My Top 10 films of 2021

Given it’s Paul Anthony Nelson’s final year anchoring Primal Screen on Triple R, I conceded to his demand/whinging for a ranked Top 10. Consequently, the following list of films has been presented in ascending order, so to capitalise on the anticipation – what will be my Number One for 2021? Well, if it’s got you on tenterhooks, let me relieve you of that tension…

10. SWAN SONG (dir. Todd Stephens)
Similar to Robert Redford in THE OLD MAN AND THE GUN, this film is steeped in love and veneration for its aging lead actor, Udo Kier, but does so, artfully, in the form of a biopic. It’s a clever means of paying tribute – after all, an actor’s brief is to pretend to be someone else – but the parallels to career and legacy are woven in such a way to ensure there won’t be a dry eye in the house. It helps to be a Kier fan.

9. CANDYMAN (dir. Nia DaCosta)
The fandom for the original CANDYMAN of 1992 runs deep with many, but I can’t say I’m one of those folks. That’s possibly one of the reasons why I’m so enamoured with Nia DaCosta’s modern rendering of this African-American urban legend, although I would argue her use of colour, geometry and, above all, horror is up there with the best of them. Props to Jordan Peele as co-screenwriter/co-producer.

8. CENSOR (dir. Prano Bailey-Bond)
In its explanation of how dark subject matter plays with the subconscious – or, more tellingly, toys with the nascent darkness in its viewers – no film says it better than CENSOR. In fact, with this film, Bailey-Bond has drawn from the stories of a past generation (i.e. the video nasties era in 1980’s Britain) to create an intelligent horror movie for a new age. I can’t wait to see what she does next.

7. PIG (dir. Michael Sarnoski)
PIG is devastating. It’s a film that avoids heart-string-plucking clichés but, nevertheless, rips at the soul. Much has been said of Nicholas Cage’s ‘campness’ in his latter career, yet his turn here as a chef-turned-truffle-hunter is by far his best role in years. It is at once gritty, conflicted, tender, callous, honest, pretentious and impossibly raw. Best viewed without knowing much more.

The magnum opus of esteemed film critic and programmer Kier-La Janisse, this 194-minute doco triumphs in both respecting its subject matter and imparting information in a useful and thoroughly entertaining manner. The subject of folk horror may be a niche one but, for anyone with even a whiff of curiousity, this film will send you through the looking-glass of discovery and fascination.

5. TICK, TICK… BOOM! (dir. Lin-Manuel Miranda)
Musicals are inching their way back into the mainstream, thanks to such high-quality offerings in recent years as LA LA LAND and now, TICK, TICK… BOOM! Even for those not familiar with Jonathan Larson’s Broadway struggles (and his sad demise at the precipice of success with RENT), Miranda’s complex, hyper-energised, musical biopic will captivate and amaze. And Andrew Garfield is a genuine revelation.

4. POWER OF THE DOG (dir. Jane Campion)
There was a moment in POWER OF THE DOG where it appears Campion is cookie-cutting her 1993 masterstroke, THE PIANO, but then she barrels down a very different narrative trajectory to surprising, nuanced results. We witness acting with a capital ‘A’ – most notably in Benedict Cumberbatch’s smouldering, repressed nasty – but its bravery in going nowhere is almost as exciting as the set-up.

3. PROMISING YOUNG WOMAN (dir. Emerald Fennell)
For most of the world, PYW was released in 2020, although its official Australian date was 7th January 2021 – hence, its inclusion in this list. While the finale of this film veered perilously into ‘horror cute’, I still rank it highly for its entertaining handling of a difficult subject matter and, similar to Prano Bailey-Bond, for saying what is so tricky to intelligently articulate. It’s stayed with me, which is saying something.

There’s something evangelical about a good music doco, and SUMMER OF SOUL perfectly fits the bill. It presents rarely seen footage and eyewitness accounts of the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival – a sibling of Woodstock but one buried under paranoia of race uprising. In ranking this doco high on my list, I also honour the superlative limited series 1971: THE YEAR THAT MUSIC CHANGED EVERYTHING.

1. LAMB (dir. Valdimar Jóhannsson)
My love of simply complex storytelling comes into its own here – and how! With the fingerprints of one of its producers, Béla Tarr, all over it, LAMB creates sentience in its livestock through little more than camera placement, and yet this important establishment of anthropomorphosis is what sells everything that comes after it. A folkloric tale with modern pathos, LAMB is really something else.

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