2021 Retrospective: Favorite Documentaries, Animation and Horror

As I continue to give last minute considerations to my end of the year top lists in film I always enjoy giving special attention to some underserved genres. This is specifically true when it comes to documentaries as I tend to devote my top films of the year to narrative films. Thus this is an opportunity to shed some light on films that are really worth seeing that might not otherwise get mentioned. The same goes for animated and horror films. While these have the potential to break my final choices for top films of the year, seeing as they do belong in the narrative categories, they also tend to get overshadowed by nature of the genres. Thus I like to give them their own due as well..

So, as a precurser to my best of the year picks here are my 10 favorite documentaries, animated films and horror films of the year respectively:

Top 10 Documentaries of 2021

Honorable Mention: The Rescue

Bringing up the bottom rung of my top 10 this year is a pick that ironically might be making the strongest push at the 2022 Oscars. It’s positioning at number 10 is not a statement about its quality; this is a well made film that likely represents one of the true crowd pleasers of 2021. It’s simply made, sufficiently told, entertaining and checks all of the boxes for an inspiring and emotional real world drama emerging from tragedy. Its definitely worth checking out (currently available on Disney+) even if it doesn’t reach deeper than its larger than life story.

10. Painter and the Thief

This technically released in 2020, but it didn’t find wide release until 2021. Thus this captivating and intimately captured portrait of a man caught in a moment between the mistakes of the past and the redemptive possibilities of the present makes my list for its powerful ability to break through the concerns for justice and to ask better questions, both of the criminal and of onesself. The film does admittedly feel inentionally structured, ironically making this ripe for a narrative adaptation, which is actually being made. But it is this construction, as it trades the victims question of why did you do this for the simple and basic question “can I paint you”, putting victim and perpetrator across from one another in the most vulnerable of positions that leads to the most poignant, revelatory, and unexpected moment that drives this film forward, using the painting, the art, as a way to interpret deeper questions and observations about the self and the other.

9. Val

If someone had suggested a Doc would one day be made about Val Kilmer’s life I would likely have raised a couple eyebrows. And in fact I did when I heard about this release. He’s not the name I would have picked out of the hat to grace the screen with his story.

And yet here I am, completely immersed in his raw, vulnerable, quirky, and sometimes off the wall persona. I had no idea who Val really was off the screen, which is ironically a subtext and theme embedded into the doc itself. How is it that we navigate a dual existence, especially as one now with his identity stolen, forced to look backwards at a career that now defines him moving forward. I now feel better for knowing him through this film.

Credit him with documenting so many memories throughout his life, as they make the perfect complimentary narrative to this largely self reflective and very spiritual exercise. And for all its quirkiness, don’t be surprised at all if you find yourself shedding a year or two.

Couldn’t help while watching this but feel this is more than entertainment. It’s a gift, an invitation into a life and a struggling but hope filled soul that we shouldn’t take for granted. It’s a reminder that these are real people, real stories making the art that becomes and remains such important parts of our own stories and lives.

8. Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets

Another hold over from 2020 that didn’t see wide release unil 2021, but it is well worth your time as it blurs the lines of the traditional documentary by estbalishing certain bits of scripted drama. The way the scripted drama are submitted to the real world setting, forcing it to adapt and respond in real time, is fascinating to watch unfold as it explores a real world cheers like setting. It is intersted in locating this particular space as a place where everyone knows your name, and the longer we sit with these people in this space the more of their stories we get know, filling in the gaps with their circumstance, their fears, their stuggles and their dreams.

7. Velvet Underground/The Sparks Brothers

Ironically, of these two films documenting the story of a band who’s story has not previously been told in this fashion, its the one about the band I had never really heard of (The Sparks Brothers) that is my favorite, at least when it comes to the story. Both films bear their own unique style, with Wright’s flashy, upbeat approach working to capture the Sparks Brothers eccenitricty and external tesimonies and Todd Haynes utilizing something more avant-garde to tell the story of Velvet Undergrounds foray through the music scene of their time, telling the story from the perspective of the band itself. The Sparks Brothers has way of assuming that it is introducing you to a band you might not have heard of, narrowing in specifically on their music and their story, while The Velvet Underground takes a broad angle look by locating the band within a larger scene and era. Both are exceptiona docs from very good filmmakers that are worth seeking out (both on Appletv+)

6. Love, Oran/Notturno

A made at home Canadian documentary that takes place in Alberta as it follows a family digging through these relics of their past and gaining insight on their connective story in the process. The hidden secrets that emerge from these relics, hidden letters that they find in a family home, allow them to recontextualize their story in a fresh light using history and legacy. Meaningful and quite powerful. I caught up with this one on Hoopla.

If the question in Love, Oran is what if a portrait could erase the barriers of a family history, the question in Notturno is what if a camera could erase the boders holding a long history of conflict in its imaginary grasp. This is a fascinating question as it follows these relationships. A broader view of family and roots than Love, Oran, but nevertheless interted in something similar.

5. The Truffle Hunters

I still have never had truffles, and this film features a lot of truffles, but I was really here for the quirky, snarky old Italian men and their dogs hunting for truffles. The film uses this to bring some introspection to their inner lives, focusing on themes like class systems, life and death, It’s also worh mentioning the scenes where we get to watch an Italian man eat truffles with Italian music as his soundtrack, and likewise we get to watch a go-pro strapped to a dog hunting for said truffles. Definite scenes of the year for me.

4. Pink: All I know So Far/What Drives Us

I honestly would have never expected a documentary on Pink to be this high up on my list, but here we are. It made me a fan, or a bigger one than I was, and I found the spiritual journey of walking with Pink through life on tour to be hugely inspiring and uplifting in so many ways. What Drives Us is a different story. My wife is a massive fan of the Foo and of Dave Ghrol and thus we both anticipated enoying this one together. What i didn’t anticipate was such a raw and introspective reflection on life as a musician taking me back to my on music days and touring ambitions. This one struck a personal chord and is filled with a passion for music and a passion for life. It underscores why a Foo concert is like being taken to Church in true Gospel laden style. In this case the Gospel is the power of music to transform and to shape us in important ways as better people.

3. Woodlands Dark and Days Bewitched: A History of Folk Horror

One of those rare docs that makes education a highly entertaining process. The film utilizes a highly stylized approach that allows it to utiilze the full length of its run time (be aware this is a long one) in order to build on its subject matter and dig deep into the exploration of folk horror. A must watch for serious fans of horror.

2. Don’t Go Tellin Your Momma

A deep dive into the Black experience that is equal parts poetry, compelling documentary and visual interpretation. From what I understood this is based on a short, which only leaves me wanting to get my hands on the source material. As a feature length version this caaptures a sense of time and space and our essential humanity like few other films that I’ve seen this year.

1. Summer of Soul

This was an easy pic for my #1 spot as it exemplifies a true one of a kind experience. That this festival that it brings to light in all of its glory was swept away into the dusty and forgotten corners of history by the much more visible Woodstock, which took place at the same time down the oad from its Brooklyn locale, is astonishing in and of itself. It frames this celebraiton of music, soul and Black culture against the tragedy of this simpe fact. Which is what makes this footage so necessary , so thrilling, and so important. That the film is also uncovering the true power of this festivals social and cultural and neighborhood presence at the same time underscores its power and relevance. Currently available on Disney+.

Top Animated Films of 2021

10. and 9. The Croods: A New Age/Ron Gone Wrong

Two similar films bringing up the back end of my top 10. I am a considerate fan of The Croods, and I woulld make the case that this sequel is even stronger and more aware than the first when it comes to its sophisticated take on the human species and our developement of societies. On the other hand Ron Gone Wrong might not be quite as strong, but with its themes on the relationship between advancement/technology and the social realities of human connection it not only connects with the Croods but also takes its emphasis on history and applies it as one of the more important messages in 2021.

8. Red Shoes and the Seven Dwarfs

This came as a complete surprise to me. Springing for that dollar rental from Amazon on a small, unknown animated property uncovers a unique take on the Snow White story that digs deep into its mythos whole giving it some fresh, modern nuances. This is definitely not the traditional Disney story, taking that motif and turning it on its head in some interesting ways.

The low budget certainly does reveal itself at points, and the modern music is a bit misplaced, but it more than makes up for that in inventiveness through a sweet story that challenges modern conventions regarding appearances and image and identity.

7. Summit of the Gods

Visually rich, narratively compelling, and anchored in its real world context, this is an exceptionally constructed animated film that manages to reach those figurative heights even as it climbs that literal summi in search of the truth.

6. Luca

Deceptively and even refreshingly simple when it comes to Pixar, Luca offers an extremely lovely, charming and accessible narrative that is as steeped in its exploration of identity and community as it is in its vibrant Italian culture. As someone who loves everything and anything Italian I really fell for this film big time.

5. CryptoZoo

As a story about what it means to live together and the social and ecological concerns thta flow from this, this inventive and creative mindbender is an adult animation that locates its richness in the genres freedom to visually stretch the boundaries of reality. Much of this is about two worlds colliding, and as it does it reveals important truths about what it means to be human in our diversity and our complexit.. A challenging watch but a compelling one.

4. Encanto

I have already spent plenty of space here and elsewhere talking about my love of this story, but its presence as a “Christmas story”, its Colombian culture, and its complex themes and images remain some of the most compelling of 2021. Its getting misrepresented a bit I think in popular dsicsussion in ways that tend to miss the full weight of its narratve, both cuturally and thematically, but I definitely think it is one of the stronger Disney films to release in a while and I can only see it growing in my appreciation for it over time.

3. Raya and the Last Dragon

Coming out early in the year and leading a crop of decent entries for Pixar and Disney, Raya deserves not to be neglected to the shadows. This is the kind of storytelling that I desperately miss and that we need more of, which makes it ironic that I think some dismissed this as formulaic. Not only did I find the story exciting on a visual and dramatic level, I think it taps into some of those old fashioned narrative tendencies that are often reserved for epics, something this film aspires towards. Full points for representing one of the first new original films from Disney in a good while.

2. The Legend of Hei

A Chinese 2D animated film that’s big on scale and intimate in focus. There is so much to praise about this film’s ability to take a simple style and meld it with so much carefully crafted detail. This is as rich in its cultural representation as it is in the telling of its story, which, although arguably feeling somewhat familiar and by the numbers in certain points (the emphasis on the relationship between human and nature and the role of the spirit in uniting and healing this rift is common in Eastern narratives), reaches some real emotional depth. And it is as much the vision it represents as it is the chracters and relationships that invigorate this with meaning and purpose.

The film can be seen as a tale of two halves, with the inimacy of the first half giving way to the action set pieces of the second half. This blending of styles and focus might not work for everyone, but I found it to be a great way of building the momentum and fleshing out the stakes. It had me hooked the whole through, from the first glimpse we get of that wonderful cat, to the inhabited bodies and ensuing conflicts of the humans/goblins/spirits. One of the wonderful things about the film is that it is not interested in creating good versus bad but rather reaches for complexity and nuance in terms of the moral and ethical quesitons it wants to explore.

1. The Bones

The Wolf House is a legitimate classic, even given its relatively short existence (having releasdd last year). A work of true genius and an all time animated great. The visual creation paired with the immersive social and cultural commentary are intrinsic to its design, drawing me in with little knowledge of the allegorical context. The opportunity to dig further into its messaging was part of the experience.

This follow up short is no different. The commentary on Chilean history and the dictatorship drifts along underneath the capitvating notion of a young girl using literal death (bones of the past) to create life. It’s a bizarre concept to be sure, but it never obscure. In fact, by the time it’s over it feels earily comforting.

A definite must watch.

Top Horror Films of 2021

Honorable Mention: Vicious Fun

What would happen if you got drunk and accidentally stumbled into a secret support group for serial killers (come on now, therapy doesn’t discriminate). I never knew I needed the answer to this question until I encountered this film. Lets just say this gives new meaning to getting in touch with your inner self.

10. Anything for Jackson

After it’s well constructed opening sequence that uses an innocent backdrop to throw us straight into the deep end using some excellent set design and camera work (evoking atmosphere, mystery, space and minimalism to achieve this), the film wastes no time in answering it’s most essential questions- who are these people and why are they doing what they are doing.

This happens so succinctly and efficiently in fact that it left me wondering where this film goes from here. It does face some challenges in that it both doesn’t take its sensational premise too seriously but it also takes the characters extremely seriously. This plays out in terms of the basic construct of the plot, which plays things intentionally over the top, and the unexpected character beats and moments of honest introspection that give this film a genuine sense of heart. It’s too the Directors credit that the script its allowed to mine the premise for these moments and raise things to the surface in terms of motivation, struggles, backstories and nuance. There is real concern on display here amidst the glorified evil and some legitimately disturbing images and scenes (anything featuring an unborn baby tends to get automatic points for frights).

9. Sator/Violation

An excellent horror piece to add to the 2021 slate, and something of an unexpected find.

A tie in this spot for two challenging and uncoventional horror films that use a highly visual approach as an interpretive exercise. They both have much to say about the internal process in different ways, and they lean into the tones and atmosphere in order to tell its story.

8. The Quiet Place 2/Candyman

Two of the more popular titles to release this year tied in this spot as well, with the Quiet Place 2 demonstrating how to make a sequel to a stand alone cult success, especially given the films specific play on silence as a motif. This film leans into the larger mythology, asking questions about whats going on out there as opposed to the more contained focus of the first. It really worked for me. Candyman proves a great example of how you tackle a film from the past that was so anchored in its itme and place as a commentary. Using the same story to speak to modern questions makes this one of the smarter horror films of the year. Definitely enjoyed both new entries.

7. Nightmare Alley

The more I ruminate on this the more I like it. Of course he is my favorite Director so its difficult for him to miss with me. I watched it not too long after I saw The Power of the Dog and I found Nightmare Alley to speak to my negative experience with that film:
“Given the shared focus on our depravity and the inevitable cycles that hold us enslaved to potentials for both self destruction and liberation, Nightmare Alley succeeds where I felt The Power of the Dog desperately fails. The key difference I think is in the storytelling and the strength of the script. Depravity is always a curious theme to explore as there is always a danger of allowing nihilism to creep in to the mix The lingering phrase in this film, rich as it is with the full weight of the story’s examination of sin, forgivness and redemption, themes that emerge with stark resonance in the early going, echo with the sentiment of its felt and deeply human struggle. The words “I was born for this” cut through the noise of the inner turmoil with a special irony, disprupting our sense of how this story must go and how it must end. “Must” being a word that evokes that inherent need for the depravity to attach itself equally to the forming nature of transcendent Truth, something Del Toro is very good at capturing the rich world that Del Toro creates here for his characters to exist within rises to the surface and informs our perception of how it is that such depravity exists. And more importantly forms a longing to know how it is that something more hopeful might exist within the same fabric of this existence.

As my favorite Director Nightmare Alley proves to be more accessible and straight forward than Shape of Water, a film that needs room to grow in order to be fully appreciated (or rejected). For me personally this translated into a different kind of experience. Whereas the Shape of Water immediately resonated because of its complexity, this film left me feeling like it has a lot of room to grow in its simplicity. It’s one I anticipate revisiting, as the story structure takes a slow burn approach, using the quiet nature of its first half to set the stage for the dynamism of its second half and the thrill of its finish.”

6. Malignant

Makes my list mostly for the shared experience of that crazy twist. This is what makes horror so dependable when it comes to the theatrical experience and respresnts one of the more memorabe theater going experiences of the year. The film is more than just the twist though, and really reflects some tightly woven storytelling, some wonderful visual trics, and some great practical effects.

5. Lamb

I’m not sure exactly how I would categorize this film. It’s not really horror, but at the same time it kind of us. It’s a suspenseful drama, but its also a straight ahead moral tale. And then its scenario sets this into a category all its own. I think the best word for it is parable, and as a parable I really enjoyed it quite a lot. It’s the kind of film that has real staying power.

Thematically is where the film finds its anchor though, using an absurdist premise to ask some honest to goodness questions about what our relationship to the natural world is, particularly the sentient life we humans share it with. We also get an examination of “human” nature within this larger conversation, wondering about what it is that sets us apart as moral creatures, if anything. There is an action taken in the first half that forms a big part of the film’s tension. This action blurs the line between our humanity and the pure drive of nature to protect, survive and thrive in a familial and tribal sense. The film returns to this in its final act, using it to then hold the parable together as a cohesive narrative. As I suggested earlier, what we get here are types rather than character. This is actually what makes the film’s first half initially somewh evasive in precisely what it is going for. We are simply throw into a circumstance and situation without explanation, and we follow as things that feel less than normal unfold as normal, leading the film to then use this premise as an opportunity to ask questions and provide a lesson for us as viewers to then think on and ponder. And the more i ponder them, the more the point of the parable seems to awaken with fresh application.

4. Dark Encounter

A genuine sci-fi drama in the way of the older classics and Spielberg fame. Loved the look, the pacing, the suspense, the special effects. Its got all the right dynamics for the final half hour to pack a real emotional punch as it brings the subtext together with the building sense of mystery and dread.

Seek this one out. It’s playing on Prime and it’s absolutely worth your time.

3. The Night House

This is a challenging watch. Much of that comes down to the Director’s intention in attempting to leave its working parts slightly ambiguous so as to allow for different viewers to locate a story that fits their own experience. Its also an immensely rewarding experience for being to take the experience of the individual and set it within the film’s lingering presence as a bigger picture. This is where it truly comes alive. This is where the Director’s ambitions are able to take root, formulating the story I needed to hear while awakening me to the realization that this sits in conversation with multiple other stories that this film both is and can be telling at the same time. There are numerous scenes that play with perspective in some neat and highly technical ways, especially where it fits with this underlying theme of the mirror image or reversal that distorts matters of identity and truth. The ways the film achieves its scares is very effective, and comes as the result of well thought out and deeply creative sequencing and camera placement as opposed to any glossed over effects. Portions of this reflects natural filmmaking at its finest. And shout out to Rebecca Hall who does some nice work carrying this film. Definitley one of the strontest horrot films of the year.

2. Light From Light

An unconventional ghost story that works as a powerful, honest and simple exploration of spiritual longing in the face of loss and doubt. It’s quiet and very gradual in its pacing, but in a way that lets it really get inside you and do it’s work. There are no easy or concrete answers, simply the uncertain but hope filled journey of these wanting souls. There is the mother, who finds herself unexpectedly thrust into a position of wondering whether she has a spiritual gift and connection. There is her son who is on his own journey of coming of age and trying to make sense of life. And there is the middle aged man still working through the loss of his wife and wondering whether she is still with him.

As their lives connect the ghosts in this film become as metaphorical as they are literal, with the exploration of his wife’s spirit leading to powerful reflections on the hidden and painful parts of their past and present. And it’s done with such careful and astute observation of their emotional concern. Truly beautiful.

1. Last Night in Soho

Edgar Wright’s much anticipated horror film Last Night in Soho is a true celebration of style, substance and form. Brimming with character, it bleeds a welcome sense of nostalgia, moving us through the streets of Soho like a place caught in time and with stories to tell.

The film features complimentary performances by the eclectic and seasoned actresses Thomasin McKenzie and Anya Taylor-Joy. I especially love McKenzie, who is noted for her stately, and often muted performances. She pushes some of those boundaries here playing the confident young outsider with a special gift that allows her to see her dead mother’s spirit. When she decides to move to London to pursue a career in fashion design, this gift manifests itself in some unexpected ways.

If you have seen the trailer, you know that the film transports us back in time to a glamorized age of smoky rooms, good music and flashing lights. This movement between times mirrors the connection between the two main characters, which is where we get the mystery element of the story. Wright does a great job of tying this in thematically to the journey of McKenzie’s character. This is where her dream of her present and future collides headlong with the past in some neat ways. The past gets its own supporting character in a way, and this then functions as one of the films driving relationship.

There are some really nice horror bests too, including a couple very effective jump scares. It’s more experiential horror than terror, and Wright gives the film space it needs to really build up to where it goes, eventually the horror to seep its way into the fabric of the films design, almost unexpectedly.

Published by davetcourt

I am a 40 something Canadian with a passion for theology, film, reading writing and travel.

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