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  • Writer's picturePerrin Faerch

My 100 Favourite Films of 2021 (50-26)

So I was going to post the remaining 50 in one giant post, but unfortunately the size of it exceeded the limit of what I am allowed to post so yeah...soz.

(Here's 100-51 if you missed it. Some great movies there so have a gander...)

Here's just a reminder from the last post in terms of how everything qualified, etc.

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.

So anyways, let's get back to it...

50. Nine Days

Director: Edson Oda

Genre: Drama/Fantasy Length: 2 Hours 4 Minutes Country: USA Languages: English, Spanish

Cast: Winston Duke, Benedict Wong, Zazie Beetz, Bill Skarsgård, Tony Hale, Arianna Ortiz, David Rysdahl

Synopsis: Shortly following the tragic death of a previously chosen candidate, Will (Winston Duke) interviews five unborn souls over nine days to determine who will live a life on Earth.

My Take: A film of magical, existential splendour, Nine Days boasts one of the best concepts of 2021 with director/writer Edson Oda questioning the very meaning of life. It's a film that could’ve easily been overshadowed by its high concept idea, but thankfully Oda manages to go deeper by fleshing out fascinating characters that play as an amalgamation of every trait and characteristic we see in ourselves. Each candidate is tasked with watching screens of Will’s other winning candidates who now live life on Earth with varying challenges and experiences, allowing candidates to then pinpoint moments in these people’s lives that they like and don’t like. Interesting concepts like this allow for a deeper meaning to thrive, and in Nine Days' case, we are offered a chance to look at the world around us in a bid to better understand ourselves and our place within this often shit, but still beautiful plane of existence. It’s a film often filled with an overwhelming sense of sadness as Will deals with the grief and regret of a life he once had, but thanks to one of the most thrilling scenes in 2021, a final monologue looks to fulfil Nine Days' true intention: celebrating a life worth living.

Where you can watch it: Starz (USA), Most VOD platforms (SA, USA, Australia)

49. The Hand of God

Director: Paolo Sorrentino

Genre: Drama Length: 2 Hours 10 Minutes Country: Italy Language: Italian

Cast: Filippo Scotti, Toni Servillo, Teresa Saponangelo, Marlon Joubert, Luisa Ranieri

Synopsis: Paolo Sorrentino’s semi-autobiographical tale of his teenage years in 1980s Napoli, a time when Diego Maradona inadvertently saved him from a freak accident, setting him on a path of self-discovery.

My Take: Sorrentino’s memoir of his youth is not just an autobiography of himself, it’s also one of his beloved home of Napoli. An outstanding Filippo Scotti plays a teenage Sorrentino, one in the process of trying to figure out his life through family, romance and the greatest love of all: S.S.C. Napoli and Diego Maradona. The Hand of God offers fascinating insight into one of our great modern directors, pulling fine detail from every corner of his life and youth that is entirely authentic and true to himself. Although the film is easily his most grounded and personal work, it still contains that surreal visual flair he is so known for, an added layer of paint that further illustrates Sorrentino's fascinating journey to becoming the filmmaker we now know him as. It’s not just a coming-of-age tale of a teenager dealing with love, loss and grief, but an important one for Sorrentino's current journey as he comes back to his Neopolitan roots in a bid to rediscover an important part of himself once more. Kenneth Branagh's Belfast isn’t the autobiographical film of its director you should be watching from 2021, it’s The Hand of God. And it is so much better.

Where you can watch it: Netflix (Worldwide)

48. A Cop Movie

Director: Alonso Ruizpalacios

Genre/s: Documentary Length: 1 Hour 47 Minutes Country: Mexico Language: Spanish

Synopsis: Walking a fine line between fact and fiction, Alonso Ruizpalacios’ documentary explores the rampant corruption of the Mexican police through the experiences of two officers while two actors prepare to play them.

My Take: A Cop Movie looks to strip away any conceived notions you may have about its purpose and structure based purely on the title itself. Tip-toeing between being a fake documentary and then a very real one, A Cop Movie looks to twist and contort our trust in its subjects and themes found therein. Blindside twists in both plot and structure force us to rebuild the narrative, challenging our trust in what is being shown to us. By consistently breaking the fourth wall that has us hopping from fake to real, Director Alonso Ruizpalacios gives us a uniquely complex interpretation of what makes the uniform a uniform, as well as what negates it from being anything at all. It’s not a pro-police movie, nor is it anti-police, but what it does so effectively, is that it looks to the broken system that lets corruption and absolution of power thrive with impunity.

Where you can watch it: Netflix (Worldwide)

47. The First Wave

Director: Matthew Heineman

Genre: Documentary Length: 1 Hour 33 Minutes Country: USA Language: English

Synopsis: A breathless, intimate documentary following the frontline workers and patients as they battle the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic in New York City.

My Take: There is an overwhelming flow of COVID-related films lately, thankfully, a vast majority of them are documentaries worth their salt. 76 Days (number 11 on my top 100 of 2020) was and still is an important historical document that really shows the horror, panic and uncertainty of a pandemic in terrifying detail. As 76 Days covers the first 76 days of lockdown in Wuhan, The First Wave shows the first four months of COVID-19 wreaking havoc in New York City. It follows the frontline workers much in the same way 76 Days does, going through motions of trepidation and eventually resilience in the face of overwhelming terror. It’s an important companion film to that of 76 Days, showing the same level of comradery and the intrinsic need to save one another. It’s a real-life horror film moving at an impossible speed, very rarely allowing you to breathe as we come to terms with the devastating madness of it all. Completely essential.

Where you can watch it: Hulu (USA), Disney+ (Worldwide)

46. Quo Vadis, Aida?

Director: Jasmila Žbanić

Genre/s: Thriller/Drama/War Length: 1 Hour 41 Minutes Country: Bosnia and Herzegovina/Austria/Romania/Netherlands/Germany/Poland/France/Turkey/Norway Languages: Bosnian/English/Dutch/Serbian

Cast: Jasna Đuričić, Izudin Bajrović, Boris Isaković, Johan Heldenbergh, Raymond Thiry

Synopsis: Jasna Đuričić plays Aida, a UN interpreter desperately racing against the clock to save her family as the Serbian army arrives in her town of Srebenica in Bosnia, 1995.

My Take: A nerve-shredding sprint against the clock, Quo Vadis, Aida? is a devastating fight for survival in the face of impending doom. Jasmila Žbanić Oscar-nominated thriller is an exhausting relay race for its lead (Jasna Đuričić) as we feel an ever-tightening tension around our neck, squeezing the very life from us. We rush from one negotiation to another, only for each moment to lead us closer down the path of tragedy, unable to prevent the inevitable. It’s a full-blown panic attack of a movie made all the more impactful thanks to a gut-punch of a finale - seating the ghosts of the past with the demons of the present, ones that remain oblivious and willfully ignorant of their role in placing them there.

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

45. Some Kind of Heaven

Director: Lance Oppenheim

Genre: Documentary Length: 1 Hour 21 Minutes Country: USA Language: English

Synopsis: A documentary following the daily activities of residents living in The Villages, a nirvana that is the largest gated retirement community in America.

My Take: Following four individuals who came to The Villages to live an exciting new chapter in their lives, they look to the final frontier of their twilight years in hopes of finally fulfilling their own American Dream. Although these retirees are in their twilight years, it’s easy to see ourselves in them as they desperately try to find some sort of purpose and figure out who they are before the clock runs out. Gorgeously shot by David Bolen with dream-like surrealism, 24-year old documentarian Lance Oppenheim’s debut feature observes and most importantly, listens to its subjects with keen interest. The dreamy visuals as well as Ari Balouzian's Jon Brion-esque score, perfectly compliment the claim that this is nirvana for retirees, it seems to be some kind of heaven – too good to be true. You can read my extended thoughts on it over here.

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

44. Bergman Island

Director: Mia Hansen-Løve

Genre: Drama Length: 1 Hour 52 Minutes Countries: France/Belgium/Germany/Sweden/Mexico Languages: English, Swedish, French

Cast: Vicky Krieps, Tim Roth, Mia Wasikowska, Anders Danielsen Lie, Joel Spira

Synopsis: Bergman Island follows Chris (Vicky Krieps) and Tony (Tim Roth), a filmmaking couple going on a creative retreat to the Faroe Islands, the place Bergman drew inspiration from and called home. Here, Chris hopes to gain the flash of inspiration she needs in order to finish her latest screenplay.

My Take: The highly anticipated new film from the brilliant Mia Hansen-Løve, Bergman Island is a film about rediscovering one’s creative voice. Ingmar Bergman is synonymous with films that tap into the deepest and darkest of human emotions. His films are often gloomy, nihilistic and straight-up depressing. But within the entirety of Bergman Island, Hansen-Løve looks for inspiration from the man's creative home instead, allowing for her own identity as a filmmaker to take centre stage as the protagonist of Chris (Vicky Krieps) tries to make sense of her own ideas and how they could fit within her own story and life's narrative. It could easily be that of Hansen-Løve’s own process as she works her way through the film much like Chris does, desperately trying to find her creative identity once more. Bergman Island is a wonderful exploration of creativity through all its successes and failures that is hard not to be charmed by. You can read my extended thoughts on it over here.

Where you can watch it: Hulu (USA)

43. ON-GAKU: Our Sound

Director: Kenji Iwaisawa

Genre/s: Animation/Comedy/Drama/Music Length: 1 Hour 11 Minutes Country: Japan Language: Japanese

Cast: Shintarô Sakamoto, Ren Komai, Tomoya Maeno, Tateto Serizawa, Kami Hiraiwa, Naoto Takenaka

Synopsis: Three misfits start a rock band.

My Take: Our Sound is all about reinventing oneself. It’s portrayed through character and plot beats in effective ways, but what really highlights its themes of reinvention, individuality and creativity, is its unique visual identity that is unlike anything from Japan or anywhere else, really. Like its band of misfits, the film undergoes major left turns in exploring its identity and purpose going forward - shifting animation styles significantly as they too undergo a creative revolution, one that ebbs and flows with their own anxieties and insecurities unbeknownst to them. It’s fresh, bold, and hilarious. Our Sound is a film unlike any other – pushing the boundaries of Japanese animation in unique, exciting directions. Also, the soundtrack rules so very hard.

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

42. The Card Counter

Director: Paul Schrader Genre/s: Drama/Thriller Length: 1 Hour 51 Minutes Country: USA/UK/China/Sweden Language: English Cast: Oscar Isaac, Tye Sheridan, Tiffany Haddish, Willem Dafoe Synopsis: Fresh out of prison and back on the road as a professional gambler, William Tell (Oscar Isaac) meets Cirk (Tye Sheridan); a young man hell-bent on seeking revenge against a mutual acquaintance (Willem Dafoe) of William’s chequered past as a soldier. William takes Cirk under his wing, hoping to redeem himself of a traumatic past he desperately wants to rid himself of.

My Take: Paul Schrader follows the masterful First Reformed with another character study seething with a similar sense of quiet rage in The Card Counter. From the very beginning, William (Oscar Isaac) explains the rules to various games of chance, determining the appropriate moves by weighing up probabilities of the future based on results of the past. He uses this as an exact science with everyone he meets, the games he plays and the opponents he sizes up, but he refuses to look at his own past, one filled with trauma and guilt, in order to determine his own future. It’s a cleverly written and expertly directed film that has Schrader at his angriest and funniest – making use of an obnoxious, flag-waving, "USA" chanting card player that follows William everywhere he goes, shoving his arrogance and winning streak into the faces of anyone around him - a literal representation of obnoxious American patriotism. Trump was true to his promise, people are sick of America winning all the damn time. And although this may have the subtlety of a sledgehammer in reminding us and Will of his past, it works brilliantly, adding a jarring sense of humour to an already unsettling film that reminds its protagonist to confront his past so he can well and truly manoeuvre his future. Oscar Isaac is simply unbelievable in this, delivering one of the best performances of the decade so far. With the subtlest of shifts in his eyes, his entire demeanour changes. He says so much without having to say or do much at all. The Card Counter may not be as perfect as First Reformed, but it’s pretty damn close, channelling an anger in Paul Schrader that is allowing him to make the most compelling films of his career, placing him back on top as one of the finest auteurs working today.

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

41. West Side Story

Director: Steven Spielberg Genre/s: Musical/Drama/Romance Length: 2 Hours 36 Minutes Country: USA Languages: English/Spanish Cast: Rachel Zegler, Ansel Elgort, Ariana DeBose, Mike Faist, David Alvarez, Rita Moreno, Corey Stoll Synopsis: An entirely necessary reinterpretation of the original 1957 Broadway musical of the same name, West Side Story follows the growing romance between Tony and Maria which causes friction between two rival street gangs fighting for control of their neighbourhoods.

My Take: From one auteur in The Card Counter to another, Steven Spielberg’s first musical is pretty damn spectacular. Who would’ve thought? Understandably, people were hesitant about a remake of a classic film and Broadway musical, so why do we need this? But thanks to Spielberg’s god-given storytelling instincts and Tony Kushner’s considerately modern screenplay, we are given the definitive, appropriate and much-needed re-telling of this classic story. The original’s themes of racial tension and the immigrant story still ring true to this day, but Kushner levels the playing field here, giving a louder voice to the Sharks that lets their clear similarities with the Jets become more apparent – fighting needlessly against each other while the encroaching backdrop of gentrification looms heavy over them, waiting for its moment to chew them up and spit them out. It’s also a damning portrait of the American Dream, one that was clear in the original, but thanks to a stunning Ariana DeBose as the iconic character of Anita, we get a crueller realisation that this country no longer wants her, and neither does she. 2021’s West Side Story, for me at least, really is the definitive version. It looks incredible, sounds better than ever and has a cast of insurmountable, jaw-dropping talent that strengthen the complexities in an already complex plot. It’s a startling reminder that remakes can be recalibrated and celebrated in new, exciting ways that allow for creativity and inclusivity to shine through and reinforce the powerful messages of the original tenfold. This is how you do a remake.

Where you can watch it: In cinemas (SA), HBO Max (USA), Disney+ (USA, UK, Australia), Most VOD Platforms (USA, UK, Australia), 4K UHD, Bluray (Worldwide)

40. The Summit of the Gods

Director: Patrick Imbert

Genre/s: Animation/Drama/Adventure/Mystery Length: 1 Hour 35 Minutes Country: France/Luxembourg Language: French

Cast: Lazare Herson-Macarel, Eric Herson-Macarel, Damien Boisseau, Elisabeth Ventura

Synopsis: Fukamachi, a Japanese photojournalist receives a camera that could tell the truth of a lost mountaineer who may or may not have been the first to reach the top of Mount Everest. But soon thereafter, a famous Japanese mountaineer who also went missing, takes the camera away from him, leading Fukamachi on the path to finding both the camera and mysterious mountaineer again.

My Take: 2021 appears to be the year that finally capitalized on reigniting our interest in mountaineering movies one would’ve expected after 2018’s Oscar-winning Free Solo (the filmmaking duo behind that did The Rescue, which is no.60 on this list). I saw four mountain-climbing-related films from 2021, all excellent, but this is the finest of the lot. Based on the manga series of the same name, Patrick Imbert’s adaptation is gorgeous in colour, texture, and most importantly, substance - allowing for an uncomplicated and subdued animation style to drift along with the film’s appropriately slow-burn plot. Summit of the Gods cleverly exploits the unpredictable nature of mountain climbing, breaking away from comforting silence and into anxious, hair-raising set-pieces that depict PTSD in terrifying, surreal detail. It's a breathtaking, unbearably tense tale of trauma and redemption that should've been at this year's Oscars.

Where you can watch it: Netflix (Worldwide)

39. In the Same Breath

Director: Nanfu Wang

Genre: Documentary Length: 1 Hour 35 Minutes Country: USA Languages: Mandarin, English

Synopsis: A documentary discussing how the Chinese government turned pandemic cover-ups in Wuhan into a triumph for the party.

My Take: Although another COVID-19 documentary, In the Same Breath isn’t an on the-ground-type affair like fellow COVID-19 doccie The First Wave. Instead, director Nanfu Wang sets her sights on how the governments of China and USA handle it differently in equally ineffective and dangerous ways. In the Same Breath shows a scary, uncertain reality in China that failed to receive media coverage anywhere - exposing the propaganda, censorship and mass cover-ups that effectively hides the resounding failures of the government and how it twists its defeats into victories. Although it may seem like a US-funded takedown, Wang soon shifts focus to America, showing a stark difference in how people handle the truths and lies of the pandemic, but also shows how eerily similar both of them are in handling a crisis. One government silences its people's voices while the other gives them too much volume, proving both to be equally as dangerous. It’s a resounding, scary, and informative documentary that illustrates a clear timeline of where each government went wrong, and what could've been done to soften its devastating impact.

Where you can watch it: Showmax (SA), HBO Max (USA), Now, Virgin TV Go (UK)

38. Echoes of the Invisible

Director: Steve Elkins

Genre: Documentary Length: 1 Hour 46 Minutes Country: USA/Poland Languages: English, Arabic, Tuvinian, Russian

Synopsis: A documentary that journeys into the most extreme environments on Earth in order to find the connective tissue between all things seen and unseen.

My Take: Solitude in silence is a key quest throughout Echoes of the Invisible. It’s a spiritual, existential journey through space and time, one of self-discovery as we look to escape from the deafening noise of the modern age in a bid to best understand our place in the universe. One man decides to walk 30 000 km on the same path our ancestors migrated on, a woman is on a quest to photograph the oldest living organisms in the world, astronomers and physicists search for the quietest, most remote corners of the globe as they look to peer back into space and time in hopes of seeing how it all began, a blind runner looks to conquer Death Valley. These are just some of the individuals in Echoes of the Invisible, people desperately seeking solitude from the blaring noise of modern life, taking comfort in the unknowable silence that holds all the answers.

Where you can watch it: Apple TV (USA)

37. Spider-Man: No Way Home

Director: Jon Watts

Genre/s: Action/Adventure/Fantasy/Sci-Fi Length: 2 Hours 28 Minutes Country: USA Language: English

Cast: Tom Holland, Zendaya, Jacob Batalon, Benedict Cumberbatch, Marisa Tomei, Jon Favreau, Willem Dafoe, Alfred Molina, Jamie Foxx, Thomas Haden Church, Rhys Ifans, Benedict Wong, Andrew Garfield, Tobey Maguire, Tony Revolori

Synopsis: Thanks to Spider-man’s identity being revealed after the events of Far From Home, Peter Parker approaches Dr Strange for help. But after a spell goes horribly wrong, bad guys from the multi-verse start to filter through, forcing Spider-Man to come to terms with what being Spider-Man really entails.

My Take: The third and final film in the Homecoming trilogy is not only the best of the lot, it's also one of the best MCU films to date that is massive in ambition and heart with a surprising amount of chutzpah, something that can often be lacking in the MCU assembly line. Sure, Into the Spider-Verse (2018) explored the multi-verse first in Marvel’s cinematic catalogue, but what No Way Home does well, is that it learns and pulls from that successful blueprint and allows its characters from past, present and future Spider-Man films to feel like an integral part of the family instead of blatant fan-service manipulation. They grow, develop and arc, giving them effective conclusions we never knew we needed. It's oftentimes bold, smart and touching with every cast member relishing in the sheer scale of plot and character they are allowed to play with. It feels as though we are seeing the true arrival of Spider-Man within the MCU, with an effective plot that tugs on our nostalgic heartstrings in order for Peter Parker to finally become Spider-Man - finally understanding what it means to wear the suit that feels true to the comics more than ever. A lot of my film snob mates will turn their nose up at this being here, but honestly, I don’t care. No Way Home was one of, if not, the best cinema experiences I had last year that reminded me just how special an outing at the movies can be. I never thought I’d hear a louder reaction in a cinema than when Cap caught Mjölnir in Endgame, but boy, No Way Home had Cap beat.

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

36. Summer of Soul (…Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised)

Director: Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson

Genre/s: Documentary/Music Length: 1 Hour 58 Minutes Country: USA Language: English

Synopsis: A documentary uncovering the massive, but somehow forgotten Harlem Cultural Festival, an event that celebrated black and Hispanic music and culture that took place during the same season as Woodstock 1969.

My Take: Questlove of The Roots' directorial debut is just what you’d expect from a man who is a walking encyclopaedia of music. Coming at a time of cultural, political and racial discourse, The Harlem Cultural Festival was a much-needed celebration of Black and Latin culture when the powers that be kept on pressing its foot down on the throats of minorities in the US. Context is important, and instead of just giving us an amazing concert film showboating his godly knowledge of music, Questlove sits us down for a history lesson that is vital in understanding why this festival was so important and why it still is - bringing The Harlem Cultural Festival firmly into its long-delayed and deserved spotlight. It's a vital, insightful film that captures a time of cultural and ideological revolutions that needs to be seen and experienced with the best sound and biggest screen available. An ideal companion film to Woodstock, Summer of Soul is one of the best music films you will ever see, placing it as one of 2021’s most important works. You can read my extended thoughts on it over here.

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

35. Sabaya

Director: Hogir Hirori

Genre: Documentary Length: 1 Hour 30 Minutes Country: Sweden Languages: Kurdish/Arabic

Synopsis: A harrowing documentary that follows a Kurdish group’s mission to rescue abducted Yazidi girls still held as sex slaves to ISIS men hiding in Syrian displacement camps.

My Take: Sabaya is an immersive journey that director Hogir Hirori takes us on through simple handheld camerawork that observes and reports from deep within the heart of darkness. It's a resounding demonstration of humanity’s unwavering resilience in the face of overwhelming evil. The volunteers at the Yazidi Home Center are tireless in their mission to rescue every last Yazidi woman and child still trapped under relentless cruelty. They're obviously heroes, but it’s the rescued Yazidi women, those who have already been reunited with their families, that decide to come back and go undercover in a bid to save those still trapped, that are the film’s most inspiring heroines. Sabaya spotlights their overwhelming bravery and resilience in the face of evil as they look to destroy those who seek to do the same to them.

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

34. Ascension

Director: Jessica Kingdon

Genre: Documentary Length: 1 Hour 37 Minutes Country: USA Language: Mandarin

Synopsis: A documentary that explores the pursuit of the Chinese Dream in a contemporary, capitalist China.

My Take: “Hand on my sword, I ascend the tower. I gaze afar, hoping to relieve my worries. The tower is too high to climb, instead, my troubles only grow.” This is an excerpt from the poem Ascension, written in 1912 by Jessica Kingdon’s great grandfather Zheng Ze. With just this and another excerpt from the same poem at the very end, Kingdon looks to observe the Chinese Dream with this context in mind. It’s the only real context given to us in Ascension as we go up this metaphorical tower, witnessing the assembly line of Chinese production and innovation grow at a breakneck speed. Kingdon focuses primarily on the hands that create these products, eventually evolving into people being the products themselves, ones of innovation birthed by capitalism's mantra of supply and demand. Textile factories, sex doll assembly lines, social media influencers, bodyguards training, a butler school, etc. Each sector becomes more ludicrous the higher we ascend, leading to surreal moments of beauty and madness. Ascension isn’t just a portrait of China’s new capitalist identity, it’s also that of the entire world. Students in a seminar get up to read their goals for the future, “I have decided that after today’s class, I am going to work to death.” This isn’t just China, this is all of us.

Where you can watch it: Paramaount+ (USA, Australia), In select cinemas (UK)

33. The Green Knight

Director: David Lowery

Genre/s: Adventure/Fantasy/Drama Length: 2 Hours 10 Minutes Country: Ireland/Canada/USA Language: English

Cast: Dev Patel, Alicia Vikander, Joel Edgerton, Barry Keoghan, Sean Harris, Kate Dickie, Ralph Ineson, Sarita Choudhury

Synopsis: A gorgeously realised and reinterpretation of the 14th-century poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, an epic road trip that takes King Arthur’s nephew of Sir Gaiwan (Dev Patel) on a journey across mysterious lands to confront The Green Knight, a mysterious giant who first appeared at Camelot a year prior proposing a game of bravery.

My Take: Although a classic piece of literature that is rightfully loved and picked apart for deeper introspection, I feel that Lowery’s reinterpretation of the text improves upon every one of the ideas originally discussed in the source material. Bravery, chivalry and truth, these themes are vital in the original poem, but Lowery's vision truly challenges Gaiwan in every aspect. Unlike the poem, Gaiwan doesn't rise to each challenge with blind courage. Here, he is a highly flawed individual who has major chinks in his armour that he is aware of but often does his best to compensate for his own cowardice and self-doubt. It takes the myth and makes him human - a believable character that we are able to relate to more than ever before. It may not be the epic action-adventure people were expecting, but what Lowery does here is focus on character first and foremost – an epic battle of internal conflict that has Sir Gaiwan’s morals and ideals challenged in far more interesting ways. Lowery’s strong use of autumnal colours is extremely effective as well, going through a season of literal change that mirrors Gaiwan’s internal journey of maturity through spirit and character.

Where you can watch it: Showtime (USA), Prime Video (UK, Australia), Most VOD platforms (USA, UK), 4K UHD, Blu-ray (USA)

32. The Humans

Director: Stephen Karam

Genre/s: Drama/Horror Length: 1 Hour 48 Minutes Country: USA Language: English

Cast: Richard Jenkins, Jayne Houdyshell, Steven Yeun, Beanie Feldstein, Amy Schumer, June Squibb

Synopsis: Taking place over a single Thanksgiving, three generations of the Blakes (Richard Jenkins, Jayne Houdyshell, June Squibb, Amy Schumer) come together at daughter Brigid (Beanie Feldstein) and her boyfriend Richard (Steven Yeun)’s new apartment in lower Manhattan.

My Take: Family and gratitude is an important theme within any piece set on and around Thanksgiving, but The Humans isn’t as simple as that. Generational differences in terms of religion, attitude on mental health, careers and even sexuality play a part in the conflicting conversations and characters that evolve throughout. Adapted from his own Tony Award-winning Broadway play, Stephen Karam takes full advantage of the new storytelling toys he now has at his disposal in the medium of film; making use of sound, camera, edit and production design in order to highlight his plot and themes in even more effective manners. The winding set itself is a character in its own - a bare apartment riddled with hidden cracks, bubbling paint, faulty lightbulbs, leaking pipes and a loud creaking door. Its place within the plot is similar to that of the apartment in Repulsion (1965); an extension of them, hiding its flaws beneath the surface as it succumbs to the darkness looking to swallow them whole. The Humans isn’t officially a horror film, but it might as well be - a domestic drama masquerading as a horror, playing with the conventions of the genre that is consistently unsettling and highly effective. You can read my extended thoughts on it over here.

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

31. Procession

Director: Robert Greene

Genre: Documentary Length: 1 Hour 58 Minutes Country: USA Language: English

Synopsis: Six men who suffered sexual abuse by Catholic priests come together to create films inspired by their trauma.

My Take: Arguably the most difficult film to endure in 2021, Procession is a necessarily confrontational and devastating account of abuse and the trauma left behind. Following the effective blueprint of Joshua Oppenheimer’s harrowing double-bill of The Act of Killing (2012) and The Look of Silence (2014), Robert Greene allows his subjects to dictate the film’s outcomes; letting them write, direct, storyboard and even star in one another’s stories as an unbreakable bond begins to form between all of them. This is their story, not Robert Greene’s, and thankfully he understands that. With the help of a drama therapist, they’re allowed to peer back into their past and really confront the demons that have held them down for so long. Procession is an extraordinary film that shows the healing power of creativity and art in the face of indescribable trauma.

Where you can watch it: Netflix (Worldwide)

30. Azor

Director: Andreas Fontana

Genre: Thriller/Drama Length: 1 Hour 40 Minutes Country: Argentina/Switzerland/France Languages: Spanish, French, English

Cast: Fabrizio Rongione, Stéphanie Cléau, Elli Medeiros, Alexandre Trocki, Gilles Privat, Juan Pablo Gerretto

Synopsis: A private banker Yvan (Fabrizio Rongione), a private banker from Geneva, goes to Argentina to replace his partner who has vanished, with signs pointing to the new dictatorship’s part in this disappearance, leading Yvan to fear for his fate as well.

My Take: “Be quiet” “careful what you say”. This is what Azor means, and that is exactly how Andreas Fontana approaches his directorial debut, one that is a precise exercise in restraint and tension – a thriller that builds its suspense and air of dread through words alone. It’s a slow-burner, but before we realise it, the wick of the candle is all but burnt up, leaving us to stumble in the dark as the hot wax scolds us. Fontana seems to be a master at creating such dense tension through minimal dialogue and the refusal to show too much, allowing for the hearsay surrounding Yvan's missing colleague to create the looming sense of dread that hangs over our heads. Show don't tell is a key rule in screenwriting, but in Azor's case, it looks to do the opposite, creating unbearable tension steeped in paranoia and misinformation, refusing to show us what is happening behind the curtain. It’s a film that is effective in displaying the spectral silence of a coup, letting the paranoia of the rich and powerful creep to a finale that is all the more unnerving due to the quietness of it all. Fontana is a force worth noting, displaying instincts in a genre that few are capable of pulling off with such effective results.

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

29. Mass

Director: Fran Kranz

Genre: Drama Length: 1 Hour 51 Minutes Country: USA Language: English

Cast: Martha Plimpton, Ann Down, Jason Isaacs, Reed Birney

Synopsis: The parents of a school shooting victim (Martha Plimpton, Jason Isaacs) sit down for a discussion with the parents of the shooter (Ann Dowd, Reed Birney).

My Take: Mass is a powerful piece of conversational cinema because it is literally a conversation. It’s effective in allowing parents of both the victim and perpetrator to hash it out, trying best to understand each other’s circumstances. Mostly taking place in real-time, actor turned director Fran Kranz’s directorial debut is a hotpot of isolated tension that has its conflict steeped in grief, acceptance and ultimately, forgiveness. Kranz refuses to point fingers at either parent, allowing for an organic discussion to widen our perspective on the complexities of this tragedy. The cast is quite simply put, flawless. Each one of them understands their characters’ distinctive ways with which they deal with grief, leading to moments of crystal clear realisation and understanding that has Fran Kranz’ words ringing true with each actor as they come to terms with what cannot be changed. Its heartbreaking “what if’s” culminate in a final gut-punch moment of self-blame that’ll leave Mass ringing in your ears.

Where you can watch it: Most VOD Platforms (USA), Sky Go (UK), Blu-ray (USA)

28. Pig

Director: Michael Sarnoski

Genre/s: Drama/Mystery/Thriller Length: 1 Hour 32 Minutes Country: USA/UK Language: English

Cast: Nicolas Cage, Alex Wolff, Adam Arkin

Synopsis: Robin “Rob” Feld (Nicolas Cage) lives in seclusion with his beloved companion in Brandy, a truffle pig. But one evening, Rob is attacked in the middle of the night and Brandy is taken away from him. Rob, with the help of Amir (Alex Wolff), a young buyer of his truffles, go on a journey through the underbelly of the Portland food scene to find his pig.

My Take: With the aid of a subdued, nuanced and magnificent Nicolas Cage, Sarnoski creates a touching, slow-burning character study on grief and loss. Its script is simple and concise in its approach and intent that subverts any and all expectations one has with a plot that has unfairly been dubbed "John Wick with a pig" on far too many occasions. This isn't a high-octane revenge actioner. Like the preparation of any great meal, it takes time and a little patience before it blows you away, focusing on the silence between clearly defined plot and character beats that prove to be the film's most revealing moments. Nicolas Cage’s commitment to the role is a thing of breathless beauty that places it among the best of his career – elevating Pig to truly towering heights. Despite his untruly (and earned) reputation as an unpredictable performer, he remains one of the finest actors of his generation, and Pig just confirms his genius as a considerate artist able to live and breathe in the skin of his character that is nothing but convincing. Pig is a beautiful, ugly, funny and undeniably heartbreaking little film that introduces us to a fascinating talent in debut filmmaker Michael Sarnoski, but it’s also an emphatic reminder of Nicolas Cage’s endless bag of tricks and talent he is not willing to throw away any time soon. You can read my extended thoughts on it over here.

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

27. Zola

Director: Janicza Bravo

Genre/s: Comedy/Drama Length: 1 Hour 26 Minutes Country: USA Language: English

Cast: Taylour Paige, Riley Keough, Colman Domingo, Nicholas Braun, Ari’el Stachel

Synopsis: The movie adapted from a series of tweets by real-life stripper Zola (Taylour Paige), tweets that recollect a wild weekend gone wrong with fellow stripper Stefani (Riley Keough), her boyfriend (Nicholas Braun) and a pimp (Colman Domingo).

My Take: Zola looks to be more than just the gimmick it was in danger of becoming. It’s stylish as hell and sports an almost stereotypical A24 sheen that verges on becoming satire. But Zola is truly something else - something that is hilarious, sharp, surprisingly dark and a poignant observer of trauma, racism and cultural appropriation, going far deeper than just hilarious tweets and an alarmingly funny ensemble. It’s a film of the utmost creativity; blending music, sound and visuals into a crystalized candy-coated dream that is its surreal identity. But although Zola is clearly a larger than life individual through her tweets, the film portrays her in a far more subdued manner, letting her work as the witty, deadpan observer strung along for a ride she did not agree to. Taylour Paige is superb as the titular character, playing it straight while everyone else around her relish in the ludicrousness of their characters as described by her in rapid-fire tweets. It’s all so garish in its aesthetics and performances, but it’s through the writing where Zola truly shines – letting us read between the lines in order for us to see the underlying trauma experienced by her.

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

26. Together Together

Director: Nikole Beckwith

Genre/s: Comedy/Drama Length: 1 Hour 30 Minutes Country: USA Language: English

Cast: Patti Harrison, Ed Helms, Tig Notaro, Julio Torres, Sufe Bradshaw, Evan Jonigkeit, Fred Melamed, Nora Dunn

Synopsis: Loner Anna (Patti Harrison) becomes a paid surrogate to Matt (Ed Helms), a single, middle-aged man. An unlikely friendship forms between the two of them as their perceptions of love and connection are challenged.

My Take: Together Together is a love story without the romance. It looks to subvert the expectations of a mutual love shared between a man and a woman, one that doesn’t have them grappling with the often lazy and overused “will they won’t they” dynamic. Although the contract of the surrogacy forces these two people to come into contact with one another, it’s their unconscious need to find a lasting connection that keeps bringing them back together. They’re both at different points in their lives in terms of career, dating and finances, but one thing they need is each other in order for them to gain that missing piece in their lives. Thanks to a script that is funny, sweet, delicate and surprisingly informative, Nikole Beckwith gives us a platonic love story worthy of the two stars at the helm (no pun intended), with both Ed Helms and Patti Harrison’s infectious chemistry exhibiting adoration for one another as performers, their characters and finally, as people. “You’re doing good. You’re the best.” Says Matt to Anna at a birthing class in a touching moment of vulnerability - bringing the film’s themes of unconditional love and connection into full light.

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

Click down below for the remainder of the list...

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