In Review

Best thriller and horror films of 2021

Top movies include No Sudden Move, Promising Young Woman, and The Courier

1

No Sudden Move

It has been eight years since Steven Soderbergh announced his “retirement”, with an outspoken attack on the big studios’ priorities, said Kevin Maher in The Times. But the director keeps churning them out even so, and on the evidence of this latest offering – a “period crime drama-cum-home invasion movie” set in Detroit in 1954 – he has lost none of his ingenuity. 

The story centres on a trio of petty criminals, who are hired for a “lucrative extortion job” that sounds straightforward but goes haywire “within minutes”. Even in his weaker films, Soderbergh gets the most out of his large ensemble casts. All the performances here are “on point”, but he has drawn particularly charismatic turns from the three crooks: Don Cheadle, Benicio Del Toro and Succession’s Kieran Culkin – who proves that he can project “quick-witted peevishness” even through a thick robber’s mask. 

It’s a “crackling” film noir, complete with “cryptic dialogue” and a plot full of “nifty surprises”, said Danny Leigh in the Financial Times. The story unfolds on a “need-to-know basis”, but the era is palpable: the streets of Detroit are full of “gleaming General Motors products”; a generation before the “white flight” an “urban renewal” is under way – or “Negro removal”, as one character drily puts it; and the female characters are sharp-witted women who have been “marooned” as housewives or secretaries. 

Soderbergh – the man behind Ocean’s Eleven – knows how to make a heist movie, said Clarisse Loughrey in The Independent, and he relies here on some “old habits and comforts”. But this is not just a director on autopilot. No Sudden Move may turn out to be a minor entry in his filmography, but it’s “well crafted and thrilling” in a way that feels oddly reassuring.

2

Promising Young Woman

Writer-director Emerald Fennell’s Oscar-nominated debut, Promising Young Woman, is a pitch dark film for the #MeToo era that “fizzes with style and wit”, said Kevin Maher in The Times. It stars Carey Mulligan as Cassie, a “brittle” coffee shop barista who is still full of rage about the rape and subsequent suicide of her best friend, Nina, some years ago. To avenge Nina’s death, she poses as reeling drunk in nightclubs, where she lets supposed “nice guys” take her home – then snaps out of her stupor when, inevitably, they try to take advantage of her state. These are bleak but funny scenes, from whose outcome – violent or otherwise – we are tantalisingly excluded. Meanwhile, Cassie pursues the individuals who wronged Nina, including the university dean who ignored her report of rape, and the lawyer who put pressure on her to drop her case. 

3

The Courier

Benedict Cumberbatch shines in this Cold War thriller about the emotional bonds that can form in “the brutal world of spycraft”, said Tom Shone in The Sunday Times. He plays Greville Wynne, the salesman selected in real life by MI6 to contact Oleg Penkovsky, a Soviet intelligence officer who was so alarmed by Khrushchev’s nuclear brinkmanship that he leaked information later credited with averting war during the Cuban missile crisis. Wynne was recruited for his sheer ordinariness, and his strong head for alcohol, and Cumberbatch exudes an “unpretentious conviviality” that duly charms Penkovsky (Merab Ninidze). Drinking, sightseeing and attending the ballet on Wynne’s trips to Moscow, they develop a sense of mutual personal loyalty that will sustain them when Wynne’s mission goes awry.

4

I Care a Lot

In this “exquisitely nasty”, blackly comic thriller, Rosamund Pike gives us “her most outrageous Hitchcock-blonde turn since Gone Girl”, said Peter Bradshaw in The Guardian. With a “sociopath haircut, shades and fashion-plate outfits”, she exudes “pure predatory wickedness” as Marla Grayson, a ruthless scammer who, aided by corrupt doctors, insinuates her way into the lives of wealthy but lonely elderly people in Boston. She becomes their legal guardian, has them committed to care homes, then fleeces them of their possessions. One day, she lands what she thinks is a particularly tame fish – sweet Mrs Peterson (a fabulous Dianne Wiest). She duly visits the old lady’s house, all “kindly, sorrowing smiles”, and entraps her during a scene of true emotional “horror”. But there’s something she hasn’t bargained for – Mrs Peterson’s connections in the Russian Mafia. 

5

Pig

This “ingenious” film starts out looking like a traditional revenge thriller, albeit with a twist, said Clarisse Loughrey in The Independent. Rob (Nicolas Cage) is a former chef from Portland, Oregon, who has been driven by private grief to hunker down in a woodland cabin with just a truffle pig for company. His only visitor is Amir (Alex Wolff), who sells the truffles they find to upmarket restaurants. When Rob is assaulted and his pig stolen, he sets out to retrieve the animal – and nothing will stand in his way. Cage’s past roles and his appearance here – mountain-man beard, straggly hair, dishevelled clothes – lead us to expect a descent into madness; but what Cage really brings to the role is a sense of “profound connection” with food.

6

Zola

The first ever cinematic adaptation of a Twitter thread, this comedy-cum-thriller is “a blast” – a “brash, aggressively showy joyride to the dark side”, said Wendy Ide in The Observer. “Y’all wanna hear a story about why me & this bitch here fell out?” began exotic dancer A’Ziah “Zola” King’s uproarious, 148-tweet account of a 2015 Florida road trip that went horribly awry. In the film, Zola (Taylour Paige) is persuaded by a woman she’s just met – fellow dancer Stefani (Riley Keough) – to drive to Tampa for a weekend of lucrative pole-dancing. The trip there with Stefani’s weedy boyfriend (Nicholas Braun), and a pimp known as X (Colman Domingo), is fun – but then X turns nasty. What we’re witnessing is “sex trafficking by another name” – and Zola’s “sharp wits” are her only hope of getting out unscathed.

 

7

Servants

Shot in “haunting monochrome” and permeated with the “chill of political fear”, this “deeply disturbing” film is about the covert power struggle between Church and state in communist-era Czechoslovakia, said Peter Bradshaw in The Guardian. Two “fresh-faced” teenagers, Juraj (Samuel Skyva) and Michal (Samuel Polakovic), arrive for their training at a Catholic seminary in Bratislava, only to find themselves in “an austere haunted house of shame, reeking of paranoia, exhaustion and self-reproach”. The Dean (Vladimír Strnisko) belongs to Pacem in Terris – a real-life regime-sponsored organisation of Catholic clergy – but dissident young priests are secretly in touch with the Vatican. Into the ferment steps the “deeply malevolent”, blackmailing policeman Dr Ivan (Vlad Ivanov).

8

Violation

Shot through with “blood-draining frights”, this rape revenge thriller has a pitch-dark mood that is not easy to shake or describe, said Tomris Laffly in Variety. Co-writer and co-director Madeleine Sims-Fewer plays Miriam, a young Londoner who visits her sister Greta (Anna Maguire) and Greta’s husband Dylan (Jesse LaVercombe) at their remote home in Quebec. Miriam’s own marriage to Caleb (Obi Abili) is on the rocks, and rivalries left over from childhood distance her from Greta, too. Only Dylan offers her warmth, and one night, Miriam kisses him beside a lake. Later, he enters her room and rapes her. Unable to confide in Caleb, and scorned by Greta, Miriam takes matters into her own hands. What follows is “possibly the most brutal woman-on-man ordeal since Audition”, said Phil Hoad in The Guardian. But it also “feels like something from the ancient world” – a “single, abject act of reprisal”, not a “fantasy spree”. 

9

Judas and the Black Messiah

Two “barnstorming” performances underpin this “fiercely watchable” thriller about the FBI’s assassination of the Black Panther leader Fred Hampton in 1969, said Peter Bradshaw in The Guardian. Shot aged 21 while lying asleep in bed, Hampton was a charismatic figure, and the “muscular force” of his rhetoric and his “instinctive leadership” are brilliantly conveyed by Daniel Kaluuya. LaKeith Stanfield is similarly impressive as William O’Neal, the petty criminal who was strong-armed by the FBI’s Roy Mitchell (Jesse Plemons) into infiltrating the Black Panthers. Promoted through the ranks, he grows to like and admire Hampton; but he is also in thrall to Mitchell and the FBI. He is not exactly in denial, but nor does he quite face up to what he is doing: he is the Judas of the film’s title. 

10

The Nest

Jude Law’s “insincere salesman’s smile” is put to good use in this unsettling drama, a film about family dysfunction with the stylistic trappings of a horror movie, said Wendy Ide in The Observer. Law plays handsome, “brash City boy” Rory, who has decided to relocate his American wife Allison (Carrie Coon) and their two children from New York to a 17th century mansion in Surrey. It is 1986 and, having had professional luck in the past, Rory is determined to ride the deregulation of the UK financial markets to great wealth and social glory. But we soon recognise him for the none too clever blowhard he is, and must watch as cheques bounce, bills go unpaid and Allison gradually starts to realise the full extent of his lies and empty promises.

11

Candyman

A sequel to Bernard Rose’s 1992 horror classic of the same name, Candyman is “one of the most original, beautiful and savagely satirical films of the year”, said Charlotte O’Sullivan in the London Evening Standard. The Candyman is the spirit of a black artist who was lynched in the 19th century for loving a white woman, and who returns to his old Chicago stomping ground – now a fast-gentrifying housing project – to kill anyone who speaks his name five times in a mirror. In this film version, a socially conscious young artist named Anthony (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) explores the urban legend in his latest work, which includes a mirror entitled “Say My Name”. A white gallery owner and a snobby art critic unwisely act on the instruction, and soon the bodies are piling up.

12

The Green Knight

Inspired by the 14th century chivalric poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, this “folk horror” film is strange, but “sensationally beautiful” too, said Peter Bradshaw in The Guardian. It is Christmas Day at the court of King Arthur when the Green Knight, a tree-like giant, appears and issues a challenge to single combat – stipulating only that he will return any blows he receives, like for like, a year hence. The king’s nephew, Gawain (Dev Patel) – a “dissolute wastrel” – takes up the gauntlet, whereupon the Green Knight kneels and bares his neck, compelling Gawain to behead him. The giant picks up his head and strides away, and one year later, Gawain sets out to confront his destiny. His journey makes for an “extraordinary quest” through a “stunningly rendered” landscape where his mettle is tested by a series of sinister strangers. 

There is an encounter with a battlefield scavenger that leads to an evocation of “death foretold and then reversed” in a single, “slowly circling” shot, said Mark Kermode in The Observer, and another with a temptress who delivers the film’s mission statement, an elegant speech about “nature reclaiming the Earth, transforming the travails of man into mere moss”. It adds up to a grand work of cinematic poetry. The film is “marvellously strange”, said Tom Shone in The Sunday Times, but also “boring”. I’m afraid I didn’t come away with much beyond the impression that Patel “looks hot with a beard”. 

13

Halloween Kills

John Carpenter’s slasher film Halloween was a game changer when it came out in 1978, said Alistair Harkness in The Scotsman. Unfortunately, the 12th instalment in the series that followed “doesn’t have much to offer” beyond a body count that escalates in “elaborately grisly ways”. The new film picks up on the night where the 2018 Halloween left off, with a wounded Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis) being rushed to hospital as her house burns. Her old nemesis Michael Myers is set on carnage as per tradition, but this time the residents of Laurie’s small town in Illinois decide to “take the fight to him”, and form an “angry mob” to sort him out. 

This is a “lurching, directionless corpse of a film” that doesn’t seem to know what it’s about or what it’s for, said Clarisse Loughrey in The Independent. Curtis – who made her film debut in the 1978 original – is as “formidable as ever” but she is kept to the margins of the story, which is an “odd” decision, given her central role in the 2018 instalment. Director David Gordon Green clearly understands how a Halloween film should “look, sound and move”, but the wheels come off when the story veers into a socially conscious fable about “community organisation”. What we have here is a film more interested in “its own canon” than in entertaining an audience, said Linda Marric in The Jewish Chronicle. The film is a “shambolic, risible mess”, totally devoid of “genuinely scary bits” and seemingly made exclusively for fans who know the franchise “inside out”.

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