Thanks to a semi-active Letterboxd account, I can share that I watched about 118 films for the first time in 2021. I also re-watched 106 movies. I saw my usual bout of horror films thanks to OcTerror and a vigorous research project. A lot of new movies were released digitally and in theaters. While I was busier than in 2020, I still found time to indulge in my favorite hobby and to escape for a few hours into different worlds. However, compared to 2020, I will say that most of my viewing was standard to my tastes with little deviation: romances, animated films, horror, and the occasional comedy. With that in mind, I still nit-picked my favorites until I could narrow it down to 15 films that defined my year in some way. We follow our usual rules:
- The film must have been watched for the first time in 2021 but didn’t have to be released this year.
- I’ll write an explanation about why this made my favorite list.
- If a film is missing that you think should be on the list, please remember maybe I saw it and chose not to include it or haven’t seen it yet. These are my personal choices. If you’re curious about my viewing habits, follow me on LetterBoxd under ReadingMalone.
- An American Werewolf in London (1981). This classic of horror largely holds up in the modern day, and it’s in good part because werewolves—of any kind—are hard to get as right as this film does. They’re horrifying creatures but sympathetic humans at the same time. The de-evolution of David (David Naughton) after the attack that infects him and kills his friend (Griffin Dunne) plays out so well over the course of the film. The audience’s wider knowledge makes for a greater tragedy. The body horror and make-up are top notch and are perfect for scares and imagery that will haunt my mind forever. I’ll be going back to London whenever I want some dark humor, a great soundtrack, and some scares too.
- Black Christmas (1974). I love the slasher genre so it was about time that I saw one of the first that really gave us many of the beats and tropes that would later explode into popularity. The terrorization of a sorority house by an unknown caller is only one reason to enjoy this suspenseful and terrific film. The performances, especially Olivia Hussey, are pretty solid. What stands out is how the yuletide terror makes use of its setting through Christmas music, lighting, and the keen sense of isolation. The kills feel creative and delightfully violent for the time. This is a film I could easily watch anytime of the year, but it’s always good to be thankful around the holidays that you’re not living in this particular film.
- Bo Burnham: Inside (2021). Compared to the other films on this list, most would assume this was my top choice for the year. I’ve watched it four times. The soundtrack was one of my top albums on Spotify. I can quote so much of it. But, really, how would I not enjoy an existential crisis about being trapped inside with your own dark thoughts and anxiety? The songs are catchy and fun, especially “Welcome to the Internet” and “Bezos I.” The production and lighting make this feel bigger than just a guy in a room putting together a one man show. The humor is sharp, relatable, dark, bitter, and touching all at once. It is a poignant portrait of our time and culture, wrapped in a claustrophobic bow.
- Encanto (2021). Did this film just come out on Disney+ and I’ve already watched it twice? Yes. However, I was already intrigued and then sold on the story about trying to save the family’s magic with relatable protagonist Mirabel Madrigal. The music is catchy and a delight from beginning to end, with some of the best Disney songs in years (especially ensemble piece “We Don’t Talk About Bruno”). The characters, even those with limited screen time, come to life and, for all their faults, this is one of my favorite depictions of a bigger family. The animation is crisp, and every movement has been portrayed so fluidly it’s unbelievable in the progress we’ve made. What it lacks in a discernable “big bad”, it makes up for with a hard-hitting message about long-lasting trauma and how it can touch everything. Absolutely loved this.
- Eternals (2021). I debated whether this was a favorite or not; however, I’ve spent a good amount of the last month or so thinking about how Chloé Zhao’s direction is so unlike anything Marvel has done before and how much I enjoyed that. We’re introduced to the Eternals, immortal aliens who’ve been hiding on Earth, as they come into the open to battle their foes and discover new truths. The cinematography in this is gorgeous, and it feels absolutely grand in moments where it needs to. I also appreciate that so much of the action doesn’t take place in our usual locations of major cities. The cast is huge and, yet, for all that they feel like they get an okay amount of attention (probably due to the long run time and slow-ish pacing). This team feels like what we wanted with our 2012 Avengers fanfictions. I’m looking forward to watching it again.
- Fear Street Trilogy (2021). Okay, this is technically three movies, but you can’t just watch (or choose) one. Based on the R.L. Stine series, this trilogy details how a small group of teenagers tries to undo the curse on their town before it can get to them—learning its dark secrets along the way. Director Leigh Janiak’s singular touch helps to make these films seem cohesive, even as they move through time—1994, 1978, 1666. Every era has loving homages to tropes and horror films, but it still seems fresh through the injection of a diverse group of characters. The scares work well and there were some kills that surprised even me. The soundtrack is full of hits and captures that time capsule feeling so well. The performances are pretty good, too. If this is a sign that the slasher genre is coming back into swing then I’m all for it.
- Lake Mungo (2008). Even though I watch a lot of horror, I’m not immune to the heightened emotions such films create. However, it’s rare nowadays for a film to make me as paranoid or creeped out as this Australian indie did. Shot in mockumentary-style with photographs, narration, found footage, and interviews, it feels all too realistic as it recounts the death of Alice Palmer and the mysterious events that happen afterword. It really feels like you’re watching an episode of 20/20 or a true crime documentary in how seriously it handles this subject matter. The performances are so naturalistic that it’s hard to remove it from reality. The twists and turns the film takes only serves to relieve and then scare us further. The slow-burn pace and use of background imagery to unsettle viewers doesn’t always work, but it did here. It’s a film that haunts me in all the best ways.
- Luca (2021). This was a good year for well-animated films with plots that focused on things other than romance (not that there’s anything wrong with that). This tale of friendship between two young sea monsters who venture onto the mainland in Italy is a perfect example of how low stakes can still be engaging. There isn’t really a big bad to fight or conquer, only smaller goals and obstacles along the way to the bigger goal of buying a Vespa. The voice acting by Jacob Tremblay, Jack Dylan Grazer, and Emma Berman bring these characters to life. The setting of Portorosso feels vivid and imagined in the twists and hills of its streets, the worries of its fishermen, and the joy of its children. The animation is so bright and relatively unique in its execution. Even with the moments that may be more predictable, it’s still enjoyable and brought me to tears a few times.
- The Man Who Invented Christmas (2017). I watched quite a bit of Dan Stevens’ filmography this year, but this had to be my favorite new film find. Not only does it detail how Charles Dickens developed and sold A Christmas Carol against many odds, but it homes in on a unique enough interpretation of the writing process. Stevens is effortlessly charming, frustrating, and understandable as a man who stands to lose everything if he can’t get the ending just right. Christopher Plummer as Scrooge was inspired casting, and other supporting roles fill the screen with people who inspire elements within the popular story. The cinematography captures the darkness of an industrial London and how it haunts Dickens. As a Christmas film, it carries much of what we love about A Christmas Carol while also reminding us (as most do) of what’s really important compared to commercialism. However, I could see myself watching this anytime I’m struggling with the muses.
- The Mitchells vs the Machines (2021). Since director and writer Mike Rianda worked on Gravity Falls (one of my all-time favorites), I knew this was going to be a good time. The Mitchell family embark on a cross-country road trip to take daughter Katie to college, but accidentally become involved in the robot apocalypse and have to save the world. For as absurd of a plot as that sounds, the film makes it work through good pacing and taking the time to develop the Mitchell family and their own conflicts before throwing in the robots. The animation is hyperbolic and cartoonish in a way that is reminiscent of early 2000s Internet culture. Most of the music works and the voice acting is a lot of fun. The humor hits well in so many scenes. At its heart, it’s a reminder that—despite generational differences—families are built on love and compassion (and kicking robot butt).
- Onibaba (1964). Between this and Kwaidan, I was unsure which classic Japanese horror film was my favorite. However, I found that I was wrapped into the story of a mother and her daughter-in-law killing soldiers during wartime a bit more. The first few moments of the film are pulse-racing and immediately establish so much about these characters and their routines. Even with a little lag in the middle, by the time the haunting hannya mask appears everything is in full swing again. Oftentimes, Western war stories seem to focus on the big battles or taut moments that will determine the course of history, but I want more like this. War affects the civilians in ways that can be horrifying and makes its own monsters. The cinematography is gorgeous and the performances by Nobuko Otawa and Jitsuko Yoshimura hit all the right notes. Be careful of what lurks in the tall grass.
- Promising Young Woman (2020). This was probably the most hyped film since I’d watched the trailer in 2019 multiple times. And, yet, it took me a while to actually watch Emerald Fennell’s feature debut because I was so worried it was going to disappoint me. To be honest, it wasn’t what I expected but that doesn’t mean I didn’t love it. Cassie Thomas spends her days missing her “potential” and her nights pretending to be drunk so she can confront men who try to take advantage of her. She gets a chance at revenge against the people responsible for her best friend’s rape and embarks on a path that doesn’t lead to forgiveness. Carey Mulligan carries this film as Cassie, embodying her in vulnerability, intimate fear, and anger. The casting—particularly of the ‘nice guys’—is fantastic. I’ve loved the entire soundtrack since I first heard it but now having context it’s even better. The bright color palette and costumes really build this world that seems innocent at first but is anything but. The humor is dark and the writing is taut, especially in scenes with conflict. It is not an easy film to watch, but it displays important topics and embodies a kind of realism that isn’t portrayed often onscreen.
- Relic (2020). Basically, if a horror movie makes me sob, it’s automatically a favorite. This Australian flick follows Edna, Kay, and Sam as the three generations navigate the dark paths of dementia. Similar at a glance to The Taking of Deborah Logan, Natalie Erika James takes the all too real horror of forgetting and becoming a stranger to those you love and elevates it with touches of other scares. The first half is intentionally slow as we learn more about the family, its history, and discover the extent of Edna’s disease. The second half, however, descends into claustrophobic madness before—somehow—pulling off a bittersweet, poignant ending. For those who have known dementia or suffered from memory loss, the horrors within Relic will feel all too traumatic. For others, perhaps, this will seem similar to other films where certain dark things become metaphors for our reality. Nonetheless, this movie infects its viewers with a dread that remains long after the end credits.
- Silkwood (1983). Although I didn’t make it through the entire Year of Nora & Nancy, I was able to see this drama about the wrongdoings of the Kerr-McGee plutonium plant and the woman who fought to make it safer for the workers. Nora Ephron and Alice Arlen’s screenplay dramatizes the events only a little as the film brings these characters to life with realistic dialogue, good pacing, and stakes that heighten at every turn. Meryl Streep, Kurt Russell, and Cher disappear into their roles. The film captures the everyday so well—making breakfast, fighting with roommates, falling in love, driving to work—and contrasts it against the mounting terror of the unusual. The suspense and horror of high radiation and its potential are given real weight in some harrowing scenes. The ending, while obviously frustrating, captures the real lengths some will go to keep secrets and protect corporate interests from the public good. If this film is harder to find than others that doesn’t make it less worthy of a watch.
- Spider-Man: No Way Home (2021). Okay, since this film just came out, I’m going to try to write this with NO SPOILERS. To be honest, I haven’t had much interest in Tom Holland’s run as Spider-Man outside of the bigger collaboration films. This was largely due to how much Homecoming and Far from Home spent tying Peter Parker and Tony Stark together when I wanted his films to stand a bit more on their own and develop his individual character. This movie did that. It finally gave me a Spider-Man film. Yes, Doctor Strange is there and we have other mentions of previous MCU action, but most of the plot and character development is focused internally on Peter this time. The action is top notch with great fight choreography. The humor, which has always been a strength of the franchise, hits its stride here. Holland’s performance hits all the right notes, particularly with and against the supporting cast. Willem Dafoe is a highlight of the film and his performance is award-worthy. While elements of its plot are certainly predictable and hit the Marvel formula, what makes it worth it for fans will definitely pay-off the long wait.
So, yes, my watching in 2021 was largely to my tastes: horror stories, superheroes, biographic dramas, animated adventures. I’m hopeful that next year will bring in a bit more diversity in what and who I watch so I can discover new or old things that will become favorites. This has been a good year for movies and, as more continue to be released, I’ll keep finding those brand-new beauties. Still, I’ll continue to dig for those forgotten or missed treasures too. I have over a hundred years of films to sift through. Isn’t that exciting?