Although I have clocked a comfortable 56 new films, this year has been another enjoyable one for catching up, filling gaps and revisiting films from the past. On the CineChat Podcast alone we have explored the careers of Jake Gyllenhaal, Judy Garland and John Hughes, the epic Harry Potter and James Bond franchises, countless Stephen King adaptations, and much more! Therefore, it seemed fitting to repeat my alternative Top 5 categories from last year, and I hope you find some good recommendations here. Enjoy!
Best 2021 Film – Sound of Metal (2019)
Released in the UK in April 2021, Sound of Metal instantly rocketed to my #1 spot and has effortlessly retained the crown ever since. This is a stunning directorial debut from Darius Marder, and I cannot recommend it enough. If you haven’t already, grab your headphones, head over to Amazon Prime, and prepare to have your socks knocked off.
The film features a staggering multifaceted performance from Riz Ahmed as a heavy metal musician and recovering heroin addict who rapidly loses his hearing, a role for which he spent 8 months learning to play the drums and mastering American Sign Language. The emotional battles portrayed in the film make this an intense watch but also an unforgettable one; Riz Ahmed absolutely deserved his Oscar nomination for Best Actor this year and honestly should have won.
From a technical standpoint, I adore films that push cinematic boundaries and do things I have never seen (or heard) before. The achievement in sound design alone places Sound of Metal firmly in that category. Extraordinary shifts in sonic perspective grant us unique access into the character’s head – a disorientating and uncomfortable bassy vacuousness that genuinely redefines our understanding of “silence”. The result is one of the most immersive and affective pieces of cinema I have ever experienced.
Runners Up: Minari & Nomadland
Best First-Time Watch – Vera Drake (2004)
Around the time we were diving into the Harry Potter franchise on the podcast, the first look at Imelda Staunton in Series 5 of The Crown was released. I quickly realised that although I had seen her many light-hearted supporting roles in films such as Pride, Paddington, Maleficent and Nanny McPhee, I had foolishly neglected to watch her Oscar-nominated performance in Mike Leigh’s Vera Drake from 2004.
While not necessarily my highest rated first-time watch this year, Vera Drake takes the prize for its sheer emotional impact. Also, this was a completely blind watch for me (avoiding trailers has become my new ‘thing’) so I was totally unprepared for what was to come.
Set in London, 1950, Staunton plays a happy and kind working-class house cleaner, who is devoted to her family and to helping others. In secret, she performs illegal abortions as an act of charity to “help young girls out” – but when discovered by the police, her way of life is fractured irreparably. Though a criminal in the eyes of the law, seeing lowly Vera escorted from her home and interrogated is an alarming juxtaposition. It is emotionally draining to watch, but an absolute must-see.
Runners Up: Demolition & Gandhi
Best Recommended Film – Judgment at Nuremberg (1961)
Stanley Kramer’s Judgment at Nuremberg was a recommended watch for our Judy Garland podcast back in January. It is one of her final on-screen performances and although she only features in the film for approximately 15 minutes, I was extremely glad to have had the excuse to watch this.
The film features an impressive ensemble cast, comprising numerous veterans of the classical studio system – Spencer Tracy, Burt Lancaster, Marlene Dietrich, Montgomery Clift, and of course Judy Garland – plus Maximilian Schell in only his second acting role in Hollywood, for which he won the Best Actor Oscar. To say it is an acting masterclass would be an understatement.
Set in 1948 after the fall of the Third Reich, an American judge is drafted into war-torn Nuremberg to lead the trials of four German judges who served under the Nazi regime. They stand accused of war crimes against humanity but all of them deny knowledge of the Holocaust. What follows is a thematically complex case, as the panel navigates a vast moral no-man’s-land…
Though it is a long and dialogue-heavy film, it is extremely engaging. If you are interested in the subject matter and have the right viewing conditions, I think you will find this to be a very rewarding watch.
Runners Up: Meet Me in St. Louis & Triangle
Best Re-Watch – Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (1986)
While preparing for our John Hughes podcast, initially I didn’t want to review Ferris Bueller’s Day Off due to memories of it being difficult to connect with. Maybe I was just too young to “get it”, but whatever the reason I was wrong! This much-loved 80s classic now takes the win for being my most improved re-watch.
Ferris Bueller isn’t the easiest character to like. Yes, he is charismatic, intelligent, popular and good-looking, but he is also very arrogant, entitled, spoilt and materialistic – not to mention a compulsive liar (a trait he is particularly proud of). Nevertheless, we join his self-proclaimed “well deserved” day off school in Chicago with girlfriend Sloane and troubled best friend Cameron – albeit against his will. And the rest is history.
There were three major factors in my reassessment of the film. Firstly, when you consider how disengaged the students at Ferris’ school are, you can totally see why faking illness was in fact the more enriching alternative. Secondly, all adults are idiots. And thirdly, it transpires that his actions on this dayare entirely selfless – designed to help a friend through a personal crisis. Turns out Ferris Bueller is an absolute legend.
The story is framed by Bueller’s iconic “life moves pretty fast” motto, which fittingly is also the ultimate ingredient for a feel-good film. Consider me a convert. SAVE FERRIS.
Runners Up: Donnie Darko & Hereditary
Biggest Surprise – The Last Duel (2021)
The Last Duel is another film whose trailer I completely avoided. However, there has been a lot of negative discourse surrounding the film’s release and disappointing box office performance (which director Ridley Scott has subsequently blamed on millennials?) so I was aware of its ‘baggage’ and thus felt rather sceptical going in.
After the first 40 minutes (of its 152-minute runtime), I still wasn’t completely sold. By the end of a chapter titled “The Truth According to Jean de Carrouges”, we have briefly witnessed the events leading up to a French knight challenging a former friend to a death duel, following the alleged rape of his wife. The film’s production design is impressive, but the story was noticeably lacking in depth, despite spanning a significant 16-year period. But these concerns vanished with the arrival of Chapter Two: “The Truth According to Jacques Le Gris”, as the story replays from the perspective of Carrouges’ opponent instead.
Having written two dissertations about films with “multiple narratives”, you can imagine how excited I was. Through a combination of repeated sequences, new scenes, shifted vantage points and subtle revisions to the action (which provide either context or contradiction to the previous account) The Last Duel quickly became one of the most interesting films of the year.
And just when you think all pieces of the puzzle have finally been assembled, along comes the game-changing Chapter Three. Until this moment the film has very much been ‘A Knight’s Tale’, but the only version of events that matters has been concealed behind “wifely duties” all along: “The Truth According to The Lady Marguerite” (Carrouges’ wife) – this time with lingering emphasis on “The Truth”. Jodie Comer delivers a knockout performance in her role.
The Last Duel is an innovative take on an incredible true story and manages to draw up striking similarities between the 1300s and the present day – highlighting issues that are as prominent today as ever. Aside from an odd casting choice or two, this film is extremely worthy of your time, and I sincerely hope it finds its audience.
Runners Up: Titane & Hamilton
A self-confessed cinephile; hopelessly devoted to film! My areas of expertise include film theory and analysis, twenty-first century ‘modern classics’ and Oscar winners post-1970. And who doesn’t love a good quiz? Proud holder of an MA in Film Studies and lifelong advocate of cinema etiquette.