From the second weirdest year of my life comes the weirdest list I’ve ever written for this site. Last year I included a short and this year I include a short, a featurette and my first ever shout for an actual TV series, because why not? And Small Axe doesn’t count because they are all standalone films. As things change I realise that the survival of cinema will be as an idea, an aesthetic, a feeling, a mode, and that is something all the cinematic objects I talk about here share. Like the best cinema, there’s a flow to the list, as opposed to a numerical ranking, though number 1 is my number 1.
I would have loved to have included Alexandre Rockwell’s stunning Sweet Thing in my list but it got squeezed out by two late late shows and in a high-water mark year for music documentaries, two(ish) make my top 10, I would be remiss not to mention here my love for Edgar Wright’s The Sparks Brothers and Paul Sng and Celeste Bell’s Poly Styrene: I Am A Cliché.
10. THE Underground Railroad | Barry Jenkins
This felt more like a tone poem, or a deep excavation of character and being than a TV show. Jenkins is a modern master and the way he conjured space for ideas and excoriating humanity, of good and evil, made this a deeply rewarding and discomforting watch. His understanding of how cinematic language can be deployed to tell stories that are felt as much as they are directly understood is without peer at present.
9. STILL PROCESSING | Sophy Romvari
It feels like a cliché to say this short film from emerging filmmaker Sophy Romvari manages to pack more devastating emotion into its 17 minutes than most features do in their 90+, but it’s so true. As she spends time with the archive of her family for the first time the audience share in her discovery and the re-emergence of raw grief and trauma. Exhilarating cinema in construction and impact.
8. I’VE BEEN TRYING TO TELL YOU | Alasdair McLellan
The latest cinematic odyssey to accompany a Saint Etienne album heads out of London or one location on a 45-minute poetic road trip around Britain celebrating working class youth in the first quarter early 21st century. Alasdair McLellan’s film is part photoshoot for The Face, part rave epitaph, part William Klein inspired opera of light. The sequence at Portmeirion is of particular resonance for me and this film one of the most deeply pleasurable in terms of aesthetics this year.
7. KING ROCKER | Michael Cumming
The best music documentary of recent times and one of the best of all time. Hilarious, sweet, insightful and profound, it is the perfect blend of anarchy and control from Stewart Lee and Michael Cumming and in subject Robert Lloyd, the form finds the perfect match in content. A story of rock n roll survival from a smart orator and brilliantly iconoclastic, renegade musician.
6. LIMBO | Ben Sharrock
Continuing a short thread of British cinema, this feature is the best British film of the year in my opinion and one of my favourites in recent years, period. Hilarious and touching, it recalls the work of Bill Forsyth (and not just in geography) but marks director Ben Sharrock out as someone with a special cinematic voice. The way the humanity and politics seep out of every frame without ever becoming preachy, or text, is wondrous.
5. AZOR | Andreas Fontana
This Argentinian tale of politics, money and intrigue starts off like a sun-kissed The Third Man (ironically the director is Swiss-Argentinian) before descending into a seedy, sticky fable that recalls Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut for its portrayal of a rube (potentially) undone by the hedonistic and lawless corridors of power. I loved it.
4. THIS IS NOT A BURIAL, IT’S A RESURRECTION | Lemohang Jeremiah Mosese
Similar to Limbo, this rare feature from Lesotho manages to combine contemporary geopolitics with universal human themes in ways that never feel anything other than vital and cinematic. In the lead role as an 80-year-old woman preparing her own funeral and trying to get her house in order following the death of her son, Mary Twala is magnetic, funny, powerful and unforgettable. The film was released by MUBI early in 2021 and is risking being forgotten in the end of year throng, which is criminal.
3. THE GREEN KNIGHT | David Lowery
Teaching screenwriting again and feeling pretty low at the state of contemporary ‘mainstream’ releases has me rushing for films whose rewards are more aesthetic than expositional. Lowery’s film is a slow burn fever dream with a very simple story but endless pleasures in how it looks and feels. Pleasure and pleasurable are words I am keeping at the forefront of my list of cinematic demands currently and this has pleasures to spare.
2. THE POWER OF THE DOG | Jane Campion
Right at the end of the year, along gallops Campion with a reminder of the rich pleasures available when a Western master filmmaker is well funded. Her latest, and the first big-screen outing since the underrated (by people including me, for a while) Bright Star, is absolutely glorious and rightly one of the best reviewed and awarded films of the year. Special shout outs to the unnerving and ethereal Kodi Smit-McPhee and Jonny Greenwood’s exceptional score.
1. DRIVE MY CAR | Ryûsuke Hamaguchi
A good film should stay with you in some way, even in fragments or moments that come to represent the whole. A great film should shift your axis in some way, moving how you feel about the world and art and yourself. Hamaguchi’s three-hour opus on grief and art as a way of processing it (and all other facets of human existence) is such a film for me. It destroyed me, then rebuilt me, and its many moments of wonder and connection and profundity come to me often, both as fragments and as a wave-like whole that consumes me and leaves me refreshed and a bit wobbly. A bonafide masterpiece. The first truly great film of the new decade for me.
You can check out the rest of team DN’s Top Ten picks here.