The best films of 2021

Note: this list is based on British release dates

“Another Round”
The winner of the Academy Award for Best International Feature, Thomas Vinterberg’s bittersweet comedy-drama has a teacher (Mads Mikkelsen) and his three best friends addressing their midlife crises by staying drunk throughout the working day. At first they are more engaged and energised under the influence, as so many historical figures have been, but are they liberating themselves from their inhibitions or merely anaesthetising deep, ongoing pain? Bravely, “Another Round” (“Druk” in Danish) is just as eloquent on the pleasures of alcohol as it is on the dangers, but it is probably best watched while sipping nothing stronger than coffee.

“Drive My Car”
“Drive My Car” is adapted from a short story by Haruki Murakami, but watching Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s three-hour film, in which every character has their own history and inner life, is like immersing yourself in a grand novel. Hidetoshi Nishijima stars as a theatre director who is staging a multilingual production of Anton Chekhov’s play “Uncle Vanya”. He casts an unsuitably youthful actor in the title role—a decision which mystifies everyone involved in the fraught rehearsal process, partly because the actor had a fling with the director’s late wife. A melancholy but uplifting musing on the barriers that prevent people from understanding each other.

Having shown off his mastery of straight-faced science-fiction in “Arrival” and “Blade Runner 2049”, Denis Villeneuve delivers an epic adaptation of “Dune”, Frank Herbert’s revered novel—or the first half of Herbert’s revered novel, anyway. Even with a running time of 155 minutes, Mr Villeneuve packs in so many characters and so much breathtaking design that he only gets halfway through the story before the “To Be Continued” ending. A second instalment has been promised, which is welcome news. “Dune” may tip from earnest to ponderous, but at a time when most blockbusters opt for flippant banter, there is something heroic about Mr Villeneuve’s insistence on taking Paul Atreides’s interstellar coming-of-age adventure so seriously.

“The Father”
Florian Zeller’s heart-wrenching adaptation of his own play is mostly set in one London flat. Or is it? The 80-year-old Anthony (Anthony Hopkins) believes that’s where he is, but the flat’s layout and decor keep changing, strangers keep appearing, and conversations are repeated as time slips backwards and forward. “The Father” is ingenious in its depiction of dementia from the ever-shifting perspective of someone caught in its grip, and Mr Hopkins deserved his Best Actor Oscar for playing a man rocked by paranoia, anger and anguish as his identity slips away.

“The French Dispatch”
Everything you’d expect from Wes Anderson has been turned up to dix—or even onze—in his buoyant anthology comedy, a whimsical homage to the New Yorker and to the lifestyles of American expatriates in mid-20th-century France. Leaving nothing to chance, the director appears to have laboured over every last frame to ensure that the symmetrical compositions, sweet-shop colours, meticulous design, deadpan jokes and ornate dialogue are quintessentially Andersonian.

“The Green Knight”
A dissolute would-be knight, Gawain (Dev Patel), decapitates a tree-faced stranger at King Arthur’s court, only for the stranger to pick up his head and ride away. The plot of “The Green Knight” dates back to the 14th century, if not before, but David Lowery’s film makes it seem brand new. The jaw-dropping production values of a mainstream blockbuster are combined with the challenging structure and pace of an art-house experiment. Giants and wizards are made to seem genuinely magical. The viewer is left almost as disorientated as the hapless Gawain himself.

Lodged on a tiny, unnamed Hebridean island, a group of single, male refugees wait and wait for their asylum claims to be processed. They aren’t allowed to go anywhere or to take on any work, so they are left with nothing but boredom, guilt about leaving behind their families and dreams of success that will never come true. As depressing as it sounds, “Limbo” is also a delight, thanks to its surrealist style, its absurdist humour and a poignant turn by Amir El-Masry as a despondent young Syrian musician. The film’s writer-director, Ben Sharrock, is an exciting British talent to watch.

“Minari” is an American film about a family farm in Arkansas, yet almost all the dialogue is in Korean. One of its stars, Yuh-jung Youn, became the first Korean to win an Oscar for Best Actress in a Supporting Role. All of this would have been unimaginable just a few years ago, but even discounting the leaps forward in Asian representation on screen, Lee Isaac Chung’s sweet but unsentimental account of his childhood in the 1980s is special. It overflows with odd little details that seem drawn from life, but it is universal in its theme of the struggle for a better future.

“No Time To Die”
Daniel Craig’s much-delayed final Bond film proved divisive, with an especially controversial ending, but it was a huge box-office hit just when cinemas desperately needed one. The best and worst quality of “No Time To Die” is that it tries to be all Bond movies to all people: over the course of nearly three hours, it is both sombre and silly, grounded in reality and ridiculously far-fetched. Still, viewers got plenty of bang for their buck, and 007 aficionados could tick off the many references to their hero’s previous adventures.

“The Power of the Dog”
Jane Campion’s best film since “The Piano”, “The Power of the Dog” is a brooding western melodrama starring Benedict Cumberbatch as a proudly old-fashioned rancher in Montana in the 1920s. He bitterly resents his mild-mannered brother (Jesse Plemons), and loathes his brother’s fragile new wife (Kirsten Dunst); but Ms Campion takes her time in revealing why he is so venomous and what he is going to do about it. Enhanced by Jonny Greenwood’s unnerving score and the stark scenery—actually shot in New Zealand—the mystery and dread keep building to the end of the film.

“Riders of Justice”
One of two Danish films starring Mads Mikkelsen on this list, Anders Thomas Jensen’s “Riders of Justice” resembles “Another Round” in that it deals with fatherhood, friendship and emotionally repressed middle-aged men. In every other respect, though, it could hardly be more different. Mr Mikkelsen plays a soldier who believes that a far-right biker gang was responsible for the train crash that killed his wife. As he plots his revenge with the help of a bungling group of misfits, Mr Jensen’s witty farce balances grisly violence with sharp social commentary and unexpected warmth.

“Summer of Soul”
In 1969, while the Woodstock Festival was rocking, another live-music extravaganza was being held in Harlem, just 100 miles away. Artists such as B.B. King, Nina Simone, Sly and the Family Stone, and Stevie Wonder played to a crowd of 50,000 people. Even though all six days of the festival were filmed, the footage was dumped in a basement for 50 years. At last it can be seen in all its glowing colour and rich sound—but “Summer of Soul” is more than just a compilation of phenomenal blues, funk, gospel and soul hits. The director, Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson, has contextualised it all, making insightful connections between the music and the Vietnam war, the Apollo 11 Moon landing, South African apartheid, the black-power movement and more. Unmissable.

Another heartbreaking film about the effects of dementia (see “The Father”), “Supernova” stars Colin Firth and Stanley Tucci as a long-term couple on one last holiday through the leafy Lake District. Mr Tucci’s character is losing his faculties as a result of posterior cortical atrophy, so he and his partner are forced to mourn the loss of a relationship which is still alive and well. By dint of the frank dialogue by writer-director Harry McQueen, and the easy chemistry between Messrs Firth and Tucci—old friends in real life—“Supernova” offers a radiant depiction of a truly happy couple, which is why their imminent separation seems so tragic.

The second ever Palme d’Or winner at Cannes to have been directed by a woman, Julia Ducornau’s “Titane” is the cinematic equivalent of a long, disturbing, gore-drenched, sweat-soaked nightmare. Its heroine is a tattooed young woman, Alexia (Agathe Rousselle), who was physically and mentally scarred by a childhood car crash. The opening scenes set her up as a feminist vigilante, but the film then mutates into an eerie cyperpunk fable; then a gruesome black comedy about a sprightly serial killer; and then a twisted but tender drama in which a hulking fire chief (Vincent Lindon) treats Alexia as a long-lost son.

See also:
The best films of 2020
The best films of 2019

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