24 Lies a Second: 2021

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Late December and New Year generally is noted as being a time when self-indulgence is permissible and review-of-the-year articles are everywhere; whether this is a coincidence or a causal link I leave to you to decide. I think it's almost certainly a bit self-indulgent to do a top 10 list for a year in which I didn't even get to the cinema in the first six months (I saw three times as many films in 2019 as I did in 2021), but there you go. At least it has novelty value: I haven't done one of these in ages, especially not one where I stick my neck out and try to rank them in order of quality, but then again, I only saw about thirty new films this year at the cinema. Anyway…

10. Riders of Justice

Quite a few good Danish films out this year; this one particularly engaged me. A decorated army officer teams up with a gang of nerds when it looks like the accident which killed his wife was in fact the work of a biker gang; violence inevitably ensues. It sounds like a Liam Neeson project, but it's much more offbeat than that, with elements of farce and family drama along with the revenge thriller. Terrific central performance from Mads Mikkelson, but lots else to enjoy here as well.

9. Dune

I sort of feel bad for not rating Denis Villeneuve's magisterial take on the first half of Frank Herbert's legendary novel higher, but (ironically enough, given the setting) it has a distant chilliness about it which makes it hard to love. Galactic politics and messianic pseudo-science intersect on the beautiful but deadly desert planet of the title; a young noble confronts his unsettling destiny. An intelligent take on some very formidable source material, which manages to suggest the richness and detail of the novel without drowning in its own exposition.

8. The Green Knight

Another film which is a bit challenging, to say the least, but David Lowery is not afraid to be playful, clever and provocative in his retelling of this ancient tale. Young knight Gawain enters into a deadly game with the title warrior and must choose between a mundane but happy life in obscurity, or fame and glory and near-certain death. A hugely atmospheric film with a very distinctive style, clearly the result of much thought and great skill. The ending is a direct challenge to accepted standards of modern storytelling; most of the rest of the film is, too.

7. The Last Duel

We stay medieval for Ridley Scott's Rashomon-like tale of the feud between two knights and the woman caught up in their quarrel. One of them claims his wife has been molested; the other says she was a willing participant in the encounter; does anyone care what she herself has to say on the subject? A serious film about serious ideas, but Scott brings his usual grasp of atmosphere and ability to mount cracking action scenes to the film. Fine performances all round, particularly from Matt Damon and Ben Affleck (who co-wrote the script with Nicole Holofcener). Honourable mention goes to Scott's House of Gucci, which was also a contender for this list.

6. In the Heights

Many of these films have been, by conventional standards, box-office bombs, but these are not conventional times. There's also been an odd phenomena where films which appear to have been designed to help with the defenestration of Donald Trump have ended up appearing after the election was finally resolved – Wonder Woman 1984 was one, and this is another, a musical dealing with the lives and loves of young Hispanic Americans in New York City. The story isn't anything special, but the songs and choreography are great, and the whole thing feels a lot more authentic and vibrant, not to mention fun, than Spielberg's take on West Side Story. Still likely to be remembered as a flop, alas.

5. Spider-Man: No Way Home

Another New York movie – Manhattan being the spiritual home of Marvel Comics, of course. Probably the most straightforwardly commercial movie on this list, but that doesn't detract from its ability to thrill and delight audiences. Spider-Man's attempt to protect his secret identity by magically wiping the world's memory goes a bit wrong, leading to… well, if I say that to get the full effect you have to have seen all seven of the Spider-Man films made since 2002, you may get an inkling. A very clever film, technically hugely accomplished, but with a real warmth and humanity to it as well. On the strength of this, Marvel Studios are not relinquishing their grip on popular cinema any time soon.

4. Last Night in Soho

Psychological horror from Edgar Wright, as a naïve young woman with a troubled past travels to London for her studies, but finds herself caught up in murderous events that happened over fifty years earlier. A properly effective and scary film, but one with some solid ideas behind it, directed by Wright with his usual verve. The presence of genuine sixties icons like Terence Stamp and (in her last film role) Diana Rigg gives it extra resonance. Honourable mention goes to Wright's exhaustingly detailed documentary The Sparks Brothers, which was also bubbling under (along with Sparks' own movie, Annette).

3. Nobody

Another no-hidden-subtext commercial movie, as nondescript middle-aged middle-manager Bob Odenkirk reveals himself to be the year's unlikeliest action hero, casually taking out bad guys by the dozen in this deadpan action-comedy. I'm starting to think that anything Odenkirk does is worth watching, and his performance here adds unexpected depth to what could have been just a cartoony shoot-'em-up. Genuinely thrilling and also extremely funny; passes the time excellently if you're impatiently waiting for the final season of Better Call Saul.

2. Censor

Low-budget horror from Prana Bailey-Bond. A young woman whose job is to watch and certify films during the video nasty panic of the early 1980s comes across a movie which appears to depict traumatic events from her own childhood. Is someone sending her a message or is she simply losing her grip? One of those films more reliant on a creeping atmosphere of unease than on simple jump scares, but no less effective for that. Made with a real appreciation of vintage horror, and with some very clever and cynical ideas about the whole concept of censorship. Much more than the simple term 'horror movie' suggests.

1. Free Guy

I'm by no means an unconditional fan of Ryan Reynolds, but he does carry this kind of light comedy film with an enviably deft touch. More of a rom-com action science fiction film, in fact – Reynolds plays a background character in a computer game who miraculously achieves self-awareness and sets out to make sense of his odd existence. Naturally, there is a girl involved. Very funny, very clever, and very sweet – again, the film manages to smuggle some quite profound philosophical and moral ideas into something which just looks like a knockabout crowd-pleaser. Bonus points to all involved for trying to make a popcorn blockbuster which isn't a sequel, remake or adaptation.

And there we leave a challenging year. What does 2022 hold? Well, looking at any list of eagerly-anticipated upcoming releases you could be forgiven for thinking Scorsese et al have a point, as it will most likely consist almost entirely of sequels, spin-offs, remakes, and video game adaptations, with a large proportion of comic-book movies amongst them (off the top of my head, I can tell you that this year's releases include Morbius the Living Vampire, Doctor Strange 2, Thor 4, yet another new version of Batman, Aquaman 2, a Captain Marvel/Shazam sequel, and several more). But I am sure there will be other interesting films out there too and I hope to keep telling you about them.

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