Another year of Covid-19 ravaging the world and closing, and opening, and closing the theatres again has made the year a pretty complicated to follow, as films keep on dropping to theatres, or streamers, or delayed, or something in between. These are my top ten choices for 2021!
1. THE POWER OF THE DOG
A slow-burner of a western, but one with big, rotten, beating heart. Benedict Cumberbatch shows his chops in a much more toned-down version of himself compared to what he’s been playing lately, and it works brilliantly. Jesse Plemons is grounded, doesn’t try to steal the thunder but stands firmly as an essential building block of the film, and Kirsten Dunst and Kodi Smit-McPhee both fill the screen perfectly. Sprinkled with magical cinematography, a brooding soundtrack and a sturdy story, it’s definitely the best film of 2021, one that doesn’t make too much noise about itself, and might get swept away by big and loud ones like the Spider-Mans and Matrixes of the year.
2. SPIDER-MAN: NO WAY HOME
When superhero movies get their shit right, it’s a beauty to watch – and the new Spidey truly hits all the right notes. It’s not so much the story, which, honestly, makes quite a little actual sense, but the fact that some kids in the 60’s scribbled these crazy characters into comics, and steadily they’ve made their mark in cultural history over so many generations. And to see one era of those heroes being wrapped up in a billion-dollar-hit movie that brings together characters from all the previous movies, it’s a marvel to witness. Pure popcorn fun!
3. WHITE TIGER
I’ve grown to like the modern Indian movie industry more and more in recent years, so it was nice to see an Indian-American film making its’ way into Oscars in 2021 (for the best-adapted screenplay). The film tells a story of a cunning kid who finds a way to escape poverty by becoming a driver for a rich family. Things go wrong and the film becomes a commentary on the huge gulf separating the servant class and the rich in contemporary India and does it in a lush, Indian filmmaking way (no, no musical sequences, though). The story flows on like Ganges and production from acting to the camera and directing is strong.
4. SHANG-CHI AND THE LEGEND OF TEN RINGS
Damn it, I feel a bit dumb having two Marvel movies in my top-5, but it’s undeniable: they had a very good year this year, and Shang-Chi was only a few inches less impressive than Spider-Man. I failed to really understand the meaning of the ten rings, but it didn’t matter – it felt like a proper Chinese epic dozed with American sensibilities and modern visuals, and had some of the most amazing action sequences in recent history (the bus fight… oh my god!), it was more popcorn fun, a great way to forget we’re fighting against a devastating pandemic for few hours. In these times, it’s a respectable achievement on its’ own.
5. DON’T LOOK UP
I wish I could’ve pushed Don’t Look Up a bit higher on the list, but unfortunately, it’s a very flawed satire, but an enjoyable one. Many have been saying it’s a commentary on the climate crisis, but I disagree: climate crisis films talk about a man-made crisis people refuse to fix since they are too dependant on their own lifestyle – an asteroid approaching Earth doesn’t really fit that scheme. Instead, Don’t Look Up is a film that discusses the ridiculousness of the two-party political system in the US, the over-politicization of each and every aspect of modern life, and the rampant science denialism, sprinkled with the tragedy that is the handling of the Covid-19 -crisis. The multitude of issues the film unfortunately somewhat collapses under include some very sketchy visual effects, annoyingly bad editorial and music score decisions, and a ridiculously expensive cast that serves no apparent purpose in the grand scheme of things (I’m sure Netflix will disagree with me on this). Still, the film leaves you feeling bad, maybe more so than having a good laugh, but points a big fat finger at the world we live in and the future we’re headed for. I can’t help to mention I did hear some, maybe unintentional and unrelated, echoes from Iron Sky in the film, but maybe that’s just me.
6. THE MITCHELLS VS. THE MACHINES
Dysfunctional families in a nice and kind way are great comedy fodder for family animations, and often produce a serviceable but not very intriguing results. The Mitchells vs. The Machines manages to spark some light into the rather worn-out genre by bringing in a robot apocalypse with loads of cultural references from Tik Tok -videos to films and more. I’m sure this year there’s been even better animations that came out, but I mostly missed them, but did enjoy The Mitchells – fast-paced, loaded with fun action sequences and a nice voice cast.
7. NO TIME TO DIE
Daniel Craig wrapped his duty as Agent 007 in No Time To Die, a humongously long but strangely emotional Bond film that entertained a host of fun new ideas, biggest one of them of course being Bond’s death (which, for the record, I don’t believe in any way; we didn’t see his dead body, so likely he made some kind of a weird escape and we’ll see him back in action in few years, different actor for sure but unharmed). Weirdly, the action sequences weren’t very remarkable, some nice chases and badass characters, but mostly, it was a film that finished one episode in our popular culture and made way for the next episodes. Despite the long runtime, I was entertained, but rarely really moved.
8. GHOSTBUSTERS: AFTERLIFE
Being one of the few who didn’t hate the 2016 Ghostbusters, I went into the theatre expecting a fun brains-off entertainment in the extended universe of Ghostbusters – and was served with one. Mashup of Stranger Things and a mixed bag of Ghostbusters lore, Afterlife focused more on introducing a new set of characters than playing with the oldies goldies. I wasn’t remarkably enthusiastic about the new cast of characters, they felt like weak shadows of what the original ones were, with too much studio flavoring to make them last beyond this one film, but it was nice to see the three remaining ones still kicking some ghost ass in the end, and a weird revisitation of Harold Ramis‘ ghost which I think worked OK in the mix. Having said that, the third act was a carbon copy of the first film’s third act, which felt really sloppy writing for the most part.
9. THE MATRIX: RESURRECTIONS
Hated by many, the latest (and quite possibly the last) entry in the Matrix universe, Resurrections tried (and many times, failed) to do something different, and to that, I’ll have my hat off. It’s really hard to do a proper Matrix sequel, and both number 2 and 3 failed at it, trying to meticulously explain what was left unsaid in the first part of the series. None of the three sequels were needed, but Resurrections wanted to be a sequel of the 2020’s, self-aware and meta. Where it succeeded was grounding the story – something that both part 2 and 3 just decided not to worry about: it started off in what appeared to be in “real life”, like part 1 did, and stayed there long enough to be intriguing, but started to falter again when it fell too much in love with itself and wanted to explain everything, making the experience feel like being stuck in the matrix.
10. BO BURNHAM: INSIDE
I guess this one doesn’t really count as movie, rather a standup special, but one worthy of mention here, as it so well encapsuled the 2020-2021 lockdown depression cycle every artist had to go through. Taking a stab at every conceivable modern popular culture phenomenon from reaction videos to TikTok fame, Instagram emptiness to video games, comedian Bo Burnham crafted this meta-special in what appeared to be his home during lockdown, discussing the mind-numbing experience of being stuck inside, with nothing but depression and Internet to entertain you.