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Cinema Junkie Awards: Looking back on the films of 2021

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Janus Films
Hidetoshi Nishijima and Tôko Miura in "Drive My Car," Cinema Junkie's number one pick for 2021.

The Ten Best films plus more awards

Cinema Junkie hands out its awards and picks the top ten films of 2021.

Last year may have seen more cinemas reopen and more movies released in theaters, but it was still a difficult year for the entertainment industry.

It also proved to be a difficult year too for picking films for a best list.

Cinema Junkie picks the top ten films of 2021

Screening films was easier in terms of studios making titles much more readily available through screening links. But the challenge was that with so many virtual releases and so many films streaming I felt like I hadn't seen even of a fraction of the films released to make an accurate best list. And that's one of my agonies — worrying that I might have missed some foreign film or indie gem that I should have been included.

Another issue is that so many films had their opening dates bounced around that I was not always sure which year to place them in. One of the best films I saw in 2020 was "Saint Maud" and I put it on my 10 best list for that year but now the studio is pushing it as a 2021 release because that’s when it actually opened in cinemas. So I wanted to mention it because I would have it on this year’s list if I had not already cited it last year.

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Last year saw a lot of excellent films but fewer films than last year that I felt really took chances and just knocked it out of the park. Fewer films like "Saint Maud" or "Possessor Uncut" or "I’m Thinking of Ending Things." So it was actually harder to order the best films because they were all so different and few leapt out from the pack.

Summer of Soul.jpeg
Searchlight Pictures
"Summer of Soul" is one of a trio of outstanding music documentaries that came out in 2021.

Honorable mentions

Trying to cram a diverse array of films into a ten best list is always a painful process for me so I can cheat a little with a list of honorable mentions.

There were many outstanding documentaries and I'd like to give praise three that focused on music: to Ahmir "Questlove" Thompson's "Summer of Soul, Edgar Wright's "The Sparks Brothers" and Todd Haynes' "The Velvet Underground."

RELATED: 'Detention' film was banned in China but screens virtually this week at Digital Gym Cinema

Honorable mentions also go out to: Pedro Almodovar's "Parallel Mother;" Taiwan's "Detention" (based on a banned video game in China); "The Humans;" "Riders of Justice" (a new addition to my list of holiday action films); "Suicide Squad" (for getting the tone spot on); "Spider-Man: No Way Home" (for the multiverse acting ensemble);, "Shang Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings;" "CODA;" "Belfast;" "The Card Counter;" "Bad Luck Banging or Loony Porn" (this might have made the list for the title alone but it is also a brilliant Romanian satire); and "The French Dispatch."

Horror highlights from 2021 include: "Coming Home in the Dark," "The Medium," "Candyman" (how to do a remake/reboot right), "The Trip," "Lamb," and "Kandisha." Thanks to Shudder for making some of those foreign horror films readily available.

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Magnet Releasing
A pair of slackers discover a giant fly and decide to train it and make a fortune in "Mandibles."

Cinema Junkie special awards

Craziest and most ridiculously fun films: "Mandibles" (about two French slackers who try to train a giant fly) and "Psycho Goreman" (which channels TV sitcoms and "The Power Rangers" to deliver a tale of a hell demon controlled by a bratty little girl).

Best feature directing debuts: Edson Oda for "Nine Days" and Maggie Gyllenhaal for "The Lost Daughter"

Best sequel: "Ghostbusters: Afterlife" (for understanding how to play off the originals, do cameos right, and make fans happy)

Best Actress: Agathe Rossouselle, "Titane"
Runners up: Olivia Coleman, "The Lost Daughter;" Noomi Rapace for doing both "Lamb" and "The Trip"

Best Actor: Winston Duke, "Nine Days"
Runners up: Oscar Isaac, "The Card Counter;" Daniel Craig, "No Time to Die"

Best directors: I am giving a tie to Ryusuke Hamaguchi, "Drive My Car," and Jane Campion, "The Power of the Dog," because they defy the current craving for bigger, louder, and faster.
Runners up: Joel Coen, "The Tragedy of Macbeth;" Edgar Wright for delivering freshness in both "Last Night in Soho" and "The Sparks Brothers" and because I think his talent is underappreciated.

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Azteca Films
Nathán Pinzón stars as a serial killer in "El Vampiro Negro" (1953), directed by Román Viñoly Barreto.

Best restoration/newly discovered classic: "El Vampiro Negro" (1953)
The UCLA Film Archives with funding from the Film Noir Foundation began restoration on this back in 2014. The digital screening of the full restoration that I saw in Palm Springs at the Arthur Lyons Film Noir Festival in October of last year was only the second time it was shown publicly. The digital premiere was at Noir City in San Francisco in January of 2020. This Argentine remake of Fritz Lang's "M" has nothing to do with vampires except that the serial child killer is referred to as El Vampiro Negro. The cinematography is just breathtaking: seductive, eerie shadows; layers of darkness; elegant composition. There is one scene with the killer almost silhouetted in the dark sewer and we see on glistening teardrop fall -- just spectacular. Nathán Pinzón plays the killer in a manner that is both chilling and tragic. He manages to keep him human despite his horrific crimes. This was a great discovery for me and I wanted to make note of it. It should be available later this year on Blu-ray from Flicker Alley and the Film Noir Foundation.

Films I wished I had seen on the big screen: Joanna Hogg's "The Souvenir, Part II" and Apichatpong Weerasethakul's "Memoria"
I feel like these might have placed higher if I had seen them on a big screen. I know that is a bit ironic because they are intimate films that should play fine on a small screen. But they are slow, highly visual films where the concentration you have in the dark looking up at a big screen allows you to take in more of the delicate details. I still loved and appreciated these films but not with the same vigor as earlier works from these filmmakers.

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Universal Pictures
"Evil dies tonight..." Even Michael Myers seemed to grow tired of all the idiots trying unsuccessfully to kill him in "Halloween Kills."

The worst films of 2021

For some reason I felt like more films this year pissed me off than usual. So at the very bottom of the barrel you can find "Halloween Kills," "Coming to America 2" (except for Wesley Snipes who was a delight), "Old," "Cruella" (why does Disney want to turn a character who wanted to kill puppies into some kind of Goth heroine?), "Quiet Place II," and "Army of the Dead."

Cinema Junkie's 10 Best of 2021
Cinema Junkie Beth Accomando spent hundreds of hours in the dark watching movies to compile this list of the best films of last year.

LEDE: Although the pandemic has not gone away, more cinemas have reopened allowing more opportunities to see new releases in theaters. KPBS Cinema Junkie

Any year that gives me a pair of French slackers trying to train a giant fly and a hell demon controlled by a bratty little girl is a year to rejoice in.

CLIP I will bathe in your blood… Don’t worry… Worry.

OK, neither of those films made my top ten but they both have a place in my heart. But here’s what did make my top ten starting with number ten…

CLIP Bond theme

I saw No Time to Die four times in theaters and fell in love with Daniel Craig’s final Bond appearance. As a lifelong Bond fan, I felt the film delivered all the action you expect from a 007 movie but with unexpected emotional weight.

Coming in at number 9 is an audacious turn by French director Julia Ducournau. With Titane she delivers another body horror tale that’s both gender and genre bending as it takes one strange turn after another.

At number eight is Edgar Wright’s Last Night in Soho.

CLIP Music

This film that made me swoon with its stylish use of music, editing and visuals. It’s a ravishing valentine to the movies and to London in the 60s.

At number seven is Val, one of 2021’s many outstanding documentaries.

CLIP My name is Val Kilmer…

Kilmer’s son jack provides the voiceover narration since his father struggles to speak after a battle with throat cancer. Created from decades of the actor’s videos, it’s a heartbreaking and inspiring documentary that also serves up a compelling portrait of the artist and his creative process.

I found my number 6 film This is Not a Burial, It’s a Resurrection on Amazon Prime.

CLIP Music

We don’t get many films released here in the U.S. so I was thrilled to find this and was dazzled by its unique narrative style and seductive imagery.

At number 5 is Jane Campion’s The Power of the Dog. Campion tells this western revenge tale with unexpected nuance and elegance. I love her confidence in creating a riveting and tense film made up of silences and minimal action.

At number 4 I have a second documentary, Flee.

CLIP Clapper board then Amin speaks

It’s the true story of Amin who reveals a secret he’s been hiding for two decades. The audio of Amin’s interview, where he recounts coming to Denmark as a child from Afghanistan, is brought to vivid life through animation and archival footage.

Then at number 3 slot is Joel Coen’s adaptation of Shakespeare’s Macbeth.

CLIP By the pricking of my thumbs something wicked this way comes…

This is another film that’s simply intoxicatingly cinematic. Coen’s claustrophobic and horror tinged imagery perfectly match Shakespeare’s tale of a man who feels more and more trapped by fate and his own bad choices.

CLIP Lay on Macduff and damned be he that first cries hold enough.

At number two is another film I just recently found streaming on Amazon called Nine Days.

CLIP You are being considered for the amazing opportunity of life

Actor Winston Duke excels in this feature film debut of writer-director Edson Oda. The inventive, visually poetic film proves to be less about the human souls applying for life on earth and more about Duke’s character being reminded of that despite the pain, life is made up of small, wondrous moments.

And at number one is Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s Drive My Car. The film doesn't show its hand as it seems to meander about but your patience is richly rewarded with an exquisitely crafted story about grief and loss, and finding human connections.

Many of these films can be found on streaming platforms, and a couple are still in cinemas.

Beth Accomando, KPBS News.

TAG: You can find more of Beth’s picks for the best and the worst of 2021 on her Cinema Junkie Blog at K-P-B-S-dot-ORG.

2021 Ten Best

1. Drive My Car, Ryûsuke Hamaguchi, Janus

2. Nine Days, Edson Oda, Sony Pictures Classics

3. Tragedy of Macbeth A24

4. Flee, Jonas Poher Rasmussen, Neon

5. Power of the Dog, Netflix

6. This is not a Burial, It’s a Resurrection, Lemohang Jeremiah Mosese, Dekanalog

7. Val Amazon/A24

8. Last Night in Soho Focus Features

9. Titane – Julia Ducournau, best actress, Agathe Rousselle Neon

10. No Time To Die MGM

Mandibles Magnet Releasing

Psycho Goreman RLJE Films

El Vampiro Negro

Bad Luck Banging or Loony Porn

Memoria

The Souvenir, Part II

Honorable mentions:

1. The Velvet Underground

2. The Lost Daughter – best actress

3. Detention

4. Mandibles

5. The Humans

6. Psycho Goreman

7. Riders of Justice

8. Summer of Soul

9. The Sparks Brothers

10. Coming Home in the Dark

The Trip

Candyman

Suicide Squad

The Medium

CODA

Belfast

The Card Counter – best actor

French Dispatch – best supporting actor

Lamb

Kandisha

Spider-man

Shang-Chi

A Hero

Drive My Car

No Time To Die

Tragedy of Macbeth

Last Night in Soho

Candyman

Val

Sparks Brothers

The Velvet Underground

Flee

Detention

Summer of Soul

Power of the Dog

The Lost Daughter

Passing

Cyrano

Licorice Pizza

Parallel Mothers

Don’t Look Up

Being the Ricardos

Nightmare Alley

Hand of God

Red Rocket

Boy behind the Door

Teddy

Kandisha

Summit of the Gods

House of Gucci

C’mon c’mon

Tick tick boom

Belfast

A Cop Movie

Spencer

Harder they fall

Electrical Life of Louis Wain

There’s someone inside your house

Till Death

The Columnist

Coming Home in the Dark

Prisoners of Ghostland

Eyes of Tammy Faye

Malignant

The Card Counter

Annette

The Night House

Green Knight

Mandibles

Suicide Squad

Titane

Lamb

The Humans

French Dispatch

Psycho Goreman

The Medium

Summertime

Ghostbusters best sequel

Audrey EarnshawIn the Earth

Jakob’s Wife

Shang Chi

Last Duel

Dune

Raya

Mitchells vs Machines

Encanto

Luca

Antlers

King Richard

West Side Story

Spider-Man no way home

Pig

Black Widow

Gaia

Let It Snow

F9

Censor

Conjuring

Nobody

The Courier

Godzilla Vs Kong

Spiral: From Book of Saw

Jakob’s Wife

Cherry

Worst

Halloween Kills

Coming to America 2

Army of the Dead

Matrix Resurrections

The King’s Man

Old

Werewolves Within

Forever Purge

Cruella

Quiet Place II

Wrath of Man

Zack Snyder’s Justice League

NO TIME TO DIE

The top ten

10. "No Time to Die"
The film suffered repeated delays before finally hitting cinemas in October. I saw it four times in theaters and fell in love with Daniel Craig’s final Bond appearance. As a lifelong Bond fan, I felt the film delivered all the action you expect from a 007 movie but with unexpected emotional weight.

Titane.jpeg
NEON
Agathe Rousselle gets Cinema Junkie's award for best actress for her work in "Titane."

9. "Titane"
Another audacious turn by French director Julia Ducournau. With "Titane" she delivers another body horror tale that’s both gender and genre bending as it takes one strange turn after another. It also boasts an absolutely riveting central performance by newcomer Agathe Rousselle.

8. "Last Night in Soho"
Edgar Wright’s "Last Night in Soho" is a film that made me swoon. It’s a ravishing valentine to the movies and London in the 60s, and it gave me goose bumps with its rapturous sense of style.

7. "Val"
There were so many great documentaries this year but "Val" stood out for both its creativity in execution and its story. Compiled from decades of home movies as well as the actor’s videos, this heartbreaking and inspiring documentary serves up a compelling portrait of an artist as well as the creative process.

6. "This is Not a Burial, It's a Resurrection"
We don't get many films from Africa released here in the U.S. but I found this one on Amazon Prime and was dazzled by its unique narrative style and window to a very different world.

5. "The Power of the Dog"
Jane Campion serves up a western revenge tale with unexpected nuance and elegance. I love her confidence in creating a film made up of silences and minimal action. Plus there's the intense on screen acting chemistry of Benedict Cumberbatch and Kodi Smitt-McPhee.

4. "Flee"
This animated documentary serves up the true story of Amin who arrived in Denmark as an unaccompanied minor from Afghanistan. It starts in the present with the adult Amin recounting a secret he’s been hiding for two decades. The audio of Amin’s interview is then brought to vivid life through animation and archival footage.

3. "The Tragedy of Macbeth"
This is another film that’s simply intoxicatingly cinematic. Joel Coen’s claustrophobic and horror tinged imagery perfectly match Shakespeare’s tale of a man who feels more and more trapped by fate and his own bad choices.

2. "Nine Days"
Winston Duke excels as a person (or perhaps a being) who interviews human souls for the opportunity of being given life on earth. The film marks the astonishing feature film debut of writer-director Edson Oda. The visually poetic film is inventive and offers an achingly sweet celebration of the tiny details of life that we should appreciate. It presents itself as being about the people applying for life on earth but what it is really about is Duke's character remembering that life is beautiful and worth living despite all the pain.

1. "Drive My Car"
I was introduced to Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s film at the San Diego Asian Film Festival. The film doesn't show its hand as it seems to just meander but your patience is richly rewarded with an beautiful story about grief and loss and finding human connections. It is an exquisitely crafted film that, as with Campion's "The Power of the Dog," approaches its subject through misdirection. It asks that the viewer pay attention (a rare thing these days when filmmakers like to lead audiences by the nose and tell them what to think) and to piece together the subtle elements.

Many of these films are available streaming so treat yourself to some filmmaking that is simply divine.