After a largely forgettable 2020, 2021 was the year where film decided to return with a vengeance. 2021 saw the returns of legends like Ridley Scott and Paul Verhoeven, prominent directors like Paul Thomas Anderson, Guillermo Del Toro and Edgar Wright, we even got the wide release of previously lost work from the late George Romero. For as great a year for film as 2021 was, I for one am glad that the Oscars have once again found away to accurately adapt with changing demographics and accurately assess the many great works of the year without any predisposed bias or agenda.
Whoops. Let's get on with the list.
The Amusement Park (Dir. George A Romero)
While technically not a 2021 film, The Amusement Park, if you'll pardon the pun is quite the wild ride. A film that was disowned by its director and for a time considered to be a lost film, it was restored showed at a few film festivals in 2019 before finally being released to the public by streaming service Shudder, the story behind The Amusement Park is almost as interesting as the film itself. Funded by local charities and religious organizations Romero looked at The Amusement Park as just another paying gig, but that effort is not shown in the quality of the film. The Amusement Park explores the themes of elderly abuse, ageism and the transition to death. Considering this film was originally released in 1973 and only shown in churches and rec centers it is incredible to see Romero experimenting with things like 3 second cuts and nonlinear story telling years before they became things that are widely taken for granted. I highly recommend you track down the post film discussion that was done with Romero's widow on youtube and what a passion project it was for her to get this film released, it really is exemplary for why art should be preserved and I'm happy this film finally saw the light of day, Romero deserves to be known as more than just the zombie guy and as one of the best filmmakers of his generation. At only 45 minutes its a light watch but is definitely worth a look.
Pig (Dir. Michael Sarnoski)
Nicolas Cage has been quietly rebuilding his career these last few years doing films like Mandy and Color Out of Space, Pig however veers away from his recent horror entries and instead tells the tale of an estranged rockstar chef and his yuppie business associate navigating the Portland underground in the hopes to locate his stolen truffle pig. Pig is one of Cage's best performances in some time and subverts many of the stereotypes associated with drifter movies. Cage matches this attitude with a performance that is fairly reserved and understated almost in defiance to the decade of memes associated with him. The film also serves as a commentary towards pretentiousness and critics. I plan on doing a deeper dive on the movie sometime in the near future. This was director Michael Sarnoski's directorial debut and I very much look forward to whatever his next film is.
Licorice Pizza (Dir. Paul Thomas Anderson)
I have a feeling that this will be somewhat of a controversial entry on this list for no other reason than where I've ranked it, but while I thoroughly enjoyed Licorice Pizza and thought it was somewhat of a return to form for Paul Thomas Anderson, I don't think I liked it as much as some. It definitely deserves to be inconsideration for film of the year but I certainly don't rank it above other films on this list and think it lies somewhere in the median of PTA's work. With that said I think the film was a strong commentary on the history of Hollywood and a reflection of a time period long gone, Alana Haim who made her debut both as an actor and screenwriter really helped to carry this film. There is a level of wit in Licorice Pizza that really helps to add a layer of levity to the tale of two people trapped in a terrible situation. I will say that at times the film can feel like a series of vignettes rather than a full length narrative, but given the director and setting involved that's probably by design. This is another film that I look forward to revisiting in the future and with time I could see myself reassessing its place on this list but for right now I think it's place is justified. With that said I wouldn't be surprised if this picks up a slew of awards.
Nightmare Alley(Dir. Guillermo Del Toro)
Guillermo Del Toro was tasked with the unenviable feat of following up what was perhaps his biggest critical success in The Shape of Water and I think that this was as good a follow up as you could hope for. While not a perfect film by any means I do think that Del Toro tells the tale of a man's fall from grace with a visual style that remains unique to him. Nightmare Alley is nowhere near the visual spectacle other Del Toro films are but the performances of the ensemble cast certainly more than make up for the lack of visual bombast. The dynamic between Cate Blanchett and Bradley Cooper is something that really needs to be seen to be admired and I think this maybe the strongest performance of the latter's career. I think this film more than proves that Del Toro is much greater than just a visual director, although the visuals certainly aren't lacking, if they ever remake Something Wicked This Way Comes or make a live action Halloween Tree his name would be at the top of my list to helm those projects. I enjoyed the circus aspect of this film that much. There's also times where this film's setting feels more like Gotham than the last several Batman films, Cate Blanchett's office looks like it was stolen from Hugo Strange. As for the plot the twists towards the end of the movie are somewhat predictable but remain impactful and overall the film made for a pleasant experience. Del Toro is one of the masters.
Last Night in Soho (Dir. Edgar Wright)
Maybe it's my love for all things 60's pop, maybe it's my love 60's and 70's mystery films. But I loved this film and for a time it was probably tied for my film of the year. This film is what many claim Knives Out to be, a smart well thought out subversion of the who dung it genre that leaves the viewer constantly guessing. The best way I can describe Soho is it's like an Argento film made by a well adjusted person while still maintaining the same level wildness. It was refreshing to see various cliches of the mystery genre avoided and see certain characters that would normally play into a character's decent into madness actively go out of their way to be supportive. This film wasn't only a worthy follow up to Baby Driver, it thoroughly succeeded it. Last night in Soho does what so many other recent entries into the mystery genre don't and that's subvert it whilst still showing a great appreciation and love for the films and era that came before through the lens of hindsight. Believe me I wouldn't put this film on the list if I felt it just blindly glorified the 60's, Wright is able to be nostalgic about an era of entertainment he clearly loves whilst staying within the realm of reason. It was fun to reminisce afterwards and put together the various bread crumbs the film laid out for its ultimate reveal and feeling like an idiot for missing them. Soho was a movie that tried to outsmart its audience without trying to outsmart itself, which is why I rate so highly. I doubt in 5 years time I'll be holding it in as high a regard but sometimes you just need to live in the moment when discussing film. Earlier in the year I did a podcast with some friends about the movie Charade and the topic of where have the good pulp mysteries gone, well Last Night in Soho fits that bill, I hope it's not the last.
Benedetta (Dir. Paul Verhoven)
If you were to make a 1970's style spectacle film with the lens of a filmmaker in the current era you'd have Benedetta. Similar to another film I've reviewed on her, 1971's The Devils, Benedetta is a film about blasphemy and the perversion of religion. But where as The Devils focuses on the downfall of a charismatic figure, Benedetta is about a nun's rise from the cloistered life to the leader of a cult of personality as a country village deals with the Black Plague. Benedetta was filmed in 2018 and had its release delayed by the pandemic, given the subject matter its time of release couldn't have been more poignant and seeing the anxieties of current times, albeit inadvertently, reflected in a film like Benedetta was something special. It's crazy that Paul Verhoeven is still creating films at this level into his 80's and perhaps we need to reassess his place in the conversation of greatest directors of all time. Benedetta is not the tale of a likeable heroine overcoming adversity, it very much is a film with no hero and while having a film that questions your morals in such a shocking and perverse way as Benedetta does can still unfortunately be rather off putting for some, art like this will always be relevant for that reason. Benedetta is a necessary look into how religion can be perverted and the effects of stunted sexuality. This film's subject matter gives me just a small glimmer of hope that we can finally see Ken Russell's The Devils get a proper release but given the general cowardice of Warner Bros. I doubt it.
Titane (Dir. Julia Ducournau)
Well this wasn't exactly a mystery, if you've been paying attention to my site over the course of the last year you've seen me write extensively about Titane, so if you want to see my extensive thoughts on it please go read my review. It's really sad that for whatever reason this film never seemed to catch the either the critical or public eye, but given the abrasiveness of how it handles its subject matter I guess that was inevitable. This movie definitely isn't for the faint of heart and while I did include the joke at the expense of the dying award show that is The Academy Awards, I can understand why it didn't exactly play well to them given their voting demographic. All I'll say to close this out is this, you can't for years claim to care about various social issues then when a film comes along and displays a reality that many marginalized people face, often internally, ignore and outright dismiss it. It's funny to me that horror films will get the exploitation label place upon it with impunity, but something like Spencer which only looks to take advantage of the legacy of a beloved and highly publicized public figure for the sake of winning awards will be called art. That to me is far more exploitative than something like Titane and will more than likely be forgotten just as fast as it came into the ether, Diamanda Galas didn't sing in the style she did to get she sang that way because it was the only way the subject matter of her art couldn't be ignored, Titane is no different, please give it a watch.