2021: A Year in Review
Thank you to all of our readers and contributors for all of your continued support. With new releases from Claire Denis, Martin Scorsese, Olivia Wilde, Noah Baumbach, Ryan Coogler, Robert Eggers, and many many more, 2022 is looking bright. Despite Covid-19 restrictions impacting the film industry, 2021 has proven to be a good year for film with a wide variety of great releases.
We asked our contributors to select some of their favourite films of the year (UK 2021 releases).
Zola (Dir: Janicza Bravo)
A tweet can go viral and vanish in a rapid lifespan; 148 of them did so and survived in everyone’s mind long enough to be made into a film. Zola tells the mostly true story of Zola, a sharp tongued waitress travelling with an unreal exotic dancer, her volatile boyfriend and a menacing pimp on a road-trip to make money in Florida. That alone sounds wild, but in the aggressively online world this film exists in, it becomes deranged, heartless and hyperactive—and one of the most mesmerising dark comedies in years.
Drive My Car (Dir: Ryusuke Hamaguchi)
An actor listens to audio of his wife’s recitations of Uncle Vanya long since needing to learn the lines. A screenwriter conceives disturbing stories of teenage voyeurs and immortal lampreys, but only during sex. A driver finds her coping mechanism in learning to drive smoothly. Adapted from Murakami, master of restraint and impulse, Drive My Car weaves a tale about processes: whether working through grief or finding control in professional labour. It’s the shortest, most supple three hour journey you could possibly take.
Flee (Dir: Jonas Poher Rasmussen)
“Amin” arrived alone in Denmark as a fifteen year old, an Afghan refugee whose family had all died escaping the conflict. Two decades later, he’s in a domestic crisis with his long term partner, and agrees to unburden the truth of his journey to an old friend. Novelly told through animation to provide Amin anonymity, amnesty, and to reconstruct his memories, Flee turns documentary filmmaking on its head with a breathtakingly powerful and personal story. Solid drawings devolve into charcoal scratches when Amin’s history becomes too difficult to recollect. It’s a haunting, beautiful triumph.
The Humans (Dir: Stephen Karam)
I’m very partial to non-horror horror films. The ones that can never be qualified as such by narrative, but more by feel. Shiva Baby, Mulholland Drive, Under the Skin, and now: The Humans. Adapted from a Pullitzer winning play, we watch a fierce yet fiercely close family attend a realistic and excruciating thanksgiving dinner. We shift between personal drama and taut, nervous terror; the walls of the rundown apartment creaking, leaking, bubbling up from some pressure impossibly deep underneath and threatening to close in and engulf the family whole.
Titane (Dir: Julia Ducournau)
When thinking of body horror, it’s hardly radical to think first and only of blood and gore, which makes Titane such an interesting outlier. It’s all about fluids. Saliva and foam, vomit and sweat, milk and engine oil. But fluidity is the name of the game for Julia Ducournau’s outrageous sophomore effort: a depraved tale of serial killers, sexually active cars, metal body mods, and found families. Of transformation; gender, sexuality, physical bodily material. It’s fucked up and it’s beautiful, and there’s not a single thing else like it.
The Mitchell’s vs The Machines (Dir: Michael Rianda & Jeff Rowe)
As a product of the 90’s, I have an inherent nostalgia fuelled soft spot for the animated styles of my childhood. The Lion King, My Neighbour Totoro, Toy Story & Princess Mononoke et al. While animation still holds a place in my heart; the often hyperreal and frantic style the genre appears to be heading towards often has me thinking if it’ll ever match the icons of my past.
The Mitchell’s vs The Machines has truly renewed any hesitancy I felt for the genre.
I went into this film without watching the trailer or knowing the synopsis, a couple one sentence recommendations from friends being my only baring on whether it was good.
It was amazing! Yes, it’s frantic as hell, the bulging eyes and Gen Z-emoji-fuelled-sugar-rush editing had me on the ropes at parts, but the ultra contemporary subject matter and characterisation made it all worthwhile.
Katie Mitchell, with her The Shining socks, Directorial favs Gerwig, Sciamma, Ramsay & Ashby, and wonderful parody short films, is a perfect protagonist for fans of film.
Plus the movie references don’t end with our young future filmmaker, the whole film is chock full of fantastic Easter eggs. From Kill Bill songs to Terminator 2 inspo, Dawn of the Dead to 2001: A Space Odyssey nods, the film is a reference heaven for cinema lovers. The story itself will rip your heart out, before putting it back again that little bit fuller.
Mixing contemporary issues of big tech privacy, reliance on devices and the fracture of the family unit into an emotional adventure with laugh after laugh after laugh.
It would be a terrible shame if this went unnoticed among the tent pole Pixar fare; but the studio that brought us Spider-Man: Into the Spiderverse has managed to keep their gold standard filmmaking going with, in my opinion, one of the best animated films of the century.
The Suicide Squad (Dir: James Gunn)
The Suicide Squad embodies the true potential of comic book to cinema adaptation: striking visuals, R-rated violence and a blend of comedy and compassion from its titular Heroes…or in this case Antiheroes. I’m still in shock that less that 5 years after the critically panned Suicide Squad (2016), we’ve already had a soft reboot/ kinda sequel where they’ve just put a ‘The’ in front of the title? However, if you’re walking into this thinking it’ll be much of the same, leave that mindset at the door. James Gunn has crafted, in my opinion, the best DC film since The Dark Knight (2008).
Big words, I know.
Surprisingly, some actors even survived the cull from 2016. Viola Davis’ Amanda Waller, Joel Kinnaman’s Colonel Rick Flagg, Jai Courtney’s Captain Boomerang and Margot Robbie’s Harley Quinn return. While the newbies consist of Idris Elba’s Bloodsport, John Cena’s Peacemaker, Daniela Melchior’s Ratcatcher 2, David Dastmalchian’s Polka-Dot Man & Sylvester Stallone’s King Shark to name a few.
The concept also remains the same: successfully complete the mission for ten years off a prison sentence, fail and your head will explode. This time around the team must travel to a small South American island to destroy something known as ‘Project Starfish’, run by Peter Capaldi’s Thinker.
Where Gunn’s The Suicide Squad elevates beyond the usual comic book film is firstly his visual style. The perfect blend of gritty realism and high contrast vibrant colours makes this a feast for the eyes. The added r-rating allows for some truly gruesome kills similar to what brought Deadpool (2016) it’s praise.
Secondly, the comedy. There are some great laughs in this movie; from Cena’s over the top Peacemaker to Dalmachian’s weird Polka-Dot Man. There’s laughter among the violence. Thirdly: Emotion. Gunn’s Guardians of the Galaxy films showed us that a “bunch of A-holes” could have a heart, and he’s brought that to this years Suicide Squad. Each character has depth, some more heartbreaking than others, but every member of the team feels fleshed out.
For me it was refreshing to see new life being drawn into a genre that’s often criticised as being glitzy & repetitive. Furthermore it’s nice to see DC get a solid win for once, after their subpar extended universe outings to date…
C’mon C’mon (Dir: Mike Mills)
A beautiful little film detailing a dynamic rarely seen on the silver screen, the relationship between an Uncle and his Nephew. Joaquin Phoenix & Woody Norman play off each other with a wonderful air of respect and collaboration. One seasoned performer and one newcomer producing the best double act you will see on screen this year.
I loved the interviews intercut within the film, which featured real life young people talking about their cities, their life and their future.
C’mon C’mon for sure has me researching Audio Recorders and External Microphones, so I can go roam the country and try to capture the beauty of sound, both urban and rural, that Mike Mills film cares for so much.
Rider’s of Justice (Dir: Anders Thomas Jensen)
Riders of Justice is the best revenge film in the world…probably.
Military man Markus (Mads Mikkelsen) returns from active duty after his wife dies in a train accident, leaving him alone with his teenage daughter Mathilde. As the pair struggle to connect in grief, enter Otto, the man who gave up his seat for Markus’ wife, a selfless act that ultimately sealed her fate.
Otto, a statistical analyst, alongside fellow analyst Lennart & hacker Emmenthaler, believe that the train accident was in fact deliberate, and that they know who is responsible. At this point in your usual revenge film our hero would systematically enact his revenge against a drove of bad guys until ultimately killing the Kingpin. Trust the Danish to throw that formula out the window. Oh my God.
The story unfolds slowly and methodically, bringing into question concepts of fate, chance and probability. This is as much a film about grief; how each of us deal with loss and what one must do to find closure.
The movie flips between comedy, heartbreak and violence with ease. I was struggling at parts trying to work out whether to laugh or cry. A truly masterful piece of cinema.
In the Heights (Dir: Jon M. Chu)
My Spotify wrapped can vouch for the fact that I am In the Heights’ number one fan. How much listening is too much listening? I don’t know and I don’t care, I listen to this soundtrack non-stop (shot out to the Hamilton fans). This was my first post-covid cinema experience and it was brilliant, more than brilliant, words can’t describe it actually. Maybe the thrill of being out the house was too much for me, because as soon as the film started so did the tears. Jon M Chu, director of Crazy Rich Asians, made this film such a spectacle and the musical numbers are big and bold, exactly how a musical should be. If you don’t like singing and dancing, this film is not for you and that’s totally fine… I mean you’re wrong, but totally fine. Personally, I like it. I find In the Heights incredibly joyful, it’s like one big celebration. Some parts of the film are a bit slow and cliché but what are musicals for if not to bring the cheese? I am so sad that more people didn’t see this film because it was the perfect first film after these terrible times.
No Time to Die (Dir: Cary Joji Fukunaga)
Okay, maybe it’s not the best film ever made. It’s also bloody long. But was it fun? Yes. Was it nice to drink a martini in the cinema? I wouldn’t know. But as far as James Bond goes, I very much enjoyed this whole film. No Time to Die felt like one of the only Bond films that thought about its side characters as more than props. I will never quite understand why seeing someone in a dress kicking and shooting baddies makes me feel so empowered, but it does, it really does. I think of it as the wonder-woman effect and I am at it’s contrived, money-making mercy. Even though the filmmakers decided to add some sneaky garters to Ana de Armas (was there really a need guys?), and there are still a few one-liners that made me cringe way down into my seat, I can see that they at least tried to make this Bond more than those that have come before.
Censor (Dir: Prano Bailey-Bond)
The rumours are true, Prano Bailey-Bond is the next big thing. I really rate the tension in this film and I’m still not entirely sure what exactly was so unnerving about it. It just was. Watching this film was like being stuck in a tunnel of grotty smog in Thatcher’s Britain, so when the treat of seeing a video nasty came along, the grotesqueness of each litre of spurting, vibrant fake blood was amplified into serious levels of horror. The questions Censor raises about today’s world and our easy access to violence (particularly violence against women) feels extremely timely. Summerson’s photography was simply stunning and it beautifully framed Niamh Algar’s excellent performance as Enid.
Promising Young Woman (Dir: Emerald Fennell)
Technically this is a late-2020 film but I didn’t see it until 2021 so forgive me dear Closely Observed Frames reader. I have tried to make so many people watch this film but the trailer really doesn’t do it justice and I think it is tonally very different to the actual film. I was so surprised when I realised that Promising Young Woman is actually brilliant; s’wonderful, s'marvellous. The casting is genius and the fact that it’s set design is inspired by Murder She Wrote is just, chefs kiss. I thoroughly enjoyed this film, until I didn’t. In one particular scene, the bubblegum bubble is burst and way the shift in tone is handled is so sharply written that I had to take 5 minutes to compose myself. The questions of this ending have stayed with me for a while now and I think this is one of the most interesting films that I’ve seen recently. Hence why I felt obliged to include it on this not-quite-but-almost 2021 film list.
Eternal Beauty (Dir: Craig Roberts)
Ok, so I know this didn’t come out in 2021, but I feel super strongly that this is one of the lost gems of the pandemic and it would be such a shame for it to be lost in the mists of lockdown time.
Eternal Beauty is a fascinatingly shot study of Jane (Sally Hawkins) and how she encounters the world with schizophrenia. When Jane enters a spiral of despair, we watch as she climbs her way back out and falls in love with Mike (David Thewlis). In this study of mental illness without the tropes and melodrama, we view the world through Jane’s eyes in all its contradictions and inconsistencies. If nothing else, watch this film for the acting: Hawkins’ and Thewlis’ performances are so incredibly convincing and enigmatic, and if not that, watch it for its humorous, poignant and endearing spirit.
Passing (Dir: Rebecca Hall)
If you’re looking for a crisply shot, beautifully-paced and elegant film, then Passing would be for you. The film follows the story of Irene (Tessa Thompson) when she has a chance run-in with her childhood friend Clare (Ruth Negga) in a hotel in 1920s New York. Both women are passing for what they are not: Clare, a light-skinned black woman is passing for white, married to an odious, racist white man and living the life of white, upper-middle class luxury. Irene is passing for middle-class and dealing with the malaise of living through racist 20s America whilst attempting to be the prim and proper housewife.
When Clare comes back into Irene’s life, we begin to see Irene’s veneer of respectability begin to fade. Clare is growing tired of the shackles of pretence and misses her old life in Harlem and as she inserts herself in Irene and her husband’s lives, tensions and jealousies arise.
Passing is an intimate study of women’s friendships, jealousy and white beauty standards. Crisply shot in black and white, the film elegantly explores the intricacies of old friendships, fakery, pretence and longing for a life lived outside of one’s own.
Palm Springs (Dir: Max Barbakow)
Sometimes I miss just a simple, entertaining movie. Sometimes I don’t want deep and meaningful, I just want mildly amusing and entertaining - Palm Springs was just that. Sarah (Cristin Milioti) and Nyles (Andy Sandberg) meet at Sarah’s sister’s wedding at a remote hotel in Palm Springs. We come to learn that this isn’t Nyles first experience of Sarah’s sister wedding, and he has instead been re-living this day multiple times stuck in a unexplained time/space vortex scenario.
In a Ground Hog Day-style/ boy-meets-girl romcom with a dash of existential angst, Palm Springs offers an entertaining, funny and well-acted 1 hour 30. It doesn’t fall into the usual cliches and is not annoying – definitely worth a watch.
Tick, tick…BOOM! (Dir: Lin-Manuel Miranda)
I should start this one by saying that I really don’t like musicals, especially not film musicals. I’ve always found actors randomly breaking into song a bit laughable and well…weird. Maybe because I traditionally associate musicals with overdone melodrama and well- choreographed, alien expressions of the human condition, that I haven’t given them a fair chance. And I know the whole ‘film musical’ genre has taken a bit of a battering this year, but I really liked Tick, tick…BOOM!
In this retelling of the creative life of Jonathon Larson (the eventual creator of Rent – the musical) and his struggle to get one of his earlier musicals to workshop, the whole bursting into song thing kinda made sense. There’s a whole heap of 90s New York nostalgia thrown in with a really interesting study of what it meant to be a struggling creative way-back when social media and selling one’s ‘art’ online wasn’t a thing.
I’m sure there’s a load of musical theatre easter eggs hidden in there that completely went over my head, but the film told the story of a man struggling to get his art seen and funded – a very relatable struggle for both me and perhaps other people reading this blog.
Dune (Dir: Denis Villeneuve)
After what felt like a millennia, many much-touted reboots and piss-weak Sci-Fi channel re-imaginings, the first cinematic retelling of Frank Herbert’s universe-spanning magnum opus, since David Lynch’s much lambasted, always polarizing, 1984 version of Dune, has arrived. I mention Lynch’s take because, as a fan of both the old and the new, it is almost impossible to discuss one without mentioning the other.
I think it is safe to say, at this point, that Denis Villeneuve is more than a safe pair of hands when it comes to realizing, or sequelizing, fan favourite science fiction /fantasy worlds - making his comparison to Christopher Nolan not 100% accurate but still a decent metric, alongside whom his place in ‘brainy blockbuster history’ is assured.
Although only one part of a mooted trilogy, and arguably lacking a definitive ending, Villeneuve’s film covers half of the first book’s story in an impressive 2 hours 35 mins, managing to, respectfully, flesh out the core characters and honour enough of the book’s epic lore in that time to keep the Hebert-philes from performing an involuntary cranial splurge, Scanners stylee, all over their pre-booked front row seats.
However, despite the impressive vistas, consumes and, often, gripping set pieces, sometimes Denis’ conceptualization feels a little restrained. Gone are Lynch’s mad and brilliant flourishes, like the testicle-jowled Third Stage Guild Navigator, looking somewhere between a putrefied prawn and a robeless John McCririck floating in formaldehyde. Absent too are the badass, angst ejaculating, weirding modules - something not in the book but an addition Herbert himself, reportedly, approved of.
Lynch’s eye for the glamorous 50s aesthetic brilliantly blended with a baroque costume and set-design made for a visual-candy fest, even if the muddled story and infuriating plotlessness undermined the project’s validity at times. In Villeneuve’s, we see distinct, authentic design choices which, although a grade above a hundred other sci-fi, YA, fantasy products, still can’t shake the shadow of Lynch’s predecessor; assuming it even wanted to anyway.
Hans Zimmer’s score offers up enough emotion and memorable motifs to make the soundtrack a welcome stocking filler. Whether any of these musical outings best Brian Eno’s spice-soaked Prophecy Theme though is perhaps down to the individual listener. Spoiler alert: they don’t.
Nonetheless, when the credits began to roll on this year’s rendering, the abiding desire to not only see this story concluded but watch the film again was encouraging, and I knew then that Montreal’s sculptor of cinemagic had stuck the landing, thus making a sequel, and completed story, much more likely - something DL, regrettably, failed to conjure.
Candyman (Dir: Nia DaCosta)
Following the trend of sequels with verbatim monikers to their superior predecessor, we have the Jordan Peele curated, meditation on BLM, and follow-up to 1992 horror classic Candyman. In this version, we follow Yahya Abdul-Mateen II’s ‘rising star’ visual artist, who, in search of a muse for his next show, stumbles upon the Candyman ‘urban legend’, and goes digging for more.
Interesting premise, I hear you say, ‘But what’s the hook?’ Answer: there isn’t one. Somewhere along the line, while hot on the titular ghoul’s trail, Yahya is stung by a bee, from which point he suffers violent delusions along the same lines as Virginia Madsen’s precursor, and the film toys with the idea of whether or not the protagonist is being, genuinely, framed by the vengeful beastie, or if they are, as everyone else presumes them to be, prone to murderous blackouts.
What ensues feels, sadly, rushed, with our protagonist’s mental and physical decline taking a dubious backseat to his girlfriend’s b-story, so by the time the denouement comes around we feel robbed of what, on paper at least, brimmed with sequel potential as well as an opportunity for pertinent social commentary.
My advice: ignore the sanctimonious buzz and re-watch the original.
Petite Maman (Dir: Céline Sciamma)
Another incredible and heart-warming film from Céline Sciamma. Petite Maman was beautifully shot by the incomparable DP Claire Mathon (who previously shot Sciamma’s Portrait of a Lady on Fire and also the highly-acclaimed Spencer, which I ashamedly have yet to see). An outrage that this film hasn't been shortlisted for the 94th Academy Awards.
The Hand of God (Dir: Paolo Sorrentino)
Paolo Sorrentino’s semi-autobiographical tale set in Naples in the ‘80s follows teen Fabietto as he awaits the imminent arrival of his hero Diego Maradona. As Fabietto experiences personal heartbreak and a family tragedy, his life changes after a chance encounter with filmmaker, Antonio Capuano. The Hand of God is Sorrentino’s most personal film to date and also his finest.
(Side note: Maradona can never be forgiven for “that handball,” but nonetheless remains a true legend of the beautiful game).
The Power of the Dog (Dir: Jane Campion)
“Deliver my soul from the sword; my darling from the power of the dog”- Psalm 22.
Adapted from Thomas Savage’s 1967 novel, The Power of the Dog follows two brothers on a ranch in 1925, Montana. Ari Wegner’s stunning cinematography captures the vast and beautiful New Zealand landscapes which stand in for 1920s Montana. With exceptional performances from Benedict Cumberbatch, Kirsten Dunst, Jesse Plemons and Kodi Smit-McPhee, Campion’s tale of toxic masculinity is one of the year’s stand out films.
Extra points for a nude Benedict Cumberbatch yelling “get outta here ya ‘lil bitch, ya hear me!” in his growling Montana drawl.
Nomadland (Dir: Chloé Zhao)
This just makes it onto the list due it’s UK release in 2021, but I couldn’t leave it out. Frances McDormand is outstanding and deservedly won Best Actress at this year’s Academy Awards for her portrayal as Fern, a modern-day nomad in her sixties. A special mention also goes to Chloé Zhao and DP Joshua James Richards for this beautifully crafted film. Nomadland wonderfully captures life on the road in the American West during the Great Recession and is a must-watch for anyone who loves film.