10 Best Films 2021: Sam Sewell-Peterson

5. First Cow

Arguably arthouse favourite Kelly Reichardt’s most accessible film to date is a tale of loners finding each other and working to make their lives just a little better in the harshest times, the early 19th century territories.

In early 1800s Oregon, cook and forager Cookie (John Magaro) meets immigrant entrepreneur King-Lu (Orion Lee) and they strike up a fast friendship and look to make their fortune through bakery. What makes their cakes such a runaway success with the frontier townsfolk is a secret ingredient: milk stolen from the first cow in the territories, owned by the local landowner (Toby Jones) who soon takes a keen interest in their baked goods.

You might wonder what could possibly be so compelling about watching two men pilfer milk and bake for two hours, but Reichardt’s films are immersive, deliberately paced and beautiful to look at. You’re crying out for these two friends be OK by the film’s close; they’ve had terrible lives and deserve a bit of happiness, and milk theft at this time in history when resources were so scarce seems to be far from a petty crime, making the film’s final act chock full of tension. You could easily make a queer reading of First Cow too, but the film works either way; Cookie and King-Lu are kindred spirits whether one has romantic feelings for the other or not.

4. Life in a Day 2020

Many of us would rather forget that 2020 ever happened. It was a harrowing, complete write-off of a year. But if you absolutely have to remember some of it by proxy, you might as well experience it through this worldwide community record; a monument to human resilience.

Ten years ago Kevin Macdonald asked people from around the world to submit a YouTube video of them doing something, whether mundane or spectacular, on a particular day of the year. The uploaded videos, hundreds of hours of footage, became Life in a Day, a fascinating time capsule of human life on Earth. Now to mark a year like no other in living memory, he asked the world to do the same thing again.

It is inevitably an emotional experience, re-living that terrible year vicariously through others, your own memories flooding back and blending with the videos we are being shown. Life went on in 2020, there were still good times, but the bad certainly outweighed them. Just like in the first Life in a Day we proceed through the 24 hours chronologically, as one country wakes up another is still fast asleep. Families show affection for one another or they fight, people get married and split up, babies are born and people pass on, many before their time. The best and worst experiences of humanity are front and centre, medical professionals saving lives while they are worked to the bone, conspiracy theorists run rife and Black Lives Matter protests result in unnecessary loss.

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3. Petite Maman

Petite Maman Review

The only returning filmmaker from my 2020 list, Céline Sciamma followed up Portrait of a Lady on Fire with a delightful little impromptu fairy tale made during lockdown; a mighty feat but not an impossible one given that it’s about two girls playing in the woods.

Following the death of her grandmother, eight year-old Nelly (Joséphine Sanz) travels with her parents to clear the house she lived in all her life in the country, before she stumbles across a little girl called Marion (Gabrielle Sanz) playing in the woods, a girl she soon realises is a younger version of her mother (Nina Meurisse).

This will hit hard for anyone who has recently grieved the loss of a loved one, and yet it is by no means a downer. Relying on the natural chemistry between sisters, Petite Maman comments on complicated inter-generational relationships and how people of different ages process the most challenging human emotions in subtle and poetic ways. When in doubt, it isn’t afraid to just leave a couple of eight year-olds to be kids messing around and making each other laugh.

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