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While I’ve already highlighted my 10 absolute favourite films of the year elsewhere , some of the approximately 192 other new movies I watched over the past 12 months deserve special mention, too – especially for those of us who are now comfortably ensconced in our living rooms for the holidays, ready to catch up on all the culture that we missed while we were otherwise exhausted/panicking/Zooming/hunting for vaccine appointments. Here, then, is an alternative Top 10 list for an alternative 2021: a collection of the most overlooked, underrated and unfairly dismissed films of the year – and how you can watch them at home right now.

1. The Last Duel

Ignored by audiences and mis-marketed by its studio, Ridley Scott’s medieval spin on Rashomon will go down as one of 2021′s most epic surprises. With Scott’s A-level craftsmanship, an ambitious script by Matt Damon, Ben Affleck and Nicole Holofcener, and excellent lead performances across the board – especially a steely Jodie Comer and a sly Affleck – The Last Duel is a welcome reminder of what Hollywood titans can do when they’re not squeezed into the confines of a superhero film. (Available on-demand)

2. The Mitchells vs. The Machines

Before animation champions Phil Lord and Christopher Miller blow everyone’s minds next year with Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse: Part One, relive their 2021 triumph care of Netflix. Like other Lord/Miller joints, The Mitchells vs. The Machines entertains on a two-track system: It is goofy and colourful and sweet enough for the under-12 set, but also smart and witty and emotionally complex enough to keep adults enthralled. (Streaming on Netflix)

3. The Courier

Barring an act of god (or dog), Benedict Cumberbatch will win an Academy Award for his role in Jane Campion’s slow-burn The Power of the Dog. But hardcore Cumberbatch-ers should also check out his other big 2021 performance in The Courier, a Cold War spy drama that came and went with barely an Oscar-buzz whisper. Telling the real-life story of a British businessman who, along with a Soviet intelligence officer, basically ended the Cuban Missile Crisis, director Dominic Cooke’s film is thrilling in the best kind of low-key way. (Streaming on Amazon Prime Video and available on-demand)

4. Malignant

It has been a bloody year for horror cinema. I may be the only critic alive who enjoyed Halloween Kills, while everyone else seemed to do bone-breaking backflips for the tired zombie antics of Army of the Dead. So take this scary-movie recommendation with a grain of smelling salts, but: the wildest, most what-the-helllllllllll horror film of the year was James Wan’s barely promoted Malignant. Walk in knowing nothing, and walk out the other end bewildered in the best kind of way. (Available on-demand)

5. Barb and Star Go to Vista Del Mar

Have major studios given up on comedy? Probably! Which means we have only a finite window of time before smart-but-silly fare like Barb and Star Go to Vista Del Mar becomes a relic of the prepandemic past. Following the bizarre Florida vacation of two women (the Bridesmaids’ brain trust of Kristen Wiig and Annie Mumolo), Barb and Star is an admirably weird comedy. If you enjoy the idea of a crab voiced by Morgan Freeman and Andy Garcia playing casual-fashion icon Tommy Bahama, then this is a surreal treat. Everyone else, see whatever new David Spade movie is on Netflix. (Streaming on Crave)

6. Summer of Soul (… Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised)

When Ahmir (Questlove) Thompson’s doc about 1969′s Harlem Cultural Festival premiered at the virtual Sundance Film Festival back in January (oh, how things have sorta changed!), it felt like a relief. After a festival full of faux-serious dramas and Big Issue docs, here was a genuine explosion of artistic energy and political fury, composed with style and flair. The rare doc that deserves a making-of doc of its very own – it is madness to think how long producer Hal Tuchin’s original concert footage sat largely unseen for so many years – Summer of Soul should be played as LOUDLY as possible. (Streaming on Disney+ with Star)

7. Greenland

The Gerard Butler end-of-the-world thriller Greenland should have been a mess. But director Ric Roman Waugh and screenwriter Chris Sparling ground their film’s many apocalyptic clichés – the crowds scrambling for safety, the paranoid survivalists, the plane that has to take off right now! – with a genuine sense of emotional relatability. Its cheap thrills feel like they cost a million dollars, even if it feels odd watching a we’re-all-gonna-die thriller in the midst of, well, everything. (Streaming on Amazon Prime Video)

8. The Card Counter

Looking for the perfect last-minute holiday present? I give you the gift of watching Oscar Isaac, the actor who dominated 2021. Whether it was HBO’s Scenes from a Marriage, Dune, or this Paul Schrader thriller, Isaac offers every inch of himself to the screen, resulting in performances that linger all year long. In The Card Counter, Isaac plays one of Schrader’s signature loners, a man who can only survive if he holds his deck close, metaphorically and literally. It’s a killer role, played with intensity and heat. Wrap it up before Dec. 25. (Available on-demand)

9. Pig

In addition to having the perfect title, Pig has a perfect little idea, too. The film casts Nicolas Cage as Rob, a truffle hunter who lives alone in the Oregon woods. Everything is wonderful, until someone steals Rob’s pig, sparking a journey of revenge and redemption in the underground world of Portland restaurateurs. With its conceit and casting, Pig could have been an overstuffed indulgence. But it is instead a deliciously balanced feast of character and emotion, with Cage chewing just the right amount of scenery. (Streaming on Crave)

10. Bergman Island & The Souvenir Part II (tie)

Two beautiful, deeply personal films about filmmaking, Mia Hansen-Love’s Bergman Island and Joanna Hogg’s The Souvenir Part II might seem as if they’re destined to be enjoyed only by fellow directors. But both movies hit upon something universal: the joys and frustrations of creating something, anything, out of nothing, and how even your greatest ambitions can be thwarted by the arbitrary whims of the universe. (Bergman Island is available on-demand; The Souvenir Part II is now playing in select theatres, and should be available on-demand in late December/early January)

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