It’s an honour to select the cream of 2021’s crop of films, released in a time of incredible uncertainty. It’s also tough. Too many brilliant movies were released the year Bond (spoiler alert but come on, you still haven’t seen it?) died and if this was a list of the year’s top twenty films, I’d have included Black Widow, First Cow, The Many Saints of Newark, House of Gucci and The Tragedy of Macbeth. By the by, 2021 was a top year for female directors. The fact that almost half of the projects below were made by women says it all.
The indie drama Riz Ahmed went blonde for. The story of Reuben (a thrash metal drummer and ex-junkie faced with hearing loss) uses ground-breaking sound design to shift the debate on what it means to be “disabled”. Some feel the screenplay, co-written by director Darius Marder, juggles too many issues, but it’s the fact that no one label is sufficient to describe Reuben that makes him special. The supporting cast (Paul Raci, Olivia Cooke and Eternals’ Lauren Ridloff) are incredible; there are no weak links in a movie that captures the horror of suspecting you’re the weak link.
It’s tempting to view Chloe Zhao’s multiple Oscar-winner as old news. It conquered the Venice film festival back in 2020. But this spartan road movie remains the jewel in 2021’s crown. A magnetic Frances McDormand plays seasonal worker Fern, who weaves through Arizona and South Dakota in her beloved van, skinny-dippy, trekking and befriending other individuals who reject the term “homeless”. Zhao and her team (including Bob Wells, Linda May and Swankie, real-life nomads sort of playing themselves) swerve conventional catharsis. No weddings or funerals, here, just jokes and conversations that explore with devastating casualness where we humans are at.
Thanks to Covid, Emerald Fennell’s Oscar-winning directing debut could only be watched on Sky or Now TV. What a waste. As wily and multi-layered as Gone Girl’s Amy Dunne, the film’s anti-heroine, sardonic schemer, Cassie Thomas (Carrie Mulligan; never better), preys on the sort of men who once preyed on her best friend, Nina, and uses social media to complete her mission impossible. Other directors, this year, have tried to understand the crime of rape. They look like time-wasters next to Fennell, whose extraordinary revenge comedy deserves a second chance to go viral.
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James Gunn’s wonderfully bloody, funny and psychedelic take on the delinquent DC comic-book characters begins with the “squad” landing on the fictional island of Corto Maltese and gives Margo Robbie’s warped warrior, Harley Quinn, her best showcase yet. If you loved Harley in Birds of Prey, a sun-dappled massacre here will bring you to your knees. Of several new-to-the-franchise characters the stand-outs are Idris Elba’s Bloodsport, Daniela Melchior’s Ratcatcher 2, David Dastmalchian’s Polka-Dot Man and Sylvester Stallone’s King Shark. The film was one of the biggest flops of the year. Pearls. Swine. Etc.
The saddest thing about The Father? That people assume it’s depressing. Yes, it’s about a man with dementia who makes his daughter’s life hell, but Florian Zeller’s Maida Vale-set odyssey is also a cryptic puzzle with a plot that treble-crosses the viewer and finds humour in the most excruciating of encounters. Anthony Hopkins (who rightly won a Best Actor Oscar for his performance) ensures titular dad Anthony is a compelling cross between Lenny Bruce and King Lear. Meanwhile Olivia Colman, as Anthony’s unfortunately offspring, is a holy ghost of a woman who comes to a decision that will both haunt you and make you gulp with delight.
In one of the best movies about war ever made, it’s 1995, and UN worker Aida (Jasna Duricic) panics when the Serbian army enter the camp where her family, and hundreds of other Bosnian Muslims, are crammed. Bosnian Serb general, Ratko Mladic (Boris Isakovic), says he comes in peace. Aida knows he’s lying. Director Jasmila Zbanic creates an atmosphere that’s restrained but intense, with every inch of the camp, not to mention the Srebrenica flat where Aida once lived (seen at the end of the movie) alive with tension that can’t be instantly unpacked. That this failed to win a Best Foreign Language Oscar still keeps me awake at night. What were you thinking, Academy voters?
Summer of Soul
At the start of this documentary, which features never-before-seen musical performances from the likes of Nina Simone, Mahalia Jackson, Sly and the Family Stone, The 5th Dimension and Stevie Wonder, you may wonder why director Questlove feels the need to contextualise a series of Harlem summer concerts that took place in 1969. You may think, “Just give us the footage, you tantalising bastard!” But Questlove’s portrait of a community and a cultural moment is every bit as electrifying as the songs and ultimately makes the music, itself, more meaningful. A ray of sunshine, spread over two hours. Let the light in.
Kristen Stewart dazzles as Princess Di in this brazenly off-beat marriage story. Chilean auteur Pablo Larrain keeps the focus tight. It’s the early 90s and Di’s home for the holidays, except the Sandringham Estate doesn’t feel like home. Between Christmas Eve and Boxing day, this bulimic and mentally fragile young mother will come to a life-changing decision. Spencer is better than Larrain’s movie about Jackie O. It’s also infinitely superior to series 5 of The Crown. In fact, it’s so full of love, wit, rousing music and sexual tension that I’d go so far as to call it an alt-Yuletide rom-com. Superstar Stewart is a trouble-maker. God bless her and long may she reign.
The Power of the Dog
Jane Campion’s deliberately weird Western is dominated by yellow and mauve mountains and Benedict Cumberbatch’s lovely face. Phil (Cumberbatch) is a swaggering rancher, determined to destroy his brother’s eager-to-please new wife (Kirsten Dunst) and her delicate, student medic son, Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee). But what you see with Phil is not what you get and what blooms between him and Peter is off-the-charts tense. Campion and Cumberbatch have pulled off a little miracle and, in my dreams, this gorgeously sensual movie would be playing in IMAX cinemas for the rest of time.
So it lived up to the hype and is still fuelling a gazillion online debates. As CIA agent Paloma, Ana de Armas has made many new fans, who can’t stop gushing about her cute face and fleet feet. What made time fly for me, though, was the banter between “new 007” Nomi, played by Lashana Lynch, and Daniel Craig’s emotionally bruised, out-of-sorts Bond. Craig’s always been wry and subversive (watch him in The Mother) but really shows off his range in his last outing as the supposedly irresistible spy. Nomi tells Bond the world has moved on. Thanks to Craig, Lynch and a script co-written by Phoebe Waller-Bridge, James found a way to keep up.
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Judas and the Black Messiah
In which Daniel Kaluuya brings gifted, fast-talking Black Panther activist Fred Hampton to life. Though this superlative performance earned the British actor an Oscar, Judas and the Black Messiah never feels like Oscar bait. In fact, it’s allergic to biopic clichés. Shaka King’s wryly bleak project compares and contrasts Hampton with Bill O’Neal (LaKeith Stanfield), the resourceful, charismatic low-life engaged to infiltrate the Panthers on behalf of the FBI. Compared to Get Out (the last movie Kaluuya and Stanfield made together), Judas was a financial disaster. Who cares? Kaluuya has many admirers - including Adele! - and if they haven’t already discovered this gem, they will.
A darkly hilarious family psychodrama, based on the Elena Ferrante novel, that allows Olivia Colman to yet again demonstrate her magnificence. She’s Leda, a thin-skinned English tourist who, while in Greece, behaves madly. Colman’s turn is worthy of a Best Actress Oscar, while first-time-director/writer Maggie Gyllenhaal deserves a Best Adapted Screenplay award. One could describe The Lost Daughter as a drama in which a premenopausal woman torments an autistic child, but Gyllenhaal, taking Ferrante’s lead, avoids labels. Mind-blowing, heart-pummelling stuff.
Spider-Man: No Way Home
Even those suffering with extreme superhero fatigue will be won over by this cathartically meta threequel, which I can personally attest has the power to make teenage boys and grown adults sob - I shed a tear or two (or maybe hundreds) myself. Tom Holland has never been better as the teen web-slinger who, confronted by the realities of the multiverse, needs all the support he can get to make the world a kinder place, while memorable zingers explore the mechanics of the Spidey mission (we get the low-down, finally, on those ‘emissions’.) The villains are as multi-dimensional as the heroes. It’s been a cracking year for blockbusters, but Holland’s quirky epic quietly tops them all.
Steven Spielberg’s best work in years rousingly reimagines the legendary musical about doomed lovers in racially-divided, 1950s New York. Authentically Hispanic newcomer Rachel Zegler is perfect as the optimistic Maria, while Ariana DeBose is just as strong as Maria’s friend, the astute, hip-swivelling Anita and Rita Moreno (who played Anita in the 1961 movie and famously stole every scene) delivers an emotional and blistering turn as a new character, Puerto Rican matriarch Valentina. Spielberg ‘n’ Sondheim. A match made in heaven.
Céline Sciamma’s uncanny French-language drama – made in lockdown – sees a young girl, Nelly (Josephine Sanz), reeling from a death in the family, somehow befriending her mother’s 8-year-old self (Gabrielle Sanz) and even getting to know her thirty-something granny (Margot Abascal). The director-writer of Portrait of a Lady on Fire is essentially gender-swapping plot threads from the Japanese cartoon, Mirai. It’s where she goes with these whimsical idea that’s awesome. Generations of women pass on pain and pleasure, in the story Covid couldn’t crush.