2021 has officially drawn to a close and I believe it is customary for everyone and their mothers to share their top 10 lists of best films released in 2021. But I’m not doing that.
Not because I don’t want to; I do. I simply don’t think I have seen enough to comfortably pick ten films and rank them somehow against one another. There are many reasons why that is and I can only blame the still ongoing pandemic to a limited extent. However, this doesn’t mean that 2021 has been any slower for me than any other year. Quite the opposite, actually.
Therefore, I thought I’d use this rare opportunity to look back upon this past year through the prism of more than just ranking movies I saw and appraise it somehow. I believe it is an important part of our journey through life, especially since it’s been years since I was in full-time education and my progress through life was measured externally.
So, given the fact I don’t think I’ve seen enough movies (or good movies) to comfortably compose a list I’d be happy with, I think it’s important to qualify that I still think I had a pretty great year as far as my passion for film is concerned. I started a podcast and recorded fifty episodes in addition to a good handful of bonus shows, where I got to talk to some truly amazing people about some great movies. Which is probably how I ended up watching fewer new releases, as I ended up devoting more of my time to podcast production, editing and everything else that goes into running a niche indie podcast; and it also included watching a lot of films for it. On some level, life is about making choices and it just so happened that I preferred to re-watch Congo and The Others, instead of forcing myself to go to the cinema to watch a new Marvel release against my better judgment. I suppose this clearly indicates I am not a “real” film critic and in truth I have never aspired to being seen as that. All that matters to me as far as this hobby is concerned is that I make enough time to watch interesting films and then make time to write something about them, the latter of which has become a considerable challenge recently and one I’d seek to address coming into 2022.
When I launched this place, I sincerely hoped to have a space to write in my own voice and to facilitate a bunch of long-winded projects I had in mind. I suppose, if there’s a lesson to be drawn from my experiences over the last year, I will honestly need to become a bit more consistent and disciplined, which is a tall ask given my personal circumstances and external pressures of my normal life; but I’m not here to whine. What I am trying to articulate is that I have a bunch or retrospectives to finish and lots of ideas for things to embark upon (that I don’t want to do all at once to avoid spreading myself too thinly). But more on that later. The overarching resolution for the next twelve months, if that makes any sense, is to focus on discipline and consistency in all my endeavours, which means catching up with some great filmmakers whose work I have been promising myself I’d get to for longer than I’d like to admit. So, watch this space.
As far as great movies of 2021 are concerned, even though I don’t feel I have seen enough of them to comfortably assemble a top 10 list, I thought I’d share a few that really touched me, stayed with me, or took me by surprise.
Stillwater (dir. Tom McCarthy)
I honestly never expected this film to be this great. Marred by a terrible marketing campaign thanks to Matt Damon’s inability to keep his mouth shut against his better judgment, as well as the “Amanda Knox Twitter controversy”, Stillwater turned out to be a supple and heart-rending journey into the human heart and a heartfelt survey of the part of America that has been all too easy to vilify or dismiss completely. Elevated by truly great perfomances by Matt Damon, Abigail Breslin, Camille Cottin and Lilou Siauvaud, this movie is a wonderful film that shouldn’t have flown under the radar as much as it did. (full review here)
Luca (dir. Enrico Casarosa)
Luca definitely takes the cake in the “feel-good-movie-that-tugs-at-my-personal-heartstrings” category in that – contrary to the narrative formed around it – it reflected my own immigrant experience in a way that only a handful of movies have. It’s wonderfully animated and beautifully permeated with the kind of nostalgic reverence that only expats could fish out with ease, Luca is a film I will most definitely come back to thanks to its stunning symmetry with my own life experiences. (full review here)
Censor (dir. Prano Bailey-Bond)
In a year where the tsunami of self-aware nostalgia sequels (Ghostbusters: Afterlife, The Matrix Resurrections) and meta-experiments (Last Night in Soho, Malignant) continued to roll through cinemas, Censor ruled the roost in my books. Moody, subtle and incredibly smart in the way it bends reality and incorporates pop-cultural references throughout its narrative, this directorial debut not only put Prano Bailey-Bond on the map, but ensured I’d be on the lookout for what she does next, because this movie is quite simply brilliant. Effective and exhilarating in equal measures, this is an example of bending genre not only for its own sake but to celebrate cinema by making great cinema out of its own scraps. (full review here)
Spencer (dir. Pablo Larraín)
Without a doubt, Spencer was a film I anticipated the most, as my heart happens to burn with unrestrained adoration both to Pablo Larraín’s directorial work and Kristen Stewart as the most interesting and uniquely talented actress of her generation. Suffice it to say that if I had to only pick one 2021 film to own, I’d pick Spencer in a heartbeat. It’s such a wonderfully nuanced (and often misunderstood) piece of filmmaking that subtly weaves layers of extratextual conversation into its narrative, builds its prowess around Stewart’s towering performance and delivers a bona fide fairy tale that both celebrates Princess Diana’s memory and carves out its own niche to continue a thematic conversation the filmmaker has been having with me in his entire portfolio. A true marvel is what Spencer is. (full review here).
The Underground Railroad (dir. Barry Jenkins)
Even though it technically doesn’t qualify to feature on a list of best films of 2021, it most definitely should. The Underground Railroad is not a TV show or a miniseries, but rather a ten-hour film divided into chapters. And as it happens, it is probably the most important piece of filmmaking to have been released last year. Poignant, harrowing and incredibly beautiful, The Underground Railroad is to my mind what Krzysztof Kieslowski’s Dekalog was three decades ago (you can find my feature expanding on this notion here). I can only hope it will not perish in the depths of Amazon’s streaming catalogue and that it will be seen as a timeless masterpiece and a stinging critique of not only American relationship with her past, but also the current state of affairs. It is a powerful document of racial discrimination and an anthem of self-determination and bravery that should be seen by everyone. (links to my episode-by-episode analysis I wrote for CLAPPER can be found here)
And here we are. Although there’s still a good amount of films I missed (Licorice Pizza, Annette, The Green Knight, Titane, etc.), I think I am happy with what I watched in 2021 and I hope you are too.
Happy New Year!