Nathan’s Top 5 Films of 2021

Now then, it’s been a while. Nearly six months have gone by since I stopped reviewing films for this site for health reasons, and even though I haven’t been writing, I have been watching to the best of my ability, so I thought I’d pop back at the end of the year to give my thoughts on my favourite films of 2021. I’ve decided to keep it to five like last year, as although I did have more choice this year, I feel like padding the list to ten would just dilute things, and I’d rather focus on the films that stuck with me than labour to include films that I enjoyed but weren’t nearly as memorable. That doesn’t mean it was an easy list to compile, however, as, outside my top two, there was plenty of competition.

Because of me stepping back from reviewing this year, not many of my top five got a full review, but other than that, usual end-of-year rules apply: only films that had a UK release in 2021, up to and including the 17th December, are eligible, no re-releases, and I’m restricting myself to just one superhero/comic book movie in the list (I’m writing this just as Spider-Man: No Way Home is due to be released, I’m waiting to see what I make of that before finishing the list) just to keep the choices varied.

Ian will also be publishing an end-of-year piece that will vary from mine, so keep your eyes out for that. I don’t have plans to do an annual ‘awards’ post this year, sadly, as that would be a lot of strain for my eyes (which is the reason I had to stop in the first place) so my apologies for that, I will add a few award-related bits to the end of the top ten, just to compensate. Right, let’s get on with it then, shall we?

Honourable Mentions:

Promising Young Woman – Directed by Emerald Fennell

In a normal year, this would have taken the fifth spot with relative ease. Indeed, it would have been sixth if I’d decided to pad this list out to a top ten, so it can feel disappoint that it didn’t make the cut. All this shouldn’t take away how incredible and timely it is as a film, telling a story that will, unfortunately, resonate with a lot of people, and a final act that will stick with you long after the credits have rolled. I’ll certainly be keeping an eye out for Fennell’s next project.

The Suicide Squad – Directed by James Gunn

My self-imposed ‘one comic book movie per list’ rule keeps this from breaking the final five, but James Gunn’s The Suicide Squad was a refreshing change of pace for a stalling DCEU, breathing new life into the team after 2016’s torrid first attempt. Gunn managed to transplant his trademark anarchy successfully from his wildly popular Guardians of the Galaxy films effortlessly, all the while renewing interest in The Suicide Squad as a property. While it wasn’t one of 2021’s deepest experiences, it certainly was one of its most fun.

While I’m on the topic of DC Zack Snyder’s Justice League also made my shortlist, and trust me, no one is more shocked about that than me, and I thought it warranted a mention with TSS.

The Top 5

Five: In the Heights – Directed by Jon M. Chu

I have a great love and admiration for Lin-Manuel Miranda I may have a bit of a crush on him (who doesn’t, am I right?), and this big-screen adaptation of his Pulitzer Prize-winning stage musical was just the tonic 2021 needed, that is, a giant shot of utter joy.

The driving force behind this joyousness was its vibrant nature, relying on an extremely colourful palate and the beats and rhythms of Latino culture, which underscores a universal underdog story, several underdog stories, in fact, as the residents of Washington Heights all fight for the better life they’ve all been dreaming of. It’s hard not to fall in love with a film so obviously made with love and passion. Even its more downbeat and emotional scenes eventually lead to an outpouring of positivity that this year really needed.

I think that’s what ultimately put it above Promising Young Woman in my eyes. PYW is almost definitely the better film in terms of importance, but In the Heights left with a feeling of utter elation, and I think we can all agree that has been hard to come by for these last few years. Watching In the Heights made me feel the same way I felt when I first saw La La Land a few years ago, and any film that can replicate that is doing something right.

The film also boasts a wonderfully diverse Latinx cast, led by the wonderfully charismatic Anthony Ramos (also seen in Lin-Manuel’s Hamilton on Disney+), and accomplished and lively direction from the director of Crazy Rich Asians Jon M. Chu. This turned out to be a winning formula, and talk is that Chu is working on another musical, an adaptation of the incredibly popular stage show Wicked, and if this film is anything to go by, that could be something special.

Four: No Time to Die – Directed by Cary Joji Fukunaga

Daniel Craig has had a very commercially successful run as the world’s favourite spy, James Bond. Critically, though, his luck has been a lot more mixed. His last outing, 2015’s Spectre was a disappointment following the runaway success of Skyfall, which itself followed a major critical misstep in Quantum of Solace. It seemed like every other film he did was a winner, with disappointments in between. Lucky then that this streak continued, and he went out with a bang rather than a whimper with No Time to Die.

A lot was riding on this film, it was probably the biggest test of the box office during the pandemic, or at least the biggest since Tenet the previous summer, and luckily, we were treated to one of Mr Bond’s better outings to welcome the audience’s back in their masses. The film was thankfully a massive success money-wise, and the suits in Hollywood breathed a massive sigh of relief.

It was also just what the franchise needed after the let-down of Spectre. Coupled with the knowledge that this was to be Daniel Craig’s last ride as the famous spy, expectations were high, and it managed to surpass even those expectations. The action was suitably epic, as was the story, which managed to be grand in scale and yet still managed to be one of the more personal Bond narratives. It also boasts, in my opinion, Craig’s best performance as Bond. I must admit that I was not the biggest fan of his interpretation a few years ago, but with this film and Skyfall, he wore me down. He’s brilliant here, making Bond more grounded and emotive than ever, but never losing that icy edge the character has carried with him for nearly sixty years.

A wonderful slice of cinematic action that helped jumpstart the worldwide box office again, No Time to Die showed exactly what can be done with a big Hollywood budget. It is everything a big-budget action film should aspire to be, containing not only great action set pieces, but memorable characters and an emotional core. While it doesn’t quite reach the heights of Skyfall, it comes damn close.

Three: Dune: Part One – Directed by Denis Villeneuve

Speaking of what every big-budget film should aspire to be, this film not only proves what can be achieved with a big vision and even bigger bank balance, it also proves that high-concept ideas can work in the right hands, and if the last few years have taught us anything, it’s that Denis Villeneuve owns the right hands.

Sprawling, epic, and awe-inspiring are all words that can perfectly describe Dune. It may have taken three attempts, but this film shows that sometimes perfection is worth the wait. This supposedly ‘unfilmable’ sci-fi story was definitively brought to life by Villeneuve and his incredible crew, specifically his Cinematographer, Greig Fraser, who deserves special mention for just how beautiful this film looks. Obviously, I am no authority on visuals these days (the jokes write themselves there) but even I could see how stunningly realised this film was.

Many column inches have been dedicated to singing the praises of Dune in the last few months, and I feel anything I say will just be repeating what others have said elsewhere, but the success of Dune, to me is of a larger significance, as it proves that more complicated, fringe ideas can make a lot of money if given the right promotional push, and the right visionary in the driver’s seat. There may have been films I enjoyed more this year, but Dune might just be the most important success story of 2021, and I can’t wait for Part Two to hit screens.

Two: Spider-Man: No Way Home – Directed by Jon Watts

It feels somewhat regressive to put an MCU film above a boundary-pushing film like, Dune, but God damn it, I can’t help it, this film is great, and I’m not too jaded to admit it when I love a film as much as I enjoyed No Way Home. Although it isn’t as complex, it does have its own sense of epic-ness (is that a word? Microsoft Word tells me it isn’t, but never mind), and is quite ground-breaking within its franchise, it is probably the biggest MCU film that isn’t an Avengers project.

Beyond that though, the film is incredibly enjoyable fun. The sort of fun that Marvel has made their name on, but it still feels special. One thing I admire about these big MCU projects is their ability to pull together many elements and make them work so smoothly. Whereas a lot of projects struggle to balance things and end up with everything feeling paper-thin, the MCU makes everything look so seamless. Think back to Infinity War and Endgame, with the sheer number of characters and plot points to juggle, it just shouldn’t have worked, but it did. It didn’t seem under-developed or unbalanced, everything fit together like a perfect jigsaw puzzle, and they achieve the same thing here. Albeit on a slightly smaller scale, but not by much. This may not have the number of people sharing screen-time, but it does have to encompass characters from three different universes, and manages to make their interactions not seem forced.

This film is a complete comic book movie package. It’s everything any Spider-Man fan could dream of on the big screen, and it’s amongst the MCU’s best offerings, it can stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the last two Avengers films, and that’s a height I didn’t think an MCU film would ever reach again. It’s the definitive Spider-Man experience.

One: Bo Burnham: Inside – Directed by Bo Burnham

Some may say that I’m stretching a bit by including this as a film, to that I would say: I don’t care. I don’t see how you can watch this and not see it as cinematic. It baffles me that one person could be so talented, how dare he, quite frankly. I’m only saying this out of jealousy mainly, but how can you not be jealous of someone with the talents of Bo Burnham?

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again, Burnham is a once-in-a-generation artist, and this film just further proves my point. I’m not sure if this is a labour of love, or madness, or both. What I do know, however, is that it’s genius, and simply incredible given the circumstances, and how well crafted it is. We knew that Burnham had cinematic chops after watching Eighth Grade a few years ago (which also made my Top 10 for that year) but this shows the extent of his potential as a filmmaker, and his magnetism as a performer.

A running theme I have noticed amongst this top 5 is the weight of expectation. On one level or another, every film had a high bar to clear, and the same is true here. Burnham not only had to contend with the memory of Eighth Grade but also his last foray into comedy Make Happy, which in my opinion is one of the greatest comedy specials of all time. Inside transcends its label as a comedy special with its visionary approach and cinematic flair. It is the highlight of the pandemic and makes everything made during and about the pandemic seem insignificant in comparison. If this is the artistic peak of this dark period in history, then it is a peak of Everest proportions.

Awards:

Best Music – Lin-Manuel Miranda (In the Heights)

Best Director – Denis Villeneuve (Dune)

Best Cinematography – Greig Fraser (Dune)

Best Supporting Actress – Olga Merediz (In the Heights)

Best Supporting Actor – Willem Dafoe (Spider-Man: No Way Home)

Best Leading Actress – Carey Milligan (Promising Young Woman)

Best Leading Actor – Riz Ahmed (Sound of Metal)

Outstanding Achievement – Bo Burnham

Worst Films of 2021

Since I didn’t see as much, I’m clumping these in too. No big write-ups, just the title and one sentence describing my thoughts. I don’t want to linger on the negatives after these last few years.

The Prom – Directed by Ryan Murphy

Can’t remember if it was released this year, but I do remember that it was insultingly awful.

Space Jam: A New Legacy – Directed by Malcolm D. Lee

What if Ready Player One, but even worse?

Old – Directed by M. Night Shyamalan

After so much practice, you’d think Shyamalan would be better at coming up with plot twists.

Final Thoughts

Overall, this past year could have been better for us all, I’m sure you’ll agree, it feels like I’m having Déjà vu just saying that, but it’s true. For myself more than most, but I am grateful that I can still enjoy the cinema, as it’s one of life’s greatest releases. I can only hope 2022 brings us many greater big-screen experiences.

Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to one and all, I hope it’s an enjoyable and peaceful one. Thanks for reading.

Now then, it’s been a while. Nearly six months have gone by since I stopped reviewing films for this site for health reasons, and even though I haven’t been writing, I have been watching to the best of my ability, so I thought I’d pop back at the end of the year to give my thoughts on my favourite films of 2021. I’ve decided to keep it to five like last year, as although I did have more choice this year, I feel like padding the list to ten would just dilute things, and I’d rather focus on the films that really stuck with me than labour to include films that I enjoyed but weren’t nearly as memorable. That doesn’t mean it was an easy list to compile, however, as outside my top two, there was plenty of competition.

Because of me stepping back from reviewing this year, not many of my top five actually got a full review, but other than that, usual end-of-year rules apply: only films that had a UK release in 2021, up to and including the 17th December, are eligible, no re-releases, and I’m restricting myself to just one superhero/comic book movie in the list (I’m writing this just as Spider-Man: No Way Home is due to be released, I’m waiting to see what I make of that before finishing the list) just to keep the choices varied.

Ian will also be publishing an end-of-year piece that will vary from mine, so keep your eyes out for that. I don’t have plans to do an annual ‘awards’ post this year, sadly, as that would be a lot of strain for my eyes (which is the reason I had to stop in the first place) so my apologies for that, I will add a few award-related bits to the end of the top ten, just to compensate. Right, let’s get on with it then, shall we?

Honourable Mentions:

Promising Young Woman – Directed by Emerald Fennell

In a normal year, this would have taken fifth spot with relative ease. Indeed, it would have been sixth if I’d decided to pad this list out to a top ten, so it can feel disappoint that it didn’t make the cut. All this shouldn’t take away how incredible and timely it is as a film, telling a story that will unfortunately resonate with a lot of people, and a final act that will stick with you long after the credits have rolled. I’ll certainly be keeping an eye out for Fennell’s next project.

The Suicide Squad – Directed by James Gunn

My self-imposed ‘one comic book movie per list’ rule keeps this from breaking the final five, but James Gunn’s The Suicide Squad was a refreshing change of pace for a stalling DCEU, breathing new life into the team after 2016’s torrid first attempt. Gunn managed to transplant his trademark anarchy successfully from his wildly popular Guardians of the Galaxy films effortlessly, all the while renewing interest in The Suicide Squad as a property. While it wasn’t one of 2021’s deepest experiences, it certainly was one of its most fun.

While I’m on the topic of DC Zack Snyder’s Justice League also made my shortlist, and trust me, no one is more shocked about that than me, and I thought it warranted a mention with TSS.

The Top 5

Five: In the Heights – Directed by Jon M. Chu

I have a great love and admiration for Lin-Manuel Miranda, in fact, I may have a bit of a crush on him (who doesn’t, am I right?), and this big-screen adaptation of his Pulitzer Prize-winning stage musical was just the tonic 2021 needed, that is, a giant shot of utter joy.

The driving force behind this joyousness was its vibrant nature, relying on an extremely colourful palate and the beats and rhythms of Latino culture, which underscores a universal underdog story, several underdog stories, in fact, as the residents of Washington Heights all fight for the better life they’ve all been dreaming of. It’s hard not to fall in love with a film so obviously made with love and passion. Even its more downbeat and emotional scenes eventually lead to an outpouring of positivity that this year really needed.

I think that’s what ultimately put it above Promising Young Woman in my eyes. PYW is almost definitely the better film in terms of importance, but In the Heights left with a feeling of utter elation, and I think we can all agree that has been hard to come by for these last few years. Watching In the Heights made me feel the same way I felt when I first saw La La Land a few years ago, and any film that can replicate that is doing something right.

The film also boasts a wonderfully diverse Latinx cast, lead by the wonderfully charismatic Anthony Ramos (also seen in Lin-Manuel’s Hamilton on Disney+), and accomplished and lively direction from the director of Crazy Rich Asians Jon M. Chu. This turned out to be a winning formula, and talk is that Chu is working on another musical, an adaptation of the incredibly popular stage show Wicked, and if this film is anything to go by, that could really be something special.

Four: No Time to Die – Directed by Cary Joji Fukunaga

Daniel Craig has had a very commercially successful run as the world’s favourite spy, James Bond. Critically, though, his luck has been a lot more mixed. His last outing, 2015’s Spectre was a disappointment following the runaway success of Skyfall, which itself followed a major critical misstep in Quantum of Solace. It seemed like every other film he did was a winner, with disappointments in between. Lucky then that this streak continued, and he went out with a bang rather than a whimper with No Time to Die.

A lot was riding on this film, it was probably the biggest test of the box office during the pandemic, or at least the biggest since Tenet the previous summer, and luckily, we were treated to one of Mr Bond’s better outings to welcome the audience’s back in their masses. The film was thankfully a massive success money-wise, and the suits in Hollywood breathed a massive sigh of relief.

It was also just what the franchise needed after the let-down of Spectre. Coupled with the knowledge that this was to be Daniel Craig’s last ride as the famous spy, expectations were high, and it managed to surpass even those expectations. The action was suitably epic, as was the story, which managed to be grand in scale and yet still managed to be one of the more personal Bond narratives. It also boasts, in my opinion, Craig’s best performance as Bond. I must admit that I was not the biggest fan of his interpretation a few years ago, but with this film and Skyfall, he wore me down. He’s brilliant here, making Bond more grounded and emotive than ever, but never losing that icy edge the character has carried with him for nearly sixty years.

A wonderful slice of cinematic action that helped jumpstart the worldwide box office again, No Time to Die showed exactly what can be done with a big Hollywood budget. It is everything a big-budget action film should aspire to be, containing not only great action set pieces, but memorable characters and an emotional core. While it doesn’t quite reach the heights of Skyfall, it comes damn close.

Three: Dune: Part One – Directed by Denis Villeneuve

Speaking of what every big-budget film should aspire to be, this film not only proves what can be achieved with a big vision and even bigger bank balance, it also proves that high-concept ideas can absolutely work in the right hands, and if the last few years have taught us anything, it’s that Denis Villeneuve owns the right hands.

Sprawling, epic, and awe-inspiring are all words that can perfectly describe Dune. It may have taken three attempts, but this film shows that sometimes perfection is worth the wait. This supposedly ‘unfilmable’ sci-fi story was definitively brought to life by Villeneuve and his incredible crew, specifically his Cinematographer, Greig Fraser, who deserves special mention for just how beautiful this film looks. Obviously, I am no authority on visuals these days (the jokes write themselves there) but even I could see how stunningly realised this film was.

Many column inches have been dedicated to singing the praises of Dune in the last few months, and I feel anything I say will just be repeating what others have said elsewhere, but the success of Dune, to me is of a larger significance, as it proves that more complicated, fringe ideas can make a lot of money if given the right promotional push, and the right visionary in the driver’s seat. There may have been films I enjoyed more this year, but Dune might just be the most important success story of 2021, and I can’t wait for Part Two to hit screens.

Two: Spider-Man: No Way Home – Directed by Jon Watts

It feels somewhat regressive to put an MCU film above a boundary-pushing film like, Dune, but God-damnit, I can’t help it, this film is great, and I’m not too jaded to admit it when I love a film as much as I enjoyed No Way Home. Although it isn’t as complex, it does have its own sense of epic-ness (is that a word? Microsoft Word tells me it isn’t, but never mind), and is quite ground-breaking within its franchise, it is probably the biggest MCU film that isn’t an Avengers project.

Beyond that though, the film is incredibly enjoyable fun. The sort of fun that Marvel have made their name on, but it still feels special. One thing I really admire about these big MCU projects is their ability to pull together many elements, and make them work so smoothly. Whereas a lot of projects struggle to balance things and end up with everything feeling paper-thin, the MCU makes everything look so seamless. Think back to Infinity War and Endgame, with the sheer number of characters and plot points to juggle, it just shouldn’t have worked, but it did. It didn’t seem under-developed or unbalanced, everything fit together like a perfect jigsaw puzzle, and they achieve the same thing here. Albeit on a slightly-smaller scale, but not by much. This may not have the number of people sharing screen-time, but it does have to encompass characters from three different universes, and manages to make their interactions not seem forced.

This film is a complete comic book movie package. It’s everything any Spider-Man fan could dream of on the big screen, and it’s amongst the MCU’s best offerings, it can stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the last two Avengers films, and that’s a height I didn’t think an MCU film would ever reach again. It’s the definitive Spider-Man experience.

One: Bo Burnham: Inside – Directed by Bo Burnham

Some may say that I’m stretching a bit by including this as a film, to that I would say: I don’t care. I don’t see how you can watch this and not see it as cinematic. It baffles me that one person could be so talented, how dare he, quite frankly. I’m only saying this out of jealousy mainly, but how can you not be jealous of someone with the talents of Bo Burnham?

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again, Burnham is a once-in-a-generation artist, and this film just further proves my point. I’m not sure if this is a labour of love, or madness, or both. What I do know, however, is that it’s genius, and simply incredible given the circumstances, and how well crafted it is. We knew that Burnham had cinematic chops after watching Eighth Grade a few years ago (which also made my Top 10 for that year) but this shows the extent of his potential as a filmmaker, and his magnetism as a performer.

A running theme I have noticed amongst this top 5 is the weight of expectation. On one level or another, every film had a high bar to clear, and the same is true here. Burnham not only had to contend with the memory of Eighth Grade, but also his last foray into comedy Make Happy, which in my opinion is one of the greatest comedy specials of all time. Inside transcends its label as a comedy special with its visionary approach and cinematic flair. It is the highlight of the pandemic, and makes everything made during and about the pandemic seem insignificant in comparison. If this is the artistic peak of this dark period in history, then it is a peak of Everest proportions.

Awards:

Best Music – Lin-Manuel Miranda (In the Heights)

Best Director – Denis Villeneuve (Dune)

Best Cinematography – Greig Fraser (Dune)

Best Supporting Actress – Olga Merediz (In the Heights)

Best Supporting Actor – Willem Dafoe (Spider-Man: No Way Home)

Best Leading Actress – Carey Milligan (Promising Young Woman)

Best Leading Actor – Riz Ahmed (Sound of Metal)

Outstanding Achievement – Bo Burnham

Worst Films of 2021

Since I didn’t see as much, I’m clumping these in too. No big write-ups, just the title and one sentence describing my thoughts. I don’t want to linger on the negatives after these last few years.

The Prom – Directed by Ryan Murphy

Can’t remember if it was released this year, but I do remember that it was insultingly awful.

Space Jam: A New Legacy – Directed by Malcolm D. Lee

What if Ready Player One, but even worse?

Old – Directed by M. Night Shyamalan

After so much practice, you’d think Shyamalan would be better at coming up with plot twists.

Final Thoughts

Overall, this past year could have been better for us all, I’m sure you’ll agree, it feels like I’m having Déjà vu just saying that, but it’s true. For myself more than most, but I am grateful that I can still enjoy the cinema, as it’s one of life’s greatest releases. I can only hope 2022 brings us many greater big-screen experiences.

Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to one and all, I hope it’s an enjoyable and peaceful one. Thanks for reading.

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