Cinema Dispatch: Top 10 Best Movies of 2021

2021 may not have been as sparse as 2020 as far as releases, but it was still a rough year to get out to the theater and so I didn’t as many movies as I had hoped; hence why I did a few pieces trying to catch up on a few things that I missed. If I didn’t get a chance to review it, I didn’t put it on this list so keep that in mind as we go through the best films that I saw last year! Let’s get started!!

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Honorable Mentions: Spiral & Snake Eyes

Spiral Review; Snake Eyes Review

I like to give the unofficial eleventh spot to something that may not have been a great film but clicked with me in some strange way and held my interest throughout the year. For 2021, it was two movies that managed to do something new with existing franchises that I had written off a long time ago; GI Joe being a series I’ve never been a fan of and Saw having run itself into the ground a decade ago. Both films are significantly flawed in some fundamental areas with Snake Eyes having some terribly shot action and Spiral losing a lot of tension whenever Chris Rock starts in on his shtick, but I’m genuinely impressed at how both brought their respective franchises back from the dead by getting to the heart of what makes them work in the first place. Saw as a police procedural feels more in tune with the strengths of the series than any of the Bigger is Better sequels, and Snake Eyes focusing on a handful of key players instead of throwing the entire GI Joe/Cobra war at us from the outset allows us to actually develop these characters and make us care about their struggles and motivations. In a year that gave us hollow and cynical nostalgia bait like Space Jam: A New Legacy and Ghostbusters; Afterlife, it was refreshing to see movies take a sincere and stripped-down approach to build us towards something new instead of rehashing the same old nonsense as blatantly and obnoxiously as possible.

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10. Spider-Man: No Way Home

Full Review

While the rest of this list was pretty easy to put together, I struggled with finding the right movie to fill the ten spot. Nobody, Suicide Squad, The Matrix Resurrections, even that Venom movie that everyone but me hated, but ultimately I had to go with the movie that was not just good but did something truly unique; something we will probably never see again given the way that the films and the Superhero genre have changed since the Raimi Films came out. Perhaps it’s a bit unfair to give so much credit to an idea that basically boiled down to giving a bunch of actors a lot of money to reprise old roles, but there is some genuine catharsis to be had in seeing Toby McGuire don the suit one more time; not to mention how well they managed to redeem Andrew Garfield’s stint as the web-crawler whose films are no less terrible but put in a much more interesting context and some much-needed closure. It certainly ended on a note that left a bad taste in my mouth (I still maintain that going so far out of their way to make Tom Holland’s Spider-Man hew closer to the character’s origins just feels tacky) but it’s hard to deny that this film managed to succeed in not just reminding us of the old films but gave us a truly satisfying send-off for those stories that until now felt either incomplete or woefully mishandled. This is the one shot they get at doing this kind of thing though unless they want to find Reb Brown and Matt Salinger for the next Captain America movie, and even then I doubt it will have the same effect. I mean I’d certainly watch the heck out of it, but still…

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9. Old

Full Review

I have a lot of respect for Shyamalan as a filmmaker. For all his faults (of which there are many) he rarely makes a film that isn’t at least interesting in some way. Sure, sometimes he makes a complete disaster that serves as little more than meme fodder, but I’ll take all the crappy films like The Happening and The Last Airbender if it means that he also gets to make movies like this. It’s a genuinely unnerving experience that explores one of humanity’s most potent anxiety (the march of time towards the inevitability of death), and yet despite its deeply unsettling premise and some of its genuinely sickening moments, it also finds comfort and peace in what is a tragic thing that we all must find a way to cope with. Sure, it suffers from some of Shyamalan’s foibles as the acting is awkward and the dialogue is stilted, but the flaws in his direction are easily outweighed by what he brings to the material. The graphic novel this is ostensibly based on is rather insufferable and I could easily see where a less ambitious filmmaker could have simply made a more faithful adaptation which would have been far worse. Thankfully we avoided that version and I’m glad that Shyamalan is still willing to swing for the fences like this. Let’s just hope he doesn’t screw up all this goodwill with whatever he makes next!

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8. Last Night in Soho

Full Review

Edgar Wright has certainly been up and down for me, but his latest effort was a genuine delight! What looked to be a simple thriller with a time-traveling twist turned out to be a far more engrossing and deeply emotional tale that uses the medium of film to explore some pretty heavy topics. All of his movies have been about nostalgia in some way, from Hot Fuzz’s satire on idyllic English villages to Scott Pilgrim’s retro-gamer aesthetics, and this time he turns his eye towards the joyful exuberance of sixties chic as well as its seedy underbelly that is often swept under the rug. It makes for an interesting and somewhat heartbreaking character arc as Ellie is forced to confront these issues the closer she gets to living out her fantasies, and all of it is captured through the use of fantastic effects and a clever script that effectively uses misdirection and Red Herrings to keep you guessing as to what is going on. It suffers from a bit of aimlessness in the middle and a supporting cast that is bizarrely flat for an otherwise deep movie, but it doesn’t hurt the movie too much, and despite its darkness it never ends up wallowing in it. The ending is going to be a sticking point for some, but I found it to be more than satisfying and closes the story on a genuinely bittersweet note. Sadly the movie barely made a cent at the box office which is pretty disheartening, but good movies are not always the ones that make the most money, and I’m sure people will realize what they missed out on once they get a chance to see it.

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7. The Last Duel

Full Review

Ridley Scott may be a crotchety old man on the inter-webs, but he made a pretty darn good movie this year! A tragic tale of two men caught up in the toxic lies they tell to themselves and the woman stuck in the middle between them, it does a fantastic job of unfolding its darker and more thought-provoking themes throughout the movie with its use of shifting perspectives. The truth of the situation ends up getting uglier and uglier as we strip away the deceit and artifice, and it culminates in a duel that is both cathartic in its well-filmed brutality and utterly tragic in the sheer pointlessness of it all; certainly if the goal was justice for the victim which ends up being the furthest thing from anyone’s mind once the blades are drawn. I still feel that the handling of Le Gris’s side of the story pushes a truly bleak movie into something a little too bleak for my taste, but I have softened on my objection to it as I better understand the purpose behind it. It’s not going to be for everyone given the tough subject matter and the ways that it relates to issues we are still facing today with how crimes like this are discussed and litigated, but it manages to hit the notes it needs to with aplomb and stays entertaining even its darkest moments. It’s a shame that it ended up flopping as hard as it did (almost as hard as Last Night in Soho), but it will find its audience on streaming services; and as long as Ridley Scott doesn’t act too grumpy on main.

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6. The Green Knight

Full Review

The Last Duel was definitely the more viscerally and emotionally satisfying of the two highly acclaimed medieval movies this year, but there’s a bewitching charm to this that, much like the legend it’s adapting, lends it an almost timeless and intransient quality. Stripped down to its core it’s another iteration of one of the oldest stories out there, that of a young man trying to prove himself to the world, but it’s told with such vivid imagination and an utter gleefulness to show you things (both fantastic and disturbing) that you have never seen before that it makes such a tired story feel fresh and vital in a world where young men are still burdened with expectations that they fear they will never be able to meet. The deliberate vagueness about certain aspects of the story definitely keeps the film at arm’s length (especially if you don’t know anything about the legend it’s based on), but the performance from Patel as well as the lush world that he makes his strange journey through are more than enough to compensate for a few too many inscrutable moments. Plus, I’m sure you can find any number of videos on YouTube that breathlessly explore the various themes and the Arthurian imagery scattered throughout this, and who doesn’t want to support the video essayists of the world!?

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5. No Time to Die

Full Review

For all its ups and downs, and for all the ways that the series has aged poorly, I still enjoy the James Bond movies. At their best, they’re fun spy stories with a lot of style, and the Craig era has done a great job of keeping the franchise relevant to modern audiences. This final installment had a lot going against it with a rather underwhelming entry preceding it and the numerous delays in getting it to theaters, but the wait was ultimately worth it as Craig’s last turn as the character improves on a lot of the issues I had with Spectre and manages to do something that Bond films have always struggled with; growing and changing. The Craig films broke ground for the series in a lot of ways, but they still managed to find ways to surprise me and upend the usual formula in fascinating ways. It is ultimately held back by a rather poor villain who can’t hold a candle to some of the best in the series, but with everything else that the film gets right it’s not too difficult to let that flaw fade to the background and focus on what’s new and how well it clicks with everything else we expect from a Bond movie. Looking the Craig era of films now that it’s over, it’s clear that Casino Royale was the standout and is arguably the best Bond film ever made. Still, even if this is second or third in his run, it does do something that no other Bond film has done which is to end the series on an impressively high note with a conclusion to Bond’s story that could very well serve as an ending to the series as a whole. It would be a bit sad if EON productions do make that call, but I wouldn’t blame them as it wouldn’t be easy to find a more fitting way to close the book on Bond; even if it did take them way too long to finally put the darn thing in theaters.

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4. Dune

Full Review

I feel like I don’t get Dune in the way that people who get Dune want me to get Dune. After seeing not just this and the Lynch film but the Sci-Fi Channel adaptation, it’s clear that I’m in it for the characters and drama more than the philosophical high concept stuff. Fortunately, that’s kind of what we got with this adaptation as Villeneuve created what is easily the most comprehensible version yet while also keeping the grandeur and scope that left many people believing that this book was unfilmable. To some fans, I’m sure they ended up missing a lot of the elements that were left out of here such as the Spacing Guild (aka Giant Psychic Space Fetuses) and the AI wars, but with any adaptation there has to be some give and take, and I can hardly imagine a better way of bringing this story to the big screen. Really, the only problem I had with it is that it was split right down the middle with the ending of the movie feeling more like the start of an intermission than a satisfying conclusion, but Warner Bros green lit the sequel, so expect a Definitive Super-Cut on 4K in the next few years as an easy gift to get your nerdiest relative.

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3. Being the Ricardos

Full Review

I’ve always liked movies that give us an insight into the inner workings and behind-the-scenes antics of something we take for granted. Oftentimes this takes the form of a movie, stage show, or television production, and while this doesn’t really do anything to reinvent that formula, it’s one of the better examples of it I’ve seen in quite a while. The backstage drama on what was the most stressful week of I Love Lucy ends up being quite engaging when written with the usual flair that Sorkin brings to the material and with actors as phenomenal as Javier Bardem and Nicole Kidman bringing these characters to life. It’s a story about a lot of things (perhaps too many things as the major issue this movie has is one of focus and pacing), but what anchors the script and brings it all together are those two people and the story of their lives. The ultimate tragedy of the movie is not the overzealous persecution of Leftists in the fifties, though that is a tragic thing that really did destroy lives back then, but how their relationship ultimately crumbles away despite everything they had together. Perhaps this story would have worked better as a limited series what with the pacing being a bit hectic, but this was a great character piece with engaging performances and an endlessly fun script that knows how to get serious and heartfelt when it need to. Now I want a movie about the behind-the-scenes drama of All in the Family! Seriously, Hollywood! Give me my Carroll O’Connor biopic!

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2. Malignant

Full Review

I remember seeing a trailer for this at one point and thinking it was going to be just another boring possession movie that we are cursed to suffer through each year because those Conjuring movies refuse to stop making money. Heck, I probably would have skipped it entirely if it didn’t get an HBO Max release. It just goes to show that you can’t judge a film from its trailer as there was something brilliant and truly imaginative just waiting to be unearthed! Jame Wan truly outdid himself with this movie that’s overflowing with style and a creative verve that are the hallmarks of some of the best horror films ever made, and the fact that he made something genuinely suspenseful and unnerving with such an outlandish premise is a testament to his skill. This is the kind of film making that I love to see where no idea is too grandiose or fantastical that a great movie can’t be built around it. The story of this movie and its bizarre twist have been widely discussed since the film came out, but even so, I won’t be spoiling it here as I recommend you check it out as soon as possible if this has flown completely under your radar. Seriously, go watch it now! Don’t even finish this list until you do!

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1. Pig

Full Review

Malignant was set to take the top spot on this list, but I decided to try and catch up on a few of the films I missed in 2021, and that’s when I discovered this movie. Much like Malignant it completely blew past my expectations and gave me something that I didn’t realize I desperately needed to see. It truly was the most emotionally affecting movie I saw all year and it’s held together by one of the best performances of Nicolas Cage’s career. He’s always been my favorite actor but even I was surprised at just how fantastic his performance is in this as he tones down his usual affectations to give a genuinely human performance about a man broken by loss and having to come to terms with it through a somewhat fantastical but ultimately grounded story that weaves through the lives of others who are similarly adrift. It’s absolutely brilliant in its writing, it has a real gut-punch of an ending that still manages to feel hopeful, and it’s one of the most genuine surprises I’ve experienced in a long time. I expected Nicolas Cage going after his pig to be a lot of things, most of them involving shootouts and catchphrases, but I never expected it to be the best movie I saw all year.

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And that’s it for the movies of 2021! Agree? Disagree? Think I’m a total goofball for putting a campy horror movie so high on the list? Let me know in the comments below! You can also check out my list of 2021 movies that needed improvement by clicking here!

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