As Hollywood continues its systemic eradication of the mid-budget movie, most of what remains is micro-budget indies and mega-budget blockbusters. Some incredibly talented filmmakers managed to make the best of an increasingly binary industry in 2021.
2020 saw an unprecedented number of titles delayed to 2021 and 2022 in response to COVID-19. Bond, Black Widow, and a host of other films that don’t feature European superspies were pushed to greener ($$) pastures. What remained was a surprisingly robust group of movies.
Santa Monica-based game developer Naughty Dog released The Last of Us in a nearly unrecognizable world in 2013. President Obama’s second term provided a backdrop of optimism—a serendipitous juxtaposition for austere art. Players controlled Joel (Troy Baker), the survivor of a zombie outbreak, as he trekked across the country with Ellie (Ashley Johnson), a girl immune to the pathogen. Joel and Ellie journeyed from Boston to Salt Lake City to deliver Ellie to a medical team that could turn her antibodies into a cure.
2020 was abysmal across the board. Well, except for television, of course. Because the one thing we all needed was more television.
Iain Reid’s internal, metaphysical, and reality-twisting debut novel, I’m Thinking of Ending Things, was the obvious source material for internal, metaphysical, and reality-twisting writer-director, Charlie Kaufman. Although Kaufman’s film echoes the novel’s arresting characters and haunting ideas about relationships, the human condition, and, of course, death, it is more of a faint impersonation of Reid’s novel than a true companion piece.
Your family’s Elf DVD is worn down to the label. You can recite The Santa Clause from memory. The same list of holiday specials run on repeat every winter season. Klaus (2019), an animated Santa Claus origin story from director Sergio Pablos, is a fresh-cut Douglas fir in your living room. Lighthearted, earnest, and brimming with more holiday cheer than a warm cup of hot chocolate, Klaus is a worthy addition to the Christmas movie rotation.
Marvel Studios launched the most successful film franchise in history with four of the world’s most recognizable faces, the director of Elf, and a $140 million budget. 2008’s Iron Man was by no means a Cinderella story, but the fire-engine red and gold hero was not a guaranteed box-office juggernaut. Twelve years later, it’s easy to retrace the studio’s journey behind a charismatic star, a perceptive producer, and its beloved universe of characters.
Peter Jackson’s fond farewell to Middle-earth is the standard-bearer for epic-fantasy filmmaking and the best work in the director’s lauded filmography. The Return of the King is a reasonably faithful adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien’s final Lord of the Rings (LOTR) novel of the same name. Make no mistake: Jackson’s sign-off is indulgent, but with more than nine hours of film leading up to it, its sentimentality is earned.
Four years before the Zodiac Killer befuddled California police in David Fincher’s Zodiac, co-writer and director Bong Joon-ho brought South Korea’s first serial killer to the screen in 2003 with Memories of Murder. Bong was building a storied career in his native Korea before the director was formally introduced in the United States with Snowpiercer (2013), Okja (2017), and Parasite (2019). Memories of Murder, only his second feature film, is an instant classic.
With reproductive rights under siege in the U.S. Supreme Court and legislative bodies across the country, writer-director Eliza Hittman’s intimate story about a Pennsylvania girl’s journey to terminate her pregnancy is urgent viewing. While Roe v. Wade hasn’t been overturned, small freedoms are sacrificed on an almost-daily basis to satisfy a boisterous minority. Never Rarely Sometimes Always—Hittman’s third feature—brilliantly explores the intended consequences of restricting a woman’s right to choose.