The films of 2021 offered up a flood of vivid imagery. We were thrilled to return to the movie theaters and soaked up every second of visual stimulation. With master filmmakers like Edgar Wright, Lana Wachowski, Steven Soderbergh, and Paul Verhoeven plying their trade, we often left the cinema reeling. Which scenes left the most indelible imprints? Here are twenty-five moments we’ll be thinking about forever.
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The Duel – “The Last Duel”
Before Ridley Scott pays off the film’s title, he makes it clear that of the three perspectives presented in this tale of toxic machismo, only one is trustworthy. Once Jodie Comer’s Marguerite de Carrouges has her say, two things are clear: both of these men are despicable, and she’d be much better off if they both died in combat. Alas, she will be burned alive if her husband does not murder her assailant in front of a packed and plenty bloodthirsty house, so we have a rooting interest as this disgusting spectacle commences. It’s nasty stuff, right down to coup de grâce, but it’s a pyrrhic victory until the denouement, where we learn Marguerite’s husband perished several years later in battle. At long last, she is free of her oppressors.
2 of 25
I’m On Fire – “Pig”
Michael Sarnoski’s tale of a hermit (Nicolas Cage) attempting to track down his kidnapped pig is as unpredictable as it is heartbreaking. When we’re informed of the animal’s fate in the last act, we steel ourselves for the very worst. Instead, we get a moment of melancholy catharsis via an old cassette tape. It’s the kind of finale where the end credits finish, the house lights go up and you’re left staring at a blank screen. You want to savor this experience forever.
3 of 25
The Virgin Mary – “Benedetta”
Paul Verhoeven always knows what he’s doing (with the exception of “The Hollow Man”, which he admits was an autopilot gig). So when young Bartolomena gives Benedetta the gift of the Virgin Mary in, um, toy form, it’s okay to giggle because you know the director of “Robocop”, “Total Recall” and “Starship Troopers” is giggling along with you. It’s a joy to see that, at eighty-three years old, the Dutch master can still provoke the humorless masses.
4 of 25
Abegunde Olawale – “Zola”
Janicza Bravo’s tweet-storm-based dazzler is packed with indelible moments, and it’s hardly surprising that many of them come courtesy of the great Colman Domingo. Cast as the pimp who ensnares the title heroine, Domingo conveys maximum menace with minimal movement. When he tires of Zola’s challenges, he flashes his power over his charges by making them repeat his name, unknown until this moment, as a mantra. It’s hilarious and terrifying all at once – i.e. the vibe of “Zola” apotheosized.
5 of 25
The World Stops – “The Worst Person in the World”
This stunner of a sequence from Joaquim Trier’s finds Renate Reinsve’s wrecking ball of a main character freed by the sudden stoppage of time to travel through the streets of Oslo to meet up with the man she simply can’t get out of her head. It’s a swooningly magical moment that perfectly captures the transgressive, yet utterly human impulse to yearn for the touch of another when you’re with someone else.
6 of 25
The Big Boom – “Memoria”
The mystery of Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s latest masterpiece centers on a mysterious bump or knock or thump that only Tilda Swinton’s character can hear. Her search for an answer leaves her believing she might be crazy, but this sound definitely has a source, and when it’s finally revealed your jaw will drop straight through the floor. If you can watch this in Dolby Atmos, you must.
7 of 25
Hello, Soho – “Last Night in Soho”
Edgar Wright’s got us under his spell from the moment Thomasin McKenzie finds herself transported from her top-floor flat back to the vibrant heyday of London’s swinging sixties. She’s framed in the foreground of a giant cinema marquee promoting the gadget-stuffed James Bond outing “Thunderball” before drifting into the legendary Café de Paris, where she finds Cilla Black belting “You’re My World”. She also finds that she’s not herself, but a blonde chanteuse with dreams of singing stardom. This dream eventually turns into a nightmare, but for a time there’s nowhere else you’d rather be.
8 of 25
June Slips – “The Many Saints of Newark”
New Line Cinema
One of “Many Saints of Newark” many pleasures is how it shows us Junior Soprano aka Uncle Junior (or June for short) has always been an absolute pill. But he comes by it naturally. He’s often the butt of jokes and seems destined for also-ran status within the family. In classic June fashion, he slips on an icy step outside of church and absolutely ruins his back. Dickie Moltisanti finds this hilarious, especially because June is incandescent with impotent rage.
9 of 25
The Ceiling – “Malignant”
New Line Cinema
James Wan’s gleefully unhinged horror flick executes one of the best jump scares in years with this perfectly set-up bit involving a kidnapped tour guide, a spooky attic lair, and, well, not the living room we were expecting. It’s a great jolt that simultaneously elicits screams and laughter. Wan’s film contains many expertly calibrated moments, but this is master-class stuff.
10 of 25
Mr. Big – “No Sudden Move”
Steven Soderbergh and Ed Solomon take their Detroit neo-noir straight to the top of the automotive industry, where we once again learn the house always wins. In this case, it’s a $350,000 payoff for the delivery of detailed specs for the catalytic converter (which the Detroit bigwigs obviously want to suppress). Matt Damon gets to deliver the portentous monologue, though he underplays it rather than bellow like Ned Beatty (RIP). Our characters are more concerned with their immediate problems, which makes this scene a nifty microcosm of how the wealthy screw the working-class individual.
11 of 25
Edgar’s Prayer – “Barb and Star Go to Vista Del Mar”
The year’s most deliciously silly concoction features a pair of inspired performances from its writers, Kristen Wiig and Annie Mumolo, but Jamie Dornan commits grand larceny with his anguished musical number “Edgar’s Prayer”. The lyrics are divinely stupid (“Now I’m twirling/Like a baby ballerina/Who’s digging a hole with the force of his feet”), and Dornan sells it like it’s Rodgers & Hammerstein. Once upon a time, people considered Dornan a hunky blank slate of an actor. Those days are long gone.
12 of 25
Cool – “West Side Story”
Walt Disney Pictures
Most of us have grown up on Robert Wise’s 1961 adaptation of “West Side Story”, which makes Steven Spielberg and Tony Kushner’s decision to move “Cool” to its pre-rumble position in the show jarringly awesome. It’s not just when it arrives that’s mind-blowing, but how it’s been transformed to spike the emotional temperature between Tony and Riff. Every single alteration in this rendition feels like an improvement; this is a revelation.
13 of 25
Opening Credits – “Drive My Car”
There are oodles to cherish in Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s absorbing adaptation of Haruki Murakami’s short story, but given that it hasn’t played outside of major media centers and the best way to experience this movie is ice freaking cold, we’ll leave its pleasures unspoiled. But it must be noted that this movie contains arguably the most emotionally satisfying opening credits in film history.
14 of 25
Cuffed and Nearly Killed – “Bad Trip”
One of 2021’s funniest movies almost shut down on its first day of shooting when Eric André and Lil Rel Howery brought their bawdy Chinese finger cuff stunt into the wrong barbershop. In the context of the film, it’s hilarious to watch these two get chased out of the establishment by a none-too-pleased employee brandishing a knife. But this wasn’t an act. The barber in question went for his knife only after he realized he’d forgotten his gun at home. Howery quit the film on the spot but was thankfully talked back into it. Runner-up: Tiffany Haddish for-real shaking down an entire wings eatery for the whereabouts of André and Howery.
15 of 25
So May We Start? – “Annette”
The mid-film, marching band break in Leos Carax’s “Holy Motors” was one of the last decade’s most rousing moments, one that Carax nearly tops with the fourth-wall-breaking opening to his wildly uneven “Annette”. Here, we open on Carax and Sparks launching into the film’s first song, which, as the band leaves the studio, is taken over by Adam Driver and Marion Cotillard. Annette doesn’t maintain the genius of this Brechtian gesture, but it never stops trying. That counts for something.
16 of 25
Bus Brawl – “Shang Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings”
Jackie Chan protege Brad Allen choreographed a corker of a fight sequence for this immensely appealing Marvel yarn. It’s classic Chan in that every bit of the bus’ limited geography gets used in breathtakingly inventive ways – and quite different from most Marvel set pieces in that it’s not rendered visually incomprehensible via Cuisinart editing. The young Allen died a few weeks before the film’s release, making this both a tribute and a frustrating display of what we’re going to sorely miss.
17 of 25
The End of the Mission – “No Time to Die”
Bond fans have been up in arms over the fatalistic finale of “No Time to Die”, largely because they don’t want to acknowledge that the sixty-year run which started with Sean Connery in “Dr. No” is effectively finished. Daniel Craig took on the character at a time when the spy-movie fashion belonged to Paul Greengrass’s shaky-cam “Bourne” movies. He stayed with it through the global resurrection of fascism and the #MeToo movement. In the end, he embodied everything good and problematic about 007 and decided the best thing to do was to let the dinosaur be wiped from the planet in a meteoric hail of ordnance. It’s a beautiful ending that people will learn to appreciate.
18 of 25
A Massage – “Days”
You don’t have to be a Tsai Ming-Liang fan to appreciate the slow-burn eroticism of this moment, but it helps. Tsai brings two lonely men together in a moment of gradual emotional release. It is a remarkably realistic, yet tender engagement that provides much-needed succor to a middle-aged man suffering from a neck ailment. This might be the protagonist of Tsai’s “The River”, but it doesn’t matter. What we’re watching (with only one skillful cut) is nearly literal sexual healing.
19 of 25
Peacemaker and Bloodsport Have a Killing Contest – “The Suicıde Squad”
First off, the buy-in from John Cena as Peacemaker is amazing and perhaps a bit concerning. He loves this character. Idris Elba’s Bloodsport is entirely put off by Peacemaker’s psychopathy, but not so much that he can’t be goaded into a kill-off as they assault an enemy stronghold. Both men murder everything in their path (including prone baddies who can’t defend themselves), and it’s basically a draw. The difference between the two is that Peacemaker doesn’t have an off switch – nor, apparently, does Cena.
20 of 25
Roller Skating Assassin – “New York Ninja”
Kurtis Spieler’s miraculous salvaging of John Liu’s unfinished, mid-’80s cult actioner abounds with WȚF sequences, but none can match the inexplicable, utterly random sight of our title hero donning roller skates to fight crime in and around what appears to be Manhattan’s garment district. Liu wears a mask for the entire scene, but we’re going to assume that’s him on the skates. You never knew you needed a roller-skating ninja in your life until this moment, and you wonder how you ever muddled through your day-to-day drudgery without it.
21 of 25
The Choir – “Mass”
The opening moments of Fran Kranz’s tinderbox of a chamber piece establishes the solemn surroundings rather skillfully. It’s an Episcopalian church where every single element outside of the nondescript room threatens to derail the delicate discourse. At the end, there is choral music emanating from the nave. Despite the setting, this is not a religious movie, but that sound is almost primal. It connects with everyone who spent more than a few Sundays in a pew. And it sets up a denouement that convincingly offers up something we rarely feel nowadays: hope.
22 of 25
The Cops Meet Candyman – “Candyman”
Nia DaCosta’s thoughtful continuation of the “Candyman” franchise contains many bold ideas, but nothing quite as incendiary as its final moments. When the cops attempt to intimidate Bri (Teyonah Parris) into validating their murder of Anthony (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), she stares straight into the police cruiser’s rearview mirror and speaks his name. Candyman appears and slaughters the cops, and, well, they had it coming.
23 of 25
Let the Bodies Hit the Road – “The Matrix Resurrections”
Trinity and Neo are fleeing from a swarm a la Donald Sutherland and Brooke Adams in Philip Kaufman’s “Invasion of the Body Snatchers”. They’re making decent progress until The Analyst activates people from their high-rise apartments and forces them to dive-bomb our heroes as they went their way through the San Francisco streets. It’s one of the many ingenious flourishes in Lana Wachowski’s ultra-meta sequel, which we’ll be unpacking for months and years to come.
24 of 25
96,000 – “In the Heights”
John Chu’s adaptation of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s hit musical is disappointingly calculated, but this grand community number builds beautifully into a Busby Berkeley extravaganza. What the local swimming pool has to do with its characters imagining an instant infusion of the cast via the lottery isn’t entirely clear, but at least the number pulsates with life.
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Gom Jabbar – “Dune”
You can’t be a fan of Frank Herbert’s “Dune” and not have a checklist of scenes that have to be done exactly right in a film adaptation. One sequence that David Lynch nailed in his 1984 version was the Gom Jabbar test, in which Paul Atreides must place his hand in a mysterious box while the Reverend Mother of the Bene Gesserit holds a poison-tipped needle to his throat. If he removes his hand, which will feel as though it’s burning down to the bone, the needle will be plunged into his skin, killing him instantly. Villeneuve aces this test, as does Paul.
Jeremy Smith is a freelance entertainment writer and the author of “George Clooney: Anatomy of an Actor”. His second book, “When It Was Cool”, is due out in 2021.