With yet more disruptions for the entertainment business during the pandemic, the best films of 2021 tended to land either early or late in the year. And even though the number of streaming services kept rising, just about everything great still had a release in cinemas.
The best picture winner at the Oscars, Nomadland, started its cinema run last year so did not qualify this time around. But fellow nominees Promising Young Woman and Minari, which opened in January-February, made our top 10 based on votes from critics Paul Byrnes, Sandra Hall and Jake Wilson as well as film writers Garry Maddox and Stephanie Bunbury.
Then late in the year came the films that will contend for the next Oscars: The Power of the Dog, Being the Ricardos, Licorice Pizza, West Side Story and the documentary The Rescue.
Three of Hollywood’s highest-profile directors are represented in our list: Steven Spielberg, Aaron Sorkin and Paul Thomas Anderson. The visionary Jane Campion also made it in her return to film alongside other directors including Pablo Larrain, Lee Isaac Chung, Emerald Fennell, Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin.
While Nicole Kidman and Carey Mulligan headline two female-driven movies that made the list, playing Lucille Ball in Being the Ricardos and the avenging Cassandra in Promising Young Woman respectively, the year’s best movies often featured rising talents.
Take a bow Mariana Di Girolamo, Cooper Hoffman, Australia’s Kodi Smit-McPhee and West Side Story’s Rachel Zegler, Ansel Elgort, Ariana DeBose and David Alvarez.
It’s an impressive list that can be a guide to viewing during the holidays. Here are our top 10 films in alphabetical order, as well as six honourable mentions.
Being the Ricardos
Nicole Kidman is terrific as Lucille Ball, playing both the savvy showbiz veteran and her different TV persona Lucy Ricardo, whom 60 million Americans watched every week in 1952 until gossip columnist Walter Winchell labelled her a communist. Aaron Sorkin’s masterful film follows Lucille and husband/co-star/producer Desi Arnaz (Javier Bardem) through the worst week of their lives, as they put together their 37th show. The dialogue crackles and Sorkin spreads this out into a wide landscape, where he explores masculine-feminine relationships, women and television, and today’s cancel culture. It’s a breathtaking piece of work, a high-wire act led by the superb performances of Kidman and Bardem. Absolutely a must-see. PB
Being the Ricardos is now streaming on Amazon Prime.
Chilean director Pablo Larrain – who made Jackie and the upcoming Spencer – blazed a trail with this kaleidoscopic and mesmerising film set in Valparaiso. It’s the story of a couple, one of whom is a dancer and a dab hand with a flamethrower. They had adopted a child, then gave the kid back when he didn’t fit their expectations. Larrain explores their guilt, and wider Latin American political issues, through street scenes that mix contemporary music, dance and … well, fires. Mariana Di Girolamo plays a femme fatale for our times – a vengeful goddess for the #MeToo generation. The film is a love letter to her generation – the first one born after the demise of the late dictator Pinochet. PB
Ema is available to rent on Apple iTunes, Amazon Video, Google Play, Microsoft Store, Fetch and YouTube.
Given 60 years of greatness, can anyone pinpoint a single Anthony Hopkins performance as a career best? This must come close: his portrayal of an elderly man tormented and terrified by dementia, filmed by writer-director Florian Zeller in a way that reflects his confusion, is akin to an immersive experience. Olivia Colman, always an empathetic screen presence, leads an excellent supporting cast as his patient, put-upon daughter. Most of the time, we are inside Anthony’s head, confounded by the unfamiliarity of his flat, by the strangers who pop up in his armchair, by the daughter who doesn’t visit because, in fact, she died years ago. Devastating, but strangely joyful: there is ultimately serenity in seeing a mind’s life run its course. SB
The Father is now streaming on Amazon Prime and Foxtel Now and is available to rent on Apple iTunes, Amazon Video, Google Play, Microsoft Store, Fetch and YouTube.
Every film by Paul Thomas Anderson is a trip to outer space – even when he’s just hanging out in his own neighbourhood, as in this shaggy, blissful, casually demented teen movie, set over one crazy summer in the San Fernando Valley in 1973. Less encumbered by self-loathing than most Anderson protagonists, the hero (Cooper Hoffman, son of the late Philip Seymour Hoffman) is a 15-year-old prodigy whose wholly inappropriate crush on a twenty-something slacker (Alana Haim) is the motor of what passes for a plot, with sidelights on showbusiness, local politics, and the burgeoning waterbed industry. As with every Anderson film, it’s really all about actors, decor, costumes, music, colour and camera movement (and, also, true love). The locale, the youthfully energetic vibe, and the tall tale format all recall E.T., set and shot in the Valley in the early 1980s – which may help explain why the weirdness feels so much like home. JW
Licorice Pizza is now showing in cinemas.
The Lost Daughter
Maggie Gyllenhaal, always a thoughtful performer, finds her true metier as director in this subtle, enigmatic story of a prickly middle-aged classics professor on holiday in Greece whose past failures – as a mother, as a partner, as a human being – punch through her present apparent composure like a series of fatal fistulas. Olivia Colman plays the aptly named Leda, whose peaceful recline with Dante on the beach is disturbed by the arrival of a loud, arrogant and probably criminal American family. When their daughter goes missing, Leda finds her; an uneasy rapprochement follows. A few well-judged flashbacks, however, confirm that Leda now seethes with reawakened guilt; could this be driving her increasingly demonic behaviour? Once again, Colman is sensationally good. SB
The Lost Daughter is released on Netflix on December 31.
The knowledge that he may well be the fastest chicken sexer in the West is scant consolation to Jacob, a Korean immigrant living in California with his young family. Pushed to his limits by boredom, he decides to leave the factory farm where he works and heads for Arkansas to grow Korean vegetables. Writer-director Lee Isaac Chung’s film is a lightly fictionalised account of his childhood seen through the eyes of seven-year-old David (Alan S. Kim), an opinionated, curious child who’s doing fine in his strangely fascinating new home until forced to share his bedroom with his grandmother. Chung views these characters with a fond but unsentimental eye. He’s wise enough to be aware that their imperfections are what makes them so endearing. SH
Minari is now streaming on Stan* and is available to rent on Apple iTunes, Amazon Video, Google Play, Microsoft Store, Fetch and YouTube.
The Power of the Dog
Jane Campion’s first film in more than a decade is a beautifully crafted, slow-burning Western with currents of deep emotion flowing through it. Based on a novel by Thomas Savage, it centres on the Burbank brothers, bullying Phil (Benedict Cumberbatch) and straight-up George (Jesse Plemons), who run a ranch in 1925 Montana. When George marries widowed innkeeper Rose (Kirsten Dunst), Phil bristles and the tension only escalates when she brings sensitive son Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee) to visit. Campion’s subtle storytelling and ability to get great performances from her cast, especially Cumberbatch and Smit-McPhee, make this one of the year’s stand-out films. It was made for Netflix but, with New Zealand doubling for Montana, it is masterful big-sky cinema. GM
The Power of the Dog is now streaming on Netflix.
Promising Young Woman
British director Emerald Fennell is an expert in forging unholy unions between lacerating humour and violence, both planned and unplanned. Carey Mulligan’s Cassandra Thomas goes out every week, bent on humiliating any man who takes advantage of her seemingly intoxicated state. She’s a nocturnal avenger with a disguise to fit every venue. For corporates’ watering-holes, it’s a pin-striped suit with a sharply pressed white shirt. For less classy bars and discos, it’s glitter, scarlet lipstick, false eyelashes and a lot of hip-swinging. Fennell’s script takes an acutely satirical tilt at its targets, deploying an impeccably deadpan tone that does nothing to dilute its power. Its unsettling juxtaposition of light and shade is what makes it work. SH
Promising Young Woman is now streaming on Amazon Prime and Foxtel Now and is available to rent on Apple iTunes, Amazon Video, Google Play, Microsoft Store, Telstra TV, Fetch and YouTube.
Almost three years ago, directors Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin won an Oscar for the edge-of-the-seat documentary Free Solo, about Alex Honnold’s climb of a terrifying rock face in Yosemite National Park. Their latest documentary is just as good – a gripping and moving account of the remarkable rescue of 12 young footballers and their assistant coach from a flooded Thai cave in 2018. Focusing on the amateur cave divers who were at the centre of the mission, it captures the scale and tension of the international rescue, the constant doubts about whether it could succeed and touching human details that were missed during the round-the-clock news coverage. GM
The Rescue will be on Disney+’s National Geographic from December 31.
West Side Story
Steven Spielberg has dreamt for a long time of directing a musical, but he exceeds all expectations with this thrilling, emotional new adaptation of the classic show about warring street gangs in 1950s New York – itself, of course, an update of Romeo and Juliet. Leonard Bernstein’s music and Stephen Sondheim’s lyrics have wisely been left intact, while Jerome Robbins’ original choreography has been brilliantly reworked by Justin Peck, abetted by a director who has the rare gift of turning the camera into one of the dancers. Spielberg’s Jets are among the most endearing of all his bands of Lost Boys, though Tony Kushner’s intelligent script emphasises that they and their Puerto Rican rivals the Sharks are not at all “alike in dignity” where society is concerned – leaving room for speculation about just what past and present real-world analogues the filmmakers could have in mind. The message, unfortunately, remains timeless. JW
West Side Story is now showing in cinemas.
Quite a banner year for the musical, bringing us both Steven Spielberg’s exhilarating neo-classical West Side Story (see above) and this spiky, modernist tour de force from France’s Leos Carax (Holy Motors). Adam Driver pulls out all the stops as an edgelord stand-up comic whose unfunniness is the least of his crimes. JW
Annette is available to rent on Apple iTunes, Amazon Video, Google Play, Microsoft Store, Telstra TV and YouTube.
Bryan Fogel’s forensic documentary examination of the killing of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi. A Turkish prosecutor describes how a team of 15 Saudis flew to Istanbul in October 2018 to murder Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate. A dark vision of how unfettered power and wealth function in an internet-connected world. PB
The Dissident is now available to stream on DocPlay and Tubi, and is available to rent on Apple iTunes, Google Play, Microsoft Store, Fetch and YouTube.
Described by one critic as the missing link between blockbusters and arthouse, Dune turns Frank Herbert’s sprawling sci-fi into the grand, visually extraordinary cinematic epic it always wanted to be. Quebecois maestro Denis Villeneuve makes familiar genre elements – the questing hero (Timothee Chalamet), warring clans and monsters – genuinely great again. SB
Dune is now showing in cinemas.
The Last Duel
Ridley Scott delivers a powerful two-and-a-half-hour epic that plunges you deeply – and uncomfortably – into the life of 14th century France and its conflicts and customs. It’s set amid grey skies, cold stone and even colder hearts. There is a music score, but it’s hard to hear above the clanking of armour, the clashing of swords and the chiding of the clergy. SH
The Last Duel is now streaming on Disney+ and Foxtel Now.
The acclaim for Justin Kurzel’s raw drama included sweeping the Australian Academy of Cinema and Television Arts Awards. Wrenching, disturbing and brilliantly acted, it charts how a troubled young man known only as Nitram (Caleb Landry Jones) became a social outcast who was able to accumulate guns for the Port Arthur massacre in 1996. GM
Nitram is now streaming on Stan.
French director Julia Ducournau delivered the year’s most original movie, winner of the top prize at the Cannes Film Festival. It is, by turns, a darkly sexy and violent drama about a car showroom model turned killer (Agathe Rousselle) that is visceral enough to have cinema-goers fainting, a philosophical thriller and a strange tender drama about two lost souls finding each other. Most of all, it’s a wild ride. GM
Titane is now showing in cinemas.
* Stan is owned by Nine, the owner of this masthead.