similar, but differs enough where surprises and new ideas are common; the action is stellar, the pacing, levity, acting, and general experience are second to none in 2021. In the intro I said there were very few “special” movies out this year, but “Nobody” has the potential to be that for me; it takes time and multiple viewings, but I’ve already seen the movie 3 times and I can’t wait to find another excuse to watch it again. I hope it becomes special with time, but for now, it is my favorite movie of 2021.

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