We come at last to my favorite films of 2021. They may not get any awards, but god damn if they weren’t a good time to sit through. These are the Wild Rides.

Best Superhero Movie

Fun fact: The entire Infinity Saga — all of the movies from Iron Man in 2008 through Spider-Man: Far From Home in 2019, including the one-shots and supplemental short films, but not counting any of the TV shows on ABC or Netflix — has a collective runtime of 51 hours and 20 minutes. By my own calculations and research, the entire collective runtime of MCU Phase Four — including the Disney+ shows — currently stands at 30 hours and 46 minutes. Well over half the entire collective runtime of Marvel’s grand eleven-year industry-smashing multimedia enterprise.

And remember, Marvel’s Phase Four didn’t exist before 2021. So that’s nearly 31 hours of content released just this year.

Yes, WB/DC got in some shots as well — The Suicide Squad was a remarkable feather in their cap (though its status as a “superhero” film is debatable), and Zack Snyder’s Justice League made a fine epitaph for the DCEU and Zack Snyder’s career at WB. Even so, this was unquestionably Marvel’s year, at least, in terms of quantity. On the one hand, Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings was a delightful origin story with the greatest martial arts sequences of any MCU project to date. On the other hand, Black Widow was a sadly forgettable and long-overdue affair while Eternals was a noble effort that nonetheless fell short of its lofty Best Picture ambitions.

But then there’s Spider-Man: No Way Home, which is easily in the same league as Avengers: Endgame. We’re going to need a new word for this kind of picture: Something that’s not really a movie in itself, but a payoff to years’ worth of setup. A seismic event that closes the book on several different eras of cinematic franchises and transitions into something potentially greater. This was a colossal undertaking, even for the combined strength of Marvel and Sony. I can’t even begin to imagine what it would’ve taken behind the scenes to coordinate all of this, keep it secret for so long, and pull it off so well. It’s a miracle of miracles, and no mistake.

Best Horror (standalone)

Antlers was a much better film in theory than in execution, and a far better character drama than a horror. The Night House honestly did a far better job of delivering a spooky ghost story and dovetailing the scares with themes of grief and loss.

Still, I’m giving this one to Blood Red Sky. Here we have a film with a potent mother/son emotional hook, compelling themes of addiction, effective horror, and nonstop action, all wrapped in such a beautifully bugfuck premise as “vampires vs. terrorists on a plane.” What more could anyone want?

Best Horror (franchise)

I was personally quite happy with Don’t Breathe 2 and A Quiet Place, Part II, but only with some huge fucking asterisks: Neither one is quite as effective as a horror film, neither one is quite as good as the first movie, and I’ll take back every nice thing I ever said about either if we get a third one.

I know Halloween Kills caught a lot of flack from fans and critics alike, but I’ll be honest, I really loved how the film expanded the scope of the franchise to explore how Michael Myers’ legend affects the entire town of Haddonfield, using him as an allegorical means to explore fear and mob rule in the modern day. Still, if we’re talking about horror films with a political message, the master remains unchallenged.

With Candyman (2021), producer/co-writer Jordan Peele and director/co-writer Nia DaCosta didn’t just craft an immaculate horror film, and they didn’t just write a powerhouse treatise on racial persecution and white-on-black violence. No, this might just be the first time in history when a sequel came out to a movie released thirty years prior, and it retroactively made the prequel even better. As I said in my review…

“The first movie is built on the assumption that fables and urban legends can offer a kind of immortality that will continue to last after mere facts have crumbled to dust. The more recent film is built on the assumption that our brighter future is built on the atrocities of the past. Each film proves the other true.”

I’ve never seen or heard of anything even remotely like this before. It’s a tremendous accomplishment that absolutely demands to be counted among the year’s greatest.

Best Action (franchise)

This one is no contest. Yes, No Time To Die finally gave a worthy send-off to Daniel Craig, who was so clearly over this role already. And yes, F9: The Fast Saga gave us more globetrotting thrills with the Toretto Gang. But let’s be real — neither of them gave us much of anything we hadn’t really seen before. The Suicide Squad totally fucking did.

Once again, James Gunn dazzles everyone with his encyclopedic knowledge of Z-tier comic book characters, his bottomless empathy for them, and his impeccable comic timing in gleefully killing them off. And yes, while the film works superbly well as an innovative action comedy, its crowning achievement is in finding a way to take the basic premise of the Suicide Squad and make it into something genuinely empowering and uplifting. James Gunn made a compelling case for why we need the Suicide Squad, every bit as much as we might need Superman or Batman. That shouldn’t even be possible, but he did it and he deserves serious goddamn accolades for it.

Best Action (standalone, feminine)

Here we’ve got three movies that served as standalone action vehicles for female protagonists. There’s Kate, in which Mary Elizabeth Winstead plays a stone-cold badass killing her way through so many threadbare cliches. We’ve also got The Protege, a sadly uninspired and forgettable film nowhere near worthy of Maggie Q and Samuel L. Jackson. Last up is Gunpowder Milkshake, the Karen Gillan vehicle sadly held back by some fatally flawed worldbuilding.

I might add that Gunpowder Milkshake indulged in many of the same worn-out tropes and cliches that Kate and The Protege did, yet delivered on those same tropes and cliches a million times better. Of the three movies in this category, it had the strongest cast, the most distinctive visuals, and some of the most wickedly creative kills and fight scenes I’ve seen in any movie all year. Even for all its numerous flaws, I have to list this film among my favorites for the year if only because it gave me so much I hadn’t seen before in an action flick.

Best Action (standalone, masculine)

Now we come to the standalone action films centered around male characters. Granted, Copshop is debatable in this lane, as the protagonist of that film is technically female, but that movie was positively swimming in testosterone, let’s be real. That movie was a good time, but I honestly preferred the comical energy and gleeful creativity of Frank Grillo’s other big 2021 showcase, Boss Level. Oh, and let’s not forget Below Zero, even if the film was sadly forgettable in spite of a wonderful premise.

The clear winner here is Nobody, in which some of the greatest action filmmakers currently working collaborate to do the improbable and make Bob Odenkirk into a plausible action star. Even better, it turned out to be a diabolically clever movie, with inventive kills and plot twists on top of its powerful statements about toxic masculinity. It’s just a kickass movie all around.

Best Comedy

I’m putting A Boy Called Christmas and Ghostbusters: Afterlife under this heading, even though both were more effective as fantastical family dramas than as comedies. On the more adult side of things, we’ve got the outlandish semi-improvised comedy of Bad Trip, along with the self-indulgent and unwieldy yet serviceable Good On Paper. But I’ve got a clear winner for this one, though it may not be a popular choice.

I know that Free Guy has picked up some backlash in recent months, but I still don’t understand why. Aside from a few outdated “geek stereotype” jokes in poor taste, the film was remarkably canny in its use of pop culture jokes and nostalgia-based humor. It was deeply heartfelt, the action was fantastic, and the whole movie had layers upon layers of jokes and commentary about the potential nature of AI and the current state of Big Tech. This movie had no right to kick as much ass as it did, but here we are.

Best Wild Ride

We come at last to my personal favorite film of the year. I simply must give an honorable mention to Space Sweepers, a remarkable and ambitiously epic sci-fi romp. Even so, this is no contest, I’ve got to give it to Last Night in Soho.

This film is yet another reason why Edgar Wright is my absolute favorite director. The premise is inspired, the horror aspect is engaging, the music is phenomenal, the effects are spellbinding, and the cast is wonderful. I’ve seen a great many films talk about the nature of nostalgia and how the past affects the present, but this one explores the double-edged nature of nostalgia to a mind-blowing extent, diving into layers upon layers with courageous aplomb like precious few could ever dream of. It’s a bold, brilliant, innovative flick that’s funny and sexy and thrilling all at once. Anything you could want from a good time at the movies, this one’s got it.

And on that high note, let us close the book on 2021. Onwards and upwards!

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