Doctor of Movies’ Top Ten of 2021

While the uncertainty of the pandemic continued to impact box office, with all but the biggest of franchise properties struggling to draw the numbers that they might have expected in a pre-Covid world, 2021 was none the less somewhat of a bounce back year for the movies. We saw the release of a number of the higher profile properties that had been held back from last year, the festival circuit offered up some interesting works, the big streamers continued to make their mark as an avenue for smaller dramas, comedies and genre pieces that find it increasingly difficult to find space in the multiplex, and the late year box office performances of No Time to Die and, in particular, Spider-Man: No Way Home suggested that perhaps it wasn’t all doom and gloom for theatrical distribution. 

On a personal front, while writing reviews was put on the back burner relatively early in the year, I continued to watch stuff and ended up seeing 57 2021 releases (plus a whole heap of older films). Here are my picks of the bunch…

As always, please note that I base eligibility on when they were released in Australia, hence some films appearing on this list that may have been on some 2020 lists.

10. The Mitchells vs the Machines (Michael Rianda)

As an animated film that was not made by Disney or Pixar and was released on Netflix with little-to-no fanfare, it is perhaps unsurprising that The Mitchells vs. the Machines passed a lot of people by. It’s a shame, though, because for mine, it is the best animated film of the year. A funny and endearing story of a family reconnecting as they take a cross-country road trip that just happens to coincide with a robot apocalypse, what makes Rianda and Rowe’s film really distinct and noteworthy is the way that, in reflecting the voice of its teenage narrator, it is potentially the first prominent example of the incorporation of meme humour and online visual language into traditional screen storytelling.

9. Titane (Julia Ducournau)

In 2021, Julia Ducournau’s Titane became only the second ever female directed film to win the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival (an indictment of past Cannes’ programmers and juries rather than of the historical quality of womens’ filmmaking). Titane is not so much a film you enjoy as one you experience. Ducournau’s film is designed to make you uncomfortable, almost to push you away, whether that is through its indulgence in body horror or simply a wild plot that feels no obligation to explain some of its more unusual occurrences. What makes it truly miraculous, though, is that when you reach the climactic moments, you discover that, while you have no idea how you got where you got, somehow you have actually come to care quite deeply about these characters it ends up being quite a touching statement about family.

8. Dune (Denis Villeneuve)

Having somehow managed to go my entire life aware of Frank Herbert’s Dune yet entirely clueless as to the specifics of the narrative, I had the thrill of going into Denis Villeneuve’s adaptation and experience it clear of preconceptions. Villeneuve’s Dune is intricate and epic in its world building, combining blockbuster spectacle with visual artistry. It also does really well to differentiate the look and feel of the film from Star Wars, one of the many science fiction sagas to have been inspired by Herbert’s novel. While the film has been marketed as Dune, the opening title card states Dune: Part One. It was a bold gambit to make and release the first part into a Covid-impacted theatrical market without the guarantee of the climactic instalment, but thankfully it performed well enough for Warner Brothers and Legendary Pictures to confirm we will get part two.

7. The Power of the Dog (Jane Campion)

When you think Jane Campion, the Western is unlikely to be the first genre that comes to mind, but in The Power of the Dog she has delivered quite a fascinating one. Making her first feature film in over a decade, Campion has shifted her focus from explorations of the female psyche to a dissection of masculinity in the mythology of the old West. Anchored by a riveting yet disconcerting performance by Benedict Cumberbatch, The Power of the Dog is a slow burn initially, but one that draws you in as it goes. It is a film that always seems to be one step ahead of you, shifting and moving whenever you start to feel like you know where it is going. Exquisitely crafted, expect The Power of the Dog to be an Oscar frontrunner come the pointy end of award season.

6. Minari (Lee Isaac Chung)

Lee Isaac Chung’s autobiographical family drama Minari was one of the real beneficiaries of space provided by so many higher profile releases being pushed back, receiving a level of attention that this type of charming, modest film usually struggles to get. There is no single-sentence, high-concept pitch for Minari. Drawing on the writer-director’s childhood experience, the film tells the story of a migrant Korean family who, after a decade living in California, move to rural Arkansas following father Jacob’s dream of farming Korean fruit and vegetables. Minari provides a different perspective on the classic fish-out-of-water, American dream tale, but more than anything it is the charming depiction of the relationships – particularly between young David, played by Alan Kim, and his grandmother Soonja, in an Oscar-winning performance by Yuh-Jung Youn – that make this film so delightful.

5. Petite Maman (Celine Sciamma)

Where a film as widely celebrated as Celine Sciamma’s Portrait of a Lady on Fire usually sees the director moving on to bigger if not always better things, with Petite Maman Sciamma has opted to go small. Young Nelly plays in the nearby woods while her parents are cleaning out the house of her recently deceased grandmother. There she strikes up a friendship with a girl her own age who turns out to be… her mum (it doesn’t count as a spoiler given the title of the film is literally ‘Little Mum’). Completely unconcerned with the mechanics of how this happens – this isn’t science fiction – the result is a really touching tale of a young girl connecting with her mother. A beautiful, unassuming film, its 72 minute runtime is also refreshing at a time when so many films feel 20 minutes longer than they need to be.

4. The Harder They Fall (Jeymes Samuel)

I saw this one on a whim. It just happened to be playing at my local cinema on a Saturday night when I felt like going to the movies and I’d recently heard it recommended on a podcast, and it really blew me away. The Harder They Fall is hands down the coolest movie of 2021. The Western, in various revisionist forms, has experienced somewhat of a resurgence in recent years, and here writer-director Jeymes Samuels seeks to combat the erasure of African-Americans from the story of the American West by building his narrative around fictionalised versions of true historical figures. While it is a Netflix release, with its brilliant cast, reggae-infused soundtrack and dynamic, post-Tarantino visual style that shows incredible assuredness for a director on feature debut, I’m so glad I got to see it on the big screen.

3. West Side Story (Steven Spielberg)

In a directorial career that has spanned six decades, Steven Spielberg has done pretty much everything. But he’d never made a musical. Well, unsurprisingly, it turns out he’s pretty good at that too. Spielberg’s West Side Story looks stunning while maintaining a really classical feel. He clearly has the confidence in the continued relevance of the subject matter that he didn’t feel the need to contemporise either the setting or the presentational style. Rather, West Side Story retains much of what is beloved about the Wise and Robbins’ 1961 original (even the finger clicking is there) while making a few tweaks here and there, chief among them being the casting of actual Puerto Ricans in the film and even having them speak a not insubstantial amount of un-subtitled Spanish. 

2. The Father (Florian Zeller)

While there are a number of very good films, and strong lead performances (see Julianne Moore in Still Alice), exploring the effects of Alzheimer’s disease and dementia, I have never seen one that so effectively puts the viewer that character’s point of view as does Florian Zeller’s adaptation of his own stage play, The Father. Built around a remarkable performance by Anthony Hopkins – a deserving Oscar winner despite the understandable focus on Chadwick Boseman’s post-humous nomination – what makes The Father so special is the clever way that it uses its supporting cast and, in particular, production design to give you an experience of confusion, paranoia and frustration that mirrors that of Hopkins’ character. The result is a devastatingly emptathetic look at a man who is losing himself, and a daughter who is losing her father.

1. Promising Young Woman (Emerald Fennell)

2021 felt like a very long year, so thinking back to January might strain your memory, but that is where we find my film of the year. Possibly the first truly great #MeToo film, Emerald Fennel’s dark satire Promising Young Woman subversively blends the revenge thriller with the romantic comedy to provide a searing critique of rape culture and a system that insists on giving the benefit of the doubt to boys who ‘will be boys.’ Utterly compelling, it keeps you on your toes by constantly shifting and requiring you to adjust your relationship with it, using your expectations against you. First time feature director Fennel matches the daring and confrontational nature of its themes with an aesthetic that does not pull its punches, offering a striking colour palette and a really effective soundtrack filled with great needle drops (the creepy string version of Britney Spears’ ‘Toxic’ has stayed with me all year).

The Next Best (alphabetical):

  • CODA (Sian Heder)
  • The Green Knight (David Lowery)
  • In the Heights (Jon M. Chu)
  • Licorice Pizza (Paul Thomas Anderson)
  • Nomadland (Chloe Zhao)
  • No Time to Die (Cary Joji Fukanaga)
  • Pig (Michael Sarnoski)
  • Shadow in the Cloud (Roseanne Liang)
  • The Sound of Metal (Darius Marder)
  • The Worst Person in the World (Joachim Trier)

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