COVID tried to kill the movies. It’s still trying to kill the movies. But COVID’s best efforts have yet to succeed. Because lo and behold, there are still movies coming out, whether in theaters, on VOD, or both. And some of those movies are really damn good, like 9 of the 10 on Cool Material’s 2021 Movie Awards list. We’d be lying if there weren’t letdowns and bummers on the year’s movie calendar. We’d also much rather focus on the movies that moved us, that stuck with us, that made us stand on our feet, and that knocked us on our butts. So here you go, folks: Cool Material’s 2021 Movie Awards! These are the best movies of 2021.
Best Picture: Pig
“John Wick with Nicolas Cage and a pig,” everyone Tweeted when Michael Sarnoski’s Pig dropped a trailer earlier this year. Everyone Tweeted wrong. Pig is not John Wick. Pig doesn’t get to visit John Week on alternating weekends. Pig is a Nicolas Cage movie in a year with 3 different Nicolas Cage movies, each representing one of his many faces. Pig shows Cage at his least presentational, playing to his soulful, human side as a loner living off the grid near Portland, spending his days hunting truffles with his beloved pig until miscreants kidnap her in the dead of night. He returns to society with Amir (Alex Wolff), his usual buyer, to find out who took her. What starts out as an idiosyncrasy and frankly an enigma turns into the warmest, truest, gentlest movie of 2021, a story about staring loss in the face and coming out the other side a more whole person than before.
Where to watch: Hulu
Best Crowd Pleaser: West Side Story
Steven Spielberg adapted Jerome Robbins, Leonard Bernstein, and Stephen Sondheim’s seminal 1950s musical, and it’s pretty good. We could have labeled this category “least surprising,” because what else does Spielberg do but, with rare exceptions, make really good movies? But it’s a wonderful service that he made West Side Story and decided to drop it in December. The choice in date cuts through the flow of prestige and reminds us that yes, movies are important. But, more importantly, they’re joyful. Even in West Side Story’s darker moments, that joy – the joy of making and attending movies – remains infectious, and reflects best in newcomer Rachel Zegler’s star-making performance as Maria.
Where to watch: In Theaters
Best Foreign Language Picture: Bad Luck Banging or Loony Porn
Ever stop and wonder if Romanian filmmaker Radu Jude hates all mankind or just his countrymen? Probably not. Jude doesn’t get any love on the awards stage and only gets crumbs in the press. His movies tend to be well-regarded but overlooked. After his 2019 masterpiece, I Do Not Care If We Go Down In History As Barbarians, poured contempt on Romania’s ahistorical cultural views, his latest movie, Bad Luck Banging or Loony Porn, is out to seize the crown as his baudiest, raunchiest, most bizarre piece of blistering social critique, filtered through homemade porn in the time of COVID-19. (Bystanders caught in Jude’s lens mostly have masks on, a nod to how and when the film was shot.) A teacher finds out the sex video she shot with her husband has leaked online; subsequently, she’s called to the firing squad, a parent-teacher conference, to answer for her private kinks. It doesn’t get less wild from there.
Best Lookin’: The Tragedy of Macbeth / Dune (TIE)
A tie? Can you do that? Put simply: Yes. These are our awards. We can do what we want, including collapse to our knees under mounting indecision over whether The Tragedy of Macbeth looks better than Dune, or vice versa. What a pair to waffle over, too. There may not be a more striking mismatch than Joel Coen’s spartan, stripped-down version of the Bard’s greatest play versus Denis Villeneuve’s colossal, overwhelming take on the Frank Herbert novel that shaped a whole storytelling genre. But both of these films, different as they are, achieve the goals set out for them by their directors through utmost visual mastery. The Tragedy of Macbeth finds perfection in simplicity. Dune astonishes through sheer scale. Bask away in awe at both.
Where to watch (The Tragedy of Macbeth): Apple TV+ (Jan. 14)
Where to watch (Dune): In Theaters
Best Documentary: Flee
Jonas Poher Rasmussen’s Flee works because it’s animated, and it’s animated because animation is the only medium capable of telling the movie’s story. Imagine a refugee’s perilous journey out of their homeland and away from militant fundamentalist takeover. Now imagine that journey in bright, dynamic colors. Imagine it drawn but alive the way that animation feels alive, like it has a mind of its own. Flee uses these qualities not just to tell the story of Rasmussen’s longtime friend, referred to only by the pseudonym Amir. But to give it character. It is vital, hopeful, heartbreaking, harrowing, and at times totally infuriating. Because what other response is there to the injustices Amir suffers as a kid and brings with him into his adulthood? You won’t see another documentary, or another movie, like this one this year.
Biggest Disappointment: Luca
Pixar of all studios should take a concept like Luca’s and breathe magic into its lungs; a coming-of-age story about two young mermen figuring themselves out via wacky antics conducted in a charming coastal Italian hamlet fits right into their storytelling brand. For fairness’ sake, Luca did come out looking pretty, a bright and vibrant work of high visual imagination where mythology meets Italian neorealism. But none of the thought behind the concept comes together in either plotting or narrative, and in fact that Italian-ness is expressed consistently by treating the language like an obnoxious punchline. Pixar can do better than this. Dreamworks can do better than this.
Where to watch: Disney+
Best Performance: Kristen Stewart, Spencer
Biopics are a drag. The problem with reenacting periods and moments from the past is the baked-in belief that performance equates with impersonation, which is why we get uncured ham out of pictures like Darkest Hour and Vice. But Kristen Stewart is her own type of actor; she has a refreshing view of her own filmography, having gone on record saying that she’s only made “5 good films” in October. Spencer should be one of them. Instead of mimicking Diana Spencer, the Princess of Wales, the People’s Princess, she appears to commune with her ghost and imagine the crushing weight of the public eye combined with the pressures of navigating an unfriendly social sphere. Stewart, more than any actress working today, is uniquely qualified to make the performance work, and work she does.
Where to watch: Rent on Amazon
Best Surprise: The Last Duel
Ridley Scott’s had a helter-skelter decade. For every The Counselor or The Martian, there is an Exodus or All the Money in the World, with Prometheus and Alien: Covenant lying in between just to create polarization of opinion. He hasn’t had a genuine consensus hit in a good long while. Well: Here’s The Last Duel, his best film since Kingdom of Heaven and a should-be awards contender shoved out of season by 20 Century Studios’ botched release plan. Called “Rape Rashomon” on Twitter by writers who apparently haven’t seen Rashomon, The Last Duel dramatizes the story of Marguerite de Carrouges (Killing Eve’s Jodie Comer), who accused the squire Jacques Le Gris (Adam Driver) of raping her and who was shunted aside by her husband, Jean’s (Matt Damon), need to claim justice not for his wife, but for himself. But, Scott is at the height of his talent as one of the best to ever do it, but it’s the acting, particularly Comer’s, that’s truly off the charts.
Where to watch: Rent on Apple TV
Best Debut: Censor
Horror movies are so often about horror movies in a joyful, celebratory sense that it’s easy to forget how many times over history horror has been vilified or suppressed by the ruling class. Censor makes us remember. Prano Bailey-Bond immerses herself in the era of Margaret Thatcher, the 1980s video nasty moral panic, and in the point of view of her lead, Enid (Niamh Algar), a state censor driven to desperation and then madness in the pursuit of her long-lost sister. Every detail, from what’s in the frame, what’s out of the frame, and what’s baked into Censor’s recreation of 1980s England’s conservative ethos, is given consideration by Bailey-Bond. Every minute of its trim 84 minute run time moves briskly, and with purpose. Call the film an ode to the video nasty or a comment on what motivates censors to censor. Just make sure you call it 2021’s best debut feature.
Where to watch: Hulu
Best “WTF”: Titane
When you’re a teen, your parents will ideally prepare you for sexual awakening by telling you to use protection. Alexia (Agathe Rousselle), the protagonist of Cannes’ 2021 Palme d’Or winner Titane, apparently did not get this talk from her own parents. After calling it a night at her usual gig dancing at a motor show and casually murdering an overeager fan for kissing her without permission, Alexia decides to make whoopee with a self-starting Cadillac and ends up with a bun in the oven. How French. Julia Ducournau throws every trace of crazy on the screen in Titane’s first half, and slowly winnows the crazy down in its second half with a tenderness and compassion that reads as more shocking than the actual shock material. Credit for that goes to Rousselle’s costar, Vincent Lindon, playing a heartbroken firefighter in need of family. See this film to believe it. Even a 1,000-word review can’t do it justice.
Where to watch: Rent on Apple TV