Reviewed: My top five films of 2021
Spider-Man may have permanently revitalised the big screen among general audiences, but as a new year comes into view, take a moment to read up on my five faves from 2021.
Subtly portrays the agony of a lifelong love overshadowed by dementia. A beautiful, gentle, sincere film.
‘You just sit there doing nothing, propping up the entire world’. At first glance this looks like a cute road trip movie starring Stanley Tucci and Colin Firth as gay lovers. It is. But there’s so much emotion wrapped up in this simple premise that it’ll knock you for six. It’s not so much about going on an adventure and enjoying life — it’s more about escaping life, contemplating its end, and how we go about reframing the past. With a deftness of touch, director Harry Macqueen subtly portrays the agony of a lifelong love overshadowed by dementia. It’s a gentle, sincere film touching on how relationships evolve through time, how we age (gracefully or otherwise), and the uncertainty that tomorrow can bring.
Tucci’s character, Tusker, is fascinated by star charts and constellations. He says that when stars get old, they run out of fuel and explode; that star has died, and so it shoots out ‘stuff’, which travels through space, and eventually becomes what makes us. This sticks out as the theme, for me: the circularity of life. Supernova is simultaneously about forgetting and being remembered. We don’t witness any sudden, grim deterioration of Tusker’s mental state — that may have been more than I could bear — but he and his husband, Sam, know the moment is coming. So how does one deal with that crushing inevitability? Is love enough to pull us through? Tusker is quick-witted, intelligent, charming; is he still Tusker without his faculties? To what extent does Sam owe him ongoing care? Is it an expectation or an unfair, undue burden on their natural bond?
Directorially, this is a winner. The performances are very strong — very real — and I enjoyed seeing James Dreyfus (from Gimme Gimme Gimme) and Pippa Haywood (of Green Wing) pop up unexpectedly. Keaton Henson’s understated strings make Supernova’s score a perfect accompaniment to its painful, numbing ruminations. There’s a sense that the music is taking you away, somewhere else, somewhere with a little less to worry about. Like an afterlife. Under different circumstances, it’s really quite a beautiful movie. Except there’s this unanswerable question lingering in the background: is it OK to sacrifice a few more potential moments of joy to better preserve one’s memory? Or does the agony of that contemplation tear down what’s left of those memories anyway? Painful, though important.
4. No Time To Die
Does a great job of making Bond feel vulnerable again. It’s a violent and dangerous finale for Craig!
It finally came out! Director Cary Joji Fukunaga does a great job of making Bond feel vulnerable again in a violent and dangerous finale for Daniel Craig. I enjoyed it. I think it’s got big problems, but I am nowhere near as perplexed or crushed over this as other fans of the franchise (they’re literally pulling their hair out over everything from the gun barrel to those divisive final moments). But hear this! Anyone moaning that all Bond films are the same can settle in for something new this time around. Bond’s got the girl — what next? A ton of bad luck.
No Time’s opening scenes are gobsmacking. Utter adrenaline. Brutally good fun. And so, with Bond snatched out of retirement, we’re along on another rip-roaring adventure, battling yet another softly-spoken villain and his… nanobots! Fukunaga’s excellent action scenes (such as those set in Cuba) help bind some poorly executed character moments. I’m sorry to say it — we don’t need so many. When Bond teams up with Moneypenny, M, and Q, it’s more like an episode of Scooby-Doo than an outing with our favourite double-0. Delete Lashana Lynch completely and you won’t affect the plot one iota. Blofeld needn’t have passed through. But Paloma (Ana de Armas) was criminally underused.
It’s stuffed full of nods and winks to previous entries in the franchise, such as motifs in Zimmer’s earthquake of a score (it’s like watching from inside a giant trumpet), as well as flashback-inducing costumes and set design. The opening titles themselves are a slideshow of emblems from Bond’s long-standing pop cultural dominance. And like never before, I felt that No Time was heavily influenced by action from old Bond games (think: Blood Stone, Everything or Nothing, even Agent Under Fire). Regardless, this does a great job of blending the smooth visuals of Skyfall with the ruthlessness from Casino Royale and, crucially, it finds ways to do things differently. Bravo.
3. The Mitchells vs. The Machines
Deals in family dynamics, tech giants, and sentient furbies. A lot of heart. Made me cry and LOL.
It took me about 30 minutes to realise that The Mitchells vs. The Machines was doing something quite special. Originally, this was advertised as a potentially straightforward family film speaking out against social media addiction. In reality, that’s just a side serving. By its end, I had both cried and laughed simultaneously, and decided it was now one of my favourite animated films. This shouldn’t have been a surprise: it’s produced by Lord Miller (see also: Into The Spider-verse and The Lego Batman Movie). Sony Pictures Animation is putting out some real bangers lately, so don’t write this off as a quick and dirty CGI flick à la Emoji Movie; there’s true craft here.
TMVTM deals in family dynamics, tech giants, and sentient furbies. Somehow, director Michael Rianda piles on a ton of slapstick, up-to-the-minute meme humour, and most importantly, a big dollop of heart. Katie Mitchell (Abbi Jacobson) has won a place in film school and her family are sad to see her go, especially her father, with whom she has a particularly strained (also strange) relationship. In a last ditch effort to rescue their bond, he cancels her plane ticket to university and forces everyone on a family road trip. So far so normal, but all this takes a backseat when, partway through their adventure, A.I.-driven robots from the company ‘Pal’ (Amazon, basically) try to take over the world. Who’s responsible? A sentient mobile phone voiced by Olivia Colman.
Back when I reviewed 2020’s The Willoughbys, I praised its quirky slapstick humour, but I’ll double that sentiment here. With every passing scene, it gets cranked up another notch. What’s more, the script is genuinely funny. There’s a mad and modern sense of humour throughout (it’s nothing like that ‘how do you do, fellow kids’ meme). There are so many different elements at play, but they work so well in unison. Somehow, TMVTM feels off-the-wall, subversive, surreal, and routinely heart wrenching. Composer Mark Mothersbaugh can take the blame: he knows precisely when to signal comic action and deftly underscore quiet heartbreak. Well worth your time.
2. In The Heights
Community! High energy! Dynamic choreography! Bravo to the editor and sound team!
This deeply human musical is brilliantly put together and roaring with energy; it’s exceptional fun. After longer than a year of bonkers isolation and anxiety, In The Heights is precisely the breathless flurry of singing, dancing, and romance we need. Even a brand new Bond-fuelled car chase will be hard pressed to feel more exciting than this enormous, impassioned cast diving, twirling, and spinning in the streets. And the weather! This is the perfect summer movie; it’s unsurprisingly refreshing to see so many spraying fire hydrants and swimming pools. But clocking in at well over two hours, how’s the story?
Director Jon M. Chu uses a standard framing device to great effect: Usnavi (Anthony Ramos) tells the movie as his story, helping flick through important events and maintain an engaging pace. Set in a largely Dominican neighborhood, Washington Heights (New York), we watch as he prepares to sell his little shop and move to the Dominican Republic. He has the hots for Vanessa (Melissa Barrera) who’s an aspiring fashion designer and somewhat hard to get. Around them exists a broad, vibrant community including matriarch Abuela (Olga Merediz), taxi cab company owner Kevin (Jimmy Smits), and Nina (Leslie Grace) who’s dropped out of her studies with nowhere else to go. As these characters live (and it really does feel like they’re living, breathing, in a bustling and active NY block), themes of acceptance, discrimination, and belonging are woven throughout. There’s a little drama and a lot of dancing.
Where do we find home? Take everything else away: that’s the question In The Heights is asking. It’s no spoiler to say that home is where the heart is. Chu’s execution is a perfect balance; with the block’s blackout as the cast’s lowest point, he manages to convincingly reignite hope and bring every little plotline together at the finish line. I instantly wanted a rewatch (or to move in). Chu wraps this whole, wondrous community in a big, beautiful bow. So, prepare to feel a warm and fuzzy glow. Grab the popcorn, smash open a fire hydrant, and go on this glorious, rhythmic adventure of the soul. It’s time to find our way home.
Phenomenal. How else to describe it? Soul is a love letter to life itself.
Released at the tail end of 2020 on Disney+, I eventually saw Soul in 2021 and found it utterly poetic. Visually, it’s stunning. It feels bizarrely creative for a mainstream release, which is why it’s such a shame it never graced cinema screens. Writer/director Pete Docter is the man responsible for Pixar’s most prominent tear-jerker, Inside Out. Here, he mixes different animation types to communicate relatively high concept themes for what’s essentially a kids’ film. And the music! John Batiste (who you may know from Colbert’s The Late Show in the U.S.) brings along his effortless love of jazz. Impeccable voice talent, also, from Tina Fey, Jamie Foxx, and Graham Norton — but my personal favourite contribution comes in the form of whispered ramblings from Rachel House’s pedantic accountant, Terry.
What’s the story, you ask? Joe’s a jazz pianist who’s looking to make it big. He’s a middle school music teacher who’s outperformed expectations at an audition and gets offered a gig that, he’s certain, will rocketboost his career to stardom. Then he dies. Not much of a spoiler really; this happens very early on. And it’s here that we start to see some of the most inventive art direction. Stylised black and white portals take Joe into ‘the before’ — a soft, pink-blue environment — where freshly born ‘souls’ go about getting ready to live in a human body. One particular soul, number 22 to be precise, seems incapable of finishing her training and finding out what her ‘spark’ is. Joe sees her as an opportunity to find a way back to Earth, certain that his own spark — his life’s purpose — is to play jazz. What ensues is totally loony and delightful. Highlights include Jamie Foxx voicing a cat, Tina Fey’s reaction to pizza, and the fact everyone’s called Jerry.
Throughout 2020, I’m certain we all wondered: what’s the point? You might have wondered, ‘What am I here for?’ and, especially now, ‘How can I achieve my goals?’ Personally, I’ve put a great deal of pressure on myself to write which, ironically, paralyses me. I tell myself my life’s purpose is to write: I need to write a book. And yet, my dayjob is a writing job. I’m writing this, too. But: ‘I still need to write that book,’ like Joe says, he needs that gig. These obsessions can prevent us from enjoying the flow of life. Soul has prophetic things to say about how we should treat our talents and why we need to remember: we are enough as we are. Life is a gift. As lockdowns dwindle (please, God!) and as we reunite with friends, eat at restaurants, sit in the sun, or enjoy a beautiful film, Joe’s story reminds us to enjoy every minute — whatever awaits us in ‘the great beyond’.
A Glitch in the Matrix, Yeh Ballet, The Map of Tiny Perfect Things, Luca, and Cryptozoo.
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These reviews were first published in the creative, British-made quarterly, Jack The Lad — available as a digital download and in print.