The Most Underrated and Overlooked Movies of 2021

As quickly as 2021 brought the Sacred Big-Screen Experience back in full(ish) force, it also brought back the film industry’s most depressing habits. Especially if you live outside any cities with particularly adventurous film ecosystems, the big chains fill up on spectacle and squeeze out the precious few alternatives that still get a wide release (and if Disney’s confused fumbling of its un-franchiseable Fox acquisitions is anything to go by, who can say how long they’ll continue to go wide?) The most fascinating stuff still gets buried by streaming algorithms and limited theatrical engagements, easily missed even by the folks who want to seek it out.

Here, very much non-exhaustively, are a few of the films that deserve better than to be lost in the shuffle. (And also maybe see here for some movies from earlier in the year, like Identifying Features and Test Pattern, that I left out because I’m no good at repeating myself).

Agnes

Agnes

The trailer for Agnes sells a pretty familiar frightfest, at risk of damning the film to that immense heap of mismarketed indie horror: two priests have been dispatched to a convent with orders to investigate and exorcise a possessed nun. But beyond a couple of hovering teacups and bloody tears, the film is not particularly interested in straightforward terror, working as more of an ensemble character piece that explores faith and devotion through conflicting perspectives: the buttoned-up Mother Superior, the creepy boss, the jaded Father, the fresh-faced priest-to-be, the disillusioned Sister. In a fascinating and gutsy move, writer/director Mickey Reece follows this thread so far that the film all but abandons its apparent exorcism conceit halfway through, jumping to its aftermath as seen through the eyes of one particular character as they acclimate to the wreckage left behind and search for other things to believe in.

Cryptozoo

Cryptozoo

Okay, hang on, this isn’t what it sounds like — Dash Shaw and Jane Samborski’s animated film is a kaleidoscopic peek into cryptid captivity. Zookeepers trot across the globe in search of the planet’s most elusive beings, hoping to coax them into a sanctuary where they will be safe but also displayed and merchandised because the funding has to come from somewhere (think Jurassic Park if it wasn’t quite so blatantly a terrible idea; some of the cryptids are animalistic but many are quite sentient). As it more or less must be to deliver on the premise, the film is a visual feast of eccentric designs, but its most intriguing angle is the sincerity with which it approaches the concept. Though there’s a conspicuously huge opening for potential snark, Cryptozoo instead fills that space with ethical considerations about best intentions and how much of ourselves we are willing to give and perform in the name of progress that never seems to come fast enough. Cryptozoo does run a bit longer than it probably ought to, but that rambling, in-depth quality is also part of its appeal, like finding some kid’s manuscript that’s clearly unpolished and undisciplined yet deeply imaginative.

Jumbo

Jumbo

In a banner year for mechanophilic French women, Jumbo goes in quite the opposite direction of the fabulously harrowing Titane. There’s a rapturous quality to writer/director Zoé Wittock’s film, conveying the resounding glee of love and discovery that we might call childlike if not for protagonist Jeanne’s tendency to strip naked in front of theme park machinery. Played by Portrait of a Lady on Fire’s Noémie Merlant, Jeanne works cleaning up the park after hours, soon finding herself captivated by the new tilt-a-whirl. Through sheer strength of filmmaking technique, Wittock communicates a dizzying love in terms we both do and do not understand — we can relate to Jeanne in the broadest emotional strokes, but the film doesn’t shy away from the most uncomfortable aspects of her infatuation and how onlookers perceive her. There’s no tidy metaphor, no helpful visualization of the machine as a human spirit; it is a many-limbed mechanical contraption that communicates through light and sound, leaving us and the people in Jeanne’s life to accept or refuse her in all her messiness.

Limbo

Limbo

The refugee characters of Limbo are stuck on a Scottish island, waiting for asylum that may never be granted. The rooms are cramped and entertainment is slim outside some old DVDs of Friends. They squabble and get to know one another, sitting through patronizing classes and updating relatives from a solitary payphone in the middle of the road (there is cell reception elsewhere, but it’s a bit of a hike). Under director Ben Sharrock, the cast is seen in fussy, composed frames that reflect their general immobility, penned in by bureaucratic absurdity. And as the film spirals into some devastating emotions, we feel how they’re cut off from their prospective lives as well as from the very identities of who they were and who they would like to eventually be.

One Shot

One Shot

Reigning DTV action champ Scott Adkins enters the generally ill-advised field of Films That Look Like One Take with a genuinely impressive use of the technique. The setup is a little less icky than it sounds, albeit still the sort of thing we’re better off not thinking too hard about: a simple SEAL team extraction from a to-be-closed CIA black site goes awry, prompting the survivors to hunker down for a siege while our man Scott creeps around CQCing the invaders in a rather persuasive Metal Gear audition. Director James Nunn refrains from a lot of the ostentatious showboating that comes with long takes, seamlessly moving between perspectives to create a coherent sense of space and subliminal tension. The camera will frequently leave Adkins entirely, either to follow a supporting character or to let him disappear for a moment in order to pop up somewhere else for an opportune knifing. Most importantly of all, there is indeed a scene where an actor says the movie title into the middle of a sentence and then dramatically pauses like a goddamn professional.

El Planeta

El Planeta

Amalia Ulman’s directorial debut marks her as a multi-hyphenate talent to watch, running with the comedic desperation of keeping up appearances. The black-and-white film follows a Spanish mother/daughter pair (played by Ulman and her real-life mother) doing all they can to evade their declining economic situation. Facing eviction amid unpaid bills, they dress lavishly while convincing restaurant staff to put the bill on someone else’s tab, maneuver a laptop to mooch the neighboring wifi, and haggle with a man over the current rate for pissing on him. With the aid of some wickedly corny transitions, El Planeta captures the matter-of-fact absurdity of everyday hustle and the constant maintenance of image that goes along with it.

The Summit of the Gods

The Summit of the Gods

This French animated film chronicles the obsessive passion that leads some Japanese men to climb mountains under the most willfully dangerous conditions. One is a photographer, who, in his determination to discover the fate of a lost early expedition to Mt. Everest, follows the trail of a reclusive climbing prodigy who never quite hit the big time. Adapted from Jiro Taniguchi’s manga, the film’s clear standout is the gorgeous detail of its environments and equipment, augmented by naturalistic animation and an immersive soundscape. It’ll make you want to go out and climb stuff or at least, if you’re a coward like me, fire up Insurmountable. The most intense scene isn’t even the one where a man pulls himself up a rope using just one arm and his teeth.

Wrong Turn

Wrong Turn

Typically the unnumbered, unsubtitled series “reboot” is an excuse to play the hits. And perhaps it’s the very lack of significant hits for this decidedly un-classic hicksploitation series that allows it to spin off into a grisly and unexpectedly thoughtful new direction. The whole thing takes a while to get going, but in the film’s best moments like its all-timer of an epilogue, this exploration of kill-or-be-killed societal dynamics evokes the ruthless work of the late horror writer Jack Ketchum.

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