Hannah Shaw-Williams' Top 10 Movies Of 2021

2021: what a year! What a weird, bad, liminal space nightmare of a year. It was groaning under the weight of all the movies that had been pushed back from their 2020 release dates, but the ups and downs of the pandemic flattened the flood of new films. After holding out for a theatrical release, many ended up relegated to either a day-and-date streaming release or no theatrical release at all. Nothing was certain. In the space of a week I went from cheerfully sitting through three showings of "Spider-Man: No Way Home" in a single day, to being reluctant to leave the house at all amid a fresh tidal wave of COVID-19 infections.

Given that I rang in the new year by covering the death of Betty White, it's safe to say that the forecast for 2022 is not looking great, so perhaps I should show 2021 a little more appreciation. Also, all the Americans around here have been recounting their "favorite" [sic] movies of the year, so it's only appropriate that I represent the U.K. and take a stand for correct spellings by telling you all about my favourite movies of 2021.

10. Old

"Old" was the movie that made me realise that M. Night Shyamalan is my favourite director — not after I'd seen it, but before. It was mid-summer and I was celebrating a late Christmas with my extended family at an Airbnb near Birmingham (it was a 17th century farmhouse with extremely haunted vibes). Yet despite the fact that I was staying in this slightly lopsided building in the middle of a bunch of fields, close to the National Motorcycle Museum and Birmingham Airport and not much else, I walked for 30 minutes and took a train to go and see "Old" at the nearest cinema, because I simply had to see it on its opening weekend. And there really aren't any other directors that could compel me to do that.

One of the reasons that I love Shyamalan's films so much is that I'm a sucker for a cool concept, and "Old" is about a beach that makes you old, so you can understand why I had to get to the first available screening. As is the case with several other Shyamalan films, the execution doesn't quite live up to the promise of the concept (which is based on the 2011 graphic novel "Sandcastle," by Pierre Oscar Lévy and Frederik Peeters), and it's a much better movie if you turn it off about two scenes before the official ending. But despite the strange, stilted dialogue and the over-explaining of the beach's old-making mechanics, "Old" is a weird, wild, fascinating movie, with one particular delightfully hellish sequence that earned it a place on this list.

9. Malignant

In dark times, it's natural to want to watch light-hearted fare for escapism purposes, right? Wrong! Sometimes what you need in dark times is a brilliantly deranged horror movie about a long-haired contortionist running around and stabbing people and then doing parkour through a police station. James Wan is nestled up there with Shyamalan on my list of personal favourite directors, and "Malignant" is a truly off-the-wall tribute to giallo horror, full of shamelessly camp moments and reveals so great that I daren't spoil them here. Amid the drudgery of the pandemic, "Malignant" was a much-needed jolt of "WTF?!" cinema.

8. Spider-Man: No Way Home

Warning: Spoilers ahead for "Spider-Man: No Way Home."

When I was growing up, many thousands of years ago, Sam Raimi's "Spider-Man" was among the collection of movies that we had on VHS (I actually got ID'd buying it, until I explained that I was only 13 years old and I didn't carry ID yet). So if you bring back Tobey Maguire's Peter Parker for a movie, and have him share Spider-Man anecdotes with two other Spider-Men, and give him a second chance to save Norman Osborn, and then do a big group hug with all three Spider-Men ... look, I'm not saying Tobey did all the work, but "Spider-Man: No Way Home" shooting me directly in the childhood nostalgia with a sniper rifle certainly helped secure its place in my top 10.

Even beyond that, though, "No Way Home" is a really, really impressive movie. I went into it expecting an absolute disaster, given the number of characters in the mix and my lukewarm reaction to "Spider-Man: Far From Home." As its release date approached, we learned that uncertainty over which actors would be returning lingered even after production had already begun (as star Tom Holland put it, "You could ask the director, 'What happens in act three?' And his response would be, 'I'm still trying to figure it out'"). This complicated even further the already massively complicated task of not only rounding out Holland's character arc, but also "fixing" the low notes that Andrew Garfield and Tobey Maguire's Spider-Men went out on. 

How screenwriters Erik Sommers and Chris McKenna managed to put together a script for "Spider-Man: No Way Home" that wasn't just coherent but was genuinely pretty great, under those circumstances, is a mystery to me. But they did it — those mad lads really did it!

7. The Night House

In the interests of full disclosure, I should say that I only saw about 75% of "The Night House" because I had my eyes covered for the rest of it. I can handle corporeal monsters and serial killers in horror movies without any issues, but my main weaknesses are big spooky houses, the dark, people wandering around in the darkness in big spooky houses and — well, you get the idea. "The Night House" felt like a personal attack.

It's also a super interesting movie. You may recall that I love films with cool concepts, and I actually wrote my undergraduate dissertation all about haunted houses and impossible spaces, so the bits of "The Night House" that I was able to watch without hiding behind my hands like a big baby were right in my wheelhouse. Rebecca Hall stars as a widowed woman who learns that her late husband obsessively constructed a mirror image of their house in the woods across the lake, and was losing himself in strange books about the occult ... and that's about as much as you should know before watching it. The way that "The Night House" gradually unfolds its mystery is something best experienced in real time.

6. The Green Knight

I first read "Sir Gawain and the Green Knight" at university, and was pleasantly surprised. Instead of the "Chosen One" narrative of Arthur pulling the sword from the stone that has been rehashed in a million different ways since, or the tediousness of the Lancelot-Arthur-Guinevere love triangle, this was a story about a lone knight going on an epic quest to ... get his head cut off with an axe. An axe that he is personally delivering to the very knight who plans to whack him in the neck with it. It's a quietly beautiful tale in which the real conflict isn't between Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, but between the virtue of honour and the vice of cowardice.

David Lowery's "The Green Knight" — starring Ralph Ineson and his wonderful gravelly voice in the titular role, and Dev Patel opposite him as the hapless but determined Sir Gawain — is about as great an adaptation of the original poem as I could have hoped for. Richly-coloured, tightly-written, and steeped in magical realism, "The Green Knight" deftly and in good faith engages with medieval notions of chivalry to bring both the protagonist and the audience to a place of understanding why Gawain's quest isn't as pointless as it seems.

5. The Last Duel

I already wrote about why "The Last Duel" is so great in our rundown of the best movies of 2021, so I'll try to avoid repeating myself here. I was using movies as a much-needed form of escape in 2021, which didn't quite work in this case, because the final act of "The Last Duel" sees Jodie Comer's Marguerite coming to the realisation that her fate (specifically, the fate of her body and whether or not it gets to remain not-on-fire) is dependent on two abusive egomaniacs swinging pointy sticks at each other until one of them bleeds out. And even if the right abusive egomaniac wins, she still has to live with him. "The Last Duel's" depiction of a deadly situation, in which the only people with the power to influence its outcome are complete morons and the best case scenario is still pretty bleak, really resonated with me last year. For some reason.

4. Zola

If you've also read the rundown of my favourite movies of all time, you'll know that I like films with great music and lots of debauchery. Enter "Zola," which is one of my most-anticipated movies of the year if only because I'd never seen a movie that was based on a Twitter thread before. Also, let's be honest, that A24 logo carries a lot of weight.

Unfortunately, if you live in the U.K., actually watching A24 movies can be a bit of a challenge. Bo Burnham's "Eighth Grade" took almost a year to get distribution over here, and "The Green Knight" lost its U.K. release date with just two weeks notice, eventually returning with a release strategy that had pivoted towards streaming with only a limited theatrical run. In keeping with that theme, I had to go all the way to London to find a cinema that was playing "Zola" — and there's no higher praise I can give to a movie than "it was worth the trip to London."

Like the source material, "Zola" thrives on its central characters: the eponymous Zola (Taylour Paige); the at-once infuriating and pitiable Stefani (Riley Keough); Stefani's poor, anxiety-ridden boyfriend, Derrek (Nicholas Braun); and Stefani's "friend" X (Colman Domingo). The first time you hear that Jekyll-and-Hyde switch of X's accent and demeanour, you know the trip is only going to get messier from here.

3. Dune

Until Denis Villeneuve's adaptation of "Dune" began looming on the horizon, I really wasn't familiar with Frank Herbert's original sci-fi novel and had gotten the impression that it was too hopelessly dense and complicated to get into (turns out it's not; basically it's just "The Lion King" crossed with "Avatar"). This particular release date delay turned out to be a bit of a blessing, as by the time I finally saw Villeneuve's "Dune" I'd had time to watch the David Lynch adaptation (trippy! I liked it!) and make a dent in the book as well.

The sci-fi genre has been so utterly dominated by superhero movies in recent years, with actors standing in front of green screens and the VFX budget set at "yeah, that's probably good enough" levels, that seeing real deserts and fully-built sets was a bit of a shock to the system. That's not to say that I only liked "Dune" because my standards have been brought so low, but it certainly didn't hurt. 

"Dune" is science fiction that takes itself seriously, and that in itself is a flex; there's no compulsion to break up the exposition with jokes for fear of losing the audience, and that's partly why it's so effective at keeping the audience engaged. It might be set in the distant future, but it feels more like a historical drama replete with a Shakespearean conspiracy plot and some truly gorgeous costuming. 

This movie, I like it. Another!

2. The Suicide Squad

If there's something that writer/director James Gunn does best, even more so than killer soundtracks, it's crafting stories about how society's "lowest creatures" still have value and can do great things. "Super" was a rough-around-the-edges approach to this idea, which became more refined with Rocket's arc in "Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2." In hindsight, perhaps no director was better suited to make a movie about the Suicide Squad, a group of convicts whose principal usefulness to A.R.G.U.S. leader Amanda Waller (Viola Davis) is not their various superpowers and skills, but the fact that they're of such low value to society that no one will mourn their deaths.

Case in point, "The Suicide Squad" almost immediately kills off around half of the latest batch of Task Force X recruits (my favourite boy Captain Boomerang gets a little bit injured, but I'm sure he's fine, he probably just walked it off). But while Margot Robbie's Harley Quinn may get the most screen time, Ratcatcher 2 (Daniela Melchior) is both the heart and the MVP of the movie. Thus, "The Suicide Squad" made me cry about a sea of rats attacking a giant alien starfish, which is not a sentence that I ever thought I'd write.

1. The Power of the Dog

If I had to give a single reason for "The Power of the Dog" being my favourite movie of 2021, it's the faith it has in its audience. If you're bracing for a scene where a character gathers all the other characters together in a parlour and spends 15 minutes explaining to them (but really to the audience) exactly what has unfolded over the last two hours, complete with quick-cut flashbacks in case anyone needs a visual aid, you can relax. There's a twist in this movie, but it twists so smoothly and gradually that by the time you start to notice it the story has already been turned completely on its head.

Benedict Cumberbatch is at his best as cold-eyed rancher Phil Burbank, whose sadism manifests in acts of petty destruction and passive-aggressiveness more often than it explodes into outright violence. A major detail of Phil's character and his backstory is never spoken aloud, but instead gets gradually teased out through subtext and the nuances of Cumberbatch's performance. Like the flowers that young Peter Gordon (Kodi Smit-McPhee) painstakingly crafts from paper, "The Power of the Dog" is delicate on the surface and richly complex just underneath.