Villeneuve’s take on Dune is a sci-fi beauty to behold | Courtesy Warner Bros Pictures

If sometimes very confusing, 2021 was an exciting year for the cinema. The 93rd Academy Awards, held in April, extended their qualifications slate to include movies that, because of the pandemic, wouldn’t be released officially until January or February of this year. As the year went on, many movies opted for simultaneous streaming and theatrical releases, with some seemingly changing their release status every month (looking at you, Dune). But whether you watched at home on any of the streaming platforms or actually ventured out and contributed to the steadily rising box office numbers, there were plenty of high-quality films to enjoy this year. The City Paper’s editors and contributors have settled on our top favorites from an incredible slate, presented here in descending order. If you haven’t seen these yet, now’s a great time to catch up.

You can find the trailers for our top 2021 flicks here.

Dune

It seemed like Dune’s release schedule was in constant flux. The WB/HBO Max collaboration meant Dune was originally included in the dual-release program, but then early 2021 trailers didn’t include it. Makes sense now: Denis Villeneuve really wanted to drive folks to the theaters. And he was right, because Dune really demands to be viewed on the largest screens possible. Villeneuve’s translation of Frank Herbert’s intriguing, dense, and deadly world is absolutely beautiful to behold. Greig Fraser’s cinematography and Hans Zimmer’s score made for some truly haunting and spectacular moments of immersive perfection. The best part? Part two is on its way.

Malignant

James Wan’s Malignant is a celebration of B-rated VHS schlock | Courtesy Warner Bros Pictures

A young woman is tormented by visions of murder. She soon realizes her visions are coming true. To say anything more would ruin the movie. When the trailers were released for Malignant, horror fans and mainstream audiences barely batted an eye. What initially looked to be a painful, dry retread of director James Wan’s previous haunted houses and killer spirits (The Conjuring, Insidious) wonderfully — and intentionally — devolves into a silly celebration of “so-bad-it’s-good” VHS schlock. Malignant is littered with ham-fisted performances, cheesy dialogue and backwards walking in the best possible ways. A movie that begins with static and VCR tracking issues is after my heart. 

Judas and the Black Messiah

Courtesy Warner Bros Pictures

Officially released in early February through WB’s HBO Max collab, Judas and the Black Messiah has already received its Oscar nominations, including two wins, at April’s ceremony. Daniel Kaluuya has already received his well-deserved statue for his captivating, honest, and layered performance as Fred Hampton, chairman of the Illinois chapter of the Black Panther Party before his assassination in 1969. But Shaka King’s film is so much more than just one performance or one historical figure. It’s an expertly crafted spy thriller, political drama, and period piece all at once. It’s a harrowing story of acceptance, education, family and betrayal. And it’s still so painfully, infuriatingly, relevant to 2021. 

The Green Knight

Courtesy A24

It’s based on a 14th-century Middle English romantic poem about King Arthur’s mythic Knights of the Round Table. You expect adventure. You expect chivalry. You expect grandeur. David Lowery’s film delivers all these things. But what makes The Green Knight so special, and makes it 2021’s best film, is the way it delivers a cinematic experience unlike anything else this year. It is both wildly fantastical and deeply human. It is a grand fantasy like only movies can deliver while offering the kind of contemplation of life and death that is usually reserved for the theater. Lowery takes the romanticism and poetry and doesn’t just translate it to screen. In bringing protagonist Gawain’s journey to life, he creates a breathtaking, living testament to the concept of heroism. And on the big screens that had lain mostly dormant for over a year,
The Green Knight’s monsters, giants, knights and never-better performance
from Dev Patel absolutely tower above everything else in the best possible way to become 2021’s best movie. 

Titane

Titane may be for the hardcord body horror fan only | Courtesy NEON

Titane opens with director Julia Ducournau’s hallmark body horror, letting her audience know this experience won’t be for the squeamish. The film enraptured me, pulled me in and left me stunned at its sheer brilliance. Caught somewhere between body horror and character study, the film’s lead Alexia (Agathe Rousselle) delivers violence and the universal human longing for connection. In doing so, Ducournau makes deft work of horrific kills and touching interpersonal moments in a single take. On the surface, the film defies reality in displaying Alexia’s physical relationship with metal and cars. Under the shock, though, Ducournau has crafted a story of family and companionship — sweet, tender and gutting.