Top five time, and it all kicks off with…
5 – THE REASON I JUMP
Hindsight can be a glorious thing, and in this case it has allowed me to realise that I was perhaps a little too generous with my A+ grades this year. Not that the films which were awarded the website’s top grade didn’t deserve high praise by any means, but sometimes I can get so caught up in the moment and the thematic weight of a film’s central ambitions that it can be hard for me to hold back on my overall praise for something.
Case in point, while The Reason I Jump – the stunning documentary highlighting the lives of several young non-verbal autistic people from around the world – is by all accounts an excellent film, I honestly don’t really remember much about it. The other A+ movies on this list, as you’ll see, managed to stick in the memory throughout the entire year, whereas with this one I honestly forgot what even happened during it. I had to look up my own review from back in June to trigger memories about my thoughts on the film, so that I could write something for its obligatory position on this list.
It then dawned on me that I remembered so little about it because, in a compliment towards the film, I already knew the experiences that it was focusing on, and it was instead serving as a gateway for people who really don’t know that much about autism and the wide spectrum on which we operate. Through a blissful free-form structure with occasional interludes that refer back to Naoki Higashida’s original novel, the film allows people to fully understand what it is like to live with conditions like non-verbal autism that prevent certain people from communication skills we all take for granted. It does so generously, and with real honour and respect towards its autistic central figures, something that Sia really needs to be taught following her disastrous attempt with Music, allowing them to thrive in ways that could only be captured with the grace and dignity of these filmmakers.
Again, the film is, for me, the least memorable of the A+ movies this year, but in my defence it’s for a rather good reason…
4 – LIMBO
Making a deadpan comedy about the refugee crisis doesn’t sound especially appealing, or even tonally appropriate, but writer-director Ben Sharrock’s funny, emotional and dryly smart film is a fantastic debut that hits on all cylinders with its subject matter and greater human depth. It was the first A+ grade given this year by us – in fact, it was our first A+ grade ever – and the fact that it’s managed to last the entire year among the top five is surely a testament to its power as an understated piece of storytelling.
Sharrock’s film presents the migration complications in the most unlikeliest of places – a sleepy, barely inhabited Scottish island – and through the eyes of Syrian oud player Omar (Amir El-Masry) and optimistic Freddie Mercury admirer Farhad (Vikash Bhai), as they and other refugees slowly pass the time as they wait for their asylum applications to be either accepted or rejected. Much of the humour comes from the confusion and frustration of our two main characters as they desperately try to find answers in the most barren of landscapes, not just for their application status but also for their own personal battles that have prompted them to start new lives abroad. Sharrock handles these heavy themes with a stoic and often heart-breaking tone that shows just how shocking the infantized treatment of migrants can be, but with a sense of humour that doesn’t necessarily lighten the mood but certainly gives a new perspective on such tragic circumstances.
While there are many people who have sympathised with the refugee cause, there are unfortunately just as many others – if not more – who have bought into the scaremongering surrounding the immigration influx, inspiring xenophobia on an uncontainable level. Movies like Limbo, however, remind us that we are all human no matter where we come from or what our circumstances may be, and that to make the world a fairer and more just one to live in, we need to acknowledge that people less fortunate than ourselves need help in their quests to achieve new lives outside of unsafe countries, free of condescending government bureaucracy that the characters here awkwardly – and hilariously – go through. Even if it’s just a tiny bit, by showing a very real and empathetic portrayal of people in this situation Limbo manages to make the case for greater recognition of the need to help our fellow humans and ensure that they are given as fair treatment as possible.
This could have just been a poor-taste comedy that laughed at other people’s misfortunes, but this film – easily one of the year’s most profound – has much more to it than its barrel of laughs…
3 – NOMADLAND
Ladies and gentlemen, may we present the first ever – and, most likely, only – certified Best Picture Oscar winner to show up on our end-of-year best list. It certainly was a good first couple of months for filmmaker Chloé Zhao’s epic trek across Americana, winning virtually every Best Picture award across town, from the (now-tainted) Golden Globes to the BAFTAs to, of course, the Academy Awards where it won two others for Zhao’s direction and Frances McDormand’s quietly powerful lead performance. And for good reason, too: it really is that great of a movie.
Zhao’s filmmaking artistry was on full display here, capturing the nomad lifestyle in heavily naturalistic form, casting real-life nomads as fictional versions of themselves while still retaining their humanity and dignity, and allowing McDormand’s Fern character to observe and reflect on the various stories she hears from everyone she comes across. It is a beautiful piece of filmmaking, epic in scope while keeping the action relatively grounded, accompanied by gorgeous cinematography that captures some of the most vibrant atmospheres in American nature, without completely romanticising the tragic subtext for our journey through them.
I saw this movie twice during the year – once at home upon its streaming debut on Disney+, and then in the cinema once they reopened – and every time there was a fascinating reaction among my fellow viewers which reinforced why movies, no matter how they are shown, are absolutely vital to our way of life. At home, watching with family, there were studious observations made about the thoughtful depictions of modern nomad life, prompting conversation about the general welfare of people who had lost everything under tragic circumstances. Then, in the cinema, as audiences flocked to see the newly-crowned Oscar champion, I could hear murmurs regarding the awe and beauty of the imagery, and their compliments towards the story that was being told. It reminded me, in a year where for a good chunk of it cinemas were closed (again) and we were forced to watch stuff on our TVs and laptops, that movies will always have the power to make people think, make them connect with new cultures, and wow people with their artistry as much as their storytelling prowess. In that regard, it’s easy to see why this was so beloved during the last awards season.
While Zhao may not have entirely struck lightning twice this year with the underwhelming Marvel epic Eternals, her Oscar-winning masterpiece remains an undisputed champion that doesn’t need superheroes to feel grand and adventurous…
2 – THE GREEN KNIGHT
For a little while, it looked like UK audiences wouldn’t get the big-screen experience with David Lowery’s jaw-dropping Arthurian epic, when it was suddenly pulled from exhibition right at the last minute with distributors citing rising COVID-19 cases. After weeks of pestering tweets from disgruntled UK viewers (understandable, because America got the movie before us and could not stop praising the movie left and right), it was eventually rescheduled as a hybrid theatrical and streaming release on Amazon Prime Video. How depressing would it have been, though, if it were only an online Amazon exclusive, because this movie deserves to be seen on the biggest screen possible.
Lowery retells the classic tale of Sir Gawain and his quest to confront the mysterious Green Knight with none of the romanticism of past King Arthur adventures, and instead with a gritty and superbly intense atmosphere that feels like we’re watching a horror film instead of a historical epic. The misadventures that Dev Patel’s Gawain has on his journey, from run-ins with thieves to ghostly women to talking foxes all the way to naked giants, are beautiful in scale and in its pacing, which Lowery always keeps you invested in no matter how episodic they may feel. It’s the kind of filmmaking and storytelling that could have fit easily within the New Hollywood era, made by visionaries like John Boorman who offer a new kind of visual clarity over the classical Hollywood traditions, and shot in a way that truly allows the viewer to be transported into a much gritter and painfully real version of Arthurian England.
Like Nomadland before it, The Green Knight was instrumental this year in really reminding me why movies work best on the big screen, especially something on this scale. Witnessing the glorious imagery on a large canvas instead of watching it on a much smaller, more reflective black mirror at home is an incredibly absorbing experience, because it allows you to fully immerse yourself into the world, its characters’ journeys, and the overall themes and noble messages that the filmmakers want to impart upon their audience. Lowery’s unflinching portrayal of Arthurian times is unlike anything you have seen before, but to really feel the weight of its depiction you need to see each and every little detail as up close as you possibly can, and there’s only one place in the world where that is possible, which definitely isn’t your living room. Only then, can you really appreciate the intelligence and craftmanship on display, which you simply cannot replicate at home (perhaps this is why the film has become divisive with audiences, because they may have opted for that lesser method over the real thing).
Once again, it was so relieving to see this magnificent epic on the big screen, because The Green Knight’s cinematic qualities as well as its already fantastic attributes really do make it one of the year’s most accomplished pieces of work…
1 – CENSOR
If films like The Green Knight and Nomadland reinforced the belief that big-screen cinema is alive and well even in the midst of a global pandemic, director and co-writer Prano Bailey-Bond’s Censor cemented it with a gorgeous love letter to a genre of movies that, looking back upon them many years later, perhaps weren’t as sickening as they were made out to be. In doing so, it’s earned its place as the very best movie of 2021, for a variety of reasons.
How about, to start with, Bailey-Bond’s expansive knowledge and clear adoration of the classic “video nasties”, which plagued Thatcher-era Britain with their controversial reputations and excessive gore, something that censors such as Niamh Algar’s fractured Enid were charged with cutting or banning altogether. The detail and effort put into recreating the grindhouse exploitation movies of the 70s and 80s, from Driller Killer to The Evil Dead, is nothing short of inspiring, and the product of a visionary who has grown up with a lot of these films to the point where they can replicate exact frame rates, aspect ratios and colour palettes down to a tee. For horror fans, or casual admirers of the trashy exploitation movies of yesteryear, this was a cinephile’s treasure trove of guilty pleasures, brought back via this excellent-crafted feature.
Censor, however, is far more than just a mere homage of the standard video nasty; it is a chilling and legitimately frightening psychological horror about a woman’s dangerous obsession with righting a wrong that has plagued her with guilt for years, sending her further and further down a spiral of madness until, eventually, she becomes a central figure in the kind of films she has been preventing the public from experiencing. Niamh Algar’s knife-edge lead performance is highly effective at showing the true fragility of her psyche, making her a dangerously unreliable protagonist who we are never sure as to whether she deserves all our sympathy, even when she’s making some unnerving encounters with giant beast men or – most monstrous of all – Michael Smiley’s lawsuit-waiting-to-happen sexual predator of a movie producer. Her increasingly unstable sense of mind carries us all the way to the film’s shocking conclusion, which offers little in terms of solid answers but leaves us on just the most perfect note we could have wished for.
From all of that, you might be a little taken aback, because nothing I’ve described about this film so far necessarily sounds like it deserves to leapfrog over films like The Green Knight and Nomadland towards the top spot, since it’s nowhere near as epic, emotional, or even as well-made as those films (though don’t get me wrong, it certainly is all of those things in its own way). Truth be told, Censor was simply the one film this year that I could not get out of my head as much as I tried; it was all I could think about following my first viewing of the film, with certain key moments from core scenes replaying in my head like the rewound tapes in the censors’ viewing rooms, and no matter how hard I tried to move on to the next film I would always keep coming back to this movie. It was by far the film I rewatched the most in cinemas this year, even more than some of the bigger Marvel or James Bond movies, because a part of me was always just so curious about piecing together the many parts of its puzzle, and by the time I got to my fourth – yes, you read right, fourth – cinematic viewing, I finally began seeing more of the potential picture that Bailey-Bond was perhaps hiding in plain sight (I won’t go into it here, because it requires spoilers). Admittedly, it may just be wild theorisation, but there are aspects of this movie which, when you have such a theory in mind, make a whole lot more sense than they already did.
Again, that is the power of big-screen storytelling. You could be watching just some plain run-of-the-mill genre movie, but notice things about it upon multiple viewings which forever alter your perception of its original impact. Granted, you can certainly get the same experience watching it at home, but the cinema is where you can truly get lost in your own thoughts within the film you’re watching, and with Censor I count myself lucky each and every day that I was able to see such a dazzling and spellbinding movie the way in which the filmmakers intended, and then develop thoughts about something that could be debated for years by film people like myself.
That is why Censor is the best movie of 2021: it gives new meaning to the way we experience and theorise about film, and all within a film that calls back to the blood and guts of Driller Killer…