The state of the film industry feels rather precarious in 2021.
Cinemas were largely empty for 2020 and for most of 2021 thanks to COVID-19 but the unexpectedly buoyant performance of Shangi-Chi and the Ten Rings at the box office in September was the green light studios were looking for to finally put some long-finished films back on the release schedule.
Since then there’s been a ‘feast or famine’ scenario where Spider-man: No Way Home has broken box office records rivalling the pre-pandemic era but at the same time audiences have stayed away and largely ignored new releases from Steven Spielberg, Ridley Scott, Paul Thomas Anderson, Guillermo Del Toro and Wes Anderson.
A lot has been said and written about the cinema experience vs streaming at home but its possible the pandemic has rapidly accelerated a trend where audiences are almost exclusively favouring super hero and action movie fare at the expense of almost everything else with comedy, horror and drama being notable genres that were once reliably popular mainstays of the box office that audiences now seem to be ignoring in favour of waiting for them to surface on streaming services.
Although its not entirely clear yet what are genuine long term trends and what are simply by-products of the COVID era, I’m very concerned that well established film directors producing a variety of interesting and critically well-received films are struggling for screening sessions when pitted against the might of the Disney and Marvel machine. At least once upon a time there was an ecosystem where blockbuster films were a midyear staple and smaller films occupied a space in the New Year, nowadays there’s a new blockbuster or two out every month of the year and their success seems to have come at the expense of everyone else.
Overall, 2021 has felt like a pretty rough year for film. I don’t know if its because we’ve been spoiled in recent years but usually when I put this list together, it’s a challenge to whittle my list of favourite movies down to ten and its genuinely a toss up between two or three great films as to which was my favourite of the year. This year, I had to think pretty hard about whether I actually saw ten films I actually enjoyed (I eventually got there with films I watched in late December) and nothing immediately stood out to me as a favourite of the year.
Hopefully it’s just a blip on the radar and 2022 will have some great movies in store for us.
With that said, here it is, my favourite films of 2021.
Director: Denis Villeneuve
Writers: Denis Villeneuve, Eric Roth, Jon Spaihts
Cast: Timothee Chalamet, Oscar Isaac, Rebecca Ferguson, Jason Momoa, Javier Bardem, Dave Bautista, Josh Brolin
“Fear is the mind killer”
Denis Villeneuve’s sci-fi space epic Dune is one of the most ambitious and high-profile science fiction features in years and is a largely successful adaptation of Frank Herbert’s classic novel thanks to the singular vision from Villeneuve, who creates a distinctive ambient aesthetic that sets it apart from the theme-park attraction presentation of recent Star Wars and Star Trek features.
Dune is a densely crafted melodrama and there is a lot for audiences to absorb with its impressive ensemble cast and complex narrative that weaves together themes of environmentalism, ecology and imperialism.
Director: Michael Sarnoski
Writers: Michael Sarnoski, Vanessa Block
Cast: Nicholas Cage, Alex Wolff, Adam Arkin
“We don’t get a lot of things to really care about”
After all these years Nicholas Cage continues to surprise and delight us.
The enigmatic actor has had a long and storied career, delivering larger than life performances for decades, ranging from his action-adventure blockbusters such as Face/Off and The Rock to his more recent turns in cult classics such as Mandy and Color Out of Space. He must be one of the hardest working men in Hollywood with over one hundred acting credits to his name and a loud, shouty, physical performance style (I’m told he calls it ‘mega-acting’) that seems to have become his enduring trademark.
With Pig, director Michael Sarnoski has created a beautiful film that has wonderfully crafted monologues about the nature of life, love and the grieving process. Almost everyone in this film is carrying the burden of some type of loss. Still, I believe this is a film with a hopeful and optimistic light at its centre. It was one of the most moving and enriching film experiences I had in 2021.
Director: James Wan
Writers: James Wan, Akela Cooper, Ingrid Bisu
Cast: Annabelle Wallis, Maddie Hasson, George Young, Jacqueline Mackenzie
“It’s time to cut out the cancer”
The start of Malignant suggests a well-honed but formulaic supernatural thriller. Then just when you think you know the answer, James Wan changes the question. Malignant has an absolutely bombastic, totally insane, stupid-bordering-on-genuis twist in store for its audience. I watched this at home on a quiet rainy Tuesday night and the moment Malignant played its hand, I stood and yelled at the tv. Then basically remained standing, jaw agape, at the incredible third act. It’s madness. Out of this world. Completely bonkers. I loved it.
Of all the films I’ve watched during this hellacious and interminably long pandemic, this, this is one I wished the most I had seen in a crowded movie theatre, just to soak in the audience reaction. It would’ve been a riotous response to rival Get Out.
Malignant is one of those films where a wildly inventive movie director has gone out and made their riches in Hollywood and then returned to make a small-scale picture in a genre they’re comfortable in. It’s Guillermo Del Toro’s Crimson Peak. It’s Sam Raimi’s Drag Me To Hell. Films that probably don’t rate that highly or stand out in their filmographies, but are very much appreciated by long time aficionados. This one’s for you.
Director: Lee Isaac Chung
Writer: Lee Isaac Chung
Cast: Steven Yeun, Han Ye-ri, Christina Oh, Youn Yuh-jung, Alan S.Kim
“Grandma smells like Korea!”
Minari is part of a small but welcome recent wave of Asian-American cinema that includes the likes of The Farewell, Searching and Crazy Rich Asians. It’s great to see actors such as John Cho, Akwafina and Steve Yeun, who’ve had secondary roles in Hollywood productions for years, have a chance to shine in these recent films.
Lee Isaac Chung’s semi-autobiographical fim is a Slice of Life story about making a new home for yourself. The writing and sense of place has a real authenticity to it that resonated with me. As a Third Culture kid who grew up in Borneo and now Australia, a lot of Minari’s observations about settling somewhere new and the cultural friction points that come along the way felt relatable and acutely well-observed.
Minari is clear-eyed about the hardships and challenges that can come with economic migration. Although set nearly forty years ago and in a very particular part of the world, the experiences of the Yi family still rings true and will feel universal for many families today.
Director: Florian Zeller
Writer: Christopher Hampton
Cast: Anthony Hopkins, Olivia Coleman, Olivia Williams
“I feel as if I’m losing all my leaves.”
FILM OF THE YEAR
The Father opens with Anthony living what appears to be a pleasant enough existence, listening to opera in his neat, finely appointed apartment. But very quickly, he becomes disoriented by his surroundings. He seems to relive the same conversations over and over. There are huge gaps in his memory he can seemingly not account for. Who is his caretaker? Where is his watch? Does the apartment belong to him or Anne?
Not only does Anthony loses his bearings, so do we as the viewer, seeing the world through his eyes. Small details shift rapidly, confusing and confounding us. The kitchen tiles change from one pattern to another. The bag that contains Anthony’s chicken dinner changes colour. Anthony even momentarily confuses his daughter Anne, initially played by Olivia Coleman, with another British actress Olivia Williams.
Anthony Hopkins delivers an incredible, layered and vulnerable performance in the lead role. He exhibits an air of bravado that hints at the proud kind of man he must’ve been before age and illness took hold. Now he struggles to grapple with his surroundings and tries, with utter futility, to exhibit some sense of order and control.
The Father is a tightly constructed, carefully honed film, that must’ve been storyboarded and planned to the nth degree. Lines of dialogue repeat multiple times and conversations weave out of chronological order, until we suddenly arrive back to where we started. Production designer Peter Francis does an incredible job with shifting and redesigning the flat over and over throughout the course of the film as it takes on the appearance of Anthony’s current reality or that of his memory. Likewise much credit must go to editor Yorgos Lamrinos who has the unenviable task of putting together a film that is purposefully un-cohesive structurally, but still makes sense narratively, with a crescendo that is moving and heart breaking.
Judas and the Black Messiah
Director: Shaka King
Writer: Will Berson, Shaka King
Cast: Daniel Kaluuya, LaKeith Stanfield, Jesse Plemons, Martin Sheen
“America’s on fire right now and until the fire is extinguished don’t nothin’ else mean a goddamn thing.”
Prior to this movie, I was unfamiliar with Fred Hampton although his story is extraordinary. As a leader in the Chicago chapter of the Black Panther party he organized free meals and schooling for impoverished kids in his city. He was a talented orator and skilled negotiator. He was so confident and convincing with his vision that he would turn up unannounced at a meeting of white Southerners (in a meeting room adorned with the confederate flag no less) and after a tense stand off, he would have them join his alliance. Over time his “Rainbow Coalition” would include rival black gangs, Latinos, Puerto Ricans and the aforementioned Young Patriots.
Shaka King’s biopic is an informative and fascinating look at a young revolutionary viewed from the perspective of the ‘Judas’ – a man named Bill O’Neal who is facing a long term prison sentence unless he agrees to spy on Hampton for the FBI.
The film is both inspiring as we learn just how much Hampton is able to accomplish by the age of just 21 and heart-breaking as the film’s inevitably grim conclusion draws depressing parallels with racial injustices we read about in America to this day.
The Power of the Dog
Director: Jane Campion
Writer: Jane Campion
Cast: Benedict Cumberbatch, Kirsten Dunst, Jesse Plemons
“I just want to say… how nice it is not to be alone.”
Jane Campion’s slow burn Western drama – her first feature in over a decade – is a compelling and thought provoking character study.
It tells the tale of two ranchers, Phil and George, and the tensions that develop between them when George falls for a widowed innkeeper named Rose – who has an effeminate and introverted son Peter – whose very presence bristles Phil. As Phil escalates his bullying and torment of Peter, George and Rose’s relationship moves quickly towards marriage. This creates a powder keg scenario as Rose looks to George to confront his brother Phil who is the domineering and formidable alpha in their relationship.
There are universally great performances across the board in Campion’s adaptation of Thomas Savage’s novel of the same name. Although its likely that Benedict Cumberbatch will get his flowers during the awards season for his performance as Phil, I think it’s the understated Kodi Smit-McPhee as Peter who is the highlight of the film.
The Power of the Dog has a smartly constructed screenplay and once the story gets its hooks into you, its absorbing to see how the power dynamics between the characters continuously shift and evolve, right up to its emphatic gut-punch of a conclusion.
Director: Don Hall, Carlos López Estrada and Paul Briggs
Writers: Adele Lim, Qui Nguyen
Cast: Kelly Marie Tran, Awkwafina, Daniel Dae Kim
“I too wish to join this fellowship of Druun buttkickery.”
There’s a shot early on in Raya where we see a lone female warrior riding across a desert wasteland. She’s riding on the back of a giant armadillo, wearing a wide-brim Salakot hat that obscures most of her face. On her belt buckle is a curved whip-blade sword.
It was about then that I thought Raya was the most interesting original IP that Disney has produced in a long time. It only took a matter of minutes for this story about a desolated fantasy world populated with dragons, demons and scorcery to draw me in.
This animated children’s fantasy film is also notable for drawing its cultural influences from South East Asia, which is a first of the studio. It gives Raya a fresh and aesthetically eye-catching presentation that sets it apart from its peers in the genre.
The world-building and the character of Raya herself are the highlights. Once the narrative gets going, its pretty standard Disney fare. It feels comfortably familiar, hits all the usual action and comedy beats, and is generally crowd-pleasing.
Sound of Metal
Director: Darius Marder
Writer: Darius Marder
Cast: Riz Ahmed, Olivia Cooke, Paul Raci
“Serenity is no longer wishing you had a different past.”
Sound of Metal is the story of Ruben, a drummer in a metal band who learns he is experiencing sudden and potentially permanent hearing loss.
The best kinds of movies – and the ones that stay with us – are movies that have something to teach us or offer us a different perspective. Sound of Metal is just such as movie. It is an eye-opening and thought provoking film about a community I knew very little about.
Riz Ahmed fully embraced the role by learning both sign language and drumming. His efforts pay off handsomely as there is an instant credibility and authenticity to his performance and even though he has become a well established actor playing a range of roles in Four Lions, Venom, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story and The Night Of – we instantly lose ourselves in his portrayal of Ruben.
The French Dispatch
Director: Wes Anderson
Writer: Wes Anderson, Roman Coppola
Cast: Benicio Del Toro, Tilda Swinton, Adrien Brody, Frances McDormand, Bill Murray
The funny thing about Wes Anderson movies is it feels like he has consistently been doing the same cinematic motif for two and a half decades now and yet I’m the one that veers back and forth on his films. There are some I love – Grand Budapest Hotel, Rushmore, Moonrise Kingdom – and some I bounced off hard – like Isle of Dogs and The Darjeeling Limited. I don’t really know how my brain decides when its happy to engage with Anderson’s ‘quirk’. Maybe it’s a particular actor or setting, maybe it’s just the day of the week? Happily, The French Dispatch was one of the ones that landed for me. I enjoyed the small town newspaper trappings immensely and splitting the narrative into three bit sized chunks suited me nicely. It goes without saying that he’s assembled a ridiculously stacked cast of talented actors and every shot in the movie is meticulously crafted and framed to the nth degree.
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