When I started making these lists in 2008, I was inspired by a random commenter on an AV Club post. Letterboxd didn't exist yet, and I hadn't seen anyone else regularly recap their year of watching movies from previous years. Now, I see lists of "first-time watches" all over social media, sometimes monthly, and I think it's an awesome development, highlighting people's explorations of cinema's past (even if it's just a year or two in the past). Maybe that makes me less special for posting this list every year, but it's still one of my favorite things to do. These are the best movies I watched for the first time in 2021 that were initially released in previous years.
1. The Night of the Hunter (Charles Laughton, 1955)
This is the first time in a while that I've had a well-known classic at the top of this list, and of course it's shameful that it took me this long to watch Laughton's lone directorial effort, featuring an iconic, terrifying lead performance from Robert Mitchum. What's great about Mitchum's performance is the way he shifts so easily from the ingratiating, likable preacher to the menacing killer, while making it clear that those two sides are part of the same continuum within a single person. The story is suspenseful and often unexpected, and the haunting visual style, influenced by German expressionism, is still astounding nearly 70 years later. It's pointless to lament that Laughton never made another movie, but it's also impossible to watch this movie without having that thought.
2. Prospect (Zeek Earl & Christopher Caldwell, 2018)
I love sci-fi movies that feel like they are a glimpse into one out-of-the-way corner of a fully realized future world offscreen. Earl and Caldwell clearly had a small budget for this sci-fi movie set on a remote mining planet, and all they really need are a couple of worn-out space suits and a janky-looking pod command center set in order to create a believable alien setting. Prospect
is full of unexplained jargon that gives it a more authentic, lived-in feel, and the core of the plot is about the relationship between Pedro Pascal's hardened prospector and Sophie Thatcher's fierce teenage girl. It's a timeless human story of survival and connection, with plenty of nods to classic Westerns, given new life by being placed in an otherworldly context.
3. Outland (Peter Hyams, 1981)
And speaking of sci-fi worlds that are believably grungy and lived-in, this mostly forgotten Sean Connery vehicle could easily take place across the solar system from Prospect
. It's also about blue-collar space miners, rank-and-file employees rather than Prospect
's freelancers, toiling for a heartless company that would rather get its workers addicted to productivity-enhancing drugs than offer them decent working conditions. Connery plays the outsider security chief who's the only man of integrity on the base, setting up a High Noon
-style showdown with organized criminals. Connery is at his ornery best as the upstanding lawman, and Hyams delivers a noir-style crime story in the midst of convincingly ramshackle future technology.
4. Klute (Alan J. Pakula, 1971)
This year, I wrote articles on two vintage Jane Fonda movies that I love (The China Syndrome
), and this could fit right alongside them, with another complex, intelligent and alluring Fonda performance. She plays Bree Daniels, a high-end escort in New York City who gets caught up in the investigation of a missing executive. Donald Sutherland plays the title character, the private detective on the case, but this is really Fonda's movie, and she makes Bree into a smart, capable woman who isn't defined or diminished by her profession. The movie has a remarkably forward-thinking perspective on sex work for 1971, never denying Bree her own agency as a person. Often grouped in with Pakula's other 1970s conspiracy thrillers The Parallax View
and All the President's Men
is more personal than political, although the way the two seamlessly blend together is part of what makes it great.
5. Wait Until Dark (Terence Young, 1967)
I watched this movie right before we started our 1967 season of Awesome Movie Year
, and I almost switched up my pick for the season after seeing it. I'm happy with Point Blank
(which topped this list for me in 2019
), but Wait Until Dark
is an excellent, somewhat underrated thriller, making great use of a single location and a simple home-invasion premise. Audrey Hepburn was deservedly Oscar-nominated for her role as a blind woman facing criminals who break into her house looking for their smuggled drugs. She conveys the character's terror and vulnerability, but also the defiance that she musters to prove that she doesn't deserve to be a victim just because she's disabled. Alan Arkin is devious and menacing as the main villain in the kind of role he doesn't usually play, and Young comes up with new and inventive ways to maintain tension in the confined space.
6. Casting JonBenet (Kitty Green, 2017)
I had Green's debut narrative film The Assistant
pretty high on my 2020 top 10 list
, and this docu-fiction hybrid has many of the same unsettling qualities. It's a deconstruction of the idea of true-crime documentaries -- which have proliferated even further since it was released -- as well as an interrogation of the motives for people's obsessions with the murder of JonBenet Ramsey. Green uses deliberately artificial re-enactments featuring actual members of Ramsey's local community, and she interviews those people about their reactions to and thoughts about the crime. The movie is less interested in investigations and solutions than in perceptions and emotions, using the participants as a reflection of the crime, and vice versa.
7. Seconds (John Frankenheimer, 1966)
Rock Hudson plays with his pretty-boy image as the reconstituted version of a frustrated middle-aged man who accepts an obviously sinister offer to be reborn as a handsome playboy. The concept of Seconds
is a Twilight Zone
-style morality play that sounds a bit limited at first, but Frankenheimer turns it into a surrealistic nightmare that's also a meditation on the culture clashes of the 1960s. Hudson is great as the tortured everyman who doesn't appreciate his mundane life until he loses it -- and then is violently prevented from ever getting it back. More in my Inverse spotlight piece.
8. The Shop Around the Corner (Ernst Lubitsch, 1940)
I ended up watching quite a lot of Christmas movies this year for various articles, and this was catch-up viewing for my list of HBO Max Christmas offerings
. It definitely has a holiday flair, and the climax takes place on Christmas Eve, but it's not quite as Christmassy as many seasonal favorites. It's probably best known now as the source material for the Meg Ryan/Tom Hanks rom-com You've Got Mail
(which I've never seen), but it's more than just a love story between two bickering retail employees (played by James Stewart and Margaret Sullavan) who don't realize they're secretly romantic pen pals. It's a witty, warm portrait of all the employees at this little shop in Budapest, the community that forms among workers and the ways they come together in the face of their various emotional and financial struggles.
9. Dredd (Pete Travis, 2012)
This movie has become an unlikely cult classic since its 2012 box-office failure, and it's not hard to see why. It's a simple, brutal and efficient action movie, with a plot similar to The Raid
, as the main characters work their way up an enormous high-rise en route to a showdown with the main villain. Travis and writer Alex Garland balance that B-movie simplicity with effective bits of sci-fi world-building, and even as someone largely unfamiliar with the comic book source material, I got a clear sense of the scope of this dystopian future. Karl Urban is dedicated to the title character's taciturn grimness, never even taking off his helmet, so it falls to Olivia Thirlby to provide the character development and emotional arc as his partner, and she delivers, while retaining the focus on the suspense and action.
10. Highlander (Russell Mulcahy, 1986)
As I said on Letterboxd: I really screwed up by not watching this like 25 times when I was 12 years old. It delivers everything I loved about movies at that age (and still mostly love now) in a stylish, fabulously entertaining package. Mulcahy directs the hell out of this cheesy sci-fi/fantasy nonsense, crafting what is essentially a two-hour bombastic '80s rock video. The Queen music is majestic and fits the epic material perfectly, the shot composition and visual transitions are creative and evocative, and Clancy Brown (looking like Glenn Danzig for the first two-thirds of the movie) is a perfect villain. Instead, kid me obsessively watched the Dolph Lundgren Masters of the Universe
movie, which I now realize is just an inferior version of Highlander
Honorable mentions: The Tall Target (Anthony Mann, 1951); A Shaun the Sheep Movie: Farmageddon (Will Becher & Richard Phelan, 2019)