In this season of “Best Stuff of the Year,” we understandably focus on the stuff. It is stuff we like, stuff we don’t, or stuff we haven’t heard of, but we don’t really ever question what the term best means. I think we do this because it is easier to just say what we like without thinking about it too much. It requires less time and less thought.
If you liked Halloween Kills more than Don’t Look Up! you can just put it higher on the list, wash your hands, and be done. If you start asking why it becomes a bit dicey.
Do you like a murderous madman more than saving the earth? Do you think Halloween Kills was a metaphor where the Michael Myers character was representative of our global indifference towards climate change? Asking why something is better requires some self-reflection, and is honestly just more work, and who wants to do more work. (Also, Halloween Kills is much better than Don’t Look Up!.)
I’ve always struggled with the vast landscape of “best,” and found myself unconsciously putting movies into smaller mental buckets. A certain movie was one of the best in my mind because it did some specific thing that only I was really considering, scoring them based on my secret criteria.
Well, let it be a secret no more, here are the best films of 2021 in some very specific categories.
Best Escapist Film that Makes you Forget Everything that is Going on: Shiva Baby
Other examples: Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, Uncut Gems, Collective, The Lord of the Rings
Let’s call this phenomenon the house lights feeling. You are in the theater. You’ve been at war, waiting for them to fall in love, or for the hero to complete their journey. You have been transported to a different world, one so emotionally or physically different than the day-to-day, that when the credits roll, and ultimately the exit row illumination begins, it’s completely jarring.
A movie doesn’t even need to take you to the mines of Moria to feel this level of otherworldliness. Collective grabbed me and never once let go and was set entirely in various Romanian office and government buildings. Uncut Gems takes a familiar city and transports you with frenetic panic-attack pacing. The clear choice for this category does both. It takes a banal commonplace setting and ratchets up the tension until you simply forget there is anything else.
The quick plot summary for Shiva Baby is that a young woman attends a shiva with her family and runs into several people, particularly one, that she was hoping to not see. As they say, that’s kinda all you want to know.
Rachel Sennott is perfect as Danielle, a young woman seemingly at the crossroads of everything—her sexuality, education, future, and family relationships, are all things she is working through as best she can in the worst possible setting.
Shiva Baby nails not just the physical claustrophobia of an extended social gathering, but the emotional claustrophobia when you are constantly being quizzed for answers to questions you haven’t even begun to understand for yourself. “Where are you going?” has never been wielded like such a double-edged sword as it is in this film.
Best Movie that Could Have So Easily Been a Cliche Bad Movie: Mitchells vs. the Machines
Other examples: The Fighter, Silver Linings Playbook
David O. Russell does this exceptionally well. The Fighter could have been a generic inspirational sports movie, and Silver Linings Playbook would be a generic rom-com in many other directors’ hands. The low-hanging fruit is right there for MvtM.
Technology is bad, kids need to just go outside. There could even have been a scene where Clint Eastwood laments that they don’t teach cursive anymore. We all were waiting for the baby boomers to become the “get off my lawn” generation, but somehow they became the “kids just need to get out from behind their phones” mob, even though they probably texted someone that comment or posted it on Facebook.
Thankfully this movie doesn’t take that bait. It does the hard thing and looks at technology as the complicated thing it is. How it helps, how it hurts, and how it creates an army of evil robots trying to destroy the world. That last sentence will read differently in 2032, trust me.
Also, this is one of the few movies where you can pause it at any point and get a great display of visuals. Maybe every frame is a delightful comic instead of a painting, but that works for this gem that is way more visually stunning and cleverly written than it has any right to be.
Best Movie I Absolutely Loved but I’ll Probably Downplay in Case you Judge me for Liking it: Titane
Other examples: Midsommar, Requiem for a Dream
Recommending movies is a tough, thankless business and your friends that do this for you don’t get enough credit. I recommended Shiva Baby to someone thinking they could stream it, and they both bought it ($14.99…shit) and didn’t like it (double shit). If you consistently recommend great movies, you will always feel remorse for that one time you said you liked Midsommar and then ruined date night for someone.
Titane is amazing. For a movie that sounds insane if you only read the plot, it plays out with full confidence and never waivers for a second. It is a spotlight illuminating what it means to love and be loved. It floored me and I cried my eyes out watching this one.
Please memorize this section, because if you ask me about this in person, I’ll likely say it had strong visuals, great acting, and then I’ll pivot into talking about Ducournau’s earlier film Raw and how I’m excited about what she will do next. Bullshit. Titane is one of the best of the year, but if you don’t like it, you didn’t hear that from me.
Best Movie that Coasts by Mostly with Attitude: Zola
Other examples: U-Turn, Things to do in Denver When You’re Dead
When looking for people who share my movie sensibilities, I’m not interested in the people who were shaped by films like Pulp Fiction and Reservoir Dogs, I want the people who loved the knock-offs. The Adidases with that fourth stripe. These are movies that don’t have a polished script and every casting choice feels like it was preceded by the comment “oh, well then is so and so available? No, hmmm, how about…”
These are movies that lack a good recipe, have generic ingredients, and somehow still taste amazing. How? They just have the name-brand attitude.
Zola sometimes feels like it is barely a movie, the camera just languishing in the corner while terrible people do terrible things slightly out of frame. I rewatched it after second-guessing it for this category (maybe Copshop takes its place?) and realized how wrong I was for second-guessing its inclusion.
Even if it isn’t Tarantino or Tarantino knock-off attitude, this movie doesn’t get the jolt from the shot of adrenaline plunged into Uma Thurman’s chest, it gets it from Janicza Bravo’s direction. It’s propelled forward by moments of tension, amazing performances by the two leads, and there are few things I love more than a well-executed fourth wall break. Let me tell you how this bitch and I fell out, indeed.
Best Movie That Has One Perfect Scene, And That’s Enough: Pig
Other examples: Amelie, Bohemian Rhapsody
It’s the restaurant scene. And if you’ve seen Pig, I imagine that is the first thing you thought about when reading the title of this category, because it damn well should be. I really liked almost all of Pig.
Nicolas Cage isn’t just playing off type, he’s amazing. I don’t think the surrounding performances are as great, and the movie wanders a bit in the second act. Yet I’ve told many people I love this movie without thinking my words over carefully.
If it’s got all those issues, and maybe more, why do I love it so? It’s because it has that perfect scene.
The one perfect scene can sometimes be the only good part of a movie, like the brilliance of the Live Aid concert helping overwrite the memory of everything you watched previously in Bohemian Rhapsody. It’s Amelie helping the blind man cross the street, a few minutes of cinematic perfection that also serves as a distillation of the larger movie.
The restaurant scene in Pig somehow does both and yet so much more. It elevates the movie from good to great and tells you everything you need to know about who Rob Feld is. It is the scene that stayed with me more than any other this year, and that is why it is enough to carry the film.
The Final Recap
And, scene. See, isn’t that better than a top 10 without context? I mean if I wanted to do that I’d take this list, strip away the categories, and add The Killing of Two Lovers, Saint Maud, The Suicide Squad, The Power of the Dog, and CODA and we would have our precious list. In creating that list though, I’d lose which switch tripped in my brain to make me pick the movies to begin with. Stay tuned for the end of 2022, when not only the movies, but likely the criteria, will have changed, a new collection of categories showing me what I love about movies that I’m not quite aware of yet.