2021 has fared better off for cinema compared to the pandemic-hit 2020. Theatres are open in some parts of the world. Some of the major film festivals are conducting socially-distanced, in-person screenings. Elsewhere, OTTs and online film festivals have brought movies to our homes, a snug refuge for us battered souls as we go about our dreary, everyday lives. Of course, having access to films from across the world in the comfort of our homes is a luxury, in itself, for us cinephiles. So here’s a list of all the good films this year that I’ve had something to take away from or those that deeply impacted me. The list is as subjective as any other movie list. Very quickly then, here are what I think the best movies of 2021 so far:
1. Nightmare Alley
Guillermo del Toro’s neo-noir is based on an eponymous 1946 novel by William Lindsay Gresham. It revolves around a grifter who gets interested in the art of mentalism. But his secrets and oversized ambitions gradually lead to his downfall. Nightmare Alley isn’t simply about the sordidness of an individual’s desire and actions. The carnival where the film’s first-half is set becomes a microcosm of the society. And through those narrative developments, del Toro indicts the capitalist society where exploitation of some form becomes essential to climb high.
The film also largely works due to Dan Laustsen’s sumptuous cinematography and Tamara Deverell’s brilliant production design. Del Toro’s movies are often richly atmospheric, and here he once again uses his well-focused imagery to create a disturbing and remarkable work.
2. Parallel Mothers
Spanish auteur Almdovar touches on the theme of his country’s traumatic past through a familiar yet emotionally charged tale of two mothers. Some might perceive it as an uneven although an interesting experiment of connecting the present with the unresolved historical past. Penelope Cruz plays a Madrid photographer. The emotional wounds from the Spanish Civil War days (in the 1930s) are passed on to her by her grandmother. She gets involved with a forensic anthropologist to assist her in digging up a mass grave site near her hometown.
What follows is a Sirkian melodrama that moves through complex emotional terrain. Penelope’s character also harbors a secret which is more distressing than the intergenerational trauma. Parallel Mothers is a little disjointed, but the Spanish master takes us on a rewarding journey.
3. Petite Maman
Celine Sciamma of A Portrait of a Lady on Fire fame returns with a deeply moving feature about grief, loss, and belief. The film revolves around the bond between two eight-year old girls, Nelly and Marion. Little Nelly has recently lost her grandmother, and endures unexpressed anxieties. Sciamma gently and subtly looks at how children process grief and accept love. Everything from the way Nelly and Marion communicate to the little games they play, it’s all visualized in the most honest manner possible.
The film runs for only 72 minutes and there’s not much music to build things up. In fact, the film’s simplicity eradicates the layers of nostalgia and sentimentality that’s usually found in such narratives.
4. West Side Story
Spielberg’s West Side Story is the adaptation of 1957 Broadway stage musical. Robert Wise has already made a big-screen adaptation in 1961 which remains as one of the greatest musicals ever. Spielberg – the most versatile Hollywood filmmaker – brings his own unique skills to the genre which updates and redefines the narrative in myriad ways. The wafer-thin plot revolves around two young people, from different racial backgrounds, falling in love. Subsequently, this escalates the rivalry between the two street gangs.
The musical numbers are electrifying and find the right balance between content and form. The themes of xenophobia, cultural divide, and gentrification are elegantly intertwined within the mesmerizing song-and-dance sequences.
In bringing a signature realism inspired from Old Hollywood romances, Spielberg and Kamiński have managed to reinvent the formal composition of the adaptation, while still staying true to its theater roots. Take a look at what makes the cinematography of West Side Story so special.
5. The Tragedy of Macbeth
Shot in luminous monochrome, Joel Coen for the first time has worked without his brother Ethan to adapt Shakespeare’s great tragedy. Denzel Washington plays the aging and weary eponymous character. Frances McDormand plays the devious Lady Macbeth. There have been many versions of Macbeth that we are largely familiar with the narrative developments. Yet Joel gives a wildly imaginative treatment to the well-known scenes, and concisely portrays the downfall of the dreadful emperor in 100 minutes.
The minimalist scenery and stark black-and-white visuals are the film’s biggest strength. Such intimidating yet magnificent imagery seems perfect for The Tragedy of Macbeth, a cautionary tale about greed, power, and temptation.
6. Licorice Pizza
South California of the 1970s has been the setting for Paul Thomas Anderson’s two previous films: Boogie Nights and Inherent Vice. While those two films explored the seedy underbelly of the setting, Licorice Pizza explores the breezy and free-spirited aspects of 1970s South California. It’s also interesting how Anderson comes up with this whimsical coming-of-age film right after his bleak and profound relationship drama Phantom Thread (2017).
Cooper Hoffman (son of Philip Seymour Hoffman) is absolutely fantastic in the lead role. He plays an enterprising 15-year old who is infatuated with the 25-year old Alana. Licorice Pizza is a film full of hope and warmth though it never shies away from dealing with difficult emotions.
7. What Do We See When We Look at the Sky?
Georgian filmmaker Alexandre Koberidze’s offbeat romance opens as a meet-cute story. A pharmacist and a football player accidentally meet each other. After another chance meeting, they agree to a rendezvous at an outdoor cafe the next day. However, the next morning they find themselves in new bodies. They not only look different, but their respective skills as a football player and pharmacist also don’t exist.
This intriguing magical-realist romance has a heavy contemplative tone and minimalist performances that may not work for all. It comes across as an idiosyncratic blend of David Lynch and Eric Rohmer’s style. Nevertheless, it’s a strangely spellbinding take on metamorphosis, love, and identity.
8. The Summit of the Gods
Patrick Imbert’s The Summit of the Gods is a refreshing animated tale based on a manga by Jiro Taniguchi and Baku Yumemakura. It’s narrated by an obsessed photo-journalist and revolves around explorer George Mallory’s quest to climb Mount Everest through its most difficult route (from the south face of Everest). There’s also another obsessive character in the narrative, a gifted mountaineer named Habu.
The Summit of the Gods is not about mountaineering. The alternating accounts of two men rather fascinatingly explore humankind’s obsession in confronting nature. It’s an interesting decision to use the animation medium for this tale. And it works magnificently, and in a lot of ways looks more real and nuanced than a live-action film.
9. The Hand of God
Paolo Sorrentino’s movies often carry a lot of autobiographical details. It’s the same with his recent outing, The Hand of God, a tale about dysfunctional family and fractured youth. From an aesthetic standpoint, Sorrentino once again borrows from Golden age Italian filmmakers, particularly from Fellini. The Hand of God is set in 1980s Naples, and its organic drama is elevated by a superb cast. It includes Sorrentino regular Toni Servillo. Filippo Scotti is fabulous in the central role, and offers a very sympathetic and graceful performance.
The black humor also works pretty well, and it is firmly grounded in the cultural landscape. Though it is in a way autobiographical, Sorrentino mostly shies away from self-indulgence and nostalgia.
10. Drive My Car
Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s adaptation of Haruki Murakami short story is a brilliantly layered take on grief, loss, and guilt. The film revolves around renowned stage actor and playwright Yusuke (Hidetoshi Nishijima). Oto, his wife of 20 years, is a screenwriter for television. Though they clearly love each other, secrecy haunts their relationship. When Oto suddenly passes away due to cerebral hemorrhage, Yusuke is deeply troubled by the things he left unsaid.
Drive My Car moves at a leisurely pace, but gets increasingly complex with each emotional revelation. Moreover, Hamaguchi expands on Murakami’s story through additional characters and profound characterizations.
Thai independent filmmaker Apichatpong Weerasethakul once again explores the spiritual and philosophical terrain of human existence in Memoria. Tilda Swinton plays Jessica, an expat living in Colombia. She is awakened one night by a loud bang. And this disturbing sound which only Jessica can hear repeats itself again and again. A probe into the source of the noise leads Jessica to explore her inner-self and the world around her.
Weerasethakul’s slow-cinema aesthetic eschews narrative conventions and challenges the form and dramatic structure of cinema. He gloriously continues this with Memoria which becomes a unique dissection of memories and one’s perception of reality. Weerasethakul’s cinema can be acquired taste. Yet, if we attune ourselves to it, a deeply immersive, sensory experience awaits us.
After Jackie and Neruda, Pablo Larrain proves that he is a master at weaving unconventional biopics. Spencer follows Diana’s excruciating Christmas weekend with the Royal family. She comes across as a living ghost who haunts the extravagant estate, yearning for an escape from the doom and gloom. Spencer is the most humane and empathetic portrayal of Diana. Steven Knight’s multi-layered script takes the well-publicized phase in Diana’s life and turns it into a distinctive psychological drama.
Of course, apart from Larrain and Knight, the film’s greatest strength is Kristen Stewart’s amazing performance. She delicately captures the fractured mindset of the eponymous character.
13. Power of the Dog
Jane Campion, the first female filmmaker to win the Palme d’Or, is back with a powerful revisionist Western. Power of the Dog is set in 1925 Montana and focuses on two brothers of completely different temperaments. Benedict Cumberbatch’s Phil clings to the old-fashioned values of the West, whereas the younger brother, George (Jesse Plemons) has a quieter demeanor and adapts to the modern ways. The existing tension between the brothers escalates when George marries a widow, and along with her, brings home her teenage son.
Power of the Dog is a singular exploration of power dynamics within a decidedly masculine cattle-rearing family. It’s rare to witness such subtle, emotionally exhausting features within the Western narrative framework.
14. Sardar Udham
Much isn’t known about Udham Singh except for the fact that he killed Michael O’Dwyer, the former lieutenant governor of Punjab, responsible for the Jallianwala Bagh Massacre. Shoojit Sircar’s Sardar Udham brings to light this determined journey of the freedom fighter. Using a non-linear, fractured narrative, Sircar gradually pieces together the puzzles in Udham’s life.
We know the reasons behind Udham’s two decade quest to assassinate Dwyer. But Sircar’s approach never sensationalizes the subject or the material. He particularly excels in staging the aftermath of massacre. Sircar largely avoids any stylization in the massacre scene, rather focuses on bringing the world’s attention to this crime against humanity.
PS Vinothraj’s nuanced fable is set in the arid areas of rural South Tamil Nadu. Pebbles has a very simple plot set-up. An uncouth, chain-smoking man forcefully takes his little son to confront his wife in her village. It seems that this is not the first time the little boy is making this journey with his father, nor it would be the last. And throughout this exhausting journey, the father and son passively view the struggling populace of the drought-hit area.
Pebbles is the directorial debut of Vinothraj who seems to have mastered the ‘show-don’t tell’ approach. He adapts certain slow-cinema aesthetics to profoundly visualize the metaphors. Eventually, the omniscient camera turns this character-focused piece into a meticulous study of the local ecosystem and atmosphere.
Julia Ducournau’s Palme d’Or-winning drama features one of the most weird plot trajectories. On the outset, Titane can be described as a troubled young woman’s quest to find connection and love. Ducournau’s provocative visual language, however, has plenty of surprises for viewers. Titane is an unnerving body horror that revolves around Alexia, a dancer at car shows.
The first half establishes Alexia as a brutal serial-killer. Strange circumstances push Alexia to take on the new identity of Adrien. Interestingly, this is where Titane gets deeply melancholic. Though the narrative dismisses realism and opts for hyper-stylization, Ducournau offers a transgressive take on gender, sexuality, and family.
Jonas Poher Rasmussen’s heartbreaking animated documentary offers a thought-provoking take on the trauma and refugee experience. Flee’s central subject is Amin, a successful scholar living in Denmark, who as a child fled Afghanistan with his family. At the same time, Rasmussen subverts the traditional approach to documentary by patiently allowing his subject to tell his story. In fact, the narrative process becomes a form of therapy and confronts truths head-on.
Flee largely reminds us of Ari Folman’s groundbreaking animation-documentary hybrid Waltz with Bashir (2008). However, Flee is more or less a poetic personal memoir, unlike Folman’s movie which explores the collective trauma behind a bloody massacre.
18. Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy
Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy is an anthology of three short stories. As the title implies, chance and coincidence drive the narrative. Although the three melancholic stories are completely different from one another, they all uniformly explore the themes of sexuality, love, desire, and friendship.
My favorite among the three is Once Again, the last one in the anthology. It’s an intriguing tale of mistaken identity set in a near-future where a computer virus has killed the internet. Hamaguchi’s writing often exudes an intimate knowledge of human psychology. Though Hamaguchi’s tales possess a calm and light-hearted surface a deeper undercurrent of emotions rages beneath.
Denis Villeneuve’s Dune is the perfect Hollywood blockbuster, which also provides the welcome relief from the tiring superhero movies. In Dune, Villeneuve successfully realizes the epic scale of author Frank Herbert’s vision. This is the planned two-part adaptation of Herbert’s first book in the Dune series. The film’s sprawling space opera narrative largely revolves around Paul, the gifted heir of House Atreides.
Villeneuve’s slow-burn narrative brilliantly sets up the Shakespearean tale of power and betrayal. Though there aren’t many surprises in the narrative, the grandeur and attention to detail makes it an enthralling experience. Like in Arrival and Blade Runner 2049, Villeneuve delivers a satisfying spectacle without following the conventions of modern-day Hollywood features.
20. No Time to Die
Daniel Craig’s Bond will go down as the best interpretation of the legendary spy character. Craig imparted vulnerability and a resolve to the character that felt very lifelike. Cary Fukunaga’s No Time to Die is the last Bond movie featuring Daniel Craig. It adds more depth and texture to the character, and brings his journey to a full circle. Fukunaga’s stylistic flourishes conform to the blockbuster action demands. At the same time, he brings great visual depth to even simple conversations.
No Time to Die is not without flaws. The casting of Rami Malek as the antagonist and his characterization was pretty weak. However, it ends on a high and bittersweet note, offering a fitting tribute to Craig’s Bond. Ana de Armas’ entertaining cameo and Lea Seydoux’s nuanced performance deserve a special mention.
21. The Story of Southern Islet
Chong Keat Aun’s spiritual mystery, set in rural northern Malaysia, is the most visually impressive film of the year. Set in 1987, the film chronicles a woman’s quest to save her sick, haunted husband. Aun’s film — rooted in folklore and local rituals — deals with the themes of cultural identity and faith. It’s remarkable how a debutant filmmaker has maintained a steady directorial hand throughout. Few critics have already compared it to the enigmatic works of Apichatpong Weerasethakul.
22. Sarpatta Parambarai
Boxing dramas have a familiar trajectory that can lose their way amidst the clichés and narrative tropes. Director Pa. Ranjith, however, utilizes a time-worn boxing narrative, to shape a powerful tale about empowerment against caste and class oppression. The film is set in mid-to-late 1970s in North Madras. The community has a unique boxing culture, consisting of different clans. The rise of Kabilan, a young labourer who belongs to an oppressed caste, forms the crux of the narrative. Besides, Sarpatta Parambarai has a brilliant ensemble cast and richly layered characters. Eventually, its strong social and political undertones make it much more than an underdog boxer film.
Mari Selvaraj’s Karnan chronicles an oppressed community’s struggle for dignity and their eventual rebellion. The narrative unfolds in a small village in South Tamil Nadu during the mid-1990s. Karnan, played by Dhanush, is the angry young man of the village. He is enraged at how the nexus of dominant caste members and political establishment denies people the basic human rights. Their biggest problem, however, at the moment is getting a bus stop of their own. A bus stop might seem like a simple thing. But Selvaraj brilliantly uncovers the virulent social and political intentions in keeping the people confined to their village. He perfectly uses the myths and village’s geography to strengthen his story.
24. The Girl and the Spider
Ramon Zürcher’s debut feature The Strange Little Cat (2013) is a fairly ordinary family drama. But the talking point of the film is the way it was uniquely and unusually staged. Ramon’s sophomore effort is once again set in the confined quarters and withholds a similar meticulously toned-down mise-en-scène. The film deals with the complex relationship between two friends. The girl of the title is Mara (Henriette Confurius), who is wistful about her roommate and friend Lisa moving out. The narrative unfolds over a course of two days, and keenly observes the incommunicable loneliness and disconnection in modern society.
25. The Great Indian Kitchen
Jeo Baby’s film is a brilliant indictment of oppressive patriarchal values that plague our society. It unfolds from the perspective of a recently wed young woman who moves into a conservative Hindu household. The men of the household – the husband and his father – are neither menacing nor abusive. The patriarchy that condemns the young woman to the kitchen is almost invisible. The scenarios portrayed here look very familiar. To be fair, the filmmaker observes the oppressive routine of the woman without theatricality or excessive drama. Despite the structural limitations and the convoluted ending, The Great Indian Kitchen is an audacious work in contemporary Indian cinema.
Newton director Amit Masurkar once again brilliantly explores the cronyism and absurdities of Indian bureaucracy. Bolstered by a phenomenal performance from Vidya Balan, Sherni revolves around an honest Divisional Forest Officer navigating her way through a corrupt system. Though she holds a position of power, she has to endure casual sexism. Masurkar brings his themes into focus through a fascinating procedural plot. A man-eating tigress is on loose wreaking havoc in the nearby village. She attempts to bring in the tigress alive and relocate it to the national park. What follows is a fury-inducing political power play, staged with great nuance and quietude.
27. Wet Sand
Georgian filmmaker Elene Naveriani’s Wet Sand is a slow-paced yet immersive tale of love and intolerance. The narrative is set in a small Black Sea coastline village. It opens with the death of a local, an old man who led a solitary life. His death is received with indifference by the local inhabitants. But with the arrival of the old man’s granddaughter, few truths come to light which unsettles the local community. Naveriani’s visual mastery and the beautifully restrained performances add multiple layers to this simple story.
28. Compartment No. 6
Finnish filmmaker Juho Kuosmanen crafted an amazing offbeat human drama, The Happiest Day in the Life of Olli Maki in 2016. It won the Un Certain Regard award at Cannes. The director’s follow-up to Olli Maki once again touches on the theme of human connection. Compartment No. 6 is based on the novel by Rosa Liksom, which follows a Finnish archaeology student en route to remote Northern Russia to study cave paintings. On this solo train journey to Murmansk, she meets a young belligerent Russian. They forge some form of genuine emotional connection during the journey.
Compartment No. 6 might sound like a corny meet-cute story. But Kuosmanen’s earnest direction makes it anything but that. It’s a wonderful study of contrasting individuals and their sincere interactions. Seidi Haarla who plays the central character offers a terrific and deeply relatable performance.
29. The Balcony Movie
Pawel Lozinski’s captivating documentary is entirely set in a first-floor apartment balcony in Warsaw. The balcony faces a sidewalk, where the filmmaker waits with his shotgun mic and camera to chat with random passersby, of different age groups, about life. An artistic experiment, though made before the pandemic, heavily resonates with us during this period of isolation. The documentarian’s exchanges with the strangers are mostly terse and vague. But gradually we get an interesting composite picture of modern humanity. Lozinski deserves applause for turning a simple everyday space to keenly observe society.
30. The Sacred Spirit
Chema García Ibarra’s spectacular debut feature mixes elements of black comedy and social realism to portray a community of loners and misfits. The central character Jose Manuel runs a small tapas bar at Elche, Spain. He is also a member of the Ufology Association and hopes for communication with the extraterrestrial beings. When the Association’s President dies, Jose vows to carry out a strange and horrific ritual. The Sacred Spirit travels on surrealistic terrain without losing sight of its social themes. And it all culminates with a bewitching and lacerating climax.
Nicolas Cage plays a reclusive truffle hunter named Robin in Michael Sarnoski’s riveting debut feature. Robin lives in the wilderness with his beloved truffle-hunting female pig. Since truffles are a vital part of the multi-million dollar culinary industry, its trade is rife with crime. One day, Robin’s pig is kidnapped and sold in the city. His quest takes him to strangest places, and uncovers certain truths about his past. Though it sounds like an action drama in the vein of John Wick, Pig is a deeply restrained character study.
Robin Wright’s striking directorial debut tells the tale of a woman beginning her life anew. Edee, a middle-aged woman, leaves her city life to settle down in a remote cabin. Profound grief seems to have torn her apart. The mountainous region is her last attempt to heal herself. But Edee who has had no experience in living from the land remains ignorant. Her ignorance almost costs her life until she meets Miguel. He is also a solitary figure like Edee, who teaches her a lesson or two about life. Though a very predictable drama, Robin Wright perfectly hits all the emotional notes. Moreover, she never exploits the inherent tragedy in the material.
33. Milestone/Meel Patthar
Ivan Ayr’s affecting drama revolves around a stoic and brooding fifty-something truck driver, Ghalib (Survinder Vicky). Ghalib is recently widowed and he is forced to train a new intern, to him he might lose his job. Similar to the director’s debut feature Soni, Milestone is an intimate character study. The long stretches of the narrative capture the painful solitude of Ghalib, and the physical and emotional strain it leads to. Besides, the bleak, desolate atmosphere brings an endearing relatability factor to Ghalib’s plight.
34. Sandeep Aur Pinky Faraar
A lot of critics who’ve reviewed Dibakar Banerjee’s recent film misconceive it as a chase thriller. Of course, the title is partly suggestive. What Mr. Dibakar rather offers is a gripping character portrait, i.e., two characters hailing from vastly contrasting backgrounds. The narrative does have a few flaws, in terms of pacing and writing. But he fascinatingly subverts our expectations throughout the film. Arjun Kapoor and Parineeti Chopra astound us with their grounded performances. The filmmaker’s trademark black humor adds more intrigue to this thriller.
35. Judas and the Black Messiah
Shaka King’s historical drama on Fred Hampton and Black Panthers reverberates with high energy and passion. The 21-year old black activist was under FBI surveillance and eventually assassinated by them. Anchored by outstanding performances from Daniel Kaluuya and Lakeith Stanfield, the film works well within the mainstream liberal discourse. It also offers a portrait of the deceptive, paranoid FBI, a perspective that’s far removed from the usual Hollywood portrayals.
This small-town American coming-of-age drama scored big at the Oscars, surprising many of the seasoned critics and cinephiles. Sian Heder’s remake of the French film The Belier Family (2014) revolves around a gifted 16-year old girl named Ruby, who as the acronym informs us is the child of deaf adults. She is the default family interpreter and essential to the family’s daily business operations. When a local music teacher recognizes her talent for singing, the task of pursuing her own dreams is made difficult.
CODA is a beautiful feel-good film, which though loses some of the nuances of the original film, makes up for it with brilliant performances. CODA also deserves special mention for casting three deaf actors. Years from now, people would wonder how a poignant yet a very simple film won over the likes of The Power of the Dog and Drive My Car to receive the Best Picture Oscar.
Kenneth Branagh’s semi-autobiographical portrait of childhood is set in the 1960s in the Northern Ireland capital. The period marks the beginning of political unrest in the small nation. Branagh’s narrative follows a family of familiar and relatable working-class characters. The protagonist is the mischievous nine-year old boy, Buddy (Judy Hill). He lives with his Ma, Pa, Pop, and Granny in a Belfast suburb where Protestants and Catholics co-exist and care for each other.
Branagh doesn’t follow the conventional three-act structure, and the sublime black-and-white aesthetic makes use of unusual compositions. Like all personal narratives, it’s tinged with nostalgia and yearning for a time before the chaos. Belfast never delves too deep, but a brilliant ensemble cast and luminous cinematography keep us engaged.
38. John and the Hole
Pascual Sisto’s impressive psychological thriller withholds the disquieting themes of a Michael Haneke movie. Thirteen-year old John (Charlie Shotwell) stumbles upon a hole in the ground, close to the wooded area of his family home. John is an inscrutable person. It’s hard to read the teenager’s mind. The hole he discovered is more like an unfinished bunker, and he enacts a sinister plan that involves his family. The film has a confounding character and an unsettling scenario at its core. However, Sisto maintains enough ambiguity to read into the motives of John’s sociopathic behaviour.
39. The Dry
Based on Jane Harper’s novel, The Dry is a slow-burn murder/mystery set in a small Australian town. Eric Bana plays detective Aaron Falk, who visits his hometown after receiving the news of his friend Luke and his family’s death. Luke is said to have murdered his wife, his little son, and committed suicide. The drought in the region and economic issues are speculated reasons for Luke’s horrific act. Aaron who was once close friends with Luke finds few discrepancies in this version. The Dry is a fascinating portrait of a struggling community, although the answer to its mystery isn’t very satisfying.
40. Zack Snyder’s Justice League
Zack Snyder’s Justice League aka the Snyder Cut is a huge improvement to the absurd theatrical version of 2017. With a running time of nearly four hours, the story is pretty much the same as the theatrical version. But the characters here are more fleshed out, and the scope of the conflicts are well realized. Besides, Snyder’s vision for the DC franchise superhero team – which though may not happen – looks much alluring.
41. The Lost Daughter
Actress Maggie Gyllenhaal’s directorial debut is a multi-layered look at the experiences of motherhood. Based on Elena Ferrante’s short novel, this is a riveting psychological drama spear-headed by Olivia Colman’s fierce performance. Colman plays Leda, a middle-aged professor on vacation by herself on a Greek island. Her yearning for solitude is intruded by a large family. The struggles of a young mother played by Dakota Johnson, particularly remind Leda of her own tough years as a young mother.
The Lost Daughter captures all the complex facets of motherhood, from the moments of joy to the sense of dread and anxiety. Alongside Olivia Colman, Dakota Johnson and Jessie Buckley strengthen this incredible ensemble cast.
42. A Hero
Asghar Farhadi once again grapples with complex moral themes that revolve around socially and financially vulnerable individuals. Similar to A Separation and About Elly, A Hero begins with a simple event. The main character, Rahim Soltani, out of prison on a two-day furlough, finds a purse at a bus stop with gold coins. Despite owing a large debt, he reluctantly returns it. When the deed gets advertised as ‘noble’, we gradually learn that nothing is black and white.
With A Hero, Farhadi repeats his mastery at crafting thrilling dramas centered on complicated human behavior. More than making a moral parable, Farhadi employs narrative ambiguity to deeply look at the many tragedies in a cynical and jaded society.
43. The French Dispatch
Wes Anderson’s latest film is set in an imagined city, and tells three stories published in a fictional magazine. French Dispatch is clearly Anderson’s most visually inventive work to date. Of course, the free-flowing narrative style won’t work for everyone. From the perfectly built sets to the painstaking compositions and color book palette, there’s a lot to cherish in Anderson’s universe. As usual, the great ensemble cast confirms the character quirks of the filmmaker’s choice.
The only grouse one might have is that Anderson could have slowed down a bit to make us comprehend the visual intricacies at play. It demands our zealous attention during each and every frame of its running time.
Actor Fran Kranz’s directorial debut Mass uses an explosive dramatic situation to explore the issues plaguing modern American society. Two anxious middle-aged couples meet each other in a back room in a Church. In the intriguing prologue, we see the Church’s coordinator nervously running around to prepare the room for the event. Later, we learn the reason behind the tension and anxiety. It happens to be a meeting of reconciliation, i.e., between parents of the shooter and the parents of a victim of a school shooting.
The majority of the running time is focused on these four characters. From the clumsy small talk to the inevitable emotional outbursts, the four great performers guide us through the characters’ painful existential crisis.
45. The Worst Person in the World
Joachim Trier’s refreshing romantic comedy explores the life of a young woman as she tries to balance between her love life and career. Divided into 12 distinct chapters and attached with an enriching voice-over, the protagonist Julie reminds us of the spirited central characters of Frances Ha and Fleabag. Reinsve, who plays Julie, is astonishingly vibrant in the role. She brings a mix of willfulness and vulnerability to Julie as she tries to obliterate the many obstacles in her path.
Joachim Trier has repeatedly made films about young people. He offers a piercing and bittersweet study of their lives without any artifice. With The Worst Person in the World, Trier’s mastery touches new heights.
46. The Green Knight
Based on a 14th century poem, David Lowery’s sumptuous medieval drama tells the tale of Sir Gawain, nephew of King Arthur. Gawain goes on a quest to the Green Chapel to confront a mysterious creature. Though it sounds like a conventional quest story, director Lowery constantly overturns our expectations. The casting of Dev Patel as Sir Gawain is a very interesting one. Patel’s Gawain is indeed charming but also very vulnerable unlike the heroic medieval knights.
Similar to his existential drama A Ghost Story, Lowery deals with themes of time, life, inevitability, and death. One of the best shot films of 2021, Green Knight’s brilliant cinematography keeps intact the dark and macabre tone of the narrative.
47. C’mon C’mon
On the surface, Mike Mills’ C’mon C’mon is just a poignant drama involving a weary radio journalist and his young nephew. Joaquin Phoenix plays the uncle. He takes care of his socially-awkward nephew while his sister is taking care of her husband who is struggling with mental health issues. What’s interesting here is that Mills smartly subverts the dramatic beats of the narrative. He rather opts for an honest, heartfelt approach which perfectly captures the messy emotions one has to put up with while parenting kids.
Adding more layers to this drama is Phoenix’s project of interviewing children of all ages to perceive their views on the future. Shot in cool black-and-white, and filled with naturalistic dialogues, C’mon C’mon is the most heart-warming film of the year.
48. Red Rocket
Sean Baker has gradually become an important contemporary American filmmaker, who shrewdly reveals to us the hidden and vulnerable populace of his nation. In Red Rocket, he follows a small-time hustler and washed-up porn star named Mickey Saber. The man returns to his sleepy home-town in Texas, where no one is happy to see him.
Baker’s films are populated with profoundly unlikeable characters. But by looking at their hard lives, he asks us very unsettling questions. In fact, Baker often terrifies us with his honest portrait of red-state (implies the conservative region in USA) working class people.
49. The Last Duel
Ridley Scott uses a medieval drama set-up to cleverly mirror the present day misogynistic attitudes. Last Duel, set in the 14th century, borrows a little bit from Rashomon by offering three different perspectives of a single tragic event. Jodie Comer brilliantly plays Marguerite de Carrouges, wife of Sir Jean Carrouges, a French statesman. Marguerite accuses the powerful Le Gris of raping her. Sadly, the woman’s claim is scoffed at and the prevalent misogyny emphasizes on proving her ‘honour’ through a duel.
The narrative goes back to track down the evolution of friendship and rivalry between Le Gris and Jean Carrouges. However, the most powerful narrative perspective is that of Marguerite in how cinematic traditions of a period drama are smartly subverted.
We have been increasingly coming across narratives that achingly capture the facade of social media identities. Egyptian filmmaker Ayten Amin’s Souad is one such important film which observes the dissonance between the liberal online existence and the conservative society. The two teenage sisters at the center of the narrative are already rendered vulnerable due to the suffocating constraints placed upon them by the orthodox society. However, social media comes across as a space of liberation for them. It’s a way to escape the day-to-day domestic drudgery. But soon, the deceitful and corrosive nature of online communities rears its head.
Made with a largely non-professional acting cast and staged like a docu-drama, Souad potently focuses on the many troubles faced by young women in a deceptive, patriarchal society.
That was my list of the best movies of 2021 so far. What’s yours? Let’s talk in the comments below.
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An ardent cinephile, who truly believes in the transformative power and shared-dream experience of cinema. He blogs at ‘Passion for Movies.’