2021 turned out to be a surprisingly good year for film, despite us suffering through the second year of the pandemic and with Finnish theaters unfairly closed for months on end. Here are ten highlights that I particularly loved, but they’re certainly not every great film that has come out.
No Time to Die
There was every chance that No Time to Die would end up a miserable failure. Between changing directors, last-minute rewrites, and a delay of almost two years due to the pandemic, everything was going against the final Craig-era tentpole. What a surprise, then, that NTTD is not just a brilliant encapsulation of everything that is Bond, but a heartfelt tribute to the superspy throughout the ages.
As a conclusion for Daniel Craig’s run as Bond, it’s impeccable; as a dissertation of who Bond is; how he’s changed, and what the world looks like without him, No Time to Die is a brilliant epic that makes the character more nuanced and alive. It’s a superb film that could easily serve as a finale to the franchise as a whole.
Once Upon a Time in Venezuela
A triumphant portrait of the failures and dangers of capitalism that depicts the fall of a town drowning beneath the waves. That town is gone now, and its inhabitants are scattered to the wind. We will never see these people again, and that makes this a valuable, painfully honest time capsule that should be cherished for all time.
Spider-Man: No Way Home
Concluding Marvel’s Home trilogy, Jon Watts brings together the web-slingers entire cinematic history in a heartwarming and dazzling finale that’s equal parts happy nostalgia and deep introspection. Where it easily could have settled for a dire victory lap and cheap reminiscence, Watts and co. instead spend most of the film dissecting comic book lore and tropes, effectively asking the audience why this silly character has endured for so long.
The result is a smart, exciting, and thoroughly complete finale that, if Marvel and Sony were smart, would be the last thing we’d see of Spider-Man for quite some time.
West Side Story
Brilliantly adapted from the Broadway musical, Steven Spielberg breathes new life and vision into familiar numbers. If only they hadn’t cast wet rag Ansel Elgort, who is a vacuum of charisma, as its leading man. Thankfully, it’s the rest of the cast, especially Ariana DeBose and Mike Faist, who save the day.
Beyond the cast, Spielberg’s brilliant choreography and understanding of the material shine brightly. Tony Kushner’s evocative script seamlessly blends the past and present, referencing both Italian neo-realism and present-day troubles between dazzling set pieces. Fenced in by two worlds; one of failed capitalism, the other of violent tribalism, love can only exist for a heartbeat, and Spielberg captures that vibrant second in vivid Technicolor that coats the tragedy in sweetness and melancholy.
Part body horror, part erotica, and part oddly charming drama about found families, Titane is everything all at once. Visceral, horrifying, and deeply affecting, it’s nothing like anything else on the screen this year.
The Green Knight
A hypnotic re-telling of ancient legend, reborn in a visual medium like a new age oral tradition. The episodic structure will drive away some, but the intense beauty and poetic fable-like structure prove immensely rewarding on subsequent viewings. Dev Patel continues his winning streak as one of the most interesting actors around as Gawain, a knight destined to fuck around and find out as he takes up a boast he can’t possibly complete.
Directed by David Lowery, a lyrical and smart filmmaker who broke my heart with the intensely beautiful Ghost Story a few years back. Here, his impeccable sense of timing and visuals lend to a wholly believable world that is both fantasy and historical. Everyone feels like they’ve been here forever, stuck in a fable of their own, and where the cycle begins again each time it is completed.
Riders of Justice
Another film about found families and dealing with loss, Riders of Justice is a masterful subversion of genre tropes, led by an amazing turn from Mads Mikkelsen.
After losing his wife in what appears to be a freak accident, Mikkelsen’s former soldier bands together with a group of misfits claiming there’s more to the loss than senseless tragedy. What follows is a mixture of tragedy, bleak comedy, and surprisingly tender love among people looking for a way out of grief.
Haunting, melancholy, beautiful, and equal parts heartbreaking and life-affirming, Another Round is a triumphant meditation on growing old. Nearing the latter part of forty and stuck in their familiar cycles, a group of friends decides to experiment with daytime drinking. If they keep their alcohol blood levels at an exact elevation, life will surely be better for them.
What could easily have turned into a dire screwball comedy (just wait for the American remake next year), instead becomes a captivating look at how quickly life passes us by. Mikkelsen is incredible in the lead role, carrying on his shoulders the weight of all loss, regret, and dying ambition that weigh people down.
A beautifully nuanced and intimate masterpiece about immigration and family, Minari brought back memories of my life in Houston, where I emigrated in 2013. Life there didn’t work out, and this complicated and true portrait of the trials that one faces in a new world hit me harder than I could have imagined.
Nicolas Cage reminds everyone that he’s always been an immensely talented actor in a touching, meditative tale about grief and friendship. After his truffle pig is kidnapped, Cage’s isolated loner returns to the big city to seek answers. While not all of them are worth the somewhat long runtime, Cage gives one of the best and most heartfelt performances in his entire career.