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!).

Lamb – Nature versus nurture in this eerie Icelandic folk horror

There’s an old, fable-like feeling to Lamb (2021) that’s immediately appealing, its animal subject matter, grieving central couple and harsh but beautiful rural setting all aspects that conjure up memories of those moralistic tales we used to hear as children. It’s something that writer-director Valdimar Jóhannsson plays on too, separating his film into chapter headings as if he’s reading it to us from a book. Except this is one story you wouldn’t want to hear just before bedtime, ideas around nature versus nurture and the consequences of human meddling turning this farmyard folk horror into a sinister, nightmarish experience as dark as anything the Brothers Grimm ever wrote.

Ingvar (Hilmir Snær Guðnason) and María (Noomi Rapace) take in a new lamb on their farm...
Ingvar (Hilmir Snær Guðnason) and María (Noomi Rapace) take in a new lamb on their farm…

Even from the opening moments, Jóhannsson builds an intense atmosphere of dread that has us on edge, his expert direction transforming the idyllic countryside into a terrifying place where nature should be feared. Extreme close-ups of sheep and their wide, glassy eyes make it seem as if they’re about to attack at any second, while long shots of snowy landscapes are accompanied by the sound of someone (or something) breathing, Jóhannsson hinting at unspeakable horrors lurking in the wilderness. No wonder María (Noomi Rapace) and Ingvar (Hilmir Snær Guðnason) are unhappy there, the pair barely talking to each other as they forlornly go about their days, trapped in a tedious, claustrophobic existence. So when a new lamb is born and they take it into their home to nurse it back to health, this helpless life offers them both a glimmer of hope, the couple naming the baby ‘Ava’ and even letting it sleep in their bedroom. But with the real mother of the lamb loudly objecting to this arrangement, and María and Ingvar’s behaviour becoming increasingly odd, we start to suspect there’s more to this than a spot of lambsitting.

Jóhannsson and co-writer Sjón unravel their narrative at a steady, unrushed pace, keeping us in horrid suspense as we eagerly wait to discover what’s happening beneath those nursery blankets. Brief glimpses of the lamb and carefully framed shots further add to this feeling of unease, Jóhannsson suggesting something macabre lingering just out of sight, such as during the birth when the camera stays on María and Ingvar’s concerned faces. It’s this slow-burn approach that makes what follows in Lamb all the more effective, several moments coming so shockingly out of the blue that they will haunt you for a long time (one reveal is particularly horrifying). Yet this gradual build-up also allows the bond between the couple and Ava to grow in a way that feels realistic, keeping us on board with the unusual aspects of the tale as María and Ingvar’s initial instinct to protect the baby becomes something else entirely. Jóhannsson and Sjón never tell us the reason María and Ingvar are so dejected when we first meet them (glances of photos in the background and a stored-away crib point to some form of loss), but it’s easy to see why they fall in love with Ava, and why they resort to such extreme measures to hold onto her. Noomi Rapace is particularly brilliant at portraying how fearful María is of losing this new happy life, her wonderful, tender performance undercutting even the most joyful scenes with sadness, Rapace hinting that deep down María knows it can’t last. But she’ll certainly do everything in her power to keep her makeshift family together.

María and Ava: a happy (and unusual) family portrait...
María and Ava: a happy (and unusual) family portrait…

While Lamb’s subtle storytelling is mesmerising in those earlier moments, Jóhannsson surprisingly loses all traces of ambiguity in the latter part of his tale, suddenly revealing more than we’re expecting to see. It’s a decision that sadly makes the second half of the film less compelling, Jóhannsson relying a little too much on computer generated effects to keep our interest – effects that aren’t particularly terrible, but which aren’t very convincing either. This is definitely a case where less would have been more, especially when we’ve already seen how gripping Jóhannsson’s film can be when it sticks to the power of suggestion. The ending also happens too quickly to have real emotional impact, Jóhannsson and Sjón’s script not building up to it in any truly satisfying way. It’s a scene that is certainly shocking and which ties together the themes of the story, yet it feels out of place alongside the slow-burn approach of the rest of the narrative. As such, it concludes with a bit of a lifeless bleat rather than a bang – a huge shame when everything else in the plot is so good.

There’s still a lot to love about the surreal, creepy world of Lamb though. The pace is hypnotic without ever being boring, Jóhannsson’s suspenseful direction pulling us into this atmospheric tale and keeping us on the edge of our seat throughout, while that wonderful cinematography captures the beauty of the setting, yet also the isolation of María and Ingvar’s lives. Filled with moving performances from the cast and several eerie moments that will play on your mind days later, this is an enchanting, folklore-esque drama about parenthood, grief, and the consequences of interfering with nature, as well as a film that marks Jóhannsson as an exciting director to look out for in the future.

Prometheus – when is a prequel not a prequel?

Prometheus has had a lot of mixed reviews. Some people have found it sacrilege to revisit an already brilliant set of films (although more the first two films than the last two), even if the first films original director is the one doing the revisiting. But then others have been interested to see exactly where Ridley Scott (and writers Jon Spaihts and Damon Lindelof) have taken the story. Personally, after finally seeing the film, I can’t see why people have been complaining about it.

Two scientists, Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace – this film’s version of Ripley) and Charlie Holloway (Logan Marshall-Green), find what they believe is an ancient map pointing to a planet that holds answers to the origin of human existence. They embark on a mission to the planet onboard the ship Prometheus, along with the rest of the crew; notably the director in charge of the mission (Charlize Theron), the ship’s captain (Idris Elba), no-nonsense geologist Fifield (Sean Harris), annoyingly chatty biologist Millburn (Rafe Spall), and their onboard robot David (Michael Fassbender). Once they reach the planet they think they’ve found what they’re looking for. But have they discovered something more dangerous too?…

First of all, a lot of people expecting a prequel that directly links to the events in Alien are going to be in for a surprise (which might be why so many people have dissed it). Prometheus doesn’t actually feel like a prequel at all. Instead it leaves you with more questions than answers. Ridley Scott, Jon Spaihts and Damon Lindelof have truly thrown us a curveball of a film – they have instead created a prequel that is so different, it feels like a standalone film. It’s as if Scott is reinventing the whole franchise. At the same time though, they still revisit old ground with the horror in space idea, the fear of the unknown and the fear of death and mortality. But I think that making something familiar yet almost strangely different is the best thing they could have done. Isn’t that so much more interesting than simply revealing everything in a straight-up prequel cash-in that copies everything from the first films? If Scott had given us all the answers, wouldn’t people be up in arms about that instead? About giving too much away and selling out? This is one of the reasons I really enjoyed Prometheus.

The design in Prometheus also feels a lot different to that in the other Alien films. Whereas the others feel dark, sinister, and claustrophobic from the off, this feels glossy and new, and we almost feel hopeful for the crew, making it all the more shocking when things start to go wrong. It is also one of the first films I’ve seen in IMAX 3D that truly benefits from the medium. The scenes in which the ship is in space are particularly beautiful, almost mesmerisingly so.

The performances are another aspect that really keeps the film together. Noomi Rapace makes an excellent heroine, not too stoic or even too girly, but making her someone you root for. The supporting characters are all great, especially Charlize Theron as the bitter and selfish Meredith Vickers who is overseeing the operation, in another role (after the Queen in Snow White and the Huntsman) in which she shows us she really can do scary. Also great is Idris Elba as Janek, the ships wise-cracking, accordion playing captain, as well as Sean Harris and Rafe Spall as two bickering crew mates (who also add most of the comic relief to the film). A lot of the other crew members feel very underused though. They don’t really seem to add much to the proceedings, and there are a few who I think we literally hear talk once. You can inevitably tell what’s going to happen to those guys (sorry if that’s spoilerific but COME ON – they may as well have targets painted on them).

The main standout of the film after Noomi Rapace and Charlize Theron is definitely Michael Fassbender as the robot David. His straight-laced, unemotional performance is astounding. In fact I was questioning if they really had gone one step further and just made a Fassbender robot. Called the ‘Fassy-bot’. Don’t deny you want one coz I know you do…

You really don’t need to have seen the original Alien films to understand and appreciate Prometheus. It works well on its own as an exciting sci-fi that makes you think. And although the film is long (over 2 hours) I found it intense and absorbing throughout. Some people may begrudge having a film that has more questions than answers and having a film with tricky messages behind it, but if you really think about it, having everything handed to us on a plate would have been boring and pointless. Prometheus was never intended by Ridley Scott to be a direct prequel to Alien. It is rumoured that James Cameron will be a making a sequel to Prometheus in the style of Aliens (*whispers* which is actually my favourite film in the original quadrilogy). Colour me excited if that’s true. But in the meantime I think it is a huge achievement of director Ridley Scott and writers Jon Spaihts and Damon Lindelof to have given us something different and original, and for that I applaud them.

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is David Fincher’s adaption of the popular Swedish book by Stieg Larsson which was first made into a Swedish language film by director Niels Arden Oplev and starred Noomi Rapace.

The story follows Mikael Blomkvist (Daniel Craig) a discredited journalist who is contacted by Henrik Vanger (Christopher Plummer) who wants his help in finding out who murdered his niece, Harriet,  40 years ago. Blomkvist enlists the help of Lisbeth Salander (Rooney Mara) a goth hacker with a dark past…

Now, a confession – I’ve not seen the Swedish version of the films yet (got them for Christmas so I’ll watch them when my life becomes a little more organised). So I was going into David Fincher’s adaptation with a fresh mind and without entirely knowing what the story was about.

And I felt very unimpressed…I’m not sure if the films have been so hyped up for me that it just felt like a letdown. The first two parts of Fincher’s film are intensely boring. In fact it only starts to get interesting when Lisbeth and Mikael finally meet and they start to shed some light on the investigation.  But even then the story doesn’t seem anything special.

First of all the title sequence is HORRID – I get the feeling Fincher wanted to give an iconic opening like the ones in James Bond films, but it just doesn’t work with the rest of the film. It feels like it’s been a last-minute idea that was added just to show what they could do with some good graphics. And it’s the equivalent of being hit around the head with a brick repeatedly.

However, there are moments of genius in Fincher’s film. Mostly these are in the uncomfortable scenes which really do make you squirm in your seat. And as with all his other films, everything is beautifully designed and shot as well.

Rooney Mara is also great as Lisbeth Salander, but she does look a little bit too young in some scenes. Then again she does have a weird sort of vulnerability to her in some parts that make her character very believable. Although I’m guessing that people who’ve seen the Swedish version will think that Noomi Rapace is still the better person to have played her…

Daniel Craig as Mikael Blomkvist is good as usual and makes his character a lot more interesting than he could have been and also manages to hold his own when he’s onscreen with the more popular (and cooler) Lisbeth character.

But one of the biggest problems of Fincher’s film is that he has tackled this sort of subject matter before in his similar detective/serial killer films (Se7en and Zodiac) with much better results and that is something that is always at the back of your mind when watching this. Zodiac for example is just as long as this (way over 2 hours) but it doesn’t feel it because you are so immersed in the story. So maybe it is just the plot of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo that is the problem and that doesn’t engage as much as I would have liked. The characters are perfect and very real, the direction at times is exquisite, the soundtrack is amazing, but in the end the film just feels very…dull. Very cool at times, yes, but still boring for the most part.

So, not one of David Fincher’s worst films, but certainly nowhere near any of his best ones. And I’ll have to wait to watch the originals before I can tell if it’s better than them or not!