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!).

Snow White and the Huntsman

On first impression I thought Snow White and the Huntsman was going to be boring and unimaginative – another pointless adaptation that recycles the old story simply to cash in on the wave of fantasy films (and TV shows) coming out at the moment. But I was very pleasantly surprised. It is a brilliantly dark, twisted take on the fairytale from first-time feature director Rupert Sanders, filled with great scenes of action and horror.

The story sets out a plot similar to the usual fairytale: the evil witch Ravenna (Charlize Theron) meets and marries King Magnus (Noah Huntley), only to murder him and take over the land he rules. She imprisons his only daughter, Snow White (Kristen Stewart), and cruelly reigns over the kingdom, taking the beauty from young girls so she can never age. But years later, she learns from her magic mirror that she can become immortal if she has the heart of the most beautiful girl in the land; Snow White. But Snow manages to escape into the woods before she can kill her. So the queen sends a Huntsman familiar with the dark forest (Chris Hemsworth) to track her down. But then the film turns into something entirely different, and even though you’ve heard the story a million times before, you’ll find it hard to tell what’s going to happen next.

The one main bugbear I thought I’d have with the film was Kristen Stewart as Snow White. After seeing her terrible twitchy performance as Bella in Twilight (blinking and flared nostrils throughout) I couldn’t understand her being chosen to play another beloved and well-known character here. But again, I was pleasantly surprised. Gone is the blinking acting, replaced with actual talent. It’s the most convincing role she’s done – her OTT acting fits the role well. Ok, so sometimes her overly posh British accent slips and she might sometimes go back into whiny girl mode occasionally, but she holds her own throughout and makes a convincing heroine (which is more than can be said for Bella) who is powerful in her own right.

Chris Hemsworth also makes a mark in another major role as the Huntsman. Although it first looked like he was just playing Thor again, but with more mud and an axe, he’s actually a tough Scottish bloke who has a convincing, and sad, back story; and he also adds some laughs to the proceedings. As do the dwarves when they appear later on in the film (Ray Winstone, Bob Hoskins, Ian McShane, Nick Frost, Johnny Harris, Eddie Marsan, Toby Jones, and Brian Gleeson). But the one person who truly steals the entire film is Charlize Theron as the icy, evil queen Ravenna. She does more OTT scenery chewing than anyone but someone manages to make it convincing and realistic. And boy, can she do scary.

One problem with the film though is it’s too long. Too much time is spent on certain scenes and the dwarves get introduced too late into the film. Clearly this is meant as an establishing film to set up a sequel, so some people might actually be disappointed by the ending as well. Although it does conclude, it still leaves a LOT of things open. The ending itself also seems to happen very suddenly, which will leave a lot of people confused and wanting more. The effects are also good but there is one horrid scene involving unconvincing CGI animals that should have most definitely been left out. And parents be warned – it gets quite gory and horrific in parts, so might not be best to take the kiddies.

So while not without its faults and although it’s more of a set-up film for a sequel, Snow White and the Huntsman is still an enjoyable yet incredibly dark and interesting alternate take on the classic fairytale. There aren’t many laughs in it but it’s still fun to watch and the grubby, medieval design is gorgeous and realistic throughout. I’m betting that the sequel will be ten times more darker and even more entertaining than this though. And it will certainly be intriguing to see where the story is heading next…

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

Tomas Alfredson’s first English language film is an adaptation of the critically acclaimed novel by John Le Carré, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, and is an update of the seventies TV series starring Alec Guinness.

George Smiley (Gary Oldman) is instructed by the head of his old group of MI6 workers that there is a mole amongst them who is passing on vital information to the Russians. Smiley’s task is to come out of retirement, find out who that mole is, and dispatch them…

This film is superbly acted by an all-star British cast including Gary Oldman, Colin Firth, Benedict Cumberbatch, Tom Hardy, John  Hurt, Mark Strong, Stephen Graham, Toby Jones, Kathy Burke (yep, that one)…erm, am I forgetting anyone? Probably. It’s a film full of incredible performances and a joy to watch them all act in the same room together.

Obviously the one main standout is Gary Oldman as George Smiley – an iconic role for Guinness and now an iconic role for him. Oldman looks about 20 years older than he actually is: frail, calm, quiet but still very clever and powerful underneath his cool exterior. He is definitely in with a good chance at that Best Actor Academy Award next year (and rightly so after he’s been overlooked for sooo long – he’s one of the best actors, not even British, out there and has been since he started).

Other standouts are Benedict Cumberbatch as Peter Guillam, Smiley’s loyal right hand man. He too is calm, focused and restrained until it all becomes too much for him. And Tom Hardy as Ricki Tarr in a brief but memorable role (and in a VERY bad wig) again shows why he’s getting so many good projects now – here he plays a much more sensitive but still intense character. Although maybe I’m slightly biased. AHEM. (Also seeing him and Cumberbatch acting in the same room together since they did the amazing Stuart A Life Backwards is great).

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is beautifully shot too. It’s all muted colours (greys, browns, blues…) taking away any notion of the spy world being glamorous – this is dull, ugly, horrid work. Not to mention dangerous. The set design is also excellent as are the costumes, putting us right into the time period.

This is a film filled with paranoia and every scene is dripping in tension. It nicely reflects the agents’ situation: they can’t trust ANYONE and they must always be on their guard. Alfredson also conveys a stoic British attitude throughout the film: everyone is calm and controlled, keeping their true feelings and emotions hidden until the secrets become unbearable for them and they start to crack.

The plot might be a little hard to swallow in the running time of a film (a TV series would have given more time for certain things to be expanded on) but Alfredson has made an amazing thriller that will have you gripped from beginning to end and which definitely benefits from repeated viewings.