10 great movies from 2021

Year’s best lists always fill me with some trepidation, simply because they seem such an impossible thing to achieve. That’s why I stopped even trying to claim my own annual list was any sort of representative summary. Instead, this is a list of the 10 films that I saw in 2021 that found to be the strongest among what I had seen. If there is a film that you loved, and it is not listed below, there is as good a chance I didn’t see it as there is I disliked it. To qualify as a 2021 film for this list, a movie had to have either been released for the first time in Australia during 2021 or – if released elsewhere – seen by me either at a festival or on home media.

Despite the challenges of seeing new films in 2021, there was a lot of new cinema that I saw and really liked. Other films worth recommending include As We Like It, Antoinette in the Cevennes, Black Widow, #Blue_Whale, Celts, Come Back Anytime, The Dark and the Wicked, Drive All Night, Encanto, Gatao: The Last Stray, Greenland, I Never Cry, Josep, Mad God, Nitram, No Time to Die, Promising Young Woman, Satoshi Kon: The Illusionist, Shadow in the Cloud, Shang Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, The Suicide Squad, Synchronic, and Tiong Bahru Social Club.

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10. High Ground

Simon Baker and Jacob Junior Nayinggul headline a stunning cast in this Australian western directed by Stephen Johnson, that wraps the genre around a deeply affecting story of racist injustice and the horrors of colonial oppression. In my review, I wrote: ‘High Ground is a powerful and hugely effective film, fronting up to significant and necessary debates over Australian culture and identity, while sugar-coated in satisfying genre tropes to make the bitter pill of history more palatable for the masses.’

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9. Come True

I am not even going to try and hide it; the ending is a mess. That said, Anthony Scott Burns’ Come True is a moody-as-hell, utterly hypnotic gem. It went direct to online rental in Australia, and deserved much better. In my review, I wrote: ‘I find dreams to be one of the most difficult things for cinema to adapt. They have been popular fodder for science fiction and horror cinema for many years, but rarely do filmmakers capture the uneasy atmosphere, stream-of-consciousness narrative, and non sequiturs that seem to typify the genuine article. To my mind Sion Sono’s 2015 film Tag is the best attempt at this I have seen. Burns’ Come True is easily a very close second.’

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8. The Matrix Resurrections

Lana Wachowski returns almost two decades later with an unexpected and brilliant commentary on The Matrix, Hollywood sequels, and studio franchise sequel. It is also a wonderful cure for the COVID blues: in a world that seems perilously miserable, this movie absolutely made my Boxing Day worth experiencing. In my review last week, I wrote: ‘This is not an ordinary sequel. It is the sequel you make when you have an idea for one, not the sequel you make because there is more money to be grossed. Yes it is divisive, and yes it may not be the Matrix that many viewers want, but in the constant back-and-forth between art and commerce it is a bold and unapologetic home run for the artist.’

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7. Another Round

Another Round was released so long ago it feels odd to put it onto a 2021 list, but here we are. Thomas Vinterberg converted real-life tragedy into a superb mixture of genres with strong characters and knockout performances. Mads Mikkelsen has been an actor I’ve enjoyed tremendously in recent years; this is, to my mind, him at his absolute best. In my review, I wrote: ‘From its intriguing premise to its perfectly formed conclusion, Another Round is a mature and inspired blend of comedy, tragedy, and human behaviour. It is absolutely going to be remembered for Mikkelsen’s five-star performance, but we should not miss the thought-provoking story that accommodates it.’

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6. The Last Duel

Ridley Scott is most likely my favourite director of all time, and The Last Duel absolutely backs up that opinion. Not only does it represent another knockout historical drama in a career filled with them, but it steals liberally from Kurosawa’s Rashomon to actively give voice to the voiceless, and justice to a woman sidelined by history. In my review, I wrote: ‘When future audiences look back at Ridley Scott’s films, I think two main elements will most resonate. Firstly, his one-two punch of Alien and Blade Runner that defined science fiction cinema for a generation. Secondly, just how superbly he handled historical action and drama. That aspect to his filmmaking constantly feels underrated, and The Last Duel adds yet another example to a list that already includes The Duellists, 1492, and Kingdom of Heaven.’

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5. Miss

On paper, Ruben Alves’ Miss sounds like an enormous risk for the viewer: a comedy about a young man desperate to win Miss France. Somehow Alves dodges ever pitfall, and side-steps so many opportunities to fail. The result is a comedy that celebrates queerness, and champions the right people while condemning the right targets. It only punches up. In my review, I wrote: ‘Miss is simply glorious. It is a French mainstream comedy-drama about a young person’s quest to win the Miss France beauty pageant. It does everything right. It finds comedy in characters and situations and not in mocking identities. It carries an upbeat and accepting tone but acknowledges real-world prejudices. Most of all it casts appropriately, presenting a superb and hugely charismatic queer actor in its central role. This is superb, heartfelt cinema.’

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4. The Dry

Eric Bana has never been better. The acclaimed actor, already finding long-term success in Hollywood, returned to Australia to headline this atmospheric, haunting, and absolutely stunning thriller. Director Robert Connolly absolutely nails it. In my review, I wrote: ‘The very best films are great simply because they do everything right: direction, scripting, acting, design, music – everything aligns perfectly. Everyone involved seems at the top of their game. The Dry is a powerfully effective quiet masterpiece; the best feature in Australian cinemas this year by far.’

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3. Beyond the Infinite Two Minutes

This low budget Japanese indie combines science fiction, comedy, and romance into one extended single tracking shot. Its inventiveness is genuinely off the scale, as is its immense charm. When you consider the only major SF element in the film is a television that can see two minutes into the future, the achievement of this one-of-a-kind work becomes obvious. In my review, I wrote: ‘This is a movie that makes one want to grab their friends by both shoulders and passionately enthuse the film’s worth to them. Its clever long-take camera work gives it a fresh immediacy. Its ideas genuinely rival any science fiction film released over the past decade. Its comedy is broad, effective, and enormously appealing.’

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2. Summer of Soul

Questlove’s music documentary makes exceptional use of archival footage and talking heads to revisit the half-forgotten Harlem Cultural Festival of 1969. I’d never even heard of the festival before seeing the film. By the conclusion I’m pretty sure I’d been moved to tears at least two or three times – both with sadness and joy. In my review, I wrote: ‘Summer of Soul is smart, engaging, and thought-provoking. It highlights issues and events with intelligence and clarity: the evolution of black Christianity and its influence on music, the Vietnam War, drug epidemics, and other social topics. It contextualises the festival within the civil rights movement and America in the late 1960s. Through effective editing and writing, it also manages to be enormously emotional. This is a film about things that matter.’

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1. West Side Story

This is the top pick I never saw coming. The idea of Steven Spielberg directing a remake of West Side Story seemed the worst kind of indulgence by an aging filmmaker well past his prime; remember his last feature film was the execrable Ready Player One in 2018. Never bet against the master, I suppose: Spielberg’s musical is energetic, vital, passionate, and the closest thing Hollywood has made to classical Hollywood in decades. In my review, I wrote: ‘West Side Story is clearly a very personal work for Spielberg. In interviews he has spoken of its significance in his childhood. The film is dedicated to his father. Perhaps it is this personal importance, or perhaps it is the pressure of daring to remake a classic. It is in all likelihood both. Whatever the motivation, the result is an honest-to-god masterpiece. On the first viewing it is clear that I for one will be watching this film many more times in the years to come.’

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