What’s Worth Seeing – or avoiding – from another Covid-affected year

After the world was struck by Covid in 2020, many people hoped 2021 would be back to normal, but despite efforts to encourage people back into cinemas, continued restrictions of one kind of another, ensured that while better than last year, delays and smaller audiences continued.

A socially distanced Oscar ceremony – in a railway station – turned out to be a bit of a damp squib, the Cannes Film Festival was delayed until the summer, the London Film Festival retained many of its pandemic-related virtual elements from last year, the long-awaited Bond film No Time To Die finally made it to the big screen and Marvel’s Cinematic Universe delivered a couple of films that – whether because of Covid or not – failed to live up to expectations; the studio ended the year with a bang though, as Spider-Man made his return.

Some of the screen highlights of 2021 included The Power of the Dog, Promising Young Woman, The Father and the BBC TV drama Time

It was also the year that the Golden Globes finally fell out of favour; after many years of the industry accepting the shortcomings of the Hollywood Foreign Press Association, because of the Oscar boost the awards could bestow on a film, an uproar about its ethnic make-up and a boycott from publicists over accusations of bribery finally brought the organisation to its knees.

One notable change to the way the film industry has developed is that the major streamers are becoming an increasingly dominant force in the theatrical market, with Netflix and Amazon often releasing their features on their own platforms as little as two weeks after their big screen launch.

After losing a tussle with Scarlett Johansson over Marvel’s Black Widow release, Disney has agreed to leave a little more time before sharing its major releases with its subscribers.

But as the streamers are delivering higher profile productions to their customers, many of the free-to-air broadcasters are stepping up their own offerings, with the BBC and Channel 4 churning out landmark series at a rate that’s often hard to keep up with, which itself is part of the merry-go-round that keeps potential viewers, worried about Covid, at home, rather than venturing back to cinemas.

At this point, one might usually make a prediction of what’s to come in 2022, but not in the current climate – instead, let’s take a look back at some of the highlights – and lowlights – from 2021. Here are the picks form our reviewers, Jason Korsner and Maria Duarte, for What’s Worth Seeing – or not – from another unconventional year:

What was Worth Seeing in 2021...

...according to Jason Korsner...according to Maria Duarte

THE FATHER - Florian Zeller takes viewers inside the mind of someone with a mental illness in a way that no director has done since Christopher Nolan with Memento. Sir Anthony Hopkins gets you as close as possible to understanding the turmoil of someone with dementia, in a truly engaging, ultimately heart-breaking drama. Remarkable production design further adds to the disquieting experience.
PROMISING YOUNG WOMAN - Emerald Fennell's Academy Award winning and impressive directorial debut is an exquisitely crafted and wonderfully refreshing revenge thriller. It is part dark-comedy, part romantic-drama, with Carey Mulligan delivering a tour-de-force performance as a young woman, whose mission is to teach guys who think it is acceptable to seduce paralytically drunk women a lesson.
LIMBO - An intimate, compelling and oddly quirky tale of asylum-seekers, waiting for the outcome of their cases on a remote Scottish island. While their plight is as bleak as the landscapes, director Ben Sharrock squeezes unexpected humour from their lives and take us on an emotional journey with them.MINARI - Writer-director Lee Isaac Chung provides a fresh new take on the immigrant tale in this beautifully tender and heartfelt story of a Korean-American family in pursuit of the American dream in 1980s Arkansas. You can't help but be swept away by their journey and be captivated by each one of them.
DUNE - Nearly forty years after David Lynch's attempt to bring Frank Herbert's 1965 science fiction epic novel to the big screen, Denis Villeneuve has shown it might just be filmable after all. Showing how so many more recent sci-fi franchises have borrowed from Herbert, Villeneuve creates a rich and complex universe with precision and clarity, using IMAX to help immerse viewers in his majestic vision.THE FATHER - If you want to know what suffering with Alzheimer's or dementia is like, then look no further than Florian Zeller's standout directorial debut feature. Based on his stage play, it gives a unique, eye-opening insight into the illness and its devastating effects as seen through the eyes of its protagonist, played sublimely by Sir Anthony Hopkins who was awarded an Oscar for his heart-breaking portrayal.
ONE NIGHT IN MIAMI - Regina King's adaptation of a stage play by Soul creator Kemp Powers traps you in a room with four of the most fascinating men in history. Friendships are challenged and strengthened as Sam Cooke, Cassius Clay, Malcolm X and Jim Brown argue about how black men can reach the top in their field and stay there. Black audiences are likely to find a role model to identify with while white viewers will be enlightened without feeling patronised.76 DAYS - This is a powerful and raw fly-on-the-wall documentary which chronicles the outbreak of Covid-19 in Wuhan, China, in January 2020 as the city went into lock-down for more than two months. It focuses on the human cost, pulling no punches, as it puts you on the front-line with the medics and health workers fighting this unknown killer disease. It's absolutely harrowing, as it captures the confusion and chaos as they battled Covid in the first wave.
POWER OF THE DOG - Returning to the big screen for the first time in twelve years, Jane Campion turns Benedict Cumberbatch into a fearsome cowboy, who's quick to bully where he spots a weakness but has a secret that could undermine the power and control he wields over everyone on the ranch. His majestic performance is matched only by the stunning scenery of New Zealand, that stands in for Montana, as Campion's cinematography ensures that every frame becomes a masterpiece. The way power shifts between the characters like the sands of the desert highlights the fragility of life and love.WEST SIDE STORY - Steven Spielberg's stunning adaptation of the 1957 stage musical feels fresh and modern and grittier and more realistic than the 1961 film version. It features Leonard Bernstein's gorgeous music and Stephen Sondheim's unforgettable lyrics and stars Latin actors, who speak in Spanish and sing superbly, as the Puerto Rican Sharks, whose sworn enemy is the Jets. With minor tweaks, Spielberg has reinvigorated this musical and made it resonate today, exploring racism, xenophobia and the effects of poverty in 1957 New York, through the star-crossed lovers, Puerto Rican Maria and former Jet, Tony.
AND ON TV: Sean Bean and Stephen Graham excelled as prisoner and guard in the BBC's powerful thriller Time, in which writer Jimmy McGovern presents many pitfalls of the British penal system. Sandra Oh leads a cast of eccentrics as she tries to deal with a scandal at a stuffy old university in Netflix's The Chair. Creator and star Daisy Haggard returns for a second series of her post-prison BBC comedy Back To Life as she continues her surprisingly upbeat exploration of secrets and lies. And as a courtroom drama with a difference, with an unknown cast, the BBC's You Don't Know Me digs beneath the prejudices and expectations of a judicial system that can all too easily jump to assumptions from the evidence, without considering that the truth might be very different.AND ON TV: Only Murders in the Building (Disney+), starring (co-writer) Steve Martin, Martin Short and Selena Gomez, who team up to solve the murder of a resident of their lavish New York apartment building. This whip-smart, witty and compelling series is Murder She Wrote meets Agatha Christie if they'd given birth to a podcast. In WandaVision (Disney+), Elizabeth Olsen and Paul Bettany return as super-heroes Wanda Maximoff (The Scarlett Witch) and Vision, who live their ideal suburban lives in a different style of classic sitcom in each episode. While the series is set post the events of the film Avengers: Endgame, the love birds are oblivious to them and the real world. It's an ingenious and truly imaginative show with hidden depths and surprising twists.

What was not Worth Seeing in 2021...

...according to Jason Korsner...according to Maria Duarte

THE LITTLE THINGS - Old-timer finding his feet again: Check. Precocious upstart losing his self-confidence: Check. Attention-seeking, serial-killing sleaze-bag: Check. Pinning crime victim's photos on the wall of a dingy hotel: Check. Clunky detective cliches: Check. Crime film checklist: Check. Three Oscar-winners, Denzel Washington, Rami Malek and Jared Leto do their best with the kind of straight-to-TV fodder whose prominence was boosted by lockdown closures.

ANNETTE - Written by the US rock and pop duo Sparks and starring Adam Driver and Marion Cotillard, this is however a painfully long and arduous musical, which includes a puppet playing a baby. Driver and Cotillard portray a stand-up comedian and his opera singer wife, whose young daughter has a surprising gift. Totally bonkers and psychedelic but not in a good way, this is an excruciating watch and two and a half hours I will never recoup.
LOCKED DOWN - Director Doug Liman tried to make the most of lockdown by coming up with an excuse to keep two stars locked down together but ends up with a contrived, uneven narrative that's so arch as to be offensive, blending genres and showing off. Most of the time, it feels more like a project concocted to entertain some film makers, out of work because of the lock down, than an attempt to entertain us.IN THE EARTH - This is a lacklustre and dowdy looking horror film about a scientist and a park scout who venture into the woods looking for equipment, as the world searches for a cure to a killer virus. It isn't particularly frightening or ground-breaking (in light of current events) and seems like it has been made by film students on a shoestring rather than a veteran film-maker. But then Wheatley is very hit and miss.
STARDUST - When a supposed biopic of one of the world's most famous musicians contains none of his music and begins with the caption "What Follows is (Mostly) Fiction," you have to wonder what's the point - and so it turns out. We're supposed to be astonished that the music industry can't see the young Bowie's potential, but the film-makers make no effort to show us anything other than a pretentious clown who refuses to follow advice and sell his talents and by the time we see any stardust, it's too late.MALMKROG - This pretentious and numbingly dull drama about a group of pseudo intellectuals is three and a half hours I will never get back. Inspired by a work of 19th century Russian philosopher Vladimir Sololyov, it centres on a number of wealthy upper-class people who gather in a large manor house and pontificate on death, war, peace, progress and morality over a series of Christmas meals. It is just these odious people trying to point score and outdo each other, which does not make for thrilling viewing.
SPENCER - Like Stardust, this is a fictionalised version of a real event that has to be taken with a rather hefty pinch of salt. With a central turn that's more of a parody than a portrayal, and some plot points that seem rather preposterous, you get the sense that Diana was treated no differently from anyone else and end up with more sympathy for the institution than the newcomer who didn't fit in. OFF THE RAILS - This is a comedy-by-numbers about three women in their fifties who recreate their inter-railing adventure from their youth to honour their late best friend's last wishes. Despite the wonderful A-list cast's sterling efforts, they cannot save this condescending and cliché-filled mess of a film. Frankly the target audience deserves better as they are neither stupid, deaf or blind.
BLACK WIDOW - From the outset, Black Widow alienates viewers who haven't seen the right films in Marvel's Cinematic Universe and if you're expecting super-powers, you've come to the wrong place, as a bunch of highly trained assassins trying to bring down a megalomaniacs who does little more than scowl, lecture and patronise. The pace is too uneven and there's too much talking, in a film whose supporting characters are more engaging than the protagonist.WILD MOUNTAIN THYME - Do not be lured in by its impressive cast of Emily Blunt, Jamie Dornan and Christopher Walken, because this is one stinker of a rom-com. Unfortunately, although it is so bad, it isn't quite good. With a questionable story and their dubious Irish accents (even Dornan) sounding quite Brigadoonish, it is hard to fathom how the A-list stars managed to keep a straight face delivering writer- director John Patrick Shanley's awful dialogue.
AND ON TV: There's a twist too far in Bloodlands, taking a promising premise and turning a "who dunnit" into a "will they get away with it?" The first episode of Close To Me is worth seeing, but the next five are a teasing waste of time. And while Ridley Road uncovers a little-known period of British history which resonates today, it does so through an unconvincing plot, weak performances and production values that wouldn't look out of place in a school production.AND ON TV: The follow-up to Sex & the City, And Just Like That follows the original characters Carrie (Sarah Jessica Parker), Charlotte (Kristin Davis) and Miranda (Cynthia Nixon) as they navigate the reality of life and friendship in their 50s. They address the elephant in the room in Episode 1 - the absence of Samantha (Kim Cattrall) who was the life and sass of the original show - and she's what the series is desperately missing now. A range of inclusive new characters can't fill the void.