In Review

The best films of 2021

What the critics say about this year’s new movie releases

1

The Last Duel

 All hail Ridley Scott, said Kevin Maher in The Times. The 83-year-old has become “fiercely productive” in the autumn of his career, and his latest epic is arguably “his most modern film” yet. Set in France during the Hundred Years’ War, and based on a true story, it follows Jacques (Adam Driver), a “swaggering squire” who is challenged to a duel by a self-important nobleman (Matt Damon, sporting a “hideous mullet”), whose wife Marguerite (Jodie Comer) has accused him of rape.  

The Rashomon-like “trick” is that the screenplay – co-written by Damon, Ben Affleck (who also stars) and Nicole Holofcener – delivers the drama three times, each recounting events from a different perspective. Scott “delights” in this device, repeating scenes with identical dialogue, but subtly altering the lighting or performance to create “completely different moods and meanings”. He also brings to the film his taste for “eye-gouging aesthetics”: the drama unfolds in a brutal era, which enables him to make “unflinching statements about the historical sweep of barbarism”. 

There is some impressive acting here, said Mark Kermode in The Observer: look out in particular for a scene-stealing Harriet Walter. But the film gets a bit bogged down in the blood and the mud of its period milieu. “From firelit interiors to rural exteriors, all is shrouded in murk, with random flutterings of poultry”, and nuance is lost amid the “spectacle”. Still, there is no lack of momentum, said Manohla Dargis in The New York Times: the film, though bleak, is “weirdly entertaining”. Where it falls short is in its attempt to flesh out the character of Marguerite. Although she gets to tell her story, the film still leans towards the battling men, while “she remains frustratingly opaque”.

2

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.

3

Nomadland

I’d love to tell you that the film that scooped the Oscars for best picture, best director and best actress is overhyped, said Tom Shone in The Sunday Times. But no: this “melancholy poem” about restlessness and loss feels like the perfect summation of a precarious year. Frances McDormand stars as Fern, a recently widowed woman in her 60s who, having lost her job and her home in the recession, heads west in a customised van in search of work. Along the way, she meets up with a group of nomads in Arizona, who teach her how to survive on the road. Chloé Zhao’s film is based on a non-fiction book by Jessica Bruder, and many of the people Bruder interviewed appear as themselves: the stories they tell have a “blunt, granular power”, yet what emerges from them is grace, and stoicism. 

4

No Time to Die

In a world without Covid-19, Daniel Craig would have retired as James Bond 18 months ago, said Robbie Collin in The Daily Telegraph. Instead, he’s been “on furlough”, while wave upon wave of the virus has sloshed around the world. But 007 finally returned to the big screen, and it was worth the wait. No Time to Die is an “extravagantly satisfying” last chapter to the Craig era, “which throws almost everything there is left to throw at 007 – including, in a twist of teeth-clenching pertinence, a man-made virus” that threatens to overrun the globe. The lethal “goo” has been pilfered by SPECTRE, and it falls to Bond to come out of retirement to retrieve it. In some respects, we’re in familiar territory: the film has all the usual “ritualistic retracings of images and ideas from Bond adventures past”; and director Cary Joji Fukunaga has created some truly dazzling action sequences. But there are departures too: it is less dour than others in the Craig years and some of it is very funny, with a humour that feels both British and contemporary. Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s script polish has “yielded the desired result”. 

5

Free Guy

With his “eerily generic” looks and knack for clowning, Ryan Reynolds is perfectly cast in this “cheerfully silly” action comedy as Guy, a character in a violent computer game who develops self-awareness, said Peter Bradshaw in The Guardian. Guy is a non-player character (NPC) – a perpetually smiley bank teller who lives an ordinary-joe life in a shiny modern city that just happens to have a wildly high crime rate. But then an encounter with Millie – a glamorous avatar controlled by a nerdy Seattle gamer (Jodie Comer) – kicks off his journey to free will and agency. The former background character starts to write his own story, with the privileges of a human-controlled player, and a romance thrown in. 

6

Luca

Set in Italy, Pixar’s latest offering is a “gorgeous parable” about the relationship between two young sea monsters, said Kevin Maher in The Times. Bookish Luca (voiced by Jacob Tremblay) and bold Alberto (Jack Dylan Grazer) are merboys who find they are able to assume human form to explore the nearby fishing village. With the aid of a spirited teenager (Emma Berman), they set out to win the local triathlon. However, the villagers loathe sea monsters, and the risk of discovery creates a thrilling tension. Some viewers have read the story as an allegory about growing up gay. Pixar insists the boys’ relationship is not romantic, but the film does deal with themes of belonging and identity, and with its tear-jerking finale, it is “soul food for kids of all ages”.

7

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. 

8

The Father

Adapted from a play written by its director, Florian Zeller, and anchored by an Oscar-winning performance from Anthony Hopkins, The Father is a film about dementia that is both deeply frightening and unbearably moving, said Peter Bradshaw in The Guardian. Without using “obvious first-person camera tricks”, it puts us inside the head of Hopkins’s character, a “roguishly handsome” widower now suffering from Alzheimer’s. His “affectionate and exasperated” daughter (Olivia Colman) regularly visits him at his elegant west London flat. He suspects she is about to abandon him by moving abroad, but he can’t work out what is going on. His disorientation is evoked by the use of time slips and loops in the film, by subtle changes in the set, and by different actors playing the same characters. It’s as if reality itself is “gaslighting” him. 

9

Zack Snyder’s Justice League

Released in 2017, the original Justice League was “one of cinema’s great catastrophes”, said Kevin Maher in The Times. The DC superhero blockbuster’s first director, Zack Snyder, pulled out during post-production following a personal tragedy, and his replacement, Joss Whedon, then reshot large chunks. The result was a critical and box office disaster. But three years later, DC Films capitulated to a campaign by fans demanding that Snyder be allowed to finish his version, and gave him $70m to do it (on top of the original $300m budget). The gamble has paid off. His film runs for over four hours – twice the length of Whedon’s – but it is “an extraordinary cinematic landmark, and a comic-book epic like no other”. The plot holes have been eliminated, along with the “godawful banter”, and, crucially, he has given the film some much-needed emotional depth.

10

Another Round

Winner of an Oscar for best international feature, this tragicomedy is director Thomas Vinterberg’s finest film since Festen (1998), said Mark Kermode in The Observer. Mads Mikkelsen plays a high-school teacher and reformed hellraiser who is in the throes of a mid-life crisis. Inspired by the notion – attributed to the real-life psychiatrist Finn Skårderud – that all humans are born a tiny bit alcohol deficient, he and three male colleagues start drinking secretly at work, hoping to “learn to live again”. They treat their drinking as a scientific experiment, with “severe and absurd” rules, and at first they amaze themselves, their pupils and their wives with their new-found lucidity, enthusiasm and spontaneity. But they struggle to limit their consumption, and are soon “spiralling towards self-destruction”. 

11

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. 

12

Soul

From its first feature – 1995’s Toy Story – onwards, Pixar has never been shy of tackling the big questions. In Soul, the animation studio takes on the greatest of them of all – the meaning of life, said Clarisse Loughrey in The Independent, and it does so with all the “beauty”, “humour” and “heart” for which it has become known. Pixar’s first film with an African American protagonist is about a New York jazz pianist, Joe Gardner (Jamie Foxx), who is scraping a living as a high school teacher while longing for success as a performer. Then, moments after being booked for a potentially life-changing gig, he falls down a manhole. His soul ends up in The Great Beyond, a fuzzy pastel afterlife; but such is his desperation to realise his dream, he manages to slip back to Earth with another soul named 22 (a “delightfully irritating” Tina Fey), who has never occupied a physical body before. 

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