Traditions, eh? One that’s been a mainstay here over the last four years is my annual Top Ten Film list – and with 2021 over, it’s time to reveal my picks from the last 12 months! Just as with previous years, I will be splitting the list over two articles, starting with #10-#6 in this post.
As always, a quick clarification of how I put together my choices. Both my analytical view on the film and my own personal enjoyment are taken into account, making for a mix of objectivity and subjectivity. Films that released and I saw this year qualify for selection, and I go by UK release date; therefore, a film such as Stillwater would count. If you’re intrigued to see my picks for the last four years, there are links to those at the bottom of this article. Right, let’s get into the 2021 list!
#10 – People Just Do Nothing: Big in Japan
This was one of my most pleasant film surprises in 2021, a delightful fish-out-of-water comedy based on the British comedy People Just Do Nothing and directed by Jack Clough. Based after the end of the TV show, this follows the fictional and now defunct pirate radio station Kurupt FM, who are pulled back together after one of their records takes off due to being featured in a Japanese game show. They’re invited to Japan to discuss future plans, in which the culture – and the nature of the proposed deals – are not quite what they expect. There’s plenty of deadpan and self-referential humour throughout, but it’s combined with a surprising amount of heartfelt drama too, making for a very watchable experience, even for someone like me who had never seen the TV show before. The various friendships and bonds between the characters are tested by their differing ambitions, with MC Grindah (Allan Mustafa), best friend DJ Beats (Hugo Chegwin), and manager Chabuddy G (Asim Chaudhry) being standouts at balancing the line of emotiveness and comedy – some of which is told through fourth-wall interviews (think The Office) that are nicely paced with the ongoing story. I was tempted to place the film higher on this list, but ultimately the more cinematic, profound nature of the rest of my picks came out on top for me – as well as the fact that the more British-leaning comedy might not be for everyone. Still, if you’re after lots of laughs and perhaps even a tear or two, I encourage giving People Just Do Nothing: Big in Japan a shot!
#9 – Nomadland
To some, it might be a travesty to put Nomadland – the Winner of Best Picture at the 2021 Oscars – so far down my list. Indeed, Nomadland is a quietly beautiful telling of Fern (Frances McDormand), a widow in her sixties who lives place to place in her van after an economic collapse caused her to lose her job and her home. This is a character piece showing a slice of Fern’s life – the good and the bad. That includes the gorgeously spontaneous meetings with others in similar situations, but equally it’s the utter loneliness the style of life can contain – and instead of building to any sort of predictable, crowd-pleasing finale, the film decides to definitively show the raw cycle of it all, in a way that reminded me of musical masterpiece Inside Llewyn Davis. Unlike that film though, I think the way Nomadland lets the mind wander occasionally lessened my investment instead of increasing it. That is a small and admittedly quite personal criticism, but it’s why I’m listing it lower than some may expect. As for reasons why Nomadland does work – McDormand anchors the entire story with her affectingly real lead performance, one of vulnerability and independence – without McDormand, this film just doesn’t work in the same way. That’s not to understate the direction of Chloé Zhao, who takes the Western American setting and flies with it; the contrast of vast open deserts and pristine blue skies connote both freedom and sombreness, which links well with Fern’s situation. Overall, Nomadland is about the journey and not the destination – a showcase for patient yet intense storytelling.
#8 – The Last Duel
Here’s a film I’ve been surprised to see go under the radar of many people. Ridley Scott’s grand, brutal, and timely true-story film The Last Duel is not an easy watch in terms of subject matter, but it’s certainly an engaging one, filled with engrossing performances from a star-studded cast and told through an intriguing split-perspective style. Set in France in the 14th Century, close friends Sir Jean de Carrouges (Matt Damon) and Jacques Le Gris (Adam Driver) go from a brotherly bond to irreparable enemies after Jean’s wife Marguerite de Thibouville (Jodie Comer) accuses Jacques of ambushing and raping her after being left alone in the castle. This leads to Jean challenging Jacques to a duel to the death (the last officially sanctioned in the history of France) to defend Marguerite’s claim. These are the events as history recorded them, and Scott smartly splits the film into three in order to show the murky nature of it all – first we see Jean’s view, then Jacques’, then Marguerite’s, all with their own subtle changes and viewpoints in the way events transpired through their eyes. The performances of Damon, Driver, and especially Comer are quite different to any other roles I’ve seen them in, with the latter being the standout for how she embodies a strong but often isolated woman facing the many injustices and horrors of the world at this time in history. The Last Duel is in many ways epic in the way you might expect from a historical, Scott-directed film, full of hard-hitting fight scenes and sprawling landscapes. What really sets The Last Duel apart, though, is how it doesn’t sugar-coat or refrain from tackling something potentially worse than an axe wound or an arrow bolt – the conflicting views of men. You definitely need to be in the right frame of mind to settle down for a two-and-a-half-hour film such as The Last Duel – but I’d encourage you find that moment, and not miss this underappreciated film.
#7 – No Time to Die
After all the delays, all the build-up, and a set of four previous Daniel Craig-led Bond movies that ranged from amazing to mediocre, it was tough to know what to expect from No Time to Die. It turns out, there was little to worry about, as Craig’s final outing as the enduring and iconic spy was a globe-trotting feast for the eyes and ears that sent him off in style. An older and more grizzled version of Bond is starting to settle down with Madeline Swann when – surprise – their pasts catch up with them in various secretive and intertwining ways. It’s all here for the final outing: loose ends from previous films, a superb ensemble of supporting characters, and action set pieces to leave you reeling. New agents such as Paloma (Ana de Armas) and Nomi (Lashana Lynch) add crucial freshness to proceedings, contrasting well with the wondrous comforts you expect from a Bond film (for example, Hans Zimmer’s modernised Bond soundtrack). Also it has probably the best intro-to-credits transition I saw all year, and it makes me happy just thinking about that, haha! Right, tangent over… I think part of the magic in No Time to Die is how it can be multiple things to a viewer; it’s part blockbuster popcorn flick, part heart-wrenching love story, part riveting spy drama, with director Cary Joji Fukunaga alternating between all three without losing momentum. If Spectre was potentially going to be a lukewarm and uninspiring end note to the Craig era, No Time to Die is the opposite; filled with life, energy, and hope for the future. By the end, you’ll really be wondering, where can they go next… ?
#6 – West Side Story
If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it, as they say. In which case, you might wonder why a remake of legendary 1961 musical West Side Story was necessary, but Steven Spielberg’s end product is at once faithful and contemporary, taking the classic Romeo and Juliet-esque love story and adapting it with a flourish. It’s a whirlwind of colour, romance, and dance, wisely not straying too far from the original, but also making some changes to scene order, setting, and more, to keep viewers of the original on their toes. If you’re unaware of the premise, the film revolves around two warring factions in the streets of New York City: the Sharks (of Latino origin) and the Jets (of white origin). Maria is the sister of the Sharks’ leader, and Tony (Ansel Elgort) a friend to the Jets’ leader, but they fall for each other just as tensions are boiling over, with events unfolding and unravelling in an absorbing way from there. Updated renditions of infamous songs such as America and Tonight remain powerful, joyous scenes to witness, with Spielberg’s direction leaning towards adding a larger sense of scale to proceedings. Personally, I sometimes preferred this, sometimes didn’t, but it was never jarring. The same sentiment goes for the new cast choices, where I’ll note Rachel Zegler’s incredible performance as Maria in her debut film role (!!), as well as Rita Moreno returning from the original to play new character Valentina and gracefully perform the new version of Somewhere. I oh-so-slightly prefer the 1961 original, but it’s difficult to resist being swept away by the 2021 remake of West Side Story – the romance, the drama, the magic, it’s all here, in a shiny new wrapping.
Part of this list, with my choices for #5-#1, is coming imminently! In the meantime, you can see my picks for the last four years here:
Thanks for reading; have an amazing day!