July has arrived and that means it’s time for my annual mid-year review of my favourite films of the year so far. As is to be expected, there are still a few films that I am still yet to see but I have tried to get through all the films that I have been looking forward to or the films that reviews have been good for. As usual, I am following the UK release date calendar between January and June. As you are about to see, there are some Awards films included in this list but these have all been released within this time period in the UK.
Top Ten Films Of 2021 – Mid Year-Report
Nomadland is an original and unassuming exploration into the nomadic lifestyle that a proportion of Americans take where they cannot afford to live by conventional means in a bricks and mortar dwelling. In what is director Chloe Zhao’s third feature, Nomadland paints a desperate situation where hard-working Americans cannot afford to live in a normal society. We follow Frances McDormand’s widowed and unemployed Fern. She describes herself as ‘houseless’ and chooses to travel the US, partaking in various job opportunities, living from her van. These jobs range from a stint in Amazon to working in hot and sweaty kitchens to running a spa. We meet some real-life nomads that her character crosses paths with along the way, as well as a blossoming relationship with another nomad played by David Strathairn.
The performances are first-rate in the film, with Frances McDormand winning her third Best Actress Oscar for this role. McDormand is brilliant here but she could play this type of role in her sleep – it doesn’t rate with the quality of her other two wins in Fargo and Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. Of the other characters, it is Charlene Swankie (as Swankie!) who makes the biggest impression in the film’s best sequence where she recounts her life choices and philosophies. Technically, Nomadland is excellent as well with Joshua James Richard’s Terence Malick-esque cinematography beautifully capturing the vast open landscapes and offering a magical quality. Ludovico Einaudi’s piano-based score is sparsely used but packs a punch when it is featured. (Full review here)
Nobody is directed by Ilya Naishuller and provides a vehicle for Bob Odenkirk as Taken and John Wick did for Liam Neeson and Keanu Reeves. It is far from an original concept but it is very entertaining and its main asset is Bob Odenkirk’s electric and deadpan performance. There are some kinetic action sequences, particularly a sequence in a bus and the climax. Pawel Pogorzelski’s cinematography is far more first-person POV than the longer shots in John Wick, very much in the vein of Naishuller’s Hardcore Henry and unlike his more showy work on Hereditary and Midsommar. Also unlike John Wick, Hutch Mansell is a far more vulnerable character and he doesn’t come away from his fights unscathed. There are many occasions where he is battered in the process. Christopher Lloyd also has some strong moments, particularly in the third act as Mansell’s father, as does RZA as Hutch’s brother. When the film is at its best, it really is a hoot and Naishuller has a clear understanding of the mechanics of B-movie, trashy exploitation pieces in his direction. (Full review here)
Antebellum is a really interesting debut from directors Gerard Bush and Christopher Renz and I’m very glad it exists, particularly in the context of a ‘Make America Great Again’ society. Positioned as a female-centered nervous mix of The Twilight Zone and 12 Years A Slave with more than a heavy dose of M. Night Shyamalan infused in the mix, Antebellum follows Janelle Monae’s Eden, who is a slave on a plantation in what appears to be Civil War-era America. About forty minutes in, she wakes up as renowned sociologist Dr Veronica Henley and audiences are drawn to the parallels between both narratives and how they might be connected. The first and third acts are particularly riveting even if the film sags in the middle, where there are some overly preachy speeches and a misjudged character played by the normally reliable Gabourey Sidibe. The plantation sequences are particularly uncomfortable to watch for a film of this genre and the cinematography by Pedro Luque and menacing string-based score are stunning.
It’s a shame that the reception to this film has been fairly negative, with many finding the film to be exploitative, its twist not justifying the brutal violence and that its violence is torture porn. I would strongly disagree and would argue that the sadistic violence assists in creating a stronger verisimilitude. I can’t wait to see what Bush and Renz go onto make next and hope that they continue to take risks and are not deterred from the negative critical response. (Full review here)
There is now a marked step-up in quality…
7) The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It
The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It represents a welcome change of direction compared to the first two films in that it delves from the haunted house formula and is more of a police procedural crime thriller. The story the film is based on is riveting, even if some creative liberties have been taken with it for it to fit the horror genre. The performances are all excellent, Vera Farmiga and Patrick Wilson as the Warren’s again are the centrepiece of the franchise and the film expands and revolves around their strong relationship. Director James Wan is not behind the camera this time around and the film is directed by Michael Chaves, who directed a previous entry, The Curse Of La Llorona. Chaves’ direction attempts to ape Wan’s from the use of title cards and a prologue sequence at the beginning to the general tone of the film. However, when it comes to the horror aspect of the film, Chaves just does not craft the scares in as sophisticated a fashion as Wan. I was riveted from start to finish but there is always the question of what if this film had been directed by James Wan and I think if had, the result here would have been extraordinary. If the film doubled down on its scares or chose to eliminate them completely and spent longer developing its characters and establishing the stakes, this could have been a masterpiece. (Full review here)
6) Those Who Wish Me Dead
Those Who Wish Me Dead is the latest from writer-director Taylor Sheridan and in keeping with his back catalogue, is another film that explores the modern American frontier. It is yet another original and commanding effort from Taylor Sheridan. It is frequently thrilling and as is customary for the writer-director, there are some interesting twists narratively and in its portrayal of gender. The way in which Sheridan introduces the characters allow the audience to be two steps ahead of them, which is thrilling as we can predict how they will likely act when all the pieces fall together later in the film. Sheridan is again able to extract some excellent performances from the cast. Angelina Jolie makes for a commanding screen presence, haunted by what she feels is her mistake, and this is a solid project for her to pick in her acting comeback. Gillen and Hoult make for an unstoppable reckoning as the assassins. (Full review here)
Now into the Top Five…
5) The Little Things
The Little Things is a neo-noir crime thriller that heavily wears its inspiration of David Fincher’s Se7en and Zodiac on its sleeve. Denzel Washington stars as a grizzled detective, Joe ‘Deke’ Deacon who crosses paths with recently appointed lead Detective Jimmy Baxter (Rami Malek). The two of the them team to investigate a string of serial murders and their search leads them to a strange loner (Jared Leto), who may or may not be the culprit. Director John Lee Hancock lends an assured hand to the material, allowing the film a familiar feel that revels in its atmosphere. Although familiar, for the majority of The Little Things, I was enamoured by the atmosphere, the development of the characters and the performances. Denzel Washington and Rami Malek make a great pair, Washington particularly convincing as the experienced but unorthodox sheriff.
Unfortunately, the film runs into murky water in its final 15 minutes with its controversial ending. Granted, it is original but I found it very anti-climatic, abrupt and like a big nothing and more than a little underwhelming. Hancock justifies the decision to end the film in this way. The film could easily for me have gone on for longer to solve its central mystery, but the film isn’t really interested in this and is more focussed on character. It is easy to understand the mixed reception to The Little Things but until its ending, I found it to be a riveting drama that is very cine-literate. (Full review here)
Minari is an affecting and amiable portrayal of a hard-working, but down on their luck Korean family who are trying to carve out their own American dream. Directed by Lee Isaac Chung, Minari follows immigrant Jacob Yi (Steve Yeun), who is fed up of working in a chicken hatchery in California and moves his young family to a considerable piece of land that he has brought in rural Arkansas with a rickety mobile home. The interplay between the family is excellent and the performances poignant. The highlights are of course, Youn Yuh-Jung, whose Oscar win for her turn as the grandmother is excellent, deftly balancing the comedic elements of the role with some powerful sequences in the third act. Steve Yeun is also commendable as Jacob and his plight for success is piercing to the audience, as is Han Ye-ri as Monica. The film is technically beautiful with dream-like cinematography from Lachlan Milne, the families land seeming other-worldly and distant. Emile Mosseri’s predominantly piano and woodwind based score is also soul-stirring in its ethereal quality. (Full review here)
Now into the Top Three…
3) Army Of The Dead
Army of the Dead, visionary director Zack Snyder’s first film post-DC, is a total blast from start to finish. Snyder is no stranger to the zombie thriller genre as his first film was Dawn of the Dead, a very solid remake of George A. Romero’s original. This is not connected to Dawnbut does take some inspiration from other Romero works. Snyder crafts a fascinating world here and there is some interesting political sub-text. Ethical questions are posed that draw parallels to the current American political climate and treatment of migrants. We are introduced to a diverse set of characters that are going to carry out the heist operation. Whilst the character tropes are fairly conventional and some characters aren’t really fleshed out, this is a zombie film after all and it’s inevitable that some of the cast are only introduced to die. The film is a visual treat and Snyder, who acts his own cinematographer for the first time, does a commendable job in building a convincing post-apolocalyptic world that doesn’t feel too far removed from how it is currently. The film is bursting with colour and Snyder leans into the creative kills and gore that earn the film its 18-rating with joyful glee, the opening credits to the film being particularly memorable. He balances this with some suitably dour darker lit sequences that highlight the origins of the Alphas and their leader Zeus, who is particularly well developed as a villain, and fits in perfectly with Snyder’s horror roots. Army of the Dead is further proof that Snyder works best when he is not restrained by a film studio. (Full review here)
2) Zack Snyder’s Justice League
Who would ever have thought that two Zack Snyder films, a director of great controversy, features twice in a ‘Best of’ list?! Zack Snyder’s Justice League is the director’s cut of the film Snyder tried to originally make before butting heads with Warner Brothers executives and then departing the project after a family tragedy. The end result was a crushing disappointment that was a schizophrenic mess that represented a clash of two opposing styles of direction with a feeling that it felt unfinished. Fans have petitioned for Snyder’s original vision and the movement began on social media with the hashtag #RestoreTheSnyderCut. After many months of speculation, Snyder then revealed that he had most of a finished cut completed and it was up to Warner Bros to release it. Fans continued to push for its release in their numbers and the ‘Snyder Cut’ was announced in May 2020. Warner Bros granted Snyder an additional $70 million to finish the film and it now sees the light of day in its full 242 minute glory.
Zack Snyder’s Justice League is an astonishing achievement and represents a mature and risky effort in establishing the DC team. The four hours fly by and it is a visual treat throughout. This is a Zack Snyder film through and through but it interestingly represents a more mature effort in that the storytelling here is improved from some of his previous filmography, where some of his films have bordered on the incoherent. By the film having its length, the film can breathe and Snyder works wonders in establishing and developing each and every character of the team. There is no conceivable way this story can be told in a two hour run time.
The wider context of this director’s cut is fascinating in how different it is from what Warner Bros chose to release. The stark differences between both cuts is something that can and likely will be studied for years to come and having watched this director’s cut, one has to question the psychology of the decision to approve the theatrical cut for cinema release.
Ultimately, Zack Snyder’s Justice League is a frequently astonishing and bold take on this DC lineup and it earns its four hour run time. With this director’s cut and Army Of The Dead, Snyder has matured as a director and he has markedly improved on some of his lesser qualities in previous films in regards to storytelling and representations. (Full review here)
So the best film of the year is…
1) I Care A Lot
From start to finish, I Care A Lot is really excellent with a riveting and thought-provoking story with a collection of morally bankrupt characters. Rosamund Pike plays Marla Grayson, a morally bankrupt but cool-as-a-cucumber con artist who preys and scams on the older generation by becoming their ‘legal guardian’ and sending them to a care home, whilst she profits from selling their property and assets. Perhaps some of the twists the film takes in its third act aren’t quite as fresh as the beginning and it begins to move away from its smart commentary in the first two acts on the elderly generation. The notion that this could happen to you when you are older is genuinely frightening and really doesn’t feel that far removed from reality. Director J. Blakeson has markedly developed and this is a thrilling and thoroughly original concept. (Full review here)
Reflection on 2019 so far…
Whilst there have been a handful of excellent films so far this year, there have been so many disappointments. Most of the films featured in this list are a tier below previous mid-year lists and this is probably the weakest start to a year since 2011/12. Most films so far this year have either been pretty solid or above average but there have been a couple of unexpected stinkers. It’s surprising that films 10-8 feature on a ‘Best of’ list as they all have their problems and you’ll notice that I have omitted an ‘Honourable Mentions’ section this year.
Here’s hoping for a stronger second half of the year and films that look like they have potential include:
– Black Widow
– Riders of Justice
– The Suicide Squad
– The Green Knight
– The Night House
– Shang-Chi And The Legend Of The Ten Rings
– Prisoners of the Ghostland
– No Time To Die
– The Last Duel
– Halloween Kills
– Last Night In Soho
– The Card Counter
– Cry Macho
– House Of Gucci
– Spider-Man: No Way Home
– The King’s Man
However, it is important to note that this is not a definitive list and these titles are just a few picks scattered across the remainder of the year that have piqued my interest.
What are your thoughts? Tweet @TheFilmMeister or leave your ideas in the comments