After all the hope of 2020 ending and COVID vaccines being released to the world, 2021 ended up being another rather horrible year. Thankfully, there were still plenty of exceptional movies to help the time tick by – here are my favourite 10.
10: C’mon C’mon (Dir; Mike Mills)
A joyous shot of pure empathy, C’mon C’mon may have not been the most revolutionarily original movie of the year, but it was certainly one of the most affecting. A clear-eyed and warm-hearted look at the highs and lows of parenting, it had three of the best performances of the year from Joaquin Phoenix, Gaby Hoffman, and prodigious child actor Woody Norman, all bringing to beautiful the gently wonderful script from Mills.
9: West Side Story (Dir; Steven Spielberg)
The best Spielberg since Lincoln was also the best movie musical in a year positively bursting with them. Revitalising the classic ’60s take on Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim’s legendary stage play, it kept the spirit of the original (along with much of its iconic choreography) and gave it a new lease of life, courtesy of Spielberg’s technical mastery and a magical ensemble cast. Built largely out of young musical theatre actors, it’s a stunning showcase of instant superstars.
8: Spencer (Dir; Pablo Larrain)
One of quite a few pleasant filmic surprises in 2021, Spencer managed to make me care about the drama of the Royal Family with its absurd-yet-sublime deep dive into Princess Diana’s psyche. Kristen Stewart is almost guaranteed to win the Oscar for her take on the People’s Princess, and it will be well-deserved, a magnificently confident performance that anchors this beautifully shot and wonderfully mad ghost story, scored by some of Jonny Greenwood’s best work to date.
7: Green Knight (Dir; David Lowery)
David Lowery’s none-more-eclectic career reached new heights with his stunning spin on old Arthurian legend, which did so much more with its $15 million budget than most blockbusters do with 10 times that. A visual feast in everything from its costumes to its sets to its landscapes, Green Knight also provided us with one of Dev Patel’s career-best performances, backed by a mesmerising supporting cast. Weird, unnerving, and brutishly physical, this is everything a Medieval fantasy should be.
6: Zola (Dir; Janicza Bravo)
Fearlessly tackling the dark sides of sun, sex, and social media, Janicza Bravo’s thrilling and hilarious road trip did the seemingly impossible and turned a Tweet thread into honest-to-god movie magic. A laugh-out-loud romp that never loses its distressingly grim edges, Zola packs so much into its breezy sub-90 minute runtime that you barely have time to catch your breath before you’re onto the next escapade. Bravo’s script and direction are bold and brilliant, bolstered by the year’s best score (from peerless maestro Mica Levi) and possibly its best single performance (from Colman Domingo).
5: Nightmare Alley (Dir; Guillermo del Toro)
Guillermo del Toro’s first film to entirely eschew the supernatural is also his best since Pan’s Labyrinth, and possibly the peak of his entire career to date. A never-better Bradley Cooper is the keystone to this darkly gorgeous dissection of the dangers of ‘The American Dream’, and he’s matched by pitch-perfect design work and fiendishly clever plotting that combines noir with psychological horror and even a heist movie that’s gripping from start to finish. (full review coming soon)
4: Dune (Dir; Denis Villeneuve)
Quite simply, the best Hollywood blockbuster since Mad Max Fury Road. Denis Villeneuve’s adaptation of Frank Herbert’s ridiculously influential sci-fi novel is a titanic achievement that matches its beautiful artistry and epic scope with thrilling entertainment. Villeneuve was already fast becoming the defining voice in big-budget sci-fi, and this just cements him at the top of the pile. That we even got this at all is a movie miracle on a par with the original Lord of the Rings trilogy, and the fact that Villeneuve is being allowed to continue this story feels like a genuine victory against the endless tide of drab reboots and superheroes. Part 2 can’t get here soon enough.
3: Tragedy of Macbeth
If we’re talking purely in terms of visuals, nothing else matches Joel Coen’s Tragedy of Macbeth this year. With costumes and sets that can easily equal, and sometimes even surpass, the mastery at work in films like Nightmare Alley and Dune, the stylistic coup de grace is here provided by the searing camerawork from Bruno Delbonnel, combining the disquieting un-reality of Shakespeare’s original texts with piercing, deeply human close-ups that elevate the already magnificent performances. Denzel Washington and Frances McDormand combine their formidable talents for both stage and screen acting into one ruthless power couple, and the results are utterly magnetic.
2: Licorice Pizza (Dir; Paul Thomas Anderson)
The most fun you could have at the movies in this or plenty of other years, Licorice Pizza returned PTA to his native San Fernando Valley after his jaunt to England with Phantom Thread, and the result is his sweetest and perhaps funniest film to date. Combining his old free-wheeling Boogie Nights style with a greater emotional maturity and the sort of shaggy-dog sincerity that made Inherent Vice such a masterwork, Licorice Pizza is simply luminous. From its newcomer lead actors to scene-stealing icons like Bradley Cooper and Sean Penn, everyone here gives such perfect performances to such richly drawn characters that you simply fall into this world of young hustlers and young love, a world you’d happily spend hours upon hours in. In any other year, this is a shoo-in for the number one spot, but 2021 also saw the triumphant return of one of modern cinema’s true greats in the form of…
1: Power of the Dog (Dir; Jane Campion)
It’s been 12 years since Jane Campion last graced cinema screens, but The Power of the Dog is worth every second of that decade-plus wait. This is a jaw-dropping work of art, a Wild West take on the Greek tragedy with a perfect balance of clever structure and visceral terror as Benedict Cumberbatch’s Phil Burbank stalks every frame, the threat of violence and fear following him like a shadow. Campion slowly unfolds Phil’s destiny, giving us new details at a considered but thrilling pace until the wrenching denouement becomes inevitable. Cumberbatch is on career-best form, while Kodi Smit-McPhee is the film’s secret weapon as the shy-but-vicious Peter, whose arc culminates in one of the most singularly satisfying and affecting film endings I’ve seen in years. Campion captures kindness, cruelty, and shifting balances of power like few other working filmmakers, and the result here is a breath-catching masterpiece that has hardly left my mind in the two months since I first watched it.