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Our favorite movies of 2021, from mythic knights to sea monsters to Reba

Gawain (Dev Patel) takes a mighty axe on an epic quest in the Arthurian fantasy tale "The Green Knight."
Eric Webb
Austin American-Statesman

I did two things the day my coronavirus vaccination became effective. First, I dyed my hair blue. And then, I went to Alamo Drafthouse on South Lamar.

For people who love movies, being locked out of theaters for most of 2020 was a cruel blow. (Thank goodness for streaming.) But in 2021, you could not escape a certain cinematic question: Will people come back to the theaters?

I mean ... I did.

It was hard to stay away, considering all the great flicks. Here's the best of the year.

1. 'The Green Knight'

As a kid, I was taught to avoid the occult. Perhaps with good reason: David Lowery’s Arthurian hallucination left tendrils snaking through my mind like no other film this year. A crown burns, giants loom in the mist, and a knight made of branch and thorn crashes a royal holiday party, leading the king’s nephew toward a date with death and/or destiny. It’s a Christmas movie, a hero’s journey, a high-fantasy epic, an ancient fable come to haunt us modern fools – in whatever form “The Green Knight” appears to you, its striking images and abiding mysteries pierce whatever big thoughts you’d tried so hard to make small. Dev Patel’s Gawain must consider: Is it wrong to want greatness? Lowery, in making this unforgettable film, seems to have found an answer. 

How to watch: Available to rent/buy on major platforms 

Read the review:In 'The Green Knight,' heads roll, especially yours

Joaquin Phoenix and Woody Norman star in "C'mon C'mon."

2. 'C’mon C’mon'

Come to me, my fellow saps. Director Mike Mills, of the criminally under-looked “20th Century Women,” turned out the toast of Austin Film Festival this fall with a sweet-and-sad ode to the children we once were, and still are. Shot in the classiest of black and white and featuring the most likable Joaquin Phoenix performance committed to film, “C’mon C’mon” takes the “troubled adult is saddled with precocious kid” genre and … doesn’t turn it on its head, really, so much as imbue it with mind-expanding humanity. An evenly matched Phoenix and young actor Woody Norman travel the country and meet each other in the middle; meanwhile, Gaby Hoffman, playing Phoenix’s exhausted and semi-estranged sister, gives the year’s most generous performance. “C’mon C’mon” ends by staring you dead in the eye and saying, "You're gonna be OK.” Lesser flicks work in far smaller, cliché terms. 

How to watch: Now in theaters 

Read the review:'C'mon C'mon' and give a tender Joaquin Phoenix your time

Ed Helms and Patti Harrison star in "Together Together," directed by Nikole Beckwith.

3. 'Together Together'

No final shot slammed the wind out of me more in 2021 than the one in Nikole Beckwith’s radiant, often-hilarious dramedy about friendship and the business of pregnancy. Absurdist comedian Patti Harrison as Anna spends the film getting to know Ed Helms’ Matt, the father of the child she’s carrying to term as part of a surrogacy deal. Loneliness radiates off them both, and it ultimately turns them into a platonic found family. Keeping spoilers to a minimum, Beckwith’s care with these characters culminates in the birth scene that was coming all along. And in one final push, Harrison’s face telegraphs all the uncertainty and love that new life has to offer. As with our relationships to each other, there are no easy answers. 

How to watch: Available to stream on Hulu and Kanopy and to rent/buy on major platforms 

Read the review:In 'Together Together' with Patti Harrison and Ed Helms, family is a funny thing

Bradley Cooper, right, plays a mentalist who squares off with a psychiatrist (Cate Blanchett) in Guillermo Del Toro's "Nightmare Alley."

4. 'Nightmare Alley'

These are a few of my favorite things: Turner Classic Movies marathons, dark fairytales, Cate Blanchett dispensing throaty cackles while she wears sharply tailored jackets, Bradley Cooper taking a minimalist approach to both speaking and wearing shirts, Toni Collette getting to play a femme fatale and a carnival psychic in the same role, and lines of dialogue that you want to add to your iPhone Notes app so you remember them in your daily life. Oscar winner Guillermo del Toro received my wish list, dispensed with his usual monster makeup and put a striking noir thriller under the tree. 

How to watch: Now in theaters 

Alberto (Jack Dylan Grazer) and Luca (Jacob Tremblay) explore the surface in "Luca."

5. 'Luca'

I love my subtextually gay sea monster sons. Taking the annual slot for a Pixar movie that made me cry, Enrico Casarosa’s lush, lovely “Luca” transcended its surface similarities to a decidedly kid-unfriendly movie, “Call Me By Your Name,” and stood out as the year’s purest lil’ movie. Two young sea monsters sneak off for adventure in midcentury Italy, make some friends and set their briny hearts on what all scale-covered boys want: a Vespa. “Luca” is stunning to look at; the Mediterranean sun dapples the 2-D air and the jewel-colored water feels impossibly real. But it’s the concerns of this film’s heart — that it’s cool to care about each other, that being an “other” is a blessing — that swim among this year’s biggest cinematic fishes. 

How to watch: Streaming on Disney+ and available to rent/buy on major platforms 

Read the review:Disney and Pixar's 'Luca' finds the perks of being a sea monster

"Shiva Baby" is a dark comedy from director Emma Seligman.

6. 'Shiva Baby'

Cringe comedy is so 2010. And yet, director Emma Seligman’s acid-drenched dark comedy dared film-goers to look away from a shiva so awkward that you’re ready for the sweet release of death on behalf of its attendees. A spiky Rachel Sennott as the lost-in-life Danielle led viewers into a morbid mess of her own making. Her sugar daddy, his wife, her parents and her ex-best friend/maybe true love all show up to mourn someone she barely knew; no amount of finger foods can save the comedy of errors. It’s too funny to look away, fortunately/unfortunately. 

How to watch: Streaming on HBO Max and Kanopy and available to rent/buy on major platforms 

A scene from the documentary "Introducing, Selma Blair."

7. 'Introducing, Selma Blair'

In a year when few documentaries cracked the code for me, a celebrity diary that premiered during a virtual South by Southwest broke my heart. Headlines about the multiple sclerosis battle of “Cruel Intentions” actress Selma Blair barely scratched the same surface that filmmaker Rachel Fleit dissolves entirely. “Introducing, Selma Blair” is a humanist triumph despite its star subject — and maybe because of it, because the viewer feels like they already know her. The audience is in the room for crushing medical nadirs and side-splitting moments of levity — “I’m sorry I can’t talk right now, we’re shooting the final days of my life,” the actress says on the phone at one point. This documentary doesn’t shy away from the hard stuff; it’s an act of profound compassion. “We have a long time to be dead,” says the resilient, witty, always stylish Blair in the film. 

How to watch: Streaming on Discovery Plus 

Related:What's worth seeing? 16 SXSW movies to look out for

Timothée Chalamet and Lyna Khoudri in "The French Dispatch."

8. 'The French Dispatch'

Y’all just don’t like fun things, I’ve decided. I’m not even caping for former Austin resident Wes Anderson out of misguided hometown bias. When the University of Texas alum’s latest feature came out, haters had the usual criticisms: too twee, too hollow, too shallow. Well, I don’t know when it became cool to dislike immaculately styled visions that transport you to fantastical versions of times gone by. “The French Dispatch,” imperfect as anything is, concerns itself with the great daisy chain of human connection and the power of stories written down. The typical Anderson players stuff the film’s frames, with Jeffrey Wright and Tilda Swinton at the fullness of their powers. These are fractious times, friends. Why turn away from stories concerned with beauty?  

How to watch: In theaters now and available to buy on major platforms 

Read the review:Why UT Austin alum Wes Anderson's 'The French Dispatch' is one of his best yet

Prano Bailey-Bond's "Censor," which screened in Austin on Jan. 30 as part of the Sundance Film Festival, is an ode to the "video nasties" era of British cinema.

9. 'Censor'

It does seem to me, a humble idiot from South Austin, that more people should be excited about a lovingly schlocky horror movie in which another schlocky horror movie drives a film censor (played by Niamh Algar) mad in the U.K. in the 1980s. Alas! Welsh filmmaker Prano Bailey-Bond's take on the “video nasty” genre spooked the drive-in crowd at Sundance Film Festival’s Austin outing, and I’m proud to induct it into the Things You Can Watch In the Dark While You Dissociate From Reality Hall of Fame. Surrounded by droning tones and sharp cuts, "Censor" slinks around in murky, tight spaces, often lit by eerie glows — much like the darkness of a room lit by a flickering TV screen playing a cassette. Its final minutes contain one of the most genuinely and wonderfully upsetting endings I've seen in a while. 

How to watch: Streaming on Hulu and available to rent/buy on major platforms 

More:What it's like attending the Sundance Film Festival in your car in Austin, Texas

"Titane," the toast of the Cannes Film Festival, opened up Fantastic Fest in Austin.

10. 'Titane' 

The most twisted gender reveal party ever. When the French-Belgian thriller made its U.S. debut at Fantastic Fest this fall, director Julia Ducournau said, “Certain stories are universal and should not be niche. Genre is not niche.” To insinuate that the bonkers “Titane” is not niche inspires both gleeful laughter and deep respect. In the film, Agathe Rousselle plays a car show dancer with a titanium plate in her head and a thirst for violence; she crosses paths with Vincent Lindon’s fire captain searching for his missing son, and the way the machinery of these two lives interacts is usually disturbing and improbably touching. It’s gross, it’s shocking, it’s defiant in the face of gender norms, and it’s unlike anything else you’ve seen. 

How to watch: Available to rent/buy on major platforms 

Read the review:Sex, cars and the most twisted gender reveal party ever

Ruth Negga co-stars in Rebecca Hall's "Passing."

11. 'Passing'

All about the light in Rebecca Hall’s directorial debut. With a screenplay written by Hall and adapted from Nella Larsen’s 1920s novel, “Passing” brings quiet tension and looming fear to the story of childhood friends who have reconnected – except one of the pair, both of whom are Black, now passes as a white woman. Tessa Thompson and Ruth Negga are magnetic in the lead roles, and Blood Orange artist Devonte Hynes’ jazz score is nothing short of unshakeable. But in this black-and-white film, it’s the sun and shadow that take center stage to powerful metaphorical effect. (Special shoutout to the snowfall in “Passing’s” chilling final moments.) 

How to watch: Streaming on Netflix 

Kristen Stewart stars in "Spencer," a sort-of biopic about Princess Diana.

12. 'Spencer'

In an alternate universe, Princess Di looks suspiciously like Kristen Stewart and has the worst Christmas ever with a royal family so ominously silent that they could be in a Stephen King movie. Pablo Larraín pulled Jackie O’s tragedy through the pop culture looking glass, and this year he did the same for the people’s princess. “Spencer,” billed as “a fable from a true tragedy,” conjures ghosts from our modern mythologies through stunning, strange impressionism. How can such an endeavor not feel a little lurid? With a soulful performer like Stewart wearing Diana’s pearls, that’s how. 

How to watch: Available to rent/buy on major platforms 

Read the review:This Princess Diana tale is a perfect Halloween movie

Reba McEntire appears as the water spirit Trish, saving the day in "Barb & Star Go to Vista Del Mar."

13. 'Barb and Star Go to Vista Del Mar'

Future historians living in Earth’s sky cities, ever aware of the planet’s ultimate climate death, will gaze out from the edges of the plastic domes that buy their lives precious time, and then lose their focus in the seas, still rising higher and impossibly higher. And perhaps, just perhaps, they will see a mermaid who looks suspiciously like country music icon Reba McEntire, and they will know that the deranged and hilarious “Barb and Star Go to Vista Del Mar” was the way and the truth. Stars Kristen Wiig and Annie Mumolo and director Josh Greenbaum gazed into the abyss of absurdity with this one and said to that absurdity, “Meet us in the parking lot at sundown.” 

How to watch: Streaming on Hulu and available to rent/buy on major platforms 

Stefani (Riley Keough, left) and Zola (Taylour Paige) head on a crazy road trip of hedonism in "Zola."

14. 'Zola'

It’s 2021; adapting Twitter threads into provocative indie films makes perfect sense. Director Janicza Bravo gives it a smartly orchestrated go in “Zola,” based on A'Ziah-Monae "Zola" King’s viral 2015 Twitter thread about the wildest trip to Florida ever. There’s plenty to gasp about (between laughs) in a movie about bad decisions, the worse outcomes they have for people with the least power, and the eternal evils that adapt to a thoroughly digital existence. As the title character, Taylour Paige is a watchful revelation. 

How to watch: Streaming on Showtime and available to rent/buy on major platforms 

Read the review:Pulp, peril, past and present meet in darkest corners of the Sunshine State

Ben Sharrock's "Limbo" tells the story of men seeking refuge on an island.

15. 'Limbo'

We cannot have too many empathetic depictions of immigration right now. Among the best: “Limbo,” written and directed by Ben Sharrock, which finds a group of men seeking asylum from their disparate home countries, awaiting new starts on a bleak Scottish isle. Traumatized and homesick, nowhere feels to them like an awful confusing place to be. The standout in a great ensemble: Vikash Bhai, who plays a man from Afghanistan who smiles at everything even though, as we learn in heartrending fashion, he has little to be happy about except the faraway promise of dignity.

How to watch: Streaming on HBO Max and available to rent/buy on major platforms 

Read the review:The absurdity of leaving it all behind

Things we loved in 2021 movies that didn’t make the cut 

Instant star Alana Haim steering a giant truck through the hills of hell in “Licorice Pizza,” a movie which should have ended 30 seconds sooner than it did.

The reminder to always keep a close eye on vengeful frontier twinks in “The Power of the Dog.” 

The best film history class we’ve ever taken in Austinite Kier-La Janisse’s “Woodlands Dark and Days Bewitched.” 

Bob Odenkirk, action hero, in “Nobody.” 

Parking lots in Texas coastal country rendered like Renaissance paintings in “Red Rocket.” 

A nostalgic remembrance of childhood troubles during the Troubles in “Belfast.” 

The death of the patriarchy via vampirism in “Jakob’s Wife.” 

Andrew Garfield, musical theater star, in “Tick Tick...Boom!” 

A reminder that Michelle Pfeiffer should be in every movie, thanks to “French Exit.” 

No fewer than five different ideas about how to do an Italian accent in “House of Gucci.” 

A reminder to never go in with preconceptions in the deeply affecting, COVID-era-Zoom-ensemble anthology “The Same Storm.” 

A new kind of Marvel hero kicking down the doors in “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings.” 

Unraveling a twisty, tragic mystery in “The Father.” 

Pretty much every Bo Burnham song in “Inside.” 

Learning a few new things about brothers who made new things all the time in rock doc “The Sparks Brothers." 

Margot Robbie singlehandedly justifying the existence of the modern DC Comics movies in “The Suicide Squad.” 

The opportunity to mouth “what the hell” in almost every frame of erotic nun drama “Benedetta.” 

Genuine laughs about pandemic life in “Stop and Go.” 

John Krasinski being smart enough to let Millicent Simmonds take the lead and kick monster ass in “A Quiet Place Part II.” 

Ariana DeBose, queen of the screen, in the misbegotten remake of “West Side Story.” 

Truly losing our goshdarn mind watching the trippy "Flashback."

Kathryn Hunter possibly being an actual witch in "The Tragedy of Macbeth."

And the best movie we saw during SXSW, even if it still doesn’t have distribution: Austin director Mei Makino's “Inbetween Girl.”