As cinemas once again struggled with the closures, cancellations and uncertainties of the pandemic, the biggest film story this year was surely the long-delayed release of No Time to Die. Originally slated to open in early 2020, Daniel Craig’s final outing as 007 became the first high-profile release to announce a major Covid-related postponement.
For many UK cinemas, the new November 2020 opening date became a mast to which to tie their hopes of recovery – hopes that were crushed when the release date was pushed back again, to April 2021, and then again to autumn. So when Craig’s Bond swan song was finally unveiled at the Albert Hall at the end of September, the sense of relief was palpable – not least because the film didn’t disappoint.
Ably directed by Cary Joji Fukunaga (Beasts of No Nation ), No Time to Die opened to strong reviews and solid box-office – although in yet another indication of how much the world has changed in recent years, a streaming release came hot on the heels of the film’s theatrical debut, meaning that right now, viewers can choose to watch No Time to Die in cinemas or at home: the model of the future.
Among the many names that have been mooted to breathe new life into the role of 007, Riz Ahmed is popular with audiences. A versatile actor, musician and writer, he proved his mettle in the 2019 drama Sound of Metal, which opened in UK cinemas in April 2021, just ahead of the Oscars, where he was nominated for best actor (he lost out to Anthony Hopkins in The Father). Ahmed is currently on the Oscar radar again with the short film The Long Goodbye, a terrifying dystopian vision of modern Britain, directed by Aneil Karia, which generated debate in parliament when first released in 2020, and has now been shortlisted for the 94th Academy Awards.
At the 93rd Oscars in April, Chloé Zhao, director of the recent Marvel blockbuster Eternals, became only the second woman to win best director, following in the footsteps of Kathryn Bigelow (who won for The Hurt Locker in 2010) with Nomadland, which also won best picture, and best actress for Frances McDormand. At Cannes, French film-maker Julia Ducournau became the second woman to win the Palme d’Or (after Jane Campion), with her extraordinary second feature, Titane, a full-blooded body-horror fable that channels the controversial spirit of David Cronenberg’s Crash, and which opens in the UK today .
June saw the UK release of English-Pakistani film-maker Aleem Khan’s brilliant feature debut, After Love, which recently swept the board at the British independent film awards, where its trophies included best British independent film, best director and best screenplay, alongside best actress for Joanna Scanlan. There were significant wins too for the documentary Poly Styrene: I Am a Cliché, which opened here in March, and the for the tense, one-shot drama Boiling Point, starring Stephen Graham, which UK audiences can see from 5 January 2022.
The most remarkable film of the summer of 2021 was Summer of Soul, Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson’s rediscovery of footage from the 1969 Harlem Cultural festival, featuring jaw-dropping performances by Nina Simone, Stevie Wonder, Sly and the Family Stone, Mahalia Jackson and more. Then in August, the Welsh film-maker Prano Bailey-Bond took audiences back to the 80s heyday of the video nasties with her thrilling feature debut, Censor.
But my favourite film of 2021 was Céline Sciamma’s Petite Maman, a flawless gem from the creator of Girlhood and Portrait of a Lady on Fire. Just 73 minutes long, and rated “suitable for all” by the BBFC, this U-certificate masterpiece reminds us of the universal power of cinema to transform, engage and ultimately redeem audiences, transcending boundaries of age, gender and nationality.
The top 10 films of 2021
1. Petite Maman
Céline Sciamma’s masterpiece is proof of the regenerative power of cinema.
2. Summer of Soul
Perhaps the greatest concert movie ever made.
3. The Green Knight
David Lowery brings the Middle English poem to life in the 21st century.
4. Another Round
A deserving winner of best international feature at the Oscars in April.
Julia Ducournau’s Palme d’Or winner; a visceral follow-up to Raw.
Prano Bailey-Bond’s genre-bending feature debut has so much more than just nostalgia for the video nasties.
7. Sound of Metal
Riz Ahmed is note perfect in Darius Marder’s tale of a drummer learning to live with deafness.
8. After Love
Joanna Scanlan turns in a career-best performance in Aleem Khan’s feature debut.
Jonny Greenwood’s electrifying score elevates Pablo Larraín’s “fable from a true tragedy”.
10. Quo Vadis, Aida?
Bosnian film-maker Jasmila Žbanić’s harrowing real-life drama took top honours at this month’s European film awards.
A Bowie film without Bowie’s music, lyrics, wit or glamour.