Knockturnalist: Top 20 Favorite Films of 2021

2021 has been an interesting year for film

While we’re still cautious about going to theaters during the COVID-19 pandemic, distributors and festivals relied more on streaming platforms for release. It’s odd; I’m a theatergoer, the cinema is like a second home. Nothing replaces the theatric experience, whether it’s sitting in a small indie theater with a couple of people or a packed IMAX with a roaring crowd watching a blockbuster. At the same time, thanks to the new focus on streaming, I was able to see some of my favorite films this year. Simultaneous digital and in-person releases helped me watch films I couldn’t see before, and I imagine that to be the case for many others. It’s been a ride, as some of these films have become some personal favorites as well:

Some honorable mentions include SweatNightmare AlleyBad Luck Banging or Looney PornCensorC’mon C’monRed RocketMemoriaCowboysOnce Upon a Time in UgandaVenom Let There Be Carnage (deal with it), and Ahed’s Knee

Mass

Mass is a powerhouse of emotion  thanks to the sheer force of its performances and writing. A conversation between two sets of parents, one of a school shooter (Reed Birney and Ann Dowd) and the other of the shooter’s victim (Jason Isaacs and Martha Plimpton), the movie makes a point to focus strictly on the story’s humanity. It touches on the political and mental health implications, but the writing focuses on empathizing its characters rather than politicizing them. You understand the fears and anxieties of the characters to their deepest core, so much so that you’ll notice your own views of these characters shift over time. This film lives and dies on its performances, and the actors give it their all. Mass is a powerful and necessary film that will move you to tears.

You can watch the interview with Jason Isaacs and Fran Kranz by Knockturnal contributor Ashlee Dell’Arciprete here

You can read a full review by Knockturnal contributor Liam Haber here

Vigil

An incredibly creepy Jewish take on exorcisms, Vigil is an eerie and moody tale that exemplifies the best of the genre. Focusing on Yakov (Dave Davis), a former member of the Orthodox community asked to oversee a body before its burial, the film taps into Jewish demonology for a unique, haunting experience. Centered on Davis’ excellent performance, this creepy film sent shivers down my spine. The film was a breath of fresh air in the ordinarily Christian-inspired horror genre, and as a Jewish horror fan, I loved it. Hopefully, we will get more horror films based on Jewish demonology soon.

You can read my full review here

Stop Filming Us

One of the more challenging films of the year, Stop Filming Us, explores neocolonialism by combating media perceptions of African communities. Focusing primarily on the Congo, the film dives into the harm charities, non-profits, and the general media do when framing African communities in a consistently negative or impoverished light. It’s a documentary with attitude and personality, and it’s refreshing to see these communities take control of their narrative and fight back against seemingly well-meaning but harmful exploitation. At the same time, the film doesn’t feel like a lecture as we get into the lives of various Congolese communities to show there’s more than the hardship you’d see on a charity poster. It’s an explicitly anti-white savior movie and a necessary watch for anyone who wants to get involved in activism or not-profit work.

The Con-Heartist

The Con-Heartist is hilarious. It’s as simple as that. It’s not particularly deep or subtle, but it didn’t need to be. Watching Ina (Pimchanok Luevisadpaibul) work with Tower (Nadech Kugimiya) to get back at her con artist ex was a treat. Ina and Tower had the best “will-they won’t-they” chemistry of any movie this year, and dear god I want more movies of these two just pulling cons on people. Luevisadpaibul exudes likability and wit, perfectly captured by Mez Tharatorn’s direction, as he nails the cartoony, comic timing. The Con-Heartist was just a likable and funny comedy, and given how 2021 has been, I really needed it.

You can read my coverage as part of the NYAFF here

The Suicide Squad

The best superhero film of the year, James Gunn’s The Suicide Squad, takes the superhero genre in gritty, inventive, and oddly more inspirational directions. I love that a mainstream big-budget superhero film has the look and feel of a 70’s exploitation film shot in the Philippines, with tons of gore and wild action meshed with the grimy jungle setting of the fictional Corto Maltese. While the film heavily builds on Gunn’s influences, namely The Dirty Dozen, his Troma roots, and the themes of his previous Guardians of the Galaxy films, the strength of The Suicide Squad is in its characters. Gunn took up the daunting task of making genuinely unlikable characters relatable and empathetic, and it worked. All the performances are great; John Cena has never been more hilarious, both Viola Davis and Idris Elba are enjoyably sinister, and Danielle Melchior is a shining light on the screen. Also, not enough can be said about how Margot Robbie IS Harley Quinn. It’s inspiring to see these characters who would be a villain’s henchman in any other story, still grow and show tremendous heart. James Gunn loves these characters and shows that love through his attention to detail with their characterization. Also, Sebastian is the best rat in all of cinema. Superhero films as a genre needed The Suicide Squad to inject some edge into the seemingly weary trend. Hopefully, we get more adult superhero films built off of this one’s success.

The Book of Fish

Philosophically earnest and powerful, The Book of Fish hinges on the strength of its writing and themes to tell a unique story about mentorship. A Korean black-and-white period piece about the exile of Jeong Yak-jeon (Sol Kyung-gu), Joseon era scholar, during the Catholic Persecution of 1801; the film is an accessible and gorgeous tale about learning and passing down knowledge. The heart of the story is the friendship between Jeong Yak-jeon and his protege, Chang-dae (Byun Yo-han), as they both learn from each other how to grow within the new phases of their lives. The tension comes from incorporating their newfound knowledge into their lives, where divides set in. The film isn’t pretentious, as its humor and charm lift it far above more traditional period pieces. The Book of Fish is one of the most poignant films of the year.

You can read my coverage as part of the NYAFF here

Last Night in Soho

I love giallo films and Last Night in Soho, plus one other film on the list, captured the genre incredibly. Following Ellie Turner (Thomasin McKenzie), a fashion student who mysteriously travels to 1960’s London where she’s forced to solve a murder, the film’s cinematography, music, and editing are all spellbinding. Director Edgar Wright’s first foray into the horror genre, he’s clearly having a blast seeing how far he can go with his world, enveloping us in 1960’s London. Deep within the London lights and beauty, Wright has no qualms depicting the sleazy underbelly of the 60’s treatment of women. While Wright has fun, he doesn’t get lost in nostalgia, showing the dangers of romanticizing the past. Additionally, the empathetic and touching performance of Thomasin McKenzie gives the film heart throughout the maddening mystery. I had a great time figuring out where Last Night in Soho would go next, and I’m curious if it’ll lead to a giallo revival.

Benedetta

Paul Verhoeven is my favorite film director, a master at being artful, daring, and fun all at the same time. He has a distinctive edge with memorable characters and a witty streak that hides social commentary, and Benedetta is no exception. Following Sister Benedetta Carlini (Virginie Efira) as she starts experiencing strange miracles while forging a relationship with fellow sister Bartolomea (Daphne Patakia), the film is engrossing with passion and sexual tension. Their chemistry bolsters the eroticism between each other, but beyond the scintillating sexual exploits, the film explores earnest spiritual themes. Verhoeven subverts some familiar Christ tropes to carve a unique identity for Benedetta. Rather than just being a power fantasy, though Bennedeta has her witty badass moments, Verhoeven displays an air of sincerity with his spiritual exploration of love. His critiques of religion’s relationship with capitalism and bureaucracy feel honest and direct, especially with how the Catholic Church’s relationship with the public contrasts with Benedetta’s. All these ideas are held together by the excellent lead performances of Virginie Efira and Daphne Patakia. Benedetta is a wild ride with plenty of nuances to decode among many rewatches, just as any good Verhoeven film should be.

You can read a full review by Knockturnal contributor Liam Haber here

Anima

The most daring film of the year, Anima challenges the balance between political/spiritual convictions and our responsibilities toward people we love. Following Linzi (Eric Wang), an indigenous lumberjack who’s struggling to keep doing his job, we see how the mounting responsibilities of family and self-preservation can make it harder to maintain our values. Director Jinling Cao does an excellent job making the forest a character, as the cinematography makes the forest look cold, ancient, and vast. You see how strong Linzi’s spiritual connection to the forest is, as his internal conflict gets more personal as he grows up. The spirituality in the film is honest because Linzi’s stakes are relatable and grounded, as everything from family to economic disparity forces him to make tough sacrifices throughout the film. Anima is an honest and touching film that will force you to question your convictions well after the viewing experience.

You can read my coverage as part of the NYAFF here

Drive My Car

Ryusuke Hamaguchi is slowly becoming one of my favorite directors examining relationships and communication; this year, he had a triple hit with Drive My CarWife of a Spy, and Wheel of Fortune and FantasyDrive My Car was my favorite, as Hamaguchi understands the weight of the themes he’s addressing and directs accordingly. Following stage actor/director Yusuke Kafuku (Hidetoshi Nishijima) after the death of his philandering wife, Hamaguchi breaks down Kafuku’s grief and reflection as he tries to process her death through his art. Kafuku is just an incredibly compelling character to watch, as you see how he developed his method of communicating with people, which both helped him and hurt his relationships. It’s an artist’s movie, as I suspect many artists that forge relationships through their work will relate to Kafuku, both positively and negatively. All the supporting characters in the film are compelling, as their motivations, anxieties, and relationships build on the film’s core themes. It’s incredible how I wish Drive My Car were longer because I want to spend more time with these characters, even in a three-hour movie.

You can read my full review here

The Last Duel

TW: Sexual Assault

The Last Duel was a risky move for Ridley Scott, as medieval films rarely do well in the box office. While it ended up struggling in the box office, The Last Duel still paid off creatively as one of the best films in his already illustrious filmography. A story told from three different perspectives about Marguerite de Carrouges (Jodie Comer), who accuses Jacques Le Gris (Adam Driver) of sexual assault, leading to a judicial duel between him and Marguerite’s husband, Sir Jean de Carrouges (Matt Damon). Beyond the overall excellent performances and brutal production design, The Last Duel subtly plays off the different perspectives in ways that inform their characters. The way each character sees the series of events shows us who they are and how they see Marguerite, whether as a wife that needs protecting, a wife that should be grateful for her protection, a prize to be earned, or just as a person. A single line of dialogue ends up having multiple meanings with only a slight change in inflection. This filming technique wasn’t just a gimmick; instead, it informed the film’s overall thesis about believing victims of sexual assault. The Last Duel is an intense, topical film that’s not for everybody, but it’s a rewarding, powerful experience that deserves more attention.

You can read about the press conference from Knockturnal contributor Antonio Pinheiro here

The Worst Person In the World

The Worst Person in the World has the most compelling, flawed, and deeply relatable characters to come out of 2021. The third film in director Joachim Trier’s Oslo Trilogy, the film follows Julie (Renate Reinsve), as she goes through multiple careers and relationship changes, as she fights her indecisiveness about what kind of life she wants to live. The film perfectly captures the transitional period of the late 20’s early 30’s and all the frustration that comes with it. Every character in this movie feels like they could have their own film dedicated to their journey, as they evolve and devolve before our eyes. I guarantee you’ve met these people and probably hated those people. Or, you are these people. Few films this year have been as relatable as this one, and Renate Reinsve’s delivers a charming, vulnerable performance that elevates the film. The Worst Person In The World is the perfect film to see in your mid-20s or 30s, as odds are, you’re going through the same existential journey as Julie.

Labyrinth of Cinema

This movie is pure love. The final film of legendary filmmaker Nobuhiko Obayashi before his passing in 2020, Labyrinth of Cinema, is a giant love letter to his filmography and Japanese cinema. Following three filmgoers as they travel through the history of Japanese filmmaking to find a lost girl, Obayashi embraces the wild history of Japanese filmmaking to examine its relationship with warfare, politics, and the changing Japanese social climate. In Obayashi’s classic camp, music video-like style, the film is incredibly inventive with its writing and production design. At the same time, the film is very accessible. It provides enough narrative shorthand so that people who aren’t as familiar with Japanese history can still get the emotional weight of what’s going on. It’s the perfect sendoff for a brilliant filmmaker like Obayashi; I just wish he was still with us to see how people praise his final film.

You can read about my coverage of the film as part of Japan Cuts here

Malignant

The other giallo-inspired film to come out this year, Malignant, is director James Wan using all the clout he built up from his blockbusters and horror franchises to create a personal movie just for him. And it’s bonkers. Malignant is a wild masterpiece of horror, unlike anything I’ve ever seen. Following Madison (Annabelle Wallis), as she sees visions of murders as they happen, Malignant is a starkly original murder mystery that keeps you guessing all the way through. While using the trappings of B-movies and giallo films, James Wan crafts his own original style with striking cinematography, a compelling score, and ruthless gore effects. The story just cranks up faster and faster, only getting more insane as the mystery unfolds. I goddamn loved Malignant.

You can watch the interview with James Wan by Knockturnal contributor Antonio Pinheiro here

Nine Days

Nine Days is a profoundly meditative and touching film. The debut film of Edson Oda, Nine Days plays with questions on how to approach life and what appreciating life looks like. Following Will (Winston Duke), a spirit who judges souls to see who should be born, and his supervisor Kyo (Benedict Wong), the film avoids the traditional heaven/hell trappings to focus strictly on the passions and stresses of life. As we see other spirits like Emma, Kane, and Alexander try to find what they most value in life, it forces us to reflect on what elements we appreciate. The film does an excellent job showing us different ideas on the meaning of life without drowning in pretentious dialogue and speeches. Winston Duke delivers one of the most touching performances of the year, as he seems wise beyond his years while still intensely working through his trauma. Nine Days will keep you thinking and reflecting on how to approach life for years to come. 

You can watch the interviews with actors Winston Duke, Zazie Beetz, Edson Oda, Benedict Wong, Tony Hale, and David Rysdahl by Knockturnal contributor Aurora Fowlkes here

Shiva Baby

This movie is uncomfortably hilarious, and I loved every second of it. The debut film of writer/director Emma Seligman, Shiva Baby is a hysterically relatable anxiety nightmare. Following Danielle, played brilliantly by Rachel Sennott, as she goes through her relative’s shiva feeling absolutely mortifying, with everyone from overbearing family members, jilted ex’s, and surprise sugar daddies pop out the woodwork. The film feels claustrophobic, as you feel trapped alongside her, probably reminding you of particularly miserable Thanksgiving or Christmas dinner. You rarely find a film so uncomfortable and incredibly funny, and Shiva Baby succeeds at both. 

You can read a full review by Knockturnal contributor Riyad Mammadyarov here

The Green Knight

In a cinema landscape that’s usually not kind to fantasy films, David Lowry took a risk at telling an old-school, sincere fantasy film about a character who has no business being on a fantasy quest. That risk paid off, as The Green Knight is the most epic film of the year. Few films captured so much power and scope using a character as grounded as Sir Gawain, played to perfection by Dev Patel. His likability, charm, and desperation make this ancient story fun, while the stellar production design gives the film the grandeur it deserves. Movies like this are simply not made anymore, and I hope we get more films like The Green Knight soon.

You can read my full review here

Titane

Many films are creative because of their writing, production design, or tone, but Titane is creative on an entirely different level. Following Alexia, a serial killer who got pregnant after having sex with a car and impersonating the missing son of a firefighter, Titane is a charged and passionate sophomore film from French horror master Julia Ducournau. I have never had an emotional experience like I had watching this film. Dread mixed with affection, anxiety mixed with heartwarming sweetness, erotic tension mixed with wholesome affection, there is nothing like Titane at all. The shocking body horror and killer soundtrack make Titane an unrelenting force, as its layer-upon-layer of conflicting emotion makes Titane an unforgettable watch.

You can read my full review here

Pig

Pig is a gorgeous film. It’s gorgeously shot, written, and acted, containing one of Nicolas Cage’s most intimate performances in years. While there’s a lot to be read into Pig: as a critique of capitalism, as a meditation on skill and passion, or as a fun food-porn movie, in the end, Nicolas Cage is just trying to find his kidnapped pig. The movie never lets you forget that beneath all the politics and culture delved into in the film that it is, at its heart, a sweet story about a lonely man trying to find his beloved pet. Cage’s exquisite performance gives that sensitivity and empathy a powerful force, further supporting his modern acting legend.

You can read my full review here

The Mitchells vs. The Machines

I firmly believe that the most challenging films to make are family films. You need to achieve the perfect balance of being accessible and appropriate for children while being nuanced for adults. It’s incredibly challenging, and it’s why most modern family films are really just for kids. However, The Mitchells vs. The Machines is genuinely a film for everybody. Following Katie (Abbie Jacobson) on her family road trip to college in the wake of a robot apocalypse, the film subverts the tired “kids versus adults” cliche of family films to tell a touching story of growing up. With the robot attacks as a backdrop, both her and her father Rick (Danny McBride) learn to reevaluate their relationship with each other during Katie’s transition to college. It’s a mature approach, as neither of them is villainous or uncaring; they’re just having a tough time understanding each other and need to learn how to see each other in a new light. 

Of course, the film is still hilarious. Katie’s mom Linda (Maya Rudolph), is charming as one of the most realistic and badass movie moms of the year. Katie’s younger brother, Aaron (writer/director Mike Rianda), is hysterically weird. Olivia Coleman is having the time of her life as the sinister PAL, trying to destroy the human race. The animation perfectly captures Katie’s creative movie nerd mindset, reminiscent of a sketchbook while still delivering the intense action the story needed. Mike Rianda’s work on Gravity Falls and his usage of the animation technology from Spider-Man Into The Spider-Verse explains how both the film’s writing and style were stellar. The Mitchelle’s vs. The Machines is the perfect film for a family movie night, and I’m confident people of all ages will enjoy it for many years to come. 

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