I spent most of 2021 watching older films and discovered some real hidden gems but I thought I’d share a list of my Top 10 Favorite new releases before the Academy Awards show next month. If you’re interested in seeing a list of my favorite older film discoveries last year drop me a note and consider supporting my work with a Ko-fi donation @ https://ko-fi.com/kimberlylindbergs
As usual, horror films dominate my list, or at least darker films with horrific elements. Three films were made by women and almost all of them were made outside the Hollywood studio system. A common thread many of them share is their reverence for the earth. It may not seem apparent at first glance but once you spend some time with these films, you’ll understand that in their own unique way many of them honor the landscapes that support their stories and the animal life contained within. They are also stories about society and social networks, despite focusing on individuals. They ask us to consider our place within the ecosystem and contemplate how our class, status and position in the social pecking order can determine our fate.
Films are listed alphabetically.
Can’t Get You Out of My Head (Dir. Adam Curtis, 2021)
Is it hyperbolic to say that every film critic should have Adam Curtis’ latest opus on their best of 2021 list? Yes, it is but I can’t help myself. In a world where so few filmmakers today are willing to explore and deconstruct, much less even address, the social and cultural predicament we find ourselves in at the moment Curtis’ work is demanding but essential. His latest Film/TV Series/Art Installation runs 7-8 hours and might just be his most important work because he ends it with some hope or at least points towards a way out of this militaristic capital-driven hellscape we’ve created. Another world is possible but we need to understand this one in order to imagine a way forward. Do yourself (and your world) a favor and engage with his work. A free playlist containing all 6 parts of Can’t Get You Out of My Head is available to watch on Youtube.
The Green Knight (Dir. Adam Lowery, 2021)
I love Adam Lowery’s films. They tend to be leisurely paced, thoughtful, and beautifully shot and The Green Knight is no exception. This magical mysterious adult adventure is a wonder, and I enjoyed every minute of it. It’s a fairytale that asks a lot from its protagonist and its audience. Refined, poignant, and cunning in ways so few films dare to be these days. And if someone knows where I can get myself a talking fox companion please let me know.
In the Earth (Dir. Ben Wheatley, 2021)
My favorite of the pandemic films to emerge in the last 2 years. Wheatley’s psychedelic vision manages to capture the fear, paranoia, absurdity, and surrealism of a world that no longer looks familiar. The earth has rightfully had enough of our bullshit and responds in kind by driving everyone bonkers while demanding retribution. In its own unique way In the Earth demonstrates that without proper support our inner and outer ecosystems will collapse. Clint Mansell’s accompanying soundtrack is brilliant.
Lamb (Dir. Valdimar Jóhannsson, 2021)
On an isolated farm in the wilds of Iceland, a grieving couple discovers that one of their sheep has given birth to an anomaly. They adopt the half lamb/half-human offspring and make it their own without considering the implications of their actions, which end up having enormous consequences. An utterly engrossing and quietly menacing folktale with very little dialogue that has a lot to say about humanity’s inhumanity towards the animal life we share this planet with.
The Medium (Dir. Banjong Pisanthanakun, 2021)
Despite occasionally falling victim to tired horror cliches, this intriguing and beautifully shot mockumentary style chiller from Thailand was a welcome surprise. The location keeps this possession tale about local deities tormenting an insular community interesting. The Medium contains some of the most genuinely creepy moments as well as some of the most beautiful of 2021.
Pig (Dir. Michael Sarnoski, 2021)
Contrary to what you may have been told, time does not heal all wounds. Grief can be utterly crippling and obstructive. Our ability to cope and find success should not be measured by our fame or the material items we possess but by the inner peace we foster within ourselves and the relationships we build, including those with our animal friends, despite knowing that life is fleeting. These are the rather simple but difficult truths at the heart of Michael Sarnoski’s feature directorial debut that contains what might be Nicolas Cage’s finest performance. For whatever reason, the timing, the malaise that is suffocating my world, or the all-too-familiar setting amid foodies in the Pacific Northwest, this hit me where I hurt and I loved every painful minute of it.
The Power (Dir. Corinna Faith, 2021)
Class struggles taking place in and outside the British healthcare system are at the heart of this horror film. It’s set in a London shadow-strewn hospital during a historic minor’s strike that took place during the 1970s. Like The Medium, it deals with possession and suffers from similar horror cliches but I admired the way it unfolded in a claustrophobic setting. I also appreciated the gentle performance of the female lead played by Rose Williams. Her unique backstory and vulnerable disposition was a welcome change from the badass bitches and cold calculating femmes that often dominate modern horror cinema. Forget Wonder Woman, I prefer the working-class nurse Rose as a “shero.”
The Power of the Dog (Dir. Jane Champion, 2021)
Despite people claiming that the western is dead, directors keep mining it for riches like this. Champion’s film creatively deconstructs the genre while paying loving homage to it. It’s a beautiful film, despite the use of CGI to flesh out the landscape, and it contains some of the best acting of the year. Cumberbatch and Dunst are getting most of the attention but I found Jesse Plemons’ wounded, withdrawn and soft-spoken cattle rancher to be the real scene-stealer. I also must make mention of young Kodi Smit-McPhee whose quiet performance contains multitudes. Bonus points for Jonny Greenwood’s soundtrack.
Woodlands Dark and Days Bewitched: A History of Folk Horror (Dir. Kier-La Janisse, 2021)
The direction was a bit haphazard and there were no great revelations to speak of but I found the dives into British, American, and Eastern European films especially rewarding. I do wish the content about Japanese films and folklore had been flushed out and explored more but I’m nitpicky when it comes to Japanese culture references since it’s a subject I’ve spent a lot of time with myself. But overall I really appreciated the documentary’s attempt to find a cohesiveness to a complex topic even when I didn’t always agree with the choices made. A nice mix of old and new cinema was included and I was happy to see so many of the films I’ve written about and championed over the years spotlighted, particularly neglected works such as The Fool Killer and Eye of the Devil. Many critics I admire and appreciate took part, which made it a fun watch. Overall, an interesting and introspective documentary about a subject close to my heart and one that I’ve written about a great deal myself.
Wrath of Man (Dir. Guy Ritchie, 2021)
I enjoyed seeing Jason Statham and Guy Ritchie reunited again. I love Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels. I also like Snatch to a lesser degree but I found Revolver forgettable. I was hoping this would be a return to form and it did not disappoint. In fact, it surprised me which is a rare thing these days. Despite a somewhat cookie-cutter premise, Ritchie manages to inject real vitality into this somewhat old-fashioned heist film that contains some of the director’s most nuanced action sequences in years and gives Statham one of his juiciest roles. Forget all the tired rehashed superhero epics and space operas, this was the best action film of 2021.
Honorable mentions: Blood Red Sky, The Dig, Night House & Silent Night
Bonus! Favorite Soundtracks of 2021 in no particular order:
Can’t Get You Out of My Head – Various Artists
In the Earth – Clint Mansell
The Power of the Dog – Jonny Greenwood
The Green Knight – Daniel Hart