- Words Louis Rabinowitz
Cinema - actually going to the cinema - was a cherished pastime this year. There's been a ton of great flicks but these are Notion's top picks from 2021.
Sound of Metal
This year’s Oscars had a smaller pool of picks from, so the Academy had to highlight some smaller-scale movies than it perhaps usually would this year. One deserved benefactor was Sound of Metal, which explored the story of a punk drummer battling hearing loss (Riz Ahmed) with touching empathy, never sensationalising the disability which it movingly depicts. With excellent supporting performances from Paul Raci and Olivia Cooke, this was a quiet movie that hit loudly in the end.
Like The Farewell before it, Minari was described as a foreign film by many including the Golden Globes. They were completely wrong – yes, plenty of the dialogue here is subtitled, but this tale of a Korean immigrant couple raising a family in middle America is a truly American story, a subtly affecting exploration of the hopes and dreams of immigration. It’s Alan Kim and Youn Yuh-joun respectively who steal the show as the family’s young son and the quirky grandmother, creating a dynamic that’s as funny as it is quietly sad.
House of Gucci
Like with that Met Gala one time, Ridley Scott’s House of Gucci forced us to look camp right in the eye, and maybe even a little beyond. It’s difficult to know where even to start. Is it Lady Gaga, jumping into the role of a lifetime as an Italian Lady Macbeth? Is it Al Pacino, classing the joint up with the film’s most morally compelling character and who also happens to be convincingly Italian? Is it Jared Leto, delivering an accident so memorably ridiculous that it doubles up as an audition for the Super Mario movie? I could not personally tell you. Just slop down the sauce and enjoy the ride.
Kelly Reichardt, cinema queen of the Pacific Northwest, delivered one of her best efforts yet this year to coincide with the re-opening of cinemas in the UK. First Cow’s premise – a chef and a Chinese immigrant join forces to make butter biscuits from stolen cow’s milk – seems sleepy, but the film itself is never less than compelling. It’s a miniature heist story which wrings the tension of an explosive bank raid from nighttime milking sessions, and which creates an oddly beautiful friendship between its two conspirators. If absolutely nothing else, it’ll make you really hungry for those biscuits.
No Time To Die
Daniel Craig’s run as Bond has been nothing if not consistently inconsistent, highs like Casino Royale mixed in with lows like Spectre. His fifth and last outing, thankfully, was a good one to go out on. No Time to Die took the convoluted mythology established by the previous films and weaved it into something emotionally compelling, finally giving Craig the dramatic material his Bond has been crying out for. With some slick action setpieces – check that one-take gunfight in the stairs! – and a wallop of an ending, this was a truly fitting sendoff for an action hero who has spanned fifteen years of our lives.
The Green Knight
Film fans and English literature nerds (reader: I am both) had to wait agonisingly long for David Lowery’s adaptation of the classic medieval poem Gawain and the Green Knight, but boy was it worth it. Lowery’s film is a lush, hypnotic fable with an eye for truly dazzling imagery, and it features a killer lead performance from Dev Patel as the compellingly flawed knight-in-the-making Gawain, whose fumble for honour is the film’s emotional heart. With a maddeningly ambiguous ending for the ages, The Green Knight was the literature nerd treat that all us bookworms deserved.
Where to even begin with Titane? Show me someone who can concisely summarise the premise of Julia Ducournau’s wacked-out nightmare tale, and I’ll show you a liar. It’s a film truly proud of its alienating qualities – I’ve never seen as many people streaming out of the cinema midway through – but which reveals its surprisingly warm heart in conjunction with all the madness. It’s the serial killer found family story you never knew you needed. It’s a body horror spectacular that literally oozes with fluids. Again, descriptions are always going to miss the mark a little bit. Titane is, without a single hesitation, always proudly itself.
“Nicolas Cage is back!” cried the reviews for his latest star vehicle, Pig. Reader, he never went anywhere. Pig is a stunning reminder that one of cinema’s greatest talents has always been with us, and by dialling down the volume to give the famously manic star an uncommonly quiet and reserved character to play, it shows us that Cage still has so much more to give. It’s an unusual film, one which feints at adhering to the John Wick formula before diverting into far less definable territory, but like with Cage, the oddness is very much the point. You won’t get a more sensitive take on grief than this in 2021. Neither will you get a more emotionally investable pig.
Celine Sciamma could have called it a day after Portrait of a Lady on Fire and would still be one of this century’s finest European filmmakers, but fortunately for us, Sciamma is still going strong. Petite Maman is a comparatively micro effort from the filmmaker, with its slender 72-minute runtime and evidently lockdown-influenced tiny cast, but it’s no less enchanting for that. This story of two young girls finding solace in their shared grief is equal parts grounded modern indie and timeless Miyazaki-style fable, and it builds to a conclusion that hits harder with a few lines of dialogue than other movies would with several scenes.
All hail the worm! Expectations were crazily high for Blade Runner 2049 and Arrival director Denis Villenueve’s take – well, part one of! – on the intimidating sci-fi epic Dune, and yet few expected it to catch on with wider audiences. Lessons learned: never doubt the Quebecois sci-fi king. Dune is a giant feat of cinematic imagination, conjuring an amazing sense of scale with its enormous desert landscapes yet displaying a deft hand for the intricate politics and philosophical themes of Frank Herbert’s novel. It’s a film meant for the biggest screen imaginable – this writer saw it at the BFI IMAX and felt more than a little religious about the power of cinema afterwards. That’s the power of Muad’Dib right there.
West Side Story
Remakes get a bad rap, and not without reason. Why bother telling a story again that was beloved the first time? Well, you and I are not Steven Spielberg. After a couple of bum years – we can all agree to forget Ready Player One – the American blockbuster champion was back in form with this spirited update of the 1961 musical classic. The cinematography and set dressing gorgeously captures the story’s tumultuous 1960s New York setting and reinvigorates plenty of the classic tunes co-penned by the dearly departed maestro Stephen Sondheim. With star-making turns from the likes of Rachel Zegler and Mike Faist – and an assist from undisputed legend Rita Moreno – this was a rare remake that wholly justified its existence.
Musicals were weird this year, weren’t they? I don’t know about you, but I spent a lot of time researching the plot of Dear Evan Hansen and I still have no idea. Yet it’s hard to imagine a weirder song-and-dance than Leos Carax’ Annette, an operatic anti-comedy that seems to kind of want you to hate it. The music, aside from a couple of undisputed bangers (“So May We Start”, turn it up!) is proudly off-kilter and literal, the romance is unnerving, the stand-up comedy is deeply unfunny and there’s a weird little singing baby that has to be seen to be believed. And yet, somehow, it all works. Yes, this sounds like a Golden Raspberry nomination, but trust us: it’s good, though I am personally not certain why.