The Best Films of 2021

This year I watched 298 films. This figure, however, only counts the first time a film was viewed, and doesn’t include subsequent rewatches, of which there were plenty. It was another year where there were quite a few films I liked, but no real stand out, so the following list is in no particular order.

Enjoy!

Annette

I gotta admit, I was not excited to watch this, and had put it off several times. After all, its a musical about a pair of celebrities who give birth to a singing prodigy, with the child portrayed by a marionette puppet. But it was breathtakingly original – all sumptuous visuals like half-remembered dreams, the story operatic in tone and scope, the songs, composed entirely by Sparks, were emotive and cutting, the performances by Adam Driver and Marion Cotillard were fully committed, and the storyline about a malignant narcissist and an abusive marriage that becomes a story about a controlling parent failing to put his child first, was moving and memorable.

Music

The second musical on my list. As directed and written by musical genius Sia, this is so her; and that’s an aesthetic you either embrace or reject. This film tells the story of Music (Maddie Zeigler), a low-functioning autistic teenager who ends up under the guardianship of her sister Zu (Kate Hudson) who has her own troubles with drugs, alcohol and mental health. I know this is a controversial film, mostly because of the huge backlash against Sia for not casting an autistic actor in the title role, but the film itself is magical. It moved me to tears a few times, and the songs are so damn good; not to mention the use of imagination and colourful imagery to tell the story. I really loved this movie.

Our Friend

Do you want to cry? Do you want a film that will rip your heart out and stomp on it but still leave you glad you watched it? Then this is the film for you! Parents of two little girls, couple Matt (Casey Affleck) and Nicole (Dakota Johnson) receive life changing medical news, and their long-time friend Dane (Jason Segel) puts his life on hold to live with them and help them through this tough time. Sounds a little pedestrian and depressing but it really isn’t, its about the power of friendship, and finding beauty where you can, and how rewarding it is to support someone in need. But yeah, bring tissues.

Shadow In The Cloud

I really had low expectations for this one, expecting a schlocky c-grade horror featuring an actress i really don’t rate – Chloe Grace Moretz. What I didn’t expect was a film that said “I see your c-grade schlock and raise you a feminist, kick-ass action that fully embraces its pulpiness and adds in a touch of Lovecraft for good measure”! This movie tells the story of Maud (Mortiz – who made me rethink my opinion of her talents), a female pilot during world war 2, who talks her way onto the last mission of B52 bomber with its all-male crew; she has a secret package to deliver, and, to add even more tension, there are monstrous stowaways onboard. This creature-feature war movie is gonzo crazy and an absolute riot until the end credits when a sobering truth about our past heroes is shared. Expertly directed by Roseanne Laing, I can’t wait to see what she brings us nextand the synth score is sublime!

Nobody

I’ve always liked Bob Odenkirk, there’s something very comforting about his gravelly voice, and his face is full of character, which is probably why he never seems to be the lead but part of the supporting cast, on film at least (Better call Saul definitely benefits from having him front and center). Nobody, the story of a retired hitman who is reminded of how much he enjoyed his prior life of crime and dives straight back in with gusto when his family is threatened, also knows how to trade on Odenkirks likability and ‘everyman’ vibe. This is entertaining as heck from start to finish with escalating action and bone-crunching violence aplenty – the over-the-top cartoonish variety of violence, not the sobering, ugly kind. Featuring the best needle-drop moment of 2021 when “heartbreaker’ by Pat Benatar accompanies a thrilling city car chase, this also contains one of the best ‘man and kitten’ scenes I’ve ever seen. So much damn fun!

The Mauritanian

A true story about the horrors inflicted upon a man imprisoned at Guantanamo without charge for years, and the people working on either side of his imprisonment. Jodie Foster plays the lawyer tasked with investigating and ultimately fighting for his freedom. Benedict Cumberbatch plays the idealistic soldier recruited to prosecute the prisoner who instead finds his own faith in the system, the military and the government, challenged. As Mohamedu the prisoner, Tahar Rahim (who should have been Oscar nominated) is mesmerising and revelatory, and Foster lends strong support in her Golden Globe award winning performance, with Cumberbatch solid as always. A galvanising and shocking meditation on the abuse of power.

Judas and The Black Messiah

Another true story, IMDB summarises this film as ‘offered a plea deal by the FBI, William O’Neal infiltrates the Illinois chapter of the Black Panther Party to gather intelligence on Chairman Fred Hampton’. It is a mini-biopic of Fred Hampton combined with the edginess of a spy movie; only this is also about betrayal and racism and the birth of a movement, and the decisions made by the characters had real-world consequences. A little dry ocassionally, this is buoyed by stellar performances from our two leads – Daniel Kaluuya (always riveting but an Oscar winner here) and LaKeith Stanfield (Oscar nominated for this, and also always good). With great support from Jessie Plemons, this one will make you outraged at the injustice. Powerful stuff.

Free Guy

Trapped in a video game, this riff on ‘The Truman Show’ starring Ryan Reynolds as ‘Blue Shirt Guy’ is a riot from start to finish. Sweet, warm-hearted, smart and with the added spice of a winning Jodie Comer, as well as an all-round likeable support cast, this is laugh-out-loud funny but still manages to get you in the feels by the end. Taika Waititi’s bizarre and OTT performance is the only misstep in this utter joy of a movie. Endlessly rewatchable.

Synchronic

What if there was a drug that allowed you to travel back in time? A drug that is like the most psychedelic trip ever but its dangerous because you have no control where you will end up, as the drug opens you up to ‘portals’ or ‘doors’ that can lead to anywhere and anywhen, would you take it? In Synchronic, this drug has already flooded the black market and our two world-weary EMT leads (Anthony Mackie and Jamie Dornan) are dealing with the medical fallout. I love the movies of Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead, they are always mind-opening affairs that exist within their own mythologies with a dash of magic realism and science fiction threaded through the narrative. Turn it on and strap in – this ride is unwieldy and unpredictable, but you’ll be glad you took it.

Possessor

Starring an actress I find fascinating – Andrea Riseborough, who plays an agent who uses brain-implant tech to ‘get inside’ a target and then use their body like a meat-puppet to assassinate victims selected by her rich clientele, to call this screenplay bold would be an understatement. The first feature film of Brandon Cronenberg, son of avant-garde director David, to call this cronenbergian may be on the nose, but its accurate. This combines body-horror, science fiction and touches on the dangers inerrant at the intersection of technology and humans. It talks about the cost of literally losing yourself in your work; and the ending is shocking as all get-out! A cerebral mind-fuck with ultra violence and a bloody raw heart, I didn’t shake this one for days.

Luca

I seem to always have an animated movie in my best of list these days, which is surprising to me as I don’t consider myself a fan of animated movies at all, but here we are. Luca (the film that shoud have won best animated feature at this years Golden Globes, not Encrapto) is a simple story about a sea creature child who wants more than just the sheltered under-sea life he leads with his over-protective parents, and after discovering he turns human on land, he befriends a cocky fellow sea creature with a secret – Alberto. Together with human Giulia, they form a relay team to compete in the Porto Rosso cup and win a Vespa. With major coming-out undertones, and its idyllic Italian summer vibe – this is a family-friendly ‘Call me by your name’ with fish. Nostalgic, gentle, moving and funny with great voice work by Jacob Tremblay and especially Jack Dylan Grazer, this is a movie I know I’ll enjoy on rainy Sunday afternoons for years to come.

Long Weekend

This is one of two very small indies to make my list this year, and is described on IMDB thusly – ‘ a down-on-his-luck struggling writer, meets an enigmatic woman who enters his life at the right time. While this synopsis is accurate, it doesn’t encompass the oodles of charm and naturalism the two mains (played to perfection by Finn Wittrock and Zoe Chao) bring to this movie, it also doesn’t give away the many interesting plot twists that hurtle this film through several different genres before landing on a genuinely touching finale; and I’m not gunna give away the big twist either, suffice to say I was invested from the first scene. For a directorial debut (Steve Basilone) this is impressive, and the music is lovely too. A unique little gem that I wish more people had seen.

Beast Beast

The second small indie on my list, this was a chance find on a late night and I’m so glad I took the journey. Essentially a coming of age film with all the nostalgia removed, this follows the lives of four gen z teens in a typical American high school – it documents the choices hey make, the way their lives intersect and how they navigate their lives in the context of the world as it is now. At times this is uncomfortable viewing with palpable desperation and a true sense of unease even in the most benign moments, but its always compelling. Strong stuff.

The Courier

Based on the true story of an ordinary joe recruited by the British government to be a spy and help end the Cuban Missile Crisis with the aid of their Russian source. This for me was a film that came out of nowhere; I’d seen no advertising and read no reviews, and I found it fascinating. Its remarkable the danger a government was willing to put a regular citizen like Greville Wynne in, and I enjoyed the ultimately moving friendship that developed between Greville and his Russian counterpart, Oleg. I have taken some time to warm to Benedict Cumberbatch, I think part of me will never move past his slimy pedophilic character in the excellent ‘Atonement’, but he certainly opened my eyes with his brilliant performance in ‘The Imitation Game’, and again here he is proving to be one the more impressive actors working today. Everyone brings their A game, but Cumberbatch goes a step further than I had expected of him.

Don’t Look Up

I’d been waiting for this movie. I’d heard about it and the synopsis sounded like a perfect combination of most things I like – Leo DiCaprio, director Adam McKay, Timothee Chalamet, climate change, large cast of stars, so when it finally hit the theatres for a limited time, I was keen to go. I’m so glad I did, because even though it was released on Netflix a few days later, the big screen was where this film deserved to be seen. The storyline poked wry and clever fingers at Trump and his ilk – his skewed ‘values’ and damaging persona, it satirized our push to not hear what isn’t convenient, to keep that smile plastered on even as we eat our own lies; it was a scathing look at humanity as it is now, our warped priorities and ‘bull in a china shop’ effect on the world. The big screen made those macro shots of nature and animals and hummingbirds not just effecting, but genuinely heartbreaking. The thought of losing those we share the planet with should stop us in our tracks, should break us. Funny, smart, important and quietly devastating. I hope someone out there listens, but I suspect its far too late.

Antlers

A horror film as much about child abuse, neglect and poverty as it is about monsters and mythology. This examines the after effects of damaging childhoods whilst also telling the story of young Lucas, trying to hold his family together and stop his father from becoming a literal monster – way too big a burden for a child to bear. The imagery is breathtaking, and the scares effective. Director Scott Cooper has managed to create an atmospheric, darkly fantastical tale featuring fine performances from the always great Keri Russell and Jesse Plemons, with an amazing accomplished turn from young Jeremy T. Thomas in his big screen debut. The best horror of the year.

The French Dispatch

I like Wes Anderson films, they can be twee and quaint but their aesthetic works for me, and he is reliably good even with his lesser films. Featuring, of course, an ensemble cast, this is not one of his lesser films. His usual troupe of players are here – Bill Murray, Angelica Huston, Edward Norton, Tilda Swinton, Owen Wilson, Adrian Brody, Frances McDormand, and more; they tell an anthology of stories revolving around a Newspaper called The French Dispatch. Essentially a love letter to old fashioned newspapering and the journalists who sought out and were passionate about their stories, this is outrageously amusing, and supremely creative. Like a good degustation, each course (story) brings you something different, but each portion is delicious and satisfying.

The Last Duel

I don’t much care for entertainment based in the medieval times, so this had not been much on my radar until a friend said she had seen it and thought it was good. I liked the cast, Ridley Scott is a solid director so I decided to give it a go. This is a true story about a woman who has a great wrong committed against her and how her efforts for justice are hijacked by a conceited husband. Set in the era when ‘truth’ is decided by a jousting duel, and women had no ownership of their lives or bodies, I loved the telling of the story from 3 different viewpoints – it worked wonderfully well in this, and kept me on the edge of my seat all the way to the finale. Starring Matt Damon (playing a sniveling pompous character that surprised me), Adam Driver and Jodie Comer (strong!) this is a sumptuous and brutal film that shies away from nothing whilst also not exploiting scenes that needed to be handled sensitively. Utterly engrossing.

The Eyes Of Tammy Faye

Buoyed by a chameleonic performance by Jessica Chastain, this deep dive into the life and crimes of real life 80’s christian evangelists Jim and Tammy Faye Baker is by turns surprising, sympathetic and honest. The recreations of sets, clothes, attitudes of the times etc. are completely spot on and show the care and attention to detail given to every facet of this story. Andrew Garfield as Jim is outshined by Chastain only because her performance is so remarkable; without that attention grabbing accompaniment, he would be the one to praise. Tammy Faye herself is afforded a type of character restoration here, and the films goes a long way to right the wrongs that were heaped upon her.

Spider-man: No Way Home

I enjoy superhero films – they generally feature high quality production values, are well acted and big popcorn entertainment; if they seem to all blend in for me that’s ok, they have a job to do and they do it well – they entertain. I’d seen the previous two Spider-mans featuring Tom Holland as our titular hero and thought they were just fine, nothing special (his best friend Ned annoys me to unreasonable levels) but I cant fault them. This part is different, this part has everything you could want from a superhero film, and, more specifically, a spider-man film. In fact, this is the spider-man film you didn’t even know you needed. I cant summarise it, the joy is in the discovery, but I cant imagine anyone not having a good time with this film.

Honorable mentions –

Blue Bayou – American immigration woes in this smart heartfelt indie – I ugly-cried, you will too.

The Card Counter – Oscar Isaacs is a broken ex-soldier hitting the casino circuit – intricate and gritty.

Together Together – Ed Helms bonds with the woman surrogating his baby – heart-warming, not cloying.

Horror in The High Desert – found footage with an endearing central character and genuine chills.

The Worst List

Much as it pains me to admit, most of the worst films of the year were horrors:

Halloween Kills – Please tell me this was a parody.

Malignant – Ugly and stupid. James Wan please leave horror alone.

The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It – a hallmark movie disguised as a telegraphed horror and a snoozefest.

The Empty Man – So boring, So long, So trite. A tonally awkward mess.

Titane – Nonsensical, distancing, meandering and gross. There is nothing to connect with or enjoy.

Vanquish – So bad its almost funny, my love for Ruby Rose led me astray… again!

Suicide Squad – One of the most cynical films I’ve seen, it’s like the film makers hate the audience – an ensemble film with no character development? No thanks

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