My Favourite and Not-So Favourite Films of 2021

Happy 2022 and good riddance to 2021. Let’s hope the new year will see an end to the horror film that we’ve found ourselves in.

[Thinking happy thoughts]

I’ve written about this a few times over the years but it bears repeating. I’m not a fan of doing a “Best of the year” list for two reasons: First, the word “best” is subjective. What I think is best may not be what you think is best. All too often I read other people’s “best” lists and I scratch my bald head over their choices. Second, so many awards-baity films come out at the end of the year that I often don’t get to see them until well into the new year. If I were to do a thorough assessment of what I think are the best films of the year, I would have to wait until March and who wants to read that then? For those reasons, I prefer to do a “Favourite films of the year” list. These are the films that I enjoyed or appreciated the most. I’m not saying they’re worthy of awards. I’m saying they entertained me the most. So, without further ado, here is the list of my favourite films of 2021:

15. King Richard

I’m not a Will Smith fan and this Williams sisters-approved biopic of their father is positively hagiographic but the film was far more entertaining than I expected it would be. The two young actresses who play Venus and Serena (Saniyya Sidney and Demi Singleton, respectively) are both wonderful, and the scenes of them pounding the tennis ball are exciting to watch.

14. Nobody

Perhaps the biggest surprise of the year, Bob Odenkirk proves that age is just a number. This JOHN WICK-esque action-thriller is a hoot from beginning to end. Speaking of age being a number, the casting of 83-year-old Christopher Lloyd as Odenkirk’s character’s father was genius.

13. West Side Story

Stephen Spielberg’s update on the 1961 classic is a huge improvement over the original. Gone is the dubbed singing, although Ansel Elgort’s voice can be compared to Ryan Gosling’s in LA LA LAND – it isn’t great, especially when he’s duetting “Tonight” with co-star Rachel Zegler. Screenwriter Tony Kushner also injects some welcome context into the story showing the neighbourhood undergoing massive redevelopment, which it was at that time.

12. Drive My Car

If you can find the patience to sit through a three-hour movie that doesn’t involve superheroes, you’ll probably enjoy this film from Japan. Based on a short story of the same name by Haruki Murakami/村上春樹, DRIVE MY CAR is a contemplative tale about coming to terms with loss, guilt and regret. A hit with both critics and audiences, it’s the frontrunner for this year’s Best International Feature Film Oscar.

11. Spider-man: No Way Home

The final film in the webslinger’s Homecoming trilogy, SPIDER-MAN: NO WAY HOME is a fanboy’s and fangirl’s wet dream. Loaded with Easter eggs, one of which went over my head because I’ve never watched any of the MARVEL TV series, the story plays like a Greatest Hits promo reel. Unfortunately, like all the MCU films, SPIDER-MAN: NO WAY HOME runs about 20 minutes too long with some scenes being painfully drawn out. The story also gets a bit woolly at the finale but, as we’ve seen with other MARVEL films, it’s best not to analyse the plot too closely. All in all though, it’s great fun. It’s no wonder that it’s the year’s most successful film.

10. Passing

An impressive directorial feature debut by Rebecca Hall, PASSING tells the story of two African-American women in Harlem in the 1920s who pass for being white by virtue of the lightness of their skin colour. I had no idea that this was a thing (although “passing” is mentioned in both versions of WEST SIDE STORY, I only recently noticed), much less that it was a thing a hundred years ago. With fabulous performances by Tessa Thompson and Ruth Negga, and Hall’s assured direction, this film will leave you questioning your own biases and preconceptions of what a person of colour looks like.

9. Pig

If you’ve been thinking about joining the Nic Cage Fan Club, PIG is the film that’s going to do it. Here he plays Rob Feld, a recluse who lives in a cabin deep within Oregon’s forests. Together with his foraging pig, he hunts for truffles, which he sells to a supplier of luxury ingredients to Portland’s high-end restaurants. When his pig gets, um, pig-napped, Rob and his supplier embark on a chalk-and-cheese buddy road trip where finding the pig becomes less important than the journey. Both delightfully restrained and heartfelt, PIG is a real surprise and a great showcase for Cage’s talent.

8. Collective (Colectiv)

Technically a 2019 film though it didn’t come to Hong Kong until July 2021, this fly-on-the-wall documentary was rightly nominated for two Oscars last year. An extremely timely film, not just for us here in Hong Kong where a number of journalists are currently sitting in jail and four news outlets closed up in the past six months, COLLECTIVE tells the story of how the Romanian government tried to silence the media in their reporting of the lack of proper healthcare offered at public hospitals following a nightclub fire in Bucharest fire that killed 27 and injured 180. As the slogan of The Washington Post goes, “Democracy Dies in Darkness”.

7. Summer of Soul (… Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised)

First-time filmmaker and the drummer and leader of THE TONIGHT SHOW house band, The Roots, Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson takes audiences back to the summer of 1969’s landmark cultural event that most people had never heard of – the Harlem Cultural Festival, the concert series that ran over six weekends from June to August at Mount Morris Park (now Marcus Garvey Park) in the famed New York City district. SUMMER OF SOUL is more than just a documentary about a bunch of concerts though. It’s also an examination of the development of black identity in the US in the wake of the assassinations of Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X, the signing of the Civil Rights Act of 1968 and the rise of the Black Panther Movement. Perhaps for the first time in America’s history, there was public pride in being black.

6. Quo Vadis, Aida?

Another 2021 Oscar nominee that didn’t make its way to Hong Kong until June 2021, QUO VADIS, AIDA? from Bosnia and Herzegovina recalls events that took place in that country in 1995. As much of an indictment of institutional incompetence as it is of collective indifference, the film reminds audiences that genocide isn’t just something that happened during our grandparents’ time or in some tiny African country that few people could ever point out on a map. This happened 25 years ago… in Europe. Yet the world knew about it and did nothing. Jasna Đuričić delivers a devastating performance as Aida, a loving wife and mother who refuses to take “No” for an answer. How she was not nominated for a Best Actress Oscar award is a huge mystery.

5. Lamb (Dýrið)

In what may be the second strangest film of the year (TITANE being the first), this contemporary folk-horror tale from Iceland (where else?) about a farming couple who adopt a very special newborn lamb will shock many viewers with its absurd premise. Already shortlisted for this year’s Best International Feature Oscar, it gets my fantasy vote but, like TITANE, it might just be too “out there” to win.

4. Tick, Tick… Boom!

Andrew Garfield surprises audiences with his ability to carry a tune in Lin-Manuel Miranda’s film adaptation of the stage play about aspiring lyricist and playwright Jonathan Larson. In a casting coup — evidence of the respect Miranda has amongst his stage peers or maybe the love the actors share for Larson or perhaps it’s a bit of both — some of Broadway’s biggest stars including Joel Grey, Chita Rivera, Bernadette Peters, Phylicia Rashad, Philippa Soo, Renée Elise Goldsberry, Bebe Neuwirth and Laura Benanti make cameo appearances. Eagle-eyed viewers will even spot Larson’s close friend, Roger Bart, sitting at a booth at the Moondance diner. Miranda, too, has a cameo as one of the diner’s short order cooks. Including all the cameos, references to Larson’s most famous work — Rent, Stephen Sondheim and his work, Hamilton, signage and advertising, there are over 40 Easter eggs in this film. But it’s Alexandra Shipp and Vanessa Hudgens who stop the show with their duet, “Come to Your Senses”. Each of them has such a beautiful voice but together they are magic. I’m not crying. You’re crying!

3. The Power of the Dog

Is there anything that Benedict Cumberbatch can’t do well? He’s played a tortured painter, an eccentric artist, a lab experiment gone wrong, a super-sleuth, a math genius, an inventor, a Danish prince, a dragon, a Bengal tiger, a grinch, a Cold War spy, and a superhero who has magical abilities. Now, in Jane Campion’s latest film, he plays a cruel Montana herder who harbours a deep secret. Just when you think you’ve figured out where THE POWER OF THE DOG is going to go, Campion subverts that expectation and delivers a conclusion that will leave you thinking long after the final credits roll. Expect Cumberbatch to take home the Best Actor Oscar for this performance.

2. The Father

A double Oscar winner that didn’t come to Hong Kong until April 2021, THE FATHER very effectively puts viewers into its titular character’s head as the old man, who struggles with dementia, tries to process what he believes to be true. Anthony Hopkins, who took home the Best Actor Oscar in March, delivers a masterclass performance here.

1. Dune

My favourite film of the year by a few light years, Denis Villeneuve’s take on the epic story of Paul Atreides is big, bold and cinematically beautiful to watch, especially on an IMAX screen. Unless you have a massive TV and a super-spiffy sound system at home, take thyself to the biggest screen your local cinema has… assuming your local cinema is still open.  As I write this, ours are closing for the next two weeks. Hans Zimmer’s immersive score is brooding, majestic and mysterious, each when it needs to be. Equally impressive are the magnificent costumes and the visually stunning production design. While DUNE may not win any acting Oscars, expect it to take home more than a few gold statuettes in March.

What’s not on my list?

The Beatles: Get Back – Peter Jackson has done it again. THE BEATLES: GET BACK is nothing short of stupendous. The footage is so stunningly crisp that it’s hard to believe it’s over 50 years old. It’s as if the Beatles never got old or, sadly, never died so young. The sound quality is just as impressive. Jackson has said in a few interviews that his team created an algorithm to learn what a guitar sounds like and what drums sound like so they could strip these sounds away from the audio, leaving just the voices. It’s absolute genius! So why isn’t the film included in the list above? Disney has classified it as a TV series and not a movie. Expect it to win a bunch of Emmys come September.

Belfast – Kenneth Branagh’s sort-of autobiography is highly overrated. Yes, 11-year-old Jude Hill is adorable but that wasn’t enough to make me get excited about this film. The jukebox soundtrack by noted Covid-19 conspiracy theorist Van Morrison didn’t help either. Hey, Ken! Van wasn’t the only Irish musician around in the late ’60s.

House of Gucci – Ridley Scott’s take on the venerable fashion family and the scandal that brought them down has its share of hits and misses. Lady Gaga and, I can’t believe I’m about to say this, Jared Leto, are both excellent and worthy of Oscar nominations but the rest of the film is like a lukewarm plate of microwaved spaghetti.

Being the Ricardos – I never would have believed that Aaron Sorkin could write a dull screenplay but here it is. While Nicole Kidman and Javier Bardem give their portrayals of the Arnazes their best efforts, this film is a complete slog to get through. Lucy and Desi deserve better than this.

Spencer – Kristen Stewart is surprisingly good in this three-day theoretical snapshot of the life of the People’s Princess. While SPENCER is an interesting take on a subject that we all think we know so much about, one has to ask, “Why?” Do we really need to see a film that shows Diana at her worst?  Will it make anyone reassess their opinion of her? No. Will it make anyone feel sorry for Charles and the rest of the Royals? Definitely no. It’s great that director Pablo Larraín can make the kind of films he wants to make but some stories might best be left untold.

CODA – I watched this film a while ago but I never reviewed it. The story of a CODA (child of deaf adults) teenager who wants to go to music school to become a professional singer hits all the right notes, no pun intended. While most teenagers think that their parents don’t understand them, Ruby Rossi has a legitimate gripe.

Licorice Pizza, Nightmare Alley, The Lost Daughter, Flee, The Tragedy of Macbeth, and Cyrano – I haven’t seen any of these films yet but I plan to in the coming weeks. Check back on my site again soon for my reviews.

And now the films that I absolutely loathed last year:

3. Cinderella

If you can pick your jaw up off the ground long enough, you might notice that Camila Cabello’s performance is the least offensive of all the things that are bad about this modern take on a traditional story. James Corden plays one of the mice. ‘Nuff said.

2. Tom and Jerry

A belaboured exercise that even children will find boring, at least it’s not quite as bad as CATS. However, it easily is one of the worst films you’ll see this decade.

1. Diana (The Musical)

The live stage recording of the play that opened on Broadway in November and closed a couple weeks later, DIANA is a steaming pile of doggie do. With sophomoric rhymes punctuating such lyrics as “the Thrilla in Manila with Camilla”, “Harry my ginger-haired son / You’ll always be second to none” and the pièce de resistance, “I may be unwell, but I’m handsome as hell”, which comes from an AIDS patient whom Diana meets on her visit to a hospice, this is easily the worst film of the year. What were they thinking???

Do you agree or disagree with my choices? What are some of your favourite films from 2021?  Let me know!

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