Best films of 2021: the year in review

 

By © Jane Freebury

It has been as good a year as any on screen during 2021, and there’s more to come. For the short term, at least. While cinemas were closed it meant blockbusters like No Time To Die and Black Widow were delayed until they could make a splash, and it left a bit more space for the rest.

And there is plenty to watch or catch up with during the festive season, as we open up again.

In Australia, the film and television industries have enjoyed support during the pandemic that live performance-based arts haven’t had to quite the same extent, though screen production is down on 2019 levels, of course. In Hollywood, it’s estimated to be at 50 or 60 percent of productions before the pandemic.

Before the last lockdown, Free Guy had only just opened when news came through that a new wave had reached Canberra. It was good to see this movie back the week cinemas re-opened, because its season had been cut short, and it was a sweet, fun ride.

The fantastic choice we have now may not continue. Forecasters say that indie film production, for instance, may drop in the short term, because the financial backers will be more risk-averse now and prefer projects that have already been taken on a test drive. So, we can expect more sequels, prequels and anything in between. Things were already trending that way.

There have been some impressive independent films, however, made with a small budget and experimental elan, this year. Nine Days, The Killing of Two Lovers, About Endlessness, Another Round, Passing and The Souvenir. The latter two were directed by women.

Some of the year’s most striking ventures came from female filmmakers, with The Power of the Dog a bold return to form by Jane Campion. And Promising Young Woman, with a stunning performance by Carey Mulligan, was also one of the films of the year for those who were up for it.

The best of the year’s terrific documentaries included The Rescue, Stray, Idiot Prayer: Nick Cave Alone at Alexandra Palace, Collective, The Truffle Hunters, My Name is Gulpilil and My Octopus Teacher. Each a reminder of how much scope there is within docos to be distinctive.

Best movie experiences for me in 2021 comprise the usual deliriously eclectic mix, and several startling surprises.

The year’s big surprise was Annette, a bizarre, beautiful gothic musical from Leos Carax, which one critic described as bonkers while giving it five stars. It can barely contain a stunning turn from Adam Driver. On the sunnier side of life, there was In the Heights, which was like one long street party held in the Washington Heights immigrant area in New York.

Three of the best comedies of the year came from France.  Antoinette in the Cevennes, The Godmother and Perfumes, each with quintessential French humour. Not necessarily brilliant, but uplifting and laugh-out-loud.

Among the best of the excellent, more traditionally staged dramas were The Mauritanian, Minamata, and Cry Macho. The Father and Ridley Scott’s The Last Duel were also excellent, both films that took some risks with structure and still came out on top.

It was a year when I noticed, more than ever, that my least favourite genre, horror, has been seeping into the mainstream and prestige international festivals. Cannes gave its best film award to a spectacle of body horror. Interesting that it was the work of a female filmmaker.

At the local box office, the terrific Australian films, High Ground, The Dry and Penguin Bloom were very deservedly doing great business early in the year. Little was heard of a small independent local film, Disclosure, that was also very good.

So, what’s releasing soon? Being the Ricardos, West Side Story, C’mon C’mon, and Licorice Pizza for starters.

For now, there’s plenty in store and on its way. High quality television series are making a mark, but films are back in cinemas or via streaming platforms, or both.

The pandemic has hurried things along, and there’s more cross-over between films and TV than ever. It will take time before we see how and if this changes what we can expect at the movies.

First published in the Canberra Times on  11 December 2021.  Jane’s film reviews are published on Rotten Tomatoes