It’s been a terrible almost two years but at least we have had some good films right? I’ve been lucky in looking at this list, there’ve been no films I’ve actively disliked or regretted seeing.
I’m counting a film as eligible for this list if it came to cinemas and/or streaming services in the UK after the announcement of the first lockdown on March 23rd 2020.
Mild spoilers ahead!
This isn’t a bad film but nonetheless I didn’t take to it. It feels self-indulgent, the stakes are unclear, and it feels like most of the runtime is the lead mansplaining things. There are also some pretty big issues with historical accuracy. All the indications is that Mankiewicz did not fall out with Hearst over politics but that Hearst fell out with Mankiewicz over his drinking, and that Welles did not try to usurp credit for the film. While it makes sense for filmmakers to have a fair amount of creative licence when dealing with real events, if the twin ideas powering the story are both wrong, then why not just tell a fictional narrative?
That said the minute or less where Hearst (played by Charles Dance) quietly and without drama totally and completely casts Mankiewicz out is chilling and almost justifies the film in and of itself.
41. In the Heights
This was probably a victim of my expectations because I came to this having recently discovered Hamilton. Still the songs are mostly forgettable and the different plot threads don’t really tie-up in a satisfying way.
40. An American Pickle
Does have some good jokes and touching moments. However, it’s mostly for naught because this film raises big questions about family, faith, tradition and the immigrant experience, without having anything to say about them.
39. The Suicide Squad
There is the core of a much better film buried inside this rather childish one.
38. The Green Knight
Craft over substance. Though admittedly the craft is impressive.
37. Happiest Season
This feels like it would be a better film if it didn’t feel constrained by the need to stick to the conventions of a feelgood Christmas film, which ultimately pushes it towards a rather facile conclusion. That said it’s not really for me and Dan Levy steals scenes with panache.
36. Free Guy
If you’d described this film to me, I’d probably have expected to hate it. So, it’s something of a minor triumph that the reviews and word of mouth were good enough to get me to the cinema to see it, albeit only using my Odeon unlimited card. It still wasn’t really for me but it had its moments.
Also, worth noting that CGI heavy action sequences work an awful lot better if they’re supposed to be set in a computer game!
My takeaway from this film was that I’ll forgive Marvel almost anything because their films are so entertaining. This one wasn’t and that made the flaws really stick out. I especially missed the usual Wedonesque quippy dialogue, the absence of which was conspicuous enough that I didn’t feel like I was watching something from the MCU. I did enjoy spending time with some of the Eternals, unfortunately just not the characters the film ultimately spent the most time with. Ultimately, I think the problem is that whilst Chloe Zhao has a really strong and interesting directorial voice, it doesn’t really gel with the MCU.
34. No Time to Die
I found this rather antiseptic. It didn’t help that repeated delays for Covid meant that the marketing had to keep being ramped up and down, meaning that virtually all the big action moments were in the many trailers. That said I felt it would have been really lifted if there had been an action set piece that really hit home.
A more fundamental problem, is that having established a world populated by 3D characters whose motivations matter, it gives us a villain whose personal stake in the story feels jarringly detached from his generic mwa ha ha ha evil plot.
33. The Matrix: Resurrection
Did I like this film? It’s hard to say! Did I understand what the hell was happening? No. Does it deliver impressive or even legible action sequences? No. Does it have a cracking cast? It sure does! Does it make good use of them? Alas not.
Despite all the ways it fails as a conventional film, there is something compelling weird about it. Plus, the long meta section at the start where Lana Wachowski uses a Warner Bros film to have a go at Warner Bros handling of the Matrix franchise is entertaining.
32. Don’t Look Up
For my money, this is the best of Adam McKay’s informal trilogy of satirical films. Whereas the Big Short and Vice would have been better as one of John Oliver’s presentations on Last Week Tonight, this fictional story feels a better fit for a feature film. Pus the central conceit of imagining if the world responded to the plot of Armageddon the way we have to climate change is pretty biting. That said I imagine the decision to intermix that with a broader satire on populist conservatism means it will alienate anyone it might of convinced and will be left preaching to the converted.
31. The Vast of Night
A neat little sci-fi story about UFO sightings in small town America in the 50s. Does seem like someone took the script for a radio play and filmed it instead. The visuals do feel pretty superfluous and it would probably feel more atmospheric without them. Maybe consider putting a towel over your TV screen!
30. Those Who Wish Me Dead
Taylor Sheridan has what I think of as the ‘Aaron Sorkin problem’. He’s a good enough screenwriter that he gets to direct his own scripts despite being a rather workmanlike director. This thriller set amidst forest fires is still diverting though.
29. Gunpowder Milkshake
At this point, John Wick knockoffs are basically a genre in and of themselves. And this won’t be the last example on this list. This one is slightly elevated by its impressive cast. That said apart from one refreshingly strange sequence where the central character has to fight-off a group of assassins despite having had her arms paralysed, Gunpowder Milkshake isn’t really bringing anything new.
28. The Mauritanian
Speaking of Aaron Sorkin, another Guantanamo set legal drama rather overshadows this film. However, if you can look past this, this rather quieter story based on real-life is worth your time.
27. Black Widow
It’s cliché to say that MCU films tend to start strong and then sag a bit when they get to their CGI third act. Black Widow takes this disparity to a whole new level. The opening sections are essentially an extended Bourne pastiche mostly shot on location and, best of all, introduces Florence Pugh as a new Black Widow. Then we get a very strange set of green screen nonsense where nothing seemsreal, least of all Ray Winstone’s Russian accent. I also found the thematic arc sat rather poorly with what we’ve seen of Natasha’s story up till now. Still a good film but not vintage Marvel either.
26. Raya and the Last Dragon
The orphaned heroine of this film must find five pieces of a shattered gem, so dragons can be resurrected in order to defeat monsters known as Druun and the five tribes of Kumandra can be reunited into a sort of child-friendly Greater Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere. As that short synopsis probably indicates Disney wasn’t exactly breaking new ground in terms of plotting, themes or characters. That said it is very competently done and it’s nice to see Disney drawing on South-East Asian mythology and aesthetics for a change.
25. The Courier
I wrote a fuller review of this here but I think it’s a pretty effective meditation on things left unsaid.
I’ve slightly cooled on this since I first saw it on account of the rather convoluted plot. That said watching its set pieces on imax was quite a reintroduction to cinemas after they’d been closed for months.
Unquestionably, the most visually spectacular film of the year. Delivers a completely convincing rendering of strange alien worlds. Will have you swearing that its footage of giant sand worms was shot by the BBC Natural History unit and not something made by a visual fx team. The rest of the film almost keeps up but doesn’t quite. The tone can sometimes feel a bit chilly and some fairly key aspects of how this sci-fi universe works are left unexplained. Those quibbles aside it’s still a phenomenal achievement by Denis Villeneuve.
22. Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom
There’s a rather jarring mismatch between how this film is directed and shot, which might charitably be described as “stagey” and less charitably as “cheaply” and “badly”, and the quality of the performances it showcases, especially from Viola Davis and Chadwick Boseman. Their depictions of two people who stubbornly refuse to compromise with the world to very different effects are as awe inspiring as any of the visual effects in Dune.
A worthy Best Picture winner, mixing incredibly naturalistic and understated performances, many of them from non-professional actors, with spectacular vistas of the American countryside. That said I would personally have preferred something which plotwise had more of a beginning, a middle and an end.
19. Spider-man: No Way Home
This live action remake of 2018’s Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (I jest, mostly) is a continuity challenge even for Marvel as it involves keeping things straight not only within their own cinematic universe but several others as well. The reward is that they can tell a story which is at once bigger than anything they’ve done before without being any less personal. I have gripes, including the perennial complaint about it degenerating into a messy CGI heavy third act, but they mostly land it despite everything that could have gone wrong.
It’s to its credit that even though I saw a lot of spoilers whilst waiting for my booster to kick-in, this still had plenty of surprises for me. Likewise, it managed to pick-up plotlines from films I didn’t really care about and get me to emotionally invest in them. Finally, having a film where the aim is to save not defeat the villains is quietly subversive.
18. Palm Springs
Covid lockdowns where every day just seemed to repeat itself were arguably the ideal time to revisit the Groundhog Day-esque time loop sub-genre. This one manages to be sweet but not cloying whilst managing a sort of mellow humour thanks in no small part to its very likeable leads.
Pixar does what it does. Long may it continue!
16. Les Misérables
Not based on the Victor Hugo novel but set in the same part of Paris a hundred and fifty years later, where now everything is great. JK! This is pretty much like an antidote to Emily in Paris as far as depictions of the French capital go. It’s a pretty harrowing account of police corruption and brutality inspired by events leading up to an actual riot. The banlieue where it takes place is depicted in grim terms, neglected by anyone outside its boundaries, and exploited by corrupt local politicians who are vying for influence with organised criminals and the thuggish police. A local Islamic organisation which may or may not be the Muslim Brotherhood is shown as the only half-way benign force at play.
In case, you’ve not already guessed, this is definitely not a film to watch if you’re looking for something light or cheery.
15. Last Night in Soho
Anything Edgar Wright does is worthy of attention and this high-concept horror is probably his best film since Hot Fuzz. This story of young woman facing either madness or glimpsing the past is a wonderfully visceral exploration of the dark side of nostalgia. Also, notable for featuring the final performance from the late, great Dianna Rigg.
14. Tick, Tick… Boom
This adaptation of Rent author Jonathan Larson’s autobiographical musical could be a tough sell for anyone not as immersed in Broadway history as it is. Yet even if you miss the easter eggs as consistently as I did, there’s something magical about the way it uses songs to be contemplative and sombre without ever really slowing down. It’s also a testament to Lin-Manuel Miranda’s direction that even though this is based on a stage show, it not only doesn’t seem like a play on screen but is actually hard to imagine without the options film provides.
13. I Care a Lot
Rosamond Pike’s icy performance carries this acid burn of a satire about the world of guardianship fraud, which tbf sounds about as dodgy as the film makes out.
11. Nobody and 12. Riders of Justice
In both these action-comedies, middle-aged dads respond to their families being victims of crime by starting a war with a crime gang, which rapidly spirals out of control.
Nobody is set in the US and from the John Wick team, deploying a similar action style but with Bob Odenkirk at its centre. He effectively evokes both a past his prime and aimless suburban guy and a remorselessly effective special ops assassin within the same character. Lots of details like his stubble or wiry frame can in different contexts a guy whose gently fading away or one whose tougher than he appears.
Whilst Nobody feels very precisely made and dependably entertaining, Riders of Justice is – and I don’t mean this as a criticism even though it sounds like one – all over the place. Mads Mikkelsen’s central character is not immediately relatable. His cold, robotic, pragmatic demeanour is exactly not what his daughter needs following the death of her mother, but makes complete sense when you see him in action scenes. The strange group of IT nerds he finds himself allied to are dysfunctional in a way which shifts from lovable to annoying very quickly. The humour is very dark and very strange. What makes the film such a delight though is seeing all these very different elements come together into something delightful.
10. Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings
The MCU has been the largest fish in the movie pond for a decade now. That had naturally leads to occasional speculation about when it might slip from its perch. 2021 could perhaps look like evidence of that beginning. Eternals and Black Widow were fairly underwhelming. No Way Home is a huge hit but is basically backward looking. Yet Shang-Chi is pretty compelling evidence in the opposite direction.
Not only did it bring a new hero to the screen for the very first time and used a relatively contained story to take us into a fresh corners of the fictional universe, it also showed signs that Marvel is continuing to refine its formula and address its weaknesses. Tony Leung’s electric performance as the Mandarin is one of the best examples of the work they’ve done creating villains with depth. Plus, it has the best choreographed and most grounded action scences we’ve yet seen from Marvel and it’s not until the very end that they let themselves go and lapse into OTT CGI.
Undoubtedly the most fun film on this list.
9. The Man Standing Next
This spy thriller stars Lee Byung-hun, last seen (or more accurately unseen) in Squid Game, playing one of the most controversial figures in Korean history. In 1979, Korea’s spy chief, Kim Jae-gyu, shot and killed his boss and mentor, General Park Chung-hee, the country’s military dictator. The Man Standing Next produces an incredibly tense and claustrophobic interpretation of what led Kim to his desperate decision.
An excellent film even if the English subtitling leaves something to be desired.
8. Summer of Soul (…or, When the Revolution Could Not be Televised)
The Harlem Cultural Festival took place the same summer as Woodstock. Yet despite a line-up including Nina Simone, Stevie Wonder and Gladys Knight, it was basically forgotten about for decades for reasons that seem to have had everything to do with race. Summer of Soul uses tapes literally found in a draw to not only recreate these remarkable concerts but evoke the times that produced them.
I suspect that even if you didn’t know that this story about a Korean-American family trying to make farming work is grounded in writer-director Lee Isaac Chung’s own experiences, you’d probably sense that in how real it all feels. He manages to convey the toughness of this situation without lapsing into melodrama or creating an obvious villain.
5. One Night in Miami and 6. Judas and the Black Messiah
The obvious reason to bracket these two films together is that they deal with similar themes and take place in roughly the same period of history. However, I think the most noteworthy thing about them is being able to convincingly depict charismatic historical figures.
To illustrate why this is both difficult and important, let’s return to Mank, which I promise I do not have it in for. For most of its runtime Welles is treated like the Prince in Hamlet. It’s not until the very end he appears. At which point he appears played by Tom Burke. It’s not a bad performance, you believe and understand his motivation. But it doesn’t give you any sense of what about him beguiled not only audiences but also studio execs to the point that they gave a guy in his early twenties who’d never made a film before, free reign to make Citizen Kane.
By contrast, in Judas and the Black Messiah, you absolutely see why Fred Hampton was so inspiring for his followers (and so terrifying for the FBI). In her directorial debut, Regina King, manages to do the same thing four times over, convincing you that you’re in the presence of Muhammad Ali, Malcolm X, Sam Cooke and NBA player Jim Brown.
4. Another Round
This features, against some very stiff competition, probably the best performance of Mads Mickelson’s career. This story about a group of teachers trying to maintain a minimum blood alcohol level could easily become an inditement of drinking but Another Round captures its appeal as well and ultimately leads to a very ambiguous ending.
2. A Quiet Place Part II and 3. the Sound of Metal
Even though they are incredibly different films, they both use sound (and silence) in a similar way not only to build tension but also to how the world appears to someone who can’t hear easily.
1. Memories of Murder
[Technically this was released in the UK back in 2004 but it does seem like thanks to Parasite’s Oscar win its 2020 release was actually the larger of the two.]
The implicit set-up of most detective stories is that you will see a brilliant investigator track an equally capable criminal. Memories of Murder gives us a more frightening proposition: what if there is a serial killer on the loose and the police supposed to be protecting you from them are a bunch of useless knuckleheads, hired not for their ability to apprehend criminals but because they are game for beating up the student protestors challenging the military regime. If you’ve seen Parasite you won’t be surprised that Bong Joon-ho ably balances horror, intrigue and farce.
As an aside, since the film was made the perpetrator of the real-life murders which inspired this film has been revealed through DNA evidence. A development which has only served to underline the failures of the police at the time.
Memories of Murder is not a comfortable watch but it is a deeply compelling, evocative and provocative. So, it’s my film of the past two years.