Last year, we opened our ‘best of 2021’ list with Celia Johnson’s immortal line that “this misery can’t last”. Well, it seems that misery has a stubborn habit of sticking around. A year that began with the invasion of Ukraine, imposed three disastrous prime ministers on the UK – freezing half the country while starving the rest – now ends with a series of strikes across the public sector. It’s hard to imagine the lid staying on the pressure cooker much longer.
As the world passes into greater uncertainty and politics into ever bitter malignity, “this too, shall pass” is the platitude for which we have found myself reaching. Perhaps that is why David Gordon Green’s trilogy capper Halloween Ends – unfairly maligned in this writer’s eyes – resonated so strongly, when scream queen Jamie Lee Curtis mused that evil doesn’t die, it just changes shape.
More optimistically, perhaps the fatigue we are feeling are the merely the death rattles of the old and the early cries of something new. Indeed, the biggest recent upset to film orthodoxy was Sight and Sound’s decadal ‘Greatest Films of All Time’ poll, with Chantal Akermann’s Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles ruffling old school feathers (notably Paul Schrader, who described the surprise win as a ‘woke reappraisal’) by topping the poll. It’s always disappointing to see once great voices reaching for tabloid buzzwords. Those who once undermined the orthodoxies of the past only make themselves small by jealously guarding those of the present.
It’s hard not to draw parallels with the fatigue we’re all feeling and the current landscape of cinema, not least a ‘best of’ list that this year so strongly reflects a sense of social anxiety, alienation and division. Topping our list (just beating Martin McDonagh’s superbly gothic The Banshees of Inisherin) is Aftersun, a film that deals heavily with how our understandings of self are reflected and refracted through media and memory. If that sounds like so much artsy navel-gazing, then nothing could be further from the truth.
Charlotte Wells’ debut film is among most profoundly moving films of the year, deeply rooted in specific class and cultural contexts, but that will also resonate with anyone familiar with the distress of feeling one’s sense of self slipping away. Such a description could apply to a number of films on our list, from Baz Luhrmann’s sumptuous Elvis biopic, to Park Chan-wook’s knotty, sublime police thriller-cum-relationship drama Decision to Leave. It was a thrill too, to see more than one example of body horror find its way on to this year’s list, with Cronenberg’s Crimes of the Future and Bones and All – two very different films that both manifest social anxieties into bodily modification and consumption.
Meanwhile, Alice Diop’s Saint Omer – a superb courtroom drama whose final minutes hit you like a freight train – embraced and celebrated the monstrosity of bodies in defiance of patriarchal values. Defiance, of course, runs through Sarah Polley’s Women Talking and Jafar Panahi’s politically charged No Bears. Prior to Aftersun, No Bears had topped my personal best, largely for its director’s jaw-dropping bravery in defying the Iranian authorities’ ban on his making films and imminent imprisonment. Indeed, if the misery won’t pass after all, what is left to do but stand in defiance of it and resist?
N.B. As ever, only entries that had their world premiere this year were eligible for our FOTY list.
10. Women Talking (dir. Sarah Polley)
We had to wait ten years for a new film from Canadian director Sarah Polley (Away From Her, Stories We Tell), but her adaptation of Miriam Toews’ Women Talking was well worth it. Boasting a wonderful ensemble cast that includes Rooney Mara, Claire Foy, Jessie Buckley and Judith Ivey, Polley’s latest focuses on a group of women in an isolated religious community as they debate their response to a series of attacks on their kin from the men they live and work with. Their options: do nothing; stay and fight; or leave. It’s remarkable that a film with such heavy subject matter still manages to be as sprightly, inventive and – yes – even humorous as it is. Let’s hope the wait is shorter for Polley’s next stint in the director’s chair. Daniel Green
9. Brian and Charles (dir. Jim Archer)
British comedy has always made a virtue of the proximity of comedy to tragedy. We appreciate the friendship and sunshine for its rarity amidst the drizzle of loneliness. David Earl plays Brian Gittins, an eccentric inventor who invents himself a robot Charles (Chris Hayward) to keep him company in his slate cottage. The comedy is hilarious and all the warmer for the wind-driven rain tapping at the window. Jim Archer’s debut feature film – based on a short by the same team – is the most original British comedy for years, a magical and touching celebration of friendship. John Bleasdale
8. Tár (dir. Todd Field)
It takes a certain bravery, on the part of a film-maker, to put their own creative instincts on screen up against the grandeur of a gold-plated masterpiece. But so it is in Tár, where an imagined maestro on the podium of the Berlin philharmonic grapples with Mahler’s Fifth, battling everyone from the orchestra itself to her daughter’s schoolyard bully in a rich, towering study of desire and the will to command. Tom Duggins
7. Elvis (dir. Baz Luhrmann)
Biopics are perhaps the most maligned of all the cinematic genres, and not without cause: mediocre music biopics are ten a penny. But formulas exist for a reason and sometimes what works, works. On paper, there was little about the Elvis story that was likely to surprise. But add in Luhrmann’s preternatural ability for dazzling visuals and sumptuous style, a delightfully ludicrous turn from Tom Hanks’ panto villain Colonel Tom Parker, and a freakishly star-making performance from Austin Butler, and Elvis transformed into something more than the sum of its parts. Chris Machell
6. Bones and All (dir. Luca Guadagnino)
Bones and All, like the best horror movies, finds poetry in the frightening, in the transgressive, in the perverse. It mines light from darkness and transforms it before our eyes into something universal, shining and true, no matter how ephemeral. “Love’s the only engine of survival,” the late Leonard Cohen once crooned, and Guadagnino would no doubt agree with such hopeful sentiment. But tragedy beckons as tragedy always does in these narratives. The end is written at the start. Bones and all. Read the full review. Martyn Conterio
5. Crimes of the Future (dir. David Cronenberg)
David Cronenberg first made Crimes of the Future in 1972. It was a disturbing account of a plague that killed all sexually mature women. Now, with a reputation built over half-a-century of work, Cronenberg has returned to the scene of his Crimes with an A-list ensemble in tow. Plot strands serve as clotheslines on which to bed some fascinating ideas, spouted with darkly humorous conviction by the film’s ensemble cast (including Viggo Mortensen, Léa Seydoux and Kristen Stewart). There’s no subtext here, and Cronenberg delights in hitting many of the old favourites from his back catalogue: long live the new flesh (Videodrome); secretive cults (Scanners); weird children (The Brood); flesh ports (eXistenZ). JB
4. Saint Omer (dir. Alice Diop)
Documentary filmmaker Alice Diop’s (We, La Permanence) first narrative feature is a major achievement and an investigation into motherhood, judgment and the other. Kayije Kagame plays Rama, a university professor and writer who is working on a new book – the centrepiece of which is going to feature the real-life trial of a Senegalese woman, Laurence Coly (Guslagie Malanga), who is accused of murdering her 15-month-old daughter. Diop is brave enough not to give us the comfort of closure and yet somehow there is catharsis as well. Saint Omer is a deeply intellectual film – Medea is referenced several times as a frame of understanding – but it’s also heartfelt. There is a compassion to the dispassion: an empathy. Read the full review. JB
3. Decision to Leave (dir. Park Chan-wook)
Park Chan-wook’s new film Decision to Leave is a cinematic psychopath test. From a craft point of view, the film is as impeccable as you would expect from the director of Oldboy and The Handmaiden. Kim Ji-yong’s cinematography gives us shot after shot of dizzying inventiveness and Cho Young-wuk’s score escapes Hitchcockian influence and becomes something in itself. Decision to Leave is like a beautiful airport novel of a film. It is far cleverer than it needs to be and is so acted with sly charisma. Tang Wei is particularly captivating, giving us a heartbreaking sociopath – the kind of girl you meet at funerals. Read the full review. JB
2. The Banshees of Inisherin (dir. Martin McDonagh)
The Banshees of Inisherin is a beautifully-shot and deftly-played comedy. It is at once masterful, surprisingly poignant, and profound. Its portrait of a friendship faltering ultimately proves how vital friendship actually is: how vulnerable and naked we are without it. In a perfect world, Farrell and Gleeson would make a series of films out of these characters – a modern day Laurel and Hardy or Abbott and Costello. However, as Inisherin proves, this isn’t a perfect: if this is all we have, hopefully it will be enough. Read the full review. JB
1. Aftersun (dir. Charlotte Wells)
Wells’ debut is an astonishing work which will leave a lasting impression. She frames shots perfectly and her use of the 1990s setting – all pay-phones and DV camcorders – are unobtrusive and folded into the texture of the film. The heat shimmers and the nights are dark and hot, but even in the brightest moments of the day, Calum’s (Paul Mescal) face is in shadow. He struggles to keep his battle in the dark, hiding from Sophie (Frankie Corio) his despair and hiding it from the audience as well. We get a sense of unease, disquiet, heightening to possible danger but everything is offscreen and inferred and we are left – like adult Sophie – approaching memory as if it were evidence, silhouettes as if they are crime scenes. Read the full review. JB
11. Pacification (dir. Albert Serra)
12. No Bears (dir Jafar Panahi)
13. Funny Pages (dir. Owen Kline)
14. Fire of Love (dir. Sara Dosa)
15. All the Beauty and the Bloodshed (dir. Laura Poitras)
16. Holy Spider (dir. Ali Abbasi)
17. EO (Jerzy Skolimowski)
18. Broker (dir. Hirokazu Kore-eda)
19. Corsage (dir. Marie Kreutzer)
20. The Whale (dir. Darren Aronofsky)