It’s time: with days left to go, we’re pretty much done with big movie releases in 2021. So at last, we can look back and decide what were the real highs (and real lows) of a very peculiar year for movies, as the world ummed-and-ahhed its way back to theatres as the covid-19 pandemic rolled on. Here’s Gizmodo’s favourite — and least favourite — films of the year.
The Best: The Mitchells vs. The Machines
Wait, so we’re saying the latest animated film from the team behind two of the best animated films in recent memory, The Lego Movie and Spider-Man: Into The Spider-Verse, is actually good? What a shock! In fact, The Mitchells vs. The Machines is very good. It’s a dynamic story about technology taking over the world told through a relatable, funny, and family-friendly lens. And as the unique family story and rising crisis begin to intersect, it all evolves into a hugely epic story of heroism with jaw-dropping visuals and chill-inducing needle-drop. You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, you’ll cheer, you might even think The Mitchells vs. The Machines is one of the best films of the year.
The Best: Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings
With apologies to the fun but forgettable Black Widow and the beautiful but ultimately generic Eternals, 2021 was all about Shang-Chi and the Ten Rings. Marvel’s best film of the year was also its highest-grossing, domestically to date… almost as if audiences were more interested in more diversity in the Marvel Cinematic Universe! Go figure. Thanks to some incredibly creative martial arts fights (the scaffolding!), the genius of Awkwafina, and most especially a typically incredible performance by Hong Kong superstar Tony Leung as Shang-Chi’s father Wenwu, the movie had enough depth, emotion, and stakes to carry it through the standard MCU-brand CG-filled final act.
The Best: Cruella
If there was a film that signalled the return of movie theatres to the post-pandemic world, it was Disney’s Cruella. The idea of making a sympathetic prequel about one of the House of Mouse’s most reprehensible characters — she wanted to skin puppies, for god’s sake — seemed bad on paper, especially when the decidedly non-English Emma Stone was hired as the young de Ville and the plot seemed to be a carbon-copy of The Devil Wears Prada, just with Emma Thompson in Meryl Streep role. And while not everyone loved it, we thought Cruella was a blast — as fun, fierce, and flamboyant as the title character’s incredible outfits, and exactly the sort of classic movie-going experience we’d been missing over the previous year. It’s not a prequel to 101 Dalmatians, it’s a movie about an utterly fabulous anti-hero in the making.
The Best: Werewolves Within
A quirky small town filled with quirky characters — as well as tons and tons of snow, and one hungry werewolf. That’s the setting for Werewolves Within, a horror comedy that doesn’t really break any new ground but is so freaking fun to watch we couldn’t resist including it here. The appealing Sam Richardson plays a geeky park ranger who realises too late that his new posting carries with it some serious supernatural dangers, heading up an ensemble cast that includes What We Do in the Shadows breakout Harvey Guillén. It’s campy, it’s gory, it’s suspenseful, it never takes itself too seriously, and it’s always entertaining… plus, it’s a creature feature whodunnit! The perfect film? Pretty darn close.
The Best: The Suicide Squad
At first, we hoped Warner Bros.’s second attempt at getting one of DC Comics’ best teams right would have a different title, but it was so good we soon no longer cared about that. James Gunn wielded his unwieldy magic once more for a different motley crew of new and familiar faces… mostly fated to die. Sure, the cannon fodder made us laugh a ton but Margot Robbie knocked it out of the park for a third time as Harley Quinn and Daniela Melchior’s Ratcatcher 2 gave the story some extra heart. Polka-Dot Man?? Polka-Dot Man. Even though the giant villain was revealed in the trailers leading up to release, that didn’t take away from the awe of seeing Starro brought to life as one tremendous foe. The only crime of the film is that the wrong character is getting a TV spinoff. King Shark forever.
The Best: Evangelion 3.0+1.0: Thrice Upon a Time
The final entry in Evangelion’s long-in-the-making “Rebuild” movie had a lot to live up to, tying up not just the four-part saga but seemingly the entire franchise as we know it. And while not perfect, it somehow managed to pull off providing a satisfying and emotionally sincere conclusion to its characters and themes with a blockbuster finale that veered between wild action and stunning intimacy and reflection. Few Eva fans perhaps expected that Thrice Upon a Time could live up to the expectations built up in the near-decade it took to hit the big screen that even not being an incoherent disaster would’ve been a major surprise. That it seemed to be able to provide a peaceful sense of closure to one of the most beloved anime series of all time to boot was even better.
The Best: Old
Your mileage may vary when it comes to M. Night Shyamalan’s oeuvre so maybe you skipped this one. You shouldn’t have: it’s one of the director’s most frightening films to date. You got the general idea of Old through the trailers — there’s a beach that somehow makes you age rapidly — but nothing can prepare you for how that actually works in practice. The story was based on the graphic novel Sandcastle by Pierre Oscar Levy and Frederik Peeters, and there’s no real twist to be had here, just discoveries as you remain riveted as to how or why this is all happening. Step by step, minute by minute, you’re never sure what horror awaits the main family of this story or the other unfortunate souls on that horrific yet beautiful beach — you just know it’s going to be bad. And that’s what makes it so great.
The Best: Fear Street
The Fear Street trilogy of films are proof that, while Netflix has a history of putting out live-action adaptations of beloved stories from people’s childhoods that end up failing to wow audiences, the studio is capable of pulling it off when the circumstances are right. What was alarming (in a good way) about each of the Fear Street films was how, even though they initially seemed as if their scares would be defanged a bit for younger viewers, they were all legitimately horrifying in a way that didn’t feel pandering.
The Best: The Spine of Night
Imagine if the drama, excitement, emotion, and violence of eight seasons of Game of Thrones was animated and stuffed together into a 90-minute movie. That’s basically the aspiration of The Spine of Night, a sumptuous, entertaining, shocking piece of fantasy animation that spans generations and is filled with heroes, villains, epic battles, and ancient prophecy. The propulsive, dense story is told with loads of famous voices (Lucy Lawless, Richard E. Grant, Patton Oswalt) and by the end, it ends up being one of those rare films that pushes a medium to new heights.
The Best: Mobile Suit Gundam: Hathaway
Gundam’s return to the movies this year in adapting one of its most famous novel series gave us one of the most intriguing animated films of 2021. Gorgeously rendered, its explorations of that timely themes that the franchise’s “Universal Century” has explored for nearly 50 years, as well as the setup for a compelling examination of the world its heroes live in, Hathaway delicately balanced Gundam’s spectacular mecha action — delivering one of the most potent and horrifying action sequences the series has done in the process — with a heady bit of stage setting for the rest the trilogy’s window into Gundam’s interstellar politics.
The Best: Nine Days
In Nine Days, Winston Duke (Black Panther) is Will, a former human who now spends his afterlife deciding which souls get to become human. He puts them through various tests, assessing the essence of their being and eventually, picks one to rise to Earth. This grand idea certainly could’ve been told on an equally grand scale, but Nine Days isn’t that. It’s a small, intimate, provocative film. Will’s methods challenge not only the souls but the viewer as well. And as he slowly tries to widdle down his selections, Will finds himself a changed being. It’s a beautiful, star-studded movie (Zazie Beetz, Benedict Wong, and others co-star) that will stay with you long after the credits roll.
The Best: In the Earth
The latest from director Ben Wheatley takes place amid a deadly pandemic, and though its characters spend their time roaming through the deep woods, the dreadful sense of living through doomsday permeates every frame. When a ranger and a researcher head out in search of a scientist who’s gone off the grid, they discover a nightmare lurking amid the trees. A film that feels both timeless and very, very 2021, In the Earth offers a chilling blend of eco-horror, folk horror, and horror that probes the fragility of the human body and mind — while underlining the truly awe-inspiring power of nature.
The Best: Woodlands Dark and Days Bewitched: A History of Folk Horror
We don’t write about too many documentaries here at Gizmodo, but Woodlands Dark and Days Bewitched is such an achievement — not to mention highly relevant to our folk horror-obsessed, Blood on Satan’s Claw-loving sensibilities — that it not only merits coverage, but also a spot on our best list. Written and directed by genre expert Kier-La Janisse, the three hour-plus documentary digs into folk horror’s origins in fairy tales, ballads, and beyond. Carefully edited film clips (you’ll want to make a list of things to watch after you finish the doc) and interviews with filmmakers, scholars, historians, and more bring context to a vast but specific genre that preys on our fears of, and fascination with, ancient rituals, pagan relics, dusty spellbooks, and the idea that the “old ways” are just waiting for their chance to sneak back in and take over.
The Best: The Matrix Resurrections
She did it. By god, Lana Wachowski did it. After almost 20 years of saying she and her sister would never come back to The Matrix franchise, Wachwoski did and the film lived up to those epic expectations. Resurrections is both a sequel to the original Matrix films as well as a meta-reboot as well as a dissection of sequel culture all while being an exciting action movie and touching romance to boot. There’s nostalgia, there’s nuisance, there’s excellent visual effects, and enough intrigue that makes us want to plug back in again and again.
The Worst: Malignant
This one will probably be our most divisive entry this year. You either love or hate Malignant, there’s no in-between. Perhaps if the marketing for James Wan’s latest horror entry intimated the campy tone of the film it would have been more successful overall. Even then, this easily telegraphed tale starring Annabelle Wallis as a woman with horrors in her past and present didn’t land. That’s not to say the film didn’t have style, there’s just one good scene in the entire film. Michole Briana White and George Young’s police team are bright spots in an otherwise oddly toned movie that treated adoption as some shocking, foreign concept. How did the villain gain these extraordinary powers? You won’t care, promise. Also? Complete waste and misuse of Zöe Bell. For shame.
The Worst: Infinite
It’s almost impressive how generic Infinite is. It’s a science fiction movie that somehow doesn’t have a single original idea, whether you’re talking about the plot or the movie’s action scenes. It’s about Evan McCauley (Mark Wahlberg), a man who discovers he’s one of the few beings who not only continually gets reincarnated but retains his memories (except, not this time). Wahlberg’s generic performance renders him completely unfazed and seemingly disinterested in all the crazy events surrounding him, whether he discovers he somehow knows how to forge a perfect Japanese katana or that the bad guy (a wasted Chiwetel Ejiofor) has bullets that can somehow download people’s souls. Infinite is dumb, dull, and another negative adjective that begins with D; the movie doesn’t deserve us bothering to look one up.
The Worst: Chaos Walking
The fact that Chaos Walking is so bad is a genuinely impressive achievement. Based on Patrick Ness’ beloved YA sci-fi trilogy, directed by Edge of Tomorrow’s Doug Liman, starring two of the last decade’s hottest young actors in Daisy Ridley and Tom Holland, it should have been a winner. Instead, the film was so bad that Lionsgate executives reportedly called it “unreleasable,” forcing the project into extensive (and expensive) reshoots. If those reshoots helped, they didn’t help enough — Chaos Walking is an appropriately chaotic mess of unrelated scenes, one-dimensional villains, and way too much walking. Even the story’s most unique conceit, that it takes place on a planet where males’ thoughts take visual form, somehow gets pushed to the side for more dull action. Everyone involved in Chaos Walking just should’ve walked away.
The Worst: Godzilla vs. Kong
The King of all Kaiju goes toe-to-toe with cinema’s most iconic ape. Godzilla vs. Kong should’ve been an easy hit, a big, dumb spectacle of lizard v. simian smackdowns. Instead… we just got something big and dumb. Taking the worst impulses of King of the Monsters’ silly human characters and throwing even more of them into the incoherent mix, not even the joyful moments of giant monster action could distract from one of the most boring and dumb-witted cast of characters we saw on the big screen this year, brute forcing their way to the forefront to make the worst possible decisions at every opportunity. Godzilla and Kong’s scrap might have settled with an amicable stalemate, but as moviegoers, we definitely lost.
The Worst: The Tomorrow War
Between its iffy concept of time travel, predictable plot points, and rather shoddy sense of internal logic, The Tomorrow War was a movie that left you feeling as if Amazon insisted on letting one of its algorithms make tweaks to the final product before launching it online. Instead of improving on the many similar films it clearly borrowed notes from like Edge of Tomorrow and Independence Day, The Tomorrow War instead phoned it in by merely invoking the general tones of those classics when it easily could have tried to one-up or reimagine them.
The Worst: Space Jam: A New Legacy
No one actually thought Space Jam: A New Legacy was going to be “good.” But few could have imagined just how bad it ended up being. The film is basically two hours of pop culture references flashing in front of your eyeballs with no real rhyme or reason, plus basketball games with no rules or consistency, all wrapped around a family story that struggles to elicit a sliver of emotion. It looks great, that’s for sure, and you admire the ambition but damn, it’s just bad.
The Worst: Army of the Dead
For all of its adrenaline-drenched action sequences and somewhat enjoyable premise, Zack Snyder’s Army of the Dead got too tripped up in a tangle of its own ideas to be a properly impressive zombie film. Because the genre is so well-trodden at this point, zombie movies live and die by their ability to imagine heroes battling the undead who don’t frustrate you to the point that you don’t want to watch them. Army of the Dead was at its strongest when it was a movie about competent mercenaries for hire working together against a new breed of zombie. But Snyder’s love of homing in on overwrought scenes of humanity meant to make you empathise with people in the middle of the apocalypse cut Army of the Dead off at its knees, which is a shame because it really did have a lot of things going for it.
The Worst: Snake Eyes
Rebooting the G.I. Joe franchise without any real G.I. Joe stuff was always going to be a gamble. And you’d imagine that focusing on one of the franchise’s most popular characters, Snake Eyes could have been cool. But the resulting film was barely a G.I. Joe movie and barely much of an origin story for the character. Favouring familiar-looking fight sequences over bombastic set pieces, Snake Eyes was a valiant attempt at breathing life into a big-name franchise, but it ended up being a flatline.
The Worst: Thunder Force
Melissa McCarthy and Octavia Spencer star in one of the year’s most disappointing superhero movies… and that’s saying something. In a world where superpowers exist only for the bad guys, two women figure out a way to even the playing field. Unfortunately, the film itself is an even playing field too, filled with extraneous exposition, telegraphed reveals, bland humour, and way too much familiar fodder. Everyone in the film is wasted way beyond their talents.