2021: The year in film

Mike McCahill 7 December 2021

This year marked a return to the cinema for many, but were the films that took us there all up to scratch? 

And like that, the movies were back. In all future histories of the cinema, 2020 will present as a fascinating anomaly: a year when, with multiplexes shuttered in the interests of public health, streamable art films took over the UK release schedule like wildflowers poking through concrete.

In 2021, the bulldozers of Hollywood returned, if not to pave paradise, exactly, then at least to put up a place where The Croods 2: A New Age might screen six times a day. Thick and fast they came at last, and more and more and more: a sudden rush of delayed, expensive product, hellbent on recouping lost time in the marketplace. If it wasn’t a great year, it was unquestionably an abundant one.

There will be a time lag, of course, but early evidence suggested little had been learned from the Great Pause; even Hollywood’s best and brightest seemed prone to muddled thinking. Chloé Zhao began the year as an Oscar-winner, her very fine Nomadland sweeping all before it at April’s subdued, socially distanced ceremony.

She finished it directing Eternals, Marvel’s worst reviewed feature—and yet even that cleaned up financially, too big to properly fail. The admirably industrious veteran Ridley Scott saw October’s scholarly The Last Duel bomb, before recovering with the slapdash House of Gucci, a film that barely seemed conscious of whether it was competing for Oscars or Razzies.

"In 2021, the bulldozers of Hollywood returned"

At least those were original, adult dramas, a rarity in the modern marketplace. Elsewhere, it was business as usual: give the fanboys what they want. A Space Jam sequel, 25 years after the first one? You got it. A reunion of the surviving Ghostbusters?

Sure, why not. A ninth Fast & Furious? Keep ‘em coming. The flood of new content only intensified as the year went on, but those multiplexes, which as late as the mid-Noughties still seemed like neon-lit lands of plenty touting something for just about everybody, increasingly looked to be offering a choice of two: turn left for children’s movies, turn right for overgrown children’s movies.

Granted, Bond was back, 18 months after he was first scheduled to return, with a film that finally put this battered character (and star Daniel Craig) out of his recent miseries. At time of writing, No Time to Die stands as the third biggest hit ever at the UK box-office—an impressive result, given the delays, the film’s downbeat tenor and any residual fears about COVID-era cinemagoing.

Autumn’s other big hope, Denis Villeneuve’s oppressive adaptation of Frank Herbert’s sci-fi staple Dune, walloped five-star reviews out of some awestruck onlookers, but otherwise yielded all the pleasure of being held hostage in an underground carpark for two-and-a-half hours, with no resolution in sight (Dune 2 follows).

For true joy and wonder, you had to look elsewhere, back in the direction of those wildflowers. To a film like Leos Carax’s Cannes opener Annette, which took risks beyond the Hollywood pale: puppet babies, murderous men, songs by Sparks. To another French film, Gagarine, where a young Black teen transformed his derelict housing estate into a space station.

And to Céline Sciamma’s woodland fable Petite Maman, as small as its title suggested, but expansive in its outlook and empathy. It was a banner year for French cinema—tattooed provocation Titane won at Cannes, while abortion drama Happening stunned Venice—but then they let gambles like these into their multiplexes.

It was a quieter year for Britain—a country that’s suffered more than most from COVID—though several fimmakers turned that quietness to their advantage. In The Nest, it allowed us to better hear the hum of unease running through Tory wideboy Jude Law’s domestic life. In Supernova, we noted the words unspoken between middle-aged lovers Colin Firth and Stanley Tucci.

In the instructive autism doc The Reason I Jump, the silence allowed neurodivergent subjects room to express their innermost thoughts. Noise can sometimes, after all, be the enemy: see Ben Whishaw’s extraordinary turn as Joseph, an ultra-sensitive young man unravelling on the streets of London in Aneil Karia’s gripping Surge.

Amid the rush and push of renewed cinemagoing, the relentless torrent of new releases, other images have stayed with me.

The eeriness of a COVID-desolated Wuhan in 76 Days, and—by complete contrast—the crowds swelling in late Sixties Harlem, as compelling as the star turns, in the great music doc Summer of Soul; Tilda Swinton’s sharply dressed solitude in Pedro Almodóvar’s heart-and-soul lockdown short The Human Voice, set against the hardiness of warrior-queen Tina Turner in Tina; the gentle friendship between outlaw and bovine in Kelly Reichardt’s adorable Western First Cow, and the murderous pride of Jean Dujardin in the droll French comedy Deerskin.

Awards season is upon us again, though this year’s crop are unusually backward-looking, as if our filmmakers spent 2020 digging into their own archives and memory banks. Frontrunners include Steven Spielberg’s West Side Story, Kenneth Branagh’s boyhood reminiscence Belfast and Paul Thomas Anderson’s coming-of-ager Licorice Pizza.

International flavour comes courtesy of Almodóvar’s Parallel Mothers, Paolo Sorrentino’s The Hand of God and Jane Campion’s The Power of the Dog. Those last two are Netflix-bound, but most others will soon be coming to a big screen near you, providing cinemas don’t succumb to Omicron: yet another sequel no-one was particularly asking for.

Featured Image: Courtesy of Gianni Fiorito for Hand of God, Netflix Media Centre

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