Happy New Year!
I’m starting 2022 by looking back at my top 10 choices for the best movies of 2021, the year in which we rebounded from the ever present Covid threat by returning to cinemas, allowing us to experience the kinds of pictures we were spared of in 2020.
It’s been a fascinating year and, as always, film choices subjectively differ among many a reviewer. Here were the pictures that both affected me the most, and seemed to contain the greatest artistic measure, from 10 through to number 1.
Would love to know your thoughts as to your top 10 choices…
10. LAST NIGHT IN SOHO (Edgar Wright)
The first hour of Edgar Wright’s latest is among the most evocative cinematic world-building I’ve seen in a good long while. Then it all collapses under the weight of trying to resolve a Dario Argento-stylistic homage, built on 1960s myth making and dream imagery, with a semblance of plot. Wright should have resisted the urge to make it all tie up, much as he serves the late Dame Diana Rigg with a memorable final act in her career with the climactic beat.
Had he managed to sustain the dark visual allure, Tarantino-esque attention to musical detail and the hypnotic performance of Anya Taylor-Joy for more than an hour, this would have been much higher up the list.
9. THE POWER OF THE DOG (Jane Campion)
Class this one very much as an anti-Western because Jane Campion might be playing in a late-frontier age of ranchers, prairies and hard, austere lives, but The Power of Dog is first and foremost about love. One senses a greater level of context for the deeper themes in play might exist in Thomas Savage’s original novel, as Campion is determined to leave one or two enigmas dotted around the piece, but a superb trio of performances – from Benedict Cumberbatch, Kirsten Dunst & Kodi Smit-McPhee – pull out the broad ideas at play. Campion’s film brews up a wealth of contained, repressed emotion from sex and violence all the way to death, which allows her to construct a lyrical piece riven with sadness and tragedy.
Thankfully along the way, she paints often a beautiful, expansive portrait of the open, haunted surroundings, combining the width of the frontier with the intimacy of a family stalked by the past.
An unalloyed joy that brings what now constitutes a joined up, eight-picture Spider-Man universe across the Marvel and Sony landscapes to a satisfying conclusion. Granted, the piece is constructed on a brace of secrets that were terribly kept in advance, but there is true fan satisfaction in seeing three Spider-Men on screen, all of whom get a level of emotional catharsis. It remains, nonetheless, Tom Holland’s picture, as his Peter is put through the ultimate test of great power, responsibility and indeed kindness as the film works to cure not kill as a central message. It frames the villains of an earlier era as troubled, twisted examples of hubris gone wrong to be fixed and not destroyed, which the MCU has never quite done before.
It is, simply, a thrill ride taking all of the strongest composite elements of the previous two Spider-Man films and telling them on a broader, expansive canvas that both concludes, reboots and points to a new beginning. A triumph.
7. CENSOR (Prano Bailey-Bond)
A strident horror debut from Prano Bailey-Bond which suggests a deep knowledge and understanding of the genre her film analyses. Censor decrypts in chilling fashion the intersection between reality and fiction, using the hysteria of 80s ‘video nasty’ culture in British social politics to tell the story of Enid (an excellent Niamh Algar), a film censor who comes to believe the sister who vanished as a child is an actor in a banned horror picture. It’s a mystery that snowballs less into supernatural weirdness than psychological surrealism, evoking David Cronenberg’s Videodrome at points.
Stylised, painting a grubby and concrete London of almost eternal nighttime, and evocative while never descending into melodrama or losing the plot, Censor is precisely my kind of horror: well crafted, haunting and evocative. Enter this story.
6. THE LAST DUEL (Ridley Scott)
Coldly intimate yet emotionally barren, Ridley Scott’s examination of sexual politics in the Middle Ages is as stark, if Hollywood glossy at the same time, as you might expect. In some ways it feels like a period throwback to Hollywood of maybe the 90s or 2000s, though this is an actorly film, first and foremost. Scott might utilise the grand, immersive sweep of his camera to depict a grubby, muddy, feudal existence, and the narrative certainly enjoys employing the ‘Rashomon effect’ to depict three perspectives on the rape at the heart of the story, but The Last Duel is built largely on these four performances. They work and, consequently, so does the film more broadly.
There’s a lot more to say on this and, frankly, I suspect—perhaps fittingly given the structure of the story—that male and female critical perspectives might pick up different things, but it’s a muscular piece of work that transposes a very contemporary aspect of female justice into a traditionally under-utilised cinematic setting with resolute skill.
5. NOBODY (Ilya Naishuller)
Obviously indebted to the middle aged one man army fantasy pictures such as Taken or John Wick, and before it the 70s grimy revenge thriller, but Nobody stands out for the fact it has a nihilistic self-awareness and mordant sense of humour behind the traditional action theatrics – not to mention it sets off some punchy, at points electric set pieces to the anachronistic strains of easy listening. It’s familiar but also deeply satisfying, not to mention tight, and Bob Odenkirk is born for pained yet lethal everyman roles like this.
Let’s just have this be a one off though, eh? It doesn’t need three lesser sequels.
4. THE SUICIDE SQUAD (James Gunn)
James Gunn brings to The Suicide Squad the sardonic sensibility honed on his Marvel endeavours but pulls off a piece with greater craft; a pulpy, genuinely stylish, often quite gorgeous, slice of vicious comic mayhem with tongue firmly in cheek. It is brutal without being nihilistic. It’s exciting, even at points thrilling, and it has a script which brings to life an assortment of anti-heroes and villains brilliantly. Margot Robbie finally gets to shine as Harley Quinn in a genuinely fine movie, but Idris Elba steals the show with his charming yet grumpy turn as Bloodsport. It’s terrific. It understands the source material (it even has titles within the story to designate the narrative like it’s a trade copy of a mini-series), the story is contained and really well staged, the cast bounce off each other superbly.
Everything about it comes to life in the way almost every other DCEU movie has in some way failed to do.
No Time to Die is a brawny, swaggering confluence of the two styles of Bond movie Daniel Craig’s era has often struggled to bring together. On the one hand, it has Skyfall’s sense of steely modern grandeur but also Spectre’s level of throwback adoration for perkier, flimsier and more colourful decades in the franchise’s history. Though it lacks the striking panache of Casino Royale or Skyfall’s emotional catharsis, No Time to Die is, in a sense, the perfect James Bond movie for the modern era for what it brings together, and one senses it could become a significant fan favourite. It frequently looks incredible, boasts the requisite stunt work and effects to (pun very much intended) die for, not to mention one of the strongest casts in Bond history, and it provides fans with many of the traditional ‘Bondian’ aspects they look for in these films.
On a creative level, No Time to Die serves as a capstone on five pictures over the last fifteen years which have elevated the James Bond franchise into something they rarely were before: fine examples of artistic, dramatic craft, as well as action, suspense, style and cool.
2. SHANG CHI AND THE LEGEND OF THE TEN RINGS (Destin Daniel Cretton)
Even despite strong critical buzz, Shang-Chi was a genuine delight. It covers lots of familiar story beats in terms of comic book and even action film mythology but presents them in a fresh, engaging, charming and often thrilling way, via the Marvel prism of grand stakes alongside self-deprecating humour. It keeps the connectives to the broader franchise to a minimum and allows a tragic tale rich in its own sense of mythology to unfold. A fine script that pulls off a skilled use of the flashback device to accentuate emotional beats, strong and solid direction from Destin Daniel Cretton and a cast on wonderful form – Simu Liu & Awkwafina are an immensely charming central duo, while Tony Leung is one of the franchise’s finest villains to date, in a series that struggles to fashion compelling antagonists.
It’s simply great entertainment, fantastically fusing kung-fu, wuxia, superheroism and magic to concoct a skilled brew. One of Marvel’s very best.
Much has been written, on an anxious level, suggesting that the much-awaited adaptation of Frank Herbert’s seminal 1965 novel should not have been divided into two-parts, a la the recent take on Stephen King’s It, for fear that Dune’s first half might underperform and thereby leave this magisterial tale unfinished. Regardless of box office, one wonders as to the logic of this thought process. Dune has quite clearly been devised, soup to nuts, as a two-part project, and Denis Villeneuve here takes the time he needs to both construct the world around the desert planet Arrakis and the central story of young Paul Atredies with two films in mind. This is not the complete Dune. This is, to quote Zendaya’s Chani, “only the beginning”. In that sense, we have to approach Dune as such, and judge Part One on the merits of being an incomplete story.
Perhaps the greatest strength of this first half is that it contains a beginning, middle and end that satisfies, even while concluding with everything but a ‘to be continued’ legend. Villeneuve successfully manages to introduce Herbert’s vast, complicated futuristic universe, and establish the broader narrative concepts and themes, while providing a rounded cinematic experience. For the first of a two-part story, this is no mean feat, and his achievement lies as deeply in a visual and auditory as it does a structural sense. Dune is a frequently breathtaking, often arresting feast for the eyes which warrants the format it was designed to embrace – IMAX. It is rare to find filmmaking so assured, so cohesive and so faithful to deeply beloved and classical source material while at the same time providing such a cinematic experience. Dune is a stunning piece of work in that context, one that could well be for the ages.
THE FRENCH DISPATCH (Wes Anderson) – looked and sounded wonderful, with a galaxy of an ensemble cast, but it felt a little like The Grand Budapest Hotel on steroids, and I found the episodic nature of the intricate narrative to ebb and flow. Might work for me better on a repeat watch.
JUDAS AND THE BLACK MESSIAH (Shaka King) – a powerful dramatisation of key Civil Rights history, with a tremendous main performance from Daniel Kaluyya, but it was a touch inert at points and not as propulsive as it could have been.
DON’T LOOK UP (Adam McKay) – a real firebrand of a picture, divisive in the extreme, but this worked for me as a post-satire piece of absurdist black comedy shining a light on our post-truth world. The tone is uneven but the cast is superb and many performances strike home.
THE MATRIX RESURRECTIONS (Lana Wachowski) – by no means a bad film, and certainly better overall than The Matrix Reloaded, this nonetheless had fascinating ideas about corporate IP culture and cyclical franchise filmmaking that were buried under lacklustre, cheap-looking execution. Didn’t work for me.
THE CONJURING: THE DEVIL MADE ME DO IT (Michael Chaves) – considering how vivid and genuinely frightening the first two pictures in this horror franchise were, this third entry was a huge, bland, rote step down. Just proves how integral James Wan’s direction to these films was.
THE MANY SAINTS OF NEWARK (Alan Taylor) – maybe our expectations were too high for this 60s-70s era set prequel to The Sopranos, even with David Chase scripting and many of the beloved characters involved. The magic of that seminal series was just missing.