End of Year Favourites, top 7

Top 7 – My Favourite Films of 2021

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!

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!

7. The French Dispatch

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.

5. Malignant

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.

4. Never Gonna Snow Again

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.

3. Bo Burnham: Inside

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.

1. Titane

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. 😈

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End of Year Favourites

My Favourite Video Game of 2021 – Inscryption

I’ve warmed to card games as a genre recently. For a long time it felt like there wasn’t much middle ground between the exploitative whirlpool of games like Hearthstone or the absurd depth that leads to total inaccessibility that I found in things like The Lord of the Rings: Adventure Card Game. Then I discovered Slay the Spire and fell in love with the possibilities of the genre. Much as I like its open ended and endless nature though, it means that there isn’t really room in my life for another endless card battler. Which is why Inscryption is so great.

Before I say another word about Inscryption, it’s worth knowing that this is one of those games that is best experienced when you don’t know anything about it. I’m going to try not to give away any of its secrets, but I played it fairly blind and would recommend you try the same too. For those who want to know more though, it is a card battling game based in the lodge of a being whose identity is mysterious. He narrates your journey and asks you to play his game so that he may do something nefarious with you. Between matches, you are allowed to explore his cabin and find what he is hiding, which may aid you in your future battles. But something here is wrong. When you started the game, why did it only let you click continue? What are all these greyed out buttons on the pause menu? Is this card talking to me?

(Spoiler alert, he probably is)

All of this fun meta storytelling would be totally worthless if the game itself wasn’t actually fun to play. Fortunately, the card battling in Inscryption is built on rock solid foundations and feels strangely fresh. There’s a central mechanic which requires you to sacrifice cards you already have on the table in order to place strong cards, a mechanic I’ve never seen before. It took a little while for me to work it out, as well as work out the further mechanics the game later adds on top, but once it clicks it feels properly satisfying. Sometimes I found the learning curve a little steep, like a section in the third act that I had to grind away at for over an hour to make any progress on, but it was otherwise a take on a tired genre that plays in fresh ways as well as subverting the old ways narratively.

Inscryption is the break from formula you need.

I’m also totally in love with the audio and visual design of the game. The tone feels a bit like it’s in the horror genre, almost entirely because of the weird noises of the world. It is the kind of game that is best suited to playing late at night, in the dark, with your headphones turned loud. The cabin creaks, the wind howls, the knives sound like they really hurt. Pair that with minimal but chilling visuals, it works immaculately. There’s a clear understanding from Daniel Mullins (the creator of the game) of what this genre needs to be satisfying at a fundamental level, which allows for playful visual subversion throughout. Again, I won’t say more to avoid spoilers, but as the game changes, the visuals also change and set the tone for what’s to come. It never feels like an attempt to be weird just to be unpredictable, but always a natural continuation of the previous events.

So if you, like me, also remain tired of games that takes weeks to finish through hours of unrewarding grinding, Inscryption is the break from formula you need. It’s got a cool story to explore, feels great to be spending time with and has damn good gameplay to boot. Quite honestly, if you’re not already interested it’s not for you. It certainly is for me though.

Honourable Mentions

Overboard! – A video game adaptation of the “good for her” film genre, Overboard! (yes, the exclamation mark is in the title) asks you to help a new widow get away with the murder of her husband while on board a boat. How you do it is up to you, whether it involves seduction, sabotage or further acts of murder. Whatever you choose, great writing keeps each new attempt fresh.

Genesis Noir – A jazzy noir thriller about the life of the universe as imagined through the metaphor of a breakup. Explaining the plot of Genesis Noir gets us nowhere, but it looks great, sounds awesome and has an ending to drool over.

Maquette – It’s the requisite Annapurna game! Some of the puzzles in Maquette felt frustratingly oblique to me, but it is all based on this genuinely great hook of transferring items between spaces in which size is all relative.

Before Your Eyes – For the second year in a row, a video game made me cry. It feels a little like cheating that Before Your Eyes did it, because it relies on the player resisting blinking for as long as possible, but this gimmick is used in a way that never actually feels like a gimmick and is festooned with a narrative that would still probably have made me cry even if my eyes were experiencing normal function.

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End of Year Favourites

My Favourite Album of 2021 – Solar Power by Lorde

Like I said last year, I feel weird doing end of year rankings for music, TV or video games. Sure, it’s all my opinion anyway, but I feel like I miss out on so many things that I could eventually come to call my favourites. So again, we’re doing this. I’m not ranking the best stuff I heard or played this year, I’m just talking quite in depth about a few things I loved and then throwing some extra love around as well for good measure after. Sound good? Good. Let us begin.

I could have told you last year that Lorde’s new album would be my favourite album of 2021. And here we are, surprise, it is. With Pure Heroine and Melodrama, Lorde created the soundtrack to my time at University. She gets the agony and the ecstasy of being a young adult in ways that few artists do, at least for me. And so naturally Solar Power, her first album since 2017, was an album that I had been hotly anticipating. What I hadn’t anticipated was the change in emotional tone. We’ll get more into the whole album in a minute, including the sections of it that don’t fit what I’m about to say, but it feels like talking to a friend you haven’t seen in a while. They’ve been struggling with their mental health for years but you ask them how they are and they smile. They pause for a moment and say “you know, I’m actually really good”. And you both know that they mean it.

That change in tone is what has made Solar Power a somewhat divisive album, with Lorde celebrating her newfound confidence in the life she has found. Take the title track as an example. It’s a song all about the joys of liberating yourself from the ties of your mobile phone or the expectations society puts on you, kicking loose and vibing out in the sun. It is a lot of fun, and also often cheeky with lines like “I’m kinda like a prettier Jesus”. You can sense the joy Lorde feels emanating through her music in ways that even her most joyous songs before couldn’t do. No, it’s not the most comforting feeling in the world if you’ve had an absolutely awful time this year, but as someone who has been able to find joy it works for me.

She’s still attuned to emotional complexities though, which the song “California” highlights. It’s a song about moving away from the toxic world that Los Angeles can create, as well as being a metaphor for an old relationship. She’s talking about moving away from “that California love”, something that is undeniably the right move but that comes accompanied with sensory triggers of all those good moments. At its best, the song is melancholic, accepting the need to move on from a moment which is fun but certain to be fleeting. Other songs on the album acknowledge this too, like “The Man With the Axe”, a song about still falling in love through all the red flags that are visible. Lorde has always been good at making songs with complex emotional layers hidden under cheery exteriors, and Solar Power is another album still full of those songs.

Solar Power is a 40 minute plea from Lorde not to let her be the voice of a generation and yet ironically she pleas in a way that once again speaks to and for millions of voices.

But then it’s also an album that is ready to rip your heart out at the right moment. The absolute song of the album, I think even my song of the year, is “Stoned at the Nail Salon”. Like I said, Solar Power is an album about being happy with the place where you’ve found yourself, but “Stoned” is a song about this terrifying fear that everything you’ve worked towards is wrong. This whole world you spent so much time and effort building and making completely concrete might not be the dream you want to live forever. It’s a song haunted by the ghosts of the past, visions of “two former hell raisers” threatening to ruin the tranquillity of now. It also features the absolutely devastating line “all the music you love at 16 you’ll grow out of” which as a 22 year old is starting to prove more and more true. Lorde being only a few years older than me, her lyrics can’t help but speak to the equivalent moment in my life. So even though I don’t really have it all sorted out right now, the idea this song posits of creating your dream life and still being unhappy terrifies me.

There is a sense that Lorde is the voice of a generation, specifically the one I find myself in. I know this sense exists, because I have called her exactly this on many occasions. But I think the genius of Solar Power is that it’s an album on which Lorde explicitly denies this responsibility. If “Leader of the New Regime” doesn’t convince you, with its pleas for someone to take over this world in which paranoia reigns supreme, the final lines on the album should convince you. As “Oceanic Feeling” fades out on a quiet note, lazing on the beach that so much of this album revolved around, Lorde sings “I’ll know when it’s time to / Take off my robes and step into the choir.” Solar Power is a 40 minute plea from Lorde not to let her be the voice of a generation and yet ironically she pleas in a way that once again speaks to and for millions of voices. Pure Heroine was the album for people whose blood has just started rushing, Melodrama the album for that blood being shed, but Solar Power is the album to let that blood finally cool down, “wherever that leads.” For my life and for hers, I think I am now ready for whatever this all leads onto.

Honourable Mentions

Blue Weekend by Wolf Alice – A close second favourite album this year, Blue Weekend is everything I want from a rock album. It kicks ass, breaks your heart and has only gotten better the more I’ve listened to it this year. Blast it loud, blast it now.

Daddy’s Home by St. Vincent – In hindsight, of course St. Vincent was going to struggle to top Masseduction, but Daddy’s Home is a valiant attempt. It goes all in on evoking the coolness and griminess of the seventies and is all the better for it.

Sour by Olivia Rodrigo – I’m not a teenager with a broken heart, but I still act like I am, so of course I loved Sour. It’s an incredible debut from Rodrigo and one that promises more excellence to come, whether her heart is broken again or not.

Long Lost by Lord Huron – There’s always been a Twin Peaks vibe from Lord Huron but they embrace it completely on Long Lost, climaxing with a fourteen minute instrumental song that might as well be made by Angelo Badalamenti. Of course I loved it.

Civilisation by Kero Kero Bonito – This album has to be on the list, if only because seeing it performed live this year is one of my most memorable nights of the year. Kero Kero Bonito were the only band I saw live in 2021, but it was such a high bar to clear that I’m glad I didn’t give any other artists a look in.

Jubilee by Japanese Breakfast – Thank you to everyone this year who has attempted to rehabilitate my taste in music, this album is a stand in for all the new discoveries I made. In particular, Jubilee is an album George recommended me and that I’ve loved walking to all year. I listen to it, think of him and smile.

Home Video by Lucy DacusHome Video is here entirely because of the song “Brando”. No song has ever made me feel so picked apart as this one, analysing all the ways that I am a shitty person romantically, despite the fact Lucy Dacus and I have never met. It’s incredible.

Happier Than Ever by Billie Eilish – The first time I listened to this album, I was pretty apathetic for the first half. But then the last four songs happen. They completely recontextualise the album and deliver an incredible emotional punch that I am happy to suffer over and over again.

Woman on the Internet by Orla Gartland – Orla Gartland has been releasing music that knocks my socks off for a while, first with her Why Am I Like This? EP and then “Did It To Myself” broke my heart in Normal People. Her debut album delivers on everything those incredible projects promised.

star-crossed by Kacey Musgraves – Following on from Golden Hour, an album all about how happy Musgraves’ marriage makes her, we have star-crossed, an album all about her divorce. It’s a hard emotional turn, but one that pays off in all its complicated reflection.

You Signed Up For This by Maisie Peters – I don’t mean to sound cruel when I say this, but I’m not a big fan of Peters’ online presence. However, her music makes me forget all that, with densely written songs that evoke the best of Taylor Swift.

Seventeen Going Under by Sam Fender – Sam Fender is Bruce Springsteen from the north of England. His appeal is that simple. He has great talent on a guitar but also an anger in many of his songs, an anger that is very specifically targeted, but always at things that are universal for young British listeners. Try not to love the guy.

An Evening with Silk Sonic by Silk Sonic – I’ve never really liked Bruno Mars, but on teaming up with Anderson .Paak, he has created the grooviest record of the year. It is banger after banger after banger, all soaked in serious style.

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