Whether you stayed at home streaming Netflix or cautiously made your way back into theaters, 2021 offered plenty of adventure films to choose from. This year saw new documentaries by and about some of the biggest names in the outdoor world, including the latest release from Free Solo directors Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin; Max Lowe’s moving film about the death of his father, Alex; and Sender Films’ powerful look at the life of alpinist Marc-André Leclerc. But there were also a handful of standout fictional films focused on outdoor themes, from Chloé Zhao’s Oscar-winning Nomadland to a Nicolas Cage movie about a truffle forager. Here are our writers’ and editors’ picks for their favorite films of 2021.
In 1999, Alex Lowe, one of the most famous mountaineers in the world, died in an avalanche on Tibet’s Shishapangma. He was survived by his wife Jennifer and three young sons, as well as his stricken climbing partner, Conrad Anker, who witnessed the avalanche. Anker soon married Jennifer and became a father figure to Lowe’s children. It’s not a surprise that Max Lowe, Alex’s oldest son and a filmmaker, would eventually take on the story that’s so central to his family and still well-known in the outdoor world. The resulting film seems to capture, as closely as anyone outside the family could grasp, the devastation of the incident, blending troves of intimate footage from Alex’s climbing career with home videos and interviews with all of the Lowe-Ankers. Torn doesn’t only do justice to the life and loss of Alex Lowe; it also skillfully explores how grief has completely reshaped the lives of this family and how the pain of getting through it has built something new and profound. —Erin Berger
Nicolas Cage plays a Rob, a truffle hunter and former chef who comes down from his remote mountain cabin just outside Portland, Oregon, to seek revenge on those who stole his prized truffle pig—the logline of my dreams, and also the premise of Michael Sarnoski’s Pig. The first third of the movie is slow and careful: Rob and his pig collect mushrooms, cook them, and sell them; you can practically smell the loam of the forest in each deeply saturated frame. It’s when Rob returns to the city following the kidnapping—his senses overloaded as he encounters the lights and smells and sounds of traffic again for the first time in years—that things really start to pick up. Cage brims with sadness and barely contained rage at what he’s lost; the movie is as much a meditation on grief as it is about a man’s relationship to the natural world. —Katherine Cusumano
In 2018, a sudden monsoon trapped a kids’ soccer team deep in a northern Thailand cave. The 18-day saga to get them out captivated the world. More than 10,000 people volunteered for the rescue, but retrieval ultimately hinged on an unlikely group: a crew of middle-aged cave divers. Even after finding the boys alive, they faced formidable obstacles: oxygen fast dwindled, and none of the children could swim. Oscar winners Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin, of Free Solo fame, retrace the operation by combining archival dive footage from the Royal Thai Navy with striking animations and original interviews, some quite funny. But these brief moments of levity never undermine the stakes. What makes this film remarkable is the courage and humility of its everyday heroes. —Rose Hansen
If the last few years have seen a pretty definitive turn from the romanticization of vanlife, Nomadland was probably the Oscar-winning nail in the coffin. Directed by Chloé Zhao and based on Jessica Bruder’s nonfiction book of the same name, the movie is broadly about an RV- and van-dwelling group of older Americans who may never have the means to retire. Instead, they travel around the country, doing seasonal work in national parks and Amazon warehouses, and building impressive communities of fellow vanlifers who have little in common with the influencers who’ve glamorized living on four wheels. Frances McDormand plays Fern, a newcomer to this subculture, who approaches both the bad (parking problems, job insecurity) and the good (communal meals, stunning vistas) with a quiet, unflappable, and mildly cheerful air. But the scene-stealers of the film are real-life members of the mobile community like YouTube star Bob Wells and the subject of Bruder’s book, Linda May. The film illuminates the systemic failures that keep many seniors moving from job to job and the resource-sharing community that protects members of society who have been dropped by the social safety net. —E.B.
Nepali mountaineer and UK special forces veteran Nirmal “Nims” Purja stars in 14 Peaks: Nothing Is Impossible, a documentary that follows Purja and his team of four other Nepali climbers—Mingma David Sherpa, Galjen Sherpa, Lakpa Dendi Sherpa, and Gesman Tamang—on their quest to summit all the world’s 14 8,000-meter peaks. They’re aiming to do it in seven months, beating the previous record of over seven years. It’s difficult to convey just how impressive of a feat this is—it takes most summit hopefuls months or even years to prepare for just one 8,000-meter climb—but director Torquil Jones uses interviews from mountaineering legends like Reinhold Messner and Jimmy Chin to help demonstrate the achievement’s magnitude. (Chin also co-executive produced the film, along with Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and others.) 14 Peaks reveals the unparalleled courage, perseverance, and dedication that make this seemingly futile mission possible. —Kelly Klein
In the headline of our review, we called The Alpinist the “most compelling climbing film since Free Solo” and we meant it. If anything, the Sender crew’s footage of 25-year-old Canadian climber Marc-André Leclerc scaling massive headwalls of mixed ice and rock in the Canadian Rockies and Patagonia made Alex Honnold’s El Cap ascent look almost easy. Leclerc pushed the cutting edge of alpinism by soloing increasingly ambitious alpine lines with only an ice ax and a pack, both captivating and terrifying the climbing world. The Alpinist thrillingly captures this head-turning rise, as well as the fascinating character behind the feats. Leclerc, who lived, for a time, in a tent and didn’t own a phone, had no interest in publicizing his climbs, and the film crew’s difficulties tracking him down becomes a central tension in the documentary. We’re all lucky for what they were able to capture on film, though, which now serves as a record of the most daring climber of his generation who, like too many before him, met his end too soon. —Luke Whelan
Playing with Sharks
Playing with Sharks is more than just a fun title: it’s a pretty accurate way to describe how scuba diver Valerie Taylor spends time with these misunderstood creatures. Taylor, a marine conservationist and former spearfisher, could very well have spent nearly as much time underwater as on land in her lifetime. Her goal: protecting and advocating for sharks, who she sees as friends with distinct personalities. If the general public can’t quite have that relationship with sharks, Taylor hopes that at least we won’t be so scared of these fish, which she asserts are overwhelmingly harmless. (Ironically, she consulted on the most famous and terrifying shark film of all, Jaws, but she recalls being surprised that audiences took the fictional film so seriously.) Her reverence for these creatures and the joy she finds in diving come across so clearly that it’s hard not to wish you were right alongside her, floating and jostling with animals that have been around since the age of dinosaurs. —E.B.
Writer and photographer Caroline Treadway released Light, her film about eating disorders in the climbing world, on YouTube in February. If the comments are any indication, the film resonated deeply with all kinds of people who’ve wrestled with body image and disordered eating, whether or not they climb. Treadway, a climber herself who tells the story of her own eating disorder in the film, capably explains the subtle ways in which the pressure to be thin can poison the sport she loves. She also enlists professional climbers like Emily Harrington and Kai Lightner to describe, often in heartbreaking detail, what these struggles can look like. “It wasn’t just the stars of climbing who were restricting food, it was nearly all my friends in Boulder,” Treadway recalls in the film. “It was more like the order than a disorder.” By bringing these dynamics into the open, Light encourages a critical conversation about how climbing communities might find a more compassionate, healthy, and inclusive way forward. —E.B.
Raya and the Last Dragon
A scion of nobility journeys across sweeping landscapes in order to bring peace to the realm? No, not Dune, but Raya and the Last Dragon. In this animated Disney adventure from directors Carlos López Estrada and Don Hall, Raya sets out to free her father, one of countless people who have been frozen in terracotta by a malevolent force called the Druun. She’s accompanied by the very last dragon in the world: the hapless but kind Sisu. Raya is seeded with details drawn from southeast Asian landscapes and cultures—Laos, Thailand, Vietnam, Indonesia, and others—and anchored by a voice cast that includes Kelly Marie Tran as Raya, Awkwafina as the dragon Sisu, and Gemma Chan as their nemesis Namaari. The landscapes glisten and shimmer; the action sequences blister. Ultimately, it’s a parable about unity in the face of peril—and a really solid adventure. —K.C.