It might have continued to be disrupted by the pandemic, but 2021 has been a great time to go to the cinema. There have been astonishing blockbusters aplenty — not least a memorable James Bond adventure and the recent spectacular for fans of Spider-Man — and the upcoming awards season has already yielded a handful of stunning pieces of work. Kristen Stewart as Princess Diana in Spencer is very special indeed.
But this article is a celebration of the movies which don't immediately slot into those conversations. These are the under-appreciated and often unglamorous films which have flown under the radar, either with brief cinema runs or amid the packed catalogues of streaming services.
Read more: The best movies of 2021
Here we go, with the 10 most under-appreciated films of 2021...
Everybody's Talking About Jamie
This was a big year for musicals on the big screen, with Steven Spielberg's West Side Story currently in cinemas and In the Heights winning plaudits over the summer. Away from Hollywood glitz, though, one of the year's best toe-tappers was an inspiring tale set in Sheffield. Adapted by screenwriter Tom MacRae and director Jonathan Butterell from their own stage musical — with songs by The Feeling frontman Dan Gillespie Sells — it tells the story of a teenage drag queen trying to find his place in the world.
Newcomer Max Harwood swaggers his way through the leading role, with brilliant support provided by Sarah Lancashire as his mum and Richard E. Grant as the veteran drag performer who becomes his mentor. It's a colourful, energetic, feel-good tale that never quite seemed to find its audience on Amazon Prime. Hopefully, it'll be a movie people reach for over the festive period.
Everybody's Talking About Jamie is streaming on Amazon Prime Video.
It has been a busy year for Lin-Manuel Miranda. He helped bring his stage show In the Heights to the big screen, wrote songs for Disney animation Encanto and made his movie directorial debut with the help of an effervescent Andrew Garfield in Tick, Tick...Boom. His forgotten movie of the year though is Vivo, which arrived on Netflix with little fanfare in August.
The film is a charming animated musical in which Miranda provides the songs, as well as voicing the title character — a kinkajou who accompanies a Havana street performer. Soon, the plot sends him on a quest to Miami, joining forces with an outgoing young girl to deliver a crucial message. The songs are earworms, the visuals are colourful and the emotion is definitely there.
Vivo is streaming on Netflix.
There's something unique about the British caravan holiday — equal parts naff and magical. That strange feeling serves as the focal point for Marley Morrison's brilliant coming of age tale Sweetheart. Nell Barlow plays AJ, who is just finding her identity having recently come out as gay. Her mood swings and antisocial instincts put her at odds with both her mum (This is England's Jo Hartley) and sister (Loki breakout actor Sophia Di Martino), who are desperate to make the holiday a success.
Read more: Loki star shines in Sweetheart
Morrison's script for the film is sharply observed and bracingly real, with all of the cast members committed to making these characters and the world they exist in utterly believable. It's also very funny indeed.
Sweetheart is available on PVOD now.
Belgian filmmaker Zoé Wittock's directorial debut has one of the most eye-catching elevator pitches of the year. What if a woman fell in love with a theme park ride? It sounds strange and it certainly is, but it's also one of the warmest and most tender romantic stories you could hope to see. Portrait of a Lady on Fire star Noémie Merlant plays theme park employee Jeanne, who gradually falls in love with the titular attraction, which she is tasked with cleaning.
Naturally, this romance doesn't make sense to everybody and Jeanne faces some hurdles in trying to convince her friends and family that her love is real and healthy. Merlant is terrific and Wittock treats the concept with sensitivity and understanding, rather than playing it for absurd comedy. It's a gem.
Jumbo is streaming on BFI Player and Arrow Films.
Aubrey Plaza has been an underused actor for quite a few years now, just waiting for a meaty lead role to showcase her unique deadpan charisma. Black Bear is very much that role. It's a multi-stranded and beguiling narrative structure, with its first part following Plaza's film director as she visits a couple at a lake house in search of inspiration. Then, the movie flips to a film shoot in which Plaza is now an actor working under the man from the first half.
Both halves of Black Bear are fascinating and, when they are put together, they form an intriguing and mesmerising musing on art and abuse. At the heart of it all, Plaza is the best she has ever been, effortlessly shifting between the different roles and dynamics.
Black Bear is streaming on MUBI.
Feel-good movies about working class British people achieving great success often get dismissed as sentimental nonsense. That's certainly what happened to Dream Horse, which was largely tossed aside when it landed in cinemas. It tells the inspiring true story of a Welsh barmaid (Toni Collette) who becomes an amateur horse breeder as part of a consortium with her neighbours.
Collette is a lot of fun in the lead role, despite her slightly ropey Welsh accent, and she's surrounded by a colourful ensemble. Gavin and Stacey fans will recognise just about everybody. It's a warm and undemanding film, but one packed with enough emotion to serve as a perfect balm amid the current unpleasantness.
Dream Horse is available on PVOD.
First appearing on the festival circuit right at the beginning of 2020, it took until this year for Mamma Mia! director Phyllida Lloyd's Herself to be unveiled in the UK. Set in Ireland, it follows single mum Sandra as she attempts to navigate the housing system in the wake of leaving her abusive husband. Eventually, she decides to build a house for herself and her kids.
The bones of Herself are those of an uplifting, cheesy tale. But the script by Clare Dunne — who also plays Sandra — is cleverer than that and never shies away from the reality faced by many women who flee abusive households. Dunne's performance is packed with nuance and the film burns with the righteous anger of the injustices women like Sandra are forced to navigate. Its low-key marketing might have done it a disservice because it's a better film than it appears from the outside.
Herself is coming to PVOD soon.
Ron's Gone Wrong
Ron's Gone Wrong perhaps suffers a little from the same syndrome which afflicted the likes of Dredd and White House Down, in that it was released within months of another film with a similar premise. Its take on modern kids and their relationship with technology — in this case an outcast kid and a malfunctioning personal robot — was just too close to Netflix's widely acclaimed The Mitchells vs. The Machines.
But the debut film from British studio Locksmith Animation is a fascinating one, framing tech as an important part of social interaction for today's young people, rather than prophesying doom like a family-friendly episode of Black Mirror. It's now available to stream on Disney+, and is well worth your time.
Ron's Gone Wrong is streaming on Disney+.
In the Earth
There have been a handful of pandemic-set movies, naturally, this year, including Doug Liman's Harrods-set heist movie Locked Down. But the best of the bunch came from Ben Wheatley, who delivered another of his idiosyncratic genre-benders with In the Earth. The nightmarish horror tale follows Joel Fry as a scientist and Ellora Torchia as his local guide as he ventures into the woods to find a former colleague. Along the way they come across Reece Shearsmith, which would set alarm bells ringing if these characters had ever seen Inside No. 9.
Much like Wheatley's previous experiment A Field in England, the movie assaults the senses throughout in a way that leaves the audience feeling as addled by mushrooms as the characters appear to be. Shearsmith is fearsome and terrifying, while Wheatley's eye for weirdness proves to be perfect for a pandemic world.
In The Earth is available on PVOD.
Kiwi comedian Rose Matafeo, who also won plaudits this year for her sitcom Starstruck, leads the cast of this enjoyable romantic comedy alongside Matthew Lewis — aka Neville Longbottom. They play a couple whose thrill-seeking life is disrupted when Matafeo's character suddenly falls pregnant. She immediately sets about writing a bucket list of things to do before the baby arrives, while Lewis is more keen to step up to the responsibilities of being parents.
It's a smart and well-written comedy, helped by Matafeo's talent for delivering acidic, snarky dialogue. There's some great comedy coming out of New Zealand at the moment and this film, which counts Taika Waititi as an exec producer, is another excellent example of Antipodean amusement at its best.
Baby Done is streaming on NOW with a Sky Cinema Membership.