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The 12 Best Movies Hardly Anyone Saw in 2021

Forget the blockbusters — this year's under-appreciated gems include a stunning Chilean dance drama, multiple eerie horror flicks and Nicolas Cage on a quest for revenge.
By Sarah Ward
December 13, 2021
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By Sarah Ward
December 13, 2021
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For the second year in a row, heading to the movies wasn't a simple activity in 2021. Sometimes, it wasn't even possible at all. But when picture palaces were open, their projectors whirring and the scent of popcorn floating through the foyers, Australians went to see big-budget blockbusters such as Godzilla vs Kong, Fast and Furious 9, Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, Eternals, Black Widow and No Time to Die en masse. We also threw plenty of love — and cash — at Aussie page-to-screen adaptation The Dry as well.

They're some of 2021's cinema success stories in dollars, but money never tells the whole movie-going story in any year. Plenty of other films reached the silver screen Down Under over the past 12 months, didn't set the box office alight, but absolutely rank among the year's best. They're the must-sees that, based on their cinema takings, you likely didn't actually see — and you really should've.

Whether you missed them because of lockdowns, restrictions, a lack of time, they weren't showing near you or just due to life in general (sorry, Jurassic Park, but sometimes life doesn't find a way), here are 12 top-notch flicks that hit Aussie cinemas in 2021 that you need to add to your catch-up list right now.

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EMA

A new project by Chilean director Pablo Larraín is always cause for excitement, and Ema, his drama about a reggaeton dancer's crumbling marriage, personal and professional curiosities, and determined quest to be a mother, rewards that enthusiasm spectacularly. It's a stunning piece of cinema, and one that stands out even among his already-impressive resume. He's the filmmaker behind stirring political drama No, exacting religious interrogation The Club, poetic biopic Neruda and the astonishing, Natalie Portman-starring Jackie, so that's no minor feat. For the first time in his career, Larraín peers at life in his homeland today, rather than in the past. And, with his now six-time cinematographer Sergio Armstrong (Tony Manero, Post Mortem), he gazes intently. Faces and bodies fill Ema's frames, a comment that's true of most movies; however, in both the probing patience it directs its protagonist's way and the fluidity of its dance sequences, this feature equally stares and surveys.

Here, Larraín hones in on the dancer (Mariana Di Girólamo, Much Ado About Nothing) who gives the feature its name. After adopting a child with her choreographer partner Gastón (Gael García Bernal, Mozart in the Jungle), something other than domestic bliss has followed. Following a traumatic incident, and the just as stressful decision to relinquish their boy back to the state's custody, Ema is not only trying but struggling to cope in the aftermath. This isn't a situation she's simply willing to accept, though. Ema, the movie, is many things — and, most potently, it's a portrait of a woman who is willing to make whatever move she needs to, both on the dance floor and in life, to rally against an unforgiving world, grasp her idea of freedom and seize exactly what she wants. Di Girólamo is magnetic, whether she's dancing against a vivid backdrop, staring pensively at the camera or being soaked in neon light, while Larraín's skill as both a visual- and emotion-driven filmmaker is never in doubt.

Read our full review.

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PIG

Nicolas Cage plays a truffle hunter. That's it, that's the pitch. When securing funding, those six words should've been enough to ensure that Pig made it to cinemas. Or, maybe debut feature writer/director Michael Sarnoski went with these seven words: Nicolas Cage tracks down his stolen pet. Here's a final possibility that could've done the trick, too: Nicolas Cage does a moodier John Wick with a pig. Whichever hit the spot, or even if none did, Pig isn't merely the movie these descriptions intimate. It's better. It's weightier. It's exceptional. It always snuffles out its own trail, it takes joy in subverting almost every expectation and savouring the moment, and it constantly unearths surprises. When Cage is at his absolute best, he plays characters whose biggest demons are internal. Here, he broods and soul-searches as a man willing to do whatever it takes to find his beloved porcine pal, punish everyone involved in her kidnapping and come to terms with his longstanding, spirit-crushing woes. And, it's a measured gem of a portrayal, and a versatile, touching, deeply empathetic and haunting one that's up there with his finest ever.

Sarnoski keeps things sparse when Pig begins; for the poetically shot film and its determined protagonist, less is always more. Rob Feld (Cage) lives a stripped-back existence in a cabin in the woods, with just his cherished truffle pig for company — plus occasional visits from Amir (Alex Wolff, Hereditary), the restaurant supplier who buys the highly sought-after wares Rob and his swine forage for on their walks through the trees. He's taken this life by choice, after the kind of heartbreak that stops him from listening to tapes of the woman he loved. But then Rob's pig is abducted in the dark of the night, turning him into a man on a mission. As the swine's distressed squeals echo in his head, Rob stalks towards Portland to get her back. He has an idea of where to look, but he needs Amir to chauffeur him around the city — and Pig is at its finest when its two main characters are together, unpacking what it means to navigate tragedy, fear, loss, regret, uncertainty, an uncaring world and a complicated industry.

Read our full review.

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LITTLE JOE

Pipes blow gently. The camera swirls. Rows of plants fill the screen. Some are leafy as they reach for the sky; others are mere stems topped with closed buds. Both types of vegetation are lined up in boxes in an austere-looking laboratory greenhouse — and soon another shoot of green appears among them. Plant breeder Alice (Cruella's Emily Beecham, who won the Cannes Film Festival's Best Actress award for her work here) is cloaked in a lab coat far paler than any plant, but the symbolism is immediately evident. Audiences don't know it yet, but her shock of cropped red hair resembles the crimson flowers that'll blossom in her genetically engineered new type of flora, too. "The aim has been to create a plant with a scent that makes its owner happy," she tells a small audience, hailing the virtues of a species that's been designed to make its owners love it like it was their own child.

So starts Little Joe, which shares its name with the vegetation in question — a "mood-lifting, anti-depressant, happy plant," Alice's boss (David Wilmot, Calm with Horses) boasts. She's borrowed her own teenage son's (Kit Connor, Rocketman) moniker for her new baby, although she gives it more attention than her flesh-and-blood offspring, especially with the push to get it to market speeding up. The clinical gaze favoured by Austrian filmmaker Jessica Hausner (Amour fou) is telling, though. The eerie tone to the feature's Japanese-style, flute- and percussion-heavy score sets an uneasy mood as well. Making her first English-language feature, Hausner helms a disquieting and anxious sci-fi/horror masterwork. Like many movies in the genre, this is a film about possibilities and consequences, creation and its costs, and happiness and its sacrifices — and about both daring to challenge and dutifully abiding by conformity — and yet it's always its own beast.

Read our full review.

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RIDERS OF JUSTICE

Few things will ever be better than seeing Mads Mikkelsen get day drunk and dance around while swigging champagne in an Oscar-winning movie, which is one fantastic film experience that 2021 has delivered. But the always-watchable actor is equally magnetic and exceptional in Riders of Justice, a revenge-driven Danish comedy that's all about tackling your problems in a different and far less boozy fashion. In both features, he plays the type of man unlikely to express his feelings. Here, he's a dedicated solider who's more often away than home. Beneath his close-cropped hair and steely, bristly beard, he's stern, sullen and stoic, not to mention hot-tempered when he does betray what's bubbling inside, and he outwardly expects the same of everyone around him — including when a a train explosion taints his character, Markus, with tragedy, leaving him the sole parent to traumatised teenager Mathilde (Andrea Heick Gadeberg, Pagten).

With a name that sounds like one of the many by-the-numbers action flicks Liam Neeson has starred in since Taken, Riders of Justice initially appears as if it'll take its no-nonsense central figure to an obvious place, and yet this ambitious, astute and entertaining movie both does and doesn't. When Markus returns home from Afghanistan, Riders of Justice's writer/director Anders Thomas Jensen (Men & Chicken) and screenwriter Nikolaj Arcel (A Royal Affair) send statistician Otto (Nikolaj Lie Kaas, The Keeper of Lost Causes), his colleague Lennart (Lars Brygmann, The Professor and the Madman) and the computer-savvy Emmenthaler (Nicolas Bro, The Kingdom) knocking at the grieving family's door — a trio of stereotypically studious outsiders to his stony-faced military man who come uttering a theory he seizes upon. Narratives about seeking justice often ride the expected rails on autopilot, getting from start to finish on the standard vengeance template's inherent momentum; however, this layered gem questions and subverts every usual cliche, convention and motif along the way, including by putting its characters first.

Read our full review.

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LAMB

Staring into the soul of a woman not just yearning for her own modest slice of happiness, but willing to do whatever it takes to get it — and starring Noomi Rapace (The Secrets We Keep) in what might be her best role yet, and best performance — Lamb is all animal at first. In this Icelandic blend of folk-horror thrills, relationship dramas and even deadpan comedy, something rumbles in the movie's misty, mountainside farm setting, spooking the horses. In the sheep barn, where cinematographer Eli Arenson (Hospitality) swaps arresting landscape for a ewe's-eye view, the mood is tense and restless as well. Making his feature debut, filmmaker Valdimar Jóhannsson doesn't overplay his hand early. As entrancing as the movie's visuals prove in all their disquieting stillness, he keeps the film cautious about what's scaring the livestock. But Lamb's expert sound design offers a masterclass in evoking unease from its very first noise, and makes it plain that all that eeriness, anxiety and dripping distress has an unnerving — and tangible — source.

This enticing, surreal and starkly unsettling is as human as it is ovine, though, as it unleashes an intense and absurdist pastoral symphony of dread and hope, bleakness and sweetness, and terror and love. The farm belongs to Rapace's Maria and her partner Ingvar (Hilmir Snær Guðnason, A White, White Day), who've thrown themselves into its routines after losing a child. They're a couple that let their taciturn faces do the talking, including with each other, but neither hides their delight when one ewe gives birth to a hybrid they name Ada. Doting and beaming, they take the sheep-child into their home as their own. Its woolly mother stands staring and baa-ing outside their kitchen window, but they're both content in of their newfound domestic happiness. When Ingvar's ex-pop star brother Pétur (Björn Hlynur Haraldsson, Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga) arrives unexpectedly, they don't even dream of hiding their new family idyll — even as he's initially shocked and hardly approving.

Read our full review.

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SAINT MAUD

If humanity ever managed to cure or circumvent death — or even just stop despairing about our own mortality — the horror genre would feel the difference. Lives are frequently in peril in films that are meant to spook and frighten. Fears of dying underscore everything from serial killer thrillers and body horror flicks to stories of zombies, ghosts and vampires, too. Indeed, if a scary movie isn't pondering the fact that our days are finite, it's often contemplating our easily damaged and destroyed anatomy. Or, it's recognising that our darkest urges can bring about brutal repercussions, or noting that the desperation to avoid our expiration dates can even spark our demise. Accordingly, Saint Maud's obsession with death isn't a rarity in an ever-growing genre that routinely serves it up, muses on it and makes audiences do the same whether they always realise it or not. In an immensely crowded realm, this striking, instantly unsettling feature debut by British writer/director Rose Glass definitely stands out, though.

Bumps, jumps, shocks and scares come in all manner of shapes and sizes, as do worries and anxieties about the end that awaits us all. In Saint Maud, they're a matter of faith. The eponymous in-home nurse (Dracula and His Dark Materials' Morfydd Clark) has it. She has enough to share, actually, which she's keen to do daily. Maud is devoted to three things: Christianity, helping those in her care physically and saving them spiritually. Alas, her latest cancer-stricken patient doesn't hold the same convictions, or appreciate them. Amanda (Jennifer Ehle, Vox Lux) isn't fond of Maud's fixation on her salvation or her strict judgements about her lifestyle. She knows her time is waning, her body is failing and that she needs Maud's help, but the celebrated ex-dancer and choreographer does not want to go gently or faithfully in that good night. Instead, she'd much prefer the solace that sex and alcohol brings over her palliative care nurse's intensely devout zeal.

Read our full review.

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THE KILLING OF TWO LOVERS

In a sparse small town — with the film shot in Kanosh, Utah — the separated-and-unhappy-about-it David (Clayne Crawford, Rectify) attempts to adjust to living with his ailing widower father (Bruce Graham, Forty Years From Yesterday). His wife Niki (Sepideh Moafi, The L Word: Generation Q) remains in their home with their four children, as they've agreed while they take a break to work through their problems. David isn't coping, though, a fact that's apparent long before his teenage daughter Jess (Avery Pizzuto, We Fall Down) gets angry because she thinks he isn't fighting hard enough to save their family. He's trying, but as Crawford conveys in a brooding but nervy performance — and as writer/director/editor Robert Machoian (When She Runs) and cinematographer Oscar Ignacio Jiménez (Immanence) can't stop looking at in lengthy and patient takes — he can't quite adapt to the idea of losing everything he knows.

There's an element of Scenes From a Marriage at play here, although The Killing of Two Lovers pre-dates this year's remake — and so much of the feeling in this gorgeously shot movie comes from its imagery. When it's hard to look away from such rich and enticing visuals, it's impossible not to spot and soak in everything they depict. Each frame is postcard-perfect, not that those pieces of cardboard ever capture such everyday sights, but wide vistas and the snowy mountains hovering in the background are just the beginning. With its long takes, The Killing of Two Lovers forces its audience to glean the naturalistic lighting that never casts David and Niki's hometown in either a warm glow or grim glower. Repeated images of David alone, especially in his car, also leave a firm impression of a man moving and solo.

Read our full review.

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HERSELF

Survivalist films typically pit humans against the elements, nature or space, testing a character's endurance when they're cast adrift in the ocean (as in Kon-Tiki and All Is Lost), enduring unwelcoming expanses (Into the Wild, Arctic), faced with animal predators (The Grey, Crawl) or navigating the heavens (Gravity, The Martian). Herself doesn't tick any of those boxes, but it still fits the genre — because what else is a movie about a woman trying to escape an abusive marriage, care for her two young daughters alone and build a safe future if not a story of survival? In Dublin, Sandra (Spider-Man: Far From Home's Claire Dunne, who also co-wrote the feature's screenplay) is unhappily married to Gary (Ian Lloyd Anderson, Vikings), and has the bruises to prove it. When he finds money hidden in her car, a badly fractured hand becomes the latest marker of their domestic horror. Sandra leaves, children Molly (Molly McCann, Vivarium) and Emma (debutant Ruby Rose O'Hara) in tow, but forging a path forward proves complicated at every turn.

As a writer (with What Richard Did's Malcolm Campbell), Dunne doesn't make easy choices. Her narrative doesn't follow a straightforward path, either. Herself's script highlights the devastating complexities that surround Sandra, but avoids plotting the obvious course — because more hopeful and more grim moments are always in everyone's futures, even when it seems that worse surely can't come. Stress, resilience, tender gestures and uncaring powers-that-be are all a part of this story. So is interrogating a system that's quick to push back at victims in the name of family, and the impact upon children who grow up in a household blighted by domestic violence. Herself fleshes out this reality, but always hurtles forward, because that's all that Sandra can do. Worlds away from the two other features on her resume — Mamma Mia! and The Iron Lady — director Phyllida Lloyd helms an intense, compassionate but still clear-eyed drama without any cloying sentiment, but still rich in hope and tenacity.

Read our full review.

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THE TRUFFLE HUNTERS

Northern Italy's woods are abundant with truffles, especially the tuber magnatum — otherwise known as the white variety. But before these highly sought-after morsels can make their way into kitchens, onto plates, and into many a willing and eager mouth, someone has to spend their time and expend their energy finding the edible fungus. Accordingly, The Truffle Hunters introduces viewers to multiple elderly men and their adorable dogs who all do just that, with their lives revolving around roving the forest and searching out the prized food. It might sound like a relaxed pursuit — as walking through trees with your pet pooch to fill your pockets with a delicacy is bound to — but it's a highly competitive endeavour, and one that the documentary's central figures are intensely passionate about.

Charting four men's stories — tales that involve canine partners, cantankerous veterans and sneaking out at night to search with a torch in hand, lest one truffle hunter be caught by his wife —  directors Michael Dweck (The Last Race) and Gregory Kershaw (cinematographer on The Last Race, and also on this) survey a wealth of details. The titular subjects try care for their dogs, argue with others encroaching on their turf, type missives about how the world has changed and, in one case, keep absconding by moonlight. Dweck and Kershaw aren't above using puppy cam as well, and it's both a joy and a thrill, as well as emblematic of the film's fondness for flavour and character above all else. The Truffle Hunters is a leisurely movie that's content to chronicle its subjects' easy-going lives, lean into their eccentricities and survey their lush surroundings — and, even clocking in at just 84 minutes, it's an unhurried gem of a film — however, it's also carefully compiled.

Read our full review.

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MY ZOE

Rare is the film that nods overtly to more than a few of its influences, yet still manages to inhabit its own niche and no one else's. My Zoe is one of those movies. Its first half bears much in common with 2017's exceptional French drama Custody, while its second half takes its cues from the greatest horror novel ever written, aka Mary Shelley's Frankenstein. That combination works astonishing (and almost disarmingly) well, and nothing here every feels like a mere clone of better material. Indeed, writer/director/star Julie Delpy (Looking for Jimmy, 2 Days in Paris, The Countess, Skylab, 2 Days in New York and Lolo) blends relationship dramas, a tragedy and a science fiction-tinged exploration of loss into a gripping and empathetic film that ponders how grief leads to drastic reactions, how science can let humans play god in increasingly bold and consequential manners, and how we're hardwired to use the latter to work through the former, as well as our fears of mortality.

In the movie's opening section, Berlin-based geneticist Isabelle (Delpy, Wiener-Dog) juggles the struggles of co-parenting with her ex James (Richard Armitage, The Lodge). They both dote on seven-year-old Zoe (Sophia Ally, The Current War), but they also argue incessantly — largely due to James' dour behaviour, cruel demeanour and ludicrous demands. By the time that Isabelle calls him "just an awful human being" in one of their arguments, the audience is already on her side. They settle their custody dispute, but the bickering doesn't subside when Zoe is found unconscious and requires hospitalisation. Eventually, though, Isabelle has another dilemma to navigate, involving a desperate ploy to get back what she's lost, a risk-taking doctor (Daniel Brühl, The Falcon and the Winter Soldier) in Moscow and an option his own wife (Gemma Arteton, Summerland) warns against.

Read our full review.

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FANNY LYE DELIVER'D

Even on a sunny day, a storm can darken a dazzling blue sky, cracking through that gorgeous facade with the weather's version of stress and woe. That's the sensation that emanates from Fanny Lye Deliver'd's early shots, which show a picturesque Shropshire farm shrouded in mist so scenic that the entire image looks like it could've been rendered in watercolours — back in 1657, too, when the movie is set. But little is perfect behind this bucolic beauty, and that's true even before two strangers unsettle the household. As they prepare to attend church on an otherwise ordinary Sunday, Fanny Lye (Maxine Peake, Peterloo) is used to being treated with disdain by her Puritan husband John Lye (Charles Dance, Game of Thrones), including in front of their son Arthur (Zak Adams, Alice Through the Looking Glass). But then young lovers Thomas Ashbury (Freddie Fox, The Pursuit of Love) and Rebecca Henshaw (Tanya Reynolds, Emma) sneak their way into the Lye home, and nothing is the same again.

Fanny Lye Deliver'd isn't writer/director Thomas Clay's first feature or even his second, but it's made with a distinctive vision. Every visible detail, meticulous performance, probing line and weighty rumination upon the subjugation of women and the ills enforced in faith's name — here, during Oliver Cromwell's reign over Britain following the English Civil War — is that fastidious and intoxicating, even when depicting brutality. Clay's picture could easily sit in the mud, folklore and farmland anxiety with The Witch, a film that similarly steps into a god-fearing community where the hatred of women ascending beyond the meagre station allotted them has infected every thought and action. It plays like a cousin to that similarly entrancing and potent movie, however, rather than a sibling. Fanny Lye Deliver'd also benefits from Peake's ferocious and arresting work in the eponymous role, in what proves a stunning survivalist film about women attempting to persist amidst violence and persecution.

Read our full review.

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FIRST LOVE

When boxer Leo (Masataka Kubota, Diner) receives news that no one wants to hear — he has a brain tumour, it's inoperable and he doesn't have much time left — he takes it as gloomily as anyone would. But when he subsequently crosses paths with sex worker Monica (Sakurako Konishi, Colorless), his evening takes another unexpected turn. She's fleeing the yakuza gangsters who forced her into prostitution, including one particularly scheming underling (Sometani, Detective Chinatown 3) who plans to use her in a ploy with a crooked cop (Seiyô Uchino, 13 Assassins) to eradicate a Chinese triad gang. They start off as strangers, but Leo swiftly becomes Monica's only friend amidst the bloody mayhem.

Iconic Japanese filmmaker Takashi Miike has more than 100 movies to his name, shows zero signs of stopping and is clearly doing something he knows he adores (and that he's proven he's great at) with First Love. That doesn't make the prolific Audition, Ichi the Killer and Yakuza Apocalypse director's latest any less inventive, dynamic, enjoyable or brilliant, though. Here, pulp violence, a twisty crime tale and the Japanese auteur's gonzo energy all combine in a Tokyo-set noir-thriller, which ripples with Miike's distinctive brand of magic again and again — including in the movie's blending of gleefully cartoonish mania with a poignant outsiders-against-the-world narrative, and in everything from its jazz-rock score to its immaculately executed hardware store showdown as well. The inimitable talent can never be accused of painting by numbers, with everything here fitting and working as it should. Yes, he's both found and embraced his wavelength.

Read our full review.

Published on December 13, 2021 by Sarah Ward

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