The usual top ten list for the previous year was split up between theatrical and streaming because theaters were closed and product was sparse. Although everything is still not as it once was, I can say things are better and we return this year to a list of films that were seen for the first time in theaters. There were a number of movies on the list that could be accessed at home, but this site continues to be devoted to an “in-theater” experience for the most part. I may make mention of a couple of streaming products, but most of those were not covered on the site before so there will be no link to a review for them.
Ten Favorite Films of 2021
As I have said in the past, my opinion on the list reflects my reaction to a film, not always it’s aesthetic qualities, although those often line up.
10. The King’s Man
I have loved all of Matthew Vaughn’s films. Last year I participated in a podcast reviewing his work and discussing with the hosts whether he qualifies as an auteur. You can find that discussion on The Popcorn Auteur at this link: Here. The films in this series have usually been frenetic exercises in action and violence, laced with a heavy dose of humor. “Kingsmen: The Secret Service” is basically an absurdist James Bond fantasy that is well aware that it is exactly that. “Kingsman: The Golden Circle” did what a sequel usually does, expand the universe that it is operating in and adding characters that we will want to see in further entries. “The King’s Man” goes in a different direction. In essence it is an origin story of the organization that we were introduced to in the first two films. It is a clever mix of the fictional with authentic history. There are some absurd concepts here, like the idea that Mati Hari seduced Woodrow Wilson, but it is kind of in keeping with the way U.S. Presidents have been portrayed in the other two movies, so it least Vaughn is consistent.
The film has not received the same enthusiasm from critics and audiences as the first film did, but I found it to be very entertaining and I was happy it finally got a release. The movie has been ready for two years and it finally escaped Covid jail during the recent holiday season.
9. Shang Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings
The Marvel Cinematic Universe is gearing up the next phase in their agenda, and that requires new heroes to step in for the departing leads in the Avenger’s films. Captain America, Iron Man, and Black Widow are now off stage.
The Hulk appears to be semi-retired, but Thor is coming back and the second wave of Marvel Universe heroes are still kicking around. “Shang-Chi” introduces a new character to the films, a sort of magical Bruce Lee character who gets an origin story in this film from the very end of the Summer season. The story is really solid, and we get some characters that will be fun in small does as well as the main lead who is great. The villain in the stury is also excellent, and is played by a respected Asian actor with a long history of good films, Tony Chiu-Wai Leung.
There was a lot of enthusiasm on the Lambcast when we covered this in September. The film also seemed to open the valves a little on the slowly awakening box office.
8. Nightmare Alley (2021)
I need to include the year of release here because this film is a remake of a noir classic that came out in 1947, and we would not want the two of them to be confused with one another. Admittedly, that is unlikely because the current version is directed by Guillermo del Toro, who has an incredible eye, even though his storytelling skills are sometimes a bit underwhelming. Stanton Carlisle is one of the great Noir figures that actually has crept into the vernacular. Carneys, grifters, psychics and fortunetellers can pick out a fellow traveler when they admit that they are a friend of Stanton Carlisle. In this version, Tyrone Power has been replaced by another handsome face, Bradley Cooper.
The elaborate production design and incredibly deep cast is used to support a horrifying outcome for a man who we follow and probably root for, but for whom we should have no sympathy. The ambitious huckster manages to think he is the smartest guy in the room, only to discover that there are people even more vile than he and sometimes more clever. I think the film pokes along a little more slowly than is best, but the story still works and the movie looks great.
This was a movie that came out of nowhere for me. Prior to seeing a trailer, I had no idea it existed nor any reason to be interested. Once I saw the premise however, I had high hopes that it would be just what the doctor ordered. Theaters around the country were not all open when this film dropped last March. Too many people were still reluctant to go out to a film, but not me. I was ready for this and when it was over I was gassed. This hit every button on my lizard brain and made me so happy, I actually watched it as a rental a few weeks later when I spent an evening back in California with my friends.
“Nobody” is a John Wick style action film with a less than likely badass as the central figure. Bob Odenkirk from “Breaking Bad” and “Better Call Saul” doesn’t look like an intimidating tough guy, and that is part of the pleasure of this film. He is a guy that people underestimate when they look at him, but know to fear when they learn who he was. The fistfights are not kung fu battles but brutal beatdowns using basic force. The gun battles are stylized, but they are not the elegant special effects works of Matrix style action. This movie was simply the most fun I had at a movie next to one other film on this list.
6. The Sparks Brothers
At the start of the year, the Edgar Wright film that I would have most been looking forward to was “Last Night in Soho” . I was not even aware that Wright was doing a documentary, much less on a band with a cult following in my hometown and in Europe. Sparks was a band that I was a fan of in the 1980s, but they fell off of my radar for 30 years. Apparently, they just kept making the great, odd music that they had always done. There were projects that went nowhere and albums that did not generate sales, but the creativity never faltered and this documentary shows it.
Wright includes the usual talking heads but spices it up with performances, videos and animation to cover the history of the band in a mostly chronological fashion. The movie is not just informative about the bands travails, it is also entertaining as heck and much of that is provided by the two brothers that make up the band.
5. Spider-Man: No Way Home
This is getting people back out to the movies, it is setting records for box office and the full theaters seem to be a good indicator that people will come out of their covid induced hibernation if a movie is only available in theaters and it is something people want to see. “No Way Home” is the third Spider-Man centric film to star Tom Holland. Although he appears in three other MCU films, the ones with Spider-Man as the main character seem to harken to the early days of comic book movies when the stories were fun and not just grim exercises in creating worldwide threats.
We were led to the idea of a multiverse by the animated Spider-Man movie “Into the Spiderverse“, just a couple of years ago. This film takes advantage of the concept by dipping into the previous Spider-Man films for stories, villains and some other potential fun. The audience gasp at particular moments in the film, lets you know that this is a movie that is connecting with it’s fans. The term “fan service” is often used to deride elements of a film that are designed to pander to the audience, but when used properly, this “service” represents the connection that a franchise has with it’s fans and that relationship is an important one for most of us who love movies.
“No Way Home” gives us a chance to reconcile our feelings about plots that were left dangling in the earlier Spidey films and allows us to reassess those movies and somewhat repair them in our memory. This was the movie that was the most fun that I had in a theater this last year and I look forward to catching it again as soon as I am able.
4. Ghostbusters Afterlife
Everyone who was waiting for a Ghostbusters sequel which did not suck, finally got their wish in November of 2021. “Ghostbusters Afterlife” had been delayed more than a year and a half by the Covid-19 reshuffling that studios had to do to try and save their projects form theatrical disaster. The really unfortunate part of this is that “Afterlife” was a perfect Summer release, and now it will be a fond memory, but not of sunny days and warm nights spent in a theater.
The young cast that carries this film is impressive, but even more impressive is that this is a true sequel and not a reboot like the 2016 misfire. The original characters are in the story for just a bit, but it is a juicy bit and it does not take away from what the new cast has done to bring us into the story. Down the road, this may get the most rewatches by me of any film on the list, it is fun and when June gets here, I will be looking for this as a companion to the original “Ghostbusters“.
3. Free Guy
This is an original concept but it feels like a franchise film because it operates in the world of videogames. This is another film that had multiple release dates but finally escaped in the summertime to give all of us a reason to go to the movies. The premise felt convoluted the first time I saw a trailer, but it turns out to be relatively straightforward once you are watching. A video game character becomes self aware in the game he exists in and interacts with a real player to foil a villainous plot. “Free Guy” is an odd name choice, but the character is Guy and it just makes sense.
Ryan Reynolds proves that he can be his own most valuable player when the material is good. I have not tired of his casual, relaxed vocal style yet. His manner is perfect for a non-playable character in a computer game. This film also has the benefit of the best trailer for a movie this year. See it when you click on the link to the review.
2. Dune (2021)
A visionary film from a visionary film maker. Denis Villeneuve has made two terrific science fiction films before this, Blade Runner 2049 and Arrival. The visuals in those two movies were spectacular and they promised a great deal for a revised version of “Dune“. This movie lived up to that promise. This is an ambitious film, that is attempting to do something very difficult, translate a book that is full of ideas, into a movie that is more than just the visuals.
I’m a big apologist for the David Lynch version of the story, but Villeneuve has something that Lynch was denied back in 1984, time. This movie is only part one of a two part film. It is already longer than the Lynch film, and we still have the second half to look forward to. I am not the biggest fan of Timothée Chalamet, but he manages to be convincing as Paul Atreides, especially in the early part of the story where Paul is supposed to be young and a bit uncertain.
There is a great cast in this film and we will certainly see more of them in Part 2 when it arrives in two years although the electric Jason Mamoa will be missed as Duncan Idaho’s part in the story is complete at this point. Baron Harkonnen is barely used and will be more prominent down the road, and some characters from the book have not even been hinted at in the film so far.
When I see a film, I always hope to connect with the characters and share the emotional ride that the story takes us on. “Belfast” is a personal reminiscence of writer/director Kenneth Branagh, harkening to his youth in the violence torn hometown. While “The Troubles” are a part of the story, the real focus is on the family at the center of the picture. A young boy is confronting the confusing world he lives in while being nurtured by a fiercely stubborn mother, an unwillingly absent father and nurturing grandparents.
The emotions and hopefulness are engulfing, just the way I like. Some may see it as sentimental clap trap, they can take a flying leap. This is a wonderfully acted drama that has more heart and cares more about it’s characters than any movie that has come along in a long time. Frankly, it was not even close to being dethroned from my top spot, despite how great some of the other films are. It is small, in black and white and emotionally perfect. The actors are also fantastic.