Best of 2021: Top 10 Movies

What a difference twelve months makes.

The year in general may have felt like its own form of tired sequel when all was said and done, but after scrambling to the finish line in 2020 and doing my best to bask in the unexpected, I finished 2021 having seen 31 whole new-release movies. Sure, that’s mostly because we got almost two years of delayed blockbusters crammed into one, but numbers are numbers.

More movies means I can be more confident of a quality list that properly reflects my tastes, but it also makes ordering the movies a tad trickier. I found this year in particular that quite a few of the films I saw came off somewhat uneven, with plenty of individual elements worth praising but almost as many misfires. That, of course, just makes them more fun to discuss, which in turn tends to make me like them more. Some even make this list. Because I will be vaguely gesturing towards such individual elements, you may find slight spoilers here, but it’s unlikely.

Let’s finish this thing.

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VR BEST OF 2021 DISCLAIMER

This list represents my opinion only. I am not asserting any kind of superiority or self-importance by presenting it as I have. My opinion is not fact. To agree with me 100% is beyond unlikely. Respectful disagreement is most welcome.

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10. In the Heights

My most anticipated movie of an uncertain year for movies – mostly cause I knew I’d enjoy at least some of it, and that first trailer was incredible – John M Chu’s adaptation of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s stage musical In the Heights is exactly the visual feast fans could’ve hoped for. Though it hacks one of the main characters’ stories to bits in the name of streamlining an already-long runtime – and the musical already lacks the plot momentum of Miranda’s Hamilton – some of the other changes to the source are neat, efficient and well-executed. Some of the stage songs even take on new life with the visual flair added in the film, while the ones that were already highlights take another step up.

9. Raya and the Last Dragon

It’s a bit of a struggle to articulate what I enjoy so much about this movie, but ultimately I think it comes down to a simple claim: Raya and the Last Dragon features the best-looking hand-to-hand combat scenes I’ve ever seen in an animated film. Any criticism that it breezes past its cool wordbuilding is definitely valid, but there are plenty of other things to like about the movie: Awkwafina’s larger-than-life performance style almost works better in animation than live action, the entirety of the team-gathering second act is good fun, and the central message about old wounds preventing current growth is poignant. I stand by what I said back in July: It’s my favourite non-musical Disney animated feature in twenty years.

8. Encanto

Speaking of Disney musicals, if a movie with a setup like this didn’t end up on my top ten it would have to be truly awful. The 60th Walt Disney Animation Studios feature (Has it already been ten movies since Tangled?) sees the ever-busier Lin-Manuel Miranda return to the house of mouse after his magic Moana soundtrack – and his work on the 10th entry on this very list – to write at least two more tunes destined to become fan favourites (the far-too-relatable Surface Pressure and the gorgeous overlap-based We Don’t Talk About Bruno). The film uses a small setting and loud characters with thematically useful superpowers to tell a story about family that hits like a truck. Like Raya, it may suffer from its own brevity at times, but I’m a big fan regardless.

7. No Time to Die

Coming in for its fourth list appearance this month, Daniel Craig’s final James Bond outing is the most uneven of all the uneven films I had the pleasure of seeing this year. Carrying a promising villain the plot ultimately wastes, an eye-watering runtime and a few consequential character choices that don’t hold up to scrutiny, No Time to Die is nonetheless teeming with highlights. Fantastic scenes – the opening pair of stunts, the cat-and-mouse forest showdown, that incredible staircase shootout – and brilliant characters – the hammy evil scientist, the cocky new 007, the extra-humanized Q, Paloma the CIA agent – combine with a surprisingly delightful script to ensure No Time to Die comfortably dispatches Spectre and Quantum of Solace and nips at Casino Royale‘s heels in the middle of my personal Craig Bond film ranking.

6. Free Guy

Every year brings surprises at the movies, and this one was massive for me. The trailers for Free Guy sold yet another irreverent Ryan Reynolds action vehicle with a self-aware angle; but the movie behind them might just be the first real instance of a corporate videogame culture skewering in Hollywood history. In order to get there, it also has to be one of the first Hollywood movies to look at the gaming industry without cynical contempt, which is an achievement in itself. Reynolds’ sentient NPC Guy may be the main character of the film, but he is not the protagonist – that title goes to Jodie Comer’s mysterious rebel Millie, and her twist-laden story earns the movie its gloriously cheesy and crowd-pleasing finale.

5. Nobody

I like to look at Nobody as the next in line for the mantle that Taken passed on to John Wick several years ago: after all, here’s another action movie with crunchy, well-choreographed action sequences based around an older man who is underestimated by most of the people around him. Unlike those two movies, Nobody does not use an incredible phone call speech to set up the protagonist’s peerless combat abilities; instead it goes in just about the complete opposite direction with an inciting incident that doubles down on the underestimation. It’s a fascinating look at societal expectation for violence – for a hot minute – but then there’s a bus. And later, a hardware store. And then the movie has swept you up in a breathless thrill ride.

4. Minari

Minari is a beautifully real experience to watch at times, capturing the natural splendour of the elements and placing them front and centre to illustrate a loosely autobiographical tale of an immigrant father who wanted a better life for his family – but lost sight of them in his battle to prove himself against those elements. It’s also a masterful display of how to make such visual beauty excruciating to witness, as the gulf between this man and the rest of his family grows ever greater over time. Every main actor in the small cast gives a wonderful performance, and director Lee Isaac Chung ensures they all work together to keep hope and dread at arm’s length at all times. Well, right up until that disgustingly effective tearjerker finale where it all pays off.

3. Spider-Man: No Way Home

Is two weeks enough time to talk about spoilers for this one? Probably not, so I’ll just say that the first time I saw Spider-Man: No Way Home it was the best theatre-specific experience I’d had since James Cameron’s Avatar came out in 2009. Unlike Avatar, however, I watched No Way Home again, and will probably see it a third time via Blu-Ray before too long. It is currently impossible for me to separate the experience of being amidst that electric fan atmosphere from the quality of the movie itself, but I do think Jon Watts’ third MCU Spidey venture is definitively his best work with the character (and his supporting cast) we’ve yet seen. The film sets the MCU version of the webslinger on a fascinating new path, and how it gets him there is really something.

2. Dune

Across decades of nerdy investments I have somehow managed to avoid all versions of Dune, so I do not know where this story is ultimately going, or how many of the threads left hanging will be picked up. What I do know is I was hanging on every frame of the opening chapter I saw in the cinema this year. Denis Villeneuve’s interpretation of the original Frank Herbert novel is another trademark statement of scale and perspective, which this year in particular felt like a bountiful antidote to the constricted gloss of the Marvel machine. Timothy Chalamée and Rebecca Ferguson categorically slay their central roles, and the ridiculously star-studded supporting cast doesn’t have a weak link among them. This Dune unquestionably feels like only part of a story, but you can go ahead and lock me right in for the next chapter on day one.

1. The Last Duel

That sentence I just wrote about Jodie Comer’s character in Free Guy can actually apply in a shockingly similar way to Marguerite de Carrouges, the same actress’ besieged role in Ridley Scott’s extravagant epic The Last Duel. The titular face-off may be between two people who view themselves as the main characters of their own stories – as the first two title cards of the film state plainly – but this is a story about a protagonist stuck within an inhumane societal system, and its confidence in what it needs to show you to illustrate the full picture of that system is resolute. The result is a magnificently earthy realisation of a medieval world that achieves Gladiator levels of gravitas on quite a few occasions, and the storytelling conceit of featuring multiple unreliable narrators trusts its audience to pick up on subtle directing changes just as often as it showcases grandiose differences in perspective. I was glued to the screen for all two and a half hours of The Last Duel, and it’s my number 1 movie of 2021.

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Honorable Mentions

–The Matrix Resurrections

This one is still really new, and it’s hard to place when there are so many neat things to dissect about it; but I just knew I had to fit it in once I saw how polarising the reviews / takes were shaping up to be. It was well worth it: This is somehow simultaneously one of the freshest and most referential sequels I’ve seen in ages. Yeah, still trying to work out how that works. This thing reaches meta-levels I didn’t think anyone would dare attempt, even in 2021.

–Luca

This is Pixar at their most straightforwardly wholesome in at least a decade; Luca is positively packed with salt-of-the-earth optimism, childlike wonder, frequent laughs, a cast of instantly-memorable characters, unfairly appetising pasta and at least one catch phrase you might be hearing from kids a lot in the next few years. Unfortunately, it takes a full 28 minutes to get going. I just could not get into its alternately too-dour/too-abstract first act myself, but I’m sure plenty of people would disagree.

–A Quiet Place Part II

I watched this movie directly after finishing its predecessor for the first time, and it flows so ridiculously well that I’ve already started misremembering which one holds which scenes – but telling a satisfying story within 90 minutes for a second time is worth your praise – as is Millicent Simmonds’ leveled-up performance.

–Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings

This one wasn’t going to make my honorable mentions at the start of the month – that overly-prevalent green screen just takes so much away from the movie for me. But writing about the standalone things it does well has reminded me that it’s a really fun movie otherwise, and Marvel’s second-best cinematic effort of the year – just.

–Wrath of Man

Guy Ritchie is currently on a bit of a tear with his film output, which can be scary given some of his weaker past work; but when he’s able to deliver something this unique and engaging so soon after crowd-pleaser The Gentlemen, any such fears appear unfounded – even if Jason Statham’s modern badass persona isn’t as fun as his Lock Stock one.

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