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  • Writer's pictureMartin Vaux

Martin's Top 20 Films of 2021

In line with personal tradition, I have compiled my Top 20 Films of 2021.

As was the case last year, there are a few movies I haven’t seen that might well change the running order. I had a busy and somewhat difficult year, and couldn’t get to the cinema as much as I would have liked.

With this in mind, I am still looking forward to seeing The Card Counter, West Side Story, Spiderman No Way Home, Drive My Car, Petite Maman, and Bad Luck Banging.

Once I have caught up with that lot, I may amend my Top 20 - but here’s where we are as things stand.

I hope you enjoy.

20. The Dig

A far from perfect film, care of Australian director Simon Stone (The Daughter, The Turning), The Dig follows Basil Brown’s discovery and somewhat tumultuous excavation of Sutton Hoo - one of the most exciting moments in British archaeology.

The film’s high point is Ralph Feinnes’ (The English Patient, Coriolanus) astonishing performance as Brown; watching him is so exciting that it’s worth watching the rest of the movie. And the rest of the movie is where things become a little tortured.

While Carey Mulligan (Drive, An Education) is excellent as Edith Pretty, the sickly mother of a young son on whose land the Saxon remains are buried, the film gets a little lost when it tries to become a romance; Lily James (Yesterday, Rebecca) puts in a fine performance in a very sympathetic part, but the character’s journey isn’t convincing - nor is Johnny Flynn (Emma, Stardust) as her cookie-cutter soldier beau.

While Feinnes and Mulligan own the screen, and the Suffolk countryside and landscape are Stone’s focus, The Dig makes for a wonderful, lyrical, poignant watch.

As for the rest… well, I might have left that stuff dead and buried.

19. Freaky

I was bowled-over by Freaky - an extremely silly comedy-horror from schlock-factory Blumhouse and director Christopher Landon (Happy Death Day, Viral).

The setup is extremely simple - imagine a cross between a slasher movie and a body-swap high school comedy. In this one, it’s the nerdy girl who ends up switched with a gibbering psychopath. May the genre-bending begin!

The film thrives because of the central performance from Vince Vaughn (Wedding Crashers, Swingers) who brings everything you could hope for to his role(s). He’s campy and mincing when he needs to be, and more than menacing when that’s required, too.

As someone who loves horror, I was overjoyed to see the familiar tropes used so fully and imaginatively, and it was overwhelmingly pleasing to see such a feminist, queer-friendly teen film deliver exactly the right balance between sincere and ironic laughter.

Oh, and, it has a brilliant cameo from Cameron from Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. He plays a Design Technology teacher who isn’t very nice to his students.

You can imagine how that works out for him…

18. Nobody

It’s no secret that I love a John Wick movie, and while director Ilya Naishuller doesn’t quite reinvent the action-genre with this one in the way he has done with his Reeves franchise, he does offer audiences a whole lot of fun.

The concept is a delight: dog-eared family man Hutch (Breaking Bad/Better Call Saul’s ever-outstanding Bob Odenkirk) is in a slump. His wife hates him, his kids don’t respect him, and he’s bullied at his job, where he works for his emasculating, ignorant father-in-law. His only joy seems to come from his music collection, and from visiting his ageing father, played by Christopher Lloyd (Back To The Future, The Addams Family).

Thing is, Hutch has - in his own words - “overcorrected”. Turns out, he was once a deadly enforcer for an international consortium of dangerous criminals. And when Hutch’s house is broken into, and his daughter’s kitty-cat bracelet is swiped with the pocket change from the bowl on the kitchen counter, the put-upon father opts to go and get it back. This makes for an action-packed rampage for the ages, and an hour-or-so of mid-life crisis wish-fulfilment.

Much of the cast are underwhelming in Nobody, and things get very silly indeed towards the end, but none of that really matters. For bone-crunching fights, sassy one-liners, and rip-roaring American muscle-car chases, it’s the film of the year.

17. Minari

One of 2021’s most sensitive films, Minari follows the Yi family - Korean immigrants to America, who have moved from California to the wilds of the Ozarks. They have been dragged out into nature by family man Jacob, played outstandingly by Steven Yuen (The Walking Dead, Burning) who is intent on making his fortune by farming land nobody else values.

A dynastic drama in a sense, director Lee Isaac Chung focuses on each member of the family in sequence during a carefully constructed film that gives all of its characters time to breathe, develop, settle, and grow. Youn Yuh-jung threatens to steal the film in moments as Grandma, but the movie is as much about David, the family’s young son, who has a hole in his heart that makes for a wonderful metaphor.

The film is artful, clever and warm, and by golly is it moving. It’s shot-through with metaphysical discussions too, many of which are apropos, just don’t expect closure from this one.

Its coda is that the American immigrant experience is ongoing, and while that might make for great politics it does sort of muddy the creek-bed at the film’s close, which felt annoying as well as bittersweet.

16. King Richard

I’m not sure exactly when Will Smith became such a divisive figure - probably during the run of highly sentimental films he made in the 00’s - but the character he plays here, father of tennis legends Venus and Serena Williams, uses his public persona to great effect.

A movie very much about race, and about grit, determination, and overcoming almost insurmountable challenges, King Richard is a tough watch. I have a soft spot for sports movies, and of course this one follows the template, but it’s about a lot more than the formula that provides its backbone - and thank goodness for that. This is a story that deserved to be about much more than underdog girls winning contests.

I found myself crying over and over and over again while watching King Richard, and getting very angry with the protagonist. I hid behind my hands, and howled with rage at America’s ongoing racial and economic problems.

A little like gripping a knife by the blade, it’s exhilarating and painful, dangerous and stupid, and I rather loved it.

Sure, it’s too long by 30 minutes, but my goodness King Richard is powerful.

15. Ghostbusters Afterlife

I expected to hate this film - not least because the Ghostbusters brand felt more-or-less dead and buried to me. Thankfully though, director Jason Reitman (Tully, Juno) does exactly what the film’s title says, bringing the franchise back from beyond the grave.

Of course, the movie relies heavily on special effects, and in many cases the CG does become a bit of a problem. And yes, there are some comedic moments that are played a little too broadly, and which overlean on the original Ghostbusters movie (the culmination of the romance between Paul Rudd’s Gary and Carrie Coon’s Callie left me rolling my eyes) but - but - that’s where my complaints end.

It’s funny, and it’s nerdy, and it’s action-packed, which is all on-brand, but at its core Ghostbusters Afterlife is a family film, and this focus on family is why it works. It is sincere about this central theme, which feels important in our cynical world of broken and fractured households. It’s not your Dad’s Ghostbusters - and neither should it be, really. Rather, it is a bridge between old and young, cynical and earnest, and it walks a pretty fine line rather well.

Pleasingly, it’s also genuinely scary at times. And, of course, nostalgia plays a powerful part in my personal enjoyment (I had a toy proton pack and trap as a boy, and loved the original films) and what worked for me I can imagine working for my own daughter - when she’s a little older.

More pressingly, I found it a surprisingly healing watch in more ways than one - which I never imagined might be the case. A film that kind of focuses on the ‘OK, Boomer’ rift between dimensions, I think it’s going to endure and be loved by many families for years to come.

14. Promising Young Woman

A wonderfully dark and almost unimaginably cynical film, Promising Young Woman feels almost hollow at times. While built out of immaculate pastel pinks and neon, the artificiality on the surface echoes the nature of its protagonist - outwardly together, inwardly empty.

Thankfully, as with Cassie, who is played magnificently by Carrie Mulligan (Drive, An Education), appearances can be deceiving, and what appears to be vacuous is actually something else entirely.

Twisty, agile and smart, if the film has a problem, it’s that it is so unforgiving. Not in a gratuitous way though, for my money. It’s hardly an experiment in grand guignol. It is an exploitation film, however, and it looks at masculinity in such a merciless, nihilistic manner that it perhaps denies itself a little too much. As such, it comes off as a degree too mean to reach the audience who really need to see it - though I think most women would be unlikely to complain. It’s perhaps high time we had a film this cleanly, neatly, consciously caustic.

Indeed, it’s a rather astonishing, brilliant, wonderfully constructed film all told, packed with great performances and some knock-out moments. There’s a bit where Bo Burnham’s character orders a coffee that is worth the price of admission alone. It’s just a little uneven, is all, and maybe a tad too mean for its own good.

13. Dune

French auteur Denis Villeneuve proves with this Dune adaptation that Frank Herbert’s seminal 1965 sci-fi novel cannot be made into a film. His argument, that it needs to be two, split roughly in the middle, is fair enough - and the 50% we have here is so good that his act of storytelling butchery is almost forgivable. Yet, it’s still a bit of a cop-out.

It’s also strange to see a film based on a novel that birthed a genre, and there are intentional moments of deja vu along the way. Things that look like bits from Star Wars, or Star Trek, or Halo, or any number of space opera genre pieces. Interestingly though, these elements all serve as reminders that Dune is the big daddy. For a film about families, bloodlines and legacies, it’s pretty on the nose.

Thankfully, Villeneuve approaches the material with meticulous care, style and intent - it’s a bloody fantastic sci-fi epic, almost as if David Lean and Ridley Scott teamed up somehow, both at the top of their game.

But it’s still only half a film, and I can’t quite get over that.

There’s a big cast here, too, and not all of them can be winners. Zendaya is, yet again, utterly unconvincing, even in a part where she barely speaks, but she’s one of very few bum-notes in an otherwise titanic accomplishment.

If you don’t like science fiction then you’ll likely hate it (this is about as hard-core sci-fi as it comes) and you might want to wait until both halves are available, too. Still, it’s Biblical and chrome-plated, shimmering with heat haze, and full of moments that are pretty transcendental.

If you’re willing to breathe it in, then, you’ll marvel at what you see.

12. The Last Duel

A movie almost destined to fail due to hype alone, what with Matt Damon (The Bourne Franchise, The Martian) and Ben Affleck (The Way Back, Daredevil) reuniting to write their first screenplay since Good Will Hunting, and director Ridley Scott deep into his eighth decade of life.

Still, anyone who says The Last Duel falls short can fight me at dawn.

I’ve read some complaints about accents, but people can wind their necks in. Within England, or France, or America, people from different regions speak with different inflections. It’s realistic, and wasn’t a problem for me at all. And sure, Matt Damon’s Jean is a particularly ugly leading man, but that’s part of the point. He’s wilful and base, just like the story spinning around him.

For me, almost everything about The Last Duel worked. The costumes, characters, period details, music and, most of all, the action. It’s all so stylish, so pointed, and so deliberate, it often feels incredible in the truest sense. I found myself wondering how they got away with it, being so bold, and so demanding, making audiences watch what they are made to watch - in some cases, twice over.

It isn’t as simplistic as Gladiator, and I perhaps like it more for this reason. I was gripped throughout, right until the film’s final moment, and some of the images are now seared into my brain. Wonderful stuff.

Also, extra points for all the geese waddling about in the mud. The Green Knight also featured them, but for my money The Last Duel did its geese better, and was a better film in almost every regard*.

*It doesn’t have a magic fox, or naked giants, or that awesome section with St Winifred. If it had, it would have been even higher up in my ranking…

11. The Father

Everything I read about this film made me not want to see it, including that Anthony Hopkins (The Silence of the Lambs, The Remains of the Day) had won the Academy Award for Best Actor because of it. A movie about dementia? Move over.

How wrong I was!

Immaculately constructed by writer/director Florian Zoller, and adapted from his play, The Father follows Anthony as he struggles to navigate his baffling world. As an audience, we are put entirely in his position - one where corridors lead to doors that open onto rooms we don’t expect, where characters change names and faces, where time seems to bend backwards and forwards on itself, and where very little can be trusted.

I found it to be hilariously funny, incredibly poignant, and extremely imaginative. It might not be a big film, but it’s certainly an excellent one - and I don’t know quite why Olivia Coleman (The Favourite, TV’s The Crown) earned so much praise for The Lost Daughter instead of this one. The Father blows that movie out of the water, tackling societal taboos with much greater skill, and her performance is absolutely fundamental to its success.

10. Another Round

Another awesome collaboration between writer/director Thomas Vinterberg and Mads Mikkelsen (TV’s Hannibal, Casino Royale), Another Round follows a group of four middle-aged teachers experiencing midlife crises. Their solution to their problems, to start drinking during the day, under the auspices of a psychological experiment, has brilliant, amusing, daring, and resonating consequences.

It’s a great, great film, and one everybody should see.

The movie’s anchor is, of course, Mikkelsen, who continues his ongoing run of electric cinematic performances. As Martin, he is deft and wholly believable, showing us a man on the edge of despair who grows and returns to himself after years of depression. That’s not to say that the film is all fun and games, but it mostly is - in the same, bittersweet way that you might expect from something like The Full Monty or Brassed Off.

Another Round has more bite than a lot of the “Brit Flicks” audiences find so charming, and it also has something deeper and more profound to say. Certainly the film suffers a little for its focus on men, and I wish Vinterberg had made at least one of the central foursome a female, but perhaps that’s part of the point: the friends at the film’s heart need routes through to expression, to escaping their inhibitions, and maybe there’s something about modern masculinity that justifies this decision.

Otherwise though, it’s a blinder of a movie - just don’t expect to come out the other side unmoved.

9. First Cow

Gradual to a fault, though that's perhaps its only one, First Cow starts with a shot of a very long shipping tanker moving very slowly up a river in the modern day. A young woman, walking her dog, then finds two corpses buried in the mud, and time jumps back to 1820s Oregon and a tale of friendship, thievery and fun.

Starring character actor John Megaro (TV’s Orange is the New Black, Overlord) and newcomer Orion Lee as his ne'er-do-well friend King Lu, First Cow is a shaggy-dog-story that follows two lonely men as they bond over a ruse: stealing milk from the richest man in a tiny town, Chief Factor, played by Toby Jones (Berberian Sound Studio, Captain America: The First Avenger). They do this by milking his cow by night - the only, solitary cow in Oregon - and baking cookies, which they sell, including to Chief Factor himself.

It’s a neat, cute, beautiful film, expertly co-written and directed by the ever-amazing Kelly Reichardt (Meek’s Cutoff, Night Moves). A film of imagination, filled with dripping leaves, foraged mushrooms and slippery moss, it’s worth ripping the buttons from your jacket to pay to see it - once seen, it can’t be forgotten.

8. No Time To Die

I think we can all agree that Daniel Craig’s James Bond was, like Brosnan’s, best in his first appearance as the character.

Casino Royale was a game-changer, taking the challenge laid down by the Bourne franchise and creating a new high-point in the spy action-thriller genre that is yet to be bettered.

The question of what to do after Casino Royale haunted every subsequent chapter in the Craig era, with the biggest question of all being how to end it all. I could never have imagined, and I mean this sincerely, could never have imagined the team at EON Productions being as bold as they were with No Time To Die, and I absolutely loved how brave they dared to be.

Not knowing what would happen in a Bond film? I mean… what?!?

Not everything about it works, of course. Without a doubt, the baddie, Lyutsifer Safin, is unintentionally anticlimactic, let down by both the script and a very silly performance by Rami Malek (Mr Robot, Bohemian Rhapsody). Kick-ass cameo-player Palermo is criminally underused, too, though full credit to the ever-amazing Ana de Armas (Knives Out, Blade Runner 2049) who made the very most of what she was given. And the theme song? Not a patch on Skyfall, which ranks alongside the best Bond-themes ever.

Then again, these are trifling complaints against the scale of No Time To Die’s successes. Craig is amazing, as are the rest of the supporting cast. The gadgets are delightful, the action-sequences blisteringly effective, and the story is singular.

For a franchise that endures on rehashing and repeating the same recipe ad nauseum, it was thrilling to see a Bond movie that was so unlike any film I have ever seen before. A postmodern Bond in the truest sense, it will be impossible to follow - and maybe that’s the best thing about it.

7. Nomadland

A film I put off seeing for absolutely ages, Nomadland is a beautiful, optimistic, wonderful movie - even if it does feature a bit where Frances McDormand poops in a bucket.

The idea of watching a film about homeless people living in the backs of their vans might seem a little depressing - and depressing is not something many of us need more of at the moment. That the movie won Best Picture at last year’s Academy Awards also gave me little reason to hope it would be great; Green Book, the year before last, was hardly a cinematic high watermark - and Nomadland is clearly no Parasite.

Thankfully, there is a lot about it to love, and even more to appreciate, Oscars politics aside.

One of the things that elevates Nomadland is its structure, which might sound a bit dry, but the movie is built in a careful, rhythmic manner that is designed to satisfy. Director Chloé Zhao (Eternals, The Rider) demonstrates real skill in how she constructs and shapes the narrative, and Director of Photography Joshua James Richards completely nails his portion. The America they show us is one of stunning vistas spoiled by capitalism - power lines across tundra, scrubland punctuated by rusting fence-posts, mountain views impacted by crude brick buildings. This sounds melancholy, and to some degree it is, but the movie also serves to remind audiences that America is still a very beautiful place, in spite of all its cultural laziness.

The story is simple enough: Fern travels around America’s midwest and western coast in her van, enjoying her life on the road, meeting fellow travellers, working at seasonal jobs, processing her various losses, navigating friendships, and revelling in the freedoms provided by her way of life. She falls in and out of people’s paths, with many of the actors in the film playing fictionalised versions of themselves, and while there are moments of unity and beauty and companionship there are also moments of sadness and absence and isolation. It’s all very humanist and gentle, and while it’s perhaps a little slow it is a really unusual, very pretty film, and one that is just as likely to make you laugh and smile as it is to make you cry.

It’s a good one - although if you haven’t seen Into The Wild then I would probably recommend that over this. Still, as a modern take on The Odyssey, it makes for an interesting watch - a work of art, even. Bucket poops and all.

6. Pig

As we all know, Nicholas Cage has had a very, very patchy career - by design, to some extent - and signing up to watch him onscreen is often a risky business.

In the case of Pig however, from first time director Michael Sarnoski, Cage offers us a quiet, thoughtful, brilliant portrayal of a character we have never seen him play. I’m not sure he shouts once, or even if he does his crazy eyes routine.

The story bears a slight resemblance to John Wick, which seems to be a common cinematic touchstone at present, insofar as Cage plays Rob, a man who keeps himself to himself but who is dragged back into his old life after his pet and best friend is stolen.

Unlike John Wick however, Rob’s speciality isn’t shooting people in the head. He’s a cook. One who hung up his chef’s hat long ago, favouring an existence close to the land, hunting truffles with his best friend, the pig of the film’s title.

A movie that revels both in capturing the beauty of nature and its contrast in modern civilisation, Pig’s sentiment is decidedly Romantic. Rob’s journey into the underground world of cookery is a bit silly, but it’s also really fun and unpredictable, and, as you might expect from another take on The Odyssey, it features all sorts of sympathetic and monstrous characters along the way.

At the heart of it all, though, Cage is absolutely magnetic. The rest of the cast do brilliant work in the limited time they have onscreen, and the pacing, tone and aesthetic choices elevate it higher and higher as it goes on.

Hardly your average film, Pig may be one of those movies destined for cult status, but, just like many of the best cult movies, it’s one that once-seen will drive annoying film nerds like me to bang on about it endlessly.

With this in mind, you’d best do yourself a favour and watch it as soon as possible, before we chase you down and start nagging.

5. Annette

A film that most people are likely to absolutely hate, Annette is one of the year’s strangest, most wilful movies. Written and featuring the music of kitsch rock icons Sparks, who also cameo in the film, the whole thing is an exercise in anticlimax. It’s absurd, silly, incredibly arch, determinedly Modernist, and - in my view - it’s also a one-of-a-kind.

Starring Adam Driver (Marriage Story, Paterson) and Marion Cotillard (La Vie en Rose, Inception), and directed by Leos Carax (Holy Motors), Annette is a musical tragicomedy. Driver plays Henry McHenry - a comedian in the Aristotlean sense - while Cotillard plays Ann - a tragedian and opera singer. They are already in love as the film begins, the actors stepping into costume in a Brechtian manner during the opening number, and their soon-to-arrive offspring, Annette, is a combination of them both - a character Henry can’t see as human, and who is soon revealed to have magical powers.

One of those films that is all about symbolism, where everything you see and hear has at least one additional layer of meaning, and in which irony reigns supreme, it would be easy to hate Annette. To not get it at all, and be left completely cold by the whole experience. It’s designed to be divisive, and there’s an intellectualism to the movie that makes the word ‘pretentious’ feel completely insufficient.

Thing is, if you are pretentious, and an intellectual, there is an enormous amount of joy to be found within it. It is so clever, and so consciously crap at times, and so defiant, it’s amazing it ever got made.

Without a doubt, it is a singular film and, much like the music of Sparks, most people won’t get it. For me, though, I’ve seen it several times already, and I will likely watch it many more, revelling in the use of colour, its little nods, winks, jokes, and details.

And I’ll watch it for the songs, which have drilled their way into my brain and nested.

Now, let’s sing it together, everyone. “We love each other - so much…”

4. Wildfire

The story of two Northern Irish sisters, driven apart yet forever united by the tragic death of their father in a historic IRA bombing, Wildfire is a small film that does an enormous amount, never putting a foot wrong or wasting a second, ripping through the mind like a pipe-bomb.

Central to the film’s successes are the two actors at its core, Nora-Jane Noone (The Magdalene Sisters, Brooklyn) and Nika McGuigan (Philomena, TV’s Can’t Cope, Won’t Cope). As Lauren and Kelly, these two women are absolutely electric in every moment they’re on screen, and though they are supported brilliantly by a wider cast - and one that never puts a foot wrong - it’s their film.

Brought back together by the Irish border’s closure, as brought about by Brexit, the film is highly political without being about politics. Lauren is the sister who stayed, while Kelly is the sister who left. Both are people scarred by loss and tragedy, living in a world that they can’t understand and which doesn’t understand them. Certainly gender plays a part in their dislocation from society, as does nationality, but these women are more complex and rounded than most films allow characters to be. They defy expectations and definitions, and perhaps it is for this reason that they find solace only in one another.

The incandescence of the film’s title alludes to a great many things, not least tensions inherent within Irish life, but, again, the movie is about so much that trying to explain it in narrow terms would be woefully reductive.

Writer/director Cathy Brady does so much with what she has, offering audiences so much with so little. It’s the sort of movie most people will never hear of or see, but it’s almost perfect; if you were to complain about anything to do with it, you might raise its evident budgetary limitations, but, for a film about the lives of lower-middle-class people, even this feels apropos.

Ultimately, it’s a film I can’t recommend highly enough, and I still think about it every day, months after first watching it. If you can, make the time. It’s great.

3. The French Dispatch

A little bit of whimsy can go a long way, and - at this stage of his career - most people now know whether they like Wes Anderson’s particular brand of whimsy or not.

Broadly speaking, going into one of his films, you have a sense of what to expect. Precision film-making, beauty, immaculate use of colour, music, bouncy rhythm and pace, and plenty of dry wit mixed with slapstick comedy. If that doesn’t sound like your thing, you’ll probably hate The French Dispatch, just as you might have hated The Royal Tenenbaums or, God forgive you, The Grand Budapest Hotel.

As for me, I absolutely loved it, and think it might just be Anderson’s best.

The danger with his output is, of course, that you risk feeling like you’ve already seen his new film before watching it. Daddy issues define a lot of his movies, for example. Indeed, certain of his films have felt like lesser versions of others. What makes The French Dispatch so refreshing however is that it is almost experimental. It sees Anderson taking a number of pretty big chances, and moving into new ground, pushing his style to its limit - and possible conclusion.

How? Well, it’s a portmanteau film, for one, featuring three distinct mini-stories within a fun framing device. It’s also almost metronomically timed, with scenes choreographed on a seemingly atomic level. Plus, it’s the first Wes Anderson movie to really embrace full frontal nudity. These might seem like small things, but they genuinely represent innovation for the director, who continues to wax lyrical about growing up and growing old, falling in love, and farce, yet he does so here in better ways than ever before.

Although his cast of regulars return, plus a few new faces, they are all used neatly and very well this time, without a moment of the movie’s runtime wasted. It’s also a send-up of French style and cinema - Godard, Tati and Tintin as seen through the eyes of a midwesterner. The whole endeavour is very silly, sure, but it’s also very beautiful, rather poignant, and it has a surprising amount to say about creativity.

To mention much more would be to spoil some of the film’s surprises, but for my money it doesn’t put a foot wrong - quite specifically so. It’s almost like watching the internal workings of a clock or complex machine, only the machine is one designed to elicit emotions. It’s an odd mix, and may be the culmination of everything the director has learned so far.

As such, if Anderson were to stop with The French Dispatch then the movie would make for a very fitting cinematic epitaph - something which he seems to have sought to do through that aforementioned framing device, which is elegiac and, as you might expect, rather self-consciously so.

2. The Power of the Dog

New Zealand writer/director Jane Campion might not make all that many films or that much TV, but when she does it’s always noteworthy. From her recent work with Elizabeth Moss on Kiwi detective series Top of the Lake to her seminal 90s romance The Piano, to even her notable failures, such as the 2003 Meg Ryan erotic thriller In The Cut, you never walk away from anything she has done without strong feelings.

Her new film, The Power of the Dog, is ostensibly a cowboy movie. It starts of seeming to be about two ranch-owning brothers, George and Phil, played by Jesse Plemons (Breaking Bad, I’m Thinking of Ending Things) and Benedict Cumberbatch (Sherlock, Doctor Strange). Even this is a little misleading however, because the movie actually opens with a brief sentence of quiet voiceover from a teenager called Peter, which tells us exactly what the film is about, and this is just one of many, many examples of how Campion wrong-foots and subverts both expectations and genre in The Power of the Dog which, at its heart, is a potboiler - and a bit of a Liberal fantasy film, too.

To discuss much about the movie would risk spoiling its brilliance, but what I loved most about it was the sense of pervading tension running through every moment. It’s a film in which it’s almost impossible to predict what might happen next, and this alone is exceptionally rare in the modern cinematic landscape. So much so that for much of the runtime, I found myself holding my breath.

Campion’s use of irony is also delicious; she has made a film that totally eviscerates the concept of the cowboy, dissecting the archetype and laying it open surgically, encouraging us to inspect its various organs and body parts. This is timely, and one wonders whether she was tempted to dedicate the film to Donald Trump or The Republican Party in general.

The last time anyone did something similar, it was Cormac McCarthy - a man whose books include No Country For Old Men and the even more searing Blood Meridian. Indeed, if there were a critique I would level at The Power of the Dog, aside from its silly title, it is that it flies rather close to Coen Brothers territory - a bit of No Country, a bit of The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, all blended up with a healthy dollop of Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will Be Blood.

Thankfully, in spite of all of this, there is enough original and subversive about The Power of the Dog to enable it to fly in its own patch of prairie sky. Benedict Cumberbatch is mostly absolutely fantastic - there’s only one scene where he does his manic, shouty, frothing-at-the-mouth routine, and his accent is sort of under control, sometimes. This matters less than the sense of menace he exudes, and his performance - of an actor playing a man who is acting - makes for a layered, complex, better bit of work than you might assume at first. When things slip, it’s deliberate, with the flaws being essential to its fabric.

Everyone else in the film is note-perfect however, especially Kodi Smitt-McPhee (The Road, Slow West) as the aforementioned Peter. One of the finest, most original, most exciting heroes to appear on screen in my memory, the film is his - as is the future, as far as I can tell. Roll on, the New America!

1. Titane

Not a film for the faint of heart, Titane is absolutely bonkers - but brilliantly, almost perfectly so.

From writer/director Julia Ducournau, whose major motion picture debut Raw was one of my Films of 2016, Titane opens with a young girl in the backseat of a speeding car. While she makes engine sounds with her mouth, and kicks the back of the seat in front, her impatient father loses his temper and the pair have an accident. The girl is rushed to surgery, much of her skull is replaced with a titanium plate, and when she is discharged all she wants to do is hug and kiss the car she is invited to get into, out in the carpark.

The movie then jumps a decade into the future, where the same girl is now a woman, played by relative newcomer Agathe Rouselle. Her character works at classic car shows as an erotic dancer. Men and women want her, but she is mentally unstable, dislocated from society, and existing in a kind of liminal dream-world.

Then, before long, she has had sex with a cadillac.

Next, she finds herself pregnant with the car’s baby.

The film gets no less strange from there on out.

For all of the surface-level zaniness, which variously includes high camp, body horror, domestic drama and slapstick comedy, Titane is a lean, mean, whip-smart movie all about agapé - sacrificial, parental love. The kind of love that, like the film’s title, ought to be unbreakable as titanium. The film’s protagonist begins unloved, and, as she comes of age, she is parented in such a manner that she is enabled to discover and explore who she really is, without fear of judgement or rejection.

Helping her on this journey is fire-station chief Vincent, played by Vincent Lindon (La Haine, Betty Blue). While the cast feels like a bit of an ensemble endeavour at first, Titane ultimately becomes a movie anchored by Lindon and Rouselle, both of whom are absolutely electric onscreen.

A total, balls-to-the walls exploration of the organic and the synthetic, the male and the female, the real and the unreal, as well as the spaces inbetween, both actors commit wholly to their very challenging roles. They are backed-up by astonishingly imaginative art, sound and production design, with the use of fleshy tones on non-fleshy things, and inhuman colours and textures in and on bodies. It really is something.

Sitting at the crux of the various entropic, binary points that the film discusses is a powerful visual metaphor: fire. In Titane, flame represents passion, energy, and the movie explores the degrees to which we all must keep our own fire controlled. When to let it burn, when to use it, and how to channel it - potentially, through ignition and into motion. These ideas are deftly handled and explored, but not once does the film tell you where to look or what to think.

It’s really, really clever, and, of course, really really weird. It’s also very sad, pretty horrifying at times, and side-splittingly hilarious rather often. The bit where the two leads perform CPR on a dying mother and son, timing their actions by singing The Macarena, is perfectly emblematic: at that point, both characters are on life support, as good as dead, but in saving others - their binary opposites - they save themselves, and are come into new lives.

It’s all there to see symbolically, and every aspect of the film is similarly rich in these ways, but a reductive viewer might just dismiss the scene as a bit gross and blackly comic.

Which it is. But Titane has its cake and eats it.

It’s mad and sick, but it’s also sane and healthy. A one-of-a-kind without a shadow of a doubt, and a movie that requires bravery, intelligence, and not-insignificant levels of intestinal fortitude from its audience.

It’s out there, needs to be seen to be believed, and it’s my favourite film 2021 - albeit only by a broken nose.

Thank you for reading!

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