Friday, December 31, 2021

The Best Films of 2021

Of the 126 new films I saw in cinemas in 2021, these are the ones that have really stayed with me. Happy new year, everyone.

25 – Boiling Point (Philip Barantini)
A riveting drama that unfolds in a single breathless take, Boiling Point immerses the viewer in the tension and anxiety of a busy restaurant in the build-up to Christmas. The film is a nimble feat of filmmaking, generating a chaotic, fast-moving situation but maintaining absolute clarity when it comes to narrative and character. Stephen Graham is fantastic as the chef stretched to breaking point on a night when everything seems to be going wrong at once, but this is a real ensemble piece, with the camera frequently branching off to follow someone else around the restaurant, and with every character having their own private crises to deal with. Aside from Graham, the performances by Vinette Robinson, Ray Panthaki, Jason Flemyng and Alice Feetham deserve praise, but really this is a tremendous collaborative effort, and a sensational film.

24 – La abuela (Paco Plaza)
The latest horror from Paco Plaza is a very involving film about a model who returns to Madrid to care for her ailing grandmother, and who subsequently finds herself being subjected to all manner of creepy and inexplicable happenings. It's a superbly crafted picture, with measured pacing and elegant, purposeful camerawork. Daniel Fernández Abelló's sensational 35mm cinematography goes a long way to generating the unnerving atmosphere, utilising shadows in a particularly effective way. The two lead actresses put everything into it: the beautiful Almudena Amor gives an emotionally charged performance as the young woman who fears she may be losing her mind, while a wordless Vera Valdez comes across as both vulnerable and terrifying as the grandmother of the title.

23 – Pig (Michael Sarnoski)
For the longest time Pig seems to be setting Nicolas Cage's protagonist up as a semi-mythical John Wick-ish powder keg of violence, ready to explode at whoever stole his cherished truffle-hunter, but that's not the story that Michael Sarnoski is telling here. As it veers away from the anticipated revenge narrative, Pig grows into something stranger and richer; a film about isolated men dealing with loss that displays great compassion for its characters and deepens our understanding of them in unexpected ways. Sarnoski directs his first feature with confidence, knowing when to let scenes play out at length and when to effectively utilise a sharp cut, and he crafts a couple of unexpectedly quiet encounters towards the end of the film that I was deeply moved by.

22 – Compartment No. 6 (Juho Kuosmanen)
I love a good train movie, and this endearing tale of loneliness and unlikely companionship is a very good train movie. Seidi Haarla and Yuri Borisov give impeccable performances as the two strangers from very different worlds who are randomly thrown together on a long train journey across Russia. Amid the frozen landscapes, their initially contentious relationship gradually thaws, but everything happens in a subtle and organic way, and it never feels like Kuosmanen is forcing the issue. He allows these characters to gradually reveal aspects of themselves but retain a sense of ambiguity and mystery, and It’s a real pleasure to spend two hours in their company. It's an understated, charming film that resolves itself in a beautiful way. Jani-Petteri Passi’s 35mm cinematography is exceptional too.

21 – This Is Not a Burial, It’s a Resurrection (Lemohang Jeremiah Mosese)
An extraordinary film about an elderly woman and her community fighting to hold onto their culture, history and homeland in the face of imminent flooding for a new dam. “What they call progress, it is when men point their damning finger at nature and proclaim conquest over it.” I found some of Mosese's storytelling to be a little opaque, but I found every minute of his direction to be mesmerising. I loved the way he framed his protagonist against the landscape, and Pierre de Villiers' painterly lighting frequently stuns, while the discordant score reflects the tension and uncertainty of these lives being upended. It's a brilliant piece of filmmaking, and it's a monumental swansong for Mary Twala Mhlongo, who passed away last year. She gives a riveting lead performance, with all of her anger, grief and weariness being written on the lined face that Mosese often frames in arresting close-ups.

20 – Memoria (Apichatpong Weerasethakul)
The last thing I expected from an Apichatpong Weerasethakul film is a jump scare, but the first loud noise in the opening scene really caught me off guard! Like Tilda Swinton’s character, I gradually grew less startled and more curious about the source of this sound, and I loved the scene in the mixing studio. How do you describe a sound, especially one that might exist just in your head? As Memoria journeys from the city to the country and into the past, I found the experience of being back in Apichatpong's mysterious world completely entrancing. He gives you the time to get lost in the beautifully composed 35mm images and enveloping sound design; to adjust to his unique rhythms and sensibility. I always feel I breathe differently when watching his cinema. A captivating, disorienting and ultimately moving cinema experience.

19 – Il Buco (Michelangelo Frammartino)
Ten years on from Le Quattro Volte, Michelangelo Frammartino returns to Calabria for another quiet, patient and entrancing study of rustic Italian life. While the shepherds in the region again play a big role, his focus here is on a team of speleologists who explored one of the deepest caves in Europe in 1961. After a brief prologue - with an excerpt from an Italian news programme showing off the brand new Pirelli Tower - the film unfolds wordlessly, with just the shouts of the speleologists and shepherds or distant, murmured conversations being heard. This is a staggeringly beautiful film. Frammartino ensures every shot is brilliantly framed, from the first shot of the cave entrance to the ghostly closing image, and the footage inside the claustrophobic cave itself (God only knows how they filmed in there) is breathtaking, with just the light of the explorers' helmets illuminating the total blackness.

18 – Benediction (Terence Davies)
Just as he did with his Emily Dickinson biopic A Quiet Passion, Davies has made a portrait of an artist that simultaneously feels like a kind of self-portrait. Benediction explores repression, guilt and regret and it also marks the first time that the director has told a story with an explicitly gay protagonist since his early short Mother and Child. He unique way of handling the shifting sands of time produces moments of real power here, with Davies dissolving the past into the present to show how the horrors of the war cast a shadow over Siegfried Sassoon's whole life, and the way he uses poetry, especially Wilfred Owen's Disabled, is masterful. The film is often extremely funny, full of biting dialogue and sly performances, but it gets more mournful as it progresses - a lament for lost youth and lives unlived - and the ending is shattering.

17 – The Card Counter (Paul Schrader)
Schrader is back telling his favourite story, that of a lonely, ascetic character writing a journal in his austere room. The Card Counter is another film about guilt and atonement, rituals and moral choices. Schrader's direction is spare and understated, with Isaac's poker-faced performance perfectly conveying the weight of past sins on his soul. I loved how desolate the film feels, with its backdrop of interchangeable casinos and empty hotel rooms, which makes Schrader's occasional visual flourishes even more potent; like the romantic walk through the stunningly lit botanical gardens, or the extreme wide-angle vision of the flashbacks, which feel truly hellish. The Card Counter has a lot of parallels with Light Sleeper, including Michael Been's son on the soundtrack, and while you just know Schrader is going to go full Bresson once again at the end, his revisiting of that scene doesn't make it any less effective.

16 – The Power of the Dog (Jane Campion)
Campion's long overdue return to cinema is an exemplary adaptation of the novel by Thomas Savage. It's an absorbing and intelligent film about masculinity, desire and power and Campion develops the tension and conflict between her characters so beautifully. There's a great sense of intimacy and tactiliity in the way she films these men at work, and I love the way she shoots her actors, knowing when to frame them at a distance and when to get tighter. Kirsten Dunst in particular has some amazing wordless close-ups where you can see her collapsing internally while trying to to maintain her façade, and I think this is the first time I've seen a really compelling performance from Cumberbatch. Jonny Greenwood's score adds to the sense of menace and tragedy. It's a brilliantly constructed piece of filmmaking.

15 – A Hero (Asghar Farhadi)
Although I enjoyed Asghar Farhadi's soapy Spanish sojourn Everybody Knows, there's no doubt that he is at his best when working within the specific context of Iranian society. This is a film about a good deed that spins out of control, and it's another Farhadi film with no heroes and villains - he just places his characters at moral crossroads and forces them to make difficult decisions which always have unintended consequences. The film is full of characters telling lies but everything is done with the best intentions, which makes the fallout from these actions even more moving to watch. Farhadi's screenplays are meticulously crafted, growing in complexity with every brilliantly timed revelation, and the acting is impeccable.

14 – Riders of Justice (Anders Thomas Jensen)
One Mads Mikkelsen-starring Zentropa film earned widespread acclaim this year, but there’s no doubt in my mind that Riders of Justice is vastly superior to Another Round. This film begins as a tale of fate and chance before growing into a violent and morally ambiguous revenge plot, but one that had me cackling every few minutes. Even as the film's tone fluctuates so wildly, Jensen's handling of it is impressively nimble and confident, and as hilarious as the film often is, he still finds ample room to seriously engage with his characters' grief and trauma. Mikkelsen's performance is a masterclass in simmering rage, while Nikolaj Lie Kaas, Lars Brygmann and Nicolas Bro give him three distinctive comic creations to bounce off, and their interplay is a pleasure to watch. Riders of Justice is one of the year’s biggest surprises.

13 – The Souvenir Part II (Joanna Hogg)
"Did you avoid the temptation to be obvious?" Richard Ayoade's hilariously bitchy character asks Honor Swinton Byrne's Julie in this remarkable sequel. Joanna Hogg certainly did. She continues the story she told in The Souvenir, but she also expands on it in unexpected ways. Hogg has grown as a director with every feature, and while her understanding of her characters’ subtle behavioural and emotional shifts is as acute as ever, Part II is funnier and more surprising, climaxing with a thrillingly bold coup de cinéma, when Hogg appears to be drawing on artists such as Powell & Pressburger, Minnelli, Welles and Scorsese. The Souvenir Part II is about an artist finding her voice, and trying to find some kind of catharsis, understanding and closure through her art, and taken together these two films constitute a formidable achievement.

12 – What Do We See When We Look at the Sky? (Aleksandre Koberidze)
What do we see when we look at this film? It's a real one-off. It's the story of two would-be lovers cursed to never recognise each other, but in truth there's not much of a story here. Koberidze loves to ramble off course, to see what people (and dogs!) are getting up to in the background. Moments both magical and mundane are played in exactly the same deadpan register, and the film is full of non-sequiturs and unexpected digressions, with the director even wondering what the point of his story is at one point in his narration. It's fair to say that What Do We See When We Look at the Sky? probably has no business being two and a half hours long, but I was mostly enchanted by it and it continues to haunt me. Films as strange, surprising, funny and beautiful as this don't come along very often, and I would watch it again in a heartbeat.

11 – State Funeral (Sergei Loznitsa)
I was torn on which of Loznitsa’s two archival documentaries to include on this list, with his Babi Yar. Context being an equally stunning achievement, but in the end I was swayed by the immediacy with which this film brings the pomp and ceremony of Stalin's funeral to life. You forget you're watching something that took place almost seventy years ago. It's an expertly crafted film. Loznitsa edits this breathtaking footage to present a riveting narrative of events in Moscow while also cutting away to town squares and factories across the entire breadth of the USSR, and the sound design is so evocative and involving. It's a film full of indelible and haunting images; both in its overwhelmingly vast crowd scenes and potent close-ups, where every face tells a story. By its nature, there is something repetitive about the way State Funeral plays out, but it develops a real cumulative power.

10 – Red Rocket (Sean Baker)
Sean Baker's latest study of lives on the margins of American society is a raucous comedy built around a sensational performance from Simon Rex as a washed-up porn star. The motormouthed Mikey Saber is both charismatic and obnoxious as he manipulates all those who come into his orbit for his own ends. Baker finds broad and breathless laughs in his actions, but doesn’t shy away from how disturbing this character is too as he grooms Strawberry (the terrific Suzanna Son) in the hope of riding her talent back to the top. As ever, Baker's knack for casting and eliciting memorable performances from experienced actors and first-timers alike is uncanny, and his widescreen framing is frequently inspired. Red Rocket is also one of the best-looking movies of the year. I adored Drew Daniels' 16mm photography, particularly the dusk scenes with the refinery in the background. The colours really pop.

9 – Benedetta (Paul Verhoeven)
This is everything I could have asked for from a Paul Verhoeven-directed lesbian nun melodrama; a film fit to stand in the lineage of Ken Russell’s The Devils. He plays the story of Sister Benedetta for titillation and often for big laughs, but also as a means of exploring religious hysteria and the hypocrisy and cruelty of the Church. Everything is excessive, from the sex to the violence to the visions (the audience I saw the film with absolutely lost it at the first reveal of Verhoeven’s Jesus), and it adds up to a singularly potent brew, full of madness, irony and ambiguity. I’ve consistently enjoyed Virginie Efira’s performances over the past few years, but she is sensational here, giving a suitably passionate and theatrical lead performance, and Charlotte Rampling is astonishingly good as the Abbess who views Benedetta's antics with a coolly sceptical eye.

8 – The Invisible Life of Eurídice Gusmão (Karim Aïnouz)
This is an incredibly lush, involving and heartbreaking melodrama about two sisters in 1950s Brazil. Kept apart by a father's lie, both Eurídice and Guida suffer great unhappiness, their youthful dreams and spirit being crushed, but each of them simultaneously imagines that the other is living a happier life elsewhere. It's a thoughtful and expansive piece of storytelling that really allows us to feel the passage of time and to know these characters, and the performances from Carol Duarte and Julia Stockler feel so lived-in and raw. I also loved Bárbara Santos as Filomena and – having forgotten that her name was in opening credits – Fernanda Montenegro's appearance in the piercing epilogue completely wrecked me. This is a visually stunning film too, with the great Hélène Louvart making expressive use of framing, texture and colour in almost every scene.

7 – Procession (Robert Greene)
Robert Greene's ongoing interest in re-enactment and role-playing has led to something extraordinary here. Working with a drama therapist, he has enabled six survivors of sexual abuse in the Catholic Church to dramatise their abuse, in some cases returning to the scene of the crime. What comes across most powerfully is how deep the scars of abuse go, and how it continues to impact the lives of these men in so many ways decades later, and I was particularly moved by Mike, who has isolated himself and is so filled with rage at the start of the film. Seeing them work through their pain, shame, confusion and anger feels incredibly painful but also necessary; I was reminded of The Work in the raw, visceral emotions that are unlocked. It's a brilliantly made film, but one that's heartbreaking, enraging and draining to watch.

6 – West Side Story (Steven Spielberg)
I feel like I've been waiting my whole life for Steven Spielberg to direct a musical, and while I wasn't sure about him tackling West Side Story, seeing him put his own stamp on these iconic numbers is beyond thrilling. His blocking and timing is unbelievable, and he makes everything look so fluid and effortless. I especially loved his staging of the gym dance, the balcony scene, "Gee, Officer Krupke" and the "Cool" face-off between Tony & Riff; but he pretty much nails every number, and some of Kaminski's lighting is sensational. When I got choked up over a shot of Tony standing in a puddle, I knew Spielberg had me in the palm of his hand. Ansel Elgort is actually pretty good here (much more appealing than he was in Baby Driver, at least) and Rachel Zegler has some beautiful moments, but Tony and Maria are quite colourless parts, and it's the supporting players who draw the eye. Ariana DeBose, David Alvarez, Iris Menas and especially Mike Faist bring an electrifying energy to the picture, while Rita Moreno - sixty years on - is wonderful once more.

5 – The Works and Days (of Tayoko Shiojiri in the Shiotani Basin) (C.W. Winter, Anders Edström)
Over the course of eight hours, The Works and Days introduces us to the elderly population of a small Japanese farming village, and this is the kind of film that encourages you to reset your internal rhythm to match the pace of life as lived by the film's subjects. I found it mesmerising, thanks to the precise rhythm of the editing, the extraordinary soundscape and the brilliant cinematography, with some shots occuring in near-darkness with just tiny glimpses of light visible. Although the filmmakers have stressed that this film is a constructed drama, not a documentary, I was completely drawn in by the effortless authenticity of what I was witnessing, and some of the scenes dealing with Tayoko's relationship with her ailing husband in the latter half of the film are heartbreaking. The Works and Days is an astonishing feat of patience, empathy and skill, and an unforgettable cinema experience.

4 – Licorice Pizza (Paul Thomas Anderson)
This is a stupendously gorgeous film. Anderson takes a cinematography credit once again, but shares it with Michael Bauman (making his feature debut here), and together they create such a vivid sense of time and place. The camera feels perfectly aligned with the characters as they hurtle from one escapade to the next, and they conjure some stunning images - I particularly loved the way they shot the Tom Waits and Sean Penn vignette, with Waits appearing as this almost demonic figure, literally emerging from a cloud of smoke. Licorice Pizza has a loose episodic narrative and it unfolds in a thrillingly unpredictable way. The central relationship between Gary and Alana finds Anderson at his most earnest and romantic while also stirring up messy, conflicting emotions, and he has struck gold with the casting of Hoffman and Haim, who are both incredibly charismatic and fun to watch. I loved it and – as with most of Anderson's films – I can see myself re-watching this many, many times in the future.

3 – The Tale of King Crab (Alessio Rigo de Righi and Matteo Zoppis)
The Tale of King Crab is sparked off by the tall tales and legends being shared about a 19th century drunkard named Luciano, who came into conflict with a prince and was exiled. From these details, Alessio Rigo de Righi and Matteo Zoppis have constructed a fable that begins in the vein of Pasolini before ending up somewhere closer to The Treasure of the Sierra Madre and Aguirre, The Wrath of God. Simone D'Arcangelo's textured 35mm cinematography is among the best I've seen all year, full of brilliant compositions and breathtaking uses of natural light, and the filmmakers bringing their two-part narrative together in a very moving and satisfying way. At its centre, there's also an utterly magnetic performance by Gabriele Silli, who has a commanding screen presence and shows us so much of Luciano's character - his rage, his obstinance, his yearning and his sadness - through his eyes alone. It's a magnificent performance and the film is an incredible achievement.

2 – Petite Maman (Céline Sciamma)
This a modest film that tells a story about two children and runs for just seventy minutes, but it's one of those small movies that feels like it contains the whole world. My favourite Sciamma film up to now was Tomboy, and just as she showed in that perfect miniature, the director once again displays her peerless ability to capture how children play and how they process the world. Petite Maman is so perceptive about a child seeing that her mother is unhappy and trying to understand why. The story is simple but ingenious, and full of casually profound moments: "You didn't invent my sadness." I felt like my heart was going to burst in the last ten minutes. Sciamma doesn't put a foot wrong and doesn't waste a scene, and the two girls are unbelievably adorable. This film is magic.

1 – Drive My Car (Ryûsuke Hamaguchi)
I’ve greatly admired the Ryûsuke Hamaguchi films I’ve seen (and I admired another this year with the ingenious Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy), but this strikes me as the director’s first real masterpiece. Drive My Car is a piercing examination of grief and the mysteries of the heart. Every character is beautifully drawn – each with their own heartache, regrets and secrets – and Hamaguchi shows incredible intelligence and patience in the ways he peels back the layers of his story. As in Happy Hour, he displays a fascination with watching actors in rehearsal, and I loved the way the development of this production of Uncle Vanya was used to illuminate the characters' thoughts and emotions. The actors are all exceptional, but Tôko Miura's wonderfully minimalist performance is particularly captivating, and both times I've watched the film, I've found Yoo-rim Park's delivery of Sonya's monologue in Uncle Vanya to be overwhelmingly moving. Hamaguchi creates moments of such tenderness, warmth and empathy, and the film had me in tears multiple times. A very special film.