We are closing in on the top spot for the HeadStuff Film writers’ Best Movies of 2021. If you haven’t caught our picks from #20 to #11 check them out here. Now, let’s jump back in with our top ten.
10. Bo Burnham: Inside
If you think you had a productive 2020 Lockdown, Bo Burnham is here to put all your sourdough recipes to shame. Written, performed and shot by Burnham inside a single room, Inside brilliantly captures the tired, wired, euphoric and empty feeling we all had during the pandemic – glued online and losing our minds.
Sure, it’s a Netflix comedy special, but this isn’t “content” – Inside is an artistic triumph! There’s no audience or punchlines, just the dizzying consequences of what happens when craft and talent intersect. With sharp sketches, catchy songs and dazzling direction, Inside is a one-man show with plenty to offer. If you haven’t caught up with it yet, set aside an evening, open up Netflix and enjoy. After all, “It’s a beautiful day to stay inside.” Brian Quinn
Kelly Reichardt’s First Cow, Valdimar Jóhannsson’s Lamb; Film in 2021 really had the whole barnyard covered. Michael Sarnoski’s Pig, strangely, might sit neatly in the intersection of this very odd venn diagram no one asked for. It marries the uncanny unease of the Jóhannsson work with the unexpected sentimentality of Reichardt’s bovine bro-flick. A never-better Nicolas Cage plays a reclusive truffle forager simply looking for the pig unjustly stolen from his isolated home in the Oregon forest.
The animal, of course, represents so much more than just a livelihood to our widowed protagonist. Rob’s ill-fated odyssey to reclaim his companionable swine ends up a touching, existential meditation on both grief and the mortality of all things, living or not. The beautiful, no-dry-eye guarantee coda is a tender call to carrying on, not just for yourself but for those you’ve left behind. Mark Conroy
8. Another Round
On paper, Thomas Vinterberg’s Oscar winning Danish drama about four burned out high-school teachers testing an absurd pseudoscientific theory that requires them to drink a lot of alcohol could have been nothing more than an alcohol-fuelled romp. It could have been something in the same vein of the American frat boy era of comedy where the heroes must band their hungover heads together to put the pieces together after a wild night out on the town and ponder how exactly the tiger got into their bathroom. Thankfully the film is so much more than that thanks to brilliantly layered screenplay by Vinterberg and frequent screenwriting collaborator Tobias Lindholm.
The teachers in this film (all played brilliantly by Mads Mikkelsen, Thomas Bo Larsen, Lars Ranthe, Magnus Millang) do drink a lot of alcohol in the film but it’s more a motif for them to reignite the spark in both their personal and professional lives. It’s a film that carefully walks a fine line from being something which glorifies excessive drinking or just being a PSA on the causes of excessive drinking. Vinterberg’s film is about loosening the constraints of life and just living in the moment. And given the past year which has been defined by lockdowns and restrictions, it’s a film that could potentially resonate strongly with the general consensus about wanting to just enjoy life. All that’s really left to say is: “Skål!” Sean Moriarty
7. The Card Counter
The Card Counter is less dynamic than similarly intense films by the Safdie brothers, Good Time (2017) and Uncut Gems (2019). But Schrader’s vision of life at the heart of the American nightmare has a comparable sense of physical tension, and an even deeper atmosphere of moral dread. At times, this movie feels as if it were made at the tail-end of the noir-ish, war-haunted 1950s, even as the characters are unmistakably products of 21st-century anomie and atrocity. The tessellating plot elements – concerning Abu Ghraib, as well as the USA’s rampant casino culture – don’t always fit together as naturally as Schrader wants them to, but the fact that he does, that he refuses to flinch from what Oscar Isaac’s William has seen and done, adds to the film’s pained anger and quiet hope. Ciaran O’Rourke
Drawn from writer/director Lee Isaac Chung‘s own experience, Minari tells the story of a young immigrant family trying to get by in 1980s Arkansas. The story is simple and naturalistic, opting to bring you into the characters’ emotional space rather than simply propelling plot developments forward.
From its gorgeous cinematography, to its affecting soundtrack, this is a film that’s suffused with warmth. The beautiful presentation serves to highlight some outstanding performances. Steven Yeun and Han Ye-ri deliver mature and restrained performances as the father and mother, but Youn Yuh-jung thoroughly steals the show as the visiting matriarch. Her firecracker presence lends the film another level of humour and pathos, and she rightly won an Academy Award for her memorable performance. Jesse Melia
5. First Cow
It’s been a rocky road for Kelly Reichardt’s First Cow. Having premiered at the Telluride Film Festival in 2019 and winning Best Film at the New York Film Critics Circle Awards soon after, its theatrical release was postponed indefinitely when the pandemic struck. But when it finally arrived on Irish shores in 2021, First Cow more than lived up to the hype.
First Cow serves as a clever culmination of the bold ideas and moods typifying much of Reichardt’s early work. The bashful male companionship between Cookie (John Magaro) and King-Lu (Orion Lee) is reminiscent of 2006’s Old Joy, while much of the film’s grim undertones can be traced back to Meek’s Cutoff (2010), the director’s first foray into western territory. You could call First Cow a parable or even a buddy movie – what’s for certain, though, is that it’s a downright masterpiece. Brian Quinn
4. Power of the Dog
There were 12 years between Power of the Dog and Jane Campion’s last feature film. Thankfully, she is one of only a handful of living directors who can make a cinematic sabbatical like that feel well worth the wait. While she made a couple miniseries in that time, it’s as if all the untapped energy from those years away from film has been channeled into the repressed anguish bubbling beneath Phil Burbank’s venomous sneer. We’ve seen our fair share of revisionist westerns in recent years, but none of them really eviscerate the manly mythmaking of the genre quite like Campion does here. Benedict Cumberbatch is sensational as the bully with a banjo. Kodi Smit-McPhee maybe even better as a victimised, effeminate medical student turned homme fatale.
Their complex dynamic develops into the kind of taut, psycho-sexual drama Freud could center entire university courses around. Hyper-masculine aggression, so often weaponized in cinema, is instead here shown to offer a blinkered view which can itself fall prey to unassuming “feminine” appearances. There is a serious case to be made that Power of the Dog is Campion’s best work. It’s a miracle of a movie, and not just because she made a convincing cowboy out of the guy who played Sherlock. Mark Conroy
Timothée Chalamet, lean and mopey, leads an all-star cast in Denis Villeneuve’s Dune, a spectacular allegory of imperial hubris and decline. Chalamet’s dukeling Paul Atreides accompanies his father, the thoughtful colonialist Leto (Oscar Isaac), and mother, the psychically gifted Lady Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson), to the planet Arrakis, with the aim of ‘managing’ its rich reserves of Spice, while placating the fearsome natives.
Machiavellian machinations ensue, and the resulting sequence of conflict and chase is handled with almost balletic assurance. All the while, an epic soundtrack and moody visual design breathe life into Frank Herbert’s epic vision, and its moral: that the inheritors of empire must either join the indigenous resistance or face extermination from their fascist-imperial allies. As such, Villeneuve’s film resonates on our increasingly dune-like Earth. Ciaran O’Rourke
2. Shiva Baby
A witty and playful comedy of manners that unfolds with the coiled intensity of a horror film, Shiva Baby marks a striking debut for director Emma Seligman, and the film’s star, comedian Rachel Sennott.
Sennott plays Danielle, a wayward young woman, still finding her direction in life. Her prospects and situation are put under the microscope as she attends a family shiva, with attendees varying from supportive and judgmental family members, to her current sugar daddy, who turns up to the event with a family of his own.
An insightful exploration of family and tradition undercut with humour that’s perfectly calibrated between wince-inducing cringe and genuine laughs. Shiva Baby is as sharp and memorable as its mercurial lead character, and is one of the year’s best. Jesse Melia
Watching Titane was, quite simply, the most bracing, compelling, achingly cool experience you could have had at the movies this year. A nightmarish, noir-y headfuck that was also at times very funny and bafflingly moving.
Agathe Rousselle’s performance in the lead role was one for the ages, and the fact that it was her cinematic debut is as difficult to wrap your head around as some of Titane’s wilder moments and plot eccentricities. Director Julia Ducournau made history with her Palme d’Or win, and it’s so cool that she was able to do so with such an uncompromising vision. For so many reasons, impossible to summarize in a 100 word blurb, Titane is an unforgettable film. Jack Stevenson