In a time in which many thought the medium of cinema was doomed, never to return, there has been a very good crop of films for audiences to enjoy. James Bond finally returned to the big screen after many delays to huge box office success and critical acclaim…from some. As well as that, Denis Villeneuve’s satisfyingly slow-burning Dune franchise took off, and we’ve closed the year out with big nostalgic releases with The Matrix Resurrections and Spider-Man: No Way Home. We’re now fast approaching awards season at the turn of the year, and I pick out my personal crème de la crème of 2021’s releases…
20. Palm Springs (Max Barbacow)
Who would’ve thought a romantic comedy starring Brooklyn 99’s Andy Samberg would turn out to be one of the most smart and innovative time-travel movies of recent years? Palm Springs is the debut effort from director Max Barbakow and was released straight onto Amazon Prime in the UK so might’ve been missed by some.
19. Spider-Man: No Way Home (Jon Watts)
Part of the fourth phase of the ever-expanding MCU, Tom Holland reprised his role as web-slinging superhero Spider-Man. Directed by Jon Watts, we see Peter Parker open a can of worms that invites threat to him and his loved-ones. It is now the highest grossing movie of the year and I’d say the less you know about the plot the better going into this fantastic Marvel instalment.
18. Spencer (Pablo Larraín)
Divisive talent Kristen Stewart is the front-runner for all the Best Actress gongs for her portrayal of Diana, Princess of Wales in the latest arthouse biopic from director Pablo Larraín. Focusing in on a Christmas period in the early 90s, we see the tragic Royal isolated from her family, in a failing marriage, and losing her grip on reality.
17. Minari (Lee Isaac Chung)
Part of a recent trend of movies that retell the early years of the filmmaker, Minari is a semi-autobiographical love letter to the childhood of director Lee Isaac Chung. Korean actress Youn Yuh-jung won the Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her amusing yet heart-rending performance as the grandmother of the Yi family who struggle to make ends meet in this tender family drama.
16. CODA (Sian Heder)
This excellent coming-of-age drama follows the formative years of Ruby Rossi, a child of deaf adults (CODA for short) who faces an internal struggle between caring for and protecting her culturally deaf family and following her own dream of going to music school. It’s written and directed by Sian Heder and currently available to stream on Apple TV.
15. Sound of Metal (Darius Marder)
A contender from last year’s award season, Darius Marder’s drama stars the brilliant Riz Ahmed as drummer Ruben who begins to lose his hearing after years of touring in a heavy metal band with his girlfriend Lou, played by Olivia Cooke. The film is notable for its stunning sound design as the audio alters to reflect the protagonist’s worsening condition. It’s available to stream on Amazon Prime.
14. Nomadland (Chloé Zhao)
The winner of multiple awards at this year’s Oscars, including Best Picture, this intimate, emotional story of a woman’s life on the road is strikingly adapted from a novel to the big screen by writer and director Chloé Zhao. Legendary actress Frances McDormand is in the leading role and gives a powerhouse performance.
13. The Night House (David Bruckner)
David Bruckner’s latest blends psychological thriller into haunted house horror with terrifying impact thanks to a formidable leading turn from Rebecca Hall. After the shock suicide of her husband, widow Beth is reeling from grief and the film conjures up suspense whilst playfully subverting our genre expectations. It’s available to stream on Disney Plus.
12. Ninjababy (Yngvild Sve Flikke)
One of the indie hidden gems of the year, Yngvild Sve Flikke’s Norwegian dramedy centres around millennial layabout Rakel played by a refreshingly candid Kristine Thorp. After a bizarre one-night-stand with an aikido instructor, she discovers that she is pregnant and what follows is a very clever, very surreal story involving an animated interpretation of her unborn, unwanted foetus.
11. Supernova (Harry Macqueen)
Colin Firth and Stanley Tucci star as a loving couple facing up to a tragic situation in Harry Macqueen’s romantic drama Supernova. As Tusker (Tucci) accepts his fate with early on-set dementia, he, and husband Sam (Firth) embark on a UK road trip in their campervan. It’s a very funny but utterly devastating tale which is elevated by incredible leading performances.
10. The Last Duel (Ridley Scott)
The first screenplay collaboration from Matt Damon and Ben Affleck since Good Will Hunting, they team up with writer Nicole Holofcener to present an epic historical drama directed by veteran filmmaker Ridley Scott. Split into a trio of perspectives which show the horrific events that lead to the last ever judicial duel in medieval France, it’s a magnificently constructed piece of cinema. It’s available to stream on Disney Plus.
9. In the Earth (Ben Wheatley)
Writer and director Ben Wheatley returned to his madcap roots with low-budget horror In the Earth. It was filmed entirely during lockdown and makes excellent use of its limited location and handful of actors at its disposal. Joel Fry stars as Martin, a scientist who embarks on a journey deep into the woods to help with an experimental study that could help stop the spread of a deadly virus.
8. Limbo (Ben Sharrock)
Set on a remote Scottish island, Limbo follows a small motley crew of refugees as they await their claims for asylum to be processed, including aspiring musician Omar (Amir El-Masry) who has travelled all the way from Syria. Written and directed by Ben Sharrock, this remarkable tragicomic debut feature explores the differences in our cultures in a hilarious, heartfelt manner.
7. The Card Counter (Paul Schrader)
As well as starring in the aforementioned sci-fi epic Dune and HBO’s relationship drama Scenes from a Marriage, actor Oscar Isaac took the leading role in Paul Schrader’s psychological crime thriller The Card Counter. It is effectively a rehash of the redemptive movies he’s made throughout his career but nonetheless it is an intense and absorbing cinematic experience.
6. The Father (Florian Zeller)
Sir Anthony Hopkins scooped the prize for Best Actor at this year’s Oscars ceremony for his emotionally charged titular turn in Florian Zeller’s dementia drama The Father. It’s a wonderfully directed film that’s smartly presented in a way in which reflects the increasing confusion caused by the protagonist’s illness. The story builds to a total gut-punch of a final act.
5. Another Round (Thomas Vinterberg)
Would our lives be enhanced creatively if we were to maintain a slightly higher blood alcohol content level at all times? Thomas Vinterberg explores this philosophy in his dark comedy drama Another Round starring Mads Mikkelsen. As four middle-aged professors try out this dangerous experimental study, the results will make you laugh and cry in equal measure.
4. Nobody (Ilya Naishuller)
Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul star Bob Odenkirk goes from master of comedy to full blown action hero in Ilya Naishuller’s delightfully entertaining blockbuster Nobody. With a witty script, an interesting premise, a killer soundtrack, and several knockout fight sequences, this is the surprise hit of the year.
3. Shorta (Frederik Louis Hviid & Anders Ølholm)
Frequent collaborators Frederik Louis Hviid & Anders Ølholm unite once again to write and direct cop corruption drama Shorta, which is the Arabic word for police (the film was released in some countries as Enforcement). The plot sees policemen on a routine patrol in a hostile neighbourhood in Denmark, but when news circulates that a local youth has died as a result of police brutality, the pair face a gripping battle for survival. It is available to stream on Netflix.
2. Bull (Paul Andrew Williams)
Neil Maskell gives the performance of the year in Paul Andrew Williams’ classic revenge thriller Bull. Returning to his hometown after ten years away, the protagonist is on a savage mission to get his own back on those that have wronged him. This horrifically violent film isn’t for the faint-hearted, but an absolute must-see for fans of British crime flicks!
1. The Nest (Sean Durkin)
The great Jude Law is at his very best as a slippery businessman in Sean Durkin’s marriage drama The Nest. He stars as fast-talking yuppie Rory who has built a luxury life for himself across the pond with his wife Allison, played by Carrie Coon, and his two children. From the outside looking in, he has everything he ever wanted but his greed begins to get the better of him in this masterful depiction of 80s entrepreneurialism. It’s available to stream on Netflix.