If you know how we work here, you know the top ten lists aren’t our bag. So welcome to a probably far too large list of films that have been seen this year either via cinema, streaming or festivals. Either way, it has been an excellent year for cinema, and these are the ones that we think have stood out the most. As always here, they are in alphabetical order to make it nice and fair, seeing as we stuck to that no ranking concept. Enjoy!
Clarisse Albrecht commands every second of Bantú Mama. It is a film that shows that it isn’t just the West that needs to be the end goal for those wanting or needing to start a new life. That for black people, they can also return to their ancestral home, the continent of Africa. Herrera does a magnificent job with his story; never forcing his narrative, he allows the visuals to do the talking. Much akin to Pedro Costa gorgeous Vitalina Varela, every frame is a portrait. While it could be easy to show this suburb of the Dominican Republic to look horrendous rundown, Herrera takes a different approach; he shows us that there are some beautiful things present in this socio-economically forgotten part of the city. Back to Albrecht, though, as she makes the film become something special, you feel every emotion and even more so when she utters no words. Bantú Mama takes no prisoners, and if it has been released in your country already, search for it, you won’t be disappointed.
A debut feature film to remember from Nathalie Álvarez Mesén and the debut of Wendy Chinchilla Araya. A staggering dreamlike film that enchants and intrigues you at every turn, throughout Sophie Winsvist’s camera never settles, constantly uncomfortable yet inquisitive. A piece of intimate cinema that excels in every possible manner.
Daniel (Held For Ransom)
A harrowing film that was released in early January and is another film that will have gotten lost in the shuffle of the pandemic. Daniel is devoid of the usual melodrama and instead keeps everything as brutally honest as possible. The performances are the standouts here as you feel every moment of pain that our group go through—a highly impressive yet difficult viewing experience.
Drive My Car
Ryûsuke Hamaguchi’s Drive My Car is an emotionally aching film that utilises its extended runtime to perfection. It is a shattering piece of poetic cinema that, if it isn’t on your much watch list, should be, without a shadow of a doubt, the best film of 2021. When a three-hour film comes along, it can feel like it is a feature that has not been edited correctly; here, there isn’t a frame of the film that you would consider cutting away. Everything has a purpose, a meaning, and with the entire cast playing their roles to perfection, this is cinema at its very, very best.
An extremely clever film that is unlike anything you will see this year. We are taken on a grim journey with a scorching commentary on the current financial and political world that we live in. Leandro and Jonathan Taub have brought forward a film in an experimental but compelling format. A bold film that has its more mainstream contemporaries wishing they could be as interesting.
A rarity in being a documentary animation, flee disarms you immediately with its narrative. Not only is Flee a film about human displacement and the trauma’s and complications that those journeys bring, but it is also one about self-discovery. Although you wonder if Flee would be as effective as a non-animation, and I really don’t think it would, the surreal nature of the design allows us to break away, as if it is not really. However, this doesn’t stop the film from devastating you throughout, as the tension is utilised so well. A powerful documentary that will certainly be making waves during award season.
A Ghost Waits
A low key black and white film that absolutely nails every aspect with such ingenuity that you can only appreciate it. Natalie Walker and MacLeod Andrews are a delight as they carry us through the most unlikely spiritual relationships. Director Adam Stovall’s debut takes some fresh steps in a sub-genre that is over-reliant on the stereotypical. Yet, for this horror-comedy romance film, it is those touching and softer moments that strike you far more than anything else, bringing an incredible amount of unexpected emotion. There is so much to love about A Ghost Waits that it would be a shame to spoil more of what goes on; check this one out, a delightful surprise.
A dystopian fairytale that weaves a tragic tale, highlighted by excellent performances and direction. Kelsey Egan has created an interesting world that utilises its terrific storytelling to make her out as a filmmaker to look out for. The mystery and tension in this chamber piece are enhanced by how careful it takes each step forward. Glasshouse leaves us with the devastating idea that sometimes we are better placed to be rid of our memories rather than be haunted by them. An immersive highlight of 2021.
A film that I saw very early on in the year, and it simply has not shaken me since. Perhaps it’s viewing so close to my father’s passing has skewed my thoughts on The Greenhouse, but it doesn’t matter. Sometimes films find you when you most need to feel seen, which does that for me. A beautifully heartbreaking Australian film that has a firm grip upon you as we see how the loss of a parent affects everyone in a family differently. Yet, that is not all; with themes of rediscovering and accepting one’s sexuality, The Greenhouse ventures into many little genres and does so with confidence and aplomb. A lower budget film that you need to watch.
Pandemic films are hitting us thick and fast, yet other than maybe the horror film Host, none have been as strong as Natalie Morales’ Language Lessons. The film works so well because it could easily exist without ever thinking about this almost two-year-long pandemic. Lessons like this are continually being carried out online, so when you shake those thoughts away, this incredibly charming and truly gut-wrenching film works its magic on you. It is such a simple idea of a Spanish teacher and her student getting to know each other that it deceives you. Yet, there is so much more hidden under that easy conceit that its platonic love story of two people yearning for someone to connect to works wonders. With Mark Duplass and Natalie Morales on hand, we were never going to have a bad film, but wow, they just went made something unique.
Lift Like a Girl
Mayye Zayed’s fantastic observational documentary Lift Like a Girl may focus on challenging gender stereotypes in sport. Yet it becomes so much more by being a film that wears its heart on its sleeve full of two wonderful subjects. The community that has been built around this ramshackle set up in the middle of Alexandria is so tightly knit that when we see the struggles of Zebiba, you find yourself at the edge of your seat, cheering her on as she tries to make those lifts. A film with so much personality that it is hard not to love.
Phil Tippett has created a nightmare, a wonderful, gloriously gruesome and relentlessly horrifying nightmare that leaves you with your jaw firmly on the ground. Simply put, you will have never seen anything like Mad God, an unforgettable and brilliant piece of cinema. Audacious in its use of stop motion, it is a minor miracle that this film got made. Revel in it; you won’t see anything quite like it again.
Racked in pent up grief, Martyrs Lane is a beautiful yet heartbreaking ghost story that at times takes your breath away, paced to perfection. Told through the eyes of the brilliant Kiera Thompson, this is a film that you cannot miss out on. Ruth Platt has made a special film here that connects with audiences in a multitude of ways, an exquisite heartfelt slow burner of a film.
Four faultless performances that rock you scene after scene as these two griefing couples interact with each other is as raw a film as you will see this year or in any year. Mass is a film that drains you in every way, but goodness, are you rewarded with sticking with it. What strikes you most is how thoughtful the film is. Yes, it can verge on being a tad melodramatic, but with the controlled focus of the direction by Fran Kranz, you forgive it. If there were an Academy Award for ensemble, Mass would run so far away with it that it wouldn’t even be considered a race.
Six hours long, and one that could go even longer, such as the devastation of the people from this small town in Japan that you constantly have to close your jaw shut. We see the agony of those affected by the disregard of the state with press conferences with all involved that truly grip you. As said, this is six hours long, yet there is not one second of fat present within it. Each section has a specific purpose, and with each visit to another poor citizen with this disease, your heartbreaks. You ask yourself dozens of questions and find that you are not the only one asking those questions. The people of Minamata may never get what they deserve from the Chisso company and their own government, but they will never stop trying and while their battle for justice and recognition hits you in your core. An unmissable documentary from a director in Kazuo Hara who knows exactly how to capture the right moment.
The Most Beautiful Boy in The World
At times this is an uncompromising, uncomfortable watch as we see Björn Andrésen go through his life nearly 50 years after he was found and thrust into stardom by Thomas Mann. The Most Beautiful Boy in The World is a fascinating look at how wounds that we gain when we are young never fully leave us and, in some cases, cause us to carry them deep in our souls well into adulthood. A finely crafted documentary that haunts you.
Céline Sciamma seemingly doesn’t miss, and after the incredible Portrait of a Lady on Fire, there will have been a lot of interest into what her next project would be. So for it to be this very small film was a tad surprising, and in truth, this was one of the top surprises of the year with how emotionally impactful it is. Trusting so much of your film in child actors is always a risk, but like the just as impactful Martyrs Lane, our two actresses are so well cast. Where other films make great efforts to force its narrative on the audience, Petite Maman works so delicately that you glide along in the journey without ever realising how much it is affecting you. A tremendous film that has the chances of being missed by audiences due to more bombastic fare. Please do not ignore this one, though; it’s fantastic.
Piccolo Corpo (Small Body)
Laura Samani’s hauntingly beautiful Piccolo Corpo is a triumph. This is a voyage of uncompromising love and sacrifice, utterly unmissable with enduring and memorable performances from Celeste Cescutti and Ondina Quadri. We are left with a film that stays with you, whether it is from those performances, the stunning cinematography or the narrative focussing on how grief overcomes us all. Samani’s straightforward approach allows the audience to feel every ounce of Agata’s pain. A powerful watch.
A genuine surprise of a picture, Michael Sarnoski’s feature debut “Pig,” is a slow but careful gaze at the devastation of loss. Nicolas Cage’s restrained performance startles with its effectiveness, as he portrays a deeply broken man just trying to get by. Alex Wolff pairs wonderfully with Cage to bring us a painful yet thoughtful film.
P.S. Burn This Letter Please
A wonderful and important chronicling of a time in the history of New York and the United States regarding the treatment of drag queens. It is a truly fascinating documentary that is rife with stories of those people who were brave enough to be who they felt they should be. LGBTQ communities have a difficult time being able to look into their history with so much being eradicated depending on the government. So for a collection of information and people still alive to discuss that period is essential for everyone. We need to know what it was like for them and how they struggled or thrived. There will be fewer films as integral to a community that P.S. Burn This Letter Please.
Sound of Violence
Alex Noyer’s Sound of Violence utilises its horror graphically well. Yet the movie shines most when it explores what is under the pools of blood left behind with a story full of tragedy, desperation wrapped around PTSD and addiction. A welcome original film that, as expected, has a stunning sound design. We have a movie that triumphantly balances itself with the complex narrative to bring us as effective and confident a film this year.
Summer of Soul (…Or When The Revolution Could Not Be Televised)
Here we have a documentary that is really the ultimate time capsule to a moment in history. Seamlessly showcasing the period, be it with music, politics, or when both combined to deliver powerful messages. Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson has produced such a memorable film. So many documentaries and films are a must-watch, yet somehow this one stands out that bit more—a glorious success.