Top ten films of 2021

It might be hard to remember now, but cinema got off to a gloomy start in 2021. As the year began, big screens across the world were once again closed amidst another coronavirus-induced lockdown. Of course, if movies have taught us anything, it’s when things are at their bleakest that the cavalry comes riding over the crest of the nearest hill. Sure enough, as we gradually re-emerged into a freshly vaccinated world, a gratifying glut of fantastic films followed to end the drought and reaffirm our faith that cinema isn’t going anywhere. From the stupendous, IMAX-enhanced spectacle of Denis Villeneuve’s Dune to the sumptuous charm of Wes Anderson’s The French Dispatch, the films of 2021 illustrated the viscerally beguiling power of the cinematic experience when we needed it most.

Due to the closure of UK cinemas throughout the first few months of the 2021, many of my favourite films might technically have premiered in 2020 or been recognised in last year’s awards season, but as I couldn’t get round to them before now, they are being featured here. It’s my website, I make the rules.

As testament to this crowded field of brilliant films, I am doling out a few honourable mentions for some exceptional works which didn’t make the top ten: Ridley Scott’s The Last Duel featured an ensemble of fine performances alongside gripping medieval world-building, all cruelly overlooked by cinema-going audiences; Joanna Hogg’s The Souvenir: Part II was a moving depiction of grief and rebirth through art, if not surpassing the original film then at least providing an essential companion; and Céline Sciamma’s Petite Mamam took the sublime innocence of a child’s-eye-view to the complexities of bereavement, motherhood and coming-of-age.

And without further ado, here are the top ten…

10. No Time To Die

Bond
Dir. Cary Joji Fukunaga

While audiences are used to James Bond saving the world from nuclear/viral/electromagnetic armageddon, this year it was cinema itself that needed saving – and as usual there was only one man for the job. Following a distressing series of delays, the 25th 007 adventure defied all the odds and proved well worth the wait, giving the global box office a much-needed shot in the arm in the process. Bringing Daniel Craig’s term to a devastating yet totally satisfying end, No Time To Die provided all the requisite globe-trotting thrills that fans expect, but anchored to a poignant emotional core. It fulfils the promise of Craig’s 2006 Bond debut Casino Royale, forging an utterly singular path while remaining steeped in the vision of original 007 author Ian Fleming. James Bond will return, but it is no exaggeration to say he will never be the same again.

9. Sound of Metal

sound of metal
Dir. Darius Marder

Cinema is capable of transporting audiences into the farthest depths of space or across the reaches of human time, but perhaps more remarkable is its ability to offer new ways of understanding the world in which we already live. The experience of deafness is communicated with brilliant insight in Darius Marder’s Sound of Metal, which follows heavy metal drummer Ruben Stone (Riz Ahmed) as he deals with a sudden loss of hearing. Ahmed, all-too-often relegated to supporting roles in Hollywood productions, flexes his muscles as a leading performer here with a nuanced portrait of a man stubbornly clinging to a life which has already deserted him. Meanwhile, the Oscar-winning sound design sound design offers a frighteningly convincing aural glimpse of the physical sensations of hearing loss. More than the story of one man, however, the film is an earnest tribute to the astonishing work done by support networks within the deaf community.

8. Spencer

spencer
Dir. Pablo Larraín

The second instalment of Pablo Larraín’s “famous ladies with sad lives” series, Spencer is a fairy tale which imagines Princess Diana as a damsel in distress at Sandringham for Christmas 1991, with her Prince Charming also her captor. Kristen’s Stewart’s beguiling central performance and Jonny Greenwood’s discombobulating score represent two sides of the same coin, working in sync to provide an insight into Diana’s confused and tyrannised mental state. But the film’s secret weapon is Timothy Spall, a towering chameleon of an actor whose performance as Equerry Major Alistair Gregory provides an oppressive symbol of the stifling authority and custom from which Diana is desperate to escape.

7. The Green Knight

knight
Dir. David Lowery

Arthurian legend has been served poorly by the big screen in recent years, from Antoine Fuqua’s relentlessly mediocre King Arthur (2004) to Guy Ritchie’s execrable King Arthur: Legend of the Sword (2017). The Green Knight is perhaps the first effort to escape the long shadow of Monty Python and the Holy Grail. David Lowery conjures a surreal and immersive vision of an fantastical chivalric kingdom – a visually enrapturing land of wandering giants, roaming bandits and seductive apparitions. Dev Patel follows up his fantastic turn in Armando Iannucci’s David Copperfield with an equally charismatic leading performance. Much like its medieval source material, The Green Knight is an enigmatic, conceptual work which leaves itself open to interpretation – occasionally inscrutable, but always wondrous.

6. Drive My Car

drive 2
Dir. Ryusuke Hamaguchi

No Time to Die might contain the longest pre-titles sequence of any Bond film, but it pales in comparison to the 40+ minutes of setup which precedes the opening credits of Drive My Car. Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s languidly paced drama is epic in both its length and ambition, using a broad canvas of richly complex characters to tell an intensely insular story of grief and self-renewal. Hidetoshi Nishijima plays a recently widowed theatre director embarking upon a bold multi-lingual adaptation of Chekov’s Uncle Vanya, while unresolved anguish simmers below his composed exterior. The restorative and yet evasive power of communication sits at the heart of Hamaguchi and Takamasa Oe’s powerful script – this is a world in which everyone talks so much and yet says so little, for want of a receptive ear. Unfortunately, the Beatles song of the same name does not feature.

5. The Card Counter

card
Dir. Paul Schrader

For those seeking a film about a hard-drinking, ex-military loner with a traumatic past on a quest for redemption (and who isn’t?) then the oeuvre of Paul Schrader will leave you spoilt for choice. It’s a preoccupation which goes back at least as far as his script for Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver (1976), and The Card Counter offers little deviation from this well-worn path – indeed, it treads particularly similar ground to Schrader’s last film, 2017’s excellent First Reformed. As Alan Partridge once said, “people like them, let’s make some more of them,” and despite its thematic familiarity, The Card Counter is a triumph. Oscar Isaac is a captivating yet brilliantly unsettling presence as gambler and former US Army torturer William Tell, whose gnarled psyche casts a darkly oppressive pall over the whole film. Beneath this gripping character study sits a vicious indictment of the modern United States as a declining power; a country which brutalises itself and others abroad while decaying from within.

4. Licorice Pizza

licorice
Dir. Paul Thomas Anderson

A jaunty coming of age story set amidst the seedy chaos of early 70s Los Angeles, Licorice Pizza is something of a back-to-basics effort from Paul Thomas Anderson. The setting recalls the sun-baked seventies glitz of 1997’s Boogie Nights, while the tone hews more closely to Anderson’s 2002 romantic comedy Punch Drunk Love than the weightier material he has tackled since then. Cooper Hoffman and Alana Haim star as two friends, Gary and Alana, separated by a decade in age and even further in their outlook on life, who nevertheless find themselves inexplicably drawn to one another as they navigate treacherous border between adolescence and adulthood. Despite their lack of prior acting experience, there is an electric and utterly believable chemistry between the two leads, effortlessly capturing the confused jumble of emotions and expectations which define early adulthood. In usual Andersonian style, the film eschews narrative convention as the central relationship unfolds over a series of hilariously unlikely episodes which feel like half-remembered and well embellished anecdotes from a misspent youth.

3. Another Round

Mads Mikkelsen - Another Round
Dir. Thomas Vinterberg

Following four teachers and friends who decide to experiment in staying slightly drunk during working hours, Another Round is a brilliantly nuanced study of how and why boozing dominates so much of our lives, despite what it does to us. Taking an ambivalent view on Denmark’s social alcoholism, director and co-writer Thomas Vinterberg doesn’t shy away from the most miserable and destructive outcomes of alcohol, but he also isn’t afraid to admit that getting hammered can be an awful lot of fun. Vinterberg’s unvarnished perspective extends an affectionate empathy to his characters – despite their foibles, there is a genuine and infectious warmth between the four friends at the core of the film, which challenges preconceptions about who or what an alcoholic really is. Choosing to ask questions about our relationship with alcohol rather than pontificate, Another Rounds trusts its audience to reach their own conclusions.

2. The Power of the Dog

dog
Dir. Jane Campion

Returning to the elemental style of her 1993 masterpiece The Piano, Jane Campion’s first film in 12 years is an enigmatic fable of masculinity on the fringes of civilisation. The Power of the Dog unfolds on a ranch in 1920s Montana, where the inhabitants of this unforgiving world are like the jagged, rocky landscape which surrounds them – formed, or deformed, by the extreme pressures of their environment. Benedict Cumberbatch gives the best performance of his career as the tyrannical rancher Phil Burbank, brilliantly communicating an ambivalent cocktail of grief, self-hatred and vulnerability, barely concealed by his antagonistic, machismo façade. Filmed on New Zealand’s Maniototo Plain, the rugged scenery is framed in its oppressive vastness by Ari Wegner’s stunning cinematography, while Jonny Greenwood’s understated and gently mournful score is typically masterful.

1. The Father

father
Dir. Florian Zeller

My favourite film of any year is usually a film I’d be happy to watch repeatedly. In the case of The Father, I’m not sure if I’ll ever be ready to see it again. Placing audiences inside the mind of Anthony, a man living with dementia, the film is a heart-breaking glimpse into the experience of an isolating and confounding condition.  Director and co-writer Florian Zeller has adapted his own play to the strengths of the big screen, pulling his audience across time and space to powerfully disorienting affect. But it’s Anthony Hopkins’ astounding central performance, for which he deservedly won an Oscar last year, which propels the film through our Earthly firmament into another realm of brilliance. He embodies his namesake character with a palpable depth of personality and life – every withering remark, confused tirade or mournful sob betraying the underlying agony of a man feeling his lifetime of experiences, relationships, passions and achievements slowly fade to nothing.

Top ten films of 2020

To paraphrase Stanley Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon, it would require a great philosopher and historian to explain 2020 – let it suffice to say that it’s been a largely unpleasant ordeal for all involved. When it comes to movies, much of the year was defined by what we didn’t see; from the 25th James Bond adventure, No Time To Die, to Wes Anderson’s The French Dispatch and Denis Villeneuve’s Dune, blockbusters have found their release dates postponed, sometimes repeatedly, into 2021 and beyond. We can only hope that there are still cinemas left by the time these films deem it safe to emerge. 

But despite the enormity of the last year, there remained plenty of great pictures to carry us through, on both the big and small screens. Indeed, 2020 was the year that television streaming came to dominate our consumption of new cinema, with the likes of Netflix, Amazon, and even the BBC gobbling up the rights to films which found themselves suddenly bereft of a conventional theatrical audience. The jury is still out on how positive, and permanent, this shift will prove to be.

But while all of us miss the spectacle and grandeur of a proper cinema auditorium, a great movie will captivate an audience just as effectively in a cramped living room as a packed IMAX. This is certainly true of each of my picks for the top ten films of 2020.

10. The Personal History of David Copperfield


Dir. Armando Iannucci

The third film from director Armando Iannucci, David Copperfield marks a departure from the caustic political satires for which the Scottish funnyman is known. Condensing the 600+ pages of Dickens’ novel into a running time just shy of two hours, the film is a breathlessly funny romp through Victorian Britain, but with an eye focused squarely on the country as it appears today. The supporting cast is a perfectly pitched ensemble featuring talent young and old, but it’s Dev Patel’s magnetic lead performance around which the film rotates. A celebration of Britishness at its most warm and inclusive, David Copperfield proves that even the most storied works of classic literature can be given new life when adapted for the screen.

9. Soul


Dir. Pete Docter, Kemp Powers

Pixar are no longer the safe bet they once were, as a recent spate of lacklustre sequels has dulled their once illustrious name and threatened their position at the forefront of American animation. It’s a relief, then, to report that Soul is a jubilant return to form. Director Pete Docter, a veteran of the studio and architect of their last great film, 2015’s Inside Out, has again delivered all the wonder and emotional depth of vintage Pixar. It helps that the film takes heavy visual and thematic cues from one of my favourite films, Powell and Pressburger’s 1946 masterpiece A Matter of Life and Death. Indeed, Soul is an unashamedly philosophical work, and its ambition in tackling big existential questions is matched only by its visual inventiveness. For anyone suffering a crisis of confidence in themselves or their accomplishments, this is a much-needed paean to the simple joys of being alive. For the children in the room, there’s a talking cat.

8. Red, White and Blue


Dir. Steve McQueen

The first of Steve McQueen’s Small Axe anthology series to make my list, Red, White and Blue tells the story of pioneering police officer Leroy Logan and his mission to force change from within the institutionally racist Metropolitan Police Force. The film asks searching questions about the relationship between the police and the communities they serve, and doesn’t presume to have any answers beyond the conviction that change must come. Finally freed from the shackles of disappointing Star Wars sequels, John Boyega provides a powerful leading turn which reasserts his claim as one of Britain’s most exciting young performers. His Logan is an utterly believable figure who straddles doubt and conviction, the essential goodness and compassion of his character struggling to contain the righteous rage bubbling beneath. Amid the ongoing Black Lives Matter movement and recent demonstrations of anger against police brutality, it feels trite to call Red, White and Blue “timely”, but it provides a vivid and essential perspective on the unending struggle against racism in one of our most powerful public bodies.

7. Mank


Dir. David Fincher

A film about the making of the greatest film ever made was always going to be a tall order, but David Fincher isn’t one to shy away from a challenge. Six long years since his last feature, 2014’s Gone Girl, Fincher has brought to screen a script penned by his late father, Jack Fincher, charting the career of Citizen Kane screenwriter Herman J Mankiewicz. It’s simultaneously a celebration of the creative process and a condemnation of the corruption which lay beneath Hollywood’s golden age. Shot in sumptuous monochrome by cinematographer Erik Messerschmidt (what a name) and utilising an archaic mono soundtrack, the film is filtered through a reverent nostalgia for the era it depicts, without whitewashing its vices. Critics may quibble about the factual accuracy of its narrative, but Mank joins a pantheon of great movies about the movie business.

6. On The Rocks


Dir. Sofia Coppola

Reuniting director Sofia Coppola with star Bill Murray for the first time since their masterful 2003 collaboration, Lost In Translation, On The Rocks is another delicately incisive and brilliantly funny study of cross-generational understanding. Rashida Jones plays a procrastinating writer who suspects her husband of infidelity and, against her better judgement, enlists her womanising father (Murray) to investigate. Their ensuing misadventures swiftly begin to reveal more about their own relationship than anything the husband may be up to, while Jones and Murray are perfect foils for one another in these central roles. So much of their relationship is revealed through what goes unsaid, as their apparent closeness belies a deeper, obscured estrangement which is slowly interrogated throughout the film. Casting an eye upon the buried insecurities and parental hang-ups to which all of us would rather not admit, On The Rocks is a light yet quietly profound caper on the complexities of family.

5. Portrait of a Lady on Fire


Dir. Céline Sciamma

It’s difficult to separate Portrait of a Lady on Fire from the circumstances in which I first saw it. Little did I know at the time, it was to be my last experience in a cinema before the oncoming Coronavirus pandemic forced the closure of every screen in the country. The memory of this screening has sustained me throughout the past few months of drought, as Céline Sciamma’s stunning film represents everything I love about the cinematic experience. It’s a tender depiction of a passionate but lamentably fleeting romance between an artist and her subject. Sciamma herself has referred to the film as a “manifesto about the female gaze”, and as such she crafts a refreshingly frank and sympathetic vision of lesbian sexuality. The emotional and physical longing of new love is captured in excruciating intensity, along with the deep and emotionally disfiguring scars which are left by its passing. Bearing the same power of the inclement waves which smash against the rocky, windswept outcrop of the film’s setting, Portrait of a Lady on Fire is an awe-inspiring ode to the overwhelming joys and pains of love, which will you shivering and shell-shocked by the final reel.

4. Mangrove


Dir. Steve McQueen

As the opening gala of the London Film Festival, Mangrove was the showpiece of Steve’s McQueen’s Small Axe anthology. Tracing the Metropolitan Police’s vindictive campaign against Notting Hill’s Mangrove restaurant and it’s owner, Frank Critchlow, the film is an explosively impassioned tour-de-force of a legal drama. Simultaneously the story of a community under siege and of one man’s reluctant charge at the spearhead of a struggle he never wanted to fight, the film vividly captures the cheerful vibrancy and oppressive cruelty that went hand-in-hand for people of colour late 60s/early 70s West London. Amid the typical trappings of the courtroom drama, there are beautifully idiosyncratic touches which bring to mind McQueen’s background as a visual artist, such as the strangely intoxicating visual of a fallen colander ceaselessly rocking back and forth on the floor of a kitchen following a violent police raid. In the same year that Aaron Sorkin’s enjoyable but by-the-numbers Trial of the Chicago 7 resorted to melodramatic monologues and orchestral swells to illustrate it’s righteous outrage, McQueen’s brilliance as a visual storyteller stands alone.

3. Da 5 Bloods


Dir. Spike Lee

One of the most important and brilliantly incendiary American film-makers of the last thirty years, Spike Lee has nevertheless had a somewhat uneven filmography. Fortunately, Da 5 Bloods sits closer to the Do the Right Thing end of the spectrum than that of Oldboy. This is Lee at his most exciting and confrontational, posing complicated questions about America’s past and present. Following four black Vietnam veterans as they return to the country in which they fought as youths, the film dissects the legacy of the Vietnam War and adopts it as a lens through which to view the complicated racial and cultural divisions of Trumpian America. Meanwhile, Delroy Lindo provides my favourite male lead performance of the year, his physically imposing presence and outward machismo gradually crumbling to reveal a shattered and exhausted soul. It’s a cine-literate work which wears its inspirations on its sleeve, dropping knowing references to the likes of The Treasure of the Sierra Madre and Apocalypse Now. Indeed, alongside it’s political proselytising, Da 5 Bloods indulges itself in action and adventure genre thrills, particularly as it unfolds a marvellously outlandish final act.

2. Saint Frances


Dir. Alex Thompson

Written by and starring Kelly O’Sullivan, Saint Frances is a tender coming of age comedy for millennials in their mid-thirties. Focusing on the messier and more complicated aspects of modern womanhood, the film paints a warm and embracing picture of femininity which feels boldly honest. Despite dealing with a number of taboos and hefty issues, O’Sullivan’s consistently funny script retains a deft lightness of touch and evinces guffaws at even its bleakest moments. Alongside the screenwriter’s charismatic lead performance, 6-year-old Ramona Edith Williams commands the screen as the eponymous Frances, while Jim True-Frost delivers a hilarious cameo which will delight fans of The Wire. Tackling everything from the existential abyss of working a dead end job, to abortion, depression, and the relentless anxiety of parenthood, Saint Frances throws its arms round the audience in an uncompromising embrace. At a time when the basic rights of women across the world are under attack and archaic stigmas are being reinforced, the affirmative spirit of Saint Frances is all the more welcome.

1. Education


Dir. Steve McQueen

This was the final instalment in the Small Axe anthology to reach British televisions, and Steve McQueen saved the best for last. Education is a fierce exposé of a cruel and callous schooling system which condemned the life chances of a generation of disproportionately black children. Young newcomer Kenyah Sandy is a revelation as Kingsley Smith, an absentminded 12-year-old boy who finds himself discarded into a school for the so-called “educationally subnormal”. Equally spectacular is Sharlene Whyte’s performance as Kingsley’s exhausted mother, Agnes, whose gradual discovery of her son’s neglect leads to one of the most powerful and heart-breaking moments in all of the cinema released last year. Indeed, the film is not just a denunciation of a segregationist education policy, but a celebration of the men and women of British-West Indian communities who mobilised to fight the injustice being done to their children.

Beyond the Education‘s significance as an historical testament, it is a technically exquisite work of cinema. The painterly elegance of cinematographer Shabier Kirchner’s camera work and McQueen’s penchant for unbroken single takes lends the visuals a rich and arresting texture, regardless of the domesticity of the film’s setting. A prolonged and affecting musical sequence in the second act, to name one example, betrays a greater depth of meaning than a thousand lines of dialogue.

Despite it’s individual brilliance, Education should not be considered as a purely singular work, but as one weave within the rich tapestry of McQueen’s Small Axe anthology. Having shone a series of piercing spotlights onto the black British experience, Small Axe contributes to a much-needed refocusing and reappraisal of our country’s history and who we are today. It is a triumph and a cultural landmark which will be studied and celebrated for decades to come.