In 2021, cinemas returned. Properly, this time. Not like almost exactly one year earlier where studios kept lobbying to reopen cinemas whilst the worst of the pandemic was raging unabated, only to immediately leave those cinemas in a lurch when TENET didn’t bring about 2019 levels of cashola by pulling any and every blockbuster from release, forcing those cinemas to take a hefty financial hit (and the workers to take constant giant health risks by showing up every day) for the ‘benefit’ of showing basically nothing. This time, cinemas reopened, stayed open and studios woman-ed up by not moving their films around everywhere when the going remained tough. Now, whether or not it was the right decision morally to re-open is not one we’re going to litigate here. But the fact remains that cinemas, in 2021, returned. And, personally, goddamn did I ever miss them.
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It’s been a difficult couple of years, especially if you’re someone who really values healthy routine in your life. So, the loss of the cinema – this dedicated communal place expressly designed for the watching and appreciating of movies, sans all distractions with (theoretically) the best visual and audio set-ups money can buy – has indeed hit me harder that I ever thought it would. Getting into the headspace to watch films at home remains difficult. And even when cinemas did reopen, I had to push myself past my trepidations about the still-ongoing pandemic in order to go back like I used to. I still wouldn’t say that movies were at the forefront of my brain, this year. But when I did finally go back… man, it was just nice, y’know? Sliding back into a Marvel blockbuster like a comfortable pair of slippers, reuniting with The Family to watch them give physics the middle finger, surrendering my heart to a beautifully moving tale of friendship and trans-self-actualisation in England-colonised 1850s Ireland…
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Not every film on this here list received a theatrical release, whether that be due to releasing when the UK was still in our post-Xmas lockdown period or simply having gone straight-to-streaming. Several of these films received theatrical releases and either simultaneous or barely-a-month-later streaming debuts, as the industry continues attempting to pivot to this new reality. And whilst some kinks clearly need to be worked out in that system – how to better coexist with cinemas, for one, and how not to charge almost twenty-goddamn-pounds for a 48-hour rental, for another – anything which ups the potential accessibility of movies to viewers is a win for us all. This here list is made up of our writers’ individual favourite films of 2021, based on UK release schedules. There are definitely some major omissions you can yell at us about in your preferred social forum, something which we welcome this year. After all, it’s the little things that get taken away by a global pandemic, like mundane arguments over movies, you end up missing the most, y’know? – Callie Petch
After the general kerfuffle around this year’s Academy Awards ceremony, and the failure to grant the late Chadwick Boseman a posthumous Oscar for Best Actor in a Leading Role, (whisper it: the better performance) – Anthony Hopkins in The Father took the award.
In the film, Hopkins plays a character living with dementia. As we progress, the full scale of his daily difficulties become clear as he forgets everyday events, obsesses on trivial matters, and has little concept of time. Director Florian Zeller uses different actors in the same role in order to mimic the lead’s confusion, whilst also having the main actor in each role accent their performance differently from scene to scene so that we cannot fully discern their intentions towards Hopkins. Added to a fluid set which changes in small details here and there, and it adds up to a genuinely affecting look at how dementia might look from the inside.
A towering piece of work, and an exclamation mark at the end of an exceptional career for Anthony Hopkins. The Academy could have handled events with greater skill, but let that not detract from a special performance in a very special film. – Dave Bond
Amongst the existential dread of independent horrors, the growing complexity of various cinematic universes, and the quirky festival award contenders, it’s occasionally nice to simply kick back and enjoy some ice cream entertainment. Free Guy delivers that by the bucket load.
Led by the outstanding pairing of Ryan Reynolds and Jodie Corner, Shaun Levy’s relentless crowdpleaser combines elements of The Truman Show and Ready Player One in a way which manages to be more accessible than the first and less pandering than the second. Although it may never reach the complexities of Carrey’s classic, the film still manages to layer plenty of meaning beneath the layers of visual chocolate and vanilla. Audiences may possibly even wonder what we mean when we ask if something is ‘alive,’ though only for a moment.
After all, it’s hard to ponder metaphysics when we’re confronted with a barrage of references and cameos. Real life gamers, streamers, and Hollywood A-listers pop up on our screens or in our ears, and there are enough pop culture references to keep the annoying boyfriend with plenty of things to point out to his exasperated partner engaged throughout the film. No, it’s not the greatest film of 2021, but Free Guy is brash, enjoyable, and well worth your time. – Paul Regan
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Summer of Soul (…or When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised)
“Do you remember the Harlem Cultural Festival in the Summer of ’69?” is the question posed at the beginning of Questlove’s astonishing Summer of Soul (…Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised). Seemingly, only those in attendance do, and their memories are sprinkled through this joyous documentary forged from the Grail-like discovery of 40 hours of wonderful concert footage shot by the late Hal Tulchin.
The footage contains an embarrassment of riches. A 19-year-old Stevie Wonder on the drums, a young Gladys Knight with a sultry ‘I Heard it through the Grapevine,’ Nina Simone filling the then-spanking-new ‘To Be Young, Gifted, and Black’ with pugnacious fire. Most spine-tingling of all is a cathartic version of Martin Luther King Jr’s favourite ‘Take My Hand, Precious Lord’ by Mahalia Jackson and Mavis Staples, a passing of the torch between generations and a distillation of the entire project.
It’s a phenomenal document. An indictment of how dismissive the mainstream was of black culture at the time – the festival was dwarfed by Woodstock and largely forgotten – but also a vindication and celebration given how many unquestionable legends appear over two blissful hours. Destined to be one of the great music documentaries. – Kevin Ibbotson-Wight
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Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings
Marvel struck gold with its second film offering for 2021. Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings feels fresh and bold while never straying far from notions of familial legacy and recognition of the past. Primarily, the film’s critical and commercial success is down to directorial flair and some impressive acting talent.
The film’s visual palette thrills across several electrifying action sequences. Destin Daniel Cretton directs with a keen eye for spatial coherence within the frame and within a scene; each shot brings clarity as to what is occurring and who is involved. These sequences, and this film, are a shot in the arm for audiences in an age of cinema that many bemoan as being overly reliant on quick cuts and generic action.
Simu Liu is charming and likeable, Awkwafina brings top-notch comic delivery, and Tony Leung makes a complex character out of a theoretically one-note villain. Shang-Chi is a confident debut for the titular superhero, whose future in the MCU appears very optimistic indeed. – Lachlan Haycock
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No Time to Die
While its final moments have no doubt led to many questions as to what is next for 007, what proved to be most incredibly satisfying about No Time to Die was watching Eon Productions take that approach knowing full well Daniel Craig wasn’t coming back. There is a full stop here in a way one seldom gets with Bond and, while this might prove contentious for some, it gives the series a chance to really go to town in an emotional manner that was previously hinted at but always backed away from with subsequent changes of actors.
The Craig era as a whole has allowed the series to finally explore the vulnerabilities and soul underneath the tough, suave exterior. And with its callbacks to not only George Lazenby but Timothy Dalton as well, on top of being a magnificent swan song for an actor that has redefined the character and the series for a generation, No Time to Die also paid glorious tribute to two short-lived eras of the series that once-upon-a-time were incorrectly regarded as something less than the other films around it. Cary Fukunaga’s time behind the camera showing that a vulnerable, tougher and emotionally complex version of the character has real weight and, given just how relentless it’s set cinema tills ringing, can deliver the goods to box office success. – Eamon Hennedy
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Godzilla vs Kong
Ever since growing up watching people dressed in monster suits fighting robots on TV in Power Rangers, I’ve had a bit of a soft spot for Tokusatsu movies, and Kaiju films in particular. There’s something about these films that try to marry together serious science fiction plots about global destruction or time travel with sequences of men in rubber suits beating the crap out of each other that just makes me happy in a way I can’t describe. And the big daddy of all of these is Godzilla.
Having made a point over the years to go and watch every Godzilla movie I’ve become a fan on the big fella, and have been over the moon to see him getting even more love thanks to the new Monsterverse movies. The US finally did him justice. And after the all-out action fest that was Godzilla: King of the Monsters, I was super excited to see him getting to fight King Kong once again; something that hasn’t happened since 1962!
I know there are some people who have watched the film and have said that it’s too silly, that the plot is bonkers wild, that the human characters make odd choices or are only there to get the monsters together to fight and it doesn’t make much sense. But what else do you need from a film like this? It looks amazing, the cast do well (especially Kaylee Hottle as Jia), and the action sequences are wonderful silly fun. I’m not saying the film is deep or profound in any ways, but if I want to see big monsters fight it does its job very, very well. – Amy Walker
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Last Night in Soho
Over four years on from Baby Driver, Edgar Wright delves more fully into the horror genre with which he has always flirted.
As a young West-Country student moving to London for the first time, Eloise (Thomasin Mackenzie) is a fish out of water. Taunted and teased by fellow students, she moves out of halls and into a house owned by the mysterious Ms Collins (Dame Diana Rigg’s final role). Suddenly finding herself transported to 1965 and the body of aspiring singer Sandie (Anya Taylor-Joy), she is fist unaware as to whether these are dreams (as Eloise is a big fan of 60s fashions and music) or reality.
As Sandie is charmed and then abused by Jack (Matt Smith), and forced into a life of prostitution, Eloise struggles to cope with her present-day life as she sees images of Sandie apparently being killed by Jack. As she wonders whether the creepy figure played by Terence Stamp is Jack in the modern day, she attempts to piece together what happened whilst trying to keep a grip on her sanity.
Evoking genuine nostalgia for an era, despite the grimy lifestyles presented, and blessed with an outstanding soundtrack and even better performances, Last Night in Soho earns its place amongst the films of the year. – Dave Bond
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I don’t think I saw anything this year that was as delicate as Minari. An intimate semi-autobiographical family portrait following the hardships of a South Korean family who have decided to follow their dream of starting a farm in rural 80s’ America. Director Lee Isaac Chung eschews the expected racial conflict easily seen in such a film, instead being more interested in the insular conflicts that lay within the family unit, coaxing quietly commanding performances from his small cast.
Minari is a refreshing departure from many modern movies’ overt obsession with plotting. Instead, the film captures simple, emotional moments that feel genuine in a way that many family dramas struggle to achieve because Chung never overeggs any element. With the subjects so sensitively approached and with such a light touch, one wonders what Chung did to draw out such authenticity.
Chung said he was close to quitting filmmaking before taking one last shot with Minari, deciding that the sensible thing to do would be to take a teaching role back in Korea. However, his decision to take a hail Mary pass led to a critical darling that garnered a string of award nominations. Thank goodness for not making sensible decisions. – Leslie Byron Pitt
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The Mitchells vs. The Machines
First of all, look at this goddamn movie. Look at it! Look at that colour! Those rounded designs! Those stretchy characters! That masterful symbiosis of 2D and 3D animation to create hyperkinetic sequences bursting with charm and unique eye-catching visual flair! So many moments of this look exactly like an animated version of a teenager’s sketchbook, even before director Michael Rianda and the team at Sony Pictures Imageworks start accentuating the action with teenage sketchbook doodles and freezeframes. Seriously, after decades of Pixar imitations, I’m so glad that we finally have a genuine variety of styles in animated movies now, especially when they’re this well done.
But Mitchells vs. The Machines is way more than a mere pretty face. It is, by far, the absolute funniest movie of the year with screamingly good comic timing and line deliveries from everybody – Olivia Colman especially seems to be having the time of her life as the villainous PAL. It has the best cast of characters of any movie this year and, in the titular Mitchells, one of the most believably dysfunctional family dynamics to be depicted on-screen in years. It is maybe the most heartwarming film of the year, with a gangbusters finale capable of drawing tears from a stone golem. It is the most casually progressive wide-release family movie I have watched in forever which makes me feel seen, particularly in its refusal to make Aaron’s neurodivergent behaviour and Katie’s queerness either the butt of mean jokes or the sole defining aspect of their characters.
Basically, anybody who doesn’t have The Mitchells vs. The Machines on their Best of 2021 ballots is a cop not to be trusted. And not a Dog Cop, either. – Callie Petch
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This reviewed so divisively they could’ve called it “Marmite: The Movie.” Except for the fact it is absolutely a Ghostbusters movie and the amount of reverence Afterlife holds towards the original is one of the reasons it’s reviewed so divisively. Critics and regular Joe Publics alike seem to either love or hate this movie. I am in the Love camp. That’s why I’m writing about it here.
There’s no doubt this film was made for the fans, a true love-letter to the original 1984 film, revisiting not just those wonderful Ghostbusting gadgets but also a large swathe of its plot. So far, so Star Wars: The Force Awakens. Therefore, it’s easy to wonder if some would not be more forgiving if not for that spectral elephant in the room: the 2016 reboot. It wasn’t great, let’s not kid ourselves, but it unleashed the very worst of fandom, spewing their hateful sexist and racist bile over the internet. It’s not hard to interpret this film as giving those horrible arseholes what they wanted.
But it also gave me what I wanted. Not a reboot, a continuation. A passing of Proton Packs from old heroes to new ones. And it really is a truly wonderful film. I’ve seen the original Ghostbusters… ooh, maybe just shy of 4,958,453 times and I can see this first adventure for Phoebe, Podcast, Trevor and Lucky eventually coming close. Unless they make sequels – there’s only so much time left before I become a ghost myself. – David Claridge