Well, all of the Awards’ favourites of 2021 have played in UK cinemas now, and four months into 2022 I think it is time to make my Top 10 films of 2021 list. These are my critical Top 10, and not necessarily a reflection of the 2021 films that I enjoyed the most. It was a hard list to make, as there are a number of films I would have loved to put on it, including Belfast, CODA, Last Night in Soho, The Novice and The Worst Person in the World, but alas not. That can only be a good thing though, as they were great films, but there are 10 that are even better, so here we go…
10. Mass (Dir. Fran Kanz)
Easily one of the most topical films of 2021, it was a brave risk by Fran Kanz to make a film about a mass shooting in a school, but the risk really does pay off! Rather than depicting the shooting itself, he depicts two sets of parents whose lives were changed forever that day meeting six years later to discuss the events and find closure. It is an incredibly poignant and intense film that examines the long-term impact of such a tragedy upon the families of those involved, both perpetrator and victim, and is primarily a four-hander between an outstanding central cast who bring incredible raw emotion to the screen.
9. Drive My Car (Dir. Ryusuke Hamaguchi)
The 3-hour-long runtime does not stop this from being a consistently engaging film from Japan, thanks in no small part to Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s nuanced and slow-burn approach to a character-focused narrative. Featuring an outstanding cast led wonderfully by Hidetoshi Nishijima, this film is simultaneously two things. On the one hand it is a powerful exploration of the long-term effects of bereavement and the difficulties in coming to terms with past hurt, and also a wonderful celebration of how the arts transcend nation, culture and generation alike through the very clever concept of a multi-lingual production of Uncle Vanya.
8. The Green Knight (Dir. David Lowery)
If you have seen A Ghost Story then it shall come as no surprise that David Lowery once again proved himself to be a master of slow-burn narrative and arthouse flair with this gripping take on a 14th Century Arthurian poem, which boasts a rich colour palette and stunning designs. A very atmospheric piece of cinema with a very well-executed sense of mystery, with a wonderful sense of fantasy due to the incorporation of (amongst other things) giants, talking animals and ghosts, the gripping narrative features a dual-focus on Gawain’s character arc and his vulnerability in relation to nature, both of which are realised wonderfully by Dev Patel.
7. Dune (Dir. Denis Villeneuve)
The first in a two-part adaptation of Frank Herbert’s epic and game-changing science-fiction, Denis Villeneuve once again proves himself to be one of the best directors working today, as he brings a tremendously deft hand to big scale world-building scenes, more intimate moments between characters and spectacularly choreographed fight scenes alike. The screenwriters do a fantastic job of world-building that is absolutely fascinating, and will especially pay off with Part Two next year, and once again Villeneuve presents us with a visually breath-taking science-fiction, that is complimented tremendously by terrific sound design and mixing.
6. Boiling Point (Dir. Philip Barantini)
A captivating sensory assault of the Uncut Gems ilk, Philip Barantini achieves one of the most gripping films of the year by presenting us with a deftly executed 90-minute-long single take, the non-existence of errors testifying to how well the cast had been directed and the film rehearsed. Featuring a career-best, tour de force performance from Stephen Graham, the down-to-Earth and naturalistic screenplay grapples with issues of addiction, low self-esteem, racism and self-harming, the social realist aesthetics of which are aided by Barantini’s nuanced direction, the naturalistic pacing and Matthew Lewis’s use of a handheld camera. Plus as a foodie, this film certainly made my mouth water.
5. The Power of the Dog (Dir. Jane Campion)
It took 54 years for Thomas Savage’s novel to be adapted to screen, but it was worth the wait, as Jane Campion handles the arc of the four main characters with an incredibly deft hand, bringing real nuance and sensitivity to each of them, giving them all a natural progression and effortlessly interlinking them all. It is primarily a character-driven piece brought to gripping life by the unanimously strong quartet of Benedict Cumberbatch, Kodi Smit-McPhee, Jesse Plemons and Kirsten Dunst, but also it is a very different take on the Western genre and the forms of masculinity therein, with the exquisite production design evoking the iconography of classic Western films.
4. The Tragedy of Macbeth (Dir. Joel Coen)
The first film on which director/screenwriter Joel Coen did not collaborate with brother Ethan also happens to be one of the best cinematic takes on one of Shakespeare’s most iconic tragedies (Throne of Blood remains number one though). Keeping a very tight focus on characters, magnificently choreographing the fight scenes and having very creative takes on some of the most famous Shakespearean moments, Coen also evokes the spirit of the original dialogue without quoting it verbatim and makes outstanding use of Denzel Washington and Frances McDormand in the lead roles. All of this is brought to visually striking life on screen by Bruno Delbonnel’s formalist shot composition and outstanding use of black-and-white.
3. The Souvenir Part II (Dir. Joanna Hogg)
As with the original, this is clearly an incredibly personal film for director/screenwriter Joanna Hogg as she draws upon her own experiences as a young adult in the 1980s. A natural follow-up to the first film, this is a character-driven piece which explores the difficulty of moving on from a toxic relationship and coming to terms with that past pain, which is realised wonderfully by lead actress Honor Swinton Byrne, who gives a captivating and sensitive turn. Furthermore, this film is a wonderful celebration of the art of filmmaking and a love letter to the abilities of the creative arts to bring people together and evoke discussion, brought to life by excellent mumblecore dialogue and gorgeous use of 4:3 film to give the final piece the visual quality of a 1980s’ film.
2. Petite Maman (Dir. Céline Sciamma)
This is a unique film on the list and not just because it is the only French film on this list. Céline Sciamma is no stranger to films about childhood, but never before has she approached a person’s formative years by (beautifully) blending family drama, ghost story, time travel and an exploration of bereavement that is utterly compelling and truly timeless due to its microscopic focus and wonderful sense of childlike innocence. The child actresses are remarkably natural talents, but what has to be praised about this film most of all is the fact that Sciamma adapted wonderfully to France’s lockdown restrictions and did not let those stop her from successfully delivering a nuanced and emotionally impactful piece, not letting a short runtime or small cast hamper that.
1. Flee (Dir. Jonas Poher Rasmussen)
The most unique film on this list also happens to be the most unique film of 2021. Whilst documentaries about refugees have been in considerable number during the last 5 years or so, this one does not concern the refugee crisis of recent years, but instead concerns the experiences of a single refugee and his family during the 1980s and 1990s. It is an utterly compelling piece as the central figure reflects on his childhood and youth experiences over 20 years later, in doing so providing a fascinating exploration of how perspectives on experiences as harrowing as that of the refugee can change with age and life-experience, as well as how difficult it can be for the refugee to adapt to a new society and culture once he or she has asylum. Furthermore, Jonas Poher Rasmussen must be commended for negating the issue of having to protect people’s identities by blending the audios of his interviews with wonderful hand-drawn animation.
2021 may not have been a truly outstanding year for cinema, but this list testifies to the fact that the year still gave us a wonderful variety of outstanding films, despite the issues caused by the pandemic during the production of some of them, for which a plethora of filmmakers have to be praised. Now to see what the rest of 2022 has in store for us, and I cannot wait to write my Top 10 Films of 2022 list, by no later than this date next year!