James Jay Edwards

The 2021 Movie Scene in Review: A Return, Almost

(Saint Maud, A24 Films)

James Jay Edwards reviews the movies of 2021. A (somewhat) return to theaters and testing of releases through at-home offerings. Edwards highlights the best, teases awards nods, and lists his Top 10.


Even with record attendance at drive-ins and the Theater-At-Home VOD option, 2020 was a year most movie fans would like to forget. While things were not completely back to normal in 2021, we did get a little closer.


The Box Office

After over a year of being shuttered, movie theaters were allowed to open back up in most places. Smartly, most exhibitors required masks, limited their seating sales to (at most) half capacity, and went touch-free for admission and concession sales. Press screenings were even more careful, with many of them asking for either proof of vaccination or negative COVID tests from critics in order to gain admission.

Two genres that I’ve always thought were better experienced with a crowd are comedy and horror, and, at least in the beginning, horror led the charge back to theaters. The first in-person screening that I attended (fourteen months to the day after the last) was for Spiral: From the Book of Saw (which was as good as Saw sequels get, I suppose), but the second was the reason I would joke about having gotten vaccinated: A Quiet Place Part II.


(A Quiet Place Part II, Paramount Pictures)

The first A Quiet Place was an intensely communal experience—something about an entire theater of people hanging on every second of a near-silent movie was just awesome. While A Quiet Place Part II wasn’t quite as awesome, it was still way better in a half-full theater than it would have been at home, so, personally, I was glad they delayed its release until I could see it on a big screen with a (limited capacity) crowd.

And the moviegoing public seemed to agree. Along with The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It and Godzilla vs. Kong, A Quiet Place Part II led the charge back into theaters, leading people to speculate early that “horror was saving cinema.”

But while horror is a communal thing, action is spectacle, so once the fright flicks cracked open the door, the ass-kicking movies broke it down. Summer began, and after F9: The Fast Saga tested the early waters, Phase 4 of the Marvel Cinematic Universe arrived with Black Widow and Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings. This all led up to the December release of the year’s eventual highest-grossing movie, Spider-Man: No Way Home.


(Spider-Man: No Way Home, Columbia Pictures)

Theater attendance was still down, as the country was (and is) still in the midst of a mismanaged pandemic. But considering many movies went to Theater-At-Home VOD or hit subscription services like HBO Max or Disney+ on the same day they were released in theaters, the hundreds of millions that people spent going to the cinema indicates that the public still appreciates their silver screen.


Awards Season

Of course, box office receipts rarely coincide with Awards buzz. The notable exception this year seems to be Denis Villeneuve’s Sci-Fi epic Dune, which seems to be a favorite among critics and is comfortably sitting in the #13 spot of high earners this year. Like most years, the movies that seem to be favorites for the Oscars and other awards aren’t the blockbusters.

Legendary filmmaker Ridley Scott is in competition with himself this year, having released a pair of movies with awards traction in The Last Duel and House of Gucci. Adam Driver is also in competition with himself, as he turned in impressive performances in both films (even if his best movie of the year was the Leos Carax/Sparks collaboration Annette).

Another artist whose biggest competition is themselves could be Jonny Greenwood. The Radiohead guitarist did the musical scores for Paul Thomas Anderson’s Licorice Pizza (which may also get recognized for the performances of leads Alana Haim and Cooper Hoffman), Pablo Larrain’s Spencer (also sure to nab Kirsten Stewart an Academy Award nomination for her portrayal of Princess Diana), and Jane Campion’s Netflix original The Power of the Dog. All terrific scores, and all drastically different. Jonny Greenwood is the new Danny Elfman.


(The Power of the Dog, Netflix)

Speaking of Netflix (and being in competition with themselves), the streaming giant has gone all-in for awards this season with heavy For Your Consideration campaigns for several of their originals. In addition to The Power of the Dog (which should grab Benedict Cumberbatch an acting nom), Netflix is also pushing Maggie Gyllenhaal’s The Lost Daughter and Rebecca Hall’s Passing (both directorial debuts), as well as Jeymes Samuel’s exploitation western The Harder They Fall, Lin-Manuel Miranda’s adaptation of the musical Tick, Tick… Boom!, Paolo Sorrentino’s stunning The Hand of God, and Adam McKay’s barely-satire Don’t Look Up. Netflix has tasted awards blood with previous years’ movies like Roma and Mank, and they want more.

Other releases that have generated buzz for the 2022 Academy Awards include:

Belfast – This is writer/director Kenneth Branagh’s stylish ode to his Irish upbringing. And Kenneth Branagh is the kind of filmmaker who gets nominated for awards.

Nightmare Alley – Guillermo del Toro’s creepy neo-noir should get plenty of tech nominations, and possibly one for Bradley Cooper as the leading man.

(Nightmare Alley, Fox Searchlight)

Being the Ricardos – Nicole Kidman as Lucille Ball anchors this selective biopic.

The Eyes of Tammy Faye – Ditto, but with Jessica Chastain as Tammy Faye Baker.

West Side Story – It’s Spielberg, which still carries some clout.

The Tragedy of Macbeth – Denzel Washington and Frances McDormand are both great and deserve to be praised in their respective categories, but if this doesn’t at least get Bruno Delbonnel a nomination for best cinematography, the whole system is broken.

C’mon C’mon – Joaquin Phoenix and Gaby Hoffmann are both generating some buzz for their performances in Mike Mill’s artsy road trip movie.

Cyrano – Releasing on the last day of the year, the terrific Cyrano may play Oscar spoiler in some categories, particularly Best Actor, for which Peter Dinklage absolutely and unequivocally deserves a nomination.

CODA – One of the more emotional movies of the year, but it may have been released too early for the Academy to remember.

Drive My Car – This Japanese entry is almost a shoo-in for Best Foreign Language Film and is a dark horse for best picture.

Titane – Julia Ducournau’s weird automotive horror flick won the Palme d’Or at Cannes and may be the only movie to take the foreign language award from Drive My Car.

Parallel Mothers – And then, there’s Pedro Almodóvar. In a year without Drive My Car or Titane, this would easily take Best Foreign Language Film. Is Best Foreign Language the most stacked category this year?


Top Ten

Anyone who is still reading at this point may be interested in my personal Top Ten list for 2021. So, here it is. Keep in mind, I’m a horror guy, and this list was initially done for my Eye On Horror podcast, but when I thought about what I’d change to include less-horroresque titles, I couldn’t come up with anything. So, this is it.


  1. Saint MaudWay back in January, I called the shot that this would be my favorite movie of the year and, true to form, nothing dethroned it. To be fair, this movie’s release was postponed for over a year due to the pandemic, but it still lived up to the (long-awaited) hype.


  1. The Green KnightA simply beautiful movie. Shades of Excalibur with just a touch of ghosts, giants, and monsters. And a cute CG fox.


  1. Last Night in SohoEverything about Edgar Wright’s time-shifting ghost story is perfect, from the freaky visuals to the note-perfect needle drops.


  1. The Night HouseRebecca Hall has had one hell of a year. Aside from making her directorial debut with Passing, she starred in Godzilla vs. Kong and anchored this spooky David Bruckner thriller.


  1. LambOne of the weirdest movies you’ll ever want to see. But see it. It’s a beautiful weirdness.


  1. Nightmare AlleyGuillermo del Toro’s noir mystery feels like it should be higher on the list, but here’s where it lands.


  1. Titane – Not quite as weird as Lamb, but in the same ballpark. A lot more disturbing, though.


  1. Werewolves WithinClassic whodunnit where the suspect is a werewolf. So, a whoisit instead?


  1. A Quiet Place Part IIAnother that seems like it should have been higher, but it’s my list. No apologies.


  1. MalignantJames Wan’s love letter to the movies that influenced his career is another strange one, but that’s what makes it memorable.


So, while this year saw the movie business take steps to get back to normal, fans may just need to realize that this may be the new normal, at least for the time being. The movies will still be there, though. It’s just how we see them that is changing. And hopefully 2022 brings more good changes than bad ones.


Check out the podcast Eye On Horror for more with James Jay Edwards, and also features Jonathan Correia and Jacob Davison.


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