Best of 2021: Darcy’s Picks

With another year having drawn to a close, Rating Frames is looking back at the best new releases of the last twelve months.

It was a difficult year for the medium, owing to numerous delays and cancellations – these retrospectives would be quite different had MIFF been able to run its full schedule – but there were still some excellent films released that we all wanted to celebrate.

In the second of our end-of-year articles, Darcy Read will be revealing his ten favourite pictures of 2021.

The majority of the year was dominated by great television (It’s a Sin, The Underground Railroad) as cinemas were closed and films were delaying their releases as filmmakers faced massive challenges in production due to the pandemic. But absence makes the heart grow fonder as the last three months of the year had me going back to the theatre as often as possible.

In a year spent mostly watching films at home, it’s perhaps surprising to see the majority of my list be films seen in theatres, although that definitely influenced my enjoyment of each film seen on the big screen.

10. The Father

The earliest entrant on my list, with many lists placing it on the 2020 calendar instead, but a very small amount of the audience for Florian Zeller’s The Father actually saw the film that early, so here it is on my list. I am usually not fond of filmed plays, but Zeller’s work is undeniable and the care and consideration taken to adapt his own play into the medium of cinema is remarkable. 

Currently streaming on Prime Video and Foxtel Now.

9. Red Rocket

Sean Baker’s new feature Red Rocket is a unique prospect in modern American moviemaking. It is a difficult and enthralling challenge to the audience that even in its final moments, you aren’t sure what side of the fence you land. Mikey is a true antihero; a loathsome, motor-mouthed, hustling suitcase pimp returning home to Texas City after 20 years working as an adult film star in LA. The film will have you questioning your feelings and emotions throughout, with Baker expertly weaponising his humanist approach towards an individual that may or may not deserve retribution. You will never hear NSYNC’s ‘Bye Bye Bye’ the same way again.

Currently screening in theatres nationwide.

8. Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy

The year of Ryûsuke Hamaguchi will no doubt culminate in an Oscar for his critically beloved Drive My Car (2021), a film that no doubt would’ve been on my list if it was released in time (the film is not slated to release in Australia until February), but I hope the success of that film does not cloud the achievement of Hamaguchi’s other release of the year, Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy.

This extraordinary short film triptych floats elegantly through ideas of love, chance, and opportunity in three 40-minute short films that have stuck with me longer than most other films this year. You will bring yourself to each story and each viewer will no doubt have a different personal favourite with mine being the second story “Door Wide Open”, a compelling story that may have been my favourite film of the year if it was stretched into a feature.

Will hopefully be available online soon.

7. Pig

What originally sounded like a Nic Cage led John Wick (2014) film set in Portland, eventuated into a deeply human tale of art, creativity, and love set in the intoxicating world of Oregon fine dining. Michael Sarnoski’s feature debut Pig has the feel of a grizzled vet reflecting on a long career, making it all the more impressive and rewarding to watch. A name to keep an eye on for years to come.

Currently available on home-video and on-demand services.

6. The Velvet Underground

The film I have thought about more than any other this year. Director Todd Haynes’ The Velvet Underground has crafted an immersive world of 60s New York counterculture on the immortal band that had little to no live performances captured on film, whilst never feeling this absence. Haynes is one of the best working American directors and has crafted one of his most complete works celebrating his favourite band and arts movement. If only it could be seen on the big screen and have the opening credits and ‘Venus in Furs’ wash over a packed theatre.

Currently streaming on Apple TV+

5. Dune

There is an overwhelming visual splendour that can’t be overstated with a film like Dune. In an era of blockbuster cinema dominated by Marvel Studios, the visual flair that Villeneuve developed with the extraordinary Blade Runner 2049 (2017), and has deployed with precision here, is both refreshing and awe-inspiring. Dune is only half of Herbert’s story so rating it as a whole is difficult, but the film works so well on its own to more than earn its place on this list.

Currently screening in theatres nationwide.

4. The Power of the Dog

A striking film from a returning legend, The Power of the Dog is a slow build that creeps under your skin and never leaves. The most anxiety-inducing scene of the year can be found in the film between Benedict Cumberbatch, Kirsten Dunst, a piano, and a mocking banjo. Campion weaponises her emotive writing and filmmaking trademarks with a combination of sharp-toothed writing and superb performances that gives the film an off-beat flow that keeps its cards close to the vest and its audiences on the edge of their seat.

Currently streaming on Netflix.

3. The Green Knight

The 2021 released film I’ve rewatched the most, The Green Knight is a well of ideas that is a treat to return to. Each viewing uncovers new elements as well as cementing key moments in this peculiar and deeply rewarding fantasy story that revels in its ambiguity. The director David Lowery’s assuredness throughout the film to be comfortable leaving the audience confused for stretches of Gawain’s quest, knowing the emotionality of the film work as a guide rope through the darkness, is wonderful and all too rare in modern American cinema.

Currently streaming on Amazon Prime.

2. The Worst Person in the World

It’s the quiet moments mixed into the loud ones that make it special. A walk home alone from a party. A conversation with your distant father after he misses your 30th birthday. Taking a friend’s photo as you explore his old apartment building. Joachim Trier’s masterpiece The Worst Person in the World will knock you off your feet early on and send you tumbling down its emotional rapids for its runtime.

His previous film of his “Oslo Trilogy”, Oslo, August 31st (2011) (2006’s Reprise being the first entrant), has a consistent bleakness that slightly calloused the viewing experience, preventing an audience from falling in love with his wonderfully crafted characters. This is not the case with The Worst Person, which mixes humour and pure rushes of love with the ennui that will have you enraptured.

Not enough can be said about Renate Reinsve’s performance as Julie, a truly star-making performance that is by far the year’s best. Where Reinsve shines brightest is when Julie allows herself to be herself, a high we find ourselves chasing with her throughout the film’s 12 chapters. One such moment is the party meeting sequence between Julie and Elvind (Herbert Nordrum); 20 perfectly balanced minutes of the magically intimate waltz of words and emotions that make their inevitable coupling so exhilarating and is among the film’s several transcendent scenes.

For a film with a title like The Worst Person in the World that deploys a post-modern narrator commenting on Julie’s decisions other than merely describing them, Trier has crafted a coming-of-age story that is unbelievably kind and welcoming, which helps the audience feel looked after and willing to give themselves over to the film.

Currently screening at select cinemas.

1. Licorice Pizza

My most anticipated film of the year was always going to feature highly on this list, and Paul Thomas Anderson did not disappoint in this often surprising, frequently hilarious coming-of-age film. Licorice Pizza sees possibly my favourite director loosen his collar and explore ideas of adolescent stagnation whilst never indulging in the nostalgia of his own past. There is no doubt this film will eventually become my most-watched film of the year with an enchanting world that will no doubt grow and evolve as the years go by.

Licorice Pizza is my favourite film of 2021, coming from a filmmaker that feels at his most comfortable while also being able to thrill in equal measure. Anderson is a writer and filmmaker like no other working today. He has created a 70s coming-of-age film with two of the most realised characters of recent American cinema history in Gary and Alana that will live on long in my memory.

Allow this film to wash over you with its gorgeous visuals and recreation of the 70s in The Valley, and find yourself totally engrossed in a story of teenage and early 20s stagnation while searching for your place in the world.

In a year stuck at home with little else to do but take stock of one’s life, it feels only right that the two films that sang to me this year are two that were not these immaculately crafted pieces of artistic achievement but instead worked as mirrors, seeing myself in the eyes of each and every person shown on screen, both their emotional peaks and valleys.

Currently screening at select theatres nationwide.

Honourable Mentions: Zola, Malignant, In the Heights, Azor

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