This is the second part of my Best Films of 2021 feature detailing my Top Ten films. Click here to read numbers 25 to 11.
Without further ado, here are my Top Ten films of 2021:
10) The Little Things
Sure to be an unpopular choice, for the majority of the run time 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. The Little Things is a neo-noir crime thriller that heavily wears its inspiration of David Fincher’s Se7en and Zodiac on its sleeve. Director John Lee Hancock lends an assured hand to the material, allowing the film a familiar feel that revels in its atmosphere.
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.
9) The Suicide Squad
The Suicide Squad is for the most part a giddy, gory and thoroughly adult superhero film. The film is written and directed by James Gunn, whose sensibility for gory horror and dark humour, blend perfectly with the source material, feeling much more akin to his earlier works such as Slither and Super. Gunn originally hit critical acclaim with Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy and its sequel, the first film in particular proving a refreshing break from the tired Marvel formula that really allowed his personality to shine through. Despite breaking free of the Marvel formula, Gunn was still constrained to a 12A / PG-13 rating, therefore The Suicide Squad represents him at his most unrestrained.
The Suicide Squad fits into the wider DCEU rather awkwardly in that it is a part-sequel to 2016’s critically mauled Suicide Squad in that it shares a handful of the same characters but it also functions as a part-reboot in that everything about it is completely different to that film.
Gunn has proven a knack for picking unfamiliar comic-book characters and spinning a gripping yarn from their background. The Suicide Squad is paced extremely well and the script is stuffed with quips and wisecracking interplay between the characters. There is violence and gore aplenty – heads are decapitated, blood splatters after characters get shot in the face and King Shark likes to devour people… a lot! This is a film that earns its 15 / R rating and it is all the better for it. Like its predecessor, there isn’t much of a story again this time round, but the characters combined objective acts as a coherent plot and there are some excellent character twists along the way. Gunn does an excellent job in not allowing his audience to get to attached to characters, as life is pretty expendable in this film.
In a wider context, what impressed me most about The Suicide Squad was its progressive characters for the genre, which acts as a revisionist take on the superhero genre. The superhero genre is overpopulated with generic films that are uncomfortable in breaking the mould and Gunn’s film actively tries to defy conventions, even if it’s not always successful, but the ambition is to be admired.
The main drawback of the film is in its ending, which unfortunately sticks to convention and is a little anti-climatic when the rest of the film is so entertaining and refreshing.
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.
Candyman is an accomplished and thought-provoking update in the series and cements director Nia DaCosta as a new talent to watch. This spiritual sequel is a continuation of the story established in Bernard Rose’s original Candyman, an equally stimulating entry that has aged well even today. DaCosta’s film ignores the two sequels, both of which failed to garner critical acclaim, the second of which was one of director Bill Condon’s early works.
Yahya Abdul-Matteen II plays Anthony McCoy, an artist who is suffering from writer’s block who lives with his girlfriend, Brianna (Teyonah Paris) who is an art gallery director. His writer’s block subsides once he learns of the Candyman legend and this suddenly gets his creative juices following until the horror legend starts to come to life and consume his mind.
Directing from a script which Get Out and Us director Jordan Peele contributed to, Nia DaCosta makes an electric impression behind the screen. Whilst the influences of Peele can be felt in the film’s interrogation of gender, race and sexuality, DaCosta impresses with her cineliteracy, particularly with the exploration of the theme of the double through the use of mirrors and mirrored reflections. Art is explored as a mirrored reality and Anthony is unsettled at his reflection. There are some arresting sequences in the first act of the film where images are inverted and disorienting, setting a foreboding atmosphere. This is complimented by Robert Aubrey Aiki Lowe’s brilliant score and soundscape and it’s refreshing to see him craft his own memorable themes as well as revisit Philip Glass’ original themes, which really elevated the original film.
Stillwater is the long awaited follow-up from writer-director Tom McCarthy, after his last film Spotlight won the Best Picture Oscar back in 2016. Despite the film drawing some controversy due to its parallels with the Amanda Knox case, Stillwater is an excellent crime drama that is played on a more human scale and centres on one of Matt Damon’s best performances.
Matt Damon plays unemployed oil-rig worker Bill Baker who frequently journeys to Marseille from the small town of Stillwater, Oklahoma to visit his daughter, Allison Baker (Abigail Breslin). Allison is five years into her nine year prison sentence after being convicted of killing her university roommate, Lina. Bill is a man of few words and works in order to afford the trips to France. When Bill is in France on a visit, there is an opportunity for the case to be reopened and he fights for his daughter to be exonerated. He has difficulty with the language barrier and the French bureaucracy system. Many locals in the city are aware of the case and know what his daughter did. After a fortuitous chain of events, befriends Virginie (Camille Cottin) and her young daughter, Maya and they all take a reciprocal liking to each other.
Stillwater has a satisfying yet searing narrative and the character relationships are admirably developed, particularly between the central trio of Bill, Virginie and Maya. Bill is essentially given a second chance at fatherhood, after he proclaims that he screwed up in the past. If you can accept the fact that Stillwater is merely inspired from Amanda Knox and doesn’t follow the case to the letter, then you have what is one of the best films of the year.
Old is another bonkers concept by the auteur M. Night Shyamalan, and tonally is somewhere between Get Out and The Beach, infused with The Twilight Zone. It is a frequently profound and is an intense, nightmarish exploration into the themes of life and maturation. The film follows a group of people who find themselves on a beach where they seem to be ageing rapidly. A scene between two old characters facing worsening eyesight and deafness is beautiful, as their memories are worsening and losing the concept of space and time. Shyamalan deftly balances these profound moments with freakish body horror and violence, one sequence in particular involving a knife is particularly harrowing and well shot. That said, the film could have benefitted from portraying more of these bloody images rather than most of the violence being portrayed off-screen, although the on-screen horror that Shyamalan decides to portray is enough to earn the film a 15 age rating.
Old is a strong and unapologetic effort from Shyamalan and is further evidence of his career resurrection following Split and (controversially) his best film Glass, if you get on board with the narrative.
4) 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.
Now into the top #3…
3) No Time To Die
No Time To Die represents Daniel Craig’s swan-song as James Bond, whose films have proved to be the most consistent out of all the actors to play Ian Fleming’s spy. This is an operatic and thrilling finale to the Daniel Craig era that takes some ambitious risks in its narrative. Director Cary Joji Fukunaga’s fingerprints can be felt all over the film from the Japanese memorabilia to the more intimate character moments. The first half an hour gave me goosebumps with an opening tinged in horror and then an emotive initial action sequence. Fukunaga explores a more personal side to Bond and excitedly departs from established franchise formula. The film is beautifully shot by Linus Sandgren, who makes the various travel destination locations look intoxicating.
No Time To Die is a thoroughly thrilling send-off for Craig and it will be interesting to see how James Bond is regenerated in future instalments, given how this film ends. It doesn’t bottle out and Craig’s films cement themselves as the most consistent.
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’ 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.
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.
So there we go, these films were in my opinion the best of 2021. What are your thoughts? Let me know in the comments or tweet @TheFilmMeister