The Plain, Simple Review of the Year: 2021 – Part Two

New Year’s Eve is once again upon us, dear readers, and it’s time once again for me to present to you the 20 films which I deemed to be the best of 2021.

At the start of the year, cinemas were still closed so the majority of the films that we watched were, of course, the ones that were made available on streaming sites but, thankfully, cinemas really did reopen towards the start of the year and I for one took full advantage of the opportunity by having a “cinema week”, watching (at least) one film in the cinema each day, beginning with the epic Godzilla vs. Kong – what better film is there to see in cinemas following a long absence, I ask ya?

So with plenty of new films once again on offer, I got around to seeing 127 of them and here are my picks for the top 20 films of 2021.

All have 2021 UK release dates.

Best Films of 2021

20. The King’s Man (2021)

Matthew Vaughn’s latest Kingsman film stands apart from its predecessors because, for the most part, it’s more of a straight up war film (which I wasn’t expecting) and there is far less cursing, lewd jokes, and hi-tech gadgetry to be found and ultimately, the film succeeds (I found it to be on par with the first one) because, although it feels long and the secret identity of the “big bad” is obvious, it’s a very well shot, directed, and written film, the feature focusing primarily on a tumultuous father/son relationship as well as the horrid effects of war, and it has several fight/action sequences that are really cool and slick (the fight with Rasputin is the film’s highlight) as well as solid performances from Ralph Feinnes, Gemma Arterton, Djimon Hounsou, and Rhys Ifans, who plays the wild and manic Rasputin oh so entertainingly. I actually had no idea that it was Ifans in the role though!

19. tick, tick . . . BOOM! (2021)

No, it has nothing to do with DJ Jazzy Jeff or the Fresh Prince but instead, this is Lin-Manuel Miranda’s directorial debut – an adaptation of Jonathan Larson’s musical (of which I was admittedly previously unaware of) – and it’s an effective and magnetic film as Miranda directs it all with passion, pep, and imagination, staging things nicely as the story flips between Jonathan being on stage and the story of his life, and Larson’s songs are quite brilliant; the “duet” that is sung by Alexandra Shipp and Vanessa Hudgens is beautiful and Andrew Garfield’s solo song in the empty sports stadium is just as lovely. And on that note, Garfield is really fantastic in the central role as he sings and dances with passion while also bringing all the feels in the more emotional moments, said moments occurring towards the end when his passion project meets an unfortunate fate and when his best friend receives truly terrible news. Stirring stuff indeed.

And I see that Miranda couldn’t resist giving himself a little cameo!

18. Spider-Man: No Way Home (2021)

A film that has been eagerly awaited by so so many people and one that has already made beaucoup bucks at the box office, I have to admit that No Way Home didn’t blow me away or entertain me as much as I had hoped it would (I lay most of the blame for this onto Twitter, which gave away ALL of the surprises for me) but nevertheless, I still found it to be a great film. Despite a hefty runtime, the film moves along at an agreeable pace and there’s rarely a dull moment as the action sequences excite and the visuals are appealing; all participants in the cast, all returning faces, look like they’re having fun and Tom Holland continues to prove that he’s an ideal Spider-Man, with a sense of humour as well as having plenty of grit and fierce determination.

17. Malignant (2021)

This film seems to have garnered a mixed reception and as for me, while I initially feared it would simply be yet another forgettable horror film (with a title that appears oh so similar to the likes of Sinister, Insidious and Malevolent), the feature really did win me over by the end. It’s a film of three distinct acts and although it does fall into the trap of presenting us with familiar horror movie tropes (though maybe these are used to wrongfoot us into believing that this will indeed be just another generic horror film), it also presents us with an intriguing mystery to be solved and when it gets to the end, well, things just get batsh*t crazy as the final police station fight is just so memorable and wild and it makes the whole thing worthwhile.

16. Free Guy (2021)

A film that’s just plain FUN – an ideal popcorn flick to see in the cinema – Free Guy is a real treat as there are plenty of cool and colourful visuals, the world of Free City being a vibrant and exciting one, and the whole thing is a real love letter to gaming whilst also having a nice message about not being so vicious while gaming and how being a good guy really isn’t bad at all; performances are lively and committed across the board and in the leading role, Ryan Reynolds entertains and amuses as he does his usual cheeky schtick.

And that part with the shield was just pure cinematic joy, wasn’t it?

15. The Green Knight (2021)

Having previously adored A Ghost Story, I was of course anxious to see David Lowrey’s latest release, especially since it was getting some pretty positive feedback but although I didn’t fall in love with it like others did, I still found The Green Knight to be an impressive film nonetheless. It does take its time to get going but when it finds its feet, it impresses thanks to its hypnotic atmosphere, Lowrey’s patient direction, and the central performance from Dev Patel, although I found Barry Keoghan to be a particular standout also; Patel is indeed strong in the role and it helps that his character is given an excellent arc: starting off as an inexperienced and naive young man but then gradually losing his honour as he turns his back on certain people, as shown by the film’s memorable final act.

14. Nobody (2021)

The film that gave us the first of 2021’s two memorable movie fight scenes set on a bus, Nobody is very much cut from the sake cloth as John Wick, albeit with a noticeably more lighthearted tone, and it does something a little different as our main character, rather than being determined to stay out of trouble, ends up actively seeking out carnage and in this leading role, Bob Odenkirk really is quite brilliant; we haven’t really seen him take on a role like this before but he proves to be perfectly adept in the role of the action hero, being believably tough while also throwing in some comedy here and there.

13. Dune (2021)

Denis Villeneuve doesn’t make bad films and with the first part of his Dune trilogy, he has created a visually astounding epic that can stand confidently alongside his other films. To be honest, I don’t think that the story of Dune is a particularly exciting or interesting one and there are surely other sci-fi/fantasy films that I would prefer but still, Villeneuve’s film succeeds thanks to its excellent visuals, proficient direction, thundering score, and the big name ensemble cast, with Timothée Chalamet province himself to be quite ideal as young Paul Atreides.

12. Stillwater (2021)

Apparently, a lot of people took against this film because they saw it as an adaptation of “the Amanda Knox case” but as I am unaware of that particular incident, I was free to enjoy this film as a piece of pure fiction and despite having no expectations for it going in, the film ended up really impressing me because it showed off some really good writing that prioritised character development, giving us “everyday” characters who were actually very interesting, and for me, I liked it when it stopped being about a father searching for justice and instead became a film about “letting go” and discovering a whole new way of life, far from the familiar world you know, with new people who you can form a really strong bond with. Matt Damon is quietly powerful in the feature, playing the (right wing) American “fish out of water” very well, and the young girl was a real treasure.

11. A Quiet Place Part II (2020)

Way back when, before cinemas closed their doors for lockdown, I had the ticket for this film IN MY HAND, only to have it rendered useless by the shutting down of cinemas. But John Krasinski’s horror/thriller sequel did indeed see the light of day and at the end of the day, I think that it’s a smidge better than its predecessor and after a superb “Day One” opener, it continues to impress by having the family unit split up in a way that actually works and it goes on to show off plenty more of that nail biting tension, more of Marco Beltrami’s beautiful score, and two particularly great performances in Millicent Simmonds and Cillian Murphy.

10. The Night House (2020)

Despite a so-so trailer, David Bruckner’s delectable thriller presents us with a most enticing puzzle that yearns to be solved – ideal for someone like me who often has trouble fully switching off during movies anyway – and I like how the film doesn’t give you many easy answers and is open to multiple interpretations; are there really sinister forces at work or is it all just a metaphor for coping with loss and dealing with suicidal thoughts? Bruckner directs well as he uses optical illusions quite brilliantly and in the leading role, Rebecca Hall continues to prove herself to be a mighty fine actor as her intelligent character deals with what’s going on around her in a fundamentally human way: going through her loss with forced humour and snarky comments, amongst other things.

9. No Time to Die (2021)

The film that EVERYBODY was waiting for, Daniel Craig’s final outing as 007 finally managed to see the light of day and it turned out to be a mighty fine endeavour indeed. Despite having a relatively milquetoast villain and a hefty runtime, NTTD looks immaculate and it all moves along at a steady pace and throws up a few surprises along the way, telling a good story as it gives Craig the chance to go out with a big bang; it’s very well directed by Cary Joji Fukunaga – his orchestration of the one shot stairwell fight sequence was particularly adept – and alongside Craig, there are solid supporting performances from the likes of Lea Séydoux, Lashana Lynch, and Ana de Armas.

8. The Father (2020)

A big awards contender from last year, one that gave a certain Welsh thespian another well deserved Academy Award, Florian Zeller’s film provides a unique look into the mind of someone who is gradually losing his faculties, getting us unsettled as all manner of things begin to change as soon as Anthony turns a corner, including the characters and the time, and in the leading roles, Anthony Hopkins really is powerful and commanding – able to be funny and irascible at one moment, impatient and harsh in another, and then frightened and vulnerable in the film’s devastating final scene – and supporting him, Olivia Colman puts in what I believe to be her best performance yet as the sweet and caring, but also stressed and despairing, daughter who shows herself to be the only one willing to help her ailing patriarch.

7. King Richard (2021)

Now, I’m positive that I wasn’t the target audience for this film, not being a fan of tennis and knowing next to nothing about the mighty Williams sisters, but I was hooked on every minute of this film and I found it to be an enlightening and enjoyable cinema experience. It’s an engaging character piece about a formidable patriarch who on the one hand values education and good sportsmanship, a grafter who worked tirelessly and sacrificed so much for his kids, but who was also very stubborn, unreasonable and self-promoting, someone who held his daughters back for perhaps too long, and in this leading role, Will Smith truly dissolves into the role and gives us a fascinating and well developed screen character, though he’s also strongly supported by the formidable Aunjanue Ellis, the energetic Jon Bernthal, and the two very impressive young stars Saniyya Sidney and Demi Singleton, who play the legendary Williams sisters.

6. Sound of Metal (2019)

A film that so many people watched long ago but one that was only made available here in the UK earlier this year, Sound of Metal is bolstered by impressive performances from Riz Ahmed, Olivia Cooke and Paul Raci, plus the sound design is particularly memorable, but most of all, it’s a film that shows how deaf people aren’t broken and it even shows hearing loss to be something of a superpower as many get to experience “the kingdom of God” and avoid all the clatter and noise of everyday life. It’s a truly great film that shows how the deaf community can be a really supportive environment that’s full of endearing camaraderie and, by the end, it really made me want to learn sign language. Result.

5. The Mitchells vs.The Machines (2021)

The studio that previously gave us the best Spider-Man movie gave us yet another animated treat this year: a bright, colourful and funny feelgood family film that’s a real treat on the surface – with its magnificent animation, jokes that hit the mark, and its endearing, wacky characters – but there’s also so much going on underneath all the gloss as Mitchells is a film all about family, specifically looking at a particular father/daughter relationship, and it really does emphasise the importance of family and how wonderful it can be to have a strong familial bond – even in a family of weirdos! The cast are all amazing (especially Olivia Colman who voices the antagonistic PAL so entertainingly) and the Mitchell family are just the best film protagonists of the year.

4. Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings (2021)

The best MCU film of the year (in my opinion) is a real treat because of its wonderful visuals, its graceful and balletic fight sequences, and its strong ensemble cast, which includes Simu Liu as the titular hero, Awkwafina as his endearing gal pal, Michelle Yeoh as his formidable aunt, and Tony Leung as his antagonistic father and one of the strongest, best written Marvel villains that we’ve seen in some time. The (mostly) all Asian cast and all of the martial arts sure are a treat and furthermore, the film has an exciting story, one which takes the MCU is a fresh new direction and tantalisingly sets up future events, and at the end of the day, Shang-Chi is just a cool and very well directed film and 2021’s second bus fight sequence is a delight. The MCU might occasionally showing signs of growing stale but films like this really do give me hope.

3. Raya and the Last Dragon (2021)

From one film with predominantly Asian characters to another, Disney’s 59th animated film is, as you would expect, a feast for the eyes as the animation for this film really is quite sublime and additionally, there are a few kinetic fight sequences that could rival many of those found in a live action film – a battle scene towards the end is particularly effective as we really feel the character’s rage as she is fighting. Most impressive.

The film has an admirable message about how important it is to trust each other and how ideal it would be if world conflict ended (though this is all, admittedly, laid on a little too thick) and regarding the voice cast, the film makes very good use of its mighty cast, with Awkwafina being her usual funny self and Kelly Marie Tran owns her role and impresses as Raya. That THAT, troll haters!

2. Promising Young Woman (2020)

A film so good I watched it twice within a relatively short space of time, Emerald Fennell’s film is a delicious little thriller that holds up a mirror to the deplorable way women are treated by certain men (and some other women who allow abuse to continue), even showing us how “nice guys” may actually not be all they seem, and it gives us an “avenging angel” who takes it upon herself to turn the tables on the guilty and to prey upon those who take advantage of vulnerable women. The film has a good supporting cast but it’s Carey Mulligan’s film through and through and in the leading role, she performs well when she’s pretending to be drunk but she’s also capable of appearing believably cold and menacing when she goes about punishing the wicked.

It’s a film that has a noticeable bite but it also manages to often be lighthearted too, giving us scenes between Mulligan and Bo Burnham that are really endearing and fun to watch.

1. Zack Snyder’s Justice League (2021)

Well, well, well. I NEVER thought that this would happen. Not only has a DCEU film made the very top of my list, beating out so many Marvel films, but it’s a version of Justice League: a film that, after it was shown way back in 2017, sat comfortably among my LEAST favourite films of that year, the 2017 Joss Whedon cut of the film having been an absolute mess and one of the worst films in the DCEU, only faring slightly better than the awful Suicide Squad (no “The”!).

But this is Zack Snyder’s definitive version of the film, a feature that just felt like a completely different product to the 2017 fiasco, and the word that I instantly thought of, after having watched the film, was EPIC and that’s what this film is: an epic superhero odyssey (well, it is four hours long) that takes its time in getting the team together, treats us to several gargantuan action setpieces, sets up big events for future films (which I know will almost definitely never materialise), and most importantly of all, gives each League member their moment in the sun and takes some time to develop its characters – the most obvious example of this being Ray Fisher’s Cyborg, who is gifted with an excellent character arc that allows him to properly develop throughout the film.

It’s visually superior to its predecessor (Steppenwolf and Darkseid are particular characters who benefit from this) and it was also refreshing to see antagonistic characters who actually had clear motivations and goals, rather than simply being those boring CG baddies who just want the McGuffin boxes so that they can destroy the world for some reason, and as Darkseid is introduced into this film, it all just felt so IMPORTANT, rather than a throwaway popcorn flick that the 2017 one was.

So yes, it may be a DCEU film but honestly, it really floored and impressed me and as such, it has confidently held the #1 spot in my list since March. Talk about redemption!

* * *

So that’s it for another year. I’ve once again enjoyed exploring all the different films that 2021 had to offer, both in cinemas and on streaming services, and I’m of course eager to dive straight into 2022’s cinematic offerings.

But I’ll end by thanking everyone who continues to read my posts, relatively rare though they are these days, and I wish you all a happy and a healthy new year. Stay safe, be sensible, and go enjoy some film and TV.

Best wishes to you all,

Plain, Simple Tom.

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