By Seth Lukas Hynes
Last year, I commented on the proliferation of B-movies: with cinemas closed, low-to-medium-budget genre movies released on streaming services received more attention than usual.
In 2021, as the world slowly returned to normality but still with varying degrees of lockdown or restrictions, we saw a boom in films with small productions and few or single locations, which are easier for upholding Covid-safe practices.
Old takes place almost entirely on a secluded beach. Till Death, Werewolves Within and Willy’s Wonderland take place mostly inside a holiday house, rustic hotel and abandoned restaurant, respectively. Blood Red Sky takes place mostly inside a passenger jet. Ascendant (last week’s honourably dishonourable mention) is set inside an elevator turned remote torture-box. Voyagers and Stowaway are both set on spaceships. The Guilty plays out in a single room in a police station, and Oxygen is set entirely within a failing cryostasis pod.
But limitations often drive creativity, and these limitations yielded amazing drama, pathos and thrills. This was also a good year for dark comedy, female-led action and great open-ended conclusions.
Here are my picks for the ten best films of 2021.
10. Gunpowder Milkshake. An endearing but hard-hitting action thriller about family, loyalty and compassion, Gunpowder Milkshake is suffused with noir style and makes excellent use of its prestigious ensemble cast.
9. Old. An extremely tense, harrowing horror film, this is M. Night Shyamalan’s best film in a long time. Shyamalan conjures mounting dread, tenderness and a fascinating mystery from a tiny beach setting, and the performances are (mostly) outstanding.
8. Boss Level. A great example of pathos and rich character development woven into an offbeat action movie and building strong, pressing stakes without taking things too seriously.
7. Kate. A riproaring John Wick-style action movie about a ticked-off woman on a vendetta with nothing to lose, but who through an unlikely friendship finds something beyond vengeance to fight for in her last hours. Kate further affirms star Mary Elizabeth Winstead’s action chops, and made me realise that if they ever recast Ellen Ripley for a new Aliens movie, it should be Winstead.
6. Oxygen. Featuring a career-best performance from Melanie Laurent, Oxygen is an excruciatingly tense and stunningly clever film about a woman fighting to stay alive and sane and uncover the truth of her existence in a tiny prison.
5. Lapsis. A sterling case of socially-conscious indie sci-fi. Lapsis hits close to home with its authentic vision of the near future, confronting the gig economy, MLMs and exploitative corporations through the touching prism of a scrappy labourer struggling to care for his sick brother.
4. Synchronic. One of the best time travel movies in years. A pure sense of exploration and discovery, along with the main character’s mission to rescue a girl stranded in the past, are rock-solid motivators. Synchronic’s time travel is both ethereal and macabre, playing out through sombre snippets of American history. Like Boss Level, Synchronic also ends on a perfect ambiguous note.
3. Stowaway. A remarkably tight, efficient sci-fi drama. Stowaway is quiet and low-key, but has probably the best sustained, escalating suspense of the year, as a crisis on a Mars mission worsens and the well-sketched characters face dire choices. Also, let me reiterate that the beautiful conclusion made me cry.
2. Dune. An enthralling sci-fi epic offering a fascinating, perilous journey through a beautiful, richly-detailed universe. Denis Villeneuve’s dream project is a blockbuster every bit worth the long wait, and comparable to The Lord of the Rings in its grand scope, character depth, respect for the source novel and astounding effects.
1. Nitram. Justin Kurzel helms a riveting character study based on the events leading up to the 1996 Port Arthur massacre. Kurzel and Oscar-worthy star Caleb Landry Jones approach this tragedy with tact, stark honesty and not a trace of sensationalism, building a grim, cohesive portrait of immaturity, violence, loss, obsession and macabre inspiration. Nitram will stick with you for a long time.
Like all of us, cinema did the best it could with a long series of setbacks, and I’m very optimistic for cinema and life in 2022, as the world reopens further and productions widen again.
– Seth Lukas Hynes