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Top 10 films of 2021 that you probably didn’t watch (but absolutely should): Geeli Pucchi to Nicolas Cage-starrer Pig

From a sprawling period drama to hidden Indian gems, a Zoom movie to a bonkers medieval fantasy; here are the top 10 underrated films of 2021 and where to watch them.

Written by Rohan Naahar | New Delhi |
Updated: December 29, 2021 4:21:04 pm
Here's looking back at the most underrated films of the year.

After guiding us through a tremendously difficult year 12 months ago, the movies did it again. Because that’s what they do. In 2021, audiences slowly trickled back to the big screen, before deciding, almost unanimously, that it would be the fourth Marvel movie in a year that also included six Marvel shows, that would pull them out of their homes and legitimately risk getting sick.

As difficult as things always are for independent cinema, 2021 further bridged the gap. The big movies kept getting bigger and smaller films almost exclusively skipped theatres. Future generations will also identify 2021 as the year that finally killed the mid-budget studio picture, with acclaimed films like The Last Duel and West Side Story bombing, despite being made by legends at the top of their game.

To qualify for this admittedly abstract list, a film must be, by my barometer of success, relatively underrated. Understandably, this is a metric that can change from a title-to-title basis; for instance, compared to Spider-Man: No Way Home, most movies are unsuccessful. But did Nayattu, to take just one example, perform as well as a dark drama from Kerala released directly on a streaming platform should have? Are enough people still talking about it? Did the film have any sort of cultural impact? These are inevitably the kind of questions that you’d consider before selecting movies for a list like this.

And because of this elimination process, you won’t find the year’s best Hindi film here; Sardar Udham was justly appreciated for its immaculately constructed narrative and Vicky Kaushal’s jaw-dropping performance. Similarly, enough people have spoken about and hailed Jane Campion’s The Power of the Dog.

What you will find here are films that were either completely ignored, or were too divisive to strike a chord with a wider audience. Some of them are just waiting to be discovered, while others deserve a second chance simply for having a point-of-view. Here they are, in no particular order:

The Dig – Netflix

Carrie Mulligan and Ralph Fiennes in a still from The Dig. (Photo: Netflix)

Featuring arguably a better Carrie Mulligan performance than her Oscar-nominated turn in Promising Young Woman, The Dig was a breathtaking period drama made with uncommon style. Director Simon Stone injected the true story with a deep melancholy, aided by a terrific score, lush visuals, and among Ralph Fiennes’ most assured late-period work.

Nayattu – Netflix

Kunchako Boban, Nimisha Sajayan and Joju George in a still from Nayattu. (Photo: Netflix)

Propulsive and political, director Martin Parkkat’s film began as a cop drama, but evolved into a different beast in each new act—transitioning from chase thriller to survival drama, before ending as a ruminative satire about the country.

Geeli Pucchi – Netflix

Konkona Sensharma in a still from director Neeraj Ghaywan’s Geeli Pucchi. (Photo: Netflix)

Director Neeraj Ghaywan’s thoughtful, empathetic entry was the highlight of Netflix’s otherwise ordinary anthology film, Ajeeb Daastaans. Featuring a towering central performance by Konkona Sensharma, Geeli Pucchi addressed weighty themes with a tenderness that is usually missing from other issue-driven dramas. But that’s the thing, while lesser filmmakers inevitably find themselves overwhelmed by the noise, Ghaywan’s poetic style ensures that the focus never shifts from the vulnerable characters at the story’s centre.

Madhyantar – Netflix

Rinku Rajguru in a still from Abhishek Chaubey’s Madhyantar. (Photo: Netflix)

Sandwiched between two forgettable films, Abhishek Chaubey once again knocked it out of the park with his Ankahi Kahaniya short, mere weeks after pulling off a similar feat in the anthology series Ray. Madhyantar was a largely silent ode to Mumbai and young love; a stunning bit of filmmaking that will forever be tainted because of the company it chose to keep.

Pig – TBA

Nicolas Cage in a still from Pig. (Photo: Neon)

Nic Cage is a mystery unto himself, but after years of deliberately trying to alienate audiences, he proved with the astonishingly gorgeous Pig that he remains among the most talented stars of his generation. Watching his understated performance as a grieving man, you almost begin to think if his entire filmography in the last decade has been some sort of elaborate practical joke. It’ll be tremendously unfair if he isn’t nominated for this.

Malcolm & Marie – Netflix

Zendaya and John David Washington in a still from Malcolm & Marie. (Photo: Netflix)

Perhaps the most polarising film on this list, Malcolm & Marie is remembered neither by the ones who fell for its classy visuals and in-your-face take on modern love, nor by the ones who dusted off their pitchforks and called for director Sam Levinson’s cancellation. But every frame of the film was a testament to Levinson’s passion for cinema, and it cannot be denied that he is among the most refreshing voices to have emerged from the corporatised rubble of mainstream American moviemaking.

Sandeep Aur Pinky Faraar – Amazon Prime Video

Parineeti Chopra and Arjun Kapoor in a still from Sandeep Aur Pinky Faraar. (Photo: Yash Raj Films)

After languishing for what seems like years in the vaults of YRF, director Dibakar Banerjee’s already tainted film was dumped in a negligible number of theatres in the middle of the pandemic. It felt like the film distribution version of brushing something under the rug, in the hope that nobody notices. But you can’t keep a gem away from the viewers who were fated to experience it. Sandeep Aur Pinky Faraar found its audience on streaming, and reminded audiences that writing Dibakar Banerjee off is the most foolish thing they can do.

The Green Knight – Amazon Prime Video

Dev Patel in a still from The Green Knight. (Photo: A24)

Much like Paul Thomas Anderson and Asghar Farhadi, it seems like director David Lowery is only interested in making classics. His vibrant period drama The Green Knight continued his unbroken streak of success, putting a millennial spin on a medieval tale, and giving Dev Patel the role of a lifetime.

The Card Counter – TBA

Oscar Isaac in a still from The Card Counter. (Photo: Focus Features)

Nobody understands loneliness quite like Paul Schrader. The writer of Taxi Driver delivered his best film in years with The Card Counter, a dark drama about a wounded man confronted by his moral responsibility in a world that he doesn’t much care for. It is as much an indictment of America’s war policies as it is a character study of a man who has been deeply damaged by them.

Language Lessons – Amazon Prime Video

Natalie Morales and Mark Duplass in a still from Language Lessons. (Photo: Amazon Prime Video)

But enough of that despair. Language Lessons is probably the most heartwarming entry on this list, and another excellent addition to the formidable body of work that co-writer and co-star Mark Duplass has quietly been building. Even though Natalie Morales is a fine filmmaker, it is Duplass’ unique sensibility that shines through this story of two strangers connecting over the internet after one of them experiences a terrible personal tragedy.

Time for some honourable mentions now. Any of these films, and possibly others, could have easily found a spot on the top 10 depending on how the wind blows. You could do worse than Netflix’s Meel Patthar, director Ivan Ayr’s meditative follow-up to Soni; or Apple’s Coda, director Sian Heder’s euphoric tale about inclusion and identity. Then, there is The Great Indian Kitchen, which like Sandeep Aur Pinky Faraar, was entirely written off by several powerful corporations, before audiences gave it their stamp of approval and the same corporations came for their slice of the pie. You can watch it on Prime Video. Together, starring James McAvoy and Sharon Horgan, is the rare bright spot in the otherwise dingy subgenre of pandemic cinema. And then, there is the breathtaking animated film Summit of the Gods on Netflix, which will remind fans of Tintin in Tibet, both in themes and style.

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