toatali’s best films of 2021

It’s been a good year at the cinema – following the stall of 2020, when films found themselves delayed by the pandemic, this year truly feels like a revival. Being able to watch films on the big screen again is a welcome relief, but it does bring back one annoying thing – country-specific film release dates. As such, I haven’t been able to see some films, like Paul Thomas Anderson’s Licorice Pizza yet, while others, like A Hero, I saw at a festival but is yet to release in the UK. I’ve decided to make this list based on UK release dates, but there are two slight exceptions to this – one of which releases early in 2022, the other of which has no UK release in sight, but can be found online.

As always, these films aren’t ranked, save for the final film in the list, which takes the number one spot. However, if you want to see a very informal ranking, or find out where films like Dune or The Power of the Dog ended up, I do have a list up on my letterboxd page (but don’t be surprised if it doesn’t all match up – that list is made as I watch films throughout the year and is very subject to change).

With that said, here is my list of the best films of the year.  

Barb and Star go to Vista Del Mar

Sometimes I like to pretend I’m a serious critic who enjoys serious films. I don’t like Marvel films, I say to myself in the mirror – I’m more of a Citizen Kane kind of guy. This is all a bit of a lie – anyone who knows me better than just as a writer can tell you my list of favourite films is filled with just as many SNL-adjacent comedies as it is anything that would make it to Cannes – from Zoolander to MacGruber, I can only lie to myself so much.

It’s worth mentioning, though, that the time for these kinds of comedies seems to have come and gone. The age of mid budget, high concept comedies has basically disappeared – comedy films now tend to be more star-led improvisational films that have stories that fade into the background and are mostly just scenes of comedians trying to out-funny one another. That’s why this year’s Barb and Star go to Vista Del Mar feels like such a revelation, even though it really isn’t.

Following two middle aged women from Nebraska who decide to go on holiday to Florida, Barb and Star tangles their vacation up with an evil villain’s plan to release an army of mosquitos on Vista Del Mar, killing everyone in the town. It’s an absurdist premise that works because of the whole cast’s commitment to it, including a standout Jamie Dornan as a henchman looking for love.

There may be nothing more annoying than hearing someone incessantly quote Anchorman or Borat, but there is also a joy to watching these films that have the power to become quotable. I think I’m just about past the age for anything from Barb and Star to enter my everyday vocabulary, but it’s the kind of film that I’d be happy to hear quoted – a throwback comedy that makes you question why they ever stopped making these in the first place.

Drive My Car

The short story seems like the ideal adaptation material. Novels are often too long or have too much going on to fit into the differently paced cinematic medium without heavy amounts of cutting. Meanwhile, the short story lends itself perfectly to being expanded, small details becoming plotlines and character arcs being better fleshed out. Haruki Murakami, one of the most popular modern novelists, does most of his best work in the short story format, where he can whittle down his ideas to their purest and most surreal forms; ideas presented to the world, mostly devoid of some of Murakami’s more prominent flaws as a writer.

Drive My Car is the adaptation of one of those stories, the opening chapter to Murakami’s short story collection Men Without Women. I’d read that collection at the time of its release, and couldn’t quite remember that story, but director Ryusuke Hamaguchi takes carefully from Murakami’s work, extracting and reshaping some of the best elements into a film that feels completely new, managing to far surpass its original writer.

Drive My Car focuses on a theatre director and actor, Kafuku, married to Oto, a TV script writer. After sex, she tells him stories which he helps her remember and adapt into scripts. Their creative relationship is threatened by marital troubles, and Kafuku travels to Hiroshima to stage a version of Uncle Vanya, where each part is played by someone from a different nationality, speaking their own language. While there he strikes up a friendship with his driver, a silent chauffeur with her own set of problems.

This is a slow-moving story, one that unfurls over the course of an engaging three hours, the opening credits only rolling about 40 minutes into the film. Extending Murakami’s story, Hamaguchi finds new and rich avenues of exploration. Take, for example, the ruminations on language and communication that extends from Kafuku’s production of Uncle Vanya. Actors who can’t understand each other are forced to find new ways to communicate their character’s lines, and so too does Kafuku find new ways to communicate through his problems. The lines between play and reality, performance and truth start to blend, and Uncle Vanya itself becomes a kind of Greek chorus for the events of Drive My Car.

In the end, Hamaguchi loses himself slightly to melodrama, but unlike some of his contemporaries coming from Japan, including one slightly further down this list, Hamaguchi earns proper emotion through restraint, leading to a finale that tugs on the heartstrings, but without feeling cloying.

Minari

It goes without saying now that Korean culture has broken through into the mainstream over the last few years. The Korean new wave has made directors like Park Chan-Wook and Lee Chang-dong hugely popular among cinephiles, but recent breakthroughs such as Parasite and Squid Game mean that even my Mum is telling me I should have studied Korean instead of Japanese at university.

All these films and TV shows come from Korea, however – what sets Lee Isaac Chung’s Minari apart is that while the family in it hails from Korea, this is an American film from a Korean immigrant perspective. Set in the 1980s, it tells the story of a Korean family moving to a farm in Arkansas in order to start growing crops for the burgeoning population of Korean immigrants. The family’s dynamic is shaken up by both this move and the arrival of grandmother Soon-ja, who comes from Korea in order to help out among the house.

The basic thrust of the story is that of a relatively standard family drama; a father wanting to prove himself as capable, the headstrong youngest son and the brash grandmother, forced into living together in a small cabin. What sets it apart is twofold. The first is its examination of the immigrant experience. Based partly on Lee Isaac Chung’s own childhood, Minari effortlessly sets out the gap between first-generation immigrants and their children without ever needing to spell it out. Encapsulating ideas of the American dream and how it might not exactly be based in truth, Minari is often tragic, but everything it does is with the subtlest of brushes, so you never feel spoon-fed.

The other element that makes Minari stand out is its presentation. Visually, the film has this soft glow to it that communicates the appeal of what might otherwise look like bland middle-American farmland. Isaac Chung instead embus it with a heavenly light that gives the entire film the feeling of an idealised childhood memory. The score, by composer Emile Mosseri supplements this idea; it’s gentle, breezy but with a hint of melancholy. Already one of my favourite scores of the year, it manages to encapsulate the mood of the film perfectly, elevating an already fantastic family drama into something almost mystical.

Petite Maman

Céline Sciamma’s last film, Portrait of a Lady on Fire was my favourite film of last year, so I was looking forward to her newest film, Petite Maman, even after hearing that it’s a much smaller scale film than Portrait. But small scale and short running time don’t affect a film’s quality, so it’s a pleasure to say that Petite Maman is yet another home run from the French director.

Told through the eyes of a child named Nelly, the plot concerns her bonding with her mother after the loss of her grandmother. There are some spiritual elements that heighten the film into the realm of magical realism, but it works by treating these with a light brush, never allowing them to overtake the emotional realism, which is pitch perfect. It’s amazingly impressive that Sciamma, who is in her 40s, can so perfectly capture the vision and viewpoint of a child without it ever seeming precocious or cloyingly sentimental.

Instead, what Sciamma achieves here is a look at child/parent relationships, as well as the way we deal with grief at a young age, told through small interactions between characters that have added dimensions to an adult audience mostly unseen by the film’s central character. Running at only 72 minutes, this is a package of little perfection – there’s nothing that could be changed, nothing that could be added. It’s a short film, but packs in the emotional heft of some of the most important childhood experiences within that time.

Red Post on Escher Street

Japanese director Sion Sono had another, bigger film out this year; the Nicolas Cage vehicle Prisoners of the Ghostland. Cage described that film as the craziest thing he’d ever done, and that makes sense – Sono is known for his eccentricities. One of his most famous films is Love Exposure, a 4-hour epic about, among other things, amateur pornography, and another, Suicide Club starts with 50 schoolgirls jumping in unison in front of a train. But Sono is a smarter filmmaker than some of his work might suggest. His film Antiporno, which I have written about on this blog, is a surreal and clever rumination on the damage of pornography. And his new film Red Post on Escher Street, is actually surprisingly heartfelt, toning down the director’s proclivities for something resembling a Japanese version of Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.

Red Post on Escher Street follows a group of budding actors and actresses, each of whom is looking to get a part in a new film by genius director Tadashi Kobayashi. The film occasionally spends time with the director himself and his struggles developing his new movie. But for most of the runtime, the film is about the people trying to be extras. Each one has a typically Sono style backstory, from a group of obsessed Kobayashi devotees to a depressed murderer. The point of the film, of course, is that everyone is interesting in some way – for every film you watch, there’s a whole host of extras in the background whose story is film-worthy in and of itself. Even as the studio heads push Kobayashi to cast a famous model in the lead role, Sono’s film remains committed to foregrounding its background characters.

It’s an almost sappy premise, and one that certainly feels out of Sono’s usual wheelhouse. Sono himself almost died of a heart attack while making Prisoners of the Ghostland, and I wonder if that experience had an effect on the conception of Red Post on Escher Street. While Sono’s films are often pessimistic and grotesque, here he makes something that is filled with a lust for life and celebrates the talent and hard work that goes into his craft.  

Shiva Baby

Filmed when she was only 23, writer/director Emma Seligman’s debut feature Shiva Baby is the kind of debut that makes you almost angry (and definitely jealous) in just how effortlessly confident and well-made it is.

Set mainly in a single location; a suburban New York household that’s sitting shiva, Shiva Baby follows Danielle, who goes with her parents to attend the shiva of a woman she barely knew. While there, she meets not only her ex-girlfriend, but also her sugar daddy and his wife. The film is a comedy, but the kind of claustrophobic, stressful comedy that trades on awkward character interactions that will be intimately familiar to anyone who has ever attended a family gathering.

It’s this kind of comedy, one which becomes almost more reminiscent of a film like Uncut Gems than a more traditional laugh-fest, that really makes the film work. Seligman uses the space she has more than impressively, filling it with extras to make it as cramped as possible, and keeping the camera tight on Danielle, so that when it occasionally does open up, it makes the fresh air feel almost palpable. Shiva Baby isn’t just the kind of debut that makes you excited to see a filmmaker’s next project – it’s the kind of debut that you want to watch again and again.

The Card Counter

I wrote my dissertation on Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters, another film by director Paul Schrader, so I was obviously excited to see The Card Counter, his latest effort. This film follows on from First Reformed, one of the highlights of his career, which saw him playing with his work on films like Taxi Driver to create something politically engaged and novel. The Card Counter, on the other hand, plays like something of a riff on First Reformed; a seasoned film director replaying the hits, rather than strike out on a completely new path. But this is Paul Schrader and seeing him play the hits is still a more enticing prospect than seeing a lot of other directors’ big new thing.

In The Card Counter, Oscar Isaac plays William Tell, a former prison guard at Abu Ghraib, site of some of the most brutally horrific human rights violations committed by the US Army during the Iraq war. Tell has been released from prison and is living as a blackjack player, using card counting to win small prizes at casinos around the country. He ends up recruited by a woman named La Linda (Tiffany Haddish), who hopes to use his skills for competitive poker. At the same time, a young boy tries to recruit him to take revenge on the general he served under in Iraq, who has escaped prison time despite being one of the key orchestrators of American torture.

Schrader attempts to do the same thing he did with environmentalism in First Reformed with the US military here, using a fundamental failing of modern society as a reflection of interior guilt and suffering. Tell struggles with ideas of remorse and happiness, and of course, the justifiability of revenge. But Schrader doesn’t tell a standard revenge tale here. He subverts expectations just enough, building to a climax that is deeply satisfying in unexpected ways, including a final shot and end credits sequence that is not only the best single shot of any film this year, but one of the best I’ve ever seen.

So yes, The Card Counter may just be a variation on a theme, but in its horrific dreamlike vision of Abu Ghraib, in its thematic exploration of national guilt and complicity, Schrader has managed to make another vital rumination on the contemporary human condition.

The Souvenir Part II

Ok, this one is a bit of a cheat – I was hoping to avoid mentioning films in this list that didn’t release in the UK this year, but firstly, this film releases in January, so I thought it would be fine, and secondly The Souvenir Part 2 is simply too good not to mention; a work of memoir cinema that, together with its first part, is one of the greatest examples of cinematic autobiography I’ve ever seen.

At the end of The Souvenir, the main character Julie is faced with a tragic loss. In Part 2, we see her struggling to come to terms with the reality of it, as well as embarking on making her first short film for her film school. It’s rare for indie films to have sequels, but this film proves that more should embark down this path, because Part 2 takes an already impressive film and improves upon it in almost every conceivable way.

Firstly, special mention has to be given to the film’s visuals. The first Souvenir is undeniably pretty, but it’s rarely particularly inventive – Part 2 adds in sequences that stun visually, a hint of light surrealism to some shots and one particular sequence that brings a quality of transcendence to the film’s climax.

It also weaves in an undercurrent of meta-textual analysis to the film; part of the story of Part 2 involves, in a roundabout way, the making of the first part, and how filmmakers and storytellers deal with adapting elements of their own life into film, sharing the immensely personal with not just the cast and crew, but also with a wider audience. There are even parts which involve characters questioning the events and motivations of the first film, in a way that allows the sequel to tackle the often unbelievable way in which real people tend to act when confronted with difficult situations.

While it adds in these improvements, Part 2 stays true to the overall tone of the first part, a naturalistic drama that never revels in the tragedy it tackles, but lets the audience see the reality of these stories in a way unembellished by the often sensationalising nature of the cinematic medium. Director Joanna Hogg has made something in these two films that is incredibly personal, a look into a chapter of someone’s life that informs the viewer not only about their story, but also about the filmmaking and storytelling process.

@Zola

Every one of the films on this list was made in the digital age, so it comes as some surprise how few of them are about it, or even feel influenced by it. Shiva Baby’s plot revolves around the concept of sugar daddy apps but taking that out wouldn’t change the film too much. There’s a scene in The Card Counter where one character asks another if they’ve heard of Google Earth, a sudden reminder that what feels like a modern film was written and directed by a 75-year-old man. No matter the amount of influence the internet carries over our day to day lives, filmmakers often feel too nervous to address it.

@Zola is one of the first films I’ve seen that has the courage to tackle the internet age head on. Based on a tweet thread from 2015, the plot of @Zola isn’t really too specific to the internet – it’s about two strippers who go on a road trip to Tampa, Florida in order to strip in bars there. Those who’ve read the tweet thread will know the rest of the story, but it feels like a shame to say anything more here.

While the plot may not fully involve the internet, the film itself feels ripped out of a phone screen. Mica Levi’s score is full of pings and while the softness of it means that it’s never overwhelming, it manages to capture the sound of an iPhone in the musical realm. Meanwhile, director Janicza Bravo and co-writer Jeremy O Harris’s script does a lot to replicate a style of internet speech throughout the film – not just in the dialogue, but also in the film’s structure, which takes interesting and amusing diversions throughout.

This film is a comedy around the edges, bit players like Nicholas Braun providing most of the film’s laughs, but what anchors it are the performances from the three main leads; Taylour Paige, Riley Keough and Colman Domingo, each of whom bring a necessary sense of pathos that stops the film from ever tilting into the realm of the absurd, and more importantly doesn’t ever forget the sometimes cruel reality of the sex work industry.

@Zola is a story about stories told on the internet. No matter the truth of the tale, which has been somewhat disputed in the time since first posted in 2015, the film uses this entertaining story as a lens through which to view the nature of internet storytelling itself, elevating what was already one of the most popular tweets into a film that encapsulates all that, as well as its surrounding context.

Titane

I’ve always been into films, but when I was in my teenage years, I found myself more drawn to television as my go-to medium. It was only when my old art teacher recommended I watch Julia Ducournau’s debut film Raw that I realised what I was missing out on. It was probably that film that made me into a self-proclaimed film fan, rather than just someone who liked watching films. Titane is the latest film from Ducournau, and while I’m not yet ready to proclaim it as being better than Raw, to even come close to that film’s triumph is worthy of calling it my film of the year.  

Almost every description of the plot of Titane I’ve read has been in some way unsatisfactory, and to say too much would be to ruin the film’s surprises, so I’ll try as best as I can to walk that line. Titane follows two characters and their intertwining relationship; one is a woman named Alexia, who works as a dancer at car shows, the other is a firefighter named Vincent, who is mourning over the disappearance of his son 10 years prior. The film’s pedigree suggests an intense body horror film that the first half hour or so certainly delivers on, but as it moves towards its climax, Titane reveals a soft heart underneath – a far more complex and human story than might be expected from a film with an extended sequence of someone breaking their own nose.

To be fair, this is the same trick Ducournau played in Raw, only here it’s in reverse. Raw starts by presenting the audience with a sympathetic central character and gradually builds towards its bloody conclusion by interweaving it with personal development. Titane starts with a vision of intense, seat-grabbing horror, picking the audience up and shaking them hard, before slowing down to deliver almost heart-warming character drama.

What continues to impress is Ducournau’s sense of style and direction, particularly in terms of music. Titane has several dance scenes, all of which contribute to the characterisation of its leads, but also use music incredibly effectively. There’s also just a sense of flair that she has as a director that makes even the most gut-turning scenes of murder and violence into something entertaining, sometimes even comedic. It’s a difficult thing to pull off correctly without dampening the impact of the scenes, but Ducournau is already proving herself as one of the masters of body-horror, and manages it impeccably.

After leaving the cinema, though, what will stick with you about Titane isn’t the violence, or the shocking imagery. It’s the current of emotion that electrifies the whole film, turning it from spectacle into masterpiece. Ducournau weaves in themes and motifs of family, gender identity and the female body into the narrative, but never falters from her real goal; finding and exposing the humanity in Alexia and Vincent.

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