I think we can all agree that 2021 was an extremely divisive year. Beginning, for Americans at least, with an event that, even a year later, half the country still doesn’t think happened the way the entire country saw it happen, the first year of the new decade saw greater division in the country than any time in living memory as carry-over effects of previous years including an economic collapse, high unemployment, mass civil unrest, and a pandemic that effectively shut down the entire world, predictably didn’t end just because new management took over. The lattermost of these holdover problems was so widespread and disastrous that it was impossible to even write a Top 10 Movies of 2020 as I didn’t get to see ten movies, let alone ten good movies! With 2021 bringing a solution to the pandemic and a re-opening of theaters, despite division over vaccines and science itself (more on that later) both audiences and film companies became a touch more comfortable attending and releasing films that were held back from the year before, often for a limited run before release on streaming, itself a topic of division among filmmakers and filmgoers.
It’s fitting then that the films of 2021 should themselves be a divisive topic with some in the industry complaining that filmmakers such as Edgar Wright, Guillermo Del Toro, and Ridley Scott received no attention for their work while others claimed that Last Night in Soho, Nightmare Alley, and both The Last Duel and House of Gucci didn’t receive enough attention from their own marketers to catch the public’s attention and even then weren’t worth getting worked up about. Scott’s films, and complaints about their reception, further divided audiences over the length and necessity of The Last Duel addressing a topic that should be addressed though perhaps not in a Rashomon style, and if Jared Leto’s performance in House of Gucci is solid acting or melodramatic stereotyping. Even Marvel released its most divisive film ever, The Eternals, with half of the audience finding it an ambitious if heavily flawed attempt at furthering the genre and the other half saying it was boring. (Spoiler: this is the first Top 10 list I’ve done for Pop Mythology which includes no comic book movies.)
For the record, I haven’t been able to see House of Gucci, Nightmare Alley, or other possible contenders like Nine Days and Licorice Pizza due to them not being available in theaters or on streaming in my part of the world and chose not to watch French Dispatch and West Side Story due to personal preference. In fact, 2021’s list also marks the first time I am writing a Top 10 while still crossing titles off my to-watch list. While this tactic of drafting a list before viewing every option may divide some people, as with releasing films to streaming, taking a vaccine, or bringing justice to those who have forgotten what justice means, it’s a necessary step to progress. We’ve been held back long enough. It’s time to fix our mistakes and move on.
Before we begin, I’d like to recognize films which saw limited released in 2020, and would have appeared on a Top 10 list of that year, before going wide in early 2021. Or as wide as possible during a time of mass disease and division.
Minari – Although taking place in the 1980’s, Lee Isaac Chung’s touching portrayal of an immigrant family could have taken place last year, especially considering its release during a period of high anti-Asian sentiment. Of course leads Steven Yuen, Yeri Han, and Oscar winner Yuh-Jung Youn have gotten most of the praise, but Alan S. Kim and Noel Cho should also be recognized for playing kids that aren’t idealized caricatures of childhood. Minari shows that the American dream doesn’t only affect Americans.
Judas and the Black Messiah – With his Oscar nomination LaKeith Stanfield finally got the recognition he’s deserved ever since debuting as Darius in Atlanta. Of course he was beaten out by his equally-deserving co-star Daniel Kaluuya. Mixing unvarnished history with a The Departed-style cat-and-mouse narrative drives the film’s discussion of still-prevalent racial discrimination with much more intensity than a straight-ahead biopic ever could. Hopefully, Zack Snyder watches this movie to understand how to make a competent Jesus allegory.
If Anything Happens I Love You – Although released on Netflix in November 2020, it wasn’t until the 2021 Academy Awards when people took notice of this animated short film. If you haven’t seen the film, you should. If you haven’t seen anything about it, you shouldn’t. Just watch it and know only that you will be utterly destroyed. The twelve minutes of If Anything Happens I Love You should kick-start a discussion America would’ve been better having as many years ago.
10. Evangelion 3.0 + 1.0 Thrice Upon a Time
And so we begin our list with division. It took nearly ten years for Hideaki Anno to finally release the final in his Rebuild of Evangelion tetralogy and during that time fans of the series have analyzed and argued over every minute of the original Neon Genesis television show, the End of Evangelion, and the first three Rebuild films to the point that regardless of the final part’s quality a significant portion of the fandom would find it dissatisfactory. However, instead of running from backlash or overloading the final final film with fan service (I mean, there is fan service, it is Evangelion after all. It literally promises fan service), Anno takes the film in a new, more mature, and suitably spectacular and analysis-ready direction that may not satisfy every demand made over the last ten years but goes a long way in satisfying its long tortured characters and, most profoundly, the director himself. With the completed Rebuild Shinji, Rei, Asuka, and Anno are finally able move forward.
9. Worst Person in the World
Marketed by co-writer/director Joachim Trier as a “romantic comedy for people who hate romantic comedies” Worst Person in the World, or Verdens Verste Menneske in its original Norwegian, proves that while comedy may not always translate, the feeling of existential pondering that accompanies romantic relationships is universal. Lead by a stellar performance from Renate Reinsve, the film’s twelve chapters, plus prologue and epilogue, flow so perfectly through Julie’s young life that other than cinematic flourishes – including semi-animated drug-fueled surrealism, energetic air drumming, and the sunrise glow of the first morning without the most important person in the world – the film never feels like a work of fiction.
8. Red Rocket
Does this sound familiar: Simon Rex plays Mickey Davies, aka Mickey Saber, who returns penniless to his hometown and the wife he abandoned after washing out of his once-prominent entertainment career. Back home he scams his way into the lives of those he tossed away, exaggerates his past accomplishments, blames his failures on everyone else, makes moves on a teenager, lies constantly, claims every contest he lost was a conspiracy against him, and still manages to fail upward. Rex’s casting is perfect both in how the actor’s life mimics Mikey’s and in how he charms/exploits the rabble he once looked down on and who continue to accept him even as he discards them the moment they become inconvenient. Meanwhile, each of director Sean Baker’s choices, from repeated use of N-Sync’s “Bye Bye Bye” to shooting on film, furthers the pitiable haplessness of the film’s flyover state residents. The debate over whether Mickey is a deplorable, entitled, deceitful, borderline sex criminal, or a lovable, oafish, down-on-his-luck himbo encapsulates the debate America has been had since the film’s setting – the 2016 presidential election. So, does that sound familiar?
7. No Sudden Move
Though he seems to have fallen out of mainstream attention, Steven Soderbergh remains one of cinema’s greatest craftspeople. While not quite on par with his best crime films, No Sudden Move‘s simple premise unfolds into layer upon layer of character motivation, betrayal, opportunism, and desperate action all perfectly performed and paced with a hint of socio-economic commentary stemming from 1950’s Detroit. As portrayed in the film’s surprise cameo scene, No Sudden Move is a film that has so much more happening than anyone on screen or off understands, and the fact that it unveils so smoothly, with few snags along the way, is the mark of an absolute professional.
Appealing to an audience’s nostalgia is manipulative, overbroad, and a method by which lesser artists attempt to cover their lack of skill by distracting their viewers with pleasant memories. However, harnessing one’s own nostalgia enables a talented artist to make the audience feel those same emotions and live their experience. In Belfast, writer/director Kenneth Branagh focuses on the beginning of the Troubles as it happened on a single street to a single family in the eyes of a single boy. Through this limited scope, Branagh allows those of us born decades and continents away to sympathize with this character as he learns that the world around him is much bigger and much less pleasant than the tiny one he’d always known. The film’s theatrical qualities and glossing of gory details illustrate the filter through which protagonist Buddy’s limited understanding shades his experience, even down to the bright colors and wonder of the films he watches, recalling how our own perspectives shape not only our experiences but the entire world around us. It’s not trading on cheap nostalgia when what’s offered is your own.
5. The Green Knight
So I believe I may have finally deciphered the central allegory of David Lowery’s lush epic fantasy film. Sir Gawain, eager to prove his honor and courage, volunteers for the Green Knight’s game, striking the cleanest, most decisive blow possible. However, facing the consequences of his action – the same blow delivered to him one year later – that same courage and honor wanes as he treks across a dangerous landscape that doesn’t care about his supposed qualities. Finding himself frail among much more powerful forces, Gawain’s vainglorious behavior vanishes into the temptations of a coward, just as all those who wish to exploit an opportunity flee when the time comes to pay for their exploitation. As a representative of the “best” of humanity, how would he act when there is no one to uphold his image to? What good is temporary, localized glory when the consequences are far longer and wider reaching than one can ever imagine?
Or it could be about like social media or something.
That’s what makes Green Knight great. Not only is it intriguing to watch, it’s intriguing to ponder longer after watching.
Let’s face it, after Arrival, Blade Runner 2049, and now Dune Part 1, Denis Villeneuve has become the 21st Century’s preeminent science fiction filmmaker. More than any other (yes, even Christopher Nolan), Villeneuve’s work combines the spectacle of blockbuster cinema with the beauty of arthouse film and the depth of literary fiction. In this sense, Dune – with its thousands of years of history, dense prose, and glorious feats of imagination – was always the perfect project for Villeneuve. In retrospect, it was foolish of me, in my initial review, to ever think that Herbert’s masterpiece, a book that shaped my initial understanding of creative power, could ever have been made into a single film. While being only one half of the story hurt this incarnation of Dune as a standalone, the eagerness with which we await the second half highlights the quality of Villeneuve’s work. If the film were bad, we wouldn’t be desperate for more. After the success of Part 1, I’m personally reserving a spot at the very top of my 2023 ten best list for Dune Part 2.
3. No Time to Die
Two years of delays, six years after the previous film, and fifteen years into Daniel Craig’s tenure, we were finally treated to the ending of the current era of Bond with the most compelling, impactful film of the franchise’s 50 year history. At first, No Time to Die feels just like another entry in the Bond canon, albeit an enjoyable one. Then, as the plot twists and emotions rise, we begin to see how different this Bond is from any other. While directors such as Martin Campbell, Sam Mendes, and now Cary Joji Fukunaga, along with every Bond screenwriter, of course deserve credit for introducing a level of artistry unparalleled in the franchise, it is Daniel Craig’s steady portrayal of Bond which has been central to changing the problematic Cold War relic into a complete character with motivations that extend beyond bedding women and shooting bad guys in the name of Queen and country. Sure, on its own No Time to Die is an excellent though not greatest ever Bond film, as exemplified by its unremarkable villain and uninspired final location, but as a capstone to the story started in 2006’s Casino Royale, Craig’s time as 007 has reshaped the character so profoundly that returning to his old form is impossible. Yes, James Bond will return, but he can take his time.
2. Drive My Car
Haruki Murakami can be a very frustrating author. Sure, his prose is beautiful and his characters intriguing, but that beauty and intrigue often fade over the course of forty page diatribes with little to no narrative thrust. In Drive My Car, director and co-writer Ryusuke Hamaguchi takes everything that is great about Murakami’s prose, even the languid pacing, and presents it in such a way that what could take weeks or months to read is completed in only three hours. Scenes develop into their own stories. Every character, from lead Yusuke Kafuku (Hidetoshi Nishijima), to his mysterious wife Oto (Reika Kirishima), to the stoic Misaka Watari (Toko Miura), to the smug, detestable Koji Takatsuki (Masaki Okada), is given a rich, painful life most highlighted by Lee Yoo-Na’s (Park Yoo-rim) enchanting scenes delivered through facial expression and Korean sign language. Kafuku’s production of a multi-lingual Uncle Vanya emphasizes the obstacle spoken language plays in true understanding while the extended runtime mirrors those days with others which linger long into the next morning, when politeness and self-image fall away exposing the real person beneath resulting in a moving, agonizing, wonderful examination of loss and acceptance.
Ironically the work which gives Drive My Car its name is a 13-page short story.
1. Don’t Look Up
Fitting the most divisive film of 2021 would also be the year’s best.
Don’t Look Up is a movie that couldn’t have worked in any other year. Not because it is divisive, but because the conditions of 2021, and the four years leading up to it, created an environment where elements such as subtlety and cohesion have become luxuries. Instead, there are times when a film needs to treat its audience like a bunch of idiots because half of the possible audience, as 2021 and the four years leading up to it proved, is a bunch of idiots. And those who aren’t need to stop obsessing about art being too smug or too broad and remember that we’re stuck on the same planet with a bunch of idiots who would rather see us all burn than admit that maybe, just maybe, people who have spent their entire lives studying science might know a little more about how the world works than those who spent fifteen minutes reading shared posts on Facebook.
Five years ago, a film like Don’t Look Up would have bombed at the box office, just like Idiocracy did. Reviewers like me would’ve decried it as taking cheap shots at easy targets. But in 2021, and after the four years leading up to it, when huge portions of the human population refuse to believe recorded videos of events they watched happen in real time, there is no longer any such thing as an easy target. We can’t demand sophistication when even the most basic, most widely accepted, most fundamental comprehension of science and reality are being purposefully misunderstood by millions upon millions of people. Especially not when that misunderstanding could lead to the end of life as we know it. No one would ever say it’s too “on the nose” to call the fire department when your house is on fire.
As stated in our initial review, and on social media, and on a podcast, and in conversation, and in every other means available, we at Pop Mythology argue that Don’t Look Up is a horror movie. The film’s comedy, scattered and silly as it can be at times, is window dressing to appeal to the masses. It’s the proverbial sugar to help the medicine go down. These same producers and stars tried documentaries and political campaigns. No one cared. Nor would an environmentally-themed horror movie have the same audience. Comedy, especially one available on Netflix, simply has a wider appeal than almost any other medium. And, as shown by decades of sitcoms, dumber, sillier comedy sells better than sophisticated, intelligent comedy. As much as I love me some esoteric references and Juvenalian satire, that type of intellectual stimuli doesn’t work in a time when people wholeheartedly debate whether or not the Earth is round.
If absolutely nothing else, if indeed everything is lost and humanity is just as doomed as Don’t Look Up implies, then at least we have this one last film that those on the science-literate side of the world can look at and say “See, you idiots? We tried to tell you!” and have a final pitiful, macabre laugh before we all, as Kate Dibiasky would put it, f**king die.
Don’t Look Up is the best film of 2021 because it does what no other movie had the guts to do: Show us the world exactly the way it is. The way we made it.