square-eyed-geek’s Top Ten Films of 2021

There’s hectic years, and then there’s 2021, which in some ways was just as fraught and difficult as the dreaded 2020. But instead of dwelling on that, let’s dive right in to why we’re actually here: the best film releases of the last 12 months. Yes, my viewing habits have once again been rather sporadic, what with less trips to the cinema (I’m still wary of sitting in a crowd) and fewer online screeners available (although thankfully the wonderful Glasgow Film Festival offered an extensive virtual strand this year). As such, some of the bigger releases won’t be on here – films that I’m sure I would have liked just as much as many others did. But hey, this list is all a bit of fun, so I thought I’d write it anyway. You never know, there might be a title I mention that you’ve not yet seen, and which you’re eager to check out after you’ve read about it. And honestly, that’s my only goal with this blog – to share the things I love with all of you, in the hope that you’ll enjoy them as much as I did.

As with my previous top tens, I’ve compiled this using UK release dates for this year, mostly to make this list easier to keep track of. So without further ado, here’s my favourite films of 2021!:

10. Lamb

Lamb (2021)

This intriguing folk horror about a couple (Noomi Rapace and Hilmir Snær Guðnason) who take in a new born lamb has a deliberate, unrushed pace that creates a terrifying sense of dread throughout – a method that makes this a mesmerising yet very uncomfortable watch. Writer-director Valdimar Jóhannsson keeps his cards close to his chest during the first part of the story, hinting at all sorts of macabre goings-on at the edge of frame as we try to guess where it’s heading, until a genuinely unexpected reveal that will have you reassessing everything that’s already happened. Shots of the desolate but beautiful Icelandic landscape and close-ups of farmyard animals add to the overall tension of the narrative, as do the performances from the exceptional cast, particularly Rapace who gives a brilliant and heartbreaking turn as the lamb’s adoptive mother, her face barely masking the fear she has that her new, happy life can’t last forever.

(Read my full review of Lamb here).

9. Sound of Metal

Sound of Metal (2019)

When heavy metal drummer Ruben (Riz Ahmed) begins to permanently lose his hearing, he suddenly finds himself very alone in a world he can’t understand in this bold and emotional drama from writer-director Darius Marder. With amazing sound design which allows us to hear what he does (or doesn’t), Marder puts us in Ruben’s shoes as he struggles to adjust to this new change in his life, trying to learn sign language while still hoping to gain enough money for a cochlear implant so he can go back to how things used to be. Ahmed’s portrayal also handles both sides of that story, showing the pain Ruben feels at all that he’s lost, but offering a glimmer of hope at what he may have found, if only he can stick with it. An intimate portrait about identity, as well as a wonderful account of the deaf community and what it can do for so many people, Marder’s film is an incredible, touching drama, with a beautiful final message that will stay with you for a long time.

8. First Cow

First Cow (2019)

Kelly Reichardt returns to the screen with this gentle 1820s Oregon-set tale of the first cow brought to the region, and the two chancers (John Magaro and Orion Lee) who see a golden opportunity to steal milk from the animal to make delicious oily cakes they can sell. Yet this is first and foremost a moving story about human kindness and friendship, the bond between this pair of outsiders growing ever stronger as the money starts rolling in and they navigate their troubles together. And there may be plenty of that just around the corner when the rich owner of the cow (Toby Jones) takes a sudden liking to them and their baked goods. Reichardt’s drama has a low-key realism that keeps us hooked throughout that charming narrative, her understated direction letting the stunning landscapes and performances speak for themselves, especially Magaro and Lee who are both wonderful as the odd couple at the centre of the tale. There might not be a lot going on here plot-wise, but this is a powerful and captivating film nonetheless, and one with an absolutely heartbreaking ending that will leave you reeling.

7. The Power of the Dog

The Power of the Dog (2021)

Jane Campion’s drama is a slow-paced affair to begin with, Campion delicately unravelling all the threads of Thomas Savage’s novel as she introduces us to Phil (Benedict Cumberbatch) and George (Jesse Plemons) – two brothers who run a ranch with very different temperaments. However, when George moves his new bride Rose (Kirsten Dunst) into their home, things shift into much darker territory, the resentful Phil suddenly showing just how nasty and manipulative he can really be. This is a film that always seems on the verge of violence, Campion hinting at a masculine rage Phil is barely able to contain, particularly around Rose’s son (Kodi Smit-McPhee) who he takes an instant disliking to. Yet there’s also a haunting beauty to this that draws us in to this turbulent Western world, Campion’s lyrical direction and intimate shots highlighting an unexpected sensuality in the narrative. The cast are incredible too, but it is Cumberbatch who leaves a lasting impression, his performance bringing Phil to life in all his terrifying glory, while also giving him a gentleness that leaves us feeling oddly sad for this horrific monster of man.

6. Black Bear

Black Bear (2020)

This inventive, meta tale about a filmmaker (Aubrey Plaza) taking some time out at a cabin in the woods starts out like any other ordinary drama, her presence causing all sorts of delicious rifts in the relationship of her welcoming hosts (Sarah Gadon and Christopher Abbott). Yet where it goes next is even more fascinating, writer-director Lawrence Michael Levine turning the very idea of storytelling on its head to deliver something totally unpredictable, his film making us question what we’ve already seen while showing us all new sides to his intriguing characters. Plaza is a tour de force in this too, her portrayal of tortured artist Allison both fierce and filled with pathos and pain, especially in the second half. Not everyone will like the change in the latter part of the plot, but there’s no denying this is still a divine, taut thriller about how we often sabotage ourselves and those around us.

(Read my full review of Black Bear here).

5. Limbo

Limbo (2020)

A drama about refugees stuck on a remote Scottish island sounds like the start of a very depressing story, and indeed Ben Sharrock’s film tackles this subject matter with heartbreaking poignancy. But where Limbo really soars is in its surprising use of humour – laugh-out-loud, absurdist scenes that contrast the serious side of the narrative, making these moments hit all the more harder when they do happen. Sharrock shoots the majority of his wonderful film in a 4:3 aspect ratio, reflecting how trapped the migrants feel even amongst the vast Scottish landscapes, with young Syrian refugee Omar (the exceptional Amir El-Masry) particularly lost in this strange new place away from his family. A beautiful, moving film about the despair many face at the hands of such a ridiculous system, yet one that shows the power of compassion and community as well. It also has the most hilarious opening sequence of any release this year. You’ll never listen to Hot Chocolate’s ‘It Started with a Kiss’ the same way again.

4. Another Round

Another Round (2020)

A group of friends decide to test an intriguing theory out – that the human body has a blood alcohol level that is .05 percent too low, and we would therefore perform better with a couple of glasses of booze in us every day. It’s an odd idea for a plot, but writer-director Thomas Vinterberg and co-writer Tobias Lindholm make it work with a delicious mix of comedy and drama, creating a delightful yet incredibly dark film that shows how drinking can help and hinder, in all sorts of unexpected ways. However, what starts as a story about getting wasted (or slightly wasted) becomes something even more poignant and reflective as it unfolds, Vinterberg turning this into a wonderful celebration of life itself. With bold, realistic performances from the ensemble cast (particularly Mads Mikkelsen and Thomas Bo Larsen), Vinterberg’s film is one of his finest, and will have you laughing and crying in equal measure. It also features an amazing dance sequence – a scene that I guarantee will give you a spring in your own step after watching it (and which will make Scarlet Pleasure’s ‘What A Life’ your earworm for the rest of the week).

3. Riders of Justice

Riders of Justice (2020)

Yes, it certainly was a good year for fans of Danish cinema and Mads Mikkelsen. For me, this Mikkelsen release just about won over Another Round, mostly for its macabre, absurdist comedy and its surprisingly emotional delivery. And I really am a sucker for an Anders Thomas Jensen film too. Mikkelsen is exceptional as Markus, a man reeling after a tragic accident and with so much pent-up rage and anguish that he doesn’t know where to put it. But when an unlikely trio (Nikolaj Lie Kaas, Lars Brygmann and Nicolas Bro) tell him they believe the incident was actually the work of a notorious biker gang, Markus suddenly has an outlet, setting out to enact some well-earned vengeance on the baddies responsible, while his three new friends tag along for the ride. With scenes of side-splitting humour (mostly courtesy of Bro as the foul-mouthed Emmenthaler) and explosive, bloody violence, there’s rarely a dull moment in Jensen’s gripping thriller. Yet what stays with you is how unexpectedly touching and tender this is, with Mikkelsen and Kaas giving career-best performances as two characters both affected by loss in highly different ways. An incredible comedy-drama about finding help from others and being brave enough to ask in the first place, and a film you’ll want to revisit time and time again.

(Read my full review of Riders of Justice here).

2. Minari

Minari (2020)

Lee Isaac Chung’s 1980s-set film about a Korean-American family moving to Arkansas is endlessly charming and wonderfully sweet, with many moments captured with such vividness they feel like real memories come to life (Chung based the story on his childhood). Stunning cinematography gives a magical quality to the rural landscapes Jacob (Steven Yeun) tries to tame in order to start his own farm – an endeavour his wife Monica (Yeri Han) is apprehensive about, particularly after they’ve both left behind well-paid jobs in California. But it is their adorable son David (Alan Kim) who really steals our hearts and the narrative, his world suddenly turned upside down by the arrival of his grandmother (the amazing Yuh-jung Youn), who insists on several changes in their household that David hates (least of all replacing his beloved Mountain Dew with a healthy Korean drink). With Chung’s confident direction coaxing understated yet emotional performances from his cast (Yeun and Han are especially brilliant as husband and wife) and a compelling mix of comedy and drama throughout, Chung has created a richly-textured portrait of family life that is so enchanting, you’ll never want it to end.

(Read my full review of Minari here).

1. Petite Maman

Petite Maman (2021)

For the longest time, Minari was my number 1 film of the year. Then this little gem came along and easily skipped ahead to the top spot. Written and directed by the magnificent Céline Sciamma, this captivating tale of childhood, friendship and grief follows the young Nelly (Joséphine Sanz), who’s trying to process the recent death of her grandmother while she helps her parents (Nina Meurisse and Stéphane Varupenne) clear out her grandmother’s old home. Yet when the close bond she has with her Mum is threatened by the loss hanging over them, Nelly meets a new friend (Gabrielle Sanz) in the nearby woods – a relationship that she soon comes to realise offers her an incredible opportunity. To talk any more about the plot of Petite Maman would ruin the joy of seeing it for the first time, so I certainly won’t do that. But needless to say, Sciamma has created another delightful, poignant story, adding an unexpected magical element that is fascinating to watch unfold. However, there’s also a subtlety to her writing that focuses on the realism of her narrative, which at its heart is a profound reflection on the relationship between mothers and daughters, portrayed here in all its glorious ups and downs. With Claire Mathon’s cinematography highlighting the dazzling beauty of nature, and spellbinding music by Jean-Baptiste de Laubier (aka. Para One), this is a sublime, fairytale-like drama filled with wonderful moments that capture the joy of childhood and the power of imagination, as well as a film that will have you utterly transfixed from start to finish. And if you don’t shed a tear or two during the boat scene, then you’re a stronger person than me.

(Read my full review of Petite Maman here).

(Films that just missed out on the top ten: Apples, After Love, In the Earth, Palm Springs, Censor, Dreams on Fire, Bo Burnham: Inside, Underplayed, Rosa’s Wedding).

And that’s it for another year of my favourite top ten films. Thank you for taking the time to read my thoughts on these brilliant releases of the past 12 months. Stay safe, and I hope we all have a better and brighter 2022. (As always, post a comment below if there’s anything you think I left out of my top ten, or if there’s any films I’ve included that also make your 2021 list!).

Petite Maman – A magical tale about friendship, childhood, and the bond between a mother and daughter

From building a gigantic tree house in the forest, to cooking crêpes, to acting out an elaborate make-believe drama, Petite Maman (2021) is all about the joys of being a child, this touching film revelling in the moments between friends that seem so small when they happen, but become lasting memories over time. It’s a sentiment beautifully portrayed by writer-director Céline Sciamma throughout and a feeling we can all relate to, her poignant narrative stirring up our own recollections of the relationships that shaped us when we were young. Yet the friendship at the centre of this story is unlike anything we ever experienced as kids, a unique, magical element turning this into something more akin to a fairytale than the drama we’re expecting.

Nelly (Joséphine Sanz) and her new friend (Gabrielle Sanz) cook crêpes together...
Nelly (Joséphine Sanz) and her new friend (Gabrielle Sanz) cook crêpes together…

Nelly (Joséphine Sanz) is very much a solitary child when we first meet her though, happy enough in the presence of her own company as she wanders the forest collecting acorns or explores her grandmother’s old home, her parents in the middle of clearing it out after her recent death. Indeed, it’s rather telling that when her Dad (Stéphane Varupenne) finds a paddleboard and gives it to Nelly, she thinks it’s the perfect toy as “it’s a game you play alone”. Her Mum (Nina Meurisse) is the only friend she seems to need, the pair helping each other through this difficult time by sharing the thoughts and feelings they can’t tell anyone else, particularly Nelly who regrets not having said a proper goodbye to her grandmother when she had the chance. But with her Mum unable to deal with her own grief and the memories the clear-out brings up, their bond becomes strained, Nelly waking one morning to find her gone without any explanation. Alone and with no-one to confide in, Nelly meets a girl (Gabrielle Sanz) in the woods who she’s never seen before, the two of them striking up an immediate relationship after she helps the girl collect branches for her tree house. It’s only when Nelly gets to know her new friend that she begins to realise there’s something out of the ordinary about her – something that she sees as an amazing opportunity not to be missed.

It’s this unusual, magical aspect that makes Petite Maman so compelling to watch, Sciamma pulling her story in a completely unexpected direction and injecting it with a sense of childlike wonder that has us eager to follow Nelly on the exciting adventure unravelling before her. Yet Sciamma handles the fantastical side of her narrative in such a delicate, subtle way that it could almost be real, her writing and direction focusing instead on the everyday moments between the two friends as they get to know each other. With her camera placed at the girls’ height, we see everything through their eyes, Sciamma allowing us to better understand their imaginative, curious view of the world and reminding us what childhood actually feels like. Sciamma also emphasises the importance of nature and how the outdoors is the ideal nurturing playground for the girls, Claire Mathon’s gorgeous cinematography highlighting the dazzling autumnal colours of the woods while Jean-Baptiste de Laubier’s (aka. Para One) incredible soundtrack reflects the pure joy of these scenes (one particularly spine-tingling song accompanies a sequence of the girls’ rowing a boat to a concrete structure in the middle of a lake – a sublime moment that I guarantee will bring a tear to your eye).

Nelly and her Mum (Nina Meurisse) enjoying each other’s company...
Nelly and her Mum (Nina Meurisse) enjoying each other’s company…

While Sciamma has perfectly captured the exhilaration of childhood and the lasting friendships it can create, Petite Maman’s true heart lies with the relationship between mother and daughter, Sciamma portraying how valuable that bond can be, yet also how precarious. Nelly and her Mum certainly have their ups and downs (her sudden disappearance is a tad harsh in light of everything else her daughter is dealing with), but their connection is palpable whenever they’re together, the two of them sharing such a deep understanding that they instinctively know what the other wants, whether that be someone to listen as they talk about the past, or a tight hug to serve as a reminder that they’re not alone. Indeed, they’re so close that they often don’t need words to communicate, one great example being a scene in which Nelly feeds her crisps from the backseat of their car, this tender gesture making her Mum smile and briefly forget about her loss. Moments like this always have so much nostalgia and sentiment to them that it’s as if they’re actual memories coming alive onscreen, Nina Meurisse and Joséphine Sanz’s natural performances as mother and daughter also adding to the profound sense of realism that Sciamma has been able to establish throughout.

Petite Maman is such a lovely, enchanting film that you’ll never want it to end, Sciamma fully immersing us in the wonderful world she has created and the relationships she has so beautifully brought to life. Her script is superb, ideas about grief, the past, childhood and the mother-daughter bond all delicately explored, while her restrained direction puts the performances of her cast up front and centre, coaxing two incredible turns from her young leads in the process. Yet it is the balance between the supernatural elements of her story and the everyday moments that makes this particularly fascinating, Sciamma crafting an exquisite realist fairytale in which magic can be found in the most unexpected of places. Like Nelly, we just have to know where to look for it.

Stranger by the Lake – Sex, lies and cruising

Many comparisons have already been made between Alain Guiraudie’s latest film and Hitchcock’s own thrillers. Indeed Guiraudie’s Stranger by the Lake (2013) does have the basic DNA of a Hitchcock film: a murder, mysterious strangers and endless secrets and lies. Yet here the comparisons end. Director and writer Guiraudie has created something infinitely darker, a complex story wrapped in ambiguity that explores themes such as sex, relationships and human nature. Yes, Stranger by the Lake (L’inconnu du lac) is similar to a Hitchcock film, but it actually would be more apt to call it the modern, more mature cousin of a Hitchcock film…with added emphasis on one particular word found in that director’s name.

Stranger by the Lake (L'inconnu du lac) (2013)

Guiraudie’s film is a love story with a difference. During the summer Franck (Pierre Deladonchamps) visits a lake every day where he sunbathes, swims and occasionally hooks up with the other men who frequent the area. This lake is a gay cruising spot you see. One day Franck meets two new faces at the lake – one a lonely older guy who sits happily by himself (Patrick d’Assumçao), the other a handsome, moustached man called Michel (Christophe Paou). Franck immediately falls for him, despite the fact that Michel already has a partner (François-Renaud Labarthe). After staying late one night after an encounter with another man, Franck witnesses a shocking altercation out on the lake between Michel and his partner. Despite what he saw Franck just can’t keep away and as he starts to fall more and more for Michel, he finds it ever harder to walk away even when he knows he should.

The plot may read like your average thriller, but Stranger by the Lake is so much more than the usual ‘whodunit’. In fact it is actually one of the most beautiful and atmospheric films you will see this year. Claire Mathon’s cinematography brings the landscape to life in lush shots that show the beauty of the land, yet while used alongside Guiraudie’s expert direction also hint at something unsettling beneath the surface. This unease is felt throughout and is something Guiraudie competently explores in his script. He creates a taut psychological story, one that on the surface is a gripping murder mystery, but that in actuality explores underlying ideas of nature (both human and otherwise) and love. His portrayal of the gay cruising scene is shocking in its frankness, not least in the use of real unsimulated sex (through the use of body doubles), but is needed in order to show these encounters for what they are – a chance to have some fun, yet even more so a chance to connect (albeit temporarily) with another person. No wonder the lonely figure of Henri (Patrick d’Assumçao) chooses to visit this particular side of the lake after splitting up with his wife.

Franck (Pierre Deladonchamps) meets the lonely Henri (Patrick d’Assumçao)

The dialogue is sparse, Guiraudie letting the image and the feeling of each scene do the talking. There is no external soundtrack, just the pleasing sounds of the surrounding nature (we often hear the gorgeous sound of the lake water lapping). This not only sets the scene but also adds an undertone of menace as we anxiously wait to see what happens next, a feeling that increases as we slowly begin to realise that this lake, already hiding a cruising spot and now hiding the scene of a murder, is far from peaceful.

The tense atmosphere of the film is heightened through Guiraudie’s choice of location. Set solely at the lake of the title, it has a claustrophobic quality to it as the passing days melt into one for both the men who frequent the lake and the viewer as they watch. This repetition of these endless summer days could have been disastrously dull in the wrong hands, yet Guiraudie keeps the story interesting through that use of underlying dread. He uses this feeling of repetition not only to show the monotonousness of these men’s lives and their encounters, but also to lead us into a false sense of security, slowly letting us get to know each of the characters (in particular the main character of Franck played superbly by Pierre Deladonchamps) before Guiraudie suddenly pulls the carpet out from under our feet to plunge us into the more thrilling part of the plot. This in turn makes Stranger by the Lake all the more satisfying and gripping to watch and also makes the exhilarating ending all the more shocking.

Things start to unravel for Franck...

A story about relationships and the power struggles within them, as well as the everyday need for human connections, all wrapped up in a murder mystery tale (albeit a mystery that is already solved). Slow and reflective Guiraudie builds the pleasingly tense atmosphere with his confident direction and bold story up until its surprise ending. It is also nothing short of ground-breaking it its use of a single setting and through Guiraudie’s frank portrayal of the cruising scene. Some people might find the explicit sex scenes too much, along with the (almost constant) nudity, yet its use is justified and not simply there for the sake of controversy. Missing it will mean you overlook one of the strangest yet wonderfully compelling films of the year and a beauty of a film that is nothing short of art.