The pandemic has pushed more films to streaming platforms at a faster rate than probably ever before. Old films, new films, indie fare, and blockbusters—they all scuttled onto the web in 2021, to attract all those quarantined eyeballs. With so much to choose from, any definitive best must-watch is going to be more personal than definitive. So below are a range of films you might have missed in 2021, or that you can watch to prepare for 2022 media to come, or that I love and want you to love too.
1. The Sit-In: Harry Belafonte Hosts the Tonight Show
In 1968, Johnny Carson took a vacation for a week and chose singer, actor, and civil rights activist Harry Belafonte to host the Tonight Show for a week. It was an unprecedented opportunity for a Black celebrity to sit in the living rooms of people across the nation, and Belafonte made the most of it. His guests included a who’s who of Black America, including Sidney Poitier, Aretha Franklin, Lena Horne and—four months before his assassination—Belafonte’s close friend Martin Luther King, Jr. Belafonte also showed pictures of his own family vacationing and enjoying each other’s company; again, such humanizing images of Black people were rare on network television.
Almost all the footage of Belafonte’s Tonight Show week is lost. But director Yoruba Richen works around that difficulty brilliantly by interviewing key figures and making the most of what little film survives. This is a brilliant, fascinating look at a pivotal moment, and a pivotal figure, in American popular culture. You should stream everything on this list, obviously! But if you’re just going to pick one I’d recommend starting here.
Image Credit: NBC.
Director Julia Ducournau’s Palm d’or winning Titane starts out a little like David Cronenberg’s Crash. But it ends up with some completely new birth of chrome and flesh and love.
Alexia (Agethe Rousselle) strips at car shows, murders people on the side, and—in a scene that would make Stephen King’s Christine blush—is impregnated by a Cadillac. To avoid the police, she impersonates a boy named Adrien who disappeared as a child. His (maybe) deceived father, Vincent (Vincent Lindon) becomes the closest thing she has to a family.
Alexia’s opportunistic swapping of self ends up as a kind of discovery. There’s a person inside her, it turns out, who doesn’t systematically stab her hair sticks through her acquaintances’ eardrums and into their brains. The film manages to be both gratuitously vicious and gentle. It’s a weird stitched together Frankenstein gender monster that will break your heart, one way or the other. If you stream it. Which you should!
Image Credit: NEON.
The original 1992 Candyman was a showcase for the amazingly luxurious menace of Tony Todd as the title horror. But the film’s plot and themes sometimes wandered into mirrored dead ends.
Director Nia DaCosta’s 2021 sequel/reboot of the Candyman franchise, on the other hooked hand, unfolds with the clinical inevitability of a story told and told and told again. Every death is an icy pantomime. Every victim dances a ballet of death with an invisible antagonist, manipulated like artist Kara Walker’s eerie shadow puppet sequences.
The movie is about how stories—especially racist stories—write people into their own grim roles, and artist Anthony (Yahya Abdul Mateen II) finds himself drawn to his own monstrous reflection like a bee to honey. If there ever was a movie to watch over and over, it’s this one. Candyman 2021 took a while to get to streaming, but it’s finally available on Amazon Prime. (And watch the original too, while you’re at it.)
Image Credit: MGM.
4. PG: Psycho Goreman
If you see only one low-budget epic about an intergalactic purple space warlord who makes swords out of the internal organs of his enemies and then has to go clothes shopping because a bossy girl-child has obtained his mystic gemstone…wait, what were we talking about again here? Cyborg Valkyries? Children transformed into giant squooshy brains with eyes and mournful expressions!? Yes, all of that! And more! Psycho Goreman is coming, because he used to be the Arch-Duke of Nightmare, and then some bratty kid forced him to change his name! Tremble! Giggle! Stream it already!
Image Credit: RLJE Films.
The new super-nostalgic Ghostbusters: Afterlife is scheduled to shout “boo!” from the big screen on November 18. In the meantime, though, rather than watching the original for the gazillionth-to-the-power-of-giant-twinkie time, consider revisiting the bracingly anti-nostalgic snark of the 2016 Ghostbusters.
Physicists Erin Gilbert (Kristen Wiig) and Abby Yates (Melissa McCarthy) use superscience and friendship to catch ghosts and foil the plot of a nerd who stands in for male franchise gatekeepers past. The ectoplasm spurted a little too close to home for some fans. This is a shame, because the film is extremely funny and has a number of brilliant character turns. Kate McKinnon as feral gun-licking engineer Holtzman is a highlight. So is Chris Hemsworth as the women’s secretary doing an absolutely joyous Marilyn Monroe dumb blonde impression.
There aren’t many reboots gutsy enough to bring on an original star in a cameo for the sole purpose of humiliatingly offing him. The new movie may erase this one from continuity, but the Ghostbusters 2016 spirit lives on.
Image Credit: Columbia Pictures.
6. Blade (1998)
The upcoming Morbius film has everyone engaged in bat-like chittering about Marvel vampires. So let us direct some of that chitter to the OG super blood-sucker.
Back before superheroes conquered the cineplex, Marvel’s first film success featured Wesley Snipes as a boss vampire stalking his evil vampiric brethren through hip nightclubs and Afrocentric head shops. From its trailer, Morbius looks a bit darker than the bright MCU standard, but it’ll be hard for it to surpass the grungy, funky vibe of Blade, with its creepy themes of incest and addiction, not to mention the visceral special effects saturated with Carpenteresque bodily fluids.
Blade doesn’t get enough credit for its pioneering weirdness. Stream it now. Don’t be one of those expletive deletives always trying to skate uphill.
Image Credit: New Line Cinema.
The December release of Matrix: Resurrections will have lots of people rushing to their streaming services to watch the earlier adventures of Neo. But I’d also urge you to check out the Wachowski sisters directorial debut Bound.
Corky (Gina Gershon) is a butch small-time crook and handyman. Violet (Jennifer Tilly) is the girlfriend of mob hood Caesar (Joe Pantoliano); she’s all soft curves and breathy vulnerability, which is everything you have to watch out for in a femme fatale. Noir is all about gender reversals, and the Wachowskis explicitly queer take on the genre shuffles expectations and tropes with a deft manipulation even more vertiginous than the reality-altering shifts in their more famous work.
(Did I mention that they have a scene where Corky is literally tied up in a closet?)
Image Credit: Summit Entertainment.
8. Heaven and Earth
Everybody has some movie they stumbled on while streaming and now think everyone should see. This is mine. “Heaven and Earth” is based on memoirs by Le Ly Hayslip, a Vietnamese peasant who married an American GI. Of Oliver Stone’s three films about the war, it’s the one that is not centered on Americans, and, predictably, it was also the one that had the least commercial success. Critics were ambivalent too, referring to it as “structurally clunky.”
But the amorphousness of the film is its point. Le Ly (Hiep Thi Li) isn’t in a war story with a beginning and end. She’s in a story about being a wife and mother that is interrupted by violence. She is tortured by the paranoid American-supported government, then raped by the Viet Cong. After she flees to Saigon, Steve Butler (Tommy Lee Jones) marries her, dragging her not to salvation, but into his own pit of self-loathing and domestic violence.
Le Ley finds agency not in resistance or even in closure, but in sweeping, lyrical forgiveness. Her acceptance of monumental cruelty and injustice is much harder to watch than a satisfying revenge bloodbath. War movies often make you sit with horror and blood and guts. This one makes you feel the powerlessness of civilians, of women, and of the poor when the war movie is going on.
Image Credit: Warner Bros.
Jurassic World 3: Dominion, coming in June 2022, will almost certainly have big Tyrannosaur size roller-coaster thrills. But way back before Michael Crichton penned the novels in which dinosaurs walked the earth, he, as director and writer, populated his theme park with cowboys.
Neither the bright Jurassic Park films nor the twisty Westworld television series really prepare you for the grimly clanking march of the original. Systems fail, bureaucrats, flail, and Yul Brynner in a black hat paces across the screen like a proto-Terminator, turning decadent tourists into decadent corpses with satisfying efficiency. Special effects are rudimentary, but that’s part of the point. Westworld is about how your seedy ersatz fantasies hunt you down.
Image Credit: MGM.
10. Throne of Blood
Many of Akira Kurosawa’s classic films are now available on HBO Max and Amazon for streaming. And if you have a chance to watch Kurosawa, you should watch Kurosawa!
Throne of Blood is Kurosawa’s version of Macbeth. Shakespeare’s story of treason and revolt in Kurosawa’s version is filled with twining mist; banners flap like people blown by destiny towards doom. Toshiro Mifune is stunning as Taketoki (aka Macbeth), a strong warrior’s body with a weak man looking out through his shifting, paranoid eyes. Asaji/Lady Macbeth (Isuzu Yamada) is the brains in the relationship—until a stillbirth sends her into madness, a plot addition that improves on Shakespeare himself.
A Lord of the Rings miniseries is coming in 2022. But if you are looking for visually-stunning fantasy epics, you can’t do better than this. (Unless maybe you watch Kurosawa’s Ran.)
Image Credit: Toho Pictures.
What else?! The last thing I took off the list was Terry Gilliam’s Time Bandits; Taika Waititi is directing a television adaptation that might show up in 2022. I still haven’t seen the documentary Summer of Soul, but I strongly suspect I should. Ditto for The Harder They Fall. I did watch Five Elements Ninja for the first time this year and OMG, you should definitely see that if Chinese ninja element battles appeal to you (and why wouldn’t they!) And what about Adam West’s Batman: The Movie? When given a chance you should always stream Batman: The Movie. If not in 2021, then make sure you do in 2022.
Image Credit: 20th Century Fox.
This article was produced and syndicated by Wealth of Geeks.
Feature Image Credit: MGM.
Noah Berlatsky is a freelance writer based in Chicago. His book, Wonder Woman: Bondage and Feminism in the Marston/Peter Comics was published by Rutgers University Press. He thinks the Adam West Batman is the best Batman, darn it.