It’s the big one! The list that I spend my entire year building up to, so that people can look at it and validate all of the hours of my life I have spent watching films to get great taste. And while 2021 has proven to be another not great year in general, I think there’s been a lot of incredible films to distract us from all the everything. So incredible in fact, that even excellent films like Dune, Spencer and Judas and the Black Messiah have failed to crack the honourable mentions. As per usual, my rules are simple. It needs to have been released in the UK during 2021, it must be a feature film and this whole list is entirely subjective. You can find my full ranking of all the 2021 releases I saw here on my Letterboxd, which will allow you to judge me more thoroughly and understand which films didn’t make the cut because I didn’t see them. I’m also going to link to any posts I’ve written about any of the films mentioned, in case you want to know more about them. With all of this said, into the honourable mentions!
Pig – Nic Cage has done many incredible things throughout his career, but with Pig he does something he’s never done before: he made me cry. In a career spanning decades, Pig has immediately marked itself out as a special film for Cage.
Evangelion: 3.0+1.0 Thrice Upon a Time – If you are not into Evangelion then this film will not convince you in any way, but those (like me) who are completely on board with the whole nonsense of this franchise, you are in for a treat that goes as big visually as it does emotionally.
Sound of Metal – I don’t know whether to celebrate Sound of Metal for its unbelievably brilliant lead performance, its emotional reckoning with the unavoidable or the way it gave the Deaf community the stage many of us never knew it needed. I don’t have to choose though, all three are worthy reasons.
Censor – As we will get to a couple of times more on this list, I seem to love horror films that everyone else falls out of love with because of something weird in the third act. Censor is that perfectly, a film I am so deeply in love with that its idiosyncrasy only enhances it.
Last Night in Soho – My most controversial choice I’d imagine, I saw Last Night in Soho twice in cinemas and had a blast both times. It might be Wright’s weakest fiction film, but it’s also a lot of fun and an experience I have kept thinking about since release.
Invisible Life – You have not heard of this film. After playing festivals in 2019 under a longer name, Invisible Life has had to wait until 2021 for a UK release, which even then was in very few cinemas. Please, I urge you to check it out, it’s a sensational Brazilian melodrama that will pull you in so slowly that you won’t realise how deep you’re in until you start crying.
Promising Young Woman – I almost put Promising Young Woman higher up the list, but I haven’t seen it since release and feel like it could do with a second watch to confirm some feelings. As it stands though, note perfect casting and some tricky emotional wire walking have had me thinking non-stop all year.
With these very honourable mentions done, into the full ranked list!
There is a criticism surrounding The French Dispatch that it is too much of Wes Anderson’s style and artifice. After my first watch, I kind of got that. This is an anthology film that is so full of different visual quirks and character moments that you may not have time to actually form any emotional attachments. But then there was the second watch. Again, I was a really big fan of the film the first time, as I say in my review. That second viewing though, man. It opens this entire film up into something approaching one of Anderson’s best. The jokes are funnier, the visuals are even more impressive and finally, that emotional core so many believed to be absent opens up. In the second story, much maligned by detractors, I found myself welling up at the denouement. It is the culmination of this collection of stories about beautiful things taken away before their time is over but being forced to face that truth and enjoy the melancholy nostalgia of the past. Genuinely, I cannot recommend enough watching this film twice, at least. Your appreciation will soar and you too will realise that The French Dispatch is one of the best films of 2021 and one of the best in a filmography that is hardly full of duds.
6. Drive My Car
I’ll get it out the way now, Drive My Car is three hours long. That in itself is probably going to put most people off but believe me when I say that every minute in all three of those hours is essential. Drive My Car is the second excellent film adaptation of a Murakami short story in the last few years, but much different from the simmering tension of Burning. It is the story of a theatre director and actor who, after facing a personal loss, is attempting to adapt Uncle Vanya using a cast all speaking different languages. While putting on this production, he is required to have a driver driving his car and during these drives the two listen to tapes that contain the voice of a ghost on them. I’m aware this doesn’t sound thrilling so far, but believe me when I say it works because it is so hard to put your finger on what the film is. After seeing it, I said to one of my colleagues that I was surprised how sexy it was, which garnered the response “actually I thought it was really sad.” This conversation is testament to the brilliant fluidity that powers Drive My Car, a film that manages to be three hours long yet still leave room for interpretation. Set aside that time, put your phone away and settle in for this film which will quietly and slowly draw you in very deep.
I watched Malignant at home and spent, as an educated guess, half of it slapping my bed with complete giddy joy. Most of this list is full of cerebral films that make me seem very smart (though I am letting weird ones slip through more than ever this year), but there is something about really powerful genre films that allows them to circumvent my consciousness and hit the middle of the monkey brain. A lot of the time it happens with really fun bad movies, but Malignant is a top-tier seat slapper the likes of which I haven’t experienced in a big budget movie this past decade. The story is barely important, something about a woman who had a surgery when she was younger and is now experiencing hallucinations of murders seemingly as they are committed. What is important, is that the story is a means of servicing some wild twists, very silly performances and a healthy portion of absolutely gonzo set pieces. Everything I love about bad genre movies is here, but done genuinely well and with deliberate intent. The fact that I’ve only seen this the once and by myself is frankly the only thing that holds Malignant this far back on the list. It is some of the most fun I’ve had with any film this year, you should have it too.
It’s finally here. I finally get to talk about Never Gonna Snow Again again. Back when I was covering the virtual London Film Festival in 2020, this film snuck up on me and became my favourite of the festival. The problem was, I didn’t know when I’d see it again. Being my most extensive stint at a festival to date, I realised that while some of the higher profile films already have distribution, a lot of smaller but still excellent films can fly under the radar and remain in film purgatory. Fortunately, Never Gonna Snow Again was picked up by Picture House Entertainment (who, full disclosure, are my employers) and it came out. For real. For finally. Having gotten what I’ve asked for though, I now have the difficult task of explaining this film to you. It’s a fairy tale about a masseuse in an upper class suburb, who may or may not have magical powers, but it’s also not that. It’s a comedy, a tragedy, a modern day myth about the destructive nature of late capitalism. It feels special in its uniqueness and has gone cruelly under appreciated before and since its release. So please, seek out Never Gonna Snow Again, a film that has to be seen to be felt to be believed.
I don’t care if you don’t think it’s a film, Bo Burnham: Inside is a feature film in my eyes and an excellent one at that. It’s also part of a very specific time in my life, where despite my degree being over I was still in a weird emotional limbo and feeling very stranded in the midst of a pandemic that remains a huge part of our lives. For as long as he’s been performing, Bo Burnham has been great at verbalising these tricky emotions that make up modern life, but he brought his A-game for his finest project to date. At first, Inside appears to be more of the same, a series of fun songs about modern life that contain a hint of darkness, but then it grows into something bigger. It gets a lot darker as the film develops, with Burnham visibly starting to crumble, yet I think even this is an attempt to mislead the audience. Inside is definitely a look into the emotional reality of living during the pandemic, but it’s also very specifically about being a creative person and how you separate your own life from your art. This thin line that divides reality and performance is one of my very favourite themes to see explored and at every turn, Inside tackles it. I think it is very special and to be incredibly honest, it became a part of me. Of course it made the list.
2. Petite Maman
Cėline Sciamma almost made the top spot on my best of the year list for a second year in a row, but take that only as a comment on how much I loved the top film this year and not even a shadow of a suggestion that Petite Maman isn’t as close to perfection as a feature film has gotten since Paddington 2. It’s a film about a young girl who, in the wake of her grandmothers death, returns to the home her mother grew up in and makes a new friend while adventuring in the woods. Importantly, it is also a film that is 72 minutes long. When was the last time you saw 1. a film that short or 2. a film that short that still manages to feel so full of affection? More than that makes Petite Maman special though, everything else about it is special too. The sparse but powerful use of music is special, the way editing is used to time travel is special and the two lead performances are incredibly special. Sciamma has yet again made a film that feels like an already timeless classic. She is too powerful. Arguably, she may need to be stopped. Until we stop her though, may we continue to get more knockout masterpieces like Petite Maman.
I’m tempted to just leave my thoughts on Titane as 😈. Words can only do so well at conveying how delicious the cinematic chaos hidden inside this film is, why not finally succumb to emojis? I also am tempted to leave it there because I don’t want to be the one who spoils Titane for you, a film so full of treats to unwrap, some of which may contain razor blades. In an inverse of the way I love Petite Maman because of its simple perfection, I adore Titane because of its chaotic mess. There is A LOT going on with this film. We’re talking serial killers, we’re talking the performativity of gender roles and we’re talking human relations with machines. Those all happen in the first fifteen minutes. If you didn’t know by now, Titane is a hell of a ride. The film uses the language of extreme cinema to speak to an innate truth about the extraordinary human capacity for love. It’s not that the extremity is all smoke and mirrors per se, more that it is a necessary leap of faith to get audiences to release their inhibitions. I do not doubt that this film will not be for everyone. A few years ago, it wouldn’t have been for me. But now it is. It really is. Titane is a lot of things to a small(ish) group of people and I am proud to consider myself in that number. You might be too. Take a bite and find out. 😈