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 a handful 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.
Top Ten Films Of 2021 – Mid Year-Report
Men is the third film from Alex Garland, whose first two sci-fi films Ex_Machina and Annihilation were thoughtful, thrilling and visually interesting pieces. Garland sidesteps from sci-fi into British folk horror and this film follows a young widow, Harper (Jessie Buckley) who ventures to the Cotswolds for a well-earned break from London city life and to recover from the death of her husband, although she is terrorised by the predatory and patronising men in the village, who are all played by Rory Kinnear.
Men’s first two acts are thrilling and Garland skilfully drip-feeds his audience details of her past trauma a piece at a time. He establishes a deeply unsettling tone and deftly ramps up the tension through Harper’s mental paranoia. The film is as much a metaphorical piece as much as it is a horror, using its frightening elements as allegories for misogyny, grieving and rebirth. Unfortunately, the film nosedives in its third act. On the plus side, there’s some suitably slimy body horror but Garland is self-indulgent and throws away any subtlety he builds in its first two acts. It just becomes rather silly and certainly not as clever as it thinks it is.
The film is bolstered by an eery choral soundtrack from Garland regulars, Ben Salisbury and Geoff Barrow, and DOP Rob Hardy vividly captures the beauty yet foreboding nature of the Cotswolds. Jessie Buckley’s great as the prickly Harper (despite my sniffy opinions on her past performances, especially with The Lost Daughter) and this is career best work from Rory Kinnear. Men may be Garland’s weakest film but it’s still a strong piece from the director and I’d rather a filmmaker take a risk and it not fully succeed than play it safe and that’s why it creeps into tenth position.
Hustle doesn’t particularly stray from sports drama convention but it’s an investing and consistently entertaining drama from start to finish. After giving the performance of his career in the thoroughly unnerving Uncut Gems, Adam Sandler continues to turn his poor comedic career choices around with another excellent performance as Stanley Sugarman, a washed-up NBA scout. Juancho Hernangómez is also terrific as Cruz and is given a compelling back story for why he finds himself in the situation he is initially in at the start of the film. Both Sandler and Hernangómez share an absorbing chemistry, which makes the duo easy to root for. Of the rest of the cast, Latifah isn’t given much to work with as Sandler’s wife, and the ever-versatile Ben Foster is also short-changed as Sandler’s disparaging boss.
8) Top Gun: Maverick
Top Gun: Maverick is the long-awaited sequel to the late Tony Scott’s 1982 original, a film which quite literally propelled Tom Cruise’s career. Very much a product of its time in its tone and treatment of women, while the action sequences are admirable and Cruise’s performance is earnest, I can’t say I’m a big advocate of the original. This sequel is directed by Joseph Kosinski, who most recently directed the excellent forest-fire action drama Only The Brave and he reunites with some of the cast and crew such as Miles Teller, Jennifer Connelly and cinematographer Claudio Miranda.
Top Gun: Maverick is a surprisingly good film and is vastly superior to the original. While its story is familiar and fairly predictable, it is significantly more coherent and focussed with a singular narrative to achieve this specific mission. Tony Scott’s original wrangled in different directions and its climax sequence felt tacked on and unearned. The flight sequences are particularly excellent and are nail-biting in moments. It has the precision of Mission: Impossible director Christopher McQuarrie who co-writes and produces the film.
I’ve long been a critic of Tom Cruise and I’d argue he has far more misses than hits. Cruise’s performance works here as he plays an older and jaded instructor, whose ego and arrogance have been somewhat tarnished by his experiences. Miles Teller is reliably excellent as Rooster but there isn’t quite as much meat to the bone to the tumultuous relationship between him and Maverick as there could have been.
Kosinski wisely finds the right balance between relying on nostalgia and creating an original piece. It’s not quite the action masterpiece that some are claiming it to be though – it’s not as radical a piece as George Miller’s Mad Max: Fury Road, which was essentially an entire film of rip-roaring action, and it doesn’t pack many narrative twists up its sleeve. But it doesn’t need to be. For Top Gun: Maverick to be an improvement on the original is a miracle in and of itself and I’m glad it exists.
There is now a step-up in quality…
7) Turning Red
Turning Red is the latest in the Disney Pixar canon and like Soul and Luca last year, it has released straight on Disney+. Director Domee Shi’s feature-length debut is to be commended for its sheer ambition of exploring female puberty, a fairly taboo subject matter for a mainstream film, especially one that also has to appeal to younger audiences. It represents a very different affair for a Pixar film and as is typical for the animation studio, it is moving in parts. It is clearly inspired by anime with its transformative element and colour scheme, down to the extreme facial expressions of its characters. The script, co-written by Shi and Julia Cho, is smart and its characters bursting with personality. Mei is a very well written lead and is endlessly empathetic.
Once you settle into its eclectic tone, it’s a very satisfying journey to watch unfold bolstered by its strongly written female characters. It’s not quite top-tier Pixar for me, as it isn’t quite as effortlessly charming and poignant as its best entries such as Up or Coco, but I’m very glad it exists. The film is sure to launch Domee Shi’s career and I can’t wait to see what she does next.
6) The Batman
The Batman is a new rendition of the Caped Crusader by War For The Planet Of The Apes director Matt Reeves, positioned outside of the DCEU canon, and sees a younger Dark Knight (Robert Pattinson) in his second year of crimefighting and Reeves hones in on his detective skills. It is an interesting, if flawed, depiction of the Caped Crusader. Reeves’ take on the character is certainly admirable. It very much owes a debt to the Christopher Nolan and Zack Snyder aesthetic in that it is a darker and grungier interpretation. Experiencing Batman as a detective figure is refreshing. The notion of Batman providing narration is also innovative, yet uneven in that it’s not sustained throughout the film. The extended run time of 176 minutes isn’t to the film’s detriment. It’s always promising to see a director allow a film breathe when it warrants it rather than resorting to quick cuts.
Pattinson’s portrayal of Batman is expectedly excellent, although his Bruce Wayne needs some work. This is more a choice of the script rather than any wrongdoing by Pattinson as Bruce Wayne doesn’t receive a particularly meaningful arc so he isn’t granted the opportunity. Other highlights of the cast include Colin Farrell, who is almost unrecognisable as Oswald Cobblepot in his early Penguin days, and Jeffrey Wright is effortless as James Gordon.
Paul Dano’s Riddler is an interesting villain and poses a genuine threat to Batman throughout much of the film but his character arc is severely let down towards the end of the film to the point where he doesn’t pose a threat and his performance borders on being laughable.
The score by Michael Giacchino is really excellent and he establishes very memorable themes for the characters, although the score doesn’t always fit in with the scenes they are inserted in. The cinematography by Greig Fraser is beautiful, hot on the footsteps of his similarly excellent work on Dune.
The Batman is a strong interpretation from Reeves and I’m looking forward to see where future instalments could go, although I have some reservations with the teases. However, it’s not quite the masterpiece that some have proclaimed it to be and Reeves is just not as competent a director as Nolan or even Snyder.
Now into the Top Five and another step-up in quality…
A controversial choice but director Joseph Kosinski features again with Spiderhead, a straight-to-Netflix sci-fi thriller that received mixed reviews. Spiderhead boasts a fascinating concept in that it is set in a penitentiary where prisoners are allowed to roam freely, in exchange for being experimented on medically. The characters are subjected to make some dark and difficult decisions and the film is directed with flair by Kosinski. Miles Teller is typically reliable and carries the baggage of his character’s crimes with the will to change his future convincingly. Chris Hemsworth is excellent as the voyeuristic Abnesti, whose charisma walks a fine line between prickly comedy and satisfying ridiculousness.
Cinematographer Claudio Miranda captures the prisoners’ point of view excellently, the hues of artificial colours inside the penitentiary juxtaposed with the lush, tropical island settling. Kosinski does well to methodically reveal character backstories, maintaining tension throughout proceedings. He constantly keeps the film fresh, being careful to keep audiences on their toes with its narrative. Many feel the film falls apart in its third act, but I found the climax a natural and satisfyingly bleak place to develop its story.
X is the new film from director Ti West, who returns to his horror roots after a brief venture to the Western with the giddily entertaining In A Valley Of Violence. X is a thoroughly entertaining horror that is elevated by its cineliteracy towards 20th-century slasher films such as The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, as well as its satisfying exploration of a range of themes. It is most effective in its first half as the build-up is at a constant simmer. The film heads off the rails in its second half in a mostly satisfying way, albeit with some silliness as it leans into the genre tropes of that era.
Mia Goth has impressed in horror films with A Cure For Wellness and Suspiria and makes her mark here again. She brings a down-and-dirty edge into the role of Maxine and she quite literally disappears into her second role under heavy prosthetics as Pearl, the wife of Howard. The rest of the cast are all game too, with Jenny Ortega receiving a meaningful arc and Stephen Ure proving what an underrated actor he is, channeling the nastiness from his most famous portrayal of an Orc in Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers.
The score by Tyler Bates and Chelsea Wolfe is haunting using period pieces as well as an original predominantly synth-based score. Chelsea Wolfe’s rendition of Oui Oui Marie is particularly mesmerising. The film is also beautifully shot by Eliot Rockett. He frames the characters as if they are prey, an aerial shot of an alligator stalking its target and an eagle encircling the air above the film crew are of particular note.
Now into the Top Three…
3) Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore
Despite the many controversies riding against the film, as well as acting as a follow-up to the disappointing The Crimes of Grindelwald, I was surprised by how well this film redeems the series. Returning director David Yates deftly melds both Grindelwald’s political quest and Newt’s storyline and unlike the second film which sidelined the titular fantastic beasts, Newt’s briefcase of magical creatures play an important part in the narrative. There are some arresting visuals and the film is directed by Yates with confidence.
There are some noteworthy performances, with Jude Law the standout in an expanded role as Dumbledore, who retains Michael Gambon’s twinkly personality and Irish lilt. Redmayne carries the film well again and Callum Turner as Newt’s Auror brother, Theseus makes more of an impression in an expanded role, as he was quite wooden last time round. Newcomer Mads Mikkelsen is excellent as Grindelwald but wisely avoids channeling Johnny Depp’s equally strong performance.
Cinematographer George Richmond replaces Philippe Rousselot for this third installment and he conjures a greyer aesthetic to suit the world that is on the brink of an all-out war, foregoing Rousselot’s more romantic elements.
Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore is a thoroughly entertaining ride that justifies the existence of this series. I’m not sure if it’s quite as good as the first instalment but it’s certainly pretty close. Sadly, the film attracted mixed-to-positive reviews and didn’t perform very well at the box office – I really hope it’s not the end for the series and I’d love to see how the story develops.
2) The Black Phone
The Black Phone sees horror maestro Scott Derrickson return to his roots, reteaming with writer C. Robert Cargill and actor Ethan Hawke. The result is an excellent, intelligent horror film that is very well-directed by Derrickson. He crafts a delicious setting, leaning into 1970’s suburbia and isn’t afraid of unflinchingly portraying playground violence. Derrickson takes the narrative to dark places and the fast pacing grips you instantly. The film is very cine-literate, with Derrickon’s passion for film evident on the screen, be through the inclusion of period television shows from the time and the playful nods to It. On that note of the nods to Stephen King, it’s not unreasonable that his son carries some of his traits such as a community of children going missing, but it’s not derivative and the tone isn’t cynical.
The script by Derrickson and Cargill deftly humanises the characters through meaningful arcs and avoids resorting to caricatures. There are also some exhilarating set pieces and I loved the creative choice to portray some of the previous victim’s lives on grainy film, which was a highlight of Derrickson’s magnum opus Sinister. The film is further bolstered by an interesting and unnerving score by Mark Korven and it’s beautifully shot by Brett Jutkiewicz. The cast are excellent, especially newcomers Mason Thame and Madeleine McGraw who make an explosive impression. Hawke is also terrific – he has not played a villain on-screen before and ‘The Grabber’ is an unhinged and suitably sinister screen presence.
The Black Phone isn’t perfect – Hawke’s villain could have been further explored, James Ransone’s character arc isn’t very well executed and I wish the film further explored the link between overcoming one’s demons and the repercussions stemmed from that. But it’s pretty darn good and I can’t wait to see what Derrickson has up his sleeve next.
So the best film of the year is…
1) Boiling Point
Boiling Point, a drama shot in a single-take in an up-market London restuarant, is a thrilling and sharp drama that constantly ramps in tension and maintains its momentum throughout. From the opening sequence of the Health and Safety assessment, director Philip Barantini has created a startlingly authentic, cutthroat environment and it’s astonishing to witness a film as riveting as Boiling Point is from seemingly few ingredients. The script by Barantini and James Cummings is razor-sharp. They introduce a convincing restaurant team from the fellow chefs to the service staff and how they are divided.
Stephen Graham delivers an astonishing performance as Andy, a man at his wits end and on the verge of a breakdown with his home life and the added stresses of ensuring that the dinner service runs like a Swiss watch. The rest of the cast are uniformly brilliant and are sure to land future roles based on the strengths of their performances here.
Films that are or have been created to feel like they have been shot in one take have often been labelled as a gimmick, and to some extent this is true. But Boiling Point succeeds as a gripping, anxiety-inducing drama first with searing performances. It isn’t a hollow film that tries to hide behind a showy camera technique – the handheld one-shot take further adds to the hysteria on-screen.
Reflection on 2022 so far…
2022 has been a solid year so far, although not without its disappointments. As we headed towards the end of May, I was worried about curating this list as some of the films’ quality wasn’t fitting of a best list – you’ll notice that like 2021 which began in similiar fashion, 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:
– Thor: Love and Thunder
– The Gray Man
– Where The Cradads Sing
– Bullet Train
– The Forgiven
– Crimes Of The Future
– Don’t Worry Darling
– Halloween Ends
– Decision To Leave
– Black Adam
– Black Panther: Wakanda Forever
– Avatar: The Way Of Water
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