If 2020 was a shock to the movie-going system, 2021 was – in many ways – worse. Lockdowns, delays and uncertainty cruelled both the Australian and international film industries. Many studios deferred their biggest releases, hoping for smoother sailing ahead. As a result, it was no coincidence that the two biggest films at the box office according to BoxOfficeMojo (Spider-Man: No Way Home and No Time to Die) were released late in the year. Around 260 films were officially released in Australian cinemas over the year, but that figure is slightly misleading. Many (including some notable releases from acclaimed directors) appeared for a week or two before moving to streaming services.
As always, the quality was mixed. True blockbusters were comparatively few, although four of the top 10 – Spider-Man, Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, Venom: Let There Be Carnage and Black Widow – were all part of the Marvel stable. The relative lack of these “big” films left at least a little “free air” for smaller films. The fact indie films like Nomadland and Promising Young Woman were relatively high on the box office tables says something. But then again, so does the fact they were both easily outpaced by F9: The Fast Saga and the lacklustre Peter Rabbit 2.
Apart from Marvel, another “winner” was Lin-Manuel Miranda, who featured in In the Heights, tick, tick… Boom! and Encanto. The downside was that (thanks largely to pandemic-related delays), they all came out at once, prompting a reaction. It wasn’t so much as backlash as a weariness with so many LMM songs ringing from cinema speakers.
Top directors like Edgar Wright, Wes Anderson, Steven Spielberg and Paul Thomas Anderson all had new films released. Though perhaps the biggest news for Down Under film buffs was the return – after nearly 10 years – of Jane Campion to the scene. On the local front, some wonderful Australian films were released; among them The Dry, High Ground and Long Story Short (the latter being the highest grossing local film). But when the AACTAs came around, it was the controversial and arguably marginal Nitram that took top honours.
So to our critics’ lists of the top 10 films of 2021
1. The Power of the Dog
The Power of the Dog is a film to savour. It doesn’t move at pace, but works away at your psyche.
2. Licorice Pizza
Licorice Pizza is cheeky, cheery and thoroughly entertaining – a joyous and engaging romp, which is sure to strike a reverential chord with many.
The devastating documentary Collective follows a team of investigators at a Romanian newspaper as they try to uncover a vast health-care fraud that enriched moguls and politicians and led to the deaths of innocent victims.
4. The Lost Leonardo
I was incredulous and totally mesmerised throughout this art documentary.
5. tick, tick … Boom!
Jonathan Larson wrote the smash hit Broadway musical Rent. Tick, tick … Boom! tells how he got there. It’s at times uplifting and buoyant, while never lacking in pathos.
6. The Father
The Father is a heart-wrenching story about dementia, thoughtfully composed by director and co-writer Florian Zeller from his own play.
Cruella manages to bring elements of Joker and The Devil Wears Prada to its own delightfully twisted story arc. High gloss, high fashion and hijinks abound.
8. West Side Story
A masterful adaptation of the 1957 quintessential musical, Steven Spielberg has crafted a searing drama from teen discontent.
9. In the Heights
In the Heights is all about making a go of it against the odds. The feel-good musical is based on Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Broadway show.
10. The Tragedy of Macbeth
Razor sharp tension pervades The Tragedy of Macbeth, giving the Bard a new poetic voice through Joel Coen’s lens.
1. The French Dispatch
Wes Anderson aims high and delivers one of the most slyly complex and deeply intellectual movies of his career with The French Dispatch.
2. Licorice Pizza
Our second Anderson – Paul Thomas – crafts a weird rom-com that also happens to be a sprawling love letter to Los Angeles in the 1970s, and a paean to impossible relationships.
Top director Denis Villeneuve brings a sombre, almost devotional, tone to Dune; a film that ends up as something almost transcendent of its source material.
4. First Cow
Probably the most niche film on our lists, First Cow allows you to bask in two hours of beautiful, compelling cinema from acclaimed director Kelly Reichardt.
5. High Ground
Stephen Johnson’s stylish High Ground eschews platitudes in favour of gripping drama that blends in shades of grey to blur the line between heroes and villains.
Francis Lee mixes fact and fiction in Ammonite, a rewarding (if sometimes difficult) film about paleontology pioneer Mary Anning.
7. French Exit
Another quirky entry, Azazel Jacobs’ film French Exit features remarkable performances, a missing cat and arguably the most memorable grace note of the year.
Director Noah Hutton taps into well-founded fears about the gig economy with an intriguing and sometimes frightening journey into a digitised future in Lapsis.
9. Black Widow
Australian director Cate Shortland injects some much-needed female energy into the MCU with this classy piece of big-budget filmmaking.
10. Truffle Hunters
Directors Michael Dweck and Gregory Kershaw present about as radical a departure from a typical documentary as you could ever imagine in The Truffle Hunters.
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David Edwards is the editor of The Blurb and a contributor on film and television