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  • Writer's picturePerrin Faerch

My 100 Favourite Films of 2021 (25-1)

Here are the previous lists...




They're filled with some goodies so definitely have a look if you like that kind of thing...


So, again, I wanted to post the remaining 50 in one big post but unfortunately it exceeded the size limit I am allowed to post so soz about that.


Here's a little reminder on the process in compiling this list. Just in case you didn't see it in the last two posts...


I watched 362 films from last year that meet the criteria for this list. A lot of them I loved, a lot of them I didn't. The eventual, final shortlist was comprised of 168 movies, all of which are films I thoroughly enjoyed. So as you can imagine, I had my work cut out for me as I attempt to whittle it down to an even 100.


So, what were the criteria for qualifying for this list? Some of these films debuted in 2019 and 2020, but only at film festivals that were barely accessible to the wider public. So everything on here made their debuts outside of that bubble through wider theatrical runs, streaming premieres, virtual screenings, etc. in countries like the USA, UK and South Africa. Although a film like The Worst Person in the World made most end-of-year lists for 2021 by critics and publications alike, most of the general public didn't have access to it. It only made its full theatrical debut this year, so it will qualify for my 2022 lists.


Unlike my 50 Favourite Performances of the Year list, this one is in order, or the best order I could put them in, at least. Remember, this is all my subjective opinion, in no way am I saying which film is better than the other. These are films that just resonated with me the most, some more than others. It eventually boils down to what I enjoyed the most and connected with that adhere to my taste and who I am.


Anyways, here it finally is. I know these might be controversial but it's like, just my opinion, man...


25. Dune

Director: Denis Villeneuve

Genre/s: Sci-Fi/Adventure/Action Length: 2 Hours 35 Minutes Country: USA Language: English

Cast: Timothée Chalamet, Rebecca Ferguson, Oscar Isaac, Jason Momoa, Stephen McKinley Henderson, Stellan Skarsgård, Josh Brolin, David Dastmalchian, Charlotte Rampling, Dave Bautista, Javier Bardem, Chang Chen, Zendaya, Sharon Duncan-Brewster, Babs Olusanmokun

Synopsis: House Atreides accepts the duty of protecting and mining the planet of Arrakis for its valuable asset of the spice melange, a substance needed in order to make space travel possible. But after a series of betrayals, Arrakis breaks out into all-out war as House Harkonnen plan on regaining control over the desert planet.


My Take: Dune super fan Denis Villeneuve gives us an adaptation for the ages that is true to the source material’s grand, sweeping scope. It may just be the first half of the novel, but it’s a cohesive adaptation that balances pleasing its diehard followers as well as drawing in new fans that never resorts to eye-rolling exposition or leaving newcomers too deep in the dark. Villeneuve understands what makes the book so timely through its themes of politics, colonization and man’s harmful need for resources (just to name a few), but he also understands what makes it so special; giving us thematic depth through careful calibration of each character and their purpose among one another in the world of Dune. But it’s Villeneuve and editor Joe Walker’s understanding of fate vs. free will that is among the most impressive interpretations found in Dune, creating a visually seamless conflict between reality and hypothesis that adds to the film’s dreamlike allure. Although epic in sheer size and volume, Dune keeps the intricacies of its aesthetics simple, allowing the characters to stand out as its most complex and compelling moving pieces. It’s a true spectacle that is big, loud, gorgeous and surprisingly intimate. They don’t make blockbusters like this anymore. Bring on Part II.


Where you can watch it: Most VOD platforms (Worldwide). 4K UHD, Blu-ray, DVD (Worldwide)


24. The Tragedy of Macbeth

Director: Joel Coen

Genre/s: Drama/Thriller/Fantasy Length: 1 Hour 45 Minutes Country: USA Language: English

Cast: Denzel Washington, Frances McDormand, Kathryn Hunter, Alex Hassell, Bertie Carvel, Brendan Gleeson, Corey Hawkins, Harry Melling

Synopsis: A minimalist, stripped-down adaptation of the Shakespearean play, Scottish lord Macbeth (Denzel Washington) and his wife Lady Macbeth (Frances McDormand) make an ambitious swoop for power after being visited by three witches who claim he will be the king of Scotland.


My Take: Macbeth is actually such an obvious choice for The Coen Brothers (although just Joel Coen for this outing). They share the same venomous, nihilistic sense of humour as its author, relishing in its protagonist’s doomed fate as foreshadowed by the Witches. But Joel Coen doesn’t look to do an exact adaptation here, twisting, changing and stripping down key elements that allow for the film to be the freshest, most original film adaptation of the text since Kurosawa’s Throne of Blood (1957), one which set Macbeth in Feudal Japan. Its titular character and Lady Macbeth (an outstanding duo of Denzel Washington and Frances McDormand) are significantly older than what we have seen and expect of these characters in the past - two battle-hardened individuals in the twilight of their lives, looking to finally take what is owed to them. This dynamic shifts the meaning in its themes of loyalty and fate entirely here, with their age playing along to the rhythm of a ticking clock, running down the minutes before their doomed fate is all but confirmed. Joel Coen, along with cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel and its production designers in Stefan Dechant and Nancy Haigh, create a mystic, surreal dreamscape that truly feels not of this world. Drawing from German Expressionism, Macbeth is a symmetrical, surrealist marvel, placing its familiar characters in entirely unfamiliar territories that let us digest each character without the distractions of over-dressed and overcomplicated sets. It’s as though we are witnessing something completely new: a ghostly tragi-noir that twists, contorts and squawks like its Witches, inviting us to feast on the flesh of the ill-fated Scotsman as we savour new flavours we never knew existed until now.


Where you can watch it: Apple TV+ (Worldwide)


23. All Light, Everywhere

Director: Theo Anthony

Genre: Documentary Length: 1 Hour 48 Minutes Country: USA Language: English

Synopsis: An eye-opening documentary that argues objectivity vs. subjectivity in everything we see, primarily focusing its attention on the invention and history of the camera and its constant evolution.


My Take: At the beginning of the film, we are introduced to a narrator. She speaks of an optic nerve in our eye that is connected to the brain. This is our blind spot and she serves as the voice to fill that hole, one we cannot see ourselves. Director Theo Anthony opts to provide this voice as the only real form of objectivity within the film, but even then, by his own admission through footage of the film’s edit timeline, dictates what we see and hear throughout All Light. There is almost no way to be entirely objective through the lens of a camera, as what it sees and how it functions is determined entirely by its creator, including the director of this film. We go through a myriad of revelations relating to the camera: from its initial designs resembling guns, to a terrifying collage pertaining to Galton Pictorial Statistics, a racist system based on stereotypes that overlay facial features from different people to determine what future criminals will look like - people that have never existed and will never exist. All Light always ends up circling back to the Axon bodycam - a device worn by the US police force that is supposed to replicate the human eye as best as it can in order to offer an objective account in justifying certain actions made by its wearer. Anthony understands the supposed good intentions behind this, but soon shows the glaring flaws in its design: one that allows its operator to remain unseen as they determine what we see through its distorted point of view – a blindspot never revealing the full picture.


Where you can watch it: Hulu (USA), Most VOD platforms (USA)


22. Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy

Director: Ryûsuke Hamaguchi

Genre: Drama Length: 2 Hours 1 Minute Country: Japan Language: Japanese

Cast: Katone Furukawa, Katsuki Mori, Kiyohiko Shibukawa, Ayumu Nakajima, Hyunri Lee, Aoba Kawai, Fusako Urabe, Shouma Kai

Synopsis: Three stories centring around the romantic lives of three different women. A woman’s best friend falls in love with her ex, a bitter student asks his lover to trap his university professor, two high school friends reunite for the first time in 20 years.


My take: In 2021, Ryûsuke Hamaguchi delivered not one, but two knockouts, with Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy being one of them. Hamaguchi’s two near-flawless works in 2021 may be different in plot and some varying themes, but they remain close cousins thanks to a common theme found within most of his works: lies circling around each other before finally unravelling the thick coat of string wrapped around the truth at its centre. Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy is filled with near-love stories, ones at the end or at the start of romantic ventures that are strained, tested or fabricated by its antagonists and protagonists as they look to justify and go along with lies that could give their existence some meaning once more. It’s an evocative entry point in Hamaguchi’s sprawling, multi-layered filmography - highlighting a prevalent theme of his that has him at his poignant, conversational best.


Where you can watch it: Eventive (Worldwide), Most VOD platforms (USA), Blu-ray (USA)


21. Identifying Features

Director: Fernanda Valadez

Genre: Drama Length: 1 Hour 35 Minutes Countries: Mexico/Spain Languages: Spanish

Cast: Mercedes Hernández, David Illescas, Juan Jesús Varela

Synopsis: Fernanda Valadez co-writes and directs this border drama that follows Magdalena (Mercedes Hernández), a woman in search of her son who is reportedly dead after he leaves to cross the border from Mexico into America in search of work. She eventually links up with Miguel (David Illescas), a recently deported young man returning home in hopes of reuniting with his own family.


My Take: There’s a quiet devastation that lingers beneath the surface of Identifying Features. It softly rumbles, dislodging the dirt and sand beneath the characters’ feet, with us not quite knowing when it will give and swallow them whole. Fernanda Valadez captures a story that is cruel, vicious and disconcerting in its beautiful, surreal undertones - sending Magdelena (Mercedes Hernández) on a trip towards the heart of darkness that grows murkier the closer she gets to evil and potentially the devil himself. This journey is made all the more effective by the unpredictable and unknowable nature of silence. It slithers slowly across the Mexican desert, preying on Magdalena’s impending grief that could very well spring on her the moment her son’s death is all but confirmed. This silence is deafening, with Valadez and sound designer Zvook orchestrating an intimidating sense of dread that constantly looms over it. It’s a film made by the most assured of filmmakers able to harness the senses of trauma and grief to deliver something both horrific and strangely beautiful. You can read my extended thoughts on it over here.


Where you can watch it: HBO Max (USA), BFI Player (UK), Stan (Australia), Most VOD platforms (USA)


20. My Heart Can’t Beat Unless You Tell It To

Director: Jonathan Cuartas

Genre/s: Drama/Horror Length: 1 Hour 30 Minutes Country: USA Languages: English/Spanish

Cast: Patrick Fugit, Ingrid Sophie Schram, Owen Campbell, Moises L. Tovar, Judah Bateman

Synopsis: Dwight and Jessie (Patrick Fugit and Ingrid Schram) are tasked with having to take care of their sickly younger brother Thomas (Owen Campbell), who may or may not be a vampire.


My Take: On its surface, My Heart is a vampire survival story. But beneath its gorgeously textured gothic horror, it serves as a highly effective allegory for family and the crushing weight of responsibility and sacrifice that comes with it. There’s an atmosphere of quiet dread that lingers throughout each frame that isn’t just limited to the murkiness of their boarded-up home. This stench of inevitable death pervades each one of them wherever they go, feeling the heavy burden of this responsibility holding them down as all joy appears to be lost from their existence. It’s such an effective depiction of caring for a dying loved one that looks at the dynamics of a family having to shape their lives around one person, never able to grant true freedom to Thomas and themselves. Dwight often goes through the notions of guilt and self-loathing as he wants and needs to escape from this burden in order for him to be happy again, while Jessie is having to bear the brunt of all the responsibilities on her shoulders. She takes the helm of being both matriarch and patriarch of the family, trapping herself in the responsibilities and sacrifices she feels she owes to her siblings, never breaking free from the emotional, psychological and physical toll it continues to place on all of them. Although a moody gothic horror, My Heart’s true form is that of a domestic drama that paints a grim, accurate portrait of a family needing to move on in order to be truly happy again.


Where you can watch it: Prime Video, Peacock (USA), Shudder (USA, UK), most VOD platforms (USA, UK), Blu-ray (USA)


19. Passing

Director: Rebecca Hall Genre: Drama Length: 1 Hour 38 Minutes Country: USA/UK/Canada Language: English Cast: Tessa Thompson, Ruth Negga, André Holland, Bill Camp, Alexander Skarsgård Synopsis: Adapted from the 1929 novel by Nella Larsen, Passing takes place mostly in Harlem where Irene (Tessa Thompson) reunites with childhood friend Clare (Ruth Negga), who is now passing as a white woman.

My Take: Racial identity is a key focal point in Passing, but Rebecca Hall manages to stretch beyond race and explore other important topics like class and even sexual identity, which lets Passing speak on multiple levels and relate to even wider audiences. The act of passing is to hide in plain sight that doesn’t just limit one to race, but also that of sexual orientation, gender, class, religion, etc. People who can effectively “pass” allow for themselves to reap the benefits that playing it white, straight, male or wealthy may give them. “We’re all passing as something or other”, Irene (Tessa Thompson) says to her friend who could be passing as straight in a hetero-dominated world. It’s an effective line coming from her as it adds an extra layer to the complexities of her character, but it also allows for Hall to let each one of her viewers in - regardless of background as we attempt to relate to and understand why these people do what they do and why they feel they need to do it. Passing is a sensitive story of race and identity that could've been mishandled by any filmmaker, let alone a first-timer in Rebecca Hall, but thanks to her deeply personal connection with the story and its characters, she handles it with a heightened level of sincerity that you’d expect only from the most experienced and instinctive of veteran filmmakers. You can read my extended thoughts on it over here.

Where you can watch it: Netflix (Worldwide)


18. Notturno

Director: Gianfranco Rosi Genre/s: Documentary/War Length: 1 Hour 40 Minutes Country: Italy/France/Germany Languages: Arabic/Kurdish Synopsis: Filmed over three years, Notturno takes us to the borders of Iraq, Kurdistan, Syria and Lebanon as we are shown the daily lives of its residents dealing with the effects of war.

My Take: Taking us to the borders of Iraq, Kurdistan, Syria and Lebanon, Notturno is not about how we got to this point, but about the ordinary people having to adapt and live in the smouldering ruins left behind by tyrannical leaders, foreign invasions and the looming threat of terrorism. Living in our safe bubbles on the other side of the world, director Gianfranco Rosi places us right in the presence of his subjects, utilizing his distinct style that makes us the fly on the wall, absorbing every nuanced detail. Rosi’s style isn’t for everyone though. Besides some important info at the beginning to contextualise the Middle East in Notturno, he never uses exposition again. There are no talking heads, no text scrolls updating us on where we are or who are speaking to, etc. It’s not needed. His visuals make up for the lack of dialogue in Notturno, letting the imagery of these moments do the talking instead. Authenticity, true authenticity is the very heart and soul of what makes documentaries an entirely different beast to narrative filmmaking. So Rosi does what he does best, he observes. We don’t push and prod our subjects, we just go with the flow, watching them adapt within their extreme environments. It’s authentic, and it’s that authenticity that makes Notturno such a vital piece of art from one of our greatest filmmakers. You can read my extended thoughts on it over here.


Where you can watch it: Hulu (USA), Mubi (UK), Most VOD platforms (USA, UK), Blu-ray (UK)


17. Bad Luck Banging or Loony Porn

Director: Radu Jude Genre/s: Black Comedy/Drama/Experimental Length: 1 Hour 46 Minutes Countries: Romania Languages: Romanian, English, Czech, French, Russian Cast: Katia Pascariu, Claudia Ieremia, Olimpia Mălai, Nicodim Ungureanu, Alexandru Potocean, Andi Vasluianu. Synopsis: Emi (Katia Pascariu), a history teacher at a prestigious school in Bucharest, finds her reputation in shambles as she deals with the aftermath of her private sex tape being leaked online.

My Take: Radu Jude is a filmmaker that often has no interest in masking his anger and frustrations with nuance and delicately crafted metaphors hidden beneath more delicately crafted metaphors. And although Bad Luck Banging or Loony Porn has some smartly layered observations and discussions, it works best when it consistently finds itself hurling mud back towards the vulgar hypocrisy of Romania’s past and present - something Jude has often addressed and confronted in his works, drawing attention to his homeland’s icky relationship with racism, sexism and violence. Jude has no intention of focusing solely on the internal and external problems facing Emi (Katia Pascariu), what he looks to do is contextualize and explore what is happening in the world and its society around her. It isn’t just a film about the hypocrisy of one nation, it is easily relatable anywhere within our current cultural landscape - unpacking where we were, where we are right now, and where we find ourselves heading. Jude also doesn’t follow any narrative traditions for Bad Luck Banging, dividing the film into three wildly distinct parts (stylistically and structurally) as well as providing us with three alternate endings. With each part, we are provided the same recurring themes addressed and challenged in vastly different ways to further amplify the ideas and intentions of Bad Luck Banging’s mission. Although I loved the hell out of Bad Luck Banging, it’s not a film I would readily recommend to anyone. It thrives on its inability to be subtle, a necessary antagonizer that may rub a lot of people the wrong way as it looks to provoke as often as it can. The rightful winner at last year’s Berlin Film Festival for Best Film, Bad Luck Banging is an exasperating, bizarre, ugly, hilarious, scary, sobering, depressing and undeniably entertaining showcase into the wild and unpredictable mind of Radu Jude, who remains one of cinema's truly great provocateurs right now. You can read my extended thoughts on it over here.

Where you can watch it: Hulu (USA), Most VOD platforms (USA, UK)


16. Minari

Director: Lee Isaac Chung

Genre: Drama Length: 1 Hour 55 Minutes Country: USA Languages: Korean/English

Cast: Steven Yeun, Youn Yuh-jung, Han Ye-ri, Alan S. Kim, Noel Cho, Will Patton

Synopsis: Lee Isaac Chung’s Minari is a semi-autobiographical story of a Korean family’s move to an Arkansas farm in search of the American Dream.


My Take: Delicate, sincere and contemplative, Minari is Lee Isaac Chung’s endearing love letter to family, faith and the immigrant story’s insistent desire to carve a piece out of the American Dream. It’s a story about the stubborn resolve of its family, particularly that of Jacob (Steven Yeun), as he looks to turn his new property into a true Garden of Eden, one that would be his American Dream. His wife Monica (Han Ye-ri) is less enthusiastic though, prioritizing her energy on keeping this family together while Jacob chases an unlikely dream in an increasingly stubborn land. With the aid of Monica’s mother in Soonja (Youn Yuh-jung), Minari is given an important piece of symbolism that the film is named after: a celery-type plant native to East Asia that is known to thrive in its second season after a difficult first. It’s a key motif found throughout Minari, implying that this time of great difficulty shall pass, allowing for the death of its first season to give life to a fruitful second.


Where you can watch it: Showmax (SA), Showtime (USA), Sky Go (UK), Stan (Australia), Most VOD platforms (USA, UK, Australia), Blu-ray (USA, UK)


15. Little Girl

Director: Sébastien Lifshitz

Genre: Documentary/LGBTQ+ Length: 1 Hour 28 Minutes Country: France/Denmark Language: French

Synopsis: In Little Girl, we follow the journey of gender identity and ultimately, gender liberation of Sasha, an 8-year-old who questions her identity, and with the help of her family, allows Sasha to fully come to terms with who she knows to be her true self.


My Take: Little Girl is a revelation of a film. It’s not only important for LGBTQ+ communities and their allies, but it also proves to be essential viewing for parents, kids, and well, everyone, really, as we continue to try and understand the complexities of gender identity that goes far beyond arguments of “But it’s biology! You’ll never be a girl! You’ll never be a boy!”. Sasha is 8-years old, so it’s only natural for most people to assume that this is a mere phase in a child’s life, something her parents thought at first as she would play dress up and pretend to be someone she has been told she is not. But Sasha is different, and this is what Sébastien Lifshitz does so brilliantly with Little Girl is that he shows us that this really isn’t just a phase. Lifshitz is smart in how he relays information throughout Little Girl that remains true to its delicate nature. We never get traditional talking heads following a specific set of questions and answers for context - instead, we witness honest, organic and incredibly intimate interactions play out between parents, children and a child psychologist that paint an informative picture of the external and internal conflicts Sasha, and others like her, battle on a daily basis. Little Girl is a stunning piece of filmmaking that gives us a chance to understand the complexities of gender identity and the liberating effects it has on those fighting to break free from the expectations placed upon them. Sasha and her family are endlessly inspiring, showing that love can still prevail in a world overcrowded with hate and ignorance. It’s not only one of the most important films you will see from 2021, it's one of the most important films you will ever see. You can read my extended thoughts on it over here.


Where you can watch it: Most VOD platforms (USA, UK), Netflix (France), Blu-ray (USA)

14. Beginning

Director: Dea Kulumbegashvili

Genre: Drama Length: 2 Hours 5 Minutes Countries: Georgia/France Languages: Georgian/English

Cast: Ia Sukhitashvili, Kakha Kintsurashvili, Rati Oneli, Saba Gogichaishvili

Synopsis: Beginning follows Jana (Ia Sukhitashvili), a devout wife to a Jehovah’s Witness religious leader David (Rati Oneli). During a service, a firebomb is thrown into their chapel, burning it to the ground. In order for David to receive help in setting up a new building within their community, David leaves to ask leaders in his church for assistance, leaving Jana to look after their son by herself.


My Take: The character of Jana (Ia Sikhitashvili) is the tragic centrepiece to the biblical themes that are at hand in Beginning, particularly that of Abraham and his test of devout faith that required him to sacrifice his son to prove it. Placed within the patriarchal bubble of her religious community as nothing more than a dutiful wife and mother, Jana constantly finds herself at odds with the world around her as a woman both physically and spiritually. We begin to see a harsh brutality of the physical world that begins to chip and hack away at her mental and somatic well-being - all appearing to be cruel tests of her faith, much like the story of Abraham. Although it sounds like Jana is a constant victim throughout, she is never really written or even portrayed as one at all. Instead, Kulumbegashvili and Sukhitashvili give us a woman fighting to discover herself in all this as a mother, wife and finally, a woman of faith as she fights against the elements that look to destroy her. Beginning is a slow-burner - a tragedy of biblical proportions as we follow a woman grappling with the ideals and teachings of her faith, community, family as well as her place within all of them. Dea Kulumbegashvili’s debut feature-length is a momentous piece of introspective filmmaking that announces her as a poetic filmmaker of the highest order. You can read my extended thoughts on it over here.


Where you can watch it: Mubi (USA, UK), Most VOD platforms (USA, UK, Australia), Blu-ray (USA, UK)


13. Flee

Director: Jonas Poher Rasmussen

Genre/s: Animation/Documentary/LGBTQ+ Length: 1 Hour 29 Minutes Country: Denmark Languages: Danish, Dari, Russian, Swedish

Synopsis: Flee follows the subject of Amin Nawabi, a refugee from Afghanistan now living in Copenhagen as a successful academic who is also about to marry his long-term boyfriend. Under the encouragement of his close friend and director of the film, Jonas Poher Rasmussen, Amin is allowed to finally tell his story that is steeped in trauma and his endless desire to find a home.


My Take: Displacement is what the refugee story has always been about, but Flee shows us that at the very heart of any refugee’s story is that of identity. Amin mentions that you grow up too fast when you flee as a child. You are forced to survive by completely burying your national, cultural, and even sexual identity as you desperately look for a place to finally call home. Rasmussen’s handling of Amin’s story is so careful that he never lets the animation take away from his story. He surrenders himself to Amin, letting him take full control of his story and steer the ship towards a much-needed confrontation of his past. Although its gorgeous animation is a visually effective tool in linking trauma and sensory memory, it still somehow takes a backseat that never feels like a gimmick that would take away from Amin’s tireless journey in finding home – one that embraces him for his cultural, racial and sexual identity. It's a true survival story that is both a devastating and completely uplifting experience you won't forget any time soon. You can read my extended thought on it over here.


Where you can watch it: Hulu (USA), In select cinemas (UK, Australia), Blu-ray (USA)


12. Red Rocket

Director: Sean Baker

Genre/s: Comedy/Drama Length: 2 Hours 10 Minutes Country: USA Language: English

Cast: Simon Rex, Bree Elrod, Suzanna Son, Brenda Deiss, Ethan Darbone, Judy Hill, Brittney Rodriguez, Shih-Ching-Tsou

Synopsis: Mikey Saber (Rex Simon), a washed-up porn star and charming con-man, looks to work his way back to the big time when he is forced to lick his wounds in his Texan hometown, one that barely tolerates him.


My Take (minor spoilers): Sean Baker’s latest is a rhythmic, disturbing character study on exploitation, one that follows said exploits of washed-up porn star Mikey Saber. We know nothing about him. The opening moments of Red Rocket shows him sporting bruises and cuts as he traverses through his dilapidated home town - trudging past broken-down homes with a purpose in mind. Although we follow Mikey at every given moment of the film, Baker and Rex never allow us to truly get into the head of this man, only showing his external comings and goings as he plots and schemes his way back to the top. We find ourselves completely hooked by his allure - regaling us with stories of his past and place in the industry that are most definitely bullshit, but entertaining nonetheless. He's funny and magnetic but struggles to curry favour with those all too familiar with his antics. But like the neighbour and Strawberry, a young woman working at a doughnut shop, we eat up every word he sells as a means of escape to a glamorous world we know nothing about - an escape from small-town boredom. But then something switches. His magic starts to work, eventually drawing those from his past back into his web again as he regains the upper hand where we begin to see the true exploitative, psychotic con-artist in Mikey Saber come to light. He’s an objectively despicable person, a suitcase pimp willing to screw everyone over to get what he wants. But somehow Simon Rex manages to do the impossible and make him likeable, adding a boyish charm and charisma to him that, along with the townspeople, we end up falling for, despite us seeing how vile he actually is. When Sean Baker finally lets us into the head of Mikey, we are given a POV through the male gaze of Mikey Saber, culminating into a moment of delusion and wishful thinking that quickly turns Red Rocket into one of the most disturbing films of 2021.


Where you can watch it: In select theatres (UK, Australia), Most VOD platforms (USA), Blu-ray, 15 March)


11. The Killing of Two Lovers

Director: Robert Machoian

Genre: Drama/Thriller Length: 1 Hour 25 Minutes Country: USA Language: English

Cast: Clayne Crawford, Sepideh Moafi, Chris Coy, Avery Pizzuto

Synopsis: The Killing of Two Lovers follows David (Clayne Crawford) as he fights to keep his family together while he and his wife (Sepideh Moafi) are going through a separation. But the prospect of a new romantic relationship for his wife is something he struggles to accept.


My Take: The Killing of Two Lovers is essentially a film of two halves: one a thriller, one a family drama. Director, writer, producer and editor Robert Machoian understands the tropes and stylings of thrillers and domestic dramas extremely well. It’s all so evident in how he lays down the groundwork and how he effectively follows through with his dialogue, plot beats and overall execution through visual and aural cues. Opening plot and character beats suggest the events of a thriller, but soon after that, Machoian cleverly reroutes us - focusing on what is more important for character development instead of introducing easy conflict that would effectively go along with the title of the film. Machoian still keeps the rumbling surge of a thriller throughout, injecting the same sense of urgency, doubt, fear, anxiety and suspense that the genre demands - making use of sound, music and specific shot choices in order to create a POV into David's (Clayne Crawford) internal monologues. And although there have been relationship dramas in the past that have skewed our thoughts on what they typically have to be, Machoian adds additional layers that show what a thriller can be in the context of our own lives and struggles within a domestic drama - picking and pulling at our own anxieties and insecurities as much as David does. Machoian and his team expertly toe the line between the two genres, and thanks to a brilliant cast, allows for the film to be both touching and deeply disconcerting as well. You can read my extended thoughts on it over here.


Where you can watch it: Hulu (USA), BFI Player (UK), Most VOD platforms (USA, UK, Australia)


10. Spencer

Director: Pablo Larraín

Genre: Drama Length: 1 Hour 57 Minutes Countries: UK/Germany/Chile/USA Language: English

Cast: Kristen Stewart, Timothy Spall, Sally Hawkins, Jack Farthing, Sean Harris, Jack Nielen, Freddie Spry

Synopsis: “A fable from a true tragedy”. Spencer is a psychological drama exploring the internal battles Princess Diana (Kristen Stewart) possibly experienced during her Christmas stay at Sandringham Estate amidst scandals of affairs and potential divorce.


My Take: Spencer isn’t your cookie-cutter royal biopic. It’s a tense, claustrophobic, and often experimental psychological drama with all the characteristics of a thriller and even a horror. It’s jam-packed with visual metaphors through performance, wardrobe, production design, cinematography, and sound. It’s breathing with life, a terrifying monster that has its claws sinking deeper into Diana and ourselves as we go deeper into the fears, anxieties and desires of a woman struggling to find her footing and place within her own story. The past, present and future are key in breaking down the film’s journey for Diana. Although most of these intimate moments most likely didn’t happen to her, their place within the story is important in understanding the psychology of a woman with her back against the wall - battling not only the ghosts of traditions past, but that of her own as she looks to rediscover herself once more. Larraín and Knight cleverly utilise elements of magic-realism throughout to highlight these ideas, allowing us to delve deep into the psychology of a woman on the verge of either a breakdown or an important breakthrough.


Kristen Stewart lives and breathes this role, fully immersing herself within the headspace of a woman who just so happens to be Princess Diana, terrified and uncertain of her role to come as a woman and mother. It’s a breathtaking performance that is somehow certain and uncertain all at once - a claustrophobic panic attack that is an increasingly unique interpretation of a woman undergoing a personal crisis, revealing its finite complexities with each rewatch. Spencer is a unique interpretation of a now myth-like icon in Princess Diana. It may not be an accurate representation of the events that transpired, but it looks to place us in the mind of someone going through this crisis of tradition - an eternal battle with our past, present and future that we can choose to roll over and accept or break free from it, becoming the true masters of our own story.


Where you can watch it: In select theatres (SA), Hulu (USA), Prime Video (Australia), Most VOD platforms (USA, UK), Blu-ray (USA, UK)


9. Gunda

Director: Viktor Kosakovskiy

Genre: Documentary Length: 1 Hour 33 Minutes Countries: Norway, USA, UK Language: None

Synopsis: An intimate glimpse into the lives of farm animals that includes the titular mother sow and her newborn pigs, a herd of cows, and a one-legged chicken.


My Take: Gunda wants to challenge your perception of the animals that most commonly feed us. It doesn't want to be a piece of vegan propaganda that floods your senses with inane cruelty and ugliness that unfortunately exists in mass industrial farming. But instead, it wants to show you their lives in uninterrupted splendour through the good, the bad and the ugly. Kossakovsky’s decisions in how to capture this environment through sound and audio are absolutely vital. There is no one relaying any kind of information to us, no context in regards to the farm or where we are, no swelling music dictating how we should feel, no movie star narrating, hell, there are no humans at all in Gunda. All we have is the sounds and images of these animals in this environment. It’s all we need. It’s gorgeous in its ethereal, dream-like quality, but it is also sure to remind us of the ugly inevitable truth that comes with these animals' lives. Kossakovsky refuses to bombard us with facts, hypotheticals, and a clear line in the sand with which side he chooses to stand on. And although a vegan, he doesn’t preach his agenda to us as he doesn’t need to. He lets us watch and listen instead, trusting us to take something profound away from it all and come to a decision on our own. It certainly isn’t for everyone, but Gunda is as cinematic as cinema can get, challenging its viewers with striking visuals and compelling characters that will no doubt spark an important conversation within yourself. You can read my extended thoughts on it over here.


Where you can watch it: Hulu (USA), Most VOD platforms (USA, UK, Australia)




8. Titane

Director: Julia Ducournau

Genre/s: Drama/Horror Length: 1 Hour 48 Minutes Country: France/Belgium Language: French

Cast: Agathe Rousselle, Vincent Lindon, Garance Marillier

Synopsis: Alexis (Agathe Rousselle), a car showroom dancer with a metal plate in her head, has a penchant for grisly murders and an unhealthy attraction to cars. She soon finds herself on the run after a wave of gruesome killings grips the south of France, forcing her to hide under the roof of a fireman named Vincent (Vincent Lindon).


My Take: With themes of sexuality, change, trauma, grief and acceptance; Ducournau weaves key visual metaphors, allegories, character beats and themes expertly, making Titane all the more rewarding with each viewing, even if you have to grind your teeth and clench your jaw through each shocking moment. Alexis (Agathe Rousselle) and Vincent (Vincent Lindon) are two damaged individuals finding one another at the right time in their lives - both not fully understanding what love is and how to love or be loved. They need each other in order for them to grow and understand themselves that will hopefully heal the trauma, grief and neglect that has left them wandering aimlessly through life. This truly is the sweet, beating heart that hides underneath the carnage of Titane. Its visual metaphors of queasy, shocking body horror also place a strong emphasis on the extreme emotional and mental changes that these two are going through in order to grow and welcome each other into their lives. Even if you can’t stomach it, Titane will forever be on the tip of your tongue as it scrounges around your head. It’s funny, repulsive, touching, beautiful, ugly and downright spectacular that is both messy and incredibly precise in its intention and execution. It forces introspection as you unpack why it resonates with you. There are no wrong answers here, only personal revelations that challenge the needs and desires you either forgot you had or never knew existed. Long live the new flesh. Long live Titane. You can read my extended thoughts on it over here.


Where you can watch it: Hulu (USA), Mubi (UK) Most VOD platforms (USA, UK, Australia), Blu-ray (USA)


7. Memoria

Director: Apichatpong Weerasethakul

Genre: Drama Length: 2 Hours 16 Minutes Countries: Thailand/Colombia/France/Germany/Mexico/Qatar/UK/Taiwan/Switzerland/USA Languages: English/Spanish

Cast: Tilda Swinton, Agnes Brekke, Jeanne Balibar, Elkin Díaz, Daniel Giménez Cacho, Juan Pablo Urrego

Synopsis: Tilda Swinton plays Jessica, a woman visiting her sister in Columbia, but she soon finds herself unable to escape a strange, loud banging sound that only she can hear. This sends her on a quest to try to find the source of this mysterious sound and what it could mean.


My Take: Slow cinema is most certainly an acquired taste. Shots linger on for what feels like an eternity, allowing for moments to happen in the most organic of ways without relying on bursts of action or cutting in the edit to provoke conflict within a scene. Thai auteur Apichatpong Weerasethakul is a master at this, and with Memoria, he manages to blend his distinctive slow cinema stylings to create a truly sensory experience of sound, picture and performance that is unlike anything you will ever experience. Meant to be enjoyed on the biggest screen and sound system possible, Weerasethakul composes a true out-of-body experience – a surreal, waking dream exploring sensory memory and history through sound. Weerasethakul is constantly drawn to nature, bringing themes tied to the ghosts and dreams of our past and present into this telling environment that taps into the very nature of our existence. He does that here with Memoria, and thanks to a fully committed performance by another auteur in Tilda Swinton, we are soon engulfed by the same sounds Jessica finds herself obsessing over - pulling us away from the noise of the city and into the heart of the jungle that draws us closer to the sounding beacon keeping her awake at night. Ghosts are our connection to the past, and the deeper we traverse into the heart of Memoria, the louder they become - echoing through space and time as we absorb and create memories anew, defining who we were, are and will be in perpetuity.


Where you can watch it: In select theatres (USA, UK), Mubi (TBA)


6. The Father

Director: Florian Zeller

Genre: Drama Length: 1 Hour 37 Minutes Country: France/UK Language: English

Cast: Sir Anthony Hopkins, Olivia Colman, Rufus Sewell, Imogen Poots, Mark Gatiss, Olivia Williams

Synopsis: The Father follows Anthony (Sir Anthony Hopkins), an ageing man living in London as his mind gives way to dementia and memory loss. His daughter Anne (Olivia Coleman) checks on with him as he continues to lose his mind as he refuses any kind of assistance.


My Take: The Father is told mostly from Anthony’s (Sir Anthony Hopkins) perspective. We often see films like this told from a straightforward linear perspective – a straight line viewed from the outside as we see a beloved character succumb to their dire circumstances. But with The Father, Zeller’s bold and perfectly appropriate choice of viewing each passing moment through only his eyes gives us an entirely original perspective of dementia we haven’t seen before. The impossible maze-like structure of the edit is scattered about an increasingly non-linear narrative, connecting passing moments to entirely different points in the story that has sets, costumes and actors changing to further disorient both Anthony and us. It’s a dizzying, maddening experience that, like his disease, works towards destroying our minds completely. It’s magnificently written and directed - never allowing us a chance in pinpointing what will happen next and like Anthony, can’t quite make sense of what is happening around us. The Father is a genuine masterpiece, a high point in storytelling featuring a breathtaking Sir Anthony Hopkins delivering not only the finest work of his career but one of the greatest performances ever committed to film. Beautiful, touching, terrifying and completely devastating, The Father is the scariest film of 2021. You can read my extended thoughts on it over here.


Where you can watch it: Starz (USA), Prime Video (UK, Australia), Most VOD platforms (SA), Blu-ray (Worldwide)


5. Licorice Pizza

Director: Paul Thomas Anderson

Genre/s: Comedy/Drama Length: 2 Hours 13 Minutes Country: USA/Canada Languages: English

Cast: Cooper Hoffman, Alana Hain, Bradley Cooper, Sean Penn, Tom Waits, Benny Safdie, Joseph Cross, John Michael Higgins, Mary Elizabeth Ellis, Ryan Heffington, Maya Rudolph

Synopsis: Taking place in 1973, Licorice Pizza follows the burgeoning friendship between 15-year-old Gary Valentine (Cooper Hoffman) and 25-year-old Alana Kane (Alana Haim) in PTA’s hilarious, warm-hearted love letter to The Valley.


My Take: Alienation, loneliness and dysfunctional families are key themes and ideas that befall almost every single one of PTA’s protagonists and the worlds they inherit. Although some of these themes are still felt and explored in Licorice Pizza, we find ourselves revisiting a highly prevalent theme, yet often overlooked one within his first four films in particular: Reinvention - a key ingredient in a good coming-of-age story, particularly that of Licorice Pizza’s. Although Gary and Alana are at different points in their lives with different outlooks, they’re constantly reinventing themselves, trying to find their true purpose. You’re either Gary, a highly confident hustler moving from one scheme to the next with an endless sense of enthusiasm and excitement, or you’re Alana, someone lost in a perpetual “what now” limbo, not quite knowing what to do with your life as you attempt to truly grow up. It may sit at a lengthy 133 minutes in length, but Licorice Pizza is a film I never wanted to end. Its anecdotal structure makes it a perfect hang-out movie à la Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1982), American Graffiti (1973) and Dazed & Confused (1993) - encouraging you to just go with the flow. It's infectious, sweet, breezy and absolutely hilarious, making it PTA's funniest film since Boogie Nights (1997). You can read my extended thoughts on it over here.


Where you can watch it: In select theatres (SA, Australia), Most VOD platforms (USA)


4. The Souvenir: Part II

Director: Joanna Hogg Genre: Drama Length: 1 Hour 47 Minutes Country: UK Language: English Cast: Honor Swinton Byrne, Tilda Swinton, Richard Ayoade, Ariane Labed, Charlie Heaton, Harris Dickinson, Joe Alwyn, Jaygann Ayeh Synopsis: Two years after the release of The Souvenir, Joanna Hogg concludes her semi-autobiographical tale of ambitious film student Julie (Honor Swinton Byrne), as she traverses the challenges of a difficult romance with the secretive Anthony (Tom Burke).

My Take: Honor Swinton Byrne’s Julie returns with a heavier heart for Part II. Plagued with grief and a nagging sense of curiosity, she attempts to come to terms with the tragedy of her relationship with Anthony, trying to best figure out what could’ve been done to avoid the inevitable demise of it. Joanna Hogg creates a meta-verse journey of grief, introspection, understanding and finally, acceptance for Julie - allowing her to use her graduation film as a means of therapy and most importantly, closure. It lets Part II highlight the important healing power creating has on us as we look to push through the trials and tribulations we face internally and externally. It’s one of the greatest and most accurate films I have seen in depicting not only the film industry and the growing pains of working in it, but the act of creating itself. I’m an idiot, a rather uncreative one at that as well. So I often, if not always, struggle to get the right words out of my mouth in order for people to understand what I am trying to say (this list has been an absolute nightmare to do). Seeing and hearing Julie battle through the same uncertainty, self-doubt and anxiety in trying to convey her thoughts, ideas and intentions to those around her makes Swinton Byrne’s performance and Joanna Hogg’s writing all too easy for me to identify with. It's a magnificent movie about making movies that shows just how important art and creating of said-art is in helping us push through the traumas of our past - further strengthening us as we look to the future. It’s bold, honest, authentic filmmaking that's a true extension of its author, baring all for us to see.

Where you can watch it: In select theatres (UK, Australia), Most VOD platforms (USA)


3. Drive My Car

Director: Ryûsuke Hamaguchi

Genre: Drama Length: 2 Hours 59 Minutes Country: Japan Languages: Japanese/English/Korean Sign Language/German/Mandarin/Tagalog/Korean/Indonesian

Cast: Hidetoshi Nishijima, Tôko Miura, Masaki Okada, Reika Kirishima, Park Yu-rim, Jin Dae-yeon, Sonia Yuan

Synopsis: Following the sudden death of his wife, renowned theatre actor and director Yusuke (Hidetoshi Nishijima) moves to Hiroshima to direct a multi-lingual adaptation of Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya. Under contract obligations, he is forced to hire a chauffeur, Misaki (Tôko Miura) to drive him around. They soon develop a special bond that allows them to confront the grief, regret and sorrow they’ve chosen to bury for far too long.


My Take: Hamaguchi made two masterpieces in 2021. That’s right, two of them. Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy (no.22 on this list) and Drive My Car, which is not only the best of the two, it’s his best film to date. It's a film about truth, but unfortunately, this truth is buried underneath grief and resentment - preventing both Yusuke (Hidetoshi Nishijima) and Misaki (Tôko Miura) from letting go of the past and moving on. Due to contract obligations, Misaki is hired to drive Yusuke while directing a new multi-lingual adaptation of Uncle Vanya. In this car, Yusuke rehearses the lines of Uncle Vanya using a tape recording of his deceased wife who reads the other characters' lines - a routine he had done even before her death. But it’s in these moments where we see Yusuke refusing to move on from his past life, one that is no longer the same due to unavoidable circumstances as he wastes his life away - negating his need to unpack his grief as well as refusing to confront the truths of his marriage to move on. It’s ironic in that he refuses to reprise his role as Vanya when the production possibly requires it, claiming that the play reveals your true self to the whole world - making it increasingly exhausting. Something he just cannot do anymore. But here, in the real world, he is living through Vanya’s dialogue - projecting the truth back at himself, effectively making the car his own confessional booth. We begin to understand the irony of it as he is forced to simmer in it - refusing to outrightly admit that he is wasting his life away to the impossible loves of his previous and current states of living, much like the themes that the play discusses. The benefit of Ryûsuke Hamaguchi’s often lengthy run-times is that he allows for characters to come to terms with their internal conflict at a pace that feels real but never bores or drags on. It allows for the relationship between Misaki and Yusuke to form at an authentic tempo that allows for both actors to perform true to their instincts, honouring the validity found through the text with crystal clear clarity as they both look to accept the truths of their past in order to move on.


Where you can watch it: HBO Max (USA), Most VOD platforms (USA, UK), In select theatres (USA, UK, Australia)


2. The Power of the Dog

Director: Jane Campion

Genre/s: Drama/Western/LGBTQ+ Length: 2 Hours 6 Minutes Countries: UK/New Zealand/Canada/Australia/USA Language: English

Cast: Benedict Cumberbatch, Kirsten Dunst, Jesse Plemons, Kodi Smit-McPhee, Thomasin McKenzie, Keith Carradine, Frances Conroy

Synopsis: Phil (Benedict Cumberbatch) and George (Jesse Plemons) are brothers running a cattle ranch. One day, much to Phil’s dismay, George finds an emotional connection with local restaurant owner Rose (Kirsten Dunst) and marries her - bringing her sensitive and curious son Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee) onto the ranch to live with them much.


My Take: Campion’s furious yet highly elegant feminist sensibilities have given us some of the strongest, most memorable female characters in contemporary cinema. Her characters suffer and grow on their own terms, creating some of the most layered female characters in recent memory. So it’s a deeply fascinating exercise to see her focus her attention on toxic masculinity and its deeper connotations. She slowly strips away layers of thick skin from the villainous Phil (Benedict Cumberbatch) that allows us to peer deeper into his soul - one that is frightening, heartbreaking and completely illuminating. The ensemble is among the finest of the year, with each one of them playing an integral part within every fabric of Campion’s precisely woven tale. But it's Cumberbatch’s Phil that is the focal point for what The Power of the Dog is all about. Themes of class, sexuality, repression, identity, individuality and the need to connect all swirl around each character, but it's Phil's raging inferno at the centre that connects to each one. Campion’s clear and concise writing helps in characterizing Phil, but it’s up to Cumberbatch first and foremost to help those carefully written descriptions, actions and dialogue come to life within his character who looks to inflict his cruelty and dominate every aspect of their lives. It's an authentic, authoritative performance as we begin to empathize with each character in understanding why they put on different masks in order to survive their own cruel environments.


Campion’s distinct style and ability for clear, nuanced writing never pander with a heavy-handed touch, giving us smart, effective subtext that lets each scene work things out at an appropriate walking pace, one that is somehow delicate in its confrontation towards something as inelegant as toxic masculinity. Expect it to be discussed as a true classic over the next few years - placing itself among the smartest, most important westerns in contemporary cinema. It's an essential lesson in subtle, intelligent and layered storytelling from an auteur at the very top of her game. You can read my extended thoughts on it over here.


Where you can watch it: Netflix (Worldwide)


1. Petite Maman

Director: Céline Sciamma

Genre: Drama/Fantasy Length: 1 Hour 12 Minutes Country: France Language: French

Cast: Joséphine Sanz, Gabrielle Sanz, Nina Meurisse, Stéphane Varupenne, Margot Abascal

Synopsis: Nelly (Joséphine Sanz), along with her mother (Nina Meurisse) and father (Stéphane Varupenne), is grieving the loss of her maternal grandmother. They’re at her home and in the process of cleaning it out. But one day, Nelly’s mom leaves. And soon after, Nelly meets a young girl by the name of Marion (Gabrielle Sanz ) in the forest, someone who looks identical to her, sharing the same name as her mom and living in a house extraordinarily similar to that of her grandmother.


My Take: Nuance is hard to nail, especially in family films as you are trying your darndest to make sure everyone gets it, most particularly the kids, without shouting about it using a bullhorn. But once again, Sciamma nails it with a delicate subtleness through her script and direction. She never talks down to children nor does she speak up at adults - writing it as best as she understands it now and how she understood it back then as a child. Like Studio Ghibli and Pixar, they’ve mastered the art of making true family films. They make kids movies for grown-ups and grown-up movies for kids. This is what Sciamma has done here, allowing for it to become a true family affair that everyone can enjoy and relate to from different points in their lives.


Despite the potentially over-complicated high-concept ideas of the plot, Sciamma doesn't let it derail the thematic intent and the necessary simplistic feel of the film. It’s hard to grapple such big ideas with such a young pair of performers, but what is so obvious is that they get the ideas that are explored within Petite Maman. Sciamma mentioned in an interview that if the girls didn’t understand it, then she’d throw the idea out, simplifying it enough that even a child can understand the nuances and themes that run amuck in Petite Maman that include grief, saying goodbye, motherhood, and of course Sciamma’s favourite theme of identity - tied together here by the generational bonds between daughter, mother and grandmother as they look to grieve and mature together during a defining season of growth and change: autumn. Why complicate things for everyone if they can be conveyed and discussed in a clear and simple way? Paired with moments of Sciamma’s decision to shoot the film at a child’s eye level is also incredibly effective - one that lets us see, feel and understand what it’s like to be a kid again.

Petite Maman is just gorgeous. It's infectious in its palatable sweetness with moments of unequivocal warmth and joy (and some sadness) scattered about that never feels like it's pandering to nostalgia, it just happens, letting you feel like a child again. One of my favourite film journalists, Mark Kermode, mentioned how this is a film that rejuvenates your love for cinema. He’s right. And although there were multiple films throughout 2021 that made me feel this way, none of them did it quite like Petite Maman. It had me smiling, laughing and crying in equal measure, further convincing me just how powerfully effective the medium can still be with just 72-minutes to do so. Céline Sciamma is a true master of her craft and with Petite Maman, she proves once more why she is one of my all-time favourite filmmakers that has yet to put a foot wrong. It's quite simply, for me at least, the perfect little film - one that is easily my favourite film of 2021. You can read my extended thoughts on it over here.

Where you can watch it: Mubi (UK), In select theatres (USA, 22 April, Australia, 5 May), Blu-ray (UK)



And there you have it...remember, these are just my subjective opinion and if you disagree...



Here are some very honourable mentions that just missed the cut. But I still adore them. Very much so. In no particular order...


Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings

Acasa, My Home

Come True

The Fever

Pebbles

The Viewing Booth

Lapsis

Anne at 13, 000 ft.

Wojnarowicz

Malni - Towards the Ocean, Towards the Shore




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