Welcome to my (much delayed) rundown of the best films from the year gone by! Earlier this year, I decided to take a look back at some of the movies the pandemic had initially stricken from my view, composing a list of my favourites from 2020. Now, half an hour before the Oscar’s begin (I have put a little effort into being timely, one way or another), I’m back to list my favourites from 2021.
There was a lot I enjoyed last year — it may even be one of the strongest selections in recent memory (the top half especially). So, thank you for stopping by and I hope you find my musings compelling. I’ve stuck with a top ten, but please drop by my Letterboxd page for ratings and thoughts on a wider array of work. If there’s anything you think I’ve missed, let me know!
Previous Year: 2020.
#10. The French Dispatch (dir. Wes Anderson)
Starting off the list is Wes Anderson’s latest romp, The French Dispatch. The film is an anthology of three stories, each depicting a report from the film’s titular American newspaper, set and published in the fictional 20th century French town of Ennui-sur-Blasé. The first is about a convicted artist and his prison guard muse, the second was inspired by the May 1968 civil unrest in France, and the last recounts the kidnapping of a police commissioner’s son.
The French Dispatch felt like a trained culmination of style and form, with all the great piquant dialogue and painstaking quality viewers have come to expect from a Wes Anderson film. I feel like it misses the heart of some of his longer narrative work, but as an anthology, each part is wholly memorable in their distinctiveness and whimsy.
Despite looking very much like an Anderson movie as a whole, the director and crew have done an exemplary job in exhibiting a different palate for each segment. I especially enjoyed the theatre-like set design in Revisions to a Manifesto, the second short, and the animated portions in the final film. All in all, it’s nothing short of enjoyable, with a fine serving of Anderson’s well-timed, fanciful comedy.
#9. Little Fish (dir. Chad Hartigan)
Next is director Chad Hartigan’s sci-fi drama Little Fish, which is set during a pandemic where people are afflicted with a memory-wiping illness, causing them to forget all details of their life and self. Central characters Emma and Jude are a couple who attempt to sustain their strong relationship amongst the uncertainty of not only their futures, but also their past.
The film boasts a great screenplay, with the notion and very essence of memory etched into its framework. Little Fish exists in a similar space to last years The Father, where the obscure chronology helps to expound the characters’ mental states, depicting the film’s memory-wiping illness in a very keen and visceral fashion.
I think it balances a fine line between unambiguous and equivocal. On one hand, Little Fish is a love story and you can absolutely view it at surface value, but on the other, it’s a sci-fi about the heart and mind, which is edited and constructed in such a way that it builds a lot of clever depth and supposition. It’s a film with a story that lives beyond its presentation, with a world and characters that left me pondering long after the credits about what would be, what could have been, and what is.
#8. Dune (dir. Denis Villeneuve)
At number eight is Denis Villeneuve’s much anticipated adaptation of sci-fi epic Dune. The story follows Paul Atreides, heir to the great House Atreides, rulers of an oceanic planet named Caladan. When the Atreides family must travel to the unfamiliar desert planet Arrakis to take over cultivation of the universe’s most sought after resource, Paul is drawn into an aristocratic conflict that reveals both destiny and disaster.
It’s easy to see how much of the book’s supporting characters have had to be cut down and simplified, leaving some motivations and choices with room for finesse, but the core plot is adapted with fluency, serving a brilliant genesis to what looks to be a remarkable duology. However, it is the film’s technical aspects that leave the most lasting impression.
Much like in Blade Runner 2049, director Denis Villeneuve’s previous film, Dune exhibits a tantalising marriage between sound and visual, solidifying it as one of the most cinematic films of the year. That it so easily immerses and enthralls viewers into its world is testament to the gorgeous presentation; though not without its flaws, the setting of Dune was one in which time was exceedingly well spent.
#7. Evangelion: 3.0+1.0 Thrice Upon a Time (dir. Hideaki Anno)
My most anticipated film for many years, the final installment of the Evangelion tetralogy is at a solid seventh. Delayed both due to the pandemic and creator Hideaki Anno’s rigorous mind, the film concludes a franchise now over twenty-five years old. Directly following 2012’s You Can (Not) Redo, Thrice Upon a Time see’s a despondent Shinji try to find his place in a world that’s about to end.
The Rebuild of Evangelion tetralogy concludes with a thoroughly labyrinthine finale. The four-part series is strong on its own merit, but those with knowledge of the original TV series and movies will find added fulfilment. The series has grown with its creator, Hideaki Anno, building upon itself in a complex, metatextual fashion that is astoundingly creative.
I love Shinji’s journey here, and just like in the original series, the depictions of grief, depression, and trauma are handled with brilliant fidelity and attentiveness. It gets a bit zany in the latter half and will certainly need another viewing or two, but its impression is a lasting one, with an extraordinary closure that feels every bit bonafide Evangelion and yet wholly distinct. The NHK documentary covering the production is well worth a watch, too.
#6. Boiling Point (dir. Philip Barantini)
Just missing out on the top five is Philip Barantini’s single take drama Boiling Point, an expanded version of his own 2019 short film of the same name, taking place over one night at a fully booked up-market restaurant in London. Head chef Andy (played by the brilliant Stephen Graham) struggles to keep himself together as work and personal pressures collide in an anxiety-ridden environment.
The film captures the frantic behind-the-scenes operations of restaurant workers with great clarity; the formal and technical aspects compliment and align with the narrative exceptionally well. The overlapping dialogue and threads of exposition spearhead viewers straight into the action, with the single take denying any sort of respite, literally following the commotion the whole way.
Stephen Graham delivers a compelling central performance, but even the less distinguished cast become embodied and memorable people through their expressive dialogue; all the minute details lending to an environment which quickly becomes bustling and organic, shaping a drama that is ultimately both very effective and very affecting.
#5. Nightmare Alley (dir. Guillermo del Toro)
Kicking off the top five is Nightmare Alley, Guillermo del Toro’s neo-noir thriller, starring Bradley Cooper as a carnival worker with grand ambitions. Starting at the bottom, Cooper’s character Stan is a charismatic yet mysterious man, who quickly weaves himself into the woodwork of the carnival as a bit of a jack-of-all-trades, but seizes an opportunity to score big with his own mentalism attraction.
Nightmare Alley is such a visually arresting film, presenting a pleasingly sinister aesthetic that, though bleak and harrowing, is nonetheless fascinating to be a part of. Contrasting the initial murky carnival setting with glamour and splendour in the second half, Guillermo del Toro charts Bradley Cooper’s passage as a character who is at once devious and charismatic, depicting a captivating degeneracy.
The film doesn’t take any surprising directions as such, but there’s a sort of grandeur in how it comes together. Looking back, you can see all of the pieces gradually fall into place, in a script that is kneaded together in a pleasing and attentive manner. Like with many Guillermo del Toro films, come the end I couldn’t help but crack a darkly gratified smile.
#4. The Summit of the Gods (dir. Patrick Imbert)
Up next is French animated drama The Summit of the Gods, adapted from a manga series of the same name by the late Jiro Taniguchi. Fukamachi, a young Japanese reporter, has a brief encounter with a mysterious man, who he quickly identifies as a legendary climber named Habu, who had faded from public view. Believing Habu holds new information about Mallory and Irving’s real-life fateful ascent up Everest, he begins tracing Habu’s life, revealing a prevailing and emotional obsession with the mountain.
I am very fond of Taniguchi’s manga — his combination of mature storytelling with detailed linework straddles between novelist and cinematic; it’s a wonder it has taken this long for any of his work to be adapted to animation. Climbing drama films can often feel alike, each building to the same indistinguishable summit, but The Summit of the Gods succeeds through its absorbing characters and ravishing presentation.
Taniguchi’s distinct style is captured to a tee, and I feel the film does a brilliant job in capturing the mysticism and enchantment of obsession, in a wonderfully visual and empathetic way. It reminded me a lot of the 2019 French animation I Lost My Body in style and tact, where the characters—their motivations and sincerity—are captured in an acute and earnest fashion; allowed to breathe and exist in the world without pretention or overindulgence, in spite of the imposing and magnificent setting which is captured in all its real-life glory.
#3. Drive My Car (dir. Ryusuke Hamaguchi)
Commencing the top three is Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s adaptation of the Haruki Murakami short story, Drive My Car. The film follows Yusuke, a theatre actor and director, who is offered a residency at a theatre in Hiroshima to put on a multi-lingual production of Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya. Both the film’s narrative and Uncle Vanya unravel in parallel, as Yusuke struggles to overcome the grief of his past.
I am a big fan of Haruki Murakami and have posted about several of his books here on my blog. I don’t know if that makes me more critical or more welcoming of an adaptation (maybe both), but Drive My Car is easily up there with Lee Chang-dong’s Burning as the best. The short story, by its nature, is much more succinct and direct. I liked how uncomplicated Takatsuki (the antagonist-of-sorts, for lack of a better phrase) was in the original but, equally, his greater focus here works with brilliant effect.
It seems Murakami’s shorts are adapted and expounded best in tandem with another writer’s voice. Here, Ryusuke Hamaguchi presents a version with layers upon layers, building upon the essence of the original in inspired and striking ways. Making the production of Uncle Vanya multi-lingual was a brilliant touch; there is profuse subtext and metaphor in scenes that at first seem so unassuming. It’s a film with tantalising detail, which builds to an emotional and poetic climax that continues to linger months after the closing credits.
#2. The Green Knight (dir. David Lowery)
At a very strong second is The Green Knight, an adaptation by writer-director David Lowery of the epic 14th century poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. It is the story of Gawain (played by Dev Patel), the ungallant nephew of King Arthur, who sets out on a quest to face the eponymous Green Knight, a hulking, mysterious figure made of bark and roots, in order to test his courage.
I really loved Lowery’s 2017 film A Ghost Story, which was totally radical with some extraordinary formal choices. The Green Knight is kindred in many ways, with bewitching production design and fascinating arrangement that plays with the notion of reality. The late medieval aesthetic is beguiling and wonderous, mixing well with the films more fantastical aspects, which develop the setting into an almost ethereal and hazy experience at times.
The film is cinematic and literary, with Dev Patel an absolute stand-out, communicating emotion and depth with both extreme precision and entrancing ambiguity, acting with expression as convincingly as through dialogue. The Green Knight is noteworthy again through its costume design and score, the latter of which lends the ending sequence an unforgettable swell and intensity, contributing indelibly to the films outstanding climax.
#1. The Worst Person in the World (dir. Joachim Trier)
My favourite film of 2021 is writer-director Joachim Trier’s final entry into his Oslo trilogy, The Worst Person in the World. Told across twelve chapters, with a prologue and an epilogue, the film follows Julie (played by Renate Reinsve), charting her struggles and triumphs in love and life, as she navigates Norway’s beautiful capital during her early adult years.
Opening with a prologue accompanied by third-person narration, the film quickly lulled me into the notion that I was in for a sort of coming-of-age ‘adulting’ fable, but it becomes readily apparent that The Worst Person in the World is a film of many faces. Refreshing and engaging in both content and form, come the end I found it poetic, audacious, riotously funny, very moving and quietly profound.
Renate Reinsve’s Julie may be the main character, but I was struck by how well rounded and persuasive the entire cast felt. This was my first exposure to Anders Danielsen Lie, who plays Julie’s older boyfriend Aksel — I found his performance and his character totally entrancing. I loved the view that he, as someone very involved in an analogue profession as both a comic artist and collector, feels somewhat alienated by a world that seems to have leapt ahead and embraced a digital culture, which he is reluctant to jump on board with. This notion unravels to explicate his broader character in both individualistic and generational terms, in ways that are sincere and tactful and very empathetic, with the film’s idea of ‘growth’ and ‘persona’ one of beautiful variance.
The Worst Person in the World is topical and of-the-time in some of its themes, yet I feel its scope is almost immeasurable. I can see myself coming back to this film throughout my life, and it invariably capturing, with astute and moving eloquence, the contradictory delicacy and robustness—the exacting restlessness—of early adulthood.