by Paul Deeter
Its not easy for me to collect a years' end list of favorites, and that goes especially for favorite films. I've always had the trouble of listing and giving movies my appreciation when it comes to ranking them. I play too many favorites, and often don't allow myself to see past criticism on the few films that deserve second-glances. I'm a stubborn reviewer, but aren't most reviewers? That's why we're called critics. And when it comes down to this year specifically, the difficulty has been ramped up another notch. For one, the year 2021 has been basically coined as a long continuation of the year 2020, with its dreaded impacts on the cinemas and many closings. As a firm believer of vaccines I did my part to stay indoors and was lucky to have access to many more movies than I did in 2020, due to the opportunity to stream day-of releases and the surge of independent virtual festivals. And 2022 has arrived, (2020-too we hope not) and the question that lingers is whether or not audiences have by an large committed to returning to the cinemas. And if not, will the cinemas commit to returning to them? With Dune and The Matrix Resurrections offering HBO-Max subscribers the front row seats for some of the bigger hit films of the year, its safe to say that studios are on board. However, Spiderman: No Way Home in its massive release that's continuing to break records is showing that if you build it, they will come. Safety is no job strong enough against our friendly neighborhood Spider-Man! And there's nothing more viral than spoilers, right?
Truth be told, I'm not sure where I stand with theaters. I worked for a few theaters for a very long time, and with a Film Studies degree and tons of writing to show for it, I strongly approve of the medium's survival. I'd go as hard for seeing a 35mm print showing of Licorice Pizza as I would simultaneously discourage a midnight release of the new Venom or another popcorn faire film. I'm hypocritical when it comes to what I would venture out to see despite precautions, but I also know how to play it safe to make these showings. Masks on, Vax cards ready, that's the way we like to party. So in 2022, I will play things safe but eager, following the right guidelines and also the correct theaters that offer the best safety of the lot of them. 2021 was a year of chances and some missed opportunities, for example: I missed catching Dune both in theaters and also on HBO Max for some strange reason. I was in some sort of funk in November (might have been due to the website's inactivity). It's my hope 2022 is a year that doesn't discriminate illness or handicap for those to see the films that deserve to be caught with the crowd. My disabled family members should not have to wait months after Disney Plus okays a home release of the new Spider-Man when they're willing to pay the ticket price from home.
And now that I've talked about Spider-Man and not 2021's best films for about three minutes of reading time, I'll get back to the main point. This is a list of Paul (not the entire staff at PK) and his limited number of films he saw at the theater or at home in 2021. It doesn't count 100 Criterion films I managed to tackle in the year or 200 more unlisted films I streamed or rented or bought of previous years' releases. This was a weird year, and for a weird year I offer a weird list. Enjoy.
10. The Humans
For the first film on this list I encourage you to watch one of the strangest and quietest releases of this year by a24, who offered some of the biggest films of the last few years. The Humans by Stephen Karam (based on a play of the same name that one a Tony in 2016) is a bit of an odd hat. With an oddly balanced mostly prestigious cast including Richard Jenkins and Amy Schumer to name a few opposites, the movie follows the story of a Thanksgiving get-together held by a not too festive feeling family. This is no new plot, but the film establishes its own space just like a play production would. The movie doesn't necessarily follow any character too closely, instead it sets them in an aquarium like setting for the viewer, as we watch most of the movie from the outside of a room, or through a window or open door. They bicker about each other and themselves in and out and around the house, and we follow but don't engage as active participants. What's strange about the arrangement is not the stories or problems the family has (affairs, body issues, etc.) but the feeling that they are being watched. Is there a ghost in the house? Who are the humans? At times profoundly lonely and also encouragingly familiar, The Humans is in a league of its own.
9. The Fear Street Trilogy
It's my list, I get to cheat if I want to! Okay... so R.L. Stine's Netflix Trilogy Fear Street is three different movies, on a three week release schedule. But Fear Street: Part One 1994, 1978 and 1666 simply cannot be taken on face value as three separate features. When all is done and said, people aren't going to talk about how well 1994 staged its gore against its 90s grunge soundtrack or how 1666 brought in shades of The Village in its creepy portrayal of witchcraft and mischief without mentioning the other films. The strengths here work with each other. It goes to show even for Purely Kino, upon reviewing the different films, took liberties with discussing the first film again after 1666 makes it more relevant. I believe we even had two different writers discuss 1978 and how it could be its own Friday the 13th style standalone slasherpiece. Fear Street Trilogy is a giant event, unmatched in scope outside of shows like Stranger Things but apt to be compared to as such. It's a hell of a ride whether you catch it back to back or let each film breathe, but regardless it will make any horror-hound or hags' 2021 even better.
I'm going to be honest, if you told me in 1999 while I watched Mr. Show or in 2010 when I watched Breaking Bad... or in 2016 while I watched Better Call Saul... (breathes in) ... If you were to tell me at some point in the last twenty years that 50+ year old Bob Odenkirk was going to be an action star in the top grossing film of the week on its release, I would have called you a doctor. Turns out, he's the one needing to call you the doctor (heh) in 2021's raucous and roughhouse film Nobody. This movie is not the most memorable action film in years, but it embraces the cheese of its knock-off Wick status and throws in some killer fight and shoot-em-up sequences. Throw in RZA and Christopher Lloyd and you have yourself a bonafide cult classic on your hands. If you watch one scene though, watch the fight scene on the bus, it will leave even the most toughened action viewer a bit sore.
7. Judas and the Black Messiah
Talk about a one-two punch, let's give credit to Judas for having one of the most knockout titles of any film all year. Judas and the Black Messiah by relatively unknown talent Shaka King is as aggressive as the title implies; its a movie about the push for change and struggle with power that comes with it. Daniel Kaluuya brilliantly plays Fred Hampton, the Black Panther party leader that was assassinated by the police with a tip-off from another party member. The Judas in question played by Lakeith Stanfield, is a surprisingly nuanced role and the performance given doesn't necessarily ease the blame off him, but opens the floor for a bigger conversation about his tight spot in the larger scheme of things. On top of that, Jesse Plemons continues to excel as a young actor here, as he has over the past few years. King's use of broadened scope scenes of large crowds juxtaposed against tight interiors and moments of feeling trapped both literally and metaphorically on either side of the fight. It's a stellar movie, and proof that two solid performances can coexist in a movie without undermining the other one when it came to Kaluuya and Stanfield's recognition during awards season.
6. Bo Burnham: Inside
Could I interest you in everything all of the time? That's what Bo Burnham asks us in his quizzical single "Welcome to the Internet" just one of twenty more bangers in this Netflix produced special. Could he? Well with songs including lines like: 'healing the world with comedy, the indescribable power of your comedy', its clear Burnham intended to bring home (ha) the humor for fans of his ego-centric wisdom with this 90-minute project filmed in 2020. Inside is a film set entirely inside a home Bo presided within (apparently the same house they filmed A Nightmare on Elm Street in mind you) for the whole year including his thirtieth birthday. With moments of talking about how the world works with a sock puppet who proudly informs him facts like "The FBI killed MLK!" amid surprisingly tender moments of self-reflection on depression and isolation, Inside just works. Another testament to its power is the fact that Indie pop star Phoebe Bridgers covered "Funny Feeling" live in concert in Chicago, drawing to the song's melancholy take on the world and its end. I should also mention I saw this movie five times, and more than once with a generation older than myself who still managed to find insight in Bo's otherwise millennial outlook.
5. The Suicide Squad
Prior to a few December releases, I considered this movie to be my favorite film of 2021, and it rightfully remains near the top of the list. The movie gracefully blows the brains out of nearly every other superhero film in the running, and does so without pushing far past the two hour mark. It's amazing to see a superhero movie without a big M looming over it in trademark, and its extra special to see a director like James Gunn honing his skills without the alteration of a PG-13 rating. Gunn gleefully lets his marbles loose in this film that somehow manages to actually redo the Harley Quinn character and give Margot Robbie some actual script to work with after the 2016 Suicide Squad. She gets her time to shine, as does Cena and Elbra playing other bloodthirsty mercenaries who aren't afraid to fall into the grey area when it comes to morality in order to save the day. In my article on the film's release I credit The Suicide Squad to the success of two second chance tales. James Gunn getting another shot post controversy for a place behind the camera, which he nails. And a remake to an abhorrent project that can save the skin of the franchise? Also nailed.
4. A Quiet Place: Part II
Let me preface this addition by saying that my friend and co-writer to the site, Rob would kill me if I didn't include this film on the list of 2021's top movies. Okay, I may be a bit exaggerative but I respect the hell out of the guy and wouldn't advise crossing his film opinions in general. Granted, A Quiet Place was a 2018 hit that put John Krasinski on the board as a director to watch next to the likes of M. Night Shyamalan and Steven Spielberg. The original film used sound (and lack thereof) in such a brilliant way that sometimes the biggest scares of the film weren't accompanied by a jump track alongside them. Silence proved to e golden enough to bring audiences back in 2021, with a larger budget A Quiet Place: Part II that shows its influences in different ways. Kind of like how Alien and Aliens both exist as sequels and also individual classics, this film proves that sometimes a sequel can outdo an original film. And horror sequels certainly don't have a great track record either. I loved this film, with its natural continuation of the story moments after the events of the last one and inclusion of a killer new performance by Cilian Murphy. It's scary but intelligent horror, you never feel manipulated by a quick edit instead the thrills are earned old-fashioned style.
3. The Power of the Dog
The Power of the Dog may prove to have the most lasting power of this list's films as far as legacy goes. With Benedict Cumberbatch at the helm playing an incredibly nuanced lead and Jane Campion behind the camera in her first film in nearly twenty years, there's a lot of significance to the idea that this may be a new American classic. It certainly doesn't feel like Campion has spent a minute away from the camera with the wide beauty of the old west on display here. She constructs shots that throw respect to films like The Searchers and other classics while simultaneously wowing us with their originality. The lead performance by Cumberbatch is almost guaranteed some gold this awards season; he's never done an American role better. The Power of the Dog is also based on a novel from 1968 once out of print, but now brought back into circulation from the popularity of the film. If I were to properly describe the feeling of the story here which I won't spoil, I'd include the word 'timeless' and that seems appropriate for a story once told 50 some years ago and becoming popular again in 2021.
2. Spider-Man: No Way Home
As far as review embargos go, I'm not 100% sure where the spoiler territory begins or ends for this film, but it feels like most of the secrets have come out. I won't dive too deeply into a review for this film that is twenty years in the making for legacy webheads fans like myself. But No Way Home has soooo much to offer outside of its surprise cameos, including some beautifully orchestrated fight sequences between the many villains of the film. It has one of the most genuinely realistic feeling death scenes in any Marvel feature (and this is after one of the more ludicrous action sequences). Also this movie really brings the case home for Tom Holland to be the King Spidey; with the set up of so many returns to other franchises and characters, Holland remains the true star of the film. By his second feature I was an admirer, by this film a hardcore fan. Spider-Man lives! Forever and ever.
Sean Baker's body of work is very strange. He has shown off technical chops with his 2015 film Tangerine which was shot entirely on an iPhone 5s, and the ability to emotionally move audiences with the much quieter and tender tale of The Florida Project. With the latter being an example of him at his most reserved, then Red Rocket is a case for the dark side of Baker, but doesn't also entirely exist without heart of its own. The film follows Simon Rex and his portrayal of a washed up porn star as he (basically) f*cks his way up through life on his return to his Texan hometown, after a long Hollywood stretch. Texas kinda feels like Florida did in The Florida Project, it feels lived in and impoverished, away from the glam of the larger tourist sights and resorts. It's the perfect spot for Mikey our lead to seek out popularity among his teenage lover and dead-end neighbors. In the smallest ponds its easy to be the big fish, and Rex and Baker weave a tale so wicked and harrowing that you almost feel bad for Mikey near the end of things. (Almost). The twists and turns of this movie define it as much more than a dark comedy, and the film puts Baker on the scene as a director to seriously watch in 2022.