87 Films From The 2021/22 Awards Season – Ranked.

“Why do you watch so many films?” the film buff is sometimes asked. “They’re good therapy”, is my considered reply. Roger Ebert said that cinema is “a machine that generates empathy”. Like most humans, I don’t take time to empathise enough, but through watching films I feel connected to a wider sense of belonging in the whole world, not just our small part of it. Like last year’s list, this one was assembled from nominees (in most categories except the stylistic and sound ones) for four major awards ceremonies on either side of the Atlantic: the Oscars, the BAFTAs, the Independent Spirit Awards, and the British Independent Film Awards.

I watched all of the 87 films below, but at the time of writing, there were still 6 films not available for streaming in the UK (7 Days, Attica, Bank Job, Holler, Lunana: A Yak In The Classroom, Test Pattern). It strikes me that you watch this many films in a year, much of the measurable impact (and therefore the score given) is defined by your ability to remember the key plot points. But films are not just memories, they are objective artefacts and so I have gone back to remind myself of those that have faded somewhat from memory. This list is more than a year of enjoyment, and I’m looking forward to doing the same this coming year. It’s organised by rating, but I’ve only bothered to carefully rank the ones rated 8 or 9. Now: to the list!

87. House Of Gucci (2021) – 2
As I put it on Twitter on 14th September 2022, “this is possibly the worst mainstream Hollywood film nominated for awards I have ever seen. From start to finish I was utterly uninterested in anything that happened. That’s some feat!” I literally fell asleep watching this, and I wasn’t even tired.

86. The Harder They Fall (2021) – 4
I feel bad for negging on Jeymes Samuel, a successful Black British director, but unfortunately this sub-Tarantino (ouch – I dislike post-millennium Tarantino) western is all style and absolutely zero substance, with all of that style being showy and annoying.

85. The Power (2021) – 4
A silly, undercooked British ghost film. Forgettable.

84. Raya And The Last Dragon (2021) – 4
I have heard good people call this a “feminist masterpiece” (or something like that), but sadly you have to have the masterpiece aspect to fit that bill and this has that kind of terrible juddery unclear animation style that makes it really hard to bother to watch. The medium is part of the message!

83. Everybody’s Talking About Jamie (2021) – 5
I liked some of the songs in this, but sadly the sorry is so trite and predictable that I just couldn’t get with it. I’m not the biggest musical fan – I believe you need to have at least 4 or 5 bangers for it to be classed as even worth making. This has 1 or 2.

82. Don’t Look Up (2021) – 5
Ah, now you’re paying attention! I get it. You love a metaphor and you care about climate change. Same here. But, objectively, this is a really poorly put together film that leaps all over the place tonally. The director Adam McKay has previous form on creating comedy satires that – because of an unflinching desire to nod and wink at the audience and mollycoddle white western liberals with what they want to hear – loses vast amounts of potential persuasive power. I also, crucially, didn’t care about the earth that Leo and Jen were trying to save – because it wasn’t REAL. Ironic, really, given the theme of fake news. I’d like to see someone make an ACTUAL climate change film, but that involves criticising colonial/extractivist capitalism and private jets, and Hollywood just ain’t up to it.

81. She Will (2021) – 5
More odd Brit horror that I’m not really interested in – lots of being in the woods, witches and supernatural gubbins. You have to really live within the psychology of horror films to love them and mostly I find it difficult to give myself to that. The performances were good though.

80. In The Same Breath (2021) – 5
There are a few Covid documentaries out there and the problem with this one is that it spends too long on China and not long enough on the US, which (if you get me) ends up being not long enough on either. There is some great footage and narrative about the initial cover-up of the virus in China, but it really needed to be two separate films, not this cursory comparison between the two nations.

79. Encounter (2021) – 6
[SPOILER REVIEW] I love Riz Ahmed, who doesn’t? And he’s great in this, as are the two child actors. However, despite some really emotive and well-produced scenes, this was sadly an anti-climax because I wanted more than a familial resolution to the central genre question of the film – have extra-terrestrial bugs invaded the earth, or is it all in his head? (If you’ve seen it and are going “that was resolved”…was it? How?)

78. Nightmare Alley         (2021) – 6
Such an impressively shot and confected picture, and some interesting thematic elements with a horrifying denouement. A couple of stars are knocked off though for just how poor the editing decisions were. It didn’t need to be 2.5 hours and is a much worse film because of it.

77. The Eyes Of Tammy Faye (2021) – 6
Despite a very uneven screenplay and no small number of horrendous characters to have to watch for 2 hours, I thought this was good on the psychology of fundamentalist belief in showing how – ironically – it requires someone to hold more than one idea in their head at the same time to maintain mental stability. It also emphasises (in a good way) an under-noticed fact about American evangelicalism – there are many social liberals who are subscribers to it.

76. Wild Indian (2021) – 6
Michael Greyeyes is terrifying in this, a very solemn attempt to make a mainstream film about the experience of Native American people, but I felt by focusing on an extreme but also obvious example (troubled abused child becomes a rich unlikeable careerist) a lot of the potential emotional power was lost.

75. In The Earth (2021) – 6
I’ve just re-read the plot of this and I just wish Ben Wheatley had focused on this aspect a bit more rather than the general “ooh it’s some creepy pagan mystical thing” aspect. I would have enjoyed it more and thought all the wibbly stuff was worth the effort. One star added solely for the presence of the legendary Reece Shearsmith.

74. Benediction (2021) – 6
The life of Siegfried Sassoon. I liked the scenes where he was being principled and the anti-war tenor of it but I found the rest a bit of a chore and pretty unmemorable.

73. Spencer (2021) – 6
For me, this was one of those films I couldn’t help judging before seeing it, but (even as an ardent republican) I entered with an open mind and I was strangely won over by this one’s emphasis on Diana’s inner turmoil that largely ignores the wider familial context of her pains. The scenes with Harry and William are heartfelt and – of the five Best Actress Oscar nominees – I would have given it to Kristen Stewart.

72. Cow (2021) – 6
It does exactly what it says on the tin. Life, love, boredom, sex and murder as experienced by the average dairy cow on a British farm. It didn’t make me vegan, but it did make me think.

71. The Humans (2021) – 6
Last year we had The Father, an impressively put together adaptation of a theatrical production that I found way too stylised to get alongside. This year, we have The Humans, which is a better film, but still doesn’t escape the feeling that the lights will come up any second for the interval. The performances are note-perfect, in particular (I thought) Stephen Yeun’s as the outsider at the family dinner. I’d really like to see the play.

70. Titane (2021) – 6
Now this is how to plot a film! Surprise after surprise, but also the more it goes on, the more you (well, I) go “yeah…but no”. So maybe it isn’t how to plot a film after all. But I love the way it pulls no punches and it certainly says something true about the link between sexuality, power and autophilia.

69. Wildfire (2020) – 6
Estranged Irish sisters as metaphor for the border. I was really looking forward to this (from watching the trailer) and it bristles with a distinctive energy but sadly it just doesn’t quite cut it in terms of the expository information it presents and the way it manages its material into a (in)coherent whole. Yes yes, “show don’t tell”, but we do need a bit more telling than this.

68. The Bike Thief (2020) – 6
Taking more than a flavour of the Italian neo-realist classic Bicycle Thieves (1948), for most of its runtime this expertly explores the London gig economy and its reliance on non-British born workers to sustain it. The story is too slight for this to attain the same status as the aforementioned film and the end doesn’t work, but it should be seen by more people.

67. Being The Ricardos (2021) – 6
I got halfway through watching this and thought “this seems very Sorkin-esque” and then realised that’s because it was written and directed by Aaron Sorkin. My review from Sorkin’s The Trial Of The Chicago 7 can be repeated here: “he just needs to stick to the writing, not-so-much the direction – and learn how to underplay to create more compelling drama”. Also: writers, stop sidelining writers in your writing in favour of performers. Some of us prefer writers.

66. CODA (2021) – 6
This won Best Picture at the Oscars (for the record, The Lost Daughter, The Power Of The Dog and After Love won the equivalent awards at the other three ceremonies) and you can see why, but you could also see why they really should have given it to Dune, Belfast or The Power Of The Dog (or something better than all of these). It tugs at the heartstrings, there are one or two hilarious moments and I liked it, but in the cold light of day it’s not doing much different to any other Hollywood heart-warmer getting 6.5 out of 10 on IMDB.

65. The Mitchells vs. The Machines (2021) – 6
Over-hyped but good fun for the most part. I found the animation style takes a bit of getting used to and some of the characters were grating at times. Meh?

64. No Time To Die (2021) – 6
[SPOILER REVIEW] It’s a Bond film, but he dies in this one. Otherwise, it’s the same as any other Bond film. Next.

63. I Am Belmaya (2021) – 6
Film-making as a route out of abuse and poverty for a Nepalese woman. Good but not great.

62. True Things (2021) – 6
To be watched through your fingers while quietly asking the main characters “why are you doing this?”, Ruth Wilson is great as a woman bored of all the mundanity who ends up in an obsessive relationship with a mysterious stranger.

61. Catch The Fair One (2021) – 6
A woman willingly puts herself into a sex-trafficking ring to try and find her kidnapped sister. Tense and horrifying.

60. Swan Song (2021) – 6
There are two 2021 films called Swan Song. This is the Udo Kier one. Set in Sandusky, Ohio, it’s a love letter to that town and it is sweet and mournful.

59. Encanto (2021) – 6
Is it me or are the songs completely forgettable? I didn’t really like the premise and didn’t think the overall message was worth the trouble, but I liked that Bruno character, he was fun to watch.

58. Ascension (2021) – 6
It was kind of interesting seeing some things that take place in China these days, but beneath all that it felt like a more insightful and profound documentary was waiting to get out.

57. Flee (2021) – 6
I have liked previous rotoscope animated films, but really couldn’t stand the juddery stuff in this one. While the subject matter is of profound importance (LGBT rights, migration), sadly I didn’t feel there was enough here to distinguish this story from other better told tales of refugees and asylum seekers. That more people will understand the horror of international migration is a very good reason for it to exist, though.

56. Cyrano (2021) – 6
There is nothing wrong at all with the three main performances, but the staging and production is not that special and unfortunately I didn’t feel invested in the central romance, nor really believe it.

55. Last Night In Soho (2021) – 6
I had no idea this was a horror film before watching it. The jump scares were oddly cliched but the whole spectacle and narrative was pretty well done. Thomasin McKenzie’s accent was dead annoying and her love interest very shallowly written. It got a bit more interesting towards the end but not enough to make me recommend it.

54. Dune (2021) – 7
Superb wide canvas film-making from Denis Villleneuve (certainly far more interesting than the dull as ditch water Blade Runner 2049) but as many others have said it felt more like a set-up for the next film than a standalone film.

53. King Richard (2021) – 7
So, 12 months on from “that slap”, how do we all feel? Personally, I thought this was a really good biopic and a great performance from Will Smith (not to mention the actors playing young Serena and Venus – Saniyya Sidney and Demi Singleton), but I still would have given the big prize to Andrew Garfield (more on this later!) and avoided all of that stuff.

52. Belfast (2021) – 7
I watched this a long time all the Oscar hype and really enjoyed it – witty and faithful to a time and place in history. But it’s not in the instant classic category as some would have you believe.

51. Becoming Cousteau (2021) – 7
Only the film Don’t Look Up wishes it was! Cousteau did so much to mainstream ecological thinking and this film is stuffed full of wonderful archive footage of his life, loves and losses.

50. Sweet Thing (2020) – 7
Simply for the style in which this is filmed – a sort of wistful fly-on-the-wall black and white thing – I have added a star. The young actors are great and although the plot is no great shakes, it still explores its themes effectively and in a heartfelt way.

49. Pirates (2021) – 7
This is a great buddy film and very funny, particularly if you were a teenager in the late 90s. The period detail is well done and the dialects of that era are brilliantly reconstructed. Ironically, a great night in!

48. The Power Of The Dog (2021) – 7
Yes, Cumberbatch is great in this, but he’s great in most things. This is really Kodi Smit-McPhee’s gig, I think. I find Campion’s style a bit languorous to give myself completely to and the screenplay is unrelentingly shy of disclosure, but I suppose that all works in its favour by creating an ambiguous puzzle for the viewer to solve for themself.

47. Sweetheart (2021) – 7
A lovely story about teen awkwardness, family arguments and queer love set on an English seaside holiday camp. You’ll like it.

46. Ali & Ava (2021) – 7
I love the characters more than I love the film, but it’s still really good. Bradford looks glorious in all its hilly splendour.

45. After Love (2020)  – 7
Joanna Scanlan can never be disassociated completely from Terri Coverley (The Thick Of It) in my mind, but no matter. She is excellent in this sombre story of a bereaved wife who discovers her late husband has not been entirely truthful in life.

44. Licorice Pizza (2021) – 7
So much of this is enjoyably funny, but there are some annoying parts (Sean Penn on a motorbike? Nah…) and the central romance is a bit dodgy to say the least. It is worth seeing just for the downhill truck reverse segment alone. I’d put it down as a mid-tier Paul Thomas Anderson film. Everyone – listen to Haim!

43. West Side Story (2021) – 7
It’s a tremendous production. I liked it, I didn’t love it. Ariana DeBose was the correct choice of the five nominees for the Best Supporting Actress Oscar.

42. Swan Song (2021) – 7
Of the two 2021 films called Swan Song, this is Mahershala Ali one and it’s a well done sci-fi drama about whether if you’re dying you should allow an exact clone of yourself to take over without telling your family. The wonderful Akwafina is in it and that makes it a lot less maudlin than it could have been.

41. Passing (2021) – 7
A very good period film about class and race with great performances from Ruth Negga and Tessa Thompson. That’s it – watch it if that sounds good to you!

40. Together Together (2021) – 7
I really liked this, it wasn’t trying to be anything more than it was and what it was is a lovely relationship comedy about surrogacy.

39. Prayers For The Stolen (2021) – 7
The constant looking over your shoulder of living in a Mexican village being gradually taken over by a violent drug cartel that disappears people in the night, or even the day. This situation is seen through the eyes of three girls whose friendship is shown at different ages as they deal with the ruptures and uncertainty caused. The lack of explanation of what is really going on is what creates such a powerful sense of unease and puts us right in the girls’ mindset.

38. Pleasure (2021) – 7
What if someone unapologetically sets out to become an adult film star? This is an uncomfortable watch at times, but it seems to me it shows the reality of the industry and the performances are strong and well-delivered.

37. Happening (2021) – 7
4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days is widely acknowledged as the go-to film about the horror of living in a society that won’t sanction legal abortion, but I found this to be just as if not more effective due to its lighter (initial) tone and setting in France in (as late as) 1963.

36. Censor (2021) – 7
This is an excellent Bristol horror period drama about film censorship in the 80s with such a good central performance by Niamh Algar. The allegory of parents ”censoring” the possibility of their daughter still being alive is such an interesting juxtaposition with the video nasty era this is evoking. The ending is very cleverly done, but this film probably isn’t for everyone.

35. Luca (2021) – 7
I think this received too many negative and mixed reviews, it’s really great and the denouement is really moving. It doesn’t matter whether the boys are gay or straight, they’re boys – stop writing articles about it!

34. The Souvenir Part II (2021)- 7
This is far better than the original which I found indulgent and stolid simultaneously. This as least has a far bigger funny part for Richard Ayoade and some central animating force.

33. The Worst Person In The World (2021) – 7
It’s hard to love a film about a narcissist but you can admire it. The “let’s be intimate without cheating” scenes are so well played and a bit thrilling. There are some really good moments but I’m not convinced this is the instant classic some quarters have screamed it is.

32. Pebbles (2021) – 7
This is a Tamil-language Indian film about an abusive father and his son as the father tries to find his wife in a neighbouring village. The action takes place in the searing desert heat and there is one moment where the father stares at the camera as if it were an apparition. One to seek out.

31. A Chiara (2021) – 7
A teenage girl discovers her family are part of the Calabrian mafia. A well told, interesting film.

30. Zola (2020) – 7
A film inspired by an incredibly long tweet thread by a stripper and her open-ended road trip to Tampa, Florida, this keeps you guessing at every stage (if you haven’t read the thread in question, of course). A sort of companion piece to Pleasure in this list, with a much more sly and winking attitude.

29. Jockey (2021) – 7
Some films perfectly showcase a journeyman actor’s previously hidden wellspring of talent and this is the one for Clifton Collins Jr. It tremendously captures the world of a professional jockey and the risks that many take with their bodies and minds.

28. Queen Of Glory (2021) – 7
A female Ghanaian scientist living in New York inherits her mother’s Christian bookshop on her death. This is funny and touching and well-played and worth your time.

27. Dying To Divorce (2021) – 7
Perhaps the most harrowing and rage-inducing film on this list as it deals directly with Turkish women who have been shot or beaten by their male partners (who are still not in prison) and how they are fighting back against a patriarchal and unjust judicial system.

26. The Hand Of God (2021) – 7
Odd, funny and beautiful coming-of-age drama about a Naples family set at the moment Diego Maradona made his move to play for the local team.

25. The Novice (2021) – 7
A brilliant frenetic performance from Isabelle Fuhrman is at the heart of this tale of an extremely obsessive student who wants to be the best rower on the college team.

24. Blue Bayou (2021) – 7
A man born in Korea but raised by adoption in the United States wrestles with the authorities and the local community as he tries to remain in the country rather than abandon his wife, soon-to-be-born child and step-daughter. The kind of subject matter than could be really cheesily done, this mostly stays on the right side of the line, even if the characterisation of the “baddie” is a bit too unsubtle.

23. Compartment No. 6 (2021) – 7
A woman travels to the far north of Russia on a train and interacts with other passengers in her compartment. This has received critical acclaim, and I can understand why – an understated character piece with gorgeous landscapes as backdrops and a humorous note to its largely dramatic sense. I didn’t get as much from it as others have, but there were some great moments and observations.

22. Rebel Dykes (2021) – 7
Brit doc about lesbians in London in the 70s and 80s and a club night that was transgressive, even by today’s standards. The look is of a fanzine or scrapbook pieced together from the talking heads’ memories and there was enough material for this to work well. This has some important things to say about inclusion in the LGBTIQA+ community too. Loads of good indie punk on the soundtrack.

21. The Tragedy Of Macbeth (2021) – 7
This was a lot more accessible than I was expecting (even if like me you struggle to grasp every jot and tittle of Shakespearean speech). The cinematography should win every award going (Dune won the Oscar and the Bafta in this category). Denzel Washington and Frances McDormand are tremendous, and the three witches are great too.

20. Cicada (2020) – 7
New York gay romance, with therapy included. Many funny or witty moments. Cobie Smulders’ therapist is the one false note of this, for me, and knocked it down a point. But some proper contemporary issues being dealt with in an honest and realistic way.

19. Red Rocket (2021) – 7
The director Sean Baker also did Tangerine (2015) and The Florida Project (2017). They are both probably more interesting films, but I would say they are not as watchable and they don’t have as compelling a central character as Simon Rex’s retired porn star Mikey Saber. Watch as a portrayal of total narcissism plays out, and feel guilty you might be enjoying some of the ride.

18. Parallel Mothers (2021) – 7
The plot is interestingly put together, with a beginning and an end focused on exhuming bodies of relatives, and a seemingly unconnected (or is it?) story about two mothers taking up the middle. I liked the twists and turns, and I liked all the performances.

17. Drive My Car (2021) – 8
Japanese drama. Impeccably shot, wondrous ending and many lovely moments but it didn’t need to be as long as it was.

16. The Killing Of Kenneth Chamberlain (2020) – 8
This is one of those films you don’t really want to watch for most of the time you are watching it as it unfolds with such a grim inevitability. Post-watch, you go “this must be embellished in some way”, but no, this is pretty much what happened. Incredible performance from Frankie Faison which deserves more recognition.

15. The Lost Daughter (2021) – 8
This was really good, particularly Jessie Buckley as a relatable young parent with hard-to-manage children. The mystery/enigma at the film’s heart is what really intrigues though. To whom does “the lost daughter” refer?

14. Petite Maman (2021) – 8
Sweet, tender and short parent and child musings. Time travel without the bells and whistles and all the more poignant and moving as a result.

13. Keyboard Fantasies (2019) – 8
An inspiring film about Black transgender musician Beverley Glenn-Copeland, his 1980s electronic record Keyboard Fantasies, and audiences embracing him as a lost genius in the last few years. This is just tickle your tummy lovely, and Glenn-Copeland is such wonderful company. I love how queer stories like this can connect young and old in liberation struggles across time and space.

12. Boiling Point (2021) – 8
It was all the rage for a time for films to be just one continuous shot (Russian Ark, Victoria, Birdman). This arrives a bit later, but is no less impressive as the aforementioned three. Stephen Graham is at his best, but the real star is the screenplay’s pacing – there is not any period where you think “this is dragging a bit”.

11. Mass (2021) – 8
Sadly the hype for this one was a bit too much for me to be completely satisfied with its emotionally powerful themes. Gun violence seen (partly) through the lens of the perpetrator’s parents is underexplored and this certainly explores it. In some ways, the awkward location of this meeting is the leveller needed to really drill down deep into the characters’ loss. The title of the film is clever – it could be placed in front of “shooting”, or refer to the church the meeting takes place, or signify the heavy weight anyone affected by gun violence carries with them.

10. Procession (2021) – 8
Dealing with childhood sexual abuse by Catholic priests is a pretty weighty subject, so survivors are asked to re-enact or re-interpret their experiences as film scenes, which create parts of the film. It’s an interesting premise and, on the whole, works. What knocks this film up a star is the palpable sense of pain as survivors explore the places and things that still remind them of their experiences. “This machine generates empathy”, indeed.

9. Pig (2021) – 8
If you’re a big John Wick fan, you might exclaim “hey, you stole the premise but it’s a pig not a dog!”, but come on, this is Nicholas Cage as an ex-chef who now lives in a cabin in the woods with his truffle-hunting pig and it’s about the madness and power of food as a lifestyle choice, rather than as fuel for our bodies. I very much enjoyed it.

8. Summer Of Soul (2021) – 8
A truly incredible concert film containing seemingly everyone who was anyone in 1960s African-American popular music performing at the Harlem Cultural Festival in 1969, this is lifted further still by the context and politics of the era being fully explored and reflected on by the participants. It’s really uplifting!

7. Writing With Fire (2021) – 8
Women journalists in India take on the patriarchy and vested interests in big and small ways. Hope-inducing – perhaps there is a way out of this mess!

6. The Rescue (2021) – 8
I didn’t know the precise details of the Thai soccer team who were rescued from a cave system ahead of watching this documentary, and I think this probably hit a lot harder as a result. It’s really well edited and put together and the pacing is more like a thriller – as perhaps all great documentaries should be? It tells of the mystery of one group of people being at the wrong place at the wrong time, and another group being at the right place at the right time.

5. First Cow (2019) – 8
An allegory for the rapacious ideology of capitalism as imagined by white men on the American continent (as if you can “steal” an animal’s secretions!), its alternative is unembarrassedly loving outsider male friendships which, if you’re a bloke and live in the modern world, you’ve got to admit is quite a radical idea that might need to be taken up a bit more. The film’s visual aesthetic is wonderful.

4. tick, tick…BOOM! (2021) – 8
I am not a person who is really into musicals, nor am I into stories of the creation of musicals. But this is also a story about writing and obsession and I love stories about those things. Andrew Garfield is so so good in this, but there’s lots to love – the songs, the science fiction element of the musical’s narrative, and the parties!

3. The Nest (2020) – 8
This was really quite superb, somewhat surprisingly. Jude Law and Carrie Coon are tremendous as a couple drifting apart and Law absolutely nails the persona of a bullshit merchant who starts to realise that real life is catching up to him. Seriously, you will read the plot synopsis and go “meh” but you totally should bother with it.

2. Nowhere Special (2020) – 8
This is the film that Coda wishes it was. It’s a really beautiful piece of cinema about a terminally ill man and how he arranges for his young son to continue to have a good life when he’s gone. The casting is perfect and the performances are great too.

1. C’mon C’mon (2021) – 9
A film about parenthood for people who aren’t parents? Joaquin Phoenix is an uncle who is making a podcast series by going from place to place but ends up having to look after his sister’s son. I can’t even remember much about the details, but it was my film of the year for its authenticity and the sublime performances. It was directed by Mike Mills who also made 20th Century Women and which I also rate very highly indeed. You should watch both of them!


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