Despite the arrival of the vaccine, 2021 was from the same stock as 2020. Happily however, across the year cinema did show green shoots of recovery. No Time to Die took almost £100m in the UK alone, reminding us that James Bond is a good bit of Blighty fantasy to rally around in tough times. Its $774m global haul is below the $1bn it would have breezed past in a Covid-less world, but is also in the same ballpark as Spectre’s $880m global take.
2021’s astonishing box office success story is Spider-Man: No Way Home, which as of writing sits just north of $1bn at the worldwide box office in only its second week of release. Who knows if box office generally will return to pre-Covid heights, or if day-and-date streaming releases are here to stay?
But, beyond mere hard cash, the quality of films this year was impressive. No Time to Die was a blockbuster with smarts alongside the pyrotechnics, and apparently Spider-Man: No Way Home follows suit (I’ve yet to see it). I have also yet to catch up with West Side Story and Pig, which similarly seem contenders for my Top 20.
Yet, the calibre of UK movie releases in 2021 can be seen in my 11-20 picks, which in any other year would have made for a fine Top 10:
19. No Time to Die
18. New Order
17. News of the World
16. Promising Young Woman
15. Petite Maman
14. The Power of the Dog
12. Sound of Metal
Not bad at all. But here are the actual Top 10 films that rocked my cinemascape in the year 2021.
Daniel Kaluuya’s acceptance speech probably got him slapped legs from his mum, but his was a thoroughly deserved Best Supporting Actor win at the 2021 Oscars. Although it can be argued both he and LaKeith Stanfield were the joint lead actors in this hard-hitting based on true events story, but such are the vagaries of award ceremonies.
Kaluuya brings righteous anger and idealism to his portrayal of Fred Hampton, a Black Panther leader targeted by the FBI in the late 1960s into the early 1970s. Equally impressive is Stanfield as Bill O’Neal, a petty criminal strongarmed into infiltrating Hampton’s Black Panther chapter to feed the G-men information. With increasingly tragic consequences.
What should be seen as a time capsule story from a long-ago period of US racial history unfortunately became topical again following the murder of George Floyd in May of 2020. We eagerly anticipate what director Shaka King turns his viewfinder to next.
Cruella should never have worked. Live action remakes of classic Disney animations consistently underwhelm (The Lion King, anyone? Aladdin?). Origins stories that graft psychological depth onto cartoon villains likewise usually end up on a hiding to nothing. It is set during the 1970s, but a Disneyfied 1970s (no smoking here). And the movie runs 134mins, a near hour longer than 1961’s One Hundred and One Dalmatians.
A genuine surprise then to discover that Cruella is a wonderful time. I, Tonya director Craig Gillespie brings a (within Disney boundaries) punk energy to this battle-of-wits story between Emma Stone’s Cruella and her arch-nemesis, Emma Thompson’s The Baroness. All based around rivalling fashion designs (rarely a winning formula for cinema), Cruella’s schemes, plots and capers are frequently outlandish and always a blast. As is the fun to be hand in watching her assemble the gang of ne’er-do-wells. Plus, those costumes sing as much as the 1970s jukebox soundtrack.
The film’s trump card is Emma Stone as the junior Miss de Vil. Sure, it is nigh on impossible to see how the magnetic anti-hero of this movie becomes the wannabe dog skinner of One Hundred and One Dalmatians. But when an actor is this much fun on screen we’re not too bothered. Mixing cartoonish physicality with moments of earned pathos, Stone’s performance is the irresistible flourish that makes Cruella one of the Mouse House’s best from the 21st century.
8. SHIVA BABY
If Hollywood continues the current trend of hiring talented indie filmmakers to helm their blockbusters, they would do well to pick writer-director Emma Seligman. On the evidence of Shiva Baby, she could take a bloated superhero epic and wrestle it into a reasonable running time without sacrificing suspense, character or emotion. All of which are thrillingly packed into a brisk 77-minutes for her feature debut: an exquisite comedy-of-embarrassment dominated by Rachel Sennott’s breakout performance as Danielle.
At a Jewish funeral service, Danielle discovers all those secrets she has been hiding prove difficult to conceal when she is surrounded by her nearest and dearest. Including her mum and dad, hilariously brought to life by Fred Melman and Polly Draper. Frequently shot like a thriller and edited and scored to the urgent pace of an unravelling lie, this is a swift must-see movie.
Midway through Roseanne Liang’s deliriously entertaining World War 2 monster movie, Chloe Grace Moretz’s hero declaims to the movie’s big bad, “You have no idea how far I’ll go!” This also seems to be the co-writer-director announcing her mission statement to the audience. As you realise how far Liang is prepared to go with her Twilight Zone-style story, giddy laughs of disbelief will come thick and fast.
Moretz is a pilot during World War II, on a mission to transport important cargo to a New Zealand air force base. Initially, she must contend with Japanese Zero fighters and the sexism of the all-male crew giving her a lift, which ranges from dismissive to outright aggressive. Then Moretz sees something strange on the wing of the plane and her problems really begin…
Liang imaginatively shoots the action inside and outside the B-17, and 50-minutes in unleashes a wildly exciting sequence that buries anything the MCU has put out this year. Avoid the spoilerific trailer and just enjoy this canny homage to classic B-movies.
6. PALM SPRINGS
For those old enough to remember Groundhog Day upon first release, it is nice to see what a staple of storytelling that “repeated day” template has become. Even nicer is when a film does something fresh and inventive with the premise. Palm Springs begins the way Groundhog Day did in its original script, with the lead character already well-ensconced into his “same-day-over-and-over” dilemma. From this it explores ramifications emotional, philosophical and quantum mechanical, while never forgetting the funny business.
To say much more would spoil the movie’s many surprises (which is why we’re also not including the trailer). Enough to say leads Andy Samberg and Cristin Milioti deliver career best performances as people thrown together for the ultimate case of déjà vu. Oh, and that Palm Springs will steadily become recognised as a modern classic over the next few years, but we recommend joining the party early.
In a disgusting display of talent, the film is the feature debut of both director Max Barbakow and writer Andy Siara. The assuredness with which they tackle the intricate plot makes it seem like the work of veteran filmmakers.
Dune. The Great White Whale of sci-fi literature. David Lynch’s 1984 attempt to wrestle Frank Herbert’s book onto the screen resulted in a glittering, messy box office flop. But time and technology have moved on, and Denis Villeneuve wisely embraces the current vogue for splitting one story across two films to marshal Dune’s sprawling tale. Equally wise is his decision to make use of the best FX artists Warner Bros.’ money can buy.
The basic plot is of intrigues and betrayal between powerful families inhabiting various planets. The main action focusses on Arrakis, aka Dune, a planet with an invaluable mineral (spice) that enables intergalactic travel. Who controls the spice holds the power. Except, maybe not… While the story hits familiar beats for anyone who has seen a sci-fi or gangster movie or TV show in the last forty years, the scale of Villeneuve’s vision means Dune joins Metropolis, 2001, and Blade Runner as another landmark of cinematic sci-fi.
Timothée Chalamet does well not to get lost amidst the spectacular design, and is ably supported by a stellar cast including Rebecca Ferguson, Oscar Isaac, Josh Brolin, Stellan Skarsgård, and more. Including Zendaya, who here teases a more integral role in Dune Part 2 (probably landing at a planet near you in 2023).
Two sisters living on the border between Northern and Southern Ireland must confront the traumas of their past in Cathy Brady’s potent feature debut. Nika McGuigan (who sadly died shortly after filming wrapped) and Nora-Jane Noone deliver performances of raw anger and grief as the sisters, while reminders of the Troubles linger in the pubs, workplaces and domestic spaces they move between.
Little violence is seen, but is present in the dialogue, particularly when the sisters goad an IRA bomber freed as part of the Good Friday Agreement. The shadow of Brexit, that act of national self-harm threatening the uneasy truce, also hangs heavy over proceedings. Brady deftly locates the politics within the personal story of her lead characters, and in doing so quietly creates one of the most important films of the year.
3. THE FATHER
Anthony Hopkins is famously dismissive of acting processes, frequently downplaying both his performances and the films in which he has appeared. But we’re happy he brought the entire gamut of his brilliance to The Father, playing Anthony, an aged engineer losing his mind to dementia. Co-writer (with Christopher Hampton) and director Florian Zeller’s adaptation of his own stage play is defiantly cinematic, despite its largely single location of (perhaps) Anthony’s daughter’s apartment. Canny camerawork and Yorgos Lamprinos’ effective editing rhythms create a sense of uncertainty and confusion, aligning with the titular character’s fragile mental state.
All this could have become an exercise in cinematic trickery, but anchoring it is Hopkins. Sliding between lucidity, to proud certainty, to fear and confusion, his performance here rivals The Remains of the Day as his best screen work. The 2021 Best Actor Oscar was deserved, but this will outlive mere trinkets. Mention must also go to the stellar supporting cast, including Olivia Colman, Olivia Williams, Mark Gatiss, Rufus Sewell, and Imogen Poots.
2. QUO VADIS, AIDA?
Jasmila Zbanic’s Oscar nominated film is a tough one to recommend. It is brilliant, necessary and boasts the year’s best performance in Jasna Djuricic’s turn as a UN translator caught in a nightmare situation. But, the power of Quo Vadis, Aida? is such that you will need at least thirty minutes downtime to decompress from the immediate impact. Moments from the film will haunt you for days, weeks and months afterwards.
Recounting the atrocities perpetrated by Serbian warlord Ratko Mladic and his troops in the small town of Srebrenica in 1995, this focusses on Djuricic’s Aida, a translator acting as a go-between for (powerless) UN forces and the local Bosnian Muslim population who have fled to the UN base for safety. As Mladic’s troops march into the UN compound and begin separating men from women and children it becomes clear something terrible is underway. As well as attempting to spur the impotent UN troops into action, Aida desperately works to place her husband and teenage sons on a list that will guarantee their safety.
Co-writer and director Zbanic keeps the atrocities offscreen, but this does little to soften the harrowing events depicted. Comparisons to Schindler’s List are easy to make, although Quo Vadis, Aida? is a very different film. But, if invoking Spielberg’s Oscar winner draws attention to Zbanic’s movie, then they are worthwhile.
1. RIDERS OF JUSTICE
Mads Mikkelsen’s finest performance in UK cinemas during 2021 was not in the Oscar winning Another Round, but in this deceptively simple-sounding revenge thriller. Mikkelsen is Markus, a Danish soldier sent home from the Middle East after his wife dies in a tragic accident. Emotionally buttoned-down, Markus is unable to process his loss, or handle the grief experienced by his daughter. A release of some kind comes from Otto, a statistician who approaches Markus claiming the variables in the accident were too outlandish to be mere random chance. Rather, it appeared to be a gang hit in which his wife was tragic collateral damage. Suddenly, Markus can apply order to his situation, and retribution to temper his grief.
The beauty of Anders Thomas Jensen’s film is in taking a well-worn revenge plot and spinning it into a story of loss, grief, acceptance, friendship, and the emotional bonds that hold people together. Punctuated with well-staged gun play and a nice line in dark humour. As Markus’ daughter Andrea Heick Gadeberg stands toe-to-toe in heavyweight scenes with Mikkelsen, while Nikolaj Lie Kaas is equally magnetic as Otto. Lars Brygmann and Nicolas Bro also impress amidst a supporting cast that does not misstep the entire movie.
Owing a debt to Clint Eastwood’s similarly themed The Outlaw Josey Wales, Riders of Justice was well-reviewed but generally overlooked upon release. For our money it is the best movie in a year of great movies. Also, it is a Christmas film, meaning you can make it a regular December fixture.