In Review

The best films of 2021

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

1

The Power of the Dog

The Power of the Dog could just as well be called The Power of Benedict Cumberbatch, said Deborah Ross in The Spectator, as he is so “spectacular” in this “wonderfully complex” western. The Sherlock actor plays a “ruggedly masculine cowboy” named Phil who runs a cattle ranch with his brother George (Jesse Plemons) in 1920s Montana. The pair are opposites: Phil is “clever, but mean-spirited and cruel”, and so macho he can castrate a bull with his bare hands; while George is “slower, softer, kinder, stockier”.

Their equilibrium is upset by the arrival in their lives of Rose (Kirsten Dunst), a widow who marries George. When she comes to live at the ranch with her delicate teenage son Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee), Phil immediately resolves to make their lives “hell”. It’s been said the film is about toxic masculinity – but it is more than that: it explores “the pain of anyone who is expected to be a certain way, and conforms at the expense of their true identity”. Phil, a man who knows he will never be loved, is revealed to be as tragic as he is brutal. 

Director Jane Campion has produced an “indecently powerful” film, said Kevin Maher in The Times, in which not a line of dialogue is wasted; and while Cumberbatch is “mesmerising”, he’s not acting in a vacuum – Dunst too is “formidable”. Campion won an Oscar in 1994 for her “very different frontier romance”, The Piano, said Danny Leigh in the FT; her new film was also shot in her native New Zealand – which doesn’t quite work (your mind may wander to The Lord of the Rings). Still, with “a sure touch and epic sweep”, she has created a film “loaded with menace but something rarer too: unpredictability”. This is “potent cinema” that glints “like a new knife”.

2

Tick, Tick…Boom!

Set in the late 1980s, Tick, Tick… Boom! is an “explosively entertaining” rock opera, adapted from an autobiographical stage show, said Robbie Collin in The Daily Telegraph. Its author, and central character, is Jonathan Larson, a struggling writer and composer living in a grotty New York bedsit as he works on a rock musical. He’s been at it for eight years, and with the clock ticking down to his 30th birthday, it’s starting to occur to him that he might never achieve his dreams. The piece is “painfully prescient”, for Larson would die aged 35, just before his show Rent became a global hit. 

Lin-Manuel Miranda’s directorial debut is a “bittersweet, fun-fuelled assault on the senses”, said Francesca Steele in The i Paper. Andrew Garfield is “delightfully peppy” in the lead role, and some of the numbers are great. At times, the structural conceits involved in this musical about writing musicals overwhelm the plot, but Miranda has fashioned something “kinetic and intimate” out of difficult material.

With its jump-cuts and “gymnastic” camera work, the film is exhausting to watch – but that’s as it should be, said Danny Leigh in the FT: its energy “is that of every next-big-thing-but-one in New York”. Yet the film is lent gravity by the shadow of real tragedy, in the form of the Aids crisis haunting New York, and Miranda gets the tonal balance just right. There’s a danger of films about the musical theatre descending into luvvy-ish self-indulgence, said Clarisse Loughrey in The Independent, but this one dodges that pitfall by constantly acknowledging Broadway’s “narcissistic insularity”. The film is a graceful balance of fact and fiction, in which art is both a heightened form of self-obsession and “the most magical and important thing in the world”.

3

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”. 

4

Dune

The body is 60% water, said Robbie Collin in The Daily Telegraph, but by the time the credits rolled on Dune at the screening I attended, I reckon the audience was “90% goosebump”. This new adaptation of Frank Herbert’s cult 1965 novel, by the director Denis Villeneuve, is “science-fiction at its most majestic, unsettling and enveloping”. The film is set in the year 10191, and an unseen emperor has set his underlings the task of mining the rare but strategically vital commodity of “spice” on a hostile, sand-covered planet. Until recently, the extraction was entrusted to the house of Harkonnen, led by the monstrous levitating Baron Vladimir (Stellan Skarsgård). Now, it has been handed to the rival house of Atreides, whose “sullen heir” (an “ideally cast” Timothée Chalamet) has been groomed since birth by his mother (Rebecca Ferguson, also excellent) for her religious order’s own mysterious purposes. Cue much scheming, and some truly masterful action set pieces.

Herbert’s novel has been so influential, the film (the first part in a planned trilogy) may seem “deceptively derivative”, said Mark Kermode in The Observer. But what keeps it new is Villeneuve’s “astonishing visual sensibility”. Ornithopters flit around “like dragonflies”; vast spaceships “glint in the mist”; and the giant sandworms – unconvincing in David Lynch’s flawed 1984 adaptation – are spectacular, splashing through the dunes like “eels through water”. I’m afraid I found the worms “a hoot”, said Brian Viner in the Daily Mail. And I wouldn’t call this “sprawling” epic a masterpiece; but it is “a heck of a spectacle”, with “fabulous cinematography and a soaring Hans Zimmer score”. Two tips: “mug up” on the plot before you go; and catch it on the biggest screen available.

5

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. 

6

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”.

7

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.

8

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. 

9

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”.

10

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. 

11

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. 

12

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”. 

13

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.

14

Passing

As a child, Rebecca Hall sometimes wondered if her mother, the American opera singer Maria Ewing, was black, said Deborah Ross in The Spectator, but it wasn’t discussed, so she never asked. Only later in life did the actress – whose father was the theatre director Peter Hall – discover that her maternal grandfather had been biracial, but that he had passed as white. The subject of passing is at the core of her “riveting” directorial debut, an adaptation of Nella Larsen’s 1929 novella. Two well- to-do, light-skinned black women, Irene (Tessa Thompson) and Clare (Ruth Negga), who were friends at school, bump into each other again years later, in an elegant whites-only hotel in New York. Both are passing as white, but while it is rare for Irene to wish to do so, for Clare it is routine: her Caucasian husband (Alexander Skarsgård) is “chillingly racist” and has no inkling of her heritage. The film, available on Netflix, is beautifully shot in monochrome, which may sound a cliché, but in fact works “terrifically well”; after all, black and white is mostly shades of grey.

Actors-turned-directors often make space for performances to shine, said Danny Leigh in the FT, and Hall is no exception. Both leads are superb: Negga is “impish but mournful”, while Thompson conveys the sense of a woman “hemmed in by race, gender”, everything. Hall’s debut has the “strange mesmerism of an old photograph come to life”; it is “at once a story of race in America, and something still more universal”. As Irene says, we’re all passing as something. In terms of plot, it is “slender”, said Donald Clarke in The Irish Times, but Hall’s feel for the period, and her gift for folding “potent discourse into the attractive visuals”, raises it to “high art”. 

15

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. 

16

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. 

17

House of Gucci 

Ridley Scott’s “fantastically rackety, messy soap opera” about the fall of the house of Gucci is rescued from pure silliness by Lady Gaga, said Peter Bradshaw in The Guardian. She is “glorious” as Patrizia Reggiani, the daughter of a trucking magnate, who married the Gucci heir Maurizio Gucci (a gallantly diffident Adam Driver), before becoming so “incensed” by his infidelity that she hired a hitman to kill him. In this film, the pair meet at a disco in Milan in 1970, falling in love despite the “furious disdain” of Maurizio’s father (Jeremy Irons, in a charcoal-line moustache). Patrizia hopes for better luck charming the rest of the clan, which includes Jared Leto in “serious latex” as Maurizio’s “loser” cousin, and Al Pacino as a genial uncle. Scott’s “touristy, pantomimey approach to Italy and Italian culture” will set some viewers’ teeth on edge; but every time Gaga comes on screen, “you just can’t help grinning at her sly elegance, mischief and performance-IQ, channelling Gina Lollobrigida or Claudia Cardinale in their early-50s gamine styles”.

Gaga is indeed terrific, said Deborah Ross in The Spectator, but given its all-star cast and juicy subject matter, the film is a let-down. The middle act drags, and the decision to have the cast “a-speak-a in Italian accents” was surely misguided. Yes it is “messy structurally”, said Tom Shone in The Sunday Times, “but God is it enjoyable”. Few directors are more at home in the world of extreme wealth than Scott, and here the scalpel with which he lays bare “the desiccated morality and decadence” of the obscenely rich is sharper than ever. The film is a “conga line” of characters seducing one another – and proof that Scott, who is now 84, has lost none of his touch.

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