Creating a top 5 list of the best films of 2021 proved to be surprisingly difficult. We were spoilt for choice for brilliant cinema, as films began actually releasing again. From the local art house cinemas to the giant multiplexes to everything in between, cinema felt like it was on a comeback in 2021. And with the unprecedented shortening of the window between a cinema release and a home release, more people had access to great cinema than ever before. But with so much to choose from, which 5 films actually made the cut?
Maybe it’s due to COVID or maybe it’s his improving finances, but Nicolas Cage has settled down over the past couple of years. Not in terms of acting quality, the man is still the greatest living actor, but rather the sheer number of films he has been putting out. Compare the 3 films he starred in in 2021, or the 2 he headlined in 2020, to the 6 in 2019 or the 6 in 2018, and it’s clear Cage is picking his projects a bit more carefully these days. Of the three diverse offerings he gave us in 2021, it’s the wistful and melancholic Pig that left the most impact.
The film sees Cage’s isolated ex-chef Robin living out in the Oregon wilderness, with only his truffle-foraging pig for companionship. When the pig is kidnapped, Robin must return to the restaurants, eateries and underground fight clubs of Portland to get her back. It’s a ridiculous premise, and could have easily been turned into a film more in line with Cage’s earlier, direct-to-video revenge flicks like Tokarev and Stolen. But in the hands of first time director and writer Michael Sarnoski and his co-writer Vanessa Block, Pig transcends its Liam Neeson-lite, revenge flick premise into something more affecting and meditative and altogether more human. The film is about something so much more than a lost pig; both thematically and emotionally. It becomes a searing portrayal of loss and grief and Cage at the centre of it all hasn’t been this good since Adaptation. A fantastic co-starring role from the brilliant Alex Wolff as Cage’s reluctant pig-hunting partner Amir gives the film a few moments of levity and allows us access into Robin’s world. The film is refreshingly mediative and Robin and Amir’s shared grief is often unspoken but is quietly devastating. A must watch for everyone, not just Cage aficionados.
The film that took me most by surprise this year was Prano Bailey-Bond’s incredible Censor. It got under my skin and made me laugh; sometimes at the same time. The film follows Enid, a film censor in 1980s UK, in the height of the video nasties media scare. It’s a time period and setting ripe for a horror film and the opening titles set things up well, cutting between different bits of footage from some actual video nasties like Driller Killer. There’s a sense of dread permeating the whole film – even before we find out about Enid’s tragic past.
Whilst rating a grisly horror film from notorious director Frederick North, Enid realises the shocking events in the film mirror her own childhood memories of the night her sister mysteriously disappeared. Things spiral out of control from there as Enid descends into obsession and madness and the world of dodgy-director North. Niamh Algar as Enid is one of the stand out performances of the year for me, I can’t wait to see what else she does. You never quite know what is real with Enid but you never stop sympathising with her – a difficult balance to strike. But Algar is so fun to watch, especially as Enid begins to unravel. Bailey-Bond’s direction is similarly fantastic. The film is meta in all the right ways, from the references to real and fake video nasties, to the mind blowing scene when you realise the aspect ratio has been slightly changing for the past 10 minutes and suddenly we’ve shrunk from 2.39:1 to 4:3. It’s a fantastic first feature for Bailey-Bond and is wonderfully succinct at just 84 minutes.
3. THE POWER OF THE DOG
New Zealand’s Jane Campion isn’t the fastest working director out there, nor do I think she’d want to be. Her meticulously crafted films only come along every once in a while but they are always worth checking out. Her latest offering is the psychological western The Power of the Dog, starring Benedict Cumberbatch, Kirsten Dunst, Jesse Plemons, and Kodi Smit-McPhee, who all turn in career-best performances. The film follows ranching duo Phil and George Burbank (Cumberbatch and Plemons) as their lives become affected by widowed inn owner Rose (Dunst) and her effeminate, and sensitive, son Peter (Smit-McPhee). But while George and Rose begin a loving relationship together, Phil becomes jealous and uses Rose’s seemingly innocent son Peter to get back at her and his brother. This surface-level description sells the film short though, the film shines in the smaller moments of subtext and suggestion. Phil’s hidden queerness is a major driving point in the film and Campion cleverly reveals the true Phil Burbank slowly, as the film progresses. Phil worships the brother’s late mentor ‘Bronco Henry’ but while nothing is ever explicitly said, it’s clear in the subtly of the performances and Campion’s direction, that there was more to this relationship.
The film’s unhurried pace won’t be for everyone but I found The Power of the Dog to be one of the most engrossing films of the year. Campion imbues every subtle look and movement with countless meanings and every subsequent rewatch of the film will unlock something new. The film surprises at every turn (the gut punch of an ending is possibly my favourite film ending all year) but it’s not all doom and gloom. There’s wit and humour in the cheeky and knowing winks to the links between the leather and ropes of cowboy iconography and the world of BDSM that proves Campion’s films are not as humourless as they are sometimes portrayed to be. Much has been said about an arthouse film of this stature being released on Netflix but I’m all for it. I’ll always go and see films like this in my local arthouse cinema when I can but if it being on Netflix means more people have access to a film as fantastic as this, I can’t see how people could think this a bad thing.
2. THE GREEN KNIGHT
David Lowery has made not only his greatest ever film (high praise for a filmmaker who is yet to have a miss) but also one of the greatest fantasy films since The Return of the King. At the very least, it’s the best film about Arthurian legends since John Boorman’s Excalibur 40 years earlier. The film sees Sir Gawain, a knight of the roundtable, undertaking a perilous journey to make his date with destiny – or rather the eponymous Green Knight. Gawain is tested by different characters along the way, from ghosts to bandits to a dodgy Lord and Lady and even a talking fox. The film more resembles a bad mushroom trip than a typical heroes journey however and on a pure surface level, the film is a visual and aural treat. Every frame of the film is gorgeous and demands to be given your full attention. There are shots which linger with you long after you have watched the film (the eerie giants in the mist, the flaming crown, the desolate battlefield, the skeleton of Sir Gawain) and the Daniel Hart score begs to be listened to again and again (and makes for a great ambient playlist).
The film is not only surface-level stuff, however; the wonderful dreamlike quality sucks you in and leaves many of the films themes open to interpretation. I can’t be the only one who had a debate with my friends as to the meaning behind the film’s ending or Gawain’s notorious magical belt. The cast are all typically fantastic, especially Dev Patel as the challenger of the Green Knight, and King Arthur’s nephew, Sir Gawain. He perfectly balances the characters strength and weaknesses, his cockiness and his vulnerability. How Lowery and his crew managed to achieve all of this on a reported budget of only $15 million boggles the mind. Hopefully, the film’s small success will lead to more fantasy films being produced. But while more fantasy films can only be a good thing; they’ll have to do something very special to be as good as Lowery’s masterful The Green Knight.
1. NO TIME TO DIE
If you know me or follow this blog, then you’re probably not surprised at my number one choice as my favourite film of the year. As I said in my review in October; “at it’s heart, NTTD is a tragic love story; a perfect ode to Craig’s vulnerable James Bond at the centre. It’s a gorgeous, heartbreaking, and poignant finale.” My appreciation for the film has only grown since I first saw it (I even went back to the cinema another 2 times to watch it). I know some people were cold or confused on the ending where (SPOILERS incoming) James Bond died, but I thought it was perfect at the time and have only come to love it more in subsequent rewatches. It may not have worked for Brosnan’s Bond or Moore’s Bond but for Daniel Craig’s Bond, it was brilliant. There’s no character in cinema more indestructible than James Bond but Craig’s tenure was all about reinventing this legend and humanising the character. And what better way of doing this than showing audiences Bond can die.
But the film is more than its ending, and director Cary Joji Fukunaga provides the Bond series with arguably its most beautiful entry yet. Along with cinematographer Linus Sandgren and the rest of the crew, Fukunaga gives us not only one of the most picturesque Bond films but also some of the greatest Bond action sequences in the series’ history. A DB5 chase through the streets of Matera is undoubtedly my favourite action scene of the year. There’s also a jaw-dropping ‘oner’ in the climax of the film that even the films most ardent detractors will have a hard time criticising. And it goes without saying that composer Hans Zimmer is on top form once again here; his track ‘Final Ascent’ still gives me goosebumps.
As I said in my original review though, at its heart the film is a love story. Bond is a one-woman man this time around and his chemistry with Madeline Swan, the phenomenal Lea Seydoux, is the backbone of the film (and more than makes up for their lacklustre relationship in Spectre). Craig and Seydoux and never better than when they’re on screen together and it’s due to their chemistry that the ending is as impactful as it is. The supporting cast is universally great too, from series stalwarts Ralph Fiennes, Ben Whishaw, Naomie Harris, and Jeffrey Wright as M, Q, Moneypenny and Felix Leiter, to brand the new characters Paloma and Nomi, played by the brilliant Ana De Armas and Lashana Lynch. The film’s villain Safin, played by the wonderfully hammy Rami Malek, is slightly undercooked but he has some great scenes with Bond and Madeline and his villainous plot allows for some spectacular set-pieces.
No film in 2021 has stayed with me the way No TIme to Die has. It’s a beautiful and thrilling and ultimately heartbreaking film whether you’re a die-hard Bond fan or not. But as a Bond fan, the film was everything I wanted and was a bright beacon in a universally bleak and shitty couple of years. Daniel’s Craig’s Bond may be dead but the series has never been more alive.
It was hard narrowing down my top 5 list to only 5 films! For what was another pretty crappy year around the globe, 2021 offered audiences some pretty great cinema. So, in no particular order, here are some of the other films that very nearly made my list:
- Shang-Chi and The Legend of The Ten Rings
- Spider-Man: No Way Home
- The Last Duel
- The Matrix Resurrections