I’ve been pretty hesitant to hit the cinema over recent months. So I decided I would delay my best of 2021 list until I was able to see everything I wanted to in the safety of my own home. So it is even later than usual. I saw just under 100 films released in 2021. Here’s what I loved.
This year I have less honourable mentions than usual, but the quality of them is higher. After a really slow start, Godzilla vs Kong was so damn fun and delivered just what I was after in a film with that title. My blockbuster of choice that didn’t make the main list. The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It rubbed a lot of people the wrong way, but for me this franchise continues to be the crowning jewel of the Waniverse, considering religion and horror in an interesting way. Stillwater takes some problematic turns, but it lingered with me longer than basically anything else this year, making me ponder the intersection of parenting and forgiveness. The first 40 odd minutes of The French Dispatch were my favourite Wes Anderson film ever, it fades after that but still worthwhile. Raya and the Last Dragon was my favourite animation of the year, driven by very un-Disney worldbuilding; The Strings was fuckin frightening & arty indie horror while The Unholy was an unfairly maligned more mainstream effort in the genre.
Not everything works here. But what does is some of the strongest filmmaking and performances of last year. I loved the 4:3 aspect ratio, black and white shooting. Lighting is used really intelligently throughout to emphasise the themes of race and ‘passing.’ An unsettling look at various facets of racism. Tessa Thompson is such a wonderful performer, and she always has such great patter with her co-stars. Neither are flashy performances, but both her and Negga are excellent here. An intellectual, thoughtful script. The adaptation is perhaps an even greater credit to Rebecca Hall than her direction (which is also very good).
9. Shiva Baby
There was so much buzz about this film, but it was still a surprise. Has this almost genre film feeling high concept vibe. An atmosphere that builds and builds over the course of a day. Almost real-time in the way that that layers of pressure and bullshit cascade upon a person. A stark look at just how hard it is to navigate the world underneath those layers. Rachel Sennott brings all that out in a great lead performance. She is able to convey so much just through her face. There’s a sweetness brought to proceedings by the presence of Molly Gordon as a potential love interest, that cuts through what might otherwise have been too intense a mood. Great pop and chemistry between the characters. Also has a strange harsh, sharp score that the film uses really well.
8. Superhero films I wanted on this list
There is really no similarity between these two films. Which is a recommendation in itself. Another sign that superhero flicks can still sit out of the homogenous MCU mould (a mould that produces a lot of films I really dig) and head in different creative areas.
Venom: Let There be Carnage
Is this film as good as the others on this list, or even the first film in the series? No. But no two films have ever had the same swagger as these two films and I just want to honour that uniqueness by including it here. This is also by far the funniest comedy of last year. It is a great continuation of the (very homoerotic) relationship between Eddie Brock and the symbiote Venom. Leaning into something that was there in the first film, and then led to an entire internet’s worth of memes. The very intentional queer romance vibes that turns into here is the best kind of fan service. It’s also a surprisingly fantastic script that is legitimately beautiful at times. A film cut with humour, but never undercut by it.
I’m a little bemused by the response to this one. It feels like the really different MCU film everyone has been crying out for. Looks fuckin spectacular. Goes some intense places that are really well conveyed – it’s a wide ranging script with actual ideas. Legitimately sci-fi in terms of genre. Mixed with a globetrotting getting the band back together structure. The action is heavily CGI, but you can still feel the impact of it, and sense how it is all unfolding. Very much ambitious in story and scope, anchored in true-to-life emotion.
7. Streaming facilitated horror
There are certainly legitimate questions as to the effect that streaming has had on the cinematic landscape. But on occasion, it is undeniable that the usurping of the long-held status quo has resulted in experiments and form & function that we would not have otherwise been treated to. Like these.
The Amusement Park
How else but for streaming would a 2021 release be an educational film made by a master of horror in 1975 but never released? The film was commissioned by the Lutheran Society to highlight the horrors of ageing, but they never released it because it was too intense (not sure what they were expecting commissioning George A. Romero). The film itself is fascinating and radical. This is an attempt to make the viewer truly feel what it is to be elderly. To elicit sympathy, more through the aggressive ignoring of one’s existence than any harsh attacks (though those are there too). The everyday embarrassments and rejections. An absurdist, creative horror experience.
Fear Street: 1994
Fear Street: 1978
Fear Street: 1666
A horror trilogy, with the instalments released a week apart. An extremely cool, simple idea, which would have never been possible with a cinematic release. Thankfully all three films are well worth checking out too (my personal ranking is 1666, 1994, 1978). Director Leigh Janiak manages to take these films a really wide range of places, whilst always maintaining a YA vibe. Which is really impressive in the horror genre. A trilogy with frank sexuality, which is very open in its queerness. The entire experience is meticulously thought out and constructed around an intergenerational class divide. Mixes in mystery and tension with different subgenres of horror (slasher, witch film) in a really cool way.
6. Another Round
A clever, super astute (and enjoyable) examination of all the roles alcohol plays in our lives. From the joys of race-walking your mates when plastered; to the risking your job lows. It’s often slightly absurd, and very very funny. Four mates decide to live life just a little tipsy at all times. The subtle changes on their lives are really cleverly done. Mads Mikkelsen is one of those dudes who is just a total movie star. Ultimately manages to be both life-affirming and super melancholy.
5. The Forever Purge
The peak (to date) of the best contemporary horror franchise. A really tactile experience. Interesting that they chose to starkly differentiate this entry with the rural settings, rather than the usual urban focus. Weight lent by really good character actors. The Purge is shown to be as horrific as it should be. But then the aftermath of the night that follows: the tension, release, then tension again, is something not seen in the franchise before. Gruesome and grounded in the current political environment. It’s a series that continues to be more nuanced than anticipated. Some of it is a little clunky as a metaphor. But the whole is so arresting, with a fab diverse range of heroes, that it is absolutely worth checking out.
4. The Rescue
The filmmakers behind Free Solo nail it again basically. I wasn’t particularly invested in the material and only watched it because of the directors. There’s a deep curiosity from them that makes this so essential. That’s ultimately what elevates this recap of events that feel like they’ve been told to death. Even in a pretty talking-head heavy approach, there’s a heart to this. Something that is drawn out, that was never apparent at the time, is the deep hopelessness of the situation. How that infected people trying to save the trapped children. Also the scrappiness and motley crew vibe. And then the utterly bonkers solution that was landed on. Staggering documentary filmmaking.
3. West Side Story
Spielberg is probably the greatest blockbuster filmmaker ever, and it is fascinating to see him bring that sensibility to a classical musical remake. He immerses us in an evocative inner city of decades past. One that doesn’t really exist except in imaginations now. A film that is both rousing and earthy. There’s some bravura staging that sit alongside Spielberg’s greatest set pieces – the start of the community dance for example. A flat male lead is well and truly drowned out by Rachel Zegler, and the supporting ensemble. Not to mention some quieter moments with Rita Moreno that are lovely and beautiful. Feels like very classical filmmaking, with just the right amount of modern sensibilities added in. Ends incredibly strong.
2. First Cow
This 1820 set Western feels like the ultimate pandemic film in a way – has been new in some way for years now. The second 4:3 aspect ratio film in the list, there’s an almost painterly beauty to the imagery. Whilst at other times the visual approach also lends intimacy and intensity to other sequences. Great use of music, as well as silence. Feels very evocative of the downtrodden, harsh existence the west must have been. “This ain’t a place for cows” as one character remarks. It’s also a different west visually, lush and moist. That aids in what functions as a reframing of the mythical qualities of America. A film that slowly develops and unfolds, drawing you in ever closer to the main characters. It’s a portrait of two people, their closeness both in proximity but also spiritually. Just like #1 on this list, it’s also a wonderful film about food. A vibe film, but so much more.
The journey I went on while watching this film: invested in this guy and his relationship to the pig – one of the great films about food – really making me reflect on some shit from my past. A strangely, delightfully pulpy thriller. Resonated very strongly with me emotionally. A film that gets under your skin. I’m not the hugest late career Nic Cage guy, but he creates a character of immense depth here. There’s some really nice texture to this and the way it unfolds is delightfully unexpected. Repurposes the thriller style chase to dramatic ends. The whole thing has a very well-judged emotional pitch too.
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