Even in a weird cinematic year like 2021, it's impossible to see everything for most people. As a result, some films—be they good or at least intriguing—escaped many people's notice during the year. These fifteen selections may have slipped through the cracks upon their first release, but we've snagged them here for you.
The White Tiger
Based on the novel of the same name by Aravind Adiga, The White Tiger tells the story of Balram Halwai (Adarsh Gourav), a member of the Indian underclass who now identifies as an entrepreneur. Balram saw his life derailed by his father's debts despite being labeled the “white tiger” as a youth—the rare member of his caste seemingly certain for greatness.
Nonetheless, he continues to hustle, eventually entering the employ of The Stork (Mahesh Manjrekar), the man who ruined his father's life. Soon, he's acting as the driver for The Stork's son Ashok (Rajkummar Rao) and his son's wife Pinky (Priyanka Chopra Jonas). Initially thinking of himself as part of the family, he quickly learns they see him as a servant. They will cast him aside at the first opportunity if he stops being useful.
Like the novel, Gourav narrates his actions with a sunny gloss that only seems to grow the darker and more depraved his behavior becomes. Tiger earns our sympathy for the protagonist before taking us step by step down his road to sociopathy.
Although it debuted at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2019, Friend didn't actually get released in theatres in 2021, so this one counts for us.
When Nicole's (Dakota Johnson) cancer becomes terminal, her husband Matt (Casey Affleck) and their best friend Dane (Jason Segel) do their best to keep life as normal as possible for the couple's two daughters. While Matt struggles under the weight, the usually irresponsible Dane continues to shoulder the burden without complaint. Quitting his job and losing his girlfriend to stay by his friend's side, he becomes the one thing they can count on during their frequently horrifying experience.
While not as impressive or emotionally naked as the essay on which it's based, the film nonetheless crawls inside one of the more difficult situations an average person can endure. Segel is excellent, probably as good as he's ever been in a dramatic role, and Johnson brings life to what could've been little more than a collection of tics and cliches.
For those not ready for films about a pandemic, we understand, and we don't begrudge you that. So feel free to skip this one.
For those who feel more ready to take on virus-related content, Little Fish is a film that tackles it in microcosm. While we see signs of the larger world—people wearing masks, jittery visits to doctor's offices, and anecdotes about how the disease affects others, the story focuses on Emma (Olivia Cooke) and Jude's (Jack O'Connell) relationship.
The disease, which slowly steals people's memories, has been a part of their relationship from the start. And for more than a year, they somehow avoided it while others succumbed. But, inevitably, it touched them too.
After making a big splash about six years ago and then having that immediately scuttled by a role in Money Monster, this feels like a second coming for O'Connell, who trades his usual coiled intensity for something both lighter and more fragile. Cooke is also quite good in a role that accords her a little more inner strength than most of her prior work.
The past few years have brought a lot of “What if Groundhog Day but…” films, some quite good, some fairly bad. Rare have any of them been as delightfully over the top and blood-soaked.
Roy (Frank Grillo) is our man in the loop, and he now treats it as a video game. Every day, he gains XP, learns more about the “game” his life has become, and makes it that much farther in his quest. With each repeating day, Roy begins to understand better what's happening and who can save. However, doing so involves swords, Gatling guns, self-tooth removal, and the end of the world over and over again.
Grillo is the right mix of hyper-masculine and self-aware to sell the role. The big bad is a bit of a bummer, truth be told, but if you can overlook him, this is a fun bit of time loop bullet-riddled sugar shock.
Bart (Finn Wittrock) got his novel published only for it to tank hard, taking his feelings of self-worth with it. To make matters worse, his ex left him, unable to deal with his state of mind after the novel's failure. Now he lives with his friends Doug (Damon Wayans Jr.) and Casey Wilson (Rachel) and their two young kids. He works in a soul-crushing medical copywriting job and does things like getting drunk and sleeping it off at the movie theatre.
During one such drunken film viewing, he meets Vienna (Zoë Chao). They have instant chemistry and spend the rest of the day together before ending up back at her hotel room that night. Bart is instantly smitten, and while Vienna seems more hesitant, she ultimately can't help herself either.
The longer Bart knows her, the more he notices some strange qualities. She has a massive amount of loose cash. Her favorite song seems never to have been released. She needs to open a bank account but can't do it herself. Eventually, it becomes too much, and she confesses her extraordinary secret to him.
Wittrock and Chao have excellent chemistry, the kind that makes it easy to understand how they could so quickly fall into bed and then fall in some kind of love. Wittrock's relationship to Wayans and Wilson is thinly sketched, but there's a lived-in feel amongst the trio that sells it.
The end puts its thumb a little too heavily on the scale about what really happened more than I'd like. However, the film's actual climax is a heartbreaking brain teaser that sells the ambiguity of Vivian and what's going on with her.
If you recognize any movie on this list, it will most likely be this one. Based on her previous short, Emma Seligman's feature-length directorial debut clicked with critics to the tune of 97% positive reviews on Rotten Tomatoes.
A senior in college, Danielle (Rachel Sennott) is still trying to figure herself and her life out. Unfortunately, fate would have it that she has to observe shiva amongst her prying relatives, her ex-girlfriend who's beloved by the community, and her current sugar daddy who turns out not only to be married but using his wife's money to buy Danielle gifts and give her cash.
With little means of escape, the movie unfolds as if one dropped the darkest of comedies into a pressure cooker. The score, often horror movie-esque, only enhances the pervasive sense of unease. Nevertheless, Baby successfully puts you in Danielle's shoes, forcing you to feel exactly how she does.
Mickey (Sebastian Stan), a DJ, and Chloe (Denise Gough), an immigration attorney, meet at a party one night. Chloe's just been dumped and ready to leave Greece and head home to a new high-paying job. However, the two have one last fling that becomes a weekend that becomes moving in together. But what happens when you run out of places to have sex, and you have to concentrate on living with each other?
A jittery uncomfortable sit, this is the kind of film you can see the red flags screaming long before the characters ever do. Some were put off by the toxicity of the Mickey and Chloe pairing, but it feels honest without demonizing either person. The fact that they don't fit well is the film's point, not a bug. If you like the kind of on-screen heartbreak that comes from two decent people who genuinely care for each other and still can't make it work—despite trying to erase that truth with lots of sex—this film will be right in your wheelhouse.
Matt (Ed Helms) has imagined himself a father for years. When his latest relationship fails, he decides not to wait any longer and hires surrogate Anna (Patti Harrison) to have the child that he'll then raise on his own.
Matt is a pleasant, if awkward, guy. He doesn't just want Anna to have the baby. He wants to get to know her better. So the two start to bond—and put together the baby's future room—as Anna gestates his future child.
Despite the assumptions of others around them, the film wisely never attempts a romantic pairing between the two. Instead, they form a halting friendship that grows larger than either, Anna especially, expected. Both leads are excellent, and the themes of found friendship and making your own family are told with smart sensitivity.
We Broke Up
We Broke Up was promoted as a romantic comedy. If that's what's drawing you to the film, I have to wave you off. There are jokes, but this isn't a comedy. Come to it, it isn't much of a romance either. What it does do is smartly explore relationships, why they last, why they don't, and why even “good ones” unravel.
William Jackson Harper as Doug continues to prove himself an actor who can wring laughs out of topics sure to induce existential dread while still doing the story justice. Aya Cash as Lori, the other half of the broken-up couple in question, matches him well. She is especially impressive charting the emotional revelations of knowing you want to be with someone but knowing you can't be with them in the way they want.
The setting, an old summer camp turned resort, is a wonderful bit of stagecraft, too, evoking both carefree memories of childhood and the complications of adulthood. It, like the film itself, is a study in contrasts.
Somehow this movie's timeliness has only grown since its release.
One of two films on this list directed by Natalie Morales, Plan B concerns two best friends' quest to reach a Planned Parenthood a few hours away from their home. Sunny (Kuhoo Verma) is seeking the titular emergency birth control, Lupe (Victoria Moroles) is along for the ride. Along the way, they encounter crushes, online hookups, judgmental pharmacists, car thieves, and plenty more.
It is a fun road trip movie for sure. If that's all you want and need, you'll walk away plenty happy. Both Moroles and Verma know their way around dialogue. Morales has a great eye for shooting comedy as well.
However, if you crave more depth, Plan should also satisfy. First, it provides thoughtful commentary on the state of women's health options in this current moment. Additionally, the way it frames and observes the friendships of adolescence is well done. Finally, it captures that impulse in doing anything to maintain your friendships except for telling each other what's really going on with you.
Werewolves Within is a film based on a video game, but don't worry, this isn't Doom. Honestly, it isn't anything like Sonic or Detective Pikachu, either.
Instead, Werewolves treats the source material as inspirational without feeling pressure to reflect its aesthetics. As a result, instead of feeling like a game adaptation, it plays out more like an improvisational horror-comedy.
Sam Richardson, who increasingly feels like he can do anything, leads the cast as the town sheriff. The supporting cast is strong, including a Milana Vayntrub in a standout role as the town's mail carrier and perhaps the only sheriff's only reliable ally.
As chaos and distrust mount, the humor matches pace, growing steadily darker and more blood-soaked. The resolution of who is the werewolf amongst the townfolk is well-handled, offering a sly bit of “but who's the real monster here?” commentary.
Natalie Morales's second film on the list, Language Lessons, is a considerably less laugh-out-loud affair. Still, like Plan, it is an intelligent observer of how human beings interact with one another before coming down the side of, for all our foibles, we do better with each other than on our own.
Filmed during the pandemic's height in 2020 and released almost a year later in March 2021, it is a film that has nothing to do with COVID and, yet, everything.
Adam (Mark Duplass) is an American struggling with grief who is surprised by the gift of a 100 lesson Spanish refresher course. Cariño (Morales) is his instructor. Despite personal issues and attempts to be professional, the two connect. Then they struggle with how to deal with that connection.
Duplass is probably as good as he's ever been, moving from emotional devastation to acceptance throughout the film. Morales is prickly and challenging, playing each note of Cariño with equal parts pride and sadness.
For a lowkey movie, Lessons is surprisingly slippery. It delivers legitimate surprises in nearly each of its episodic segments and, even after it ends, remains satisfyingly ambiguous about some of its questions. Then, in its final scene, it offers one of the best cut-to-black moments of 2021.
A modern grindhouse cops and crooks fable, Copshop is unapologetically out of step with the era. At least on the surface. However, as I argued in my review, Carnahan knows what he's doing. He's tweaking the current debate to return to his pet thesis: corruption reigns, all are flawed, heroics are possible, but there are no heroes.
Toss in a trio of delightful midnight movie performances by Gerard Butler, Toby Huss, and Alexis Louder and a single claustrophobic location filmed with finesse. The result is ugly old-school fun.
The only dark spot—if the nihilistic politics don't bother you—is how Copshop criminally (no pun intended) underuses Frank Grillo. What Grillo does on-screen is good, but it's the kind of good that leaves you consistently disappointed there isn't more of him to appreciate.
The erotic thriller is an almost lost art, but now and again, a movie like The Voyeurs pops up to remind us of the possibility of the genre, and why it is disappointing we don't get more of them.
Twisted, twisty, and sexy, the film wonderfully delivered on all the promises of an erotic thriller. It presented a complex mystery populated by intrigue characters. The action is often titillated and confused. It left the viewers feeling both exhilarated and a bit embarrassed about how it got under their skin when it was over.
With Brian DePalma largely out of the game and Paul Verhoeven running on empty, I wouldn't mind seeing writer-director Michael Mohan grab the torch and become one of this generation's finest interpreters of the genre.
The summary of Nine Days reads like either some sort of New Age or charismatic Christian fare. In an isolated house in some unnamed desert lives Will (Winston Duke). Will evaluates souls to decide who gets to be the next to inhabit a body. Despite being a mystical being, a recent personal tragedy has him reeling when it comes time for another round of souls to be chosen.
It sounds like the back of a book from the inspirational section of B. Dalton's. So how come it's so damn wonderful?
Part of it is the actors including Duke, Tony Hale, Zazie Beetz, and Benedict Wong. Part of it is writer/director Edson Oda's deft script and excellent eye for simple but beautiful imagery. The rest, though? Intangible. Difficult to say. One is almost tempted to declare it the magic of cinema.
This post was produced and syndicated by Wealth of Geeks.
Tim Steven is a sad tomato, Tim Stevens is three miles of bad road. He’s also a therapist, staff writer and social media manager for The Spool, and a freelance writer with publications like ComicsVerse, Marvel.com, CC Magazine, and The New Paris Press. His work has been quoted in Psychology Today, The Atlantic, and MSN Ireland. Feel free to find him @UnGajje on Twitter or in a realm of pure imagination.