Cracking into our Top 10 of the year has never been easier, as we’re starting with…
10 – DUNE
Succeeding where the likes of David Lynch and Alejandro Jodorowsky have failed, Denis Villeneuve brought Frank Herbert’s epic sci-fi tome to life in the only way that was feasibly possible: by splitting the story into two movies, with this movie covering only the first half of the book, but doing so with the most intricate and incredibly realised piece of world-building since we first travelled to Middle-Earth twenty years ago.
Filled with plenty of gorgeous visuals – least of all Timothée Chalamet as young lead Paul Atreides – and enough fictional lore and backstabbing factions to fill an entire season of Game of Thrones, Villeneuve’s stunning vision ensured that Herbert’s classic tale was adapted as faithfully as possible, while introducing audiences to a vast new universe which, despite taking place tens of thousands of years in the future, still feels neatly analogue (where, gleefully, bagpipes are still an instrument of choice). There’s so much to absorb here from a storytelling perspective that it can seem overwhelming at first, but the notion of greater things to come (with the second part now thankfully confirmed for a 2023 release) makes this feel all the more worthwhile, and certainly sets up a lucrative new film franchise that has the true potential to be the next Lord of the Rings, so long as it’s treated well enough.
On the basis of this film alone, we probably don’t have much to worry about as long as Villeneuve is in charge…
9 – THE SUICIDE SQUAD
It isn’t just that writer-director James Gunn’s soft reboot of DC’s anti-hero ensemble piece is a significantly better rendition than the colossal mess that David Ayer put out back in 2016, but that it was so good, in fact, that it’s earned its spot on the list of 2021’s absolute best films.
With a much stronger plot, better characters – from familiar faces like Margot Robbie’s Harley Quinn, to new standouts like John Cena’s Peacemaker (soon to star in his own TV show) and the CGI shark-person King Shark with the voice of Sylvester Stallone and the mind of a toddler – and an actual idea of what editing and pacing should be like, Gunn’s radically violent, profane and hugely unpredictable sense of humour made him the perfect candidate to rejuvenate a presumably-dead DC movie series, with everything that is great about both the filmmaker and DC’s overall line-up of memorable baddies. Throw in some plentiful heart, highly engaging action set-pieces – among them one of the year’s fiercest break-out sequences with Harley Quinn and a perfect soundtrack choice – and a Kaiju climax with a giant starfish, and you have exactly the kind of irreverent but extremely endearing superhero epic you’ve always wanted from the DC Universe.
Next year is shaping up to be another strong one for DC, but so far it’ll be hard to beat this rather amazing spectacle…
8 – JUDAS AND THE BLACK MESSIAH
In response to the pandemic, the eligibility window for awards consideration was stretched to the end of February as opposed to late December, leaving enough time for Oscar contenders to debut and make their mark on the circuit. This is why, for the first time in our history, you are seeing not one but two certified Oscar-winners on our best-of-year list (check back later for the second), since they were technically released within our own eligibility window that has prevented many other Oscar-winners from even being considered for these annual countdowns. That being said, Judas and the Black Messiah – which picked up two Oscars back in April, for H.E.R.’s Original Song “Fight For You” and most notably for Daniel Kaluuya’s astonishing supporting performance – is a fantastic film about the fascinating true story of a leader’s downfall, at the hands of a trusted confidante.
Kaluuya was simply electrifying as Black Panther Party figure Fred Hampton, whose betrayal by FBI informant William O’Neal (played by Lakeith Stanfield, in an equally riveting turn that landed him his first Oscar nomination) makes for a ferocious and occasionally disturbing study of the systematic oppression of activist movements at a time when racial tensions had never been higher, leaving you on the edge of your toes at all times. It is also a very understated, but equally attention-worthy, piece of filmmaking by director Shaka King, who along with producer Ryan Coogler and cinematographer Sean Bobbitt recreate a gritty slice of modern history that deserves to be taught in history classes, so that the brutal methods used to silence Fred Hampton for good are never repeated in the future.
There’s not much else to say other than it’s a really, really good movie that everyone should check out. So, for kicks, let’s play that Oscar-winning song by H.E.R. to close things out…
Judas and the Black Messiah is now available to rent/buy on digital platforms, including Amazon Prime Video.
7 – PETITE MAMAN
With her international breakthrough Portrait of a Lady on Fire being ineligible for last year’s list, French filmmaker Céline Sciamma will probably be thrilled to know that her follow-up film, the incredibly sweet childhood fable Petite Maman, is ranking rather high on this year’s countdown, as it is one of the year’s sweetest and most emotionally profound flicks.
Sciamma channels classical Studio Ghibli with her magical realist story of a young girl’s encounter with a younger version of her own mother, which is played out through a simplistic yet entirely rich loose structure that beautifully shows the bond between child actresses and real-life sisters Gabrielle and Josephine Sanz, who deliver bright and insightful young turns that serve as the true heart of Sciamma’s film. At a pint-sized length of just 72 minutes, the movie still manages to naturally work in hard-hitting themes about loss, grief and connection with our elders, in between wholesome scenes of the two young girls making pancakes and acting in their own film noir – on paper, that might not sound especially exciting, but Sciamma makes it work in a way where your eyes are always glued to the screen, just to witness the pure beauty unfolding in front of your eyes.
France has released its fair share of outstanding movies this year, from Julia Ducournau’s bonkers Palme D’Or winner Titane to Leos Carax’s highly original opera Annette, but it is Céline Sciamma’s quiet, studious and exceptionally sweet little drama that stands out amongst the crop…
Petite Maman is currently showing in cinemas nationwide. It will be available to stream exclusively on MUBI next year.
6 – WEST SIDE STORY
Though it may be the most recent film on this list, Steven Spielberg’s dazzling adaptation of the classic Bernstein/Sondheim musical shoots straight into our top 10 for not only being a fantastically staged version of the beloved Romeo & Juliet-inspired story, but for being a great movie in and of itself.
Spielberg’s first-ever musical is very different to the Oscar-winning 1961 version, for its closer faithfulness to the original stage production – as well as the casting of actual Latinx actors as Puerto Ricans – and its expansion on the historical themes and character arcs which add greater depth and soul to this timeless story. It gives the director some excellent material to bring to life, with the several musical numbers alone making it one of his most energetic and passionate films in years, performed beautifully by an astonishing young cast including future superstars Rachel Zegler, Mike Faist, Ariana DeBose and David Alvarez (Ansel Elgort, on the other hand? He’s unfortunately the one weak link in an otherwise flawless movie).
Whether or not you’re familiar with the musical before going in, Spielberg’s vibrant new version is bound to please just about everyone…