Staff Picks: The Best DVDs of 2021

Here we have the very best DVDs of 2021, as selected by our own WCL librarians. All of these titles are available to loan!

Mark’s Picks:
Mare of Easttown
What more can you say about this great show that hasn’t already been said? A fantastically nuanced TV role from Kate Winslet, that embedded itself into the cultural zeitgeist of 2021. In a suburb of Philadelphia, Winslet plays Mare Sheehan, a former local basketball hero whose last minute shot won a State Championship, and who is now – 25 years later – a beleaguered police detective investigating the recent murder of a teenage mother, while also trying to balance the demands of her multi-generational family, the failure to solve an ongoing cold case of a missing girl, and a personal life that is fraying at the edges. The mechanics of the mystery itself are fairly conventional, with its ‘Dead girl-small town suspicions’ plot, but by focusing the story around the complicated family life & personal struggles of Winslet’s main character, it add layers not often found in other shows of the same ilk. Or sometimes found, but only in the lives of the male lead characters.

Synchronic
Every year throws up some interesting low-budget indie sci-fi, and from 2021 we had ‘Synchronic’ from Aaron Moorhead and Justin Benson (Spring, The Endless). Anthony Mackie & Jamie Dornan are Steve & Dennis, paramedics in New Orleans, who begin to get call outs to a series of strange incidents where people are either dead in bizarre circumstances, or have wild, incoherent, stories to explain their injuries. All the cases are linked to a new designer drug called Synchronic, and the incidents become personal when Dennis’ daughter is identified as missing from one of the scenes where someone died from taking the drug. Steve attempts to track down the source of the drug, leading to an encounter with the drugs creator – who tells him Synchronic has some unique side effects…To say any more would spoil the plot of this intriguing, low-key sci-fi. Another example in a line of films with minimal characters, effects, or locations (Time Lapse, Coherence, Primer etc). that chooses to focus on ideas rather than explosions.

Nobody
Every year also throws up some ridiculous, yet hugely entertaining, action flick, and last year’s was ‘Nobody’. Directed by Russian director Ilya Naishuller (Hardcore Henry) and written by Derek Kolstad (creator of the John Wick franchise) sees Bob Odenkirk (Breaking Bad, Better Call Saul) play Hutch Mansell, a seemingly average middle aged office worker. However, much like John Wick, Hutch is not the mild-mannered guy he is pretending to be, and when his frustrations with his hum-drum life and a recent home-robbery boil over, he ‘helps out’ a young woman on a bus being harassed by a gang of thugs. This, however, only causes him to become the target of a vengeful Russian drug lord, and what follows is a hugely entertaining action-fest full of bonkers violence, absurdly entertaining scenes, and a good deal of tongue in cheek self-awareness. This works in the same way the first Taken worked, as Odenkirk seems the last actor to be believable as a ruthless killing machine, just as Liam Neeson initially was. Tons of fun. (Mark)

Shinji’s Picks:
Mare of Easttown
Sterling Kate Winslet leads the charge throughout this HBO mini-series. Set in a small town in Pennsylvania, it’s another crime story on the surface, but the deft plot, immaculate direction and performances offer much more. This multi-layered and engaging, yet entertaining, drama is also about family, friendship and re-finding the meaning of life. Winslet plays a rather complex character, the detective Mare, but she is simply marvellous.

 

David Byrne’s American utopia. / Byrne, David
The 1984 Talking Heads’ Stop Making Sense is regarded as one of the great concert films. 35 years on, the front man of Talking Heads, David Byrne brings us another fantastic, more thrillingly artistic experience. ‘American Utopia’ is a hugely successful Broadway show which features a lot of Talking Heads’ classics. While making a point about American politics, 67-year-old Byrne, who is in high spirits and full of fresh ideas, presents a hugely energetic, highly entertaining, dazzling show. Spike Lee brilliantly captures this fascinating project, making it a landmark concert film.

Another round
Apparently, there is a theory that humans are born with a 0.05% alcohol deficiency. Four jaded middle aged school teachers experiment to take up day drinking to make up the difference, and it amazingly rejuvenates them….until it doesn’t. Director Thomas Vinterberg (The Hunt) lost his daughter in a tragic accident just before filming and it casts a shadow on this comedic film. It could have been either a cheeky tale about booze or a bleak midlife crisis drama, but, getting brilliant performances from the cast led by Mads Mikkelsen, Vinterberg masterfully balances the whole thing out, and makes it a funny but deeply affecting human drama.

First cow
Set in Oregon Territory in the 1820s, this frontier tale from the leading American auteur Kelly Reichardt (Old Joy, Wendy and Lucy) is an aesthetic portrait of male friendship. Reichardt’s hallmarks style; minimal narrative, sublime tenderness etc, are well presented here. However, taking elements of mainstream genre such as food and suspense, together with the naturalistic visual approach, makes it her most accessible, complete film to date. A stellar work.

The father
First-time director Florian Zeller superbly transfers his own French-language play onto the big screen. With a clever, inventive screenplay, it’s a sensitive and insightful portrait of an elderly man with dementia. The story is being told mostly from the man’s perspective and Sir Anthony Hopkins gives another career-high performance, immaculately capturing his confused mental state. Olivia Coleman, who plays his daughter, is equally excellent. Heart-breaking yet exquisite.

Sound of metal
This is an intimate, absorbing character study, following a heavy-metal drummer who loses most of his hearing and his painful journey to bring his life back. The charismatic performance by Riz Ahmed is the driving force, and the masterly sound design, particularly the use of noise and silence, is also an essential character in this film. Giving a unique glimpse into the deaf community, it’s a devastating, yet hopeful, captivating drama.

 

Gunda [1 DVD, min 93, rating G] / Gunda
Following a small group of farm animals, mainly Gunda – a sow who is a new mother – the Russian documentarian Victor Kossakovsky captures intriguing behavioural insights and moments. Shot in impressive black-and-white and with no dialogue and no plot, it gives us a unique cinematic experience. Witnessing animals being animals somehow makes us think about our own lives and behaviours. A little gem.

 

Han’s Picks:
James & Isey
This documentary focuses on the lives of these two interesting characters as they get ready to celebrate Isey’s 100th birthday. James is the fifth and youngest child of Isey’s and has devoted the last 20 years to looking after his mother. It’s lovely to see that James doesn’t feel like a caregiver but that they live together in perfect harmony which is incredibly sweet. Both are extremely inspirational and wonderful, James is caring and Isey is a joy to behold as she is cheeky, has a great sense of humour and certainly doesn’t seem like she is just about to turn 100. They talk about their life, being descendants of the Ngāti Manu tribe, their past, spirituality and culture. It’s great spending time with these two and being included in the celebrations and they even involve the director in a birthday drink which is fun to see too as the whiskey seems to be never too far away. The party shows the ceremonial aspects of Maori culture which is brilliant to see and be a part of. They are very natural and at ease with the camera and with the director Florian Habicht too, which makes for a fascinating documentary.

The Mitchells vs. the machines
Katie is ready to leave home to go to film college when her dad Rick being a realist doesn’t appear as supportive so they clash big time. On the day that she is meant to be leaving Rick decides to take all the family on a road trip to drop her off at college much to the chagrin of Katie. The Mitchells are a dysfunctional family and they also happen to be the last ones left on Earth so it’s down to them to save humanity whilst figuring out their family problems along the way. This film makes you think about not taking people for granted, listening to others to understand their point of view and appreciating your family. There’s lots of quirkiness, humour and warmth within this film. I loved the style as the animation as it is enhanced with extra scrappy like drawings to amplify emotion, such as drawn hearts and rain clouds. Also Monchi the dog steals any scene that he’s in. This is a brilliant, vibrant, high energy animation that will appeal to all ages.

Raya and the last dragon
Set in the world of Kumandra which used to be a safe place 500 years ago where people lived together with dragons with no problems. However, the evil Druun took over and turned people to stone so the dragons put together their magic into a gem to save humanity and sacrificed themselves except for Sisu in order to save everyone else. Ever since then the different lands with Kumandra have been at war over the possession of the gem. Raya’s father who is Chief of the Heart tribe is sick of the fighting and wants everyone to get together and be at peace. However, this doesn’t go to plan as members of the other tribe use trickery in order to get to the gem, which shatters and makes the Druun reappear. Raya as the guardian of the gem undertakes a journey to find the last dragon Sisu and goes on a rescue mission to find the pieces of the gem in the five different lands of Kumandra with some other quirky characters that she picks up along the way. This is an awesome film that puts female fierceness at the forefront with Raya being a brave heroine to aspire to be like. Friendship, redemption, forgiveness, courage, cracking jokes and learning to trust people again and working together in a team are the key themes within this film.

The justice of Bunny King
Bunny is trying to get enough money to get a place to live so she can be with her two kids who are currently in care but she just can’t get a break. She lives with her sister, her husband and their kids including their teenage daughter Tonyah. Bunny promises her daughter Shannon that she will spend time with her on her birthday which is in a matter of weeks and in order to do this she needs a stable place to live so the time is ticking. As things are just looking up Bunny does what is right and defends Tonya but this sees her out on the streets and then finds herself steps backwards from being able to meet her promise. Bunny and Tonyah then set off together on a road trip with one aim to reunite Bunny with her daughter on her birthday but the system isn’t on their side. This is a tense watch as you root for both of them and just wish that things will work out alright. Brilliant acting from Essie Davis (Bunny) and Thomasin McKenzie (Tonyah) makes you immersed in the film and the characters from start to finish.

Wellington paranormal. Season 3.
The return of the loveable but incompetent constables Minogue and O’Leary and features in my opinion the best episode ever from the whole three seasons of Wellington Paranormal which is Fear Factory. In this season the constables along with the brilliant Sargeant Maaka and Constable Parker face an invisible monster, a sasquatch, their worst nightmares, Where’s Wally dressed rugby fan ghosts, a neighbourhood watch group with superpowers and a blob of fat. The perfect pick me up for when you’ve had a long day or feeling down as it’s super silly and makes you smile.

Gus’ Picks:
Another round
My favourite movie of 2021. What begins as an gentlemen’s wager between four men to see how perpetual tipsiness can improve your life slowly reveals their vulnerabilities, flaws and regrets. Plus, Mads Mikkelsen does jazz ballet.

 

The Suicide Squad
James Gunn delivers the Suicide Squad film we deserved all along, a crass, heartfelt and devastatingly funny war movie that stays true to the original 80s comics, commenting of American foreign intervention and the carceral system. A dense and explosive action film with a lot on its mind and its heart.

 

Judas and the Black messiah
A smart, tense and tragic biopic of two complicated men in a movement that despite all the good it did and the resilience of its people was never allowed to succeed on its own terms.

 

Nomadland
Chloe Zhao directs the best piece of modern American social realism and a great if inadvertent commentary on the era of lockdowns. A post-market crash near-documentary look at a caste of people left adrift but finding community in their mutual isolation.

 

The father
A film that uses the mind-bending cinematic grammar of mystery films for heartache instead of pulse-pounding suspense, you will remark at how effective an experiment The Father is once you’re done crying your eyes out.

 

David Byrne’s American utopia. / Byrne, David
The movie that finally made me a Talking Heads convert. Deftly directed by Spike Lee, it’s a concert film that tops the already-pretty-much-perfect Stop Making Sense for conveying the sheer inventiveness and joy of being on stage.

 

Kath’s Picks:
Supernova
A gentle film starring Stanley Tucci and Colin Firth, that deals with love, death, music and memory. Tucci and Firth have amazing chemistry, and the film approaches the difficult topic of assisted dying through the lens of love.

 

Free Guy
Ryan Reynolds doing what Ryan Reynolds does best. It’s silly, it’s over the top, it’s full of pop culture Easter eggs and it’s a rollicking good time. Taika Waititi steals every scene he is in and Jodie Comer is suitably badass as the film’s heroine.

 

First cow
The most soothing film about theft and the Wild West ever made. A brilliant cast, beautifully directed by Kelly Reichardt and has one of the most stunning endings of any film.

 

Rams.
An Australian remake of the Icelandic film. Starring Sam Neill and Michael Caton, what starts out looking like a comedy turns out to be a poignant tragedy.

 

Respect
A must for all music lovers. Covering the early career of Aretha Franklin. Jennifer Hudson does an excellent job of capturing the megastar that was.

 

Brigid’s Picks:
A quiet place. Part II
It is very like the original and full of suspense. Makes you value the quiet times in life!

 

Rams.
Australian comedy. Very funny in parts, as two estranged brothers trying to save their prize ram from imminent death, and find they need to work together.

 

Joseph’s Pick:
Sound of metal
Music lovers of all stripes prepare yourselves. One of the most heartfelt films about sound & silence ever made. Masterful acting, beautiful cinematography, moving script. A film worth coming back to and telling your neighbours about.

 

Neil J’s Picks:
The Mitchells vs. the machines
Cruella
Raya and the last dragon
My name is Gulpilil : this is my story of my story

 

Mikaela’s Pick’s:
The Mitchells vs. the machines

 

Kyan’s Pick:/Monty’s Pick:
Mare of Easttown