As we reach Oscar month (now that they are back in March, it again becomes my favorite month between the weather getting nicer and March Madness happening), we will look back at the most recent film year and discuss my top rated film of 2021. We are on a discouraging trend of years without a surplus of great films, but the top one of 2021 was Belfast (2021, dir. Kenneth Branagh).
Full disclosure before we get to Belfast: I have not yet seen many of the major contenders this year. There is still a chance that one of these unseen films (Licorice Pizza, Drive My Car, CODA, King Richard, or tick, tick…BOOM) overtakes Belfast on my list (or any of the non-Best Picture nominated films I have yet to see this year, for that matter). This happened last year in fact as I wrote about One Night in Miami at this time only to be more impressed by The Father shortly thereafter. As of right now, however, Belfast is in first place, so let us discuss it.
A deeply personal, semi-autobiographical film from actor-turned-director Kenneth Branagh, Belfast tells the story of a working-class Protestant family during a time of great unrest in Belfast, Northern Ireland when Catholics and Protestants were at each other’s collective throats. The story is intelligently told through the eyes of 9-year-old Buddy (Jude Hill, effectively playing a young Branagh). We see his confusion about what is going on and his desires to lead a normal life amongst the torment.
There are some great performances in Belfast, most notably from Ciaran Hands as Buddy’s grandfather and Caitriona Balfe as his mother. Judi Dench is her usual wonderful self as well. Plus, there is a remarkably not terrible performance from Jamie Dornan (of 50 Shades fame). To portray such strong conflict through the eyes of a child softens the conflict and heightens it at the same time – which makes for an interesting story, but also weakens the conflict at times – making it seem less important simply because Buddy does not understand it. We see glimpses of the seriousness from conversations he overhears, but it is hard to feel much real danger throughout the film even though it is clear plenty of it exists. That is not a universal problem, though, as the opening sequence is well shot with images from Belfast today fading into a group of Protestants destroying homes on the family’s street as we also move from color to black and white (where we remain for most of the remainder of the film. To say when it deviates would rob you of the most fun surprises.)
While I stand by naming this the top film of the year, it truly does make me long for the glory days of great film years (like 2017, 2003, or especially 1999 – the greatest film year of my lifetime). To be the best of an average lot is not a terrible thing, but the entire year left me with a similar feeling that watching Belfast did – I wanted more. There were great moments. There just was not enough of them for me to consider the whole thing great. For the record, while I would vote for Belfast as of right now, my prediction for Best Picture is The Power of the Dog.
FUN FACT – The film’s soundtrack is almost exclusively set to Van Morrison songs – some new, some old. Van Morrison is a Belfast native.
Just Watch says that Belfast is available to rent or buy on most streaming channels including AppleTV, Amazon, and Redbox. You can also probably still catch it in theaters in some cities.