Top 10 of 2021
Considering that at the tail end of 2020, I struggled to come up with at least ten films to put on my list of that year's favourites, 2021 has been a cinematic gold mine. Filled with personal histories, fairytales, epic odysseys, and poignant period pieces, 2021 in film brought audiences to places they'd never been before, creating an exciting foundation for the future of the medium. Compared to last year, I was able to watch a fair amount of films in brick-and-mortar theatres, which only amplified the enjoyment of my film-going experiences. In fact, it was a challenge to cram my list down to only ten titles, and still, there are countless films from 2021 I still have yet to see. Evidently, as a film lover, this is a wonderful problem to have.
10. The French Dispatch
As someone who had previously declared myself an anti-Anderson kinda gal because I found his films “heartless”, I went into The French Dispatch with somewhat ill-intentioned expectations. With this film, however, declared Anderson’s most Andersonian, I could see heart in places that I hadn’t even been looking. The film’s anthology of stories are themselves dedicated to love and passion of a particular art form or ideology, and are told through frames and scenery so precisely crafted as to clearly demonstrate Anderson’s love of his characters and worlds that he creates. Within The French Dispatch is a nostalgic look at an era that had faith in journalistic standards and a poetic writing style now considered worthless due our greatly shortened attention spans. Within a culture that pumps out media at the speed of light with little thought, it is refreshing to sit back and allow the cinematic equivalent of a Swiss watch to grab you by the hand and pull you into its own little world.
9. Petite Maman
With this intimate, small-scale fairytale, Celine Sciamma once again earns her place among the most talented filmmakers of the modern era. After her 2019 masterpiece Portrait of a Lady on Fire (my favourite film of that year) Sciamma returns with an unconventional love story between a mother and daughter guiding one another through times of grief and fear. With heartwarming performances from the film’s leads, twins Joséphine and Gabrielle Sanz, the film’s action plays out like a crackling fire, filling its viewers with comfort and a feeling of security. This may be the one film on this list I can recommend watching alone, under a soft blanket with a warm drink, in the comfort of your own home, because once its seventy minute runtime is over, that’s the only place you’ll want to be.
Denis Villeneuve’s epic Shakespearian space-opera Dune ranks among my top ten favourite films of the year largely because of the wildly enjoyable experience I had seeing it in theatres. These past few years I and other film lovers have gotten unfortunately familiar with viewing films that deserve the grandiosity of the big-screen on our televisions or laptops. Seeing Dune in the theatre, in as packed an audience as one can manage in the COVID era, inflicted one of those moments of blissful satisfaction that film lovers crave, one that reminds us why we bother with movies in the first place. Like a fine-tuned instrument, the film offers moments of magic in its score, production design, performances, and cinematography that elevate it so highly above other films of its kind.
7. The Green Knight
David Lowry’s mystical adaptation of the Arthurian legend Sir Gawain and the Green Knight stands strong in its refusal to bend to modern sensibilities and expectations, daringly cracking open the source material like an ancient tome and diving in head-first. Lowry and his team managed to create a delicious visual feast for the eyes with gripping performances from its lead performers. As The Green Knight sits in your mind for days or weeks after viewing, it forces you to ask yourself if you had really seen what you remember, or if it was all just a fantastic dream.
6. A Hero
From Socrates to Spike Lee, director Ashgar Farhadi takes a subject debated for thousands of years and methodically uses it to weave a dynamic tale in the space of two hours. 2021’s winner of the Cannes Grand Prix dares to consider the real-life consequences of doing the right thing in an era where one’s every move is so heavily scrutinized by strangers. As if granted an exclusive guidebook to the human species, Farhadi demonstrates how one man’s act of genuine kindness can so disastrously spin out of control to affect everyone around him. Told with wonderful performances and considerate dialogue, A Hero presents itself like an ancient fable brought to life, one that offers no simple answers and leaves us with a lifetime of questions.
Bo Burnham has time-and-time again proved to have his finger on the cultural and social pulse. As a highly accomplished comedian, singer, director, and actor, there is one skill above all that has cemented him as an essential artistic figure of our era: his impeccable timing. Many forms of media, be that film, television, or music, have taken a stab at tackling COVID-19, often producing groans from consumers who seek out such much material for distraction. With Inside, once again, Burnham, with the illusion of effortlessness, knows exactly where our collective pain lies, and sacrifices himself as the ill-fated messenger of these frustrations to the negligent void. This will be the pandemic era’s artistic crowning jewel, serving as a sort a time capsule bearing letters and memories of almost hysterical confusion.
4. Drive My Car
Once in a while comes an artist that so effortlessly displays a capability far above their peers as to redefine the limits of a particular artistic medium. Until this year, I was completely unfamiliar with director Ryusuke Hamaguchi and his work, allowing me to approach his newest film Drive My Car with no expectations or knowledge besides the fact that it was three hours long. It is a rare feat when a film can declare its brilliance in its first shot, but as many of its witnesses will testify, Drive My Car holds its audience from start-to-finish, resulting in an overwhelmingly emotional cinematic experience. As a story of solitude and grief, Hamaguchi’s tale feels almost prophetic for our era, asking us to examine feelings we didn’t even know we had.
3. The Tragedy of MacBeth
Shakespeare is a worthy adversary. Filmmakers who dare to tackle the Bard’s work in hope of a successful adaptation inadvertently declare an expertise beyond filmmaking, suggesting a knowledge of centuries of literature, drama, and philosophy. As expected, many fail. Joel Coen, however, succeeded in conveying Shakespeare’s beliefs toward tyranny and power while setting new standards in cinematography and production design. With shades of German Expression and classic Hollywood, Coen understands his sources and how to portray them to the modern audience without cutting corners or lessening any blows. The Tragedy of MacBeth sent literal chills down my spine, creating a theatrical experience that went beyond the eyes and ears and instead required the participation of one’s whole physical being.
When Julie Ducournau won the Palme D’Or for her second feature film Titane, the title instantly shot up to the top of my 2021 watching. Already defying cinematic conventions with her debut film Raw, Ducournau has once again displayed a clear voice and distinct style that has made her one of the most exciting and daring directors of her generation. Titane asks us to put aside our expectations, and when we’re not looking, sets our hair on fire like a modern-day Prometheus. Still, when asked what the film is about, I decline to answer, knowing that I can never properly summarize the chaos of the film into a neat and tidy elevator pitch. No one could have predicted how Titane’s story would unfold, because no one has ever told a story quite like it.
I approached Passing, actress Rebecca Hall’s directorial debut, with a fair degree of neutrality. I had a fondness for its lead actress Tessa Thompson and Ruth Negga (who could fit right in with the expressive actors of the silent era), a personal interest in the era it sought to portray, and an incorrect assumption that I knew what to expect from the film’s themes and style. What I could not expect was a film so complete, so aware of itself, and so clear in its voice as to become my favourite film of the year. Hall has easily found herself amongst the pantheon of great first-time directors with a steady hand in the film’s stunning cinematography, performances, and screenplay adapted from a novella that does not easily lend itself to a filmic adaptation. Called to mind is the melancholy paintings of Edward Hopper that so masterfully portrayed an isolated and anxious America in the early twentieth century, images so easily recognizable to audiences of today. Without exaggeration, every single frame of the film could serve as the basis for a short story, so precisely invoking the essence and attitudes of the era and our inherent, eternal desire for belonging.
Honourable Mentions: Belfast, West Side Story, Zola, Tick, Tick...Boom!, Pig, Shiva Baby, Small Body, Licorice Pizza, The Worst Person in the World.
Have not seen: Parallel Mothers, Supernova, The Souvenir II, Red Rocket, Encounter, The Humans, The Last Duel, Annette, and many more...