It’s that time of the year when film fans start drawing up lists and worrying about titles they haven’t gotten around to yet. To make your task easier, we asked four experts to share with us the best films they watched for the first time in 2021.
DIPTAKIRTI CHAUDHURI, AUTHOR
Borunbabur Bondhu (2019)
Anik Dutta, with a reputation for sharp observation and smart dialogue, directed this film about an octogenarian (Soumitra Chatterjee) whose childhood friend becomes the president. His friends and family find new respect for him, intending to cash this in for presidential favours. An excellent ensemble cast plays out the clashes of young vs old, tradition vs modernity, ethics vs practicality and even correct grammar vs staccato communication—but with topical twists.
Sandeep aur Pinky Faraar (2021)
In a year with two Salman Khan releases, the catchiest ‘Salman Khan’ item number (complete with a hook step!) was in an offbeat Dibakar Banerjee film about two people on the run, two people who couldn’t be further apart.
Jai Bhim (2021)
What is commercial cinema? Who is a filmi hero? Superstar Suriya and director Gnanavel turn these questions on their head in their take on the story of a lawyer, Chandru, and his crusade against police brutality on tribespeople living on the fringes of society. Jai Bhim is a brilliant reminder of how even message-driven films can be gripping.
Sarpatta Parambarai (2021)
While Hindi film fans had their eye on Toofaan, the “national boxing champion” from Dongri was upstaged by a 1970s Madras dockyard labourer whose sparring identity is defined by his lower-caste clan. Pa. Ranjith’s writing and Arya’s performance are so good it is impossible not to get caught up by the boxing bouts happening in an unknown suburb, two generations back. And the boxing action is gut-spillingly real!
ROHINI RAMNATHAN, RADIO PRESENTER
Pieces Of A Woman (2020)
After watching Vanessa Kirby in The Crown, I wanted to watch everything she was in. Pieces Of A Woman is a film about loss that I think resonated so deeply with me because I watched it during the pandemic. The much raved about opening scene is designed to make you “feel” the labour as Kirby delivers the baby with the help of a midwife who then becomes a focal point in the narrative.
Personally, I guess the theme for this year has been loss. Loss in the movies spoke most to me; maybe it was the pandemic that affected my choices. And what better film to feel loss of a personal nature and the landscape itself than Chloé Zhao’s Nomadland? It was also the first film I saw in a theatre in that brief window in February when theatres opened up in Mumbai.
Sarpatta Parambari (2021)
I saw Sarpatta Parambari right after Toofan, and just like that as an audience we got to watch how a sports film could transcend its genre and become a film about a time period, its politics and the struggle of a protagonist to do what he loves the most. There's fantastic films coming from outside of Bollywood and I am so glad the last two years, thanks to OTT, we are able to watch films from all over the country soon as they release. Bonus recco: The soundtrack, especially Neeye Oli, is a banging earworm.
Sound Of Metal (2020)
Riz Ahmed’s portrayal of Rueben Stone, a drummer who loses his hearing, won him an Oscar nomination for Best Actor. A fantastic film that follows his journey to try and save his ability to hear.
I rewatched Fire recently (I had a very faint memory from when I watched it many years ago) and it stunned me how relevant a film it was even 25 years later. I found myself asking if the India that revolted against the subject of the film had changed at all in the last 25 years. A must-watch for the way the same-sex love-story is handled with grace, the richness of the milieu it is set in and the micro-aggressions committed against the protagonists that sadly have not changed since its release.
ASEEM CHHABRA, AUTHOR AND CRITIC
Director Kenneth Branagh walks us through his memories of growing up in the Northern Ireland city, torn by riots and strife between Catholics and Protestants. It’s a stunning achievement with black and white photography, strong performances and songs by Van Morrison.
Drive My Car (2021)
Japanese filmmaker Ryûsuke Hamaguchi surprised the film world by making two very strong films during the pandemic: Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy, the Grand Prix winner at Berlinale, and Drive My Car, recognized for its screenplay at Cannes Film Festival. Based on a short story by Haruki Murakami, Drive My Car (another play with the title of a Beatles song, just like the writer’s novel Norwegian Wood) is the story of a middle-aged man, Yūsuke Kafuku (Hidetoshi Nishijima), grappling with his wife’s death, her infidelities and his challenges to mount a production of Uncle Vanya with a multi-lingual Asian cast. Forced to hire a driver, Misaki Watari (Tôko Miura), a young woman equally tormented by her own guilt, Kafuku slowly establishes a bond with his chauffeur. A deeply emotional and very satisfying film, Drive My Car calls upon us to accept the complexities of life, forgive and understand those who have wronged us.
Flee is a cinematic wonder—an animation film, a documentary that narrates the story of a gay Afghan refugee and his family’s escape from Taliban-controlled Afghanistan in the late 1990s. When director Jonas Poher Rasmussen set out to make the film, he had no idea that the Taliban would be back in power in mid-2021. A moving account of the struggles, torments and resilience of Afghan refugees, desperately trying to a find way out of the clutches of a ruthless regime, Flee often plays like a suspense thriller.
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Garuda Gamana Vrishabha Vahana (2021)
Raj B. Shetty, a young Kannada writer, actor and film-maker, follows Ondu Motteya Kathe (2017) with a thriller set in Mangaluru. Garuda Gamana Vrishabha Vahana is the story of two gangsters—ambitious, insecure Hari (Rishab Shetty) and his adopted brother, the calm, brutal Shiva (Shetty)—and a cop, Brammayya (Gopal Deshpande), sent to finish their reign of terror. Shiva and Hari start their journey of crime together but a departure in visions leads to a gripping drama.
ARATI KADAV, DIRECTOR
Happy Hour (2015)
Ryusuke Hamaguchi‘s five-hour film about the friendship and lives of four women over a few months feels like an anti-epic: fragile, intimate. The director uses its length to create its language and form, letting some scenes feel real-time while letting entire relationships be born and die on screen. The best thing I can say is that it felt too short—you feel like you could stay in the world longer.
M. Night Shyamalan takes a simple concept that would fit into a Twilight Zone episode: a group trapped on a beach that makes you age faster so that one hour on the beach is seven years of your lifetime, and then find ways to extend and elaborate it with constant creativity: camera angles and movements, insane developments that rise from the premise, philosophical questions about the passage of time, aging, life and then death. It’s a master of their craft stretching and having fun.
This movie feels like it’s well-researched and has a world so fascinating and dense— the forestry department filled with competing interests, characters, politics and bureaucracy but also decent competent officers—that you feel you are reading a rich novel. The ambitious movie feels like a landmark film in Indian cinema.
Happy to start my cinema outings post- pandemic with this magnum opus. Made to be watched on the biggest screen you can find, every shot feels like a painter’s creation, meticulous, with lots of care and thought. Sci-fi has the possibility of filling the world with new images, new ideas, new sounds—and this film does that. It was mesmerising, meditative and strangely, a very warm watch. It made me miss the magic of cinema and the big- screen experience even more.
After Hours (1985)
The total opposite of what you think of when you think of a Scorsese film. Filled with dream imagery, scary and funny, moving between being stuck in someone's nightmare to being stuck inside dark comedy.