Top 10 Movies 2021
I'm aware that my Best Of list is essentially an uninvited relative at Christmas dinner. No one asked for it, no one wants it. But I've clearly put too much effort into getting here to be turned away.
In the interest of taste, think of this less as a list of recommendations and more as a didactic, commandments-in-stone final say on 2021 as a year in cinema.
I've gone by UK release date. I've also included hyperlinks to where the films are streaming in an attempt to give this slice of intellectual crotch-stroking a veneer of utility. Enjoy.
/ 10 Limbo
4:3 aspect ratio. Long duration shots of desolate countryside. Scenes blocked like they're being staged on a proscenium arch. Limbo couldn't be more modern indie if it had an ambiguous ending. Oh, and it has that too. This isn't a criticism; this whole style is absolutely my bag. It's a bag and it's in my hand and I've sewn my name into the bag to avoid confusion.
Limbo is a tale of asylum seekers on a remote Scottish island waiting to find out if they have work permits. The title and endless shots of remote Hebridian landscape are as on the nose as it gets, but the film is laugh out loud funny and affecting. The arch, stagey blocking does sometimes clash with the straight human story that is otherwise the emotional spine of the film. For example, a scene in which two seekers argue whether Ross and Rachael (yes, THAT Ross and Rachael) were really on a break or not feels broader than this film's otherwise understated wit. Despite this, Limbo is well worth a watch and is a great calling card for new-ish director Ben Sharrock and lead El-Masry.
/ 9 Coda
CODA is one of those kindly comedy-dramas that screams an implicit promise to have resolution and not finish on anything other than a kind note. Let's call it the Ted Lasso Promise of Kindness. Normally this would annoy me, but CODA finds several powerful moments of drama in the specificities of this 75%-deaf family's domestic set up.
I used to work with deaf people, and through that know someone who was raised by deaf parents and became a sign language interpreter. The depiction of this community, its heart and humour, as well as its complex depiction of deaf parents putting their own needs (for a free, in house interpreter) over their daughter's ambitions (she wants to go to college and sing) rang true. The film may have signed that Ted Lasso Promise, but it's not afraid to show its characters being selfish and flawed.
CODA also plays with its captioning well - the sign language is all subtitled, bar one affecting scene where the hearing daughter explains how singing makes her feel solely through hand gestures. It's a testament to the power of Emilia Jones' acting, the straightforward storytelling and the expressive nature of ASL that the scene works without translation. Small moments like this, and there are several of them, give the film a real emotional pulse, all building up to a couple of such scenes in the final act that had me sobbing into my shirt. A shout out to the deaf cast too - as the mother, Marlee Matlin's talents need no introduction, but Daniel Durant and Troy Kotsur impress too as the father and brother.
/ 8 Nomadland I know on paper a film about a widow's struggling existence living in a van as she moves through a community of grieving travellers sounds grim, But I am honestly not being glib when I say this is one of the feel good films of the year. Every story and philosophical takeaway Nomadland's protagonist Fern encounters is about finding hope in grief and loss, and believe me she encounters a LOT of stories and philosophical takeaways, as well as a lot of human resilience. The mix of non-actors and actors adds a sense of documentary realism to the unfolding narrative (if it can be called that). Frances McDormand brings her striking, weathered face and soulful eyes to the party. David Straitharn brings his his oft-overlooked charisma and lovely white hair. The camera is pointed at beautiful midwestern landscapes that are as timeless as its locations are transient. Just pretty wonderful, really.
/ 7 9/11: Inside the President's War Room An absolutely fascinating minute by minute account of 9/11 from the perspective of President Bush and his inner circle, and a chilling reminder of the the compounding nature of the tragedy of that day. The images of the towers are so etched into our national consciousness, it's easy to forget how gradual the total impact of the attacks were - the seeming accident of the first crash, the sinking realisation of what was actually happening with the second combined with the doubling death toll, and then the awful realisation when the first tower fell that the death count was only going to get bigger once the second tower inevitably collapsed too. This shock and confusion is shown inside the government, from a paranoid moment on Air Force One where Bush's advisers fear the plane's internal security has been compromised, to Vice President Cheney's circle being unsure if it was their order that downed flight United Airlines 93 or something else.
Like a presidential memoir, this documentary is in part an uncontested piece of legacy-making on the part of Bush and his staff. It mostly sidesteps this issue by focussing on the events' emotional impact not just on America, but the government itself. I don't agree with many parts of how the Bush administration handled the days and years that followed 9/11. Due to his glib commentary and simple insights, I find it hard to take Bush seriously as a leader, despite his undoubted charisma and self-deprecating lack of pretension. But Inside the President's War Room isn't intended to prosecute such things. By interviewing so many key figures, including Dick Cheney, Condoleezza Rice, Colin Powell and others, it instead offers an unparalleled insight into the pressure cooker decision-making of a government and country under attack and in crisis.
/ 6 Dune
I once tried to convince a friend that someone who hasn't read the source material is a better judge of whether a film works than someone who has. They weren't having it! I wasn't trying to aggrandise my own opinion; I've definitely felt it has taken me a while to realise the genius of certain adaptations due to my attachment to the novel (We Need To Talk About Kevin, I'm looking at you). Only last week a defender of David Lynch's Dune said he did wonder if he was filling in the blanks due to his knowledge of the book. I assured him he definitely was - I haven't read Dune, and find the 1984 film to be one of the most narratively and emotionally baffling films I've ever seen. Thankfully, Denis Villeneuve's re-adaptation of Frank Herbert's 1965 novel makes a whole lot more sense, and is potentially one of the most visually astounding science fiction films ever made. So take the word of this Dune-rube: the 2021 re-do (re-Dune?) works!
/ 5 Titane Titane is so extreme a piece of cinema it makes Crash (1996) look like Crash (2004). Hell, it makes Crash (1996) look like Cars (2006). It shows a child called Alexia getting a titanium plate fitted to her skull following a car crash, and then her as an adult committing a series of brutal murders against both sexual aggressors and consensual lovers. Some may find this empathy-testing string of kills more uncomfortable than the brutal violence and self-harm Titane depicts. As if to complicate matters further, the idea that this is depiction rather than endorsement is muddied by a fantastical, body-horror subplot in which it seems that Alexia has been impregnated by a Cadillac (yes, you read that right).
Whatever one makes of Titane, it is original, shocking, engaging and contains two excellent performances, from Vincent Lindon as Vincent and Agathe Rousselle as Alexia, the latter incredible in her film debut. Extreme cinema can be provocative but empty, for example Gaspar Noe's rape-drama-cum-student-philosophy-debate Irréversible. Titane is something different; it (for the large part) keeps its most invasive and destructive violence off-camera, and presents an uncompromising view of a tortured psyche that ultimately gives way to hope (albeit a bizarre, sci-fi body horror version of hope). If you can stomach it, you won't forget it.
/ 4 First Cow
Lovely tale of friendship and crime in 19th century Oregon Country. I'm a sucker for well-realised frontier drama, and this finds a fresh take on the genre with an amusing tale of two drifters starting a cookie business using milk they steal from the region's titular first cow. John Magaro & Orion Lee, although not total newcomers, feel like untapped talent and make striking impressions in the leads, bringing heart and dignity to their roles as enterprising frontiersmen Otis and King-Lu. It's an understated relationship that I've nevertheless been thinking about a lot since I saw this in May.
/ 3 Petite Maman
Because I'm thick and didn't pay attention in French lessons at school, I considered myself pretty damn smart for immediately figuring out that the little girl Nelly meets in the woods in this film was her mother as a child. Of course, if I was really clever, I'd have known that the title Petite Maman translates as Little Mother and would've seen this coming from the moment I bought my ticket. But my immediate understanding of what was happening also speaks to this film's lean, clockwork plotting. Like ET: The Extra Terrestrial, Petite Maman is a film about how friendship is a respite from loss, and how it can preserve innocence at the dawn of experience. It's a joy watching a filmmaker (in this case Céline Sciamma) reward the audience's intelligence with subtle storytelling cues and no spoon feeding, and an ending that you can see coming because you paid attention to a story that contained zero superfluous detail.
/ 2 The Mitchells vs. the Machines
This film is a stark reminder that babies born in 2003 have just started university. Horrifying.
I'm a full on podcast-listening, magazine reading, Halliwell's Film Guide-owning movie nerd, so it's rare I'm not aware of upcoming quality films weeks or months in advance. But I didn't hear about this one until the reviews dropped on opening day. What a blindside! The funniest film of the year, and the most surprising and original animated film since Spiderman: Into the Spider-Verse. It's also the first film I've seen to incorporate social media story-style sticker and GIF animation successfully into its aesthetic- it's one of the main features that makes Mitchells unique, and it bolsters many of its comic set pieces too.
The film also manages to exploit fears about the omnipresence of tech while keeping it family friendly; there are great jokes about tech oligopolies, but like Eighth Grade before it, recognises that smart phones can be as much a tool for helping teenagers discover themselves as a hindrance. Smart, satirical, beautiful to look at and full of adventure, The Mitchells vs. The Machines is an instant classic.
/ 1 Another Round
I quit drinking in 2014. Not because I was an alcoholic, but because on the occasions I did drink, I didn't know how to not binge drink. We've all been there. "Next time I'll drink more sensibly!" and then 48 hours later they're moonwalking on a pub pool table with vomit on their jeans. (Or is that example just me?)
In 2019 I started again, but sobriety had finally taught me how to do it sensibly. It was now rare to see me drink more than two or three 330ml bottles of beer in an evening. Being the emotional control freak I am, five years sober made me hate being even a bit tipsy. Clear head, clear mind. Fun, fun, fun!!
I'm very locked into my routines and habits, so even being the avid movie consumer I am, films rarely break my own self-imposed social strictures. Another Round (Druk is its original Danish title, which translates as "binge drinking") has done that. It's about four teachers whose respective mid-life crises force them to try a social experiment where they keep their blood alcohol level at 0.5% at all times. This is based on an academic theory that humans' blood alcohol level is always 0.5% too low. This test takes predictable and unpredictable turns - some tragic, a lot comic, many life affirming.
Whether this 0.5% theory is correct or not, it's a magnetic idea. We've all been on that perfect cusp of tipsy, ridden that wave of light drunkenness that often leads to our most fun evenings. I'm surprised Another Round's positive takeaways from its experiment haven't been more controversial - it's a full on endorsement of inebriety (including the idea that even school kids might benefit from a tipple before exams!). But that might be because, as a world of boozy nations, we recognise its central tenet - that drinking CAN be fun, and to write this truth off because not everyone can deal with or control their thirst would be dishonest.
As such, Another Round is the bravest and most honest film of 2021, and one which has resulted in this writer enjoying a shot or two more at social functions since he watched it. I still haven't been hammered since 2014. But I've ridden a nice, small wave of alcoholic intoxication more than once since, and my life is better for it. This film is a love letter to drinking in its various levels of excess, but also a love letter to life. Just don't watch it with a cup of tea in your hand like I did.
/ Honourable Mentions
The below films are all also great, and were in consideration for the above prestigious top ten list. Click for streaming options.
/ Worst Film of the Year
Although I skipped half of their TV output, I think Marvel had a solid year - Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings was great fun and wasn't far off being a Black Panther level rejuvenation of the franchise. The meta-comedy of Spiderman: No Way Home gave the box office its biggest shot of webdrenaline since Avenger: Endgame and I was a rare apologist for the lush fantasy world building of Eternals (watch out - the reappraisal is coming!). But there's no escaping the fact they also gave us one of the year's biggest duds, at least from an artistic standpoint, in Black Widow.
I missed a lot of this year's most critically trounced honkers like The Tomorrow War, Music, anything Bruce WIllis made, Diana: The Musical, etc. As such Black Widow almost certainly isn't the actual worst film of 2021. It features great comic support from David Harbour as a schlubby, Soviet-era alternative to Captain America, makes a convincing case for Florence Pugh as an action-star and has fun with its sitcom-family-as-spies dynamic. But a worrying trend in modern blockbusters is producers using stunts and practical effects for some sequences, enough to convince the filmmaker they've created the next John Wick or that they're working at a Christopher Nolan level of verisimilitude, only to then let the CGI-industrial-complex dominate the remaining 75% of their film with empty, digital-diarama action scenes. As such, the majority of this action-heavy film is surprisingly dull to look at.
Ever since the release of Marvel Avengers Assemble, I assumed the Natasha Romanoff character was the MCU's chance to do a Wick-style gunplay-and-physical combat action film. I'm not so blood thirsty that I would even want it to be R rated; I just like good action and choreography, and this film was Marvel's attempt to create a solid PG13 version of that new sub-genre of action cinema. But this film bottles this or any equivalent attempt at boldness. When even Ant Man and the Wasp has more creativity and imagination, you know you're phoning it in. And for that reason, Black Widow is my worst film of 2022.