I’m going to have a little fun with something here: last week, as the year was ending, everyone shared their lists of their favorite movies of 2021. I did it myself. But the thing that’s occurred to me is that these lists aren’t immutable, are they? It’s not like I’m never going to watch another movie from 2021. It’s not even like I’ll never watch a movie I like more than one of the ones on the list. In fact, the list I shared on New Year’s Eve would already be different today because I try to spend January watching movies I missed in the previous year, and I’ve found one that would have made the list.
So what I’m going to do is start stepping back in time, one year per installment, and revisit the movies made in that frame that would now make that “best of the year” list, with an emphasis on what movies I didn’t actually see during the year in question.
I wish I didn’t have to say this, but I’m not presenting this list as any sort of objective level of artistry. I’m not saying these should all be Academy Award winners or anything (although some of them, I think, should), I’m just saying that these are the ones I personally enjoyed the most.
12. The Last Blockbuster (watched in 2021): Wonderful documentary that tells the story of the last Blockbuster video store in America, intercut with the story of the rise and fall of the one-time juggernaut. Lots of stuff in here I didn’t know, with a far more intricate and enlightening view of the topic than “Netflix killed it.” And there’s a hell of a nostalgia factor as well.
11. Bill and Ted Face the Music: Speaking of nostalgia, there have been plenty of movie and TV shows that have proven that nostalgia isn’t enough to fuel a movie. This one used nostalgia as the launch point, but it had a lot of heart and told a story about how, as we grow older, our dreams tend to change… and why that’s not a bad thing.
10. The Invisible Man: After two disastrous attempts to kick off a shared universe of Universal Monsters (those being Dracula Untold and the 2017 The Mummy), it seems that Universal decided to change gears and go for smaller, self-contained films revitalizing their classic monsters. While I can’t deny I would still love to see the Universal Monster-verse become huge again (just bring back Brendan Fraser, dammit), I really enjoyed this more quiet, claustrophobic take on the classic villain.
9. Freaky (watched in 2021): Another new take on an old idea – the Freaky Friday body swap formula applied not to a parent and child, but to a slasher movie killer and his victim. Vince Vaughan is fantastic as both the killer and the teenage girl who gets trapped in his body, and overall the movie treads the line between comedy and horror very well. Not as well as another movie I’ll get to later, though.
8. Birds of Prey and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn: Awful title notwithstanding, this film was a great showcase for Margot Robbie as Harley Quinn, and drew in several other characters from DC Comics in exciting ways that felt fairly true to most of them, with the notable exception of Cassandra Cain, who was really that character in name only. Never thought Rosie Perez would work so well as an action heroine, but she really steps up.
7. Onward: Pixar has rarely missed, and they succeeded twice in 2020, starting with this film about a pair of brothers trying to find peace with the loss of their father, all couched in a world of monsters and magic. Family stuff, and particularly stuff about parents and children, have really hit a chord with me these last few years, for obvious reasons.
6. Soul (Watched in 2021, but only by a day): The second of Pixar’s 2020 one-two punch treads a theme that Pixar likes to do, that getting what you want is not the same as getting what you need. Lovely story, beautiful animation… and damn, I do like jazz.
5. Archive (Watched in 2021): Fantastic low-key sci-fi movie about a man trying to make an artificial intelligence less artificial. I don’t want to say too much because I think it’s best if you go in not knowing much, but it’s well worth watching.
4. Palm Springs: The time loop movie has been done a LOT, but I always enjoy a new twist on it. Wedding guest Lizzie Caplan falls into a time loop only to find that fellow guest Andy Samberg has been there for quite some time. It’s funny, it’s clever, and it’s original.
3. Tenet: Christopher Nolan is at his most Christopher Nolan in this movie, an action film built around the premise of a technology that can reverse time. Like a lot of Nolan’s movies, you’ve really got to pay attention, but once you wrap your head around exactly what the rules are, it works really well.
2. A Quiet Place Part II (Watched in 2021): The sequel to one of the best sleeper horror films in years delivered just as well, if not more. Continuing the story right where the first ended, this second film explores the world much more and continues peeling back the layers of the family. It’s a fantastic movie and I really hope Part III is in the works.
1. Scare Me (Watched in 2021): Josh Ruben writes, directs, and stars in this phenomenal horror comedy about two writers (himself and Aya Cash) stuck together when a storm knocks out their power. How better to pass the time than by trying to scare one another? Seventy-five percent of the film is literally just the two of them telling stories to each other, and it’s wonderful. For a film to be this thrilling without relying on special effects, jump scares, or buckets of blood is amazing. For it to be legitimately funny is even better. If you haven’t seen this one and you like horror/comedies, get thee to Shudder right now and check it out.
For those interested, a complete ranked list of every 2020 movie I’ve seen is on Letterboxd. Next time I’ll step back a year further to 2019. Eventually I’ll loop back and look at 2021 again.
Blake M. Petit is a writer, teacher, and dad from Ama, Louisiana. His current writing project is the superhero adventure series Other People’s Heroes: Little Stars, a new episode of which is available every Wednesday on Amazon’s Kindle Vella platform. He spent entirely too much of 2020 at home, like everybody else did, and watching YouTube videos, like everybody else with a toddler did.