2020 and 2021 were both awful years on the whole. If anything, at least there was art and entertainment to help us pass the time in lockdown after lockdown, to comfort us when the psychological weight of an ongoing global pandemic continues to crush us into submission. 2021, all things considered, was a strong year for film in particular.
Why ramble anymore? This list is about the films that were the most impressive and most fierce last year; the stuff that touched the heart and shook the soul, the ideas that scared and thrilled.
Don’t forget to comment and let everyone know YOUR favourite films from 2021. After all, film is subjective, and it’s always nice to see what others enjoyed throughout the year. Dig in before it gets cold.
The Night House
Directed by David Bruckner
This list contains several films about death and grief, though none are quite the same, plus David Bruckner’s The Night House is certainly the scariest of them all. The film looks at the life of Beth (Rebecca Hall), a widower living in the house her late husband Owen (Evan Jonigkeit) had been obsessively constructing before his death. She keeps seeing and feeling Owen everywhere around the house. The more she explores her grief the more she also uncovers about her husband. Owen had secrets; dark ones. The deeper Beth digs the less she misses her husband. Instead she fears him and all the secrets he was hiding.
Bruckner’s films have all been interesting, and The Night House returns to his more sentimental territory, somewhat similar to the romantic inclinations of The Signal. While this latest film is dark and disturbing in ways it’s just as much a story about the depths of grief and the capabilities of our love. Hall has given a bunch of great performances over the years, and just offered up a solid directorial debut; she’s near her best in Bruckner’s film, making the audience feel every last goddamn difficult emotion. For horror fans this is a treat, and the film’s just as great for those who like a dark, absorbing drama, too.
Directed by Prano Bailey-Bond
Prano Bailey-Bond expanded and adapted one of her own short films into the full-length feature Censor—a surreal, terrifying descent into the mind, and a ride through the world of the Video Nasties. Enid Baines (Niamh Algar) works for the British Board of Film Classification and she’s under a lot of pressure lately because of a man who committed a murder then blamed it on one of the so-called Video Nasties. On top of that, Enid’s working on cuts for a film when she sees somebody she believes to be her long missing sister which sends her off searching for answers. Only most of what she finds is abject horror.
There’s a lot to love about Bailey-Bond’s film because what Censor does is sift through the personal and political via the Video Nasties. The whole sociopolitical context of setting the film in 1985 and including snippets of Margaret Thatcher makes the story all the more compelling. And the film gets at the heart of the idea that one group can determine people can’t watch something while they have to watch it themselves in order to censor it. The whole notion implies that they, the Conservatives, are strong enough to handle such horrifying imagery while the rest of us, especially the lower classes, are so weak we’d instantly go mad from watching such films. Brilliant horror packed with social commentary.
For a full essay, click here.
Directed by John Adams, Zelda Adams, & Toby Poser
The first Adams-Poser family film, The Deeper You Dig, was a homegrown work of horrifying art, and after seeing it I made sure to keep my eye on anything else they’d go on to do later. Their new film, Hellbender, is another surreal and emotional story that explores how women, especially young powerful ones, have been repressed, even by other women. It’s also a coming-of-age tale in that the protagonist, Izzy (Zelda Adams), is entering a new phase of her young life, from discovering Gothic secrets about her family to exploring her own budding interests whether romantic or witchy.
The Adams-Poser team proved in The Deeper You Dig they were capable of creating unique imagery and again in Hellbender they show a singular vision of horror. In this new film, the family of director-writers draw on the historical misogyny tied to perspectives on witchcraft, but take witch history in their own direction. Hellbender is a Gothic story worth standing up next to some of the best witch-related films of the past decade or more, and it shows that John Adams, Zelda Adams, and Toby Poser are voices in the horror space to whom you should be paying lots of attention. Not only is the film good it shows how people can make exciting genre films outside the studio system, giving more freedom and life to the ideas themselves. Hellbender is as good as it is because it was made by a group of passionate individuals wanting to tell the best story possible.
For a full essay, click here.
Directed by Julia Ducournau
Julia Ducournau’s becoming a giant of body horror in cinema between Raw and her new film Titane, exploring different aspects of the human form with a disturbingly keen eye. Titane is the story of Alexia (Agathe Rousselle), a young woman who was in a car accident as a child that affected the rest of her life. The accident left her with a metal plate in her head, and a fetish for cars. But when life goes off the rails violently, Alexia must run away, and she does so by assuming the identity of a boy who went missing years ago. She goes home with the boy’s father Vincent (Vincent Lindon), and he’s desperate to make up for lost time. The only question is, can it last?
Ducournau’s Titane can be read a lot of ways: body horror about being transgender, or body horror about the thin line between eroticism and violence, and the list goes on. The point being, it’s a film capable of producing many readings because it’s filled with intriguing images and themes. For me, Titane is about accepting oneself and accepting others, about finding love and family wherever we need to in order for us to keep on surviving. In spite of the at times gruesome horror, Ducournau’s film is a beautiful one underneath the nasty bits, brimming with sweetness and joy, believe it or not.
Directed by Randolph Zaini
With Preman, director-writer Randolph Zaini has created an action film full of fighting, blood, and broken bones that actually interrogates the effects and fallout of toxic masculinity. The story centres on a deaf criminal who works for a criminal organisation in his small Indonesian village. His life’s turned upside down after his little boy witnesses the local mob murder an old man refusing to sell off land to the organisation. This pits father and son against that very organisation for which the father works, and he has to fight for their lives to get them out of there. He’s also grappling with a past mired in toxic masculinity that keeps him hoping for a day when he and his son can live free of violence.
There are very few action films that actually attempt to reconcile with the hypermasculine violence they portray and the toxic masculine values perpetuated by their plots. Preman puts forth honest effort to examine the connections between toxic masculinity and violence. There’s a tender story at the film’s core. Plus there’s something endlessly interesting about a man genuinely running from the violence and toxicity of his past while looking to give his son a better life. So many American action films recycle the same old action movie nonsense, and Preman brings fresh, new ideas while still kicking a bunch of ass.
For a full essay, click here.
The Power of the Dog
Directed by Jane Campion
Long live Jane Campion; one of the greats forever. The Power of the Dog is a combination of Campion’s excellent filmmaking, compelling source material, and another fascinating, brave Benedict Cumberbatch performance. Cumberbatch’s Phil Burbank is a real nasty piece of work: he calls his brother George (Jesse Plemons) “fatso” constantly, and when George quickly marries Rose (Kirsten Dunst) Phil psychologically tortures the both of them, along with Rose’s son Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee). Phil’s overbearing masculinity is suddenly changed when he beings to take Peter under his wing, though Rose wonders if his intentions are good. A simple kind of Western story involving ranchers and cowboys?
The Power of the Dog is a tale of a man living in a place and time when masculinity only meant one thing, hetero virility, and anything else was useless. Phil Burbank is a complex person, whose past friendship with another cowboy haunts him in a beautiful yet hugely complicated way. Phil, eventually, breaking down his defences after getting closer with Peter makes for a touching journey. There’s also an important Gothic quality to Campion’s film, emphasising all the dangers and anxieties of a masculine world that welcomes homosocial bonding between men but aggressively shuns homoerotic desire; a tender, romantic story wrapped in Gothic robes.
Directed by Michael Sarnoski
I’ve long been a Nic Cage fan, whether he’s swinging from the rafters over-the-top or putting in a more subdued performance. He gives what may be his greatest performance beyond Leaving Las Vegas in Michael Sarnoski’s Pig, playing a former chef from Portland-turned-reclusive truffle hunter whose only company is his treasured truffle-hunting pig. What’s so interesting about this film, and Cage’s performance, is that it defies expectation at all times. On paper, Sarnoski’s film sounds like it might be a typical male rage/revenge thriller; it’s anything but cliche.
Cage delivers a soulful and touching performance as a man who loses the only thing that matters to him anymore and, through that, confronts the whole reason he isolated himself from the world to start with, taking him on an existential journey. People have come to expect the wild Nic Cage every time he’s onscreen. They forget he’s an incredibly capable dramatic actor who can make audiences feel heaps of emotion. Pig is a gorgeous film about loss and grief, don’t miss it.
Directed by Fran Kranz
Though Fran Kranz’s directorial debut Mass feels like a play it’s actually not, and the way Kranz uses the single location setting of his film echoes the space of a stage which becomes a claustrophobic trap for the director to lock us into with his characters.
The story brings together two couples—Jay (Jason Isaacs) and Gail (Martha Plimpton), Linda (Ann Dowd) and Richard (Reed Birney)—who were joined together by a violent tragedy years prior. The couples are each trying to move on from the violence that irreparably marked their lives. As the plot unfolds, it becomes clear that the couples both lost children, except one of them lost theirs to the other in a school shooting. Each of the parents feels a deep well of grief, but are they able to find common ground? Can any of them truly move on? Or will they forever be stuck in grief?
The most stunning aspect of Mass is that its 111-minute runtime goes by quickly, in spite of the film rarely moving outside of a single room in a church where the couples meet. Kranz sticks to that claustrophobic setting because, like a stage drama, it allows him to place his characters into a pressure cooker, alongside whom the audience sits and waits to see when that pressure will, inevitably, explode. He submerges us, with the characters, into pure grief; it’s raw and it’s honest, which becomes near uncomfortable at times, in the right sort of way. What emerges from Mass is an even-handed perspective on a tough subject, one that’s sadly become a centrepiece of American culture in the past 20 years. In a way, Kranz is asking national questions—questioning the very nation itself—by exploring a uniquely American tragedy from opposing sides.
Don’t Look Up
Directed by Adam McKay
I personally loved Adam McKay’s Vice and thought it was biting satire, so I’m not surprised that I loved Don’t Look Up. Now, don’t get me wrong, either, I found McKay’s film messy at times and about a half hour too long. It’s still a funny, wild film, and, despite being over-the-top, an accurate depiction of the way American attitudes are tanking the country. The story focuses on two astronomers (Leonardo DiCaprio and Jennifer Lawrence) who’ve got to try explaining to the POTUS and the rest of the world how an extinction level event is approaching Earth by way of a massive comet. What ensues is a hilarious journey as the astronomers deal with an out of control POTUS with a drugged up dickhead son at her side, right-wing maniacs, a clueless and irresponsible media, along with tons of other madness.
The best part of Don’t Look Up is how unforgiving McKay is about dog shit American attitudes, and the director-writer does not steer clear of chastising both sides of the aisle; just the fact that Meryl Streep’s President of the United States of America never says what party she belongs to is a stroke of brilliance. McKay absolutely takes shots at the Republican party and its many Trump-hypnotised supporters, but there’s just as much shade thrown to the supposedly liberal media and the inaction of the Democrats, even if neither of the parties are name-dropped constantly.
Best of all, McKay doesn’t try to ram any Sorkinesque melodrama tinged with blind optimism about America into the film, right up to the bitter yet hilarious end (including a post-credits scene you don’t want to miss). Don’t Look Up is strong satire that so impressively captures what’s wrong with America at this sociopolitical juncture.
Directed by Rose Glass
While this entry’s technically not a 2021 film it did take until this year for the film to release to a significant number of people and countries; that makes it just as much a part of 2021 as any other title on this list. Saint Maud has seldom left my mind since the first time I saw it six months ago. And while a lot of that effect is the final act of the film, it just as much rests on the film in its entirety, as the story explores sexuality and repression with unbelievably heavy emotional power.
Glass’s film follows a hospice nurse called Maud (Morfydd Clark), a recent convert to Roman Catholicism, who spirals into dangerous madness while taking care of a sick woman, Amanda (Jennifer Ehle). Maud becomes obsessed with trying to ‘save’ Amanda, leading to a terrifying conclusion. The way Glass twists the cinematic knife into the audience, especially in the final half hour, is impeccable horror, some of the best in the last ten years. There are few movies in this day and age that explore sexuality, repression, and religion together the way Saint Maud does, and with such terror.
Directed by Philip Barantini
First of all, Stephen Graham is one of the greatest actors living today, and he’s one of my favourite actors period. He’s able to play so many types of characters. Combined with Graham’s acting talents in Boiling Point is the top notch direction from Philip Barantini, who takes the one-shot film format and actually makes impressive use of the gimmick. The film’s plot unfolds in a restaurant over the course of one hectic dinner service, giving the one-shot concept a tense space in which to thrive, as Andy Jones (Graham) navigates an important night in his career but runs into the shambles of his personal life along the way.
Though the plot and story of Boiling Point are nothing new particularly it’s the way the whole thing’s told that makes the film exciting. The frantic energy of a restaurant during dinner service comes to vivid life, from the chefs in the kitchen and cooks behind the line to the servers dealing with allergy-specific orders and nasty bourgeois customers. Graham’s performance, alongside other excellent supporting performances, anchors everything, and by the time the film comes to a close you feel so much for Andy, not to mention the ending packs a breathtaking knockout punch.
The Trouble With Being Born
Directed by Sandra Wollner
The fact this film bears the same name as a text by Emil Cioran is enough to tell anybody who knows the man’s work that this will not be a rosey picture of humanity. Sandra Wollner’s The Trouble With Being Born has suffered already at the hands of fashy cultural gatekeepers who yanked the film from the lineup at the Melbourne International Film Festival, courtesy of people who believe that depiction is equal to endorsement; while all sorts of so-called free speech advocates spend their time fighting to use bigoted language or hate who they want without repercussion, you’ll never hear them actually address a situation like the one this film has faced. It’s all because the story involves a young girl named Elli who’s actually an android her father created for the purposes of nostalgia but also for sex. Morally troublesome? Absolutely. But there’s genuine purpose to the scenario, for those who don’t take art as real life.
The Trouble With Being Born is a disturbing sci-fi allegory for the way children can be, and often are, unwilling receptacles for the hopes, dreams, successes, losses (et cetera) of their parents, and their lives can become wholly dominated by the desires of their parents, no matter how traditional or, in opposition, how unnatural. Elli, as both a human child and an android, was thrust into a world she didn’t ask to be born into, and, like Cioran before her, Wollner interrogates that existential concept in an intriguing, albeit horrifying way. For those willing to forego judgement until they’ve seen a film, y’know, like normal people, The Trouble With Being Born is worth watching at least once. Also, it needs to be said that Wollner tackles such a traumatic subject delicately and with a good deal of care which speaks to her abilities and compassion as a storyteller.
Directed by Paul Verhoeven
Paul Verhoeven, you nasty, baby!
But, for real: does any male director out there get the erotic thriller like Verhoeven? Not so sure. Benedetta is yet another instance of Verhoeven delving into themes concerning the erotic, this time tackling the historical tale of Benedetta Carlini, a lesbian nun and Catholic mystic in counter-reformation Italy. She had wild visions of Jesus Christ asking her to be his wife, and she also engaged in a lesbian relationship with another nun, Sister Bartolomea, who’d later admit to their relationship, leading to Benedetta being stripped of her rank in the convent and later imprisoned.
All of the real history behind Carlini’s life is intense enough, then there’s the way Verhoeven portrays it all in his latest work. While another filmmaker might’ve portrayed the events of Carlini’s life in a more straightforward, traditionally historical fashion that’s not the way Verhoeven approaches the subject matter. The legendary director uses both an honest and surreal approach in portraying Benedetta’s sexuality and her visions of Christ; there’s wonderfully erotic imagery, then there’s likewise terrifying gruesome, macabre imagery, too. Benedetta is a powerful piece of filmmaking that tackles religious sexual oppression, refusing to pull any punches or hide any historically accurate wooden dildos.
Directed by Stephen Karam
As a lover of all genres but being a huge adorer of horror, I’m always pleasantly surprised by non-horror films that verge on the horrific, which is exactly how The Humans often feels throughout its 108-minute runtime. Unlike Mass, which only felt like a play, Stephen Karam’s The Humans is actually a drama written for the stage—Karam’s original play was a finalist for the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for Drama, and it won the 2016 Tony Award for Best Play, too. The story looks closely at a family gathering for the holidays while most of them are keeping their anxieties and fears inside, pushing down all the ugliness for the sake of having a nice dinner together. After a while the cracks start to appear and before the night’s over most of the family end up having to confront the things they tried to avoid.
There’s a simplicity to The Humans that’s refreshing, because it’s almost a chamber drama but not quite, yet that simplicity sits atop a whole mountain of complexity when it comes to the various characters and their respective lives. Sometimes when a story has a lot of characters not all of them get their due, but Karam deftly navigates the cast just as well as the character navigates the kind of Gothic apartment where they’ve all gathered. Best of all, The Humans wrings all the human horror out of its drama, making the audience feel on edge even in the most quiet, subdued moments. A must-see for those who love a drama that doesn’t hit all the expected, typical notes, and for those with complicated families who simultaneously love and dread getting together for a holiday dinner.
Directed by Mark O’Brien
I am Newfoundland and Labrador proud, so when any artist from the island does something in the film industry I’m always willing to boost it, regardless of how good or bad it may be in the end. When it comes to Mark O’Brien’s feature film debut The Righteous there’s nothing bad whatsoever, only Gothic greatness.
O’Brien’s film centres on Frederic Mason (Henry Czerny), a former priest whose mind is burdened with a dark past. Frederic and his wife Ethel (Mimi Kuzyk) are surprised one night when a mysterious man called Aaron Smith (O’Brien) turns up wounded outside their home. Frederic tries to help Aaron, but soon is disturbed by his presence. However, Ethel seems comforted by Aaron being there. At night, Aaron talks with the couple, and soon it’s like he’s their adopted son. Yet something dark has come to the couple’s home with Aaron, and it’s far too late before either of them realise the truth.
O’Brien’s film is ultimately about one man confronting the horrible things he did in the past, a microcosm of the Roman Catholic Church and its dark sins. Frederic becomes a vessel for allegory and O’Brien examines the patriarchal power of the church, as well as how it creates wreckage in its wake everywhere it moves. The black-and-white cinematography adds a chilling touch to the story; in general, O’Brien captures all the slow burning terror of his film well.
The Righteous is an existential, psychological horror rather than outright traditional horror, and it’s a well-told Gothic story that eats at the heart of faith and the idea that the faithful are automatically superior. Watch this one with the lights on. There may not be blood and Gothic ghosts or other cliched imagery, but there’s plenty of humanity to frighten you here.
For a full essay, click here.