- 13 Jan 22
There's something to suit every cinematic taste, as Roe McDermott selects the best movies of 2021.
Sometimes, it just boils down to what we are missing, what we need, and what we value. In the era of Covid, so many of us have fully realised how vital art is to our lives. So perhaps it’s no surprise that this year, many of the most impactful films touched on the theme of connection.
From the documentary Summer Of Soul, which captures an iconic summer concert that united politics and music, to an Irish film exploring how music can help heal trauma, these films made me desperately long for the collective experience of art. Irish feature Herself and Oscar-winning drama Nomadland are both beautiful, thought-provoking films about women who society has forgotten, looking for homes and a community, which felt incredibly prescient in a country where a housing crisis and the pandemic have collided, leaving so many physically and emotionally adrift.
Elsewhere, The Reason I Jump and Sound Of Metal are two extremely different films – one a documentary about autism, the other a brilliantly performed drama about a musician losing his hearing – but both are united by empathy and an attempt to understand each other more.
Art and cinema have always been invaluable foundations of our culture, and the past two years have highlighted that. Thank you to all the crews, actors, writers and directors who persevered to let us connect over this year, and let’s make sure that as a country we keep supporting them.
1. Summer Of Soul
In the year that’s in it, a film about a joyous, iconic music festival was always going to pull at our heartstrings, but in any year, Summer Of Soul would qualify as a classic.
History has always been whitewashed, and in Summer Of Soul (The Revolution Will Not Be Televised), Ahmir ‘Questlove’ Thompson is determined to reclaim and celebrate a vital part of cultural history that has been overlooked for too long. In his feature directorial debut, Thompson uses archive footage and interviews to showcase the irrepressible exuberance and sheer musical excellence of the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival.
Taking place over six consecutive weekends in Mount Morris Park in Harlem, the concerts featuring Stevie Wonder, Mahalia Jackson, B.B. King, Nina Simone and others were filmed brilliantly by veteran television director Hal Tulchin, who used five video cameras to create a fully immersive experience, complete with intimate close-ups of the performers and atmospheric shots of the crowd. Tulchin intended to sell the footage for a television special – however, no producer ever took on the task of turning it into the type of documentary that immortalised other festivals of the era.
Thankfully, Thompson has transformed the footage into a rousing film; a fascinating portrait of Black life in America at a transformative time; but also a revolutionary project in itself. “The fact that 40 hours of footage was kept from the public is living proof that revisionist history exists,” Thompson has said. “I want to make sure that Black erasure doesn’t happen during my lifetime anymore.”
The message is vital – and the film is superb, with unforgettable performances from the likes of Nina Simone, Gladys Knight and the Pips, the 5th Dimension, and the Edwin Hawkins Singers, amongst many others.
Get ready to rethink history and dance in the aisles at the same time.
Nomadland sees Frances McDormand playing Fern, a widow who loses her job when her small Nevada town’s main plant and source of employment shuts down. Left without family or income, she decides to sell her belongings and live in a car, travelling across the United States looking for seasonal work, and making connections along the way.
Nomadland is based on the 2017 non-fiction book Nomadland: Surviving America In The Twenty-First Century by Jessica Bruder, which reports on the phenomenon of older Americans who, following the Great Recession of 2007-2009, adopted transient lifestyles. The film is a beautiful, wrenching, contemplative drama about the search for home and meaning. Director Chloe Zhao combines perfect performances with an elegiac tone, an episodic structure, and an understated mood, making for a singular cinematic experience.
3. Promising Young Woman
Written and directed by Emerald Fennell, Promising Young Woman is an explosive, blackly funny, bitingly incisive film about toxic masculinity and rape culture. Carey Mulligan gives a blazing performance as Cassie, a 30-year-old former medical student whose life has been derailed by the rape of her best friend, Nina.
After dropping out of school to care for Nina, Cassie is left living at home with her parents, haunted, adrift and without much faith in the world – but plenty of rage. Her life mission becomes to wreak revenge on men who hurt women, and she finds plenty of them. Cassie doesn’t even have to seek abusive men out; she merely frequents bars and nightclubs pretending to be more drunk and vulnerable than she really is, and predatory men appear. But they get far more than they were bargaining for, including the inescapable realisation that they are not, as they invariably protest, “a good guy.”
Despite its dark premise and socially astute observations about rape culture, Promising Young Woman is fun as all hell. Drenched in candy coloured hues and an unapologetically poppy soundtrack – when was the last time you heard Paris Hilton’s ‘Stars Are Blind’ featured in a film? – the movie constantly subverts expectations, blending elements of rom-com and thriller to create a truly genre-bending film.
4. The Power Of The Dog
In her follow-up to Top Of The Lake: China Girl, Jane Campion joins forces with Netflix for The Power Of The Dog, based on the 1967 novel of the same name. The plot centres on a pair of wealthy Montana brothers, cruel and brilliant Phil (Benedict Cumberbatch) and gentle George Burbank (Jesse Plemons), who are joint owners of the biggest ranch in the Montana valley.
When George secretly marries local widow Rose (an outstanding Kirsten Dunst), a shocked and angry Phil wages a sadistic, relentless war to destroy her entirely using her son Peter (Kodi-Smit McPhee) as a pawn. Cumberbatch embodies a man desperately trying to exude a forcefield of impenetrable tough-guy masculinity, his temper unpredictable, his face ever-stony. As a foil, Plemons is a soft-spoken presence – but in this film, it’s the unspoken which packs the most punch.
5. Sound Of Metal
One of the most highly anticipated releases of the year, Sound Of Metal stars the ever-brilliant Riz Ahmed as Ruben, one-half of the thrash-punk band Blackgammon alongside his girlfriend Lou (Olivia Cooke). He plays drums and she plays guitar; they live, travel, perform and dysfunction together. But when Ruben suddenly loses his hearing, it’s the end of life as he knows it.
He ends up in a deaf community led by the empathetic but no-nonsense Joe (Paul Raci), with the directive to learn how to speak sign language and accept that this is his new reality – a fact that does not go down easily. Exploring identity, masculinity, addiction and connection, Ahmed puts in a remarkable performance in a truly unique and powerful film.
6. Judas And The Black Messiah
Produced by Black Panther director Ryan Coogler, Shaka King’s new drama follows FBI informant William O’Neal (LaKeith Stanfield) who infiltrates the Illinois Black Panther party, when J. Edgar Hoover (Martin Sheen) fears charismatic leader, Chairman Fred Hampton (Daniel Kaluuya), will emerge as a ‘Black Messiah’; a phrase showing Hoover’s paranoia and racism.
O’Neal lives in fear of discovery and cannot escape the deadly trajectory of his betrayal. Will he align with the forces of good? Or subdue Hampton and The Panthers by any means? The film combines genre, with elements of a crime thriller complete with interrogation and shoot-outs; a character study of Fred Hampton; and a political drama. This combination works brilliantly, with the action keeping the tension and pacing sharp, while the brilliant script highlights the complexity of each character’s ideals, agendas and the compromises they are forced to make.
If you’ve already watched Nomadland and are looking for another wrenching drama about love, loss and connection on the road, look no further than Harry Macqueen’s Supernova. Stanley Tucci and Colin Firth play Tusker and Sam, an artistic couple who have been together for decades. Tusker is a respected novelist and Sam a musician, but their careers have been put on hold as Tusker has been diagnosed with early-onset dementia.
Together they head on a roadtrip in a campervan, both to visit Sam’s sister and to make some beautiful memories, while Tusker can. Their dynamic feels authentic, with Tusker trying to deal with his increasing difficulties, but getting confused, lost and understandably frustrated with his new state of being. Meanwhile, Firth’s Sam has to take on more of the practical responsibilities, while also worrying about his partner and trying not to show this concern, because, as Tusker says, “You’re not supposed to mourn someone when they’re still alive.”
Maybe, but you are supposed to love them, and that’s what the film is about: two people trying to love each other as something awful and erasing looms on the horizon.
8. The Reason I Jump
In 2007, a 13-year-old Japanese boy named Higashida Naoki and his mother created an alphabet board which helped Higashida communicate his thoughts – and his thoughts became a moving, groundbreaking, bestselling book titled The Reason I Jump. It called attention to the gaps in understanding that lie between autistic and neurotypical people, and attempted to cross them, by allowing autistic people to express their experience. The film adaptation, directed by Jerry Rothwell, found a cinematic language for the book, to stunning effect.
Employing excerpts from Higashida’s writing as narration, the film shares the stories of five nonspeaking autistic people on four continents, highlighting the heightened perceptions, specific talents, affectionate natures and overwhelming existences of those living with autism. Rothwell travels across the globe; taking us from India, where we meet incredible autistic artist Amrit Khurana; to the USA, where Ben McGann has learnt to spell and express himself with the help of a speech therapist.
We also meet the parents of Jestina Penn-Timity, who are educating their Sierra Leone community about their beloved daughter’s condition, against a backdrop of misinformation and superstition. The inclusion of both girls and people of colour feels important and belated, and the film is sensory and immersive, giving the audience a way to understand how it could be to experience the world as Higashida does.
In the early 1980s, Korean parents Jacob (Steven Yeun) and Monica (Yeri Han) move their American-born children out of the city to live in rural Arkansas. Jacob has a (vague) plan to turn a large chunk of remote land into a farm, growing Korean vegetables to sell to other immigrant families. But Monica is unconvinced by his lofty ambitions, deeply unimpressed with their new, ramshackle house, and is concerned about the impact on their children; mischievous but unwell David (Alan S Kim), and restless Anne (Noel Cho).
The household further expands with the arrival of Monica’s mother, Soonja (Yuh-Jung Youn), and this immigrant story also becomes a domestic comedy and exploration of intergenerational relationships. Authenticity lies at the heart of everything in Minari – the married couple’s relationship troubles, the racist microaggressions experienced by the family, the illusion of the American dream – and how all of this is viewed by a young child.
10. C’mon C’mon
Sometimes it all comes back to quietness, connection and family. A perfect film to see over Christmas, C’mon C’mon stars Gaby Hoffman and Joaquin Phoenix as estranged siblings Viv and Johnny, who come together in an effort to care for Viv’s precocious son Jesse (Woody Norman), as she goes to California to care for her mentally ill husband, Paul (Scoot McNairy.)
Directed by Beginners and 20th Century Women writer and director Mike Mills, who excels at quiet, contemplative dramas filled with heart and humour, C’mon C’mon shows that the real driving force in most people’s lives is not their job or even their passions, but the ones they love; those wonderful, infuriating, beloved and impossible creatures who are our friends, our families, our support systems. The perfect indie drama to highlight the importance of family and tenderness, right before Christmas.