December 16, 2021

Film

The best of 2021 on screen

By Shane Danielsen
Image of Liliane Amuat and Henriette Confurius in Ramon and Sylvan Zürcher’s film The Girl and the Spider. Image supplied

From left: Liliane Amuat and Henriette Confurius in Ramon and Sylvan Zürcher’s film The Girl and the Spider. Image supplied

This year may have been difficult to live through, but it produced an extraordinary crop of films

No single film emerged as a clear favourite this year in the way that Pedro Costa’s Vitalina Varela did last year (or as Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite did in 2019) – but who cares? 2021 might have been frustrating to live through, but it was an exceptionally strong year for cinema, as the sheer abundance of titles below indicates. 


Ten favourite films of 2021, in the order I encountered them

Petite Maman (Céline Sciamma, France)

Natural Light (Dénes Nagy, Hungary-Latvia)

The Girl and the Spider (Ramon and Sylvan Zürcher, Switzerland-Germany)

The Worst Person in the World (Joachim Trier, Norway)

Hit the Road (Panah Panahi, Iran)

A Hero (Asghar Farhadi, Iran)

The Green Knight (David Lowery, USA)

Dune (Denis Villeneuve, USA) 

Licorice Pizza (Paul Thomas Anderson, USA)

Parallel Mothers (Pedro Almodóvar, Spain)


Highly recommended

The Dog Who Wouldn’t Be Quiet (Ana Katz, Argentina)

Azor (Andreas Fontana, Switzerland-Argentina)

Les Olympiades (Paris, 13th District) (Jacques Audiard, France)

This Is Not a Burial, It's a Resurrection (Lemohang Jeremiah Mosese, Lesotho)

Drive My Car (Ryusuke Hamaguchi, Japan)

Nitram (Justin Kurzel, Australia)

Human Factors (Ronny Trocker, Germany-Italy-Denmark)

Titane (Julia Ducournau, France)

Shiva Baby (Emma Seligman, USA)

The Suicide Squad (James Gunn, USA)

Playground (Laura Wandel, France)

Great Freedom (Sebastian Meise, Austria)

Zola (Janicza Bravo, USA)

Bruno Reidal, Confession of a Murderer (Vincent Le Port, France)

Between Two Worlds (Emmanuel Carrère, France)

The Souvenir, Part II (Joanna Hogg, UK-Ireland)

Come True (Anthony Scott Burns, Canada)

The Employer and the Employee (Manuel Nieto Zas, Uruguay)

Erasing Frank (Gábor Fabricius, Hungary)

Murina (Antoneta Alamat Kusijanović, Croatia)

A Night of Knowing Nothing (Payal Kapadia, India)

Prayers for the Stolen (Tatiana Huezo, Mexico)

Piccolo Corpo (Small Body) (Laura Samani, Italy)

Medusa (Anita Rocha da Silveira, Brazil)

Ste. Anne (Rhayne Vermette, Canada)


Most ravishing visual image of the year

I could have picked almost any shot from Dune, but nothing made me catch my breath quite like the image of the circus tent coming down in Guillermo del Toro’s remake of Nightmare Alley. It’s a shame the rest of the film felt so perfunctory – meticulously designed and dramatically undernourished in the usual del Toro manner. (Sidenote: I wonder if Cate Blanchett will ever bother to act again?)


Biggest cry of the year

Anders Danielsen Lie’s final scenes in Joachim Trier’s The Worst Person in the World – specifically, his character Aksel’s stated wish to Renate Reinsve’s Julie. It’s a moment that, like the earphones-by-the-hospital-bedside scene in Katell Quillévéré’s Heal the Living, you can’t talk about with people, or even think about too closely, because you’ll just fall apart again.


Best horror movie of the year

In Anthony Scott Burns’s debut Come True, a young woman fleeing an abusive home (or is she?) embarks on a sleep study in the hope of understanding the nightmares that plague her – only to then find herself unable to escape them. The film’s aberrant air, its sense of something profoundly and fundamentally wrong with the world, made for deeply unsettling viewing. And while its batshit final twist annoyed some viewers, for me it only deepened the film’s nightmarish illogic, the feeling of drifting further and further from anything approaching empirical reality. A consummate craftsman (he wrote, directed, edited and scored the film), Burns also understands something that most of his peers have yet to figure out: the more you explain something, the less frightening it is.


Best documentary of the year

Payal Kapadia’s A Night of Knowing Nothing opens with a woman reading letters in voice-over to an absent lover, a student at India’s Film and Television Institute like herself, then slowly broadens its scope to encompass a fierce denunciation of Narendra Modi’s racist regime, and an indictment of the country’s caste system – all told in a succession of underlit 16mm black-and-white images that emerge like ghosts out of grainy darkness, accompanied by whispery non-diegetic sound. Haunted and mesmerising, it’s also lucid, impassioned and strident, and ends with brutal footage of police violence against protesting students – a handy reminder that, wherever in the world you are, cops are always your enemy.


Performances of the year

Alana Haim in Licorice Pizza

Murray Bartlett in The White Lotus

Penélope Cruz in Parallel Mothers

Rayan Sarlak in Hit the Road

Andie MacDowell in Maid


(Deliberately) funniest moment of the year

Idris Elba and John Cena taking out the “rebel camp” in The Suicide Squad. In a way-too-crowded marketplace, James Gunn is the only filmmaker who really gets comic books, and therefore knows what makes a superhero movie work. I’d take half an hour of this film – or either of his Guardians of the Galaxy movies – over anything from the Disney Industrial Complex.


(Inadvertently) funniest moment of the year

In Edgar Wright’s Last Night in Soho, Thomasin McKenzie’s tutor at fashion school looking at her (one) design and telling her, “I think you’re really onto something, here!” What, with an A-line Mary Quant minidress? Oh yeah, that’s fucking revolutionary. Look out, Martin Margiela!


Most infuriating film of the year

It’s rare that a director is incapable of crafting a single interesting or memorable image, yet somehow Mexican arthouse darling Michel Franco manages it. His previous film, the social-revolutionary drama New Order, at least managed to generate a flurry of worried think-pieces (Was it racist? Was it fascist?), but with Sundown, he’s back to his bad old self. Tim Roth plays a man who, when his mother dies while he’s on holiday in Acapulco, realises that he can’t be bothered returning for her funeral. While slumped at various beach bars getting drunk, and coming up with excuses to his sister back home, he strikes up a relationship with a local hottie (Iazua Larios), whose attraction to this paunchy, blankly impassive schlub borders on the science-fictional. Franco tells this drab tale – a moron’s take on the first sentence from Camus’ The Stranger – in a string of short, monotonal scenes that play out like camera-rehearsal takes. Dismal, lazy stuff.


Favourite TV series of the year

The North Water (BBC Two)

Maid (Netflix)

The White Lotus (HBO)

PEN15 (Stan)

Squid Game (Netflix)

Mr Inbetween (FX)

This Way Up (Stan)

Only Murders in the Building (Disney+)

The Pursuit of Love (BBC/Amazon Prime)


Albums I loved this year (not that you asked)

Piecework – Kowloon Walled City (Neurot)

I’ve Been Trying to Tell You – Saint Etienne (Heavenly)

HEY WHAT – Low (Sub Pop)

A Martyr's Reward – Ka (Iron Works)

Afrique Victime – Mdou Moctar (Matador)

Speaking of music, I’ve made you a Spotify playlist, dear reader: a collection of the tracks I loved most over the past 12 strange, stalled months. Play it while you’re unwrapping Chrissie presents, or as you’re enjoying a glass of something while the kids tear shit up. (Though maybe skip the Tommy Genesis song if they’re within earshot.)

Compliments of the season to you, and thanks for reading. May 2022 be better for us all.

Shane Danielsen

Shane Danielsen is a screenwriter and former artistic director of the Edinburgh International Film Festival.

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