The 10 best movies of 2021 released in cinemas
As you might have already guessed from that headline, we're doing something a little different this year.
Cinemas reopened in Ireland after a long absence, and with it came a number of movies that had purposely held off from release for just such a moment. To that end, we've decided this year to split our end-of-year list for movies into two articles. I'll be taking cinema releases, while my colleague Dee Molumby will be taking on-demand releases.
I don't know about you, but it's been a strange year. Although cinemas reopened for a time in 2020, studios were noticeably reticent about sending out releases. 'No Time To Die' was famously shifted again and again through the release calendar until it moved to this year. What you then had last year was essentially a number of movies that might have not gotten the same kind of attention being released in cinemas. This time around, 2021 felt like a dam bursting. Almost as soon as cinemas were back open and restrictions were lowered, studios began firing movies into cinemas as quickly as possible.
Normally, you'd find releases spaced out for a couple of weeks in order to give audiences a chance to find them, but 2021 has seen huge blockbusters rattle through cinemas without so much as a pause. We're only a few weeks out from 'The Matrix Resurrections', which feels like it's been in production for years. Steven Spielberg's 'West Side Story' remake is on its way to cinemas next week, and that's not even counting hotly-tipped arthouse efforts like 'Titane' and 'C'mon C'mon' heading for select cinemas too in the next month.
Again, normally, we hold off writing the end-of-year list until we've seen all of the major releases, but seeing as how we're changing our long-held rules and I'm even writing in the first person for the first time in a long time, it's my hope you'll indulge us at this strange moment.
John Krasinski's follow-up to 2018's breakout horror hit has been described by some as being a cheap retread. That's pretty unfair. For one, bringing in the likes of Cillian Murphy - one of the best actors working today at communicating without the burden of dialogue - was a masterful touch. Putting the children front and centre, and placing much more of the action and tension in their world, was equally impressive because it just naturally raises the stakes. As much as Emily Blunt's bad-ass mother can protect them, they'll eventually have to make their own way in the world and that's what makes 'A Quiet Place, Part II' so special - that it has an emotional core to it that few horror franchises really have.
If you told me two years ago that the follow-up to David Ayer's 'Suicide Squad' would be on an end-of-year list, there's a good chance I'd be checking to see if you've taken a bad fall recently. Yet, James Gunn somehow managed to make the most irrelevant batch of supervillains into something quite relevant. 'The Suicide Squad' neatly eschews expectations by doing what the other one couldn't. It made us care about these awful people, but not so much that we were worried when they died. After all, they're expendable. They're the cast-offs. The giant media conglomerate that owns their likeness can't think of anything to do with Polka-Dot Man or Captain Boomerang, so why not just kill them off in a spectacular opening sequence or whatever and have the ones that people know survive? It shouldn't be such a ballsy thing, but given how copy-and-paste these types of movies tend to be, 'The Suicide Squad' made for an invigorating experience.
Matt Damon's career in 2021 has been an interesting one to examine. 'The Last Duel' might have crashed at the box office because, according to Sir Rids, millennials can't keep off their phones. Still, Matt Damon's best work in 2021 wasn't carrying that SuperValu bag around Dalkey or even the ridiculous chin-strap he had in 'The Last Duel'. No, his best work was playing a slightly dimwitted oil-driller who ends up in Marseille trying to figure out a way to get his daughter of prison. 'Stillwater' had all the density of a really good novel, in that the story unfolded with each scene rather than laying it out and letting the time run down to the end. The characters developed, we saw them in fresh perspective, and by the end, they were different. At the level that Matt Damon operates at in this industry, disappearing into a role often takes a lot of makeup work. Just ask Colin Farrell. Yet, Damon is able to convincingly play his character in 'Stillwater' by virtue of the strength of the script and his own performance. The real crime is not enough people saw 'Stillwater', but if you can, seek it out.
Paul Schrader has made a career out of writing about lonely, angry men alone in rooms, writing out their ills onto a page. 'Taxi Driver', 'First Reformed', and now 'The Card Counter' follows that. Oscar Isaac's ability to channel all of that rage and violence into a single scene here and there is incredible. Throughout this movie, you feel you're on a knife-edge with him at all times. He could lash out at any minute, but it's all so tied up in style, mood, clever writing and dialogue, that when it does happen, it's truly shocking. Of course, 'The Card Counter' is a movie that requires patience. You have to sit with it, preferably in a darkened room, and just let the uncomfortableness of it all come out in its own good time.
It's no surprise that there's been a number of Irish movies preoccupied with housing, land, and property. While the likes of 'Rosie' or 'Arracht' are concerned with survival in a brutal land, 'Herself' asks another question - what if your home wasn't even safe? What then? Clare Dunne, writing and starring here, plays this out in the context of a domestic abuse survivor trying to find a place for her daughters, as well as herself. What drives the movie forward is not survival, but resiliency. Clare Dunne's character has to find a way because there just isn't any alternative, and even in its darkest moments or its shocking twist, that strength still exists. 'Herself' reminds us, to paraphrase Stanley Kubrick, that no matter how vast the darkness is, we can and must provide our own light.
To be clear, I generally hate musicals. I've tried to personally examine why this is numerous times and there's never any good explanation I can give for it. It may come from the fact that my only experience with them is from the Broadway tradition, where it's all-singing, all-dancing, and it's all just too earnest to the point where it becomes insincere to me. Sure, there's stuff like 'My Crazy Ex-Girlfriend' that plays with the concept and is cynical and satirical, but 'Annette' is on a whole other level. I remember seeing it for the first time so vividly. I was on about four hours' sleep, I stumbled into the IFI's magnificent Screen 1 and I was chugging on a very strong coffee with the hopes of it willing me through the two-hour-twenty runtime of musical bullshit. At some point around the first hour, I had a realisation. 'Annette' was either completely taking the piss out of me, itself, music in general, but whatever it was, I was still watching it and still enjoying it. I couldn't believe it. You have to understand, I avoid musicals because I don't get them. I don't know if I got 'Annette' either, but I know I loved it and I loved how stupid, how funny it was, how everyone was just absolutely going for it, and how it never once seemed to care a jot whether or not it was making sense. How could it? That kind of boldness is so refreshing. I freely admit that 'Annette' is likely to revile some of you reading this, and if you watch it because of this recommendation and that happens, know that someone else is going to see it and absolutely love it. I hope that's you.
There are only a handful of movies that have managed to convey the joy of drinking. More than that, I've never seen a movie that's made me consider taking up drinking. Well, that's not entirely accurate. I've seen plenty of movies that made me wish I drank so I could forget them afterwards. 'Another Round', however, is more about the idea of joy as an everyday experience in life. Mads Mikkelsen's character opens up to his friends in a truly heartbreaking moment early on in the movie that he doesn't know how he became so dour, so out-of-touch with joy, or even how it happened. Joy, it seems, just went out of his life like being able to get out of a chair without groaning or knowing who's top of the charts.
'Another Round' consists of wonderfully intimate scenes, whereby alcohol is introduced and we see that it can and often does bring out wonderful responses. It doesn't question its morality, nor does it seek to judge its presence. Mikkelsen's character becomes a better teacher, a better husband, and a better friend but when it becomes a crutch, we realise that 'Another Round' is so much about the joys of alcohol, but the joy of joy itself. I've never wanted to skull a full bottle of champagne and dance like a lunatic more in my life than after watching this, even if that wasn't necessarily the point of it.
If 'Herself' spoke about the idea of home as a place to heal and comfort, 'Nomadland' examines the concept of home is wherever you want it to be. To be clear, 'Nomadland' is a movie that could really only exist in the US, and at this time. That it doesn't examine the underlying social and economic conditions might rankle, but really, 'Nomadland' isn't that kind of story. It's a drop-in, drop-out kind of thing.
We pick up with Frances McDormand's character as she's in mid-journey, and we follow through with her as people come and go, with her rambling a continuous presence. Even when she somehow travels back to her home, now empty and abandoned, it's only a quick pitstop before she's on the road again. The world that surrounds her seems so big, something that director Chloe Zhao really gets at without having to labour with it. Why wouldn't you want to see what's over the horizon? 'Nomadland' expresses that desire in a heartfelt, unbearably human way.
When it comes to Oscar-winning performances, it's very often the case that the movie which houses said performance is quite ho-hum. The logic would be that the movie is completely elevated by that performance, to such a point where you can see nothing else but that performance. Eddie Redmayne's 'The Theory of Everything' or Mahershala Ali in 'Green Book' are recent examples of this phenomenon. Yet, with Anthony Hopkins winning for 'The Father', it is a case of both performance and movie acting in unison. Dementia is a tricky enough topic to handle, and very often is reduced to confusion or amnesia in a performer. Yet, in 'The Father' and with Florian Zeller's direction, we're transported into that headspace. It's frightening in parts, we're perplexed as Anthony Hopkins' character is, and yet it seems somewhat coherent except for the confusing changes of people around him. We experience it as he does, allowing us to live his emotions.
Anyone who's known and cared for someone with dementia or Alzheimer's will recognise scenes from 'The Father' all too well. What makes it such a horrible, degenerative illness is that the mind sometimes snaps back, but the person is left struggling to catch up. Hopkins is able to deliver this with a mere look or glance, telling everything in the space of a minute. Like 'Amour', 'The Father' is a story about the cost of aging, not just for those seeing it, but for those experiencing it.
You might have seen a clip from 'The Late Show with Stephen Colbert' earlier this month where Quentin Tarantino talked about the difference between seeing a movie in a cinema versus seeing it on TV. I've always believed that seeing it in a cinema is better because there's the sense of scale, the sound is better, you're locked into a room with it, and you have to commit to it. Not to toot my horn here, but Tarantino basically agreed with all of these points. Another point he made, one that I hadn't considered but made total sense when he said it, was that you can remember every great movie you saw in a cinema compared to something on TV. I know this to be true. I've seen Michael Mann's 'Heat' probably twenty, maybe thirty times on TV. I couldn't tell you one viewing from the other.
Yet, I know precisely when and where I saw it in a cinema. Once was in the now sadly-departed Screen Cinema and I'm pretty sure it was just a BluRay blown up to the cinema screen. The other was a 35mm print shown in the Lighthouse Cinema on a Saturday night. I walked out of the screen at around 1 in the morning like it was the first time watching it. It wasn't just that the colours seemed more intense, or that the soundtrack felt more explosive. I was seeing it as it was meant to be seen.
I bring this up because, for all the jokes on Film Twitter about Denis Villeneuve's comments about seeing in Dune as it was meant to be seen, he was absolutely right. 'Dune' works on such a huge canvass, set thousands of years into the future, wrestles with such massive ideas and concepts, that watching it on a TV can't do it. You need to let it wash over you. It's not that it doesn't translate to TV either. It does, but you're depriving yourself of something grander. It's no surprise that IMAX has released 'Dune' back into cinemas before the end of the year either. 'Dune' is one of those movies that doesn't require a second viewing, but it's one that enriches the experience the second time around. You hear more of Hans Zimmer's incredible score. No wonder he turned down 'Tenet' for it. You see more of Rebecca Ferguson's towering performance as Jessica. Even if Zendaya or Josh Brolin are relegated slightly, you just know they're going to feature heavily in the second chapter.
'Dune' is exactly why cinemas have big screens, good speakers and comfortable seats. Yes, you can have all those things at home, but seeing it in a cinema, the walls shake and rumble and the screen fills with stars, sand, and Sardaukar. It's unmistakable. You know you're in a cinema, not at home.
'Dune' is a movie made for cinemas.