And so another year comes to an end, this time with a bin full of (mercifully, negative) lateral flow tests. Despite a few difficulties along the way, the film review project survived intact: if we count this post, then every single movie I watched, either at home or at the cinema (when they re-opened) has been written about in some way on this blog.
I shall aim to keep going with the film-related posts in 2022, but they’ll probably be in a different format. Watch this space. I’d also love to be able to publish a few non-cinema-related articles, but sadly, they always end up at the bottom of the pile of priorities, beneath the Day Job, writing about perfume, working on the novel, putting up film reviews, and all the thousand-and-one other tasks that need my attention. Time remains a precious commodity.
In keeping with tradition, I’m using this post as an opportunity to share my list of my favourite films of 2021. But first, a few thoughts on December’s viewing.
Screen Time December 2021
Don’t ask me why, but I decided last month would be a good time to revisit In Bed With Madonna, which I hadn’t seen for well over a decade. It’s always useful and instructive to return to certain works of art at different stages of one’s life, in order to re-gauge one’s response to them. This time, watching Alek Keshishian’s behind-the-scenes documentary of Madonna’s 1990 Blond Ambition tour, I was struck not so much by the star’s energy, but by the glimmers of her current, 21st century persona: the relentless insistence on trying to convince everyone around her that she’s unstoppable, defiant, immortal. In short, I saw an affecting portrait of someone who had no idea that her future was going to be filled with exhaustion. But I concede that perhaps this reveals more about me than about the film, which remains highly watchable, by the way.
Exhaustion of a different sort was induced by Edgar Wright’s Last Night In Soho, a pointless excuse to indulge in a presentation of nostalgic visuals and stylistic overload. Thankfully, everything else on offer in December was vastly superior.
Spielberg’s brave version of West Side Story impressed because it didn’t shy away from the theatricality of its material: this was a gripping, blood-pumping celebration of movement, with excellent central performances and ecstatic choreography. Aaron Sorkin’s Being The Ricardos highlighted the writer-director’s ability to use a rigid structure (in this case: the Monday-to-Friday, script-readthrough-to-recording-session routine on the I Love Lucy show) to compelling effect. He was assisted in no small part by Nicole Kidman and Javier Bardem in the lead roles, using their considerable talents to make their depiction of a failing marriage both touching and clear-sighted.
Adam McKay’s Don’t Look Up was never anything less than entertaining, although I tend to agree with some critics’ assessment that its examination of institutional (and social?) corruption and cynicism wasn’t anywhere near as dark as it could have been, and therefore failed to be sufficiently scathing. Rebecca Hall’s directorial debut, Passing (focussing on a mixed-race woman trying to ‘pass’ as white in 1920s USA) was full of sharply-observed, telling moments. And even if its middle section floundered while waiting for its grim conclusion, this didn’t detract from the overall force of the whole.
Finally, Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s wonderful Drive My Car somehow managed to kill a 3-hour running time without ever breaking a sweat, using its gentle tale of an actor-director struggling with the death of his wife to weave together ideas about communication, grief and the importance of rituals. And The Power Of The Dog was Jane Campion’s triumphant return to the business of directing feature-length movies: a mesmerising account of passions and desires both expressed and repressed on a 1920s Montana ranch. There was so much to enjoy and admire here, not just Benedict Cumberbatch’s much-touted central performance. Campion has always been great at examining power relationships between people, but she excels herself on this occasion, using quiet, subtle set-pieces to create a profound emotional impact. Well done to Netflix for continuing to finance such fare; if only more cinemas would screen it.
Top 10 Best Films Of 2021
And so we come to my list of the best of the year, presented in the order in which the movies were seen.
Here’s hoping for a better and healthier 2022 for us all.
Quo Vadis, Aida? (dir. Jasmila Zbanic)
The word ‘harrowing’ is overused in film criticism, but I can think of no better term to describe this portrayal of the atrocities in mid-90s Bosnia.
The Mauritanian (dir. Kevin Macdonald)
A moving examination of attempts to maintain humanity in the face of seemingly unending indifference.
Minari (dir. Lee Isaac Chung)
A gentle but unflinchingly honest examination of the American Dream, as experienced by a family of Korean origins.
Sound Of Metal (dir. Darius Marder)
Superb sound design was just one of the praiseworthy elements of this memorable tale of a musician’s struggles to cope with the onset of deafness.
Promising Young Woman (dir. Emerald Fennell)
Black-humoured and yet always tender, with an excellent screenplay that never shied away from its subject’s complexities.
Nomadland (dir. Chloe Zhao)
A soulful, unforced meditation on the fleeting nature of… well, just about everything. Even the earth itself.
After Love (dir. Aleem Khan)
Joanna Scanlan is magnetic in this insightful tale of a woman whose life appears to fall apart after the death of her husband.
Another Round (dir. Thomas Vinterberg)
Perhaps mis-marketed as little more than an entertaining romp, Another Round uses its central premise as an opportunity to delve into suitably Scandinavian existential crises.
The Power Of The Dog (dir. Jane Campion)
Power in all its forms is examined in this masterful piece of work from Campion.
Drive My Car (dir. Ryusuke Hamaguchi)
Surprising at almost every step of its development, this is a slow-burn of a ride that more than pays off its passengers’ patience.