Looking back: The best movies we watched in 2021

Looking back: The best movies we watched in 2021
“The Power of the Dog” (Supplied)
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Updated 31 December 2021
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Looking back: The best movies we watched in 2021

Looking back: The best movies we watched in 2021

DUBAI: From a period Western to a German rom-com, we run down the year’s best movies.

“The Power of the Dog”

Director: Jane Campion

Starring: Benedict Cumberbatch, Jesse Plemons, Kirsten Dunst  

Here’s a controversial opinion: All riches aside, the character of Marvel’s Doctor Strange is a waste of time for the great Benedict Cumberbatch. While “Spider-Man: No Way Home” finds a seemingly bored Cumberbatch phoning it in, his turn in “The Power of the Dog” is a performance for the ages — a rancher named Phil Burbank in 1925 Montana who is as toxic a personality as he is a magnetic one; a man who knows that emotional abuse is most effective when coupled with moments of kindness and charm. The film’s quiet unease, punctuated with other-worldly New Zealand landscapes, feels unlike any film before it, with much to chew on long after it finishes. 

“The French Dispatch”

Director: Wes Anderson

Starring: Benicio del Toro, Frances McDormand, Timothée Chamalet 

Wes Anderson has a style that is easy to imitate — ornate, pastel, symmetrical, and obvious in in its artifice — but no one else on earth could make a film with the particular brilliance of “The French Dispatch,” Anderson’s love letter to the bygone Harold Ross-edited years of The New Yorker. His anthology is packed to the brim with great actors across its three main stories, Anderson is operating at the peak of his powers, with not a frame wasted and a delirious energy that feels like snacking on a box of old-timey ‘real cane sugar’ sweets. With Anderson, ‘pretentious’ never feels like a dirty word — nor should it. 

“The Green Knight”

Director: David Lowery

Starring: Dev Patel, Alicia Vikander, Barry Keoghan

There have been countless films set in the world of King Arthur, but none has done more to strip away all that feels mystical and mythic about the Knights of the Round Table than David Lowery’s latest, which drags its star Dev Patel through the literal muck to bring to life a classic hero story reimagined as a search for meaning in a grimy and mundane world. Sir Gawain is a hapless oaf with no tale to be told, who sets off towards certain death so that he too may become a mythic figure like his many friends in Camelot — a goal that is less fulfilling than he initially believes.  

“Malignant”

Director: James Wan 

Starring: Annabelle Wallis, Mckenna Grace, George Young

James Wan has long shown the potential to be one of the finest filmmakers of his generation — a successor to cinema-loving auteurs of the past such as Brian De Palma and Martin Scorsese — but his body of work had yet to prove it. With “Malignant,” he finally has a film that realizes his manic genius, a love letter to the VHS age of horror films with a style an energy that outdoes them all. While it may start as a seemingly predictable monster film, the longer the film goes on, the wilder it gets, but that’s when Wan is most in control. For horror fans, this was the most fun to be had at the movies this year. 

“The Lost Daughter” 

Director: Maggie Gyllenhaal

Starring: Olivia Colman, Dakota Johnson, Ed Harris

Put Olivia Colman in anything and she’ll shine, but give the Oscar winner a character such as Leda in “The Lost Daughter” and she’ll stir your soul. Leda is a university professor on a solo holiday to Greece for the summer, whose peaceful days by the beach are interrupted by a loud, aggressive American family, including a young mother (Dakota Johnson) in whom Leda sees herself 15 years earlier. Each of the characters, and Colman’s most of all, are horribly flawed, often cruel for no reason, selfish and stubborn, but the tremendous empathy shown to each stops the film from becoming tiresome or alienating, instead allowing you to sit with broken people and root for them to find forgiveness — for themselves and each other. 

“I’m Your Man”

Director: Mara Schrader

Starring: Maren Eggert, Dan Stevens, Sandra Hüller

Don’t be surprised if you see this gem of a German romance remade into an A-list rom-com in a few years’ time, but you’d be wise to skip the wait. Maren Eggert plays a woman participating in a scientific trial for a new company that makes robots designed to be the perfect partner. Simple, warm and good-hearted, the brilliance of the film is in the generous, gentle performance from English actor Dan Stevens (speaking German) as the robot who just wants to love, trying to woo a woman who has no interest in being loved. 

“The Father”

Director: Florian Zeller

Starring: Anthony Hopkins, Olivia Colman, Rufus Sewell

It won two Oscars earlier this year — for its writer Florian Zeller and lead actor Anthony Hopkins — and yet “The Father” still feels underrated. It’s not the Oscar-bait family drama that it seems to be — it’s actually one of the most devastating psychological thrillers in years; a horror film in the sense that it manifests on screen something that its characters fear most — in this case, living through dementia. The film follows the perspective of Hopkins’ character so closely that the viewer becomes as confused as he as his apartment changes around him, as faces that were once familiar now look like they belong to strangers. A searing, insightful, impeccably performed masterpiece, and the best of Hopkins’ long career. 

“Mayor”

Director: David Osit

Starring: Musa Hadid 

There are many, many Palestinian stories more immediately compelling, more fraught with suffering and more full of heroism than that of Musa Hadid, the mayor of Ramallah in Palestine’s West Bank. For director David Osit, that was the point. In Hadid, Osit found a complex, likeable politician trapped in a bureaucratic nightmare, a man whose desire to alleviate the pain of the people of his city is constantly at odds with the realities of occupation. While not made by an Arab filmmaker, “Mayor” nonetheless captures the spirit of Palestine unlike any film before it, complete with a sense of humor and a pointed glare towards real change. 

“Encanto”

Directors: Jared Bush, Byron Howard, Charise Castro-Smith

Starring: Stephanie Beatriz, María Celia Botero, John Leguizamo 

In Disney’s “Encanto,” a fictional town in South America is home to the magical Madrigal family, in which every member has a unique ability, except one. It’s that conceit that hooks us into this colorful, song-filled world. While Mirabel, the film’s non-magical lead character, may be our way in, it’s the whole family that makes us want to stay. As the film goes on, characters that seemed one-dimensional and pushed to the side are revealed to have rich inner struggles themselves, and as the film shows love and understanding to each of them, emotions rise to the heights of Lin Manuel Miranda’s soaring melodies. One of the best animated films in years.