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.
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.
The Invisible Man, an 1897 novel by sci-fi titan H.G. Wells, was an out-of-the-box choice for a horror movie adaptation. The 2020 movie of the same name is a far cry from the book; it’s a cross between an Elisabeth Moss vehicle and psychological horror movie. Blumhouse, the studio behind The Purge series and Get Out, used recognizable, existing IP to sell a movie concept. It’s become a familiar formula for Hollywood with Peter Berg’s poorly received Battleship (2012) coming nearly a decade ago and a Margot Robbie-led Barbie movie on the horizon.
In response to the 2016 presidential election, a new documentary from A24 and Apple turns to America’s youth to explain how we got here and where we go next. Directors Amanda McBaine and Jesse Moss followed 1,000 sweaty, hormonal teenage boys during the American Legion’s week-long civics camp to figure out if the kids are alright. Boys State is an uncomfortable glimpse at partisan politics tinged with an unnatural concentration on toxic masculinity in adolescence.
Black troops accounted for 32% of the American military force in Vietnam, but only 11% of the country’s population at the time. Spike Lee has dedicated his career to identifying socio-political issues, venerating and participating in film history, and restoring Black history. In Da 5 Bloods, Lee sets his sights on the Black soldier’s rightful place in the war film genre. Generations of Hollywood whitewashing and historical erasure have minimized Black military history. Lee’s uneven, affecting film, which debuted on Netflix in June, engages Donald Trump and war’s long-term impact on its participants.
Sony’s body-swapping adventure returned in 2019 for another nostalgic romp through the untamed frontier. Jumanji: The Next Level, the second Jumanji movie in as many years and the fourth since 1995, added Awkwafina, Danny DeVito, and Danny Glover, but the rest of the nostalgic franchise remains frozen in stasis.
2019’s Where’d You Go, Bernadette is the nineteenth film from Richard Linklater, and one of the few women-led films in the writer-director’s catalog. Where’d You Go, Bernadette, adapted from a 2012 novel of the same name by Maria Semple, opts to change the novel’s narrative structure. The movie’s fresh framework kills the book’s central mystery and most of the resulting conflict. Not quite deep enough to serve as a character study, Where’d You Go must settle for an affable tale about an architect’s midlife crisis.
Halfway through 2015’s My Hindu Friend, the last film by Brazilian writer-director Héctor Babenco, its main character surmises, “Don't you think it's supremely insignificant in the history of humanity that you ran eight seconds faster than you did 20 years ago? We're never going to have another Fellini film, think of that. That's what matters.” Babenco (Kiss of the Spider Woman and Pixote) can’t match 8½, but his precipitously edited, wistful final film gives way to sporadic beauty.
Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle is the third film based on a 1981 children’s book by Chris Van Allsburg. Following Jumanji (1995) and the immediately forgettable Zathura: A Space Adventure (2005), Welcome to the Jungle pays homage to the Robin Williams-led classic while blazing its own trail.
Emma. is the fourth film adaptation of Emma, author Jane Austen’s final published work before her death. Emma. follows Aisha, a 2010 Bollywood adaptation, Emma, a 1996 period piece starring Gwyneth Paltrow and Alan Cumming, and 1995’s Clueless, an Alicia Silverstone-led classic set in modern-day California. Austen’s beloved coming-of-age romance was perfected in Clueless, its first adaptation, but like Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility, the novel is rife for an update every decade. Director Autumn de Wilde’s rendition allows Austen’s precise satire to speak for itself.