Although another unpredictable year for cinema, the tail end of 2021 has seen a slight resurrection of the cinema experience with both multiplexes and independent cinemas navigating the ‘new normal’. As always we bring you an eclectic mix of highlights from the year delving into multiple genres and spanning numerous countries. In no particular order, here are Culture Fix’s top films of 2021.
This Icelandic folk-horror fantasy from Valdimar Jóhannsson was an immediate standout thanks to its surreal concept and satisfying slow-burn set-up documenting a couple in rural Iceland raising a lamb as their own child. As well as boasting a stirring man versus nature battle, Lamb has chilling metaphorical subject matter documenting the anxieties of new parenthood.
House of Gucci
Ridley Scott’s overwrought lavish drama treads the line between camp and family drama with an impressive visual finesse and style yet is prepared to get messy and grisly throughout its 158 minutes. Lady Gaga’s powerful performance as Patrizia Reggiani powers the film through slower-paced moments, whilst big name support from Salma Hayek, Jeremy Irons, Al Pacino and Adam Driver keeps House of Gucci immensely watchable.
Pablo Larraín continues his examination into the tragedy of misunderstood female figures with Spencer – a nightmarish interpretation of Diana’s Christmas with the Royals at Sandringham Estate. Larraín’s ability to craft a tone of chilling unease paired with a devastating performance from Kristen Stewart ensures Spencer is an out and out guttural success.
Last Night in Soho
Edgar Wright’s suspense horror transports us to 60s London through a nostalgic soundtrack, tremendous attention to period detail, and performances from icons of the decade Terence Stamp and the late great Diana Rigg. Delving into giallo elements and crafting an atmosphere that is not afraid to embrace the ghoulish, Last Night in Soho is lingering, creeping genre treat.
The Green Knight
This earthy Arthurian fantasy epic shines as an ethereal, spellbinding epic commanded flawlessly by a career-defining lead turn from Dev Patel and the assertive vision of filmmaker David Lowery. Layered with an uneasy mysticism The Green Knight captures the journey from naivety to maturity and the self-doubt, wisdom and lamentation that falls in between this.
The level of camp on display in James Wan’s beautifully trashy Malignant is in a league of its own on this list. A throwback to nineties and early-noughties crime-horror with a grisly giallo attitude, Malignant’s tale of a woman’s paralyzing visions and the carnage that follows these is a film that presents countless moments where the audience can only scream in nightmarish glee. The prison scene itself is a twisted work of art.
The Sparks Brothers
Music documentaries often feel like they are skimming the subject matter of artists” careers, yet The Sparks Brothers bucks that trend. Fully diving into each of Sparks albums, Edgar Wright’s comprehensive documentary is a gleeful love letter to the elusive musical duo that packs the silliness, wit and intelligence that fans have come to expect from Ron and Russell Mael. If you don’t love Sparks before watching this, there is no doubt you will after.
Dance of the Forty One
Hitting Netflix in 2021, Dance of the Forty One captures a dark period in Mexican history as it centres on a police raid of a queer party featuring many of the country’s then political elite. Packed with period melodrama, David Pablos’ film captures the human heart of one of Mexico’s biggest political scandals and sheds light on a story that deserves to be told.
The United States vs. Billie Holiday
Lee Daniels and lead Andra Day craft a dazzling account of the tumultuous battle between the legendary jazz singer and the Federal Government through an undercover sting operation seeking to take her down due to her song Strange Fruit. Combining the grit with the glamour tends to be Lee Daniels’ speciality these days and The United States vs. Billie Holiday is no exception and whilst the direction is raw and powerful, it is Day’s performance that proves the film’s strongest asset.
Everybody’s Talking About Jamie
Everybody’s Talking About Jamie has made a name for itself as one of the West End’s most delightfully feel-good musicals turning the true-life story of teenage drag queen Jamie Campbell into an all-singing, all-dancing triumph. The musical devised by lyricist Tom Macrae and musician Dan Gillespie Sells makes the leap to the big screen in a directorial feature debut for Jonathan Butterell with Macrae adapting. The result is a lavish uplifting spectacle brimming with a sense of high energy fun, slickly staged musical numbers, and a heartfelt, empowering message faithful to its theatrical namesake.
Fewer actors have as an erratic a filmography as a latter day Nicolas Cage who regularly sprinkles cinematic gems into a disappointingly high amount of direct-to-demand schlock. Pig falls into the former category with poignant direction and a raw leading turn from the dynamic actor ensuring this is a feature that touches some sensitive emotions within its audience.
Me You Madness
Louise Linton has crafted a high camp fantasy with her directorial debut Me You Madness. The feature which straddles the line between the comedy and thriller genres pays homage to eighties popular culture through the film’s satirical, savvy narrative that excels in its fourth-wall breaking bravado.
Firebird, a captivating love story set during the Cold War, is written by Tom Prior and Peeter Rebane who present a beautifully sensual romance which packs all the simmering tension of a brooding espionage thriller. Prior leads alongside Ukrainian talent Oleg Zagorodnii, whilst Rebane takes on directorial duties for this heartfelt, polished feature which draws inspiration from The Story of Roman by Sergey Fetisov.
Writer-director Eytan Fox’s Sublet sees the values of a fifty-something gay American writer and a modern-thinking young gay Israeli man collide. Co-written by Itay Segal, Sublet makes proves a hit with its gentle mix of drama, engaging characters, and shining as a gorgeous showcase for the city of Tel Aviv.
Annie Ernaux’s 1991 novel Passion simple receives a cinematic adaptation courtesy of writer-director Danielle Arbid. Translating to English as Simple Passion, the feature stars French actress Laetitia Dosch and Ukrainian ballet dancer and actor Sergei Polunin. This intimate erotic drama explores the dichotomy of a two sided affair: one seeking physical pleasure, the other longing for emotional and intellectual connection.