Whenever I see someone complaining that there aren’t any good movies anymore, I always think of how many movies that I actively wanted to see and are still floating around out there. Here we are, with my favorites of the continuing sagas. There were movies I liked that didn’t make the list, and movies that I wanted to see but missed. This isn’t a list of the “Best Movies of 2021,” it’s a list of my favorites out of what I saw and some of the choices are incredibly personal and subjective. Like #1. Cool? Cool.
#10. Paranormal Activity: Next of Kin
An excellent entry into the famously uneventful series. Christopher Landon (writer/director Freaky, director Happy Death Day/Happy Death Day 2U) and director William Eubanks (Underwater) give us a folk horror take on the found-footage franchise. Thoroughly entertaining with some genuine WTF moments. Am I the only one who prefers the latter half of the Paranormal Activity franchise?
#9. South Park: Post-Covid/Return of Covid
Post-Covid is as irreverent as one could hope, targeting anti-vaxxers, NFTs, and our own personal responses to whatever side we perceive as the opposition. Surprisingly soft-hearted, proposing more forgiveness than I can usually muster. A reminder of what good satire can be.
Nia DaCosta’s reboot/sequel to Bernard Rose’s Candyman is beautiful. The performances by Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, Teyonah Parris, and Colman Domingo are outstanding, the production design and art direction are flawless, and the concepts of the film overshadow the flaws of the script. There’s some clunky on-the-nose dialogue that made me shiver like I bit into an unexpected pimento, but if you’re a teenager hearing some of these ideas for the first time, maybe that’s not such a problem. The idea of rehabilitating a community’s curse into a force for change is particularly potent, as is the exploration of long-term sickness and infection caused by collective psychic wounds. The visual horrors depicted in shadow theater juxtaposed against the primal, fairy-tale origins of the characters reminded me of Amanda Palmer & Jason Webley’s melancholy twins, Evelyn Evelyn, and the stark, wooden puppetry of the Golden Army in Guillermo del Toro’s Hellboy 2. The expansion of the Candyman myth is unexpected and shrewd. I’m intrigued by future possibilities, but if this were to be the last in the series, it’s a final note that resonates.
#7. Batman: The Long Halloween Parts 1 & 2
A complete surprise from WB Animation, the adaptation of Jeph Loeb & Tim Sale’s classic Batman noir took the best from its source material, integrated elements from Bruce Timm’s design, and pulled from the tie-in series Catwoman: When in Rome to create an textbook piece of Bat-media. A grim, yet enjoyable sequel to Frank Miller’s Batman: Year One, The Long Halloween has strong supporting roles from the classic rogues gallery while featuring the overarching tragedy of Harvey Dent.
#6. Venom: Let There Be Carnage
Some of the funniest moments of the year, a lean 87-minute runtime, and zero illusions about what the audience came to see. Andy Serkis has the personal know-how needed to execute creatures with a touch of Dissassociative Identity Disorder. Tom Hardy exhibits some of the best physical comedy in a monster picture this side of Evil Dead 2, and the broad characterizations of Shriek and Carnage ensure that nobody takes the proceedings too seriously. Bonus points for the animated origins of Cletus Kasady and the unexpected button at the end of the climax. Reminds us that we don’t have to pretend that every comic-book movie has something “adult” to say. These movies feel adolescent, in the best possible sense. Inspired performance combined with young, metal-head imagery that would have been etched in pencil on one of my middle-school notebooks.
#5. Godzilla Vs. Kong
For horror nerds, the headline would read “Hometown Hero Makes Good.” Adam Wingard finally gets to sink his teeth into a blockbuster. Tracking Wingard’s progression from the more down-to-Earth action of You’re Next to the operatic Seattle pier set-piece in Death Note has been a pleasure. Wingard took the Monsterverse reigns from genre MVP Michael Dougherty (writer/director of Trick ‘r’ Treat, Krampus) and added Art Bell/Coast to Coast conspiracy theories and the surrealism of Harryhausen films. Gratuitous, romantic use of music, a Wingard hallmark traceable from “Loving Arms” here, back through “The Power of Love” and “I Don’t Want To Live Without Your Love” in Death Note, to Stevie B.’s “Because I Love You” from The Guest. King Kong as John McClane is a great angle, and I enjoy the fact that a character like Kong, so defined by his tragic death via his love for Ann, or Dwan, gets to escape his tragic end. He never gets exposed to a Carl Denham, doesn’t die in New York City. At the same time, though, I wonder what it does to the original themes of King Kong. “Twas’ Beauty that killed the Beast” is subverted and possibly subsumed. Which may be a good thing? I’m not sure. In a pandemic, maybe it’s okay to let some of our tragic characters have a happy ending. Coming off of the unfairly dismissed Blair Witch and Death Note adaptations, Wingard scores an uppercut during a pandemic. Feels good.
#4. No Time To Die
A finale that embodies all the best the franchise has to offer. A sampler platter of every type of James Bond. NTOD borrows heavily from Timothy Dalton’s avenging angel and George Lazenby’s widower, still gives us Aston Martins with Gatling guns, a breezy yet witty shootout accompanied by Ana de Armas, a truly scary adversary, and “All the Time in the World.” A satisfying action picture that nudges its audience toward its more mature themes of family and mortality, the final picture of the Craig cycle brings the heartbreak from the Billie Eilish theme song to the last mournful toast.
#3. Spider-Man: No Way Home
2021 was a year where several sequels, especially Sony’s, wrestled with the legacy of franchises with long histories and behind-the-scenes drama. It would’ve been enough for the third Sony/MCU Spider-Man film to not be a disappointment. Everyone in the world saw this movie. A huge victory lap for Amy Pascal who had been working out how to do a live-action Spider-Verse film since Lord & Miller’s animated film had, in the eyes of many, outshined most of what had come before. Providing closure for the Sam Raimi films (a series that fell victim to studio interference,) the Marc Webb films (a series that was born from and doomed by studio interference) and moving Tom Holland’s MCU-friendly Neighborhood Spider-Man closer to his archetypical roots than he had been in previous appearances. Great performances by all, particularly Andrew Garfield and Zendaya, make me more inclined to forgive Ned’s sudden Potter-ific aptitude with a Sling Ring. NWH has the benefit of coming out post-One More Day, giving the film the advantage of hindsight in sidestepping the bargain with Mephisto that sat poorly with die-hard Spider-fans. Using Doctor Strange instead, and having the initial kerfluffle stem directly from Peter’s immaturity were smart choices. When you think about the history of these films, it’s crazy that this thing even exists, let alone be as good as it is.
#2. Zack Snyder’s Justice League
Bombastic. The real question is whether or not you’re willing to go with Zack Snyder’s interpretation of the material. Fans of the Richard Donner Superman films tend to romanticize the storylines in those pictures, forgetting about its oogier elements (Clark basically surrenders his powers to sex up Lois, then beats up a regular guy when he gets them back. The amnesia-inducing superkiss. Superman and Lois joyfully killing the Phantom Zone criminals in the finale) as do fans of Tim Burton’s Batman films (Batman blows up chemical plants and fails repeatedly to kill the Joker. He even showers a parade with airborne machine gun fire before finally succeeding at the end of ’89. Batman continues his hobby of clown murder by blowing up a member of the Red Triangle Circus gang in the best of the Burton/Schumacher cycle, Batman Returns.)At times Zack Snyder’s Justice League plays like a Richard Corben album cover with DC Superheroes. Other times, it’s an overly romantic melodrama (particularly the introduction of The Flash, scored with Rose Betts’ cover of Tim Buckley’s “Song to the Siren.”) Better than Joss Whedon’s take in terms of story, character, and action, although I grant that it was a low bar to clear. Ray Fisher’s Cyborg anchors the film, in a way you would’ve never known from the previous version. One of the most rewarding things that a sequel film can do is actually elevate the films that came before it by providing rewarding complications and/or resolutions. In that fashion, Justice League makes Man of Steel and Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice feel like more complete films. Apokolips is empty, and all the Parademons are here.
#1. Ghostbusters: Afterlife
Continuing Sony’s reckoning with legacy, Jason Reitman’s sequel does its best to work through thirty years worth of Ghostbusters karma, beginning with the lackluster reception and box office performance of Ghostbusters II. Making the original sequel (and its release) killed star Bill Murray’s enthusiasm for a third film, leaving Dan Aykroyd primarily championing further adventures alone. Complicating matters further was the very real falling out between Bill Murray and Ghostbusters co-writer/co-star Harold Ramis after their tumultuous experience on the set of Ramis’ film Groundhog Day. The two would make up before Ramis’ death, but by then, Sony was on the road to reboot with Paul Feig’s ill-fated Ghostbusters: Answer the Call. ATC became a flashpoint of controversy, with any criticism of the film taken by a certain swath of fandom as sexism and/or racism, with some of the worst so-called Ghostbusters enthusiasts doing their worst to prove them right. The truth is that the film has some fun moments, is sloppy and overlong, has a fairly bad climax, and was probably ill-conceived from the start. So, with all of that backstory in mind, we have a new film that’s about the characters dealing with the death of Ramis’ Egon Spengler, and basically, the “wreckage” that Ghostbusters had caused in the lives of those closest to it. Some of the film’s detractors, particularly those who are still smarting from the reception of Answer the Call, saw the film’s quoting of the original to be cheap fan service. Personally, I’ve always wanted more Ivo Shandor/Gozer mythology from the first film and the video game and was excited to see the signs of Gozer’s coming as they manifested. If you go to see a Nightmare on Elm Street film, you don’t get angry when the kids jumping rope show up as the harbingers of Freddy’s arrival, and I didn’t get upset here. The film finds the balance between the more adult tone of the original and the kid-friendly nature of the sequel by making the protagonists teens. Mckenna Grace and Logan Kim are great, and their casting gracefully (no pun intended) accomplishes the inclusivity that defenders of ATC were hoping for. The kids are the true stars of the picture, getting most of the laughs, and serving as avatars of the best qualities of Egon and Ray in particular. The real-life strained dynamic between Ramis and Murray seems to play out with Aykroyd’s Ray Stantz, in a bittersweet conclusion that hit me hard. Further righting old wrongs, Ernie Hudson’s Winston gets recontextualized into something bigger than the original films had in store for him. I found it fitting considering all of the convention stumping Hudson has been doing for the franchise over the last twenty years. Not a perfect sequel for those who wanted to revisit the dynamic between the original team, but it goes a long way in healing old wounds. My sentimental favorite of 2021.
Bonus points for Mckenna Grace writing and singing the credits song “Haunted House,” Tuesday Knight-Elm Street 4-style.