Arts review of 2021: Alistair Harkness on the year in film

From Frances McDormand’s wonderfully expressive performance in Nomadland to Daniel Craig’s unexpectedly moving last outing as Bond to Kristen Stewart’s inspired turn as Princess Diana, 2021 was a year in which the big names delivered. Scotsman film critic Alistair Harkness rounds up his films of the year

Frances McDormand in Nomadland
Frances McDormand in Nomadland

Nomadland Winner of this year’s Oscars for best film, best director and best actress, Chloé Zhao’s third feature was an early front-runner for film of the year – partly because of Frances McDormand’s wonderfully expressive performance, partly because of the poetic realism of Zhao’s nuanced portrait of America’s gig economy. Sure, Zhao’s blockbuster debut Eternals wasn’t the crowning glory it should have been, but that said more about Marvel than it did about her. Nomadland merely confirmed what fans of The Rider already knew: that Zhao was among the best filmmakers in the world.

No Time to Die Nobody’s big screen return was more anticipated than James Bond’s. Mercifully Daniel Craig’s final outing more than delivered. The blockbuster of the year was a brilliant, outlandish and unexpectedly moving send-off for the beloved franchise’s longest serving 007. And yet, for all the pandemic-fuelled debates about whether or not Bond would save the big screen experience, No Time To Die was in cinemas for precisely six weeks before it popped up on demand in our homes. The implications of that shift raised far more profound questions for the future of Bond (and cinema) than all the tiresome debates about who should play him next.

C’mon, C’mon Is Joaquin Phoenix the best actor of his generation? This exceptional black-and-white drama about a radio producer (Phoenix) who volunteers to look after his eight-year-old nephew certainly suggested so. Playing a regular guy after a series of high-profile oddballs, Phoenix forged a truthful bond with his young co-star Woody Norman that was raw, nuanced and effortlessly engaging. Written and directed by Mike Mills, and featuring an incredible turn from Gabby Hoffman as Phoenix’s estranged sister, the film captured the complexities of modern family life better than anything in recent memory.

Yahya Abdul-Mateen II in Candyman

Spencer Re-imagining Princess Diana’s last Christmas with the royals as a riff on The Shining was an audacious move on the part of Chilean director Pablo Larraín, not least because it allowed the fearless Kristen Stewart to tap into the inner chaos of the Princess of Wales. The result was a stunning abstract horror film that also served up the scene of the year with that culinary nightmare shot of Stewart’s psychologically disintegrating Diana crunching pearls during the soup course. Christmas dinner with the in-laws has never looked more tense.

Judas and the Black Messiah Brit actor Daniel Kaluuya was on blistering, Oscar-winning form as slain Black Panther leader Fred Hampton in this drama charting the insidious way the FBI infiltrated the militant civil rights group. He was complimented by a subtly layered performance from fellow Get Out alumnus LaKeith Stanfield, cast here as Bill O’Neal, the petty criminal co-opted into becoming an informant. Shaka King’s film captured the era with documentary-like realism, thoroughly overturning Hollywood’s unquestioning love affair with the FBI in the process.

The Velvet Underground and Summer of Soul Todd Haynes once made a biopic of Karen Carpenter using barbie dolls so it made sense that his documentary about the Velvet Underground would take a radical approach to the influential avant-garde rock group. Making intriguing use of manager Andy Warhol’s extensive archive of experimental films, Haynes created a kaleidoscopic, multimedia portrait of the band and their chaotic times. It made for a great double bill with Summer of Soul, Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson’s ebullient found-footage documentary about the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival. Among its astonishing, never-before-seen archival performances was 19-year-old Stevie Wonder working his magic on his clavinet – a sight more dazzling than any special effect.

The Card Counter Paul Schrader’s late-period renaissance continued with this tale of an ex-con gambler (Oscar Isaac) seeking redemption for his own bad apple past. Set amid the world of big money poker tournaments, Schrader used gambling as a bluff to lead us into a subversive exploration of the troubling avenging angel trope he first explored in his script for Taxi Driver.

Daniel Craig as James Bond in No Time To Die. Photo by MGM/Eon/Danjaq/UPI/Kobal/Shutterstock

Zola 2021 was the year a Twitter thread became a movie. Luckily that movie was this formally innovative drama. Based on a 148-tweet thread charting an outlandish episode in the life of an exotic dancer named A’Ziah ‘Zola’ King, the film’s debut director/co-writer Janicza Bravo replicated the social media platform’s weird juxtapositions with camera work and narrative jumps that provided a pointed commentary on the exploitation and violence coursing through the story. Ferociously funny performances from Taylour Paige as Zola and Riley Keough as her stripper frenemy ensured it was a wild ride.

First Cow and Pig 2021 was also the year that gave us not one but two Oregon-set films revolving around animal husbandry and artisanal gastronomy. Kelly Reichardt’s First Cow wound the clock back to the 1820s for a myth-puncturing exploration of the ruthlessness of the American West via a story involving enterprising frontiersmen, a dairy cow and some delicious buttermilk “oily cakes”. Pig, meanwhile, saw Nicolas Cage on sage form as a forest-dwelling hermit on a mission to track down his stolen truffle pig amid the weird, gangster-like environs of Portland’s hipster food scene. Both films revelled in their foodie details; both films offered strange meditations on friendship and loss.

Candyman Not so much a reboot as a real-time sequel, Nia DaCosta’s Black Lives Matter-inspired take on early 1990s cult horror oddity Candyman mirrored everything that was intriguing about the original and turned it into an intellectually rigorous slasher film. Produced and co-written by Jordan Peele, it was a horror movie for the times, with DaCosta using police sirens rather than orchestral cues to facilitate her jump scares.

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Riley Keough and Taylour Paige in Zola

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Kristen Stewart in Spencer PIC: Neon