2021 was a strange year for the film industry. Covid-19 closed the theatres for many months; a number of movies appeared first on streaming services like Amazon and Netflix.
We’ve selected a dozen of the year’s releases for our readers. Not all of them are Oscar material, but they all combine artistry, engagement and reasonably humane values which put them a cut above the rest.
We’ve done our best to cater for all ages and interests. No doubt we’ve left out some of your favourites – please leave comments with your suggestions.
Spider-Man: No Way Home
Directed by Jon Watts. Starring Tom Holland, Zendaya, Benedict Cumberbatch, Jamie Foxx, Willem Dafoe, Alfred Molina, Benedict Wong. 148 minutes. RT 94%
For the first time Spider-Man’s identity is revealed, bringing his superhero responsibilities into conflict with his normal life and putting his loved ones at risk. His application for MIT is rejected! When he enlists Doctor Strange’s help to restore his secret, the spell releases the powerful villains, whom Spidey (spoiler alert) puts back in their boxes. Great fun.
Summer of Soul (…Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised)
Directed by Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson. Documentary. 117 minutes. RT 99%
In 1969, after the famous (and debauched) Woodstock festival, New York City organised a music festival stretching over six weekends in Harlem. The producers of “Summer of Soul” rescued the film of the all-but-forgotten event. The all-black performers are wonderful and the enthusiastic crowd are a joy to watch. Exhilarating fare. (The politics of the era were radical and this is reflected in the film.)
Directed by Kenneth Branagh. Starring Caitríona Balfe, Judi Dench, Jamie Dornan, Ciarán Hinds, Colin Morgan, Jude Hill. 97 minutes. RT 86%
This is Kenneth Branagh’s homage to the Belfast of his boyhood – at the beginning of The Troubles and lethal hostility between Protestants and Catholics – and its close family and neighbourhood ties. It follows 9-year-old Buddy and his family, who are forced to emigrate as the violence and anarchy grow. Beautifully filmed in black and white.
Directed by Florian Zeller. Starring Anthony Hopkins, Olivia Colman, Mark Gatiss, Imogen Poots, Rufus Sewell, and Olivia Williams. 97 minutes. RT 98%
Anthony Hopkins, one of our greatest living actors, won an Oscar (his second) for his portrayal of the suffering of a man with dementia. You see his confusion, his distress, his anger, his dependence. It’s a bravura performance – and frightening in its intensity.
Directed by Dominic Cooke. Starring Benedict Cumberbatch, Merab Ninidze, Rachel Brosnahan, Jessie Buckley, Angus Wright. 111 minutes. RT 85%
This is a true story about Cold War skulduggery. Benedict Cumberbatch plays Greville Wynne, a British businessman who was recruited by the MI6 to deliver messages to Russian agent Oleg Penkovsky in the 1960s. Through his work, the US received valuable information which helped to end the Cuban Missile Crisis, although Penkovsky was caught and executed. Beautiful sound track.
Directed by Denis Villeneuve. Starring Timothée Chalamet, Rebecca Ferguson, Oscar Isaac. 156 minutes. RT 83%
Fans of this sci fi epic have been waiting for a film to do justice to the 1960s novel by Frank Herbert. Canadian director Denis Villeneuve has succeeded. Paul Atreides, a brilliant and gifted young man with a great destiny, must travel to the desert sands of Arrakis, the most dangerous planet in the universe, to ensure the future of his people. As malevolent forces explode into conflict over “spice”, a hallucinogenic substance which enables space travel and personal rejuvenation. And this is only Part 1!
No Time To Die
Directed by Cary Joji Fukunaga.Starring Daniel Craig, Rami Malek, Léa Seydoux. 163 minutes. RT 84%
Daniel Craig is retiring from his highly successful stint as 007. In his last film as James Bond, the spy has left active service, has surrendered his 007 number and is enjoying the beaches of Jamaica. But then an old friend from the CIA turns up asking for help. The mission to rescue a kidnapped scientist turns out to be far more treacherous than expected, leading Bond onto the trail of a mysterious villain and his lethal bioweapon. Lots of firepower and car chases because the future of the world is at stake.
A Quiet Place Part II
Directed by John Krasinski. Starring Emily Blunt, Millicent Simmonds, Noah Jupe, Cillian Murphy, Djimon Hounsou. 97 minutes. RT 91%
Successful sequels are rare, but this follow-up on the impressive sci fi horror film A Quiet Place is excellent. Dad’s dead now, killed by blind aliens who are incredibly powerful but who can hear a pin drop. Mum and her three children have to find other survivors, contending with both monstrous aliens and evil humans. Chock-full of suspense.
Directed by Reinaldo Marcus Green. Starring Will Smith, Aunjanue Ellis, Saniyya Sidney, Demi Singleton, Tony Goldwyn, and Jon Bernthal. 145 minutes. RT 91%
Richard Williams is determined to turn his daughters, Venus and Serena, into world champions. Training on neglected tennis courts–rain or shine–the girls are shaped by their father’s unyielding commitment. Will Smith’s performance is riveting. Like most biopics, King Richard ignores some of the darker corners of its hero’s past, but it’s great entertainment.
Directed by Alexandre Aja. Starring Mélanie Laurent. French with subtitles. 101 minutes. RT 88%
A young woman wakes up in a cryogenic pod. She can’t move and she doesn’t remember who she is or how she ended up there. She’s running out of oxygen and must rebuild her memory to find a way out of her nightmare, assisted by an AI bot with a sly and sinister voice. Not for people with claustrophobia.
Directed bySara Colangelo.StarringMichael Keaton, Stanley Tucci, Amy Ryan. 118 minutes. RT 81%
How valuable is a human life? This based-on-real-events film about negotiations for compensation to the families of the victims of 9/11 raises interesting questions. Congress appoints renowned mediator Kenneth Feinberg to head the September 11th Victim Compensation Fund. He faces the impossible task of determining the worth of a life to help families who had lost their loved ones.
Directed by Lee Isaac Chung. Starring Steven Yeun, Han Ye-ri, Alan Kim, Noel Kate Cho, Youn Yuh-jung, Will Patton. 115 minutes. RT 100%
Minari received several Oscar nominations and won a Best Supporting Actress award. It follows a Korean-American family which moves to a tiny Arkansas farm in the 1980s in search of the American Dream. Amidst the instability and challenges of farming in the rugged Ozarks, this moving film shows the resilience of family ties.