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!).

Riders of Justice – Revenge is cheaper than therapy in this comedy-thriller

Anders Thomas Jensen is a writer who has the ability to craft a beautiful, captivating tale, his scripts realistic and deeply poignant without ever resorting to melodrama (After the Wedding (2006), In a Better World (2010)). Yet it’s a more distinctive voice that marks all of his own directorial efforts, Jensen delving into much darker territories to deliver compelling, surreal stories, often with a deliciously humorous edge. Whether it’s a band of criminals deciding to pack it all in to open a restaurant (Flickering Lights (2000)), a pair of butchers using an unconventional method to boost sales (The Green Butchers (2003)), or maladjusted siblings fighting tooth and nail with each other (Men & Chicken (2015)), Jensen constantly finds a way to make us laugh when we least expect it, filling his narratives with oddball characters who we’re surprisingly able to relate to. Riders of Justice (Retfærdighedens ryttere, 2020) immediately feels like Jensen dialled up to 11 – his usual comedic bent with a twist not seen throughout his other works, in which revenge seems to be the perfect solution to a few personal problems.

This is more complicated than a straight-up vengeance thriller though. There’s a lot going on here, writer-director Jensen mixing in themes around coincidences, fate and making sense of the world, as well as family and the strength to overcome trauma. Yet because of his impeccable writing, Riders never feels bloated, each of his ideas explored in an intriguing way that pulls us into the story and makes us eager to see where it’s going, particularly when the characters begin to uncover the mysterious circumstances that led up to a tragic event (a shockingly dark moment that kicks off the film). Markus (Mads Mikkelsen) is just one of the many people still processing this incident when we first meet him, this stoic military man content with simply burying his feelings while consuming a mountain of beer to help him forget. He’s lost and directionless, his daughter (Andrea Heick Gadeberg) becoming increasingly frustrated at his inability to talk to anyone about what happened – something that makes them drift even further apart. But when he is visited by two statistical geniuses (Nikolaj Lie Kaas and Lars Brygmann) who tell Markus the accident was actually a plot to silence the ex-member of a biker gang (the titular ‘Riders of Justice’), he suddenly discovers an unexpected outlet for his repressed rage and emotions.

The group start training
The gang start training (Photo credit: Rolf Konow/Vertigo Releasing)

While there’s little to laugh about at the start of the film, when the mismatched ensemble of the story finally band together (including the incredible Nicolas Bro as the angry, potty-mouthed Emmenthaler) Riders really comes into its own. With the plot unravelling at a thrilling breakneck pace, Jensen lets rip in the best possible way, superb one-liners and moments of macabre humour flying thick and fast, every joke enhanced by the cast’s astounding, endlessly entertaining performances. Ranging from the brilliantly bombastic (Bro who gets the most quotable lines: “Step away from the wires!”), the slightly more restrained but still eccentric (a scruffy-haired Brygmann who plays Lennart with such manic energy that he’s often flailing his arms like a muppet), and the completely deadpan (Mikkelsen who is basically the straight man to the rest of them), they all throw themselves into the material and run wild with it, especially when the situations become increasingly absurd. A scene in which Markus has to explain to his daughter exactly where he met his new ‘friends’ is particularly fantastic, the group’s elaborate lies about child and adult therapy hilarious to watch, with Lennart proving just how well he can fit the job description. They’re all clearly having the time of their lives here – something that makes our viewing experience even more joyous.

While Riders of Justice is certainly in the same league as Jensen’s previous films, there’s a depth and maturity that elevates this above his other works. That odd blend of comedy and drama is fine-tuned to perfection here, sequences suddenly morphing from the hilarious to instances of real pain and anguish. It’s an incredible feat that often leaves us unsure if we should be laughing or crying, and one which has us hanging on every second of the story. The cast themselves also surprisingly help with these changes in tone, delivering expert dual performances that ground the more outlandish parts of the plot. Each of them has a moment that reveals exactly why these characters are so damaged and intent on seeking revenge – something delicately woven into the narrative by Jensen and given genuine potency by the cast. Even Emmenthaler’s usually rage-fuelled exterior crumbles at one point, Bro’s heartbreaking portrayal showing him to have a complexity that we might not have seen in the hands of others. And if you don’t burst into tears at Otto’s (Nikolaj Lie Kaas) story (a magnificent scene between him and Mikkelsen that may well be the greatest thing Jensen has ever written), then you’re a stronger person than me. It’s a moment given such gravity and pain by Kaas that it’s actually hard to watch. Indeed, while Kaas and Mikkelsen have appeared in all of Jensen’s directorial films, their performances in this are their most astonishing yet. Markus is certainly one of Mikkelsen’s best characters, his world-weary expressions hinting at the hidden emotional baggage that threatens to overload him as the narrative goes on – a stunning portrayal that is also beautifully enhanced by Gadeberg’s wonderful, poignant turn as his daughter.

Markus (Mads Mikkelsen) comforts his daughter (Andrea Heick Gadeberg)
Markus (Mads Mikkelsen) comforts his daughter (Andrea Heick Gadeberg) (Photo credit: Rolf Konow/Vertigo Releasing)

With scenes of explosive, bloody violence, this is an outlandish but touching film about trying to move on from the trauma of your past while searching for some sort of meaning in life. Essentially, a revenge therapy film. More importantly though, this is about finding help from the most unexpected people, and being brave enough to ask in the first place. As Otto says at one point: “I sometimes think people with problems band together”. It’s a heartfelt concept brought to profound life by Jensen’s assured direction and writing, and something highlighted by those excellent, multi-layered performances from the cast. Yet this is also a lot of fun to watch, with so many incredible laugh-out-loud moments that you’ll want to revisit this over and over again. Hanging out with a band of vengeance-seeking weirdos might sound odd, but Jensen really does turn it into the best damn time you’ll ever have.

(Originally posted on The Digital Fix: https://www.thedigitalfix.com/film/film_review/gff-2021-riders-of-justice/)