27.1.22

Top 20 of 2021

A warning first. This top list is a bit unusual. We didn't get that BIG unavoidable HIT this year. No $200 million Hollywood movie that hit it out of the park, so instead this list is full of smaller, interesting movies, which may not be perfect, but they made an impact on me all the same. And remember. This is MY list. If you have problems with it, they're your problems. No, I'm NOT being defensive! Anyway, enough stalling....

HONORABLE MENTION

Dune: Part One (2021)

Maybe, when we get Part Two, Dune will make it to the actual top of the list. For now, though, this is half a film. A two and a half hour long half of a film that grinds to a halt in its final act and stops before it gets anywhere near the point. You have to do better to make it to the top list. Hopefully Denis Villeneuve will do just that when the second film arrives.

THE LIST

20) Don't Breathe 2 (2021)

Granted, we didn't really need a Don't Breathe 2, but we got it, and it was damn entertaining. It's the Aliens of the home invasion films. There really wasn't any way to follow up on the story in the first Don't Breathe, so this sequel took a detour and turned into a completely different story, set in the same universe, with the same lead character. It worked very well, and any chance to watch Stephen Lang kick ass is welcomed.

19) The Oak Room (2020)

A low-budget thriller that takes place mostly in a bar and rarely features more than two players at a time. And yet, with this simple setup director Cody Calahan (who also made the solid Antisocial) creates an effective thriller, full of twists and turns, while providing a clever meta-commentary on the best way to tell a good story. Way more clever than it has any right to be.

18) The Marijuana Conspiracy (2020)

It's one of those "That's a crazy story.... wait, it HAPPENED for real?!" The Marijuana Conspiracy deals with an experiment that took place in 1972 in Canada. What happens if we make a bunch of women smoke pot every day for 3 months? It would be an interesting story even if it wasn't real, but knowing that real women actually went through the experiences shown here just makes the whole thing even more fascinating.

17) Rising Wolf (2021) (aka Ascendant)

Another one of those movies with a small budget and a simple pitch, A young woman wakes up and finds herself locked in an elevator on an empty construction site. Who is she? Why is she locked in the elevator? Who did it? Even though we stay in the elevator, the film quickly breaks out of the initial pitch and opens the doors to a fascinating story that you should know as little about as possible. I was hooked from intriguing start to weird finish.

16) Blood Red Sky (2021)

Netflix has been very hit and miss with their international movies, but this German production hit the target very close to dead center. It's a vampire movie! On a plane! A hijacked plane! Sure enough, it covers material we've seen before, but it puts a fresh spin on everything, and repackages it into an engaging, high-flying bloody thrill-ride.

15) One Shot (2021)

I was surprised to find this fairly unambiguous action movie crawling so high up on the list, but I shouldn't have been, I enjoyed the hell out of it! The pitch is simple: Soldiers arrive on a black site to retrieve a prisoner needed for an urgent crisis. The base is attacked and the men and their CIA contact must defend themselves and keep the prisoner alive. Oh, and the whole thing plays out in what appears to be ONE single shot. It's not rocket science, there's no deep themes or profound revelations, it's just a solid, focused action movie. I'll take this over ANY Marvel film.

14) Till Death (2021)

Megan Fox plays a woman who finds herself chained to her dead husband in a truly sublime case of art-imitating-metaphor. What I love most about this film is that the characters aren't dumb. They're sometimes frustrated or rushed, but they never behave in that idiotic "movie character way" that reeks of inept screenwriting, trying to keep a story artificially alive. Megan Fox has taken a few hits in her time, many of them deserved (and whatever you do, don't follow her Instagram) but she knocks it out of the park in this delightfully dark revenge story.

13) One Night in Miami (2020)

Four legends - Muhammad Ali, Malcolm X, Jim Brown and Sam Cooke - meet in a hotel room for a fictional debate about their roles and responsibilities as black entertainers and influencers. I admit I didn't care much for this film during the first part of the story, it felt staged and stagy. After a while, though, it starts to work and then it becomes really good! The debates were fascinating, the film shakes its theater roots and the actors really get a chance to sink their teeth into the complicated issues. A very very strong finish.

12) News of the World (2020)

Solid to the core Tom Hanks shows up in this equally solid, old school western, which isn't much to look at, at first (and I do wish they'd shoot period films like this on actual film), but slowly it works its magic. The quaint central premise - Hanks travels around the land and read the newspaper for common folks - is a good reminder of how far the world has come, but also what was lost along the way. Of course the film also delivers a most delightful screen couple in the form of Hanks' world-weary former soldier and the girl he must transport back to her family. Young Helena Zengel runs away with many scenes, and Hanks lets her, and together they are utterly charming. As is the film.

11) Soul (2020)

I'm not a big Pixar guy, I really can't stand most jazz, and talk of the afterlife often infuriates me. Despite all this I was completely seduced by this gorgeous little film. The delightful characters, the gentle themes, the spurts of laugh-out-loud madness. Right up there with... well, Up.

10) Quo vadis, Aida? (2020)

The Aida in the title is a woman working as translator for the UN forces in Srebrenica, Bosnia. As the Serbs are moving in, the UN abandons the town and its people to the war-criminals, and Aida must try to get her family to safety before it's too late. The film stumbles here and there, but this is still a brutal look at the real-life implications of war and a most shameful chapter in Europe's history. Watch it on a sunny day, though. This is dark stuff.

9) Miranda Veil (2020)

A serial killer and his would-be victim go on a road trip to figure out why she keeps waking up every times he tries to murder her. Inventive, daring, controversial, with a mesmerizing lead performance by Annabel Barrett. Yes, this is a low-budget film, which is more than obvious at times. And yes, it often feels like a runaway train of thought bound for nowhere. However, the central pitch is fascinating and unusual, and worth sticking with. David Lynch it ain't. But more than once it gets awfully close to reaching those heights.

8) Test Pattern (2019)

A woman suffers a sexual assault after a night out and the next morning she and her boyfriend must try to find a rape kit, which turns out to be quite a challenge, further complicated by the fact that she's black and he's white.

This straight-forward, brutally honest drama opens with the adorable meet-cute between the woman Renesha (Brittany S. Hall) and future boyfriend Evan (Will Brill), a cruel but necessary setup that makes everything that follows all the more devastating. It shows the fateful night in question with almost poetic inevitability, before moving on the sobering aftermath delivered with a remarkable realism that makes it almost feel like a documentary at times. Test Pattern is an important film to see, but don't feel bad if you're not up for it. This stayed with me long after it was over.

7) Jolt (2021)

I admit, this is a silly inclusion in the list. Kate Beckinsale goes on a killing spree to avenge the death of her boyfriend. Oh, and she's got a device that gives her electric shocks to help her control her violent impulses! There is NO deeper meaning here and nothing we haven't seen before. And yet, there's something about the way Kate Beckinsale carries herself in this film. She's beaming with enthusiasm and seems to have a blast playing this disturbingly violent woman. She's charming, kicks ass like nobody's business, and delivers the often hilarious dialogue with dry perfection. Her delightful description of her new boyfriend's penis might be the best soundbite of the year! ("It unfurled itself like a travel umbrella!"). Jolt may turn out to be the film on this list I end up watching the most times, when all is said and done.

6) Zone 414 (2021)

A detective is sent into so-called "city of robots", Zone 414, to find a billionaire's lost daughter with the help of a prostitute android. A detective, androids, a futuristic setting and beams of light sweeping across the frame? It's hard not to be reminded of a certain classic 1982 science fiction movie. But Blade Runner doesn't have a monopoly on these things. Working with a limited budget, director Andrew Baird takes familiar elements and creates his own down to earth detective story, which is more preoccupied its flawed characters and their efforts to stay human, than with flashy visuals. It's moody as all hell, and fairly gruesome, with captivating performances from both Guy Pierce and Matilda Lutz.

5) The Last Duel (2021)

The most unlikely of pleasant surprises this year was Ridley Scott's much-maligned Ben Affleck with blond hair and Matt Damon covered in mud reunion. Taking its cue from both Rashomon and #MeToo the film spins a surprising modern tale that deals with subjects that haunts us every day. Different perceptions of reality, consent and boundaries, and of course the treatment of women. Don't be scared away by the the bad press, Affleck's silly hair, or the fact that the story takes place in the 13th century. This an easy to approach, relatable, relevant film that deserves to be watched and remembered.

4) Those Who Wish Me Dead (2021)

Clean, simple and focused thriller with a commanding lead performance from Angelina Jolie and sharp script and direction by Taylor Sheridan. They can take all their superhero movies and stuff 'em, all I want is a serious grown-up thriller like Those Who Wish Me Dead. Don't change a thing in this one.

3) Kate (2021)

Mary Elizabeth Winstead plays an assassin who's been poisoned and has mere hours to live. She must find out who killed her and why. Oh and get bloody revenge, of course.

Even though Kate doesn't initially offer much we have seen before, it's one of those rare instances where the whole is so much more than the sum of its parts. It's classic noir D.O.A. (1949) meets modern Liam Neeson revenge thriller. Winstead is badass in the lead, completely convincing as a hardcore killer, and she even speaks a bit of Japanese along the way! The neon-lit Tokyo setting is gorgeous, the action scenes are fierce, and I just couldn't shake the moody story. I love action movies. I make no apologies for that. And this one was irresistible to me.

2) Moxie (2021)

Near-perfect modern teen film that feels both timeless and highly relevant. Director Amy Poehler impresses with this funny and heartfelt story about a quiet girl who's just had ENOUGH of the way women are treated at her school, and starts an anonymous magazine exposing the truth. Moxie has the heart in the right place, and it's on the right side of history, but it's also not blind to the flaws of its own heroine, or the fact that perhaps everything can't be reduced to a hashtag or a clever meme. Most importantly, throughout this fairly serious story the film never forgets to have fun, and play some catchy tunes! An absolute delight that teaches some important lessons, without ever feeling like homework.

1) Shadow in the Cloud (2020)

What? THIS is your favorite film of the year? Abso-freakin-lutely. I loved it when I first saw it. I've rewatched it twice, and it gets better every time. Sure the high-concept pitch is ridiculous: "A creature on the wing of a WWII flying fortress". Which, coincidentally is a pure ripoff of classic Twilight Zone episode. Plus we spend half the film locked in a cramped gun turret below the plane with our heroine - both a fairly daring stylistic choice and a neat budget-reducing solution.

But make no mistake about it, there's more than goofy shenanigans at play here. The deceptively simple story offers moments like this: Our heroine is forced to listed to the all-male crew's crude fantasies about her over the intercom, unable to tell them what she really thinks. The end credit montage shows propaganda footage of women going to war - they take their shoes off first, don't ya know! That, plus a certain story element I won't spoil here, points to the fact that director Roseanne Liang way have more in her sights than just ripping off an old Twilight Zone episode. On top of that the film looks gorgeous, the electronic score is mesmerizing, and Chloë Grace Moretz plays the lead with admirable conviction, unfazed by the silly premise.

I stand by this choice. I love Shadow in the Cloud to bits!

WRAP-UP

That's it! The best films I saw last year. As always I instantly regret some of my choices (probably not the ones you think, though), but what's done is done, and now I have to live with it.

Of course I've already begun to compile the list for this year. Can't wait to see how that one shakes out. Until then......