Best films of 2021

2021 releases, in rough order of my favourites:

Dune

A fairly revelatory experience for me: I was blown away by every aspect, with the music and production design particular highlights. I’m very glad I got to see this in IMAX: it felt like being in another world.

Boiling Point

Unbelievably tense, hyper-realistic, and an astonishing feat of filmmaking: an actual single-take film set in a fast-moving kitchen. Genuinely faultless.

Red Rocket

There is absolutely no question that Simon Rex’s character in this is a gigantic piece of shit, yet he is so charismatic that you still (kind of) like him. Cemented Sean Baker as one of the best directors alive, in my mind.

C’mon C’mon

Sentimental in all the best ways, led by excellent performances from Joaquin Phoenix and Woody Norman (the latter is one of the best child actors I’ve ever seen).

Benedetta

A very beautiful and very funny film that still manages to be emotionally affecting. Virginie Efira is an excellent psychopath.

Older films I happened to watch and enjoy this year, in no particular order:

  • Akira
  • Persona
  • Dr Strangelove
  • Spring Blossom
  • Minari
  • Deerskin

Honourable mentions: The Power of the Dog; Licorice Pizza; Memoria; The Green Knight.

Waste of time and money: Promising Young Woman; The Afterlight; The French Dispatch; Belfast.

Best exhibitions of 2021

Yayoi Kusama, Bronx Botanical Gardens

The rare kind of exhibition where the way the art was displayed made a big (positive) difference to how you perceive it and how you perceive your surroundings.

Albion Farm

The initial display at this new sculpture park was excellent — it’s a really lovely venue and was a good selection of artists (David Adjaye’s pavilion was the highlight.)

Rachel Whiteread, Gagosian

Some of the most technically impressive art I’ve seen in a long time: the “cardboard” box above is made of metal.

Honourable mentions: Jasper Johns (Whitney), Surrealism Beyond Borders (Met), Idris Khan (Victoria Miro)

Waste of time and money: Louise Bourgeouis (Jewish Museum)

The best theatre of 2021 (online and in-person)

A lot of the theatre I watched this year was online. In the best cases, this was as good — or even better! — than live theatre. Some highlights:

Einfach das Ende der Welt, Schauspielhaus Zürich

The opening act of this was magnificent. After a short monologue a camcorder gives us a detailed, lengthy tour of the empty set, the main character’s childhood home. It’s intricate and beautiful, and gives you a real sense of the people that lived there and the lives they led, while the absence of actors conveys the main character’s intense isolation. And after you’ve spent a very long time getting acquainted with this house, and building up a picture of the characters, the entire set is deconstructed — and the explosive second act takes place on a practically bare stage. It’s really powerful and very clever.

Kings of War, ITA

I saw this live at the Barbican a few years ago, but enjoyed this rewatch even more. Ivo van Hove’s extensive use of cameras in his plays means they translate extremely well to streaming — shots are framed beautifully and the whole thing feels like a good movie.

A Little Life, ITA

I’ve not read the book, and this play was so devastating that I don’t think I want to. Phenomenally acted (particularly Ramsey Nasr and Hans Kesting), thought-provoking, and beautifully staged. (Ivo’s been my favourite director for a long while, but ITA’s streams this year cemented that for me.)

Ibsen Huis, ITA

This very clever Simon Stone play blended a bunch of Ibsen’s work into one, multi-generational story. It worked really well, playing on themes of trauma cycles and history repeating itself. And it made me want to watch more Ibsen than I have thus far.

But some of the in-person stuff was excellent, too:

After Life, National Theatre

This felt like it was made for me: flashy staging, fun and pacey, while still profound and moving. I enjoy basically everything Jeremy Herrin directs — Best of Enemies at the Young Vic was pretty good, too.

We Are As Gods, Battersea Arts Centre

There hasn’t been a Punchdrunk show in London for way too long, and this did an admirable job of filling the gap. It wasn’t the most polished production, but it was really fun, the music/lighting/set dressing was excellent, and the performances were solid. And the labyrinthine BAC is a brilliant venue for an immersive production. Mostly, though, this just made me very excited for Punchdrunk’s new show next year.

The Invisible Hand, Kiln Theatre // Constellations, Vaudeville Theatre

Neither of these have particularly stuck with me, but I do remember enjoying them both a lot at the time. Not life-changing theatre, but a very fun night out.

Honourable mentions: Rare Earth Mettle; Eulogy; Rockets and Blue Lights; The Lion King; Out West.

Average: Macbeth (Almeida); The Normal Heart; Paradise; Under Milk Wood. (This was the year I decided I’d no longer book everything at the NT because it’s just way too hit or miss these days.)

Waste of time and money: Changing Destiny; seven methods of killing kylie jenner.