No year-end list is ever a complete picture, and this list is no exception. I saw plenty of movies in 2021, but there were also plenty I didn’t see. The following 10 movies are the ones that stayed with me the most by year’s end, whether they delivered a message I found to be powerful or simply made me laugh uncontrollably when I really needed it.
Hopefully, one or two of these titles might provide you with that same comfort.
Movies have been inspired by much flimsier premises than a Twitter thread, but few filmmakers have mined such thin material for brilliance as director / co-writer Janicza Bravo does here. If there’s any major bone to pick with Zola, it’s that it’s ultimately nothing more than a lark — a wild ride through seedy strip clubs and shady hotel rooms alongside a group of homicidal pimps, thieves and desperate sex workers. However, as a pure moviegoing experience, few films this year put me through the wringer like this one. Our narrator and the title character (Taylour Paige) promises us in the opening scene that this story is “full of suspense,” and reader, she is not kidding. Zola somehow manages to balance harrowing subject matter involving sex trafficking with hysterical situational comedy. For those who can get on board with such brash and bold material, you’re in for a ride like none other.
9. The Suicide Squad
Writer-director James Gunn (Guardians of the Galaxy) knows that these days, if you want to make a big-budget exploitation movie, the only way to do it is to populate it with a bunch of C-list comic-book characters of whom no one has ever heard. Yes, this is a movie set in the DC Universe but it’s also a gleefully dumb splatter flick, filled with more gross-out violence and juvenile shock-gags than any mainstream movie in recent memory. That wouldn’t mean squat, though, if Gunn wasn’t an expert at finding horrible and hilarious ways for his cast of characters to die. The whole cast here is aces: John Cena gives his best comic performance to date, Idris Elba finally gets the spotlight in a decent blockbuster for once, and Margot Robbie continues to marvel as Harley Quinn after last year’s underrated Birds of Prey. If you wish superhero movies had less redeeming social value and more dismembered limbs and kaiju battles, The Suicide Squad is the antidote.
I have a terrible confession to make, people. As a lifelong horror addict, I feel the need to come clean and admit that I think James Wan, one of the most beloved modern-day horror directors, is Just OK. Sure, the Conjuring movies contain a couple of brilliant sequences, but they’re mostly wall-to-wall with tired haunted house tropes. So it’s safe to say Malignant completely blindsided me. This movie felt like it was made just for me — or, at the very least, people like me who mainlined VHS horror trash as a kid. It’s the kind of pants-on-the-head stupid, big-studio horror that hasn’t been made since Wes Craven’s My Soul to Take back in 2010. It’s a bonkers mish-mash of a ludicrous soap opera, gruesome slasher and wacky mad-scientist picture that all culminates in one of the most insane third-act twists in recent memory (for the love of God, do not let yourself get spoiled before witnessing it for yourselves). On top of all that, the entire movie is absolutely gorgeous to look at, with Wan and cinematographer Michael Burgess using wildly inventive camera movements to make every sequence sing as much as possible. A wonderful exercise in pure camp.
7. Barb and Star Go to Vista Del Mar
Remember when comedies could just be unapologetically silly? When can we get the worthy heir to movies like Dumb and Dumber or Austin Powers that aren’t in the form of forgettable sequels? In a world where Adam McKay has turned too self-serious to produce anything of quality, in steps director Josh Greenbaum with Barb and Star Go to Vista Del Mar. Kristen Wiig and Annie Mumolo are exquisite as the titular duo, two sweet-but-bizarre best friends who decide to ditch the Midwest suburbs to vacation in Vista Del Mar. What follows involves nefarious supervillain plots, talking crabs, and Jamie Dornan (of Fifty Shades of Grey fame) singing a musical number to a seagull perched on a tire.
6. The Last Duel
For all his missteps over the past decade, director Ridley Scott still knows how to make a movie feel like, well … a movie. Few other filmmakers can immerse audiences in a foreign setting through immaculate production design and attention to detail the way he can. This medieval drama isn’t a muscular exercise in machismo like his Oscar-winning Gladiator or an epic war picture like the underrated Kingdom of Heaven. No, this is a stellar treatise on female agency, anchored by an astonishing Jodie Comer as a woman whose life literally hinges upon whether or not people will believe her accusations against a powerful squire played by Adam Driver. The story itself is riveting, shifting between the perspectives of three different characters as Comer’s fate is passed between the hands of the ignorant, self-serving men who govern her life. Nonetheless, its message remains as potent as its narrative, unfurling in an all-too-familiar world where men’s social stature comes before the well-being of the women they harm.
Watching the trailer for Pig, it’s easy to balk at its peculiar premise — a movie where Nicolas Cage is hunting down his stolen truffle pig. Taken by way of Anthony Bourdain, and starring an actor who’s still more or less known as a walking meme at this point … how could anyone take this seriously? Well, even those who know Cage has still given plenty of beautiful performances over the past two decades might be surprised at how gentle and subversive Pig actually is. This isn’t a movie about inflicting violence on others but rather just the opposite: Pig is about forgiving your trespassers and putting aside life’s daily anxieties to remember the things that make one’s life worth living. This is one of the biggest surprises of the year — a strange, mournful and ultimately hopeful twist on a well-worn story.
4. Licorice Pizza
Since establishing himself as an all-time director with Boogie Nights in 1997, Paul Thomas Anderson’s movies have grown less and less accessible if still consistently brilliant. Licorice Pizza may not be the straightforward coming-of-age dramedy its marketing has promised, but it’s the most blissful theatrical experience I had in 2021 all the same. The story is as aimless as the lives of its two central characters, as we follow 15-year-old child actor Gary Valentine (Cooper Hoffman) and twentysomething Alana (Alana Haim, in the breakout performance of the year) through a series of wonderful vignettes and odd detours through 1970s Los Angeles. There’s not much of a plot here because the main throughline is the often-troubling and frequently touching relationship between Gary and Alana, an unusual blend of rivalry, romance and friendship that mutates alongside the film’s many digressions. Think of it as an unlikely companion piece to Anderson’s Phantom Thread, another examination of a curious courtship between two fascinating people. Like that film, Licorice Pizza is all about basking in the filmmaker’s intoxicating atmosphere — a sunny, wistful ride that you know you’ll be taking a dozen more times in your lifetime the moment it ends.
3. The Power of the Dog
Luckily, the end result of writer-director Jane Campion’s first film since 2009 was worth the wait. The Power of the Dog is a bizarre, inscrutable beast; a blend of Hitchcockian suspense, brooding anti-Western and subtle black comedy, it’s a movie that’s delightfully hard to pin down until it finally reveals its true nature in a devious third act. Benedict Cumberbatch at first seems an odd casting choice to play the comically masculine rancher Phil Burbank until the viewer quickly realizes that his machismo is merely a façade he puts on as a defense mechanism. What transpires between Phil and his brother’s newly married-into family is best left a surprise, but watching the shifting power dynamics between Phil, his sister-in-law and nephew is a mesmerizing thrill.
Proceed with caution. Anyone who caught director Julia Ducournau’s last effort, 2016’s Raw, knows that she is first and foremost a provocateur. Regardless of your level of experience with weird, extreme cinema, you will be shocked by Titane. There’s enough transgressive imagery here — outlandish body horror, brutal violence and perverse sexuality — to fill most directors’ entire filmographies. But let’s face it, anyone can shock someone. Thankfully, Titane is far more than just edgy posturing. It’s a whip-smart work of French horror that raises questions about everything from the nature of morality and the fluidity of gender to the limitations of what the human body can endure before it’s no longer human at all. It’s also one of the rare movies where 30 minutes in, I grinned with delight realizing I had no idea whatsoever where its story was headed. Titane is a triumph on virtually every level, of which the Academy should be ashamed for not nominating in its Best International Feature Film category at the upcoming Oscars.
1. Red Rocket
Nobody is making movies like Sean Baker right now. Whether it’s the transgender prostitutes of Tangerine or the tenants of a low-income housing project outside of Walt Disney World in The Florida Project, we simply don’t get movies about the people Baker’s movies are so often about. Using a mix of professional and non-professional actors, he paints vivid worlds that other media would rather ignore. His latest, Red Rocket, is more of the same in the best way, following ex-porn star Mikey Saber (Scary Movie alum Simon Rex, a former adult film star himself) as he returns to his Texas hometown to ruin everyone’s lives with his monstrous selfishness. Mikey is the worst kind of hustler, someone whose unapologetic charm continues to work on everyone he encounters even if they’ve already been hustled by him before. For its sunny imagery and frequently lighthearted tone, Red Rocket is still an incredibly dark movie about how we as a country have allowed unbridled narcissism to ravage our society, where a cult of personality trumps moral values.
The whole enterprise wouldn’t work half as well if it weren’t for Rex and his co-star Suzanna Son. Rex is a motor-mouthed grifter who you can’t peel your eyes from starting with the moment he steps on screen. You know whatever he has planned is going to end badly for all parties involved, but he remains the movie’s irresistible magnetic center. Those plans end up involving 17-year-old Strawberry (Son), whose coattails he hopes to ride back into a successful porn career. Like I said, this is dark stuff, but painfully insightful and undeniably funny stuff as well.