When it comes to films in 2021, Ars Technica readers have been more likely to express their feelings about the logistics of seeing new offerings this year than about the films in question.
We get it. The past year-plus of world-shaking change has been a stern reminder that some stuff works just fine in our homes, which includes films—a fact that movie studios and massive theaters alike are uneasy about. Some companies embraced this reality for the entirety of 2021, committing to simul-launched films in theaters and on streaming platforms in the United States. Others toyed with the idea before backing off. Still others would rather not admit until at least 30 or 45 days after a film’s launch that you might have a masterfully calibrated 4K screen and spatial surround-sound system in your home, variants be damned.
Still, we get into such a tizzy because the films in question remain fascinating and exhilarating, no matter how, where, or when we watch them. At Ars, our critical eye continues drifting toward a substantial range of “nerd”-appropriate cinema. This year, the best stuff ranges from mainstream comic- and sci-fi-inspired blockbusters to meticulously designed cult/horror madness to documentaries that explore the dire consequences of travesties like pseudoscience or climate change.
We’re opting for an unranked list, with the exception of our “year’s best” vote at the very end so you might peruse a variety of genres and options and possibly add surprises to your eventual watchlist. As ever, we invite you to head to the comments and add your own suggestions for films released in 2021, whether you watched them in crowded, masked cineplexes or OLED-lined isolation chambers.
A monstrous monster option: Godzilla Vs. Kong
As much as I enjoyed Godzilla Vs. Kong from the comfort of my living room, displayed on a nice television with a subwoofer cranked to near-max, its two hours had me craving a more collective, crowd-filled experience—perhaps more so than any film or TV series I’d seen during the peak of COVID’s lockdown. This film is a lot like its titular beasts: big, splashy, and sometimes quite dumb on the surface, yet full of animal-like cunning and the ability to land massive blows at crucial moments.
Special effects can’t be the only content in a silly monster movie, and thankfully, GvK‘s script walks a fine line between seriousness, heart, and outright cheese. The film’s logic is never outrageously bad—though at times it’s proudly paper-thin. Breaking into a disaster site full of the highest levels of corporate malfeasance? Just lick a screwdriver and jam it into the right plug. What about when a pre-teen girl sneaks past the highest-grade military security, meant to keep an eye on the murderous Kong, to go up to him and check on his feelings? GvK constantly waves its hand at these moments, since they whiz by so quickly, as if to say, “Don’t worry about that plot hole, poindexter.”
GvK‘s script and tone are paced nicely with action sequences that are the filmmaking version of a studio setting towers of money on fire—as lit by the blue-fire blasts coming out of Godzilla’s throat. Every pixel pumped into the film’s leading monsters is spent wisely. Whichever VFX house got this gig did a masterful job rendering the hairy, emotionally uncaged Kong within lush scenery—the shadows and ambient occlusion dance over his shaggy, unkempt frame. The same goes for the other monster in the film’s title, and I’m afraid I can’t say more than that for those of you who haven’t had the plot spoiled already.
GvK is big, dumb, and fun—but don’t be fooled. It takes serious filmmaking smarts to nail action and pacing like this.
—Sam Machkovech, Tech Culture Editor
When a kid becomes a samurai: It’s A Summer Film!
It’s a Summer Film! is the best movie seemingly no one has seen (or is able to easily see) in 2021. It’s the kind of friends-on-an-adventure film I would’ve been obsessed with as a kid, yet it creates the same type of devotion for Adult Nathan because writer/director Sôshi Masumoto’s script so cleverly weaves in genre elements and the thematic hallmarks that the samurai film’s main character, Barefoot, is obsessed with.
Ostensibly, a group of three high school girls band together to make sure one of ’em, the samurai-story devotee Barefoot, gets to make the script she’s been working on for the year-end student club festival. But It’s A Summer Film! offers surprise after surprise as the plot unfolds. This film delivers laughs, heartwarming moments, and new challenges in equal doses, and it features a handful of my favorite film moments in recent years. If I could find the film’s final samurai battle on YouTube, I might be watching it once a week this winter.
You will finish watching It’s A Summer Film! and just feel good, whether your favorite cinematic genre involves high schoolers, young romance, sci-fi and fantastical elements, or jokes anyone with an affinity for AV Club will enjoy. And within the current iteration of the film industry, that makes It’s A Summer Film! one of the easiest films to recommend. Society just needs some big US distributor, streaming or otherwise, to realize this.
—Nathan Mattise, Features Editor Emeritus
Parallel universes with new twists: A Writer’s Odyssey
Based on a short story by Shuang Xuetao entitled To Kill a Novelist, A Writer’s Odyssey has a decidedly ambitious, very meta premise, shifting between parallel realms: the real world and a fictional fantasy world. Director Lu Yang is best known for the 2014 Chinese wuxia film Brotherhood of Blades and its 2017 sequel. Elements of the wuxia genre are woven into the fantasy portions of his latest film. But the other half is set in the present day.
In the film, novelist Kongwen Lu (Dong Zijian) is the author of a fantasy series following a heroic teenager, also named Kongwen. The fictional character is on a quest to confront Lord Redmane, under the guidance of a Black Armor (voiced by Guo Jingfei). But through a strange twist of fate, the fantasy world of the novel begins to impact life in the real world, leading grieving father Guan Ning (Lei Jiayin) to accept a mission from Tu Ling (Yang Mi) to kill the author.
The fantasy storyline in particular features some eye-popping visuals and special effects, which embolden its spectacular action sequences. The talented main cast gives terrific performances, and it’s impossible not to be moved by the dual quests of Ning and Kongwen, as the explanation for this mysterious linkage between the two worlds gradually becomes clear. The film is ultimately about dealing with tragic loss and the lingering grief that springs from it. With its sweeping epic scale, high-octane action, gorgeous cinematography, and high production values, A Writer’s Odyssey is very much in the big-budget vein of 2019’s The Wandering Earth.
—Jennifer Ouellette, Senior Writer