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The Best Sci-Fi, Horror, Action and International Movies of 2021

If you think that many of the top 10 end-of-year movie lists could use a little more dystopia, fight scenes or bone-chilling moments, our genre experts hear you. They have been offering streaming recommendations all year on an eclectic mix of action movies, horror films, sci-fi spectacles and international selections. Now they’ve sifted through the films of 2021 to come up with a handful of standouts, all available to stream now.

Many of my favorite horror films this year had one-word titles — “Hall,” “Rot,” “Teddy,” “Dashcam” — that match how efficiently they creeped me out in 90 or fewer minutes. I also went nuts over James Wan’s maximalist “Malignant,” an exploitation buddy cop farce and blood-and-guts soap opera with a turned-out fashion sense. I’ve never seen a movie like it. More, please.

But for sheer terror, the kind I could not shake, nothing was more brutal than “Coming Home in the Dark,” the fervent debut feature from James Ashcroft. (It’s now on Netflix.) A married couple (Erik Thomson and Miriama McDowell) are on a road trip in rural New Zealand with their teenage sons (Billy and Frankie Paratene). After they stop for a picnic, from nowhere emerge two sinister-looking men (Daniel Gillies and Matthias Luafutu).

From there, following a scene of savage violence, Ashcroft grabs tight and, with a mad surgeon’s precision, takes you on a punishing ride of ice-cold twists that bring to mind the random cool cruelties of Michael Haneke. With help from John Gibson’s barbed score and Matt Henley’s cold-blooded cinematography, the film becomes an audacious revenge tale that hits a horror trifecta: it’s shocking, unmerciful and emotionally riveting. — ERIK PIEPENBURG

The best movies linger not just in the mind but also in the body, like memories imprinted into muscle. Months after first seeing Tsai Ming-liang’s “Days” (streaming on Mubi), I still clench with a vicarious ache when I recall one of its scenes: the actor Lee Kang-sheng exiting into a bright, bustling city street after a moxibustion treatment, his neck strapped in a brace, his face grimacing with pain. For most of “Days,” Tsai observes his handsome muse — with whom the director has made 11 features over the last two decades, accumulating a Dorian Gray-esque portrait — wordlessly as Lee seeks succor for real-life ailments.

This arc of decay intersects with one of renewal: Tsai also films the newcomer Anong Houngheuangsy, a 20-something migrant worker in Thailand, as he cooks and cleans and bides his time in a scrappy apartment. Lee’s aging body strains alone against time; Anong’s younger, adrift one is alone in space. When the two — playing semi-fictional versions of themselves — finally meet, in a scene of anonymous yet tender sexual frisson that Tsai captures up-close and in full, the film trembles with what feels like the truest vocation of cinema: to bring us into such powerful, combustible contact with someone else’s experience that it might just become our own. — DEVIKA GIRISH

As a genre that wraps a commentary about the present in what-if questioning, science fiction has been predictably grim lately: I’ve watched many stories about isolation in a connected world, weird pandemics or a dying Earth becoming uninhabitable (self-inflicted wounds are common but sometimes it’s the sun going crazy or something — the result is the same). “Space Sweepers” does take place in a future where our planet is beyond repair, but this Korean movie, which premiered on Netflix, is a delirious action epic rather than a feel-bad thought experiment. It hits a rare sweet spot of smart and fun, which is why it’s the sci-fi movie I’ve recommended most to friends this year. Jo Sung-hee’s film has a joyous exuberance and full-throttle pace that makes most similar American movies feel like lumbering Jurassic creatures. But it’s also slyly incisive, pitting a ragtag crew of galactic janitors against a megalomaniac C.E.O. — our planet may be expiring but the class struggle lives on.

South Korea has rejuvenated the zombie genre in movies (the “Train to Busan” franchise) and television (“Kingdom”), and I can only hope this movie introduces a similar reboot of the space opera. — ELISABETH VINCENTELLI

Two action films concerning middle-aged fathers, grappling with their physical fitness as protectors of their families, caught my attention. The director Anders Thomas Jensen’s “Riders of Justice” (streaming on Hulu), for instance, features Mads Mikkelsen as Markus, a stoic but broken widower. He teams with a band of numbers geeks designing an algorithm they claim can quantify seemingly inconsequential coincidences into predictable patterns to foresee tragic incidents before they happen. To get revenge against the men who killed his wife in a terrorist attack, Markus wants to reverse engineer their algorithm to reconstruct the events leading up to her death.

Similarly relying on a stoic protagonist to dole out punishing punches is the director Ilya Naishuller’s “Nobody” (available to rent or buy on multiple platforms). It stars Bob Odenkirk as Hutch, a retired John Wick-inspired assassin newly reactivated to seek retribution against the thugs who robbed his family’s home at gunpoint.

Both of these films not only feature well-choreographed fight sequences, but they also transcend the silly macho posturing common with stereotypical action heroes by asking: How old is too old to protect your family? The vulnerable query — given further depth in Mikkelsen and Odenkirk’s visceral performances — makes “Riders of Justice” and “Nobody” emotional cuts above every other action film I watched in 2021. — ROBERT DANIELS

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