Sarah Lord takes a look at the year that was: 2021.

This first appeared in Filmhounds Magazine print edition December 2021 – available to order here

From the ashes of 2020, the hope of a new year made the transition into 2021 somewhat bearable. The promise of a vaccine, the beginning of countries and cities reopening (or at least planning to), and the thought of a tough year behind us helped us to be optimistic. While 2021 has certainly come with its own set of trials and tribulations, it wasn’t without its highpoints. Despite the pandemic still very much ongoing, the world has slowly been able to reopen, and a new sense of normalcy has started to emerge. Luckily for movie fans, a part of that normalcy is the return of movie theaters.

Marvel

With the number of movies released in 2021, it’s not shocking just how much Marvel dominated the year. Black Widow kicked things off in July, signifying the cinematic return of Marvel. Despite opening to mixed reviews, fans were just happy to see a superhero movie on the big screen again. There’s no denying that Scarlett Johansson as Black Widow should have had her own movie years ago, but it did serve as a decent send off. After saying goodbye to one of the original members of the Avengers, it was time to welcome a new member to the MCU family in the form of Shang-Chi. Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings came out in September and was a chance for Marvel to do something new. Their formulaic tendencies have been complained about ad nauseum, and while Shang-Chi isn’t totally devoid of it, it’s quite refreshing to see a fun solo Marvel movie led by a non-white character. Simu Liu brings a lot of charm and charisma to Shang-Chi and is a welcomed addition to the Marvel family. With an emphasis on showcasing complex fight choreography and diverse fighting styles, Shang-Chi is a promising step in the right direction for Marvel.

Just a few months after Shang-Chi, Marvel was back at it again with Eternals, directed by Chloe Zhao. While it may not be what you would expect the writer and director of last year’s Nomadland to work on next, fans and general cinephiles were intrigued to see what Zhao would bring to the Marvel universe. Unfortunately, Eternals was met with mostly mixed to negative reactions. Despite not being the big hit that Marvel wanted it to be, it’s clear that these characters aren’t going anywhere and that this is merely the beginning of a new phase for the MCU, for better or worse.

Continuing the Marvel domination is Venom: Let There be Carnage, which also came out in the fall. While it is technically a Sony product, the Sony superhero-verse is about to bleed into the MCU thanks to the upcoming Spider-Man: No Way Home, which is going to fully dive-in to the concept of the multiverse. As a movie, Venom 2 is a very silly romp that oddly enough didn’t go as crazy as it could have. The main thing that it gave us was the promise of Eddie Brock and Venom somehow being transported into the MCU according to the post credit scene. There’s still no telling where exactly all of that is going to go or if it confirms that Tom Hardy will be making an appearance in No Way Home. Elements like these is the main reason why Spider-Man: No Way Home was so hotly anticipated. If people thought that the MCU was a lot to keep track of already, No Way Home is going to make things even crazier and more complicated.

See also  Tired Old Tropes Of A Virgin – 15 Years On From Judd Apatow’s Debut

DC

Despite the slew of Marvel movies, they weren’t the only one’s with superhero flicks this year. DC had a few tricks up its sleeve, the first being the Zack Snyder cut of Justice League in March and James Gunn’s new take on The Suicide Squad in the summer. The long-awaited Snyder cut felt more like an unedited concept as opposed to a fully formed vision, mostly thanks to its 4-hour run time. Even so, it was good of Warner Bros. to release Snyder’s version considering the tragic circumstances that led to Snyder having to leave the original project in the first place. And then came James Gunn’s The Suicide Squad, a somewhat sequel, somewhat reboot of David Ayer’s 2016 Suicide Squad. With his successful work on the Guardians of the Galaxy movies, Warner Bros. figured they couldn’t go wrong by recruiting Gunn. And they were right! It’s no surprise that Gunn was a perfect fit for this movie, given his extensive knowledge and genuine love of comic books. It’ll be exciting to see how Gunn builds on this revitalized universe with the Peacemaker HBO Max series coming next year.

Thankfully, there were plenty of other films to come out this year that weren’t just made by Disney, Marvel, or DC. One of the major highlights of any year is what it has to offer for the horror genre. In the case of 2021, we saw the continuation of David Gordon Green’s Halloween reboot trilogy, a sequel to John Krasinski’s A Quiet Place, and a bonkers off the wall horror flick courtesy of James Wan. Out of the three, James Wan’s Malignant was quite the surprise and is the most satisfying. Despite being a mess at times, Wan really goes all out in the third act making Malignant an incredibly memorable watch. John Krasinski’s A Quiet Place Part II, while solid, is almost too conventional. With a brisk run time of 97 minutes, it suffers from not giving enough time to exploring the world that was created. It’s a compelling watch in the moment but doesn’t hold up well to too much scrutiny.

Horror

As for David Gordon Green’s Halloween Kills, it certainly holds a spot as one of the biggest disappointments of the year. Halloween Kills squanders any potential that Halloween (2018) had and only cares about its kills. The characters are given little to no development, and the dialogue is incredibly repetitive and lazy. The Halloween franchise is far from perfect, but it was admittedly exciting to see a new take on it that had John Carpenter’s blessing (and a new score by him). Alas, Halloween Kills confirms that certain movies shouldn’t have their own franchise or have one resurrected. Incidentally, another horror reboot/sequel came this year in the form of Candyman, directed and co-written by Nia DaCosta. While not as disappointing as Halloween Kills, it also suffered from a flawed script. DaCosta’s directing is the highlight of the film; certain shots and sequences manage to stay with you even after the initial viewing. The ideas presented are at least thought-provoking and encourage discussion, even if the overall message is a bit muddled by the end.

Thankfully there were other horror films this year that deserve more attention than they got. Censor, directed by Prano Bailey-Bond, was a hit in the festival circuit and is probably one of the more innovative movies to come out this year. Taking place in the video-nasty era in Britain, Censor is a surreal and intriguing look into the world of censorship, movie violence, and personal trauma and its affect on the mind. It’s a breath of fresh air in terms of unconventional horror and marks Prano Bailey-Bond as a filmmaker to pay attention too. Another one was Antlers, directed and co-written by Scott Cooper (Out of the Furnace, Hostiles) and starring Keri Russell and Jesse Plemons. A dark take on the legend of the wendigo, Antlers is a deeply atmospheric and metaphorical film that delivers on impressive practical effects and meaningful storytelling. In the same vein of dark metaphorical horror, The Night House also left a mark. Directed by David Bruckner (The Ritual), Rebecca Hall is the heart of The Night House and delivers a career highlight performance as a woman whose husband recently committed suicide. While it deals with some extremely heavy themes, it manages to be an engaging look at the darker parts of humanity.

See also  Reclaiming the Rotten: Ben Wheatley's High-Rise

This year also gave us a new Edgar Wright film that lightly treads into horror territory. Wright’s Last Night in Soho is an homage to many things, most of which are the 60s and old school thrillers. It should be no surprise that the soundtrack along with the stunning and vibrant visuals are the highpoints. The story itself is engaging up until a point, and the third act unfortunately doesn’t live up to how captivating the rest of it is. It was refreshing to see Wright attempt something new since most of his previous movies have a strong comedic component to them. But, by the end it’s unclear what exactly the point of Last Night in Soho is besides showing off his masterful technical skills as a filmmaker.

Independent distributors

Independent distributors like Neon and A24 also had quite the successful year, thanks to movies made by a slew of innovative filmmakers, seasoned and up and coming. David Lowery’s The Green Knight and Julia Ducournau’s Titane were probably two of the most anticipated films of the bunch and, subsequently, two of the most talked about. With The Green Knight, Lowery put his own spin on an Arthurian legend, creating a visually engaging tale. While there were elements lacking on the narrative front, Lowery succeeded in making a technically memorable marvel. Speaking of memorable, Julia Ducournau’s Titane was the talk of every festival it premiered at, and when it was finally widely released, it made quite the impression. Not at all for the faint of heart, Titane is a bold and often deeply uncomfortable look at guilt and grief that is expertly crafted into a completely unforgettable viewing experience.

There were also films that ended up being sleeper hits of the year. Bo Burnham: Inside was officially announced by Burnham himself on social media just about a month before its release on Netflix. He spent most of his time in quarantine making the comedy special and, unsurprisingly, it resonated with a lot of people. While some filmmakers attempted to create their own interpretation of the pandemic or quarantine life in general, Burnham was the only one to successfully capture that deeply strange and uncertain time and offered up a way for us to collectively get through it together. Another film that resonated this year and was an understated hit was Pig, starring Nicholas Cage and Alex Wolff. What initially came across as a possible John Wick-style revenge flick turned out to be a deeply thoughtful and poignant look at grief. Nicholas Cage gives one of his best performances to date and its difficult to imagine anyone else in the role. It’s a much-needed reminder of Cage’s remarkable gift as an actor, and that, with the right script, he can do wonders.

See also  Ranked: The Films of Christopher Nolan

Blockbusters

In terms of fall blockbusters, the two biggest ones that audiences were endlessly eager for were No Time to Die and Dune. No Time to Die marked the end of the Daniel Craig Bond era and leaves the fate of the James Bond franchise in a state of limbo. The film is a decent conclusion and farewell to Craig’s brooding Bond, with incredibly well-made action sequences and the welcomed additions of Ana de Armas and Lashana Lynch as the new 007. The question on everyone’s mind now is the future of Bond and whether or not characters from the Daniel Craig movies will reappear the next time Bond is brought back to the big screen. We’ll have to wait at least a year, maybe longer, for those questions to be answered, but at least now we can look forward to Craig branching out into other projects, hopefully ones like Knives Out, where he can have a little more fun.

And then there was Dune. After being released worldwide throughout in the Autumn, Dune is still going strong in theaters, quelling any fears that it wouldn’t make enough money at the box office to warrant a sequel. With the official greenlight on Dune: Part II, it’s a relief that we’ll get to see Denis Villeneuve’s complete vision of the epic sci-fi tale. It is difficult to look at Dune: Part I as a complete film, which might be its biggest detriment. Despite its lengthy runtime, it feels oddly sparse in terms of character development and aspects of the plot, but that doesn’t stop it from being an absolute feast for the eyes.

Awards season

Awards season is the talk of any year, and while some of the films previously mentioned might snag themselves some nominations, there are a few other standouts that deserve a mention. In terms of performances, the most talked about so far is Kristen Stewart as Princess Diana in Pablo Larrain’s Spencer. It is quite the transformation, and according to those that knew her, Stewart did extraordinarily well in depicting Diana’s mannerisms. What Stewart also does well is capturing Diana’s inner turmoil and making it tangible. It’s a tremendously vulnerable and honest portrayal and its no surprise that Stewart is getting so much attention for it. Another performance to rave about is Andrew Garfield as Jonathan Larson in Lin-Manuel Miranda’s directorial debut tick, tick…Boom! Garfield goes all in in this portrayal, and it may just be his best performance yet. It’s a beautiful tribute to a genuine artist who was taken from us too soon, and Garfield does him a huge service here.

There’s no denying that 2021 has been quite a year for the world of movies. With as stacked as the year became, it’s impossible to touch on every movie that’s come out or will come out. At the time that this article is written, films like House of Gucci and Licorice Pizza haven’t graced cinemas just yet. But even without being able to discuss those films, there’s still so much that 2021 had to offer, the least of which was being able to go to the movies again. While it’s hard to not already start thinking ahead to what 2022 will bring, it’s worth reflecting on the year at hand. It was certainly unconventional and had its highs and lows, but it was not without its memorable moments that reminded us why we treasure the theater-going experience so much and why, even in the most uncertain of times, we’ll always find our way back there.

By Sarah Lord

Sarah is a film writer from Brooklyn, New York, and has been with FilmHounds since August 2020. She's been a movie lover since childhood, which motivated her to graduate college with a BA in Film and Screen Studies. Her tastes in movies varies wildly, and she is more than happy to talk to you about Michael Shannon's entire filmography for hours on end.