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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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.

How have cinemas survived?

The Coronavirus lockdown has threatened cinemas like never before, but it’s not the first time their future has been in doubt. From Nazis to Netflix, clued-down looks at how theatrical film exhibition has survived more than a century of challenges.

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The World Theatre, Kearney, Nebraska. Photo by Edwin Hooper on Unsplash.

Cinemas are currently facing an unprecedented crisis. In Britain, for the first time in over 80 years, every screen in the country has been forced to close, putting thousands of jobs and the future of an entire industry at risk. According to the Hollywood Reporter, global box office losses could reach $17 billion if the lockdown continues to the end of May. With streaming services already nipping at the heels of theatrical exhibitors, it’s impossible to say what the landscape of film distribution will look like mere months from now.

However, this is not the first time that cinema operators have had to weather a storm. Movie-going has been a ubiquitous pastime for more than a century, and in that period the silver screen has faced repeated slumps in attendance and challenges from other media. From Nazi air raids to the rise of Netflix, cinemas have always been forced to adapt to sudden calamity and rapid changes in consumer habits – and so far they have managed to survive.

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Photo by Krists Luhaers on Unsplash.

Cinemas first emerged in the last years of the 19th century and quickly became the diversion of choice for the young, urban working classes. By the outbreak of the First World War in 1914, there were 4,000 locations across the UK, and their grip upon the nation’s social life was only tightened with the advent of talkies and Technicolor in the 1930s. In the words of historian AJP Taylor, cinema was ‘the essential social habit of the age’.

The first challenge to this supremacy arrived with the Second World War. When Britain declared war on Germany on 3 September 1939, every picture house in the country was immediately closed by order of the Government, fearing their vulnerability to aerial bombing. This quickly provoked outrage; the playwright George Bernard Shaw, for one, penned an angry letter to The Times asking, ‘‘what agent of Chancellor Hitler is it who has suggested that we should all cower in darkness and terror ‘‘for the duration’’?’ The importance of cinema for both civilian and military morale was quickly recognised, and within a month every screen across the country was once again open for business.

In the end, the war years turned out to be something of a golden age for the country’s cinema industry, as the miseries and privations of war encouraged audiences to seek refuge in the glamour of the movies. Attendance grew steadily throughout the conflict, eventually reaching an all-time high of 1,635 million in 1946 – this was despite the 160 cinemas destroyed by enemy action. Film exhibitors may not have appreciated it at the time, but these were halcyon days, as the postwar era brought renewed attacks upon the dominance of the silver screen.

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The BBC had issued the world’s first regular television transmission on 2 November 1936, and within two decades this new technology became a common feature – arguably the feature – of family living rooms. The growth of television, combined with the spread of central heating, made staying at home a more attractive prospect for Britain’s movie-going masses. Audiences declined steadily from 1948, as did did the number of cinemas. From a peak of 4,700 venues in 1946, this fell to 3,050 by 1960 and 1,971 by 1965.

To combat this precipitous decline, the film industry turned to the sort of spectacle and technical innovation that couldn’t be equalled by their small screen competition. Colour pictures became more common, while the 1950s also saw a brief craze for 3D movies along with the introduction of various widescreen processes like Cinerama, VistaVision, CinemaScope, and Ultra Panavision. While these developments helped movies to retain their edge, the first real victim of the television boom was the once-mighty newsreel industry, which could not hope to match the immediacy of TV news. British Paramount News closed in 1957, followed by Universal and Gaumont British in 1959. In 1960, the Newsreel Association of Great Britain and Ireland ended all operations, whilst the fatal blow was finally dealt in 1969 with the closure of British Pathé.

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Photo by Sean Benesh on Unsplash.

The innovations of the fifties may have slowed the rot in theatrical exhibition, but the worst was still yet the come. Audiences continued to tumble precipitously, and fell to a record low of just 54 million admissions in 1984 – a collapse of 95% from their 1940s heyday. Indeed, the 1980s are widely recognised as the nadir of the British cinema industry, as the advent of home media with VHS and Betamax brought Hollywood blockbusters into living rooms just months after their big-screen premiere. Meanwhile, TV soaps and sitcoms arguably replaced cinema as the nation’s favoured mass entertainment; on Christmas Day 1986 over 30 million viewers watched Eastenders‘ Dirty Den serve divorce papers to his wife Angie.

As audiences fell, so too did the number of screens to serve them. By 1984 there were just 660 sites left in the UK, often in an unloved and dilapidated condition. The following year, film academic Geoffrey Nowell-Smith warned, ‘there is now an imminent danger that British Cinema as we know it, will have effectively ceased to exist within the decade.’ Amid this downturn, hundreds of grand movie houses were demolished or converted into bingo halls, pool clubs, or places of worship (the preservation of these often ornate, art-deco constructions continues to fuel controversy).

Things seemed dire, but salvation was close at hand. Imitating developments in American suburbs, AMC opened the UK’s first multiplex in Milton Keynes in 1985. Called The Point, it was a futuristic, pyramid-shaped structure of glass and steel. Inside were ten cinema screens and a snack bar selling an indulgent range of food and drink, while the courtyard outside had ample space for parking the family saloon.

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The Point, Milton Keynes. Photo by stone40 licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0

The Point brought about a revolution in British cinema’s fortunes, and how it did business, as a wave of new establishments based on the same model were rapidly constructed. These buildings were cleaner and better maintained than many of the decaying old city-centre cinemas with which audiences were familiar, and their greater number of screens meant that they could, in theory, show a broader range of films. By 1990 there were 41 such cinemas with 411 screens between them, while nationwide cinema admissions had nearly doubled to 97.37 million.

Thanks to continued investment, audience attendance rose consistently over the following decade, and since 2001 the annual total has never dipped below 150 million. Of course, there were some losers in this brave new world. The explosion of out-of-town multiplexes did cause closures among independent cinemas which were unable to adapt their existing buildings. Meanwhile, many cinéastes have argued that rather than expanding consumer choice, these multi-screen behemoths have actually restricted the selection of films on offer, dedicating their plethora of screens to the latest American blockbusters and little else.

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Duke of York’s Picturehouse, Brighton. Photo by Jake Hills on Unsplash.

But the fact remains that the multiplex saved the humble cinema from terminal decline, and the industry has enjoyed reasonably good health ever since. Indeed, despite the rise of fresh competition in the form of HD television and streaming services like Amazon Prime and Netflix, cinema admissions have remained relatively steady over the past 20 years, while in 2018 British cinemas had their best year since 1970, selling 177 million tickets. Cinema sites have also continued to multiply; more than 30 opened in 2019 alone, bringing the total across the UK to 840.

While theatrical film distributors, particularly those in France, wring their hands about the threat from Netflix, there is little evidence that cinema’s days are numbered. In fact, a recent study in the US by consultancy EY found that those who stream movies more regularly are also the most enthusiastic cinema-goers. Perhaps in recognition of this, Netflix has recently been increasing its presence in cinemas, partnering with Curzon in the UK to handle limited big-screen releases of Netflix-produced movies like Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman and Noah Baumbach’s Marriage Story. All this suggests a future in which cinemas and streaming giants can coexist in relative harmony.

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Admittedly, the 90-day window that has traditionally existed between a film’s premiere in cinemas and its arrival on home media is increasingly looking like an archaism within our on-demand culture. But just as cinemas have continually evolved over the last hundred years, they will persist in doing so against the new challenges of the digital age. Phil Clapp, the CEO of the UK Cinema Association, argued as much in a recent letter to the Financial Times, observing that, ‘the supposedly imminent demise of the cinema sector due to streaming has its echoes in the predicted impact on the business of TV, VHS and DVD.’

Throughout the catastrophes and innovations of recent history, cinema-going has proved to be a difficult habit to shake for the British public. The ongoing outbreak of COVID-19 has challenged the industry like never before, but there is something special about the cinematic experience which keeps audiences coming back. When the lockdown is finally lifted and we all emerge bleary-eyed from our homes, it won’t be long before we head back into the welcoming darkness of a movie theatre.