My Top 5 Sci-Fi Films of 2021
Once again, it's never been a better time to be a geek and a film buff. Here are my end-of-year top picks…and the results may surprise you!
Can’t say why, but I haven’t done one of these since 2016! So it’s long overdue for me to share my perspective on what was in sum a pretty substantial year for sci-fi nerds like me. As we’re well aware, 2020 sucked for film buffs—between the many release delays and mass closure of movie theaters—so this year was an opportunity to go into nerdgasmic movie overload. Was it worth the wait? Perhaps not in all cases, but I definitely think we got quite a good number of WOW moments in the mix.
I’ll touch on TV briefly towards the end (namely the spate of Disney+/Marvel shows which all launched this year), but for now, let’s start with my fifth movie pick of 2021.
I really had no idea what to make of this film before I saw it. The trailers looked…odd…and it seemed so disconnected from anything we’d seen to date in the MCU. I also couldn’t envision the leap from Chloé Zhao’s Nomadland (which I loved) to larger-than-life superheroes and pew-pew-pew. But I felt similarly ambivalent about the original Guardians of the Galaxy movie before it came out, and look how awesome that turned out to be.
A lot of the early critic reviews all had a similar refrain which was that Eternals strayed far from the typical Marvel formula and was a very different kind of movie than anything we’d seen before. I think that conclusion was oversold. This is a Marvel movie through-and-through. It just so happens to be a Marvel movie made by Chloé Zhao, so you get that relaxed pacing and moody landscapes and meditative insight into characters’ internal worlds to a degree we’re not accustomed to in a-mile-a-minute action movies. Personally, I loved it. However, the overall story didn’t quite gel in a way that propels this movie higher up the list. While I throughly enjoyed my experience, I ultimately left wanting a lot more from several of the characters. (Guess that’s what Eternals 2 is for, amirite?) Despite that, I can’t wait to rewatch it at home once it lands on Disney+.
#4: Free Guy
This movie really came out of left field and knocked my socks off. Also my kids’ socks off. They’re chomping at the bit for Free Guy 2 (though at the moment I have no idea if/when that will happen). Ryan Reynolds seems born to play this role every bit as much as Deadpool, and his onscreen partner Jodie Comer shines. In fact, all of the cast is fantastic, and the many sendups of gaming culture, fandom, and the digital world we’re all increasingly living in all landed spectacularly. I’m not sure I can point to another movie that was as throughly entertaining in a comedic way this year. Catchphrase! Witty conclusion to a movie review here!
#3: Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings
OK, I definitely agree with the pundits on this one. For a long time Marvel & Kevin Feige had been hyping up Eternals and relegating Shang-Chi to almost a footnote in their lineup, and in the final analysis Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings is one of the best comic book movies of all time. I was utterly blown away. This, my friends, is a movie you can point to when somebody asks “what’s the big deal with Marvel movies anyway?”…and if they’re still not impressed, there’s simply no hope for them. Nearly every moment in this film is an instant classic. The plot is edge-of-your-seat fabulous. The characters are phenomenal. And I could honestly just watch a whole show with “Shaun” and Katy bopping around San Francisco and hitting up karaoke bars. Meng’er Zhang is star material. Tony Chiu-Wai Leung should win an Oscar for supporting actor. Bravo Marvel, bravo.
Dune is a revelation. Having watched it twice in the theaters—once in IMAX—it’s more of an event than a movie. The audio portion alone, where score and sound merge into a singular sonic landscape, is superlative. And the visuals are every bit what you’d expect from director Denis Villeneuve at the height of his powers.
Now I have no real connection to the source material. I never read the book, and I remember once seeing the 80s movie adaptation of Dune and thinking it was utter dreck. So I wasn’t at all eagerly anticipating Dune. I knew a lot of other people were and I was happy for them, but it just wasn’t on my radar. But early reviews came in and were largely effusive, and I’m a megafan of both Arrival (it landed at #4 on my 2016 Top Five list!) and Blade Runner 2049 (w00t!), so I decided to go see Dune almost immediately after it arrived in theaters.
I could honestly just recapitulate my review of Arrival again for Dune:
I left the theater almost in a state of shock because of the nature of the story and the depth of feeling it brought up in me.
Apparently that’s what Denis Villeneuve productions do…place you in a state of altered consciousness. When I saw the movie for the second time in IMAX, I was with my brother. When we left the theater afterwards, he was speechless. I think he mumbled something to the tune of “that was incredible” and pretty much left it at that.
Dune is a movie which almost defies description. You just need to experience it for yourself. (My only criticism really is the ending and how that fits into the overall narrative…thank the powers that be that Dune Part 2 has been greenlit, because we really, really need that.)
#1: The Matrix Resurrections
If this were any ordinary year where a new Matrix movie doesn’t exist, Dune would win the #1 spot on my list with flying colors. And to be quite frank, in terms of raw cinematic spectacle and breathtaking filmcraft, The Matrix Resurrections certainly isn’t the best film of the year. That distinction most definitely belongs to Dune—or could be awarded to Eternals or Shang-Chi for that matter.
But this isn’t any ordinary year, and there is a new Matrix movie. And despite the fact this movie is wildly controversial in a way we probably haven’t seen since Star Wars: The Last Jedi, there’s no doubt in my mind The Matrix Resurrections reigns supreme.
It is a movie which affected me deeply, and will continue to affect me long into the future. This film is operating on numerous levels simultaneously. It’s even more self-aware than the original Matrix. (I’m not going to use the “m**a” word here because it’s been lazily thrown around to death in reviews already, but yeah, it’s all that.) It messes with you. At times it grabs you and shakes you, and maybe you’re not going to like it. It’s punk. But like it or not, you can’t ignore it.
There are so many themes in The Matrix Ressurections which resonate with me, but perhaps more than anything else it reminds me of my own life journey out of a fog of confusion and loss of identity within a high-demand religious group (was it a cult? quite possibly!), and the long, gut-wrenching process of reclaiming MY OWN STORY.
Without giving away major spoilers, this film is the story of Thomas Anderson (aka Neo) coming to grips with reality after being gaslit for far too long. But if you think that sounds just like the original The Matrix of 1999, think again. This is a profoundly different take, and one which I hope to write about at length soon.
It’s also, as many have stated, a beautiful love story. But I see it as much more than that—yes, there’s a romantic element to it, but it’s not just about the love two people share with each other. It’s about the love of a life well-lived, a life you can explain, a life you can defend, a life which truly matters…in other words, the polar opposite of just going through the motions and doing what everyone else “expects” you to do and tries to convince you is the only proper path forward.
Bugs is awesome and deserves her own spin-off show. There, I said it.
I’ve gone on record that I’m a big fan of the whole Matrix trilogy, and while the second and third films are somewhat of a step down from the original, I love them all. In terms of ranking, I think I place The Matrix Resurrections at #2, higher than Reloaded and Revolutions. It’s a remarkable achievement and a wonderful opportunity to revisit this world and tie all three previous movies together in a fresh and invigorating way.
I explained in my recent Fresh Fusion episode Back to The Matrix just how much The Matrix means to me. It’s my favorite movie of all time, and as such I admit feeling utterly perplexed and just a little angry at the degree to which toxic fandom has descended upon this movie. There are people out there who hate it. And they’re not merely content to state their opinion and move on—they’re out in droves to convince everyone else of how “bad” The Matrix Resurrections is and how you must be a rube to appreciate it in any way. What’s supremely ironic is the movie directly speaks to this phenomenon. It’s almost like the filmmaker (Lana Wachowski) preemptively looked the haters in the eye and gave them the finger. Good for her.
But whatever. Everyone is entitled to their opinion. If you hate the movie, you hate it. However, I loved it, and of all the movies in my top 5 list for 2021, I expect to go back to this one the most over and over again, grasping at any one of the numerous story threads and seeing just how far down the rabbit hole goes.
What Didn’t Make the List
Since it’s both a Marvel movie (though via Sony) and the biggest hit of the year, you may be wondering why on earth I didn’t place Spider-Man: No Way Home on my top 5 list. It’s simple: I wasn’t as impressed by it as the movies listed above. Now don’t get me wrong, I thought it was great. And the fan service was off-the-charts. I couldn’t believe how much they packed into a single movie. It’s quite the spectacle. However, it does play into the sense of comic book tropes galore and “theme park ride” criticism that sometimes gets lobbed at Marvel movies. This is a very Marvel-y Marvel movie. And to be honest, watching it right before watching The Matrix Resurrections is rather bizarre because the two movies almost seem like they’re in a dialogue with each other. If you’ve seen both, you know exactly what I mean.
But, as a “theme park ride” it was worlds of fun.
I also really enjoyed watching A Quiet Place Part II this year (a great way to get back into the theaters again!), as well as the highly-underrated Old by M. Night Shyamalan. But mainly I want to round out this article by giving a very Honorable Mention to Loki. There were many good Sci-Fi shows on TV this year, from Star Trek: Discovery to Foundation to The Expanse (now in its sixth and final season).
But I was utterly blown away by Loki. Out of all four of the live-action Marvel/MCU shows we got this year, Loki alone felt like it rose above the level of “fun TV show to watch on Disney+” and now rivals the best of the movie canon. Sure, Wandavision was super clever and for a short time entered the zeitgeist of fan speculation, but it was also very weird and strayed from the “tone” of typical Marvel productions way more than Eternals ever did. The Falcon and the Winter Soldier was hugely disappointing to me…I simply didn’t enjoy it much at all. And while the recently-concluded Hawkeye is a solid #2 out of all four shows for me, I do think it felt like just another fairly ordinary and somewhat forgettable TV show. But Loki was art, man. It was full of production superlatives. The settings were incredible. The music was fantastic—so epic I listened to the soundtrack all on its own. Tom Hiddleston was in peak form. Owen Wilson stole every scene he was in. The ending was mind-bending and unexpected. More shows like this, please Marvel, pretty please!
So there you have it: my top 5 favorite Sci-Fi movies (and a TV show!) of 2021. Hopefully you’ll hear back from me on this topic sooner than 2026! 😂
What’s on your list? Hop on over to Twitter and let me know!