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Goodbye 2021: The best films of the year that you ought not to miss

For the second year in a row, viewing habits and Indian cinema were in a flux. Regardless of the uncertainty surrounding the business, we saw some terrific performances and compelling stories that astounded us. Here are the best films of the 2021 according to Cinestaan.

The Cinestaan Team

Year two of the COVID-19 pandemic didn't exactly bring the relief the film industry had been hoping for. With the second wave striking earlier this year, theatres were closed again for a large part of 2021. Most of the releases this year were digital and that is reflected in our best-of list as well. The majority of our selections are digital, with a few theatrical exceptions.

Despite this, we had a tough time selecting the final list as several daring and exciting films burst on to the landscape. We also considered adding the Tamil films Master, Nenjam Marappathilai and Mugizh, the Telugu features Love Story and Jathi Ratnalu, the Malayalam movies Thinkalazhcha Nishchayam, Operation Java and Sara's, as well as the festival films Laila Aur Satt Geet and Uljhan. After much deliberation, the 23 films below are the ones that held our attention, made us sit up and enthralled us.

Without further ado, here are Cinestaan's choices for Best Films of 2021, in alpabetical order.

83 (Hindi)

This has been a lacklustre year for Hindi cinema, with some exceptions. Kabir Khan's long-awaited sports drama reminded us of what good cinema can do. With Ranveer Singh as captain Kapil Dev, the film takes us back to the euphoric time when no-hopers India first lifted the cricket World Cup in England.

Deftly mixing the reel with the real, Khan's film has all the makings of a blockbuster — rousing spectacle, high emotions and an incredible story for the ages. 83 benefits from one of the strongest ensemble casts in recent times, where everyone plays their part splendidly.

Even if one is not a cricket fan, one can't help but get swept away in the honest emotions of it all. Sports has always been about people uniting, and 83 is proof of that great power.

83 review: Rousing recreation of India’s first big cricket win, led by the versatile Ranveer Singh

83 is currently playing in theatres.

1956, Central Travancore (Malayalam)

Don Palathara's anthropological film explores the centrality of stories in our lives. The Malayalam-language period film examines the lives of early migrants to Idukki through the story of brothers Onan (Jain Andrews) and Kora (Assif Yogi). The two are as chalk and cheese but come together to make some quick money by hunting an Indian bison, an illegal act. Through their efforts to put together a hunting party and the expedition itself, the film presents insights into the everyday life, customs, inter-personal relationships and norms of the community.

What stands out is the way in which Palathara’s stunningly shot monochromatic film makes us wonder about the power of stories. Through its weaving together of oral history, memory, myths and even fantasy, the film presents a meditative tapestry of human life.

1956, Central Travancore review: A meditative exploration of the enchantment of stories

1956, Central Travancore was premiered at the 42nd Moscow International Film Festival (MIFF) 2020. It is available on MUBI India.

Churuli (Malayalam)

A surreal thriller, Churuli raises questions, pushes against sensibilities and challenges viewers to think. Directed by one of India's finest filmmakers, Lijo Jose Pellissery, the mazy thriller raises questions about human psychology, behaviour and fears.

The film is technically superb with all the elements of its screenplay (S Hareesh), cinematography (Madhu Neelakandan) and sound design (Renganath Ravee) perfectly synchronized. The story of two cops arriving in a lawless land inhabited by myths and ghosts is as surreal as the style in which Pellissery tells it. In a year of limited opportunities, the filmmaker again pushes the envelope on technique, narrative and style to create a mind-boggling thriller for all the senses. The liberal use of curses, while controversial, is an effective tool to establish a land where nothing is as expected.

None of this would be possible, of course, without the captivating presence of Chemban Vinod Jose, Vinay Forrt, Joju George and the radical Jaffer Idukki. The performances are direct, visceral and enigmatic.

Churuli review: Cryptic tale laced with magical realism

Churuli is available on SonyLIV.

Dithee (Marathi)

After directing several acclaimed films in partnership with Sunil Sukthankar, the late Sumitra Bhave went solo with Dithee which follows the emotional journey of Ramji (Kishore Kadam) who is mourning the untimely death of his young son by drowning. Ramji only finds healing when he is called upon to help a cow that is in trouble while calving.

Dithee is a slow burner in the initial portions, but that helps suck the viewer into the gloomy world of Ramji and also doubles up as a visual treat. The film climbs to another level once Ramji gets on to his mission and ends up leaving the viewer overwhelmed with emotion.

Besides Kadam's outstanding performance, Dithee has superb acts by Amruta Subhash, Dilip Prabhavalkar, Mohan Agashe and Girish Kulkarni, worthy of a swansong of a great director.

Dithee review: Visually breathtaking story of loss, grief and healing

Dithee is available on SonyLIV.

Drishyam 2 (Malayalam)

It is not often that a sequel matches up to the original. And when the original is a cult hit, the challenge rises manifold. Yet, director Jeethu Joseph has delivered another thrilling ride with Drishyam 2, which is every bit as good as Drishyam (2013).

The first film saw Georgy Kutty (Mohanlal) succeed in covering up the accidental killing of a wicked young man. Drishyam 2 sees the case reopened with the viewer taken through the same atmospheric tension that marked the first film, ending again in a high dose of thrill and emotions.

Besides the top-notch writing and direction, it is Mohanlal's outstanding performance that helps Drishyam 2 hit bull's eye.

Drishyam 2 review: Highly satisfying sequel that's as good as it predecessor

Amazon Prime Video is streaming Drishyam 2.

Honsla Rakh (Punjabi)

Punjabi movie star Diljit Dosanjh is up to his antics again in the romantic comedy Honsla Rakh, written by Rakesh Dhawan and directed by Amarjit Singh Saron.

Shot primarily in Canada, the film features Dosanjh as an NRI (non-resident Indian) Yenky who becomes a single parent and has to take care of his infant son Honsla (Shinda Grewal). When the child grows up a bit, the father-son duo share a great relationship and the boy is committed to helping his dad find a suitable wife.

The film signals a shift in Punjabi cinema towards an exploration of unconventional themes and storylines to reflect the changing times. The performances of Dosanjh and Shinda are highlights of the film, along with the witty dialogues and foot-tapping music numbers. Although this was Dosanjh’s sole release in 2021, the box-office numbers are testimony to his star power.

Honsla Rakh review: Diljit Dosanjh and Shinda Grewal rock the swag in this fun entertainer

Honsla Rakh is now on Amazon Prime Video.

Jai Bhim (Tamil)

Scenes of police brutality are common in mainstream movies in various languages, though the intensity and purpose may differ. But the kind of police torture shown in TJ Gnanavel’s Jai Bhim shocks the daylights out of you. It might appear too brutal to some, but that is exactly the film's aim — to wake viewers up to what marginalized sections of society face from the authorities, often for no fault beyond their marginal existence.

Jai Bhim is the story of a poor pregnant woman (Lijomol Jose) whose husband (Manikandan) is picked up by the police and framed in a case of theft. The film isn’t limited to exposing the brutality of the police. It is also the story of a fightback lead by lawyer K Chandru (Suriya) on behalf of the victims. Despite the disturbing visuals, Jai Bhim is a positive film. Suriya shines as the combative lawyer, but it is Lijomol Jose and Manikandan who win the viewer's heart with their utterly realistic performances.

Jai Bhim review: Suriya's film is a hard-hitting story of police brutality and the fight for the oppressed 

Jai Bhim is available on Amazon Prime Video.

Joji (Malayalam)

Even the pandemic cannot dim Fahadh Faasil's habit of delivering stunning performances. The actor's third collaboration with director Dileesh Pothan and writer Syam Pushkaran has resulted in a Shakespearean thriller which stands out for the technical quality of its filmmaking and the human quality of its performances.

The stellar cast which includes Unnimaya Prasad, Baburaj, Alex Lister and Joji Mundakayam plays its part with devastating efficiency. Syam Pushkaran's script explores every nook and corner of human frailty with keen observation and humour, which Dileesh Pothan embellishes with cinematic craft. Central to it all is Fahadh's titular character. The actor plays the ambitious Joji with flair.

Each character is reproachable but also common in its behaviour. This is precisely why their actions, however devious, feel like a natural progression of thought. The acting and writing are nuanced and timed to perfection. Shot during the pandemic, the film even uses masks as a plot tool, underlining the craftsmanship involved in its making.

Joji review: Fahadh Faasil is terrific in this top-rate psychological thriller

Joji is available on Amazon Prime Video. 

Kaanekkaane (Malayalam)

Manu Ashokan's Kaanekkaane is a sombre yet powerful drama of love, betrayal, grief, guilt, forgiveness and loneliness. Headlined by the terrific Suraj Venjaramoodu and Tovino Thomas, the film is about two broken fathers, one struggling to come to terms with his daughter's death, the other on the verge of losing his son because of his own mistake.

Bobby and Sanjay's screenplay sucks you into the world of these two fathers consumed by guilt and grief, with its measured, comfortable pace, without painting anyone as villain or angel.

The film beautifully walks the tightrope between slow emotional family drama and intense thriller and shows us how guilt or bitterness can consume people and how even a momentary moral lapse can cause irreversible damage.

Kaanekkaane review: Suraj Venjaramoodu, Tovino Thomas are top-notch in this intense, slow-burn thriller

Kaanekkaane is available on SonyLIV.

Kala (Malayalam)

On the surface, Tovino Thomas's Kala looks like a mindless celebration of toxic masculinity, but the film pits the oppressed against the oppressor in a bloody showdown. Despite the fact that the film feels overly indulgent in places, it works as an effective commentary on discrimation.

Kala also offers a feast for fans of action films as it has possibly the best action choreography to emerge from Malayalam cinema. The viewing experience is elevated with some amazing visuals.

Kala is available on Amazon Prime Video.

Kalira Atita (Odia)

Nila Madhab Panda’s film, based on the true account of a man who lost his family in a devastating cyclone in Odisha, is a prophetic depiction of the harrowing consequences of climate change.

A stark document of the cyclone-ravaged villages of the Odisha coast, the film is also a fine blend of the narrative of Gunu, an eccentric man who is waiting for another cyclone to be reunited with his family lost in the sea.

Gunu’s journey, superbly enacted by Pitobash Tripathy, indicates the impending struggle for survival of the human race, drunk with its own power and the ambition of taking civilization forward and oblivious to the alarming environmental consequences of its actions.

Kalira Atita review: Seamless blend of fiction and documentation depicts alarming effect of climate change

Kalira Atita was screened at the 51st International Film Festival of India earlier this year. It is now available on MUBI India and MX Player.

Karnan (Tamil)

Mari Selvaraj’s sophomore film Karnan, which features Dhanush in one of his fiercest roles, is a bold and powerful portrayal of a flawed system that lets its people down. It is also a stark portrayal of caste-based discrimination and police brutality.

Karnan raises several questions about the state of the oppressed in our society. Through the soul-stirring visuals of Theni Eswar, the film gives us a front-row seat to the events that led to the infamous Kodiyankulam riots in Tamil Nadu, which were allegedly orchestrated by the police.

The film throws the spotlight on police brutality and abuse of power, but, at the same time, it is also a gut-wrenching drama about Dalits being denied even basic needs.

Karnan review: Powerful portrayal of caste-based riots and police brutality

Karnan is available on Amazon Prime Video.

Kuruthi (Malayalam)

Even if a man dies, the hate within him lives on. Writer Anish Pallyal and director Manu Warrier give us an unsettling picture of the current socio-political scenario disguised as a nerve-wracking home-invasion thriller.

The film is an embodiment of growing intolerance among majoritarians, the alienation of minorities, and growing paranoia among Hindus and Muslims that has led to increased disharmony and a decreased feeling of brotherhood. It boldly discusses the cyclical nature of communal hatred and how it has been driving men to commit crimes for generations.

Kuruthi doesn't tell the audience how to act. It just forces the bitter truth in front of it with no easy solutions, leaving the viewers to come to their our own conclusions.

The film is a micro examination of a macro crisis, helped by transfixing performances from Prithviraj Sukamaran as a man hell-bent on revenge and Roshan Mathew as a man still trying to come to terms with his loss and save whatever little humanity is left in him.

Kuruthi review: Prithviraj-starrer is an impressive and taut socio-political thriller

Kuruthi is available on Amazon Prime Video.

Maalik (Malayalam)

Fahadh Faasil leads in another impressive Mahesh Narayanan project. The gangster drama might walk a well-trodden path a la Nayakan (1987) or Sarkar (2005) but is distinguished by the sharp subtext and underlined by strong performances from Fahadh, Nimisha Sajayan and Vinay Forrt.

Though studded with stars, the film takes care to not let its artistes overshadow the story. Mahesh's vision is acute and nuanced and captures the feel of the times. His writing touches upon issues of inter-faith marriage, communalism and abuse of power by governments without becoming preachy or turning it into a social drama. This perfect marriage of commercial and social cinema is far more difficult to achieve than it seems.

The filmmaker does not allow the performances to unfold for the sake of performance. He does not allow Maalik to rise as a hero, but as a complex character in mitigating circumstances. These circumstances are built around a fantastic supporting cast, led by Nimisha Sajayan. The actress shares equal responsibility for raising the film's standard, and does so with tenderness. Then there is the background score by Sushin Shyam which lifts the sweeping narrative at the right moments and makes the experience unforgettable.

Maalik review: Predictable but rousing story of a patriarch’s rise and fall

Maalik is available on Amazon Prime Video. 

Maanaadu (Tamil)

With Maanaadu, Venkat Prabhu has crafted a clever, fun and entertaining sci-fi thriller that takes the slightly confusing concept of time loop and presents it within the conventions of mainstream cinema.

The filmmaker takes the tried and tested idea of an ill-prepared hero (Silambarasan in a career-defining role) caught in a time loop and gives it his spin. The result is a thoroughly entertaining movie that doesn't require you to leave your brain outside the cinema hall.

The film proves that recycling can also be creative and that if you are going to do it, you might as well do it blatantly by even naming the films you are drawing inspiration from. Despite all this, Maanaadu manages to break the chain of formulaic repetition and come out surprisingly fresh. SJ Suryah's sinister yet comical portrayal of a cunning inspector is the icing on the cake.

Maanaadu review: Make time for this engaging and entertaining thriller.

Maanaadu is available on SonyLIV.

Mandela (Tamil)

Political and social subjects may be the flavour of the seasoon, but few have handled them with the sharp humour of Madonne Ashwin's Mandela. A tale of political avarice and the deep-rooted evil of caste, the film is unsentimental and funny. A village divided between north and south land-owners turns to the local barber to find a solution. Landless, poor, oppressed, he is a symbol of the downtrodden in every village across this country.

Yogi Babu delivers one of his best performances with dry wit and restraint. Ashwin's writing is on point with his perspective of the oppressed, their struggles and fears put out with explosive effect. The rot of the caste system emerges in the little actions, the tiniest details, which leave a lasting mark. The film makes you laugh, sometimes with the people, sometimes at them. More importantly, it makes you question when you are laughing, and why. Madonne Ashwin takes the road less travelled and delivers possibly the most surprising film of the year.

Mandela review: Yogi Babu-starrer is a highly entertaining, impactful political satire

Mandela is available on Netflix.

Minnal Murali (Malayalam)

The penultimate week of the year brought a thrill with the tale of a homegrown superhero, Basil Joseph's Minnal Murali. Starring Tovino Thomas as an ordinary tailor who gains super powers after being struck by lightning, the Malayalam feature is both daring and endearing.

Set in a Kerala village, the film finds Jaison (Tovino) having to care about others, for once, and discovering where he actually belongs. Guru Somasundaram has an equal and parallel role as fellow villager Shibu whose fate is entertwined with Jaison's.

With stunning cinematography by Sameer Thahir and a soaring background score by Sushin Shyam, Minnal Murali reaches new heights. Basil Joseph and star Tovino Thomas have finally given India the superhero film we have been waiting for.

Minnal Murali review: Tovino Thomas, Basil Joseph give us the Indian superhero we have been waiting for

Minnal Murali is available on Netflix.

Nayattu (Malayalam)

The story of director Martin Prakkat’s Nayattu is set in Kerala but is relevant to the whole country. The film is an unabashed exposé of the political system, where retaining power seems to be the only thing that matters, even if it means destroying the lives of innocents and those who stand by the truth.

We have seen civilians on the run from the police. But in Nayattu, it is a team of three cops (Joju George, Kunchacko Boban and Nimisha Sajayan) that is running from pillar to post from people in their own department after being framed in a crime.

The film’s climax deserves mention for it does complete justice to the makers’ intention of exposing the rotten system. The three accomplished artistes add to the film's realism with their perfectly primed performances.

Nayattu is available on Netflix.

Republic (Telugu)

Deva Katta’s Republic will go down as one of the most important Telugu films in recent years. It asks important questions about societal maladies — rigged elections, corrupt governments and caste prejudice.

A decade since Deva Katta made a mark with his political film Prasthanam (2010), Republic shines the spotlight on the harsh realities of the system we live in. For a mainstream political film, Republic does not take the escapist entertainment route to appeal to the masses. Sure, it has some scenes that play to the gallery, but it largely sticks to asking questions about honesty and corruption.

Republic review: Sai Dharam Tej anchors a strong political film about corrupt system

Republic is available on Zee5.

Sardar Udham (Hindi)

Shoojit Sircar's biopic of freedom fighter Udham Singh is a lengthy, pensive feature that is made with purpose. Moving forward and backward in time, Sardar Udham details the moments and events that led to Udham Singh pulling the trigger on Punjab's former lieutenant governor Michael O'Dwyer in London, England.

With meticulous attention to detail in the period film, Sircar gives us a portrait of a broken man whose quest for justice took over two decades. Avik Mukhopadhyay's stunning cinematography sets the mood. Vicky Kaushal is splendid in a career-best performance as the haunted revolutionary who changes after the Jallianwala Bagh massacre and bides his time to strike.

Sircar's passion project, which reviews painful history, feels both urgent and necessary in these uncertain times. Its unflinching re-enactment of the massacre can break even the hardest of hearts.

Sardar Udham review: Shoojit Sircar’s slow-burner hits hard

Sardar Udham is available on Amazon Prime Video.

Sarpatta Parambarai (Tamil)

With a similar subject at its core as Mandela, Pa Ranjith's Sarpatta Parambarai takes the more dramatic route. What is different is its treatment of the predictable sports drama trope. Ranjith layers the story with the history and cultural backdrop of boxing in North Madras during the 1970s. From the language and the rivalries to the glimpses of fandom and their reasons, the film feels like a deep dive into subaltern history.

Ranjith does not deviate from his ideology by embedding questions of caste conflict and pride into the sporting ethos. Yet, Sarpatta Parambarai's richness comes through its diverse characters. Whether it is Pasupathi's determined coach, Arya's Kabilan, Lakshmi (Sanchana Natarajan), Mariyamma (Dushara Vijayan), Daddy (John Vijay), Vembuli (John Kokken) or the fantastic Dancing Rose (Shabeer Kallarakal), they carry within them another dimension of the struggle. There is one hero in Ranjith's movie, but the only villain is the milieu.

Sarpatta Parambarai review: Pa Ranjith’s boxing drama is about one man’s fight for equality and glory

Sarpatta Parambarai is available on Amazon Prime Video. 

The Disciple (Marathi)

One does not have to be an aficionado of Hindustani classical music to appreciate the mastery and devotion in Chaitanya Tamhane’s sophomore film The Disciple (2021). Classical singer Aditya Modak is remarkable in his first film role as eager student Sharad Nerulkar who dedicates every aspect of his life to the teachings of his guru, Pandit Vinayak Pradhan, and Pradhan’s guru Sindhubai Jadhav aka Maai.

Voiced by the late filmmaker Sumitra Bhave, Maai’s recorded sessions of music become the lodestar for Sharad to follow. The Disciple is a sombre but insightful look into artistry and creativity, and the lengths to which one can go to achieve greatness. Tamhane proves once again why he is one of the most consistently observant and bright filmmakers in Indian cinema today.

The Disciple review: Quiet, masterful study of passion and ability

The Disciple is available on Netflix.

The Great Indian Kitchen (Malayalam)

Winner of the Kerala State award for Best Film for 2021, Jeo Baby’s The Great Indian Kitchen began the cascade of first-rate titles that have showcased the Malayalam film industry’s creative high. Headlined by the fantastic Nimisha Sajayan, the family drama follows a new bride into a life of drudgery in the kitchen.

Writer-director Jeo Baby opts to show us the repeated monotony and servitude to the men of the household that traps and enslaves the women. Scene after scene, your frustration and anger rise as the men expect to be waited upon hand and foot, every specific need catered to.

The Malayalam film also raises awareness to the many additional ways in which women are oppressed in the name of religion, by barring them from going out of the home and from places of worship when menstruating. When she finally decides she has had enough and rebels, you would need to take a long hard look at yourself if you don't find yourself cheering.

The Great Indian Kitchen review: Powerful film on patriarchy and male-governed traditions

The Great Indian Kitchen is available on Amazon Prime Video.

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